“If you violate your children, they may not speak today, but as we gather our strength and stand beside them, they will, one day, speak your name. They will speak every single name. It is not my father's reputation that I seek to destroy. As difficult as this is for most people to understand, myself included, I loved my father. It is innocent children and mute adults that I hope to help free. If I cannot speak the truth with my father dead, how, dear God, can we expect a child to speak?” (“Speaking the Unspeakable”)
When I wanted to send this letter in July of 2019 to Marilyn Van Derbur, I found out that she no longer can receive emails since May of this year. It says on her website on May 18, 2019: “My husband has been very ill and his recovery will be lengthy. The good news is he will be strong again but I must focus on him and shut down my email for now.” As I cannot send my letter to her, I want to share it with others on my website in the hope that it may support others. Since July, I have done more work on this letter to share my experiences, discoveries and the insights that I have gained during my therapeutic work over many years.
Dear Marilyn Van Derbur,
When I read your book “Miss America by Day: Lessons Learned from Ultimate Betrayals and Unconditional Love” in 2015 and learned about you and your activism, I was so deeply moved, grateful and inspired that I began to write to you — but I never got further than a draft that is still lying on my desk. Now, four years later, my rage at my father came up so emphatically in a therapy session that I am reading your book for the third time, find myself studying your website again, and also have been watching more online videos of talks you have given. Once more your clarity, your honesty and openness, your courage and strength, and your support for survivors of sexual violence and incest touch me as powerful and immensely encouraging. You guide me to be true to myself, and to be truly on my side: to leave behind, at long last, my love for my father — my betrayed love for my father — a love that had longed so indefatigably to believe that he loved me, too.
Why do I write to you now, four years later? There has been a great silence that I have kept, and that I need to overcome: naming the perpetrator. You provide such steadfast clarity and encouragement, and you are such an inspiration with many of your crucial insights that I now can take this step. At this moment of my life, the statement that you made about naming the perpetrator is pivotal for me:
“If you violate your children, they may not speak today, but as we gather our strength and stand beside them, they will, one day, speak your name. They will speak every single name. It is not my father's reputation that I seek to destroy. As difficult as this is for most people to understand, myself included, I loved my father. It is innocent children and mute adults that I hope to help free. If I cannot speak the truth with my father dead, how, dear God, can we expect a child to speak?”
(“Speaking the Unspeakable”)
How haunting is your shocking statement: “If I cannot speak the truth with my father dead, how, dear God, can we expect a child to speak?”
My own father, Wolfgang Lebrecht Huber, has been dead for a long time; he died eleven years ago, when I was fifty-eight-years old. Born in Strasbourg in 1913, he died in Essen, Germany, in 1998. For six years, he was a conscripted soldier for Hitler and Nazi Germany during World War II. He was never a member of the Nazi party. In 1934, as the representative of his fraternity, he stood up against the exclusion of Jews and Jewish interrelated members from his fraternity. As a result, this fraternity was excluded from other student organizations, and finally the umbrella organization of German Student fraternities prohibited any student from belonging to the fraternity that he represented; after this, the fraternity was closed.
Nonetheless, my father was certainly steeped in a devoted, obedient German nationalistic mind, faithfully adhering to his father’s convictions. My father went to war for Hitler and Nazi Germany without doubting his service for his fatherland. When I once asked him how it felt when he had to realize that he had fought for a monster, he responded that it was so harrowing that I could never imagine it.
In my workshop essay “Alice Miller: War and Betrayal Trauma,” I have written about the common thread of unprocessed feelings of betrayal throughout three generations of my family impacted by two world wars. I myself have only lately, thanks to Martin Miller (as described more below), come to realize what a covert and grave burden was imposed on me and my life, and even later generations, by my parents’ war pasts — as well as their silence about it, and their denial of feeling betrayed.
It used to be unthinkable for me to voice my father’s name in the context of incest. He was so vitally important for me as a child, and my compassion and love for him were strong and limitless because he provided moments of feeling safe — and because at times he showed compassion for me. Like you, Marilyn, I loved my father; the little girl inside of me needed desperately to keep her loving connection with him because of what he meant to her: safety and life.
But there is no doubt that he was an arrogant misogynist, and that he committed a severe crime, incest, which insisted on being fully acknowledged in this moving therapy session that happened after a one-year break from talking with my therapist. My anger had come up before as the carrier of the truth, above all in the context of incest, but never so intensely and passionately as it did in July of this year at the age of sixty-nine. And I certainly am able to distinguish that this is not a destructive, impulsive form of anger that wants to overreact or act out. The anger bringing up the incest longed to show me inescapably how my father had destroyed my chances to enter life as a confident, strong, and talented woman. Listening to its input was still a frightening challenge for the little girl in me, for this young part of me, who had felt safe with her father, who believed that those moments of safety meant that she was loved and that she would stay alive. For her, the term “father” implied life — while “mother” represented death.
In another session that happened one month later this year, right before I had a scary skin cancer operation inside my nose, this part of me, this little girl who had been so scared of death and dying, emerged once again and could share more about the horrific terror her mother had been causing her. Once again, it became vividly clear why her mother had meant death to her. As I listened with compassion and sincerity, she slowly came to trust and connect with me, with my true Self. She began to discern that having at times a sense of security does not mean that her father truly loved and protected her.
From reading your book and watching interviews and talks you have given, I know your history and your journey well. I am acutely aware of how incredibly hard you have had to work, how enduringly you fought to stay alive and make your journey of recovery after suffering not only years of unspeakable incest, but also the shattering consequences of this trauma during years of your adult life. Your enduring advocacy for sexual abuse survivors, in particular incest survivors, has provided, and still does provide, invaluable support and guidance for so many, including myself. Your truthfulness and open sharing are a unique inspiration for countless survivors, and they have certainly turned out to be a great gift for me and my journey of recovery.
I am also deeply grateful that you do not preach forgiveness, that you share honestly that your parents did not love you, that you did not have a mother who protected you. And I appreciate how you expose the lies of the deceitful, mendacious “false memory foundation,” which falsely claims that repressed memories of sexual abuse, when they return to consciousness later in life, are lies. This defamatory foundation slanders recovered memories as so-called “false memories” and has been irresponsibly suing and intimidating therapists, fighting against what they mendaciously label as “recovered memory therapy” — which does not exist, which they themselves made up. “There is not, and has never been, a form of psychological treatment called ‘Recovered Memory Therapy.’ It's a pejorative term invented by false memory proponent Richard Ofshe.” (Michael Salter, senior lecturer in criminology at Western Sydney University)
For centuries, societies have smothered the awareness of the impact of traumatic experiences, notably of violence and sexual violence against children. In order to survive and continue essential relationships with trusted care-givers, the awareness of these crimes often needs to be split off for humans, particularly for children. Jennifer Freyd, Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, points out that there is no such thing as a “false memory syndrome” — just as there does not exist a “lying perpetrator syndrome.” Jennifer Freyd writes in her book “Betrayal Trauma”: “From its inception, the False Memory Foundation has made media influence a priority, funneling public perceptions of the research through a specific value-laden filter. Yet there is no research to date documenting either a set of symptoms making up such a syndrome or an epidemic of those symptoms, in spite of the widespread promulgation of this term for political uses. We need to ask the following: Do false denials happen? If one is going to name syndromes, one also needs to ask about a false denial syndrome, which work with abusers suggests.” Freyd also points out a destructive mechanism, called DARVO, which is what unrepentant perpetrators do: Defend, Attack, Reverse Victim and Perpetrator. In my essay “The War Against the Truth," I have quoted Jennifer Freyd extensively.
Jennifer Freyd sees sexual abuse, and in particular incest, above all as the betrayal of an essential, life-sustaining relationship. Suffering a betrayal by a trusted care-giver signifies a devastating traumatic experience. Jennifer Freyd has created the term “betrayal trauma” because she found in her research that awareness of sexual abuse, and thus of a severe betrayal, often needs to be repressed so that victims can preserve crucial relationships with their perpetrators and families. A study revealed that the percentage of repression and amnesia is at its highest, 75%, for victims of incest with a father. Jennifer shares that “ …humans are highly sensitive to betrayal, because we are social creatures, and betrayal is costly to us. Subsequently, abuse, a type of betrayal, is very impactful in any level of relationship and provokes either a confront or withdraw reaction.”
Jennifer also writes: “Victims, perpetrators, and witnesses may display betrayal blindness in order to preserve relationships, institutions, and social systems upon which they depend.”
In her pioneering books “Betrayal Trauma” and “Blind to Betrayal,” Jennifer Freyd has bravely written about her history of abusive attacks and deplorable behavior from her parents — the founders of that infamous false memory syndrome foundation. She has spoken up in the same way as you, dear Marilyn Van Derbur, have spoken up publicly about your parents’ abuse and their crimes against you. I am grateful for how consistently and passionately you have supported others to acknowledge that they were sexually violated.
Your book has become as vital for me and my journey as the books of Alice Miller used to be. Her second book “For Your Own Good” changed my life and began my journey of searching for and connecting with my true Self. How thrilled and proud was I when I could work with her for her website, above all answering readers’ letters. When this long friendship ended painfully in 2008, I felt betrayed — yet I could not figure out what was wrong. It was from her son Martin Miller that I learned in 2012 how dreadfully his mother’s ordeal of surviving the Holocaust and Nazi persecution had devastated her, causing severe and profound dissociation in her psyche. Through the exchange with Martin, I began to understand how devastatingly persecution and war trauma impact humans. Last year, I translated Martin’s book about his mother, called “The True Drama of the Gifted Child,” into English, together with Rebecca Peterson, my understanding, insightful editor; here is my review about it: “Martin Miller’s Important Contribution to the History and Development of Psychotherapy.”
What stands out for me in your life-story is that you loved your father; your conscious mind repressed the abysmal, weekly incestuous assaults that you had to endure from when you were five-years-old until you were eighteen-years-old. It amazed me when I read in the article “Day Child/Night Child” by Lenore Terr that your sister Gwen always remembered the incestuous violations of your father. Terr relates that Gwen, while she was being violated, planned to murder her father, devising his death. She shared that her anger kept her alive, although she also loved her father.
Your own experience, Marilyn, was different: You split into a “day child” and a “night child.” The day child, who dominated your conscious mind, could not be aware of your father’s crimes until you were twenty-four-years old. Your concerned minister D. D. Harvey had observed you carefully; with patient and deep caring, he discerned why you acted out the way you did. When he guessed what had happened to you and confronted you lovingly, he accompanied and encouraged you to let the memory of incest connect with your conscious mind — and then to share it with the man you would marry, the man who loved and still loves you, and whom you loved and still love. Even though from then on you had the awareness that incest had been committed against you, you still needed many, many years to face, to deal with, and to heal the impact which the incest inflicted on your body, mind and psyche. When you valiantly came out publicly about the incest, you were fifty-three-years old. It changed your life in fundamental and profound ways as you became an inspiring advocate and role-model for survivors of sexual abuse and incest.
In reading your long and arduous journey of confronting the implications of the incest you suffered, I have found parallels to my own life. My incest memory was blocked from my awareness, too, but for much longer — until I was forty-nine-years old, a year after my father died. Like your father, my father was a charming, influential and rich man, greatly admired by many. He was an excellent violinist; I accompanied him on the piano for years and loved playing Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms sonatas, and other music, with him. During those times, I was not exposed to his misogyny; when we made music, he took me seriously and enjoyed my company as a chamber musician pianist, something that has remained a life-long passion of mine to this very day. Some in my family have called me his favorite child because of this musical connection we had; but I did not feel that way. In reality he so strongly favored his sons. He could play the piano or accordion for hours, without sheet music, improvising on operetta melodies, or songs he liked, or that others wanted to hear. He wrote many poems, published a book of his poems, and also a book about his life which disappointed me because I do not consider it honest or deep; several chapters are about how he hunted animals.
Like you, I loved my father. He became my “savior” because I was scared to death of my mother since my earliest childhood. My mother acted out with arbitrary verbal, emotional and physical violence against her children. My father did not; he never beat me, and even proclaimed that beating children was not a smart or good thing to do, and my mother did not beat us in his presence. His presence made me feel safe from her, as if I could make it through, that I would be okay, that I would survive. Because of my father, I felt that I could internally hold different views than those of my mother, even views contradicting hers. (In my book "Screams from Childhood," I share in the scream "Life and Death" how I realized this.) I came to idealize my father to such an extent that I told my first therapist at the very beginning of my therapeutic journey, when I was 32 years old: “My relationship with my father was wonderful because we made music together.”
This adoring view and firm belief in him was the dominant ruler of my inner chaos and dissociation; it directed my life in many ways, for many, many years — although there also lived inside me an acute awareness of how disparagingly my misogynist father had mistreated me; how his hatred of women had put me down; how lewdly, sickeningly and dismayingly he sometimes had looked at me, straight and closely in my face, when I was a teenager. Yet this enlightened, passionate inner teenager part, who could see my father clearly, who was critical of him and protested fervently against him, had no voice in my consciousness for many, many years. But everything began to change when I came to Chicago at twenty-eight-years old and could experience unprecedented compassion, understanding, support and appreciation for myself from many people around me. Deep change began in earnest four years later, when I entered therapy in Chicago when I was thirty-two-years-old.
Soon in therapy, it became clear why my father had meant life and survival for me — and why my mother had meant death: because of her violent verbal and physical attacks, her stern and cruel judgments, her merciless condemnations, and because she once had almost killed me when I was a baby. In “Screams from Childhood,” I describe my experience of the emergence of this mortal fear of my mother in the scream “Leaving Hotto;” it shows the immense importance of my childhood attachment to our nanny “Hotto,” who was my nanny until I was seven years old. Losing her had meant a devastation loss for the girl I was. (Hotto)
Contrary to my mother, there were unforgettable moments in my life when my father extended compassion and support for me. Above all, I remember his compassion for me after I was involved in a car accident when I was eighteen years old: an old man had crossed the street in the dark without looking, walking into the street as he came out from between parked cars, and then he ran into my car as I tried to drive around him. After I had run for help to a nearby house, people opened the door, let me in and called the police and my family. When my father arrived, he hugged me — no reproaches, no judgment. When a policeman wanted to question me, my father told him: “She is in shock; you cannot question her now.”
Clearly do I remember the accident and my father holding me and what he said; but once I came home, I have only one other memory: when three days later my then fiancé, who became my first husband, laid down beside me, held me in his arms and told me that the old man had died. Other than that, I spent my time alone in my room and mostly in my bed; nobody came to see me or talk to me — I felt abandoned, like an outcast, like a leper. The car accident was a devastating life experience that became a crucial, severe and painful burden on my life; it formed me in decisive ways. It contributed to me entering and persisting in therapy.
Those experiences of compassion with my father and first husband were so powerful and influential for me that they would silence for years any uprising inside me against them. Also, as the eldest child of six, my role had been to be the perfect role-model, the family figurehead, and to never make, but only to solve problems. When I entered therapy in Chicago thirty-two-years old, my first tears came with the words: “I have always tried to be perfect.” Early on during this initial period of therapy, from 1982 until 1984, there appeared the first dream that I ever remembered about my father — and it already indicated incest. ("Accepting the Truth")
But at that time, it was not yet safe for me to remember — that could only happen years later, when I lived for the second time in Chicago in my forties, far away from my family of origin, freed from my first marriage. It was then, feeling profoundly safe in my life, in therapy, in my second marriage, and accompanied by compassionate, dear friends, that the incest memory finally came up.
The incest that I suffered happened when I was sixteen years old, while traveling alone with my father, without my mother and siblings, on the “Queen Mary” ocean liner from England to New York. Jennifer Freyd has found seven factors that explain the isolation, abandonment, and ensuing amnesia of a victim who cannot share her traumatic incest experience, nor the betrayal she suffered, with anyone: “According to betrayal trauma theory, the seven factors predicting amnesia are more likely to occur in incestuous abuse than in any other sort of abuse.” Five of these factors happened to me: abuse by caregiver; explicit threats demanding silence; alternative realities in environment (abuse context different from non-abuse context); isolation during abuse; lack of discussion of abuse.
In photos, I can see the cabin where I slept with my father: one bed on each side, no portholes to look outside. But I have no visual memory of this trip, neither a good one nor a bad one. Nothing. Visually, I don’t remember a single moment of being on this huge, impressive ship, of its endless corridors and extensive dining room, or of seeing, experiencing or feeling anything while crossing the North Atlantic for five days — except when we entered New York harbor, and this huge ship was sailing under a bridge: it seemed way too tall to be able to pass below the bridge without hitting and destroying it.
Before the trip, we even visited Paris: again, no visual memories of any kind. If I were to follow my visual amnesia, it would seem as if this trip never happened — though I do have photos of it, even a photo album that I made. There I can see the sixteen-year-old teenager standing next to her father, smiling, shaking the hand of the captain of the Queen Mary, or sitting on deck of this ship, covered with a blanket, next to a business friend of my father, who was much older than my father and had come along. But my Self could not be present on this trip; I had to bury the whole experience until I was forty-nine-years old in 1999, when I lived in Chicago for the second time — far away from my origins, and married again after having fallen passionately in love.
My second husband had already wondered early in our relationship why I had no memories of the Queen Mary trip — and yet owned so many books about sexual abuse and incest. He asked if something had happened on this trip. At that time, my response to him had been that I am not a visual person and that I have few visual memories of my life. My first truly alive visual memories are from the time when I fell in love as a fourteen-year-old teenager, and of the man I fell in love with. What I remember of my life is rarely stored in a visual way in my memory — instead it is stored as the knowledge about experiences that I had. Most of my memories are in the form of an inner way of knowing about something that happened to me or that I felt. My memories can also be in the form of auditory memories: I can remember hearing someone talking to me or about me, saying something specific that I still can hear inside me. I recall to this day certain people, long dead, when I remember or hear their favorite melodies or pieces of music. These people come alive in my mind along with the music that they loved. Thus when I hear or imagine for example the beginning of Brahms’ fourth symphony, I think of my grandfather, my mother’s father, who shared with me how he treasured it.
For me, I carry inside of myself narratives, feelings, spoken words, experiences, people and encounters of my life — that is how I remember. My first memory is from when I was five or six years old: I had stolen money from my mother, about five cents, and walked around the corner to a little store, where we used to buy milk. Frau Pips was the owner, and she also sold sweets. Somehow, I can remember what her shop looked like, but not her face or figure. With the five cents, I bought a small bag of tiny silvery pastilles, sweet on the outside, but filled with bitter licorice. That night, I could not fall asleep for I was so afraid; finally, I confessed — but I don’t remember to whom I confessed, to our nanny or to my mother, nor the confession, nor do I remember anything after this…..
From one of my sisters, I have learned a few events that are not conscious to me: how our nanny used to come into the bedroom, where I slept until I was fourteen years old, together with my two sisters who were one and two years behind me in age. I used to tell them stories so that we could fall asleep. We were banished to bed way too early, so we often could not fall asleep for a long time. Yet, talking was forbidden once we were put to bed, so if we talked or I told stories, our nanny Hotto would come in to scold and beat us. My sister told me: “You were always beaten first, then the third sister, and I always begged — please, Hotto, please, don’t — and then she would hit me only once.”
One of my sisters also remembers a fight between my father and me about a book of poems of my favorite poet, Ingeborg Bachmann, whose poems I loved when I was seventeen and eighteen years old. My father had read the book, written comments on the side of the poems with his stiff, harsh old German writing style; he totally condemned the poems, was very angry and threw the book in a corner. My sister remembers this — I do not. My youngest brother once told me how he used to come and cuddle with me in my bed when he felt scared or alone; I have no memory of it.
By now I know that having a visual memory is not the only “proof” that something has happened. Humans are able to remember in quite different ways — and powerful tools of memory are our feelings and our parts. Well, I will explain what I mean by parts.
After I fell in love with my second husband, I experienced once again such anxiety and sleeplessness that I went back into therapy in 1995, which I did initially for two years with my first therapist. Then in 1997 I encountered Dick Schwartz and the unique therapy approach that he has developed: Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy. In IFS therapy, feelings, beliefs, physical symptoms — or our “sub-personalities” — are called parts.
IFS makes it possible to deal with dissociation in an empowering, enlightening way as clients are encouraged to communicate with their parts. IFS therapy became indescribably helpful for me in getting to know, connecting with, and healing my severely dissociated parts. IFS works with the inner family, with all the different feelings, beliefs, or voices within a person’s mental system or psyche, in a profoundly respectful, compassionate, caring and sincere way. And in IFS, “all parts are welcome,” meaning that clients communicate with all their feelings and beliefs, also those that frighten them and that are at first unwelcome, maybe even condemned.
In IFS therapy, it is mostly the client’s Self that is called forth and encouraged to communicate with her or his parts, accompanied and supported by the therapist’s self. Dick’s approach, and the great therapy work that I could do with him over several years, gave me a powerful tool to reach and communicate with my frightening, overwhelming feelings and sometimes “crazy” beliefs, with physical symptoms, with challenging life experiences — with whatever would rise up in therapy or come up in my life. After a break of five years, I was relieved and deeply grateful in 2008 when we could resume our IFS therapy work after the crushing break with Alice Miller had left me once again overwhelmed with constant anxiety and sleepless. In 2011, I met Jeanne Catanzaro at an IFS training; since then, she has been my supportive, wonderful IFS therapist.
In a traumatized human, parts can carry grave burdens: extreme beliefs and feelings that control the lives and actions of clients, deeply shaping their being in the world and hindering their participation in life. In my liberating IFS therapy work, these troubled parts could finally share their suffering, their origin and history with someone: with me, with my Self, and with my therapist as the enlightened witness.
Parts were — and still are — listened to by me and understood with compassion, until they eventually can unburden. The objective of IFS is not only to free parts from their burdens and to heal them, so that they can overcome and leave behind the roles which they had to play in the past to become who they genuinely were meant to be — as though in a process of metamorphosis. It is then that our parts can truly, and to their great satisfaction and even joy, be with us and support us in our present lives.
The other objective of IFS therapy is to connect with our true Self and to live from self-leadership because the IFS approach assumes that everyone has a healthy and healing Self inside, no matter how severely one has been traumatized. IFS differs from many other therapy approaches with its unique and, as I have experienced it, powerfully supportive view of the Self. The IFS premise is that “everyone is at their core a Self containing many crucial leadership qualities such as perspective, confidence, compassion, and acceptance, no matter how severely she or he was traumatized.” This Self can be freed from the domination of burdened parts to become an active healing presence inside. The more we can reach and heal our suffering parts, the more our Self can come to light, and self-leadership can guide our lives.
Over the years, a part of me at times has doubted my anger’s input and the incest memory. Its argument used to be: “Well, if you have no visual memory of it, you don’t have proof.” However, I eventually came to understand that this doubting part represented my mother’s constant, disparaging, brutal and complete dismissal and suppression of my feelings, thoughts and questions, of my very own experiences and my truth. During my childhood, she had violently disparaged and fought against any utterance that she did not like or agree with, condemning it as “contradiction” — which was harshly and mercilessly forbidden, combatted and punished by her. Not only contradicting my mother, but also opposing other authorities was stigmatized as the biggest, most horrible, and most severely punishable crime. She did not allow other views — only her own convictions. She always sided against me when I had problems in school or with other people, also with my father.
Although I had worked with this intimidated part before, it came up again this year when I began, deeply moved by what my anger had shared, to write once more a letter to you, Marilyn. And it became poignantly clear that this doubtful part had the arduous burden of being the inner representative of my mother, in order to make me please her — and thus protect me from her as best as possible. Listening to this part, I was deeply moved as I realized how starkly I had been silenced and numbed. This part shared this with me: “I worked diligently for her, so that you were safe. So that she would not attack you even more, or hurt you more, or even endanger your life.” When I thanked this part for protecting me and keeping me safe, she responded: “Yes, this was my mission. I am glad that you can see this so lucidly now, and that you are grateful.” When I asked this part what she would rather do, the answer was spontaneous and clear: “To support you, to know and to tell the truth together with you. I would much rather be on your side in your present life, in your reality.”
When I then invited this part to unburden, I felt a big clump in my chest, like a mesh of pain, guilt, fear and shame, which slowly could disperse into the light of the sun. And then I experienced this part as a strong, vigorous friend on my side, who put her hand on my shoulder and told me, bringing tears to my eyes: “OK, here I am. Now I am with you forever. Never again will I have to work for those two parents. I am free, and I am with you. Now I can support you and the truth.” When, in my imagination, I hugged this part, and she hugged me, I experienced her as a strong inner personality, also as courageous and decisive. She wants to do everything for me and the truth that she can; she wants to fight for my truth.
What fascinates me, again and again, about these profound communications with my parts, is how they transform — how doubt disappeared and how this part became a fierce supporter of me and my truth when I understood its origins and painful experiences and could help it unburden. That I can write this letter I also owe to her invigorating transformation.
Rage and hatred came up again this summer stronger than ever as I began a new writing project: a memoir about a vital relationship for me and my life, my relationship with Alice Miller. A part of me did not want me to undertake this project; it was afraid to be ridiculed and put down for it. In my therapy session with this part, it turned out that this fear stemmed from suffering my father’s contempt and misogyny. From underneath this fear emerged the distinct knowledge of, and then rage, over how severely my father’s misogyny and his incest had harmed, unsettled and intimidated me as a teenager and woman. It put a damper on my growth and obstructed my life.
As I felt compassion and was shocked witnessing this part, I became aware of its agony and unequivocal, stunning awareness of my father’s hateful, destructive attitudes much more starkly than ever before. It was as if a volcanic explosion of rage and hatred erupted from inside my chest — feelings and a knowledge that I never could have shared with anyone. All my life, they had had nowhere to go, and I myself had not been able to acknowledge the extent of their passion for me.
During the unburdening process, the impression was that these strong and powerful feelings of rage bounced back onto me, spinning around in a swirl, without direction, appearing within me like a red-hot vortex. As I continued to listen with compassion, these feelings and the knowledge of the harm that my father had caused could be finally, and clearly and passionately, expressed, shared with me, and directed at him — at the cruel misogynist that had ruined so many life opportunities for me. By committing the crime of incest, he had impeded my development and made it impossible for me to build trust in my Self.
This part longed to be heard, to be validated and believed. When I asked what this part needed, it responded: “Don’t ever leave me alone again.” And it pleaded for me to realize “what could have been, what would have been possible if he had not destroyed so much.” When, in my imagination, I sat down next to this part and put my arm around her and held her hand, I cried deeply and told he how very sorry I am that she had to suffer so much, that she had had such an unscrupulous father — and that she had to wait so long for me to truly listen to her. This part shared that she needs for me to continue to believe her, so that her voice can be heard, so that no part of me any longer glosses over the reality of incest. She wants me to take her knowledge seriously so that she can play a role in my life and writing. She is at heart a truth teller.
I have come to see my angry part as my dearest, most passionate advocate, who has had, again and again, the courage to stand up for the truth and to discard my illusions. In this unforgettable therapy session, it asked me to take the incest most seriously and to not make light of it. This advocate wants me to become fully aware of what my father did to me and how it impacted and damaged me. As a result of the incest, I was hurt to my core and shattered even more deeply into desperate, warring, dissociated parts. This part made painfully clear to me how my true Self had to be hidden away, and how many vital life chances were extinguished and gone forever because of my father’s crimes.
There is a sculpture in my garden: two tall, thin wooden beams embrace and hold in between them a beautiful, oblong form of cast glass. When the sun goes down, it shines through the glass and makes it glow and shine. For me, the beams represent my most powerful and most dominating parts, or sub-personalities: one was the idealization of my father — and the other one the “perfect oldest daughter” that I worked so hard to be for my parents and family. These two parts protected my true Self, represented by the cast glass form. The wood beams, or parts, are protecting and holding this true Self.
These two parts dominated and ran my life, and this is how I entered life as an adult: with my parts desperately trying to hold me together and keep me functioning. Although I was determined, and tried and worked hard to never be like my mother, these two parts, and also other parts, burdened my children and their childhood; this has been a most painful realization. Although change began once I entered therapy at the age of thirty-two, it took another seventeen years, profoundly changed life-circumstances, a trustworthy therapist and groundbreaking therapy approach, and also the death of my father, until the incest memory dared to speak up when I was forty-nine-years old.
Parts can be strong, dominating protectors, like my idealization of my father; these protectors do all they can to prevent the emergence of painful or frightening memories, of deeply buried emotions and sensations resulting from trauma. In IFS therapy, these deeply vulnerable parts are called exiles. In his account of the "Evolution of The Internal Family Systems Model," Richard Schwartz writes: “When a person has been hurt, humiliated, frightened, or shamed in the past, he or she will have parts that carry the emotions, memories, and sensations from those experiences. Managers [one type of protecting parts] often want to keep these feelings out of consciousness and, consequently, try to keep vulnerable, needy parts locked in inner closets. These incarcerated parts are known as exiles.”
When I begin to communicate with a part, I try to first notice where I can find it in or around my body. Because of traumatic experiences, parts carry not only extreme beliefs and feelings, but they can also exhibit or show up as physical symptoms — yet, the way in which a burdened part appears at first is not its true nature. In therapy, when parts can unburden, they can finally connect with their very own, true essence and contribute more and more to the well-being and strength of survivors, and support self leadership. Instead of being controlled or dominated by the burden of parts, the IFS journey empowers survivors to liberate their parts. Instead of being stuck in gruesome past scenarios, still tied to bygone caregivers, my parts could connect with my true Self, and enter and participate in my present life. They came to trust my true Self as it became their vital attachment figure. This process created more and more room for my true Self to be present and to guide my life.
When the incest memory came up, Dick Schwartz and the benefit of IFS therapy were there for me. He supported me so that I could listen to what my parts shared, to those that objected, and to those who shared long hidden information that at first seemed unbearable, impossible for me to hear and believe. The emergence of the incest memory did not initially appear in therapy, but right before I was about to leave for a trip; so unfortunately, I could not see my therapist for a while. After a passionate sexual encounter with my second husband, I got a tremendous headache, something I had not had in years. Too tired to write therapy, I asked the headache: “Why are you there?” The answer was clear: it told me that something terrible had happened on that boat, on the “Queen Mary” — that incest had happened. I was so shocked that I responded: “I am too shocked; I cannot listen to you. I will take you into therapy when I come back.”
In her book “Guilty by Reason of Insanity,” Dorothy O. Lewis writes: “I had learned over the years that headaches often occurred when alternate personalities were in conflict with each other, when they argued in the patient’s head.” In IFS, sub-personalities or alternate personalities are considered to be parts; in people with dissociative identity disorder, or DID, they are much more strongly separated and overpowering. To this day, I understand my headache in this way: that finally, the scream about the incest felt safe enough — in my new life, my second marriage and IFS therapy in Chicago, far away from Germany and my family of origin — to emerge. Yet, at the same time, there was an onslaught of other, frightened and protective parts intent on suppressing the truth. As I listened, I promised that I would take the part and its incest memory, which had finally come out of its hiding place, into therapy once I returned from my trip.
At first, this part showed up in my therapy as an angry, black giant in the corner of my therapist’s office; I felt scared and overwhelmed by it. It talked badly about my father and what he had done. But at first, I could not listen more to it because for weeks, the part who loved my father, the little girl in me, would start every session crying and saying: “My father loves me. My father would never do this to me.” (I wrote more about this inner conflict in my scream “My anger is my lover”)
This part, this little girl, was clinging desperately and fervently to a view of her father as benign and good; she was fiercely determined to eliminate any other information about him. Why was she so adamant about idealizing him? To protect me from my mother who so terrified me as a child, and not only me, but all her children; she was merciless, violent, unforgiving. I have often wondered why she was such a bitter, strict, ruthless and cold woman. Her mother was the grandmother that I did not like, that I was afraid of, that we all were afraid of; so what kind of mothering had she given to my mother? On top of this, my mother had been brainwashed as a teenager in the Hitler Youth to admire and follow Hitler and the Nazis inciting hatred and fanaticism. She was goaded to hate Jews and others. It must have been mind-boggling for her to witness the breakdown of the Nazi madness that she had been seduced to believe in and follow. She did not talk with me about her feelings and beliefs during this time, or how, why or when they broke down and changed at the end of the war.
There is an infamous book by Johanna Haarer called “The German mother and her first child,” which sold some 1.2 million copies, almost half of them unbelievably still after the war. German mothers were instructed by Haarer to break their children’s will, to make them obedient and submissive from birth, to ignore their emotional needs, and to have as little attachment with their child as possible. Mothers were told “to ignore their baby’s cries and to have as little physical touch beyond feeding and cleaning the child. The warning was that if you indulged your child’s emotions, they would become spoiled.” “Psychotherapists fear that this kind of upbringing led many children in Germany to develop attachment difficulties and that those problems might have been passed on to subsequent generations.” (See also: "How the Nazi’s inhumane parenting guidelines may still be affecting German children.")
Gertrud Haarer, the author’s youngest daughter, said in a recent interview for the German periodical “Die Zeit” that she would stand in front of her mother as if before a judge. That was certainly my experience, too, yet I would add that my mother was also a harsh prosecutor that accused me relentlessly — as well as a ruthless judge that condemned and sentenced me incessantly. She represented all that at the same time — and no one ever defended me far and wide.
I was my mother’s first child, and I am sure that this horrible book and Nazi ideology influenced her mothering to a horrific degree. She beat her six children — whereas our father did not. My mother believed that hugging children was “monkey love” — whereas our father and our nanny hugged us. I cannot remember my mother ever hugging me, certainly never with warmth and love, or with closeness and joy. But I do remember hugs with my father.
He often brought joy and kindness, at times even compassion into our lives — while she believed that joy and tenderness, generosity, and sufficient and good food meant “spoiling children.” The contrasts between my parents were profuse and breathtaking, also in other ways, for example in regard to religion and their backgrounds. My mother, who was fanatically religious during my childhood, came from a wealthy, blue-blooded family, where renunciation, modesty, frugality and even stinginess were overriding values — whereas my nonreligious father came from a rich, bourgeois family that very much enjoyed the good things in life, like ample, delicious food and alcohol. And they were not religious. I know that I am not the only one in my family of origin who idealized our father.
During my teenage years, my mother treated me with more respect; we sometimes had long conversations into the night that made me proud of myself. I felt taken seriously by her, contrary to my father. But these were general conversations about religion or history, never about personal matters; I could not and did not ask any question nor bring up any subject which I sensed would have made her uncomfortable. My fear of her, my desire to please her, and my need to have an attachment with someone dominated my inner world. Yet, without my conscious awareness, deep inside me, I did not trust her and withdrew from these conversations as soon as I was married at barely nineteen years old. At that time, I also withdrew from religion and attending church. During my teenage years, I had become very religious, very active in church activities, attending church often to please her, although it was against my true nature. (“Confirmation”)
I survived as a child by preserving an idealized version of my father; for this reason, I had to block a life-changing memory from connecting with my consciousness. In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Stephen Colbert shares about his life: “There is another Steve. There is a Steve Colbert, there is that kid before my father and brothers died. And it is kind of difficult. I have fairly vivid memories from right after they died to the present. It's continuous and contiguous you know like it is all connected. There is a big break in the cable of my memory at their death. Everything before that has an odd ghostly…”
There are obviously breaks in the cable of my memory — and the incest is a severe break. Yet, like a puzzle, I have put the pieces of my memories back together as I listened to what my inner world, my inner family, my parts, shared with me. And there was so much to understand, to figure out, to learn. Today I know that my incest memory was repressed on the one hand because my father was so vitally important for the little girl I was, because she so depended on him, believed in him, and loved him. Aside from our nanny, who disappeared in a shattering way for this girl when she was seven years old, my father was her strongest attachment. She needed him in order to survive her mother and her deadly fear of her mother. My father was there for me after the car accident, and during other moments of my life when he made me feel safe — our mother would not have dared to beat us in his presence — or when his compassion comforted me. My mother did not extend compassion; her accusatory bitterness, cruelty and merciless judgments made her a terrifying enemy.
On the other hand, the memory of incest had to be repressed because there were too many overwhelming feelings I could not deal with for the longest time, like shame, betrayal, confusion, and boundless fear. Unbeknownst to me, questions like: “Who am I now? What am I now?” overwhelmed and haunted the sixteen-year-old teenager, whose parts then decided to bury any memory of this trip into the deepest, farthest underground of my awareness.
The memory also had to be repressed because no one in my family would have ever believed me. They don’t believe me now! How would anyone have believed me when I was a sixteen-year-old teenager? Who would have tried to hear me, to understand and help me in any way against my powerful, popular, charming father and a prominent, well-known, large extended family? Incest and therapy were unthinkable terms, absolutely taboo, never talked about nor considered, except maybe after a “nervous breakdown.” Therapy meant nothing but the stigma of being “crazy” and “a weakling.” Then, at sixteen, I did not even have a word for or a concept of what had happened on the Queen Mary — only shame condemning and judging me. I was terrified by what had become of me. My father had often proclaimed to me that there were three kinds of women: one kind you don’t touch, one kind you sleep with, and the third kind you marry — which I became as soon as possible at barely nineteen.
As a girl, I was not the audacious, rebellious child of my family; it was not in my character to speak up. Even if I had dared to utter anything at all about the incest, there would have been a valid fear that my parents might have put me away and done all in their power to silence me in order to keep the reputation and good name of father and family unscathed. This became my mother’s clear goal and sole mission once she knew about the incest, and it has remained true for my siblings, too.
And of course, as my idealization of my father was such a dominant, strong part within me, there was no room in my inner world to hold on to the truth of incest without losing this vital survival strategy in face of my mother’s hostile attitude and conduct towards me. But thanks to my work in therapy, the awareness of who my father had really been could slowly emerge from the unconscious into my consciousness: he had been a patriarch, often an authoritarian patriarch, a misogynist, a very rich, influential, vain, arrogant, narcissistic man, with a strong, controlling, dominating ego, and an overriding inferiority complex that was paired with an overzealous concern about his importance, and the importance and grandeur of his reputation.
The truth was and is that he did not protect me from my mother, and that he had also hurt me, shamed and ridiculed me in many painful ways. His misogyny discouraged, inhibited and damaged me severely, because he favored completely his two sons and did not value women, including his daughters. When I became a teenager, he disrespected me with such vicious, destructive contempt, scorn and ridicule that his hatred of me became obvious and devastating; it was clearly the opposite of love. Sometimes, he would just point his finger to his temple when I tried to talk to him or tell him something, a gesture which in German means: you are crazy. He would not even listen to me — and I would turn away, muted, silenced, feeling wrong, bad, stupid and worthless, utterly doubting myself. At other times, he would look at me with disgusting, lewd desire, which made me shudder, repulsed, and frightened of him. If I wore lipstick, he used to tell me: “You should not do this; you look like a whore.”
The teenager in me did not like this man at all and would have been relieved not to have a relationship with him; during those years, in need of an attachment, I followed more in my mother’s footsteps, notably by becoming religious. The young child in me remained light-years removed from the teenager’s knowledge: the little girl believed fervently that her father loved her — and, unfortunately, after the incest her beliefs, her efforts, and her domination became even stronger because of the overwhelming shame, despair, and rage inside that had to be kept in check.
After experiencing my father’s compassion after the car accident, she had more sustenance and another reason to believe in him. This protective part of me did all she could to prove to him, and to the world around, that I was worthy and a good human being, that I was “perfect” — above all in his eyes. My father had been so vitally important for me in order to survive that her love for my father remained indomitable for most of my life.
Feelings of shame, confusion, despair, pain and rage, which emerged in therapy, were extinguished after the incest as I tried even harder to please my father and to be the “perfect oldest daughter” and the “family figurehead” that my parents expected and were so proud of. Thus, I married a man whose background boosted my father’s ego and soothed his inferiority complex. My father invited my first husband, a man from a wealthy and well-known family, into the living room when he came for our first date — whereas my father had not even acknowledged my previous boyfriend, never greeted him, much less invited him into our home during the two years we were together. This boyfriend’s background did not impress or mean anything to my father.
I have a visual memory of when my future first husband came to pick me up for this first date — a scene that used to perplex me: my father sitting on a chair on one side of our extended dining, music and breakfast room, and my future husband sitting across from him on another chair, with just a big carpet between them, as they were talking to each other that day. Only when I fell in love with my second husband, who would have been from “the wrong side of town” (or the "wrong" class) in my father’s eyes, did I realize that this man, whom I loved, would neither have been respected, invited in, or talked to by my father. It was only then that I realized how utterly manipulated I had been; and finally, I could feel strong anger about it.
Today, I feel fortunate, blessed and most grateful to have two sons from my first marriage, of whom I am so very proud, and who are wonderful, strong, good, loving and compassionate men with integrity and truly loving families. I treasure the times I can spend with them. And I remain grateful for both of my marriages; they provided, for prolonged times of my life, safe havens, support and great opportunities for adventure and growth for me, and a most welcome, and deeply longed for sense of belonging, as I had always felt like a stranger in my family.
(“On the Island”)
Now that I can accept the fact that the incest happened and understand the insights of my anger, it has become even more clear why I made certain decisions, above all why I married so young: driven to flee out of a house where such a shocking betrayal had happened, where I could not stand to live — without having any conscious awareness of all this. I did not marry the man I was in love with, whom my father had completely and rudely ignored, but someone who my father all too gladly accepted, someone he could use to show off — and also could use once again to show me off. Showing off was a big part of my father; money and reputation were what he cared about most. Warmly do I remember an aunt who understood and told me years later: “Without his [my first husband’s] family name and money, your father would never have allowed you to marry so young.”
As the trauma of incest became a fact of my life that I accepted, I shared it with friends and my two children — and then with my family of origin. Their responses were excruciating. Before I published my book “Screams from Childhood” in 2004, I first wrote a letter to my mother because I wanted her to know about the incest before the publication. After my mother had received my letter, she wrote back that she believed me and that she knew that I don’t lie. But when I wanted to send a letter to my siblings and share the recovered incest memory also with them, she wrote a very angry letter and forbade me to talk about it. Using a proverb, she demanded that I remain silent: “Talking is silver, silence is gold.” Still, I sent my letter to my five siblings, but only my second sister answered — with a short, strange note that prompted my second husband to remark: "I wonder what happened to her."
For years now, I have had no contact with four of my younger siblings. And about five years ago, I withdrew from contact with my youngest brother. He had visited me in Chicago after I had moved back there in 1992 and had not had contact with my family for several years; he expressed some compassion for me and apologized for a betrayal by my two brothers that had shocked me when we were adults. But eventually, his silence regarding the incest and how he ignored my feelings became too painful, and I shared this with him in an email. Previous to this email, I had felt as if I still had had one foot in the camp of my family of origin. When I left this relationship behind, I felt that I now had both feet in my own camp, and that I no longer owed them to consider their view of reality through rose-tinted glasses.
After the issue of incest had come up in the early 2000s, I heard from two family members that my next sister had suggested to them that incest had happened to her, too; and I knew that she had made the same trip on the "Queen Mary" with my father in the following year. And when my younger son talked with my mother directly, during a walk, about the incest, she opened up and told him, stunningly, that she thought it happened because she had seen symptoms in me and my second sister. In the letter that I had written to my mother and siblings about the incest, I had not mentioned my second sister or any suspicion about her experiencing incest as well. During the last teenage years that I still lived at home, I remember talking with my sister when she felt suicidal as a teenager, more than once; I tried to understand and help and support her. But in reality, I could not do so because the incest memory was blocked from my consciousness, lingering in my unconscious mind.
It was a sobering disappointment that my sister, as well as my mother, denied to me and my family of origin that incest ever happened; they would not talk about it with me, and neither has any member of my family of origin. When I learned from a family member about my second sister suggesting her incest experience, I called this sister and wanted to talk with her about it. But she denied that anything had happened; she only commented that our father had been punished enough by his decline into depression and mental derangement during the last years of his life. Obviously, my sister had wanted me to know that incest had happened to her, too — but she could not, and cannot, face me or her family with the truth.
Chicago is and will always be my beloved home because it was there that, for the first time in my life, I began to truly connect with other humans, to feel good about myself — and that I belonged. I remember telling my first therapist how I had felt like a stranger in my family. I also shared how I had experienced myself when I had come to Chicago at the age of twenty-eight: as if someone was gripping my neck with his hand and pushing my head and me down. Pressed down, and bent down like this, I could not see around me, or ahead of me, but only stare at the floor. With every year that I was able to live in Chicago, I felt that this grip on my neck loosened so that I could slowly raise my head a little higher and higher. As I began to walk upright and to discern the world and the people around me, I began to connect with them — which I had been unable to do in Germany, where I had felt isolated, lost and afraid. It was like a miracle.
But of course, these changes in me did not sit well with the people I then felt bound to: my first husband and my family of origin. And it was devastating when I had to return to Germany with my first husband and our children in 1994, when I was 34 years old, after having lived those six life-changing years in Chicago, a deeply fulfilling and awakening experience. Five years later, in 1989, my separation from my first husband began, and in 1992, I moved back to Chicago by myself, after my youngest son had left for college. In Chicago, I had friends who understood, supported and loved me. In Chicago, I felt safe. (“Escaping”)
In 1994, I went to Columbia College in Chicago, worked hard and loved it, studying photography, enjoying all my classes: taking photos, developing film and printing in the darkroom, writing, art history, design, and more. Soon I fell in love, and when I was 46 years old, in 1996, I married an American commercial pilot, a bright and good man, who was for a long time supportive of me and my journey. But our relationship ended after eleven years, after he had retired from flying and we had moved together to live in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where I still live in the house that we bought together. It had been his dream to buy it and to live there. Someone who knows him well once told me, unforgettably: “He showed you his best side; I knew it would not last.” When his “best side” was devoted to our relationship, we shared love and passion. During the eleven years we were together, we grew individually as well as together as a couple, and had wonderful, moving, trying, unforgettable times. It became a vital and deeply formative relationship for me and my life. It was a painful good bye for me.
Since then, living on my own, I have built a good life for myself and created a refuge, a sanctuary, where I live now. Here I can live in peace and harmony; here I have been able to heal more parts and connect more and more deeply with my true Self — and in good and wonderful ways with people and the world around me.
Wondering why it has taken me until my 70th year of life to meet the challenge of the incest trauma, I have come to realize that I cannot prescribe rules to my soul, that I cannot tell my soul when and how it has to deal with trauma. Every now and then it seems inconceivable how much of my life, of my time and energy, and also of my financial resources, I have dedicated to my recovery. But most of the time, I am in awe of the changes and the journey that I have accomplished against all odds — and know it has benefitted others, too.
My life has not been the life I desired when I was young, when a happy, loving marriage and family had been what I longed for most of all. It certainly was not my dream to live far away from my children and their families, or to live without a partner — but this has been my life now for many years. Among the people who are part of my life now, I found my truth and experienced powerful support, also during the writing of this letter through the much appreciated presence of my inspiring writing group, and once again thanks to my insightful editor Rebecca Peterson. Without precious, supportive friendships and compassionate, groundbreaking therapists, I could not have made my journey. To my amazement and wonder it became my destiny to find and tell the truth, which began in public when my essay “Facing a Wall of Silence” was published in 2001 in the book: "Second Generation Voices,” edited by Naomi and Alan Berger and published by Syracuse University Press.
On my maternal grandparents’ Wikipedia websites, I am the only one of their twenty grandchildren who is mentioned, and I was stunned and proud when I discovered it a while ago. Under the title “Granddaughter” it says: “In 2001, Wilmowsky granddaughter Barbara Rogers took part in a project, where she reflected about the after-effects of the life-lies of the Krupp family.” This entry links to my essay “Facing a Wall of Silence,” where I wrote that I see my life in the service of overcoming silences, within me and around me. Since then, I have come to see this commitment as my life’s calling and as the essence of my true Self, which I have learned to appreciate and nurture in IFS therapy. And it is heartwarming and gratifying to know that I have supported others to overcome silences within them and around them. With this letter, I have overcome another frightening silence within me, a silence that has lasted too long; and I hope that it can become, once again, an encouragement for others.
Dear Marilyn Van Derbur, as I imagine you listening to me, I feel so grateful. I know that it was possible for me to write this letter because I had your truthfulness in mind as I wrote this reckoning of my journey. I hope that one day you might read this letter to you. There is so much to tell — I have tried to share what seems vital, imperative for me at this point of my life. In writing to you, as I am almost seventy years old, it is my desire to close this chapter of my life, giving it the title: “Despite my father’s misogyny, despite the incest, I became a strong, spirited and daring woman.”
Above all I am sure that I can write to you today because finally all my parts, all of me, know and accept that the incest happened, and that it is my right to name the perpetrator: Wolfgang Lebrecht Huber.
Gratefully, with many warm regards and my very best wishes, also for your husband’s recovery,