Psychologist as Educator

jood star strip

My academic training is in psychology. My “therapist skills” have been very useful while researching and writing Scraps of Hope. My most important tool as a psychologist is listening, and while working on this book, I have listened a lot. I have listened carefully to my mother’s stories and thought about what was most important about them. Why does she remember these particular events and why has she forgotten other things she went through during the war?

Another psychologist tool I have put to good use is asking questions. Not asking just any questions, but the right questions to the right people at the right time. I have reached out to survivors of the camps and to people who knew my grandparents or were in the same places. Asking people what they remember about unpleasant times is difficult. I want to pull out as much information as I can without getting them upset. I don’t want to cause anyone a sleepless night. And every question is like another step in a minefield – you don’t know if that next step will trigger emotions and cause someone to shut down because it is too distressing.

As a psychologist I work hard to understand emotion. I have my mother’s memories and many documents with facts, but I have gone beyond that. I have imagined what my grandmother would have been thinking or how my grandfather would have reacted in a given moment. For example, the history texts tell us that the Nazis forced the Jews of Amsterdam to wear yellow stars starting in May 1942. That is the fact. However, my book isn’t about facts. It is about people. This is the essence of writing a scene – what would so-and-so think when they encountered this situation? How would Omi feel? (In these moments I think of her as Omi, as that is what I called her, and that is the woman I knew.) What would she do? How does she, as a mother, explain the star to her children? What does she say and what does she leave out to protect them? How does my 5 year-old uncle react differently than my then 7 year-old mother? They are at different levels of development, and the star would have meant different things to them. This is where fact turns into story; where non-fiction becomes creative; and where a student who is bored by history text books may identify with a character and say, “Wow, this happened to little kids like me. I wonder what that was like? I wonder what I would have done? I wonder if things like that might ever happen again?”

And now, I have taken my psychologist self and become an educator and an activist. I have taken the dry facts and turned them into a story that some youngster can relate to and take into the future with a strong voice saying “never again!”

3 thoughts on “Psychologist as Educator

  1. jzguzlowski says:

    Heidi, i enjoyed reading this. As a writer writing about my father’s and mother’s experiences during WWII, I’ve had to deal with similar issues. There are things I knew and things I could never know about their experiences under the Germans.

    I wrote a short piece about writing about that past and how memory and imagination figure in.

    Here’s a link to that article.

    http://danutahinc.com/2012/07/31/guest-blogger-john-guzlowski-re-creates-the-past/

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