Bearing Witness

I belong to a professional listserve of mental health practitioners.   We are a diverse group living all over the world who have been trained to practice EMDR, a technique that is very effectively used for dealing with trauma.  Recently there was some discussion about working with the refugee population elsewhere in the world.  Some of our list members dedicate their time solely to working with the world’s displaced citizens.

I shared the following experience with them:

When I was in my mid twenties and KNEW I needed therapy, I finally got up the courage to go to a psychiatrist.  I was riddled with anxiety, had panic attacks while driving, was feeling overwhelmed by a failing marriage and three children twenty months apart.  And I was pulling a 3.8 GPA while attending college and working four to midnight at a Convenience store.

The psychiatrist did what was expected back in those days.  She sat across from me and asked me to tell her about my childhood.  So I began to speak.  After some time the psychiatrist stood up and began to pace.  I kept on talking.  She walked to the window and closed the shutters and went back to her pacing.  By then on a roll, I continued to tell the story she had wanted to hear.  Suddenly she stopped pacing, turned towards me and said: “Stop!  I can’t take it any more!”  She apologized and asked me to find another psychiatrist to help me.  She said I was carrying too much pain!  So my pain and I walked out, our relationship intact, and stayed together for years while the family doctor went through all his magic pills to help us to coexist.

Years later I got the help I needed and became a therapist myself, the kind that never paces or gets up to close the shutters.

I know that many of us Cuban exiles, and particularly Pedro Pans, were never able to tell our stories.  Back in the early sixties there was no talk of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).  But I wager that many of us had clinical symptoms when we walked out of the airplanes that brought us to freedom, and that many suffer from it still.

When I arrived in the United States from the bowels of repression, sadness, injustice, madness and violence, I landed in the land of White Castles, McDonald’s, and Rock and Roll.  I landed in a place where most kids my age had no point of reference for understanding terror.  No one had to tell me not to talk about my experiences- it was viscerally obvious that there was no room for that pain in this society.  Simon and Garfunkel’s lyrics “ I am a rock , I am an island….and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries” became my anthem.   And I didn’t talk much about my story.  Not with my girlfriends, not with the man that eventually became my husband, or even my children.  It was only four years ago that my middle son found out I was a Pedro Pan.  His paternal grandmother was born in Poland and came here as a war bride.  Her sadness for the fate of her homeland took up all the room available in the family for tragedy.  I couldn’t compete with her dramatic flair.

When I began writing my memoir and pitching to agents I often heard that there had been too many memoirs written about Cuba and that people weren’t interested in hearing more stories.  Yet when I finally began to let little morsels of my story out, people would invariably say “you need to write a book!”

Not one of our stories is identical.  Each is a brushstroke that colors the canvas of life in the Cuba we knew; the more brushstrokes the more beautiful and accurate the picture.  We need to  bear witness to history of how our island went from red white and blue, to olive green, and red and black, then red.  I have no idea what color it is now.  We owe it to our children and we owe it to the world.  Ours is the last generation that remembers that incomparable Cuba that even its current citizens have no idea existed.  And we are the only ones that were there when the nightmare began.

I encourage you to share your stories on the blog.  There is room here for pain and for healing.  There is room for wonderful reunion stories and for humor.  And remember the words of Elie Wiesel

“I decided to devote my life to telling the story because I felt that having survived I owe something to the dead. and anyone who does not remember betrays them again.”

4 comments

  1. You’re right, Adrianne, your story has to be told.
    History cannot be left to those whose “facts” bear no witness — that have no soul.
    I think of your sitting on the back of the bus. How could we really understand the people who were in that section without knowing their stories — often subliminal, but very real — born from ancestors who had been sold as merchandise in this land of freedom. Without “feeling” their collective soul, how could we understand racial relations today? This is what makes Toni Morrison’s book, Beloved, deeply touching — and brings us a necessary truth.
    And yes, “The more brushstrokes the more accurate the story.”

    From: Adrianne Miller

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    1. Thank you for your heartfelt words, Gloria. On my recent ride to Seattle I took a cab to the train station. The driver was a beautiful young man from Nigeria who shared part of his story with me when he found out I was from Cuba. I may blog about him so I won’t go into the whole story, but he commented that he was one of a minority of black men who had come to this country by choice. To this day I am struck by the fact that those bus passengers, both the whites and the blacks, accepted the terrible status quo. That hatred, misunderstanding and fear froze those human beings in place.
      I love Toni Morrison’s Beloved! If anyone reading this post hasn’t read it, I highly recommend it.

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  2. You wrote: “We need to bear witness to history of how our island went from red white and blue, to olive green, and red and black, then red. I have no idea what color it is now.” As I read this my eyes filled with tears and I wondered, what is the color of tears? That must be the color of our island now, my dear sister: a watery blur through which no color can show its proper hue. Thank you for sharing and encouraging the sharing.

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