Often I have looked back into my past with a new insight only to find that some old, hardly recollected feeling fits into a larger pattern of meaning.—“Our Secret”
Susan Griffin’s long essay, a chapter in her book A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War, is about the hidden shame and pain humans carry and their consequences. It is an astonishing essay, a meditation on the soul-destroying price of conforming to false selves that have been brutalized by others, mentally or physically or both, or by themselves in committing acts of violence and emotional cruelty.
As an essay, it shows the power of a writer’s voice—the scenes are few and spare in its forty-eight pages—but it’s mesmerizing. “Our Secret” has joined my pantheon of all-time great essays, along with Jonathan Lethem’s “The Beards,” Eudora Welty’s “The Little Store,” and James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son.” Despite its innovative braided structure, Griffin’s essay is much like Baldwin’s in being a rather classical reflective essay, though Baldwin’s essay’s spine employs a more traditional framed structure (opening and closing in essentially the same scene). Somehow Griffin achieves narrative drive with her segmented approach, perhaps because of her interesting juxtapositions, intense focus, and the quiet power of her language as her family’s own story unfolds alongside those of war criminals and victims.
“Our Secret” is a hybrid of memoir, history, and journalism, and is built with these discrete strands: the Holocaust; women affected by World War II directly or indirectly in their treatment by husbands and fathers; the harsh, repressive boyhood of Heinrich Himmler, who grew up to command Nazi rocketry and became the key architect of Jewish genocide; the testimony of a man scarred by war; and Griffin’s own desperately unhappy family life and harsh, repressed girlhood. In between these chunks are short italic passages of just a few sentences on cell biology—for instance, how the shell around the nucleus of the cell allows only some substances to pass through—and on the development of guided missiles in Germany and, later, by many of the same scientists, in the United States, where nuclear warheads were added and the ICBM created.
Griffin returns often to the thread of Himmler’s life, going back to his boyhood diary, a recording of times and trivial events, that his father Gebhard, a schoolmaster, required him to keep. Griffin reflects on her own life in relation to Himmler’s:
I was born in 1943, in the midst of this war. And I sense now that my life is still bound up with the lives of those who lived and died in this time. Even with Heinrich Himmler. All the details of his existence, his birth, childhood, adult years, death, still resonate here on earth. . . .
In the past few years I have been searching, though for what precisely I cannot say. Something still hidden which lies in the direction of Heinrich Himmler’s life. I have been to Berlin and Munich on this search, and I have walked over the gravel at Dachau. Now as I sit here I read once again the fragments from Heinrich’s boyhood diary that exist in English. I have begun to think of these words as ciphers. Repeat them to myself, hoping to find a door into the mind of this man, even as his character first forms so that I might learn how it is he becomes himself.
It is not easy. The earliest entries in the diary betray so little. Like the words of a schoolboy commanded to write what the teacher requires of him, they are wooden and stiff. The stamp of his father’s character is so heavy on this language that I catch not even the breath of a self here. It is easy to see how this would be true. One simply has to imagine Gebhard standing behind Heinrich and tapping his foot.
Griffin comments on the ordinary “mask” Himmler’s parents usually wore in photographs, like anyone—the father kindly, even. But this contrasts with the advice of German childrearing experts at the time that parents should crush the child’s will, dominate and suppress him. Braces and straps were used to correct posture while standing and sitting, and to prevent masturbation. “The child, Dr. Schreber advised, should be permeated by the impossibility of locking something in his heart.”
Of course there cannot be one answer to such a monumental riddle, nor does any event in history have a single cause. Rather a field exists, like a field of gravity that is created by the movements of many bodies. Each life is influenced and it in turn becomes an influence. Whatever is a cause is also an effect. Childhood experience is just one element in the determining field.
As a man who made history, Heinrich Himmler shaped many childhoods, including, in the most subtle of ways, my own. And an earlier history, a history of governments, of wars, of social customs, an idea of gender, the history of a religion leading to the idea of original sin, shaped Heinrich Himmler’s childhood as certainly as any philosophy of child raising. One can take for instance any formative condition of his private life, the fact that he was a frail child, for example, favored by his mother, who could not meet masculine standards, and show that his circumstance derived its real meaning from a larger social system that gave inordinate significance to masculinity.
Yet to enter history through childhood experience shifts one’s perspective not away from history but instead to an earlier time just before history has finally shaped us. Is there a child who existed before the conventional history that we tell of ourselves, one who, though invisible to us, still shapes events, even through this absence?
In this I recall a cast-off thought: what was I like before relationships and opinions hardened, my own and others’, and took irreversible and unchangeable form? Griffin, on the track of Himmler’s soul that was lost in boyhood, buried under a rage turned inward as much as outward, speaks to a rabbi in Berlin who appears to have lost his faith. Yet here in this somber essay there’s a shard of hope: “Still, despite his answer, and as much as the holocaust made a terrible argument for the death of the spirit, talking in that small study with this man, I could feel from him the light of something surviving.”
Himmler’s stilted diaries remind Griffin of life in her grandmother’s home, where she was sent at age six when her parents divorced. She says, with chilling simplicity, “We were not comfortable with ourselves as a family. There was a great shared suffering, and yet we never wept together, except for my mother, who would alternately weep and rage when she was drunk. Together, under my grandmother’s tutelage, we kept up appearances. Her effort was ceaseless.” In particular, her grandmother worked to reshape Griffin. Grammar. Manners. Memorization. Drill.
The Griffin family was terrified, like Himmler’s, that its modest origins would be discovered, and had managed to forget one side’s Jewish roots. Just so, young Heinrich was taught to befriend boys whose fathers held prestigious jobs; he was taught to be punctilious in manner and increasingly harsh.
Griffin reflects on how boys are shaped into men:
Most men can remember a time in their lives when they were not so different from girls, and they also remember when that time ended. In ancient Greece, a young boy lived with his mother, practicing a feminine life in her household, until they day he was taken from her into to the camp of men. From this day forward the life that had been soft and graceful became rigorous and hard, as the older boy was prepared for the life of a soldier.
Researching her book in Paris, Griffin meets a woman, Helene, who survived one of Himmler’s death camps. She’d been turned in by another Jew and tracked down using a net of information—a system tracing back to Himmler’s boyhood diaries—collected on cards and sent to the Gestapo for duplication and filing, the work of countless men and women. “One can trace every death to an order signed by Himmler,” writes Griffin, “yet these arrests could never have taken place on such a massive scale without this vast system of information. What did they think, those who were enlisted for this work?”
She leaps ahead: “The men and women who manufacture the trigger mechanisms for nuclear bombs do not tell themselves they are making weapons. They say simply that they are metal forgers.”
Many learn this ability in childhood, to become strangers to themselves, she points out. And outwardly the Nazi mechanism of death was cloaked in legality: “These crimes, these murders of millions, were all carried out in absentia, as if by no one in particular.” Others inflict more directly upon others the suffering they have endured. Leo, a Russian refugee, brutalized in a German prison in World War II, made his way to America. In high school, he and his friends decoyed and beat up gay men for sport. Later he was drafted for the Korean War and assigned to interrogate Russian prisoners.
He was given two men to question. With the first man he made every kind of threat. But he carried nothing out. The man was resolutely silent. And Leo learned nothing from him. He left the room with all his secrets. You can never, Leo told me later, let any man get the better of you. With the second man he was determined not to fail. He would get him to tell whatever he knew. He made the same threats again, and again met silence. Then, suddenly, using his thumb and finger, he put out the man’s eye. And as the man was screaming and bleeding, he told him he would die one way or the other. He was going to be shot. But he had the choice now of seeing his executioners or not, of dying in agony or not. And then the man told him his secrets.
Sharing his sins, Leo does not break down until he tells Griffin of how, after the war, he killed an innocent black man with the butt of a pistol. Looking into the man’s broken face, Leo sees “he’s just like me.” Griffin breaks down as she finds the core of her own rage, her memory at eight years old of the injustice of a punishment by her grandmother. In her desire to make the woman feel the same pain, her imagination takes over: “I am forcing her to feel what I feel. I am forcing her to know me. And as I strike her, blow after blow, a shudder of weeping is released in me, and I become utterly myself, the weeping in me becoming rage, the rage turning to tears, all the time my heart beating, all the time uttering a soundless, bitter, passionate cry, a cry of vengeance and of love.”
This powerful, inspiring essay lingers in the mind. “Our Secret” took courage to write, and it bravely asks a reader to consider unpleasant subjects and to slow down. Slowly it teaches one how to read it and begin to appreciate its many layers, its juxtapositions, its depths.
I’m grateful to my blogging friend Paulette Bates Alden for giving me a copy of “Our Secret” while trying to help me with one of my essays. Googling Griffin’s name and the essay’s title reveals a cottage industry among writing teachers and students. I sampled a few student reactions to “Our Secret” and was impressed by their insights; though there are many essay services that supply slacking students with interpretations, I like to think the ones I read were original.
I found a full text of the essay (at: learning.writing101.net/wp-content/readings/griffin_our_secret.pdf ) that a teacher uploaded (often you can find these by googling the author’s name and the essay’s title and “pdf”); and I also bought her book.