At age 47, after taking a journalism class, Sieglinde W. Alexander began writing about her abusive childhood. Suffering from life-long depression, her symptoms intensified after more and more memories of her German childhood were unearthed. While seeking a publisher, she continually rewrote the manuscript. This constant rewriting turned out to be a therapeutic breakthrough as the rewriting process brought up more and more disturbing memories.
Without knowing it, she had begun a regressive self-primaling technique made famous by J. Konrad Stettbacher, which he describes in his book, Making Sense of Suffering. Stettbacher endorses a biographical writing technique which he calls, "written therapy" when circumstances prevent the "live work" he more typically recommends.
Sieglinde W. Alexander began studying clinical psychology and became convinced that if she was to be released from a lifetime of neurotic symptoms, it would be necessary to further investigate the origins of her symptoms.
And she felt that her investigation would have to include a return to her home town of Harburg, Germany. The city dates to the year 950 and is well known for its famous castle.
The author began to tap into her memories of frequent beatings with a heavy water hose, sexual abuse and being forced with her brothers to steal for their immediate family.
When she returned to her hometown in Germany, her first view of the city of Harburg was its famous castle. As a child, the castle and its grounds had been a place of safety when she needed to hide. Simply driving into the city had made her feel panicky and anxious. Many memories and feelings of shame and fear came back to her - and was what she had felt throughout much of her childhood - never knowing when the next beating was to come. She was tempted to ring the doorbell of the house of her childhood but, apprehensively, decided against it.
A visit to the graveyard brought back memories of her Lella, her favorite grandmother.
On the way to the dairy, Lella had reached out to open the door with the milkcan in her hand. Suddenly, it clattered to the floor splattering and chipping the blue enamel on the outside of the can all over the floor. Then she slumped to the floor. Everybody came running and carried Grandma Lella to her bedroom. Lella died right away.
But little Sieglinde failed to understand, and wondered why didn't the doctor come and put a bandage around Lella's head? Why were people, she had never seen before, throughout the house? Sneaking into the bedroom and snuggling-up next to her grandma, she thought, "Lella, you just keep on sleeping, I will lay next to you and warm your cooled hand."
A physician arrived. Little Sieglinde wanted to stay with grandma so that the doctor would not hurt her, but she was taken from the bedroom. Grandpa cried and explained to her that Lella had gone to Heaven.
Looking through the bedroom door, little Sieglinde watched men placing her Lella in a long black box. When they closed the lid of the coffin, little Sieglinde began screaming. "Lella can't breathe," she cried. She then fainted. After her grandmother's death, everything was to change in her life.
On the day of the funeral, she ran toward the grave when the casket was lowered into the ground. Just as she started to jump into the newly dug grave, someone pulled her away. Again she fainted and woke up at her house after the funeral services were over. Nobody cared about the loss this four year old had suffered. Her father said, that now, she must get used to HIS way.
That was the beginning of abuse which severely traumatized her and left her with mental scars for life.
Soon thereafter, the author witnessed her father beating and kicking her grandpa, just before her grandfather was forced out of his own house.
Thus, with the loss of her cherished Lella, and the parting of her grandfather, the 4 year old's life had now suffered two drastic upheavals. And after her beloved grandfather left, little Seiglinde was never again allowed to visit him.
After having uncovered and felt some of these horrific memories in a therapeutic process triggered by the actual writing of her autobiography, the author wrote,
| The Harburg Castle
A return to the city of her earlier life, coupled with intensive writing, triggered even more relivings of the traumas of her childhood. The greater and greater detail which began to be revealed made her realize that her childhood was even worse than she had suspected.
Sieglinde's father forced her to eat rice soup which she detested. He would stand near her with a bamboo stick, warning: "This will teach you real discipline and order." Even when she vomited into the plate, he hit her with the stick. He immediately ladled a fresh helping on top of the vomit and insisted that she eat it. She ate it, but soon had to run to the laundry room and vomited again.
She writes in Haunting Shadows From the Past, that her life was maybe not all bad. but that the bad had predominated. Once when she and her brother neglected to clean the cage of their guinea pig, her father killed their pet. "We looked at each other powerless as the tears choked in our throats." She wrote, "we were too afraid to cry." They then had to remove their well loved pet and bury it.
Her father yelled, "I never wanted you rotten bastards. It was your mother’s fault you were born, only my grace allowed you to live. I would have beaten you to death a long time ago, but it certainly wasn’t worth going to prison for.”
Over the years her father had impressed on her that she "was unworthy, dumb, no good and not worth the food" she ate.
As she continued her writing self-therapy, memory after memory began returning:
"I felt a sense of relief as if I had finally put down the heavy load I carried. I wasn’t the child who cried about the death of her Lella. I was now the adult who cried out of relief for that child in me, who after all these years, had finally let go of the grief and pain and replaced it with a loving memory. The tears had emptied a spot inside of me which needed filling."
Alexander writes that, as a child, imbued with psychological guilt, she feared she had broken all of the ten commandants. It was reasonable for her to have assumed that she had gravely sinned and therefore deserved such continuous brutal subjugation. It made no sense to her that one would be subjected to such severe punishment if it were undeserved. She felt that she never could observe one commandment, "Honor Thy Mother and Father." She believes that this commandment should only apply to children whose parents loved them.
A problem, which was to have a long duration, had occurred when her father decided to give her a reading test. After she stumbled on a word in the second paragraph of the text, he hit her with the bamboo stick. After the second mispronunciation, he hit her on the head. She was so distraught, she could not continue. He said she was useless and too stupid to learn.
From that day to the present she has beeen unable to read aloud and writes that it helped her understand the origins of dyslexia.
Her grandfather had given her money; money to buy confirmation dresses and shoes but her mother had not told her about it and had kept the money. All of the other girls in her confirmation classes had new dresses for the occasion, but with shame and embarrassment she had to wear an older, unattractive dress.
One day because she had neglected to pour fresh milk into a stone container to keep it cool, the milk spoiled. When her father found out about this lapse, he brought her to the laundry room where he poured the milk over her head and then gave her a uneven "haircut", at times even cutting the skin of her scalp. "I'll teach you to respect things that cost money," he said, then washed her down with ice cold water. At school she was terribly humiliated until her hair finally grew back.
Later in life, that trauma was to make her extremely uncomfortable while getting a haircut. Once, because of deep distress, she had to immediately walk out of a beauty shop when the hairdresser unintentionally nicked her scalp.
Once a boyfriend gave her a treasured necklace which his father had given his mother. When she came home her father called her. When she entered the room, her father saw the necklace, and screamed,
“There she is, our little nigger whore!”
The author continues:
"I would compare memories from the past and the present. The closer I got to the pain, the more my mind tried to close it off. In my mind I told my father everything I would have liked to have told him when I was a child."
"The past was present, the time in between ceased to exist and everything I felt was now as real as if it just happened. How could I have existed all those years? I asked myself. How could I carry around so many depressing thoughts? How did they affect me? To these many questions, I couldn’t find the answers, just as I couldn’t find them at the time they happened."
On one occasion, her father swung a rubber hose at her and knocked her off the bike, then continued flailing her with the hose until she fainted. On still another occasion, he beat her, "until blood ran down" her legs and left her lying on the concrete floor of the laundry room. Finally, escaping home because of her father's brutality, she went to a Turkish friend's home who dressed her wounds and comforted her and then wanted sexual favors in return. To entice her to change her mind, he threatened to call her father.
"Before I realized what he was talking about I felt his hand on my throat holding me against the door frame, choking me. With his other hand he reached for the necklace and ripped it off before he hit me with his fist on top of my head. All I remember was falling backwards, just a few inches away from the stairs, before I passed out.
I woke up when he opened the door again. He was in a rage and acted insane. “Are you still here?” He yelled, “Go to hell!” One swift kick from his foot and she tumbled down the stairs.
In a panic I jumped up and ran out of the house. I didn’t stop until I reached the weir. I hid there until the next morning. I had all night to think about what happened and how much I hated my father. His cold gray-green eyes made me shiver. His black hair, as well as his moustache, were combed straight to resemble Hitler. I vowed that I would never act in the cold hearted, arrogant, self-righteous way, he did.
I snuck back to the house after my father had left. I changed my clothes, washed my face and had a glass of milk before I woke my brothers to get them ready for school."
On the very night she had been raped by an employee of the family gas station, she was commanded to go to her parent's bedroom and, "lie between us and tell us what happened today.” That was a prelude to extreme sexual touching by her father.
"Early the next morning my mother showed up. I couldn’t believe the act she put on in front of Hassan. She had tears in her eyes, pretending my father never hit me before. My hate for all people was indescribable that day and grew steadily. All I could think was I had to leave home."
Sieglinde writes that viewing a girl sitting on her father's lap on television triggers memories of her early abuse. After the double sexual abuse of that day, she developed psoriasis all over her body, which still remains.
Even playing with the children in the neighborhood was forbidden. When her mother was asked if they could play with other kids, she usually answered, “Don’t you have anything better to do? I will cure your laziness.” Then she made a list of things we had to do right away.
"This overturned my hope and belief in moral justice, or of any God. I didn’t feel I had the right to protect myself, since the word “no” had no power. This indescribable human disgrace and humiliation left scars I still haven’t overcome, even to this day."
When Sieglinde was about ten years old, her half brother, Lutz, moved in with the family. He was her father's son by a previous marriage, 18-years old and handsome,
Lutz's grandmother also moved in as she was to be the new housekeeper. Sieglinde slept in the kitchen and was not allowed to join the three boys. When she returned from school she did the ironing, but admits that even though Mrs. Jauernik, the housekeeper, was bossy and critical, the situation was better than the beatings her father used to give her.
Since she also had to work at the gas station, her mother told Sieglinde's teacher, "My daughter has to work and has no time to waste on useless things like homework." Nevertheless, Sieglinde managed to have a B average on her tests. Indeed, her grades were so good that the teachers had recommended her to attend gymnasium [editor's note: about the level of high school in the U.S.]
One night her half-brother forced sex on her, so her hope of having a big brother who supported her were completely dashed by that experience. She was only ten-years-old and still believed that the stork delivered babies. All she knew is that afterwards "she felt disgust, dismay and guilt," and from then on always tried to avoid her half-brother. Scared at night that Lutz might repeat his inexplicable behavior, often it was not until the church bell struck midnight that she could fall asleep. She thought that what had happened was perhaps her fault. "The more I questioned myself the more I felt lost and confused." She felt that there was no one she could ask for an explanation of what had happened or to ask for support.
Sometimes her father's beatings were so frequent that the old injuries did not have a chance to heal. On one occasion, after receiving another of her father's "deserved lessons" Seiglinde's "legs, head and hands were swollen." Because of the open wounds, she had to carry her schoolbag in her hands instead of on her back. Trying to minimize the pressure on her back from the classroom desk, she sat unevenly with only the left side of her body against the back of the desk. Her teacher noticed that she was not sitting properly, but she could not, because she was bruised from her right shoulder down to her calves. The teacher hit her on her back to interrupt a daydream she was having. Almost, immediately, a fellow student cried out that she was bleeding.
Naturally the teacher was concerned and embarrassed. He thought that he had caused the injury and apologized for having struck her. The family doctor was called. She was whisked into an ambulance for the trip to the hospital. She describes the few days spent in the hospital as a vacation. When she arrived back home, her mother insisted that what had happened at home was not to be mentioned, as it was no one's business.
One day she was compelled to model a new bra and petticoat and dance while her parents lay in bed. After all, "I knew that having pleased people as a child was a way of life." '“Come here and take the bra off, I want to see how big they are,”' her father commanded. When he grabbed my breasts, I crossed my arms.". . . My father scowled, “She won’t be perfect, the nipples are too low and her legs are too short.” He turned to me. “You can go now,” he said. Because of that experience, she writes that she was sick for the remainder of the day, but she had to work anyhow, as sickness was never an excuse to skip work.
Tellingly, she writes about how her ego would split and would take the hurt in order to protect her: "My other ego suffered for me and helped me through painful, uncomfortable situations. It was like passing out and waking up in a body that has no feelings."
The arrival of the parents at home was a tense time for the children. Sometimes, it did not matter what time it was, the kids had to line-up like soldiers to receive their "just punishment." One night when she was still suffering from the beating she had received from the night before, the children were awakened to explain why the window in the store downstairs was broken. Pleading innocence was always to no avail. Her father called them, "lying bastards" and said that “If it wasn’t your fault this time, you all needed the discipline anyway.”
It came to the point where lying or telling the truth made no difference. The kids decided that they could no longer endure the abuse and planned to kill their father. Considering alternative methods of murder, they could not come up with a method which would have assuredly worked, so the plan was abandoned.
As a child she writes that being yelled at was not considered to be a major problem. She writes, "Just how much impact the yelling had on me I found out later." Even when her wonderful grandmother died and the guinea pig was killed, she noticed how calming the feeling of silence that death imparted on her. She found that it was death, in itself, which had given her and her siblings the incentive to consider silencing the pain-maker in their lives.
Sieglinde writes that her father's words still echo in her mind: “To achieve a goal you have to eliminate everything that gets in your way. I hope someone like Hitler will rise and lead Germany into glory and order again.” And: “If Hitler comes back, they [the ones he called the lower classes - the neighbors] are the kind who will be the first ones in a concentration camp.”
"All my life all my energy had gone into defending myself. As an adult I realized that I had built a wall around myself. What I didn’t know, at the time, was that the same wall kept all pleasure and enjoyment out of my life. I couldn’t respond in the right way because my imprint told me 'when someone is nice to me, I had to give something in return.' I was very apprehensive towards men, because my experiences as a child told me they only wanted my body. Those memories haunted me, even tormented me. Could I ever find release?"
* * *
"Having experienced the constant mental stress on a daily basis, I know that every reaction a child shows is beyond logic. Emotionally the child has passed what I call the intersection of decision. The child subconsciously makes a decision which way to go according to their experiences and what they have learned from parents and other adults."
* * *
"I wondered about my father’s childhood. Why was he so full of hate toward other races? It was not only the black race, but also Jewish people and every other race except the Aryan. How could he believe that Hitler had a right to destroy another human life? I kept asking myself questions. Then I remembered his mother, an evil, venomous, controlling, judgmental woman. She actually believed that she was better and more aristocratic than the scum she was forced to share the same street with. She even denied my cousins, who lived in the same house with her, or us, the smallest of favors unless we obeyed her blindly."
* * *
The declaration, "We need heating oil." immediately was understood to mean you will have to steal it. It was very close to New Years' Eve and the coal was almost gone. Awakened at midnight by their mother, Sieglinde and her brother Nigg brought two ten liter cans along with their sled in order to make the heist. That night they walked two miles in the deep snow. The warehouse was next to the river and was fenced in on three sides, so it was necessary to approach the building from the frozen river.
After a number of complications they were able to take the oil, but because of thin ice on the river they had to use a rope to guide the sled and filled oil cans without accompanying their precious cargo. No one had seen them; they had had a successful burglary. However, they were fearful that the fresh snow would give away as their sled tracks pointed out the route they had taken back home. Overcoming other obstacles they finally returned home with their prize. When they awoke they were pleased that their luck still held, as new fallen snow had covered their tracks home.
Sieglinde's grandmother (her father's mother) "was just as mean as he was." The author writes that she even was in control of the neighborhood! Pathologically curious, she spied on everyone from her darkened bedroom. Her fourteen children all received the "corrective therapy" from her shoemaker father's leather belt. With the background they had, what else could be expected from the shoemaker's children? As the author writes, her "father became what he was because of it." Yet, the author always preferred being at her grandmother's house rather than at home. "I was always amazed when other kids were not afraid of their parents. That certainly wasn’t true at our house. My father answered any disobedience with a hose in the laundry room."
The author finally left home to work as a housemaid, with the money going directly to her father. After six months an attempt was made to sexually molest her by the "man of the house." Returning home, the Sieglinde was called a "Good for Nothing," for leaving, even though her parents, because of the incident, had been paid for the entire year. The wife of the "house man" now understood why the previous housemaids had also left before their contract had expired.
She then worked in an auto parts factory, at piecework wages, where she met and dated a fellow worker around whom she felt safe. He was not like the other workers who continually sexually harassed her.
The fellow worker asked Sieglinde's father for her hand in marriage. Her father insulted him by calling him a low-class laborer to his face and then "threw him out of the house." She was told by her father to never see him again.
At the auto parts factory she again received no payment for her work. When she went to collect her wages she received a receipt informing her that the money due her had been sent to her mother. One day she fainted at work and was taken to the hospital. The physicians diagnosed malnutrition and told her that she was too weak for hard work. She was immediately fired. Her parents found work for her at a hotel peeling potatoes and washing dishes. Again she received no payment, only a receipt that the money due her had been paid to her mother.
Her parents found a marriage partner for her when she was sixteen. Her husband-to-be was sixty-five, but was told not to worry since "you will inherit everything when he dies." She was told that would be soon because he had liver cancer. Sieglinde decided that the only thing she could do was to leave her parents' home immediately. The boyfriend she had met at the auto parts plant decided that if she would become pregnant, her father would not object to the marriage. However, he was soon to discover that she was no longer a virgin; she had been raped by her half-brother. He put her out of his home and yelled at her, "You lied to me . . . I will never marry a slut like you."
She did not know what to do. She hitchhiked back to Harburg and went to the castle, which, in the past, had been a refuge from sorrow. She decided to commit suicide and used scissors from her purse in an attempt to open a vein in her left wrist. But the blood stopped flowing almost immediately after the vein was cut.
She then hitchhiked throughout Germany for a month or so until she met a woman who offered a place to live and helped her get work as a waitress. She soon became ill and weak and her parents were informed of her whereabouts. However, since she adamantly refused to return to her parents home, the officials were at a loss of what to do, so she was brought to a home for unwed mothers-to-be.
While there, she entered school to become a tailor although she was not interested in that type of work. She learned rapidly and was able to finish the three years' course in only two years, even though her schooling had been interrupted because of a month's hospitalization for severe psoriasis. In a class of 140 girls, she graduated with the top honors in the practicum part of the course..
At age thirty-six she finished her masters training in tailoring and fashion design then worked as an interior decorator and was in a partnership in a high fashion boutique. During this period she mentions that her self esteem rose.
The author writes that when she came to the U.S. to begin a new life. She had believed that it would have been enough just to leave Germany, but was wrong. It was obvious to her that her unresolved issues traveled with her to her new life. She became convinced that to improve she would have to confront her childhood once again. She intuitively knew that she had to feel her stored pain.
With the support of her friends and husband, she choose the "writing" form of therapy and places much importance in being able to stop the denial of her abuse. It was this determination, she believes that started her on the road to healing.
"It was the child inside of me, crying out for acceptance. Waiting all those years to be loved and cared for. It was the child in mental pain that rejected itself because I was rejected by my parents. I know now I couldn't love or respect myself because I never received the same. Nobody ever gave the child
the right to cry or arms to flee into."
* * *
Her father was convinced, up to his death in 1998, that he had raised his family correctly.
Grossly obese, her mother died from a heart attack in 1979. She had spent a lifetime trying to control her daughter's life. Before her death she was lonely and continually spun lies to her neighbors about the ingratitude of her children.