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Farewell Letter from the Editors of Punctuate

October 8, 2020


Before saying farewell, let us first look at who we were.  We were a creative nonfiction magazine seeking to make meaning, or sense of the world through the use of the creative nonfiction form.  We printed graphic memoir, narrative image, we printed list essays, segmented essays, lyric essays and stream of consciousness.  Many essays used the solid platform of personal narrative and many more defied categorizations such as the video essay and podcast essay. We provoked thought about the genre through the reviews and interviews and innovation of form that celebrates and welcomes writers and their thoughts. We saw the internet and our online publication as our liminal space.

Crossing boundaries in form means new voices new themes.  We celebrated emerging voices and racial and gender diversity.  We sought out the creative questioning and journeying process of an essay, even if, or especially if, there were no codified answers. Creative nonfiction incorporates the rhythms and sounds of poetry, the character and voice of fiction, the dilemmas and arc of drama, it inculcates the parsing and reshaping of lives and dialogues, thought, and analysis by the reshaping of literary form itself. So going through an issue of Punctuate was like a dance.  It had movement; it was true to its moment and culture.

We want to thank all of our contributors, our student editors, interns, and faculty editors for walking the path with Punctuate and bearing witness, along the way, to the power of art to effect and transform.

True to the movement of creative nonfiction, Punctuate is ceding itself and its mission to a new publication.  The new publication, Allium, will also be produced by the remarkable faculty and students of the creative writing program at Columbia College Chicago and will be available online in the near future.  Allium will continue Punctuate’s mission of publishing the best creative nonfiction—and include poetry and fiction as well.  Please watch for this announcement.


Diversity, Creativity, Peace,

Re’Lynn Hansen and Garnett Kilberg Cohen,
and the editors of Punctuate. A Nonfiction Magazine

Essays Special Feature

Tracie Taylor

June 17, 2020

Days & Discoveries

View video essay here


Tracie Taylor is a 2nd year graduate student at Columbia College Chicago, where she is pursuing her MFA in poetry. In her undergrad (Ball State University) she earned her degree with a BA in English and a Theater minor.  She loves to write about her deepest (and darkest) emotions, with themes pertaining to her identity as a queer, biracial woman. She also, of course, has a passion for acting/performance. Her work has been published in: From Whispers to Roars, Eclectica Magazine, and on Indolent Books website.



Andrew Sarewitz

May 16, 2020

Ladies and Gentlemen, Cher


If challenged to categorize my generation of gay men into forums, I’d split them by those who love Cher and those who can’t stand her. I accept this is a stereotype that would prostrate many, but I see it as parallel to being an American who identifies as either Republican or Democrat. Some would argue that Madonna is a better barometer, but with such diverse musical styles over the years, I think almost everyone can agree—including my father—that there is a song or two by Madonna they really do like. Cher on the other hand is more like a drag queen. You either get her or you don’t.

As for me, it wasn’t love at first sight.  When Cher had top 10 hits with “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” and “Half Breed,” I wanted nothing to do with her. I was in love with Joni Mitchell.  I also listened to the vinyl of Carole King, Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon, the Stones and the Fifth Dimension. Even back then I loved Cher’s voice and thought it would be great if she would do a pop/rock album. I had always intended on telling her so when we met. “Cher,” I’d say, “do some better music, damn it! You’re such a talented and attractive girl.”  As her movie career ignited in the 1980’s, David Geffen founded a new record label and lo and behold the first album released was with Joni Mitchell and the second, Cher. And our love affair began. So, second to Joni and ahead of Madonna, Sade and Stevie (Wonder and Nicks), Cher would define me as “one of those” gay men. Still, it never occurred to me that Cher would be a catalyst that would bind me to a man and a love unrequited.


I saw Cher in concert four times. First in Las Vegas, courtesy of my friends Steve and Margie, who invited me as their guest to the opening of the Venetian Hotel. The surprise being that Cher was the inaugural performer. I didn’t handle that information with any sense of decorum or maturity.

When she came to New York with the “Believe” tour, again Steve got us seats. At one point during the concert, I was staring at Cher and seemed to fall into a state somewhere between hysterical and catatonic. That may sound like an oxymoron but it’s accurate. Steve looked at me and whispered, “You happy?”

The fourth performance was a gift from my high-school era friend, Rick, who took me to one of Cher’s numerous “Farewell Tour” shows. But it is the third concert in which an emotional wrench was curve-balled into my middle aged world.


I feel I should explain that although I’ve loved seeing Cher perform live, I don’t really appreciate the spectacle that defines her concerts. They are massively produced extravaganzas which are not really my thing. For me, it’s all about her voice. It’s an instrument that viscerally soothes this soul like no one else’s. Personally, I like it best when she struts on stage wearing a gown, or simply a blouse and a pair of jeans, long hair flowing, sits on a stool and rips into a song. Eyes staring or closed, I am transported. So even though I’m one of those who loves Cher, I’m probably not her predictable fan. But very typically, I seem to think she and I share some cosmic intimacy that connects artist and obsessed sycophant.


As with the second and fourth, the third Cher concert I attended was at Madison Square Garden.  I asked my “hair-dresser” (I love that word—like “stewardess”) Tommy to come with me. Who better to take to a Cher concert than the person who “does” your hair?  And typical to Tommy’s romantic side, he suggested that I might meet someone there. Having been to stadium concerts since the age of 8, I knew better.

I wore black leather pants (a gift from Steve and Margie) and a green Versace v-neck I had initially bought for my trip to Las Vegas for the first Cher retreat. We were seated stage left, 7th row, in the CocaCola section of corporate house seats. What a bunch was our cola group. From gay couples of all ages to a nostalgic crew of over-the-hill flower children to silver haired women dressed as if dining at the captain’s table on a cruise to the Bahamas.

Directly in front of us was a treacherously drunk woman in her forties and her escort, a good looking, picnic-dressed man. Throughout the concert the stud kept turning around to stare at me.  I became uncomfortable because he was ridiculously handsome. Short black hair, clean-shaved chiseled jaw, a smile an evangelist would envy, dark, hypnotic eyes, and a nose job that made his profile a bit too pretty for his masculine aura. I speculated that he might be a female impersonator who had had rhinoplasty to allow his facial features to imitate Judy Garland or Dolly Parton or Cher.

His intoxicated friend was the first to talk to me. She was bawdy and flirtatious so I took the direct approach, telling her I was interested in meeting her friend. I went so far as to ask if he was single. She said “yes!” and pulled him over.  He too was inebriated to the point of slurring, but the flirtation between us was lucid and mutual.

After the concert ended, our crowd streamed en masse toward the bathrooms where human lines stretched beyond the length of a football field. While waiting, I fired up my nerve and told the beautiful stranger that Tommy and I were going to a bar downtown. If he wanted to meet us there, he could and should. Not sure how this was going to go over, I handed him my cell and asked him to punch in his home number. This was also the first time I genuinely appreciated owning a mobile phone.

Tommy and I exited the Garden and casually strolled down 8th Avenue to Chelsea.  While walking, I called what I thought was the mystery man’s home. Instead of going to an answering machine, someone picked up.  Reacting like a teenage twit, I hung up. I looked at Tommy wide eyed and said “shit, he has a roommate or a lover or something. Some guy just answered.”  Then my cell rang back and I froze. Tommy rolled his eyes.

My phone registered a voicemail. He’d given me the number to his cell (obviously). The message said he wanted to talk to me. I took a deep, dramatic breath and nervously returned the call. He explained he wasn’t free to meet but could we please speak later.  He was on a train heading home to the New Jersey suburbs. And I finally learned his name. Tony would get in touch soon. “Soon” was the next afternoon.

Contrary to what his drunken friend led me to believe, Tony had a wife and two children. The marriage was at its end—or so he claimed. He was 39 years old and if he was telling me the truth, he had never been with another man before.  He also said that no one knows he’s gay.  I replied that his concert date must know, but he swore that she was too drunk to be aware of anything going on between us. I finally asked, “Let me see if I understand this. You go to Cher concerts and have that nose job but nobody knows you’re gay?”


On a Tuesday morning, after a week of erratic but extended phone conversations, Tony came to my apartment, dressed in a suit and tie. Cher’s one acoustic cd, “” was playing on a loop, soft and pervasive. With no alcohol in his veins, it took him into the afternoon hours to get comfortable enough to undress. I don’t deny the seemingly endless anticipation was as powerful as a drug. The song “Born with the Hunger” came on as I took his hand and led him to my bed.  With complete abandon, Anthony made love to me with manic desperation, as if he thought he might not live to see another sunrise.

Skin on skin, drained and exhilarated, our conversations were unmapped territory.  I remember thinking the words Tony spoke may have been the most profoundly honest thoughts he had ever said aloud. In a world away from his suburban upper-middle class existence, he saw in me what could become home.  His goodbye kiss tasted natural and sad.


I never knew when Tony would call but the pattern set was always a weekday visit. Often first making love, then going to a neighborhood bistro for lunch. If there was time, we’d come back to my apartment and have sex again. He sometimes talked about what it would be like to have a place of our own. Here in Manhattan, or maybe in South Florida, where he felt he could be himself. But his insular mindset was so engrained and confining he couldn’t consider dreams like these. His family and friends would never understand. When I brought up living free after his children were adults, the suggestion was unfathomable.  Possibilities be damned, this is all he could allow himself—all he and I would have. Nothing out of the ordinary for me, completely fantastical in his eyes.

Tony would stay with his family; he wouldn’t come out of the closet; I would never learn his home address. As obsessive as our trysts were, there was nowhere to go as long as he kept going back across the river. I was his confidant and his high-wire flight and I was also aware I could not be content with this long term. Come summer, it was gone.  And for reasons I hadn’t connected at the time, I stopped listening to Cher.

Late December, on a Tuesday morning, the buzzer to my apartment rang. My intercom wasn’t working and I chose to ignore it. But as in any good script, it kept sounding, so I went down to the lobby to see who the hell was leaning on my buzzer. Standing outside the two glass doors in a gray three piece suit, with his SUV double parked, was Tony, looking like a daydream movie idol.

I told him to park the car. He said he couldn’t. I told him to park the car.  He said he had an appointment downtown. I told him to park the car. He came upstairs and made love to me like a soldier returning home after D-Day.

Tony called me the next day to see how I was. I was okay. There may be occasional phone calls and possibly, from time to time, a clandestine afternoon of heat, as long as I’m single and he can find me. I liked being his secret and I miss the frantic addictive intensity of our borrowed time. No angry comments on how I think he should live his life – after all, I live mine the way that I choose. I let him in and I understand the consequences.

He has never called again.

Sometimes late at night while lying in bed, I’ll put on headphones and listen to Cher. In my mind’s eye I see a beautiful man standing in front of me at a concert in Madison Square Garden. Cher is singing “The Way of Love.”  He’s crying.



Andrew Sarewitz has written several short stories (published work listed below) as well as scripts for various media. His play, Madame Andrèe received an Honorable Mention from both the 2018 Writers Digest Competition, Play/Screenplay Division, and the 2018 New Works of Merit Contest (Loyola University, New Orleans), as well as garnering First Prize from Stage to Screen New Playwrights in San Jose, CA, winning the honor of opening the festival series in August of 2019.  The script for his play Five Men, Four Beds advanced to the Second Round at the 2019 Austin Film Festival Competition and Andrew’s spec script for his sitcom, The White House is a Finalist in the 2019 Pitch Now Screenplay Competition


Carolyn Boykin

May 16, 2020

Help Yourself


You receive the news that the annual family end of the summer soiree will be held at your house this year. Acknowledge the butterflies crashing around in the pit of your stomach, the swimming sensation in your head and the weakness in your knees.  Consider leaving town or coming in contact with an airborne virus that has horrendous symptoms (possibly projectile vomiting) and though it is not fatal will linger long enough to ward off visitors.  Discard both due to an enlarged sense of familial responsibility.

Receive a call from Aunt Viola, one of the last remaining elders who calls you every month so you don’t miss any new gossip.  Know that, after hearing the news, she will take it upon herself to contact everybody by phone taking careful consideration to call every persona non grata first. This will include Uncle Moses who used to try to put you on his lap long past your toddler years and pinch your thighs until the day Daddy grabbed him by the wrist and twisted until he heard it snap. Most of them probably won’t come, but the next funeral will be really uncomfortable if they’re not asked.   She’ll finish up by talking with anyone who still has a landline and can endure the mandatory twenty minutes that mark the minimum time requirement of her conversations.

Once Aunt Viola is done, use every possible method of communication for the remaining family, extended family and rumored family; email, text, Instagram, twitter, Facebook, U.S. mail and cellphone. Remember to double check your Facebook contacts to make sure that no one is left out.  Otherwise they will still be discussing any omission you make at your memorial service when you die.

Look at the dust bunnies in the corner, the dirt build up on the baseboards and the overall grime that has accumulated throughout the house as if you are seeing it for the first time.  See the dirt on the edges of the ceiling fans and know that all of your grandsons will see it since none of them is less than six feet tall.  Hope they bend when they go beneath it and wonder if you should remove the chandelier in the den; the one that’s too fancy to be there. Recall your mother standing beneath it, her eyes round, her hands clasped to her chest and telling you that she just can’t believe she finally had her own chandelier.

After calculating the amount of time and energy it will take to complete this task as months, call a cleaning service to go over the house from top to bottom, making sure every fingerprint and smear is removed.  Remember the gray fingerprints on the bathroom door frame; some left by the grandchildren who couldn’t seem to walk anywhere without touching the walls or doorframes.  Notice how the prints escalate in height, chronicling the path of their growth. Touch the ones in the bathroom where your mothers’ prints remain; where she gripped the edge to stand; too sick to be there alone; too proud to sacrifice the last of her independence; too afraid of being a burden.

Have them clean and paint until all evidence of life lived in abundance and life extinguished have been scrubbed out of existence.  No one should see the memories made from the everyday messiness of life.  Forget how uncomfortable you are in perfect surroundings; how you grew up hating those unblemished rooms that you could only look at; the furniture you were never allowed to sit on and how you vowed to never live that way.  Know that making your house look that way is different somehow. You can’t have family thinking you don’t have a nice house.

Once the house is spotless, doublecheck the bathrooms.  This is crucial.  People judge you by the condition of your bathroom, knowing it’s the room you often forget to scrutinize sufficiently.  Remember to make sure all the thick plush toilet paper has been replaced by the single ply, not because you’re being cheap but because you have learned valuable lessons in the past.

Aunt Edna always uses half a roll to wipe her behind due to its enormous width and the unusual length of the crease between those two mountainous clefts.  You don’t begrudge her this since it prevents those brown smears she leaves behind if she doesn’t get every crevice. And, you definitely don’t want a repeat of last year’s bathroom fiasco resulting in an overflow of what looked like a whole roll of toilet paper floating in the midst of a colon cleaning bowel movement  producing the longest turd ever seen by the naked eye.  You heard later that the video blew up on social media and could only be glad that the location wasn’t given.

No food will be prepared in the kitchen in order that it remain immaculate.  Catering is the way to go.  Now, worry about the food choices.  Be grateful that you didn’t include fried chicken with its greasy residue and the possibility of that old cliché about your people and fried chicken at every gathering.  Thus, you avoid those tight smiles and uncomfortable glances that you are not supposed to see from the bourgeoise side of the family.  Make sure there is lots of artfully cut and arranged fruits, vegetables and cheeses.  Remember the absolute ridicule you suffered for not knowing how to cook; when you couldn’t make anything that didn’t come out of a can.  Think about your mom; too tired from working six days a week, ten hours a day to teach you.  Remember how Betty Crocker tutored you by trial and error mixed with frantic phone calls home to your mother until you could make a decent and passable meal.

Accept that no one ever recognized the revision of you as an accomplished chef even when you took it upon yourself to cook elaborate dinners for your sisters that they never came to.  Know that your adult children still hold hurt in their hearts from those rebukes and seeing your pain.  Recall the day your sister did come to your house and you caught her sneaking a second piece of sweet potato pie, too embarrassed to ask for it after regaling the whole family with tales of your inadequacy in the kitchen until they whooped with laughter.   Remember your sweet-potato pie regrets on the weekend that she died.  At the burial you thought about  the sweet potatoes in your refrigerator for the pie she asked you to make and you thought you had time to bake.  Be happy that your relationship had been reconciled and those were your only regrets. Regardless, don’t you cook anything. Whether the food is good or bad it can be laid at the feet of the caterer and the families vision of your cooking disability will be affirmed.

Check the flatware for the table setting and bemoan the loss of the silverware your mother-in-law gave you back when you didn’t know the value of silver or the heritage behind the heavy tarnished metal inside the blue velvet that rested in the oak box.  Recall how you didn’t say anything when the grandchildren started sneaking knives and forks from the china cabinet drawer to replace the stainless-steel utensils they had carelessly thrown into the trash because they didn’t want to wash them. Be grateful that you never had to confess to the loss and have your mother-in-law see the shame in your eyes.  Cherish the few items you have of hers and those of your own mother. Wonder if anyone will value these items or the other memorabilia gathering dust in the glass cases in your house; the swans that sat on your mother’s coffee table; the African statues that graced the bookcase of your in laws home or your black angel collection. Think about giving everything away now. Dismiss the idea of real flatware and decide to get the silver plasticware from the party store.  It is designed to be used and forgotten.

Check you attire again and hope your husband has made a decent choice of what to wear.  Acknowledge the fact that he considers spending money on clothing to be an exorbitant waste.  Know that he instead depends on quality hand me downs from your son-in-law who, praise God is a fashion clothes horse, Good Will and the outlet clearance rack. At best, everything will match. At worse he will remain blind to wrinkles and the benefits of an iron.  Make a note to yourself to take several shirts and pairs of slacks to the cleaners to give him a better selection.

Make sure your outfit is comfortable after pondering why your clothes continue to shrink. Know that said clothing becomes disproportionately tighter as your anxiety escalates.  Don’t plan to wear makeup.  Anxiety also makes you sweat and all your makeup will run.  Of course no one would ever tell you just like they wouldn’t tell you when you had lipstick on your teeth.

The invitations said casual attire which will be interpreted as ‘dress to impress’. Try not to spend a lot of time mentally comparing your clothing choice to what you think every other female attending will wear; especially the ones with the lithe supple flesh, the gravity defying breasts, the tight abs and the butt you could bounce a quarter off of.  Remember when your body had turned men into stalkers and frightened you until you hid yourself behind layers of fat that made you feel safe.  Be grateful that your husband found you hidden there and loved you into self-acceptance.  Reconsider your worry about how he dresses.  That mismatched old man falls into bed with you every night and holds you like you are Venus incarnate.

Every single day and night and up until the first guests arrive, spend an inordinate amount of time thinking of ways to circumvent anything that could go wrong.  Remember that your niece recently married and will be bringing her partner and Uncle Vince will be coming for sure.  Note that he is the most politically incorrect man on the planet when he is sober it increases exponentially with each drink. This assures that he will go off on a diatribe about the gay marriage, triggered by the sight of your niece and her partner triggered when his whiskey starts talking.  Remain silent if your daughter checks him then reminds him that she accepts him regardless of his heterosexuality or his gender identification.

Try to remember who is feuding with who and keep them away from one another as much as possible. Aunt Edna is still convinced that aunt Shirley is plotting to get her man, though nobody in their right mind would want him.  Uncle Moses is still a pervert and several of the cousins have more than a nodding acquaintanceship with thievery. Make sure there are wooden stools sprinkled throughout the house so that Auntie Baby will have a place to sit.  She won’t sit on soft surfaces since she had that bed bug problem that everyone pretends not to know about but is the reason they haven’t visited her in two years.  Cousin Minnie won’t eat the potato salad if she thinks Renee made it because she says that girl is to nasty for words which she will disclaim loudly to any and everyone who is in earshot. Seriously think about not serving alcohol at all.  The later it gets the more they drink; the more old hurts rise up; the more old wounds are reopened; the greater the possibility of police intervention increases.  You wonder if it is possible for all of you to ever get together and not have the evening end in a fight.

Finally, as the time for the first guest to arrive approaches, you worry about every last detail you haven’t considered until your anxiety is cranked up so high that you are guaranteed to have a miserable evening and won’t be happy until the door closes on the back end of the last guest.  Look around, heave a heavy sigh, and smile.


Carolyn Boykin is currently an MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago.  She is currently working on her thesis in Creative Writing, fiction.  She has been published on Words for Charity and Hair Trigger magazine issues 41 and 42.  She was the 2019 winner of the David Freidman Memorial Award for her story ‘Ugly”.


Claire Goldberger

May 16, 2020

My Mother Stores My Body in Her Knees


When my mother found out my grandmother was going to die from the cancer that had rocked her bones and eaten her breasts she was twenty and her father was already six months dead. I picture my grandmother, wasted and chain smoking, looking her daughter in the eyes and asking if she was finally going to die this time. And in my head, my mother sees her as soft for the first time in her life. And still she says the doctor didn’t say anything other than it’s bad.But it’s always been bad. No news doesn’t mean bad news.


Microchimerism is a condition in which women harbor cells that originated in their children years after birth, full of the child’s DNA, occupying any space in a mother’s body they can find. Even when the child is born dead, its cells can live decades wrapped around it’s mother’s heart.


My mother’s family is from Northern Ireland; troubles are built into her arteries and starvation in her blood. My mother has always been hungry, always fighting, always searching for any resemblance of home she could recognize. Her body has never been a sanctuary. When we’d go to church when I was little, as everyone would kneel down to pray, I would crawl onto my mothers’ calves and whisper my prayers into her spine. Then I got too big, and my mother didn’t know how to raise anything over the age of twelve, let alone carry her on the curve of her praying knees.


I know some things about mothers. I know Demeter loved her daughter. But while picking flowers with the other girls, she plucked a fateful narcissus, named for the man who drowned kissing his own reflection. And when the hellmouth opened and swallowed her whole, her scream was left above ground, calling for her mother.


In a mother’s body fetal cells can contribute stem cells, generate new neurons in the mother’s brain, protect against cancers, even help to heal her mother heart.


I was sixteen when I came home with ten inches of hair cut off, ponytail still in my hand. She cried, clinging to my amputated hair like it was stillborn in her arms. Her shaking body had never looked so still, holding her spine straight from the support of the kitchen counter. I had only known her as a mass of rage and grief stapled to the deflating carcass of a mother, hiding behind a wizard’s curtain of parenting books and nursing school. And she was crying, and she looked almost soft, like I imagined a mother would.


And then winter comes. And the land is barren. And Demeter’s melancholia means earthly genocide. And the leaves shrink and shrivel into the forest floor. And Demeter can’t find her beautiful daughter. Anywhere.


My mother and I are so similar, but I only let her exist on paper where I control the dangerous ways where we are the same. Maybe it’s narcissism. Maybe it’s selfish. Maybe. But I will write about my mother until the day I die, drowning in my own reflection.


Claire Goldberger attends Kenyon College with majors in Art History and Dance, and is trying hard to remove green dye out from her hair. She promises she loves her mother very much. This is her first publication.


Karen Bell

May 16, 2020

Reclaiming the Body


Touch has a memory. O say, love, say,
What can I do to kill it and be free?

—John Keats 

Identifying Triggers

In a small gym in the hills of Pennsylvania, I stand barefoot on a filthy red mat with my arms folded, and watch sensei Nick, my crusty, tattooed, war-vet jujutsu instructor, demonstrate a sickle sweep on my tiny partner, Ruby, imagine a Scandinavian Audrey Hepburn with a metal rod in her back for scoliosis. A black belt in the art of aikido, Ruby can level a 200-pound man to the floor with a carefully timed pivot and a flick of the wrist.

Nick, who looks like he never left the service with his bulldog build, military fade, and the resting face of an Easter Island head, lounges on his back with Ruby standing over him.  He explains, “You want to have a good prop on your partner, with one foot on her hip.”

As a nervous green belt, I never remember anything he says. Thankfully, both Nick and Ruby are very patient. Mid demonstration, Nick launches into a story, one foot poised to take Ruby’s leg out from under her. During the lull, one of my other classmates, a tall, solid, lumbersexual young man, Quinn, throws his arms around my shoulders from behind. “Show me what you’ve got.”

In a clumsy response, I drop to my knees and try to roll him. He makes a compliant groan, rolls over top of me, then jumps back to his feet and returns to working with his partner.

Quinn’s unexpected touch pulls a submerged memory from the bottom of my brain. I take a deep breath to keep my body in the room. But the trigger sets off a chain reaction of physical responses. A tactile memory from three years ago diffuses through my organs like a drop of ink into a glass of water. My brain seizes, heart pounds, stomach cramps, and I feel the fear of those about to drown, a rush in my ears, an arm around my neck, teeth sinking into my face, a hand pulling at my waistband.


I look at Nick, who is on his feet, and I give a slight shake of the head.

He says, “Hey Quinn, I need to talk to you for a second.”

I flee leave the room to run cold water on my wrists until my vision clears, until the visceral memory of the other man’s touch leaves my skin, until I am back in my body standing in an empty gym bathroom.

I return to the mat where Nick is waiting with punching pads on his hands. “She’s back. Proud of you.”

By the end of class, I want to tell Nick I’m going to quit. I’m deep in the bones exhausted from frequent nightmares. There are faster, easier ways to ground than mindfully practicing martial arts. Some people drink, snort, smoke, split open, turn on themselves or others. My habit is to turn inward. I sit on the mat while Ruby shows us our last move of the day and struggle against the fantasy of releasing endorphins by carving lines into my wrist with a box-cutter.


Cognitive Processing Therapy for PTSD

I went to my first jujutsuclass with gentle encouragement from my therapist. All my other ideas for coping and recovery were terrible. Our conversation went something like this.

“What if I have sex with a bunch of men?” I asked, fixing my eyes on the Banksy poster on my therapist’s wall. “I read an article where someone tried hook-ups as empowerment.”

My therapist folded her hands in her lap and raised an eyebrow. “Definitely not; it sounds exhausting. Part of recovery is managing these physical and emotional flashbacks and being able to live in the present. Have you tried any of the other grounding exercises? Using rubber bands or grabbing ice cubes? That shock can help your brain reset.”

I nodded. “Can’t I get a lobotomy?”

My therapist shook her head.

The memory of assault frequently hijacked my brain, so we had been reviewing it in small pieces by going through the Cognitive Processing Therapy for PTSD manualby Patricia A. Resick, Candice M. Monson, and Kathleen M. Chard. This process involved examining my beliefs about five often overlapping areas impacted by trauma: trust, safety, esteem, power, and intimacy, and how I have gotten “stuck” in unhealthy thoughts that keep me from healing.

She said, “You mentioned wanting to feel empowered. Would you be willing to try martial arts? A class might help you work through those aspects of your life impacted by trauma.”

I didn’t like making eye contact with waiters, doctors, sometimes my own students. Hugs from behind gave me flashbacks, close proximity with men, even gentle men, made me uncomfortable. How could I survive a martial arts class?


Trust: Patient examines trust beliefs related to the self and others and works on developing a balance of trust and mistrust.


When I googled jujutsu, some of my fears were confirmed. Unfortunately, there are psychological and physical risks to looking for exposure therapy on the mat. The sport requires mutual vulnerability and trust. Students need to be able to fall over and over again, navigate between legs and arms and groins, and be able to wrap arms around each other’s waists and necks. Some students take advantage of this close proximity. According to Jiu-Jitsu TimesandLadies Only BJJ, sexual harassment is common in some martial arts classes. Women and men have reported being physically and verbally harassed, from inappropriate jokes to “accidental” groping.

Averi Clements, writing for the Jiu-Jitsu Times, describes how when female students come forward with stories of harassment, they are often told: “Stop being so sensitive,” “you should feel flattered by the attention,” or “boys will be boys.” If a coach is unwilling to help, Clements’ advice is to leave the gym; when an instructor isn’t willing to put student safety first, get out. Some schools do take the extra proactive steps to make women feel safe and supported. Clements visited Pride Lands BJJ Academy in Monaca, Pennsylvania where the black belt teacher, Lou Armezzani, arranged the gym so that women were never changing in front of men, and men were not allowed to be shirtless in front of female students.

It’s the instructor’s job to make sure students feel like they are able to voice concerns, and instructors should be clear where they stand on sexual harassment; behavior that dehumanizes others will not be accepted on the mat. Clements adds a piece of advice to potential perverts, “If you’re one of the people who thinks it’s okay to treat your training partners like pieces of meat, kindly get the **** out of this sport.”


I stepped on the mat to reclaim my body, to make what Bessel A. van der Kolk, M.D. describes as the brain-body connection. Subjection to further harassment in what would become one of my safe spaces would be incredibly damaging —if my classmates betrayed the trust I put in them, I would plunge down another self-mutilation spiral. But I needn’t have worried.

On my first day of class, I told Nick, a two-tour combat medic in Afghanistan, that I had no prior experience with martial arts, only an intense fear of being touched. I knew anxiety was normal for a white-belt, but I warned Nick and Ruby that my brain responded unpredictably to touch. Nick understood.

“I don’t need details,” he said. “You’re in safe hands.”

Nick introduced me to my classmates and affectionately described his students as “the island of lost toys,” a hodgepodge of “rednecks, wrestlers, knuckle-draggers,” lumberjacks, good people with twisted senses of humor, broken and bent in all the right ways. I learned later that everyone in the room had a reason to be there: one student was recovering from child abuse, one had deep physical trauma from illness, and the instructor was teaching to protect us from his own past, one of war and degradation.

As I sat on the mat and stared at the thin silver scars on my wrist, Nick explained that he takes his role very seriously, plans for the worst-case scenario with every lesson, and makes sure that students have a useful self-defense move after the first practice that’s a balance of efficiency and economy of motion.

After the class warmup, Nick broke students into pairs. I worked with Ruby, who showed me a basic wrist lock. While Ruby enflamed the tendons on my arm by turning my wrist one direction and my elbow another, Nick explained that, “The goal is to expose you to a variety of techniques to bring out your natural abilities. Everything we teach should be adaptable to every shape and size that walks through the door, and the body type that you will become. I started as a kid and now here I am with busted hips and a shoulder with a three-year life expectancy.”

“A broken old man!” cried his protégée student, Quinn, from the far corner of the mat.

Nick gave him the side eye. “Experience is all you will have left because everything else goes to shit.  Come here, Quinn. I want to show something.” Nick squared off with the young man and said, “We also want all the moves to be immediately practical. In a situation where confrontation is inevitable, get in, get out, and get home safe. Let’s say you leave here tonight and get jumped by some juggernaut.” He demonstrated a simple elbow lock on Quinn, getting the baseball grip on the wrist and putting his full weight on Quinn’s elbow for control. He took Quinn to the floor where the young man tapped out. Nick looked up at me. “I want you to leave here with something.”

After the first practice, the class claimed me.


I keep returning to the mat even though the process of mindful grounding is incredibly difficult, harder than graduate school, teaching freshman composition, or standing up in court to describe the man who attacked me. In the following months, Nick proved to be uniquely empathetic to my diagnosis of PTSD and sensitive to positions that I might find triggering. He never touched me without warning, and both he and Ruby developed an awareness of when I needed breaks from certain moves, sometimes even before I knew it myself (i.e. my glazed expression as a sign of internal collapse).


Safety: Patient examines beliefs about other people’s intentions to threaten or harm.


I didn’t start practicing martial arts because of Hollywood fight scenes, the prospect of winning competitions, or earning belts; I attended class because I wanted to sleep without nightmares, and I wanted to feel safer in my own skin. I was diagnosed with PTSD a few years ago after surviving, among other things, a sexual assault in southern India. I didn’t know I had changed until I came home and had a panic attack in my small hometown grocery store where I ran into a childhood friend’s mother. When she asked about India, I felt a wash of terror and a rush in my ears.

After that encounter, I started staying inside, cloistered. Avoidance of triggers that remind me of my trauma, feeling emotionally cauterized while simultaneously hyperalert, are common symptoms of PTSD. Because I was separately molested by a stranger and later by someone I trusted, I have deep fears that I will be attacked at any time by anyone, male or female, intimate friend or stranger; for a long time, these fears kept me from activities I once enjoyed, like travel and dancing in dive bars.

Many of my “stuck points” or unhealthy beliefs about my trauma, are related to my feelings of safety. My body often tells me I am unsafe, unsafe when a stranger sits next to me in a movie theater, unsafe with a student comes suddenly into my office to ask a question about grammar. I fear someone at an airport will bite me, someone will sneak into my house during the day and hide out in my attic to murder me at night, a catcaller escalating verbal harassment into sexual violence.

When I describe fears to my therapist, she always asks, “Those are all possible scenarios, but are they likely?”

We’ve discussed the likelihood of a man hiding in the attic all day; he would fall asleep on a pile of bat poop or get distracted by old memorabilia; we’ve imagined the likelihood of someone biting me in an airport, the place where everyone is suicidally exhausted.

Cognitive Processing Therapy for PTSD manual explains that because I grew up believing I was safe, the sudden disruption of this belief leads to social withdrawal, deep anxiety, persistent hyperarousal, and invasive fears of revictimization. Part of me believes the false statements that the world is dangerous everywhere and that all people will try to harm me, but jujutsuis teaching me how to resolve these beliefs, to accept that I can’t control future traumatic events, and to have confidence in my own abilities to manage my reactions.


I knew from attending therapy that there was no quick way to heal from trauma, but when I started attending jujutsuclasses, I was hopeful about the ability of martial arts training to lower the invasive impact of PTSD. Research backed up my optimism. University of Southern Florida researchers Alison Willing et. al. in 2019 conducted a study on veterans who trained at Tampa Jiu Jitsu. The researchers don’t claim jujutsucures, but they show that grappling on the mat is a way to manage symptoms; training might be a “complimentary treatment” to cognitive behavior therapy and medication. I look at practice as a supplement. Pills + therapy + jujutsuhelp me feel safer in my own body.

The recent study of Tampa Jiu Jitsu veteran-students echoes earlier studies published by University of Washington researchers David, Simpson, and Cotton, in their article for the Journal of Interpersonal Violence. They conducted a 36-hour “therapeutic self-defense curriculum” for 12 female veterans with PTSD. This crash course included elements of exposure and behavioral therapy. Six months later, the participants reported feeling less anxious and depressed. While the women’s hyperawareness and fear of re-traumatization didn’t change, the participants were better able to identify real threats.


From fall to winter, I made slow steady progress. I developed a higher tolerance for close encounters because I was forced to confront my avoidance coping mechanisms. When I first stepped on the mat with several loud, excited, young men, my gut reaction was to flee, but with repeated exposure therapy my brain adjusted to the guffawing, wrestling, intimate contact with people sweating enough to leave puddles on the floor.

A test to this feeling of safety came when Nick suggested that I start to work more with male students. No, I thought. Definitely not.

But during one class, Ruby was unable to get me to tap on an ankle lock, so Nick stepped in. “If I may?”

In a matter of a few seconds, his knee briefly slid near my groin as he adjusted into a scissor position. He took my leg and put it under his armpit while resting one foot on my hip to keep me from moving, his other foot under my thigh. With the blade of his forearm under my Achilles tendon, he rotated his body. But I was gone. I had the flash sensation of being on my back in a bed with broken springs. I didn’t tap out to signal him to stop the move until two pops exploded from my ankle. A spark of pain brought me back from that other place. I shouted “uncle” and started to laugh, delighted to be back in the room.

He pulled away from me and was on his feet, pacing. “What the fuck? Why didn’t you tap out?” He took a breath. “I need a cigarette.”

When he came back into the room, I was sitting on the floor in the corner watching the other students practice a stick drill.

Nick sat down next to me. “Hell. What a pair we make.”

“Trigger loop. You triggered me then I triggered you.”

“I felt your ankle give, and it gave me a flashback from the field.” He sighed and said quietly, “I hoped I wouldn’t trigger you, that you would feel safe with me.”

“Everyone triggers me. It’s not personal.”

“I know. It’s no more personal than what your ankle popping did to my brain. But I still hoped I’d be the exception. We’ll get through this together, though. You okay now?

Sharing this understanding of trauma with Nick, a man with fifty years of trauma, is comforting. Nick reminds me that PTSD has nothing to do with my size or gender.

I am triggered every class, but I never feel unsafe.


Esteem: Patient examines sense of worth. Being heard, valued, and taken seriously is basic to the development of self-esteem.


I learn in therapy that if individuals had positive beliefs about the self pre-trauma, they might struggle with shame and possible self-destructive behavior after a trauma. Sometimes my brain believes that I attracted trauma and that I deserve the resulting collateral damage to my sense of self. The good news is, jujutsuchallenges my sense of self every time I step on the mat.

When I finally execute a move I thought impossible to master, I’m slowly cultivating confidence in a body I often feel detached from.


My reasons for practicingjujutsuare similar to what inspired women during the Progressive Era. In the early 20thcentury, attacks against women increased as many shifted from the home to the workforce. Author and historian Wendy L. Rouse describes how immigrants and minorities were blamed for sexual violence as unfair scapegoats; women were and still are, often attacked by men they know. At the turn of the century, attacks were common in larger cities, but one woman, Wilma Berger, made the news for fighting back.

In 1909, 21-year-old Berger flipped a grown man over her shoulder and escaped from his choke-hold. Later, when the police doubted her story, she performed the move in the station for them. She believed all women should have the ability and the right to walk the streets unmolested, so she offered to teach others. Stories like Berger’s sparked the feminist origins of the self-defense movement.

As jujutsuclasses became more popular, first with the wealthy and then as an art that crossed class boundaries, critics grumbled. In her article, Rouse describes the many cultural and social objections to women studying martial arts: not only were women defying traditional gender stereotypes of the “weaker sex,” some critics said women “would become masculine through training” and that women’s bodies were not designed for aggression (although ju jitsu is Japanese for “the art of gentleness”). These objections were covers for the real concern that women’s physical independence might lead to demands for social and political freedoms. Despite these objections, women continued to practice self-defense for practical reasons. Many also felt a growing sense of confidence in their own physical power and right over their own bodies.


The process of rediscovering confidence in my body seems so slow that I am not always able to measure it. But during one class at the end of December, Nick told the class to line up. He presented me with a green belt and said, “I haven’t been this excited about a belt in a long time, probably more excited than you.”

I thought I didn’t care about leveling up, but the physical, vibrant representation of progress almost made me cry.


Power and Control: Patient examines beliefs of being able to meet challenges or control events.


My therapist explains that if I grew up believing that I had some control over events, the sudden shattering of that belief leads to internal emotional shutdown, repression, chronic passivity, depression, and self-destructive patterns. One false belief associated with this area is the idea that my trauma might not have happened if I had been in better control. Again, martial arts in an excellent way for me to learn that I don’t have total control, but I can have some control over my reaction to events.


Political and social dissonance in recent American politics regarding women’s bodies (#metoo movement and changing laws regarding abortion) has inspired more women than ever to practice martial arts as a way to feel what writer Catherine Lacey describes as the “empowerment principle.” She explains in one article for Voguethat women are on the mat not to lose weight but to find ways to cope with anxiety and depression. Lacey cites Sally Winston, Psy.D., a psychologist and codirector of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland, that martial arts offers women a chance to go “toward aggression rather than toward inhibition.” The mat is appealing, Lacey explains, because it’s a space for women to “enact a power they already possess.”

My trauma brain might try to convince me that I’m fragile, but the mat is a constructive place to act my persistent feelings of powerlessness. For example, when a man I hoped to never hear from again sent me a message on social media that triggered a chain reaction of rage and shame, I found peace in class. A year ago, I would have carved red lines into my wrist to stop flashbacks from hijacking my brain. But now stepping on the mat and throwing a few punches at broken-nose BOB (body opponent bag) helps. This freedom of sanctioned aggression in jujutsu, at least in my interior life, is liberating.


At the end of April, Ruby announced that she would be offering an aikido course in the fall. I didn’t know if the art would be a good fit for me. Her graceful fighting style requires a high level of precision that takes years to master. Nick said it might be “a little too flash and pop” for me. “You just want to punch people and throw them to the ground.”

I was able to attend a seminar with Ruby and other class members to watch her practice and to learn more about the peaceful philosophy behind aikido. It wasn’t until I attended that seminar that I developed a clearer idea of what I needed out of martial arts.

During the seminar, I sat on a bench in the host dojo to watch Ruby and another classmate train with the other seminar attendees. A framed quote by Morihei Ueshiba, author of aikido, hung on the wall of the dojo: “To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is aikido.” The guest sensei for the seminar lit incense on the kamiza and lead the class in a quick mediation to connect with earth and air. The class warmed up; then she showed them a few moves with weapons. Partners bowed to their weapons each time the “blades” were passed back and forth. If the sensei paused from her rounds in the room to offer individual instruction, the rest of the class stopped what they were doing and dropped to their knees out of respect. This was a sharp contrast to Nick’s “dog pound school for miscreants,” as he affectionately called it.

When the seminar attendees took a morning break, I asked some of them why they chose aikido. One woman explained how karate kept her from responding to conflict by degrees. “It’s all punching, but aikido gives me a choice of how to respond. I don’t need to use the same level of force with everyone.”

Like jujutsu, aikido uses a “blending” technique between partners but doesn’t involve strikes. The art is almost like dancing and requires trusting your partner to lead and direct you across the mat. This ability to anticipate and react to a partner’s movement is called ukemi in Japanese. Good ukemi means the ability to receive directions, from being wind-milled across the floor by your partner’s arm or the ability to arc backwards into a fall.

Blending with an aggressor, turning physically and emotionally to see his or her point of view with self-restraint, almost sounds like empathy. This takes a leap of the imagination I’m not able to make yet. I do not want to blend.  At least not today. While I look forward to the point in my healing process when I’ll be able to study the art, I currently lack the discipline, balance, nuanced and impeccable timing, and the head space. Aikido is for the long haul, a lifestyle, an elegant and occasionally theoretical approach to self-defense, but I need something today to help me with my nightly flashbacks.


Intimacy: Patient examines beliefs related to emotional needs, works on the ability to monitor strong emotions without self-harming and develops emotional connections with new people.


In discussions with my therapist, I learned that this area goes deeper than just romantic or sexual relationships and relates to my fears of never being able to connect with anyone again. Stuck points related to intimacy also include fears of being alone and an inability to self-monitor emotions. This lack of internal control inspires me to look for outside comfort, like the “maladaptive coping mechanism” of self-harming.

My ability to “self-soothe” was often put to the test after difficult practices on the mat. Even after six months of training, the class was a constant balance of fight, flight, or collapse. When class started doing over-the-shoulder throws and choke-holds, my brain sent me back to the street in India. I left class with an incubus on my shoulder.

When I got home the night of Quinn’s surprise hug, I sat on the edge of my bed and debated the merits of cutting. Nick knew the practice had been difficult and sent me a message. “You’ve found a way to be courageous without turning into something frightening. It’s one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen.”

No blades or blood. I took a deep breath and went to sleep.

But later in the week, I cut line after line and watched red beads form.

Discouraged, I asked my therapist for advice. I told her that I hadn’t had such vivid nightmares since I got back from India.

I described the recurring nightmare as if observing the action from the back of an auditorium. “I am walking home at night. The man on the red Royal Enfield drives past. Around the corner…” I stopped, feeling sick but able to breath my brain back from that dark street and ground in the corner of my therapist’s office, which was bathed in warm light and smelled like vanilla spice.

“How often are you having this nightmare?” she asked.

“Every night for the last couple of weeks.”

“Sometimes our bodies hold memories we think we’ve healed from. You’re putting yourself in triggering positions, so it makes sense that your body might work through those memories when you’re sleeping.”

My therapist sent me home with notes on treating nightmares with imagery scripting. In other words, nightmares are learned behavior, which means we can unlearn them, create new dreams during the day, and rehearse them. I imagined other people waiting for me around that street corner, Ruby in a unicorn onesie or my two-year-old niece extending a half-eaten cheese stick. Eventually, the dreams shifted tone. Instead of sexual violence, I dreamed about being able to escape trauma.


My therapist also recommended The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel A. van der Kolk, M. D. The author takes a comprehensive look at the impact of trauma on the body and brain. I particularly related to the sections that focused on survivor disconnection with their own bodies after trauma. Survivors often become fixated on either “dulling” or “seeking” sensations, like cutting, to distract themselves from their pasts.

My therapist asked me to consider which moves were the most triggering for me, and instead of dashing off the mat or quitting class, to wait through the panic. “Maybe next time you’re in class, test your limits and see what you can stand.”

van der Kolk explains contemporary neuroscience has shed light on how “our sense of ourselves is anchored in a vital connection with our bodies.” If survivors are unable to filter physical sensations because we’re trapped in the fugue state of trauma, the “price you pay is that you lose awareness of what is going on inside your body, and, with that, the sense of being fully, sensually alive.”


I still wanted to quit class. Instead, the next time I was on the mat with Ruby’s arm wrapped around my neck, I waited for panic to permeate my body; my feet felt the ridges of the practice mat under me, I smelled the perfume she put on earlier that day for her job at a school. On the other side of the classroom, Nick folded his glasses and set them on the table by the door. “Come here Quinn. Let’s throw a wrench into the curriculum.” Nick’s prodigy squared off with him, and Nick had the young man face down on the mat with one sweep of the leg.

“You going to let Nick take you out like that?” asked one of the other older students.

From his horizontal position on the mat, Quinn said, “Nick has his moments. He doesn’t have many left, so I give it to him once and awhile.” He groaned as he sat up. “Who am I kidding? He’ll fucking haunt me from the afterlife one day.”

“You okay?” asked Ruby into my ear. “Do you remember what to do?”

I took a deep breath. The panic of being pulled underwater, running out of air, not being able to touch the ground, passed.


Karen Bell’s work is forthcoming in Catamaran and Verity La and is the recipient of Crab Orchard Review’s John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize.


Richard Klin

May 16, 2020

Vanishing Point


My father died in 2017 at the age of eighty-five. The death of a parent is a pivotal experience. A natural impulse is to try and put that parent’s life into some sort of recognizable context. It is a time of mourning, as well as summing up.

By the time my father died, he was a Holocaust survivor. This may sound paradoxical, because he was, in fact, that very thing: A Holocaust survivor who had hidden out the war in Belgium. Those are the plain facts. He was born in Brussels in 1931 to two Polish Jewish parents who had emigrated to Belgium the previous year.

In the late 1930s, his father—my grandfather—in a case of lethally bad timing, emigrated to New York City, intending to send for his wife, son, and daughter. The advent of the Second World War made this impossible; in 1940 Belgium was under Nazi occupation. Those are more plain facts, but these facts become plagued with ambiguity almost immediately. What was the nature of my grandfather’s relocation to the United States, just before Europe burst into flames? After the war, he did send for his son and daughter. Was it pure abandonment, as my father came to believe? Or something else? There’s no answer. My father’s wartime narrative, from the outset, becomes muddied.

As the German knot tightened, my father and his sister were among a group of Jewish children who were hidden—basically in plain sight—as pupils in a Catholic school, where they all passed as gentiles. My grandmother was caught, transported to Auschwitz, and perished.

Holocaust commemorations rely on bare facts and narratives that have a beginning, middle, and an ending. These narratives are often presented as examples of good triumphing over evil, or lessons in moral instruction. Nuance, ambiguity, and contradiction are banished. There is no room for the horrible murkiness of trauma, grief, mourning. My father’s own chronicle—the way he recounted it– did not have much in the way of a linear progression.

It was only in the last decade of his life, really, that he identified himself as a Holocaust survivor. To the best of my recollection, the word Holocaust never passed his lips during my upbringing. References, when they did come, were to “the war,” which needed no additional amplification. Belgium itself was almost a secondary factor; he had been raised in Brussels, which was absent any elaboration: Simply the name of a city, a place. Just Brussels.

My father’s account of his mother’s fate was this: She would visit him every day. One day she simply stopped coming and was never heard of again. End of story. It is a child’s tale of wishful thinking. The mother simply vanishes. She is not loaded into a cattle car to meet her death in an extermination camp. She is not beaten, starved, or gassed.

One of the greatest joys of my life was, when my daughter was little, engaging in the ritual of bedtime reading, seeing these magical books through her eyes. It was during this period when I suddenly realized I knew not a single one of my father’s favorite childhood books or tales. He was nine when the Nazi regime began. Nine is a fairly well-developed age, full of preferences and interests. I don’t know the name of any of his friends, teachers he liked or didn’t, favorite movies, songs. I have no idea if his mother read to him every night. Not a single one of his childhood books or toys is extant. There are almost no photos of him as a young person.

Scattered anecdotes, when I was growing up, did creep in. He loved Tintin and went to the movies regularly. He had the first bicycle on the block, imperiously meting out the length of time that the other children had to try it out. There were regular family trips to the beach. The beach, in fact, is the only photograph we have of my grandmother where she is posed with her two young children.

One could deduce that the beach was in Belgium, but it had no specific name or locale. It was only during that last decade of my father’s life that it occurred to me to ask where this beach was, exactly. I then learned the name was Blankenberge, where pasty-faced British vacationers also sojourned. I had not known any of this; not the name, not the composition of its visitors.

His stories from the war would sometimes make their brief, unsettling appearance, popping up and disappearing: spare and strange, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Once, while lying in bed, he had heard a man being shot and the subsequent cries of pain. During the period when he was in hiding he subsisted on leeks. These were stories related to me when I was younger. Perhaps the intervening years have diluted my own accuracy, although I tend to doubt it. Those are the sort of jolting details a kid would remember.

He also mentioned—once and only once, sans any sort of detail—some person who had a special, extrasensory ability to identify Jews by sight alone, this deadly presence who went around with the Germans. This also, in retrospect, seems like a children’s tale or rumor. It is horrifying, of course, but also, I imagine, comforting in those nightmarish circumstances: If you could stay out of this mythical person’s way, you could perhaps survive. The reality was that there was no formula whatsoever to survive.


My father came to this country as a teenager, but still maintained strong linguistic and cultural ties to Europe. I remember copies of Paris Match, for example, all during my childhood. These ties were all culled from France, not Belgium. That was to be expected. The infrastructure of the Francophone world is, obviously, not heavily tilted toward Belgium. Yet I remember nothing of Belgium penetrating our home.

A cordon sanitaire is defined as “a protective barrier (as of buffer states) against a potentially aggressive nation or a dangerous influence. . . .” He had constructed a cordon sanitaire around his past. Our house was permeated with his presence of absence.

As my father began to decline physically and mentally, he began to suffer from war-related hallucinations. The Germans were breaking into his house, for one. My visceral, utterly illogical reaction was one of relief. He really had gone through the Holocaust. His trauma was codified, identifiable. Again, this is completely illogical on my part.


It all boils down to the mother, doesn’t it? The mother makes everything bearable. When there are bullies, the mother is your recourse. The mother protects you, not just from bullies, but from all manner of bad things. In my father’s case, these particular bullies are shockingly malevolent. As it turns out, they want to do more than bully; they want to inflict great, enormous harm. And then it escalates: They actually want to kill you. The mother is powerless to stop this, to save you. She can do nothing. And then the bullies mean to inflict great harm on your mother as well. It is more than great harm: They want to kill your mother. And they do. They kill your mother.


The painter Arshile Gorky was a survivor of the Armenian genocide, a witness to his mother’s death from starvation. His extraordinarily moving The Artist and His Mother depicts the young painter side-by-side with his mother, who is looking out into the distance. I can think of nothing that illustrates my father’s experience with such tragic, wrenching accuracy.

The young boy in the painting is gazing out as well. Mother and son are juxtaposed close to each other, their sleeves almost touching. They are not looking at each other, but the figure of the mother looms large. She is so tangible, but not quite there. It is as if Gorky painted The Artist and His Mother fully cognizant of my father’s story.

Next to the mother is a boy. Just a boy. And that is all, ultimately, there is to say.


Richard Klin is a writer based in New York’s Hudson Valley and the author of (among other things) the novel Petroleum Transfer Engineer (Underground Voices). His work has been featured on Public Radio International’s Studio 360 and has appeared in the Atlantic, the Brooklyn Rail, the Forward, Akashic Books’ “Thursdaze” series, Flyover Country Review, and others. He has recently completed a new novel.