My teufelberg (bewilderment)
My mother told me a story, just once, of how as a girl she’d been tied to a chair, the chair balanced at the top of the attic stairs, teetering, her captors threatening to send her end over end, tumbling down. I don’t know if they did this more than once, and I don’t know what they wanted — a question answered, a promise made — beyond the usual childhood cruelties, or if they ever got it.
And then there’s my father, and the stories he tells. The two are nearly inseparable by now, my father and his stories — the same handful over and over again, his repertoire, always told the same way. A liar always tells his story the same way, I’ve heard said, except that some — most — of my father’s stories have, improbably, turned out to be true. The story of his father inventing the life raft. The story of the novel he spent his whole life writing. The story of robbing a few banks.
“One of his stories, one I found too bizarre to engage with at all, is of being locked up in federal prisons for two years, which is true, but while there, he claims to have been tortured — experimented on, sleep deprived, drugged, sexually humiliated — and I don’t know if this is true or not. Understand, it is hard and getting harder to get a straight answer from my father, as his alcoholism slips into its twilight stage. When I ask him about his prison time now, he looks wildly around the room or park or coffee shop and whispers, I can’t talk about that here.
This morning I find in my in-box this note from Julia, my friend in Berlin — “I was standing on the Teufelberg (The Devil’s Mountain) with a friend last night, listening to Patti Smith playing in the stadium below, and I thought of you. The Teufelberg is made from all the junk of the war, the broken houses and so on. It is a big mountain, and we stood there looking out over my strange and terrible and beautiful city. Where are you?”
My Teufelberg. The Devil’s Mountain. All the junk of the war.
Here I am, I think, writing about my mother (again), and here I am, writing about my father (again), writing about my shadow, writing about my unborn daughter, building my own Devil’s Mountain, piling up all the junk of the war. When asked, I’ll sometimes say I’m writing about torture, but I’ve found that when I say the word torture, many go glassy-eyed, as if I had just dropped a stone into a deep, deep well. When asked, I’ll sometimes say I’m writing about the way photographs are a type of dream, or I’ll say that I’m writing a memoir of bewilderment, and leave it at that, but what I mean is the bewilderment of what it is to wake up in an America that has legalized torture.
What I don’t say, what I should say, is that what I’m really writing about is Proteus, the mythological creature who changes shape as you hold on to him, who changes into the shape of that which most terrifies you, as you ask him your question, your one simple question — the question is often simply a variation of How do I get home?”
Read more excerpted at esquire