An Open Door
I’ve told this story before, but I’m going to tell it again, and in greater detail, tonight for an altogether different reason. This is me writing and I’ve not yet figured out when to stop writing, so it’s likely to be a longer entry… but it’s weighing heavily on my mind and heart, offering me simultaneous hope, comfort and even a twinge of unbearable sadness.
I was thirteen years old. It was early Summer; school had recently let out. We took to the road, as usual. My dad was with us and we left Nashville for a more northern state, I don’t remember which one. We didn’t need a map because we didn’t really know where we were going. The police were closing in—or so my dad believed—and so the goal was just to get away from Tennessee. He’d been running from the police since he was fourteen years old; by now, running was habit. It didn’t really matter whether or not they genuinely knew where he was; “the police” was an excuse to ditch whatever town we happened to be in at the moment when he couldn’t write any more bad checks. Sometimes we left a state and traveled to another simply because we ran out of money and didn’t have a place to sleep, so we drove instead. I never really knew the difference. All I knew was that we were on the interstate again, and had been for awhile.
I was constantly surrounded by my mother, sister and father. You’d think I’d have been dying for some alone time. Instead, all I could feel was a crushing sense of loneliness. In retrospect, I know that was because of the secrets I held. The thing with secrets is that they make you feel alienated because you know something no one else does and, because it’s a secret, you can’t share it. This is when I’d started reading the Bible daily. I’d received a teen study Bible recently and had fallen in love with its structure. In the back was a checklist of all the books and their chapters; I made a goal to read each one. I didn’t understand most of what I was reading but I read anyway. I read scriptures while we were driving along the interstate. I was particularly drawn to Isaiah. Much of Isaiah is rather frightening but some of its chapters contain the most awe-inspiring, beautiful promises of the entire Bible and it was these verses that breathed hope into me. I was aching with loneliness and reading the Bible daily made me feel like God was nearby.
As awful as the interstate was, these times of intense traveling were also usually a form of respite for me. It was harder for my dad to find a safe time to rape me because my mom and sister were always right there, too. I wasn’t safe, completely, but I was safer on the road than I was when we found a destination and got a new house. This is probably why I still love to drive. Still, there were a few times when my mom would go to the store or to get food and my sister would take a bath or go to the pool and I’d be left with my dad. It only took a few minutes for him to touch me. It only took a few minutes for a kiss. It took even less time for an inappropriate comment to be made, or for me to feel endangered. I remember going to the lobby to get ice and then riding the elevators up and down with my ice bucket for as long as twenty minutes at a time to avoid being alone with him. I remember, on this particular trip, I’d been unable to avoid being alone and the result was predictable: I was violated. I turned even more inward. I read, I wrote, I studied the Holocaust, I listened to Tanya Tucker’s “Strong Enough to Bend” eight hundred thousand times. I withdrew until I was all but dead; completely shut down.
I focused on small, stupid things, like my music and my books. Running out of paper was cause for major panic. I was so isolated that I’d started to believe that there weren’t any good people left at all. No one except my mom and sister. No one else cared. No one else even noticed when we were gone. Not one school principal or teacher contacted the authorities when we just vanished into thin air, ever. Not one relative called to say, “come home,” save my grandfather, and he only a time or two. It was as if we were bugs on an island: nobody knew and nobody cared. A few years later, when my father was arrested, we would go to my mother’s sister’s house on the pretense of a visit because we did not have anywhere else to go and she would refuse to offer us even a night in her home. It would be my father’s sister who would offer to let us stay with her for awhile instead. So, day in and day out, I’d focus so intently on writing and reading that I pretty much just blocked everything else out. I’d become so numbed that what was on paper was so much more real to me than what my eyes saw. It really didn’t hurt, when my father raped me, by that time, because, during an attack, I would stare at the ceiling and have an entire conversation with Landon, one of my characters, or Sully. Sometimes I imagined one of my strong heroes hugging me. I imagined it so vividly that I simply disappeared from where I was really at. It’s hard to explain how that happens but I promise you, it does happen.
Before we managed to find a new hotel room, we had to get something to eat. So we stopped at a restaurant. I was the first out of the car and was ahead of my family when I approached the door. Ahead of me was a man. I don’t remember what he looked like. All I remember is that he held the door open and stood to the side, waiting for me to enter first. He held the door open for me. I said “thank you” and walked in, my heart pounding furiously in my chest. I thought about that man for days. He thinks I’m special, I thought in my head. He thinks I matter. He has to: he held the door open for me when he did not have to. I thought about him the rest of the day. I dreamed about him. Not because I thought he was cute; I didn’t even remember what his face looked like. I dreamed about him because he was nice and because he was the first person who had been treated me with respect in forever. I knew absolutely nothing about him; not even his name. But his simple act of common courtesy convinced me there were still good people in the world. And I was not as invisible as I thought I was because he’d seen me. That open door changed my life by reminding me of what hope looked like—in the flesh and not just in the written word. I told my mother about how nice it was and how much it meant to me. Years later, when my brother died, she told me, “When you first told me about him, Tiffini, I thought, ‘What’s the big deal? I don’t get it’ but a stranger held a door open for me too after Nathan’s death and I understood.'”
We left the restaurant and I went back to writing. Notebook after notebook after notebook. Hundreds upon hundreds of notebooks. I used my imagination to create hundreds—literally—of stories. But I also used my imagination for other things, more important things than stories. It was around the same time when I first learned of the Holocaust by reading Martin Gilbert’s non-fiction book. 800 pages of sheer terror. I read, and I was captivated. I read, and I kept reading. Everything I could get my hands on. I soaked up so much information on the Second World War that as a freshman in college, I was granted permission to remain in a Junior-level course after only one paper. I used my imagination to reconstruct war-torn Germany and Poland. I watched videos of Hitler’s impassioned speeches. I read his autobiography—or manifesto, whichever word you prefer. I read books about the war itself and why other nations didn’t get involved sooner and how Hitler came to power in the first place. But mostly, I stayed with the victims. When I read the story of the mother who, fleeing Nazis, ran to the top floor of a building and threw her baby out the window in a desperate attempt to save the infant from Nazi torture, I imagined how she would have been out of breath by the time she’d reached the top floor. I felt her panic and heard the baby’s cries that she couldn’t quiet. I saw the baby flying out of the window and consoled myself, telling myself through tears that it would have been killed anyway and in a much horrific fashion. Then, a few sentences later, when I read that that same baby had been caught by the piercing bayonet of a Nazi who was laughing on the ground, my stomach tightened. I saw the mother in the window, screaming, in my imagination. And when the book told me that the Nazi who had killed the baby complained about the blood on his boot, I felt violently sick. I closed the book and wept. My imagination was like a movie screen—I don’t just read words…. I see the life behind them… and I feel the emotion in them. When I convinced my parents to let us go to Washington to see the Holocaust museum and we were given a random ticket that determined whether we lived or died, I was a teenager in emotional chaos.
I was nothing like them. Nothing that I went through could compare to…. anything…. in war-torn Europe during the 40s. I began to feel ashamed of hurting because there were people still alive who had somehow, miraculously, survived Auschwitz or the labor camps or the ghettos or the death marches. What pain I went through wasn’t real pain. Not when you compared it to that. If human beings could survive living in the very heart of evil, then I was going to be just fine. My life wasn’t in danger. I had no right to complain—actually, I had no right to even hurt at all. To keep myself from drowning in the pain, I read their stories. I even made up one and wrote a book or two about it. In a very, very real way, the Holocaust helped me survive by reminding me that nothing lasts forever—-not even Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution.”
I felt such empathy and compassion for the people who had been so terribly hurt that I internalized it. On the one hand, this was very helpful because it put my situation into perspective: I could get through it. On the other hand, the Holocaust probably hindered some of my healing by convincing me my pain was insignificant by comparison. Either way, to this day, I credit the Holocaust survivors for helping me survive my own “holocaust.” They were an inspiration of hope.
I was about to turn eighteen when my father was arrested for the final time. He went before a judge who had previously warned him that, if he got arrested again, his sentence would be heavy. The judge sentenced him seven years without parole. This meant I was going to be safe for seven years. Healing didn’t start then, though, because I still had to go see him in prison and he still called, wanting to talk to me. He asked for my pictures and wrote me letters. He was still there but physically, I was safe. I began volunteering for children and entered my first real relationship very soon thereafter. I genuinely thought I was happy. I didn’t understand why I still felt such pressure or aching sense of loss. I didn’t understand why I was compelled to make bruises on my skin. I didn’t understand a lot of things. But I plowed through and light eventually became visible at the end of the tunnel, mainly because I kept pretending. At night, I would lull myself to sleep by imagining a character from a book—sometimes one I’d written and sometimes one from a beloved author’s story–was beside me and he’d hold me. I imagined it so well I could feel the hugs, so well I didn’t feel alone. When that failed, I asked God to hold my hand, and He did. I could sense Him in the room with me; I could feel the heat of His hand over my palm. And all the comfort I gained, from God and from my characters and from stories of Holocaust survivors, enabled me to get through it in one piece. In essence, my imagination and ability to feel what was on paper, saved my life and my sanity.
At 3:17 a.m. last night I was lying awake in the bed. A couple months back, I was intensely lonely; that was since faded. Now, I just get restless at night. Sleep is not my friend (still a subject I don’t want to write about, either, which is weird) and, in order to prevent it, I am willing to do just about anything. A few months back The Book Thief was released in theaters. That book is probably my favorite book of all time. It is breath-taking in its brilliance. I convinced my sister who, unlike me, can’t stand being anywhere near sad stories, to go watch it with me. It was wonderful and, since then, the Holocaust has been hanging around the shadows of my mind again. Last night, at 3:17, they became pretty forceful. So I pulled up YouTube, to my channel, TiffiniJohnson, to watch a survivor who I know and who came to speak to a group of students for me’s testimony. Instead of watching what I’d already seen, though, on the side of the screen, was another video with a title, “Story from a Survivor.”
I clicked on the video. And watched the entire 44:34 documentary of Greta. I cried. I cried because there was so much evil. I cried because there was so much pain evident fifty years later on this woman’s face and in her voice. I cried because she had endured so much and no one else in her family or her circle of friends had. I cried because she told the story of how, during the death march, imagination saved her life. She said:
“I was planning a party for after the war. And I had this dilemma that went on almost the entire day. I could not decide whether to wear a red velvet dress to the party or a blue velvet dress, I really couldn’t resolve the issue. I really liked blue better as a color but I knew that red looked better on me. I really… I really believe that those with imagination…. they are able to endure. Those who force themselves to accept the reality of the situation…. cannot”
My heart turned over. Instantly, I pictured beloved characters. Instantly, my mind’s eye saw Isaiah 41:13, that passage of the Bible that had literally helped me sleep for dozens of years. Instantly, I remembered the mother and her baby and how my heart had been ripped from my chest during the entire course of that first book on the Holocaust. I cried. And I also cried because Greta teared up when describing how the soldier that liberated her called her a “lady” and changed her life by “holding a door open.”
Lives are uplifted, hope is restored and comfort is granted by the grace of God and the power of the imagination.