How do we begin to heal the scars left behind by trauma? Ghostwriter and editor Anika Hanisch found the answer in storytelling.
On Jan. 15, the Honors College hosted Hanisch for her lecture “Surviving War, Building Better Paths.” One of Hanisch’s passion projects was to co-author a WWII novel. However, she didn’t have the opportunity to pursue this dream until 2011 when she met Brigitte Z. Yearman, a non-native English speaker searching for help in crafting a memoir about her experiences during WWII. Hanisch eagerly accepted the project, until the discovery of Yearman’s nationality gave her pause.
Hanisch, who is Jewish, had always expected to compose her imagined WWII work with someone who was jewish as well. However, not only was Yearman non-Jewish, but she was also the daughter of a Nazi soldier. Hanisch recalled that the moment she decided to press onward with the memoir was when she questioned whether “there [were] stories not worth hearing.” Hanisch quickly found Yearman to be both “tenacious and really funny,” and began to build a deep relationship with her that would eventually produce the book “Don’t Say Anything to Anybody: A German World War II Childhood.”
Yearman was born in 1935 in a harbor town that built German submarines. During WWII, the town became a target for the British Royal Air Force. Yearman was separated from her family and “shipped out” to the North German countryside as part of the child transports and survived as a North German refugee. Many children in war zones became breadwinners because they were “old enough to handle complex tasks, but young enough to not get shot.” By scavenging for food, Yearman kept herself alive through frequent displacements.
The end of the war brought more problems as new Polish settlers began committing revenge crimes against Germans. Yearman found herself driven out of her homeland and was repeatedly robbed. When she managed to reconnect with her birth family, she was subjected to frequent abuse from her stepmother. Despite Yearman’s painful experiences, she was able to begin the healing process by telling her story.
Hanisch’s work with Yearman brought her a deeper comprehension of the power of storytelling and story-listening in the healing process. Her approach to the book was three-fold, and included “commitment to healing work, more time for one-on-one encounters and outward action in local, national and international initiatives.” Although Hanisch expressed her desire for everyone to have the ability to take time with their healing, she acknowledged that “most of us have to do our healing on the run, and that’s okay.” She discussed breaking the cycle of abuse and pain through therapy, groups and actions in local communities.
The remainder of Hanisch’s lecture was spent on an activity in which audience members paired off to tell survival stories to one another. During this time, members were asked to listen to one another silently, without commentary or judgment. In the final step, the groups were asked to list “strengths that stood out” during the storytelling. This was meant to begin healing traumatic situations through a supportive group dynamic, as is done for survivors of abuse, violence and war.
Hanisch left MSU with one final thought: “Take the small situations seriously. That’s how our culture is built.”