I’ll tell you a story of my most difficult writing day. I’ve never told anyone every detail. Maybe it’ll help me to do so, and if not, maybe it’ll interest you.
About four years back, I was working on Armchair Reader: World War II. It was at once challenging and invigorating: about thirty articles in forty days, with respectable research. For some I had to blaze through three books. As fate had it, my topic listing hewed to two general concentrations: conspiracy theory/controversy topics (Rudolf Hess, the Rosenbergs) and atrocity-related subjects.
Now, I am not easily shocked. I can be disgusted, or angered, but not shocked. A side effect of the research I did for the articles on this book was the cumulative impact of the images one sees in the course of intensive research. Had you asked me in advance, I’d have worried I would become desensitized. I was pulling 12-14 hours days seven days a week during the holidays, I was anxious to please my editors…you might say I was pretty strung out.
It happened about 7 PM one December evening. I was digging for details on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (“Juden Haben Waffen!”, pp. 151-53), specifically wrestling with the unending debate over the degree to which the Armia Krajowa (Polish Home Army) assisted the Jewish fighters in the Ghetto. To this day, that one gets ugly, and my best assessment is that both sides have fair points. I suspect the AK gets less credit than it deserves for the help it did give; I also suspect that there were many in Poland who didn’t really see Polish Jews as Poles, or even as people.
As I read through yet another account of the way Nazi soldiers laughed at the ‘paratroopers’ (Jews leaping from burning buildings to their deaths), I came across a photo I would wipe from my mind if I could. I hope you never locate it, and I’ve at least forgotten where I did. Bear in mind, I had seen many very sorrowful images this day already. The photo was of three captured ghetto fighters under the submachineguns of the SS. All almost surely died within the hour, or were shipped somewhere to die. One was a young woman or teenage girl, nude, attempting to cover up but at the same time standing in a certain degree of proud defiance.
I flipped the page in haste, but I couldn’t unsee it. As I kept on with my work, I felt a growing sense of a deep melancholy I’ve only experienced twice. Once was at Andersonville, Georgia (Civil War POW camp), as I washed my hands in Providence Spring. The other was at the Famine Graveyard in Skibbereen, Cork, Ireland. About half an hour later, my research ground to a meandering halt in a mire of melancholia. It came to me that I was nearing emotional collapse. Professionally and personally, I didn’t have time for an emotional collapse. And I realized: I must finish this article tonight, while I yet can. However I do it, I mustn’t go to sleep until it’s fully drafted and I’ve resolved my questions. Tomorrow it will be too late, and I will fail in this assignment, almost surely damaging my future prospects.
While it’s not the ideal way to get through pain, there’s a reason people sometimes decide to have a drink. I went to the liquor cabinet and got something; don’t remember what. I drank some of it (not sure how much), sipping steadily through the evening. I don’t remember when I turned in or how hammered I was, but I did get the research and draft done sometime after midnight. What I edited the next day was surprisingly all right considering the circumstances, and I moved on to the next topic, something far tamer.
Unfortunately, to this day I still see the image too clearly. Am I proud of the way I dealt with it? Yes and no. Yes, that I did my job anyway. No, that I wasn’t strong enough to do so without ethyl assistance. But either way, I am reminded by it of a quote and a song. The quote is Kurt Vonnegut’s from Slaughterhouse Five: “So it goes.” The song is Voodoo (Godsmack), and I can’t tell you exactly why this Goth tune associates with the experience in my mind. Just that it does.
© J.K. Kelley, 2011