On Writing About Terrible Things


A friend wrote me that she’d bought the Kindle version of Epistolophilia. She commented:

“Really easy to read writing and I love the conversational style you use, although such a heavy topic. I find I have to read in doses. How did you keep from getting swallowed by sorrow while doing all the work and writing?”

She’s not the first person to tell me she’s had to read the book in small chunks to keep from getting overwhelmed by the terrible events it describes. Nor is she the first person to wonder about how I survive researching and writing about the painful eras I work on. It’s not an easy question to answer.

I’ve been thinking about my father’s death in relation to this question, and the process by which I was able to start talking and writing about the pain and sorrow associated with that loss. My father’s now been gone for twenty-one years, but it’s only been eleven years since I’ve been able to talk about him without drowning in sorrow. I’m only just beginning to be able to write about him, but doing so gives me perspective and helps me understand my own past in ways that would have been impossible otherwise. It also helps to feel that in writing about him, I’m creating something for him.

Something similar was in play with Epistolophilia. I’ve been researching the Vilna Ghetto for some fifteen years, and I worked on Epistolophilia for eight. Although there were days when the facts overwhelmed me, time and writing saved me from drowning. I worked very slowly, bit by bit, breaking the story down (not unlike some of my readers, interestingly) to very small pieces (3 pages at a time; 1 idea at a time). That helped. But the sense that I was writing the book as a gift for Ona Šimaitė was probably the most powerful impetus to keep going.

I must admit I’ve wondered what it says about me that I only write about murders, civil war, genocide, terror, and mass deportation. A psychoanalyst would, no doubt, have a field day. But I believe that someone must speak for the dead. Someone must tell the stories they couldn’t and can’t. And someone must try and remember a few souls threatened by oblivion.

That’s what I try to do.

[Photo: Warsaw Ghetto Jewish Police Armband by woody1778a]

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One Reply to “On Writing About Terrible Things”

  1. Julija, I can empathize with your challenge.

    This beautiful summer I’ve been editing two books, ghost-writing a third and researching my own book about the making of the documentary.

    My research involves tracking the documents about a German midwife convicted of killing 52 Jewish babies in the Pocking DP camp in 1946-47.

    All these stories are about human suffering and death whether it was the memoirs of a volunteer in a palliative care unit or those of a child survivor of the Holocaust who spent part of his childhood buried in a whole in the ground under a barn. Another child survivor whose story I am writing lost his entire family but somehow survived the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz and Mauthausen.

    The sun would be shining while I read, edited or wrote about these bone-rattling stories. But for respite, I would look out the window and I believe I was saved from despair by the trees around our property and the flowers in the garden.

    Amidst all that death, there was life.

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