Those Who Render Us Visible
Thank God for them.
I thought of this as I read a book for our congregation’s book club. Laundry is a novel by Israeli writer Suzane Adam. In brief, it’s about five-year-old Ildiko, a child of Holocaust survivors, who is emotionally and physically tormented by neighbor Yutzi, the beautiful object of her admiration and affections.
Yutzi is a teenager whom she trusts and desires as a role model. Confused and unable to assimilate the older girl’s subtle, then more obvious torturous acts, the child begins to withdraw. Her own small body betrays the little girl as Yutzi herself does, imposing nervous symptoms that create still more suffering. Periods of prolonged confinement to her bedroom accompany Ildiko’s emotional withdrawal, thereby mystifying everyone in the child’s world, except, of course, her torturer.
Yutzi the abuser is painstaking clever in her relations to others, including the child’s parents, who not only welcome her into their home but treat Yutzi as their own daughter.
Ildiko’s parents care about their daughter’s pain, and in fact adore her. But they themselves are too distracted by the immensity of their own grief and loss to see fully what is happening before their eyes in the small, overwhelmed form of their child. To her parents, Ildiko is a little girl afflicted with symptoms that need curing. Evidence of abuse are there in the form of illness and nervous symptoms, but are dismissed for reasons familiar to many children suffering from the effects of having been born into families torn apart in other ways by events that are what the poet Rilke calls “unsayable,” in this case, the Holocaust.
I am not doing the synopsis full justice, but this isn’t about the book, it’s about what the novel made me think about – the tragedy of the invisible child, the one who is never seen for who he or she really is. Whose pain is never acknowledged, much less accepted. There is often a "legitimate" reason, as in the case of Ildiko’s parents. If one has suffered in some “ultimate” way, everyday personal trials pale in comparison. In worst cases, the boundaries of all-too-human lives before you become indistinct, or fade away altogether. Whatever and whomever stands before us is nothing like the Ultimate of the worst of one’s personal experience.
In such families and communities, we may become invisible to one another, even to those who love us, or think they do.
I won’t give away the story’s progression, but it offers the presence of someone willing to accept and even find a mysterious and ultimate value in a life that has been rendered inscrutable to others. This person accepts the limits of Ildiko’s ability to relate wholly and confidently with anyone, and stays with her through every moment of the anguish that eventually comes fully to the surface. The presence is relentless and sympathetic, made available as Ildiko needs it.
This level of regard can be summarized this way: “I see you, I really do. And you are fine just as you are.”
Sometime miracles occur as a result. They don’t in the story, but the miracle would be icing on the cake anyway. The fact of one’s whole life redeemed as acceptable, good enough – even fine, well, that’s really something also. I know.