Gloria Wisher has an imaginary Nazi lover. I had an imaginary Nazi lover.
Like my heroine in Holy Days, Gloria, I was born in 1951. Though WWII had ended six years before, my parents and grandparents talked a lot about the Nazis. I heard fearful stories about the Nazis in the same way I heard fairy tales or nursery rhymes. I was just as afraid of the wolf in “The Three Little Pigs,” and constantly asked my mother, “What’s our house made of?” “Wood.” “Is that the same as sticks?” “I guess so, why?” “Because the wolf can blow down sticks.” I asked the same kind of questions about the Nazis. My mother went around the house saying, “The Nazis fixed everything, they fixed everything.” By that she meant they had taught us how to kill and how to be cruel on a global level. Usually this outburst was sparked by an atrocity on the news. The adults frequently made remarks such as “The Italians would have been next because they changed sides during the war.” “But Grandma’s Italian!” I had heard tales of what could happen if you had a Jewish grandmother and I was worried. “Oh, don’t worry, the Germans lost the war.” Or when my mother would answer my queries with, “Oh, the Nazis would have loved you! You got the blonde hair and the green eyes!” Daddy said, “They would’ve come after people with freckles next.” “Do I have freckles?” “A few.” “Don’t worry, the Nazis lost the war.”
But, I worried. I could hear a certain tone of stunned admiration in the adult’s voices. I knew in my child’s heart that they secretly admired certain qualities of their Nazi enemy. Power. Control. Cunning. Relentlessness. The singular awe that the Nazi terror and the Holocaust had actually occurred. That awe would remain hanging in the air in the inevitable silence that followed every discussion.
And, the movies. As a shy child, I watched a lot of television by myself rather than going out to play, where I was constantly bullied by kids who beat me up for getting As. I stayed in and watched many, many black and white movies about the Nazis: Nazi experiments, Nazi concentration camps, the French Underground, weeping men and women as the Nazis marched into Paris, people living in bombed out shells of buildings, people pulling hidden bottles of wine, sausages and loaves of bread out from their tattered coats to share with Jews hidden in their walls. I saw “The Diary of Anne Frank,” I saw “The Pawnbroker.” When the pawnbroker said, “I didn’t die. Everything I loved was taken from me and I did not die.” I was oddly comforted. At the time, I was a devout Catholic child who believed in the trials of the Catholic saints. Like the Catholic saints, the lesson learned was: if it’s not the boiling oil, if it’s not the concentration camp, then you are going to be okay. You can take it. I had been abused and I was already wondering what had happened to me, wondering why such a thing had been done by the very person who was supposed to be protecting me, but I knew that it was not as bad as what had happened to the pawnbroker, or the saints, and, if I had anything to say about it, I was going to be okay.
I was eleven. I had no conscious knowledge of the fact that I had already been abused when I was three years old. But that wouldn't have changed my determination.
I wrote Holy Days for the children. I know children can’t read the book because of its sexual content, but I also know that children are out there ironically enduring and suffering from the very acts they cannot read about and really should read about because they would know if they read Holy Days that they’re going to be okay, that they can be okay. I hope adults will read it and start treating children like cognizant beings who know something’s going on about which they need to be told the truth and comforted.
I created a Nazi lover and I gave this Nazi to Gloria to help her gain some power and control over what was happening to her. Here is her first encounter with the Nazi, which she uses to try to explain a sexual assault by “the boy next door,” her mother’s best friend’s son, who did everything the Nazi does to Gloria in this scene:
The Nazi officer came into the room. He looked at me where I was, on the bed. There was nothing in the room but a bed, lamp and table. No curtains on the window, which looked out on a bleak, winter field.
The Nazi was handsome. He was always handsome. I wasn’t afraid of him. I loved him because he kept me safe in this room and he was never cruel to me; he was always kind.
Never was there any question of my family or my friends, never any betrayal, or any politics, only this handsome man slowly removing his uniform, coming over to me where I was on the bed.
I was naked, under the covers. Warm and naked. I was giving him something he could not get outside this room.
He lay on top of me, but, suddenly, he was wearing his full uniform again! He pushed himself hard against me, and again, hard.
Then, he was naked again, and he held me. His warm, wet lips brushed against my cheek, which was cold, exposed as it was to the chill in the room.
We see two more encounters with Gloria and this Nazi, but Gloria makes it clear that she has created many such encounters, scenarios in which she controls the action. I don’t think people are aware of how many times beautiful women are sexually assaulted in their lives. Beautiful women are treated as objects of desire for the entitlement of men. They are presented this way in the media and in life. Like Gloria, men stopped their cars for me as I walked to the library, to school or to church from the time I was about twelve years old and could go places alone. Many, many times I could have been killed if I had been a different sort of girl, an adventurous girl who might have thought a car ride was preferable to walking alone. Luckily, God made me shy. My life was saved over and over by the fact that I preferred to walk by myself. After a while, beautiful women begin to value men who do not try to have sex with them, men who actually like them for conversation, friendship, and dare I say it, their minds. But, I digress. My point in digressing is that Gloria had many, many incidents she needed to explain to herself, many times when she needed the Nazi to protect her. Why she didn’t choose the Allies, I cannot say, except that by conquering the Nazi (who also finds respite from the war in that room), she had conquered the worst enemy of all.
During her many lonely hours of reflection and observation watching television, Gloria also sees the resemblance of our culture to the Nazi ideal. Over and over she sees the physical perfection of advertising models, TV personalities and Hollywood actors. “Perfection,” Gloria decides, “is the minimum daily requirement.”
And when President Kennedy is assassinated in 1963, Gloria is twelve.
NOVEMBER 22, 1963
What difference does it make to history or anything else where any of us were at the precise moment we heard?
The difference is this: that was the moment we all, collectively, stopped believing.
We stopped believing in goodness.
Mama used to click her tongue, whenever she thought about it, in her vague, muddled way: “The Nazis fixed everything, they fixed everything, they fixed!” She was right. The Nazis made it so we could get used to anything. Someone, a man who had survived the death camps, talked once about being forced to shovel graves for the Nazis. He talked about how enormous the hole was and how cold he and the other shovellers were, how very cold. He talked about seeing a weed blowing in the cold wind and thinking how happy he was to be alive, just to see that weed, to know the weed was alive under the freezing snow and how grateful he was to feel the terrible cold because he was alive - and he knew, then, that human beings could get used to anything.
For a long time, the Nazis were very far away. First, they were in Europe, then, they were in the past. The Nazis were not us, but we became them. We invited them in.
From the moment the shot rang out, the Nazis, like the devil himself, rose up from hell and rushed to our side. From that moment on, we learned to turn our heads and check our backs; we learned suspicion and fear. At first we were horrified at ourselves and then, we got used to our fear. And then, we got used to our horror. And, then, we became proud of our horror and began to wear it ahead of us, not as a shield, as a medal.
We were so frightened by the Nazis, that we became the Nazis in order to keep it from happening to us again. We had the comfort of knowing, no matter what we did, no matter how evil, we could never be as bad as the Nazis.
In Revere, bad had become a virtue. Bad was it. I heard of kids who wouldn’t come to Revere. That struck me as funny, because there were other cities, like Dorchester and Roxbury, where I was afraid to go, even in the car with my parents. Sometimes, bad is all there is. It starts to look good after a while. Bad makes you tough. It makes you ready.
I still think of Gloria’s assessment when I watch the news. When I watch cops beating people in the streets, when I watch race riots, when I see women’s rights being taken away, when I read stories about children being sexually abused or sexually trafficked, when I see old people being disrespected, when I see LGBTs being mistreated, when I see the sacred lands of indigenous peoples being fracked, when I see our veterans neglected, homeless, jobless, and suffering from their wounds, when I see the earth melting, and the DNA of everything God created being arrogantly altered for money, I think of what the Nazis taught us: how to be ruthless, how to take from others, how to hurt and maim and tear apart – but not destroy – no, because ultimately, like Gloria I believe in the triumph of good over evil. I need to quote a hero (who shall remain anonymous, unless you recognize her) from a sci-fi thriller, a line that has helped me survive: “God never lets the devil win.” Ultimately, whether we become Nazis or not is our choice. Ultimately, no matter what we suffer, we get to choose whether to be good or evil. Evil cannot kill us. But good can help us live. As my dear Gloria said: “They tried to kill me in this place of love and horror. They tried to kill me but they couldn’t because I loved too much.”
©Patricia Goodwin, 2015
Patricia Goodwin is the author of When Two Women Die, about Marblehead legends and true crime and its sequel, Dreamwater, about the Salem witch trials and the vicious 11-year-old pirate Ned Low. Holy Days is her third novel, about the sexual, psychological seduction of Gloria Wisher and her subsequent transformation.