Monday, July 17, 2023

#AuthorInterview with Heidi Laird, author of Letters from Jenny

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Heidi Laird, author of Letters From Jenny: A Historical Novel.
FQ: Thank you very much for the opportunity to chat with you today. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Letters from Jenny. I always enjoy learning a bit more about the author before diving into the mechanics of the story. I read in your bio that you grew up in Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1960. What was your experience like in becoming a U.S. Citizen?
LAIRD: Over the years, hardly anyone has ever asked me that question. It was an interesting experience. I was living in Tucson, AZ at the time, raising my two small children and attending the University of Arizona as an undergraduate. I had lived in this country as a green card holder for the required number of years, seven, I believe, to qualify for citizenship. I applied, filled out a stack of paperwork, provided appropriate documentation, paid a reasonable fee, and in time received a notice to appear on a certain date before an immigration examiner for a competency test. Naturally, I was fairly nervous.
When the examiner, an officious-looking older man in a suit and tie, asked me to write the sentence: “The children went outside to play with their ball” in chalk on a wall-mounted blackboard, I didn’t quite know what to make of it, but of course I complied. The examiner seemed satisfied with my language skills and went on to test my knowledge of the Constitution.
He asked me the obligatory question about the separation of powers into the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. He nodded at my reply and quickly asked: “Who has the power in this country?“ Without missing a beat, I said: “The president.”
“Wrong,” said the examiner disapprovingly, “it’s the people who have the power.”
“But what about the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that the president uses to justify the Vietnam War? Congress never authorized the war.” (I should add that I wasn’t a political science major. I had simply heard the ongoing discussions about President Johnson’s use of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on the 6 o’clock news, and read about the issue in the newspaper.)
The examiner was furious. It was clear that he was offended by this insolent immigrant woman who had come from another country to tell him how things worked in his own country. He dismissed me with a glare, but not before he admonished me to make a decision: “Love it or Leave it.”
Weeks later, there was an auditorium full of us immigrants about to be sworn in as new citizens who would promise to uphold the American Constitution. To add a festive touch to the occasion, each of us received a red carnation and a miniature American flag. I looked around me and wondered if I had been the only ungracious applicant in this room full of new citizens.
FQ: I am impressed with all your credentials but wonder if you could expand on your studies at the University of California at Riverside, where your ‘special focus’ was on the study of the authoritarian personality. If you had to cite one specific takeaway from this part of your education, what would that be?
LAIRD: I have very early memories of bombing raids and burning cities in Nazi Germany, and grew up in the rubble and ruin of post-World War II West-Germany. I do not remember a time in my childhood or adolescence when I did not ask the adults around me: “How was it possible that people wildly cheered and followed a man like Hitler?” I don’t remember getting a single answer that made sense to me. The standard reply sounded something like: “you’re too young to understand, you had to have lived through it, wait till you’re older, then you’ll understand.”
By the time I was a doctoral student at UC Riverside, I had expanded my search for answers to my how was it possible question to include the study of literary characters like the school teacher Zacharias in Hermann Broch’s novel “The Guiltless.” Looking for relevant material in the field of psychological testing, I found that surprisingly little work had been done to identify key markers of the authoritarian personality. The only body of work that focused exclusively on the testing, diagnosis, and possible psychological treatment for authoritarian personality disorder was created by a team of psychologists under the direction of Theodor Adorno, who had taught at the Frankfurt School for Social Research before fleeing Germany in the mid-1930s. Adorno and his team were invited by the University of California to bring their Authoritarian Personality project to the Berkeley campus, where they wrote the definitive text on the topic and developed a personality test to detect tendencies toward enthusiasm for autocratic leaders, and measure vulnerability to fascist ideology. They named it the California F-Scale to express their gratitude for the asylum offered by the university and the state of California.
As it turned out, I had come to this country as an immigrant trying to get away from Germany’s unspeakable past, and found that here, at the University of California, where I was a graduate student (although at a different campus), a team of German refugees from the Nazi regime had done the foundational work on authoritarianism studies that I could build on in developing my own understanding of how people develop authoritarian personality traits.
The California F-Scale succeeded in identifying personality profiles marked by chronically aggrieved sentiments. People with high F-Scale scores tended to report feeling disrespected, overlooked, dismissed, disadvantaged, and generally frustrated. With this finding, Adorno’s work offered a starting point for further research on this topic, but in the meantime the United States had entered the Cold War era and saw itself as the defender of democracy all over the world, and the study of enthusiastic followers of autocrats in America was not on the agenda of U.S. psychology or sociology departments.
After all: America was the beacon of democracy for the whole world, and there were no followers of antidemocratic strongmen here.
I didn’t agree that the study of the authoritarian personality was unnecessary in the United States. In my psychology practice, years later, I had many opportunities to observe how poverty, misfortune, abuse, and trauma in early life can in some people generate astonishing levels of compassion and generosity, but I also saw how chronic exposure to hardship can produce deeply embedded resentment against existing power structures and a lust for tearing them down.
FQ: Your post-retirement studies have you on a journey of the historical period from 1914 to 1945. If you were asked to do a comparative analysis between WWI and WWII, what would you opine to be the prominent similarity between the two?
LAIRD: In my reading of the political and military history of the first half of the 20th century I agree with the conclusion of a number of historians that WWI and WWII are actually two phases of one long war.
During a twenty-one year pause in this war, German democracy died after being forced to accept a poisoned peace treaty (Versailles). A fascist regime stormed onto the stage, devoured the corpse and unleashed a crazed campaign of revenge for the “stolen victory”of 1918. Seen from this “one war” perspective, one would expect similarities, such as the unimaginable loss of life in the trench warfare on Germany’s Western Front in WWI and in the titanic tank battles on Germany’s Eastern Front in Russia in WWII.
Another obvious similarity is in the outcome of the two phases of this war: Defeat for Germany. Comparing the defeats, the differences outweigh the similarities. At the end of WWI, German cities and infrastructure were left intact, many of the surviving soldiers returned to their communities seemingly uninjured, while the defeat in 1945 came with complete destruction of many cities and industrial regions to leave no doubt that Germany had been decisively defeated, and any attempt to resurrect the lie of a stolen victory would have been immediately contradicted by the visual effects of utter ruin and destruction.
It might be useful to see the two wars and the period between them as a sequence of cascading effects which produced fundamental changes in the world. In the early years of the 20th century, a child learned in school that the world was divided into great empires, with a Tzar ruling the Russian Empire, a Kaiser ruling the German Empire, a King ruling the British Empire with its vast colonies, another Kaiser ruling the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and so on. If that young student grew up and managed to survive war, political upheaval, and famine, in the year 1945 this by now elderly person would find the British Empire just a sliver of its former size, the other empires gone, their former colonies fighting for their independence, and the old world order replaced by a new order in which a democratic West was locked into a “Cold War” with a totalitarian East.
FQ: You begin Letters from Jenny in Chapter One with ‘The Nuremberg Trials.’ In Letters to Jenny is the fact that "...out of 22 men charged with having committed war crimes, nineteen were found guilty. Twelve were sentenced to death by hanging, three received life sentences, and four were given prison sentences from ten to twenty years. Three of the accused were found not guilty. The death sentences were carried out on October 16, 1946...” In your opinion, how is it possible such a minute number of individuals were held accountable for the crimes that entailed the murder and slaughter of over six million Jewish people?
LAIRD: The trial in Nuremberg to which Captain Cramer was assigned as a JAG officer was the first war crimes trial, and as such was without precedent. President Harry Truman had sent Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson to Nuremberg to serve as Chief Prosecutor and develop a legal process for charging war criminals and hold them accountable for their actions in the conduct of a war.
Atrocities committed in war had throughout history been considered inevitable collateral damage. They were now tested against a new standard: Were they war crimes? After the first Nuremberg military tribunal concluded, twelve more such tribunals were held between 1946 and 1949, following the guidelines established by Justice Robert Jackson.
Mention of these additional twelve tribunals does not take anything away from your question how it is possible such a minute number of individuals were held accountable for the crimes that entailed the murder and slaughter of over six million Jewish people. Your comment goes to the very core of the question of accountability in the genocidal atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi regime. Whether it was 22 or 222 or 2022 men who were found guilty of war crimes in the Nuremberg Trials, the enormity of their genocidal actions cannot be measured on any humanly understandable scale. My perspective on the Nuremberg Trials is that they advanced the idea that we must think about actions committed in war in terms of their potential criminality, and punish convicted war criminals. In our own time, some 75 years later, we see a tribunal for war crimes in The Hague, with a record of some convictions for war crimes, and the notion of the war crime has become part of how many people look at acts of war, such as the events we witness today in the war in Ukraine...
FQ: When Captain Cramer is returning to the U.S. after the Nuremberg Trials, there is a monumental moment when he is about to depart Germany. He is rushed and must get to the airport. As he is packing his remaining belongings, he has a moment of conscience where he is conflicted on whether (or not) he should take the letters with him. Do you suppose there was a bit of divine intervention in that moment because the story of Letters from Jenny was destined to be told?
LAIRD: It’s an intriguing question, and I leave the answer to the reader. What the reader learns about Captain Cramer in that brief scene is that this young lawyer was a man with a strong sense of professional ethics who under ordinary circumstances would have insisted on taking appropriate steps to convey the documents he had just found to their rightful owner. His professionalism was tested by the extreme urgency of the moment, and he endured great pressure in deliberating what was the right thing to do. Whether taking the letters with him to America was in fact the right thing to do remains an open question, but it cannot be denied that Jenny’s letters were honored by the Cramer family in a way that would have stirred Jenny’s heart.
FQ: There is a passage that affected me deeply: "...People were divided into two camps, those who accepted that Germany had lost the war and had no choice but to sign a punishing peace treaty, and those who chose to believe a pernicious lie that Germany had actually won the war, but the victory was stolen by dark forces consisting of communists, Jews, and other conspirators...” This could be applied to many world issues going on right now. What is your view on this?
LAIRD: I agree that Jenny’s observations of how the spread of a great lie divided people into two bitterly opposing camps apply to many places in the world right now. In fact, I believe the case can be made that in order to motivate the people of one country to go to war with the people of another country, vicious lies have to be disseminated to whip up mutual hatred in the warring populations that are fighting each other. Even more frightening are situations in which one segment of a population chooses to believe the shameless lies of their leader, because they want so desperately for those lies to be the truth. The people who don’t believe the lies say so, and become the enemy. This is the frightening drama that we are all witnessing right now, and its outcome is far from clear.
FQ: Jenny’s sister Martha had her fair share of heartache and tragedy. Without too much of a spoiler, I was touched to read some of the observations Jenny emoted to Martha in her letters. How difficult was it for you to write these accounts? Did you have to step away from your pen and regroup before continuing with the story?
LAIRD: I wrote the book during the first year of the covid 19 pandemic. I had chosen to retire from my psychology practice after contracting a serious case of covid and struggling with it for several months. During my slow recovery, I found myself becoming intrigued with the historical accounts of the worldwide influenza epidemic of exactly one hundred years ago. For reasons that are not at all clear to me, I found myself thinking more and more about my great-grandmother Jenny Gutmann, about whom I knew only a few anecdotes passed down from my father, Jenny’s grandson. Somehow my father’s stories about Jenny suddenly linked together and became a cohesive biography, and Jenny became a companion for me during my covid recovery. This could be thought of as some kind of a mystical process, but I didn’t experience it that way at all. In my perception, I simply came to know Jenny as a woman who was ill with symptoms that were similar to mine, and as she and I recovered at about the same pace, we got to know each other across a hundred years of German history. Once I had recovered, I wanted to know more about Jenny, researched her life circumstances and the political developments in Germany after WWI, and chose as a literary device the form of an epistolary novel, in which I imagined how Jenny would describe her private thoughts and practical daily experiences to her twin-sister. In the course of researching Jenny’s life, I came to know and love this woman, and I would like to think that I have inherited some of the traits that I admire in her. She became an inspiration for me, and when I realized at a certain point in my writing that I had just finished Jenny’s final letter to Martha, I felt a deep sharp pain in my heart, a sadness that this unique experience in my life was over.
FQ: In line with my previous question, was there ever a time when you thought about setting this project aside? What was your motivation (and encouragement) to forge forward?
LAIRD: Once I found myself in Jenny’s company, so to speak, I went through the emotional ups and downs with Jenny, becoming part of her life, her household, her world. I had a feeling that she would have liked knowing me. That she would have enjoyed a visit from me, that she would have recognized me as a kindred spirit, and a witness to the frightening political developments going on in her neighborhood, in her city, in her country. Witnessing with her the years of political upheaval during the Weimar Republic was a wrenching experience, and watching Germany sink into the maw of the murderous Nazi regime was terribly painful, but the process had a momentum of its own, and I stayed the course to support Jenny. The exhaustion came later, after the book was finished.
FQ: I was just as consumed with the aftermath of the letters in how you tied the experience together with life after incorporating Jenny’s letters into the story. The innocence of youth is something that often gives me pause. There is a passage when you are talking about Ruth and Milton’s children that was very powerful: "...Like their friends, Rebecca, Ben, and Ella had become familiar with their country’s history through the public observances of Thanksgiving, Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July. Hollywood movies had made them fluent in the lore of cowboys and Indians, but there was no comprehension that early on in their country’s history an entire native population, in the millions by some estimates, had been overrun, dispossessed, decimated by imported diseases, and the surviving rest shoved out of the way...” If you could implement one study that was required in our education system toward this topic today, how would you go about making this happen?
LAIRD: Your question touches on one of the hotly debated education issues of our time: Should our children study their country’s history with all of its great accomplishments and also its shocking injustices, or should children be protected from the disturbing emotions they might experience if they learn about the wrongs that were committed by their country in an earlier era of its history?
After Germany emerged from its 4-year military occupation by the victorious Allies, and the country was divided into West-Germany and East-Germany, there were years of official silence while the West-German government worked to put extensive restitution programs in place for the victims of the Nazi regime. Schools were mostly silent about the Nazi years. Most children knew that much was kept from them, in their schools and in their homes, where their parents avoided painful topics and concentrated their energies on rebuilding the country and repressing the memory of its monstrous history. Words like Holocaust and genocide didn’t exist yet. This fabricated silence covered up the sullen mood of the population, and in the mid-1960s, the discontent exploded into public rage. Students occupied their universities and demanded accountability for war crimes, and mass demonstrations in the streets demanded an end to the official policy of silence. This movement gave rise to an overhaul in the educational policies of the government, with open discussions of the enormity of the Nazi war crimes, and public acts of atonement.
It is difficult to measure the difference that the new open information policy made in the psychological state of the German population. There is no question, however, that the reversal from silence to open discussion has led to a recognition that a mature democracy needs honesty in its debates in order to function effectively.
Allowing children to learn about unjust historical events does present a certain risk that the history is not presented in a competent manner, leaving the children with unanswered questions. “Better to let sleeping dogs lie!” But children observe and think about things, and if they cannot ask questions and get honest answers, they will wonder why no one is talking about the obvious, and form false ideas or feel angry that people around them won’t tell them the truth. I believe that children deserve to know the truth about their world, in age-appropriate language, to be sure, but they should know their history and be allowed to participate in the discussion.
FQ: Thank you for the privilege of reading Letters from Jenny. I sincerely hope you are penning your next book. Are you able to share some insights on your current project if there is one?
LAIRD: My next book is very slow in emerging and taking shape, probably because it explores a very dynamic, shape-shifting theme: Migration. I am exploring the idea that migration is the natural condition in which all life finds itself, starting with our planet’s restless tectonic plates which are forever crashing into each other and creating havoc. Some migrations are quick, while others take place in geologic time. These reflections can very well lead to the insight that migration is the norm, and that it is the static condition that is a deviation from the norm.
In closing, I want to thank you, Ms. Lunsford, for your questions. It’s been a pleasure to participate in this interview.

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