“The world stage gets played out in the individual family”

Dawn M. Skorczewski is a professor of English at Brandeis University (Boston) and is currently a CLUE+ fellow at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Working from an interdisciplinary background, she applies approaches from psychoanalysis to literature and history. Gender is at the center of her research on transgenerational trauma and the Holocaust.

/ Lonneke Geerlings & Greetje Bijl /


Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

As I read poetry and wrote about it, I was being shaped as an intellectual. At Rutgers University I thought that I would write my dissertation about women who ran away in Victorian literature, but I shifted to reading twentieth century poetry written by women. I asked myself: why did those girls run away from their fathers? And in my head popped the word ‘incest.’ I ended up writing a dissertation on representations on incest in twentieth century women’s poetry, focusing on the poets Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, and Lucille Clifton. (1) Anne Sexton’s personal life history, her poetry and her therapy relate to each other. Sexton represented incest in many of her poems, but especially in ‘Briar Rose,’ a rewritten Sleeping Beauty story, which I reworked into an article for Signs. (2) “It’s not the prince at all, but my father, drunkeningly bends over my bed, circling the abyss like a shark, my father thick upon me, like some sleeping jellyfish,” she writes. “What prison is this?” This imagery suggests that this little girl is a sleeping beauty, a cultural heroine and a victim of incest. Sexton represents incest as part of the paradigm of what it means to be a girl in western culture, but perhaps also a child in patriarchal culture, since boys are sexually abused as well. So, with this dissertation my life story and my interest in poetry came together. I started to make sense of my past, which I was completely unable to do until then. I learned how trauma can be transmitted from one generation into the next, sometimes even in the womb. A mother’s trauma invades the daughter’s body and is worn on the daughter’s body.

That sounds depressing.

It is depressing, but it is also liberating! My own experience was that I was so weighed down by something that I couldn’t articulate. Freud developed the idea of talking therapy – talking makes you feel better – and I think it does. I think that talking about and writing about it helped me transform this experience into something else. So, I made art of my mother’s experience and I looked at art that was about it. Because the world stage gets played out in the individual family.

So that’s the beginning of my academic career. Now to come back to the Signs article on Anne Sexton. For over 25 years critics wrote about this poem but they never mentioned incest. They say it’s her Oedipus complex, or her Electra complex, they say it’s evidence of Sexton’s craziness, insanity. Or they simply ignore it. Or some, like literary critic Hella Vendler, say this isn’t the material poetry, this is not appropriate material.

Sexton was criticized for representing her personal experiences in poetry. She talked about menstruation and suicide and motherhood and incest, when people did not speak about those things. So, I trace the 25 years history of the responses to this poem and I looked at different discourses – the law, religion, psychiatry – and I showed how in each of these discourses there was also a suppression of attempt to talk about and represent sexual violence. Even Freud, in his first big study, argued that women who were hysterical were abused by a male relative, and that’s why they were having these symptoms. When he gave this talk in Vienna he was booed off the stage. The all-male audience was furious that Freud would suggest that sexual abuse by men like them was the reason for these women’s illnesses. So, Freud changed his mind. He said it’s not that it really happened, it’s just that they have an Electra complex, that all girls want to marry their daddies. He put it into the realm of fantasy, which is very dangerous from my point of view. For example, when Anne Sexton was in therapy, with her first, very good, psychiatrist, she said that she was sexually abused as a child. I listened to her therapy tapes and heard her say it. And he said: “Well, we still have to get to your childhood’s fantasies.”

So, Freud did notice the sexual abuse but resisted to blame men for this?

His career would have been over. There is a hundred-year history of people saying, no, that didn’t happen, that’s what you wanted to happen. This was the argument in psychoanalysis but also in literature. If you look in the Bible, incest appears many times. Lot’s daughter is perhaps the best example. There’s a lot of sexual violence in the Bible. Christine Froula writes about how sexual violence is written into the culture. But people all over the world are encouraged by powerful institutions and their own psyches to keep it down, in order to survive.

My career starts with this engagement of my past and linking it to poetry, and then in subsequent years I became more interested in psychoanalysis because I wanted to understand both more about poetry but also in the classroom: how students and teachers interact in the classroom. My first book is called Teaching One Moment at a Time. Disruption and Repair in the Classroom. It is about mindfulness for a teacher, slowing down, and seeing what’s happening in this room. And then I came back to my dissertation, and I wrote about Anne Sexton’s therapy tapes, and now I am writing about the Holocaust testimonies.

Did Anne Sexton approve that these tapes were kept and used for research?

These tapes are located at the Schlesinger Library in Boston, but I received permission from Sexton’s daughter, Linda, to listen to the tapes. They have been used before by Diane Middlebrook when she was writing her biography of Sexton in 1992. Before Sexton killed herself in 1974, she had repeatedly said to her psychiatrist [Martin One], “if one day someone wants to listen to these tapes, I would like that.” Although she was a famous poet, she was a very open person.

Sexton was ahead of her psychiatrists – she was much more aware of how patients and doctors make meaning together in psychiatric sessions. It’s not that psychiatrists offer patients interpretations – it’s a developmental process. If the self is a set of voices, that we interact with in our lives, the first one being our parents’, then intense therapy like Sexton had adds a really significant other voice to the conversation. We are shaped in relation to these other voices. So, the voice that is coming out of my mouth right now, is in part a product of the conversation that I have held with other scholars, with my husband who is a psychiatrist, with other psychoanalysts. And Sexton, in conversation with Martin One, understood this. She became, what she called, a ‘real human being.’

There has been a shift in psychiatry: we no longer depend on Freud and his theories on fantasies. What do you think made this change – feminism?

I think that the women’s movement can be credited with a lot of this shift, but also other movements from the sixties. Since then race, class, gender, and sexuality became topics that people could discuss in relation to power. In the wake of that – but not immediately, mostly in the early nineties – survivors of incest and sexual abuse survivors started to speak out about their experiences.

Could you place #metoo in the same category?

That’s in the same line. It’s exhilarating to hear women speaking out.

A recent study at the University of Amsterdam claimed that about one third of all PhD students are more prone to depression.(3) How does that fit with your claim that to write about the past is essentially a reconciliation with your own past?

When you’re writing your dissertation, it’s the first time you’re writing a long piece with your own vision on a particular topic. Yet you also have this committee that is reading your work and you feel intensely supervised – at least I did. The power relations are really difficult. Dissertation supervisors may act out things from their own past on their students, even unconsciously. And students bring their own pasts to the scene as well.

In Germany a PhD supervisor is called a Doktorvater – he or she becomes a surrogate mother or father.

Yes! It’s often said that the student acts like a child in relation to his or her professor. But I don’t think that’s where it begins a lot of the time. It’s written into the situation. As a dissertation advisor I can be a paternalistic figure to my students as well.

A moment ago, we were talking about therapy. During the sixties and seventies therapists and psychiatrists started to move away from the idea of one person on the couch – the patient – and another more able, ‘objective’ person offering them help. Since then there has been a movement in part led by Donald Winnicott, (4) towards what is called the two-person psychology. It now became obvious that a therapy session is a co-constructed world. The same applies to education. Authority figures at times work out their parents’ stuff in personal relationships with their students as well – slowly becoming one of their parents in the process. There is actually a Sharon Olds poem about this. It’s to her parents and it says: “you think I got away from you, thousands of miles,” because she moved to the other side of the country. “But not a day goes by that I’m not somewhat turning into you. Never having had you, I cannot let you go.” I love those lines; that’s what we call transference.

How do you see your role as a scholar? Many still believe that science should be ‘objective,’ but you always bring yourself in.

To refer to an old article by philosopher Thomas Kuhn (5): objectivity in science is incredibly biased. Discoveries that have been made over the years are in part related to who knew who, and who paid for whose research. Science is also a political arena. I’m not saying there’s no such thing as objectivity, but there are degrees of objectivity. As long as a human subject is doing the work, I would have to say that there is no such thing as pure objectivity. It is inherently subjective because we’re subjects. This can be taken to an extreme: in the 1990s literary criticism became really relative, claiming there is no truth anywhere. And I think people like Donald Trump really capitalized on what was created there: this idea that everything’s relative, that ‘facts’ aren’t facts, supposedly.

How do you deal with that, that literary scholars don’t have a truth anymore?

I don’t think that most scholars in the field believe that there is no truth. But saying something that is clearly false is different than questioning whether there is a truth. This reminds me of that quote from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” And although she wrote this centuries ago, she recognized here that social path and family relationships shape our perception of the facts of life.

Can we link this to oral history?

Yes! I now mostly work on Holocaust testimonies and I try to look at these interviews to see what we can learn from them, rather than to use these interviews simply as sources for facts, to find out what ‘actually happened.’ I became interested in these testimonies a few years ago. Unfortunately, these sources are still often not taken seriously. It feels almost ridiculous to me that we’re still talking about whether personal history is public history, and whether personal experience is actually history. A lot of historians include personal experiences in their research, for example Christopher Browning, who is a specialist in Eastern European Holocaust history. A big part of what he calls history comes from testimonies. But when we deal with individual testimonies, people become very critical and ask: “can we call this history?”

An article I wrote with a colleague about Amsterdam’s ‘Diamond Jews’ was refused at first. One reviewer commented: “We know all there is to know about Bergen-Belsen.” But how can we possibly know everything about anything? Part of our job is to stay curious – there are so many more stories worth listening to. And especially the history of these ‘Diamond Jews’ has largely been unwritten. This group was able to live longer in Amsterdam than most Jewish people, because they had this special Sperre on their passport, the ‘diamond Sperre.’ The Germans needed the diamonds and therefore allowed the diamond industry to continue. At first there were about a thousand Jewish diamond workers in Amsterdam. Some were able to work in this industry until the summer of 1944. A relatively high number of them survived, because they were able to stay away from the camps for that long, and because they were sent to Bergen-Belsen and not to Auschwitz.

There was a group of fifty ‘diamond children’ who were left in Bergen-Belsen. All but two of these children survived the camp. I want to know: what did they eat, where did they sleep, how did they interact with each other? And how do they talk about their experiences now, so many years later – how does the memory live in their minds? During our research we watched testimonies and talked to some of the survivors. That provided some previously untold stories. There were, for example, these stacks of bodies that these kids were running around. One of the interviewees, who was in Bergen-Belsen as a child, told me: “We knew they were dead, and we were okay with it, but one day we saw a twin and that was weird.” Another one said: “I didn’t know they were dead, I thought they were sleeping.” We hear of children who played hide and seek between the bodies. I had never read about that.

There is a picture of a boy walking beside the bodies in Bergen-Belsen. It became a symbolic photograph after it was featured in Life magazine. This kid’s name was Sieg Maandag, and together with his sister Henneke they were part of this group of ‘diamond children.’   It is fascinating to me that these ‘diamond children’  survived, and also puzzling that their dramatic story has received so little attention. 

I noticed that when eyewitnesses start to talk about Bergen-Belsen, it is as if there is a curtain that moves. One woman we talked to was in hiding right across the Stedelijk Museum before she was captured and taken to Westerbork and then to Bergen-Belsen. When she talked about Bergen-Belsen the curtain shifts. This camp was her most traumatic experience and this is where she draws from another part of herself to tell the story. I then try to listen carefully to understand what she is unveiling. Part of that unveiling is not what she is saying in words; it is the experience of how she survived and made a life after that. She became a judge and she never gave children the highest sentences or sent them to the most horrible detention centers. She always tried to help them to become better people. She felt that her war history helped her to think in this way about human life.

So, I’m interested in their stories about the war, but also in what they became after their experiences. That is, to me, oral history. The frame where personal history intersects with public history.

Can you see a difference in these testimonies in narrative structures and the experiences of men and women?

Not for the most part. Most of my studies on testimonies focused on women, as I started out my interest in women who were in hiding around the same time as Anne Frank. I rarely compare women to men. I usually compare women to other women.

One of my main interests has been women’s experiences of sexual violence in hiding. Everything you can imagine happened in hiding: people fell in love, got married, had sex, had babies or had a toothache. It was real life, but it was under a bell jar, because it was impossible to leave the building. Unfortunately, there was a lot of physical abuse as well. For example, there is this one story of a little girl. She was in hiding two doors from the Hollandsche Schouwburg [Hollandic Theatre] in Amsterdam, and the people who were hiding her were very abusive. She would pass away the time by sitting in front of her window, watching the trams come in with people who were brought to the Schouwburg, where they waited for transport to Bergen-Belsen. At times this girl was also allowed to go to the zoo, Artis, which was just around the corner. The story of this little girl is history as well. I’m interested in this kind of micro-histories. George Eliot talks about ‘unhistoric acts’ that are not recorded and unofficial. That is where real history often is – off the record.

Historians in the past have paid little to no attention to women in resistance groups. How do you see the role of these women?

We tend to go for the big stories of women and men. But in the background of the heroic story, there are unnoticed heroic acts. Take the child day care center across the Hollandsche Schouwburg for example. Hundreds of kids were rescued from there. What comes to the fore is that a woman helps one kid around the corner so that he can be taken into hiding. But what is going on with the other kids while this is happening? Somebody helps those kids play, so that everything seems as usual. Very regularly kids were smuggled out in laundry baskets. Those are heroic acts. A woman who is taking out the laundry and has to make it look as if no laundry is missing. Those are acts of resistance. These people had to make something look normal in a situation that is really not normal. And I think a lot of times women played a role in this. These are the unofficial stories George Eliot was talking about. 


1  Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was an American poet known for her personal and confessional verse. Sharon Olds (b. 1942) is an American poet, Pulitzer Prize winner, and professor at New York University. Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) was an American poet and educator whose work focused on African American heritage and feminism.

2  Dawn Skorczewski, ‘“What Prison Is This?” Literary Critics Cover Incest in Anne Sexton’s “Briar Rose,”’ Signs. Journal of Women in Culture and Society 21.2 (1996): 309-342.

3  W. van Ewijk, ‘Meer dan één op drie UvA-promovendi is mogelijk depressief,’ Folia, May 4, 2016, URL: https://www.folia.nl/actueel/101083/meer-dan-een-op-drie-uva-promovendi-is-mogelijk-depressief.

4  Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) was an English pediatrician and psychoanalyst.

5  T.S. Kuhn, ‘Historical Structure of Scientific Discovery,’ Science, 136.3518 (June 1962), 760-764.


Editor's note: This is an updated version of the printed interview. Last updated 16 May 2019.