Can we start recognising the different qualities of lived experience and logic… and valuing them equally?

July has provided many rich and interesting stories I could write about.

There was the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer’s ill-judged campaign video in which he and Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, are filmed walking thoughtfully through the grey corridors of the Holocaust Memorial in central Berlin, ‘a massive faux-pas’ in Germany where such a carefully choreographed and blatant political usage of the site would be a complete and passionate no-no. 

Sir Keir Starmer in Berlin

Or the contentious mural by the Indonesian art collective, Taring Padi, deemed unacceptably antisemitic and therefore quickly removed from this year’s Documenta international contemporary art fair in Kassel, the director quitting soon after.

And my personal highlight, the three wonderful book launches that celebrated my arrival at the summit of my endless mountain. July has buzzed with the tangible excitement of people starting to read In My Grandfather’s Shadow and a string of radio interviews (all available here) and future invitations to talk about the themes and questions it raises.

Book Launch at Daunt Books, Holland Park

But two other experiences left me reflecting once again on what I see as a fundamental fault line in our troubled world. One was a recent review of my book, In My Grandfather’s Shadow, in the Observer. The other, the National Theatre Live broadcast of Suzie Miller’s award-winning play, Prima Facie in which an outstanding Jodie Comer (the BBC’s Killing Eve’s notorious assassin) plays a young and brilliant barrister who, after an unexpected event, is forced ‘to confront the lines where the patriarchal power of the law, burden of proof and morals diverge.’ 

In different ways, both the article and the play illustrate the age-old dynamic of ‘feminine’ versus ‘masculine’ perspectives in which the feminine experience is ignored, interrogated until it no can longer stand up and finally overridden, often with catastrophic consequences as the play demonstrates. For example, just 1.3% of rapes end in prosecution. Why? One reason is clear: the clunky measuring tools employed by the law to establish ‘proof’ are wholly inadequate when it comes to female trauma.

On a far less serious level, the Observer review by Matthew Reisz, former editor of the Jewish Quarterly and a staff writer at Times Higher Education, created a similar tension. I am hugely chuffed to have a got a review in the Observer. And there were compliments, like ‘strange and powerful.’ And Reisz was convinced by my hypothesis that a parent’s PTSD can have an impact on a child. Science after all accepts that as real and it’s now mainstream thinking, though it wasn’t always. What Reisz clearly doesn’t give any credence to is the reality, let alone the possibility, of the very premise of the book.

‘Much less plausible,’ apparently, is my belief that I am ‘in some sense haunted by the grandfather she never knew.’ As for the techniques I develop to find an “improbable epiphany” that will help me understand what kind of man he is, well, they are clearly the same “esoteric claptrap” that I suggest my grandfather might have seen them as! 

Matthew Reisz has every right to think like he does, and many will agree with him. I am well prepared for this kind of critique. I knew the ‘woo-woo’ stuff (as one or two of my editors called the more weird occurrences) could be problematic for some readers. But I insisted on keeping it. Without it, it was neither my story nor my book. And certainly not my truth. Including a ‘feminine’ perspective on the largely masculine arena of war and traditional fact-based history was for me essential. And I use ‘feminine’ here not as in female, but as in that inner dimension within all of us. That inexplicable world of instinct, intuition, serendipity, dreams and the invisible whisperings of the dead; often the source of creativity or vision, yet also the areas of human experience so often dismissed as ‘dippy-hippy nonsense,’ not ‘real’ or valid because they are ‘unprovable,’ or apparently just ‘wrong’. For it was these things – not clever science or psychologists – that provided the clues to solving the mystery of what I was experiencing. 

The book is intensely personal. But the issues it explores – addiction, shame, trauma, inherited guilt, forgiveness, reconciliation – are not. As Prima Facie so dramatically shows, they require a different approach to the logic and plausibility of left-brain thinking. This is what I feel Reisz unfortunately misses. In his final sentence, he reveals the source of his unsettledness in the apparent contradiction of ‘a woman who has dedicated her book to “all those whose lives are affected by discrimination, oppression or war” searching so desperately for redeeming qualities in a decorated Wehrmacht general.’ Is he suggesting there couldn’t possibly be any while misunderstanding my desire to comprehend a relative as wanting to exonerate them?

It’s going to be so interesting hearing different responses to In My Grandfather’s Shadow and coming into dialogue with others about their own relationships to the darker corners of their heritages, which is what frequently comes up. Like the prisoners in my art classes, like audience members at my lectures, people begin to talk when you make it safe for them to do so. That’s what I hope telling my difficult story will encourage: conversation. Not about provable facts, but fears, feelings and experiences. Conversation. Not with a goal of judging or a need to be right. Certainly not doubting or questioning the reality of what is being said. Just from a genuine desire to understand others. That’s how we can find our shared humanity.

So just to finish with a bit of undiluted ‘woo-woo,’ I found a 4′ grass snake in my hall a week or so ago. A Stroud friend told me that when animals come into our houses, they have a message. I thought no more about the symbolic significance of a snake. But then yesterday, without me mentioning the snake, another friend reminded me of the questions asked in Goethe’s beautiful story, The Fairytale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily in which the snake sacrifices itself to bridge the divide between the land of the ordinary senses and the land of the spirit or soul. It roughly translate as:

‘What is more precious/glorious than gold?’ asked the King. 

‘Light’, answered the snake.

‘What is more refreshing/quickening than light?’ asked the King.

‘Conversation’ said the snake.

10 thoughts on “Can we start recognising the different qualities of lived experience and logic… and valuing them equally?

  1. What a brilliant blog to wake up to this Sunday Morning Angela, Congratulations on your epic endeavour to articulate such complexities and thank you for taking a stand against critics of intuition! I think it is the most extraordinary and powerful tool…. And very soon the scientists will be unpacking it!

  2. Hi

    Thanks to that Observer review you refer to in your blog, I bought your book on Audible and have just listened to the incident of your Grandfather and the Tunnel he spared in San Marino. Having been born in 1956 to a British Army sergeant father and a Berlin born, but raised near Bielefeld, mill worker mum I can really identify with your project. (We also spent time in Singapore!) I have spent a fair part of my life in NHS and Private therapy and it was only relatively recently that my last therapist raised the issue of Intergenerational Trauma as something to explore. I have read plenty of dry articles on the subject but it’s been great to read your combination of scientific knowledge and personal exploration.

    Good Luck and Best Wishes


    • Hi Gordon, thank you so much for writing. Extraordinary the parallels between our families! I am so glad if my book has helped start an exploration of any emotional inheritance or baggage you may be carrying. There is book called ‘It didn’t start with you’ by Mark Wolynn that you may find interesting. It has many practical suggestions of how to start working with it. Wishing you all the very best, Angela

  3. Dear Angela
    I have just finished reading “In my Grandfather’s Shadow”
    What do I think of it?
    As you say in your book, we are conditioned by our own background, DNA and upbringing.
    So where do I and my reactions come from?
    I am an Englishman of similar age to your parents. I was a child throughout WW2.I knew them socially and our families were close and I like to think we were good friends.
    My father was one of four boys. He fought with distinction in both World wars. The Germans in WW1 and the Japs in WW2. My mother worked in the refugee camps on the Manipur/Burma Road. My father’s elder brother was killed in 1917 at Passchendaele (fighting close to my father). The second brother fought the Germans in North Africa in WW2 and the third was killed in Aden.
    Born in India, my brother and I were taken to England in 1939 and brought up there by a wonderful spinster great aunt until I was 12 when we went to live with our parents in England in 1948. The Germans flew over us to bomb Liverpool when we were taken down to shelter in Aunt Dolly’s cellar and given a boiled sweet. A great treat and our bed time prayers always included a plea that Mr Hitler would send his planes over tonight. The German planes had an irregular engine beat so you could always tell which were which.
    My father died quite young (too much smoking – like your grandfather). My mother found it difficult having to adjust after India and to two unruly boys and we never really got on.
    I married a Hampshire girl who had been a prisoner of the Japanese for 3 years during the war together with her parents and younger brother. They were not treated well.
    So that is my “base”… what do I think of your book?
    It is a deep and scholarly work and I find my reactions mixed.
    I well remember that photograph of your grandfather in your parents drawing room.
    Yes, we did make those comments about your mother when she displayed it. But I would emphasise that your mother was always (and still is) universally admired, loved and respected. Your grandfather looked very distinguished and grand. Because he was never talked about, there was much speculation as to what he did in the war and on which your book now sheds some light.
    I remember your brother Christopher had the lead part in a play at his prep school. Your dear mother was immensely proud of this and invited her German relatives to come to England and watch. They all trooped in and sat just in front of me and my family. Unfortunately, the play was about a British pilot who was shot down over France and captured by the Germans. Christopher acted the part of the pilot. We (sitting just behind) could feel the stiffening shock of your German contingent. Afterwards your mother saying “Christopher, why didn’t you tell me… How could you let us come to watch this…” which indicated that Christopher at that time (aged about 12) was blissfully unworried by any German connections,
    So, although the book is a treasure of research and German feeling and reaction, is it perhaps a bit too introspective and self-questioning?
    Or maybe it is because males and females think differently? Do females analyse and self- question more? I have another dear friend who has taken up writing. Her books, like yours are “page turners”. But the heroine takes at least two pages of self- interrogation and questioning, when most males would (rightly or wrongly) come to a decision in two lines and then move on.
    I found it full of such detailed research that it must go down as an important historical scholarly document and valuable reference book.
    We are all an involuntary accident of our birth, Colour. Religion. Race. Environment. Social upbringing. DNA/Breeding. We are here. We ourselves had no original input into our breeding. We cannot be either blamed or take credit for the deeds of our forebears.
    My generation were (and probably still are) “wary” of the Germans and the Japanese but that doesn’t prevent us from admiring certain aspects of their characters. Their efficiency and capacity for hard work. I remember a comment once made about an Englishman. “Julian, the English are idle rather than lazy. You will have a job getting an Englishman onto the tractor but once on, he is too idle to get off it and will plough on into the dark”
    Neither my parents or my in-laws ever talked about their times in the war. Although my mother did say that the only time she had ever seen my father weep was over his brother’s grave in Belgium. My father wrote a book which was devoid of emotion and purely factual. Sally was recommended to a “shrink” who brought it all to the surface and did considerable damage. It would have been best left buried.
    Your book. Fascinating. A great historical contribution.
    Time to move on.
    With love

  4. Dear Julian, What an interesting, considered and moving comment. Fascinating on so many levels – your own family story, your memories of my childhood that I have never heard before, your appreciation and questions about my book… thank you! Too much to go into in this blog thread but an answer to just one of your ponderings that relates directly to the content of the blog: Yes, I do think there can be stark differences in the way some men and women process experiences, feelings and thoughts. Not better or worse, just different.
    I was in many ways forced into introspection and self-questioning because I had so much going on inside me – above all an inexplicable (at the time) sense of guilt and shame that was sabotaging my life. It wasn’t my guilt of course, but though that is easy to see now, it wasn’t at the time. The transgenerational inheritance of unresolved issues is still in its infancy as a concept, but I am quite sure it will be recognised far more widely further down the line. In Germany it is far more widely discussed.
    Time to move on indeed! But having learnt the many lessons WW2 can teach us all. I really look forward to talking with you further about all the above. With love, Angela

  5. As your friend, I feel that you have always been trying to move on. Your book will undoubtedly bring about a variety of conversations so you should stay put for now!

    • Thank you, my friend. Yes, you have witnessed how very hard it can actually be to ‘move on’. For the descendants of survivors and victims of atrocity it can, of course, be much harder. I am looking forward to any conversations people would like to have.

  6. I have been reading through your pages on here to get a better sense of how you balance the world. I have been held my whole life by the war you have looked for, it took my father. There isn’t in me some notion of having won, there is just loss, loss and the shock of it, sides matter less. You would have the genes of your self and soul marked by the war and plainly read again as a memory. Within my family there are better drawn lines that show the war’s course, the mechanism that deforms can be understood by the most stupid of us, and must be met with love and everything that is new.

  7. Thank you for your comment John. I am sorry about your experiences of loss and agree with the notion that no one ‘wins’ in war. I hope increasing amounts of people feel that the price isn’t worth paying…

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