A woman throws knives around the head of a cowering five-year-old standing against a board while other children look on in terror.
The film clip —from a time when health and safety was not a priority — is a shocking scene from a new documentary about parental trauma and therapy. One of the film’s main subjects, Michael Moskowitz, says it reminds him all too vividly of his own childhood. “There were many times I feared for my life,” says Moskowitz, the child of abusive parents who escaped Europe just before the Holocaust.
That the Holocaust cast a long shadow of trauma is no longer news — it came to light as the post-war generation hit their teens in the 1960s — nor is the fact that many turn to therapy to try and deal with their unhappy and anxious childhoods. But what is revealing about this film is seeing that process laid bare, as Moskowitz takes to the couch for an audience, reliving emotionally painful events that have kept him in therapy for more than half a century.
“My oldest sister saved my life,” says the man who started his journey into analysis at the age of 16 with a therapist recommended by his sister Sondra, 11 years his senior. Over the years the future Dr Moskowitz (he would go on to qualify as a psychoanalyst himself) recalled the terror of growing up with Muncie, his unpredictable mother who never got over learning in 1945 that her parents and six of her 15 siblings had perished in the camps.
“I even had a shudder about doing this interview first thing in the morning, because getting up every day meant terror,” explains the 71-year-old on a Zoom call from his home in New York. “I’d have to face my mother’s rage, which could be triggered by anything.” That invariably meant a beating, a trauma hidden to outsiders. “She was kind to others outside her family and well-loved by people who did not see her as a destructive person who took pleasure in the pain she inflicted.” That pain was felt by the husband she considered second-best and all her children, Sondra, Michael and Gail. “The three of us spent all our time comforting each other.”
Their story began in Mukacheve, a town in Hungary (later Czech, now Ukrainian) where Muncie, as Magdalena Eisler was known, was born in 1919. She was the youngest of 16 children, daughter of a farmer and horse-trader. She left to join two of her sisters in the US in 1936 at the age of 17. “I think she expected it to be a temporary trip, but she met my father, who was from a nearby area and quite smitten when they met in New York,” explains Moskowitz.
He feels that Muncie never got over the boyfriend she left behind in Europe. “She was constantly disappointed by my father, with whom she never stopped arguing; they had a terrible marriage although they never divorced.”
Sondra, now 82, was just old enough to see the change in her mother when she learned in 1945 that so many of her family had died in the camps. “She seems to have had some kind of breakdown.” Muncie’s strategy was denial; although Moskowitz says “those relatives were always with us”, he had to learn about the camps from what he read in childhood, and his mother did not acknowledge to him how the Holocaust wiped out her own family.
In the film, in scenes filmed before her death in 2013, Muncie says: “I talk to the moon, the stars, the candles on a Friday night and I talk to my parents. They didn’t disappear — they’re still with me.” She retained happy memories of riding horses and living around water which chimed with what Moskowitz relates as the two or three times he can remember being happy as a child. It was when they were in the countryside together, far away from the family home in Port Jervis, an industrial town. There they lived in a downmarket neighbourhood far from other Jewish residents and there was the added burden of anti-semitism to bear: “It’s like they wanted to tell us ‘this is the world and you have to deal with it’.”
The film in which both Moskowitz mother and son appear was 17 years in the making, the brainchild of his friend, award-winning film-maker Klaartje Quirijns.
Quirijns followed Moskowitz’s work with a New York-based therapist named Kirkland Vaughans, and then turned the camera on herself to explore her own family’s traumatic past. One thing shared by Moskowitz and Quirijns is the loss of a sister. Gail Moskowitz became involved in the world of drugs and died in 1986.
He feels his own sessions — the 17 years on and off seeing Vaughans, which he agreed to do so they could be filmed, as well as the three or four bouts of therapy which preceded them — taught him the vital truth that there is no onus on a child to forgive the wrong wrought by a parent. “It’s a choice,” he says. Of his mother, he says: “I felt sad for her, but it is very hard for me to say I loved her.”
So far as being saved is concerned, he attributes much of the credit to meeting his wife, Sally, early in life. They have been married for 51 years. His in-laws survived Auschwitz and in contrast to his parents, readily faced their past.“They had their tattoos and my mother-in-law would tell her story to anyone.”
What he also learned from a career in analysis is that people mellow with age. “So my mother, who had always been so denigrating of anyone who had anything she didn’t have and always wanted to be the centre of attention, became a decent grandmother, and I managed to get my father on anti-depressants and have a reasonable adult relationship with both of them.”
And one good thing which came out of a miserable collective childhood, he says, is the multi-generational family reunions he and Sondra have been enjoying for years with their children and grandchildren. “It’s something we couldn’t have done while our mother was alive, because she would have insisted on being the centre of attention — even if it was just forcing food on everybody.” Not for nothing is the film called Your Mum And Dad — the printable portion of the famous Philip Larkin poem about how parents visit inherited trauma on their children.
Your Mum And Dad is on at JW3 on May 1-5 and is available now on Curzon Home Cinema.