Hendrika de Vries is the author of the new memoir When a Toy Dog Became a Wolf and the Moon Broke Curfew. It focuses on her own and her mother's experiences during World War II. A therapist for more than 30 years, she was born in Amsterdam and now lives in Santa Barbara, California.
Q: You note that the events of recent years pushed you to write this memoir, although you'd been thinking about doing so for a long time. What were the specific factors that made you start writing it?
A: As a licensed family therapist in California, with a background in depth psychology and theological studies, I also taught in the Counseling Psychology and Mythological Studies programs at Pacifica Graduate Institute.
From time to time, in classroom lectures and public presentations, I would use anecdotes from my childhood to illustrate the multi-layered and archetypal depth that connects and unites us in our human experiences. When stressing the individual and collective healing power of sharing our life stories, I was often urged to write a memoir about my childhood. I eventually did include segments of my story in articles I wrote for Spring Journal.
I began writing my manuscript, but to publish it still seemed somewhat self-indulgent. I had survived to live a long successful life and so many others suffered torturous deaths.
It was really not until I saw the images on my television screen of neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, and I read of the escalating attacks on houses of worship in the last few years, the increase of hate crimes, the resurgence of racism and blatant attacks on women’s reproductive rights and freedoms under the current administration, that I began to think differently. Publishing my story no longer felt like a matter of choice, but an obligation, a duty to our human dignity and soul.
I have witnessed freedoms being erased at lighting speed. I know what it means when survival comes at the cost of your voice. I have seen human beings demeaned, dragged out of homes, and slaughtered at random, because those in power deemed them “inferior.”
But I also saw the power of resistance and human resilience. I survived, in part, because there were still enough adults who could imagine a more just world and had the goodness and courage to fight for it. I want today’s children to have the same chance. I cannot be silent.
Q: Did you need to do much research to write the book, or was most of it taken from your own memories?
A: I wanted my memoir to express the undiluted experiences of the little girl as much as possible. So, the events in the book are all grounded in my personal memories and remembered conversations with my mother. Many years of Jungian analysis, when I was an adult, gave me the opportunity to articulate the emotions and explore dream images that were connected to the memories.
I also made a pilgrimage to Amsterdam in 1993, where I worked with a Jungian analyst, Dr. Sonny Herman, who was a rabbi. Under his tutelage, I revisited the particular sites in Amsterdam where the traumatic events I remembered took place. Each morning I ventured out alone to explore a different site. Later in the day, Dr. Herman and I would meet in his office to process the emotions and thoughts that had been triggered.
My work with him, which took place in Dutch, the language I spoke as a little girl, helped me root the memories in place.
Since my goal for my memoir was to convey a child’s raw experiences of war, violence, oppression, loss, betrayal, bigotry, and also a mother’s resistance and strength, I kept my research to a minimum. I used it mainly to validate the factual occurrence of my remembered experiences and to place them in a chronological time frame.
Q: What impact did it have on you to write about your own and your mother's experiences during World War II?
A: My first attempts at writing about my childhood drained me and shocked me into a deeper understanding of how the body holds trauma. In order for my experiences to feel authentic to the reader, I tried to immerse myself in the events. There were times when I would unexpectedly break into sobs, my body shaking, as I sat at the computer and literally relived the emotions of a particular experience.
But the writing also helped me to more fully appreciate my mother’s astonishing strength. As a teenager and young adult I had battled her for many years. Because of our merged wartime bond, I had needed to establish an identity that was separate from hers, which at times hurt her.
But in the writing of the events my heart opened wide to that solo mother who decided to resist oppression, and who dared to risk her own life and that of her child, because she hoped that “someone would do the same for her daughter if circumstances were reversed.”
Writing the mother-daughter story gave me deeper insight and appreciation for the complexity of motherhood and the power of mother-daughter relationships. It was the strength my mother had modeled and inspired in me that gave me the courage to face my own memories and write my story.
Q: Can you say more about the book's title and what it signifies for you?
A: The images in my book’s title, the toy dog that becomes a wolf and the moon that breaks curfew, are derived from actual events described in the memoir, but on a deeper level they also carry a symbolic meaning that I consider relevant for women today.
In the actual events of my story, the tiny stuffed toy dog becomes a fierce wolf in a little girl’s imagination when her father is taken away. Her belief in its magic empowers her to ask a German guard to pass the tiny dog on to her father, who is now behind barbed wire. It is this wolf-like strength that she also later sees in her mother who joins the Resistance.
The moon that breaks curfew refers to an unexpected brilliant full moon that guides a mother and her small daughter safely home along ice-covered sidewalks and over slippery bridges on a dark cloud-covered night in Amsterdam. With blackout material covering windows, streetlights extinguished, and a Nazi-imposed curfew that could get anyone shot, the full moon breaking through the heavy clouds to light a path would always be in the mother’s mind a true “miracle.”
On a deeper level, both these images can be seen as symbols of the gathering of female strength and resistance to oppression. The culturally imposed standards of gender, into which I was born, expected a woman to be obedient and decorative as a toy dog. In my memoir the toy dog becomes a wolf, symbolizing a transformation from the domesticated feminine to the fierce wolf-like strength and courage that my mother and other women showed in their resistance to tyranny and oppression in World War II.
In the same way, our patriarchal mythologies often symbolize the moon as feminine. Its cool reflective light seen as lesser than and merely reflective of a burning masculine sun. But the moon in her capacity to create light in the dark may also symbolize a power to shine light on abuses that have been hiding under cover of darkness.
In the past few years, we have become aware of the power unleashed when women collectively reflect on their experiences and tell their stories. Each story, whether of sexual abuse, domestic violence, racial or gender discrimination, unequal pay, or other, shines a light on assaults carried out and hidden in the dark. When women share their stories, as we have seen in the #MeToo movement, their shared reflections bring the light to its fullness.
Like the “miracle” full moon in my memoir, their combined reflections shine a light that breaks the oppressor’s curfew and reveal a path to guide us home. In this deeper understanding I see the moon that breaks curfew as another metaphor for the gathering of female strength and resistance to tyranny and oppression.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have outlined chapters for my memoir about a Dutch immigrant girl who comes of age in Australia in the 1950s. I have also begun my notes for a third memoir. It covers landing in Denver, Colorado, for my husband’s career in the 1960s and the midst of the Women’s Liberation movement. It explores a woman’s mid-life crisis and subsequent solo journey and spiritual quest. I may combine the two books into one, but I am not sure about that yet.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I swim a mile in a local pool a couple of times a week. It’s my meditation. I like taking long walks on the beach with my husband. I believe in dreams and synchronicities that guide us even when life brings sorrows and challenges. I believe that we need to cultivate our imagination to envision the world we want to live in and form the solidarity and courage to fight for it.
I am a mother of three adult children, and the grandmother of four millennial grandchildren. I pray for the health of our planet.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb