SongWriter: Children and Horror

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There’s a poster hanging in a deli on West 73rd Street in Manhattan of a local Holocaust survivor named Paula Weissman. My wife was in the deli one day when she saw Weissman standing in line ahead of her. She pointed the woman out to my then-seven-year-old daughter and asked if she’d like to meet her. My daughter said she did, so they went up and spoke briefly to her, and wished her well.

It wasn’t clear at the time how much my daughter — whose distant relatives fled the Inquisition and the Holocaust — understood. Bringing young children into adulthood sometimes feels like a monstrous reveal. Each passing year you are obligated to remove princesses and talking frogs and expose the white supremacists and mass murder underneath. The difficulty is not just the horror, but the timing. No one wants to move too quickly, but moving too slowly has its own perils. You never know when a sleepover will include a surprise screening of Schindler’s List, or the classroom curriculum will veer into unexpected territory. 

Afterward, my wife asked our daughter what she thought about meeting Weissman. It turned out that she thought the older woman was famous, though she wasn’t sure why. (Who else but a celebrity gets their picture on the wall?) That day we began the process of explaining the Holocaust.

I thought about this the other day when I interviewed songwriter Colin McGrath. He wrote a song called “Dear Aurora Grace” in response to Alison Gaylin’s Never Look Back. The song is about the betrayal a daughter feels because her mother hid and underplayed the cruelty of the world. Colin told me that he often worries about telling his young daughter the truth about climate change. 

“Every time we bring up something like this, about the environment, there’s this part of my daughter that gets super freaked-out. And so there’s this temptation not to talk about it,” Colin said. “When are you lying to your child as an act of love, and when are you truthful with them even though you know it’s going to hurt?”

You can hear Alison read from Never Look Back, and the song Colin wrote in response in the newest episode of SongWriter.

Ben Arthur is the creator and host of SongWriter. His new EP is “Collision,” and you can follow him @MyHeart on Twitter and @BenArthurMusic on IG.

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