In mennonite in a little black dress, Rhoda Janzen speaks of having a feeling of “pleasant indifference” when contemplating having her uterus removed. After the operation, “…instead of mourning my lost uterus, I took naps and read the New York Times. . .” Faced with the possibility of permanent incontinence due to a botched operation, “a possibility that would seriously mess with my love life, not to mention my gym schedule”, she comments, “But like my mother, I immediately began telling myself that permanent incontinence wasn’t the end of the world.”
It’s funny. I laughed. Yet some reviewers have commented negatively on Rhoda’s slick tone, and on how cautious she is about disclosing her inner experiences. For example, Valerie Weaver-Zercher wrote in her review the Christian Century, “Yet in an impressive feat of comic deflection, she manages to reveal little of consequence about either herself or the church from which she came. She is self-effacing and self-aware, but her wit at times obscures authentic self-revelation.” In this, however, Rhoda is solidly within the tradition of Mennonite Brethren immigrants, who developed defense mechanisms with which to cope with their trauma. They often employed intellectualisation and rationalization — and yes, humor.
The psycho-social effects of the whole experience of leaving Russia and coming to the US have rippled down through the generations. For a view into this, I am lucky to have in hand a 1997 dissertation researched and written by Lynda Klassen Reynolds. Recruiting Canadian interview subjects from Mennonite churches and personal referrals, she tested 67 first generation respondents (for example, my grandparents and Rhoda’s father Edmund Janzen), 104 second generation respondents (like my mother and Rhoda), and 42 third generation respondents (me). Because her father was the last son of a second marriage, Rhoda in the same generation of respondents as my mother, although she’s younger than I am by more than a decade.
Lynda Klassen’s goal was to compare scores of her test subjects against the norms on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 (MMPI-2) and Personal Experience Questionnaires, to investigate the psychological effects of trauma and immigration on the first generation, and to see if transmission of these symptoms was occurring across generations.
- Lynda learned that people in the first generation had greater levels of anxiety, somatic complaints, psychasthenia (a psychological disorder characterized by phobias, obsessions, compulsions, or excessive anxiety), inhibition of aggression, need for affection, and lesser levels of ego strength.
- The second generation manifested significantly greater levels of inhibition of aggression, over-controlled hostility, and anxiety and depression.
- The third generation showed significantly greater levels of anxiety and depression.
As I was growing up, my grandparents spoke rarely of their experiences in Russia. Sometimes my grandfather would sit in his chair with his head in his hands. We children would be encouraged to not bother him, because “grandpa’s thinking about the war”. Once, to help me with a school report, he scrawled out for me on a few pages of lined paper some of his experiences during the revolution. That is the only time I can recall him telling me about it, and I cherished those pages, and still have them today. I wish he had told me more. Assaulted by memories he couldn’t easily share, or process, in his later years he lost his zest and sunk into depression and silence.
Rhoda’s flippant tone and caustic remarks are typical of people who inhibit their aggression, a trait found in higher-than-average levels amongst second generation Russian Mennonite Brethren immigrants in Klassen’s study. Klassen includes a comment from another study that “Similar evidence of a quick wit in a sarcastic vein was exhibited by Jews living through oppressive and traumatic experiences.”
If Klassen’s findings can be generalized to other second generation MB immigrants, Rhoda would tend to make concessions in interpersonal relationships to avoid conflict. Is that why Rhoda stuck in her marriage to Nick for 17 years, living with a man who seems to have been kind of toxic for her? As she says, “..an imbroglio of bad judgment and denial”. If that was the case, I empathize. As a young Mennonite Brethren woman I felt I was expected to marry another Mennonite Brethren person, have children, bake zwiebach, cook borscht, and be supportive to my husband, giving up my own leadings and desires for his. I totally get that while Rhoda may not have married another MB, once in the marriage, no matter its quality, she did her darnedest to stay in it, ‘cause that’s what a good MB woman does. (I did that once, too.)
I’m believing that Rhoda also experienced the anxiety and depression which might be expected in second-generation Mennonite Brethren immigrants. She talks about her Childhood of Fear. “Why we were always so afraid I cannot say; we weren’t abused, attacked, or violated in any way. On the contrary: as Mennonites, we lived remarkably sheltered lives. . . Somewhere, somehow, the Mennonite culture had taught us that all non-Mennonite men were would-be rapists. Thus whenever we stepped outside the protective shield of our Mennonite community, we moved in a terrifyingly unfamiliar world.”
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen
New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2009; 241 pp.; ISBN-13: 978-0-8050-8923-7, ISBN-10: 0-8050-8925-X; hardback $22.00.