Daddy Mad Face and Daddy Angel Face: trauma and attachment

DSC00634Consider the following odd exchange between parent and child.

There were two sides to my father. I called them Daddy Mad Face and Daddy Angel Face.

We had a game we played when we were quite young. When Dad arrived home late on a cold, dark night, we’d make him go out again, first turning up his collar and mussing up his hair. Cast by us as some poor, homeless wanderer he’d knock at the door and we’d bring him into the warmth, take his coat and lead him to the table. It was a strangely satisfying ritual that I wanted to repeat over and over again.

Dad escaped from a train bound for Auschwitz, leaving behind his mother, his brothers and sister – Lawrence, Henry, Fela, Tola – their husbands, their wives and their children. And, as I found out only a few years ago, his first wife.

Sometimes we’d ask questions that must have caused him a lot of pain. How could you leave your mother on the train? “They would shoot you.” Why didn’t you fight? “They would shoot you.” Why didn’t you all just run away? “They would shoot you.” How can you be sure they are all really dead? “I went back.”

He firmly banned us from having toy guns, until we nagged for long enough. Once, looking down the sights of a toy rifle he got for my brother, he remarked almost casually, “I saw them shoot the breasts off a woman.”


What are we to make of this story? It all depends on the context, of course. So here is a little. The young girl was deeply attached to her father, but at the same time terribly afraid of his rages. Never did she fear him physically. “His one pathetic attempt to deliver a formal spanking reduced me to tears of laughter.” What she feared was his rages, which would seem to come out of nowhere. “For years I felt more comfortable in homes where the father was absent. Fathers were unpredictable.”

“When I was 13 and just beginning to get to know him – we had taken to having late-night talks about politics or books – he disappeared from my life.” By that time her father had lost his job tailor, they had lost their house, twice, and the family piano had been repossessed. Her mother took her, her sister, and her brother from Canada to live with her extended family in New Zealand. She never saw her father again. At 17 she learned he had died after what seems to have been a period of insanity.

A strange great gift

The narrator is a second-generation Holocaust survivor, and there are lots of ways to interpret her story. One is that her father gave her a great gift. Many who write about the children of survivors write about how the survivors are unable to protect their children against their own trauma. Yet, it is easy to ignore the consequence of such protection. I believe the child often feels abandoned. We neglect the degree to which the child and adolescent needs to know and feel the inner reality of the parent, even if this reality includes horror. Without this access, everything feels phony, unreal, including the child him or herself. If the parent has been horrified, then the child needs to be horrified too if they are to be securely attached. But the child needs to be horrified in a special way, a way that mediates the horror, so that it is not overwhelming, intrusive, a projective identification into the child.

We survive by forming relationships, and adapting to the minds of others. Relationships are the remedy for fear—of loss, of annihilation, of psychic emptiness—and offer us the deepest expression of our humanity (Slade, p. 41).

I believe that the way in which the father, with the children’s cooperation, turned his latent madness into a game made this horrified part of himself available. It allowed the young girl to adapt herself to the father’s troubled mind. She did not have to throw up a wall against him. She could have a relationship with a man who was half mad. And half sane.

How odd it is for the child to feel abandoned by the parent because the parent won’t share his or her horror. But that seems to be the way it works. In this respect, the phantom that Maria Torok writes about, a formation of the unconscious that stems from “a direct empathy with the unconscious or the rejected psychic matter of a parental object,” arises naturally because the child wants to feel what the parent experienced but cannot know (p. 181). Daddy Mad Face/Angel Face did not seem to know his horror. At least this is suggested by the flatness of his response to questions, and his emotionally alienated comment about seeing a woman’s breasts shot off. But he and his children seem to have been able to play act his duality, his frightening strangeness that was also a closeness, in a way that worked to contain the horror. Doubtless the mother’s stability was a great help.

In the years after we left Canada, I used to have a lot of dreams of the kind where you see the lost person on a bus or in the street but can never get to them in time. Not that long ago I had another dream. This time, someone brought him towards me. He was lost and cold, his hair mussed, his collar turned up. He seemed not to know me. But then we embraced and he did. It was like a last chance to say… What? Goodbye. Sorry.

I woke up crying, happy, electrified with love. My father’s daughter, I’ve never had much time for the supernatural, but, for a moment, I almost believed in spirits. Or at least that, in spite of all that is lost, love remains.

A love that was so strong because the young girl and her father found a way to share a part of himself that was so traumatic that it could not be integrated. Had this part not been shared, the young girl would have been less attached. That’s another way of saying she would have been less close to her father, and probably loved him less too, if these things can be measured.


Arietta Slade, “Psychoanalysis: The Fifteenth John Bowlby Memorial Lecture,” in The John Bowlby Memorial Conference Monograph Series, ed. Judy Yellin and Orit Badouk-Epstein. Karnac Books, 2013.

Maria Torok, “Story of Fear: The Symptoms of Phobia—The Return of the Repressed or the Return of the Phantom,” in The Shell and the Kernel, vol. 1, by Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok. University of Chicago Press, 1994.

The second-generation survivor’s story can be found at


Comments (2)

  1. Matt B.

    I think this is an incredibly interesting matter.

    It suggests that the only options are (a) to communicate or (b) to transmit the horrified, traumatized aspects of the parent’s (or brother’s, or friend’s, or colleague’s) self.

    Maybe it even suggests that there is a trade-off (not exactly zero-sum, but perhaps close) between these two modes of contact, that when one is not communicating, one is transmitting, and if not transmitting the horror, one is transmitting the hiding or the suppression of horror, which transits to the other an absence or an abandonment, as you suggest, that resembles or, in some cases, may be just as bad as the horror, itself, since it becomes this mysterious, unknowable thing in the parent and in the self.

    It also makes me wonder about those who insist that trauma can not be communicated in a managed, reasoned, meaningful way. If not, or to the degree that it can not, then trauma would seem to be only capable of being transmitted or hidden (where the hiding of the trauma is then what is transmitted and comes to be its own sort of trauma).

    I wonder if this urging against the communication and containment of trauma entails the desire to transmit trauma to others, as projective identification, or at least to transmit the ‘phantom’, the agony of what is missing or lost.

    Perhaps it is odd to speak personally here, but my mother hid a great deal of her horror and shame (she was not a survivor of atrocity in the historical sense, but in the microcosmic yet equally real sense in that her father died when she was a young child and her family lived with a deep shame and a strict moral code which she was meant to uphold and redeem). She, too, had surprising, uncontrollable rages. The effect of her behavior and her hiding of herself was that her children never felt safe around her, and presumed that the horror she was hiding was ours, our fault, because of us, in us, and something so shameful that it could not be spoken about. In this way, she transmitted her suffering without communicating or knowing it, or making it knowable or manageable to her children.

    I hope it does not seem to trivialize holocaust survival to speak about other forms of suffering or horror. I don’t think it does. (If it did, and we couldn’t speak about them, would that mean we were being urged to transmit them instead? Maybe.)

    Anyway, a fascinating post and topic.


      Dear Matt, thanks for thinking about my post. I think you put it well: the choice with trauma is transmission or communication, and that hiding the horror is itself a form of transmission.

      Daddy mad face/angel face is interesting because of the cooperative creativeness of both father and children in finding a way to communicate some of his pain/horror/rage/alienation. I suspect none of this would have been possible without the stabilizing background presence of the mother, who is more important than my post describes.

      About whether it is “correct” to compare your family’s suffering with the Holocaust. I think if we couldn’t do something like this, then the Holocaust would be incomprehensible. I don’t think it is. Fred

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