A Lifesaving Journey with Anne Frank!

In the opening lines of The Diary of Anne Frank, Anne shared the excitement of unwrapping her diary: “Dear Kitty” …a gift for her 13th birthday. Likewise, on my 13th birthday, I had a similar rush of excitement when I unwrapped Anne’s diary, which was a gift from my mother, along with an empty journal to get me started.

Anne Frank writing in 1941.

Anne Frank writing in April, 1941.

Mum was forever trying to get me interested in reading but she also encouraged and nurtured my writing. When I was around 11 years old, she’d taught me how to spell “enthusiastic” and I was as proud as punch with my new word and liberally started adding it to my compositions at school to receive that all-important red tick and VG in the margin. That same year, Mum also gave me a thesaurus. Although it took me a few years to really master it, that precious book opened my mind to the real possibility of words and engendered a real love of words themselves. Words…not just as part of a sentence, or telling a story but words as individuals. All of a sudden, I could appreciate their unique sound and imagery in the same way you can appreciate the beauty in a single, musical note.

Anyway, having connected so strongly with Anne Frank, not unsurprisingly, I wrote my journal entries to: “Dear Anne”…the perfect friend and confidant. That said, to be honest, writing to her was a bit like staring in a pond at my own reflection. She knew, understood and accepted me in a way I didn’t even accept myself.

Of course, I wasn’t conscious of any of this at the time. I just wrote and wrote, pouring out my very troubled heart to Anne Frank in a way that I couldn’t with anyone “real” at the time. After all, who can? As we traversed the years, Anne became drawn into and even a very part of my heart of hearts.On reflecton, I suspect these outpourings to “Dear Anne” were like writing to a much older, wiser part of myself. An inner dialogue with and to that essential, spiritual part of my being, which The Bible describes as having God living within us.That God was somehow speaking to me through her words…or was that my words or even His words??? Ouch! I’m so confused!!

There were so many, many times when writing in my diary saved me from that swirling vortex of pubescence, which really can engulf a teenager and certainly wasn’t unique or peculiar to me…just part of growing up.

After all, being a teenager can be a very perplexing and challenging time. As if simply growing up wasn’t hard enough, when you add all those surging hormones and mind, body and spirit all get thrown into the mix, you have one very explosive pressure cooker. As parents often lament, it doesn’t take much for the lot to explode! Writing to Anne Frank via my diary, was a kind of pressure valve, letting out the steam before the pressure cooker exploded leaving splat all over the ceiling.

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
― Anne Frank

Although I related intimately to Anne Frank, well you might question that connection. After all, we were two complete strangers living in such different worlds at different  times. What could we possibly have in common?

An snapshot of Anne's original diary.

An snapshot of Anne’s original diary.

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
― Anne Frank

Anne Frank was born in Germany in 1929 on the eve of the Great Depression and was actually the same age as my Great Aunt. Indeed, they were born only months apart, which has come to intrigue me. With the rising tide of anti-Semitism, the Franks fled to Amsterdam and ultimately went into hiding in the Secret Annexe where she was not only in hiding from the Nazis but was also living under the microscope in impossibly close quarters with her parents, sister and other residents. Indeed, she had to share her bedroom with an old, cranky male dentist, which seems highly inappropriate through modern eyes!! That would be a living hell for any teenager!!! Anyone!!!

Frank Family Photo May 1941

Frank Family Photo May 1941

What did I, a girl born in the late 1960s in sunny, suburban Sydney on the other side of the world during a time of peace and economic prosperity, have in common with Anne Frank?  The casual observer would say that a bad day was having to walk to school or fighting with my brother for control of the TV… such trivial concerns in the overall scheme of things!!

However, underneath the surface, my situation wasn’t quite that straight-forward, which was no doubt an another reason I connected with Anne Frank. We didn’t know it at the time but I was living in a weird sort of prison all of my own.

Anyway, beyond her circumstances, Anne Frank also expressed so much of the frustration, angst and confusion of being a teenager and she did so in such a way that millions have found solace in her words. Just like me writing away at my desk in suburban Sydney, millions of young women have also addressed their journals: “Dear Anne”.

Anne wrote about her strained relationship with her mother and living in the shadow of her perfect sister, Margot. She also felt that she was being constantly criticized by the other adults in the annexe who simply didn’t get her. These are experiences most of us can relate to and so through her words, we found a mirror of our own struggle as well as a much loved and needed friend and confidante.

I also related to Anne Frank as a person as well. We are both extroverts, wanted to be journalists and have inquiring minds. Both of us were obsessed with asking “why?”. We were both fascinated and intrigued by people and what makes them tick. We also struggled with our relationships with our mothers. These commonalities bridged the many, many gaps which lay between us. She was my friend, my confidante and at times, it seemed like the only person on this planet, who had ever walked in my shoes because we both felt a sense of being different, misunderstood and outcast.

“People can tell you to keep your mouth shut, but that doesn’t stop you from having your own opinion.”
― Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

Anne Frank also became the perfect soul mate for any teen, or anyone at all for that matter, who grapples with being different for whatever reason. Anne Frank’s sense of difference not only involved being a young Jewish girl being persecuted by the Nazis. Once living with her family in the annexe, her sense of difference stemmed more from everyone else in the annexe and it certainly wasn’t easy for her being the youngest and feeling like she was being treated as a child, even though she had become a young woman. At times, Anne feels persecuted by everybody in the annexe and feels she can’t do anything right. Haven’t we all been there?

“Although I’m only fourteen, I know quite well what I want, I know who is right and who is wrong. I have my opinions, my own ideas and principles, and although it may sound pretty mad from an adolescent, I feel more of a person than a child, I feel quite independent of anyone.”
― Anne Frank, The Diary of Anne Frank

However, as my journey continued beyond the turbulent teens, I outgrew calling my journal Anne, although I’ve never outgrown my love for her. Once I’d left school and started university, I discovered that people come in all sorts of packages and that diversity is a blessing, not a curse.When I was backpacking through Europe back in 1992, I visited Anne Frank’s House in Amsterdam, which was certainly an incredibly special, deeply,deeply personal experience. I have never forgotten what she meant to me and how writing to her saved a drowning soul so many times all those years ago.

It was only as my journey continued that I came to realise just how much Anne Frank had helped me. All my life, I’d felt different but didn’t know why. I had this deep sense and knowledge that something was wrong but couldn’t work out what or put a name to it. There was something deep and unfathomable going on and I searched, really ploughing the depths it all but it still remained a mystery. Once I reached university, I found out I wasn’t so alone and there were indeed thousands like me but still that nagging doubt persisted. Something was wrong.I developed an intense interest in psychology, philosophy, literature, prayed and wrote angst-ridden poems in an almighty quest to try and unravel my own inner mystery and somehow understand myself.

Meanwhile, I was diagnosed with serious anxiety.

It was only when I was around 27 when these seemingly vague symptoms stepped out of the closet and spiraled out of control, that the mystery was revealed. After feeling like the room was spinning round, I went to the GP who asked me to put my finger on my nose, a classic neurological test and I missed. He referred me to the neurologist and I was diagnosed with Dandy-Walker Syndrome, a variation of hydrocephalus. Suddenly, a myriad of weird symptoms fell into place and the unexplained started to make sense. Apparently, I’d had this all my life and it was probably caused my my very difficult birth. Although the symptoms had always been bubbling quietly under the surface, six months after diagnosis, I descended into a neurological hell, which was right out of Oliver Sack’s: The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.  I went on to have brain surgery and was given a shunt, which managed the pressure in my head. It was a long road back to anything approaching “normal” and I went through six months of intensive rehab where I learned to walk again (this time without staggering around with the broad gait of a sailor on a shaky skiff) and well as overcoming serious short-term memory issues and having virtually no ability to organise myself.

Unwittingly, Anne Frank helped me survive those torturous teenage years where the symptoms of the hydrocephalus were there but written off simply as “Rowena”. Since re-adjusting the settings, it’s been quite a journey…incredibly frustrating and slow moving at first but intriguing in retrospect. While I am still me, there are definitely traits that weren’t “me” at all and were symptoms which have since faded, if not gone altogether. Even now, almost 20 years after surgery, I am still noticing improvements but still have some lingering struggles.  I can now play the violin, ski but more importantly, I met and married my husband and have largely been able to look after our two children and the dogs. I also returned to work as a Marketing Manager, although chemo two years ago has put work on hold for the time being.

I am still an extrovert and full of all the contradictions I shared with Anne Frank and I hope, have a deeper sense of compassion for people who don’t fit the norm and maybe don’t have a “Dear Anne” they can call their own.

These days, I am also a parent and next year, our son will dip his toe into that swirling vortex of pubescence when he starts high school. Somehow, I can’t see him writing to “Dear Anne” but he does Scouts and plays the guitar and I hope these outlets will bridge the gaps for him.

Meanwhile, our 9 year old daughter dabbles with writing in her diary and also loves drawing in there as well. I’m looking forward to giving her a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank when she turns 13 so she can also perhaps experience that same connection I found so many, many years ago.

Last year, I stumbled across this interview with Anne Frank’s father, Otto, who spoke dare I say frankly about reading her diary. This is an absolute must!!! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AWRBinP7ans

Did you ever write a journal growing up and any suggestions on helping boys get through the teenage years would be appreciated!!

xx Rowena

PS: I think you’ll all agree that Anne frank achieved this goal:

“I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death!”
― Anne Frank

10 thoughts on “A Lifesaving Journey with Anne Frank!

  1. merrildsmith

    So much to comment on here. I think many teenage girls relate to Anne because she seems like such a typical girl, despite her extraordinary circumstances.

    I like to think that Anne would have been happy to know that her diary has touched so many—that something good came out of the horror and tragedy that ended her brief life. My younger daughter just got a full-time teaching job teaching 8th grade English, and she’s doing the play version of the diary. (I think this is part of NJ’s requirements.) I believe she’s also having her students keep diaries.

    Do you know about this? http://www.annefrank.org.uk/what-we-do/notsilent

  2. herheadache

    There are three Anne’s who have had a huge impact on my life: Anne Frank (real girl I never knew), Anne Shirley (favourite literary character), and my oma. They were all strong, independent, and larger than life. I am working on writing about this topic.
    I hope to travel to Anne Frank’s museum in Amsterdam one day. I hope it happens.
    In the meantime, there is a temporary exhibit for Anne Frank coming to a museum near me and a play from the book is going on at the Stratford Theatre in Stratford, Ontario. I will be going and writing about it on my blog.
    Great post here. Glad Anne’s diary could help you through your teenage year and I hope your daughter likes it. Perhaps you could give it to your sons. Maybe they would like it too.

  3. roweeee Post author

    The son is a bit tricky. If it came as a Minecraft mod, I’d be set but books and writing aren’t really his scene. Not yet, anyhow.
    I look forward to reading your post on Anne Frank and hope I don’t miss it. It really is getting hard to keep up at the moment. Hope you are doing well and starting to enjoy Spring after such a cold Winter. We are heading the other way here with Autumn setting in. We like to think we live in an eternal Summer and feel a bit ripped off when Winter turns up.

  4. Pingback: Anne Frank: A Global Tribute… Tuesday 14th April, 2015 | beyondtheflow

  5. roweeee Post author

    Thank you so much for these very positive words, Davina. You just made my night. PLease start writing again. I’ll be round to check out your blog now and please share with your students. The teenage years are difficult and I’m being reminded of that as my son starts high school next year.xx Rowena

  6. Davina Lyons

    Yes Rowena! I will share with my students. I have one son who is finishing his Junior year – yay!!! One more year to go. Thanks for your encouragement!

  7. Pingback: The Journey of A Thousand Books Sets Sail. | beyondtheflow

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