Susan Hadler

Susan Johnson Hadler

Interview by Caitlin Hamilton Summie

How hard was it to write this book?  The hardest part was fear of upsetting my family.  The first book I wrote, Lost in the Victory, which I co-authored with Ann Mix, touched my mother’s deep, deep pain at the death of her husband in WWII.  The family circled its wagons around Mother, and I was cut off from them for several years.  This time I was very careful to give everyone the chance to read the manuscript.  Their enthusiasm and help was indescribably precious to me and a source of encouragement beyond anything I could imagine.  I would have written it all down for my children and myself without their acceptance, but their trust and support kept me going all the way to a book.

Now that you have reconnected, does your family stay in touch?  We are in touch and the connections keep growing and deepening.  Cousins met each other for the first time at a gathering on Martha’s Vineyard after Elinor’s memorial service.  Now everyone’s planning to meet again in DC for the book launch and our second reunion.

What resources helped you reconnect with lost family members?  The first resource was internal.   My longing to know them kept me connected to the unknown and never seen members of my family.  The first step of the outward search was a call to a local vet’s center that put me in touch with Ann Mix and the American War Orphans Network (AWON).  Ann guided me to the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, and they sent my father’s military records.  I contacted his schools, grade school through college, and savored every bit of information.  The search for Mother’s sisters began with my grandfather’s obituary.  I found valuable information in county courthouse records.  Genealogy departments in libraries were an excellent resource.  I found that the past is still alive in the present – in documents and photographs, and most especially in those who remember.

The stigma of mental illness divided your family as much as war did.  How has Elinor’s life transformed your own?  Her life transformed my life in many ways.  I can live more simply knowing Elinor, who lost everything, was still alive at 94 with plenty of spunk and affection.  Her survival against all odds and everything terrible has given me extra courage.  By calling the nurses ‘Mother’ and the staff by her sisters’ names, she taught me that what really matters is seeing everyone as family.  Elinor brought our broken family together, and I’ve found a deeper sense of belonging and wholeness.  And I’ve learned that love still exists underneath all the hurts and tragedies and disappointments.

Did your work as a psychotherapist inform your interactions with Elinor?  People often communicate their raw experiences by having another person feel what it’s been like for them.  As a therapist – when I sat with someone I learned how to accept what I was feeling as a form of communication and to use it to understand that person instead of judging or reacting.   When I sat with Elinor, I wanted desperately to know her and to understand her, so I listened to her words, her feelings, and her silences.  When her words didn’t make sense, I just accepted what she said and tried to feel what it was like to be her.  That seemed to give her space to feel connected and continue to relate.  As a writer, I try to tune into myself as deeply as I can to see what’s there and then try to put it into the clearest, simplest words that convey what I’ve discovered and want to say.  I take my own raw experiences, try to understand them, and put them into words.

Many people would have felt bitter and angry at your mother.  How did you get to a place of forgiveness and compassion?  Hmmm.  It took a long time and a lot of support.  Jack, my husband, was always there for me and my friends listened.  Many of my war orphan friends knew exactly how dangerous it was to disturb our mothers’ peace of mind.  I was not alone and that helped.  I learned the Buddhist practice of tonglen – of taking in the other’s suffering and sending out comfort or peace or ease.  I practiced that every day for three years for each one in my family and for myself.  That kept me internally connected to Mother, to her pain and to my wishes for her wellbeing.  I sent cards and presents for Christmas and her birthday and then a note expressing awareness of her pain and of my love for her.  Mother eventually responded wholeheartedly and she also forgave me.  And I realized that my father would have loved both of us.

How did your Buddhist practice shape your search for your family?  The writing of this book?  In addition to the practice of tonglen, I learned the power of presence.  Thich Nhat Hanh, the peace monk from Vietnam, calls it the miracle of mindfulness – being aware of the present moment.  When I found Elinor alive, I knew that being with her was most important and all that really mattered.  Before, I would have focused on the sorrow of her past, but I had learned during Buddhist retreats that what I needed to do was to be fully and completely with her, knowing how wonderful it was that we were both alive, sitting together at that moment.  I was also influenced by the Buddhist teaching that perceptions are changeable.  Many of he perceptions about life and death I had inherited had caused me to suffer.  While writing the book I was able to trust my experiences and form new perceptions that reflected my new experiences.  One of the new perceptions that underpins this book is that we inherit the troubles our ancestors faced but weren’t able to deal with.  I know it’s possible to change the present outcome of past sorrows and maybe that will resonate with someone who reads the book.

What do you want readers to take away from the book?  Two things.  First, that it’s possible to stay connected with the lost.  Thinking about them and wanting to know them even when they are not there keeps you connected to them and to the unknown, where astonishing things can happen.  Second, when we’re really present with others and with ourselves there’s space for love to return even after rejection, abandonment, and death.


Family Lost, Family Found: Woman’s search for her roots takes her through Stark County by Charita Goshay in The Canton Repository


Interview with Maeve Conran on KGNU Boulder, CO


Researching Family History with John Krull on No Limits, Public Radio