How do you tell your children about your trauma?

For many yearsAchut Deng’s survival required her to focus, not on the multiple tragedies and near-death experiences she experienced before reaching the age of ten, but on the safety and stability that she was so perilously striving for. So when she had children and eventually built a middle-class life in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, she decided to protect their innocence—one that was never granted herself—and to keep her story to herself. Or, at least, I tried.

A few days after Deng brought her eldest son home from the hospital in 2007, her past began to tear apart the facade she had built. One night, lying in bed with the baby, she pulled a blanket over herself and the boy. As if she had fallen in a slingshot, she went back to the moment when her grandmother Coco was killed protecting her; Coco had used her body wrapped in an embroidered Sudanese sheet called a . Melaya, to protect Deng from the spray of bullets that surrounded the hut they were hiding in. Ding told her doctor about the flashback, and he diagnosed her with PTSD and postpartum depression. After that, I kept quiet about the experience and the memories that followed.

And soon it was the children themselves—the Ding family grew to include a second and third son—who tested the limits of what she was willing to share. Until recently, she had only told them that she grew up in Sudan and came to the United States as a refugee. One afternoon, she and her eldest, who was 11 years old at the time, watched a disciples A movie together He brought up a movie he had seen at school depicting malnourished children in Africa, and asked, “Mom, was this real?”

“I didn’t think they were ready to know,” Li Ding said in a recent interview. “I felt , What benefit will you do to them? I wasn’t thinking of anything positive.”

She added, “The truth is, I haven’t watched these videos, but for all I know, I could be one of the kids in them. That was literally me.”

Ding is now in the midst of an exciting shift in parenting style after another near-death experience, this time with the coronavirus — which made her realize she might die before her children even knew who she was. I made sure that their childhood was comfortable and stress-free. But by hiding her early experiences, she realized that she was giving her children the false impression that life – even a stable life – could exist without suffering.

Her new memoir for young readers, do not look backAnd the She wrote with her children in mind, but she also wanted to give other young people a vital lesson that extreme difficulties can be a source of great resilience, and something from which to move forward. The book covers her personal history from the age of 6 to 25, a decade after she arrived in the United States. It begins with Deng’s vivid memories of her youth on a family farm in what is now South Sudan, surrounded by loving, mostly female relatives. Several men, including her father, were required to enlist in the army before her birth and fight in the Second Sudanese Civil War; Most of them did not return home once they were recruited.

As Deng grew up and the fighting continued, her younger and younger relatives were called in to take up arms, including her 7-year-old uncle. Her perspective as a narrator in the book developed as she got older, but her observations were clever even in her earlier years. In thrilling scenes filled with the kind of nitty-gritty that a child is particularly suited to, she chronicles South Sudan’s two largest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer – who were once allied – turning against each other. Soon everyone Ding knew left to fight, was killed, or went missing. “My legs were too small and my step too short. I tripped over exposed roots and thick clumps of grass,” she remembers that night when she, her grandmother and their neighbors first fled their homes after a violent ambush. Racing through a forest full of dangerous predators, you hear a dog barking to protect its owner from approaching rebel forces. Deng’s mind wanders in front of her dog, Panelip, whom she silently prays in the safety of the house waiting for her. Then gunshots erupted, and the stranger’s dog fell silent. Fearing the worst, she pleads to herself,Please bark… Please bark. “

Effectively orphaned at the age of six, Deng was greeted by Adwall, her mother’s best friend, childless widow and one of the most memorable characters in the book. Adual often carried Ding through a thousand-mile trek on foot to the world’s largest refugee camp, located in the Kenyan town of Kakuma (Swahili “nowhere”). Luddeng’s shoes were made of wood and leaves to protect her little, sore feet. She threw boils on Ding’s body because of the guinea worms, which would swallow their larvae through the pond water they sometimes had to drink. In Kakuma, where food was scarce, Adual skipped meals so Ding and other children could eat more.

I He first heard the story of Deng While reporting on how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting immigrants. When I learned that Smithfield, the South Dakota meat factory where she worked, had the largest single-source outreach in the country, I asked the union president there to connect me with the sick workers. He told me about a single mother of three who almost died of the virus.

Mostly on her own inclinations, during our first interview, Deng shared her experience with COVID-19 with me, occasionally splashing about details that piqued my interest in her background. She stated that her Smithfield wages helped support nine members of her family living in three different countries, and that at her worst, when she felt like she had a rock on her chest that only allowed her breath to pump, she was digging herself in. On the living room sofa, refusing to sleep because she was afraid she wouldn’t wake up. She told me that she would not allow her children to grow up as orphans the way she was. Two exciting interviews, each lasting more than three hours, resulted in an article and podcast that combined Deng’s epidemiological experience with an abridged version of her immigration story.

During my reporting period, Li Ding was pleased to have privately wondered for some time if her story might inspire others going through hard times. The answer came when Joy Biscayne, executive editor of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Books for Young Readers, reached out about commissioning Deng with a memoir that would expand on her youth further. At first, Ding was annoyed about the show. She believed that single parents would benefit most from her story, based on the many who told her, in response to my coverage, that they considered her a role model. But Biscayne sold Deng with the idea, at least in her first book, to speak directly to readers of the same age as when her life first turned around.

The book was co-authored by Kelly Hutton, author of boy soldier And the secret soldierstwo books on children and conflict in the midst of the Ugandan Civil War and in Europe during World War I. When the collaboration began, Ding was working night shifts at the meat factory, so she and Hutton set a strict schedule, aiming to craft one class per week. Ding was leaving work at about three in the morning. go home to fall asleep for a few hours; escorted her youngest son, Mayom, to school (the others were old enough to take themselves); Then sleep a little. She and Hutton then worked on the book until it was time for Ding to return to Smithfield. On Mondays and Tuesdays, Deng would write down what she remembered about that particular chapter — “a stream of consciousness, no punctuation,” she told me. On Tuesdays, Deng and Hutton would talk on the phone for hours, filling in missing details and creating a structure. On Wednesdays, Hutton would write, then send Deng a draft, which she would read to her sons, who are now 15, 14 and 8, at the dinner table on Sundays. “I knew I had strong boys on my hands” based on their early reactions, Ding recalls. The boys were shocked, occasionally to the point of crying – but not shaken in the way I expected, or to the point of her anxiety.

On a video call during a rare night of basketball, the boys told me that hearing their mother’s story made them like her even more. It also helped them understand some of Ding’s tics, such as the obsession with storing them in the refrigerator, to the point that food often spoiled. They assured her that they never went to bed hungry, as Ding had done during his childhood, and that she could cut back a little.

Although Deng’s story sometimes seems impossibly painful, it also tells of how, as a child, she summoned the strength to persevere with malaria, a near-fatal snake bite, and exhaustion that made her want to stop walking even if it meant she was going to die. The story is also packed with Ding’s sense of humor — there’s her first ride on an escalator, down three steps begging for God’s mercy, and an early trip to an American grocery store, where she and her friend discover, to their surprise, a section on dog food only.

The book may also give young readers an introduction to the mass migrations now underway: the millions of Ukrainians who fled invading Russian forces this year, and the emigration of Venezuelans to escape political turmoil and a severe financial crisis. These incidents will affect the displaced for the rest of their lives – even those who, like Deng, hope to rebuild. In a scene reminiscent of reunions of children and parents separated at the southern border during the Trump administration, Deng watches in confusion, as the body of a young friend becomes rigid and her face remains expressionless when she finds her mother again after years of forced separation. It was only later that Ding realized that her friend was so traumatized by the separation from her mother that she was shocked and initially unable to process her feelings when she was finally reunited.

At a time when many parents are arguing about how to share today’s seemingly constant bad news with their children, do not look back It reminds us why stories about addressing extreme human challenges can have a profoundly positive and even lifesaving impact. This was true even for Deng herself during her toughest moments. “I hope that just as I draw strength and faith from Koko and Adual, and everyone who helped me conceive, my story will help me,” Deng wrote in thanks. “I pray to give you some light when the nights are so long and the darkness is so intense. You are strong. Don’t let go. Never forget who you are.”


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