a conversation with Kristina Gaddy
According to the American Cancer Society, there will be an estimated 1,762,450 new cancer cases diagnosed in 2019.
It's overwhelming to think of that number in terms of actual living, breathing human beings- people we know and love.
Kristina Gaddy is defined by her dedication to authentically telling other peoples' stories and bringing untold history to life through creative nonfiction. Kristina is also a survivor of Leukemia. Her passion and fervor for writing aren't entirely tied to her diagnosis, but her experience as a young person navigating an uncertain world with bravery were. Her own resilience is mirrored in the individuals in all of her stories, but particularly the story of the Edelweiss Pirates, a group of young people involved in the Nazi Resistance. In January 2020, Kristina's first novel, Flowers in the Gutter: The True Story of the Edelweiss Pirates, Teenagers who Resisted the Nazis will be available for purchase from Penguin RandomHouse.
In this conversation, Kristina talks extensively about the history of the Edelweiss Pirates, her journey as a writer, her ongoing works, the ties between climate change and the youth movements throughout history to today, and even shares with us some of her personal journey with Leukemia and how it led her to telling peoples' stories as a career.
Kristina is someone I have known, respected, and loved for quite a few years of my life and I am so thrilled to bring her works to our Women's Congress supporters.
Transcription of Highlights:
KC: So, what can you tell us about the book that is coming out?
KG: So, the book that’s coming out is called Flowers in the Gutter: The True Story of the Teenagers…I’m not actually a hundred percent sure on the subtitle and I’m not a hundred percent sure it’s decided on what it’s going to be but, yeah, it’s about a group of young people in Cologne in the Rhine Valley of Germany who, as early as 1933, 1934, when the Nazis come to power, even though they’re really little kids (like 4, 5, or 6-years old) kind of immediately realized that they don’t like this system that’s taking over their lives. One reason is that their parents are members of the Communist and Socialist Party, so they’re immediately arrested or lose their jobs, or have to go underground. So their families are fractured because of politics and then they quickly start having to be members of the Hitler Youth and the equivalent for young girls and they also really don’t like that. They don’t like the songs they have to sing, they don’t like the kind of authoritarian structure of that organization and really one of the things that they love to do, this group of young people, is be out in nature and hike and just explore the mountains and these little ponds and amazing like hiking trails and forests that are in Cologne and the Rhine Valley that are still there today. And part of the Hitler Youth is like, well, you can’t just go and hike on your own. You gave to be within the Hitler Youth group and so they’re like, “no, we just want to fo on a hike and have a great time and sign the songs that we want to sing.” And so their first kind of resistance is just dressing differently, not being in the Hitler Youth and going on these hikes and experiencing nature the way that they want to experience it. And then, as the system asked them to participate more and more within the Nazi system and then bigger into the “war machine” and be participants in that, they start to resist more and more with flyer-ing and graffiti, so those kinds of active resistance. And then the most radicalized of them start getting food to provide to forced laborers and people living underground—people who have escaped deportation, mainly Jewish people who have escaped deportation, and then also deserters or just other people who are supposed to be somewhere they’re not so they’re living underground. And then, the most radicalized group ends up connecting with some of those deserters and escaped concentration camp prisoners and start coming up with really serious plots of how they are going to, at that point (which is the fall of 1944 or late summer/fall of 1944), just bring an end to the war more quickly. Because, they know that the Americans have landed at Normandy, they know that the Russians are coming in from the other front and they think “okay, what is it that we can do to kind of sabotage the Nazis here in Cologne.”
KC: It’s an incredible story. I had never heard of them before you started working on this project. How did you first come across it?
KG: Yeah, that’s an interesting story. So, my partner Pete, he is really interested in youth subcultures and particularly there’s a really interesting youth subculture in Germany that starts at the very end of the 1800s that is kind of born of a resistance to industrialization and this idea of being out in nature and that group leads to these other groups in the 1920s and then those groups inspired these young people because they both knew like older kids that had been in these youth groups or their parents had been in earlier iterations. And so, he was like, “there’s this really interesting group and I think there could be a book there. Like I think that could be an interesting book.” And actually told me a very long time ago. And I was “oh yeah, I don’t know…” the difference between an anecdote and…then there’s like anecdotes, there’s magazine stories, there’s books like you know all of these things have various parts they need to function. And I was like I’m not sure that would be a great book and then it was in like the fall of 2015, winter of 2016 I started looking into it more and I realized, “wow. There really is a story here” not only because it’s really, you know, fascinating and amazing what these kids did, but there was also enough source material that you could write a nonfiction book about it. The fact that later in life a number of these young people had oral history interviews done or wrote memoirs was really significant and then also the Gestapo records from Cologne survived- which was not always the case because sometimes, as the war was coming to an end, Gestapo and the Nazis would destroy documents, right, so that people wouldn’t, you know, see the war crimes they had been conducting so the fact that there was all of this material and this interesting, you know, story, that really has a nice, natural narrative arc to it with a really high point of tension and, you know, everything that builds up to it… I was like, “oh yeah, this is a good story, this is, you know, really interesting and the fact that it hadn’t been told before and it’s really not even that well-known in Germany, either, is something I’m always striving to find. Interesting stories in history that haven’t been told and can kind of help us think about things we’re experiencing today.
KC: Yeah, I mean it’s a perfect—well, not a perfect parallel, but it’s definitely very similar to youth movements that are happening here right now and all over the world. It seems like it’s kind of really fortuitous and perfect timing that you are really visiting the story of young people making a huge difference and kind of thinking, you know, about, “oh, what a I supposed to be doing this? And if I don’t like this, what am I to do about it as a young person?” and I feel like we are seeing so much of that today with the climate change court cases and movement against gun violence, so I think that it’s going to be just an incredible story to read right now. Also, I wanted to kind of highlight the fact that this is a young adult nonfiction book.
KG: I think one of the things that really stuck out to me as I was working on this was, you know, one of the reasons I think these young people haven’t been acknowledged for their resistance was because they were just considered bad kids who weren’t following the rules (Mind you the Nazis are the ones making the rules). Even after the war it was kind of this attitude of “well, you weren’t really political” or “you weren’t really organized” or, you know, making all of these excuses as to why they wouldn’t qualify as real resistance and, of course, we see that same argument I think, especially, with the young people who are standing up against gun violence and school shootings. You know, there’s this like idea that you’re not making a real argument or because you’re “just a kid” you don’t know what you’re talking about. And of course the question I always ask is like what is a teenager, if a kid, is not 18, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a political opinion. It doesn’t even always mean that a kid can articulate exactly what their political belief is, but they can still say “I think what you’re doing is wrong, I think what you are doing is morally wrong. I think this and having that opinion and speaking about it is really important, especially when they are “too young”. You know, the answer to them can’t be “oh, well, it’s your vote that counts, you need to go out and vote.” You’re not 18, you’re 14 and you’re experiencing an active shooter drill…you’re gonna wait four more years to vote? No. You have, you know, you feel compelled at that moment to do something. So, I think this idea of how we define youth resistance is really interesting in the context of how these (the kids called themselves some variation of Edelweiss Pirates (sometimes it was Edelweiss Group, sometimes it was Edelweiss Pirates, sometimes they had other names that kind of evoked a similar feeling, but in general they’re referred to was the Edelweiss Pirates), they were really treated with disdain…somewhat similar reasons as to why a lot of the young people today are treated with disdain.
KC: This piece about the kids who, you know, would go out in nature and wanted to go hiking and [how] that was like one of their first kinds of resistance…that they were doing is awesome.”
KG: Yeah and they, you know, they really, I think in the beginning, it’s just an appreciation of nature and then it also becomes that nature and the natural world become a very nice…I’m not sure that escape is the right word…but a place where they can live their lives and do what they want to do, which is like singing songs, but also even just hanging out guys and girls together was something that the Nazis really frowned upon and like would say that they were all sexually deviant because guys and girls were in the same hiking group. But there’s also like awesome photos of kids acting silly and just like being kids, but then also like cross-dressing and switching clothing and doing things that just you know, those were things that were like completely forbidden in Nazi Germany. The idea of sexuality was so limited- you’re a woman. You’re going to get married to a man, you’re going to have children, and you’re gonna be a housewife, basically. [Those are] definitely the parameters that they set forward. So, even the idea, you know, of hanging out with guys and girls, much less cross-dressing, was one of the reasons they were also targeted by the Nazis as quote unquote, “deviants” and needed to be re-educated.
KC: …have there been any common threads between all of these projects?
KG: I think the biggest common thread is just like stories that people don’t know enough about. I think that what attracted me to the midwifery/childbirth project was how, in a very short amount of time, babies went from being born at home with the Midwife to in a hospital with a doctor and kind of what the long-reaching implications of that are today. Which, I think there’s been a lot of good reporting about especially how women of color have worse birth outcomes and I, you know, I personally think that that hinges a lot on the doctor-patient relationship which is very fundamentally different from how the Midwife-mother relationship has always been. And so that project is still on the backburner, I will say, because I’m always, you know, there’s really interesting things even just about now that we’re here in 2019, the anniversary of women getting the right to vote, that had a big impact on that whole discussion of midwifery and doctors and reproductive health as a way of getting actually in more legislation about how women needed more resources for prenatal care and postnatal care…so that project is definitely still on my mind, but I think a lot of people have an idea that you know, that [midwives used]to be a thing, but I think the idea of how quickly it changed is something that most people don’t really know anything about. And then the banjo research, I mean you know we think of the banjo as being this very American, and by American I mean United States, from the southern United States…and in reality we have accounts of the banjo that extend from New York in North America to Suriname in South America and a lot of places in between—basically anywhere that you have large numbers of enslaved people, you probably have an account of the banjo. And so I think that history is becoming more known, but I think the context in which the banjo was played is still something that’s relatively unknown. You know, we’re just finally starting to kind of assimilate that knowledge of who played the banjo and I think now the next question is well why and so this project is kind of trying to also connect these different, what we consider different, places but at one time were, you know, colonies in the Americas. So, you know, a place like South Carolina wouldn’t have been all that different in the minds of Europeans from the Bahamas or perhaps even Suriname and so how we are like, “oh, we’re the United States and we’re this special place” and how it’s really a connection to these other places that we’re, as people from the United States, very unwilling to admit that we’re actually more similar to places in the Caribbean or even South America than we think we are.
Kristina on climate change and the history of the banjo:
KG: I think one of the really interesting things with banjo research is that the places I’ve been visiting, if they are, is that those places are all centered along old port cities. I think Albany, New York is kind of the exception, but New York City proper, Baltimore, Charleston, South Carolina, the sea islands, New Orleans, Jamaica, Haiti, and Suriname are kind of some of the places that this research is really zeroing in on and all of those places are on the water and they are very threatened by sea level rise. I think Haiti is a place where we all know that environmental destruction has caused a lot of other issues and the same for New Orleans where, you know, again a hurricane kind of with it fundamentally changed the city. Baltimore and Charleston haven’t had that experience yet, but I think it’s very clear for people who live in those cities that the water is right there and if there is a storm or there is a storm during high tide or a particularly rainy period, you know you can literally see the water coming up much higher than it should be or that you think it should be. And so one of the things that’s kind of interesting but also, you know, scary is that these places, unless we do something to mitigate sea level rise, these landscapes could be destroyed and we would no longer have physical evidence of our history. And I’ll add that the reason they’re kind of important places in banjo history is because, of course, ports were where enslaved people were arriving. I think any colonial landscape that you have in the United States was built by slave labor at some point. So, you know, the lives of the enslaved are fundamentally connected to these places and so this is also then where you see the banjo up here in the hands of the enslaved. And it’s just been really striking to visit these places and think, basically, are you cities doing anything about this? And if you’re not- why not? And what’s your plan to protect these spaces that can fundamentally tell us so much about the history of the United States and kind of how we developed as a country. So, that’s…been a very visible way that climate change has impacted that project and you start to think about, okay, if you’re talking about this place that this thing has occurred you know, how long is it before that place is literally no longer going to exist or be underwater?
KC: That’s definitely true. And I think in a lot of the work that’s being done right now you see a lot of organizations and communities really clamoring for decolonization efforts and I don’t know…I don’t have hard research on this to say that it is a fact, but one of the things that I can definitely say I’ve seen in in these efforts to decolonize communities and mindsets and everything, it seems to be that midwifery is coming back and, you know, and it’s, in a sense, having more at-home births or just kind of births that involve more of your natural space and more human contact outside of the doctor-patient relationship, but you know, in that same vein and efforts to decolonize even our history, going back to say “oh, you know the banjo was made out of this fruit or this tree initially”, but I see all of these different connections and I think it’s really interesting and, in some way or another this climate crisis that we’re in, it touches all of these different topics. And it’s very involved—even though you say the banjo, and midwifery, and the Nazi youth resistance and they all sound very different, and they are, but at the heart of it, they have some very common threads and I just think that’s always interesting to explore, so thank you for humoring me.
KG: Yeah, yeah and midwifery, it’s a really interesting concept…kind of like the parts of wanting to be closer to nature, to the experience, and also in that way of feeling cared about. And I think that’s one of the things I’ve really found in a lot of research that I’ve done is how connected women who were midwives were to their communities. I wrote a very small story about a Baltimore midwife and one of the reasons that she appealed to me was she’s right here in the city, here in the city I live. And, actually, because the Jewish Museum of Maryland had some of her notebooks of the births that she attended, I could plot those out on a map and I knew her address from the city directory, so I could plot out, you know, basically how far she had to walk to these births that she attended. And most of them were within a mile, maybe even less of her house. Many of the women were Orthodox Jewish, like she was, from what is, today, Russia. And it was just a really interesting thing to think about. These people, these patients, these women are also less than a mile from Johns Hopkins who would have accepted them as patients, they would rather go to a woman, number one, number two, somebody who speaks their language, who understands them culturally and is also willing to help them with the housework once the baby is born and come back and make sure that, you know, everything is okay in the home.
KC: Yeah, this idea of postnatal care we seem to have forgotten about as a society.
KG: Yeah, and so that’s just a really interesting thing, I mean if you’re talking about using things locally and al of that, if you take that into another whole dynamic instead
KC: The work that you do is not easy, you do a lot of travelling, it’s not, you know, a guaranteed, stable kind of industry….so what drew you to it? What made you decide that creative nonfiction, writing and researching and hunting down stories and telling them, what made you decide that that was what you needed to be doing?
KG: So, I had studied history and languages as an undergraduate at UMBC and I had initially thought, when I graduated, that I wanted to go into museum work, particularly exhibits. Constructing exhibits, writing exhibits and all that kind of stuff, so I worked as an AmeriCorps in West Virginia doing that, but also doing some archival work, just helping process archives and basically get them into a form where if people came and said, “hey, do you have anything about this?”, you’d be able to pull it up through the computer. And during that time I was doing a lot of writing and I was also experiencing the difficulties of like writing by committee, which is kind of what you have to do if you work in a museum and making sure that all of the stakeholders agree to what’s about to go up on the wall or go into a video script and all of that. And I still really enjoyed it and was thinking, okay, that’s what I’ll go into. And then after my first year and I was going into my second year, I decided to stay for a second year in AmeriCorps in West Virginia, I was diagnosed with Leukemia and had to immediately stop working—and I was in the hospital for a month and then had to return home to live with my parents to continue undergoing outpatient chemotherapy, which lasted about another six months. And that was obviously a very…it was a difficult time emotionally, physically, mentally and I really had the opportunity to think, “okay, what is it, what is it I want to do?” You know, thoughts of mortality initiating “okay, what is it that I really enjoy about this work? And what is it that I want to do? And during that time I really thought okay, I like telling the stories that people haven’t told. I like discovering new things and communicating those to people in a way that is relevant to their lives and what is going on with them. I think, you know, in the case of museums you often have people who are going in who are already ready to learn something because they’re deciding to go to that museum and I kind of thought well, you know, it’s always nice if you can get your message out beyond the people who already are, you know, preaching to the choir kind of thing, they already subscribe to your message. So how do you get outside of that and that was when I thought okay, well you know, I think writing is a really nice way of doing that and whether that’s just very short articles, longer articles, or you know book-length projects, it’s a way for people to learn something new and hopefully kind of internalize it, not just learn it, but be able to move forward with that knowledge… and so that was when I decided to get my MFA at Goucher, focusing very specially in Creative Nonfiction.
KC: Did your experience with Leukemia and being in hospitals, did that kind of impact your work with midwifery and public health research?
KG: Yeah, absolutely. So I think the thing that drove me to the midwifery research…I had originally thought that I would focus my thesis at Goucher in the development of the bone marrow transplant which was not something that I had to go through, but many Leukemia and blood cancer patients do, and it was always looming in the distance, like is this doesn’t work and that doesn’t work and that doesn’t work, then the bone marrow transplant is basically your last shot in terms of blood cancer, that’s often, you know, the thing that will save your life. And as I have learned about it, it is like magical science that almost feels unreal where if you’re getting the transplant from someone else, they kill your immune system and completely replace it with somebody else’s and hope that immune system is not only stronger than your immune system, but also strong enough to eat up the cancer. And I was so fascinated by how that came to be and I started doing a lot of research on that, especially what I found very fascinating is that it kind of follows this interesting 20th century narrative where it’s really born out of the fact that scientists are looking for a cure for radiation poisoning and when your body receives too much radiation it in effect kills your immune system, it destroys your bone marrow, and so these doctors started thinking about the fact that okay, now we have nuclear weapons and we might have a nuclear accident at a power plant, we need to find out if there’s a way that we can save people who have basically gone beyond being able to be saved. And so the bone marrow transplant was thought that that might be one way to do that and so they even in various places tested it on workers that had accidentally been exposed to too much radiation, but then like so much science that is used basically for defense purposes, it transformed into, okay wait, can we use this for cancer patients? Because there was also an attitude in the mid century of more is better. The more chemotherapy that we can give patients, the better the outcome will be. And so what they really wanted to do is basically push patients to the brink of death by killing their bone marrow and eradicating as much of the cancer and places cancer could potentially be as possible and then reviving them with the bone marrow transplant. This is also still a project that is very much on the backburner because I still, you know it hasn’t been told and it’s a really fascinating story and it’s just really fascinating, you know, this relationship between science and public health and our every day lives, really…..It’s really fascinating and now, you know, tens of thousands of people a year are saved through a process that was really born out of nuclear warfare and the Cold War.
KC: A project I very much want to know more about and I think that you’re a great person to tell it. You do so much work outside of your own research and writing with different nonprofits that serve the cancer community and survivors, so I mean I think that would be great. You have such a great style and approach to all of your work, it’s probably one of the most responsible approaches that I’ve seen. Because I think a lot of people go out and find these stories that haven’t been told but then it’s, you know, it’s really for their own gain and there’s very little lasting impact for communities. But I just feel like you go about your work in a very different way—and maybe that has to do with the fact that you became committed to it in a time that you were really vulnerable and looking to find meaning and just, you know, hopefully every single person listening to this podcast really gets turned on to your work because it is great.
KG: …I started working on the midwifery project because I saw a very similar, fundamental concept in how do we as people relate to medicine and the people who are supposed to give us care? Obviously, being in a hospital and being in and out of outpatient chemo wards and meeting other cancer patients, especially young adult cancer patients, it’s just so interesting. And so many interactions, I mean honestly, with doctors—good and bad. And thinking about okay, this is a very traumatic thing that not everybody will have to go through. Unfortunately, 1 in 3 women and 1 out of 2 men will have cancer at some point in their life, so a lot of people will go though it…not that many people, that young, but also as methods of treatment are improving, there’s more and more cancer survivors every day, basically, but it got me thinking, okay, what is something that like (not necessarily half of the population, but almost half of the population) will go through? And that’s childbirth. It’s, in a way, completely different, but in some ways very similar—you’re putting your life in the doctors’ hands…and you’re fundamentally in this place where you feel as though you have to trust the person in charge, quote unquote, because they know best and so, if they tell you, “this is what we have to do”, you believe them. And I had scenarios where I had doctors tell me, “this is what you have to do” and at first, I believed them. And then I said, “okay, wait. I have to go talk to another doctor and then I have to talk to another doctor because what you are telling me…it just doesn’t kind of jive with how I think things should be going right now…and what I want…”. And I think I was definitely in a vulnerable position, but I think that women who were pregnant, or even in labor, they are incredibly vulnerable which is why you know even just the concept of having a doula, somebody that’s there to advocate for you and what you want. Because eben if you have a partner who is in that room with you, they are so, you know, responsive to your emotions that if you say “yeah, sure, fine. Yeah, let’s do a C-section right now because you’re telling me that I’m gonna die and that my baby’s gonna die if I don’t do that right now”, your partner is probably gonna say, “yeah, I don’t want either of you to die, please go ahead, do whatever” and then the doula, not saying that this is a scenario that happens and that it’s true, but the doula can be a voice of reason there and so, just this idea that doctors hold an incredible amount of power over us as patients because we believe that they know everything and that they know what is best for us and they know what is best for our bodies, and I’m just gonna say it—unfortunately, that’s not always true.
KC: What advice do you have for others who are looking to pursue the same work as you’re doing, or you, know something similar in creative nonfiction and writing?
KG: Yeah, I mean, I think one of the things, and I’ve told this to students before and especially other young people, which is: you’re more of an expert than you think you are. I was speaking to an undergraduate English class at UMBC and they weren’t writing students, but a lot of them knew this: you guys will all need to use writing at some point and many of the students there were very social justice, environmental justice, medical justice-minded and I said, you know, writing is a great tool for that, you know, to express your opinions and your experience in order to kind of convince others of what you believe…I try to impress this on undergraduates that I currently teach through the Community College of Baltimore County that writing is…a lot of people don’t like doing it, but it’s a really great tool. I think for people who are even, you know, within the sciences, broadly being able to not only write and then this foes for students of history to not only being able to write for your audience and your colleagues who are very important, but also being able to communicate that to broader audiences—it’s incredibly important and so I think reading a lot—both articles, books, and seeing what they do well and what is compelling about that work is always helpful. And just getting out there and doing it and not being afraid of getting a “no”.