Bernadette Murphy: X Games for Nerds

We sit at our little desks, maybe sipping a café au lait, staring at a screen.  Often, we peer out at a world we hold at arm’s length, maybe through bespectacled eyes, always the outsider, the observer, the one on the periphery. To passersby, we appear the portrait of calm and ease. We’re writers, the nerdiest of nerds, the opposite of the REI adventurer, the wimpiest of wimps.

Or maybe not.

Red Smith famously said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” I tend to agree with Smith and believe that the work of a writer, when done well, is as risky as any extreme sport I can name — and requires the same kind of bravery and courage that all perilous adventures do. Maybe even more so.

I read once Maureen Corrigan’s take on the female adventure story in her wonderful book Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading.  In it, she argued that women’s stories have always seemed more placid than men’s, but that the docile exterior is simply an illusion. In women’s stories, even the most domestically focused, there is just as much at stake as with any testosterone-rich alpha-male drama. A Jane Austen heroine trying to decide whom to marry has as much on the line as a climber in a Jon Krakauer narrative on Mount Everest. If our heroine makes a wrong choice, the consequences may be as dire in the long run as a fatal error made by a mountaineer. It all comes down to the big questions of life and death. As writers, this is the territory we mine.

Oddly, though I’m a nerd through and through, I’ve found myself taking on more physical risks recently. In doing so, I’ve discovered a new kind of tolerance for risk in my writing life. I’m like Lance Armstrong building up strong lungs. The more I engage in activities that test my courage, my tenacity, both my emotional and physical strength, the more I build the parallel muscles that writing requires: Truth telling. Rawness. Vulnerability. The possibility of failure. Being willing to be unmasked as the imperfect human I am. Without these qualities, our writing takes us nowhere, has nothing to tell a reader about the human condition.

This truth came home to me when I wrote the initial essay that would eventually become my most recent book, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life.  I had just left a 25-year marriage and my skin seemed as if it had been flayed in big sheets. My guts felt exposed, so that even the tiniest shift of wind hurt. I tried to write authentically about the experience, but found myself hiding behind trite metaphors and syrupy Hallmark sentiments. The more I attempted to remain safe by concealing my true self (and, I hoped, protecting my kids from my desperate feelings about the divorce), the more hackneyed my writing became.

Meanwhile, my dear friend Emily Rapp was on the cusp of losing her not-yet-three-year-old son Ronan to Tay-Sachs, a child I had held and cuddled and sang to. She wrote about her thundering grief and the day-to-day experience of nursing a child to his eventual death using a kind of incinerating truth I admired deeply and wanted to emulate.  (Check out her heart-stopping memoir, The Still Point of the Turning World.) If she could tell the truth amid such tender-at-the-bone circumstances, limn both the heart-stomping moments and the flashes of unheralded joy, what was stopping me?

I tried to follow her lead. When the first essay that displayed my conflicted, damaged self was published, I cowered. I was nauseated by what I had written, terrified of what people would think of me. I kept having a dream in which Emily was beheaded by the Taliban. She was executed for her honesty – it was that dangerous and that powerful. And if I continued in her path, what would become of me?

In the meantime, though, I’d started taking more risks in the physical realm. I learned to ride a motorcycle and took off on a 5,000-mile cross-country trek with a friend – another scaredy cat mom like me, who’d also recently been through a divorce. I went backpacking and hiking and ran marathons. I moved to French Polynesia for three months to find out who I was when I stopped being who I knew myself to be in Los Angeles. I learned to scuba dive, ski, open-ocean outrigger canoe, mountaineer, rock and ice climb – all in my 50s. And I discovered that I was stronger than I thought I was.

In finding that physical strength, I uncovered the seed of bad-ass-ed-ness that had long been buried in me. Over time, I stopped worrying about what people would think.  And I realized that my children didn’t need to be protected from the reality of my life, that actually, they were much hardier than I was and were teaching me about bravery and guts, more than I could ever teach them. As a result, I was finally able to write the book I had been wanting to.

Looking back, I believe my creative paralysis can be traced to an insidious lie: The idea that risk by definition is negative, a factor to be eliminated whenever possible. Risk infers the possibility that something bad or unwanted may happen. But risk, for writers, is imperative.

When I first started taking physical risks as a path to creative courage, my behavior appeared capricious and unpredictable. So I looked into the subject, craving assurance I wasn’t going off the deep end. Through interviews with neuoscientists, researchers, and psychologists, I learned that risk, the very element I’d attempted to isolate myself from, was the substance that was making me feel healthier emotionally, encouraging the wonders of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, and building my self-confidence. I learned that by deliberately engaging new challenges, even challenges as simple as trying a different restaurant or gym routine, I was increasing my happiness as I strengthened my mental and physical health.

Yes, there are biological, gender, and cultural influences that incline some of us to be more enthusiastic about new experiences than others. Still, risk taking is part of our human DNA, and for some of us, downright central to who we are. According to researchers at Stanford University, the human body replaces itself with a largely new set of cells every seven years to 10 years, and some of our most important parts are revamped even more rapidly. Whether it’s creating fresh lung cells, shedding skin, sprouting new hair, or making fresh brain connections, the human body is in a state of constant flux and change. So too, I venture, is the human psyche — but only with our cooperation.

By training myself to take small risks and building on them daily, I shifted my creative focus away from what scares me toward what makes me feel most alive. In doing so, I rediscovered my eagerness and curiosity, ultimately breaking out of the creative straightjacket I had constructed. Of course, not all risk is beneficial. Impulsive, emotionally driven risk often creates negative outcomes. But positive risk taking, undertaken with forethought and intention, has become fundamental for me.

I now approach life and writing with a new kind of zest and enthusiasm. I feel emotions more keenly than before, even the tender and piercing ones – which, I would argue, is some of the riskiest territory on the planet. Writing honestly is much scarier than skydiving, bungee jumping, and any other X Game challenge. So, in a way, writers are really extreme athletes in the world of letters. By grappling with risk in the most demanding realm of all – the world of the imagination — we prove to ourselves we’re powerful and fearless in the very best way.

Bernadette Murphy is the author of Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life (Counterpoint Press, hardback May 2016, paperback May 2017).  She has published three previous books of narrative nonfiction, including the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting, is an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Department of Antioch University Los Angeles, and a former weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times. Her website is



Read Her Like an Open Book returns from the Year of Living Stressfully


Hello book-loving friends. I’m glad you’re still here.

You may have noticed that Read Her Like an Open Book was much less active for the past year or so, with only intermittent posts. My blog was quiet because my life was not. I changed careers and was busy getting my freelance writing-and-editing business, Argus Editorial Services, on its feet. I was also developing a photography sideline, Inner Light Photography. Both my mother and my mother-in-law experienced health issues due to advancing age. (My 87-year-old mother passed away in January.)

And, frankly, I was suffering from a condition that began in 2016 and developed into a disorder in 2017. You may know it as Post-Trump Stress Disorder. As a news junkie, former high school Journalism teacher, and even more former attorney, I simply could not ignore what was taking place. But my preoccupation with keeping up with the daily drama (and trauma) took a toll on this blog, which I regret.

I decided last month that, with its five-year anniversary approaching in June, I would revive this blog, which means so much to me and has more supporters than I thought. I’m happy to report that when I approached several dozen writers about contributing to my weekly guest author feature, they responded with enthusiasm and many encouraging words. So far, I have received firm or tentative commitments to participate from over 40 authors.

In the coming months, you’ll read essays, interviews, and reviews by the following  writers: Robin Black (whose previous essay is the most-read post in the history of this blog), Chantel Acevedo, Karen Bender, Jessica Anya Blau (who will be interviewing Jane Delury), Michelle Brafman (interviewing Mary Morris), Gayle Brandeis, Siobhan Fallon, Wendy J. Fox, Stephanie Gangi, Lauren Grodstein, Yi Shun Lai, Krys Lee, Karin Lin-Greenberg, Margaret Malone, Marian PalaiaJodi Paloni, Keija ParssinenElizabeth Poliner, Anne Raeff, Elizabeth RosnerGina Sorell, Rene Steinke, Amanda SternThrity Umrigar, Ellen Urbani, and Mary Kay Zuravleff.

We’ll start tomorrow with a wonderful essay by Bernadette Murphy about reclaiming your life by overcoming your fears. Watch for a new guest author post every Tuesday.

You can also follow the social media accounts connected to this blog: there’s a Facebook page and a Twitter account, which is personal but mostly limited to book-related tweets. And I would certainly appreciate your sharing the word about this blog if you are so inclined.

This blog has always been an expression of my literary activism and feminism. My goal, as always, is to bring more attention to all the great literary fiction and memoirs by women writers. (And to encourage more men to read fiction, especially literary fiction, and even more especially by women authors.)

My Novel/My Selves: Using Subpersonalities to Create Fictional Characters

By Jessica Levine

Where do fictional characters come from? Often they originate in people that writers have known, perhaps loved, or even hated. A mother in a novel resembles the one in the author’s life; a boyfriend has character traits suspiciously like those of the author’s husband; and so forth. A first novel, especially, can be what the French call a roman à clef, literally a novel with a key, in which the author’s life is rendered under a thin veil of fiction. In such cases, acquaintances and biographers invariably have fun pointing to the real-life sources of the cast of characters. But novels are also like dreams in which different parts, or subpersonalities, of the writer’s self enter into dialogue and concerted action to further healthy integration.

What is a “subpersonality”? The term has many different uses in psychology. For this essay, I mean a part of the personality of a healthy individual that has a specific identity rooted in a phase or role of that person’s life. Take Dr. Kimball, for instance. She may wear many hats: a general practitioner in her medical office; a wife at home; a mother to her children; a would-be Olympic swimmer at the gym (in her own imagination). When stressed, she may revert to earlier selves: perhaps there is inside her an abused child; a stressed high school student; a binge-drinking college kid. All healthy individuals have “multiple personalities,” not as in a clinical disorder, but in the sense of having lived through different experiences and roles that have left their particular imprints, coping strategies, wounds, and lessons.

In my former practice as a hypnotherapist, I often led clients into a trance state in which they could conduct a dialogue between their subpersonalities. (This is sometimes called “conference room” work, because the client visualizes different parts of the self negotiating around a table.) In depth work, darker parts of the personality invariably emerge: the wounded child, inner critic, addict. For instance, a businessman with a procrastination habit might experience a dialogue between the achieving self and the self-saboteur; in such a case, an internalized, destructive father figure might also appear. The goal is to heal and resolve inner conflict in order to achieve a more integrated personality.

After many years of practicing hypnotherapy and writing fiction in tandem, I began to feel that the novelist is often doing subpersonality work on herself, consciously or unconsciously, when she stages characters that have sources in her own life and experience. This became most clear to me when I was studying Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. In this novel, a triangular love story takes place between a young New Yorker, Newland Archer, who is divided in his affections between the virginal, cloistered May Welland and the Europeanized, sexually more experienced Countess Ellen Olenska.

The three characters in Wharton’s novel represent different aspects of herself that correspond to different periods of her life. May Welland represents the young Wharton who, born and bred in 1860s and 1870s New York, was brought up according to the repressive Victorian rules of the day. She is the virginal, sheltered “Young Girl” that was the ideal of the period. Newland Archer represents Wharton’s longing to escape American provinciality for Europe and a broader experience of life and culture. Thus, Archer’s situation caught between May and Ellen is a figure for Wharton’s own negotiation between America and Europe, and what they represented to her, as she tried to decide where to live. Finally, Ellen portrays the modern woman Wharton became after she divorced and left the stifling milieu of her youth in order to settle in France, where she acquired more freedom socially, culturally, and sexually.

Because my interest lies in psychological fiction, I found myself taking the same approach in creating my characters. I am writing a series of three novels, each one of which focuses on a different cousin in a female triad. While the structure of my fictional family bears some resemblance to my own, the cousins are actually drawn from different aspects of myself. My first novel, The Geometry of Love (She Writes Press, 2014), is the story of Julia Field, a New Yorker, accountant, and poet, secular in outlook, someone who wants to follow the rules in both love and work, but finds herself breaking them. This character corresponds to my youth in New York, where I attended a traditional, very authoritarian private school. I was at the time highly invested in being a successful student, as teachers’ praise for my academic accomplishments compensated for the vicissitudes of having an alcoholic mother at home.

In my second novel, Nothing Forgotten (She Writes Press, April 2018), the protagonist Anna is a New Yorker who has moved to California. She is married and on a spiritual path marked by her Jewish roots and Buddhist thought, when a lover she knew in Italy in her youth returns and upsets her equilibrium. Here I was consciously staging a dialogue between, on the one hand, the wild, adventurous part of myself that came into being during the year and a half I lived in Rome in my early twenties and, on the other hand, the more settled person I’ve become, engaged in parenting and in a spiritual quest drawing on different meditation traditions. Anna’s quest is to achieve integration of those two personality parts into one human being who can satisfy both her need for adventure and her craving for internal peacefulness.

The third novel I am projecting, tentatively titled Shambles and Light, will focus on the third cousin, who appears briefly in the first two works. Robin is a hypnotherapist who uses shamanic practices and lives an experimental lifestyle in San Francisco. Here I am bringing in my experience as a therapist, my interest in using altered states of consciousness for spiritual development, and the insights into relationships that I’ve been privileged to acquire through listening to clients’ stories.

The reward of tapping into the multiplicity of one’s own experiences and emotions, the dark as well as the light, as they are embodied in one’s evolving personhood, is that one ends up creating characters that are believable and vivid by virtue of their origins in reality. In the process, the author undergoes an integration of self parts that can be healing and energizing beyond the book itself.

Author Photo: Chris Loomis 

JESSICA LEVINE is the author of Nothing Forgotten (She Writes Press, 2018), which earned a starred Booklist review and which Foreword Reviews called “women’s fiction at its best” and The Geometry of Love (She Writes Press, 2014), chosen as a Top 10 Women’s Fiction Title for 2015 by Booklist, which called it an “outstanding first novel” in their starred review. Her literary history, Delicate Pursuit: Discretion in Henry James and Edith Wharton, was published in Routledge’s Outstanding Dissertation Series. Her essays, shorts stories, and poetry have appeared in many publications, including The Southern Review and The Huffington Post. She has also translated several books from French and Italian into English. Jessica holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California at Berkeley, where she was a Mellon Fellow. She was born in New York City and now lives in the Bay Area. Learn more at

National Book Critics Circle announces finalists for 2017 awards

Today the National Book Critics Circle announced its 30 finalists in six categories––autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry––for the outstanding books of 2017. The winners of three additional prizes (The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, The John Leonard Prize, and the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing) were also announced. The National Book Critics Circle Awards, begun in 1975 and considered among the most prestigious in American letters, are the only prizes bestowed by a jury of working critics and book-review editors.

The awards will be presented on March 15 at the New School in New York City. The ceremony is free and open to the public. A reading by the finalists will take place the evening before the awards, also at the New School.

Carmen Maria Machado’s debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties (Graywolf), is the recipient of the fourth annual John Leonard Prize, established to recognize outstanding first books in any genre and named in honor of founding NBCC member John Leonard. Finalists for the prize are nominated by more than 700 voting NBCC members nationwide, and the recipient is decided by a volunteer committee of NBCC members.

The recipient of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award is John McPhee. Born in 1931 in Princeton, New Jersey, John McPhee is a journalist, essayist, author, and longtime journalism professor at Princeton University. He is the author of more than 30 books, beginning with “A Sense of Where You Are,” published in 1965; his most recent book is “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.” His lifetime contribution to letters and book culture include his pioneering work in the fields of new journalism and creative nonfiction; his explorations of widely varying topics, including science, sports, and the environment; and his mentorship of countless young writers and journalists. He has previously been honored with the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Wallace Stegner Award, and the Pulitzer Prize.

The recipient of the 2017 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing is Charles Finch. Charles Finch is the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries, including The Inheritance and A Beautiful Blue Death, which was nominated for an Agatha Award and was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007. He is a graduate of Yale and Oxford, and lives in Chicago. His first contemporary novel, The Last Enchantments, is also available from St. Martin’s Press. His reviews and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere.

The Balakian Citation is open to all NBCC members, who submit recent reviews to the 24-person board, which votes on the recipient. The Balakian Citation carries with it a $1,000 cash prize, endowed by NBCC board member Gregg Barrios.

This year, for only the third time in the history of the awards, one of the finalists was selected by the NBCC Members’ Choice: Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Harper). The two previous Members’ Choice books were Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” and Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”


Here is the complete list of NBCC Award finalists for the publishing year 2017:


Mohsin Hamid, Exit West (Riverhead)

Alice McDermott, The Ninth Hour (FSG)

Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Knopf)

Joan Silber, Improvement (Counterpoint)

Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing (Scribner)



Jack Davis, Gulf: The Making of An American Sea (Liveright/Norton)

Frances FitzGerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (Simon & Schuster)

Masha Gessen, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (Riverhead)

Kapka Kassabova, Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe (Graywolf)

Adam Rutherford, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes (The Experiment)



Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The Life and Times of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Henry Holt)

Edmund Gordon, The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography (Oxford)

Howard Markel, The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek (Pantheon)

William Taubman, Gorbachev: His Life and Times (Norton)

Kenneth Whyte, Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times (Knopf)



Thi Bui, The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir (Abrams)

Roxane Gay, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (Harper)

Henry Marsh, Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery (St. Martins)

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, The Girl From the Metropol Hotel: Growing Up in Communist Russia (Penguin)

Xiaolu Guo, Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China (Grove)



Nuar Alsadir, Fourth Person Singular (Oxford University Press)

James Longenbach, Earthling (Norton)

Layli Long Soldier, Whereas (Graywolf)

Frank Ormsby, The Darkness of Snow (Wake Forest University Press)

Ana Ristović, Directions for Use (Zephyr Press)



Carina Chocano, You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages (Mariner)

Edwidge Danticat, The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story (Graywolf)

Camille Dungy, Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood and History  (W.W. Norton)

Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (Coffee House)

Kevin Young, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts and Fake News (Graywolf)



Charles Finch

Balakian Finalists

David Biespiel

Maureen Corrigan

Ruth Franklin

James Marcus



Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties (Graywolf)



John McPhee


Winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards will be announced on Thursday, March 15, 2018 at 6:30 p.m. at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium, 66 W. 12th St, New York, NY. A finalists’ reading will be held on March 14 at 6:30 p.m. in the same location. Both events are free and open to the public.



The National Book Critics Circle was founded in 1974 at New York’s legendary Algonquin Hotel by a group of the most influential critics of the day, and awarded its first set of honors in 1975. Comprising 1000 working critics and book-review editors throughout the country, including student members and supporting Friends of the NBCC, the organization annually bestows its awards in six categories, honoring the best books published in the past year in the United States. It is considered one of the most prestigious awards in the publishing industry. The finalists for the NBCC awards are nominated, evaluated, and selected by the 24-member board of directors, which consists of editors and critics from the country’s leading print and online publications. For more information about the history and activities of the National Book Critics Circle and to learn how to become a member or supporter, visit Follo.w the NBCC on Facebook and on Twitter (@bookcritics).


Born in Prague in 1947, Helen Epstein grew up in the Czech community of New York City. She attended Hunter College High School, then studied at City College of New York for two years before transferring to and graduating from Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1970. She became an instant published journalist during the summer of 1968 while a 20-year-old college student caught in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Her personal account of the invasion was published in the Jerusalem Post, where she received her journalistic training while an undergraduate studying musicology and literature.

In 1971, she graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and began to freelance for diverse publications including McCall’sVivaMs.Midstream, the National Jewish Monthly, the Soho Weekly News, and MORE: A Journalism Review, whose editors talked her into posing for a spoof on a typical advertisement of the time for Cosmopolitan magazine, shot by a Cosmo photographer.

Epstein went on to specialize in long-form journalism about classical musicians. Working for women’s magazines allowed her to interview pioneering women journalists. Over four decades, Epstein has continued to pursue her interest in cultural reporting. She currently reviews for the New England online arts magazine The Arts Fuse.

Q: THE LONG HALF-LIVES OF LOVE AND TRAUMA is an unflinching memoir that takes the reader into the author’s intimate life from early childhood to middle-age. You were the first journalist to write about inter-generational transmission of trauma back in 1977. Why did you decide to return to this subject?

A: I feel that book ideas choose me rather than the other way around. Most of my books, including this one, came out of my preoccupation with a subject that turned out to be relevant to many other people. Publishers were leery of Children of the Holocaust in the 1970s. Few thought that a book about the effect of the Holocaust on the offspring of survivors could be important. But in the four decades since it first appeared, not a week goes by that someone doesn’t tell me or email me how important it was to them — not only descendants of Holocaust survivors, but of American POW families, Nazi families, survivors of the Armenian, Cambodian, and Rwandan genocides, children of alcoholics, mothers who were sexually abused, and therapists. Children has been translated into six languages and has never been out of print. I think Love and Trauma may be like that.

Q: After a distinguished career as a journalist, what made you write such a candid, revealing memoir?

A: Two assertions I came across by chance piqued my interest and made me decide to write personal testimony. The first, from Virginia Woolf in 1931: “Killing the angel in the house I think I solved. She died. But telling the truth about my own experience as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet…she still has many ghosts to fight, many prejudices to overcome.” I found the second on the internet, a claim that no one in all of literature has ever forgotten and, subsequently, documented a “recovered memory” of trauma. I wanted to write a first-hand response to both statements. I see myself as a witness giving testimony.

Q: Where and how did you grow up?

A: I grew up on the Upper West Side in the 1950s and 60s. It was a very interesting place and time in which to grow up. All kinds of refugees lived there: refugees from Hitler, from Stalin, from Mao and Castro; Latin American immigrants; families of blacklisted American Communists. I attended P.S. 87 and Hunter High — both excellent public schools with extraordinary teachers. I had friends of various races and backgrounds and was for a very long time unaware of class. The Holocaust and emigration had scrambled social hierarchy. My father — whose family owned a factory in Czechoslovakia — worked in a garment factory. My mother was a dressmaker whose clients included Vivian Vance of “I Love Lucy,” Edward Albee’s mother, and many wives of famous New Yorkers, including Ivana Trump. I knew people who were rich and poor, famous and obscure.

Q: What was the genesis of THE LONG HALF-LIVES OF LOVE AND TRAUMA?

A: I had moved out of the city for the first time in my life and was feeling disoriented. I heard the voice of my first love over the radio while driving down a still-unfamiliar street and decided to reconnect with him. We’d met at my piano teacher’s studio in 1963, when he was regarded as a brilliant and promising young musician. He was the son of blacklisted American Communists, while I was the daughter of anti-Communist Czech refugees. We had a complicated off and on relationship but, over 50 years, never lost touch. I asked him to help me excavate our adolescence — I initially called my memoir First Love — but, in addition to exploring our adolescence, I fell down a rabbit hole into my forgotten early childhood.

Q: How did you feel writing about such details of your sexual development as having an autoscopic experience when you had your first orgasm with him? Or how you learned to masturbate from an alternative newspaper in your journalism school library?

A: It was difficult. But “telling the truth about my own experience as a body” has become easier since Virginia Woolf’s time — largely due to feminism and because our American cultural context has become so much more open about sexuality. I found it harder to write about the persistent shame and uncertainty I felt about having been molested. It happened in another language — Czech. I was dogged by doubt. I had no proof. Everybody involved at the time was long dead. The molester was a family friend, a war hero, and called himself my adopted grandfather. He was also, for a long time, my mother’s lover. I wasn’t in touch with most of that when I began this memoir.

Q: Did you write composite characters or change anything?

A: I don’t write composite characters. I come out of a rigorous journalistic background: I went to Columbia J-school, was an NYU journalism professor for 12 years, and did most of my arts reporting for The New York Times. I believe that if you write nonfiction, you should stick to the facts as you know them. Otherwise, you should tell the reader what you’ve changed. In LOVE AND TRAUMA, I changed a few names and locations.

Q: Has writing the book allowed you to put the experience of being abused as a child behind you?

A: I don’t think people can put life-changing experiences “behind” them. If you are fortunate, you enjoy a stable loving relationship that allows you to look back at traumatic events and — with the help of witnesses — friends, psycho-therapists — understand what happened. I was very lucky. Very few people made it difficult for me to proceed. Most, including my former journalism students, as well as utter strangers, were helpful. I worked on this book for 15 years, and eight in psychotherapy. The major issue was getting straight and believing what I think actually happened. That was grueling. It’s a little scary to go public, but I think I’ve arrived at a place of calm.

THE LONG HALF-LIVES OF LOVE AND TRAUMA a timely memoir of abuse and psychotherapy


The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma: A Memoir 

By Helen Epstein

Plunkett Lake Press, Jan. 2018

250 pages, $16.95

If timing is everything, then the publication of the third volume in Helen Epstein’s multi-decade examination of the impact of the Holocaust on children of survivors is fortunate indeed. The past year has raised the specter of anti-Semitism and directed a bright light on sexual harassment and abuse, both of which are central to Epstein’s latest book.

Following up on Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors (Putnam, 1979) and the more personal Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s History (Little, Brown, 1997), her latest work, The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma, digs even more deeply into her own unusual upbringing and its lifelong effect on her. This time, rather than telling the stories of survivors and their families generally, or of her mother’s incredible life, Epstein has written a memoir of her own life, from her complex and unusual childhood in Manhattan to her career as a journalist. Through it all, the profound effects of her parents’ experiences hide in the crevices of her psyche like a latent disease waiting for the most opportune time to wreak havoc.

The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma is a combination of deeply researched investigative journalism (Epstein’s specialty), a classic tale of European immigrants embracing the American Dream, and a memoir of a post-WWII New York City childhood and a life haunted by phantoms that cannot be identified. Despite her professional success, Epstein experiences a formless anxiety that weakens the foundations of her life. In 1999, she begins work on a memoir about her sheltered adolescence, her unusual first love (her charismatic music tutor, Robbie), and the challenges of growing up as the child of Holocaust survivors. She reconnects with Robbie, with whom she has maintained a lifelong but intermittent friendship, hoping he can help her remember events from their shared past. But before long, she begins to hear the ticking of a psycho-emotional bomb. When she is unable to locate it or determine how it came to be there, she decides to resume psychotherapy with the same therapist she worked with until 1980, Dr. M.

Her interactions with Robbie, who clearly has his own mental health issues, and her therapy sessions slowly help her to make sense of a suspicion that she was the victim of sexual abuse. The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma delves deeply into Epstein’s home life, the trauma suffered by her parents and their efforts to overcome their past and build a new life, and their unusual parenting style. Her parents, Franci and Kurt, were sophisticated and accomplished young people from Czechoslovakia broken by the Holocaust. They have their hands full trying to adapt to life in America and keeping the wolves of their memory at bay, and young Helen is raised as much by her nanny, an older survivor named Milena, and her husband, Ivan, who became close friends of her parents and seemed like grandparents to Helen.

Epstein’s investigation into her past in an effort to confirm or disprove her suspicions makes for a riveting read. Is her memory reliable? Or is it just her own trauma creating a false memory? It’s a mystery that we want her to solve as much as she does. Who could have abused her? And why? Epstein’s parents are fascinating characters who could not have been easy to live with. She vividly depicts post-war life among the immigrant community in the rough neighborhoods of the Upper West Side (long before it was a fashionable area). And the sections on her adolescence and college years in the 1960s and early 1970s capture well the challenges of coming of age at the time of social and political upheaval. She is very frank about her intimate friendship with the brilliant but difficult Robbie and the impact it had on her sexual and romantic identities. But to me the most compelling aspect of the book is its fly-on-the-wall look at a long-term psychotherapeutic relationship that she believes eventually saved her from madness borne of depression, anxiety, and the ghosts of her past.

The result is a gripping book that is equal parts memoir, cultural history, coming of age story, and exploration of her years of psychotherapy. Epstein weaves the multiple strands of her story into a spellbinding gut punch of a book. It reads more like a fictional page-turner than a serious memoir and journalistic investigation into Holocaust survivors, sexual abuse, and psychotherapy. This is a timely book that deserves a wide readership.

THE CHILD FINDER: a page-turning mystery and thought-provoking exploration of suffering and redemption


The Child Finder

By Rene Denfeld

HarperCollins Publishers

288 pages, $25.99

Rene Denfeld is a magician. Her debut novel, The Enchanted, was a spellbinding examination of life and redemption on Death Row, written with such poetry and grace that the somber subject matter not only did not weigh down the reading experience but instead actually lifted readers into spiritual territory.

The Child Finder confirms that her first book was no fluke. A snowbound calm pervades this story of Naomi, a private investigator who specializes in locating missing children. Three years earlier, five-year-old Madison Culver disappeared on a trip to choose a Christmas tree in the snowy forests of Oregon. When the official investigation fails to find Madison, her desperate parents turn to Naomi.

While this may sound like the plot of a genre mystery novel, Denfeld’s gifts turn it into something much more. Naomi’s involving search for Madison is also an exploration of her own past, which has one unanswered question: What happened to her in the time before her memories begin with running across a field at night, to be rescued by migrant workers and adopted by an older, single woman?

We know from the start that Madison is alive, the prisoner of a strange, silent mountain man who lives in the most isolated reaches of the Skookum National Forest. Who is he, how has he managed to live there for so many years without being discovered, what explains his kidnapping and imprisoning of Madison (after three years in his ramshackle cabin, it’s clear he does not intend to kill her)? None of the answers are predictable.

The Child Finder is told in dual narratives. One follows Naomi’s search (and its profound effect on her own inchoate memories) and the other depicts Madison’s unusual strategy for coping with her dire situation. Denfeld weaves the two strands tighter and tighter in a manner that put me in mind of both The Lovely Bones and The Silence of the Lambs.

The central question in The Child Finder concerns whether those who are lost can be found, and if so, how. Madison is lost to her parents and the outside world. And the lost child of Naomi’s past remains shrouded in dreamlike memory and self-protective denial. While Naomi seeks “the snow child” Madison, two men – one from her adoptive upbringing and the other from her investigation – attempt to “find” her. But so long as she is lost to herself, she can’t be found by others.

Rene Denfeld has avoided the sophomore slump with a novel that is both a page-turning mystery and a thought-provoking, literary exploration of long suffering and eventual redemption.