Author Interview: Helen Epstein on THE LONG HALF-LIVES OF LOVE AND TRAUMA: A MEMOIR

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.

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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.