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.

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THE OTHER LANGUAGE examines the effects of culture, place and language

The Other Language_Marciano  The Other Language paperback

The Other Language: Stories

Francesca Marciano

Vintage Contemporaries: Feb. 3, 2015

304 pages, $15.95

The Other Language was one of the best short story collections published in 2014. It will be published in softcover on Feb. 3, giving readers a second chance to discover its manifold pleasures. Francesca Marciano is not yet well known to the American reading public (despite three previous novels), but Language has created something of a buzz. (Perhaps Italian writers are catching on after the success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy.)

In this collection, Marciano tells the stories of characters who find themselves on unfamiliar turf, literally and figuratively. Most involve people who have traveled to exotic locales (a Greek island in the title story, Tanzania in “Big Island, Small Island,” “An Indian Soiree”), moved from a city to a village (“The Presence of Men,” set in far southern Italy and “The Club,” which is set in Mombasa and coastal Kenya), or who live amidst a different dominant culture (“The Italian System” and “Quantum Theory”). All are disoriented by language or culture, leading them to stray from their normal behavior.

The standouts are the longest stories here: “The Other Language,” “The Presence of Men,” and “An Indian Soiree,” which are 49, 54, and 33 pages, respectively. In the title story, twelve-year-old Rome resident Emma travels to a Greek island for a vacation with her father and two younger siblings following the death of her mother. There she encounters two slightly older English brothers, with whom she is fascinated because they speak that “other language.” That “language” is both English and their seeming worldliness. Obsessed, she finds ways to hang around with them at their Greek vacation home, on the beach, and anywhere else she can. “She didn’t know what she was getting away from,” observes the narrator, “but the other language was the boat she fled on.”

Marciano, who learned English as a teenager and lived in New York City in her 20s and Kenya for 10 years after that, told William Grimes of the New York Times last spring, “You discover not just words but new things about yourself when you learn a language. I am a different person because I fell in love with English. I cannot revert. I cannot undo this. I am stuck.”

“The Presence of Men” follows a divorcee from Rome as she renovates an old house in a tiny southern Italy village. Of course, she takes several missteps, alienating the locals, but the interest is in watching her develop a relationship with the village matriarch Mina, a seamstress. The plot thickens when her brother Leo, a film agent, comes to visit with his movie start client, Ben Jackson, and they befriend Mina.

In “An Indian Soiree,” a married couple who have grown tired of each other take a trip to India. They love each other, but the life has gone out of their relationship and they seem not to know how to rekindle it.

We learn the husband admires some of his wife’s traits, yet it is no longer enough. “He loved her–that went without saying–but they’d been together for almost sixteen years and it was normal to find her tiresome at times. He had to admit it was lovely, the way she found so many things interesting and worth being investigated; it was a sign of her vitality, and he cherished that.”

A handful of pages later we get the wife’s point of view. “They had been three weeks on the road by now and she’d begun to feel how tiresome it was to travel with someone who never seemed to enjoy himself. As usual, she had to do all the work, like a puppeteer moving all the characters across the stage, or a ventriloquist doing all the voices, in order to keep the audience entertained. Sometimes it became too demanding.

Their stay in India has a powerful impact on them and their marriage. The couple, who remain unnamed, are intoxicated by the change of scenery. The wife has gone native in an awkwardly touristy way; when she has an intense dream about a former lover, she believes it’s a message and decides to contact him via Skype. The husband becomes infatuated with a famous Indian dancer who appears to return his interest.

Ironically, the best description of this scenario is found in “The Presence of Men,” when Lara considers love and lust. “Love was a drug, a rave. People got high on it and within half an hour were capable of doing anything in its name. No place was too far to reach, no phone number too expensive to call, no decision faster to make.”

Not surprisingly, they soon commit themselves to courses of action that can’t easily be undone.

The simplest pleasure in this collection is “The Italian System,” the shortest story on offer. The unnamed protagonist is a young woman from Rome who has been living in New York City for seven years. “Ever since she’d arrived in the city she’d tried very hard to become an American, but it had proved hard to blend in. It wasn’t just the accent or mispronunciation of difficult words that singled her out, it was a question of attitude. Of posture, even.” She feels hopelessly foreign. “She, even after all these years, still felt self-conscious, afraid of making a faux pas. She came to feel this was the inherent condition of anybody unmoored from the familiar, and living in a place that is home to others.”

She decides she needs a new project to energize her life. She hits upon the idea of writing a book about being Italian, specifically what makes Italians so…well, Italian, and so popular with non-Italians. She will call her book The Italian System.

Marciano is unsparing in her depictions of these characters’ foibles, but she also shows us their essential humanity. She also writes with a strong sense of place, one that is often palpable, especially when, as in my case, you are reading her stories in January. But what stands out most in these stories is Marciano’s clean, elegant prose. Even the less impressive stories in this collection are a pleasure to read, as you sail along on her controlled and well-crafted sentences.

As much as I enjoyed these stories, I have a few quibbles with The Other Language. Although all the characters are Italian, they didn’t come across as distinctly Italian. I often found myself thinking they were British or just generically “European.” Marciano lives in Rome, but she spent many years living in the U.S. and the U.K., which may explain why her characters feel more like citizens of the world than idiosyncratically Italian. Also, a few of the stories in The Other Language may leave readers perplexed with their inconclusive endings. Marciano’s stories can be deceptively subtle, and she doesn’t rely on pat endings that tie up all the strands.

Still, I am glad to have “discovered” Francesca Marciano, and I intend to make time to read her previous work and whatever she publishes next. You should, too.

Guest blogger Susan Jane Gilman: “What Am I Reading? Don’t Ask.”

Susan Jane Gilman  Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street

Susan Jane Gilman has published three nonfiction bestsellers (Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, and Kiss My Tiara) but June 10 marked the publication of her debut novel, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street. It has received much acclaim already and is an Indie Next pick for June. (You can catch her on tour this week in San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Providence, New York City, and Washington, D.C.) Gilman’s journalism has been published in countless magazines and newspapers, her stories have been published in literary journals like Story and Ploughshares, and her commentaries were heard regularly on NPR. She was born and raised in New York City, attended Brown University, and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. 

Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” runs over five hundred pages, and I loved every one of them. But here’s what I remember: Pip’s nasty stepmother buttered only the top of a loaf of bread, so that each slice received just the thinnest wisp of butter along the crust. There was the pathetic woman with the mouldering wedding cake, Miss Havisham. And, oh yeah, an ingenue named Estella.

That’s it.

Five hundred pages and my takeaway is a slice of bread, a bad cake, and two women. I’d even forgotten that Pip was called “Pip.” I’d had to go back and look it up.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s brilliant “One Hundred Years of Solitude”? One of my favorite books of all time. Yet here’s what I can recall of that classic: A cloud of yellow butterflies, hovering above an open-air bathroom. “Love in the Time of Cholera”? Fermina Daza. I think she was the protagonist.

“Corelli’s Mandolin?” Corelli. A mandolin. A girl on a beach.

“Beloved”? Slavery.

“Olive Kitteridge”? The fact that the main character was named — wait for it — Olive Kitteridge.

Really.

I am a literary fiction and nonfiction writer, with a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing.

Two of my bestselling books were memoirs. I have nearly total recall of the day when I was seven years old and our second-grade teacher, an eccentric, flame-haired New Zealander named Mrs. MacNuer, had us make stick puppets depicting humanoid dinosaurs; mine was a lime-green Stegosaurus with a peace medallion and a handbag. I can recall what the streets of China looked like in 1987, shrouded in ghostly, pearlescent fog, the air smelling of wood smoke and garlic while swarms of black bicycles emerged from the pollution and chugged around Tiananmen Square. My family calls me ‘the historian” due to my full, sensory memory of places, events, conversations. Butdon’t ask me about the novel I read recently. I’ll have even forgotten the author.

I am not proud of this. We writers are supposed to be encyclopedic and erudite, capable of speaking incisively about great books. Certainly, I believe I should be capable ofretaining the most basic elements of what I read. Certainly, I should be capable of quoting lines from the literature that’s become hard-wired into my central nervous system.

Certainly, I should beable to give you thumbnail synopses of the novels I’ve loved and championed over the years — from Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Francaise,” to Mona Simpson’s “Anywhere But Here,” to April Sinclair’s “Coffee Will Make You Black.” to Téa Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife.” Surely, I should be ableto remember the plot from “The Catcher in the Rye.” I’ve only read the goddamn thing six or seven times. But no. I still cannot, for the life of me, tell you how it ends.

Last year, in Barnes and Noble, I came across a book about God written by Karen Armstrong. “Wow, this looks interesting,” I said to my husband. I read the endorsements on the back.

Turns out, one of them was from me.

I’d forgotten that I’d reviewed it on NPR’s “All Things Considered” several months earlier.

I’d worry that I have early-onset dementia, except that I’ve been this way since college.

And here is what is, perhaps, at the heart of the matter: Books, for me, are like fever-dreams. When I read, I am completely and utterly consumed by them. The rest of the world falls away. Caught in a riveting story, I’ll abandon my own writing, leave the laundry sopping in thewasher, ignore my mounting emails. I’ll move through my days in slow-motion, my thoughts bifurcated between the objects directly in front of me and the luminous otherworld that has takenover my brain. I feel addicted, unseeing. If anything distracts me from my fugue state, all I want todo is get back to that book.

But then, when I read the final sentence, and wistfully close the cover and set the book back down on my nightstand, it’s like a hypnotist snapping her fingers. Suddenly, I’m back in reality. And like a dream — even the best, most delicious dream — the book recedes so quickly that I am left with only fragments, glimpses of what I loved, surreal and ephemeral shards. A Russianadultress’ fingers, heavy with emeralds. A tumbleweed dancing end over end in an apocalyptic field. Ted Lavender. A tug boat storm-tossed in the straits of Japan.

Two days later, when you ask me what I’ve read, I’ll enthuse, “Oh, I just finished this phenomenal novel. It was set in an Indian reservation. With this devastating car scene between amother and son? And a tower?”

But for the life of me, I won’t be able to tell you what it was!

 

TINDERBOX an absorbing family drama that benefits from author’s psychological insights

Tinderbox    lisa_gornick

Tinderbox

By Lisa Gornick

Sarah Crichton Books, Sept. 10, 2013

$26.00, 299 pages

Some books, like people, make a poor first impression. The cover art of Tinderbox lacks the gravitas of the book’s “mysterious stranger meets fragile family” premise. It features a photo of an open matchbook and a small plastic toy dinosaur on a white surface, surrounded by a pale pink border and topped by a light font. But, having heard good things about the book, the serious reader soldiers on, remembering the old saying about not judging a book by its cover.

The first section of the book doesn’t help matters; something about the exposition seems forced and heavy-handed. The characters, upper income Upper West Siders, seem cliched and not especially likable. The descriptions include too many labels and product names. It’s all just a little off-putting. But one doesn’t put a book down after only 25 pages. Have faith in the author and the story she has to tell; all will become clear.

Just as people who make a poor first impression can go on to become a close friend or even a spouse, so does Tinderbox slowly and steadily win over the reader. By page 50, most of your reservations will have been left behind, as the rising action pulls you in. By page 100, it has become a taut and absorbing story of a family laboring under manifold burdens and secrets. By page 200, it has utterly won you over with the quality of the writing, the probing insights into characters and conflicts, and — yes — the likability of the characters, of whom you have grown quite fond.

Lisa Gornick is a psychotherapist by training, and her background informs Tinderbox. The protagonist, Myra, is a middle-aged therapist working out of a ground floor office in her four-story home on West 95th Street. Her daughter Caro is the workaholic director of a preschool in East Harlem for underprivileged kids, with no love life to speak of. Myra has invited her son Adam, along with his wife, Rachida, and their young son, Omar, to live with her for the year while Rachida completes a respecialization fellowship to switch from dermatology to primary care. Adam is a feckless, phobic, and under-employed screenwriter of second-rate Westerns, obsessed with movies in the manner of an overgrown Film Studies major. Rachida is a driven Moroccan Jew who has married into a secular Jewish family. Myra’s ex-husband, Larry, is a cardiologist who has remarried and now lives in Tucson; their relationship is polite but distant.

Into this already fragile domestic drama comes Eva, a young girl from Peru who has been recommended to Myra by her cousin Ursula in Lima. She has had a difficult life, having lost her mother in a house fire when she was just a child. Interestingly, she is convinced that she is descended from a small group of Sephardic Jews living in the Amazon city of Iquitos, where Moroccan Jews had once settled to work in the rubber export trade. Myra, despite initial reservations, agrees to allow Eva to become the newly-expanded Mendelsohn family’s nanny. What follows is a textbook example of the expression “No good deed goes unpunished.” The law of unintended consequences plays itself out in such compelling fashion that readers will find themselves racing to the last page.

As is usually the case, the mysterious stranger is a far more complex person than is first believed. At first, all proceeds smoothly. But Eva has night terrors and sucks her thumb when she sleeps. She begins to reveal her horrific life story to Myra, who is torn between her desire to help and the obligations of psychotherapeutic ethics. At the same time, we learn that Adam and Rachida’s marriage is troubled and that each is guarding a potentially explosive secret. Then Eva discovers something about one of the family members that will cause this tinderbox to catch fire, both literally and figuratively. As Gornick so powerfully puts it, Eva is the match that lights the kindling of Myra’s good intentions.

Gornick has written a smart, adult domestic drama that explores the varied family members’ lives and the many fraught relationships that can exist within one family. These are characters with realistic foibles who are trying their best to manage the many roles they each play and the expectations placed upon them by others. While the resolution may be too neatly constructed, it makes for an emotionally satisfying conclusion, for the reader has come to care deeply about these very human and all-too-familiar characters.

BOY, SNOW, BIRD shatters Snow White to examine beauty in a multi-racial world

Boy, Snow, Bird  Helen Oyeyemi

Boy, Snow, Bird

By Helen Oyeyemi

Riverhead Books, 2014

308 pages, $27.95

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that is as challenging to review as Boy, Snow, Bird. A summary of the premise would utterly fail to do it justice. I read several short reviews and summaries before I started the book; they only touched on what this story is about and none captured the essence of Oyeyemi’s brilliant, occasionally astounding novel. I’m sure my short review will suffer the same failures. So, if you want to stop reading now, at least know this much: This is a special book by a uniquely gifted author, and you should read it.

Here’s the premise: It’s 1953 and Boy Novak, a 20-year-old girl from the Lower East Side of Manhattan flees her abusive father, the Rat Catcher, ending up in the small Massachusetts town of Flax Hill, where she hopes to make a new start on a life with some beauty instead of the sordid poverty and suffering of the life she ran from. Staying in a boarding house for similarly situated young women, she befriends fellow guests Veronica Webster (always called Webster) and Mia Cabrini. She obtains a job working at the bookstore owned by the eccentric but kind-hearted Mrs. Fletcher.

I loved Oyeyemi’s descriptions and her two-character first-person narrative, although Boy remains a questionable and possibly unreliable narrator in her sections. Early on, Boy describes her first days in town. “As for Flax Hill itself, I was on shaky terms with it for the first few months. Neither of us was sure whether or not I genuinely intended to stick around. And so the town misbehaved a little, collapsing when I went to sleep and reassembling in the morning in a slapdash manner. I kept passing park benches and telephone booths and entrances to alleyways that I was absolutely certain hadn’t been there the evening before.”

Before long, she encounters widower Arturo Whitman, who decides to woo the young, icily beautiful, and mysterious Boy. Whitman has an eight-year-old daughter, Snow, who is adored by everyone for her beauty, charm, and utter goodness. She is the perfect child. Boy walks in the shadow of Arturo’s dead wife, Julia, but appears to make her peace with Julia’s ongoing presence in the lives of Arturo and Snow. It is not giving away anything significant to reveal that Boy agrees to marry Arturo and become Snow’s stepmother. For it is here that the plot reaches critical mass and the action starts to rise. Their relationship starts off on a promising note but soon becomes complicated by jealousy and an almost sibling rivalry. Snow seems mostly oblivious to her effect on people and the impact she has on Boy and her marriage to Arturo. She is young, of course. But as time goes on, Snow becomes more self-aware and her relationships increasingly curious. It is as if her friends and family members worship her rather than love her.

Boy explains, “If Snow was ever worried, if any anxieties ever disturbed her for longer than a day, she rarely showed it. She was poised and sympathetic, like a girl who’d just come from the future but didn’t want to brag about it. She’d pat your arm and say, “Everything is okay. Everything is normal,” and you took her word for it. Sometimes I think it was a trick of hers, deciding aloud what was going on so that everyone who loved her fell over themselves to make it so. Sometimes I think we needed her to be like that and she obliged.”

Later, Bird offers a description of how the people of Flax Hill treat her older half-sister. “Everybody agreed that Snow was valuable, but she was far too valuable to have around for keeps. Nice to look at for an afternoon, but we’ll all breathe easier once she’s safely back at the museum. I was beginning to hate people because of the way they talked about my sister, because of the way they didn’t really want her.”

Clearly, Snow is not your typical girl. But why? Is she inherently different and special? Or is it that she is just remarkably beautiful and everyone has treated her differently for so long that she has become different?

At one point, Bird observes Snow reading note cards left for her by visitors to the family home. “She was used to being treated like this. It was nothing to her. I had a moment of hating her, or at least understanding why Mom did. Thankfully it came and went really quickly, like a dizzy spell, or a three-second blizzard. Does she know that she does this to people? Dumb question. This is something we do to her.”

Much has been made of the obvious parallels between Oyeyemi’s story and that of Snow White. Boy is the “wicked stepmother.” But that simplifies a complex and multi-level character and plot. Certainly, the inspiration is there, but Boy, Snow, Bird is not simply a modern retelling of Snow White. There is a lot of mirror imagery and “magic” of sorts involved here, and several characters are obsessed with what constitutes beauty. The plot turns on the birth of Boy and Arturo’s daughter, whom they name Bird. To everyone’s surprise, she is dark-skinned. The Whitman family secret is revealed: they are light-skinned African-Americans who have been “passing” for white for a few generations, a situation that has been zealously protected by Arturo’s mother and family matriarch Olivia, ostensibly for the benefit of her descendants. Remember, the story begins in 1953. What will Arturo and Boy do with Bird? Should they send her away, perhaps to live with Arturo’s older sister, Clara, who was banished to Boston long ago for some unrevealed behavior?

Half-sisters Snow and Bird are indeed separated, but not in the way one might expect. They yearn for each other and manage to make contact and develop something of a sisterly relationship as the years pass. The family dynamics, particularly between Boy and Olivia, increase in difficulty and tension. Arturo goes about his business as a custom jewelry maker. Issues of race, culture, beauty, and ethics permeate the second half of the novel. To describe them is to shortchange their subtlety and the accomplishment of Oyeyemi’s thinking and writing. Just when you think you have sorted out the melodrama and symbolism, there is a dramatic (yet plausible) plot development that will make readers stop short, with their mouths hanging open.

One of the joys of Boy, Snow, Bird is Oyeyemi’s sparkling writing. It is full of wit, intelligence, unusual turns of phrase, and a unique sensibility, perhaps the result of her being born in Nigeria and raised and educated in the UK. She is only 29 and has already published five well-received novels. It’s no wonder that Granta chose her as one of Britain’s best young novelists in 2013.

Boy befriends some students who spend a lot of time in the bookstore. One day she walks two of the girls home. “As usual, Phoebe’s siblings were waiting for us outside the elementary school, three rowdy girls of indeterminate age and the shortest of short-term memories. Every school day they asked if they could play with my hair, and I let them. Every school day they squealed: “It’s just like sunshine!” and I wished they’d find a new sensation.”

In a flashback to earlier in her teens, when a young man named Charlie took a fancy to her, Boy describes Charlie’s meeting with her father, the rat catcher.

“I’ve seen the way you look at my daughter. You think she’s pretty, don’t you?”

Charlie said: “More than just pretty, sir. I think she’s beautiful.”

They both turned to me and went on a looking spree. I left them to it and wished I could sail over their heads and into the acid blue sky. They didn’t look for long, it was more a practiced series of glances; they knew what they were looking for  and seemed to find it. It was a wonder there was anything left by the time they were through looking.”

In part two of the story, Bird assumes the narration, and within 10 pages reveals the following:

“Sometimes mirrors can’t find me. I’ll go into a room with a mirror in it and look around, and I’m not there. Not all the time, not even most of the time, but often enough. Sometimes when other people are there, but nobody ever notices that my reflection’s a no-show. Or maybe they decide not to notice because it’s too weird.”

On the next page, she describes an encounter with her mirror, in which she is not present.

“[S]o I broke the mirror, and kept right on hitting it long after it broke, a cartoon mouse squeak coming out of my mouth, loud, loud. And the oval glass, that dear old glass that used to stand on my dresser, it tried to give me what I wanted, tried to give me my face, but it kept showing me bits of faces that weren’t mine. There were slivers of Mom’s face, and Dad’s, and Aunt Mia’s, and Grammy Olivia’s, and others, some shreds no wider than my index finger. I don’t know who they were, there was even a man or two, faces chasing other like photographic slides when someone’s trying to show you their vacation in a hurry — in the end I had to knock the frame flat and  run for Mom [Boy], who vanished all the broken glass with no questions asked.”

Late in the novel, Snow, now in her early 20’s, writes a letter to 13-year-old Bird, explaining about her recent job search. At one point, she visits an employment agency.

“There was an additional cover sheet that asked you to declare your race. The woman at the front desk said that it was just for the agency records, that it wasn’t information they passed on to employers, but the girl next to me said to her: ‘You people need to think about what you’re doing to us. You’re bad people…you’re making us paranoid. You’re driving us crazy. Every time I don’t make it through to interviews, I’ll be wondering whether it’s because there are better candidates or because of color. Color, color, color; what you’re doing is illegal and you know it. I should find myself a lawyer who’s ready to make an example of you.’

The woman at the front desk had heard it all before and she recited something about it being impossible to obtain any proof that employers were shown the information agency clients provided on the additional cover sheet….I left mine blank; I knew that I was within my legal rights not to say. Ms. Front Desk pushed my forms back across the table to me and said I had to fulfill all of the requirements. I told her, ‘None of these options say what I am,” and she rolled her eyes. ‘Every day. Every day a philosopher walks in off the street and makes my job that little bit harder to do.’  Then she said, ‘Why won’t you say? Hmmm?'”

Another example of Oyeyemi’s laser-like observations is made by Boy early one morning near the story’s powerful conclusion. “The first coffee of the morning is never, ever, ready quickly enough. You die before it’s ready and then your ghost pours the resurrection potion out of the moka pot.”

Boy, Snow, Bird is so complex, such a fractured fairy tale, that it is like the shattered mirror described by Bird. I have been pondering its points in the two days since I finished it, and I know it will occupy a corner of my mind for some time to come, prodding me to think about it again, more deeply. I suspect this may be the first book on which I will write a second review once I sort out my thoughts about it. That is the sign of a special novel and possibly a great one.

HYSTERA offers powerful insight into mental illness

Hystera cover   Leora Skolkin-Smith

Hystera

By Leora Skolkin-Smith

The Story Plant, 2013

187 pages

It’s no secret that the publishing world is so crowded with books that outstanding, even important, books sometimes get lost in that crowd. Leora Skolkin-Smith’s Hystera is one of those books. It is a short but powerful depiction of a young woman’s emotional breakdown following the accidental death of her father, for which she blames herself. Hystera follows Lilly’s journey through madness, from her initial examination at the hospital to her stay in a New York City psychiatric hospital to her eventual discharge. How she got there, literally and figuratively, is revealed through Skolkin-Smith’s effective use of flashbacks.

We learn that Lilly is a student at Sarah Lawrence College trying to make her way toward emotional independence from her domineering and very complex mother, Helen, who, it soon becomes clear, has her own burdens. Helen was raised in Old Jerusalem and educated in London, eventually immigrating to the United States, where she married Lilly’s father, David Weill, an entertainment lawyer in New York City. Helen is a master bookbinder who works in the basement of their suburban home repairing old books sent from Israel. In flashbacks, the younger Lilly is fascinated by her mother’s work and some books on alchemy, but their relationship is fraught. Her mother alternately tyrannizes her with unpredictable rages and smothers her with desperate neediness. Her father is intelligent but generally neglectful.

When the break occurs, Lilly’s roommate, Jane, takes her to the emergency room. Lilly experiences a fever dream of guilt, visions, alchemy, and sexual confusion. She is obsessed with a bulb that appears to be growing in her uterus. (An epigraph at the start of the book explains that “hystera” is from the Greek root “hysteria,” meaning “the wandering uterus.” Hippocrates viewed the womb as an independent creature that could wander throughout the body if a woman engaged in unnatural behavior.) She struggles to keep the bulb’s existence secret from her doctor and the staff of the hospital, which only serves to increase her emotional disturbance. She knows the image of the bulb between her legs comes from an alchemy book, which she searches for during a secret overnight stay in the Sarah Lawrence Library.

“The bulb between a naked woman’s legs was in one of the illustrations made by Maria the Jewess from Babylon in the second century. Finding it, Lilly felt her body lighten as if she had crossed through the barrier of her shame. There were other women like this, she thought. Like her.” (p. 52) One of the books describes the bulb as “a consolidated nucleus of the personality, which can appear to the alchemist as symbols….”

Hystera captures Lilly’s state of mind brilliantly, as she struggles with challenges and threats both internal and external. Listening to the rain outside her hospital room, “Lilly was suddenly floating in a dissolution of space, a gust of thrill, foreign and exciting. She felt the pull of her own madness, the bulb, the confusing currents washing alternately through her and her fantasy world, like running water, merging the real world and this other realm that she needed time to comprehend.” (p. 61)

Skolkin-Smith’s powerful prose-poetry is ideally suited to describe the psychiatric ward. “Now Lilly felt alert. The medicine of hours ago had almost finished its watch over her impulses and quelled her. She moved hesitantly amid the hive of new faces and bodies. As in an airport where a flight was interminably delayed, all the patients looked stranded and anxious in the surroundings of ashtrays, magazine racks, and game tables.” (pp. 57-58)

Lilly vacillates between feeling safe in the ward and wanting to have herself released. “She wanted to stay here in the hospital, where people couldn’t swallow her, she thought, or ignite her into flames and ash. She just wanted to be able to write in her notebook again, to feel the lightness she used to feel when she packed the outside world up and put it away somewhere so it couldn’t hurt her anymore.” (p. 67)

Lilly makes some progress, realizing at one point that “[I]t would destroy the bulb if she went back to Helen and her father. The bulb would be obliterated, and then she would have to kill herself. Going home scared her more than staying in the hospital. Lilly retracted her sign-out letter early the next morning.” (p. 102)

This is as good a description of mental illness as I have encountered in a novel. Skolkin-Smith’s penetrating insight into mental illness and emotional breakdowns is so accurate, it appears to have been gained through either the crucible of psychiatric work or personal experience as a patient.

Skolkin-Smith clearly empathizes with those who experience mental illness. A fellow patient tells Lilly, “I feel for all the people who are told they are crazy. They’re being told by the people that are supposed to love them that there is something wrong with them, that they are incomplete or flawed somehow. I want to take them in my arms and hug them long and deep and tell them that there is nothing wrong with them. Whatever you are it’s okay. It’s okay with me. I don’t want there to be anyone out there who doesn’t have someone who says, ‘I love you for who you are. I see you. So please have a good night, my kitten.’ I want a good night for all my pets.” (p. 122)

As Lilly slowly improves (no plot revelations here!), she begins to wonder about whether she will be able to return to her life. “Lilly wondered what it would feel like to walk in their apartment now, how it would feel. She wondered if it could ever be the same, if she could fit back in anywhere, even with Jane. Outside the hospital room’s window, the city seemed like a hazy country floating in some intangible interval between then and now.” (p. 133)

With medication, therapy, and insights gained both inside and outside her “madness,” Lilly finds her way back to herself. Without tying up every loose end too neatly, the ending will provide sufficient “closure” for most readers. But Hystera is truly about the journey — the illness and its causes — not the destination (some form of mental health).

Hystera is a must-read in this time in which mental illness is shaking off its stigma more successfully than ever. Hystera offers readers profound insight into the patient experience and a uniquely moving reading experience.