Samuel G. Freedman wrestles with how to write about his mother, and ends up doing some kind of penance.
In Who She Was, Samuel G. Freedman attempts to discover his mother, who died of cancer at 50 and whose grave he avoided for 30 years. Eleanor Hatkin grew up in a strict, cloistered home in the East Bronx in the 1930s, clashed with her domineering Polish-born mother, and gave up the love of her life, Charlie Greco, to enter into a strained, ill-fated first marriage before meeting Freedman’s father. To uncover his mother’s past, Freedman turned to the reportorial skills that have served him as a New York Times reporter and the author of Jew vs. Jew and Upon This Rock.
Was it possible to have any objectivity when writing about your own mother?
Eleanor, right, with friend.
I don’t believe in objectivity, in the sense that human beings are by nature subjective. But I do believe that I could see my mother—especially in her young womanhood, long before I was born—as honestly as I could see anyone else.
I often felt that my brain was cut in two when I was working on this book. The journalist and historian wannabe was thinking about where I was getting material from, whether I could find so-and-so for an interview, etc. At night with my wife, the son’s part of the brain would take over. I would either talk excitedly if I’d found something joyous—say, her falling in love in high school. But more often, I’d kind of let out a long, heavy sigh, and talk about some sadness I’d found—how my grandmother had to pick garbage, how my mother’s first husband cheated on her, how desperate she’d been in pressuring my father into marriage.
But do you see any virtue in making the biographer part of the story?
I have no problem with the idea of author as participant. The problem I have is the kind of revelations that come out about books like Fierce Attachments, where years after the fact you find that Vivian Gornick made up stuff. I remember very clearly listening to Maureen Corrigan on Fresh Air give this incredibly pained, and very poignant commentary about what it was like as someone who had loved Fierce Attachments, to find out that it had been partly fiction masquerading as fact, how hurt she was as a reader. I thought, that’s exactly why you don’t do it.
It seems there’s a similar hazard in constructing your mother’s life from the views of others. How could you be sure their accounts were true?
I went to great pains to cross-check everything with either a written record or a second or third source. And actually, I often had undeniable confirmation in the form of photos or home movies or letters. Virtually every biography written, except for the “authorized” sort, uses exactly the methodology I did. They all rely heavily on the views of others.
One of the hardest must have been Selma, who married Eleanor’s old flame, Charlie.
That was what I felt was going to be the touchiest interview, because when Selma met Charlie, he was overwrought about the breakup with my mother, and then when he died, she found Eleanor’s picture in his belongings. Selma was candid and guarded at the same time. We were certainly feeling each other out, and some trust built very slowly over numerous interviews. Also, after Charlie and Selma were married, my mother begged for him to break up with Selma and to marry her, and he didn’t. So maybe that made it somewhat more possible for Selma to talk to me.
Charlie and Eleanor had quite a love affair. Was Charlie a kind of ghost in your home growing up?
I had heard only a vague thing, that my mother had had a Catholic boyfriend, that she was serious with him, and that my grandmother Rose threatened to jump off the roof to break them up. But when you hear something like that, you don’t know if it’s true or partly true. Is it a bubbe meise? I really didn’t know. Obviously, I’m glad she didn’t marry him, or I wouldn’t be here. The most enigmatic thing, the most difficult thing to come to an answer for, was why my mother didn’t just marry Charlie Greco, her Italian boyfriend, over her mother’s objections. And that was the thing I struggled with the most.
In the book your mother often recedes in the light of these other people’s stories, such as your grandmother Rose.
Well, I discovered a whole different aspect of my grandmother writing this book. Growing up I couldn’t know her, really. She was hard of hearing, and wouldn’t wear her hearing aid. She didn’t speak English fluently. All her visits to our house were informed by the bitterness between her and my mother. It was really at my father’s behest that we saw her at all. Very much over and against my mother’s objections, my father would make sure to give us access to our grandmother. But I accepted, fairly unquestioningly, this sense of her as this impossibly Old World person. What could she have to recommend her?
But writing the book I was to find out exactly what had happened to Rose’s family. She had tried to do anything to get her family out of Europe. When I did this research and met my relatives in Uruguay I realized, these people are alive because of her efforts. When I saw this valiance in her, I saw this person hurling herself against history, and against all her own limitations.
Even with all these stories of people who lived much of their lives before you were born, your book still looks much like what you purposely strove against, which is family history. Do you still see it as limiting?
Well, I think the limitation isn’t in the form. It’s in how it’s been practiced. And I don’t think it’s so much a limitation as a dereliction of duty. It’s much more a case of people, in my mind, who want to have it both ways, who want the power of saying, “This is true,” without the responsibility of truth.
One of the things I find in a lot of memoir, especially when it’s written by people who are relatively young, is that they tend to sort of view their parents solely through the lens of being a parent. They are somehow wrenched loose from whatever the social or historical context of their life is. All through the process of working on this book, I was paying attention to everything that was going on in the world around my mother and her family and looking for the places where it intersected with her lived life, and her parents’ lived lives.
Was there anything you learned about your mother that disappointed you?
It was painful to see how much my mother leaned on her beauty, how much she needed constant affirmation of her allure, and how that went directly into her tragic decision not to have a mastectomy.
Did you write this book to make amends with your mother?
Absolutely. I felt that I had lost the right to consider myself her son. I had to do some kind of atonement, some kind of penance, to earn back my son-ness. I was very close to her when she was alive and I was living at home. Paradoxically, because we shared a lot—a love of books and writing, especially—I felt it imperative somehow to put distance between us when I went to college. But the day she came to visit me and I made her sit on the other side of the room in one of my classes has haunted me ever since. As did my failure to visit her grave for almost 30 years. It took this book to exorcise those feelings. Doing this book was a very long process of al chayt, the confession of sins.