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Bloodlines

Ellen Ullman’s new novel pushes a psychoanalyst, a patient, and a mysterious eavesdropper back to their traumatic roots—in the Holocaust

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Six years ago, the British writer Carmen Callil published a remarkable book called Bad Faith, in which she investigated the life of the man in charge of deporting Jews from Vichy France. Callil’s interest in Louis Darquier de Pellepoix was sparked when she caught a glimpse of him in Marcel Ophuls’ documentary The Sorrow and the Pity and realized to her shock that she was obliquely connected to him. For seven years, Callil had worked with a therapist named Anne Darquier—who she now learned was the estranged daughter of the war criminal—until Anne committed suicide by mixing alcohol and pills. Suddenly Callil realized that the woman she trusted to help her with her demons was living with world-historical demons of her own. What must it be like to be a healer who was the daughter of a mass killer?

This story seems to have provided some of the inspiration for By Blood, the marvelously creepy new novel by Ellen Ullman. About halfway through the book, Dr. Dora Schussler, a tight-lipped, determinedly impersonal therapist, confides to her own therapist the story of her childhood. Her father was an SS officer, a “true believer in the Fuhrer and the Master Race,” whose job before World War II involved funneling “money to amenable French candidates for office. Fascist rightists. Anti-Semites.” In other words, he might have been the German liaison for someone like Darquier de Pellepoix, who was on the Nazi payroll during the 1930s for exactly those reasons. Like Anne Darquier, Dora Schussler rebelled totally against her father, becoming an American citizen and devoting herself to a life of curing pain, instead of causing it.

In By Blood, however, Ullman drops Dr. Schussler into a therapeutic situation more Gothically convoluted than anything a real psychologist might face. At the core of the novel are the sessions Dr. Schussler conducts with a patient whose name we never learn. At first, “the patient,” as she remains, talks about fairly ordinary problems. She is a lesbian whose conventional parents refuse to accept her sexual identity; but as a proto-yuppie, an economics analyst who makes a good living and likes fancy vacations, she is herself too conventional for her girlfriend, a sexual and political militant. (This is, after all, San Francisco in the 1970s.)

Yet Dr. Schussler keeps brushing aside these kinds of issues and urging the patient to explore the fact that she is adopted—which, the therapist maintains, is the key to all her sufferings. Plainly, the doctor’s obsession with parents and inheritance is a reflection of her own family secrets, and she begins to wonder if this “countertransference” is not doing harm to the patient, drawing her into the web of the doctor’s own neuroses.

What she does not know is that she’s not the only one unhealthily focused on the patient’s adoption. Everything we hear about these therapy sessions is filtered through the twisted mind of a narrator, whose name we also never learn, and who is eavesdropping from next door. The creation of this narrator is Ullman’s masterstroke, for he is as skin-crawling, as vaguely, ominously horrible, as anyone in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

The novel’s first lines set the tone of creepiness Ullman will sustain to the end: “I did not cause her any harm. This was a great victory for me.” All at once we know who we are dealing with: a barely restrained monster, whose articulate mind does battle with his violent impulses, in a way familiar from horror movies and novels. The little we learn about him, from his carefully rationed allusions and ambiguous recollections, confirms that impression. The narrator is a professor, on leave while his university investigates the nameless crimes he committed on, or with, his male and female students. He has rented an office “in the downtown business district of San Francisco, where I intended to prepare a series of lectures about The Eumenides”—and if you think that a scholar studying the Fates might himself be pursued by them, just wait and see.

“What kind of devilish place had I come to, I wondered, where humid fog could turn to sere heat and then to monsoon rains all within the space of a few weeks?” the narrator wonders, his diction making him sound like a well-bred 19th-century vampire. Of course, by moving to San Francisco in the post-hippie era, he has chosen a city that is indeed pretty devilish. As Ullman reminds us, these were the years of Patty Hearst and the Zodiac killer, whose exploits the narrator listens to on the radio: “Through the shivering curtains of static came whispers of strange reports, horrors and chaos, murders, women forced to watch their boyfriends knifed to death, then killed themselves by multiple knife thrusts. … Were these emissions from my radio true events or figments of my fevers?”

As this suggests, Ullman lays on the creepy atmosphere so thickly—sometimes you can almost hear the Theremins in the background—that By Blood becomes its own pastiche. This is a tricky thing to pull off, but Ullman does it beautifully: She seems to wink at you even as she shouts “boo” and makes you jump out of your chair. (Indeed, like a 19th-century serial novel, many chapters of By Blood end with shameless cliffhangers, e.g., “When suddenly she exclaimed: But what was that?”)

Jumping out of his chair, however, is one thing the narrator cannot permit himself to do. For as the novel opens, he realizes that the office he occupies is next door to that of a psychologist—Dr. Schussler—and that when she turns off the white-noise machine that usually blurs her conversations, he can hear every word she and her patient say. Another kind of tenant might knock on the wall or ask to change rooms, but the narrator—who, Ullman gives us to understand, is a kind of stalker and peeping tom at the best of times—is deeply drawn into the secrets unfolding next door.

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virginia mitchell says:

The Holocaust is the most signifcant and authentic experience of th 20th century.

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Bloodlines

Ellen Ullman’s new novel pushes a psychoanalyst, a patient, and a mysterious eavesdropper back to their traumatic roots—in the Holocaust