Growing up around my repressed Yiddish-speaking relatives, I was never allowed to say anything bad about my family, my people, or myself in public. No wonder my idol was Philip Roth.
Luckily for me the trio of wise and witty memoirs by Jewish women named finalists for the National Book Critic Circle’s best autobiography award this year—to be announced at a New York event tonight—are suffused with secret agonies and ax-grinding. All three female authors are originally from the Midwest, dark-haired and lovely, acclaimed, and between the ages of 45 and 65—seasoned women of letters. Yet thematically, one could argue they fall prey to the common female affliction of defining yourself through someone else. Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution: The Year I Fell In Love and Went to Join the War (Holt) chronicles a 1987 college romance gone wrong, when she freaked out her middle-class Jewish parents by running away at 18 to Nicaragua with her Christian boyfriend George to join the Sandinistas. Diane Ackerman’s One Hundred Names For Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing (Norton) shows a romance gone right—until her longtime husband Paul West, a prolific British novelist, is felled by a horrible illness that steals his speech. In The Memory Palace (Free Press), by Mira Bartók, the middle-aged author says goodbye to her long-estranged, mentally ill mother, Norma, on her death bed.
Bartók’s book is the most gut-wrenching. “A homeless woman, let’s call her my mother for now, or yours, sits on a window ledge in late afternoon in a working-class neighborhood in Cleveland. … She is five stories up, and below the ambulance is waiting, red lights flashing in the rain …” is how she begins her poetic, harrowing epic of rage and forgiveness. The homeless woman vividly portrayed is the author’s mother, an 81-year-old paranoid schizophrenic with cancer at a Cleveland women’s shelter.
After a destructive childhood that culminated with Norma acquiring a gun and attacking the author with a broken bottle, Bartók changed her name and cut off her mother in 1990 to save herself. She didn’t see her again for almost two decades. While Bartók traveled the world, taking lovers, painting in Italy, teaching in Israel, and publishing children’s books, guilt and confusion followed her. When an Ohio social worker tracked her down to warn her that Norma was dying, Bartók returned to their hometown of Cleveland to say goodbye.
Given a key to her mother’s storage unit near their old neighborhood, Bartók sifts through her mother’s tattered belongings, trying to make sense of the disturbing maternal figure that haunted her past. Each worn postcard, scarf, and stuffed animal flashes her back to a beginning of a life that held great promise. Norma Kurap was a pretty, smart, Jewish musical prodigy expected to land at Carnegie Hall. The author’s father was a talented novelist whose 1961 debut, Journey Not to End, was compared to the work of Albert Camus. Yet by the time Bartók was 5, her father had abandoned the family (to eventually die a penniless alcoholic) and her mother had descended into madness.
Adding to her torment is a car accident that Bartók suffered in 1999 that left the 40-year-old author with brain damage. “On good days, I acted normal, sounded articulate. I still do. … We children of schizophrenics are the great secret keepers, the ones who don’t want you to think that anything is wrong.” For therapeutic reasons, she makes a memory palace for herself, writing this book and crafting paintings that punctuate each chapter, incorporating the leftover diaries and rags from her mother’s ravaged life.
In Bartók’s early world everything was wrong, amiss, crooked, distorted by her mother’s sickness. Yet the disjointedness and desperation are what make the book so devastating. Bartók doesn’t scrimp on her damaged parentage or psychological limitations, but she does get cryptic when it comes to her partners. On page 5 we meet her fiancé: “I almost always travel with Doug now: he is my compass, my driver, my word-finder and guide. How would I fare in this place without him?” But she doesn’t disclose much more. Other men are mentioned, then disappear. Her acknowledgment of “Doug Plavin” led me to an online update that Bartók co-runs a collaborative with “her husband, drummer and music producer Doug Plavin.” Ah, he’s a musician and they’re married. Mazel tov! Facebook shows a cute, slender bald man who lists Memory Palace as a favorite.
A loved one’s illness also inspired One Hundred Names For Love, which starts with a trauma at an upstate New York hospital in 2004. Ackerman’s 75-year-old husband, the prolific British novelist Paul West, is being treated for a kidney infection when he has a massive stroke. “In the cruelest of ironies for a man whose life revolved around words, with one of the largest working English vocabularies on earth, he had suffered immense damage to the key language areas of his brain and could no longer process language in any form,” she writes. He can’t even say his beloved wife’s name. He can only utter “MEM, MEM, MEM.”
Ackerman worries that with aphasia, he can no longer verbally play with her, building ornate castles “in the sandbox of language.” This is a huge loss for the best-selling author of An Alchemy of the Mind and A Natural History of the Senses. (Her last hit was The Zookeeper’s Wife, the World War II story of Jan Zabinski, the director of the Warsaw Zoo, and his wife, Antonia, who sheltered and saved 300 Jews, as well as Polish resisters.)
Amid details of West’s difficult recovery, Ackerman weaves in the history of their strong marriage. “We had fallen in love at Penn State, in the early 1970’s, when I was a flower-child undergraduate and he was a professor with yards of education, wavy brown hair, and a classy English accent. Somehow, though just a sophomore, I’d signed up for his graduate Contemporary British Literature course. … On our first real date, we had drinks at his house, talking nonstop until dawn—and I stayed for forty years.”
Becoming West’s caretaker, these two “word-besotted creatures” fight to fix his ravaged brain and restore his linguistic agility. “Once upon a time in the Land of Before, Paul had so many pet names for me I was a one-woman zoo. Now it was as if a mass extinction had taken place, all the totemic animals we shared had vanished,” she laments. With intensive therapy, Ackerman teaches him again the names he called her, beginning with “swan.” She lists them at the end (Celandine Hunter, Swallow Haven, Spy Elf of the Morning Hallelujahs) and eventually helps West write and publish his own account of his stroke.
Ackerman’s memoir is a polished gem, engaging, earnest, flowing with a mix of memory, medical adventure, and science. It’s not as twisted or brooding as Bartók’s, though Ackerman is the first to admit of herself and West that “When it came to literary style, we both preferred the opulent to the sparse.” Without sugar-coating the unfairness of her husband’s fate, she offers a buoyant testament to the power of words, language, and love. Yet she says surprisingly little about her childhood, her religion, her personal regrets or failures. Of her childlessness she says only, “I sometimes teased that we stayed together for the sake of the children—each was the other’s child.” Ultimately Ackerman chooses her husband’s physical weaknesses and triumphs over laying bare her own psyche.
Deb Olin Unferth’s account of the brainy boy whose bones she wanted to jump during their globe-trotting yearlong affair is more sly and cynical than the other two memoirs. Neglected by her middle-class Reform Jewish parents, who were moving from Chicago to Arizona in 1987, the lonely 17-year-old rebels by falling for George at a protest rally. She gloms onto this Christian “genius,” a philosophy major writing his thesis on liberation theology. Unferth accompanies George to Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, looking for a revolution. Or passion. Or home. Turns out she’s an inept and spacey activist and a lousy judge of men. George proposes, but they’re off and on. Then it’s over.
Unferth, author of the acclaimed story collection Minor Robberies and the novel Vacation, parodies her younger self’s idealism in wise, funny, self-deprecating passages: “I took my dress off and walked around in my underwear. … No one seemed particularly interested, not even George, who was dehydrated … and had diarrhea. My coming-of-age-story … didn’t involve a loss of innocence or man’s inhumanity to man. It was me taking my clothes off and marching in a circle. … Somehow I knew—nothing specific, I just knew—I wasn’t who I would be. More of me was coming.”
Decades later, trying to research this book and locate George in Brazil or Mexico, Unferth hires a private eye. She learns he’s a computer programmer in Pennsylvania. Instead of mourning a loved one, or attending to their rehabilitation, at the end Unferth seems alone, holding only the death of her idealism. It’s brave to admit George liked her better with her underwear on, thus they never really consummated their connection. Yet, later, contemplating George’s proposal and flashing forward through the 24 years since they split, she adds this zinger: “It was my one and only marriage proposal, unless you count the four others, which I don’t.” Why not? On page 192 (of 208 pages) she throws in this explosive, almost-haiku: “The fourth one I married. Civil war. Nine months later I was back living my normal life alone.” End of chapter.
As Phillip Lopate says, the problem with confessional writing in this country is that authors don’t confess enough. Let’s hope these three fascinating female voices that do their tribe proud are just saving the juicy stories for their next installment.
Susan Shapiro is the New York Times bestselling author of Unhooked, The Bosnia List, and most recently The Byline Bible. Follow her on Twitter @Susanshapironet.