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Surviving My Parents: A Golem’s Painful Memories of Childhood Abuse

In her new memoir, Donna Minkowitz recalls being torn between her mother’s overbearing fantasies and her father’s cruel games

Donna Minkowitz
September 23, 2013
Emily North
Emily North
Emily North
Emily North

Donna Minkowitz was raised in Brooklyn, one of three sisters in a working-class, intellectual, largely secular family. In Growing Up Golem, she recalls her childhood, her career as a lesbian radical journalist at the Village Voice, her difficult love life, and the debilitating illness that derailed her professionally. And she does it using the conceit that instead of giving birth to her, her mother—who told the entire family she could do powerful magic from the Kabbalah—actually created her as her own personal golem.

I have always hated being as porous as I am. Able to be filled with others’ content. Mimsy—the portmanteau word Lewis Carroll coined for “flimsy” and “miserable” at once—unlocalizable, able to take any shape. Especially when directed by my mother … Fey, impish, effeminate, will o’ the wisp; mercurial, multifarious—counterfeit in my very being, like a photocopy of a human. Like those beautiful beings Puck and Ariel, who were really nothing more than great-looking, impressive slaves when you get right down to it. With them, as with me, there is no there there. All the creatures of Faerie are tricksy, thievish, prestidigitational performers. Fairies have the duplicity of all subject peoples.

I have always felt my own twoness, always known that I was only half a person—if indeed that much. I realized very young that I was the true referent all those men unthinkingly have in mind when they refer to some gay man as a “lightweight” or a “Twinkletoes,” someone who cannot fill his own, deep human shoes. I am the one they really meant. I have never been a real person; and I have always dissembled, or as my fairy kin like to say, beguiled.

Purim has always been my favorite Jewish holiday because it is a holiday about catastrophe—only the Jews would be crazy and brave enough to have a holiday about catastrophe, tragedy, trauma itself. On Purim you were supposed to dress in costume, get drunk off your ass, and act psychotic, because you were so freaked out that some people had long ago tried to kill you.

When I was six, my mother asked if I wanted to be Haman for Purim and I thought that was a wonderful idea, because I had never been Haman and neither the girls nor boys had ever been him in my school; the girls were always Queen Esther in tinfoil crowns and kitchen-drapery ball gowns. I hated being Queen Esther, and I loved the idea of being someone evil.

Oh reader assimilated or unknowing—no one dresses like Haman for Purim, for the simple reason that Haman is a genocidal murderer. Every Purim we celebrate that at the end of the Purim story, Haman’s body has turned black and is hanging from the highest tree. We have put him there.

I certainly knew he was a genocidal monster when my mother dressed me up as him. My yeshiva was so Zionist that even the rabid Arab-hater Meir Kahane sent his daughter there, and my teachers were quite thorough on all points concerning violence against the Jews, even when addressing six year olds.

My mother worked so enthusiastically on my costume for Haman—sewing me a three-cornered (vinyl) dark purple hat, which functioned rather as Haman’s SS helmet in the Purim story, putting one of her black wigs on my head to be Haman’s hair, and another wig carefully cut to fit my face to be his beard. Outlining my brows and eyes in black pencil—that it was the best costume I have ever worn, and I hated every minute wearing it because it was all my mother’s.

Nothing of the art of the Haman I was playing was me. Wearing the costume she had put together so artistically, I was simply being my mother’s notion of Haman, my mother’s transgression of gender and the niceties of Purim in my very conservative yeshiva, my mother’s antic creature.

Reader, I had difficulties from my mother creating me out of whole cloth, but I had even more from my father’s surreal sports, employing me as the birdie in his games of badminton.

Using me as the pins and ball (and sometimes the alley and the next lane) in his games of bowling.

Using me as the puck (yes, my reader, the Puck, the two have always been connected) in his games of field hockey.

Using me as the ball and clubs and beret in his games of golf.

Using me as the ball in his games of jai alai.

How his perceptions could become so altered that he could think I was a piece of state-of-the-art athletic equipment, bought at a nearby mall, I do not know. I do know his perceptions were very altered.

Reader, my father hit me, and the rhyme or reason to it was as frankly odd as if he had instead played Ultimate Frisbee with my cheeks, or used my gallbladder as a mallet in a gentlemen’s game of croquet. He was not—as I hope I have made crystal clear—a dominant force in my family, and yet he was allowed a certain liberty to use my brows as bocce-balls and my temples as a wiffle ball, however many times he wanted.

My mother didn’t mind. Sometimes he hit me when she wasn’t there, sometimes when she was, but it did not matter as long as he did not strike me many blows at a time, in which case she would tell him huffily, “That’s enough.” But, reader, even his single blows were enormous, like a giant’s, and his short recreations hurt me.

Perhaps I’ve lied. It wasn’t only recreational for him to strike me—I clearly made him angry, although it was often surprising what made him angry at me on any particular occasion.

He was sensitive. And my mother added to his pool of sensitivity daily, by saying things like, “You’re just too stupid to understand!” in everybody’s earshot. He never talked back to her when she said things like that. She also told jokes to which my father was the punchline—“What’s immovable and fat and hairy and idiotic?” and encouraged my sisters and me to make fun of him. I only once saw him reading a book—My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok—and clearly the only possible thing for me to do was to say, “Holy Christ, Daddy’s reading a book! What if his brain pushes out of his head?”

But he did not strike me when I said that. I don’t remember which words of mine made him do it. He smelled so unbearably bad that we made some playful jokes at his expense about emergency deliveries of Odor Eaters, but he did not hit me (or my sisters, who for some reason he never hit) in response to that, but to other things that I really, really can’t remember, reader. Were they innocent things like, “Would you mind leaving me some of the pickles?” Or mean things like, “I’d never be as stupid as you!”

Whatever I said to inspire him is lost in the fog that always overcame me at such moments, which has made me remember them utterly differently from all other events in my long life. Not as discrete happenings, but as one long, never-fading, continually present moment of getting hit (like a robot programmed to see a giant fist coming down on its head every nanosecond, so it must scurry to come up with a million strategies of avoidance, as long as its power is on).

I did frequently call him stupid. But so did he call me. He never acted like my father, not remotely. We were always equals in the Minkowitz Family Consortium, except that he was four times my size and had a vastly stronger arm. My mother treated him like just another child in the family, albeit the one who was supposed to be hated.

I was seven when he started, and he always hit my head.

It hurt. And reader, it made me terrified in a peculiar way, of everything under the sun, and all creatures that flew in the air, and ones that crept on the earth, of all people and, of course, games engaged in by the arms.

For years, the sound of keys disturbed me, I had no idea why. I think now that it was the sound of his keys in the door. I do know I was frightened whenever he was home, and felt safe when he was not.

My plasticity came in handy, I think, because it made it easier for me to assume the roles as the equipment in the ballgames than a non-goblin individual would have found it. I was made of Things, after all, reader, a variety of largely inorganic and inhuman Things, and being treated as a thing could not have made as big an impression on me as it would have on a biological girl. Soil and paper and nails do not feel as much as humans do, and have never done. Not even muffin batter, the nearest thing I have to human flesh, and which I have only in a very small amount, feels anything like what human beings feel. This is the reason Rabbi Judah Loew was allowed to make a golem in the first place, and the reason he was allowed to destroy it, as Abraham was not allowed to destroy his son.

Adapted from Growing Up Golem: Learning to Survive My Mother, Brooklyn, and Some Really Bad Dates. Published by Magnus Books, a division of Riverdale Avenue Books. Copyright 2013. Used with permission.

Donna Minkowitz has been a columnist for the Village Voice and has also written for the New York Times Book Review, Salon, The Advocate, Ms. Magazine, and The Nation.