From Motherless to Motherer

Rachel Louise Snyder’s Women We’ve Buried, Women We’ve Burned

One of my favorite workshops to teach is something I call “Acting for Writers.” It’s a class that investigates how to put ourselves in closer touch with our sense and emotional memory, the way actors do. After all, I explain, actors and writers are artists of the same cloth, who share clear objectives: to tell stories, to entertain, inform, enlighten, even sometimes warn an audience or to unburden themselves of secrets too heavy to hold onto.  In doing so, they seek to be authentic, honest, and believable.

Rachel Louise Snyder could teach my class simply by sharing her work.  What distinguishes that work is the way emotion emerges without being manipulative, the way observations and revelations illustrate how deeply a skilled writer can cut into the very center of human existence and bring it to life on the page.  I never fail to believe Rachel Louise Snyder. I never distrust her.  She is among the most reliable narrators I know. I take in her confidences, and I resolve to keep them in a safe place where they can continue to enlighten me.

So it is with Women We Buried, Women We Burned, Snyder’s soon-to-be-published memoir.  The story of Snyder’s life, beginning with childhood trauma – her mother’s death, her father’s embrace of evangelical fundamentalism – that led to hard-driving self-destructiveness, and then to total self-transformation might seem calculated and farfetched from a less ingenuous writer.  But Snyder’s writing is so stark, so clear, so unfettered by hyperbole of any kind that the saga resonates with irresistible urgency.

Snyder’s narrative journey begins when her mother dies. She hears her mother call out, “I can’t breathe,” and she recognizes even at the tender age of 9 that her mother desperately wants to live but has lost the battle with her disease. Rachel’s father, confused and helpless at the death of his young wife and the responsibility of raising two children nearing their teen years, tells Rachel that her Jewish mother has happily surrendered to death and resides now with Jesus in Heaven. He has almost immediately devolved to a religious self he never was before, and from that moment his young daughter intuits that she cannot trust her father to be the man her mother married, the father she used to know. 

Without warning, Rachel’s father submits himself to unforgiving religion, which he imposes on his family and enforces through the use of corporal punishment.  He loves by force of will and shows affection by exerting dominance. He marries a woman he easily controls, and Rachel’s only defense is willful defiance of everything he stands for. After she is expelled from the Christian school he has forced her into, he turns her out of the family home and refuses to let her back in. 

Endowed of remarkable resilience and empowered by ever-improving survival skills, Rachel wanders through her adolescence and experiences sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll until she finds herself in college, where she gets by, thanks to her superior intelligence and a little help from her friends.  To her surprise, she discovers a love of learning, fascination with history, and, most importantly, commonality with other women – battered and buried women, who have survived or who have been defeated. Then she binds herself to an abiding faith that she can make a difference. 

Ultimately, Rachel Louise Snyder’s story is one of evolving maternalism. The motherless child becomes mother of herself. The self-motherer becomes mother to her stepmother, to her remarkable daughter Jazz, and to the women whose stories without her might never be told.  Her story is a guide for us all.  She models the liberating power of self-acceptance and exemplifies the need for self-love.

I believe her. Every word.


Reprinted from Bookslut, March 2016

I always thought of Herman Wouk as my own personal Virgil, and as much as I like to think my relationship was special, I suspect there are many of me out there, wayfarers who have depended on Mr. Wouk to show the way. Those of us born to families devastated by the tragedies of the Second World War, whose parents chose not to talk about their experiences, who felt the force of their survivor guilt without knowing from whence it came found succor in Wouk’s work.

He welcomed us with abiding love, guided us down to the darkest circles of the hell they’d escaped, showed us the purgatory of their immigrant experience, and then he illustrated their view of heaven for us. For me, because my mother, like many survivors of the horrors left behind in Europe, hid her Jewishness, which disappeared into my father’s very American blue-blood WASP persona, Wouk was an essential source. He led me to my deepest roots and taught me how to love them.

I learned about the tenets of Judaism and prepared myself to study more formally by reading This is My God, a straightforward, unembellished explanation of the beliefs, rites, holidays, festivals, law, and the many variations of the religion. From Inside, Outside, I learned that many of the idiosyncrasies I thought were unique to our family were, in fact, universal to the experience of first generation Americans. In Winds of War and War and Remembrance, I got close to characters who had suffered the fear, loss, separations and dislocations my mother and her loved ones endured, and I found a way to be more empathetic to and less judgmental of that same mother.

What Herman Wouk’s books also offer is insight into the nearly 101 years he has lived on this planet. His fictional characters, only minimally masked and altered, are the people he has loved, hated, known, observed, dreamed about, and the events he has chosen for set the action of his novels against are mostly events he lived through or had some relationship to. In a way, the body of his work is his autobiography, his memoir in fiction.

Which is essentially what he tells the reader in Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-year-Old Author, his rumination on the sixty-four years of his career as a bestselling author. Sailor and Fiddler is not so much a memoir as a remembrance of things past, a paean to the good fortune that has accompanied his professional life and a nod at the tragedy he prefers not to talk about. He identifies himself as a sailor, having spent World War II in the Navy, and a fiddler, a character from the Sholem Alecheim stories his father read to his children in Yiddish, stories that fueled Wouk’s desire to write.

Wouk chooses to minimize the memoir. He says his beloved wife, to whom he refers as “Betty Sarah Wouk, the beautiful love of my life,” discouraged his writing any memoir, saying that a writer’s life is not all that interesting. He agrees, and so instead, he zips his reader past his journey from working class Brooklyn to fame and fortune in mainstream American culture. He sketches out some of the milestones of his life, glosses quickly past the mention — the first, he says, in anything he has written — of his first son’s death by drowning, concentrating on his the frequent reiteration of the amazing charm his life has seemed to have.

From the moment he was accepted to Columbia College’s Class of 1934, every project Wouk took on succeeded beyond his own expectations. He worked as a gag writer for the giant star of radio Fred Allen, went to Hollywood to write screenplays and, by the way, wrote a hit play, published a series of bestselling novels beginning with his first, Aurora Dawn, which he says was actually enabled by his Navy salary. He credits his gag writing with keeping his novels snappy, funny, and easy to read, even when the material was dense and meandering, and he credits his Judaism with keeping him focused, earthbound.

Whether living in Hollywood or sequestered on an island in the Caribbean, Wouk remained tenaciously religious. He refused to eat non-kosher food, and he never missed a Shabbat service. Thanks to his religion, he was able to anchor himself in his family and remain circumspect, diligent, and, most importantly, grateful for his great good fortune.

For readers who haven’t met Wouk in his novels, this minimal volume will perhaps provide an incentive to explore the literature that consistently remains on bestseller lists of all kinds. But it will not enlighten those who seek to learn about the private Wouk, the personal encounters. What it will do is provide a key to how Wouk relates to his work, how he came to write what he wrote, what some of his influences were. It will introduce the reader to the novelist’s relationship with his creations, what he especially likes and what he dismisses, what he is most proud of, and what he discounts. Imbedded in the book is a glimpse into the times and events that shaped Wouk’s sensibilities — his birth into a family of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, the post-WWI years in Brooklyn, the cataclysms of WWII, the McCarthy era, to mention a few. But everything that the book mentions is examined perfunctorily; Wouk writes neither for therapy nor to provide himself and his readers with profound revelations. The book is merely an old man’s musing on a long and prosperous career amid world and life events that the author assumes his reader knows plenty about.

What he hopes is that the “gentle readers” of this little book have already read and/or will soon read his work, and thereby know everything there is to know about him. He has recorded in his books all that seemed important to him, all that shaped his personal and professional life, and he wants to be known through those books.

As he says at the end of his discussion on writing The Hope and The Glory: “I told Ben Bradford I wanted to write two books before I died, one on Israel, one on my life’s story. By God’s grace, I have done both. And in this reminiscent glance, I have sketched how I did them.”

Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author by Herman Wouk
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-1501128547
160 pages

Nigel Bray’s Pride and Joy

Mr. Lucky’s subject and author Nigel Bray

Recently, a dear friend asked me to review Nigel Bray’s memoir Mr Lucky.  I admire my friend, value her sensibilities, and agreed to do so.  It’s not a book I would ever have chosen to critique.  But writing a book is a huge accomplishment that deserves to be acknowledged.  So here are my thoughts about Mr. Bray’s brave adventure.

The book is not a polished piece of literature.  Nor does it claim to be.  It’s a story.  Often harrowing. It’s the kind of true story we hear all too often.  It’s the story of growing up gay and seeking self-acceptance.  Yet another account of how society demoralizes and how important it is for each of us to become our own saviors.

Bray is a forthright narrator, which makes him immediately reliable.  His voice rings clearly without self-pity.  Bray has assembled the pieces of his life into a meandering memoir that entertains and at turns enlightens.  This is a man who chose apt role models and then evolved.  He is his own hero, a man whose life and book are achievements I applaud.

I will leave the final word to the Amazon tag, which says of the book:

I will leave you with what the Amazon tag says about the book:

This is the story of Mr. Lucky – a misnomer if there ever was one! Follow him from him being a spoilt brat, a nascent homo, a fledgling pooflet and drama queen, on his adventures through school and College, to living in London through the madness and the sadness of the crazy 80s, during which he finds the perfect opportunities to find himself – and discovers he was right all along! G.A.Y.! FANTABULOSA! Disaster follows disaster, japes go wrong, relationships fail (mostly because he’s a fool and doesn’t know his arse from his elbow), friends die and everything’s awful. So he returns home, to Cornwall: new life, new house, new job – but same old heap of trouble. You’d think he’d learn from past mistakes, but….. Skipping through the detritus of broken hearts, a terrible thing happens and his life changes forever and Three Tall Women, each their various ways, get him through. And then, finally, after the most awful thing imaginable, the Man in the Big Red Shoes appears and he finally walks out into the light. Mr. Lucky IS lucky, after all. We do like a happy ending…..


Schedule Yourself a Playdate

Until I read Thelma Adams’ Playdate, I thought it was a woman thing. . . .

When I was staying home with my kids — there are a few of them, and they are very closely spaced — people used to ask me pointedly and with no small modicum of condescension, “So, what do you DO all day?”  As though caring for small children, running a home, even just keeping the toilet paper stocked were not taxing enough.  I worked outside on a variety of projects that generated some extra cash, but I didn’t have a “steady job.”  Consequently, I was a nonperson.  Ask Social Security.  They’ll show you just how little I am worth as a result of those years outside the FICA pale.

Adams’ Playdate features a stay-at-home parent, a handsome young beefcake  and former weatherman from Barstow named Lance.  His life is spiced by the honest satisfaction he derives from watching his daughter blossoming into womanhood and healing his belly chakra through the variety of tantric sex positions he studies with yoga instructor, who happens to be the wife of his wife’s business partner.  The book is funny and entertaining, and the characters range from Barbie -and-Ken shallow or slightly loopy to downright and absurdly insane; based on my year of living reluctantly in California and my frequent visits to the La Jolla area where the book is set, they rang true.

But besides being a quick, fun read, the book scratches at a dark veil that shrouds two issues and renders them rarely talked about: human beings are threatened by choices others make, and child rearing is regarded as a part-time endeavor that demeans those who choose to devote their lives to it.

Lance is a “househusband.”  His wife Darlene is a wheeler and dealer, so Lance manages the cookie sales for his daughter Belle’s girl scout troop, drives her to and from her various activities; he spends his days washing, drying and folding the laundry, shopping for, cooking, and baking the food or scrubbing, scouring and polishing the house before he finally manages to catch a break over coffee and some community gossip at the nearby Starbucks before he jumps into his car to retrieve the child.  The men in his circle consider him a loser, and they call his wife a sucker for having married him.  “At my house,” brags the next-door neighbor, “I earn the dough. I’ve never met a woman who makes as much as I do. Never.  Nunca.  If a man earns less than his wife, he must be really low paid.  What kind of freeloader would let this happen?”

The observation is shared at the requisite revelatory party scene, the one where all characters’ secrets are discovered, set as a rather slapstick dinner honoring Robin, the sister of Lance’s playmate, who has written a sociological study called Househusbands and the Women Who Love Them, which has become a runaway best seller.  Darlene and Lance find themselves defending their choice to live as they do, but they also find themselves seriously questioning whether their critics might actually have a point.  Have they chosen wisely?

It’s a funny moment, made funnier by its poignancy, augmented for me by the resonance.  I lived through parties like that one, and my life was then and ever after of questionable esteem.

After thirty-three years of tending my marriage and that crop of delightful children, I left my husband to pursue the writing life I had postponed.  In one of our divorce mediation sessions, my spouse asserted, with absolute conviction, “You really don’t deserve to have half of everything, you know.  Because even when you worked fulltime — and you only did that for the last twenty years — you made less than a third of my salary.”  No one batted an eyelid in consternation, and I was blind-sided, but I should not have been.

In those years, the world had concluded that since women were liberated, they should not be allowed to sit at home and eat bonbons anymore.  In society’s eyes, I had not accomplished anything measurable — except, until I finally got to the gym to work it off, a substantial amount of baby weight.   If I had had, in those days, a good offer to engage in an independent yoga/tantric sex project with a willing man, I might have accepted gratefully.  Truth is, however, where women might find househusbands sexy — “oooh, they have such a prominent feminine side!” — men are not so enticed by housewives whose clothes smell of baby farts and whose bodies lumber from the strain of spending the day as a jungle gym.  Even when men appear to be bottom feeders, they are higher in status than the women toiling next to them.

No kidding.  We should talk about this.  Women and men should have options, and society should reward them for making bold choices.  Instead of criticism, both men and women who stray from the accepted norms should be applauded for having identified what they want, decided what they are willing to do to get what they want and then for going after it. Whatever it is.  It’s what we love about good acting; it’s what we should relish about good living.

And frankly, someone should be minding the kids!

Illuminating the Borders of Time

Leslie Maitland, author, Crossing the Borders of Time

In my earliest memory of a life-long recurring dream, I am not yet 5, sleeping at my grandmother’s sharply-gabled, faux-Tudor house in Bayside, Queens, in a room that I keep reminding myself doesn’t really exist, under a sharply pointed roof.  I hear sirens outside, growing louder, finally screaming just beneath my window, and I am terrified.  I wrap myself in a blanket and roll under the bed, listening to the murmur of unfamiliar, angry voices, and then I hear my grandmother bark, in cigarette-induced contralto, an angry recitative, “You don’t belong here.”  A gruff male voice, thinly tenor, replies, “You are wrong.  We may have missed you the last time, but this time we will get you. You cannot escape again.”  Grandma’s screams are garbled, but I clearly hear “Run, children,” in German, and I begin frantically scurrying about the house, urging family members, to come with me.  But they won’t move.  I am weeping, pleading, and I am suddenly paralyzed.  I want to run but cannot.  I am immobilized and terrified, and then I wake up.

Those of us who grew up in the wake of the German terror in Europe lived tenuously in our parents’ new world, and we shared with them the displacements that came with them in their flight.  Their nightmares and pain became ours, their loss left us feeling cheated.

Unlike many of the survivors who became our parents, Leslie Maitland’s mother Hanna/Janine Günzburger, whose story is the subject of Maitland’s remarkable book Crossing the Borders of Time, was generous with her memories. Maitland grew up ingesting details of her mother’s life in Europe, the joys and the agonies that accompanied a childhood punctuated by frequent flights.  As German-speaking residents of Alsace and Lorrain, they fled amid shifting, enmity-defined borders, eventually forced out of Europe altogether, finding their way to the United States by way of a three-year sojourn in Cuba.

Maitland chronicles the exhilarating moments of her mother’s delicious, feisty youth and first love as well as the disappointments, the upheavals, the ultimate devastation of losing everything.  And in the wreckage, lay communication with Roland, the love of Janine’s life, the man she pledged to adore and promised to find when all the tumult subsided. He had vanished from her reach, and so began a lifetime of regretful longing for what might have been.

As her father lies dying, Maitland, a brilliant, seasoned, journalist, sets out on a journey to reconnect her mother to the man she loved first and loved best, and the quest to reunite the lovers embodies the universal pursuit of serenity that is the consequence of survival we all shared with and inherited from our parents.  Her pilgrimage is illuminating,

It’s easy, especially for the children of these survivors who were born into an America of plenty and of relative tolerance, to overlook the aftermath of the survivor’s experience and forget that the great miracle of their having made it through disaster is only the first small step in a struggle for contentment.  Having endured a tragedy and lived to tell the tale may be cause for gratitude, but it is also cause for years of self-reproach and self-doubt, of choices ruled by circumstances forged in the fires of hell.    Survivors’ guilt is a deep, multi-layered cloak they all bore without relief, and we rarely have the opportunity to examine its carefully-woven threads.

What makes Maitland’s book so affective is the fact that she tells it with no manipulations.  The emotion comes from the action, from the characters — her real-life antecedants — themselves, and it is honestly reported, forthrightly delivered.  There is no whine of self-pity for any of her various subjects, only a persistent will to live on and to find happiness, whatever that may have been.  In their desire for joy, the people in this book overcome multitudinous obstacles, but they never stop to question whether satisfaction is worth having.  They keep on keeping on, and in that they are heroic.

There are few books about the time period called The Holocaust that so effectively describe life in the shadow of  Hitler and the Nazis.  And part of Maitland’s effectiveness comes from the emotional restraint she exerts over every page.  Like Thomas Keneally in Schindler’s List, Maitland writes with unwavering objectivity, even when speaking of personal and deeply felt family history.

Which gives the story a power and a glory all its own.