Sunday, December 19, 2010

Hush, by Eishes Chayil

I'll never forget the day, back in the 80s, when I told my husband, Charles, then just my boyfriend, about my history. "When I was a girl I was sexually abused by a relative," I said, forcing the words out. This was the first boy I had ever told. It seemed right, like the thing to do at that point in our relationship, but even as the words left my mouth I knew they could be a deal breaker. I waited nervously, the silence hanging heavy in the air. If he was going to break up with me then he should just say it and get it over with, I thought. "Well," I asked with an urgent, frustrated edge, "does this make you feel any different about me?" Charles began as always, slow and measured.
"Well," he said, and my breath caught as I realized that he was beginning a sentence that would take me to an unknown place, "I don't feel any different about you, but it doesn't make me feel very good about your relative."

Charles was one of only a handful of people I shared this with. The shame of what happened to me as a child gripped me so completely that I was a young adult before I even told my family, and even then the fallout from the abuse still hung over me like a thick, gray cloud. I couldn't shake it. Two more decades would pass before I could even imagine typing these words.

My story, and the stories of so many others, brings to light not only the scourge of sexual abuse against children, of course, but something else just as harming: the secrecy that surrounds it. Secrets are toxic; you hide something when you are ashamed of it. 40-years ago when my abuse took place the world was not nearly as enlightened as it is now, but this fact still holds true: Our society puts a premium on surfaces -- niceties and smiling faces -- at the expense of the more difficult work that comes with honest discourse. Children aren't unaware; they see this; they know others will be uncomfortable in the wake of their disclosure so they often keep it to themselves. Because children often keep their abuse secret, the shame of what happened falls not on the perpetrators of the abuse -- where it belongs -- but on the victims. This is when the abuse -- a terrible enough thing in and of itself -- becomes freighted. As a girl I knew implicitly that the adults around me would be uncomfortable if I disclosed what happened, and because of this I put myself in the position of being responsible for bearing the burden of the secret; I made it possible for those around me to go on with their lives unfettered by the discomfort of dealing with my suffering and having to confront the pedophile relative who abused me. The terror of being abused became spider-webbed in confusion and shame. The burden was crippling. The premium our culture puts on its smiley face has another notable repercussion: because victims keep their abuse hush-hush, their abusers face no repercussions and are allowed to go on molesting. (Just so you know, it wasn't my imagination that my family would not welcome my disclosure. When, as a young adult, 20 years ago, I finally summoned up enough courage to speak out about it they responded by insisting I stay quiet, murmuring that I was either unbalanced, making it up, or both. It has only been in the past few years that they've apologized and we've been able to sit down and talk about what happened openly.)

The long-held, unspoken belief within the Jewish community is that sexual abuse is not a Jewish problem, especially among the more observant Orthodox and Hassidic groups. It doesn't take a social scientist, though, to realize that cultures that seek to preserve traditions -- not an unworthy goal -- by definition tend to be insular, and that an insular society can be a breeding ground for predators if it handles its dirty laundry from within, as these communities do. There can be an enormous amount of pressure within these communities to keep quiet about sexual abuse. And because sexual abuse against children is almost always unwitnessed, and therefore unprovable, victims (and their families) are often told by those in power that their allegations fall under the umbrella of lashon hara, or gossip, which is strictly forbidden.

Although "Hush" is billed as a novel for young adults, the story is well-written and compelling reading for adults, too. It's telling that the author, a woman from one of the observant communities, felt compelled to use a pseudonym. It's sad that the atmosphere within these communities is still such that the author couldn't comfortably use her own name, although the pseudonym she picked couldn't be more fitting; Eishes Chayil translates as woman of valor.

In the author's note at the back of the book, Chayil writes that she used the story of her own life to craft "Hush," combining two events from her childhood to form the plot. As a young girl she witnessed a friend being molested, and also heard of an 11-year-old boy in her community who hung himself. In "Hush," Gittel's best friend, Devory, hangs herself in the aftermath of being molested by her brother. As the plot unfolds we see that Devory wasn't the only person victimized by the abuse; Gittel witnessed it and the guilt she suffers from keeping quiet about seeing Devory's abuse, and from outliving her, takes its toll in the form of symptoms we now know are part of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. I had a few minor quibbles with the plot and structure of "Hush," but I hesitate to even bring them up. Those details are besides the point. "Hush" is an important book. It shines the light on the sexual abuse within traditional Jewish communities and, in the telling, secrecy and shame are vanquished. I can't help but believe that G-d would be pleased to see this. Eishes Chayil should be proud.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem

Today I had the opportunity to speak with two relatives I'd never even heard of until recently. One was Jerry, who lives in Detroit and is the nephew of the husband of my second cousin, twice removed. The other was Tzuriel, a forth cousin who lives in Milwaukee and is the father of seven children!

Those are your clues, the giveaway to what I've been up to: working on my family tree. Genealogy is like crack cocaine: it leads to a quick rush and you're left wanting more, more more! (Just for the record -- My high school was in the Haight-Ashbury but my description of a crack high is purely conjecture.) For the few people out there who haven't heard, (and there must be someone out there I still haven't shared this with), the legend in my family is that we are descendants of Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, otherwise known as the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov (also known by the handy acronym, Besht) was born in 1700, lived in the Ukraine and is known for founding the Hassidic Judaism.

The path between Okopy, the Ukrainian village of the18th century that was Besht's home, and present day Indianapolis is, well, complicated. But even as the names and dates are filled in, a brief look at the mosaic of data -- and a family tree is so compelling, how could one not look? -- will reveal that the meat of the stories of those lives lies in the negative space, the myriad details that take place in between birth and death. Like my conversation last week with the niece of my great-grand aunt, Gitel Chervitz Ridker. That niece, Ruthie, who lives in Chicago and is not even my relative, was chatty and helpful, despite that she remembered very little about Gitel. But oh, what gold there was in those few tidbits! The negative space around Gitel's name reveals that she was a large woman. Well, large is not exactly how Ruthie put it. I believe the words Ruthie used were bottom-heavy! And, according to Ruthie, Gitel and David's family would never have been named "neighbors of the year." Ruthie recalled going to one of their Bar Mitzvah celebrations, still struck with how few friends they had.

"The Fortress of Solitude," which tells the story of two boys growing up in 1970s Brooklyn, is like the negative space of a family tree, in that it richly depicts the many twists and turns these lives take. Sure, FOS has some of the fantastical elements that are Lethem's trademarks, but these elements are rooted in the grit and grime of everyday life as we see Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude navigate the big issues of their Brooklyn neighborhood in the 70s: race, sexuality, crime and drugs. Like real life, the story of Dylan and Mingus is full of joy, wonder, heartbreak and loss. And like real life, you never know where the story will take you. In my case it might be to the nephew of the husband of my second cousin, twice removed, from who I learned that the name of the ship my ancestor sailed to America on in 1907 was the Carolina. Or it might be to a cousin in Milwaukee, who told the story of how our great-grand-aunt had her old country rebbe write down the names of her Baal Shem Tov ancestors on a slip of paper, and how she came to America with that slip of paper tucked into her father's Siddur. Life is a wild ride, full of moments just like these, rich and fraught. The phone rings -- it might be a long-lost cousin. A scrap of paper falls from the pages of that dusty, old Siddur. Even as I discover the bones of the structure of my family tree, it's the stories that rest in the negative space give it its color.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Elmore Leonard

Incredible. That's the only response I can come up with when I reflect on the hour this morning I got to spend with 20 other grad students at an intimate Q & A with legendary novelist Elmore Leonard.

To call Leonard a veteran writer would be an understatement; He's been at it for 60 years. Leonard began by looking back on his long career, which began in the '50s. He wrote westerns, which were in vogue at the time. In giving a nod to commercialism, he said that when he writes he always has in mind what the public will like, what will sell. It wasn't until the '80s, Leonard said, that he finally made the New York Times bestseller list. He reported that this didn't feel like a big deal, though, as he never read any of the books that made the list, but the achievement pleased him because he knew it would increase his book sales.

He spoke about his influences and how the first writer to profoundly impact him was Hemingway, although he also loves Cormac McCarthy, Pete Dexter, George Higgins and Jane Smiley. He spoke about his writing style, and how he writes a story solely through the eyes of the novel's characters, and that he eschews any writing in which the author's point of view muddies up the pureness of that ideal. Also, he noted that the point of view in a story can sometimes change as he writes a novel, as he realizes a secondary character has become more interesting than the primary one.

When Leonard was asked how he goes about writing from a point of view different from his own, he answered that the key is research, and that the details about the characters and their surroundings give them an authentic voice. Leonard then pointed to the back row, to a closely-cropped, serious looking, solidly built young man named Greg, who looked as if he could serve as Leonard's bodyguard, and could have been easily lifted from the pages of one of Leonard's novels. This was Leonard's research assistant and right-hand-man. At 86, Leonard is still sharp, but the few times he was unsuccessful in conjuring up the name of one of his novel's characters, his assistant would bark out the answer from the back row.

Leonard then addressed how he came up with the ideas for his novels, and said the genesis for many of his them come from photographs. Karen Sisco, one of the characters from "Out of Sight," came from an evocative photo of a female marshal.

I got a chance to ask Leonard about my favorite Elmore Leonard book, "Ten Rules of Writing." He said he originally wrote these rules out on two yellow sheets of paper as part of a speech. After the speech someone asked him for the sheets of paper and Leonard handed them over without a thought. Later, the New York Times asked him to write a column expanding on these rules, so he had to rewrite them. Meanwhile, the original papers were listed for sale, and Leonard had to buy them back for $600! Leonard went on to read us the rules, which are funny simply because they're so basic. He likes to bandy about the word Hooptedoodle, a word that sums up the intent behind his rules and has a sound that conveys its meaning: prose that is descriptive, flowery, extraneous and cluttered and, by definition, not dialogue. Leonard is a proponent of the "show, don't tell" school of writing, and said that he dislikes reading descriptions of what characters look like. He would rather paint of picture of the character with dialogue and action.

Telling us about his writing process, Leonard said he eschews computers. He likes to feel directly connected to his pen and paper, with no computer screen involved. He writes for eight hours each day, and no longer uses outlines for his chapters. He would rather see what his characters do, and that might not be what he originally had in mind. In order to get into the mind of his characters he may rewrite a scene from a different character's point of view. He shared an interesting anecdote about how a critic's accusation that he wrote his female characters in the style of Mickey Spillane led to Leonard taking a closer look how he writes the women in his novels. Because of this introspection, when he writes female characters he now thinks of them as simply as people, rather than women.

Leonard told us that it is said that it takes a million words to develop one's own writing voice. A prolific writer like Elmore has certainly achieved that many times over, leaving us with a distinctive voice in contemporary American literature.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Room, by Emma Donoghue

"Room" is a breathtaking, captivating and suspenseful novel. Donoghue vividly depicts her story's narrator's world, and tells the story from his singular point of view. If I reveal anything else about the story, though, I would take away from the jaw-dropping awe that comes with discovering that world for yourself. I don't want to spoil it for you. Which leaves me in the tricky position of trying to put together a book review without revealing any of the plot. I'll just say this: you will be drawn in by the compelling premise of Donoghue's story, as well as by Donoghue's ability to convey her narrator's story so convincingly. And, as if all that isn't enough for one novel, Donoghue structures the plot of "Room" with a great deal of finesse, withholding information and then artfully releasing it bit by bit, so as to maximize suspense.

"Room" was an uncomfortable read. At its start it was apparent there was something vague and unidentifiably wrong in the world Donoghue was painting, and as I tried to make sense of it I was reminded of a slowly developing Polaroid picture that still had blurry, unidentifiable forms. I felt a creepiness. I wanted to put the book down, but I didn't -- the suspense had me in its vice grip. Then, very slowly, the edges sharpened and the forms became recognizable. By that time "Room" was one of those books that demanded to be read. I let the phone ring, and forgot to start dinner; I couldn't put "Room" down.

There are great books, like "Room," and there is also life outside of great books, and sometimes the two intersect. Which brings me to my story of the bar mitzvah party I attended last night, in this year of endless bar and bat mitzahs. Last night, amidst the flutter of near-teenagers and the boom of Cotton Eyed Joe blasting over the sound system, I was struck at how a party can be very much like a novel. A party and a novel each consists of a set of characters forced by circumstance -- the constraint of a party room or the plot that tosses them together -- to interact, which is something that inevitably creates conflict. The cast of characters at a bar mitzvah party is stock: there are shy kids who hang at the perimeter, heads tilted towards the floor; there are gregarious, macho boys; there are flirty girls with shiny, long hair who have one foot in the adult world; there are the one-drink-too-many older relatives; there are the I'm-way-too-cool-to-get-on-the-dance-floor older siblings, and of course, there are the boisterous, middle-aged friends of the hostess who take advantage of every bar mitzvah party to bust a move. (Guess which category I fall in?) When I see the shy kids I'm reminded of the shy kid I once was and I want to shake those kids out of their self-conscious, self-inflicted oppression. When I see the flirty girls I want to say to them hey, slow down, have some fun, and be sure to be nice to the chubby kids. It's only now that I'm pushing 50 that I see that it's only when we can step out of the stories we have written about our own lives that we are afforded the opportunity to transcend the constraints we've imposed on ourselves.

Which brings me back to "Room," which, in a very round-a-bout way, illuminates one of the central struggles we humans face as we make our way through this world: the impulse we have to impose constraints over ourselves. In "Room" we get a tousled, yet heartbreakingly poignant riff on this theme, as we see a transcendence so astounding it can't help but make us reflect on the limitations and potential in own lives.