Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s Searing Family Inquiry

Of the many things to admire and enjoy about Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s work, what I cherish most is that I always come away from her books feeling significantly changed and open to alternative ideas. Sycamore has been steadfast in her commitment to documenting sometimes-difficult truths, even (or especially) when she is writing about people and places she has loved. 

In her newest work, the brilliant memoir Touching the Art, Sycamore examines her relationship with her grandmother Gladys—an abstract artist, and the woman who first taught Sycamore to see and feel the world differently than others, and to recognize new possibilities in life and art. Sycamore investigates both the art and its complicated artist, who abandoned Sycamore once the latter came out as queer and as a sexual abuse survivor, and began to live life on her own terms.

Panning way in and way out in exhilarating ways, Sycamore documents the tension within her grandmother between wanting to live as she wished as a Jewish woman artist in an often antisemitic, sexist world, and wanting to appear the model minority, with the need for her family to achieve mainstream success in the United States with its own culture of bigotry and capitalist excess. 

Sycamore examines all of this with characteristic rigor and heart, and it was my pleasure to ask her the following questions about her newest work.

LM: Talk to me about the shanda—the Jewish notion of a shame that reflects poorly on one’s family and community. Your grandmother Gladys seems to have internalized this notion, torn between wanting to be both free and creative yet also comfortable and respected.

MBS: I think that shame is one of the things I always write against—in Touching the Art, I start by literally touching Gladys’s art, her handmade paperworks in particular, to feel what comes through. Some of this is about her art itself, or watching her in the act of creation, some is about my relationship with her, and my formation as a creative person, and some is about trauma—personal, intergenerational, intimate—surviving my father’s abuse, Gladys’s abandonment of me. From there I look at larger legacies that impacted Gladys—Jewish assimilation and white flight in Baltimore, I look at her contemporaries within modernism and Abstract Expressionism, and ultimately I’m thinking about the creative impulse itself, what art can and cannot do. I know that as a child Gladys gave me everything, but once I came into my own she wanted to take that back and so I circle around this abandonment.

LM: I think we’ve both struggled with “how to write about trauma without feeling the trauma.” You conclude that “I guess there is no way,” but I wonder if you could talk about how writing this book affected your mind and body. We’ve also both struggled with families who don’t believe our trauma, and you note Gladys’s need to “control the conversation. The conversation that was really about me.” Is this book a way of taking back the narrative?

MBS: When I started writing this book, I didn’t necessarily know that it would be about trauma, but what was I thinking? I mean I can’t write about Gladys without writing about my father, who was her son, her prized possession, an achievement that gave her status in a misogynist world, and she held onto that achievement no matter what, so when I confronted him about sexually abusing me of course she acted like I was the problem. And when I go back to her letters to me from that time I’m stunned by their cruelty, honestly I’m stunned. And I want to be present in all of this because at the time I couldn’t be—how do we undo the trauma unless we go there, maybe that’s another paradox.

LM: This sentence stood out to me: “The notion of Jewish exceptionalism, the idea that Jews are somehow innately tied to social justice, hides Jewish complicity in structural racism.” You also write about how Gladys was very accepting of her queer friends going back to the mid-20th century, and yet she could not accept your queerness. There’s a lot of “fine in theory” going on regarding Jewish complicity, with a big dose of “not in my backyard.” Where does this leave you in your own relationship to Jewishness and the Jewish community?

MBS: As a child, I was very proud of my Jewish heritage—in elementary school I wrote a report about the Refusenik Jews, and was asked to read it to the whole school during an assembly. Of course, at the time I didn’t know that this narrative was used to bolster Reagan’s anti-Communist crusade. I didn’t know that in Hebrew school, when we were asked to plant trees in the Negev desert, this was actually to cover up Palestinian villages destroyed by the Israeli military. 

I did know that my relatives would switch to Yiddish during Passover so they could say racist things about Black people. I did know that their upward mobility camouflaged racism, classism, misogyny, homophobia, and so after my bar mitzvah, when I decided I didn’t believe in God, I rejected the whole package. I didn’t want any part of that Jewishness. It was only much later that I understood myself as a part of a radical lineage of Jewish outsiders and misfits, because that was hidden from me due to assimilation.

LM: I wonder if you could talk about what it was like to write events and scenes you’ve previously told in fictional form now, again, as memoir? Did the craft feel very different, and, if so, how so? What could you do in fiction that you couldn’t in nonfiction, and vice versa?

MBS: I think I’m always writing toward vulnerability, and so I choose fiction or nonfiction depending on which I think will be more vulnerable. So it’s not so much about the craft as it is about writing toward intimacy or truth, toward rupture or rapture, into the gaps, beyond what is accepted or expected, between the lines, outside of what we’re supposed to say and into what I need to stay in order to stay alive, right, I think it’s about staying alive, writing, it always is.

Lynn Melnick’s latest book is I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton.