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Ghosts in the Nursery

Remembrance of generations past

As I read two extraordinary new memoirs, At Home with Andre and Simone Weil, by Sylvie Weil, translated by Benjamin Ivry (Northwestern University Press, $24.95) and An Exclusive Love, by Johanna Adorjan, translated by Anthea Bell (W. W. Norton & Company, $24.95), I kept thinking of the paper written years ago by the psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg, titled “Ghosts in the Nursery.” Fraiberg’s thesis was that the spirit of uninvited guests from the parents’ past hover in the newborn’s bedroom, unconsciously affecting the personality development of the infant, as well as his or her later relationships. In these two books, the authors explore the long-term impact that the life — and death — of certain family members have on their own developing sense of self.

Sylvie Weil’s book explores the consequences of growing up in the shadow of two unusual and outstanding progenitors: her aunt, Simone Weil, a famous French philosopher and mystic, and her father, Andre Weil, one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century. Particularly complicated for Sylvie is the legacy of her famous aunt Simone, who left Judaism to become an ascetic Catholic, and who died at age 34 from ill health or perhaps from her self-starvation and refusal of medical intervention.

Johanna Adorjan’s memoir is the personally imagined reconstruction of the last day in the lives of her urbane, sophisticated grandparents, survivors of the Holocaust, refugees from the Hungarian revolution and, finally, citizens of Denmark. On their last day, in October 1991, Adorjan’s beloved grandparents Veronika (Vera) and Istvan (Pista) Adorjan, took their own lives in a suicide pact. Her grandfather was gravely ill, but her grandmother, who was in good health at the time, felt that she no longer wished to continue her life if her beloved husband was not by her side. Adorjan was 20 years old. This book is her poignant attempt to understand and come to terms with who they were and why they did what they did.

Each book is both moving and painful to read. Weil writes of the time when she was 16 and was awarded a French national academic award. General Charles DeGaulle shook her hand at the ceremony. Later that day, the front page of the evening newspaper was splashed with Sylvie’s picture, with the headline identifying her only as the “Daughter of mathematician Maurice Weil (an annoying typo for my father)”. The next edition of the paper displayed the same photo, with the headline changed to “Niece of the philosopher Simone Weil.” Sylvie’s mother’s main response to the event was great annoyance that Sylvie had neglected to remove her jacket before the awards ceremony, and that therefore her new dress was not visible in the photograph.

Both Adorjan’s and Weil’s families were assimilated in practice and liberal in their Jewish leanings, and both writers seem to feel that they were left untutored and unmoored in their Jewish identities. Sylvie Weil was actually baptized, partially to fulfill her deceased aunt’s request, and also to give her parents the assurance of safety that they felt came with a certificate of baptism. Johanna’s grandfather wrote a memoir at age 77, with some of his observations about Passover, a holiday they didn’t celebrate as a family. Adorjan’s response is distress. “If I am to be perfectly honest, this makes me not only sad but even a little angry. For he stole a part of my identity as well, deprived me of an essential part of myself, bequeathed me a gap in my sense of self that seems like a mystery.”

These memoirs offer intimate access into the lives of unusual people, and a sense of life in Europe between the two wars and of Jewish life in Europe following World War II. One of the unanswered questions inspired by these books is why women in particular might be drawn to give up so much for their God or for their relationships, even unto death.

Nechama Liss-Levinson is a psychologist and author of When a Grandparent Dies: A Kid’s Own Remembering Workbook for Dealing with Shiva and the Year Beyond. She received the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award for her children’s book When the Hurricane Came to New Orleans.