Despite the “memoir explosion” of the mid-1990s that supposedly saturated the market, the memoir continues to be one of the most popular nonfiction reading choices.
Jewish readers’ attraction to memoirs, I suspect, may be more for their use of “memory against forgetting,” to borrow a notion from Milan Kundera. Perhaps this is because Jews understand the power of memory not only to heal wounds, but also to reinterpret history— even personal history—in new ways. Three recent memoirs do just this.
In Naked in the Promised Land (University of Wisconsin Press, $26), a young Lillian Faderman dreams of becoming a child star in order to save her fragile immigrant mother from the drudgeries of the garment factories. Instead, she works her way through high school and college as a pin-up girl and burlesque performer. Along the way she becomes a woman who loves other women, some of whom will remind readers of the tragic caretaking-and-rescuing relationship Faderman has with her mother or, alternatively, with the loving but distant one she has with her adored aunt “My Rae.”
Thankfully, the young Faderman never completely defines herself by her line of work. Eventually and strategically, she positions herself to become a faculty member at Cal State during the 1960s, when few women in academia had such power. As a revered feminist scholar, excavating and exposing stories of the Other—women, lesbians, Hmong, Chicanos— Faderman proves artful at doing the same with her own story.
If memory is the mother of muses, then a Jewish woman’s relationship with her mother is often key to understanding who she will both become and refuse to become. As with Faderman’s tale, Natalia Rachel Singer’s Scraping By in the Big Eighties (University of Nebraska Press, $24.95) is a memoir of a daughter trying both to reconcile with and to escape from her mother, who in this case suffers from an incapacitating and aggressive mental illness. Singer alternatively takes care of— and tries to escape from—her mother, a woman who intermittently tries to sabotage, burn, stab, and strangle her two daughters and her own aging mother.
Scraping By not only tells the story of a unique mother-daughter relationship, but also reveals Singer’s quest to find a way to live creatively and meaningfully during the materialistic 1980s. She did not originally set out to write about her own life. “I wasn’t ready to tackle that woman in the stained red stretch pants with red lipstick smeared across her teeth,” she writes. Yet, while “denouncing the values of our soon-to-be-labeled yuppie generation,” and verbalizing the great ironies of her life during the 1980s, coining terms such as “Deja Voodoo,” for instance, or referring to work as “Group Death.” Singer manages to make readers ask themselves how place and policy and intimate relationships shape a woman’s life. Scraping By, an ambitious work, could have benefited from deleting some of the chapters that add little to the more gripping story of the mother-daughter relationship, but its best moments are riveting social and personal commentary that are well worth the read.
Susan Jane Gilman’s Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress: Tales of Growing Up Groovy and Clueless (Warner Books, $12.95) is, at first glance, the least serious of these three and the memoir most likely to have commercial success. Hip and hilarious, these essays explore issues ranging from race- and class-based playground politics to children being held hostage by their parents’ odd and repeated attempts at self-improvement via transcendental meditation, macrobiotics or interior design. Gilman’s powers of observation give her the remarkable ability to inhabit her younger self fully and honestly, and provide her assembly of characters with dead-on dialogue. I would have been a freshman at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan with Gilman when she was a senior, and my younger self could have delivered easily any of the unsentimental, tough, sincere lines Gilman ascribes to fellow students. Gilman, who’s dying to lose her virginity, begs a friend to tell her what it feels like. She replies: “Like I’d impaled my twat on a hockey stick.”
Humor moves this narrative along. Gilman learns about Judaism on the fly as a reporter at New York’s Jewish Week newspaper, carving out a niche for herself by covering the “freak beat” (single lesbian rabbi mothers, anyone?) while writing frankly about the transformative experience she had participating in the March of the Living in Poland.
These three page-turners, written by women of different generations and sensibilities, will help Lilith readers remember why they love memoirs and perhaps cause them to reflect on their own complex relationship to their Jewish identities
Yael Flusberg is a writer and activist living in Washington, DC.