“Never Let Me Down: A Memoir”

Never Let Me Down: A Memoir
by Susan J. Miller
Henry Holt and Company, $22.50

When Susan J. Miller’s mother spoke at a conference of the National Organization for Women, she described her own late-in-life embrace of feminism and portrayed her Jewish family as typical middle class, with a hard-working, bread-winning father and stay-at-home mother. What she didn’t say, to her daughter’s dismay, was the truth: her husband had been an addict, she had been chronically depressed, and her two children had borne the brunt of the dislocation and fear.

The truth is what Miller sets out to reclaim and reveal in Never Let Me Down. When she learned, at age 21, that her father had been a junkie during most of her childhood, her memories and perceptions of self shattered. In this winding, circular narrative where streams of memory flow into and out of each other, she uses words to ensnare and hold the fragments of her life.

Sidney Miller ran with the 1950s New York City jazz crowd, feeding on its music as well as its heroin. He used words as pile drivers, pummeling his daughter with ideas and arguments while never actually seeing her. Miller recalls feeling so invisible to him as a child that she feared he would not recognize her out of context.

His blindness extended to the ritual abuse she suffered throughout childhood at the hands of her brother. Aaron, not so skilled with language, fit poorly into an intellectual Jewish family; his frustration played itself out on the body of his younger sister. Miller’s mother saw this abuse but felt powerless. She blamed herself for Aaron’s anger because, for a few months when he was a baby, on doctor’s advice, she didn’t feed him every time he cried. Miller tells this story of misplaced guilt and subsequent neglect twice.

Even as a frightened young girl, Miller was forced to talk her mother out of the murky clutches of her despair. Acknowledgment of her own pain—and the right to it—came only later.

Miller’s search for understanding extends beyond her own life into the lives of her parents, in which lurk her father’s bitter mother, “the wicked witch of Brighton Beach,” and her mother’s own abusive brother, fanatical Uncle Willy “with the Hitlerian mustache.” Willy banished all the children to the dank, empty basement after his seder every Passover. Each year they returned because Willy was the only relative with a dining room.

Never Let Me Down posits that the way out of the deep pit of the past is to summon the demons that play there and expose them to the light. Miller is fearless in this regard, sharing even the darkest secrets, like her brief sexual liaison with her brother. In the process of reconstructing her own life, she draws a skillful and passionate portrait of a disintegrating family.