My Mother’s Brokenness

•August 6, 2014 • 1 Comment

Mama. Mug Shot.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           My mother’s brokenness when I’m young is in everything as if she were shattered plaster. The white dust coats the surfaces of the apartment and our skins even when she is standing in front of us. When she was there it was more confusing then when she was absent because I expected to find her home but her body was a shell; when I looked in her eyes she wasn’t there; nor was she in her office or bedroom, on the bare white walls or naked hardwood floors, definitely not in the kitchen of the 9 room apartment in the pre-war building we shared with my father on the Upper West Side. Did she ever cook a meal in the kitchen of that apartment? If so, I don’t remember. The only thing I remember eating in that kitchen was a bottle of baby aspirin left on the counter.

She is with her lover, she is in Paris, in Cuba in the USSR, in jail, at a hospital. Lying down with a migraine on the king sized bed in my parent’s room across from mine, she might as well be far away- there is no disturbing that deathlike trance. It’s impossible to be angry at her absence. There is no one to be angry at nor is there anyone to keep track of me. My bits scatter along with hers. My curls so tangled, no one can brush my hair through. One day she cuts off my long locks. Till this day, Grandma Sherry tells me this story as though she will have a heart attack when she sees me debark the Fire Island ferry stripped of the halo of strawberry blond curls.

All my life I will long for simple domestic life as if it were crown jewels behind armored glass – home baked breads and sit down meals, well organized closets. It’s domesticity that is foreign, exotic. What is intimate and familiar are: political meetings, protests, intellectual arguments, the smells of hospitals, the close-set type of thick Doris Lessing novels.

Like Lessing’s heroine, my mother was on a quest to find herself, a quest that seemed to necessitate losing me.

The first meal I remember with my mother: Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese. I stand beside her in the freezer aisle of the grocery store, looking through the glass doors at the orange cardboard box with the picture of the mac n cheese, a small portion of the top browned. She wants to know if I’ll eat it. “Not with the brown stuff” I tell her. She says she can make it without it.

Our new life in the studio apartment down the block begins with mac n’ cheese, a trundle bed, her reading to me. Later, it includes puppet shows in the village and then our illnesses.

An overcast day, the sky pregnant with rain, we return to the two room apartment we’ve moved to next door to the studio. She says a migraine is coming. I say I don’t feel well either. She doesn’t believe me until I vomit purple grape juice all over her bed. As she strips the sheets from the bed, outside the clouds unleash rain. Then it’s I who lie down on my back on her bed with a cold compress on my head and she nurses me. Scratchy throats, chills, fevers, headaches, coughs. My mother doesn’t know baking or hair braiding but she knows cold cloths and broths and thermometers. I offer my clammy forehead and feverish body like a gift. In return, she feeds me and bathes me and reads to me.

Of everything she offers me during these times – chicken broth, rice pudding, Jell-O, the most nourishing turns out to be the stories she reads: Black Beauty, The Lord of the Rings, the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brother’s Grimm. I fall for stories of underdogs, tales of radical reversals. I begin to imagine that I am a heroine inside a narrative. I sense someone rooting for me, my phantom reader roots for things to come out all right in the end. I begin to live inside the book I don’t write for another twenty years.


A Dangerous Method, Part I: The Miss-Treatment of Sabina Spielrein

•December 20, 2011 • 10 Comments

A Dangerous Method, Part I: The Miss-Treatment of Sabina Spielrein

A Dangerous Method opens with the howling of a young woman in a horse drawn carriage. We see her briefly from inside the cab, ineptly restrained by two handlers, then from the other side of the glass. The discrepancy between the handsome, well appointed vehicle and the behavior of its occupant is sort of hysterical – but not in the way the filmmakers intended. I feared at this point, not for the fate of the young woman, but for the film.

I went to see A Dangerous Method when it screened at the New York Film Festival in October because of the young woman depicted in that scene, not because of Freud or Jung, certainly not because of the Hollywood stars that play their characters or because of director David Cronenberg, whose previous work I admire. I am deeply curious about Sabina Spielrein, the madwoman transformed by psychoanalysis.

Like Sabina, I came to an analyst at a desperate moment in my life, like Sabina a psychoanalyst helped me transform my life. I came across her first in the early days of my own analysis in a biography of Jung. Spielrein, I read, was Carl Jung’s first patient, a young Russian Jew – only 19 when she was committed to the Bergholzi hospital in Switzerland in 1905- the same year as the pogroms that massacred my family in Russia and forced my great grandmother to flee the continent. Sabina was the first, the one who brought Freud and Jung together, the one who psychoanalysis transformed from madwoman to analyst, the one who fell in love with her analyst, the one with whom Jung fell in love.

I identified with Sabina’s madness and her obsessive love for the man who saved her. I had been told all my young life that my mother and grandmother were ‘crazy’ and feared I was ‘cursed’ in this way in my maternal line. I thought this craziness was a congenital, hereditary illness for which there was no cure. Growing up, I mostly tried to hide the emotional pain and anxiety I suffered because I feared that I would be called crazy too. When I found my analyst, it was like reaching the door to the underworld; I knew that in a sense I would have to die to come back to life. The long years of my analysis were torment and bliss. Out of the struggle to understand and piece together the fragments of my early life, love grew for my analyst. He was the only person who had ever been willing accompany me to the darkest, most painful place inside me. For a period, the dependency I experienced was as absolute as an infant on its mother. There were times I doubted I would survive.

In the underworld, I would sometimes come across evidence of previous visitors. Pieces of Sabina – snippets, and unsubstantiated rumors – were strewn about. In Jung’s biography, I read that’s she’d had an affair with him that caused a scandal. Then I went to a screening of a docudrama about Sabina’s life sponsored by a local psychoanalytic institute where octogenarian male psychoanalysts lectured to an audience of women therapists about ‘Sabine,’ the schizophrenic. I sat in the back row with those women, steaming. I remained silent. Fast forward through several years of five days a week on the couch, death, rebirth, and two book manuscripts later – and I hear a feature film is coming out about Sabina. The first screening of the film will be on my birthday in NYC, my native city, on the Upper West Side no less, the neighborhood I was raised in, the scene of my torment.

I was excited and suspicious about the film: In the advertisements, Sabina was sometimes referred to as the ‘woman who brought two great minds together’ and sometimes as the woman ‘who would drove these two great men apart.’ Seductress or destroyer, in either formula her significance was articulated in terms of her role as a link between two great men. Perhaps this was not surprising in a film created by men – a male director, (David Cronenberg) male scriptwriter (Christopher Hampton) based on a book by a male psychoanalyst (Jonathon Kerr). I wavered between hope and suspicion. Would these men bring Sabina to life in this film? Or exploit her for their own agendas?

In my last blog post on A Dangerous Method I wrote of the trepidations I brought to David Cronenberg about the film. At the New Yorker Festival Q & A after his interview with David Denby, I questioned him about the S&M scene between Sabina and Jung. Cronenberg suggested that we talk again after I’d seen the film.

Well, here I am.

I’ll start with the positive. A Dangerous Method was a deeper and more intelligent film than I expected from the advertisements and the trailer or were promised in the first fifteen minutes of the film. The film is dialogue driven and often beautifully written. Much of the dialogue is based on the written correspondence between Freud, Jung and Sabina. The scenes are full of sly humor and fraught with subtext. No matter that these characters are intellectuals and the creators of a new science of the mind – there is so much at play between them that is unconscious. The humor of the film in part derives from the contrast between their self-awareness and their tendency toward self-delusion.

More importantly, as A.O. Scott noted in the NY Times review, this film manages to communicate the “erotic power of ideas.” Most representation of psychoanalysis– from the dehydrated psychoanalytic articles to the Woody Allen films peppered with invisible, silent analysts, fail to depict the charged and often erotic nature of the talking cure. The truth is that intimate talk about sex and our deepest feelings and fears is HOT. Of course, at the other extreme, we have dramas like the HBO In Treatment, where talk about sex seems to lead directly to physical sex – then all the interesting dialogue evaporates and so does the interesting part of sex.

The sexiness of A Dangerous Method is also due to the way they have made of these figures neither icons nor clichés. These characters have strengths, weaknesses, passions, fears, ambitions, and desires. Michael Fassbinder delivers a deeply sympathetic Jung– kind, supportive of Sabina’s ambitions, somewhat bewildered, sporting an almost perpetually furrowed brow. His character’s keen intelligence and scientific mind come into conflict with his erotic desires and those are in conflict with his philistine instincts. Viggo Mortenson as Freud is a stroke of genius. Mortenson may have been better known for swordplay than wordplay before, this role changes that. A.O. Scott writes that Mortenson’s “sly performance is so convincingly full of humor, warmth and vanity that it renders moot just about every other posthumous representation of the patriarch of psychoanalysis.” Sadly, Keira Knightly as Sabina is the most two dimensional of the three.

Sabina is the connecting link in the film but she is the weakest link in the chain. Keira Knightly is beautiful and dark haired but she doesn’t have the depth, passion or power for the role of Sabina Spielrein. In several interviews, Knightly frankly admits that it was difficult for her to identify with Sabina, unlike any other role she had ever played: With this, I had absolute, I had nothing in common with her- (Interviewer interrupts: “Thankfully though.”). Yeah, thankfully…I called up Christopher Hampton…I thought, well, I’ll talk to him for a couple of hours and get answers and he just handed me a pile of books like that and just went – read these, it’s all in there. Apparently she read them, but Keira as Sabina too often seems studied, as if she read the cliff notes for the role. Maybe this is just because, as anyone who has been in psychoanalysis knows, it’s not something you can learn about in a book.

But the problem with the Sabina character goes beyond the actress who plays her. The problem is the role she is given, which, as the trailer indicated, is her function as the go between for two men. Take, for example, the opening of the film. After Sabina’s spectacular arrival at the Bergholzi, she is immediately ushered into a consulting room with Jung where he proposes his plan of treatment: they will get together once a day several days a week to ‘talk.’ A few sessions later, only a few minutes into the film, Sabina is confessing her deepest, darkest secrets. It’s true that Sabina’s treatment proceeded at a quick pace and that she recovered with surprising swiftness (the initial analysis that led to a dramatic change was not more than two months) but the pace of the therapy in the film is unnaturally forced. Clearly, what is at stake here is not Sabina’s profound transformation from the free association method – her therapy is rather the inciting incident that will bring Jung and Freud together. Later, the relevance of her affair with Jung seems to be the way the scandal will drive Jung and Freud apart.

Sabina is catalyst, object, and spectacle. We never get inside her. We never see the world through her eyes. This film should frighten and disturb. It doesn’t. For all the kinky sex scenes, it’s really rather tame. The failure to grasp or depict Sabina’s hysterical subjectivity is all the more egregious because the material on which the film is based is mostly derived from Sabina’s private diaries and the personal correspondence between her, Jung and Freud.

And yet, despite these criticisms, I feel Cronenberg has done psychoanalysis a favor. If Sabina is reduced to a catalyst for the relationship between Jung and Freud, at least she is given a supporting role whereas for a long time she was but a footnote in the history of psychoanalysis. (Freud credited Spielrein with influencing the development of his ideas on the death drive.) The relationship of Sabina to Jung and Freud is an integral facet of the development of psychoanalysis. Thanks to the discovery of her diaries and correspondence, her importance is increasingly recognized in the scholarly literature. But we also need dreams and mythologies to remember her by. Cronenberg has given us such a dream. It’s a dream in which pieces of psychoanalysis come together that have been kept apart in waking life, a tumultuous dream of madness, passion, egos, ambition and sex. It is an Oedipal dream of a son ousting a father, a brother falling in love with a sister, a doctor with a patient, a dream before psychoanalysis was divided into Freudian and Jungian, in which differences are being negotiated: mysticism vs. science, spirituality vs. sexuality, patient vs. analyst, irrational vs. rational, female vs. male. What the impact of this dream will be on the waking life of psychoanalysis I can’t foretell. I hope that the reception and subsequent interpretations might lead to some profound transformations. I hope that viewers unfamiliar with psychoanalysis will leave curious about Sabina and the the free association method. I hope we will all remember a woman whose madness became a source of power, a woman transformed by the free association method into someone with an uncanny ability to think creatively and a fervent desire to help others as she was helped. I hope they will remember her words, written in a diary, extracted for a play, enacted on screen:

Sabina: There’s a Russian poem keeps going round my head, Lermontov, I think, about a prisoner who finally achieves some happiness when he succeeds in releasing a bird from it’s cage.

Jung: Why do you think this is preoccupying you?

Sabina: I think it means that when I’m a doctor, I want more than anything else to give people back their freedom by curing them, the way you gave me mine.

The sequel to The (Mis)Treatment of Sabina Spielrein – Siegfried and Transformation – Coming Soon to a WordPress Blog Near You!

A Dangerous Method, a Preview

•October 4, 2011 • 5 Comments

October 1, 2011. The New Yorker Festival at the School of Visual Arts Theatre in Chelsea. Director David Cronenberg interviewed by film critic David Denby of The New Yorker.

A Q&A period follows Denby’s interview. The first man to the mike asks David Cronenberg about how he feels about being called one of the top Canadian directors of ‘weird sex’ films. I’m curious about his answer but can’t focus on Cronenberg’s response as I’m nervously rehearsing my question for him. Then David Denby says, “next” and looks over in my direction.

Me: “Speaking of weird sex-“ Cronenberg swivels his head towards me but his eyes focus off to the side. “Hi,” I say and waive. The audience titters, his eyes shift in my direction. I say, “I noticed that in this version of the trailer shown today for A Dangerous Method, there’s a scene missing – the one where Jung is giving Sabina a thrashing in her bedroom.”

Cronenberg nods. “Yes, I noticed that too.”

Me: “I noticed it because it’s a scene that’s also missing in all the materials on which the film is based- it’s not described in Sabina’s diaries or the letters between Sabina, Jung and Freud, it’s not in Christopher Hampton’s play on which the film is based. In fact, we don’t know if Sabina and Jung ever consummated their relationship. She referred to their love making as ‘poetry’ and wrote about this fantasy of bearing Jung a son, Siegfried-“

Cronenberg interrupts, “It’s true no one knows for sure, however, if you read her diaries she did write she gave him her maidenhood, which in Victorian times meant giving up your virginity. It was well known by Jung that she took pleasure in her father’s beatings-“

I interrupt, “because she told him about it during her analysis, but it’s not in her diaries about their love affair-“

Cronenberg nods-“No, but her masochistic fantasies were well known. At one point, Otto Gross took Jung aside and said, ‘Why don’t you just take her and thrash her within an inch of her life, that’s obviously what she wants.’ And we know that Jung took another mistress later – Tony Wolff and that they had a sexual affair-“

Me: “I’m more concerned about the portrayal of this sado-masochistic sex which was never written about or depicted and so is clearly your imagination working on the material-“

Cronenberg: “Yes, to some extent, the particulars are but it’s based on the historical material – Have you seen the film yet?”

Me: “No, I’m seeing it Wednesday-“

Cronenberg: “Good, good, you should see it and then make up your mind. Obviously, these were things that we debated and that were difficult-“

David Denby intervenes here, “And that scene must have been particularly challenging for the actress, Keira Knightly-“

David Cronenberg, “Yes, it was a challenge for her and if you see the scene, it was difficult for Jung. This was clearly her fantasy, not his. Jung is obviously not enjoying himself. But you’re going to see the film?”

Me: “Yes, Wednesday.”

David Cronenberg: “Good, then we can talk about it afterward.”

Me: “Okay, I’ll look forward to that. Thank you.”

There has been a spate of representations of Sabina Spielrein – books, documentaries, articles, a play and most recently a feature film – since a cache of her private diaries and letters was unearthed in a Swiss basement, revealing that this once little known patient turned psychoanalyst was a more important player in the history of early psychoanalysis than anyone had previously imagined. This proliferation of material on Spielrein since that discovery contrasts starkly with the earlier lack. Her spectral absent-presence has led one Spielrein scholar to write of her as a ghost, a haunting absence – in Freud’s terms, a return of the repressed. We might ask: what has the ghost returned to tell us? And can we hear the message?

In the most recent representation of Spielrein she is to appear in A Dangerous Method, a period drama directed by David Cronenberg about the founders of modern psychoanalysis, C.G. Jung and Sigmund Freud. I’ve been gearing up to see the film when it screens Wednesday, October 5th (on my birthday) at Alice Tully Hall as part of the New York Film Festival. I’ve watched the trailer a dozen times, seen all of Cronenberg’s films (I admit I closed my eyes through some particularly gruesome and violent scenes.) I’ve read interviews with him and attended one at the New Yorker film festival where we had the exchange above.

How Sabina is depicted matters deeply to me. Like Spielrein, I came to psychoanalysis at a desperate moment in my life, fell deeply for my analyst and was changed by that passionate relationship. Unlike Sabina and Jung, my analyst and I had a hundred years of psychoanalytic practice and theory behind us to help us navigate the tumultuous waters of the erotic transference and countertransference. We did not act out our passionate feelings, as Sabina and Jung did. I had the benefit of a safe analysis, where everything could be talked about without fear of breaking the frame. As the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips says, “psychoanalysis is what two people can say to each other if they agree not to have sex.”

Spielrein, the daughter of two uncommonly wealthy and well educated Jews (most Russian Jews at that time were relegated to the pale of settlement- the great ghetto of the Russian empire) was one of the original women whose heartrending confessions broke the silence around childhood abuse and trauma and one of the first patients whose passion ignited her doctor’s creating a storm that led Freud to write about the “countertransference” –the analyst’s unconscious transferences to his patient- and to establish some of the fundamental framework for psychoanalysis – that patients and analysts should not become personally involved and that every analyst should themselves have an analysis. These principles continue to define psychoanalysis to this day.

Sabina’s contributions to the development of psychoanalysis go beyond this however. As an analyst, she wrote theoretical papers that influenced Freud and Jung, she was an analyst to Piaget, later returned to Russia as one of their first psychoanalysts where she taught and founded a school based on psychoanalytic principles for children until she was murdered by the Nazi’s in 1942.

Her intellectual contributions to the field often pale in comparison to her earlier, stormy years as Jung’s patient and later lover.

In the trailer for A Dangerous Method, we are introduced to Sabina with the image of a madwoman – screaming wildly through the closed carriage window her hair disheveled while a guard sits impassively opposite her in the carriage bringing her to the mental hospital. Other images confirm this portrait – her garments filthy as she is dragged through the corridor of the institution by two attendants, and then later lifted and placed in a metal tub her body listless. These images mark her as out of control, helpless. In between scenes of Jung and his wife Emma and Jung and Freud speaking of Sabina, she appears again: Sabina in the foreground, Jung behind her, “Tell me about the first time you can remember being beaten by your father.” A tormented voice emerges from her contorted face as she cries out, “It’s exciting me.” Jung’s face registers something: surprise? Excitement? Next we hear Jung narrating his patient’s progress to Freud: “A most remarkable change took place.” And their speculations, Freud “Is she a virgin?” Jung: “Oh most certainly.” Skip to images of Sabina dressed in the proper restricting garments of the Victorian period, sitting on a park bench embracing Jung and embarking on seduction, “If you should ever decide to take the initiative I live in that building right there.” From there, a dark love affair unfolds: Jung joining Sabina in her apartment, Sabina on her knees looking up at him with a vampish expression, “I want you to punish me” she says. Then Sabina on all fours on her bed, Jung behind her, raising his hand high in the air and bringing it down with brutal force against her backside, Sabina’s sharp intake of breath – pain? pleasure? Both?

I fear that Sabina is being exploited to appeal to our base instincts, her pain and her sex on exhibition for profit. But as Cronenberg reminded me, I haven’t yet seen the film. I hope that Wednesday I will encounter the Sabina I discovered in her diaries and letters – a passionate, aware, brilliant woman who transformed her life and created the possibility that other women, including this one, could do the same.


What I Didn’t Do This Summer

•October 1, 2011 • 2 Comments

I will always remember the summer of 2011 as the summer I failed to bring novelist and community library director Pierre Clitandre to the Bahamas Summer Writers Institute in Nassau, Bahamas.

 It was going to be a beautiful international cooperation that would: get M. Clitandre out of Port-au-Prince for a week to focus on his writing, raise awareness of the extreme challenges facing Haitians since the earthquake in January 2010, connect Haitian-Bahamian writers to each other and the larger Bahamian and Caribbean public through writing and potentially raise money for Writing Through Trauma workshops at the library in Port-au-Prince.

We had raised most of the money, made all the complicated arrangements in Nassau with BWSI thanks to the hard work of Helen Klonaris and her associates; we had a plane ticket for M. Clitandre, a plane ticket for me. M. Clitandre had accepted my offer to act as guide and translator in lieu of his talented daughter, my friend Professor Nadege Clitandre who directs the non-profit Haiti Soleil that supports the activities of her father’s community library so that she could focus on her trip and the needs of the library.

But somehow, I forgot about the visa until Nadege asked “what about a visa?” You can see immediately from this that I hadn’t dealt with Haiti in a long time. Because if I was in my Haiti mind, I would have been thinking from the outset about the damn visa. I wouldn’t have been able to forget for a second about the politics of national identity and who gets to go where and when and how. No, I was definitely in my American I can go most places most anytime mind.

I will spare you the details of the following month of slugging through international bureaucracy in search of the allusive visa to the Bahamas for a Haitian national. I won’t tell you about all the phone numbers I called with phones that rang unanswered, or turned out to be out of order. I’ll spare you the details of the Bahamian consulate in Port-au-Prince where someone told Pierre that if he wanted a visa to the Bahamas he would have to go to the consulate in the neighboring Dominican Republic. I’ll spare you the details of the phone conversations with Bahamian officials who gave me the same phone number and address for the same non-existent consulate in Port-au-Prince that turned out to have been closed since the earthquake. No, I’ll fast forward past all that to my conversation with a Ms. Adderley, assistant to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Bahamas, the first person I spoke with who seemed to know what was going on with the Bahamas and Haiti and told me flat out with a tone of righteous indignation they weren’t giving any visas to any Haitians because they didn’t want those people bringing cholera to the Bahamas.

By that point, I felt a little like I’d been put through a meat grinder. It pushed me to think about Pierre Clitandre and what it would be like to have your home and your community library destroyed, to have to travel back and forth on foot and public transport from Carrefour Feuilles where the library was located to Petionville where he had rented a small apartment after the earthquake, I thought about the community in Carrefour-Feuilles who came to depend on the library for afterschool and summer programs, about their children and about the children who didn’t make it through the earthquake, I had to think about the cholera epidemic, the people who died from it, the people who didn’t but whose lives were effected by it nonetheless. I had to think about how all this impacts millions of Haitians including my friend Nadege who looks too damn tired when I see her, like someone who is working a full time job as a professor, running a non-profit in a country devastated from one of the worse natural disasters in recent history and worrying about her dad. And it made me more determined than ever to get M. Clitandre to the Bahamas Writers Institute next summer and to raise money for the Writing Through Trauma workshops at the library.

Nadege and her dad are two of the most talented, intelligent committed people I know. Their country is facing a terrible crisis and they are doing everything they can to support their people and their community. A visa to allow a professional writer and librarian to travel to meet his colleagues does not seem like an outrageous expectation – but then again this is Haiti. When I called a friend in Port-au-Prince in the midst of the visa search this summer and described the situation to him to ask him if he could possibly help us, he asked me how I wanted to proceed. “By the easiest possible route,” I replied. “This is Haiti,” he reminded me, “as far as I’ve ever been able to tell, there are no easy routes. “I misspoke,” I said, I meant, the least impossible route.”

Behind mountains are more mountains, one Haitian proverb says, and another says, With many hands, the load is less heavy. My friends Pierre and Nadege are reaching out their hands to help their people, I am reaching out mine to help them. You who are reading this, won’t you consider reaching out yours too? Together, the load is lighter. Help us make the summer of 2012 the summer we will always remember for what we accomplished together.

For more information about the amazing work at the library in Haiti, please visit:

And to find out more about the groundbreaking work of the Bahamian Writer Summer Institute, go to:


•April 5, 2011 • 10 Comments

December, 1905 anti-Jewish pogroms in Elizabethgrad, Russia were reported in The New York Times. The year before there was a terrible famine in the region. Jews and gentiles alike died of starvation and related disease. Night blindness struck after the sun set. Peasants wandered sightless through the streets.

Something happened to my great grandma Clara Reznikoff during the pogroms in Elizabethgrad, something during the violence that years later woke her and everyone in the house with her screams.

Elizabethgrad, my great aunt would tell me when I was young, your family is from Elizabethgrad. Elizabethgrad I would repeat, not wanting to forget, not knowing what it meant, but knowing that one day the name would mean more to me.

The only time I visited Clara she was dying in a nursing home and I was in my mother’s womb. She died the summer before I was born. My mother named me after Clara. My name is Nina-Clara. Nina-Clara is what my mother called me growing up. Nina Schnall is what my father called me, inserting his family name, cutting out Clara.

I didn’t know Clara and I know too little about her still. This is what I know: She married Abraham at sixteen. They fled the pogroms in Elizabethgrad, immigrated to Canada, had five children before they managed to reach U.S. shores. My grandmother said she had a sad face. My cousins said she annoyed them by waking them with her screams during the night. My mother said she doesn’t remember Clara’s screams. She said that Clara was kind to her during those terrible years after her father’s death in the war. Everyone said that Clara witnessed something terrible during the pogroms – the murder of a cousin or a doctor or a doctor who was a cousin. My great aunt said it was nothing to kill a Jew, like killing a cockroach, a rat. Great Grandpa Abraham said that towards the end of her life, Clara was washing her hands in the toilet bowl and running out into the street screaming. The doctors medicated her with Thorazine. I know that whatever happened to my great grandma Clara during the pogroms, it was something she could neither forget nor remember, could not wash off, nor flush away and that no one has pieced it together.

Elizabethgrad, my great aunt told me. Elizabethgrad, I repeated, knowing one day it would mean more to me.

There is a story in the screams that Thorazine can’t kill. I am trying to make it out. Across time, across the barrier of death. I carry more than Clara’s name; I carry her pain. I refuse to be medicated. I refuse to be silent. I refuse to forget.

The Ninas

•March 24, 2011 • 5 Comments

In 1975, when I was five, living with my parents in a 9-room apartment in a pre-war building on the Upper West Side, I fell in love with my babysitter. Like all the others, this babysitter came from a company my parents employed that, for the most part, shot them out randomly like gumballs from the gumball machine outside the Fairway Market on Broadway. But this babysitter, unlike the others, returned several times. And this particular babysitter, whose name I regrettably can’t recall, crossed the threshold of our home bearing a bag of M&M’s, an armful of coloring books and the great seduction: the front page of the New York Times Arts and Leisure section adorned with the Al Hirschfeld cartoons.

Buried inside each of Hirschfeld’s great scenes depicting the arts and artists of New York City, somewhere inside the tutus of the ballerinas, the ties and handkerchiefs of the jazz musicians, the whiskers of great writers, the folds in Arthur Miller’s shirt sleeves or Robert Mitchum’s raincoat, was my name: Nina. If you knew Hirschfeld’s game, you knew to look for the number next to his signature in the bottom right hand corner of his pictures for the number he placed there to indicate how many Ninas you could expect to find hidden someplace therein. I would idle on the hardwood floors with the front page of the Arts and Leisure section for hours, years before I could read them, enjoying this hide and seek with pen and ink. Even once I’d found the designated number of Ninas, I couldn’t stop my feverish search; Hirschfeld occasionally dropped an extra Nina or two in and forgot to count them. I could not miss a single one.

It would never have occurred to me at the time that Al Hirschfeld was our neighbor (he lived 20 blocks away with his wife and daughter) or that the Nina inscribed in these pictures was Hirschfeld’s daughter, Nina. No. What mattered to me was that amid all these babysitters who came and went without our ever knowing each other, there was this one who remembered me every time and brought with her evidence that I belonged in the great kaleidoscopic city that Hirschfeld depicted with such electric wit.

Of course, the New York City Hirschfeld depicted was not the New York City I knew, his caricatures were not of my people. My parents were people who spoke without any irony about The Revolution, capital T, capital R. They  were middleclass self-styled radicals, not artists, intellectuals, actors, directors or writers. Both Stanford University graduates, my father from the medical school, my mother from nursing, they had moved to New York where my father was from after having been blacklisted in California for radical political activities. They commuted from the relatively safe  Upper West Side to the decrepit Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx where they were part of a radical collective that organized to improve health care for the underserved residents of that neglected city ghetto. My parents worked side by side in the emergency room treating everything from gunshot and knife wounds (sometimes inflicted in the emergency room) to heroin overdoses. Their recreational activities were not theater and ballet but political meetings, their vacations were to Moscow for the World Peace Conference or to Wounded Knee to provide medical aid to demonstrators.

Despite their shared political commitments, my parent’s marriage was not a happy one. In keeping with the times, they tried to solve their problems by sleeping with other people, what was then called “an open marriage,” which in my parent’s case, heralded the end of marriage and a long, drawn out battle for my custody in the New York city courts that concluded after three long years with all of us bloodied and wearied.

My parents were going to rescue everybody else – Black Americans from discrimination in the south and the north, the Vietnamese from the U.S. war machine, the Native Americans who had already been decimated. If I could have given voice to my concerns then, I might have asked: Who was going to rescue us? Who would cure my mother’s migraines, my father’s depression? Who would stop their marriage from slip sliding out of our home into the court system where they would not find justice only new ways to tear all of us apart?

I don’t blame Al Hirschfeld for leaving the radicals like my parents by the wayside. My people were too serious and tragic a subject matter for his sardonic pen. Their representation would have to wait until I was grown up enough to draw our place in New York City, that greatest of cities with so many stages with actors playing out their larger than life dramas, circa 1975.

The Revolution Within

•February 8, 2011 • 3 Comments

“I wasn’t born until I was psychoanalyzed. Before that I was never truly alive.” Marie Cardinal

The analysis catalyzed a revolution within me. A counter-revolution arose in response so that for eight years a war took place inside me between two parts of myself- a creative side that had always been there but had lived in a state of dictatorship – on the other side the forces of oppression. Every time the forces of creativity won a battle – whether it was writing a beautiful poem or experiencing a moment of love or intimacy, the oppressive forces came back redoubled. So that for every moment of true happiness I paid heavily afterward.

From the outside, I imagine this looked to some people like something they might label “manic depression” or “bipolar disorder” because I could swing from happiness, even euphoria, to despair from one day to the next. I unequivocally refuse the bio-chemical rationalization of my personality that strips my war for independence of power and meaning.

From the time I was five years old when my parents separated until ten when the court awarded me to my mother and finalized my parent’s divorce, I was treated like a colony fought over by powers that value their property as a political token rather than for what the land or people might be or become. My subjective experience, my desires, were not the priority. My parents may have been radical freedom fighters in the political sphere but in the home they were the corrupt politicians, the oppressors. My childhood experience of felt injustice informed my adult identification with the plight of colonized people. I empathized with their struggles and their madness. I understand too the pathology of the dictator – for the tyranny of my childhood upbringing lived on in the puppet dictator inside me. I know the challenges inherent in a war for liberation of a single person amplified so many times over on a social and political scale make revolutions a fraught business. Because we identify with our oppressors even when we hate them, too often we become them once in power.

The most important weapons in the war for true independence on an individual or social scale are the desire of the oppressed for freedom and the alliance with those who know that their own freedom does not depend the on tyranny and oppression of the other, but on the liberation of us all.

My analyst was the first person with whom I made contact who looked deep enough to understand my particular human experience and helped me to articulate my dilemma. He became my most trusted ally and the general who fought on the side of my creative forces for my independence. It was because of the alliance we forged that I finally began to break out of the circle of hell I’d been raised in and kept myself in long afterward, to realize my gifts, and to reach out to other artists, psychoanalysts, yogis, meditators, activists and scholars to forge a wider alliance based on the endeavor to revolutionize the world from within.

Dance, write, cook, love someone (especially yourself), be yourself, never, never give up, forward this and other messages of hope to the besieged.