For journalists trained to bear dispassionate witness to history as other people make it, the terrain of memoir is a treacherous one: Memory, they fear, can be a quicksand of hazy reminiscence and wishful thinking into which objective facts disappear, never to be recovered. Reporters traffic in verifiable truth, and instinctively recoil from the subjective world of personal narrative, where the writer’s perspective and emotional experience so often trump the details of what actually happened.
“I have grown troubled over the past several years about the seeming license that the terms ‘literary journalism,’ ‘family history,’ or ‘memoir’ give for an author to bend, blur, or altogether ignore the line between fact and fiction,” writes Samuel G. Freedman, a professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and a veteran New York Times reporter, in his new book, “Who She Was.” The book is a meticulously researched account of his mother’s East Bronx youth, one that hews fiercely to documented biographical fact — an anti-memoirist’s memoir, a history of himself written from behind the journalist’s impassive veil, in accordance with the catechism of objective reporting he has taught to generations of students (including me).
Joseph Lelyveld, formerly the executive editor of the Times, is also a journalist of the old school, and his “Omaha Blues,” a chronicle of his childhood, belies no less discomfort with the idea of writing himself into the story. He bills his book neither as memoir nor as autobiography, but rather as a “memory loop,” an effort to untangle the knots of his own past by exploring “things I half understood or never grasped at all while they were happening in my boyhood.”
That sort of untangling — which to succeed on Lelyveld’s own terms required him to be as ruthless as he was in, say, exploding South African apartheid-reform policies — is difficult, painful and possibly hurtful to close friends and relatives, which is perhaps a reason that most memoirists choose to scribble warm, dimly lit histories in the vein of “My Fathers’ Houses,” by Steven V. Roberts (another one-time Times reporter), a book is unapologetically subtitled “Memoir of a Family.”
“Most of my early childhood is a series of snapshots, pasted randomly in a mental scrapbook,” Roberts writes, and from it he pulls 254 pages of yarns about his grandparents’ youth in Bialystok, Poland, his parents’ courtship in heavily-ethnic Bayonne, N.J., and his own rise from a single Bayonne block to Harvard and beyond. Unlike Lelyveld, who asks his readers’ indulgence of “the urge pathetic old folks baffled by life’s swift passage sometimes feel to find out what actually happened when they were too young or too stunned to take it all in,” Roberts charges ahead, writing the story of three generations — from Rogowsky to Rogow to Roberts — entirely through the prism of his own life. His parents appear as “Mom” and “Dad” throughout; his grandparents, pictured in Bialystok before they were even married, are described as “gazing off to the right at something I can’t see. Their future grandchildren, perhaps?”
Freedman, in painstakingly reconstructing Eleanor Hatkin’s adolescence, seems determined to go as far as possible in the opposite direction, painting a portrait of a girl who lived to be herself, not to become someone’s mother. The story begins in 1938, on Eleanor’s first day of high school; the man who will become Freedman’s father, Dave, doesn’t appear until page 268, after several other beaus and one husband have been disposed of, and the narrative breaks off abruptly with Freedman’s own birth, in 1955.
The story is compelling, but in the same way that reality television is — it’s a voyeuristic pleasure — until suddenly, in the last 40 pages of the book, the perspective shifts, and Eleanor is no longer an arbitrary character, but the author’s mother. A teen-age Freedman is driving home after his freshman year of college in Wisconsin to New Jersey, where Eleanor, at age 50, is dying of breast cancer.
Filial guilt throbs in these pages; Freedman abjectly confesses that he didn’t like the way his mother mounted the college newspaper clippings he’d mailed home, that he wasn’t close enough to steady her wheelchair as it wobbled on the bleachers at his sister’s high school graduation, that he was young and careless and 19 years old as his mother faded. “If I understood even back in 1973 how selfish I was to have pretended my mother was a stranger when she sat in on my classes,” he writes, “then I now recognize in such a gesture the full measure of my capacity for emotional brutality.”
From that single admission flows the heartbreaking logic of the whole book, in which the writing was as much an act of penance for Freedman as it was soul-searching. It emerges that, just before Eleanor Freedman died, she had bought a tape recorder and intended to start dictating her life story to leave as “an inheritance, of sorts” for her children; so, a quarter-century after his mother’s death, Freedman set out to find the woman cancer stole from him and to write the autobiography she never had the chance to.
Unlike Freedman, Lelyveld did not set out to write what British photographer Michael Holroyd has described as a “vicarious autobiography”; at the outset, shortly after his retirement in 2001, he intended to write about a historically obscure friend of his father’s, Ben Lowell, a protégé of Stephen S. Wise who may have been a Soviet agent. But that project turned out to require reporting into the life of his father, the rabbi and Zionist activist Arthur Lelyveld, and then into the history of his parents’ troubled marriage, and ultimately into his own lonely childhood.
“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy…” is the cry Lelyveld heard echoing in his head as he sat listening to the eulogies at his father’s funeral. Boy Lelyveld continues to haunt “Omaha Blues,” first as a child sent from his home in Omaha — where his father had a congregation — to spend the summer with a family of Seventh-Day Adventists in Tekamah, Neb., while his mother returned to her glamorous city life in New York; then as a waif shuttled between his grandparents’ one-bedroom on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn his parents’ new apartment on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive, and summer camp in Maine. Through it all, the grown Lelyveld writes, “the absence of parents meant the absence of explanations for what was happening and not happening in my life.”
In his hunt for explanations, half a century later, Lelyveld unflinchingly separates the necessary fictions of his own life from the facts of his parents’ lives. “I’m a reporter,” Lelyveld writes. “I could only write about my dad as part of a narrative of my own.” But of course it is in the field of narrative, behind the gauzy scrim of personal recollection, that lie what Saul Bellow called “the themes that collect and hold the memory.” Lelyveld manages to pull those themes out of his tangled memory loop and weight them down with the ballast of assiduously reported history, so that in the end, he can split the difference between what happened in his past and what he felt about it at the time, and say that everyone involved “meant well.”
“Suppose I were to talk… about the roots of memory in feeling,” Bellow wrote in “The Bellarosa Connection,” about “what the retention of the past really means.” Well, what does it mean, especially to Jews, who, as Bellow’s narrator reminds readers, ask God to remember the dead in Yizkor prayers. Freedman writes about his mother’s unwillingness to tell him about her past while she was alive, and his own unwillingness to uncover it in the decades following her death; “she and I,” he writes, “had been complicit in the sin of forgetting.”
The biography that Freedman produced might not have been the story Eleanor might have left her children, but as Freedman writes, “I cling to a fundamentalist’s faith that there is such a thing as truth, and that I can achieve it through facts. So the reporter in me feels somehow defeated to admit that… I never can know with absolute, 100 percent certainty what was happening inside my mother’s head and heart at every second of her young womanhood.” But, he adds, “I can weep unshackled from thirty years of regret. I have given all I could give, the best I had in me, this imperfect, impermanent reincarnation.”
Allison T. Hoffman is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.
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Who She Was: My Search for My Mother’s Life
By Samuel G. Freedman
Simon & Schuster, 337 pages, $25.
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Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop
By Joseph Lelyveld
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 226 pages, $22.
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My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family
By Steven V. Roberts
HarperCollins, 254 pages, $23.95.