The biography of a woman haunted by her parents’ suffering as a result of the Armenian genocide.
Mary Zakarian was born in 1927 in Philadelphia, but her story begins well before that in Turkey, which her parents had called home. Her father, Moses, a musician and a weaver, departed Turkey in 1913 for the United States, leaving behind a wife and children who were killed in the 1915 genocide. Zakarian’s mother, Arek Kocharian, escaped to the U.S. in 1923 after her husband and two children also died during the genocide. An attempt at an arranged marriage between Arek and Zakar, Moses’ cousin, went awry, and Moses married her himself in 1924. When Zakarian was a young child during the Depression, Moses struggled to keep the family housed and fed. Even after their financial circumstances improved considerably, however, Zakarian was a witness and victim of their historical trauma. Arek was permanently alienated from the world—she never learned English, was deeply distrustful of others and scared of the outside world, and was prone to bouts of depression. Of Arek’s children, Zakarian was closest to her, and she adopted her fearful isolation. She never married or had kids and was plagued by anxiety and agoraphobia her entire life. But Zakarian was also a talented and ultimately successful artist. She earned considerable recognition for her painting in Philadelphia after attending several art schools, including the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, now renamed Moore College of Art and Design. She even opened an art school of her own in 1971, operated out of her home.
Debut authors Allan and Susan Arpajian, the children of Zakarian’s sister, know the subject well and depict her candidly and lovingly—some of their portrait based on personal recollections and some on Zakarian’s journals and an unfinished autobiography. The authors depict Zakarian’s grim inheritance of sadness in poetically heartbreaking prose, capturing a life of suppressed guilt. Once Zakarian was reluctant to bring a particularly fetching fabric into the home because of this nagging torment: “ ‘I felt guilt and disloyalty to my mother’s pain.’ Having or enjoying beautiful things, or even engaging in a satisfying creative endeavor, was not for this daughter of a survivor.” While Zakarian’s extraordinary life, and particularly her attempt to transcend her trauma through her art, is the fulcrum of the story, the authors also ably reconstruct the history of Armenian tribulations and the resulting psychological scars. The Arpajians provide an impressively sensitive account of Zakarian’s Christianity, which was fraught with contradiction. On the one hand, it supplied some comforting reassurance, but on the other, it was more fuel for her guilt—her perceived shortcomings became sins. Despite the often melancholic subject matter, the biography is inspiriting. While it couldn’t be said that Zakarian triumphed over the emotional baggage that was her unfortunate bequest, she didn’t simply succumb to it either.
A historically astute, beautifully written portrait.