Excavating the past unearths festering wounds.
In this final volume of a trilogy about children of Holocaust survivors, journalist Epstein (Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s History, 1997, etc.) decided to focus on her own “atypical adolescence,” investigating especially how her parents’ trauma had affected her “in the intimate realms of sex and friendship.” The project, she thought naively, “would be easy, even a lark.” She could not have been more wrong. To help her recall details, in 2000, she flew from her home in Massachusetts, where she lived with her husband and sons, to California to reconnect with Robbie, who had been a close family friend and later a lover. Robbie had been a gifted musician, and Epstein had imagined that he would become a “brilliant, charismatic, celebrated” performer. But the 55-year-old man she met was far different: overweight, emotionally volatile, suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome and, he tells her, manic-depression. Although Epstein praises him as her “collaborator and coach,” he often erupted with impatient and harsh remarks. Robbie is just one among many unsympathetic characters populating the memoir. Others include the author’s self-absorbed mother, who had disclosed a shocking revelation the day before Epstein began psychoanalysis; a “narcissistic, patronizing” cousin; and the husband of her nanny, whom she came to believe sexually abused her when she was 3 years old. As soon as she embarked on her journey into the past, Epstein was overcome with grief, frequently weeping, hyperventilating, and falling “into altered states of consciousness.” She decided to have phone sessions with the taciturn therapist Dr. M., who had treated her 20 years before, recording her side of their conversation, enabling her to convey every detail. Candid and penetrating, the memoir nevertheless is overwhelmed by those details, as Epstein meticulously unravels the fabric of her past. Some of her closest friends, she writes, “tired of my doubling back over the same subjects over and over again.” Readers will likely agree.
A relentlessly probing memoir of a search for self-knowledge.