the witnesses of my autobiography

Feb 17


What I just read:

This book was a gift.  I mean, literally, I got it for Christmas.  I’d been waiting to read it for months, meaning to pick it up.  But, left to my own devices, I just never got around to it.  I had to read it, right?  Feldman is an ex-Sarah Lawrence student too, a comrade of unconventional education.  Yes, had to read it. 

Is there a way a book can be fabulously interesting in content but somehow disconnected in prose?  Of course.  It is the great disappointment of Feldman’s debut memoir.  But, I suppose, it isn’t fair to start with one’s great disappointment.  And, to be fair, it doesn’t dominate the way I remember the book.  So, let’s start at the beginning.

The first meeting we have with Feldman is in the prologue.  She is lunching with her estranged mother and we are listening to the tales of two rebels.  It leaves a number of questions for us, to which we expect answers.  Why did her mother leave Feldman behind? How did she escape?  Why did Feldman choose to find her mother?  How are their stories paralleled?  In those few short pages, Feldman set up a more fascinating story than i thought I was getting.  I expected a pure expose, a shedding of identity.  But, here is a glimpse into a history of a family, of women, of a mother and daughter.  Perhaps it won’t be the central theme, but it is present.  Handed to me up front.  I’m into it.

We come into the story as outsiders of Hasidic Satmar Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  We are the ‘goys’ peering from the other side of the bridge.  A young Deborah is being raised by her Bubby and Zeidy, her elder grandparents to whom she was left when her mother left the community and her mentally ill father is unable to care for her.  She is being taught the rules of Hasidic modesty.  When she asks questions like, ‘What’s a virgin?’ after reading the EVOO label, Deborah is sshhed by Bubby.  No young girl needs to know that word.  Questions of the body, of being a woman, are one of the foundations of Feldman’s memoir.     

So, too, is Deborah’s obsession with reading - something that is not allowed, especially in English.  Under her mattress Deborah hides old library copies of Jane Eyre and the writings of Jane Austen.  She references Roald Dahl as a source of imagination and escape, with a particular attention to Matilda, to whose story Feldman feels her own is tangential. 

Because of her own private tutoring, Deborah is the star of her English class.  This is not an accomplishment.  Still, Deborah takes great pride in her work and eventually becomes an English instructor at her Hasidic school upon graduation at only sixteen years old.  Her controlling Aunt Chaya is pushing Zeidy to find a match for Deborah.  It will be hard to marry her off given her family upheavals.  And all this time Deborah is neither seeming to dread an arranged marriage nor look forward to it.  She has an idea that it might grant her the kind of freedom she is looking for.  She will have a husband who will let her read books and will not silence her and will treat her as an equal. 

But, of course, she is married off to a mousy man of a deeply devout family.  The first year of their marriage is overshadowed by their inability to consummate, which is conveniently blamed on Deborah.  Her body is not allowing him, she is shaming the family.  Deborah is seen by sex therapists, doctors, and rabbis alike.  She must teach her body to want to be touched without knowing even how it should be touched.  There is a disturbing lack of awareness around the body.  In this way, Feldman’s story can be read as an exploration and discovery of that body.  Her escape of the community as an embracing of it. 

When Deborah and her husband, Eli, finally do manage to have sex she becomes pregnant and her life is transformed yet again.  She convinces him to move their growing family out of Williamsburg and into the Hudson Valley where there is a whole neighborhood of young Hasidic ex-patriates.  Deborah hopes she will have some freedom there, even learns to drive.  Sex is something she dreads.  She is obligated to please her husband, to keep him from masturbating, the ultimate sin.  Her descriptions of sex are cold and raw.  The only way she can experience her own body is through her husband’s abuse of it. 

The birth of her son is what makes Deborah see she must flee.  She describes feeling her stomach collapse after the baby leaves her body.  She says it is defining.  It is intense and, in its way, an awakening.  And, yet, I don’t feel it.  When something so pivotal is happening, the reader should feel it like an aching muscle.  But, the same disconnectedness Feldman describes from her husband, her family, her baby, her body, her faith, penetrates her writing.  Here is where she lost me.  in leaving her community, she, in effect, leaves her reader behind.  It is rushed, it is not felt, it is said.  Having followed her through childhood, I know why she wants to leave.  I want to pack her bags for her and drive her out.  But, when it comes time to go, her motivations are unclear.  In a matter of sentences, she is divorced and driving out of her past.  She makes grandiose statements about shedding an identity for a new one.  There could have been a whole hundred more pages there.

All the while, Bubby and Zeidy have disappeared.  It’s like they are ghosts.  I don’t buy it.  They were too important in the beginning, too sympathetic to just be left behind without mention.  In the epilogue I expect to return to the lunch with Feldman’s mother.  But, we never end up there.  Deborah reveals her mother’s true identity, which she found out through a documentary.  There is no return to her mother or their relationship.  There is also no return to Deborah’s reflection of her body.  If we can read the memoir as a discovery of the body, then we reach no resolution.  And if we can read it as a discovery of identity through female history, we see no reflections.  Yes, she leaves her oppressive community, yes she becomes a writer, yes she is her own person now. These are all things I commend Feldman for.  And i do not discount the book in its entirety.  It is the end, the last fifty pages that are unhinged. 

I will wait for Feldman’s follow-up memoir.  I hope to see greater discoveries there.  And it will be a gift.


traveling through thoughts on writing, literature, film, and representations of them.  thanks to gertrude stein.