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#5-9 top Grief on Film: Ordinary People, Door in the Floor, Sweet Hereafter, Big Chill

Here are numbers 5 through 9 of my top ten Grief on Film list, originally published at http://www.opentohope.com 

5.) Ordinary People

       Based on the moving novel by Judith Guest, Ordinary People tells the heartbreaking, intensely real story of a seemingly happy upper class couple who have lost the older of their two sons in a boating accident. Grief is subterranean here, as it often is, and is complicated by long-standing familial dysfunction; these people cannot speak openly of their pain. Timothy Hutton plays the surviving teenage son, Conrad, who blames himself for his brother’s death and has attempted suicide. Mary Tyler More is extraordinary as the repressed mother, Beth, who always preferred Conrad’s brother and can’t support Conrad. And Donald Sutherland is deeply believable as the father, Calvin, trying to hold the family together. Only when Conrad begins to see a psychiatrist, played by Judd Hirsch, does the family’s carefully cultivated veneer of coping begin to crack. Ordinary People is an admirable and honest examination of how pretense yields to grief, and the complex and difficult emotions experienced by grief’s survivors.

6) The Door in the Floor

      This 2004 film is another that honestly examines a marriage breaking apart after child loss. Adapted from the first (and best) part of John Irving’s best-selling novel “A Widow for One Year,” the film is set in the affluent beach community of East Hampton, New York and takes place during one critical summer in the lives of famous children’s book author and artist Ted Cole, played by one of my all time favorite actors, Jeff Bridges, and his beautiful wife Marion, played quite effectively by Kim Basinger. The Cole’s once-sweet marriage has curdled in the aftermath of the tragedy of losing their twin teenage sons in a car accident, and their attempt to fill the void with a new child, now six-year-old Ruth, has been disastrous. Marion remains despondent and unable to mother the new child, and Ted has become a philandering alcoholic. Eddie O’Hare, a young man Ted hires to work as his summer assistant, becomes the couple’s pawn in the destructive game that has developed between them. I found this film deeply moving and devastating as a kind of cautionary tale, for its portrayal of the destructiveness that can occur in two people with no resources to cope with a tragedy of unbearable proportions. It’s hard to sympathize with these two, but I recognize in them the narcissism and self-absorption of grief, and when Marion takes all the photographs and negatives of their dead sons, I wept like a baby.

7) The Sweet Hereafter

      This somber, difficult film directed by Atom Egoyan, based on the 1991 novel by Russell Banks, is set in a small town in the aftermath of a school bus accident that has killed most of the town’s children.  Into this devastating scene descends a slick, big city, ambulance-chasing lawyer, played by Ian Holmes. He is a man pursued by the demons of losing his own daughter to drugs, and he visits each of the victims’ parents to stir up their anger and coax them to participa te in a class action lawsuit to profit from the tragedy. The case depends on the few surviving witnesses to say the right things in court, particularly Nicole, played by Sarah Polley (whose recent film Away from Her nearly made this list), who was sitting at the front of the bus and is now paralyzed. She accuses the driver of causing the accident, and all hope of receiving money vanishes. Everyone knows she’s lying, but only her father knows she is exacting revenge on him for having molested her.  With great performances against a bleak, somber landscape, the film isn’t for the faint of heart, but does a great job of depicting how grief searches for restitution, but can never really find it.

8) Under the Sand

     Francois Ozon’s “haunting” film Under the Sand stars the courageous British actress Charlotte Rampling, playing Marie, a professor of English Literature in a Paris university, happily married to Jean for twenty-five years.  When Jean disappears one day while the couple is sunbathing during their south of France vacation, Marie doesn’t know what happened to him, whether he left her for another woman, committed suicide, or drowned.  Unable to accept that he is gone, she still talks and thinks of him in the present tense. This beautiful, sad, languid film, in French with subtitles, makes artistic use of film language, camera angles, mirror doubles, and unforgettable ocean images, to help us understand Marie’s inner thoughts and feelings and depict the psychologically traumatizing effect of grief.  In its brutally honest portrayal of a woman confronting her identity, age, body, sexuality, emotions, and even her intellect, Under the Sand shows how grief forces total reexamination of the soul and spreads its tentacles into every aspect of a person’s life.

9.) The Big Chill

       Okay, so this 1983 film directed by Lawrence Kasdan is a quirky departure in the list of sober and difficult dramas I’ve compiled. Some may object to its inclusion over other more serious films, such as Polley’s Away from Her, Mark Foster’s Monster’s Ball, plus Reservation Road, Grace is Gone, Iris, Things We Lost in the Fire, One True Thing, Terms of Endearment, Iris, Night Mother and many more. I include it not only because it is one of my favorite films of all time, groundbreaking in its use of an ensemble cast, musical score, and many other ways, but mainly because it is that rare comedy that deals realistically with grief.  With a terrific cast including Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, Meg Tilly, and Jeff Goldblum, The Big Chill tells of a group of thirty-something former college friends who come together for a weekend of reconciliation and reflection after the shocking death of one of their own, Alex (Kevin Costner, in a role cut in the final take), who committed suicide in the home of physician Sarah and business executive Harold, where the weekend takes place. Alex had been living there with his young girlfriend, Chloë, while trying to figure out what to do with his life. Powerfully demonstrating the ripple effect of suicide on the survivors, the group turns to each other to try and figure out why Alex ended his life and explore what happened to the ideals of their youth.  Yes, the film doesn’t deal with “high grief” such as that with comes with the loss of a child, parent, or sibling, but The Big Chill beautifully demonstrates that friendship and humor can be healing, and the scene of Sarah crying alone in the shower, within the context of the rest of the film, is a potent reminder of the loneliness of grief.  

 

#3 & #4 Grief on Film: In the Bedroom and Sophie’s Choice

3) In the Bedroom

In the Bedroom is a terrific but brutally frank film about a marriage crumbling in the face of child loss, probably the most honest cinematic portrayal of the subject I have ever seen. This multi-award winning drama directed by Todd Field centers on an ordinary middle class couple in Maine called the Fowlers, Matt and Ruth, played with bravery by Tom Wilkenson and Sissy Spacek, whose son Frank is killed by the violent ex-husband of the older women he loves, played by Marissa Tomei.  The couple’s anger in this case is centered on the failure of the justice system to appropriately deal with the killer, but the film does a remarkable job of portraying how the self-absorption and anger of grief can erode the very foundations of a marriage, no matter what the circumstances.

4.) Sophie’s Choice

Based on William Styron’s magnificent novel of the same title, directed by Alan J. Paluka, Sophie’s Choice centers on a beautiful Polish immigrant and Auschwitz survivor named Sophie, played by Meryl Streep, and her mad, Auschwitz-obsessed lover Nathan, played by Kevin Kline.  They share a boarding house with Stingo, the film’s narrator, played by Peter MacNicol, a young writer from the south who travels to post-World War II Brooklyn and befriends the couple.  Through the course of the film, as Sophie reveals to Stingo pieces of her devastating history, Stingo falls in love with Sophie and in his earnest naïvety begins to believe he can save her. I include Sophie’s Choice in my list because while the film has a broad historical significance and is about much in addition to grief, Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning performance as the inconsolable Sophie is so deep and accurate, nuanced and real, that the film’s power as an illuminator of grief cannot be denied.  So much of this film is indelibly embedded in my consciousness, but I particularly want to mention the final scene, during which Stingo reads from Nathan’s book of Emily Dickinson poems, “Ample Make this Bed.”   

Originally posted on http://www.opentohope.com

# 2 Grief on Film – The Visitor

Grief is both the thematic underpinning and the overarching aura in this low key, but absorbing and powerful film.  Although “The Visitor” is humanistic and realistic, memories of the dead loom over the characters here like silent watchful ghosts. Written and directed by Tom McCarthy, “The Visitor” explores issues of identity and place, belonging and connection, as well as immigration and other post 9/11 issues, but it primarily revolves around a bereaved economics professor named Walter Vale, played by Richard Jenkins, the subtle actor who so memorably played the ghostly Fisher father in my favorite television series of all time, “Six Feet Under.” Jenkins literally inhabits the character, and while the circumstances of the wife’s death are never specified, he carries the weight of grief in his hunched shoulders and furrowed brow, in his every moment, movement and nuance.

When circumstance forces Vale to present a paper at NYU, he finds a pair of young, undocumented squatters at his long unused Village apartment, Tarek, a Syrian musician and his Senaglese girlfriend, Zainab.  He begins a kind of comeback, as a warm and paternal relationship develops between him and Tarek, and when Tarek introduces him to the New York City jazz scene. Particularly powerful is a scene in which this balding white man joins in an African drumming circle in Washington Square Park, and the scenes between Vale and Tarek’s mother, who arrives when Tarek is detained by the authorities.  This woman is also burdened by grief over the death of her government-murdered Syrian husband, and the relationship is believable and adult, the rare vision of an astute director who although young understands these two grieving people who reach out to each other.

“The Visitor” is memorable for its deep understanding that the journey back from grief is composed of small, often unexpected steps rather than a giant leap, but also for its remarkable embrace of life in all its complexity, ambiguity, and possibility. 

This post was originally published on http://www.opentohope.com

GRIEF ON FILM: My top ten films about grief

A few months ago, my husband and I saw Danny Boyle’s ingeniously plotted Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. It mesmerized and horrified me with its gritty, realistic portrayal of the plight of India’s slum orphans as seen through the eyes of eighteen year old Jamal, whose poverty stricken childhood provides him with the answers that help him win 20 million rupees on India’s version of ” Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” And then came the last fifteen minutes.  Now I like a Bollywood (or Hollywood) musical as much as the next person.  But in the context of this disturbing film, I found the end—a romantic wrap up and rousing dance number—strangely out of place.  This is how I usually react to feel-good endings tacked on stories purporting to be about grief.  We who’ve taken the grief journey know there can be light within it, but to suggest that it’s easily or quickly found, as many novels and films do, negates the potential for real human growth after tragedy, and contributes to the delegitimizing way we deal with other people’s bereavement. As I wrote in my novel, “Saving Elijah,” “The miracles (that come with grief) are of the deepest truest kind, because those miracles have to do with the giving and the cherishing of our blessings rather than the getting of them or the asking for them.  Miracles of friendship and forgiveness, hope and peace and faith, can always be found by those willing to search, can be found even in the darkest of packages.”

       With that in mind, I wrote a piece for www.opentohope.com on the ten films that I think best illuminate grief without stereotyping, sugarcoating or sentimentality and thus, like all true works of art, tell some real truth about the human condition.  Here’s the first one:

1) The Savages

Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins,”The Savages”is a nuanced, closely observed film about a middle-aged brother and sister reckoning with their guilt, responsibility, and ambivalent feelings when their long estranged father develops vascular dementia and has to be placed in a nursing home.  Funny and tragic, with amazing performances by the gifted Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as siblings Jon and Wendy, with incredible work by Philip Bosco as their father, Lenny,The Savages lacks a single false moment. It fully and believably conveys complex characters and their tragic situation without trying to impose closure, false hope or catharsis. The film is particularly notable for its frank depiction of the messiness of grief, which itself springs from the complexity and messiness of human relationships. For all its tragedy, it manages to achieve real moments of grace in the only way grace can be achieved in such situations, in small moments of mercy and discovery, with bruising honesty, comedy, pathos, and irony.

More grief on film to come  

Follow up: More Guns, More Death, More Grief

Commenting on my post, “More Guns, More Death, More Grief,” “andthebuddhasaid” (love that moniker) said:

You make great points and are absolutely right, but you didn’t comment on Barack Obama’s support of the Supreme Court’s decision. Apparently he was in whole hearted agreement. Personally I don’t think that this is the decision to measure his stance on gun control, but it would be interesting to hear your thoughts.

Well, frankly, I was upset by Obama’s support of the decision, (which came after the post) but not totally shocked. I posted the piece on http://www.dailykos.com, thinking that that supposedly left-leaning community would mostly be in support, and found myself completely under attack by gun nuts, most of them claiming the right to defend themselves in their homes, and saying gun control laws don’t work, in no uncertain terms. Nearly four hundred people weighed in against me, I felt like a sitting duck. (And they call themselves liberals…for shame. Maybe they’re actually Republican plants.) Strict constructionists and others may argue about the original meaning of the Second Amendment and parse the placement of the comma in its words, and argue that such placement means citizens are allowed to own guns, INCLUDING assault weapons, but what I was primarily saying in that post was that two angry teenage boys in a school yard with loaded guns equals more death and grief than two angry teenagers in the same school yard without guns. Give a suicidal individual access to a gun (suicides account for a huge portion of gun deaths, way more than homicides) and see if a momentary urge doesn’t turn into a permanent condition. Compare the homicide rate in the United States of America with its weak gun control laws to other developed countries with strong gun control laws. I’m interested in grief, and more guns means more grief.

If this was about self protection, why not fight for non-lethal methods of self protection?

As for Obama’s position, my guess is that he’ll not appoint judges who are “strict constructionist” or judges obsessed with “original Intent” to the Supreme Court, and while whomever he appoints might agree with the current Court’s current decision on guns, they will not agree on so many other issues that are important to me that there is STILL no choice about whom I will support in this election. John McCain will be a disaster for this country, which has already endured eight years of disaster. Even a few of McCain’s own Republican party admit that he has too volatile a temperament to be President in this volatile world. Here’s a quote from the Huff Post on this:

“The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine,” Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), also a senior member of the Appropriations panel, told the Boston Globe recently. “He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me.”

If Thad Cochran is worried, so am I. Obama, in my opinion, has the kind of mind, focus, conciliatory approach, and even temperament that we sorely need in a volatile world. He is by far the better man. The Presidency is not only about policies; it’s very much about inspiration and vision. McCain has never met a war he didn’t like, and he’s chomping at the bit for more war. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. It seems to me that Senator McCain learned the wrong lessons from his time as a prisoner.

Talking about writing, slavery, grief and more with novelist Bernice McFadden

As promised in my last post, here’s my interview with novelist Bernice McFadden, whom I met at a Book and Author Luncheon, and whose novel, “Nowhere is a Place,” I found to be an extraordinarily compelling tale about family, family secrets, journeys of self discovery, and the personal and ancestral history that make us who we are as people. (See my previous post for full review.)
Fran Dorf: Would you tell readers a little about yourself, your background, and how you came to be a writer?

Bernice McFadden: I am the eldest of four children. I was born, raised and still reside in Brooklyn, NY. I am the mother of one grown daughter. I was a shy child and books offered and escape from the real world. I dreamed of becoming a writer at a very early age. It’s the only thing I ever really wanted to be. For a while though it seemed as if it wouldn’t happen, but back in 1999 the God’s smiled down on me and granted the one thing I wished for on every birthday and every star since I was nine years old.

Fran Dorf: Wow. I admire that. I was a “secret” writer in my teens, but even then I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to be. Question: I admit I found myself more enthralled by the historical story in “Nowhere is a Place” than the contemporary one, although they certainly worked together to tell a larger tale. I especially loved the scenes in which the slaves take over the household of their deranged master. It seems to me that owning slaves would deeply affect the sanity anyway, regardless of how much a society tries to deny the common humanity of people. Can you comment on the origins of this scene? Is this something you invented, or is it based on a real incident or incidents?

Bernice McFadden: When I sit down to write story I start off believing that I know what’s going to happen – I believe I have a beginning, middle and end. I’ve published ten novels to date and each and every time my characters prove me wrong. The characters control the story – I just write down what they show me. I do believe that that particular scene is a tribute to the ancestors that fought against the establishment.. ie. Nat Turner.

Fran Dorf: Well, it’s an amazing tribute. Question: One character, a Native American girl, Nayeli, who is given the name Lou by her master after his dog, takes a large role in the book. I didn’t actually realize that Native Americans were also forced into slavery in America, although I’m certainly not surprised that they were. I assume this interesting nugget is based on truth, but did you know this already or find it out through research? How much research do you do for your novels, and do you research while you are writing the first draft, or before you start, or both?

Bernice: Yes, I was aware that the English enslaved Native Americans in the Carolinas, using them on plantations as well as shipping them off to the Caribbean Islands. I do most of my research as I’m writing the novel.

Fran: Can you comment generally on the relationship of your fiction to your life?

Bernice: For me it is impossible to NOT include some real bits of myself in my fiction. Writing a novel is like a carrying a child – when it’s born it’s going to have your DNA.

Fran: I love the DNA metaphor. I’m always amazed when I hear writers and teachers of writing somehow disparage “autobiographical” novels, or deny that writers use their own lives in their fiction. Question: As a bereaved mother and student of psychology whose last novel was inspired by my loss, I have come to see human beings through a unique lens–the way they incorporate trauma and grief and loss into their lives. I’m always amazed at how deeply these difficult experiences influence personal psychology and one’s personal narrative. In this context, I’m talking about trauma, loss and grief that can be either personal or, for want of a better word, ancestral. I wonder if you might comment on this, whether it has any validity for you, how your own losses as I’ve just defined them affect who you are and what you write about.

Bernice: I’m very interested in grief. I study it in myself and the people around me. This interest is certainly present in my work. I feel that I do my best work when I’m grieving or have the bottomless sense of loss and sadness – I pour my emotions into the story and which in turn seems to lend a certain level of authentication.

Fran: Yes, I study it too, and I agree that emotional authenticity is key. We must always write from a place of grief and loss or what we turn out will be sappy or sentimental. Which is one of the reasons I call myself The Bruised Muse. Question: I’m fascinated by the myriad ways novelists go about writing novels. One novelist told me he wrote things down on cards and pasted them on his bulletin board. John Irving insists he always knows the ending. As a writer who never made an outline in her life and always writes (okay, wrote) fiction to find out what’s going to happen, I can’t imagine that. Can you talk a little about your process?

Bernice: The first time I ever outlined a book was a few months back. My agent suggested I do so because we were shopping a partial manuscript. I sent him three pages, which was of course unacceptable to him. Before it was all said and done I had cried, cussed and slammed all of the doors in my house in order to keep from breaking all of the mirrors! We went back and forth so much that I felt like I was writing a dissertation – but fifteen pages later I was proud of what I had done (even though the story is sure to take a different path) and grateful to my agent.

Fran: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? What training or study did you undertake in order to become one? Do you think compelling storytellers are born, can be taught, or both?

Bernice: I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was nine years old. I took two writing classes at Fordham University back in ’95 and ’96. I do believe you either have it you don’t.

Fran: Actually, I agree, although I think you can learn to use the tools of the craft more effectively. Aside from Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, who are some of your favorite writers?

Bernice: Gloria Naylor, Rita Dove, Stephen King. Junot Diaz has a found a new fan in me as well as British author, Christopher Wilson.

Fran: I’m glad you love Stephen King. Me too. I love Diaz’s short stories but haven’t tried his novel, nor am I familiar with Christopher Wilson.
Bernice: Christopher Wilson wrote a novel called Cotton — unlike any story I’ve ever read — every one I’ve recommended the book to loved it. Diaz’s The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao– FABULOUS — I loved it — I felt like I was reading it on a treadmill — his rogue writing style left me breathless.
Fran: Breathless? How can I resist that? I shall have to read them, as well as Gloria Naylor and Rita Dove, and the complete works of Bernice McFadden. Question: My last novel, “Saving Elijah” fit into no particular genre, and I always felt as a consequence that the publisher didn’t really know what to do with it. I felt the book and author luncheon was a great way to bring your writing to a wider (read: white) audience. Which leads me to the following question: I feel writers are nowadays compelled in this niche-driven world to appeal to particular audiences, whether the audience is “women, “African American,” “African-American women,” “Jewish women,” or genre based. Obviously, publishers want to exploit whatever natural audience there is for a writer’s writing, but do you feel you’ve been pigeon-holed as an “African American writer” and do you feel limited by that in any way?

Bernice: YES I DO!!! It’s terrible that publishers do not market AA writers across the color line. There are a few exceptions – but too few for it to trickle down and make a major difference for the rest of the AA writers. Which is why my attendance at the Ferguson Library Luncheon was so important – I understand that in all the years I’m just the 4th AA author participant! It baffles the mind that in 2008 so many people believe that we are more different than we are alike. A real lover of literature couldn’t care less about the color of the authors skin – they just want a compelling read – plain and simple.

Fran: Can you comment briefly on how the legacy of slavery affects African Americans today.

Bernice: Four hundred years of slavery and its afternath are not easily swept awy from people’s memory and culture. I don’t know if you are familiar with the infamous Willie Lynch letter, but back in 1712, slave owner Willie Lynch addressed a group of slave owners in the colony of Virginia, and read from a prepared document that outlined his fool proof method controlling black slaves. That method, whether the powers that be admit it or not, is still–not unlike the Constitution–in use today.

Note: The Bruised Muse was unfamiliar with the Willie Lynch letter, but found an enormous amount of information on it on the Web. About what subject isn’t there an enormous amount of information on the Web? As anyone who has emailed me one of those rabble-rousing, false letters about Obama being a Muslim, or Britain/University of Kentucky/etc. eliminating the Holocaust from its school curriculum knows, I try always to seek truth. Just so the reader knows, the Willie Lynch letter is purportedly a letter by a British slave owner speaking about the way to psychologically control slaves, by dividing them according skin color, age, hair type, etc. Here’s a link for the full text. I do feel compelled to point out that there are also debunkers of this letter as an urban myth. For that, check this link. Even if the letter is a hoax, I take its point as a psychological truth. I don’t think there’s any question that oppressed people adopt certain of the negative stereotypes and notions foisted on them by their oppressors, and that it is to their detriment to do so. I do believe a light-skin/dark-skin self-prejudice still rages in the black community, for example. Where did this come from? An oppressor will always encourage you to argue amongst yourselves while he picks your pocket and keeps his foot on your head. It’s an effective, psychologically sound (if Machiavellian) slight of hand.

Bernice’s website is: http://www.pageturner.net/bernicemcfadden/

Novelist Bernice McFadden highlights Book and Author Luncheon

A few weeks ago my friend Gail Malloy invited me to be her guest at the Book and Author Luncheon sponsored annually here in Stamford by the Ferguson Library. I figured it would be a staid affair, as these things usually are, but the proceedings were surprisingly lively. The first unexpected liveliness came in the form of Mickey Sherman, the attorney famous for his television appearances, his controversial legal tactics, and mostly for his losing defense of bail-skipping, convicted Darien rapist Alex Kelly, and convicted Greenwich Kennedy-cousin murderer Michael Skakel. Plugging his book, “How Can You Defend These People,” Sherman, when his turn came to speak, insisted he isn’t really a writer and acted as if he’d both written the book and wandered into the place by accident, but he did prove to be quite a hilarious storyteller, so I may just pick up his book anyway at some point.
The second and more interesting liveliness, at least from a bibliophile’s standpoint, came in the form of the beautiful, talented novelist, Bernice McFadden, whose fourth novel, “Nowhere is a Place,” I bought on the spot. (Actually, Bernice also writes sexy “chick-lit novels” under the pseudonym Geneva Holliday, so her total “books-written” count is somewhere around ten, she informed the crowd that day.)
I finally got a chance to read “Nowhere is a Place” and it turns out to be an extraordinarily compelling tale about family, family secrets, journeys of self discovery, and the personal and ancestral history that make us who we are as people. Using a technique similar to the one I used in “Saving Elijah,” Bernice weaves back and forth between a contemporary story and a historical one and manages to compel us with both. In the contemporary story, an estranged mother and daughter, Dumpling and Sherry, embark on a road trip across the country to a family reunion in Georgia, and along the way we discover the tragic, brutal and sometimes joyful history of this compelling African-American family. With startlingly vivid, often sensuous language, Bernice not only compels us to turn the page but with great bravery shows us in stark reality the absolute violence and uncompromising brutality of the institution of slavery, the psychological and physical dehumanization, the utter disregard for the common humanity of its victims. And with great, subtle wisdom, Bernice also shows us how that legacy affected and still affects the children of slaves and their children’s children, even to this day.
As a person deeply interested in the psychological effects of grief, trauma, and loss, I found the novel utterly moving, though I admit I often found myself cringing when confronted with scene after scene showing the depraved cruelty perpetrated on blacks by whites. I see why Bernice has been compared to Toni Morrison, and I highly recommend the book.
I also love it that Bernice included a short section at the back of the book called “Are We Related?” Well, Bernice, I doubt that you and I are related, since my family history (about which I admittedly know very little) is one that seems to deny that possibility. Here’s what I know about my family and it isn’t much: Because of brutal persecution of Jews in Russia, my great-great grandmother and father (whose names I don’t know) sent two of her sons, ages 10 and 11, my grandfather Abraham Freedman and his brother (whose name I don’t know) to America. They came alone in ship steerage around 1900. I have seen an affidavit my grandfather signed when he arrived, in which he renounced the Tzar of Russia. I suspect, as you say, that it is a labor of love to research one’s family tree that is not always fruitful. Though I would seriously like to find out more about my own family, fruitfulness might be an issue for me too. The problem is that name Freedman was probably not even my grandfather’s real name, since it was common for immigration officials to simply make up names that would be more “American” when people came before them. My mother’s people also came from Russia around the same time, I think, and on that front I do at least know their name, which was Balabanovich. Any Balabanovich’s out there?
Bernice has agreed to answer some questions–on the writing and publishing process, on how grief figures in her fiction, on some of the startling scenes in her novel, and on the legacy of slavery today. I’ll post that in the next few days.