“Only Connect”: The Creative Nonfiction of Amy Hoffman
By Robin Becker
In 2013, Amy Hoffman, editor in chief of Women’s Review of Books, published her third memoir, Lies About My Family. As a longtime friend and colleague of Amy’s, I wanted to talk with her about family lore, Judaism, and truthfulness. We decided to conduct a conversation by email that we could document and share. Hoffman’s two previous books—Hospital Time (1997) and An Army of Ex-Lovers: My Life at the Gay Community News (2007)—concerned the political and social movements that shaped feminists of the second wave. The new book fascinated me with its focus on immigration, assimilation, buried family stories. A creative nonfiction faculty member in the Solstice MFA Program at Pine Manor College, Hoffman teaches students how to shape personal narratives, how to interview and conduct research. The following conversation focuses on Hoffman’s craft and her own strategies for getting at the meaning of the stories we tell.
Robin Becker: The title Lies About My Family points toward the memoir as a complex, contested site for truth. Can you speak to that?
Amy Hoffman: The title concerns the elusiveness of truth, the slipperiness of memory, and the difference between truth and facts—or what we think are facts. The past, in memory, is not fixed, like a picture or a videotape (and even those rip or fade; the colors alter; they can be photoshopped). According to neurobiologists, in the act of accessing a memory, we change it. Having written the book, I can no longer remember the stories and experiences in it; I can remember only what I wrote.
My original notion was that the book would include three types of chapters: the family stories that are told over and over; the truths underneath these stories; and what I thought of as the facts: the immigration officer’s story. That’s not the way I ended up telling the book: it wasn’t really possible to keep those strands separate. And, the “immigration officer’s story” turned out to be less factual than I had thought.
I suppose another reason I titled the book as I did was to be a little shocking and obnoxious. But it would have been worse, wouldn’t it, if I’d called it “The Truth About My Family”?
RB: Can you give an example of how the “immigration officer’s story” upended your expectations?
AH: There’s this: the ship manifest I found on the Ellis Island website says my mother’s mother came to the US from what’s now Ukraine when she was sixteen. My mother, though, says my grandmother lied about her age, and that she was really fourteen. And sometimes my mother says my grandmother was thirteen. What we do know is that she was young and alone.
And this: My father’s mother tells a story of how her father, a town elder, was arrested. She claims she doesn’t know why—but it turns out he was arrested for using forms he had access to as a government official to forge passports for his relatives. Of course, on the ship manifest, where he’s asked whether he’s ever been arrested, he checks “no.” He also lists his profession as “farmer.”
RB: The unknown and “impossible to know” accompany your efforts to certify and document. When your father shows you a photograph to make a point, you say, “But who can really tell one dressed-up blur of villagers, in their braids and kerchiefs, beards and hats, from another?” To what extent have you allowed uncertainty and family lore to be part of the story?
AH: Uncertainty is what the book is about. If history is written by the victors, then family lore is, similarly, created by the teller. We tell the stories we do for our own purposes: to mitigate pain; to explain ourselves; to find meaning. When I started to do research, I thought it would tell me the truths underneath the stories. But of course it provided only a new set of stories—which themselves could be excavated.
RB: American Judaism—religion and cultural history—takes many contradictory forms in this book. For example, you say your father is an “unbeliever,” yet he served as president of the temple. Your paternal grandparents are buried in the Temple Beth-El cemetery, but no one has ever visited their graves. How do you make sense of Judaism in the forms and traditions your family practices, and how do you (who know and love liturgical Hebrew) see yourself as a contemporary Jewish feminist?
AH: My family, I suspect from my grandparents through my own generation, were both steeped in Judaism and unbelievers. To me, this is very Jewish! In Genesis, the patriarch Jacob struggles with an angel all night and in the morning is given a new identity and a new name: Yisrael, meaning “He who wrestles with God.” The story was always told to me as an parable of questioning, of not taking any assumptions for granted, of using all your strength to seek meaning and truth. So, we question everything—which also means living with the answers. Jacob/Israel is wounded in the course of the struggle.
RB: Your reference to Jacob struggling with the angel nicely situates you and your family as Jews who search and contend, question and argue. I admire the way your book actualizes and embodies that struggle by showing how love coexists with difference—of opinion, religious and sexual persuasion, politics.
AH: In the book I write about my Great-Uncle Sol, who, my father says, was a communist, and who would argue endlessly with my socialist-zionist grandparents, his in-laws, about the establishment of the state of Israel. Sol believed that a Jewish state would become just as oppressive as any other state. For my grandparents—and parents—Israel, especially the Israel of the kibbutzim (collective farming communities that have now almost completely disappeared), was the realization of a utopian dream. As a politically progressive person, this heritage is important to me—both Sol’s skepticism about the state and my grandparents’ idealism.
RB: Secrecy often shrouds mental illness in families. The tragedy of your twin cousins Bobby and Betty’s sibling estrangement, ending in Bobby’s suicide, speaks potently to me as the sister of a suicide. In another section of the book you tell of the accidental death of your great-uncle, after which his wife took her own life and the lives of their two little daughters. What role do these narratives play in the larger narrative of your book?
AH: The thread of mental illness in my mother’s family is not something that was much acknowledged—and I did not know the story of the wife’s suicide-infanticide until I started researching the book and asked my mother about some photos in an old album. All of it makes me very sad: there was so much suffering and so many distorted relationships because of the self-destructiveness of that wife, the psychosis of my mother’s aunt, the anxiety and paranoia of her father, the depression of her nephew (my cousin Bobby), the venality of her uncle Irving-the-gonif (thief). Maybe the lesson is compassion: everyone has their struggles and pain, even those like my family, whose story, we told ourselves, was one of love, happiness, progress, and success.
RB: The story “we [tell] ourselves” often excludes illness or trouble or irregularity of any sort. In the 1925 novel Bread Givers, the author Anzia Yezierska addresses women’s increasing unhappiness with their roles in immigrant Jewish families. And Mary Felstiner, in her biography of the artist Charlotte Salomon (To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era, 1994), reveals an “epidemic” of suicides in interwar Germany among educated Jewish women who had no outlet for their talents. Did gendered expectations shape the suffering you evoke?
AH: I’m sure they did, although I know this only from reading between the lines. The great-uncle’s wife, for example: she must have believed that she and her children could not survive without the man of the house, that she had reached a hopeless impasse. And would my mother’s mother have lived longer if her illness had been taken more seriously? If she had not been thoroughly exhausted by her difficult and perhaps lonely life?
But for me, the great story of gender expectations—and the breaking of them—is my mother’s: her father, she often told me, did not believe in educating girls, even though he had three daughters. Despite this, she excelled in high school and received a full scholarship to Cornell. Going away to school was her heroic rebellion.
RB: I admire your weaving of personal, familial, and pop cultural references into an exploration of given subject or theme. Rachel Maddow, for example, makes an appearance in your discussion of names related to your paternal grandmother’s family name, Madorsky. In another section, you tell of your grandmother, deep in Alzheimer’s disease, who still recalls songs from her childhood and of your friend Walta Borawski, who, in the late stages of AIDS dementia “could have been a contestant on Opera Quiz.” How did you come to this practice which, I think, enriches the book?
AH: It occurs to me that I love discovering unlikely interconnections and overlapping circles among people in the real world, and I’m also delighted by this in the imaginative world—how words and images and ideas echo each other, reverberate, interconnect.
In the biography of E.M. Forster by P. N. Furbank (1994), he says that Forster was blocked and troubled in his writing until he learned to “trust the imagination.” This notion of trusting the imagination was so liberating to me. It’s a tremendous leap to take, and I can’t always do it. But my best writing, I think, is very associative and intuitive.
RB: Early in the book, we learn that your mother, her parents and her two sisters lived in a one-bedroom apartment. As a child at your family’s summer cottage, you write, “There was no escape and no privacy.” How do privacy and the need for disclosure co-exist for you? Shape you as a writer?
AH: Writing memoir is about creating meaning, a narrative thread that ties together and shapes—or appears to—the random chaos around us. It is also about sharing that meaning: otherwise, we’d keep it in our journals, right? “Only connect,” Forster said, and I take that to mean both “find order” and “make human contact.”
People have told me they feel that they know me, as they might a friend, after reading my books—but that’s an illusion. A good writer, which I strive to become, is in control of what she discloses and why—it must all serve the creation of meaning. It’s embarrassing to read a book when you get the feeling you have more insight than the author does.
The writer must also figure out how, which involves the creation of a persona on the page, a voice—a character. I feel protected by the persona. It’s not identical with me as I live and act in the real world. It’s like the painting of a pipe by the surrealist René Magritte, which is captioned, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” [This is not a pipe.] And it’s not a pipe—it’s a painting.
RB: Your book is full of wit and irony, the self-mockery of Jewish comedians like Lenny Bruce, Gilda Radner, Woody Allen, Sarah Silverman, all of whom have great timing. You write, for example, “The men in my family don’t tell war stories, they tell draft-evasion stories.” Where did you get your gift for pacing and double-edged observation?
AH: I know the jokes of the old guys—Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Marx brothers—second hand, because my parents, especially my father, a great storyteller himself, love repeating them—applying them to new situations and putting their own twists on them. That kind of telling and retelling, or rather, interpreting and reinterpreting, questioning and answering—wait, no, questioning and answering the question with another question—is talmudic, almost, in its intellectual rhythms, and has contributed to the rich heritage of Jewish humor, which wrestles with the absurdities of the world and ends up bursting into laughter (instead of tears).
Liberal Arts Research Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Penn State, Robin Becker has published four books in the Pitt Poetry Series. Her next, Tiger Heron, will appear in 2014. She writes the poetry column Field Notes for Women’s Review of Books, where she has long served as contributing and poetry editor.