BOOKS FEBRUARY 29, 2012
by Ellen Ullman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pp.,
SIX YEARS AGO, the British writer Carmen Callil published a remarkable book called Bad Faith, in which she investigated the life of the man in charge of deporting Jews from Vichy France. Callil’s interest in Louis Darquier de Pellepoix was sparked when she caught a glimpse of him in Marcel Ophuls’s documentary The Sorrow and the Pity and realized to her shock that she was obliquely connected to him. For seven years, Callil had worked with a therapist named Anne Darquier—who she now learned was the estranged daughter of the war criminal—until Anne committed suicide by mixing alcohol and pills. Suddenly Callil realized that the woman she trusted to help her with her demons was living with world-historical demons of her own. What must it be like to be a healer who was the daughter of a mass killer?
This story seems to have provided some of the inspiration for By Blood, the marvelously creepy new novel by Ellen Ullman. About halfway through the book, Dr. Dora Schussler, a tight-lipped, determinedly impersonal therapist, confides to her own therapist the story of her childhood. Her father was an SS officer, a “true believer in the Fuhrer and the Master Race,” whose job before World War II involved funneling “money to amenable French candidates for office. Fascist rightists. Anti-Semites.” In other words, he might have been the German liaison for someone like Darquier de Pellepoix, who was on the Nazi payroll during the 1930s for exactly those reasons. Like Anne Darquier, Dora Schussler rebelled totally against her father, becoming an American citizen and devoting herself to a life of curing pain, instead of causing it.
In By Blood, however, Ullman drops Dr. Schussler into a therapeutic situation more Gothically convoluted than anything a real psychologist might face. At the core of the novel are the sessions Dr. Schussler conducts with a patient whose name we never learn. At first, “the patient,” as she remains, talks about fairly ordinary problems. She is a lesbian whose conventional parents refuse to accept her sexual identity; but as a proto-yuppie, an economics analyst who makes a good living and likes fancy vacations, she is herself too conventional for her girlfriend, a sexual and political militant. (This is, after all, San Francisco in the 1970s.)
Yet Dr. Schussler keeps brushing aside these kinds of issues and urging the patient to explore the fact that she is adopted—which, the therapist maintains, is the key to all her sufferings. Plainly, the doctor’s obsession with parents and inheritance is a reflection of her own family secrets, and she begins to wonder if this “countertransference” is not doing harm to the patient, drawing her into the web of the doctor’s own neuroses.
What she does not know is that she’s not the only one unhealthily focused on the patient’s adoption. Everything we hear about these therapy sessions is filtered through the twisted mind of a narrator, whose name we also never learn, and who is eavesdropping from next door. The creation of this narrator is Ullman’s masterstroke, for he is as skin-crawling, as vaguely, ominously horrible, as anyone in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.
The novel’s first lines set the tone of creepiness Ullman will sustain to the end: “I did not cause her any harm. This was a great victory for me.” All at once we know who we are dealing with: a barely restrained monster, whose articulate mind does battle with his violent impulses, in a way familiar from horror movies and novels. The little we learn about him, from his carefully rationed allusions and ambiguous recollections, confirms that impression. The narrator is a professor, on leave while his university investigates the nameless crimes he committed on, or with, his male and female students. He has rented an office “in the downtown business district of San Francisco, where I intended to prepare a series of lectures about The Eumenides”—and if you think that a scholar studying the Fates might himself be pursued by them, just wait and see.
“What kind of devilish place had I come to, I wondered, where humid fog could turn to sere heat and then to monsoon rains all within the space of a few weeks?” the narrator wonders, his diction making him sound like a well-bred nineteenth-century vampire. Of course, by moving to San Francisco in the post-hippie era, he has chosen a city that is indeed pretty devilish. As Ullman reminds us, these were the years of Patty Hearst and the Zodiac killer, whose exploits the narrator listens to on the radio: “Through the shivering curtains of static came whispers of strange reports, horrors and chaos, murders, women forced to watch their boyfriends knifed to death, then killed themselves by multiple knife thrusts. … Were these emissions from my radio true events or figments of my fevers?”
As this suggests, Ullman lays on the creepy atmosphere so thickly—sometimes you can almost hear the Theremins in the background—that By Blood becomes its own pastiche. This is a tricky thing to pull off, but Ullman does it beautifully: She seems to wink at you even as she shouts “boo” and makes you jump out of your chair. (Indeed, like a nineteenth-century serial novel, many chapters of By Blood end with shameless cliffhangers, e.g., “When suddenly she exclaimed: But what was that?”)
Jumping out of his chair, however, is one thing the narrator cannot permit himself to do. For as the novel opens, he realizes that the office he occupies is next door to that of a psychologist—Dr. Schussler—and that when she turns off the white-noise machine that usually blurs her conversations, he can hear every word she and her patient say. Another kind of tenant might knock on the wall or ask to change rooms, but the narrator—who, Ullman gives us to understand, is a kind of stalker and peeping tom at the best of times—is deeply drawn into the secrets unfolding next door.
Most of the novel consists of reports of these sessions, interrupted from time to time by glimpses of the narrator’s struggles to stay absolutely still, or his aimless existence when the patient or the doctor go on vacation. It is an awkward narrative device, and it leads to some obvious improbabilities. The patient recounts a sexual encounter in terms more graphic than anyone would use with a therapist (“her entire pelvis vibrating in time with Dorotea’s tongue”); long conversations are recounted in perfect detail; the narrator just happens to be in his office at one in the morning when Dr. Schussler is confiding crucial information to her tape recorder. Still, it’s not hard to accept these violations of realism as the price we pay for Ullman’s deliberately claustrophobic narration.
The double structure of By Blood sets two kinds of suspense in motion. Even as we wonder what the patient will discover about her background, we wait tensely for the narrator to lose his tenuous grip on reality. But as the novel progresses, Ullman seems to lose interest in the second of these plots. The narrator’s madness remains fairly static, and it is not giving much away to say that he never explodes into violence as we are meant to fear he might. Instead, more and more of By Blood is devoted to the mystery of the patient’s origins, and their effects on all three participants in this odd triangle: the patient herself, the doctor hiding her past, and the narrator hiding his very existence from the other two.
Only gradually does it become clear that this mystery is going to be tied up with Jewishness and with the Holocaust. (Unfortunately, there’s no way to address this element of the book without giving away some of its secrets, so consider this a spoiler alert.) The first sign of this, oddly enough, is when the patient asks her mother for the truth about her origins, and the mother confides that the patient was born a Catholic. This comes as a great surprise to her, because her father was always virulently anti-Catholic: “My father’s hatred is irrational, relentless. It’s not like a normal person’s prejudice. It’s a … racial hatred.” But all of this seems off, in the way that a dream or a false alibi might be off: people don’t often have this kind of feeling about Catholics. We know the name of the religion that does attract such irrational, relentless, racial hatred.
And sure enough, it turns out that while the patient was adopted through a Catholic agency, she was actually born Jewish. Her mother, known on the adoption form only as Maria G., was a Holocaust survivor who ended up in Bergen-Belsen, which was turned into a Displaced Persons camp at the end of the war. Nothing more is known about her, or seemingly knowable. But by this point, the narrator has gotten so engrossed in the patient’s story that he decides to help her in her search. With less than credible ease, he tracks down Maria G. and sends the information to the patient, fueling the fire of her obsession so that he can eavesdrop on the results.
Soon the patient is flying off to Tel Aviv to meet with Michal, as her mother is now known, to find out the whole story of her birth and unlock the secret of her Jewishness. Why, she wants to know, was she given up for adoption, deprived of any connection to her Jewish heritage? The answer comes in another of Ullman’s shock chapter-endings:
Then she simply gazed at me. She looked at my hair, my mouth, my chin. And then into my eyes. On her face was an expression of love so powerful, so open, that I realized I had never been loved in the whole of my life. Then the emotion moved on.
I wanted to make sure you would not be a Jew, she said.
The line, and the scene, are an homage to the great scene in Daniel Deronda where Daniel tracks down his Jewish mother and receives a similar answer. And if a mother might want to spare her child the stigma of Jewishness in the nineteenth century, how much more understandable is the wish in the year 1946, for a woman with Michal’s history. Born to a wealthy, cultured Berlin family, she ended up passing as an Aryan, then working as a kind of eugenic prostitute in a Nazi maternity home, then being tortured and raped by concentration-camp guards. After the liberation of the camp, she experienced a Zionist awakening, whose symbol in By Blood is a recording of Belsen inmates singing “Hatikvah.”
In this way, Michal becomes the patient’s, and the reader’s, conduit to the Holocaust and the founding of Israel, the primal scenes of Jewish history in the 20th century. And By Blood may be most interesting for what it suggests about the way that history is now regarded by American Jews. In a sense, as Ullman shows, the structure of Freudian psychoanalysis is always a kind of horror story—the analysand digs deeper and deeper into the past until she discovers the buried trauma that accounts for her current pain. In this sense, to discover the Holocaust at the root of your identity—to learn that you were literally conceived at Belsen—is the ultimate therapeutic climax, the ne plus ultra of repressed memory.
At the same time, if much of By Blood reads like a nineteenth-century novel, then the patient’s discovery of her Jewish identity is also like the happy surprise endings of so many such novels: the discovery that the urchin is the heir to a fortune, or that the dairymaid is a duchess in disguise. For all her initial discomfort with being Jewish—“You see, I don’t know any Jewish people. … I have no idea what it means to say, I’m a Jew”—she quickly grows excited about the idea, and particularly about her connection to horrors. After all, if the Holocaust is the most significant and authentic experience of the twentieth century—as many people now seem to believe—then to be born in Belsen is to belong to a kind of aristocracy of authenticity.
This is especially true, perhaps, in the eyes of American Jews. When Michal tells her daughter, reasonably, “You are not a Jew just because I bore you,” the patient replies, “A Jew is something I am!” For American Jews, it can often seem that the very historical luck that brought us out of Europe also attenuates our claim to this kind of emphatic Jewish being. The stories that Ullman tells, through Michal, are our talismans of ultimate Jewishness—the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel—yet they are not in fact our stories. The way Ullman writes about them, as occluded yet irresistibly attractive mysteries, speaks volumes about the way we think about the Jewish past. Perhaps this is what it means to belong “by blood” to a history that—like Ullman’s hidden narrator—is always both absent and present.
This piece originally appeared in Tablet.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.