Who She Was: My Search for My Mother's Life, by Samuel G. Freedman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. 331 pp. $25.00.
For most Jewish baby boomers, the gross oudines of our parents' lives are usually relatively simple to sketch - the Depression, the war, and the postwar boom. However, the intimate details of our parents' lives as young men and women - their loves, their disappointments as well as their successes, why they made the choices they made and became the people they were - are much more elusive. In part, this is no doubt because the parent-child relationship constitutes a barrier that neither party can easily surmount, with parents shielding themselves from embarrassment or vulnerability and children staking out their independence by creating distance between themselves and their parents.
In his latest book, Samuel G. Freedman, one of the keenest contemporary analysts of American Jewry, trains his journalist's skills on his own family to capture the fine-grained, intimate details of his mother's life within the larger historical context. A child of immigrants who came of age in the East Bronx during the Depression and World War II, Freedman's mother Eleanor died of breast cancer in 1974 at age 50. In mid-life, Freedman became tormented by the knowledge that he had neglected his mother while she was alive and, indeed, had asserted his own independence by shutting her out of his life. Motivated by regret and, as he puts it, a desire to do penance, Freedman undertakes thorough research in order to understand who his mother really was. The result is both heartbreaking and illuminating.
The book's title accurately describes its content, subordinating the search for his mother's life to the exposition of what he found. In an era that has seen the ship of culture list toward the sovereign"!" (think iPods, individually-tailored web news, and public cell phone conversations), it is refreshing that Freedman does not focus on himself. Rather, a brief prologue sets out why he embarked on the book, the long middle section recounts the formative sixteen years of Eleanor Hatkin's life, and a short epilogue provides an analysis of that life. It is no less affecting for being wholly predictable that Freedman's effort releases him from thirty years of regret and allows him finally to mourn his mother.
Freedman had considered his mother's life uneventful, especially contrasted with his father's side of the family, which was immersed in radical politics. Yet the life he discovered was also shaped by those larger forces of Depression, war, Holocaust, and politics that he thought only left their imprint on his father's family. The daughter of a feckless garment worker and his overbearing wife strongly attached to her family stranded in Eastern Europe as war approached, Eleanor came of age amid poverty. Like many second generation immigrants, she displayed a "ferocious aspiration fed of penury" (p. 43). Despite being a brilliant student, she chose to escape from poverty, from the Bronx, from her mother's home, through marriage rather than through education and a career - though she did graduate from college, worked in a defense-related factory during the war, and was independent-minded.
Freedman masterfully shows how Eleanor's love life was shaped by her family and the times. …