Growing Up Golem: Memoir as Fantasy Story
February 4, 2014 § 3 Comments
Donna Minkowitz discusses the decision to include “fantastical” elements in her memoir Growing Up Golem: How I Survived My Mother, Brooklyn, and Some Really Bad Dates, a book Kirkus recently called “Intelligent but not for the prudish or fainthearted.”
When I set out to write a memoir about my parents 12 years ago, one of the things that stymied me was early feedback from my peers that the content was “too unbearable” to read about.
My parents were unusual sorts, and it was indeed difficult to be their daughter. My father was violent and often smelled bad, and I believe he was quite mentally ill. He was also remote and didn’t often speak, and my mother encouraged my sisters and me to make fun of him terribly, which often resulted in him hitting me. Despite this ugly bit of manipulation, my mother was wonderfully nurturing in other ways — for example, she fostered in us a great love of learning and books, and continually stimulated our minds. Yet she was also frighteningly seductive, encouraging my sisters and me to tell her she was “sexy,” modeling her revealing clothes for us (or showing off her naked body and demanding compliments), and talking far too freely and extensively about her extramarital liaisons.
I didn’t think my parents were too unbearable to read about, but would my readers? An even more compelling issue for me was that I wanted to capture the “uncanny” feeling I had always had of being my mother’s puppet, or her creature (like a magician’s familiar, or something she had created in a laboratory, to experiment on with different stimuli or provocations). How could I write about this when, in the strictest sense, it wasn’t “true”? That is to say, it was truly my feeling, it was indeed what it had subjectively felt like, but my mother wasn’t actually a magician, and I wasn’t actually her homunculus, or creation.
Without the magic, however, there was no understanding the frozen way I had lived my life, as if completely separated from my own will and desires, or the fact that neither I nor my sisters had ever had a long-term relationship with a lover, as though we’d been forbidden or prevented by a mysterious spell that destined us for my mother alone.
Then I remembered that my mother had actually told us she could do magic — a mixture of Jewish magic from the Kabbalah and pagan European magic from Romania, which she claimed she had learned as a child from her grandparents. In fact, up until early adulthood, at least one sister and I had believed that she could actually practice this magic (not to the extent of making golems, but we believed that she could, as she said, foretell the future and interpret dreams).
I decided to use this factoid, with a twist, as the controlling metaphor for the memoir. The twist would be that I would write the book as though my mother really WERE a powerful Kabbalistic magician. And I would combine memoir with fantasy and write the thing as though, instead of giving birth to me, my mother had created me by magic as her own personal golem, an animated clay servant out of Jewish legend. Every statement in the memoir would be true, except those involving magic or other fantastic activities.*
This way, I wouldn’t have to let fiction writers have all the fun, but could actually make use of all the richness of myth and archetype in telling my life story. How the hell could I turn myself from a clay puppet under a lifelong spell, into a human being? That would be the question of the book.
It might also be a way to make my father’s physical abuse, my mother’s (nonphysical) sexual and emotional abuse, more bearable for the reader to come on an extended journey with me through it. The light coat of fantasy would be one way of “tell [ing] it slant.”
*Minkowitz makes clear to the reader what is real and what is metaphorical in an opening note in the book.
Donna Minkowitz is the author of Growing Up Golem: How I Survived My Mother, Brooklyn, and Some Really Bad Dates. She won a Lambda Literary Award for her first memoir, Ferocious Romance: What My Encounters with the Right Taught Me About Sex, God, and Fury.