A Review of Ellen Blum Barish’s Seven Springs
September 3, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Marcia Meier
One of the things we know about memory is it’s faulty. Brain science also tells us that when something traumatic happens to us, our brains move to shut out or compartmentalize the trauma. Both cases apply in Ellen Blum Barish’s touching new book, Seven Springs.
When Barish was twelve, she was being driven home from school by a friend’s mom. The two girls were in the back seat, relieved to be picked up after a full day of school and after-school activities. A truck careened into the car at an intersection, and Ellen’s friend, Jenny, and Jenny’s mother and sister were seriously injured. Ellen suffered a lost front tooth.
The experience launched Ellen into a silence that she neither understood nor sought to understand for more than two decades. At their twenty-year high school reunion, Ellen and Jenny encountered one another again, and began a years-long exploration to uncover the truths that memory had obscured.
The title, Seven Springs, is from events that occurred in seven different springtimes. Moving back and forth in time, Barish masterfully weaves the story of her unfolding memories and her late-in-life embrace of her Jewish heritage and faith. Ultimately, Barish discovers long-hidden secrets about the accident and its aftermath, and she regains her childhood friendship with Jenny, plus finds new peace in her Jewish roots.
Barish’s parents were cultural but unobservant Jews, and she and her brother grew up with little understanding of the faith. She writes of her parents,
If asked, my parents would say they considered themselves Reform Jews, but in the loosest sense of the words. Neither was interested in ritual or tradition or their Jewish roots. There wasn’t a single prayer book or Shabbat candle or anything with a Hebrew letter anywhere in the house we grew up in….The only spiritual book I ever saw in the house was Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.
On the night of the accident, when her parents sent her to her room, still bleeding from her mouth, her grandmother showed up when she most needed comfort and succor. Her grandma, a devout Jew, came in, led Ellen to the bathroom and drew a warm bath, then sat with her as she settled into the soothing water. Then she toweled off Ellen, helped her into a warm nightgown, and led her back to bed. Many years later, Barish discovered her grandmother had cared for her in accordance with the Jewish tradition of bikur cholim, a Jewish etiquette for caring for the sick or injured. It was the beginning of Barish’s exploration of her Jewish heritage.
After meeting Jenny at the high school reunion, Barish began unraveling the mysteries of the accident, including why she had little memory post-accident and felt bereaved at her perception that her friend Jenny had stopped communicating with her. Barish discovers that her family sued Jenny’s family, a betrayal made more shocking by the fact the two families’ parents instructed their children not to talk about it or acknowledge it. Barish remembers only that for some reason her friend Jenny abandoned her after the accident. She couldn’t understand why her friend would stop talking to her.
But Jenny knew. Jenny spent months in a coma in the hospital, her sister and mother were seriously injured, and Jenny’s mom spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
When Barish sought enlightenment from her then seventy-something parents, her mother said she didn’t recall the details of the suit because that was her father’s doing. Barish’s father was equally as vague, and would only say his attorney advised them not to talk about it. Her father seemed to have been concerned only with recouping their medical expenses.
Ultimately, through renewed friendship with Jenny and her own search for meaning through faith, Barish comes to terms with the secrets she had stowed away or been shielded from.
As I read Seven Springs, I was struck by Barish’s determination to uncover not only the mysteries of the accident and its aftermath, but by her gentle persistence to unlock memories that had been deeply buried for decades. Some people who suffer trauma try to leave it in those locked-away places. That is what I did. I suffered a severe injury at the age of five, and endured twenty surgeries over the next fifteen years. When I went off to college, I stuffed all of that trauma down to a deep place and tried to ignore it for thirty years.
But trauma almost always resurfaces, either in response to an event that triggers the memory, or through the realization that it is affecting one’s life. Research has shown that unresolved trauma can lead to serious problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, inability to develop intimate ties with others, suicidal thoughts, and a host of other difficulties. While it may not seem important to others, it can sometimes mean life or death for the person struggling with it. For me, I was forced to revisit my trauma when at the age of fifty my life began to fall apart, and I ultimately came to realize I was experiencing many of the symptoms of complex trauma, including fear of intimacy, lack of self-esteem, and a tendency to abuse alcohol.
Barish’s brave memoir, Seven Springs, reminds us that understanding our trauma can be a first step toward healing. It also is a beautiful story of a blooming faith.
Marcia Meier is the author of Face, A Memoir, published by Saddle Road Press in January. Face was shortlisted for the 2021 Eric Hoffer Book Award grand prize and won honorable mention in the memoir category.