October 1, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Ellen Blum Barish
A curious girl who grows up around people who keep secrets is like a balloon filling with water. It’s only a matter of time until it bursts.
But secrets don’t stand a chance against a girl who can find the words. And Judy Bolton-Fasman is one of those girls.
With sophisticated sleuthing and tender prose, she investigates her secret-keeping parents in Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets, the book she wrote to “release the pull of a mystery that had taken up sprawling real estate in my mind for too long.”
That her birth name is the same as the fictional girl detective Judy Bolton popular in the 1930s and 1940s, only fuels her curiosity. “It was the case of a lifetime,” she writes. The book is her personal, emotional detective story.
The prologue sets the tone and the tension. In the summer of 1985, a thick envelope arrives at Bolton-Fasman’s New York City apartment from her father who has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She’s hopeful that the envelope might contain some sort of final confession that could put an end to her lifelong questions about his trastiendas, the word her Cuban mother used to describe secrets.
“The letter might be telling me that my father no longer had dreams to comfort him,” she writes. “After all, a trastienda is a dark, dank place, and this letter carried a whiff of that because no one’s trastiendas were more hidden away than those of my parents.”
But just as she is about to open it, she sees the flickering red light of her answering machine. Thinking it might be her ex-boyfriend whose swift departure has left her reeling, she hits the play button and hears her father’s voice imploring her not to open the letter. He says, “I need you to burn it.”
Another daughter might ignore that request. But when it came to her father, she writes, “obedience had always prevailed.” She placed a lighter to the envelope and dutifully let it burn in a metal garbage can, watching as the trastiendas disintegrated into ash—secrets she suspected “had the power to crack open the sky.”
I, too, would have wanted to know the contents of that package. But like Bolton-Fasman, I was a good Jewish girl who sensed that something wasn’t quite right: that there was a missing piece, a truth unspoken, a successful silencing.
But one needs to be ready. Bolton-Fasman writes, “If I opened the envelope, I would come face to face with secrets I was still too afraid to learn.”
What follows is a sensitively written account of her fact-finding quest for answers—many of which she finds, some not conclusively—powered by her curiosity and her strong Jewish faith. Ultimately reciting the traditional Jewish Kaddish prayer for her father after his death helped bring her some clarity.
“…Kaddish was symbolic of a spiritual anechoic chamber in which my public acknowledgment of God’s presence harmonized with the private silence of my grief. Even after I had finished the eleven-month ritual, the words of the Kaddish played out in the endless symphony of silence my father had left behind.”
The book’s title does a beautiful job of framing the story in metaphor. Bolton-Fasman grew up on a street named Asylum, in Hartford, Connecticut. This word is simultaneously associated with the idea of protection and security, but also an institution supporting the mentally ill. She describes her Cuban mother as a “beautiful hysteric” and “an emotional terrorist” and her Connecticut-born father as “a noble man” whom she followed around the house because he knew how to do practical things. Growing up on Asylum Street was both “refuge and madness,” she writes.
This tension holds the reader’s interest, while mirroring Bolton-Fasman’s internal struggle. She was a curious girl living in a family of secrets—two things that usually don’t go well together. Yet, her deep desire to know illustrates how the search to unlock secrets through words can be its own reward.
There’s a Jewish teaching, Bolton-Fasman writes, that an uninterpreted dream is like an unopened letter from God. Asylum is a return to that unopened letter from her father that allows her to share her own interpretation.
Ellen Blum Barish’s memoir, Seven Springs (Shanti Arts), about breaking a long-held silence, was published in May 2021. Her essays have appeared in Tablet, Full Grown People, Literary Mama, and the Brevity blog, and have aired on Chicago Public Radio. She is the founding editor of Thread, which earned four notables in Best American Essays, and the author of the essay collection Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Life (Adams Street Publishing, 2007). Barish teaches writing and offers private coaching for essayists and memoirists.