Book Review: Telling his own story

‘New York Times’ columnist Roger Cohen pens a memoir that grapples with the burden of a fallible mother.

Roger Cohen with his mother shortly after his birth. (photo credit: FROM ‘THE GIRL FROM HUMAN STREET’)
Roger Cohen with his mother shortly after his birth.
Most writers have enormous difficulty writing truthfully about their mothers. Feelings of guilt and shame compete with loyalty, tenderness and the melancholy bitterness of lost chances.
New York Times columnist Roger Cohen is an exception.
In The Girl from Human Street, he shares his grief and sadness while trying to grapple with the enormous emotional burden his mother left him to struggle with.
She was a vivacious, attractive and petite Jewish woman from a wealthy South African family, whose ancestors had left Lithuania over a century ago. She was bipolar and subject to frequent fits of mania followed by paralyzing inertia, which resulted in hospitalizations, shock treatments and suicide attempts that began when Cohen was only a toddler.
His father, a renowned immunologist who was working on eradicating malaria, tried to help his mother to the best of his abilities – which were limited by his nature, which was stern, severe and self-involved.
Cohen still remembers walking down the long corridor to his parents’ bedroom for comfort, and turning back halfway because he wasn’t certain either parent could provide the solace he sought.
Cohen’s family moved to Britain when he was just two, when his mother was pregnant with his younger sister, Jenny; this rupture caused her to soon spiral out of control.
He became skilled, as children do, in finding solace elsewhere.
Initially, he charmed his many nannies. Later on, he was terrific in school and excellent in sports, a voracious reader with many friends and then girlfriends.
Yet nothing replaces a mother’s love, and his exquisite rendering of his own constant emotional hunger resonates.
He remembers figuring out his own survival strategy as a young boy angered by his mother’s distraction, thinking, “A storyteller is what I am. I may have driven my mother away. At least that is how I understand the mystery. I may dwell in a cold house. But I can escape. By dividing myself, I can have two women – my dead mother whose touch I long for, and my vital close-by girl. Division is a small price to pay for the price of escape.”
Cohen came to view his mother’s illness as more than a random DNA mutation that took her away from him when he needed her so; he began to see it as an apt metaphor for the Jewish condition of the last century. He writes, “It was not merely a pharmacological issue; it was a psychological issue.
It was tied to our odyssey of the 20th century, and the tremendous pressure of wandering, adapting, pretending, silencing and forgetting.”
He writes with a poetic fragility about his mother’s pain, reflecting the decades he has spent thinking about her. He is not a religious man, but one senses he is still a repentant Jew, and bears that responsibility thoughtfully. His columns have often gotten him in trouble for their provocative assertions on many of Israel’s policies, but reading his memoir allows us to see that his mind and thoughts are fluid and changing, as he reflects on the suffering he sees all around him. He is always striving for moral clarity, even when his own inner contradictions and complexities impede him.
Cohen traces his family’s roots with both a journalist’s and novelist’s expertise, and is able to find common traits passed silently from one generation to the next, often unnoticed.
Sometimes these are curses, such as the mental illness that runs through his mother’s family tree like flickering lights of terror ready to implode.
Sometimes it is gifts that are passed on; like the writing skills he possesses that he traces to his father’s brother, Uncle Bert, with whom he felt a close kinship.
His family tree is a Jewish story of “migration and displacement and suicide and persecution and assimilation. It also recounts bravery, a passionate quest for learning, obstinate love and the pursuit of beauty.
From Lithuania and then South Africa, the family path winds through Britain to Israel and the United States.”
The writer’s paternal grandfather, Morris Cohen, left Lithuania for Johannesburg in 1899 when his village of Siauliai still had 8,000 Jews living there, who were mostly active in the leather and shoe industries.
When the Nazis came, they were driven into the forest and shot into graves they were forced to dig themselves. His paternal grandmother, Polly Soloveychik, left Lagare, Lithuania, in 1906 for Johannesburg as well. In her village, a massacre of 2,250 Jews took place in 1941 in the market square.
Morris Cohen became a successful wholesale grocer, and had four children with Polly in seven years – the youngest of whom, Sydney, is the author’s father.
His great-grandfather on his maternal side hailed from Lithuania as well. Isaac Michel came to Johannesburg during the late 1880s and was a smashing success, founding one of South Africa’s first large department stores, the OK Bazaars.
Both families lost most of their connection with Jewish belief and rituals and put their focus forward, making concessions to the greater population of white South Africans who accepted them into their midst.
Cohen believes spiritual losses were paid for their departure, but claims that for his family, it simply was “too late.
In the upheavals of a century, the transmission broke down.
This was progress, or so it was construed. It was emancipation.
Yet I see the price of the loss of Jewish ritual as the progressive emptying of the ceremonies that gave cohesion and purpose. It was not enough, in the end, for my immigrant family in Britain to strive to fit in and be like everybody else and push towards the upper echelons of British society. An emptiness resulted.”
But the larger void was clearly his own mother’s absence, and near the end of the book he imagines a conversation with her where their mutual grievances could be aired and all could be forgiven. He expresses his sorrow for her pain and his love for her, and she seems amused and pleased but somewhat distant. Then suddenly, just like before, she disappears.