A Hid­den Life: A Mem­oir of August 1969

Johan­na Reiss
  • Review
By – December 5, 2011
It is 1969, and Johan­na Reiss has been con­vinced by her hus­band, Jim, to revis­it Hol­land, where she was born, and then to write a mem­oir of her child­hood. It is to be a sev­en week trip, with Jim plan­ning to join the fam­i­ly a lit­tle lat­er on. We are informed that Johan­na fol­lowed through, return­ing to the U.S. to write what was to become an award­win­ning mem­oir.

Nobody knew that those planned sun­ny, warm­ing moments with the Oost­er­veld fam­i­ly would be sud­den­ly cut into, scalpel-like, by a phone call from her husband’s broth­er in the States shout­ing into Johanna’s ordered world that her hus­band has com­mit­ted sui­cide. 

Here, A Hid­den Life takes on a dual tra­jec­to­ry of tragedy and sur­vival. Twen­ty sev­en years ear­li­er, Johan­na, a Jew­ish child of ten in Hol­land, hid with her sib­lings from the Nazis in the farm­house of a sim­ple yet sym­pa­thet­ic fam­i­ly of Dutch Chris­tians, the Oost­er­velds. The mem­oir of her two year-plus ordeal, enti­tled The Upstairs Room, won The New­ber­ry Medal as well as oth­er hon­ors. 

When the hor­ror of her husband’s unex­plained sui­cide becomes yet anoth­er lay­er of her life, she is unable to speak pub­licly or write of it, there­by ren­der­ing it with her silence as a young aban­doned moth­er in her late thir­ties, a hid­den life.” 

In this heart­break­ing sto­ry, Reiss’ attempt to retrace and recon­struct the steps lead­ing to the final moments of her husband’s deci­sion to take his own life proves futile. What does emerge in this nar­ra­tive are those for­got­ten, painful­ly sig­nif­i­cant inci­dents that are now excru­ci­at­ing­ly exam­ined by Johan­na. These, then, are the mark­ers that point to hid­den lives: Jim’s night­ly sleep­walk­ing, punc­tu­at­ed by a near-vio­lent episode of which he has no mem­o­ry; his mother’s ongo­ing para­noid fears (which ulti­mate­ly led to her insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion), and Johanna’s own momen­tary irra­tional ter­rors are sig­nals that all is not so well with their lives. Johan­na sug­gests that the hid­den has more of a pres­ence (by its very absence) than what is revealed. 

As she nears the end of this beau­ti­ful­ly expressed attempt to put life’s unruly events into order, she con­cludes: “…all those intu­itions, locked up and set aside, and…looking to where the shade had been drawn, in col­or and size as old cal­en­dar page, dis­card­ed ages ago.…but stock­piled; like so much else.”
Ruth Seif is a retired chair­per­son of Eng­lish at Thomas Jef­fer­son High School in NYC. She served as admin­is­tra­tor in the alter­na­tive high school division.

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