Sharon Led­er, author of The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daugh­ter’s Search, has been guest blog­ging through­out the week as part of the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series. 

In this final seg­ment of my Pros­en Peo­ple series, I will dis­cuss how read­ing com­ing-of-age nov­els encour­aged me to change the struc­ture of my nov­el, The Fix, entire­ly, and to drop the char­ac­ter of adult Sara in favor of the young pro­tag­o­nist who wit­ness­es first-hand her father Josef’s afflic­tion of hero­in addiction.

Anzia Yezier­s­ka, Johan­na Kaplan, and Myla Gold­berg: Daugh­ters in The Authors’ Com­ing-of-Age Novels:

I learned from the Jew­ish women authors in the A Mind of Her Own: Fathers and Daugh­ters in a Chang­ing World” sem­i­nar series how to bring scenes of the child Sara and her father to greater promi­nence in the nov­el. It was an obvi­ous solu­tion, but like Poe’s pur­loined let­ter, it was not on my radar screen! The nov­els by Yezier­s­ka, Kaplan, and Gold­berg were all com­ing-of-age sto­ries, nar­rat­ed most­ly by the young pro­tag­o­nists them­selves. I need­ed to change The Fix’s point of view! The young Sara — not the adult Sara — need­ed to tell the tale. Was I bold enough to per­form the surgery” and leave the adult Sara on the oper­at­ing table because she was no longer alive? Could I revive the char­ac­ter of Sara as a child, start­ing from the moment she learns of her father’s addic­tion and then trace her unfold­ing under­stand­ing of him and of the mean­ing of his illness?

Yezier­s­ka, Kaplan, and Gold­berg had their female pro­tag­o­nists — Sara Smolinksy, Mer­ry Slavin, and Eliza Nau­mann — all fol­low a sim­i­lar nar­ra­tive arc: Each devel­ops auton­o­my in rebel­lion against her father and fol­lows a life path guid­ed by her own will but ulti­mate­ly comes to see her father in new ways, more mature­ly. This is what I want­ed to show in the arc of Sara Katz’s life: rebel­lion against her absent father for whom she har­bors unre­solved anger and rage, and ulti­mate­ly rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with that same father once she gains greater dis­tance and understanding.

Bread Givers

Sara Smolin­sky in Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925) is the youngest but most out­spo­ken of Reb Smolinsky’s four daugh­ters, the one he calls Blut-und-Eisen, blood and iron, because of her strong will. I fol­lowed the pat­tern Yezier­s­ka set when she began her sto­ry with an eight-year-old nar­ra­tor who final­ly explodes against the tyr­an­niz­ing of her Ortho­dox father when she is sev­en­teen. In this scene, Sara is speak­ing up for her­self and her three intim­i­dat­ed sisters:

For sev­en­teen years, I had stood his preach­ing and his bul­ly­ing. But now all the ham­mer­ing hell that I had to lis­ten to since I was born cracked my brain … Should I let him crush me as he crushed them? No. This is Amer­i­ca, where chil­dren are people.”

Those ages, eight and sev­en­teen, became mark­ers in my character’s life as well. My Sara first learns at age eight of her father’s hero­in addic­tion, a con­di­tion she doesn’t under­stand at all. By sev­en­teen, she’s attend­ing the funer­al of her father, a vic­tim of hero­in over­dose. By this time, her needy moth­er and grand­moth­er have turned her into a par­en­ti­fied” child who has learned more about the fam­i­ly wreck­age her father’s con­di­tion caus­es than any young­ster should know. At the funer­al, she says to her younger brother:

I can’t believe it. Dad­dy was just with us at your bar mitz­vah. And now he’s gone … ”

How do you think Dad­dy died? …Did Dad­dy … do it … to himself?”

You know about things like that?” Sara asks in surprise.

He nod­ded.

We just don’t know. Maybe we’ll nev­er know … Ma and Grand­ma didn’t want an autopsy …”

Nev­er in the past could she speak to her father about what she knew — his shame­ful life. Nev­er could she find the right words, the right time. She had imag­ined approach­ing him that very week. And now it was too late. … Anger welled up in her — anger at her father for leav­ing them.And lat­er, when Sara’s guid­ance coun­selor at school sug­gests she write to her deceased father to process her lin­ger­ing anger, Sara says in her letter:

I blamed you. … Mom was will­ing to endure the rough peri­ods, even your hurt­ing her at times, when you were des­per­ate for mon­ey. I can’t believe I watched you hit her! … How could you? Oh, Dad, when will I stop blam­ing you for not giv­ing up hero­in totally?”

O My America!

In Jew­ish Book Award win­ner Johan­na Kaplan’s nov­el O My Amer­i­ca! (1980), the tables between father and daugh­ter have turned. Mer­ry Slavin’s father, Ez Slavin, is the flam­boy­ant rad­i­cal this time, an anarchist/​pacifist whose Old Left pol­i­tics in the 1930s morph into New Left pol­i­tics in the 60s. He’s an invet­er­ate indi­vid­u­al­ist con­stant­ly fight­ing off media atten­tion that he claims will threat­en his abil­i­ty to think. After Merry’s moth­er dies after giv­ing birth to her, Mer­ry seeks greater inti­ma­cy with her absent father, a pub­lic polit­i­cal per­son­al­i­ty who soon part­ners with oth­er women and has oth­er chil­dren with them. Ez, who believes the nuclear fam­i­ly is a bour­geois con­struct, refus­es to play tra­di­tion­al father with Merry.

I adopt­ed two of Kaplan’s struc­tur­al devices. The first is hav­ing the father die at the begin­ning of the nar­ra­tive. Kaplan opens her nov­el with Mer­ry wait­ing in her New York apart­ment for her father’s phone call to arrange a place for them to meet. Instead, the call comes in from the police, who have brought her father to a hos­pi­tal where he dies of a mas­sive heart attack. I open The Fix with Sara and her fam­i­ly wait­ing for Josef’s Sun­day morn­ing vis­it, now that he’s liv­ing with Sara’s grand­par­ents. Instead, Sara’s moth­er, Helen, gets the call from her broth­er-in-law, who has found Josef dead from a hero­in over­dose in his father’s butch­er shop. The deaths com­ing at the out­set set up the ques­tion of what these men’s lives were real­ly like. Both pro­tag­o­nists, Mer­ry and Sara, have devot­ed much of their young lives to uncov­er­ing the mys­ter­ies sur­round­ing their fathers’ identities.

The sec­ond is the fail­ure of the funer­al scenes in both nov­els to yield the true pic­ture of the deceased, and what the impact of lack of full dis­clo­sure is on loved ones. The hon­orif­ic eulo­gies by those who knew Ez Slavin pro­fes­sion­al­ly present a stark con­trast to the flawed man we have met through Merry’s eyes. Like­wise, Josef’s funer­al scene in The Fix high­lights the dis­crep­an­cy between the ill man who has ter­ri­fied Sara’s child­hood and the good hus­band and father praised by Rab­bi Korn’s false­hoods of omission.

Bee Sea­son

Final­ly, Myla Goldberg’s Bee Sea­son (2000), a New York Times Notable Book, fea­tures pro­tag­o­nist Eliza Neu­mann, a grade-school stu­dent at McKin­ley Ele­men­tary who is sec­ond fid­dle in her father, Saul’s, eyes to her old­er broth­er, Aaron, until her remark­able and uncan­ny abil­i­ty to spell dif­fi­cult words becomes an item” of note to her teach­ers. Eliza has always desired more of her father’s atten­tion, but once she has it, the atten­tion turns sour because Saul’s dot­ing becomes a heli­copter dad’s means of con­trol. We learn that Eliza’s moth­er, Miri­am, also has need­ed to free” her­self from Saul, turn­ing to soli­tary activ­i­ties like let­ter writ­ing, shop­ping, and house­work at odd hours.Bee Sea­son taught me to bal­ance my atten­tion in The Fix on the par­ent­ing Sara receives from both par­ents, Helen and Josef. Bring­ing in the seem­ing­ly less dom­i­nant char­ac­ter, the moth­er, at the end of the nov­el can make use of the strat­e­gy of sur­prise if the moth­er is exposed in some unex­pect­ed and iron­ic way. Toward the close of Bee Sea­son, the read­er learns how psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly ill Miri­am has become from years of being alone” avoid­ing the fam­i­ly dynam­ic in an unusu­al way. In The Fix, Helen’s insis­tence on keep­ing Josef’s addic­tion a secret, even after his death, turns out to be her own way of veil­ing her com­plic­i­ty in the addic­tion pat­tern, her years of enabling.

The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search

I am left with grat­i­tude for hav­ing had the occa­sion to read with care these nov­els by great Jew­ish writ­ers and to dis­cuss them with thought­ful audi­ences. As I reflect on my writ­ing process, I see how the mag­i­cal osmo­sis of influ­ence has enabled my work to become invest­ed with ele­ments I found both con­scious­ly and uncon­scious­ly in these stim­u­lat­ing works of fic­tion. My revi­sion of The Fix as Sara’s com­ing-of-age sto­ry enabled me to find the right point of view for get­ting in touch with my character’s child­hood trau­ma and for com­mu­ni­cat­ing it con­vinc­ing­ly. By read­ing fic­tion, I was able to reach more of the essen­tial truth of my own sto­ry. The Fix is based on my life.

Dr. Sharon Led­er Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta is a nat­ur­al orga­niz­er who found­ed Jew­ish Stud­ies at S.U.N.Y.-Nassau Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege. Past Vice Pres­i­dent of Am HaYam Cape Cod Havu­rah she cur­rent­ly serves its Inter­faith Jus­tice Com­mit­tee. With Mil­ton Teich­man she edit­ed Truth and Lamen­ta­tion: Sto­ries and Poems on the Holo­caust” (Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois) nom­i­nat­ed for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award.