Arts in New York City: Baruch College, Fall 2008, Professor Roslyn Bernstein
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Exploring Who She Was

      We had all read his book, Who She Was: My Search for My Mother’s Life, and now we sat anxiously awaiting the man who dared delve into his mother’s life. Most of us are content with knowing only the information about our parents that we learned after we were born. We look at them as only “our parents” and find it hard to believe that they had a life before us, but even if we do take the time to realize this distinction, it may be that we do not really want to know what our parents were like before they had us. Just imagine your mother as an unruly teenager. However, Samuel Freedman dared to delve into this forbidden territory and the result was a success – both in the form of the popularity of the book as well as personal success.

            The first thing that you can tell about Samuel Freedman when he walks into a room is that he is an intellectual person. This presence is apparent in the care that he takes in the way that he dresses and carries himself. The intellectual in him becomes even more apparent once he begins to speak. He speaks clearly and eloquently, but beyond that, he talks of complex ideas in a simple and lyrical manner that anyone could understand. One idea that he presented in his speech was the “periodic table of human nature,” which is the idea that no matter what occurs in human existence, all things break down into basic emotional elements. He then went on to say that “if a work sticks to these basic elements, people will relate.”

            His book is a testament to this idea. Although it specifically focuses on his mother, Eleanor, it is a story that is relatable to almost anyone. This came about partially from the method that he utilized to create the narrative. “I thought it was important to not invent,” he said. Freedman chose to research his mother’s life with the standard of historical accuracy used for prominent historical figures. Utilizing primary documents such as Social Security records and photographs, Freedman was able to portray his mother with the importance of a historical figure. As he said, “Ordinary lives are filled with extraordinary drama.” As a result, he is able to form a universal character from his mother.

            Freedman stated both in his book and in his presentation that the book was an act of penance – a way to answer “all the questions I hadn’t asked when she was around.” However, in considering the manner in which he wrote her story and talks about her, it becomes clear that this was a quest not necessarily to understand his mother, but instead to simply learn who she was. Although Freedman states that he paid fanatical attention to the details of her life because she was a true individual and he tired to stay “as true as possible to the particularities of … her life and times,” it appears that this attention to detail was the result of trying to learn more about her.

            When his mother died, Samuel Freedman realized how little he knew about her and her life. As a result he went on an extensive quest to find out who Eleanor was when she was an unruly teenager. He looked to see what events in her life shaped who she had become when he had known her. In the process, he found a dramatic story in an unlikely place. This story not only brought him success in terms of his book, but it finally allowed him to mourn the death of a woman that he had not really known before – his mother.