Arts in New York City: Baruch College, Fall 2008, Professor Roslyn Bernstein
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Who She Was: Freedman’s Atonement

           On November 25, 2008, renowned journalist and professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Samuel G. Freedman visited our IDC class to speak about his book Who She Was: My Search for My Mother’s Life.

           After attending his aunt’s funeral, and consequently visiting his mother’s grave the first time in thirty years after her death, Freedman realized that his mother had become a “stranger” to him; “I knew who she became, but not how she became that.” Fascinated by her life as a young Jewish woman in the Bronx, Freedman went on a quest to recover her past, and return to his mother’s “stomping ground.”
           However, it took a long time to come around the subject of his mother’s life. Freedman admits, “I felt shame and remorse for not being more attentive to her [when she was alive],” and writing this book was an act of penance. Freedman writes that she lived vicariously through his life, but he never knew why. Now, after diving into her world, he had a new perspective and understanding of the sacrifices his mother had to make. This includes his grandmother’s disdain and dissatisfaction for Eleanor’s boyfriend, the man she was in love with, who forced her to marry Freedman’s father. Freedman initially put much of the blame on his father for his mother’s unhappiness. Through his painful and precise examinations of pictures, interviews with his mother’s former friends, Freedman realized that his mother’s unhappiness was much deeper. This book allowed him to “finally settle something unsettled within myself,” and give “more compassion for [his] father.” Freedman always saw his grandmother as a villain who denied his mother from following her heart, but realized it was because of her relentless efforts to get out of Europe that he had relatives in Uruguay today. Although she was “bigoted but valiant,” Freedman admired her tremendous efforts and sacrifice for her family.

           The most significant aspect of Freedman’s writing is that doesn’t “sanitize the portrait.” Freedman stated that many people asked why he wrote about his mother’s sexuality with such detail, in which he replied, “to omit that would be to omit part of herself…part of her zest of life was the allure of sexuality.” Freedman’s writing makes it easy to picture Eleanor Watkin – an effervescent, graceful, beautiful girl who loved, and loved to be loved. However, her self-destructive behavior ultimately led to her downfall, which Freedman doesn’t hesitate to explicitly include in his book. Freedman emphasizes, “objects get blurry when you’re too far away and too close,” but it’s our obligation to be tough and accurate. The people “we love are the ones we see clearly,” and we must accept the truth. Eleanor was difficult, and “had desires that she desperately wanted to be facts,” which led her to an empty and unsatisfied life.

           Through his adventure in discovering his mother’s past, Freedman concluded that there is a “periodic table of human nature.” Everything in the material world can be broken down to a “finite number of materials: love, hate, ambition, and failure.” These emotions are part of the “constellation of human experience,” and though they may “wax and wane,” they never vanish from the world. Therefore, forcing yourself to write what is universal doesn’t come out “universally.” Instead, if your specific story succeeds on its own terms and is well written, people will automatically bring and find their points of connection.

           When asked what his mother would think of his book if she were alive today, Freedman chuckles, “she would feel vain that her life was worth writing a book about.” Perhaps it’s the “arrogance of a writer to give it form on a page,” but either way, writing this book forced Freedman to finally say what his mother’s life meant to him; “in your mind it floats around, but in writing you come to realization.” Freedman highlighted that you must never deny yourself or others of their “heart’s [emotional, not material] desires.” In his final words Freedman states, “I don’t feel only famous lives are extraordinary, ‘ordinary lives’ are filled with unexpected drama.” Freedman’s own moving personal discovery not only sufficiently fulfills his goal of making up a debt to his mother, but also is arguably just as extraordinary as his mother’s vivacious yet ill-fated life.