WHO SHE WAS
My Search for My Mother's Life
By Samuel G. Freedman
Simon & Schuster. 337 pp. $25
Samuel Freedman's mother died in December 1974 at the age of 50, after a long and exceedingly painful siege of cancer. He was 19, a student at the University of Wisconsin, old enough to understand the torture to which she had been subjected but too young, perhaps, to fully understand what he had lost. He knew her only as a mother, not as a human being with a life and a past that transcended motherhood. A quarter-century later, standing by her grave, he realized that "I wanted to discover my mother's life," that "I wanted, almost literally, to claw at that frozen cemetery ground, to exhume the soil flecked with her residue, and from it to conjure the past."
The result is Who She Was, a strange, vexing book. There are moments when it is revealing and interesting, others when it is moving, but it raises more questions than it answers: not so much about Eleanor Hatkin Freedman, whose life her son has researched with diligence and about whom he probably has told just about as much as there is to tell, but about his own reasons for writing it and the conclusions he draws from his labors. Freedman is a respected, accomplished reporter who claims that nothing in this book is "surmise or invention," who seems to believe that sheer gumshoe reporting can unlock the secrets of the human heart and mind. It's a genuinely naive and foolish conceit, yet here he lays it right on the table:
"After thirty years as a professional journalist and nearly half as many as a journalism professor, I cling to a fundamentalist's faith that there is such a thing as truth, and that I can achieve it through facts. So the reporter in me feels somehow defeated to admit that despite all my research, all my sleuthing, all my sleepless midnights wrestling with what I had learned, I never can know with absolute, 100 percent certainty what was happening inside my mother's head and heart at every second of her young womanhood."
Are we to infer from this that Freedman is confident that he is, say, 95 percent certain about what went on in his mother's head and heart? If he is, then he either is clairvoyant -- which somehow seems unlikely -- or so confident in his reporting skills that he has deluded himself into believing they have allowed him to solve the mystery of human existence. The one absolute certainty about human beings is that one can never fully know another. All the gumshoeing in the world cannot tell one person what another person thinks, and even when one person describes his or her thoughts to another, the narrative is consciously or unconsciously edited, revised, refined, clarified. Every human being is a mystery that no one can solve including oneself, since the ancient Greek command -- "Know thyself" -- can never be fully carried out.
John P. Marquand, a wiser writer than is commonly acknowledged, got it right: "We can interpret, but we can never know." The assumption on which Freedman's book is based -- that there is somehow something dishonest about "surmise or invention" -- is invalid on its face. Surmise and invention -- speculation, interpretation, empathy -- are the biographer's most important tools. Diligent research certainly is important, but what matters most is one human trying, imperfectly but in good faith, to understand another. Freedman's "fundamentalist's faith that there is such a thing as truth" may apply to a baseball game or a vote in Congress, but it simply does not apply to the interior life of another human being.
Freedman, though, obviously believes to the contrary, that the relentless accumulation of facts -- big facts, little facts, relevant facts, irrelevant facts -- can bring a person to life. So he set out to read everything he could find and interview everyone who would talk. His publisher failed to add the extra pages necessary to include a bibliography, so if you want to check his sources you'll have to go to www.samuelfreedman.com; rest assured, there are plenty of them.
Eleanor's story begins in 1924 with her birth that spring to Sol and Rose Hatkin, exceedingly poor, first-generation Jewish immigrants who moved, when she was young, from Brooklyn to a cramped apartment in the Bronx. Sol was a shoemaker of considerable skill but only irregularly employed, with the consequence that the family lived constantly on the edge of despair. Two other children came along -- a daughter, Fannie, and a son, Seymour -- further tightening the financial squeeze. That they made it at all probably is largely attributable to Rose's fierce determination and Eleanor's smarts and ambition, for she went to work early in World War II as a cost accountant at an engineering company, establishing her, "still in her teens, as the breadwinner of the Hatkin household, and more than that the de facto parent."
She was lively, intelligent and very pretty. She had a tendency to put on weight, but a stern if kindly word from a teacher prodded her into dieting, and she stayed slender the rest of her days. She had many boyfriends and clearly wanted to get married, but the one she cared most about, Charlie Greco, suffered the misfortune of not being Jewish. By 1947, Rose had learned that her beloved sister had died in the Holocaust, for which Rose "did not blame only the Germans." She said again and again, "The goys killed my whole family." So when Eleanor and Charlie tried to tell her they were going to marry, she threatened to kill herself. Precisely what happened after that is unclear, but Eleanor and Charlie went their own ways, each of them apparently bereft and deeply -- perhaps permanently -- saddened.
On the rebound, Eleanor married Leonard Schulman, a couple of years younger than she, a veteran who claimed to have survived the Bataan Death March (he was in high school when it took place), and who was "her way out of her mother's house, a Jew above objection, much less a suicide threat." He turned out to be a piece of work whose behavior grew increasingly erratic and who was repeatedly unfaithful, earning "a reputation around podiatry school for boasting about his conquests." In the summer of 1952 Eleanor "submitted to the ultimate indignity of moving back home." New York divorce law then being exceedingly stringent, she applied for an annulment and received one early in 1953.
In June of that same year she married David Freedman, and two years later she gave birth to Samuel, the first of her three children. David (who is still alive and who cooperated with his son for this book) grew "from anarchist origins into a successful capitalist, building a storefront machine shop into an international corporation manufacturing microbiology equipment, much of which he designed himself." The family lived in New Jersey, not far from Rutgers University, and grew increasingly prosperous. The marriage seems to have been happy, and David's support for Eleanor during the agonies of her illness was steadfast.
There is much more to Eleanor's story than this brief outline suggests, and Freedman fills in as much as he can: her successful high-school years, her early skepticism about Judaism that metamorphosed into commitment as the horrors of the Holocaust became clear to her, her close friendships with many women, her discovery of Manhattan and its excitements, her involvement in the radical politics to which many American Jews -- especially those living in New York -- were attracted during her lifetime. Freedman does a good job of recapturing the atmosphere in which she lived, though he too often resorts to regurgitating old newspapers: "Alexander's advertised blackout cloth for 24 cents a yard, touting the 'same quality as is being used in England.' Across the street from [the Hatkins' apartment], the Loew's Boston Road featured Betty Grable, pert in her peaked cap, in 'A Yank in the R.A.F.' "
The strangest thing about Who She Was is the harsh judgment that Freedman reaches about his mother in his epilogue. "The story of my mother is the story of someone whose life peaked at seventeen," he writes, which simply seems to me untrue on the evidence he presents, but there's more: "She died unfulfilled because her father was such a failure at supporting the family that my mother had to mortgage her dreams to assume his duties. . . . I think she needed to hate her mother more than she needed to love Charlie. She needed the grudge. She needed somebody to blame, not just for Charlie but for every lost dream. . . . Finally, my mother died unfulfilled because she lifted her vanity so far above her intellect. She wanted every man, I think, to love her, or at least to want her." She was "someone of insatiable vanity, juvenile vanity. . . a damaged and desperate person."
Yes, Freedman acknowledges his mother's good qualities -- "all the vigor and curiosity and heart, all the zest" -- but his claim that in this book he has exhumed "the real person" seems to me utterly without foundation. Who She Was? Not on your life. The "facts" may all be there, but this "real person" is as much a figment of the author's imagination as anyone else whose story is told with "surmise or invention."
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.