Sunday, November 4, 2012

The riches and burdens of family legacy (Books - The Scientists by Marco Roth)

Our part of New York City was relatively spared from serious Hurricane effects.  Our electricity stayed on, we had some downed trees, the stores were emptied of bread, and transportation to work was difficult, but being at the highest elevation in Manhattan, we didn't have much flooding.  Thank you to all the friends who checked up on us.  I thought the two days off from work would give me time to read and catch up on a considerable backlog of book posts, but that fantasy was never realized. I was back at work on Wednesday, where a much depleted staff carried on with the Halloween party we had offered to host for the families served by the Children's Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center where I work.  To our surprise, we had over 100 kids show up in costume.  Boy were they and their parents glad to get out of the house!

Another New York story was the subject of The Scientists by Marco Roth (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) which I was convinced was a novel, but turns out to have been a memoir.  It tells of a thirty-something New Yorker whose father, a medical researcher, contracted the HIV virus in the 1980s. 
Due to ignorance about the disease and a homophobic climate, Marco's father demanded that his family keep his illness a secret.  The Scientists concerns Marco's coming of age with two legacies. The first, the burden of this secret, complicated by the fact that his father's story of how he contracted the HIV virus may not have been true.  The second was an obligation to live up to certain middle-class New York immigrant, Middle-European Jewish way of life.  This meant for Marco all sorts of rules from his father, for example, doing music and science, not baseball and boy scouts.  Ironically,
According to my mother, he used to hold me aloft when I was a baby and say, "You are a person."  He would say this to me later, too, although with various inflections.  I was such an obvious statement, I was totally mystified by it.  What else could I be?  I was an only child of the "Free to Be You and Me" generation - despite my parents' distrust of popular music, we actually owned the record, the one where Mel Brooks is the voice of a baby girl who thinks she's a boy, William finally gets a doll, and fussy princesses get devoured by cannibals ("'Ladies first,' she said, and so she was, and might tasty too.").

"Free to Be" was an odd mantra for my childhood, especially because there were so many kinds of people my father obviously disapproved of.  According to him, he'd basically given up on his own family when he was thirteen, reinventing himself as a changeling.  He first did this through religion, plunging into his bar mitzvah studies.  He'd briefly turned Orthodox and learned Yiddish, in 1952, well before the Yiddish revival movement became part of a more distant generation's nostalgia for lost roots.  He spoke it largely to provoke his family, who had left behind both their language and sincere religious observance as remnants of the old country, reminders of the poverty and oppression they had escaped as though fleeing Egypt.
The freedom to be oneself, whether that means living like your parents or living to provoke them by being different, is very much the theme of this memoir.  A chunk of Marco's past is missing and he seeks to understand who his father actually was to ostensibly fill the gap.  Marco is to discover that he has to move beyond a legacy that values facts which make up a body knowledge and seek out a different type of understanding if he is to fill that space inside of him.

I grew up in Manhattan, the child of European Jewish immigrants.  Many of my friends lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where this story is set. I owned the book "Free to Be You and Me," in fact, I directed a theatrical adaptation of it while I was in High School.  Reading this book, I sometimes felt amused and sometimes bored by the extreme familiarity.  At other times I almost felt embarrassed, as though I was finding out too much out about a person I knew, but didn't know well.  But his father's legacy also taught Roth by example how to hide who he was from himself.  It struck me the courage that it it must have taken Roth to wage the battle to know oneself in public.  The book did not end up feeling confessional, to his credit he created a piece of writing (he subtitles it "A Family Romance") that was more fully integrated, if a little psychoanalytical.  Through that, he moves beyond the legacy he was given by his parents to the legacy he will pass on to his own child.  

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