Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Fierce Detachment

Samuel G. Freedman wrestles with how to write about his mother, and ends up doing some kind of penance.

Print Email

In Who She Was, Samuel G. Freedman attempts to discover his mother, who died of cancer at 50 and whose grave he avoided for 30 years. Eleanor Hatkin grew up in a strict, cloistered home in the East Bronx in the 1930s, clashed with her domineering Polish-born mother, and gave up the love of her life, Charlie Greco, to enter into a strained, ill-fated first marriage before meeting Freedman’s father. To uncover his mother’s past, Freedman turned to the reportorial skills that have served him as a New York Times reporter and the author of Jew vs. Jew and Upon This Rock.

Was it possible to have any objectivity when writing about your own mother?

Eleanor, right, with friend.

I don’t believe in objectivity, in the sense that human beings are by nature subjective. But I do believe that I could see my mother—especially in her young womanhood, long before I was born—as honestly as I could see anyone else.

I often felt that my brain was cut in two when I was working on this book. The journalist and historian wannabe was thinking about where I was getting material from, whether I could find so-and-so for an interview, etc. At night with my wife, the son’s part of the brain would take over. I would either talk excitedly if I’d found something joyous—say, her falling in love in high school. But more often, I’d kind of let out a long, heavy sigh, and talk about some sadness I’d found—how my grandmother had to pick garbage, how my mother’s first husband cheated on her, how desperate she’d been in pressuring my father into marriage.

But do you see any virtue in making the biographer part of the story?

I have no problem with the idea of author as participant. The problem I have is the kind of revelations that come out about books like Fierce Attachments, where years after the fact you find that Vivian Gornick made up stuff. I remember very clearly listening to Maureen Corrigan on Fresh Air give this incredibly pained, and very poignant commentary about what it was like as someone who had loved Fierce Attachments, to find out that it had been partly fiction masquerading as fact, how hurt she was as a reader. I thought, that’s exactly why you don’t do it.

It seems there’s a similar hazard in constructing your mother’s life from the views of others. How could you be sure their accounts were true?

I went to great pains to cross-check everything with either a written record or a second or third source. And actually, I often had undeniable confirmation in the form of photos or home movies or letters. Virtually every biography written, except for the “authorized” sort, uses exactly the methodology I did. They all rely heavily on the views of others.

One of the hardest must have been Selma, who married Eleanor’s old flame, Charlie.

That was what I felt was going to be the touchiest interview, because when Selma met Charlie, he was overwrought about the breakup with my mother, and then when he died, she found Eleanor’s picture in his belongings. Selma was candid and guarded at the same time. We were certainly feeling each other out, and some trust built very slowly over numerous interviews. Also, after Charlie and Selma were married, my mother begged for him to break up with Selma and to marry her, and he didn’t. So maybe that made it somewhat more possible for Selma to talk to me.

Charlie and Eleanor had quite a love affair. Was Charlie a kind of ghost in your home growing up?

I had heard only a vague thing, that my mother had had a Catholic boyfriend, that she was serious with him, and that my grandmother Rose threatened to jump off the roof to break them up. But when you hear something like that, you don’t know if it’s true or partly true. Is it a bubbe meise? I really didn’t know. Obviously, I’m glad she didn’t marry him, or I wouldn’t be here. The most enigmatic thing, the most difficult thing to come to an answer for, was why my mother didn’t just marry Charlie Greco, her Italian boyfriend, over her mother’s objections. And that was the thing I struggled with the most.

In the book your mother often recedes in the light of these other people’s stories, such as your grandmother Rose.

Well, I discovered a whole different aspect of my grandmother writing this book. Growing up I couldn’t know her, really. She was hard of hearing, and wouldn’t wear her hearing aid. She didn’t speak English fluently. All her visits to our house were informed by the bitterness between her and my mother. It was really at my father’s behest that we saw her at all. Very much over and against my mother’s objections, my father would make sure to give us access to our grandmother. But I accepted, fairly unquestioningly, this sense of her as this impossibly Old World person. What could she have to recommend her?

But writing the book I was to find out exactly what had happened to Rose’s family. She had tried to do anything to get her family out of Europe. When I did this research and met my relatives in Uruguay I realized, these people are alive because of her efforts. When I saw this valiance in her, I saw this person hurling herself against history, and against all her own limitations.

Even with all these stories of people who lived much of their lives before you were born, your book still looks much like what you purposely strove against, which is family history. Do you still see it as limiting?

Well, I think the limitation isn’t in the form. It’s in how it’s been practiced. And I don’t think it’s so much a limitation as a dereliction of duty. It’s much more a case of people, in my mind, who want to have it both ways, who want the power of saying, “This is true,” without the responsibility of truth.

One of the things I find in a lot of memoir, especially when it’s written by people who are relatively young, is that they tend to sort of view their parents solely through the lens of being a parent. They are somehow wrenched loose from whatever the social or historical context of their life is. All through the process of working on this book, I was paying attention to everything that was going on in the world around my mother and her family and looking for the places where it intersected with her lived life, and her parents’ lived lives.

Was there anything you learned about your mother that disappointed you?

It was painful to see how much my mother leaned on her beauty, how much she needed constant affirmation of her allure, and how that went directly into her tragic decision not to have a mastectomy.

Did you write this book to make amends with your mother?

Absolutely. I felt that I had lost the right to consider myself her son. I had to do some kind of atonement, some kind of penance, to earn back my son-ness. I was very close to her when she was alive and I was living at home. Paradoxically, because we shared a lot—a love of books and writing, especially—I felt it imperative somehow to put distance between us when I went to college. But the day she came to visit me and I made her sit on the other side of the room in one of my classes has haunted me ever since. As did my failure to visit her grave for almost 30 years. It took this book to exorcise those feelings. Doing this book was a very long process of al chayt, the confession of sins.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

Just like the other person said. Get rid of the spammage!

Great write-up! I’m all hard. The article is absolutely helpful for me. Reading the article would make me pleased. At duration, I will be able to learn considerably more knowledge. Thanks a lot.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Fierce Detachment

Samuel G. Freedman wrestles with how to write about his mother, and ends up doing some kind of penance.

More on Tablet:

Rediscovering the First Woman Rabbi

By Laura Geller — Ordained in 1935, Regina Jonas died at Auschwitz. Now, she’s being honored.