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Jewish World Review June 16, 1999 / 2 Tamuz, 5759

Robert Leiter

A memoir to remember

ACCORDING TO LITERARY trend spotters, we are now in the age of the memoir. Everyone seems to want to try his hand at it, and publishers have responded in the way they usually respond to such developments - they have flooded the market with titles, hoping to strike gold. The results have not been felicitous.

In this mass of titles, we have heard about every type of parental abuse and sexual kinkiness known to the human race, and though some critics have praised these works as courageous and groundbreaking, others believe they have cheapened the genre and fear that the trend will continue indefinitely.

That is why the publication of City of One by Francine Cournos seems such a high point in recent publishing. Though it tells a sad, sad tale, it is truly a story of triumph, executed with a level of artistry that seems to have escaped so many other recent memoirists.

In its barest outline, City of One, recently published by Norton, tells of how the author, born in the 1940s in the South Bronx, first lost her father from a cerebral hemorrhage when she was 3 years old, and then her mother, after a long battle with breast cancer, when Cournos was just 11.

Econophone For two years after her mother's death, she and her sister continued to live with their grandmother, who, approaching senility, took care of them until she could manage it no longer.

"Then my mother's siblings placed my younger sister and me together in foster care," the author writes. "I was 13, my sister was 9."

The emotional power of the story Cournos tells is evident from this brief synopsis, but the author never lets the tale tip into bathos. Aside from the quality of Cournos' prose, which is very high, the author's depiction of the world of childhood reasoning about the tragic events of her life is also filled with startling insights.

A typical example of her method comes when Cournos tells about being sent away to camp at a time when her mother was still alive. The child flourishes during the experience. She learns to laugh and sing and put on shows, just like all the other kids, and even learns to enjoy being away from her mother, to whom she feels forever bound. But towards the end of the three-week period, she begins to worry about whether her mother will meet her at the bus stop or whether she'll be too ill.

"And still later," she writes, "I'd wonder if it was during some moment in the summer when I allowed time to pass without thinking about Mom, let my need for her lapse, that I created the opening through which she slipped and forever disappeared."

Cournos tells us that she was driven all her life by "a powerful delusion." She believed that she had caused all the terrible things that had happened in her family - that she was somehow a damaged individual who no one could love - and that her mission was to set things right again. She eventually entered medical school, she tells us, not because the degree would transform her from "an indigent foster child into a respectable member of the upper middle class." Nor was she motivated over concerns about how she would make a living. Rather she was "absorbed in a fight against death, and especially against the death of [her] mother."

But even when Cournos gained the mastery she sought through medicine, she soon discovered that her competency held nothing against the force of death. One day, she is faced with a woman exactly her mother's age who is dying of the same disease, and she realizes that she can do nothing to stop it.

"No patient came closer than this one: dying just like my mother. Breast cancer diffusely metastatic to her lungs, leaving behind a 15-year-old son. My sister will take care of my son, my patient told me. I'd been giving her intravenous Demerol - too much and too often, I feared - but that was the only thing that calmed her. She was suffocating to death - just like my mother. The cancer was everywhere in her lungs."

Cournos stays with her for 48 hours but when it is time to be relieved she hesitates, thinking she should stay till the end and ease this woman's passage, but instead she leaves, realizing that there was no chance to save her, only the chance to help her die.

The experience throws her into a crisis, making her believe that she has nothing to offer the medical profession.

"It was confusing to try to save people who wanted to die," she writes, "and distressing to fail to save people who wanted to live. And with patients in the chronic stages of illness, when living and dying were not at stake, I found myself more strongly drawn to their unique stories than to the repetitive patterns of their disease."

This comes as a discovery for her, a glimpse of some new way to handle her troubling past: the possibility of discussing the frightening feelings her mother and she had so willfully avoided. That is when Cournos decides to switch to psychiatry, and in doing so her professional life takes on purpose again.

Cournos eventually marries a wonderful, trusting man, and they have a child together, a daughter. But the author, feeling damaged still, is unable to accept plain, everyday happiness. After her daughter's birth she falls into a deep depression. It lifts at last, without the use of medication, and though she counts it as a life-changing experience, she still has trouble believing that she deserves happiness. She goes into therapy, struggles with her miseries, and somehow this time -- to her immense surprise -- she wins.

City of One may be a book about triumph but it isn't one of those saccharine tales we've grown used to in this age of feel good literature. Cournos looks deeply into herself, confronts her demons and comes out the better for it. She still considers life a struggle, but the rewards are plentiful and she can now accept them without guilt.

"I once imagined that the ordinary would be boring," the author writes, "or at least a kind of defeat, a failure to reclaim the most desirable but now lost original, a second-best alternative accepted only because it is realistic and possible.

But the ordinary turns out to be wonderful, even magical. It is integrating the past, the pain and losses of childhood, with a present marked by the successes of adult life. It is living in a world that is solid, and not about to fall apart. It is a feeling of repair and inner peace, the end of a tortuous route from the comfort of my first home as a small child, through the years of unraveling and destruction, to the creation of a second secure base, established after great effort and with considerable help from others. Although it once seemed unlikely, it has happened. I have found my way home."

JWR contributor Robert Leiter is Literary Editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.


© 1999 Robert Leiter