Ignoring the Elephant – Ellen Ullman’s Jewish Question

17 08 2013

I’m going to talk here about Ellen Ullman’s By Blood.  If you haven’t read it, you should stop right here, because I’m going to raise some reflections that could spoil the experience of discovering this book for yourself. 

If, however, you’ve read it, or know that you won’t be reading it, than feel free to keep going.

So, now that it’s just us, I want to share some thoughts.  By Blood deals, with many things, (San Francisco in the 70’s, the Lesbian community, psychoanalysis, to name a few), but at heart, I think it’s about the problem of identity.  Living as we are in these post-modern times, our identity need not be imposed on us by others.  On the contrary, we enjoy a stunning freedom and legitimacy to define ourselves, regardless of where or to whom we are born.  We can each, at least in theory, declare who we are, and the world will accept it.  You’re gay?  No problem.  You want to be a Zen Buddist?  Totally fine.  You want to change your sex?  Also fine.  Change your religion?  We can respect that. You’re a guy and you want to be a kindergarten teacher, or you’re a woman and you want to be a construction worker?  Not an issue. Tell us who you are, and we will admire the you that you’ve created.


The problem arises when, in spite of your bold, iconoclastic, unapologetic work of self-definition, you begin to wonder about the part of yourself that cannot be altered.  You cannot shake the sense that there is a certain aspect to who you are which is indelibly written on your genes.  Or as Ellen Ullman might say, in your blood. 

By Blood involves three main characters: A psychotherapist, her patient – a young woman exploring the meaning of her being adopted, and the narrator who eavesdrops on their sessions.   The narrator, who has himself broken with his family and re-invented himself, is enraptured by the notion that as an adoptee, the patient is free to re-invent herself, unencumbered by  any knowledge about her biological parents.  “Mysterious origins” is the way she defines her cryptic beginnings, and the narrator is eager to listen in on the way she might explore and affirm this notion.  “How I wished she could see herself as made from whole cloth- as the self-created creature I’d hoped to follow into my own release from ancestry,” he explains.

But for the patient, it’s the not knowing that has become a burden.  She can no longer bear to be a blank slate.  She longs for the unassailable decree of ancestry, of blood-ties, of an irrefutable identity that is imposed on one’s consciousness.  And so, unlike most psychotherapy cases, the journey this patient makes is not toward liberation and transcendence, but into the difficult, messy, confining truth of genetic fact.  She is seeking not the light, but the darkness.  Not ease, but struggle.  

This woman, whose adoption bequeathed her a simple, uncomplicated existence, has chosen to exchange a comfortable fiction for a far more complex truth.  And that truth is not what she bargained for. For, in the course of the book’s remarkable narrative, it transpires that she is not a protestant, the fortunate child of American Wasps.  Rather, she is a Jew, conceived in a concentration camp, the unwitting bearer of a legacy of – of what?  What does it mean to find out that you are a Jew?  What does it mean to find yourself written into a chapter of their outrageous, turbulent history?  Where does one even begin to deal with that?

All of these might be interesting questions, but the author of By Blood has not chosen to explore them.  Naturally, I was curious about this.  To come so close to these issues and then to drop them is, in my opinion, an unusual authorial choice, a sort of ignoring the elephant one has brought into the living room.  Not surprisingly, I wanted very much to know more about Ellen Ullman.  After some internet research, I came to the conclusion that these questions are simply not the focus of her writing.  Though she is obviously knowledgeable about Jewish history and impressed with the phenomenon of Jewish resilience, she isn’t particularly interested in exploring the implications of discovering that one might partake of them.  It is, after all, the narrator’s story, and she artfully cuts if off in a way that is right for this work. 

Nonetheless, perhaps because of this omission, this willful decision to steer clear, it is these questions, more than any of the others that the book presents, that have stayed with me.










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