Surviving my mother: A mostly true memoir

The writer tells her story as if she were a golem, a mysterious creature of Jewish myth

Topics: Golem, Memoir, Books, Writers and Writing, Judaism, Jewish, Brooklyn, relationships,

Surviving my mother: A mostly true memoir
Excerpted from "Growing Up Golem."

“Growing Up Golem: Learning to Survive My Mother, Brooklyn, and Some Really Bad Dates” is a memoir of Donna Minkowitz’s real life, but written as though she were a golem — a magical clay servant-creature out of Jewish legend. Frustrated by the debate over James Frey and inaccuracies in memoir, Minkowitz decided to write one that was “87% true,” with the remaining 13 percent, material that could not possibly be true because it was physically impossible. For example, the assertion that she is a golem created by her mother — a wildly domineering person who did, in fact, in real life tell Minkowitz and her sisters that she could do powerful Jewish magic.

My mother loved to make things. One day, when I was thirty-two, my mother created a giant, half-lifesize doll that looked just like me. (This, reader, is absolutely true.) It had yarn hair the same color and kink as mine, and real corduroy pants just like the ones I wear. My mother called it the Dyke Donna doll. (Mom was very pro-gay and lesbian, so she always felt very happy using words like “dyke.”) The doll wore a stripey red shirt like a circus performer, along with real, removable, bright red booties made of felt, and extravagantly long curling eyelashes that my mother drew in by hand, quite lovingly. It had big red apple blush-marks on its cheeks, like Pinocchio as I have always seen him drawn. It stood a discomfiting three feet tall (I myself am only five feet two). My mother gave it to me as her gift, to keep in my tiny apartment. I had to keep it under my bed because I couldn’t bear to see it sitting in my chair. But I felt like I was hiding a child away there, without food or anyone to talk to.

A few years after the Dyke Donna doll appeared, my arms broke. (This, also, is true.) I don’t mean that their bones broke — I’ve never had a broken bone — but that my arms’ capacity as limbs, their functionality, coherence, suddenly ended. It was as though my hands had simply stopped being hands. They began to hurt so badly that I didn’t want to do anything with them, because that only made them hurt more.



It hurt, that March it started, in my upper back, shoulders, forearms, wrists, hands and neck. Sometimes even my head, by means of a process I couldn’t begin to comprehend. Sometimes it burned, as though hot metal were in my shoulders. The hands were the worst, with knives sticking in the palms. I had a sensation of spears through the wrists. Had I suddenly become a Christian martyr? But the pain wasn’t even agreeably sexual, as it might have been if I’d turned into Saint Sebastian. It was impossible to aestheticize it without – begging your pardon- throwing up. The backs of my hands felt as though they were being repeatedly forced to move through a basin full of tiny, crushed metal balls, like in some Star Trek punishment from a newly-contacted planet.

My first book had come out — to poor sales, although my editor had said the book would make me “the next Susan Faludi.” Right before that, my therapist had dumped me after 12 years. “I’ve just realized that this isn’t working,” she said. Before that I’d left the Village Voice, my sole and tightly-gripped foothold in the writing world, because they had promised to make me an official, salaried staff writer and had gone back on it. (This was the good Village Voice of years ago, reader – pardon me for saying so! – not the current one.) Me, I had slipped into the Voice at the age of twenty-two and snuck, wormed, even stolen my way into writing for them. Why else would the paper I believed in more than any other publication in the country publish me? I wasn’t a real person, and I knew it. I have always been a makeshift, artificial person, like a scary manikin or a ventriloquist’s dummy, and I have always known I would be found out someday and punished for my evil dissimulation.

I have known I was a magical being, hand-crafted rather than born, from my earliest days. I’m not sure when I first found out, but it goes back at least to the time my mother, when I was four, began telling me and my sisters that she herself could perform magic, could make us do whatever she wanted to, like puppets. She also could tell whatever we were thinking.

My great-grandmother, a Romanian Jew, knew the “gypsy signs” that could tell you what was about to happen — say, by looking at a frozen tree or a dead animal found by the river, and other potent pagan peasant magics that she taught my mother. My great-grandfather, a Jew from Austria, taught my mom wild Hasidic magics that he’d quietly mined from kabbalah and Martin Buber.

My mother was an extraordinarily — at times revoltingly — creative person, so it was no great stretch to believe she had shaped me like a golem or a living toy, embedded with unnatural life-force like a hobgoblin conjured from a stale half-brownie and a brittle, faded page or two of Keats or Shelley.

Have you ever heard of golems? Oh goyische or unmystical, read here: golems are artificial persons that learned sixteenth century rabbis made out of wet clay, to do everything their makers told them to, and to attack the people who were lynching Jews all over Eastern Europe. They were all eventually snuffed out by their creators, except me. I survived my mother.

My mother added a few special items to the clay that she’d begun with, no doubt because she wanted to be fancy. I had polyurethane in me, I was sure, and psychically potent bits of tin and panty and old paper that she’d discovered at garage sales and a vintage store. Some paint-encrusted nails, chipped tiny screws. Dirty rags that she did not wash, so that their previous owners’ human perfumes might waft through me and provide a power of their own. A few crumbs of wet muffin. I have tried for years to find out exactly what she assembled on her kitchen floor before she said that ridiculous mix of Hebrew and Coptic words. Even now, almost everything I’ve said is guesswork. (Did she cut her fingernails at least to make some protein and collagen to go into me??)

It was the 1960s, generally too early for cybernetics, but my mother was a brilliant woman, and she may have put an early self-aware chip in me.

Golems (and robots) are but two species of our kind, of course. Certain rocks and springs have been galvanized (for eons) with a painful awareness, and there are young girls (and boys) imprisoned in eleven-inch Barbie dolls, living spirits imprisoned in bottle caps, baseball and tarot cards smarting and throbbing inside locked-up collections. Puppets and toys created far, far realer than they should be. Trees twisted with the force of something alien inside them. We are all over the world, we half-human sad, impregnated, lonely things, sung into life by magicians and pallid Hasids and evil PhDs who wanted to try and see — just try and see! they had wild hopes — if they could reproduce themselves without a partner.

The alchemists made their own little people out of chicken eggs mixed with human blood or sperm, bits of skin, occasionally animal hair or feathers. Sometimes dung (for who has not wished, at least once in their lives, to create a world out of their dung?) Other makers formed their creatures out of wood, or straw, or plastic that was enchanted so that it could think on its own, walk about, and have wishes.

I was one of these subtly manufactured little persons, one that canny old artist my mother had made, and I found her work in the stool-like shaping of myself — oh mother, forgive me! — disgusting.

Excerpted from “Growing Up Golem: How I survived my mother, Brooklyn and some really bad dates” by Donna Minkowitz. Copyright 2013. Riverdale Avenue Books. All Rights Reserved.

Donna Minkowitz is the author of the memoir "Growing Up Golem: How I Survived My Mother, Brooklyn, and Some Really Bad Dates."

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...