Sunday, 10 November 2013

Growing Up Golem by Donna Minkowitz

In the tradition of Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Donna Minkowitz’s Growing Up Golem is a sharply funny memoir about growing up inspired by the Jewish legend of the golem. The author's mother told Minkowitz that she could do Jewish magic and, growing up, Minkowitz completely believed her. Her mother, an unusually domineering figure, exerted even more sway over Minkowitz than mothers typically do over their children, so it is the "magical realist" premise of the book that instead of giving birth to her, her mother actually created Minkowitz as her own personal golem, a little automaton made of clay.

In the book, Minkowitz struggles to control her own life as an adult, even as she publicly appears to be a radical, take-no-prisoners lesbian journalist. In her career, dating, and especially with her own eccentric family, Minkowitz finds herself compelled to do what other people want, to horrible and hilarious effect. In sex, for example, she often feels like "a giant robot dildo."

Matters come to a head when a disabling arm injury renders her almost helpless (and permanently unable to use a computer). She must find a way to work, find people who love her, and stand up for her own desires—against the bossing she's always tolerated from girlfriends, mother, and every other single person—before her injury gets even worse.

When I saw this book I was fascinated by the idea of the magic realist memoir - the idea of combining magic realism and non-fiction. I was interested to see how the author managed it and whether it did seem arch. The answer, dear reader, is that it works brilliantly.

The author's mother appears to have been the Jewish mother from hell, manipulative, demanding, and egotistical. Add to that an abusive father, whose response to the taunting of his wife was to beat the daughter, and it is no surprise that psychological damage was done to their daughters and to Donna specifically.  This damage is portrayed through the image of the Golem.

The Golem of Jewish tradition are artificial persons that learned sixteenth century rabbis made out of wet clay to do everything their makers told them to. Their masters could destroy them by the erasing of just one letter in a word.

Throughout the book the author portrays herself ( and her sisters) as golems: I have known I was a magical being, handcrafted 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 at magic, could make us do anything she wanted, like puppets. 

Like the golem of old she feels bound to obey her mother and the other women (and occasional men) who enter her life.  She is unable to say no.  In addition golems are bred for self-disgust and a permanent discipline and this leads her into other abusive relationships. Some of these relationships are sexual (a number of lesbian affairs are described in some detail), but other non-sexual relationships are also abusive, including sadly with therapists who are supposed to be helping Donna.

This could be heavy stuff but for the way the author delivers her story, using magic realism and wry humour, indeed this book it is at times laugh-out-loud funny. The magic realism both explains and puts an emotional distance between the reader and the subject matter.  Ironically that detachment reflects the author's own psychology: a golem cannot feel.

How do you break a golem spell?
It is not easy, my dear puppet and acolyte.
The only way there is, is feeling pain.

The pain that breaks the spell for Donna Minkowitz is that of RSI, a particularly debilitating illness if you are a writer. The pain forces her to look after herself, to protect her arms, and in so doing refuse her mother and others.  The story is therefore one of healing, for just as her arms slowly heal so the author heals her psyche and sheds her golem identity.  As it happens I am writing this blog and my current book using voice recognition software because I too have developed RSI.  I cannot imagine what it must have been like for her coping with severe RSI over several years.  It seems an awful lot of pain to go through to break an evil spell. But to Minkowitz it all seems to have been worthwhile: I felt feelings from the tips of my toes to the top of my head. My head felt effervescent, as though a flowery beer had been poured into it and my hair was curling up from the blood vessels in my scalp to the tips of my curls. 

 I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review .

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