By Andrea Peirce
As with many European Jews in New York City after World War II, the family of veteran arts journalist Helen Epstein was able to move into progressively more comfortable apartments as the years rolled by. In her new book, The Long Half Lives of Love and Trauma, whose official publication date is this Monday, Epstein describes settling into one of the larger places – at 170 West 73rd Street – in 1958, when she was 10 years old. It was while living here that she experienced her first adolescent love, with a boy named Robbie.
“Our Manhattan neighborhood was dangerous by the standards of that time,” she writes, “home to bums, junkies and the teen-age gangs dramatized in West Side Story.” But it was also “where the most interesting writers and artists lived… Poor Puerto Rican and Irish families lived in brownstones on the side streets. Rich people lived on Riverside Drive and Central Park West, in stately buildings with names instead of numbers — The Majestic, The San Remo, The Dakota.”
The Epstein’s 10th floor apartment overlooked Needle Park, now known as Verdi Square. The author describes arriving home from PS 87 and then Hunter College High School to her mother – a dressmaker and Auschwitz concentration camp survivor – conducting fittings in her light-filled salon: Frances Epstein, Inc. Many of the women came from the vibrant and tight-knit Czech immigrant community in the neighborhood, which is now gone.
Epstein has written extensively about intergenerational transmission of trauma. In the first book of this trilogy, titled Children of the Holocaust, she interviewed hundreds of men and women “possessed by a history they had never lived.” In Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s History, she recounts the pre-war history of her mother and her family.
With the current book, Epstein initially sets out to write a memoir of her young love. It was to be a more directly intimate and personal story than the previous books. But instead of a simple journey back in time, Epstein finds herself grappling with intrusive memories of being molested by her nanny’s husband, Ivan. This broadcaster for Radio Free Europe was her “self-appointed grandfather” – and her mother’s lover.
Ivan had “chased me into corners, taken photos of me, kissed me with wet lips.” she recalls. “But sexually abused me? I didn’t want to even consider it.”
And yet. Epstein describes struggling to bring the past into focus. Did the abuse she’s remembering occur at the apartment on Needle Park, for example, or in the one before it, at 50 West 67th Street? She embarks on seven years of psychoanalysis to help sort fact from fiction.
She also gets help in reconstructing the past from her teenage love, Robbie. He had often been at the apartment for Monday night dinners to escape family tumult in his home on Central Park West, where his father lived, in a “building [that] was so full of important Communists that it was called ‘the Kremlin.’” (Epstein identifies it as 444 Central Park West).
There had been hundreds of families like his on the West Side, Robbie reminds Epstein. “They had lived in my building. They had been in my classes at school. Had I never heard of the Rosenberg trial?”
It wasn’t just what happened indoors, but out on the streets, that shaped Epstein’s experiences growing up. In a recent conversation, she notes that the #MeToo movement is making public the experiences of many West Side girls who were familiar with sexual assault on public transportation – being groped, flashed, masturbated on – in the daily back and forth from school.
Few told parents or complained to teachers. When Epstein did mention incidents to her mother, her mother minimized them.
The Long Half Lives of Love and Trauma took Epstein 15 years to write. Towards the end of psychoanalysis, she makes some peace with the insights that she’s acquired. Surviving the war was “understood to give my parents and their friends a blank check for behavior,” she reflects. Her mother never acknowledged a suicidal episode, for example, nor her father his sudden rages. And hazy memories of sexual abuse remain.
“Do I excuse her?” Epstein asks of her mother towards the end of her book. “No. But I understand her.”