How should we confront the past? How should we think about our personal, familial or cultural histories, particularly their darkest moments? As I see it, the way each individual deals with history is unique, but falls along a spectrum. On one end, we have people who would rather not think about these matters. In talking about bygone loss, grief, or victimization, we make that pain present again. Why reopen old wounds? We should learn to let go, actualize the selves we want to be, in this moment, free.
On the other end, we have individuals who say the truth of our experiences lies in our memories and the memories of those who came before us. So what if these stories are painful; we cannot hide from them, nor outrun them, and if we try, these stories will make themselves known and felt anyway, rising in our minds and bodies in ever more unpleasant ways. We remember and recall for our salvation. We tell the stories so they don’t tell us.
I think it’s safe to say that the Jews of the world overlap more with this latter category than the former. Every Passover, we tell the same thousands-of-years-old story of Jewish enslavement. We think about this story for a week, every spring. Every fall, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we meditate on our sins and the sins of others for another week. There are at least two Holocaust remembrance days annually. The rallying cry of Never Forget.
Forged in the fire of these cultural mnemonics, with four grandparents who lost their families and/or homes in the Holocaust, a mother born in a displaced persons camp, remembering history became, for me, an exercise in paradox. I was an American girl raised in the suburbs with all the world’s privileges, but I was called to remember, over and over, all the violent and heartbreaking losses my tribe had suffered again and again throughout history. Over and over, again and again. It begets a kind of mental vertigo, like an extreme sport of the soul.
When I was 20 years old and considering my senior honors thesis, my mother gave me the transcript of her mother’s interview with a Holocaust historian. This tragic gift gave back.It inspired my undergraduate thesis, my MFA thesis and then my first book.Flying Couch tells my grandmother’s survival story and the story of what came after: the anxious, banal, funny, maddening and uplifting moments of a family life in the shadow of such drama. It also became the memorial my mom had hoped for, a source of healing that completely surprised her.
As I revisited history, it didn’t occur to me that I might be the one prompting my mother toward deeper reflection on past events. Perhaps she’d been closer to that first end of the spectrum than I’d realized, and there I was: 20, 24, 28 years old and brazen, asking her to remember, over and over, again and again. Her relationship to the project wasdoubleedged: unwavering in her support, but some days, especially during the later promotional phases of my tour, eager to get it over with.
My mother arrived in America in the 1950s, when many immigrants assimilated and worked toward middle-class lives. In my millennial America, we shout our myriad identities from our variegated rooftops. My mother didn’t share the specifics of her cultural identity with peers, she didn’t tell her family’s story to most people, and while I knew there were times in her life when thinking about her parents’ experiences was necessary for her, she’s not the one who wanted to write a book about it.
And now that Flying Couch is written, I understand her mixed emotions. I understand wanting something to happen but wanting it to be over. As for that spectrum I mentioned, I think each of us slides across it and back, over and over, again and again, throughout our lives. We tell the past so it won’t tell us, and once we’ve told it, we can move on for a little while, until we need to tell it again.
My mother recently spoke with me at my hometown library in Newton, MA, sharing, publically for the first time, her personal relationship to our family’s past, how she’s healed from history and the role my book has played in that process. You can read a version of her speech below.Imagine me hearing her words, ten years after starting this project, grateful to remember: it was worth it.
Sonya Kurzweil, Ph.D.
In Flying Couch, aptly named for a journey of discovery embarked upon from a place of safety, comfort, and support, my daughter Amy tells a story about our family. This story is about herself, the artist; me, the psychologist; and my mom, the survivor. It’s an American story. It’s a World War II Story. It’s a Holocaust story. It’s a story about refugees, immigration, trauma, adversity and resilience. Flying Couch is also a story about coming of age and what I call “coming of identity.” In Amy’s case, she comes to her identity as a serious female artist. And as it turns out, Flying Couch prompted a healing process which resulted in an evolution of my identity as well.
Sonya Kurzweil, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice working with women, children, parents, and families. She has faculty appointments at Harvard Medical School and William James College for Graduate Education in Psychology and is an Overseer at Boston Children's Museum. Her research articles have been published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, Infant Behavior and Development, and the American Journal of Psychotherapy. With her daughter, she has co-authored a book of poetry for children entitled Forever Poems for Now and Then. She lives and practices in Newton, MA.
Amy Kurzweil is the author of the debut graphic novel Flying Couch (Catapult/Black Balloon, 2016), which received a Kirkus star and is a Junior Library Guild pick. Her comics appear in The New Yorker and other publications. Her short stories have appeared in The Toast, Washington Square Review, Hobart, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. She teaches writing and comics at Parsons School of Design and at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Amy lives in Brooklyn.