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  Helen Schulman

As a child growing up, I shared my bedroom with my grandmother, and so the tragedies of this century were not an ocean and a generation away, but rather a twin bed away, across the floorboards. My grandmother had lost a mother to cholera, a home and a brother to the Russian army, and four brothers and sisters to the crematorium in Nazi death camps. The fear, separation anxiety and heavy sadness that plagued me throughout my childhood and into my adulthood was not so much earned but learned; it was inherited. As a second generation American Jew, the Holocaust for me was both a history lesson and an almost silent, ever-present companion. It cast its shadow in many inobvious and inescapable ways.

Several years ago, I came upon an article about a Holocaust denier who, in his efforts to prove once and for all that the Holocaust had not taken place, had instead ended up proving the opposite, irrefutable (whatever that means), "scientifically." This fascinated me. I was both drawn to and repelled by the idea of Holocaust denial in the first place--why? I wondered, and then: how dare they. The idea that someone could embrace such lies outraged me, and this guy's retreat from these lies intrigued me somehow even more. I then set out to read as much as I could about Holocaust denial in general. I was amazed at the sheer volume of pseudo-scientific writing (and video) that I came across, and I was frightened by the extended reach of the "movement." It was from this fear, and this fascination, and from the debt that I owed my grandmother and my family, now dead, to bear witness for them, that led me to write The Revisionist. It was my own preoccupation with the lies my own life was built around, about the ways in which many of us both willingly and unwittingly revise our own personal histories, that led to my main character, David Hershleder. It was my own struggle with assimilation, and with inter-marriage, that brought Hershleder's marriage to the forefront of this book. Finally, because I spent two years (while in grad school) supporting myself as a research assistant to a neurologist at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, because after those two years--especially when the writing life seemed particularly bleak--I often asked myself why I didn't pursue neurology as a profession, I decided to act out some of this fantasy on my poor protagonist, once again, doing what writers often do, letting my character live for me.

Recently, when I was trying to summarize my book for a curious friend, she ended up doing the job for me. "Oh," she said, "your book is like The Wizard of Oz. A man goes on a long, involved, strange and oddly magical journey to find some guy with all the answers, but the guy ends up having none of the answers, and your guy finds his truth in his own backyard."

"Hunh?" I said. But in essence she was right. My guy, a nerdy Jewish neurologist on the cusp of turning forty, is thrown out of his home by his shiksa wife. Still he loves her. He loves his children. But some important essential something, the piece of him that should know how to share his life, to share his heart, is dead, or perhaps it was never developed in the first place. In order to avoid the crushing weight of his loss, in order to keep busy, he embarks on a research project involving a Holocaust denier. My guy is the son of a survivor, the son of a mother whose grief cast a paralyzing spell over his life, so his interest in Holocaust denial makes a perverse sense. He becomes more and more obsessed with this denier and so he hunts the denier down, taking a bizarre (and hopefully humorous) journey to find him. Eventually my guy finds and confronts the revisionist, but only truly confronts himself, exploding the lies which he has constructed and built his own life around--his own form of revisionism--when he opens himself up to a woman, a girlfriend from his youth. Only when he faces the truth, by facing his roots, can he go back and truly offer himself to the woman he loves as a real husband.

I don't know of any other black-comedies about neurologists obsessed with Holocaust deniers. In an odd way, at its heart, I see this as a love story.



 
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Copyright © 1997 Helen Schulman.

Photo of Helen Schulman copyright © Walter Smith.