Rachel Yehuda, a Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Mount Sinai New York, is the Director of Traumatic Stress Studies Division and studies epigenetics, looking not just at the effects that trauma can have on an individual but how the impact of trauma reverberates through the bloodline of that individual. Early in her career, she found that ‘gene changes in the children’ and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors ‘could only be attributed to exposure in the parents’ to trauma, to hunger, to persecution, to torture. In an interview with David Samuels she points out that ‘you’re three times more likely to respond to a traumatic circumstance by getting PTSD if your parent had it’. It is thought that 30% of children whose parents have served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. However, for Yehuda, as Samuels so eloquently puts it, a traumatic event often ‘switches on’ resilience itself. Yehuda believes in the ability of the individual to respond positively to the legacy of trauma they are left; in the Jewish community she saw an ‘overwhelming response of “I’m going to make sure this doesn’t happen again”’ in those she studied. Her interviewer asks whether culture itself could be the ‘bearer of trauma’ – a remark that so aptly describes Miriam Toews newest book, ‘All My Puny Sorrows’. Toews novels all contain echoes of the trauma she has endured during her life, yet they are also her attempt to work that legacy into something brighter, something beautiful, something that makes culture from trauma.
Toews grew up with a father who had suffered from manic depression for most of his life and who committed suicide when his daughters were only teenagers. Her older sister, Marjorie, committed suicide in 2010. ‘All My Puny Sorrows’ which takes its name from a poem by Samuel Coleridge, explores the relationship between two sisters who have grown up in the Mennonite community in Canada as Toews did, their grandparents having fled from Russia during the revolution. Yolandi, the younger sister, asks a friend, ‘Do you think you’re still suffering from your grandparents being massacred in Russia?’ Toews’ narrator, witty and indefatigable, is obsessed with epigenetics, having, like Toews herself, lost her father to suicide and her older sister to manic depression and multiple suicide attempts. She says ‘I googled “suicide gene” but cancelled the search at the last second. I didn’t want to know. Plus, I already knew’. Whilst Yolandi is constantly self-deprecating, citing her multiple divorces, her chaotic life with teenage children and her ability to write only ‘rodeo books’ and not literary fictions as evidence for her inferiority to her older sister, Elfrieda is beautiful, charismatic, brilliant, a concert pianist with a loving husband and a large circle of highly accomplished friends. Yet, although Yoli can’t understand why it is so, it is Elfrieda who suffers from depression.
Elfrieda’s playing contains a ‘private pain … unknowable … there were no words’. But all both Yolandi and Toews herself have left are words. And Toews has found the words not only to describe ‘the way patients are treated, infantilized’ in the Canadian mental health system (Toews said recently ‘I didn’t want this to be an ‘issue book’ but in a way it became that too’). Elfrieda is treated like a disobedient child when she is starving herself to death, deprived even of the many rings she usually wears on her fingers. Toews has found words which have prompted the Mennonite community (as well as Canadian society as a whole) to ask questions of themselves. Toews has been approached by many after the publication of her latest novel: ‘funnily enough, even some conservative Mennonites have been supportive. They have said ‘Ok, this is harsh, but we have to look at these things if we want to keep young people in our communities’. And Toews has found the words to create something beautiful. The Los Angeles Times states ‘Toews takes her place alongside Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood and Mordicai Richler as the loveliest quintet of Canadian writing’. It is high praise indeed, but it is also highly deserved.
This novel is not only beautifully written, a simplicity, unaffectedness to Toew’s prose, a stripped-back quality that avoids sentimentality – Elfrieda says she contains a glass piano within her; a child laughs and she hears ‘the sound of glass shattering and I clutched my stomach thinking, oh no, this is it’ – and it is not only the ‘knife-in-the-heart devastating’ Yoli speaks of. It is not only a tragedy, but a tragicomedy, often laugh-out-loud funny. Yoli’s narration makes it so. Toews never shies away from the darkness in Yoli’s life; one moment I was laughing at Yoli’s musings over her latest ‘social failure’ and then in the next the narrator was describing bluntly Elfrieda’s latest attempt to kill herself, how she drunk bleach and slit her wrists. Toews wanted ‘people not to be afraid of the subject matter, to get the tone right, right off the top, and to get the readers’ trust, so we could come out together in some other less dark place’. In order to do so, she has achieved an uneasy balance between the – at points almost unbearable -sadness of her narrator and her irrepressible wit.
Ultimately, Toews has found the words to work her own tragedy into ‘something that makes sense to me … Yes, there were serious issues and there was a tragedy but there was a lot of love, all the time’. Warmth permeates this novel. Yoli is surrounded by love as well as grief. From trauma is born the absolute knowledge that Yoli will never want for love – especially from Elf. She and Elf are ‘enemies who loved each other’, engaged in a battle where the outcome is either life or death. Elf begs her to take her to Switzerland and Yoli makes plans to take Elf home with her. Throughout the novel Yoli yearns for ‘true love’, not the love she has experienced with previous partners, but something deeper. Instead she finds it in the love she has for her family and for the women in her family in particular.
All Toews novels are concerned with the relationship between sisters and in families damaged by depression and marked by suicide and death. In ‘All My Puny Sorrows’, Yoli remembers how her maternal grandmother, Helena, lost six babies. Yoli ‘wondered how that worked, Helena’s grief’. Yoli’s mother and aunt have buried the rest of their siblings – her aunt, Tina, has also buried her own daughter. In ‘The Flying Troutmans’, the protagonist Hattie takes her nephew and purple-haired niece on a road trip when her older sister, Min, is lying in hospital wanting to die. In ‘Irma Voth’, a young Mennonite girl and her younger sister flee their abusive father and the weight of their older sister’s death at his hands to forge a new life in Mexico City. Toews writes her own relationship with her family and with her sister over and over and from the broken fragments of her life comes the beautiful completion of these novel. The rebuilding can begin. Yoli says ‘We’ve been here before. Everything is a repeat, another take’. ‘All My Puny Sorrows’ is yet another take for Toews; for her, as for Yoli, ‘writing helps organize the sadness’ and make it, as Yehuda might argue, the ‘bearer of trauma’ but also of joy. When life is ‘knife-in-the-heart devastating’, Toews asks how families can possibly hope to continue. Yoli continues, as Miriam Toews did, by writing and by loving.
Elfrieda is not her depression. She is her ‘intoxicating, razor-sharp self’. Yoli ‘wanted to sit next to her and feel the heat she radiates, the energy of a fearless leader, a girl who moved easily through the world, my sister’. She is the girl who hung 90 degrees over rushing water to climb around ‘the rock escarpments that hugged Lake Superior’ to see the ancient Aboriginal ochre paintings that can be found there. She is the girl who plays Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G Minor Opus 23 when the elders of the community, who had to be convinced to allow Elf a piano in the first place (a piano speaks of ‘saloons and speakeasies and unbridled joy’), visit their house, in a momentous act of subversion and rebellion. She is the girl who wishes she had been born in another time. She is the girl who reads Italo Calvino and is combative and argumentative. She is the woman who, even when she is starving and weak, performs a striptease to a Philip Larkin poem to drive a bishop from her hospital room. Elf is like Mary Wollstonecraft, Yoli thinks, quoting Richard Holmes: ‘There was something I suppose like a wild waterfall in the headlong, broken, plunging quality of Mary’s life. I stood and gazed at it roaring through the streets of Paris, visible only to me’. Now it is visible to all, just as Toews extraordinary talent is.
For Yehuda, ‘the plasticity of our genes is a hopeful thing’ and ‘All My Puny Sorrows’ ends with hope that although trauma might be carried in our genes, that the ‘suicide gene’ might persist, so does love.
An interview with Rachel Yehuda: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/187555/trauma-genes-q-a-rachel-yehuda
About Rachel Yehuda: http://www.mountsinai.org/profiles/rachel-yehuda
Miriam Toews in The Guardian