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Lit Hub: Writing a Memoir Taught Me How to See My Mother

Until I was five years old, my mother and I lived with her parents in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

We never talked about my father. We never said his name, which meant that we never said my full name, Sherry Zimmerman. I first saw my full name written out in an inscription in a children’s alphabet book hidden away in a musty cupboard above my grandparents’ kitchen table. I didn’t recognize it, but I knew it was mine.

My mother remarried when I was five, and we settled into a new regime of pretend. We would say that her new husband, Milton Turkle, was my biological father, and their two children would be my birth siblings. She said it had to be this way for us to be “one happy family.”

In school, she explained, I had to sign my name Sherry Zimmerman, that was the law, but when I came home, I hid my books and became Turkle. My sister and brother and my parents’ friends could never hear the word Zimmerman. The members of my girl scout troop could never hear the word Zimmerman. When I was in Junior High School, Milton Turkle legally adopted me, and my name caught up with my lie.

Through all the secrets and secret-keeping, I loved my tall, beautiful mother, with her easy laugh and warm embrace. The woman who took me in her arms and promised she would love me forever. In that crucible of lies and love, I tried to understand why someone who cared about me so much could not see the damage she was causing. I resented her taking my father away. But my real suffering was the fear of being found out to be a Zimmerman. That was the ugly, shameful thing. I began to have fantasies that I was invisible, and I realized, even as a child, that these were wishes.

What could she be thinking? And why had everyone in our family gone along with her? I became the detective of my own life. I needed to understand how other people’s minds worked. I needed to learn empathy, not because I had been shown empathy but because I wanted to understand its absence.

I wrote a memoir that tried to put things in their place. The secret of my name was not my mother’s only secret. She developed cancer when I was nine and hid it from me. She thought that I would not go away to college if I knew, and she wanted me to have my dreams. But as I wrote, it became clear that I knew more than I had been given permission to know. Did I know my mother was dying? On the day a doctor let it slip, two weeks before she died, I registered shock but realized, too, that I was not surprised.

Over the years, I was given many clues that she was ill. They floated, not unconscious, just facts of life unwilling to be organized. A day when I was nine when my visiting grandparents waited anxiously by the phone. My mother’s inquiries to a scientifically-astute boyfriend about how to build a hand-held microphone when the spread of the cancer caused her to lose her voice (she told me it was a side effect of shingles) and said it was hard for her to project her voice in class. That she never went swimming although we spent summers at a seaside cottage at Rockaway Beach. She said it was to preserve her hairdo, professionally set, teased, and lacquered into place once a week. And then, when I knew the truth, all of these shards fell into place. In writing my memoir, the narrative arc of my mother’s struggle became clear and I saw how she drew me into denial for her sake because that is where she wanted us to live. I understood that we participated in this not-knowing together.

Writing this story brought me closer to her, with a deeper understanding of how she bent the truth to her purposes. I wrote about a hat my mother gave me when I was eight. “I made you something,” she announced. My mother did not make things—she did not sew, and for dinner might broil a steak or cook some spaghetti—so I was curious. She produced a white knitted cap, a kind of beret that at the time she called a “tam.” I thought I recognized the cap from Lamston, the five-and-dime store near my grandparents’ apartment. She said, “I knitted this for you.” I didn’t believe her. I was ashamed of doubting her. But I did. I held the tam in both my hands and didn’t know if I should say “thank you.”

Of course, even then, I knew that my mother lied about her age. She lied about her height, trying to be shorter and shorter on her driver’s license to feel more “feminine.” She joked openly about these “white lies.” And I understood that the lies we participated in together, the lies about my name and her second husband being my father, served a larger purpose even if I didn’t understand it. But I didn’t know what to make of this lie that seemed to serve no purpose.

Many years later, in graduate school, I read the psychologist David Shapiro who wrote about neurotic styles, the different ways people cope with what they can’t handle. When I read Shapiro, I thought of the tam, and I realized that my mother’s style of coping was “forgetting.” I remembered her hands behind her back, her conspiratorial smile. I thought that when my mother presented me with the cap, she felt as though she had knitted it, that when she saw the cap in the store, what was on her mind was the overwhelming truth of her love. My mother wanted to be a perfect mother. So she forgot the things that stood in the way of living up to what that might mean. Being a mother who knitted this cap perhaps made other things easier to bear.

But during the last stages of editing my memoir, I saw something new. My mother had bought the cap at the same time that she found out about having breast cancer. On that day, I think she wanted to reach out to me, realized that she never would, and bought the hat. And when it came time to give it to me, she made up a story that made her feel closer. By the time I wrote my memoir, I had been psychoanalyzed and had gone over the story of the white beret many times. It had always left me in a bitter place: My mother and her unnecessary untruths. But when I wrote The Empathy Diaries, I put my story on a timeline constructed parallel timelines for all the central characters in my life. When I saw my mother’s line next to my own, there they were together: the story of the cap and my mother’s cancer diagnosis. The lie I reproached her for and her effort to reach me across her decision to silence herself.

In researching and writing my memoir, I grew closer to my mother with new understandings about our secrets, her secrets.

After my mother’s death, I hired a detective to track down the father she didn’t want me to know. I discovered that he had been an avid Skinnerian. He told me that when I was a baby, he experimented on me while my mother was at work, for example, he left me in a dark room and would not come if I cried. One day, my mother came home unexpectedly and found him at his experiments. Horrified, she packed some shopping bags with diapers and clothes, called her sister in Brooklyn, and made arrangements to be picked up at a busy intersection. My mother told her parents and my aunt that she needed to divorce Charles Zimmerman because his angry demands for her to keep a strict kosher home were more than she could handle. My grandparents never questioned their daughter. If she wanted a divorce, there was a place for her and her child in their home. When I met Charles Zimmerman and he told me this story, I lost my fantasy of finding my long-idealized lost parent. But I found the truth of my mother, the truth that she hid. She had fled him to save me.

I acknowledged all this in my memoir. But after the book was published, I was struck, as never before, by how lonely she had been with the secret of my father’s experiments. Her guilt that she had exposed me to this. Her fear that his very presence in any form, could expose me to more. I added a paragraph to the acknowledgments in the paperback edition. In my addition to The Empathy Diaries, I say of my mother: “I imagine her dwelling on Charles Zimmerman as a threat to my future. Again, she thought of erasure. For me, a conversation would have meant the world, but I’ve learned to understand what she could not do. Empathy is not approval. Empathy is understanding her choices as she saw them.”

My memoir brought me a final insight, one that did not come from writing but from looking. And unlike the others, I did not take this journey alone, but with someone I trusted, my editor, Ginny Smith, at Penguin. We were going through what should have been the straightforward process of choosing and captioning the photographs for my book. For the chapter on my mother’s death, I had decided to use a photo of my mother and me that I have kept in my bedroom since she died. I always thought it was my “favorite.”

I am on a bicycle with training wheels. My mother is behind me, leaning over me, her hands on the handlebars. I sent the photograph to my editor, Ginny, and captioned it “A favorite photo. I’m with my mother in Rockaway, smiling.” When she saw the caption, Ginny gently pointed out that I might want to rethink it. She didn’t see a smiling girl. My reaction when I got her email was irritation. That photograph in that frame had been on my bedside table for over fifty years. This was impossible. Reluctantly, I looked at the picture. She was right.

The photograph was taken the summer that my mother had married Milton Turkle. My life was disrupted as this near-stranger moved into my Bonowitz world. It was probably my first day with Milton because the Schwinn bicycle with training wheels was his gift to me, to “start us off right.” And with his arrival came awful news: after being told to never speak my Zimmerman name, now I had had to pretend to be Sherry Turkle although this was not my name at all. On this day, my relationship with my mother was shaken.

But when she died and I began to mourn her, what was most important to me was to maintain my bond with her. The unconscious has its own desires. It created the specific myth about my closeness to my mother at this time in my life. This myth was so powerful that I could not see this photograph.

I always held that photo close to me. But “favorite” was not the right word. This photograph has been vital to me because it told the story of my unbroken idealized relationship with my mother. Ginny and I decided on this caption: “This captures my bond with my mother, but I won’t look at Milton, who is taking the photo. Lafayette Court, 1953.”

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