For years, I used the Chinese tale, “Li Chi the Serpent Slayer,” in my teaching. One of the students’ tasks was to choose a moment in the story that resonated and explore why it mattered. For years I picked the same moment, when Li Chi, after slaying the serpent, goes back into its cave and finds the bones of the girls previously sacrificed to keep the village safe from the serpent. She brings the bones back to the village for burial with full honors and acknowledgement of what the villagers had done. For years I didn’t understand why this moment mattered so much until one session, without thinking, I fingerpainted images of people in black and a small blob of yellow, isolated, as if looking at the black images. After the painting, when I quickly wrote: life, abuse, power, I finally understood the meaning of the moment for me. I was ready to go into the metaphorical cave to face the bones of my past.
Perhaps the serpent I slayed was the serpent of lies and denial. Unlike Li Chi, I was sacrificed by my father, who refused to acknowledge and protect me from my mother’s murderous violence, her psychological and emotional abuse.
Although I was not close to my paternal grandparents, and barely knew my maternal grandparents, I never forgot the stories I heard about them.
I think about my paternal grandmother wanting to learn, finding ways in spite of being female, an immigrant, not speaking fluent English. I think about my maternal grandfather, studying to be a scholar, finding himself in a country where living the life of a scholar was impossible. I think about my father, the only one of the four siblings to go to college—a two-year pharmacy course. I think about my mother, who envied her friends, all of whom had gone to college, but who chose not to go to a local college even after I offered to make dinner and take care of my sister. When I wanted to go to college my mother said, “You should probably go just in case you have to support the family if your husband becomes ill.” I didn’t have the courage or self-esteem to apply to good liberal arts colleges and I didn’t want to be beholden to my parents for their financial support. I chose to go to an inexpensive teachers’ college, far away from home, that would guarantee I could support myself after graduation. I hated the lack of liberal arts, the fervor with which most students got drunk every Saturday night, the lack of intellectual life, but I was grateful for the opportunity to choreograph and perform dance pieces. The courses I took in kinesiology, anatomy and physiology, and movement analysis, as well as my time in the training room, turned out to be useful when I created college courses in movement and nonverbal communication, but I learned this only in hindsight.
I think about my maternal grandmother and my parents who fought for social and racial justice. I think about the two FBI men who stood outside my father’s drugstore, telling people not to buy from the commie Jew, the FBI men who followed my father when he sold copies of The Daily Worker while I took the money and made change. I think about the FBI men who followed me when I attended meetings of The Young Progressives of America, where the most subversive thing we did was sing protest songs at rallies. I think about the mostly young men who threw stones and bottles at us as we marched to protest the electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
It took me twenty years, in 1984, when I was 48, and tired of feeling alienated from my father’s family, to decide to attend the wedding of my Uncle Dave’s daughter, Carol. She was much younger than me, but we’d gone skiing with our fathers and I liked her. As I approached the building where the wedding was to be held, I was nervous, even a bit afraid the family would turn their backs on me, as I had virtually done to them. It didn’t help that I hardly knew my cousins. As I walked into the room filled with people munching, drinking, talking, laughing—stacks of pastries, bagels, bialys, and toppings on one side, with coffee, tea, sodas, and liquor on the other, I saw Esther, my father’s sister, a still figure in the midst of a jostling laughing, shouting crowd. An overwhelming feeling of love for her, a feeling that came out of nowhere, stunned me, a feeling I’d felt only once before in my life, when I held my newborn son for the first time.
The feeling was so strong I couldn’t ignore it. I walked over to my aunt and apologized for my unkind behavior, embarrassed and upset that I’d allowed my mother to influence my attitude toward her, that I knew better. My aunt, gracious and loving, hugged me, said she understood, and told me not to worry, that she loved me. Still overwhelmed by the confusion between how I’d acted toward her and how I now felt, I said, “Some time we need to talk.”
Without missing a beat, she said, “We never see each other. Let’s talk now.”
“It’s as good a place as any.” I apologized again. She said I didn’t need to apologize, that she understood. We talked about my mother, how difficult my life with her had been. She added her own stories—she and my mother had been friends until my mother married my father—then she distanced herself from my aunt and the rest of the family. I asked why my father had never protected me from my mother’s violence. She sighed. I could see it was hard for her to hear anything negative about my father. “I think,” she said, carefully choosing her words, “although he loved your mother, he was also afraid of her—she could be so volatile . . .” Esther gave me another hug and asked if I’d visit her and my uncle in Florida. I promised I would.
“Really promise?” she asked, a mischievous look in her eye.
“Really promise,” I said, promising myself I would keep the promise.
As I stood there, other aunts and uncles appeared. I apologized to all of them, admitting my culpability. Frieda, the wife of my father’s youngest brother repeated what they’d all said, “You don’t have to apologize, we understand. When her husband joined us, he looked at my tears and said, “Hey, no tears, this is a happy occasion.” My aunt swatted him and said to me, “The men in the Rubin family, not only don’t they talk about their feelings, they deny even having them.”
I think about my aunt’s comment: “The men in the Rubin family—not only don’t they talk about their feelings, they deny even having them.” I think about how unsafe and difficult it was for me to talk about my feelings with my parents. My mother’s automatic comment was, “It’s all in your imagination,” or sometimes, “It’s all in your head.” My father’s comment after any difficulty was: You’re strong, you can manage,” although sometimes he’d add: “You’re responsible for everything you say and do.” I think about the time when I was 16, trying out for Varsity, an exclusive club for outstanding athletes and dancers. I was upset when I was rejected, but the next day one of the members told me, “You were good enough to be selected, they just didn’t want a Jew in the club.” I cried on my way to my piano lesson. Poor Mr. Kantorovsky, my piano teacher, trying in vain to comfort me. Finally, he called my father, whose drugstore was nearby. He came, obviously annoyed, even more so after I told him what happened. My father’s response was sharp and judgmental: “Stop crying! Those people aren’t worth it. Besides, crying never solved anything.” I stopped crying, never to cry again until I was 80, talking about my life at the Vision Quest.
My mother and her six siblings got together for Seders, first led by their father, then Walter, the husband of Ida, the oldest. I remember the Seders as interminable—something to be impressed by and endured. Once, when I found the Afikomen (a blessed piece of matzah hidden so the children could find it) my Uncle Walter gave me my gift, a mini soda fountain, which I coveted, but wasn’t willing to give him a kiss on the lips as a thank you so I refused to take it. Finally, someone took the fountain from him and gave it to me. As the grandchildren grew older, a hall was hired and the Seders became less religious and more of an occasion to get together. There was always tension between the seven siblings, some of whom intensely disliked each other. As the Seder was moved from home to a hall to house children and grandchildren, the ceremony became increasingly short, and, in my opinion, lost all meaning.
Although I attended my mother’s family’s events, I never felt comfortable. I was always aware of my mother’s vicious tongue. Even though I treated my mother’s siblings more kindly than I did my father’s, I felt apart from, rather than part of, the family. When my son was four, and we were about to enter the room where family had gathered for a Seder, my four-year-old son asked, “Mommy, would you like to hold my hand?” His little warm hand warmed my cold hand, but did nothing to ease the hole in my heart.
None of my mother’s siblings talked about the harm she had done to me although when I was five, and my youngest aunt lived with us, she told me she took me with her when she went out with her boyfriend, not wanting to leave me with my mother. My aunt Fran, the second youngest in the family, was 97 when she apologized for treating me so badly as did other family members. She admitted that both families had known how terribly my mother treated me and no one did anything about it. It felt like too little too late and yet, it was important to her that I forgive her so I did.
I grew up sensitive to the feelings of others, while at the same time, I often had no idea how I felt. I grew up with a strong sense of social, racial, and economic justice, able to act on behalf of others, to stand up for others, but was seldom able to stand up for myself. Although it’s difficult to know what I inherited, and what I developed within myself, the stories about my grandparents, particularly those of my paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather, made a deep and lasting impression. I drew from their experiences, recognizing that it was up to me to do what I could in order to make my life meaningful, no matter how many obstacles I faced.
It has taken more than eighty years to come to terms with the reality that my mother and father did great harm and much good. Accepting this complexity helped me understand the confusion with which I grew up. There was and is no way to make sense of my parents’ actions—why and how they worked so hard to make the world a better place, yet abused me so badly, lying about it until the day they died.
My grandparents had to flee the country and life they knew. I had to flee the world created by my parents’ lies. I think in some unexplainable way, my grandparents’ courage, leaving all they knew and loved, to travel to a country whose language and customs were foreign, helped me find the courage to confront the lies and blame and shame with which I grew up.
When my son was born, I made a vow: the misery ends with me. To the best of my ability, I have kept this promise.