September 22, 2022

Unique memoir describes the power of story

Elisa Bernick’s new book, “Departure Stories,” is unique among the many memoirs—from Mary Karr to Julia Child to Stephen King—that I’ve read.

Out Oct. 4, the book is seasoned with history, statistics, science, philosophy, jokes, and recipes. The first half is primarily Elisa’s story growing up Jewish in “Minneapolis…the most antisemitic city in the country” with an abusive mother and an emotionally absent father. The second half of the book is a thoughtful treatise on how what we remember and what we forget shapes us and our lives.

Arlene, Elisa’s mother, is verbally and physically abusive and views her children as impediments to her happiness. Arlene constantly harangues her husband as a cheapskate who never gives her enough money to feed the family and run the home.

Elisa endures the chaos at home and antisemitic taunts at school and in the neighborhood. She comes home one day and asks her parents if their family killed Christ. And who is Christ, by the way?

In 1964, Arlene enters the Mrs. Minnesota contest. When she finishes ninth, her mother tells her “I told you they’d never let a Jew win.”

In 1969, Elisa’s parents divorce and a couple of years later Arlene takes three of her children and moves to California where her boyfriend, Bernie, moves in with them. Things do not improve. Bernie is also physically, and possibly sexually, abusive to Elisa.

In addition to telling the story of her childhood, Bernick also gives the historical context that explains her mother’s behavior. She discusses the history of trauma of the Jewish people, the limited opportunities afforded women in the mid-20th century, the “divorce revolution” of the 1970s, as well as the dysfunctional family that Arlene grew up in.

Bernick also explains how humans remember and mis-remember events and how they remember events they were not even witness to. Like Tim O’Brien in “The Things They Carried,” Bernick posits that stories don’t have to be factual to be “true”; that there is “truth” and “Truth.” More important that facts, capital-T Truth, relates a truth about human nature, experience, emotion, or the world in general.

However, the most interesting part of Bernick’s work is her explanation about the power of storytelling. According to Bernick, the words we choose and how we tell our stories determine how we see ourselves and how we live our lives, that “As we shape our stories, they shape us.”

Just as many people who experience crime or violence describe themselves as “survivors” instead of “victims,” people who shape their stories of trauma into stories of resilience become the authors of their own stories. They overcome their trauma instead of living each day inside of it. This is how Bernick describes herself.

In addition to being a unique way to present her life, “Departure Stories” is an informative, moving, and uplifting story of resilience and forgiveness—and the power of storytelling.

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