The Book Club

Airing Your Family’s Dirty Laundry in Print: Brave, or Just Weirdly Exhibitionist?

Dear Sarah,

Revenge is also a tale of two marriages—that of Blumenfeld’s parents, whom you describe so well, and also of her own. At first, Blumenfeld’s parents, David and Norma, seem like unlikely subjects for a revenge drama: They’re too kind and well-meaning to carry on a war of attrition. But eventually it dawns on you that Blumenfeld is showing us a quieter and more attenuated version of the payback dramas she’s been recounting. David is much too gentle a person to ever take revenge on Norma for leaving him; but even though he’s happily remarried to his twinsie, he still expresses bewilderment and regret that his first marriage ended at all. Norma seems equally clawless, until we learn of her coldness to him at the end of their marriage; not only did she quickly get off the phone when she learned he’d been shot, but she jumped back into a hot tub in Hawaii with her then boyfriend and now second husband, Bernie. David is more wounded by Norma’s indifference to the shooting than by the shooting itself. Late in the book, Norma explains that these actions were revenge for what she saw as—well, it’s not entirely clear, but it has something to do with David’s suppression of her ambition and his efforts to make her more religious. And she was also getting revenge at him for failing to avenge himself: David, a rabbi, saw his relationship with one congregation destroyed by a bitter synagogue rival; Norma wanted him to fight, but David folded and walked away.

Blumenfeld’s message is clear: Unless we’re careful, marriages (and divorces) are constantly in danger of becoming their own avengement dramas. And even as Blumenfeld is officiating over her own parents’ reconciliation commission, she’s also working on a new marriage of her own. She and her husband, Baruch, are in Israel for their honeymoon year, just as her parents were years before, and Blumenfeld is worried about the outcome of their own union. The problem isn’t that they’re taking revenge on each other; it’s that they have entirely different worldviews, and their respective ideas of justice don’t sync. Baruch, who’s a prosecutor, keeps getting called back to a trial in the United States. (He’s trying to nail Don King, of all people.) The proceedings and the verdict allow Blumenfeld to contrast the U.S. judicial system with other, more exotic instruments of retribution. Baruch loves, espouses, epitomizes the dispassion of the court system: Just as his father, an Orthodox rabbi and Talmud professor, puts faith in an older system of law, the son has organized his life around the newer system. Whereas Blumenfeld, as we already know, adheres to a more emotional, improvised justice. This difference drives the two newlyweds apart; Baruch’s not around much, but when he is, the two are distant and grumpy with each other.

Anyway, as for the discussion of the two marriages, I can never decide if this kind of airing of familial conflict in print is brave or just weirdly exhibitionist. I often suspect it of being part of a larger revenge drama of its own, if you know what I mean—publishing a tell-all book is certainly one dramatic way to up the ante in a family feud—and I usually wish I could hear the other family members testify for themselves. But this is the one-in-a-million case where a tell-all could actually ameliorate a family conflict instead of deepening it.

Besides, it’s not as if Blumenfeld paints full portraits of her family members. When Blumenfeld’s brother makes a brief appearance in the book, we’re immediately told that he’s a mild-mannered type, allergic to confrontation, let alone revenge. Like the other family members, he’s described almost purely in terms of his attitude toward vengeance. As a result, the Blumenfelds and Co. seem a little flat, like figures in a diorama, carefully placed to create the author’s overall effect. They lack the animation and messiness of real life, and as a result, the book felt a little diagrammed, a little schematic, to me.

But we all play roles in our writing—for example, in this exchange, I’ve played the grouch. That said, I truly enjoyed reading this book, and I truly enjoyed discussing it with you.