By the Book: Looking for an End to Secrecy

In her debut novel Illusion of Memory (Chopin Press), East Hampton resident J.Z. Holden, a journalist, painter, teacher and for years a “special effects and beauty make-up artist” for major TV shows and film, creates an epistolary memoir, a series of recollections, whose special effects—dark humor and self-deprecating wit—inform a cathartic, disconcerting tale about Holocaust survivors and their children. It’s a subject not likely to find universal acceptance—though even some who may resent the protagonist’s insistence that children have the right to learn their parents’ deepest, darkest secrets (even as these secrets may be owing to horrific conditions)—will likely cede the boldness of Holden’s concept and the cleverness of her bizarre but compelling narrative.

The story opens with a diary entry dated “Jerusalem April 1, 1973” (April Fool’s?) and proceeds with alternating short chapters of more entries and letters, mostly from Bette (aka La Bête, Bettylein) to her sister Lizzie in California. Eventually, other voices and letters appear, all the sections rich in scenic description and dialogue, including Yiddish and German expressions. It’s not until somewhat into the narrative, however, that the reader senses the possibility that the diarist and letter writer may be one. No spoiler, this, because the book’s title and epigraph by a Jewish Studies scholar suggest as much: “We cannot regain what is lost, if only because it never existed as we remember it.”

For Lizzie, a talented artist, but manic, close to despair, one memory keeps leeching out—that she suffered sexual abuse as a young child by a parent. That the crime was perpetrated by a Jewish victim of Nazi atrocity gives the story its unusual resonance and challenge: what price truth? A powerful indictment of the monumental deceptions that lie at the center of family life, Illusion of Memory advances the theme that millions of Jewish (and second-generation German counterparts) are held hostage to truth and are thus secondary victims of the Holocaust, the sins of their parents and grandparents written in the bones, as long as silence rules. It’s a volatile theme and maybe suspect as causal logic, given the still-disputed roles of nature and nurture in forming character and behavior, but there’s no doubt that Holden has written a provocative and absorbing book. She will be reading at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor on October 19 at 5 p.m.

In Truth Be Told: Adam Becomes Audrey (Strategic Books), freelance journalist Alexandra Bogdanovic tells a story rarely heard—but one that she feels strongly should be part of discussions about transgender men and women. Although the latest publication of The Diagnostic And Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.) came out just as Bogdanovic was going to press, her research, relying on the 4th ed. nonetheless shows that “gender dysphoria” is gaining more understanding. New studies are pointing to a genetic cause, with records indicating that manifestations can start as early as the age of three. For sure, the subject has also been attracting the popular media. As a press release accompanying the book notes, Chastity Bono, the daughter of Sonny and Cher, made headlines when she became “Chaz.” Even so, as Bogdanovic writes, it’s unusual that voices are heard from those who have lived with and loved men and women who expressed a preference for a different identity. “While many members of the LGBT community write about their experiences, we seldom hear how those experiences affect their families and friends.”

Sixteen years ago, Alexandra married Adam, “the man of my dreams,” but within a short time, she learned that “he had self-identified as and planned on having gender reassignment surgery to become a woman.” He became Audrey. Needless to say, Bogdanovic was devastated, and, truth be told, after a decade she’s still to some extent “shackled to the past,” though she says she’s “okay” and is trying to live more in the present. Writing this book seems to have been excellent therapy, opening her to others who have had similar shocking experiences, and to herself. She writes well, with honesty and sympathy, even as she acknowledges regrets (not having children) and not always being able to suppress hostility. Although the first half seems too long, detailing normal life, Bogdanovic would probably defend it on  the grounds of explaining why she didn’t catch on sooner. It should be added, by the way, that Truth Be Told also has a lot of connections to the East End—Adam and Alexandra met at the Hampton Classic Horse Show.

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