Book Review // The Girl from Human Street
The Girl from Human Street
by Roger Cohen
Alfred A. Knopf
2015, pp. 320, $27.95
Diaspora and Depression: A Tale of Loss
Review by Frances Brent
One of the most vivid memories from my childhood in a prosperous, predominantly Jewish suburb of Chicago during the 1950s was watching through a door crack, as my friend’s mother, a woman who might have been 40 years old at the time, was led across a shaded room on the arms of her housekeeper. The housekeeper helped her to a chair and adjusted her dressing gown before placing a shawl across her shoulders and then combing her dripping wet hair. It was the middle of the afternoon. My friend’s mother suffered from severe depression that was all the more mysterious because it occurred at a time of well-being and in a place of comfort.
Depression, of course, will manifest itself anywhere, oblivious to material circumstances, since it’s a form of interior exile, dividing the self from the self, and denying the sufferer anything approaching a sense of being at home. Roger Cohen describes this condition in The Girl from Human Street. As he puts it, June Cohen, his mother, “was a woman hollowed out like a tree struck by lightning.” Diagnosed with postpartum depression after the birth of her second child in London in 1957, she was subsequently treated with insulin therapy, psychotherapy and electro-convulsive therapy (shock therapy). The disease and repeated hospitalizations caused her to disappear during much of his childhood. His quest to understand that absence has led to an extended meditation on displacement, loss, identity, silence and mental illness stretching from the last days of World War II in Italy backwards to his Jewish family’s late 19th-century migration from Lithuania to South Africa and forward to resettlement in England, Israel and America.
Cohen, a prize-winning reporter, is a London-born columnist for The New York Times, and now an American citizen. He became more widely known with his passionate and finely researched reporting on the Bosnian war and the 1998 book that came out of it, Hearts Grown Brutal. This new book takes some of its strength from a journalist’s approach, with mosaic-like chapters, each composed of contrasting vignettes that allow the author to move back and forth freely in time and space. June Cohen, the pretty little girl standing at 3 Human Street, Krugersdorp, with a tumble of curly hair and a Peter Pan collar, is his muse who was never able to translate a vibrant well-being from South Africa to England with its dishwater skies. It’s her ghostly inspiration that leads to the stories of numerous family members and landsmen, a personal collective history of Jewish uprootedness.
Some of the finest passages in the book occur when Cohen focuses on the troubled beauty of South Africa, where his parents were born into differing levels of privilege and which they left after the establishment of apartheid. His father’s father owned a grocery in downtown Johannesburg and a modest house on Honey Street. “Listen,” he writes, “to the sounds: the crowing of the cock as the dawn breaks; the frequent afternoon thunderstorms in summer; the rain beating against the red corrugated iron roof of the one-story house and rushing from the gutters into that mysterious tank;…pickaxes rising and falling in unison in the street outside to a haunting Zulu chorus as a trench the length of the block is laid by a phalanx of black convicts and filled with brown earthenware sewage pipes whose arrival marks the demise of the bucket privy in the yard….”
Cohen’s mother was the granddaughter of one of the cofounders of OK Bazaars, the country’s largest chain of department stores at the time. The tight-knit family with their Friday night suppers and affectionate nicknames—Googoo and Baby, for instance—and the insular but secular Jewish community, progressively more educated, proportionately more liberal-leaning (but not enough, Cohen observes) than the surrounding non-Jews in a world justifiably about to change, is reminiscent of the Chicago of my parents’ time.
What one might call the non-specific or basal-level anti-Semitism was similar, too. The abiding custom for Jewish boys at King Edward VII School to wait in the courtyard while the others said Christian prayers took me back to my father’s discomfort with the obligatory Lord’s Prayer at military academy, and later what both of my parents referred to as “the Jewish table” where they studied in the library at Northwestern University.
Like many of us, born in security after World War II, Roger Cohen’s Jewish identity has been shape-shifting. In his words, “Born into the void that comes at the far end of the generational process of forgetting,” we have had to scrutinize to find our history beyond the recent and shallow-rooted one of our grandparents or great-grandparents who became good citizens in host countries and didn’t want to look back. Many of our parents were like Cohen’s Uncle Bert, who understandably wanted to free himself from the stigma of Jewishness, constructing, at high cost, a balance, as he wrote with painstaking honesty in a journal: “I am now no longer actively and persistently conscious of the fact that I am a Jew. Aware of it, yes, but no longer am I ashamed of it, or afraid of it, nor indeed proud of it.”
In the process of writing this book, Cohen has tried to re-establish the consciousness that his uncle worked to stamp out. Tracing his family back to the small Lithuanian cities of Zagare and Siauliai, where most of the Jews were massacred in October 1941 by Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators, he concentrates on the problem of Jewish memory in Eastern Europe. Reconnecting with Jewish friends from London, he contemplates the silence surrounding the whispered word “Jew.” With relatives in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, he reflects on Zionism and the meaning of having left behind one’s home and struggles as he sees these things through the lens of South Africa, though recognizing that each situation is sui generis.
At the heart of the book, Cohen posits the idea of a link between the trauma of Jewish displacement and the depressive state, which corroded the lives of so many family members. In 1978, after June Cohen attempted suicide, her husband made a chart of their family, placing a black dot beside each relative who had suffered from depression or manic depression; there were many on each side. Could this be connected to the uprooting that had taken place in successive generations or was separation from home merely a platform for illness? Looking closely we can only see the intersection of the two and recognize homesickness as a perfect metaphor for the departure of the self from the comforting self of the interior life.
Frances Brent is the author of a biography, The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson.