Monday, April 19, 2010

Why Did You Write This As Fiction and Not a Family Memoir?

When I meet with people who are interested in discussing The Unveiling with me, one of the most frequent questions raised is “Why did you decide to make this a historical novel rather than a memoir?”
Let me explain why I decided to write it as fiction.

From the beginning, my plan was to build this story around my mother’s life – to portray her family background, the early hardships of her childhood, her dreams and accomplishments, and her valiant efforts as a single mother enduring the stigma of a mentally ill husband.

The first time I interviewed my mother, she enthusiastically provided many hours of taped interviews. I was surprised at how many personal experiences she shared, although in a few instances, I convinced her to tell me things only by reassuring her that the book would be fiction and all names would be changed.

My mother’s memories of the sights and sounds of the pogroms her family suffered through always impressed young family members who became her audience through the years. Although she didn’t remember the historical sequence of some of the events, she gave me enough detail to allow me to draw upon historical research to confirm the information she provided and to use my imagination to fill in possible scenarios, consistent with factual records of the same time periods.

After interviewing my mother, I decided to speak with other relatives to strengthen the story that was emerging. Each interviewee added an important dimension, but they didn’t always remember things in a consistent way. And they all left some gaps in the story.

Writing the book as fiction allowed me to enhance some of the memories. It also enabled me to include dialogue that might have taken place as I tried to capture the voices of  the people and the humor in their Yiddish phrases.

I never intended this book to be a genealogical study of our family. I know some of my relatives have done such studies and have more information than I do about the genealogy. Because my mother had so many relatives, I had to leave some out who were not central to her story. I had to combine other characters, including many who were dear friends to my mother. I even imagined a few characters who could have played a significant role in the action. For me the important thing is that the book celebrates my mother’s courage and my family’s resilience…and those features are not fictional.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


The past months have been very gratifying as I continue to hear from people who have recently completed reading The Unveiling. I appreciate hearing from family and friends who want to share their reactions. Sometimes people see me and tell me in person. The following comments have been emailed.

"Dear Leah Rae,
A colleague of mine…gave me your book "The Unveiling" for Chanukkah last year. I read the book in a week and was quite taken with it…it was a treat for me to be able to read your work. The premise of your book is inspiring and I related to it very well. My mother's family suffers greatly from mental illness…I myself battled through two post-partum depressions. Now many years after those depressions I feel like a mixture of all of the siblings in your story, at times striving to understand, trying to raise awareness and battling an illness. I am the "town crier" in my family shouting, "let's call these illnesses for what they are, an illness, and get the help necessary"…

When the array of mental illnesses come into play, as they are now that my grandmother is dying of breast cancer, I hold tightly to the mental image of David standing on the podium, strong and proud, ready to get to work on making a difference for those with mental illnesses. I thank you for that image, and more importantly, I thank you for your book. I pray that it will help others who are compelled to deal with mental illnesses and that it helps bring about understanding in those who have not yet had to deal with mental illness. b'Shalom"
Techiya Loewen
Guelph, Ontario

"I was impressed by the history that she wove into the book along with her treatment of the issue of mental illness. I was touched and inspired by it."
Rabbi J. Schwartz, Temple Emanu-el
Atlanta, Georgia

"I have fallen in love with the characters in this book. What lives our ancestors had! I regret not discovering my own family's history. This book introduced me to a part of history I did not know about. Thank you, Leah."
Laura Cooper,
Toronto, Ontario

"Leah, I enjoyed your book immensely. The scenes of the devastation of [eastern] Europe were very effective, I thought, conveying the misery of the situation and the courage of the people. And the issue of mental illness, especially the changing (thank goodness) attitudes to it, was well dealt with. Thank you - it must have been a daunting work to undertake!"
Christie Bentham
Toronto, Ontario

Thursday, April 8, 2010

What Has Been My Family’s Reaction to The Unveiling?

People attending my presentations about The Unveiling over the last few months have raised some interesting questions. I’d like to share some in my blogs. This blog is about a question I had no trouble answering.

QuestionSince your book is about a topic that caused so much sadness among family members, what has been your family’s reaction to The Unveiling?

(Photograph shows family members on a visit to my mother who is sitting in the center.)

Answer – I did worry a lot about how family members would react. Would they think my depiction of characters hit the mark or would they find anything hurtful or embarrassing? Unfortunately, both my mother and my sister passed away prior to the book's publication although they both provided in-depth interviews and shared many personal memories during various stages of the writing.

I can honestly say that once family members close to me read the book, I stopped worrying because everyone was so positive.

My daughter, Lisa, and son, Philip, were readers of early drafts and offered ideas to help tighten the story. Lisa travelled from New York for the book launch and invited many of her friends to join her. My brother, Dr. Allen Rubin, has been wonderful, putting me in touch with his colleagues to review The Unveiling before it was published. He has been telling people about the book and has actually spoken to a group of professionals in the mental health field about some of his own experiences depicted in the story.

My late brother-in-law, Morley Harris, told me the book brought tears to his eyes, particularly how I showed the inner strength of my sister through Collette. My nephew, Bobby Harris, has spread the word among his network and helped arrange a speaking event at Temple Emanu-el in Atlanta. My niece, Cheryl Schwartz, gave copies of the book to friends and colleagues, continues to tell people about The Unveiling, and has invited me to speak with her Temple in Maryland about the book.

One cousin, Carol Swartz, not only offered to help with the proof-reading, but helped with marketing activities and arranged two events where I could do readings and signings. Another cousin, Larry Rubin, remarked “you nailed it” and has spent a lot of time helping to spread the word. Other cousins have told me how well I captured my mother’s voice through Ettie.

One amusing comment came from a person outside of the family who attended one of my readings. She said she thought I was unfair to one character. Rachel, not knowing that I based Rachel on myself.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Review Sparks Discussion about Mental Illness

A letter to the editor of Pittsburgh’s Jewish Chronicle by Dr. Emil Trellis one week after the review appeared takes issue with the reviewer’s description of Morton and explains how Morton’s mental illness, undiagnosed at the time, was the reason for the behavior.  Following is the letter from Dr. Trellis to Pittsburgh's Jewish Chronicle:

Mental illness overlooked

Your March 25 review of “The Unveiling” is much appreciated. Your comments about the struggles of a Jewish family in pre-World War I Ukraine along with the adjustment difficulties after arriving in America should certainly stimulate potential readers. Likewise, Ettie’s mothering success, for practical purposes as a single mother, is well noted.

It is from a retired psychiatrist’s perspective that I feel that there was too little emphasis of Morton’s mental illness and its devastating influence on the family. I didn’t feel that he was so much an “unreliable born loser” but rather his consistent self-defeating behavior, depicted rather early after his appearance in the novel, was more an early manifestation of his paranoid schizophrenia.

Subsequently his emotional deterioration with his ultimate lifelong confinement to Mayview resulted in much family hardship including profound shame, particularly on the part of Ettie and David. Ettie lived life posing as a widow. David, after learning he had a father who was mentally ill, shared in the shame and also supported strongly the family “secret.” It was through the shiva, initially opposed by Ettie, that she and David were able to resolve this psychic pain.

It is my opinion that there is still much lack of understanding and stigma regarding serious mental illness in our society today. The term “schizophrenia” is lightly frequently used to depict a situation with diametrically opposite views. This undercuts the severity of the illness. The individual patient and the involved family deeply suffer. Sadly, there is often no significant cure. I feel that with appropriate counseling, at least the stigma, as well as other issues, could be better resolved by all. Conceivably, this might be of interest and benefit to some readers.

Dr. Emil Trellis
Squirrel Hill

Positive Review in Pittsburgh’s Jewish Chronicle

How appropriate that the first review of The Unveiling by the print media appeared in Pittsburgh’s Jewish Chronicle! It has heightened interest both in the book and in the issue of how mental illness affects families. Thanks to all the readers who contacted me after seeing the review.  Following is a reprint of the review:.

‘Unveiling’ a real look at the lives of Jewish immigrants

by Lee Chottiner, Executive Editor

“The Unveiling,” by Leah Rae Lambert, is a deceptively interesting novel.

For the first 50 pages or so, the reader gets the impression that the most interesting aspect of this book is its references to local places. Lambert, formerly of Pittsburgh, incorporates actual streets, stores, institutions and neighborhoods from Pittsburgh into her story of an extended family sitting shiva for their estranged, deeply disturbed father and grandfather, Morton Burin.

The characters go to dances at the Irene Kaufmann Settlement, they shop in the Strip District and set up a business in nearby Vandergrift. Lambert even mentions The Chronicle, as the paper where Burin’s funeral announcement appears.

The book initially feels like another locally set novel, Thomas Bell’s “Out of This Furnace,” which tells the story of an immigrant family’s life in Braddock and was a popular read for many Mon Valley Jews.

But “The Unveiling” is more than a trip down memory lane. While we see the family gathering around their mother and grandmother — Ettie Burin — to recount the family story as the shiva draws on, we gain a sobering understanding of the personal lives of newcomers to America, and how the immigrant experience took its toll.

We learn how Ettie’s father, Yitzhac, after being attacked by bandits near his home village of Skvira, Ukraine, prior to World War I, leaves for America planning to work, save and send for his wife, Sarah, and their three children.

Eight years pass before their reunion. During that time, Sarah and the kids survive the Russian Revolution, the civil war that followed and numerous pogroms.

When reunited in America, Sarah and Yitzhac are not the same people. They are disappointed with one another, their relationship forever altered by the long separation.

The story picks up with Ettie’s marriage to Morton, an unreliable born loser who can be violent at times. Ettie stays with him only because she fears the humiliation of divorce. Morton frequently disappears for days, even weeks at a time. Finally we learn he has a mental illness, is hospitalized, and will never be well. The family goes on public assistance. All of this happens with World War II as the backdrop, and news of the Holocaust slowly coming out.

To be sure, “The Unveiling” is not a happy story, but it’s a hopeful story. Ettie’s kids are successful, well adjusted and reasonably happy. Most importantly, they use the shiva to come to terms with their family history. They don’t run from their story, they embrace it, constantly urging Ettie to tell all she remembers about her difficult life.

One gets the feeling they’re learning from her, symbolically standing on her shoulders to reach for something better. And isn’t that what the immigrant experience is all about?

Warm Reception in Atlanta

It was an honor to be invited by Rabbi J. Schwartz to speak to the Congregation of Temple Emanu-el in Atlanta on March 19th about The Unveiling and family experiences that inspired the book.

The sanctuary is lovely and the first part of the service was inspiring and joyful. The Rabbi then introduced me, explaining that she found my book moving and provocative. She mentioned that I was the aunt of Bobby Harris, a highly respected member of the congregation.

When I began to speak, and mentioned how pleased I was to be there with Bobby and his family, I almost choked up. I remembered him as a baby, the faces of his proud parents and the many years our families enjoyed spending special occasions together. I moved on and quickly began talking about the book, so I could keep it together. It was amazing how attentive everyone was.

Following my 20 minute presentation, a number of people had questions.  It soon became clear that mental illness in families is a serious issue that many are grappling with. Some people waited to speak to me privately about their own family experiences. I will be writing separate blogs discussing some of the questions that people raised.

Looking back I realize that the trip to Atlanta was an exceptional experience, not because of the number of books I sold, but because of the people I met and the issues they raised. Getting to spend time with Bobby and his family was a bonus. And the warmth and hospitality of Maxine and Jon Schein, my son’s in-laws, made everything move along as smoothly as possible.  I can't end the blog without mentioning
one of the highlights of the trip, Atlanta's Botanical Garden and its dazzling display of orchids.