If you were the wild child among more submissive siblings, who refused to be silenced and cried continually, and fought with all the others about their glaring hypocrisies; chances are you were not your parents’ favorite child. If you sometimes made disturbing comments about wishing to harm yourself while broadcasting to anyone who would listen your opinion about your parents’ deficiencies, you were probably the cause of much familial stress. If the confusion that swirled around in your head escalated to the point where your parents sent you to a psychiatric facility when you were only 8 years old, you probably only grew more despondent. By the time adolescence beckoned, the die was cast: You were known only as the anxious and nervous one, a little troubled girl who simply needed too much.
But what if you’re not. Maybe you were just an exquisitely sensitive and creative little girl who was able to disarmingly articulate your family’s massive dysfunction. Maybe not getting enough love from your mother and father was simply too much for you to bear. Maybe you’re Daphne Merkin.
Merkin, author of “The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontes, and the Importance of Handbags” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), is an extremely engaging and empathetic writer. She doesn’t allow herself to form fixed notions about others, but instead wrestles with how most of us choose to present ourselves to the outside world, along with the forces that have shaped our individual self-presentations. She is acutely aware of the difficulties involved in all human relationships but also sees tenderness and beauty where others don’t even think to look. Brought up in a Modern Orthodox, wealthy Jewish home in Manhattan, Merkin struggled with a father who had little patience for her and a mother who seemed overly concerned with the aesthetics of their home while ignoring the emotional turbulence lurking beneath it. There was little talk about God or spiritual matters of any sort. Their Judaism was expressed mostly by rituals and celebrations and life at the synagogue, which Merkin disliked since it seemed to her the men had all the good parts. What she did enjoy was studying the Talmud, which stimulated her active mind with its never ending labyrinth of puzzling arguments. But she studied privately and eventually gave it up. As for God, he always either ignored or eluded her.
Mostly, she tried to get her mother’s attention, an exercise that resulted in repeated frustration and disappointment. But Merkin never stopped trying. She writes about her mother with an almost uncomfortable intensity, one that seems to elude her in other relationships. Her mother passed away years ago, but is still dominant in her thoughts and misgivings. She misses her. Perhaps misses what she never had. They shared a turbulent relationship, but one that Merkin counted on, even though her mother continually disappointed her. The only possible gift bestowed upon Merkin from this ferocious attachment is that it seems to have imbued Merkin with the ability to look at others through a psychological lens that is filtered by kindness and compassion.
In “The Fame Lunches,” her new outstanding collection of essays, Merkin offers us her take on everything from the allure of lip gloss and its relationship to the demise of civilized society to vividly personal and perceptive essays that resulted from her lengthy interviews with everyone from Madonna to Kate Blanchett. She tries to dissect the enduring legacy of Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana and Courtney Love while offering up thought-provoking pieces about the Bronte sisters, Bruno Bettelheim, and Henry Roth. She allows space for her own meditations on mental illness, psychoanalysis and the hardships of mothering after divorce. She is equally adept at highbrow and lowbrow subjects, because she is fascinated by both, and brings an observational sharpness to whatever she is writing about. Some of the best pieces here have to do with the hunt for a perfect handbag, reality television, and the obsession women have with holding on to their beauty.
What amazes the reader about Merkin is how open her heart has remained, even with age and after several extreme episodes of emotional distress. Her heart has not hardened, and that is truly a writer’s greatest asset. She has written at great length in the New York Times about her over 40-year participation in psychoanalysis and its disappointments for her, but the miracle of Merkin is really her resilience in spite of her duress. She perseveres. She writes. She travels. She teaches. She mothers her beloved daughter. She confides in friends. And, for the most part, she remains afloat.
In one of the most revealing pieces, she tells us about sending a letter to Woody Allen telling him about her adoration for him. She included a poem for him that ended with these two short sad lines: “You are my funny man. You know you can be sad with me.” Woody wrote her back and encouraged her to keep writing. This led to a friendship of sorts, where they would occasionally meet for lunch. At one meal, she told him that she was feeling more depressed than usual. Woody asked her all the appropriate follow-up questions in a clinical fashion and suggested she consider electroshock therapy. She was furious with him. She thought, “I don’t know what I had been hoping for -- some version of come with me and I will cuddle you until your sadness goes away, not to get hooked up to electrodes, baby -- but I was slightly stunned. More than slightly, I understood he was trying to be helpful in his way but it fell so far short. …Shock therapy? It wasn’t as thought I hadn’t heard of it or didn’t know people who benefited from it. Still, how on earth did he conceive of me? As a chronic mental patient, someone who was meant to sit on a thin hospital mattress and stare greyly into space. Didn’t he know I was a writer with a future, a person given to creative descriptions of her own moods? Shock therapy, indeed; I’d sooner try a spa. It suddenly occurred to me, as I walked up Madison Avenue, that it might pay to be resilient, if this was all being vulnerable and skinless got you… .Indeed, maybe it was time to rethink this whole salvation business. Or maybe I was less desperate, less teetering on the edge than I cared to admit. Now that was a refreshing personality.”
There is a steeliness about her that allows her to see things clearly even in the throes of despair. Merkin’s capacity to analyze her response to Allen’s well-intended advice demonstrates an inner resilience that has undoubtedly saved her many times over. She knows firsthand the dark forces that can invade your psyche, but she also understands healing and reinvention and transformation. There is no malice or bitchiness or vengeance present in her work; even towards those whom she knows have caused her the greatest harm. Even when she senses people are being deceptive or manipulative, she does not castigate them. Instead, she seeks answers as to why she believes they feel they need to be inauthentic at a certain point in time. She wants to understand, not attack.
For example, when writing about Mike Tyson and his new wife, she senses that Tyson is playing her. She believes this is simply another incarnation of his continual act, which she describes as a “construction every bit as deliberate as he claims his Invincible Iron Mike persona was.” Merkin does not challenge him directly about her perception but instead writes about how impressed she is that he is attempting to create a persona that is less violent and self-destructive than he has been in the past. She wants him to succeed, although she recognizes the fragility of his battle. Merkin reaches similar conclusions about Marilyn Monroe. She wonders at first if Monroe was really the victim she is often portrayed to be, or a manipulator of the finest order. She reviews her background, which includes severe maternal and paternal deprivation, mental illness, and bouts of terrible instability and depression. She offers up compassion, as she does for Princess Diana, whom she describes as a “knot of contradictions: impossibly glamorous, yet disarmingly self effacing, bold, yet riddled with self-doubt, worldly yet naïve.”
There are times when Merkin seems to get swept up in a dreamy romantic longing for a world that is less cruel and more forgiving. On Charles and Diana’s failed union, she writes, “I find myself wondering how Diana’s life might have turned out if she and Charles had bonded over their shared lack of childhood, their virtual abandonment as children. …What would have happened if they had the patience (on his side) and endurance (on hers) to address their mutual longings for love and nurturance in each other?”
And I find myself wondering what Merkin’s life might have been like if she had received more of the nourishment she craved? Would she have been a writer? Would she have had an emotional radar as sharp and perceptive as hers is now? Would she have been happier? Does her exquisite artistry only come from having experienced such acute pain? It’s hard to know. What is clear is that she is one of our best narrative nonfiction writers. Merkin’s voice is secular and modern and yet filled with some sort of ancient wisdom, and coupled with intellectual and emotional honesty, while maintaining a pureness of heart. That is no easy feat.
She once wrote this about her mother in her semi-autobiographical novel “Enchantment”: “I want -- have always wanted -- her to listen to me forever.” I don’t think her mother could, or did, for reasons that remain mysterious, but we listen and will continue to do so.
Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.