Sometimes, even if you’ve known someone for a long time, there are things about them that can shock you. This is true about my friend (since the 1960s) Deborah Lott, whose riveting (and funny) new memoir, “Don’t Go Crazy Without Me,” published by Red Hen Press, reveals the extraordinary circumstances of her childhood and adolescence.
I was stunned.
When I asked how she’d pitch this book to a movie producer she said, “Neurotic Jewish girl in a gentile community grows up under the sway of an eccentric and eventually psychotic father.” She thinks Jack Black could play her father (though the late Philip Seymour Hoffman would’ve been her first choice), but the child actress to play her hasn’t yet been discovered.
Something you need to know about Deborah: She’s super intelligent, highly educated and is a published author who teaches college students how to write trauma memoirs. “With my history, I think I bring a unique perspective, and my students are able to talk with me very freely about their own traumatic experiences.”
Thanks to her father, she’s also a confirmed hypochondriac who has genuinely serious health issues that have been with her all her life. Too complicated and a little too disturbing to describe here, these issues and how she was treated for them play profoundly into her life and development. (Read the book!)
A FEELING OF ISOLATION
Deborah grew up in La Crescenta, among the most goyishe (look it up) cities in the Southland, with a father who was raised in an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish household. Deborah’s family didn’t keep kosher because “without a kosher butcher in the area it wouldn’t have been practical,” but they didn’t mix milk and meat at their table. Her mother came from “an austere Russian family that wasn’t emotionally demonstrative,” whereas her father “loved to have a good time, was a man of many appetites, ate to excess, and liked to hug and kiss whoever would allow it.” She believes her mother let her father do her feeling for her.
He also loved ritual. They had a community-run Jewish Center (long since closed) where he led services as the lay Rabbi. Deborah says, “He had a real affection for Jewish ceremony and loved being a star on the stage; with his beautiful resonant radio announcer’s voice, he loved to read Torah and prayers aloud for people. I don’t think he was religious, but he loved the ritual, emotion and drama of it.” And not just Jewish ceremony. “He used to love watching Christian mass on TV on Christmas Eve.”
He was also a serious hypochondriac, a trait he passed on to Deborah and her two older brothers. “My father had all these rituals to ward off danger and illness, like believing that botulism was in every can. We opened cans with this elaborate procedure, all of us leaning in and listening for the ‘whoosh’ of the air entering the can (to prove it was properly sealed). But it was an empty ritual that had nothing to do with protecting us from botulism.”
Her family ran an insurance business out of their home. Her father, she says, “Was a great salesman. He could sell anyone anything, he had a reassuring presence with clients on the phone, and he could really spin worst case scenarios, which is great for selling insurance.” But increasingly her mother bore the burden of running both business and family. “She was trying to take care of my dad, run a home business, take care of my two older brothers, so she was just overwhelmed.”
The tide of his eccentricities turned after his beloved mother died. “He could not cope with the loss and would not accept it, he was depressed, wandering around at night, looking out the living room window, talking to her in her grave. Then he became extremely hypochondriacal, relying on barbiturates; he always liked downers, but he started taking more and more of them.”
Deborah was under her father’s influence for most of her young life, but, she says, “He finally had a psychotic break and lost touch with reality completely. There was a point at which he was hallucinating, seeing people outside the window who weren’t there. And I finally realized, this is it. He’s gone too far and I have to pull back.”
Deborah got involved in social justice issues and the Civil Rights movement. “This helped me to identify with people outside my own experience and learn another way of reacting to the feeling of being oppressed and isolated within my community. I also volunteered for the Robert F. Kennedy Presidential campaign.”
In fact, she was at the Ambassador Hotel the night he was assassinated. “And when he died, I came to a new reckoning about what it’s like to feel grief as a normal emotion. The way my father reacted to the loss of his mother was not healthy. It helped me to see people grieving in a communal way and accepting loss differently than he had.”
And this helped, too: “I think sex saved me! It gave me an entirely different experience of my body, a positive one, as a source of pleasure for me and to give pleasure to someone else.” In case you’re wondering, Deborah has been happily married for many years.
When I asked her why she wrote and why people should read “Don’t Go Crazy Without Me,” Deborah said, “I think a good memoir makes people reconnect with their own childhood and adolescence. For me, there’s this secret wish that if I write about it and the language is beautiful enough, I’ll redeem my childhood and make it better.
“But there’s also a misconception that people ‘get over’ traumatic experiences. I don’t think you get over anything, you learn how to function with that experience. But it’s always there in the background.”
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.