Barbara Stark-Nemon‘s debut novel, Even in Darkness, has been called “a remarkable and honest portrayal of unexpected paths, told with moving depth and literary skill.” She’s a University of Michigan grad (like me – Go Blue!) who went on to a teaching career in English and then a Masters in Speech-language Pathology. Working in schools, universities and hospitals as a teacher and speech-language therapist, Barbara specialized in child language disorder and deafness. Barbara says, “Everywhere, there were stories, and the need to be heard and seen that we all share.” And she’s sharing a bit of her own – and her great-aunt Klare’s – with us today. – Meg
Barbara Stark-Nemon: The Mouth Laughs, the Heart Cries
Two careers ago, I stood in my great-aunt Klare’s dining room in the well-appointed rectory of the Catholic priest with whom she lived in Germany. Warm scents from the begonias lining the windowsill, the fresh roses on the table, and the polished walnut antiques filled the air. We stood before a painting depicting a carelessly arranged bouquet of flowers in a dull red vase with barely sketched greenery, the whole set in a backdrop of foreboding blue.
The painting was out of character in this otherwise serene and lovely room, and I had asked my aunt about it. Her eyes, magnified behind overlarge glasses, became dreamy as she described the painting’s purchase shortly after WWII.
The struggle of the flowers to emerge from the dark and somewhat sinister background in the painting, their beauty tentative, had spoken to her of her own life. She had survived thirty months in a concentration camp, more months in a German displaced persons camp, and the loss of those loved ones she’d fought to save during the Holocaust. She was a middle aged Jewish woman who had just come to live with a Catholic priest. In Germany.
These basic facts about Klare’s life I knew from years of my grandfather’s stories, but in Klare’s telling, it all took on far greater complexity and impact. I could feel the warmth of her childhood memories, her exhaustion and sorrow after the horrors she experienced during the war years, and the doggedness with which she faced the deprivations that followed. I also saw her face alight when she told of how she came to live with the young priest and the joy their unlikely relationship brought to each of them.
I’d come to visit Klare because I thought my own life was a shambles. I’d always been drawn to this great aunt, who, with my grandfather (her brother), formed my personal cheerleading squad. Grounded in unconditional love, their influence always pointed me toward the best of who I am as a person.
Klare was deeply intelligent, had a wicked and subtle sense of humor and quietly charmed bishops and lowly waiters with equal guilelessness. Over the previous days, what I had considered the wreck of my own life had come to seem trivial in contrast to what I’d learned of hers. As Klare described what the odd painting meant to her and its call for survival, resilience, and the promise of beauty, I was overwhelmed with admiration and respect for her capacity to unerringly find the half full glass, and to show and nurture it in others. She did all this despite what she’d suffered and lived through. I’d found the inspiration I’d come for.
“How do you do it?” I asked her. “How are you always able to find joy and meaning in your life and in other people’s? How can you forget all that pain?”
“I never forget,” she answered immediately, her eyes no longer dreamy, but drilling straight into mine. Her tone softened. “The mouth laughs, but the heart cries.”
In that simple stunning sentence, my life changed. I understood, in a new way, that fully accepting a painful past was not mutually exclusive with finding a full and meaningful life in the future. What it would require would be to choose to embrace the duality, and make the effort to create my own path to fulfillment.
I also knew I had a book to write. Even in Darkness was born.
The decision to write this book as a novel rather than a memoir was a complicated one and related to the fact that I was writing about my own family. I’d always dreamed of writing a novel. On the other hand, who was I to meddle with Klare’s story in any way? What kind of exposure would this bring to the family members who are still alive? Weren’t the facts I’d collected about her complex and unusual life in my years of research and interviews enough? Just as I began writing in 2006, the national literary scandal broke involving James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, a memoir about his descent into and recovery from addiction. Played out on Larry King, on Oprah, and other major media, Frey was accused and eventually admitted to fabricating portions of his book. His agent dropped him.
The dawning of what has now become a lively age of memoir was fraught with arguments about truth: who decides what constitutes the truth of a situation? What are the limits of memory? Who owns a story? What happens when, as in my case, I knew some, but not all that happened to Klare in the concentration camp, or what other choices she had to make not only to survive, but to live a life that had any meaning after the suffering and loss she experienced? Having loved and admired this woman, and learned my own deeply meaningful lessons from her life, I had no wish to probe any deeper into her past or expose her or the priest to judgments about the technical truth of events they experienced and related to me. I didn’t want to speculate on their behalf. No distancing via “One can only imagine that…..”. I wanted my own personal voice out of it.
There was another issue. My father’s grandmother and great uncle died in the same concentration camp to which Klare was sent, during the time she was there. Though I never knew them, I knew their stories and the great impact they had on my father. I wished to memorialize them in my book, and so they became characters.
To tell Klare’s story, to honor the complexity of the choices that she and the priest who became so important in her life had to make, to pay homage to my grandparents and parents who lost everything and re-found everything differently, to memorialize other family members, and most importantly, to celebrate their legacy as I experienced it; these are what I wanted to weave into a book. It needed to be fiction so that the effect that the real people who became my characters had on me, and the deep attachment and respect I felt toward them could inspire the fictional aspects of the novel while leaving me free to make the story as compelling as I could. I wanted my readers to abandon themselves to the essence of the story, Klare’s story, in the way fiction has always allowed for. – Barbara