Review: By Blood, by Ellen Ullman

by+blood>>Published: February 2012

>>Finally got around to it: April 2013

Then all at once I was frightened. How quickly I could come to hate her—she who was moments ago my icon of self-creation. I must be careful, I thought. I have traveled this path before. I must not go there. I therefore forced down my anger; sat still as my annoyance ebbed. It took all my self-control, but I succeeded, congratulating myself that I had changed, that I could be otherwise than I’d been. I turned my ear to the lovely pitch of the patient’s voice, her beautiful whiskey alto, and once again let it play above me as music, staccato now, legato then, piano and forte. My dear patient, I thought, forgive me! And how my heart contracted when she suddenly sobbed and cried out:

I don’t understand! How could they get me from a place they hate? How could they? I know it sounds crazy, but I feel I’m tainted. That Father looks at me and sees this mark: Catholic.

But you are not changed, said the therapist. Your being, your self, is the same, whether you came from a reed basket, a Protestant church, or a Catholic agency.

This has nothing to do with who I am! shouted the patient. It’s a mark on me before I was anyone. No matter what I am!

She was breathing forcefully, and I thought she would finally cry. But she contained herself and fell silent.


By Blood, Ellen Ullman’s second novel and third book, is a strange, often unsettling bit of literary voyeurism. The protagonist of this sordid tale is an unnamed fifty-year-old disgraced university professor awaiting the judgement of the Professional Ethics Committee. It’s never directly spelled out what his disgrace was, only that it was sexual in nature and involved a young male student—the details of their encounter are, to the novel’s benefit, kept decidedly vague. In an effort to keep his career from falling apart entirely, and to better occupy his mind, he leases an office space in a building shared by a therapist in San Francisco in the late summer of 1974 to prepare a series of lectures on The Eumenides.

However, in place of his work the narrator instead finds himself captivated, almost immediately, by the therapy sessions of a young lesbian attempting to unravel her past and track down her birth parents. The young unnamed woman’s sessions travel with almost perfect audio clarity between the walls separating her therapist’s walls from the Spartan office of our unbalanced and progressively more disturbing narrator. As the professor becomes more interested—and more involved in the patient’s story, he gradually inserts himself into the tale. At first his interest is merely a curiosity, but curiosity quickly leads to almost telegraphed obsession, then to an unnatural sort of fatherly protection and mistrust of Dr. Dora Schussler, the therapist, as he turns the patient’s search for self-identification into an academic project, in the end assuming only he knows what is best for the young wayward.

Set amidst the Zodiac killings of the mid-seventies, By Blood is a highly crafted literary mystery. The professor narrating the novel’s events is at first presented as an arrogant, entitled man. Through practiced attentiveness and an overeager imagination, he is able to construct a fully three-dimensional image of the patient’s therapy sessions—using details such as the smell of a particular brand of cigarette smoked by Dr. Schussler, or the sound she makes when she rubs her nylons together as the paint he applies to the setting built in his mind. The professor’s incredible ability to take individual details and run with them affords him a distraction from his own life and problems; periodic memories and half-crystalized thoughts reveal only what’s needed from a man whose family life was marked by “long bloodlines of mad people stretching back in time, suicides running in our veins the way blue eyes were passed down in saner clans.” It isn’t long before his many-layered neurosis overwhelms his manicured, erudite self, and the personality the reader is forced to hold hands with for the novel’s duration is one unhinged and ignorant to such ideas as “privacy” and “professional conduct.”

Opposite to the professor is the object of his fascination: the patient. Her life, as we learn through the professor’s aural voyeurism, is uncertain; she does not know entirely what she wants in a lover, how best to navigate the waters of her lesbianism with less than supportive parents, or the truth of her origins. Her adoptive mother is an emotional black hole, speaks often in the future imperative (a fantastically passive aggressive approach to parenting), and refuses to accept her daughter’s sexuality; her adoptive father is a man disowned by his own cult leader of a father and harbours a deep and at first glance irrational hatred of Catholics. We learn that, through the professor’s unknown-to-others intervention, the patient was abandoned during World War II by a Jewish mother who had married an Aryan man. She did so to attempt to protect herself from Hitler’s concentration camps. The patient was at first adopted by her adoptive father’s father, Grandfather Avery, who in turn rejected her (he’d been under the impression, vicious as despicable as he was, that he’d adopted a pure-blooded Aryan child and not some Jewish girl who’d simply been baptized Catholic). The patient’s story is so attractive to the professor as he sees, forced or not, fragments of his own self in her: “How like me she was, I thought: never properly loved, not trusting therefore, believing only in the picture of the world constructed by her analyzing mind.

Set firmly (and unknowingly) between the professor and the patient is the therapist: Dr. Dora Schussler. Dr. Schussler is the only named character of the three main; she is the story’s fulcrum and, eventually, its final curtain. Dr. Schussler, without knowing it, is the professor’s primary antagonist—a therapist he assumes at times to be less than competent, unworthy of the patient’s attention and respect. He listens carefully to supposedly private conversations shared between Dr. Schussler and an always outside-of-the-scene therapist named Dr. Gurevitch, a contemporary of Dr. Schussler’s who assists the good doctor with feelings of her own unearthed during her sessions with the patient—feelings of guilt regarding her own German heritage and her Nazi father.

By Blood is divided into four sections, each with its own identifiable focus: Part One is backstory and setting, wherein the professor’s educated façade is quickly stripped to its psychologically disturbed underwire; Part Two is the scheme, the research that will unearth the patient’s previously unknown life story; Part Three is the history lesson, detailing in tremendous detail the patient’s search for truth as she tracks down her birth mother Michal and pulls from her the sordid details of her birth and subsequent abandonment; and Part Four is a trim collection of pages set aside for final revelations and unfortunately timed reveals. For the first two parts, the professor is most certainly the novel’s focus—much to his own dismay. In Part Three, the story shifts and the professor becomes a full-time observer to the patient’s long and difficult history. While this is in large part due to leg work accomplished in secret by the professor, he mostly recedes into the background in this part, content to sit back and munch his metaphorical popcorn while the patient pours out so much of her life as to entirely shield us from inquiring about his. In this sense, the narrative—and how it is written—conforms to his ever-present need to hide from reality and the ramifications and full acknowledgement of his unfortunate past actions.

Masks are the theme of the day. The patient’s story is the professor’s mask, so that he may hide from the world (and live somewhat happily in another’s as an imagined silent partner). By a similar token, Jewishness and lesbianism are the masks of mothers. Michal did not want religion to be a burden for her daughter as it was for her, claiming it is not blood but choice that defines someone as Jewish. This is comparable, in a sense, to the patient’s adoptive mother and her views on lesbianism—as something her daughter has chosen to inflict upon their totally happy, well balanced, and not at all cultish or borderline alcoholic family. Stories and choices—or what are perceived as choices—are preferred over blood by those most fearful of what is represented by what’s in their DNA. The book’s title, in the end, holds to what the professor, Dr. Schussler, and Michal most desperately want to ignore, and what the patient seeks so ardently to confirm: that the failures and successes of their minds and hearts are tethered to who they are, who they were, and they always would be, and the choices made along the way are worth only so much.

All that being said, the ending of By Blood is frustratingly abrupt—not so much because the patient’s history and happiness remain unresolved, but because the professor, whose life has as previously mentioned taken a back seat in the novel’s second half, has been shut out of the life he’d been obsessing over, but with little in the way of ramifications to his own already damaged psyche. This is at odds with how troubled he seemed previously over the mere possibility of losing that connection when the landlord threatened to move his office to another floor. Additionally, the professor’s own story is left unceremoniously unresolved, with his academic and professional future still up in the air at the end of the novel. It feels a little as if the author lost interest in both halves of the story at once, and the professor is left at the end with having to once more live with and examine his own life. However, the fear we’d been led to expect from him in such a situation is not present in the novel’s final pages, leading the reader to suspect that by accomplishing what he had with the patient—whatever the end result to his ethics or moral grounding—he’d found some sort of self-satisfaction that would in turn carry him through to the better, more emotionally well developed self that is shown in the novel’s opening pages, as he addresses the reader from a point after the narrative’s end.

And like life, nothing is ever truly over, and no one’s life is ever so honest and clear. Despite a few minor and not-so-minor unresolved thoughts regarding the novel’s final few pages, Ullman’s By Blood remains captivating ’til the very last.

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