According to Gore Vidal, author of Palimpset, “A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked. “
How do you review a memoir? Do you review it for its readability? For it’s entertainment value? How concerned do you have to be as to its accuracy? Does a memoir represent how one “remembers one’s own life?” How does it differ from an autobiography?
Unorthodox is Deborah Feldman’s story and it is a real eye opener. Deborah grew up in the Satmar Hasidic community of Williamsburg, New York. Because Deborah’s mother abandoned her and her father was mentally ill and unable to raise a child, Deborah was brought up by her ultra religious grand parents. She was raised in a home where women wore long skirts, singing was only allowed on sabbath, secular books were forbidden and no one owned a television or radio. Even as a child she wanted more out of life. Unlike many of the people in her community, she was not satisfied with living in such a restrictive world. She dreamed of traveling. She wanted an education
Deborah was married off to a young man who she hardly knew at the age of 17. She did not know the first thing about what would actually happen on her wedding night. After difficulties due to a physical condition on Deborah’s part, her marriage was eventually consummated and she gave birth to a son. Deborah enrolled in Sarah Lawrence College where she was exposed to the outside world, actually bought herself a pair of jeans and eventually left her husband and her community.
I was captivated by this book and Deborah’s story It was a shocking story and it had to have taken a lot of courage to write it. Deborah gives us a glimpse of what it was like growing up in an oppressive community with little contact with the outside world. She exposes the details of a gruesome murder and cover up in her community as well as a horrible story of a young wife who sustained serious injury during intercourse because the couple did not know what they were doing.
Deborah’s story left me with many questions. I could not help but question whether Deborah’s upbringing was typical of other children brought up in this ultra religious community or if her dysfunctional family was partly to blame. Deborah’s father was clearly mentally ill and wandered the streets, yet received no medical care. And why and how could her mother have left her? I could not help but feel sympathy for some of Deborah’s family members. And her husband. Was he a victim too? I would like to know more about how she actually left the community. Was there any custody issue? What kind of relationship does her child have with his father? I wonder if she sees things any differently now that some time has passed.I understand that she is working on another book so perhaps some of these questions will be answered
Unorthodox is one of the top-selling books on Amazon and Deborah Feldman has appeared on numerous shows including The View. There is quite a bit of controversy surrounding the book. According to several articles, the gruesome murder described in the book never occurred and that she makes numerous false claims. People are angry about the way their community was portrayed.
While reading, I had to remind myself that this was Deborah’s story told through her eyes, the eyes of a young girl. It is her memoir and is not an autobiography. Unorthodox was a captivating read and a very thought-provoking book. It has peaked my interest and you can bet I will be doing research on the ultra religious Hasidic Satmar community in New York.
Food for thought: