BRB Author Spotlight Presents: Cherise Wolas Author of The Family Tabor.
Q: Harry is at a crossroads in his life and is suffering from a crisis of conscience so intense that it borders on pathological. Do you see Harry’s shame moving from mind to body and manifesting as potential physical ailment?
A: The mind exerts enormous power, and personal issues that go unresolved can fester inside and turn into physical ailments. I love reading psychological texts, and nonfiction written by psychologists, psychiatrists, and forensic experts in the field, so I’m careful when I use psychological terms. I don’t think Harry’s crisis of conscience borders on the pathological, because his humanity is so clearly on display. It is, however, absolutely a very intense crisis of conscience. One of the aspects I love most about Harry is that his ability to hide from the truth of what he was wrought — how his wrongful actions grievously harmed another person — is short-lived. He’s human, so he tries to counter the truth — the harm he caused was unintentional, and he’s done so much good since then, but he can’t hold his position for long. And very soon, his need to repent becomes an unassailable obligation. Does his shame move from mind to body and then manifest as a potential physical ailment? Well, there’s the ending…
Q: How much of Harry’s role contributes to the overall dynamic of his family even though they are unaware of his conflict?
A: Tolstoy’s famous quote that opens Anna Karenina is: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I love the quote for its pithy perfection, but I think what constitutes a “happy family” is incredibly complex. And I start with this quote because I think the Tabors believe they are a happy family. Family happiness is based on many factors — a strong marriage, ongoing sexual attraction, professional and financial success, compatible views on money, leisure time, parenting beliefs, religion, in-laws, the birth and development of children, etc., and the alignment or misalignment of any of those factors will create different dynamics. For Harry and Roma Tabor, who are still in love after more than forty years of marriage, their sense of happiness is rooted in what their ancestors overcame, and in what they have created together, including their pride in their children.
For Harry, his obliteration of certain critical memories has allowed him to move forward, to put his energies into a mission that perhaps is a balm to his soul. Roma made a tough and conscious decision about that past, which brought the factors back into alignment.
For Phoebe, Camille, and Simon, their foundation is rooted in the family’s origin story, which they have had no reason to doubt. And in a family where everything shimmers, where there seem to be no dark truths to contend with, there might be a natural desire to not want to be the one to smudge the family’s shine. Each of the adult Tabor children is at a personal crossroads, each seeking something we all want — love or connection or the belief we’re living our right life. And each is trying to find a new path they hope will lead them in the right direction. But because this is an exceptional family, where all of the members are brilliant, accomplished, and worldly, it can be far more difficult to admit to those crossroads. And perhaps that compels the adult children to hide aspects of themselves they aren’t proud of, or that they see as failures, or out of sync with the family narrative.
If Harry’s past had been exposed early on, and the family didn’t break apart, it would have been a brick in their collective foundation and narrative; and it’s likely each Tabor would have been a different version of him or herself. But how different, and in what ways, is impossible to know. The weft and warp of every family changes over time, and whether what is shifting is in the past or in the present, secret or known, it creates a new dynamic, and every new dynamic can alter character, personality, behavior, and decision-making. I think all of us, within the context of our families, are perpetually affected by what we know and what we don’t know.
Q: Harry’s past seems to be quickly catching up with him as his big award day looms. At one point it seemed that Harry wholly believed that “The past no longer exists, there is only the future, whatever it may hold,” Do you feel that he had carefully constructed an elaborate lie in order to cope with his past actions? Was it easier for him after moving so far away with his family to put the past out of his mind?
A: Harry hasn’t constructed a conscious elaborate lie; instead he has eliminated all the memories of his past bad actions. The brain can expunge memories, both good and bad. Context plays a big role in our memories, and when we change the context, we can change the memories. Harry needed to forget his out-of-character actions, and he did so by changing his contextual surroundings. He left the past in the past and moved his family to “an unknown place where the foreign light was unique, and the vistas. . . held only the present and the future in vivid sunlight.” So, absolutely, moving to a distant and unfamiliar place was essential for obliterating his memories. Had Harry stayed where he was, the memories would have remained. But I think Harry’s intense belief that the past no longer exists, and that there is only the future, might be his unconscious constantly needling him about the memories he’s expunged.
Q: Harry’s wife Roma is not only a successful therapist but comes across very astute when it comes to having a handle on the human condition. What responsibility do you feel a spouse has in Roma’s situation? Could she have known more than she would even admit to herself? Does Roma appear to you as the type of person who immerses herself in many distractions so as not to face the bigger issues in her life?
A: I think Roma has always been naturally astute about the human condition, hence her “miracle worker” status as psychologist. She’s a woman who sees the big picture, and the big issues, and rarely loses herself in distractions. When she realizes that what she has believed all these years — and upon which she based certain critical decisions — is false, she is very quick to thoughtfully identify her own failings. She even assesses what her current responsibility is now that she possesses this knowledge.
Q: What are the deeper implications of her ties to her mother and maternal grandmother? Does Roma believe that their suffering paved the way for her life of ease?
A: The notion of luck runs strongly through the novel, and each of the Tabors references it personally. It intrigues me that Tatiana and Inessa, Roma’s grandmother and mother, suffered as they did, and despite their faith, believed it was luck, and not faith, that saved them. And when they make it to the new world, they teach Roma, their granddaughter and daughter, to trust in luck’s tangible reality. For Tatiana and Inessa, luck represented the possibilities in the new world. Roma learned their lesson, but she is constantly mediating between past and present, honoring what came before her — Tatiana and Inessa’s suffering, losses, and sorrows, that she feels deep in her bones — and being grateful for what she has. She’s fully aware of what she’s been gifted, and that, unlike Tatiana and Inessa, she doesn’t have to save her own life on a daily basis. Roma carries the family history within her and passes it down. She is the conduit between past and present, and unlike Harry, she believes the past always exists, and is always contained in the present. As a result, she’s keenly aware that luck is capricious and can turn very fast. It’s long surprised her that while she had to be taught about luck, her own daughters required no such education — they naturally believe in it. And perhaps their natural belief demonstrates how the past loses its place in the present.
Q: Harry’s son Simon and his wife Elena seem to have hit a critical point in their marriage in terms of freedom to follow a religious path. As the story progresses, Simon starts to see the necessity for him to honor his faith. Why is Elena so against this?
A: I think it’s human nature to resist what we don’t know, fight against what impinges on our views, and might result in psychic and emotional discomfort. I sympathize deeply with Elena. In falling in love with Simon, she went against her upbringing, and her own expectations, and those of her family. When she met Simon, he was exactly as he presented himself: Jewish, but mostly in name alone. In that bubble of love, neither of them delved into any potentially thorny issues that might arise as a result of their birth religions, and they handled it by keeping religion/faith outside of their marriage and home. Until this celebratory weekend, Simon has never expressed any interest in exploring his faith. And when he does, they both already feel strains in the marriage, which has been based on an agreed set of principles. And what Simon wants to explore has the potential to completely change one of those principles, and thus their marriage.
Q: Phoebe and Camille seem so intent on playing their perceived familial roles that each of them harbor secrets that don’t seem to serve them. Why do these women fear living outside of their imposed boxes?
A: Our self-images are embedded at an early age. We learn to understand that x behavior results in y result. There are exceptions, but generally, we learn the best version of ourselves might result in rewards, but the problematic version rarely does. Phoebe and Camille are facing different issues in their lives that crystallize what each most desires, or is most afraid of. Neither wants to be perceived as weak, or less than. I think it’s fascinating that there’s no evidence the rest of the family would perceive their issues as weaknesses, and they both know their mother sees most everything, but still they can’t open up. Stepping out of our personal boxes, when we don’t even know we’ve boxed ourselves in, is, by its very definition, impossible. And yet, because Phoebe and Camille have a high degree of self-awareness, I think that’s exactly what each begins to do over the weekend.
Q: Religion, cultural traditions, piousness are all significant themes in the book. Water also plays a central role, perhaps as a cleansing element. What did these things mean to you as they related to Harry’s conflict and the life he built?
A: For me, writing is about discovering the unexpected, so I’ve learned not to come at my work with preconceived notions about anything, including themes. Everything emerges organically. When I begin to write, I have a growing sense of the people, and I intently listen to them tell me all of their truths: who they are, the problems they’re having, their hopes, dreams, secrets, issues, what they want to do, how they want their stories to go. Through the writing, all kinds of clues emerge — about their pasts and futures, interactions, progressions, and themes. Each clue leads to a key, and each key leads to another door. And I keep going.
Since first imagining the Tabors, they’ve always been a Jewish family, but it was simply a fact about them. In The Family Tabor, they are steeped in the ancient history of the Jews, and in the histories of their relatives, but being Jewish doesn’t define them, and they are very modern. So when I began writing the novel, I never expected religion, or faith, or religious identity to play any role. When I found that the family members had specific relationships or responses to Judaism, I fought very hard against it, because I never intended to write a Jewish American novel. But with anti-Semitism and hatred for immigrants so loud and ugly again in this country and throughout the world, the Tabors’ insistence that I explore their responses to the faith of their ancestors encouraged me to be brave.
Each family member set his or her own terms. Roma treasures the mind over faith. Phoebe lights the Friday night candles, but only when she remembers. Camille believes in none of it; her religion is her social anthropological work. Simon has never seriously considered it, even though he litigates over the return of artwork stolen from Jewish families by the Nazis. And Harry considers himself a “historical Jew,” which to him means Jewish culture and ethics, but absolutely not prayer. So it shocked me to uncover that Harry had prayed seriously earlier in his life. That discovery placed Harry’s conflict and the life he built afterwards into a larger context tied to the past, the future, and to notions about faith in general, and Judaism in particular.
And yes, absolutely, water plays a central role in the novel. The Tabor pool is where much happens — the family congregates, talks, interacts, hides things, plays games, and they eat beside it. And both Harry and Roma do seem to use it as a kind of cleansing element.
Q: How much of a role do you feel contrition plays in living a peaceful and fulfilled life? Do you believe that good deeds can ever take the place of true repentance?
A: This is one of the questions that compelled me to write The Family Tabor, because I wanted to personally explore it. I note that, as far as I can tell, in Judaism, there is a “contrite” heart, but otherwise the word isn’t used. Instead, it’s repentance.
The dictionary defines contrition as the state of feeling remorseful and penitent, to feel sorrow, regret, ruefulness, pangs of conscience, shame, guilt. It defines a category of feelings, but requires no action to resolve those feelings by repenting to the person you’ve harmed. Is it enough to know and feel you’ve done wrong, but do nothing about it? There are those who never feel contrite when they should. And those who feel contrite, but can let the guilt and shame go. And those who believe that feeling remorse, guilt, or shame, is a sign of weakness. And in our current society, the public “apology” has become so denigrated that it’s meaningless, usually couched in terms that flip responsibility to the harmed person: “I’m sorry if what I did made you feel this way.” These days, I think feeling contrite means you’ve retained your humanity, and that is a very, very good and laudable thing. But does contrition lead to living a peaceful and fulfilled life? I don’t think simply having those feelings leads to such a life, but having those feelings might not interfere with living a peaceful and fulfilled life, because we’ve learned it’s okay to not treat people well, to cheat, lie, defraud, steal, slander, defame, and otherwise harm or take advantage of others, and often there are no repercussions. To be clear, I’m not speaking of crimes like rape and murder, but rather the deliberate and careless hurts we inflict, the arrows we sling, the slights we make sure land, the things we take away from others. Writing The Family Tabor has convinced me that experiencing shame, guilt, etc. is insufficient. According to Jewish tradition, only sins against God can be atoned for through confession, regret, and promising not to repeat the action. Sins against other people can be atoned for only 1) once the wrong has made right (i.e. restitution for a financial crime, a public apology and correction for libel, etc.) and 2) that forgiveness be received from the harmed person. And Jewish law requires that the repentance be made face to face. The act of apologizing is generally fraught, nerve-wracking, and messy, but so much good can come from it. It can clean the slate, provide closure and a way to move forward for both parties, re-establish parity, which may lead to a renewed and stronger connection, and it teaches us to be more thoughtful and aware of our actions and our tongues, and, hopefully, curbs our bad behavior, at least with respect to the particular harm we caused a specific person.
I’m all in favor of good deeds that benefit others. And if someone feels contrite about how they have harmed another and engages in good acts as a result, that’s wonderful, and of enormous value, and should be encouraged. But do good deeds replace seeking repentance from the actual person you’ve hurt? The easy answer, as well as the Jewish answer, is no: you can’t absolve your sins by helping many, when the affected individual is ignored. The tougher answer is more complicated, and would make great philosophical and rabbinical questions: If failing to repent to the individual leads to doing good for many others, and apologizing to the individual would not lead to doing good for many others, which is ultimately more important?
About the Author: Cherise is a New York-based writer, originally from Los Angeles, CA. Her first novel, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, was a semifinalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Debut Fiction Prize, named an Indie Next Pick, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, a Best Novel and Best Debut Novel by Kirkus Reviews, a Top 10 novel of 2017 by Booklist, among many other accolades. Her second novel, The Family Tabor, is forthcoming in July 2018 from Flatiron Books.