Who She Was: An Interview With Samuel G. Freedman

A son’s search for his mother’s life—and for atonement

Photo: Sara Barrett

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Let’s be honest: Parents, as individuals, are of little or no interest to their children. You had a life before I came along? Who cares? You have hopes and dreams that aren’t centered on me? Whatever! Only in adulthood, if then, do we come around to seeing our folks as people with—who knew?—their own biographies, their own histories. And only then do the questions begin to surface and crowd: Did you have boyfriends? How many? Did you love someone before Mom? What subjects did you like at school? What did you want to do with your life? Who broke your heart?

As Samuel G. Freedman writes in the prologue to his new book, Who She Was, he never reached that station in life with his mother. She died of cancer, in 1974, when he was 19. For the next 26 years he gave her little thought, becoming, “by default and by choice,” his father’s son. When he did think of her it was guiltily, recalling the one and only visit she made to him in college, not long before her death. He had her sit rows apart from him in his classes and made her pretend they were strangers until a safe distance from campus. (And who, sadly, doesn’t have a story like that?)

But about five years ago, a decade into his marriage, now the father of two children, Freedman found himself thinking more and more about his mother, a slow change that built to a moment of transformation in late 2000. At the burial of an aunt, he visited his mother’s grave, for the first time since her death, and felt his distance from her more acutely than ever. As he writes,“[As] if my own wish during college were taking revenge on me, I had discovered that my mother was more and more a stranger to me.”

For the next four years, Freedman turned his professional skills—he is a former New York Times reporter and the author of four other acclaimed books—to piecing together the fragments of his mother’s life, a task he understood as a filial duty and an act of atonement. He writes, “After all my years of rejecting her in life, after all my years of posthumous neglect, I finally had found the means of penance.”

Who She Was, truly a labor of love and longing, is the result. It is a vivid and sensitive—but determinedly unsentimental—evocation of Eleanor Freedman, tracing the arc her life described before she was the author’s mother, from innocence to experience, from star student to college dropout, from joyous lover to restless, dissatisfied wife. This against the backdrop of the teeming Jewish immigrant Bronx of the 1930s and 40s and, beyond that, the larger, darker contours of World War II and the Holocaust. Taking on his duty, Freedman writes, “I told myself I wanted only one thing: to see my mother clear and true.” In this reader’s estimation, he succeeded.

Freedman is a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism (full disclosure: I’m an indebted former student) and the author of Jew vs. Jew and The Inheritance, among other books. He recently talked with Mother Jones by phone from New York City.

Mother Jones: As you describe it in the book, about five years ago you started thinking and talking about your mother, almost despite yourself.

Samuel G. Freedman: That’s right. In the fall of 2000, in the couple of months leading up to my aunt’s funeral in the same graveyard, I’d been out on book tour for my book Jew vs. Jew and I’d done almost all these talks in tandem with Ari Goldman, who is a writer and a longtime friend, and also a fellow professor at Columbia, and I would tell a couple of stories out of my mother’s life. One was about her dancing in the streets of the Bronx the night the UN voted to partition Palestine so that there would be a Jewish state; another was about her love affair and desire to marry at one point a Catholic boy and how her mother, my grandmother, put an end to it by threatening to commit suicide; another was how proud my mother felt when Bess Myerson was chosen Miss America because she was the first Jewish woman to be Miss America. And I’d mention these occasionally when Ari and I would talk, and he said, “I’ve known you for 20 years. I’ve never heard you talk about your mother before.” And Ari knew my father very well, he had spent a lot of time around our family, and it really jolted me, and really made me think, what the hell does it mean that all of a sudden I’m starting to pull all these stories out of the recesses of my memory?

MJ: How much did you know about your mother going into this?

SGF: I knew virtually nothing about her, except that she was my mother and that she was my father’s wife, and that when I wanted to conjure her for myself I couldn’t. I have photographs, and of course I remember what she looked like, but it kind of drove me crazy that I couldn’t think of what her voice sounded like, that she was so indistinct to me.

The whole point of doing the book was to write what I discovered, because I had to really go out and fetch it. And not only had I been your basic disinterested son of a middle-aged mother, hardly inclined to ask her much about her life, but also, for reasons I now understand quite well, my mother had never volunteered very much information either. So what I knew was really reduced to a few little strands of information—that there’d been a Catholic boy; that her mother had threatened to commit suicide at the prospect of an interfaith marriage. She had told me once that her happiest night of her life was going to midnight mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, but she didn’t tell me with whom, it was only in the course of doing this book that it gradually became apparent in my research that was a night during her courtship with Charlie [the Catholic boy]. Or one day cryptically she said, “Did I ever tell you I was married before dad?” I said, no. And then she just dropped it.

MJ: And you weren’t interested?

SGF:Well, I don’t think I knew how to process it. I wouldn’t have even known at age 12 where to go with that. And so I had these very disconnected tidbits, some of which were useful when it came time to doing the research. But most of it I just had to fetch as if I was researching anyone who’d been dead for 30 years.

MJ: So what, in particular, did you want to know?

SGF: One of my questions was, how did she become who she became? How did she form herself? How did she construct a self, which really for me telescoped my research into this transforming time from starting high school, arriving at puberty, to coming through womanhood. And I always knew that I’d basically end the main narrative with the marriage to my father because that’s when the things I’d lived through soon picked up.

I had two different sets of curiosities. One was very intimate, about who were her boyfriends, what did she like in boys, what did she love in school, what were her dreams, why was she heartbroken, what made her feel blue—you know very personal ones. And the other set were about the intersection of an individual life and these gigantic events that were going on around her. What did it mean for her to grow up during the Depression? What did it mean for her to be reaching womanhood during World War II? What did it mean for her to have the extermination of European Jewry happening in the background? And I knew in only the vaguest way that most of our relatives in Europe had been killed by the Nazis, but that was another whole story.

I’d always had a feeling in my other books that there’s a dynamic engagement between lived experience, even at the most grassroots level, and the broader patterns of history. Russell Banks titled one of his novels, which is one of my favorite novels, Continental Drift, with this idea that people live out their own lives without even realizing that they are being carried along by the plate tectonics of history.

MJ: Were there certain facets of your mother’s personality, certain mysteries that lingered, that you specifically wanted to get at?

SGF: I think I wanted to know the source of this melancholy that was so apparent to me growing up. What could make someone so obviously so sad when there were also a lot of causes, until she got sick, for great joy? She had a capacity for great joy and her engagement with life. And what I realized in doing the book was that virtually no one outside of her house—only a handful of really close confidantes—knew about the melancholy, much less the drinking. There was also the question of what made her so obviously detest her mother. The venomous relationship between her and her own mother was played out in front of me. And who was this boy she wanted to marry, and why didn’t she marry him? And who the hell was this first husband?

MJ: Did you have expectations of what you would discover?

SGF: My expectations were that I would come up with a fairly traditional immigrant childhood narrative of the plucky, ambitious child in the stifling Old-World immigrant household and how she has to batter her way out into the wider world, arriving bruised but nonetheless triumphant. And parts of that were certainly applicable to my mother. But at the same time, the really sad conclusion I came to was something very different. It was that for a variety of reasons—cultural reasons, gender role reasons, poverty reasons, familial reasons, but also personal choices that she made—my mother’s life had peaked when she was 17 years old. Life was never better. And I just kept thinking how horrible it would be to live the rest of your life with that knowledge trying to recapture that evanescent moment of being 17 and being beautiful and being the valedictorian and heading off to college on a scholarship.

MJ: You describe writing the book as a penance. In what sense was it that?

SGF: Over the decades, I was haunted by the way I spurned my mother when she came to visit me in college, and by the reality that she was dying at the same time. The most natural thing in the world for me was to be distancing myself and rejecting her, and even though one part of me understood cerebrally that that was normal and developmentally right, the more visceral, emotional part just found it almost unbearable, and I felt that I had to somehow make it right, that writing this book would somehow make up for all those times I hadn’t been to the grave, and for all my indifference to her in life as well.

MJ: And yet there’s an irony here, isn’t there? As you write in the book, she probably wouldn’t have wanted you to do this.

SGF: There is an irony. Which of us wants to be seen, warts and all? And this is a warts-and-all portrait. And yes, I was very aware while I was working on it that she wouldn’t have been pleased to think I was devoting all this time to trying to posthumously reconnect and reach for her. Who would want all their selfish or self-defeating or self-destructive moments uncovered? I think that’s very hard to look at on the page. And so in that respect, I certainly had a kind of freedom in writing about her so many years after her death that I would not have availed myself of had she been alive. But then again, if she had been alive I would have had 30 intervening years to come around to asking these questions.

MJ: You write in the epilogue of having a professional as well as personal agenda in writing the book. What was that?

SGF: I have really been disturbed over the years, not only as a journalist but as someone who teaches journalism, at how many liberties seem to be taken in what is supposedly non-fiction, and this seemed endemic particularly in memoir and in family history. But it’s also true, as we know more about books like In Cold Blood, books that were held up as sort of totemic examples of narrative non-fiction, we find out how much of was actually fictionalized by Capote. Also that parts of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and Fierce Attachments, by Vivian Gornick, were fabricated. Even in a book that I loved and gave a blurb to, Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt is giving verbatim conversations between the mother and the grocer in the family that were taking place when Frank was three years old.

I felt that the line was so porous that it needed to be reestablished, and that if you’re going to have the advantages of nonfiction, which is the power of truth, then you have to keep your responsibility to truth also. I recognize that truth is something that’s not fixed and universally acknowledged, that it’s contended over, and that what I see as the truth of my mother’s life might be challenged by others if anyone else chose to write the book of her life; but the book still represents my effort to get as close to truth as I think is humanly possible, and not to invent, not to fictionalize, to live with what you can’t find out and instead of trying to paper it over.

MJ: How did writing this book compare to writing your others, which obviously were much less personal?

SGF: It was different. I felt like my brain was cut in half at times. Half of it was thinking purely as a journalist and historian: What do I need to find, who do I need to interview, where is the paper trail? And then the other half was processing that emotionally along the way. There would be times I would just come back from interviews and find myself laying awake in the middle of the night just sighing and saying, “Oh my God,” especially as it dawned on me that her life had peaked at such an early age and everything that came after was such a letdown.

I think one thing I learned is that—even having grown up in a feminist era and having heard about the constraints on women’s lives in previous times; and even being aware that poverty is a constraint on the aspirations of young people—to know that my mother had to give up the college experience, that she wanted to go to work to support her family because her father was such a failure and her mother had been reduced to picking garbage—that was huge. And just how hard it was as a woman: there were so many colleges she couldn’t go to, so many jobs that were essentially closed off to her; so many ways she was told not to aspire, and best to do only the utilitarian thing.

MJ: Do you draw any personal lessons from all this?

SGF: I think I really came to grips personally with what the Holocaust meant to my family. You understand it, as a Jewish person certainly, as this terrible historical episode, an atrocity. But there was something that a guy I once wrote about, a guy who studied the Khmer Rouge genocide, said to me. He was doing pathology or whatever the appropriate term would be on skulls of victims of the Khmer Rouge when the killing fields began to be discovered. And he said everyone thinks mass murder is impersonal. But even if it’s impersonal to the murderer, it’s personal to the victim. It’s very personal.

It also gave me a real posthumous compassion for my grandmother, whom I had never felt particularly warm toward, I always found a difficult, remote human being. And when I saw the way she drove herself half-mad trying to, in some way, get her relatives out [of Europe], and in fact the only handful who got out did so because she had been able to cobble together the money for them for them to emigrate to Uruguay. That made it all very palpable to me in a way it hadn’t been.

MJ: So, now, at the end of the mission, the duty done, do you feel that you’ve done your penance?

SGF: Yes. Now I feel that I can be at that grave and not be delinquent. And I don’t feel haunted.

MJ: What do your siblings and your father think of the book?

SGF: I only undertook only after they all said they could live with it. My sister and father both read it as it was going along, my brother chose not to, and I guess that was because he found it, in some ways, difficult to relive all of that stuff because he was the youngest in the house when mom was dying and had the worst of the aftermath. My father had a sort of bemused, bewildered attitude a lot of the time. He would say to me, “Tell me again, why are you writing this book?” And I would explain that I just wanted to know about her life.

MJ: And how has the experience altered your sense of yourself as a father of two children, if at all?

SGF: I don’t know. I think I expect that my children will be basically as indifferent to me as I was to my mother. I mean, they like some stories that I tell about my childhood. My daughter, who’s ten, in particular, has gotten very interested in what I was finding out doing this book, not because it was about me but because it gave her a grandmother that she otherwise didn’t have. But I expect them to think that I’m boring and out of date, and I think that’s absolutely right in a certain way. My son said to me one day, Daddy, you’re so old your expiration date has passed! And I think that’s right. But I think the best thing that could happen is that I’ll live to be a lot older than my mother lived, and they won’t have to write a book like this.



We have about a $170,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign that ends Saturday. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods


We have about a $170,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign that ends Saturday. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.