BY BLOOD

ELLEN ULLMAN

AKA: Portrait of an Obsession

This is definitely a must read.

The narrator is a disgraced professor who refers to “the terrible darkness within me” and his “morbid and afflicted” imagination — without showing us much evidence of anything other than something to do about a boy and hanging out where students gather. While under investigation by the university for some unspecified infraction, he’s installed himself in a rented office, where he intends to prepare lectures but there is not indication that actually happens. In the office next door, Dr. Dora Schussler, psychotherapist, sees her patients. For most of the day she has a machine that creates white noise but one patient requests that the white noise is turned off allowing the narrator to hear every word. Thus his obsession begins.

He is taken with one patient: a young lesbian, also left nameless. It’s love at first listen, and not just because of the patient’s “creamy alto.” It’s her predicament. She is adopted and just beginning explore the secrets obscuring her origins. Our narrator comes from dreadful suicide-smitten stock — “My aunt Selma once said I had the temperament of Uncle Harry: Did this include whatever bad thing he had done with his gun?” — and this patient fills him with admiration. “Why,” he asks, “could I not learn the art of being parentless from these adoptees: these very models of self-creation?”

Assisted by the narrator’s discreet and creepy stage management, the patient’s inquiry will lead her to a group of Jewish orphans at Belsen in the last days of World War II. In Israel, the patient will also encounter something like a parallel self, an unsuspected sibling—also adopted—whose story of her own reunion with their mother casts light on the terrible meaning not just of why the patient was given up for adoption as a baby but why her mother never sought her out later on.

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