The Ambivalent Memoirist
by Sandra Hurtes



CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013. ISBN 978-1-492-35972-2.
Reviewed by Donna B. Russell
Posted on 08/30/2014
Review of the Month, September 2014

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: American Women in Their Cultural/Historical Context; Nonfiction: Life Lessons;

It's rare that a book captures my interest right from the prologue, but this one did. Sandra Hurtes writes with an openness, honesty, and passion that draw you into her personal story.

Her strong ties throughout her life to her birthplace come alive in her words... "Brooklyn was an emotional patchwork, and I was sewn into its seams." Hurtes had many opportunities to leave, but the fears and 'what ifs' held her back. While other friends went to college across the country or traveled the world, she remained close to home. Finally, she took the leap and moved to Manhattan. "One of my proudest achievements was leaving Brooklyn," she writes. "Living where my parents had settled meant never stepping into my own shoes, staying symbolized by my inability to live my own life. Still, Brooklyn remains in my marrow."

Through the series of short essays that comprise The Ambivalent Memoirist, Hurtes explores her heritage as a Jew whose parents escaped the Holocaust but lost many relatives to Hitler's brutality. She describes her search to find her purpose and place in the world, as well as a sense of self apart from the mother who couldn't let go and the father "with nothing to live for but the opportunity to fix his daughter's life."

For many, including Hurtes, our understanding of our parents comes as we age. For example, she never understood her mother's almost obsessive floor-scrubbing until she found herself on hands and knees scrubbing floors years after her parents' death. "What peace to stand finally and gaze upon a spotless floor," she writes. It was what that clean floor symbolized that finally helped her to understand her mother: "...a way to bring order to a mind in a constant spin." It seemed to represent her mother's way of feeling a sense of approval and accomplishment; one thing she had control over in a world in which so much was out of her control. Of her father, the author writes, "I didn't know when my father died he'd leave my heart undone. The silence of my grief is deafening." Often only after our parents are gone do most of us, like Hurtes, come to realize they did the best they could.

The past continued to exert its influence as the author moved on with her life, becoming a teacher and a writer. She chose to teach literature about characters with messy lives. This afforded her an opportunity to teach her students that although we all make mistakes in life, we mustn't allow those mistakes to rule our lives. Regarding a quote from twelve-step meetings:"Look back but don't stare," Hurtes writes, "I like that. It tells me to see how yesterday can affect tomorrow. But I don't have to make it my tomorrow."

Although she wanted to write a novel, memoir is where the author excels. She explains, "...memoir is not merely what happened, but what we make of what happened." It gives the writer an opportunity to "release a burden, to inform and help others, to make sense of life..." Writing became her purpose in life and is something she says she can't NOT do.

In many ways, I identified strongly with this writer. Though my parents were neither Jewish nor Holocaust survivors, our mothers had similar styles of influencing their daughters. Both took pride in clean floors in the midst of messy lives. Others also share her' insights and "fight the urge to live in fear of taking chances" and "fight for the right to have [our] own beliefs." Despite all the fears and 'what-ifs,' the self-recriminations, guilt, and doubt, Sandra Hurtes has built a full and fulfilling life. Reading her book was like sitting down with a dear friend for a pleasant afternoon of sharing coffee and each other's deepest thoughts.


Sandra Hurtes was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1950 and now lives in Manhattan. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Poets and Writers, among others. Currently, she teaches English composition at John Jay College. Visit her website.

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