Regina's Closet is the story of two women: Diana Raab and her grandmother, Regina Klein. "I was ten years old the morning I found my grandmother dead," Raab writes of the horrifying discovery. Regina Klein killed herself. Why? That was the question that haunted Diana's young life. It wasn't until she was forty-two, when her mother gave her the 50-page "retrospective journal" her grandmother had written, that Diana began to piece together Regina's life.
Regina's Closet is largely made up of the story of a brave, independent young girl born in the Ukraine in 1903. Eleven at the beginning of World War I, she lived through the terrible days of Russian invasion and occupation, the nightmarish scourge of cholera, and the looming threat of starvation. By 1916, Regina's mother was dead of cholera, and her father and brothers had abandoned Regina and her younger sister. The two girls managed to get to Vienna, where they were taken into an orphanage. Regina graduated from high school, worked in a bank, and was accepted into medical school. When she ran out of money, she married Samuel Klein and had a child (Eva, Diana's mother). Displaced by the Nazi occupation of Austria in 1938, the family fled to Paris and finally to New York, where Samuel Klein opened a store. Eva grew up and married, Diana was born, and the two families lived together in apparent contentment—until that cataclysmic day in 1964 when ten-year-old Diana finds her grandmother dead.
The narrative of Regina Klein's life—richly detailed and told in her own voice through the pages of her journal—seems to be the story of a strong, resourceful, self-confident, self-determined woman. But why did she kill herself? After studying her grandmother's journal and assembling other documents and facts about her life, Raab finally concludes that there was a family history of manic-depressive behavior, in her grandmother, her mother, and also in herself. "After arriving at the end of my grandmother's journal," Raab writes, "I understand how a slow accumulation of a history filled with hardships and horror could result in sudden actions, seemingly inexplicable yet somehow logical, such as suicide."
Throughout Regina's Closet, Raab brackets her grandmother's riveting story with elements of her own: the story of Diana's childhood adoration of her beautiful grandmother, the young Diana's delight in her first job, the adult Diana's own depression when she's diagnosed with breast cancer. She also includes important elements of the chaotic events that shaped Regina's childhood and adult life, so that we have an understanding not just of the personal history, but of the social and political history of the times.
This is not an elegant book, for Regina's journal entries are neither lyrical nor stylishly embellished. But Regina's plain, bone-dry prose lays bare the horrific details of war in a way that a more self-consciously artful style could not. And for me, it is the duplex story, the counterpointing of grandmother's and granddaughter's narratives, that makes Regina's Closet an interesting read. "The journey has helped me realize," Raab writes, "that those who have survived severe childhood traumas continue to live with the pain until the day they die. It is with this new understanding that I will hold Regina's soul close to my heart."
Diana M. Raab teaches writing at the University of California Santa Barbara Extension. Her award-winning essays and poems have appeared in numerous national publications. She is the recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Book Award and the author of a collection of poetry. Visit her website.
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