Cartoonist Amy Kurzweil on Drawing Inherited Trauma
Memory, the Holocaust, and Flying Couch
Amy Kurzweil’s first book Flying Couch examines one particularly divisive topic for modern Jews: How can we both remember and forget a traumatic family history? Flying Couch, a graphic memoir in the mold of other feminist manifestos like Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel, portrays the story of three generations of women—Kurzweil’s grandmother (Bubbe), Kurzweil’s mother, and Kurzweil, herself—and offers a type of answer.
Kurzweil began writing this memoir when she was an undergraduate at Stanford in 2009; she now draws cartoons for the New Yorker and teaches writing and cartoons at Parsons School of Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. She spoke with me about generational guilt, growing up, the value of family, and the process of divulging and editing intimate anecdotes in order to tell a full story.
“Of course there are individual facts, specific anecdotes, that I’ve left out of Flying Couch for various protective reasons,” she told me. “Writing and remembering is all about selection.”
Julia Purcell: How did you balance the desire to be honest in your memoir with the desire to protect your family?
Amy Kurzwell: I tend to think, as Mary Carr testifies to in The Art of Memoir, that the more honest I am in my writing, the more I’m ultimately protecting my family and myself, [and] that there’s something curative and illuminating about real honesty.
With my grandmother’s narrative, staying honest to her voice while trying to respect her sense of propriety was not difficult because I had a transcript of her telling her story, in detail, to a historian in the ’90s. I relied heavily on this script, often lifting whole sentences directly from it. But of course, there’s editing in my selection of some anecdotes and not others. In reframing her story, my perception is layered over hers. This is a book about memory and processing, not objective facts. Having two narratives to the book—one clearly from my perspective, and one clearly from hers—felt to me like the most honest, and most respectful way to tell a story about how family stories are inherited.
For me, the difficulty is not in outing my family with some specific embarrassing or incriminating information (my clan is gifted with enough of a sense of humor to laugh at their neuroses), but knowing that I’ve used representation of their stories and identities for public entertainment and scrutiny, [and] submitted them to a host of inevitable misinterpretations. With comics especially, the reader is asked to read between the panels, so to speak, to animate the story themselves, which inevitably invites reader projection.
JP: In the book, you depict yourself running away from a Jewish literary canon that is entirely male. What female authors, if any, have influenced your style and thinking?
AK: Comics specifically have always been male dominated, although this is changing. I was lucky enough to benefit from feminist consciousness in my education at Stanford. It’s a bit funny, growing up “post-feminist,” because the world outside of your educated bubble suffers from sexism or worse, and meanwhile you feel, at times in the classroom, privileged as a woman. And then you fear riding the subway alone. Or you travel and men hiss at you. Or you become a professional and notice all the ways you aren’t taken seriously. It’s very confusing.
I’ve been influenced by an enormous amount of female writers, specifically female cartoonists [and] graphic novelists. While it is true that men were the first to plant the comics seed in my consciousness—I was obsessed with Life in Hell (Matt Groening) growing up, and of course there’s Art Spiegelman— it was women like Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, and Lynda Barry who made that world feel open to someone like me. I’ve since gotten to know the work of many wonderful female graphic novelists, somehow mostly Jews—Miriam Katin, Liana Finck, Ariel Schrag, Leela Coorman, to name just a very small few whose work I’ve loved. And it was actually a work of theory I picked up in a secondhand bookshop in San Francisco—Graphic Women by Hilary Chute—that introduced me to the work of Aline Kominsky Crumb and Phoebe Gloeckner and lit my brain on fire with ideas about comics, gender theory, and many other things.
A triumph I credit to the feminists before me is that my book isn’t about being a woman; it’s about women. I think I must have stolen that phrasing from a feminist writer before me, so you can see influence abounds.
JP: At one point your grandmother Bubbe says that she is tired of being alone and that she needs to express herself, which made me think about the concept of a collective Jewish memory of the Holocaust. Do you think that the act of storytelling is curative for her? Did the creation of this book help you process her experiences?
AK: Yes and yes. Collective memory is incredibly validating. I think it is the difference between insanity and connection, between death and life. My mother doesn’t like it when I wax psychoanalytic, because I’m not trained (ha), but the project of clinical therapy as I understand it is connected to storytelling for the sake of coherence, validation, and healing.
The creation of this book is the exact way I came to understand my grandmother’s experiences. I also attribute a deeper understanding to the process of drawing. Because drawing is kinesthetic and mimetic, it’s connected to our bodies and our emotions. Try, for example, drawing someone smiling. Can you do it without smiling yourself? I’m not saying drawing a sad face makes me understand the grief of the Holocaust, but there’s something to that catharsis when you repeat it over and over and over.
JP: I love how you frame the memoir with the struggle to fall asleep as a little girl and your efforts to conquer childhood anxieties. What’s your final word: Can we outrun the childhood fears or traumas of our parents and grandparents?
AK: The past happened and, barring lobotomies, I don’t think we can change the imprint of experience and the inevitable inheritance of our parents’ anxieties in various forms. I’ll refrain from trying to quote psych studies, and just say: No, I don’t think we outrun anything. But I’ve learned that the nature of most monsters is that they tend to dissipate when I look them in the face. As a kid trying to sleep, I think I knew there was “nothing” under the bed, but I just had to check. It’s the feeling of being afraid I don’t like, and I needed a parent to be there with me when I peered into that dark crevice, bracing for fright. Not all of us need to know about the past, or need to confront some specific trauma in our psyche—that kind of Freudian conceit strikes me as outdated—but we probably all eventually need to learn to self soothe, to put our own selves to sleep.
I felt genuinely soothed by looking squarely at the monster of grandmother’s experiences and my family’s subsequent anxiety. It’s interesting to think about a scary story as being somehow soothing. Maybe the story itself isn’t soothing but the telling of it is. In Art Spiegelman’s early Maus, the three-page comic he published in an underground comix anthology in 1972, the tale of his father’s harrowing survival in Auschwitz was framed as a bedtime story told by Papa to his young son Mickey. The juxtaposition is darkly funny; the quotidian frame highlights the atrocity, we see its everyday infliction on subsequent generations. It’s brilliant. But what’s unwritten in that comic is that little Mickey is Art Spiegelman, the child who grew up, took control of the scary story and retold it through his own perspective. I think that’s self-soothing.
JP: The memoir takes us through your time in New York after you graduate from college. New York City living can be alternately isolating and communal, so the city encapsulates the contradiction that you, your mother and your grandmother grapple with of both an attraction to and repulsion by independence. How did the city influence your development and your connection to your family and family history?
AK: I suspect we all need [and] want independence from our families at a certain point, but exactly how much and when is culturally contingent and individual. In many countries in South America, for example, it’s common to live at home until your 30s. But for most middle-class Americans, we go away to college to individuate and we come back only half-formed. For me, New York City epitomized physical, emotional, and logistical struggle, artistic expression, diversity and adventure, the kind of kiln in which I wanted to forge my little clay pot of a life. It was also close enough to home but not too close. My idea of New York was a fantasy. New York did turn out to be the place of struggle and validation, artistic expression and social fulfillment that I wanted, and more, but I didn’t really know that when I moved here. As young people we just guess and then things happen. I just wanted to be on my own. And I really did want to make myself suffer, which might not be normal. It’s quite a privilege to be in a position to impose suffering on yourself.
I wanted to be alone, too, yes, and I often still do. My mother once said—as if she’d learned it from me—that she’d realized to do anything really creative you have to spend a lot of time alone. I don’t know if that’s true for everyone. Sometimes I shun community out of mental exhaustion. It’s just too hard to feel and think everyone else’s thoughts and feelings on top of my own. But why is being your own person so important? Perhaps this is another inheritance of my grandmother’s story, her sole survival, or perhaps it’s an adaptive human trait.
JP: You perfectly (and hilariously) capture the guilt trip in one short bit from your Bubbe as she responds to the possibility of accepting help from an aide after hip surgery. How does guilt play into the experience of growing up as a Jewish woman? Can you also say a bit about the transmission of guilt between the generations of your family — how and why does it happen? Do you find that that guilt is stigmatized, either in discussions with your family or in the broader Western culture and media?
AK: My impression of guilt is that it’s fairly widespread among the generations after traumatized people (which is almost all people) and Jews are somewhat lucky in that we acknowledge this phenomenon. It’s such a widely accepted feature of the Jewish experience. We can joke about it, and gripe about it together, and we do so publicly.
I think Jews are vocal about their experience of guilt for a variety of reasons, one of which being that Jews epitomize in some ways the extremes of deprivation and success. There are many stories in our cannon, as you know, of imminent annihilation and then exuberant triumph. We tell this story every Passover. In the case of the 20th century, Jews were almost exterminated and then we started a country that hosts the world’s most holy cities, an intimidating military, a thriving technology sector etcetera; many Jews who moved to America typified the American Dream. I don’t understand all the reasons for this pattern, but I can guess at some of them: luck, adaptive traits, benefiting from white privilege, and, most likely, guilt. It’s a powerful balancing force.
JP: I noticed hunger of all kinds—emotional, spiritual, physical—as a theme in the book. At various times, Bubbe, your mother and you receive too little, too much or the wrong kind of emotional, spiritual, and literal nourishment. How can feminist women satisfy their ambitions—social, professional, and otherwise—in healthy ways? You are involved with teaching and participating in dance—is that an outlet that has been important for you?
AK: It’s true my grandmother’s hunger is literal and dire while my mother’s and my hungers are more abstract. People are drawn to dramatic somebody-could-die-stories, but what happens after the narrative arc closes, once the war ends, once everyone’s fed—that question has always interested me, because it’s my story, I suppose.
How do I balance my spiritual hunger, i.e. my quest for purpose as an artist, with a “career” that theoretically satisfies my first level needs—food, shelter? Ha. I don’t actually think I’m a great model for pursuing ambition in a healthy way. Making a living as an artist is really hard. I have a tendency, like most people who end up finishing a book, to work myself until I’m sick or injured. Luckily I’m sensitive and neurotic so I feel myself to be sick or injured often, which may in some way prevent me from actually becoming sick or injured. “Taking care of yourself” is clichéd but good advice. My mother really likes to remind me to do this, and tell me how good she is at doing it, which is true. My mother is the one who taught me the phrase “Occupational Hazard.” My occupation has many hazards! Teaching helps me feel connected to a community, but it’s also its own career, requiring different skills than being an artist, different negotiations and instabilities. Dance is good for my stress level, yes. Yoga. Walking. Wine. Chocolate. All of those things. I think it’s all easier said than done, though. Because working until my hand falls off also feels weirdly good, too.