Writing From Within the Rosenberg Family Legacy
Ellen Meeropol on the Novel That Took Two Decades to Write
I never wanted to write a novel about the Rosenberg case.
My relationship with Ethel and Julius Rosenberg began twelve years after they were executed. I met their younger son in the fall of my sophomore year in college. When we started dating seriously, I had no idea that my curly-haired campus-radical boyfriend had been born Robby Rosenberg.
I liked him a lot, but I sensed he was holding back, keeping part of himself hidden away. In my corner of the compulsory personal truth-telling subculture of the 1960s, keeping secrets wasn’t okay and we drifted apart. When a mutual friend told me about Robby’s parents, his emotional distance seemed understandable, but still not acceptable.
When we met again a year later, we were attending different colleges, 2,000 miles apart. But the attraction was strong enough that I was willing to be patient about his hidden legacy. I suggested I visit him on my way back to Berkeley. “No,” he said. “If you come, you have to stay.”
Despite my previous reluctance to commit to any relationship, I moved into his communal house in Ann Arbor. Late that first night of living together, Robby said, “I have something to tell you. I’ve never told anyone about this.”
“I think I know,” I said. “But I want you to tell me.”Having ghosts in the family is powerful, even if they are benign.
He told me about being a little boy in Knickerbocker Village in lower Manhattan. About both his parents being arrested when he was three years old and never seeing them again except for prison visits. About playing catch with his brother in New Jersey as the sun set the day they were executed. He told me about being adopted by Anne and Abel Meeropol a few months later and settling into a more ordinary life.
My personal relationship with Ethel and Julius began that night. Working as a secretary in the School of Public Health, I used my lunch hour to devour the books published about the case. Eating my tuna sandwich, I read Robby’s parents’ death row letters to each other. As we protested the war in Vietnam and as anti-war activism became more confrontational, I tried to understand how Ethel and Julius balanced their political commitments with having and protecting their two young sons. In our apartment, I compared my sweetheart’s eyes, with their dark raccoon rings, to the photographs of his five-year-old self visiting Sing Sing. His mother had those same deep-set eyes. To a lesser degree, so did David Greenglass, Ethel’s beloved younger brother, whose trial testimony sent her to her death—testimony he later admitted was lies.
Having ghosts in the family is powerful, even if they are benign. After we married, Robby’s adopted parents, Anne and Abel Meeropol, became my in-laws, but his birth parents were always with us. In our home, three photographs hold a prominent place: my parents, Anne and Abel, and Ethel and Julius. Our daughters, Jennifer Ethel and Rachel Anne, always knew the story of what happened to their grandparents, and they grew up with a strong sense of justice and injustice.
I was 21 when I married Robby and took his ghosts for my own. That seems so young to me now, but I understood that this relationship was different, both the quality of the emotion and the ghosts. Robby didn’t feel fragile, but he had been deeply hurt. I promised myself that I would never add to that pain.
In the early years of our life together, only a few close friends knew about the Rosenberg connection. The ghosts still lived with us, but their haunting was rarely intrusive. Then Louis Nizer published The Implosion Conspiracy a year after the birth of our first child.
Nizer used Ethel and Julius’ letters from death row without permission. He read those letters on national television. His work characterized Robby and his brother as having rejected their parents’ values. We could not let these actions go unchallenged. In response, Robby and Michael came out as the Rosenberg sons—speaking, writing, and organizing to try to reopen the case, filing for previously unavailable records, and working to find some justice for their parents.Their legacy was the spark that ignited this novel; their ghosts guided it to completion.
I wasn’t a writer when Robby and I met. I started writing fiction in my early fifties. I wanted to illuminate injustice through stories, like the authors I admired: Laura Hobson and Rosellen Brown and Maxine Claire and Simone de Beauvoir and Octavia Butler and Isabelle Allende. I scribbled images and first lines and plot ideas on napkins and the backs of envelopes, then enrolled in a writing workshop and started writing short stories.
One story just wouldn’t stop. It wanted to be a novel. The main characters were two sisters who were deeply involved in anti-Vietnam War activism. One day, at a massive protest march in Detroit, the sisters come across mounted police beating up on marchers and they react. Their response causes injury to a police officer and they are arrested. The sisters are very close, but their responses to the arrest and charges are diametrically opposed. One sister sees the trial as an opportunity to dramatize an unjust war. The other wants to accept a plea bargain so she won’t spend time in prison, away from her infant daughter, and she agrees to testify against her sister. The two sisters embody opposite responses: political activist versus protect the family.
I told myself the novel was not about the Rosenberg case, and I still tell myself that. The imaginary demonstration that opens Her Sister’s Tattoo took place in 1968, not in the 1950s. The fictional sisters are very close, and nobody lies or perjures themselves like David and Ruth Greenglass. But I cannot deny the parallel themes of siblings balancing on the faultlines between family loyalty and political betrayal. Perhaps that’s why Her Sister’s Tattoo took two decades to write, and revise, and revise some more. The April 2020 publication date marks twenty years since I wrote the first draft of that short story that wouldn’t quit.
Fiction writers often mine family histories for dramatic and emotionally compelling material. Part of the job is to take those memories and secrets and transform them, with a healthy dose of imagination and dreaming, into a story that delves into the places the writer has been thinking about, wondering about, in the back rooms and her brain.
As ghosts, Ethel and Julius have been enormous in our family. They educated us in how governments use fear and hatred to control dissent. They offered us a lesson in humility, as we uncovered facts that were different from the family stories. Their story is particularly important now, as activists in this country and around the world struggle against climate chaos and impending fascism while raising children who they hope will survive and flourish.
And more personally—because politics are always personal—their legacy was the spark that ignited this novel; their ghosts guided it to completion. Those ghosts invited me into the murky emotional territory where political betrayal and divided loyalties meet devotion and tenderness, both in fiction and in life.
Her Sister’s Tattoo is available now via Red Hen Press.