“As if I were Sara,” …

The Seamstress: a memoir of survival (1999), by Sara Tuvel Bernstein, Louise Loots Thornton, and Marlene Bernstein Samuels.

The Seamstress: a memoir of survival (1999), a narrative of Holocaust survival written by the subject Sara Tuvel Bernstein, with her daughter-in-law Louise Loots Thornton and her daughter Marlene Bernstein Samuels, is,  in my opinion, a good read. The work is written in such a way that it that draws one as the reader, believing, into the story. In his introduction to the work, the editor Edgar M. Bronfman names it as an autobiography (xxv). On the covers of the book it is described by the reviewers as a “memoir.” To my mind, The Seamstress, a work of creative nonfiction, could also be described as a type of literary docu-memoir. But it differs from my slant on literary docu-memoir in that it is what I call “ghost written.” It is written by two of the authors, Louise Loots Thornton and Marlene Bernstein Samuels,  as if they each were the subject, Sara Tuvel Bernstein herself.

In her preface to the book Thornton writes that, one time, when she and her husband visited Sara, Sara called her aside, asked her to write her story for her, then gave her some tapes, and asked her to listen to them in private. After the visit, Thornton played the tapes. In her preface Thornton reveals that when she first listened to these audio-taped monologues,  she did not know who the speaker was, but learned later that it was Sara speaking about her own experiences as a Holocaust survivor (x). Later, explains Thornton, Sara showed her a journal in which she had recorded her experiences. Thornton notes that “the lack of emotion” in these written and audio-taped accounts puzzled her, and she asked herself, “What happened to her feelings…. Did she have to suppress them in order to survive?” (xi). Thornton adds, “I decided to see if I could write the book the way Sara envisioned. Taking a small paragraph from the transcription of the tape, I expanded it … writing in the first person, as if I were Sara, as if I were in the camp,” and adding emotion into the narrative by exposing all those feelings Sara must had had, but which she did not voice either in her journal or her tapes (xii). Thornton then says that Sara read the work and wrote back, “’It’s very good! … It’s just like it happened.’ ” (xii). Thornton then interviewed Sara for her story, audio-taping the discussions, and using the same technique as she had previously when expanding the small paragraph from the transcription, began writing from the interview transcripts (xii).

Creative empathy aside, by “writing in the first person” as if she were Sara, as if she herself “were in the camp,” as if she were experiencing all Sara’s feelings, Thornton inadvertently allows the conclusion that she helped in shaping Sara’s personal truths—at least, as they are shown to be in the book. In my view of literary docu-memoir the writer avoids altering or influencing or shaping the subject’s personal truths, rather creatively incorporating the transcript interview material into the text, as the story, in such a way that the subject tells their story for her or his self and in so doing reveals their personal truths to the reader independently of the writer’s personal subjectivity.

In the preface to The Seamstress Thornton also tells the reader that when crafting the work she could not make Sara’s story “line up” with the time frame she had constructed, and she reveals that Sara later admitted to failing to disclose certain facts important to her story (xiii-xiv). Thornton’s original manuscript was not published. After Sara’s death Samuels found Thornton’s “dishevelled” manuscript, and believing that her mother had written a book she placed it with a publisher, then carried out some extensive research, edited the work, and filled in the missing gaps partly from her researched material, and partly from her own memory and, possibly, others’ recollections (xxii-xxiv).

Neither Thornton nor Samuels knew of each other’s input into the book until Samuels mentioned to Thornton that she had found her mother’s work, and had given it over, into the hands of a publisher. Upon discovering that her sister-in-law Louise Loots Thornton had written the original  but incomplete manuscript, something in conjunction with Sara, Marlene Bernstein Samuels spoke with the publisher and Thornton, and it was agreed by all that Thornton’s name be added as an author, and that Thornton be given her rightful place in the work.

The Seamstress diverts from my sense of literary docu-memoir in that Thornton and Samuels use artistic licence to add what Sara did not divulge, to make her experience into what Bronfman asserts is a “brilliantly told story” (xxv).

Works cited

Bernstein, Sara Tuvel, with Louise Loots Thornton and Marlene Bernstein Samuels. The Seamstress: a memoir of survival. New York: Berkley Books, 1999. Print.

Bronfman, Edgar M. Introduction. The Seamstress: a memoir of survival. By Sara Tuvel Bernstein with Louise Loots Thornton and Marlene Bernstein Samuels. New York: Berkley Books.1999. xxv-xxvi. Print.

Thornton, Louise Loots. Preface. The Seamstress: a memoir of survival. By Sara Tuvel Bernstein with Louise Loots Thornton and Marlene Bernstein Samuels. New York: Berkley Books, 1999. ix-xxiv. Print.

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