Sarah’s Story – by Barbara Kay FIRST VERSION
There is one subject no writer in the world, not even the most talented and eclectic, would hope to have as a book project: the death of his own child. Trouble is, when a child dies, a talented writer, especially one whose own life has been grist all along for his writerly mill, really has no choice in the matter. Not to write about her would be a form of withholding and rejection, perhaps even a source of anguish equal in its way to the pain of the loss itself.
Such a book would present unique challenges for the writer who has been largely absent from his child’s life as a result of divorce and dislocation. All the more so if, at the time of his child’s greatest need of him, convulsive, life-transformative events in his field of greatest personal endeavor have catapulted him from a total commitment to radical left causes to total revulsion for everything he has been programmed to hold sacred, and stripped him of energy for dealing with other obligations. And if his relationship with the child has therefore been loving but often fragile and sometimes estranged, if it has also been punctuated with painfully remembered episodes characterized by silent suffering and pride at the child’s side, and wounding obtuseness and miscalculation on the father’s, then there is no way for the writer – for the parent – to expiate his guilt and begin the healing process other than to write it all out.
A Cracking of the Heart, by former Marxist, but long-time conservative public intellectual and best-selling author David Horowitz, takes as its starting point the moment the author was informed that “something terrible has happened.” The police had discovered the body of Horowitz’s 44-year old daughter Sarah, alone in her apartment, when she failed to show up for her job at a school teaching autistic children.
The book’s title refers to the process of atonement associated with the Jewish high holy days. For in addition to natural grief, the shock of his daughter’s death opened a floodgate of remorse in Horowitz for what he saw as his failures as a parent:
“I should have spent more time with you when there was time to spend. I should have told you how much I love you, or told you more often. I should have been less contentious when we had our disputes.”
Mere days before dying, Sarah, for whom literature and writing were foremost amongst her cultural passions, had been interviewed for a literary website on the subject of life and death. Horowitz recalls the intensity with which he studied the dialogue:
“Her thoughts were guiding me towards the future, as though she were my parent rather than hers.”
In particular, he was struck by a lesson Sarah took to heart from her rabbi, an important spiritual mentor and second father in her life:
“Pay attention to the ways in which your relationship continues.”
These two thoughts – “as though she were my parent” and “the ways in which your relationship continues” – are the inspiration and guiding themes for the rest of the book. A Cracking of the Heart is not so much the story of Sarah, but the story of a relationship, imperfect in life, that has been cut short by her death. Through his explorations of Sarah’s past – her friendships and work and activities and beliefs – of which Horowitz had scant knowledge during her life, he experiences a posthumous spiritual reversal of their genetic roles. The father becomes the child.
During her life Horowitz had perceived himself as the strong and worldly-wise father. Sarah was the weak and naïve child. He ends the book by embracing, with humility and an almost childlike submissiveness, the moral seriousness and wisdom of a daughter he had unintentionally patronized into an adulthood he waited too long to acknowledge.
Sarah Horowitz’s life is a study in deliberately hidden heroism. She was born with a condition called Turner’s Syndrome, which is caused by missing cells in one of her two X chromosomes. This resulted in a litany of afflictions that governed her corporal existence, but never her mind or spirit.
Sarah was extremely short, with a wide and webbed neck and a low hairline. She was infertile. She had high blood pressure due to a kinked aorta (a medical indicator for early death). She was near-sighted and hard of hearing; eventually, she became almost deaf as a result of deformed Eustachian tubes, which meant frequent ear infections. She also suffered from diminished spatial perception and a propensity to get lost easily. Even reduced mobility was painful due to an arthritic hip.
None of these disabilities deterred her from walking two miles to synagogue and home on Shabbat in fair weather and foul, from making her way across town to cook and serve meals to the homeless, or from traversing oceans and enduring physical hardship in remote and primitive communities. Bivouacked in a Ugandan mud hut, she taught impoverished children of the Abayudayu tribe of African Jews. Desperately dehydrated in the slums of Mumbai, she gave aid and comfort to sexually abused Hindu girls.
Sarah’s refusal to exploit or even reference her disabilities in her writing was a bone of contention between her and her father. Horowitz writes:
“I thought her audience would eventually reject her if she didn’t examine the political impact of her size and appearance on the view she had of the world.”
But Sarah did things her way. Determined to live autonomously, she settled in a series of tiny garrets in marginal San Francisco neighborhoods. There she eked out a frugal existence through menial jobs, ate excruciatingly boring but cheap vegetarian meals, and settled for the meager delights of free neighborhood entertainment.
Determined as well to fulfill her educational ambitions – and refusing all financial help (after her death David found an un-cashed $500 check he had sent to ease her Spartan existence) – she managed to earn two Masters degrees, one in fine arts and one in special needs education for children, all the while holding down a menial 8-hour a day job, and spending hours shuttling to classes on three different buses each way at night.
A good portion of A Cracking of the Heart is allotted to the long eulogy Horowitz delivered at the funeral (it was posted on the Internet and garnered warm feedback), which he wrote through a “hail of tears.” He describes Sarah as an unusually temperate and undemanding child:
“I don’t ever remember losing my temper with her.” Once, he recalls, in an absurd bid to educate her childish palate, Horowitz urged her to choose a sour-apple flavored ice cream instead of her preferred staples. A biddable child, she acquiesced at once. Only fifteen minutes later did he notice that she was not eating the ice cream. He tasted it. It was terrible, but “In all the time that had elapsed she had uttered no word of reproach, and she never did.”
She showed early promise as a writer, and Horowitz cites with pride her greatest public success, a ground-breaking article on hermaphrodites whose gender was arbitrarily chosen for them by surgeons. In one of the passages from her writing Horowitz includes, she says of one of her subjects:
“I can’t get this woman out of my head though. It is the irrevocability that haunts me. What was done to her cannot be undone. Private pleasure has been sacrificed for public normalcy.”
Hermaphrodites’ pitiable condition – a genetic accident leaving them stranded between one defining identity and another – obviously struck a resonant chord with someone who was herself a victim of physical and intellectual inheritance realities that held a mirror up to her limitations rather than her achievements.
In a way, although she was clearly talented and deeply intelligent, as several included nuanced and polished examples of her prose and poetry attest, it was unfortunate for a young woman already so disadvantaged to take up her formidably credentialed and prolific father’s craft, virtually guaranteeing herself additional torment on that account.
Horowitz is a seasoned and combative professional polemicist who, motivated by ambition for political influence and worldly success, writes powerfully and fast. Sarah was a self-effacing, pacifistic amateur writer who, motivated by the need for aesthetic self-expression and her father’s approval, wrote delicately and slow. Her writing inevitably became the locus of unresolved emotional and psychological contentions between them that had nothing to do with writing.
Horowitz recounts a telling moment in their “collegial” relationship. Sarah had sent him a dozen pages of a novel she was writing. He was pleased by the quality of her prose. His mind leaped ahead to publication – a teaching post perhaps, or a secure literary job that would include health benefits, a continuing anxiety for him on Sarah’s behalf (with reason, given her multiple fragilities). So, instead of praising her writing – his validation was what she’d hoped for in sending the pages – he asked her how long it would take to finish the novel, emphasizing the need for a professional writer to get “product” on the market. “You write well,” Horowitz said, fatally adding, “but you need to write faster.”
Reliving the morbid silence with which his “helpful” advice was greeted, Horowitz takes full responsibility for the estrangement that followed it:
“Now that so many years have gone by and it is too late to retrieve my words, I realize how far removed from her reality they were.”
Another teaching moment came during a family dinner at an East Bay restaurant when Sarah was in her early twenties. The conversation had turned to political themes. Even though he knew Sarah was an active peacenik, Horowitz admits to indulging in “near ferocious” indignation at the anti-war movement which, he believed, gave comfort to America’s enemies and undermined democracies.
Giving free rein to his passion, Horowitz reports he was at first oblivious to the effect of his rant on Sarah, who had remained silent.
“But all of a sudden her features came into my view with an excruciating clarity. I saw that her eyes had grown red and liquid, and her face was convulsed as though an immense weight was pressing inexorably down on her. Her expression in that instant was one of such mute and irremediable suffering that the distress of it has never left me.”
Overcome with remorse, Horowitz wondered to himself, “Who is this angry person? What sort of individual could do this to his child?” From that day on, “I never did another thing to reduce her to tears or inflict such pain. Yet I cannot forget that I did.”
As both anecdotes imply, while her father’s reality was political, public and aggressively ideological, Sarah’s “reality” was essentially spiritual, private and task-oriented. During her last decade, it was her commitment to the disciplines and rituals and social justice causes of a synagogue community, led by a charismatic rabbi trained in eastern mysticism, that led her to inner peace and the transcendence of her physical trammels.
In A Cracking of the Heart, Horowitz re-remembers himself through his daughter’s eyes. “I set to work on the eulogy for her funeral, which like all writing was an act of discovery for the author himself,” he writes. Although he has in the past shown himself capable of sensitive existential reflection, notably in The End of Time, an eloquent meditation on mortality, Horowitz has in most of his previous work indulged his instinct to herd events and other people, even intimates, into the default political and ideological corrals where he feels most at home.
In Sarah’s writings and in conversations with her friends, Horowitz discovered some happy surprises amidst reminders of his mistakes. Although chary of saying so, Sarah appreciated who and what her father was, and the training in coherent thinking he had gifted her with. Thus, even though she instinctively leaned toward leftist causes, she could not be bamboozled by mindless political correctness. She says in one of her essays, “This habit of arguing both sides of issues is a legacy from my father…” Elsewhere she writes that Horowitz’s early Marxism and later embitterment “left me with a twofold legacy. I have always felt driven to pursue justice, but am wary of ideology and partisan politics.”
One of the papers Horowitz found in Sarah’s apartment was a page from the manuscript of The End of Time, which inveighed against the radical projects of the left “in terms that were uncompromising and without nuance.” On the back of the page he discovered handwritten comments Sarah had never sent to him: “First, have a little humility. You are not smarter than Moses, Jesus and Buddha…” She goes on to insist that all people, even sinners, must be seen “in the fullness of their humanity…” She urges him to try to embrace “a full-bodied understanding of another person. This practice has in fact transformed all my relationships, including ours by the way.”
In the hands of a sentimentalist or a lesser writer, A Cracking of the Heart could have been a maudlin exercise in hagiography and self-flagellation. Instead, it is a loving tribute and a profound meditation, with universal appeal, on the bond Horowitz and his daughter shared in their common passion to effect “tikkun olam” – to repair the world. They disagreed about the ways in which such a redemption might be accomplished, but they were as one in believing that making the world a better place was something which one had to do with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul and with all one’s might.
Sarah did what she could – a great deal – in the straitened circumstances that were her portion. Part of what she achieved was to help her father become a better man.
[To order A Cracking of the Heart, click here.]