No. 1: Welcome to Fatherland

What Have I Done?

What Have I Done?

This is a picture of my father, Henry Ebel, holding me, Kathy Ebel.

Check out the look in his eyes. Those are crazy eyes, am I right? He’s glaring at me, for God’s sakes. He doesn’t know who I am or how I got there or what he did to deserve it or what the fuck he’s supposed to do about it now.

In 1970, two years after this picture was taken, my father splits. I see him occasionally until I am seven years old, and then it’s Radio Silence for the next 19 years, until I meet him again when I’m 26.

He died in 2009.

I wasn’t mentioned in his will.

By which I don’t mean “Boo-hoo, my father passed away and I got bupkus.” He didn’t acknowledge me as a next of kin whatsoever, I’m just saying is all. These facts support my interpretation of this image.  The first time I see this picture, I see it one way only.  I’m convinced it reveals a unique emotional truth.  And also, that it predicts the future.

My father was born in Berlin in 1938. He lived at Iranische Strasse 2. He fled Germany, with my grandparents and his older brother, about a year later. I know only the bullet-points of my father’s life, a generational combo-platter: Morningside Heights, Stuyvesant High School, Columbia, phi beta kappa, Ph.D, LSD, primal scream therapy.

Sure, none of us knows our fathers. But I really didn’t know mine. So from these shreds – a little ‘Punch” magazine here, a little Constant Comment tea there, a fringed suede jacket, the cover of Sgt. Pepper — I’ve hallucinated a ghostly person and a flimsy story, filtered through my hyperactive imagination, influenced by my chaotic childhood in and around New York City in the 1970’s and 80’s. I know much more about my mother’s immigrant story, and since she raised me, I’ve inflated her mythology to fill the gap left by my father’s absence. I’ve told myself I don’t really have a father, which has been easier to digest than the shards he left behind. Add a couple of decades of living on the hallucinatory fumes of this concoction and the result is a deep sense of personal disorientation.

And then one day, several months after my father’s death, I’m sitting in Video Village, the cluster of captain’s chairs arranged around a pair of monitors on a dusty, cavernous Warner Brothers sound stage in Burbank, California.

This is the set of the CBS cop show COLD CASE, where I am a staff writer overseeing my first episode for the series.    The story is about the murder of a young Russian opera star whose family defects to the United States just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. She’s hot, she’s got pipes, she wants to sing American rock and roll, not the opera for which she’s been trained in a Soviet conservatory. Rejecting her father? Bucking the system? Determined to express her own voice?

It’s clear the bitch must die.

I am deep in conversation with a visiting director about something else entirely. I’m going to call him Casper Fleming. (This is not his real name.)

Casper, a talented theater and film director breaking into TV, is shadowing the director-for-hire for the duration of the shoot, and we hit it off immediately. There is something rushed and breathless about our chemistry. It’s the transplanted New Yorker thing, it’s I’m-gay-you’re-straight-let’s-fall-in-love, it’s what-are-we-doing-on-the-set-of-a-Bruckheimer-cop-show-when-we’re-both-supposed-to-be-starring-in-a-revival-of-Company. Casper and I rapidly construct a pile-up of personal and pop-cultural references and nimbly climb it.  From the top, we  survey a landscape of Sondheim lyrics, Paul Smith glasses frames, last week’s New Yorker cover, obsession with the presidential election, white anchovies, tooth bleaching, Gucci horse-bit loafers, our careers, and the offerings at craft services. Into this mix we gleefully add parallel tales of nightclubs visited in lower Manhattan between 1986 and 1992, and the freewheeling assembly of People We Have In Common that I refer to as Jewish Geography.

But when we realize that we are both First Generation, his father from Italy, mine from Germany, that’s when our bond is Crazy Glued. Of course Casper and I are destined to be here now, to change one another’s lives.

“You know,” Casper advises me, “you could probably apply for German citizenship. That’s what I did with Italy, and now I have my E.U. passport. It came in wonderfully handy when I was shooting my costume drama there.”

German citizenship.

E.U. passport.

Wonderfully handy.

So I start to poke around. And I find out about Article 116 par. 2 of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany (Grundgesetz). It goes something like this:

“Former German citizens who between January 30, 1933 and May 8, 1945 were deprived of their citizenship on political, racial, or religious grounds, and their descendants, shall on application have their citizenship restored.”

I decide to scrape up whatever documentation about my father and his family’s flight from Germany that I can.

I decide to see if Germany will have me back.

And this blog will monitor my progress.

At first, I think I won’t have anything to say, this experiment won’t count, unless the German government opens its pale, muscled arms to me.  Then I’ll move to Berlin with my family for a year or two to write a book about being the New Jewess in town. We’ll live in the Turkish quarter, become experts on the hip-hop scene, our son will go to the International School, he’ll make terrific new friends with villas in Croatia,  and memories of Bed, Bath and Beyond will fade from his mind.  I’ll get a job doing something for somebody, the heels of my pumps will click urgently on cobblestones slick with a November rain as I wrap my Burberry trench tighter against the chill of the evening and hurry home from the metro through pools of lamplight to our flat, a brown paper package of sausages and a Herald Tribune under my arm…shit, we might never even come back.

But then I realize, shit.  They might not want me back.

The Federal Republic of Germany might hold me at arm’s length, flashing those crazy eyes. “Who are you?” they might say. “How did you get here?” “What did we do to deserve this?” “What are we supposed to do about this now?”

But if I wait to have a story worth telling, I might miss the story I am standing in right now, in the middle of my life, at the edge of the country, in the foreign city I already live in.

Welcome to Fatherland.


No. 2: Jewish Geography

In 1989, I was a "nice Jewish girl" "from Brooklyn" with "no father" who was going to be a "big screenwriter"

In 1989, I was a “nice Jewish girl” “from Brooklyn” with “no father” who was going to be a “big screenwriter”

I’ve started to fill out my Application for Naturalization According to Article 116 (2) Basic Law.  It’s a few months since Casper Fleming and I sat on the set of COLD CASE and kibbitzed my way into action.

The Federal Republic wants to know all about me, as well as information on my son, my parents, and my grandparents.

Where was everybody born?

When did everybody land?

Where and when did my parents get married and divorced?

What about my grandparents, where did they live in Berlin?

What were they wearing?

What color was their parachute?

Is it true that Orthodox Jewish girls give the best head?

I know that my paternal grandparents, Richard Kaufmann Ebel and Anna Salomon Ebel, left Berlin in 1938, and came to New York thereafter, possibly traveling through London, where family members put up a large sum of money to help them.  But that’s pretty much all I got.

Occasionally I suffer from poor reading comprehension, an offshoot of my impatience that’s rooted in my chronic rage, and yet I swear to you the National Archives told me to look at the State Archives to find naturalization records after 1906, and the State Archives sent me back to the National Archives.  The next thing I knew, three hours have gone by.

Jesus, research is so annoying and time-consuming.  I could be here all day on the archival merry-go-round, I could be here all year, I could write a PhD.  Can’t the Federal Republic of Germany just hand me my papers and send me on my way to Berlin Gay Pride?  I want Esquire magazine to pay me to party to Turkish hip-hop, goddammit!  Isn’t this what I deserve?  If Hitler hadn’t ruined everything I could be there right now.

Bottom line: Just another plot against the Jews.

I don’t even think a wildly functional family group has all this info on one another, which brings to mind existential questions about how fleetingly each generation stays in the mind, let alone the files, of the next.  We’re here so very briefly, and only maybe, maybe are our grandchildren going to have a clue about the tracks we left, even if we do a great job as parents.

Do you have the address where your grandparents were living when they got married?

This supports my general argument that all children should be given family names.  Unless you want to accelerate the process by which you unload and reject the past, in which case Cody and Madison are perfect choices.

So now I am asking my mother to help me fill in the blanks.  What does she remember?

It seems unfair that I am asking my mother to help me make sense of my father, a man she divorced 39 years prior.  He was the one who left while she provided the food, shelter, clothing, holidays, reading list, bat mitzvah invitations, and the terrific pots and pans she gave my husband and me on our wedding day.  On the other hand, if I blog about Henry then she’s off the hook where some of the darker chapters are concerned, at least for now.

This could be a good thing for the whole family.

My mother is concerned about the tax implications if I become a New German Jewess.  She wants me to contact her tax attorney to discuss.  This is maternal advice I will be ignoring.  On the other hand, my mother also tells me that I have a distant cousin, a young Israeli photographer living in Berlin, and that he has asked her about doing an apartment swap.  Maybe he would like to swap apartments with my family in Los Angeles?  Yes, please, mother dear, work that Jewish Geography and let’s cook up a little cultural exchange.

Then I find out from my dear friend Haley, a comedy writer (not her real name)  that a friend of hers, a prolific film and TV director (see today’s image for a hint), is also first-generation German Jewish, and he got his dual citizenship, and in fact if McCain had won he’d be there now, hitting the Berlin party circuit with Brad Pitt while I sit here being given the high hard one by the National Archive.

So I dash off a little note to him:

Hey [Haley’s Besty]:

I’m a writer and a first-generation German Jewess trying to address all sorts of deep-seated personal issues by applying for German citizenship through the Federal Republic’s “We’re Sorry About The Holocaust Please Come Home” Program, which I understand from Haley you know a thing or two about.

This is a long-procrastinated personal project that I even decided to start a blog about, despite my blog ambivalence, or blence, as I think they’re now calling it.

If you have any time to share with me your own process of pursuing dual citizenship, I’d be very interested to hear about it.  The main piece of advice I’d like to ask (before even hearing if you have any time to share on this, but, you know, ask and ye shall receive), is how much geneological research and leg-work you did in advance of submitting your application.  I’m neck deep in naturalization records, because I’m not sure of the exact date that my father and his family landed in NYC (and there are other holes in the story that I might be able to supply the bureaucratic process if I search diligently enough), and I’m not sure if I need to be.

I would be utterly delighted to come to your neck of the woods for some face-time and provide caffeine, alcohol, pretty much any mood-altering substance if you give me enough heads-up, or perhaps a pile of marzipan (did you grow up on the stuff as I did?) so that I’m not just take-take-take.  Or a phone chat would be splendid, too.

Thanks for the possibility of penciling me in,

Kathy Ebel


No. 3: ‘Yes’ is the new ‘No’

My half-brother David, who is aware and supportive of my writng life in general but has requested I use a pseudonym when discussing him, was raised by our father, Henry.  He is living  in San Francisco when the Germany bee lands in my bonnet.  David’s an artist, a technology designer, a musician, and apparently a chick magnet.

The last time I see my father at his apartment in the Horizon Towers in Fort Lee, New Jersey, it is 1975, I am not quite 8 years old, and Henry’s second wife Daphne (not her real name) is pregnant with David.

On that day, I call my mother and tell her to come get me.  This is something I have wanted to do before, but I have been scared.  I am scared of the things my father says and does when I visit him.  I am scared to betray my father.   I am scared  my mother won’t help me.

I can remember when the cops arrive at the door.

Months go by, and there is no word from him.  I am worried, relieved, disappointed, and confused.

One day, my mother sits down with me.

She has heard from Henry.  Henry’s son David has been born.  Henry and his family are moving away very soon.  Henry wants to know if my mother will make an arrangement for me to meet my half-brother before they go.  He thinks it will be good for me and for David.

I tell her to tell him no.  No.  No.  NO.

(No is a word I find very easy to say. I really like ‘no’, ‘no fucking way,’ and especially ‘never.’  Which is strange, because in truth my two favorite words are ‘yes’ and ‘free.’)

But I can remember this particular no, it’s a muscle-memory no.  I have outrage, 8-year old outrage, at being asked to do anything for my father or for this baby who is my brother but not really.  I feel used and betrayed.  Nobody is doing enough for me, I know this.  Or the things that are being done aren’t the right things.

Flash-forward, won’t you?  To 1993.

I am living in New York City, passionately immersed in the poetry scene that flows out of the Nuyorican Poets Café, while writing for a soap opera by day.

I am profiled for an MTV-produced documentary called ‘The Seven Deadly Sins.’  The project pairs celebrities with random 20-somethings to dramatize pride, covetousness, lust, and the other engines of western civilization.  A poem I perform about my mother’s abusive second husband in my earnest, hip-hoppity white-girl style is at the center of my segment on the sin of anger.  I am paired with the rapper Ice-T, not that I meet the man, we are united in an editing suite.  (Years later I write a couple of episodes of the TV series Law&Order: SVU, on which he co-stars, and I still don’t meet the man.)

Meanwhile, my brother David, now 18 or so and living in Connecticut, is watching MTV, and he sees this film, and my segment.  The art director has included a photo of me that my father took many years ago.  And my first name is chyron-ed on screen.  My father had a copy of this photo in his study.  My brother can remember, long ago, before my father explained to him that he had a sister, asking about the girl in the photo.  “That’s a friend of mine who I’m not friends with anymore,” my father had explained.

I come home late from a poetry reading.  The light’s blinking on my answering machine.  “Hey, um…Kathy?”  The voice is deep but wobbly.  “This is, um…David.  David Ebel.  I…I think I’m your brother.  I mean, I’m pretty sure I am, I mean…”  They had a Brooklyn phone book back then, and I was in it.

I call my sister, Greta (at her request, I am using a pseudonym).  She’s also around 18.  She is my mother’s younger child from her second marriage.  We are half sisters, but other than the fact that having two different fathers makes all the difference in the world, I don’t think of her has my “half.”

(All this divorce and remarriage and random childbearing gets very confusing.  You will not be quizzed.)

At that time, I have never asked my sister for anything before.  “Look,” I tell Greta.  “I have never asked you for anything before.  But I need you to do me a favor.”  I explain to her that I’ve made contact with the half-brother I’ve never met, my father’s other kid, and that he is coming to the city to meet me, and I need her to come with me to meet him because I am so fucking nervous.

She says yes.

It’s a grey, wintery afternoon in lower Manhattan.  The air feels hospitable enough but a bracing cold seeps up from the sidewalk.  Powdery snow floats around at eye-level, and Greta and I shiver under the arch in Washington Square Park.  Will I know my brother when I see him?  And then what?  My heart is pounding.  A hunched, loping figure approaches – it’s him.  Hoodie pulled low, dark hair hanging in greasy hunks, sweatpants and ripped-to-shit sneakers, no coat or gloves, the expression heartbroken and closed.

What is my half-brother who was raised in suburban Connecticut doing looking like a crack-head?

I have a poetry reading for a Canadian Broadcasting Corp radio program scheduled, and I drag Greta and David to the studio in the Empire State Building.  They sit on the floor in the hallway, awkwardly facing each other, while I duck into the studio to record the show.  You realize, don’t you, that my half-sister and my half-brother are in no way related to one another.  I am connected to my sister because we share the same mother, and are raised more or less in the same house (although she is still in elementary school when I leave for good).  I am connected to my brother because we have the same father, who at that point I haven’t seen in 19 years.  So my sister and my brother could technically, legally fall in love and procreate.  Just saying is all.

But my brother will probably need to shower first.

After the poetry reading, I bring David home with me to the true bohemian splendor of my giant Park Slope apartment.  I force him to take a shower.  I force him to order food from the New Purity Diner menu, not just drink coffee and smoke cigarettes.  You could smoke cigarettes in diners back then.  David eats a burger and pancakes.  He is hungry.

David stays with me for a few weeks.  He wants to relocate to New York City.  I tell him I will help him, but he can’t live with me.  I make phone-calls.  We visit a social-worker supervised apartment in the East Village for teen boys at risk.  The tenants are ghetto-chic gay Latino boys who give my brother a sympathetic and appraising once-over.

David moves back to Connecticut to live with Henry.

A shitload of time passes.

David finishes high school and goes to college in the Pacific Northwest.  He graduates and is going to be a rock-star, then shifts gears to become a prolific technology designer.  We are only sort-of in touch.  Whenever we try to talk about Henry, I tell myself it’s so irritating, but I’m actually losing my mind.  When David refers to Henry as “my Dad,” I want to reach through the phone and strangle him.  Why doesn’t he have the decency to say “our father” or “Henry,” to either deftly include me or create a diplomatic neutrality on which we can both safely teeter?  The combination of the possessive pronoun “my” and the diminutive “Dad” makes me want to open a can of Ice-T on his ass.  I want to be left out permanently, I kicked myself out, no, I was pushed, okay fine, I have a father but I most certainly do not have a “Dad,” I want in, no I don’t, you can have him, I’m here despite him, because of him, we all have the same coloring, it’s too late, no it’s not.

Just a few days ago, I call my father’s widow, Nancy (not her real name).

Nancy is not David’s mother.  She is our father’s third wife. You will not be quizzed.

I want to know if Nancy can answer any of the questions I need to answer for  the Federal Republic of Germany naturalization paperwork I’m in the process of tackling.  Nancy and I have not spoken since I told her I wasn’t going to be attending my father’s funeral, a year prior.

“Oh my,” she says.  “Oh, Kathy.  My goodness.  You are not going to believe who is here, all the way from San Francisco, and for just one night.  What absolutely incredible timing this is.”

It is my brother, David.

“Do you want me to put him on the phone?” Linda asks.

“Yes,” I say.

No. 4: False Translations

my grandparents' 1936 Berlin wedding license

my grandparents’ 1936 Berlin wedding license

My paternal grandmother disowned me when I was a kid.

I have no real idea what happened.

She was angry at my mother for something.  Or my father.  There had been businesses in Washington Heights.  A uniform store.  A bakery.  There was money.  I don’t know if the money was grown entirely in New York City or if seedlings had been smuggled out of Germany.  A family trust fund from which I was edited.  One conjures the image of a rubber-stamp in extreme close-up (‘REJECTED!’)  or the flourish of a feather pen.  Probably my grandmother’s lawyer asked her a perfunctory question and she responded by pressing her coral-frosted lips together and staring out the window, nodding precisely once.

I have exactly three memories of Anna Ebel, my grandmother:

1)     My grandmother and I are in FAO Schwartz on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, sometime around 1974.  My grandmother says I can have anything I want.  I ask for a stuffed animal.  My grandmother says that stuffed animals aren’t for girls.  I can have any doll that I want.

2)     There’s a Kodachrome snapshot of my grandmother holding me.  She’s tan, a champagne-blonde.  Other colors in the background include turquoise and avocado.  Heavy upper arms apparently dominate along both my maternal and paternal lines.

3)     A crate of gifts arrives from my grandmother.  Among the items is a Madame Alexander doll and a blue plastic typewriter.

This is my paternal grandparents’ marriage license, issued in Berlin in 1936.

My father’s widow sends it to me in a padded envelope, from West Hartford to Los Angeles.

I feel tenderness and sorrow for the crumbling document as I slide it from its bunk in steerage.

Look at the colors, faded and enduring.

Look at the doves and the wedding bands.  Doves and wedding bands!  In 1936!  Three years into the Third Reich. The wreath looks like barbed wire from here, but it’s olive branches or laurel up close.  Doves and wedding bands and laurel.  But German all in caps sounds like a storm trooper.

Here’s the text:


















Here’s what it sounds like to me:
















If you are a nice Jewish girl in Berlin in 1936, what does your wedding day feel like?  Is the air crisp, are the clouds thin and high, skittering across the city on a busy wind?  The light golden?  The trees in the park just beginning to turn?  Did you have a light breakfast, the edge of a buttered roll and black tea, too nervous to eat properly?  Are you already daunted by the prospect of thank-you notes?  Have you already ordered new custom drapes for your living room?

Are you a virgin?

Are your feet killing you?

Or are you afraid?  Scrambling for credentials, the scraps of bureaucracy you need as international calling cards, to prove you were once a nice married Jewish couple in Berlin when FDR peers down at you over his reading glasses?

Are you standing before the clerk in your platform peep-toe sandals, holding hands with your fiancée and pleased with your purse, while simultaneously packing, in your mind, the one steamer trunk? Cataloging the safe deposit box?  Are you thinking about who you know in the States, where you can stay on Riverside Drive when you land, what your new husband can possibly do there for a living?

My grandparents stayed in Berlin for two more years.  What were those two years like?  Every day were they working through a To Do list, how to get out of Dodge and where to go?  Every time the phone rang, did they jump?  Did it dawn slowly, one laurel leaf at a time becoming barbed wire before their eyes?   Or was it a sudden realization, their country has turned against them, throw some clothes in a bag and get the car out of the garage?

Part of the lure of German citizenship is the exit strategy.  The EU passport.

The fall of American capitalism and all that.

Should we ever care to get out of Dodge.  Or need to.

Part of the lure of Berlin is an ineffable home restored.  Not a hand-me-down but a birthright.

For the first time, it occurs to me.  I don’t get to skip from here to there without passing through the Holocaust.


On September 6, 1936, Anna Ebel nee Salomon was a young lady getting married.

And I can prove it.

With the crumbling, yellowed piece of paper that’s as close to a story as I’m going to get today.

No. 5: Apartment of Sand and Fog

this is not my grandmother in her living room

my grandmother in her Berlin living room

my fathers Berlin apartment building, Apthorp-on-the-Spree

my father’s Berlin apartment building, Apthorp-on-the-Spree

My brother David sends me a file that contains an image of our father’s birth certificate.

I look at the address typed on the fourth line.

Berlin, Iranische Strasse 2.

The apartment where my father lived when he was born, I presume.

With some relief and some hope, I enter this information onto my Federal Republic of Germany naturalization paperwork.  I don’t know much, but I know this: where my father and my grandparents were living in 1938.

I picture what this apartment might look like.

My mind is already cluttered with images of European apartments, so concocting this visual is a snap.

My maternal grandmother lived in the Hague when I was a child, and we would visit her in the summers.  Her front door was that wavy mid-century glass that makes the postman look like Nude Descending A Staircase.

Friends have lived in various London apartments.  Common themes are kitchen tile, electric kettles, scratchy rugs and hash smoking.  Paris apartments I have known are miniscule and crooked, plus art, books, and hash smoking.

And then there’s the Berlin apartment complex that I recall from the Bourne Supremacy.  The film washed over me in the haze of an attractive travelogue until the extended fight sequence to which I was riveted with the kind of real estate lust that’s raised and currently felling American civilization.  Forget the karate chops:  I was straining for a glimpse of the master bath.  All I could think about for days was that apartment complex, the big glass windows, the spare, deftly edited interiors, the courtyard where you pass your charming neighbor in his really terrific glasses as you head out for the evening.  When living in Berlin in my fantasies I have a “light, quick, firm step,” just like Anna Karenina in the Maude translation, but with a happier ending.

I don’t imagine the Ebels in a mid-century apartment complex.  One reason is that my father was born in 1938.  So the mid-century hadn’t quite landed.  Also, I assume that their home was more like the bougie apartment in the Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Vittorio De Sica’s 1971 film adaptation of Giorio Bassani’s 1962 novel about doomed Italian Jews living in Ferrara, Italy, under Mussolini.  Dark, glossy wood, spotless moldings, built-in sideboards, good lamps, good rugs, good silver, good picture frames, good help.  Maybe on the third floor of the building pictured above.  A cage elevator takes you there.  Electric sconces along the hallway, a repeating pattern of ivy on the carpet, a heavy porcelain umbrella stand at the front door, coats on hooks and wellies lined up.

It is helpful to me on a deep psychological level to know my father’s address at the time of his birth.  Berlin, Iranisch Strasse 2.

Isn’t it interesting? I marvel.  Iran is in the news these daysAnd my father lived on Iran Street.  It’s Everything’s An Augur Friday!

If I can picture my father as a baby, coming home to his well-appointed apartment on Iranische Strasse, then I can have compassion for my father, who was a vulnerable baby, who would soon be a displaced, confused little boy with  two languages wrestling for control as the A train rumbled past.

Also, thanks to my clear sense of Iranische Strasse, 2, I  can imagine my homecoming.

As the taxi speeds away through the puddles (because it is always a wet, chilly autumn evening in my fantasies of Berlin), I cross a marble lobby to the elevator.  My arrival is announced with the harsh, homey trill of European buzzers everywhere.  Alex Kupfer comes to the door.  He’s a young architect, living with his girlfriend, Nola, who’s Cape Verdian and studying musicology at the art institute.  Thank God they speak perfect English.  (Nola did graduate work at UC Santa Cruz!)

Alex and Nola are startled but game.  They lead me through the rooms, arranged formally around a large central foyer.  Nothing is left of my grandmother’s interior décor, of course.  But the sound of my boot heels as they storm the border between wood floors and carpet, streetlight through the windows as evening settles outside, and the tiled kitchen, my God.  Despite the cloud of cardamom from the vegetable fritters Nola is in the middle of frying when I show up unannounced – in this tiled kitchen time and space refract.  I am at the kitchen table.  Grown-ups debate urgently in the next room as I slowly dunk sugared lady-fingers into a glass of milk until they dissolve, then fish them out with a long spoon I have nicked from Cook.

And then – Eureka! Google maps! – I look up Berlin, Iranische Strasse 2.  I am going to see a photo of this place before I’ve even checked the airfares.

But this address is not my father’s apartment, and it never was.

It’s the Judisches Krankenhouse Berlin.  The Jewish Hospital of Berlin.

So apparently I have no idea where my father lived when he was born.

Certainly not in my hallucinated memory mash-up with random details pillaged from five decades and various nations, starring Matt Damon and an invented brainy couple as art-directed by Giancarlo Bartolini Salimbeni.

Sorry, Alex.  Sorry, Nola.

Although your cardamom fritters do smell delicious.

No. 6: Everybody Has A Dad

Park Slope, Brooklyn.  Fall, 1995.  The kitchen of my truly sprawling apartment.  After our first few dates, John asks me about my father.

“So what’s the deal with your Dad?” John asks.

“I don’t have a Dad,” I reply.

“Everybody has a Dad.”

“No, everybody has a father.  Not everybody has a Dad.  I don’t have a Dad.”

“Okay, so what’s the deal with your father?”

“I don’t have one.”

John looks at me, exasperated.  Maybe a tinge disappointed. “That’s sad.”


“Of course you have a father. Were you conceived in a petrie dish?”

“He’s not in my life.  He split when I was a kid.”

“So you don’t talk to him?”


“When’s the last time you talked to him?”

“Last year.”

“So you have talked to him.”

“But before that, I hadn’t seen him in 19 years.”

“Poor guy.”


“I feel for the guy.  You’ve killed him off and he isn’t dead.  It’s too bad you don’t want to have a relationship.  It’s like you’re cutting off your arm.”

“I am not cutting off my arm.”

“I’m saying it can’t be good for you.”

“Oh my God.”


“You so don’t get it.”

“I guess I don’t.  I can’t imagine not talking to my Dad.”

No. 7: The Little Girl Who Couldn’t Tell A Story

“I don’t have a father.”

This is the story I tell myself for most of my life.

But it’s not much of a story.

For instance, there’s no beginning (“Once upon a time, I had a father…”), no middle (“…and then my parents split and he went nuts and he split…”), and no end (“….until eventually he drifted completely out of my life except for the occasional bizarre letter or empty envelope with a question mark drawn inside the flap, until I was on MTV in 1993 on the cusp of literary traction and he dropped a dime.  For a few months my mind and heart were open to him but then I felt so utterly freaked out and repulsed that I slammed the door again until soon before he died.”)

And yet “I don’t have a father” has done it just fine for me.

Mostly I don’t talk about it, or think about it.  Or, more to the point, I think that I don’t think about it.  Or I used to think that I wasn’t thinking about it, but now I know that I was in fact consumed with it, I was living the bitch.

Now I sit in the middle of my life, writing this blog.  Cross-legged on the island of my life, reminding myself of that Joan Didion quote about being on an island in the middle of the Pacific at the Grand Hawaiian hotel, losing her mind in a crocheted bikini, or something like that.  I mean, I wish.

My island isn’t tropical, and nobody’s handing me a pina colada.  It’s what is left after all the stories I have ever told myself collapse, starting with “I don’t have a father.”  I am utterly exposed and terrified. The broken shards look kind of like dorsal fins.

There’s the one about the nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn with the European pedigree.

When you meet me at a cocktail party, I will tell you I’m from Brooklyn.  But that’s not really true.  I am born in Manhattan, but from kindergarten through my sophomore year in high school I live in Tenafly, New Jersey.  It’s really a terrible time, with a stepfather at its fearful hub.  My father long gone when the stepfather takes over.  And I love to tell you about the whole first-generation thing.  This allows me to conveniently skip over the years 1974-1982.

There’s the one about the red leather suit.

When we move to Hollywood, in 2000, I bring with me a tear-sheet out of W magazine of a red leather suit.  No model wearing it, just a portrait of the suit, thrumming with aggressive life and accomplishment.  I tack it on the bulletin board over the desk in the office of the house we’re renting in the funky Hollywood Dell.  That red leather suit is a portrait of what a badass I am and all that I represent.  Power.

Flashback, won’t you? To 1989.  I am a senior at Barnard College, an English major with a concentration in creative writing.  It’s the end of the year, the end of this precious era, and more than anything in the world I want to graduate and become a writer. I am sitting with my advisor, Elizabeth Dalton, and I am asking her how to do it.  How to go out in the world and become a writer.

“First,” she says, “you have to learn how to tell a story.”

But I have written many short stories in college.  A collection of them was presented as the thesis for my degree.  And I have won prizes from them.  Including the Teichmann Prize, not given every year, but given to me, with a big pile of cash.

“You lure your reader with your command of detail and language,” Professor Dalton continues, “but it’s not hung on anything.  There’s no spine there.  Without a skeleton, you have no story.”

This is the most terrifying thing I have ever heard, and I have no idea what she means.

Or what to do about it.

What I don’t tell Professor Dalton is what my mother told me yesterday: that I am not welcome to come home after I graduate.  Not even for one night.  I don’t tell Professor Dalton that my mother is living with her long-time boyfriend, an unemployed former junkie.  That my mother’s house has been consumed by darkness, and that I need help, and that my sister needs help.   I don’t tell Professor Dalton that I have no plan for what I will do, where I will go, how I will live, and on what.  I don’t tell Professor Dalton that all I have in this world is my Teichmann Prize money and my fear.  And with them I will both start and delay my life.

1997.  “What’s the theme here?” the entertainment attorney-slash-erstwhile independent film producer asks me.  I have turned my energy to screenwriting because I have told myself that I will never survive as a novelist or short-story writer.  That it would be irresponsible for me to go down that path.  I need to survive.  To survive you need money.  Screenwriters make money.  They make lots of it.  So I will become a successful screenwriter.  And once I have arrived at the top of the A-list, then I will be free to write novels and short stories.

The independent film producer has hired me to write a feature screenplay based on a local R&B band whose life rights he has secured, and he has just read through the first draft.  His tone is Socratic.  He is both pointing out a flaw in the script and inviting me to consider a larger issue with my craft.  I want to reach across the conference table and bitch-slap him.  I don’t want to hear that nine years have gone by and I still have no skeleton.

2009.  “Your dialogue is wonderful,” says my friend Goff (not his real name), the newly minted Hollywood literary manager.  He used to be my agent, but he got fired and is reinventing himself.  I have just spent four months on a TV pilot which my own manager has deemed drawer-worthy.  I am devastated and confused and humiliated, and with this disappointment the structure of my life seems to be dissolving around me.  I’m just a mass of quivering details with no compass.  I’ve asked Goff for a second opinion on my failed script.  “And your characters, they’re so real,” he’s saying.  “They breathe.  I feel like I could walk into a restaurant and pick them out of a crowd.”

So what’s the problem?

“But your story,” he continues.  “There’s no conflict here.  Scene after scene, no conflict.  And as a result, no dramatic energy or tension.”

“I have no father.”  This is not what I say to Goff.  If I said that, he would think I was cracked.  Even though I’m indeed cracked, I am still poised and witty at Hollywood dinners.

But the dots, they’re connecting. Please let them be a rope ladder out of here, not a noose.

I look around my life and I see stories, stories everywhere.  Compelling ones to which I have been devoted, like a blue-haired lady in a Barcalounger with a menthol cigarette and her programs.

When you meet me at a cocktail party, I will tell you the the one about the nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn with the European pedigree in the red leather suit with no father.

I do have a father.

I did have one.

He was born in Berlin and he died last year.

Now I am applying for German Citizenship.

Why am I doing this?

Because  I stuffed all the drama and tension – what I really could have been talking to Professor Dalton about — into my life raft.  Then I propped a pile of details on top, and I called them my personality, and then I passed off my personality as my work.

Because other than health for my family and world peace, what I want more than anything in the world is to be able to tell a story.  A real one.  Where you want to turn the page and find out what happens next.

Maybe I can drag my raft to shore (Hi, Joan!  Great suit!) and slit open that raft and let out all the drama and tension, and then the drama and tension can become stories on the page, and the gelatinous pile of details can fall apart on the sand, until they dry out, and brush themselves off, and regroup, and sell the red leather suit on Ebay.

Let me start from the beginning and leave nothing out.

This time, let me build a skeleton.  From the skeleton of my father.

“Once upon a time in 1938, a little boy was born in the Judische Krankenhouse in Berlin.”