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Power In Spite of It All

MAGNUS/ RIVERDALE AVENUE BOOKS

MAGNUS/ RIVERDALE AVENUE BOOKS

BY KELLY JEAN COGSWELL | I saw her in the flesh for the first time at the gay museum downtown, this short, blonde, confident woman reading parts of her memoir aloud and sucking down impressive amounts of water as if she still had muddy roots — and an urgent need to stay hydrated or crumble to dust.

A golem, of course, is one of those fabulous creatures that — when rabbis still had the knowledge — could be constructed with wet clay and a magic word or two. They are usually meant to defend Jewish communities, but in general are compelled to do whatever their maker tells them to. And in the case of the golem Donna Minkowitz, shaped by her artist-philosopher mother, her commands were mostly to adore and entertain her mom.

Though Minkowitz claims she’s human now, having been transformed by humanizing pain, there remain traces of her mother’s orders not to make her audience sad. So she keeps the tone light. Despite the controlling, incestuously creepy mother. The dad who uses her as a punching bag. The messed up shrink. The malignant girlfriends. And the excruciating disease — injury?; syndrome ? — that damaged her arms so much she can’t use them to write and can barely pick up the water. The book could have been a real tearjerker. Along the lines of, well, practically every memoir being published today.

Donna Minkowitz tells the story of a life shaped from clay

If not for ”Growing Up Golem,” I’d never have suspected her clay doll origins. Minkowitz always seemed human enough to me, powerful even, as a journalist who used to write for the Village Voice (when that rag was still good). She had a column called the Body Politics and did some reporting, too. When I was a Lesbian Avenger, we’d plan an action and somebody would say, “I’ll call Donna and maybe she’ll write something.” And she often did, if I remember correctly.

A few years ago when I was starting my own memoir about my Avenger days, I dug up some articles and read what she had to say in the early ‘90s about the extreme right wing and the Christian Right. She seemed oddly thoughtful about them, interviewed the anti-environmentalist, anti-feminists, anti-queers with a real desire to understand. Later, she’d go undercover with the Promise Keepers as a teenage boy, putting her soft round face and butchness to good use. She wrote with an authority I wished I had, but that was apparently as much of a façade as her smiling goy boy face.

That’s one of the threads of the book that she only deals with sideways. Her powerlessness, or sense of it, in the face of evidence to the contrary. As a golem, she downplays her possible role as defender against the hateful, violent hordes, and focuses instead on her maker’s power to turn her on and off at will and to control her. It didn’t matter that she could use her role at the Voice to get queers out on the street after a dyke-bashing — she still felt like an imposter. Real was her capitulation to the bizarre tyranny of her mother and all the relationships she didn’t really choose but fell into. We see how long it takes for her to admit desire. To stand up for herself.

You’d feel sorry for her, but she keeps you, Dear Reader, at broken arm’s lengths, with her jokes and metaphors. Maybe she takes it even a little too far, so you can see what a burden it is, wanting to get the story out, but not get bogged down in the usual clichés of rotten childhoods and physical hell that appear on the bestseller lists — where memoirists are forced to craft every story into a tale of survival against the odds, a transformative experience juxtaposing hell with redemption, so you can end with the glorious choirs of heaven, not the off-key bewildering, mediocre soundtrack of most of our lives.

Reading, I wondered if that tactic was a dyke thing. Either we want to wallow in our suffering or mask it, pretend like it doesn’t matter. We often display it indirectly, so our survival can be admired but you don’t have to admit the shame of desiring sympathy and love, a tactic I employ myself.

Is it a female thing, or a class thing? To fear our own power so much we don’t even recognize it, and when we do, experience it as so incredibly fleeting we must have imagined the whole thing. I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if instead of embracing humanity, Minkowitz had stuck to her golem roots, found a way to break free of human commands, like golems occasionally do, then run completely and utterly amuck.

GROWING UP GOLEM | By Donna Minkowitz | Magnus/ Riverdale Avenue Books | $14.99 | 216 pages

Donna Minkowitz reads from her memoir:

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