When Nora Ephron succumbed to cancer late last month, many remembrances noted the writer’s embrace of her mother’s assertion that “everything is copy.” Indeed, Ephron wrote a close-to-real-life novel about her divorce from Carl Bernstein, personal essays about topics ranging from breast size to aging, and movies that masterfully evoke the flavor of life on the Upper West Side, which she intimately knew.
Everything may be copy, but the aphorism may merit an addendum—all copy isn’t created equal. Ephron incorporated her experiences into well-written, insightful prose, observations that resonated.
Not so Anna Breslaw. The New York-based freelancer enraged a great many people late this week with a piece she wrote for Tablet, an online Jewish magazine. Framed as an essay about the AMC show Breaking Bad (which I’ve never seen), it read more like an essay that accused Holocaust survivors of being animals. I’m not linking to the piece here, because I don’t think it deserves it, but here are the oft-quoted, enraging sections:
My father’s parents were Holocaust survivors, and in grade school I received the de rigueur exposure to the horror—visiting geriatric men and women with numbers tattooed on their arms, completing assigned reading like The Diary of Anne Frank and Night. But the more information I received, the less sympathy the survivors elicited from me. Each time we clapped for the old Hungarian lady who spoke about Dachau, each time Elie Wiesel threw another anonymous anecdote of betrayal onto a page, I eyed it askance, thinking What did you do that you’re not talking about? I had the gut instinct that these were villains masquerading as victims who, solely by virtue of surviving (very likely by any means necessary), felt that they had earned the right to be heroes…
I wondered if anyone had alerted Hitler that in the event that the final solution didn’t pan out, only the handful of Jews who actually fulfilled the stereotype of the Judenscheisse (because every group has a few) would remain to carry on the Jewish race—conniving, indestructible, taking and taking. My grandparents were not excluded from this suspicion.
Let’s get this out of the way: I think these passages are horrific. But then, my own experience includes having a grandfather who enlisted in World War II at 17 and, to the end of his life, couldn’t discuss what it was like to help liberate those old Hungarian ladies from Dachau without sobbing.
I’ll also leave the following to others to unpack, should they desire: Breslaw doesn’t mention the fact that survivors resorted to desperate measures because there was a regime-wide effort underway to kill them; she posits that people who are fighting for their lives can do evil things without remorse because they have nothing to lose, but that’s not the same thing as a cancer survivor choosing to be a criminal after emerging from a life-threatening scenario; Breslaw’s anger at her relatives has nothing to do with popular television.
As a fellow (youngish, Jewish) writer, I’m more concerned with the fact that Breslaw’s writing undoubtedly, and unnecessarily, hurt people that real life already harmed enough.
Nonfiction writers have long debated the ethics of using the people in their lives as characters in their work. Some say everything’s fair game, though for writers like Ephron, there’d be an implicit level of class that’s absent from a piece by a writer who once wrote about dressing up as Anne Frank for Halloween and regularly blogs, clickbait style, about sex on glamour.com.
Other writers give loved ones passage-by-passage veto rights prior to publication, and others fudge details or identities to protect lives and relationships. Because we may feel that we live for our art, but we live in real life, with other real people. And everything may be copy, but a surprise betrayal for the sake of sentences—be it a writer’s mother in a book-length memoir, or an academic reached for one reported story, or, in this case, Breslaw writing about her grandparents and others surviving the Holocaust—isn’t worth the real-life toll.