Bereft: A Sister's Story

by Jane Bernstein

Published by North Point Press

278 pages, 2000


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Echoes of Violence

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning

 

Jane Bernstein's memoir of traumatic loss and its devastating aftershocks is really two books in one: an exploration of the emotional damage caused by the brutal murder of Bernstein's sister in 1966 and an exposé of a deeply troubled marriage which inflicted psychic scars of its own. Bernstein, the author of a novel and a previous memoir, has a theory that her inability to grieve her young sister's death numbed her for decades, leading to disastrous choices later in life. Though the connection between the murder story and the author's turbulent marriage is not as clear as Bernstein would like us to believe, the book is nevertheless a gripping piece of detective work, piecing together the bizarre facts of a long-ago crime and tracing the ripples of damage from its impact.

Jane Bernstein was a 17-year-old New York high school student in September of 1966 when her older sister Laura was stabbed to death in Arizona -- "four times in the body and twice in the head" -- in what appeared to be a random act of violence. The strange young man who confessed to the crime didn't know Laura and had no motive for murder except for the fact that, as he stated, "Ever since the eighth grade I've wanted to kill someone."

Bernstein's intellectual Jewish family kept a tight grip on their emotions ("You cannot cry -- never, no matter what. It is not allowed in this house") and tried hard to carry on almost as if nothing had happened. Jane, then named Martha, felt enormous pressure to step into her dead sister's shoes. The murder provokes some bizarre behavior in Martha -- she spends hours walking in circles around the dining room table and goes on drinking binges which she hides from her parents. Soon she insists she be called by her middle name, Jane, as if to try to divorce herself from Laura and the past.

Jane's self-esteem seems to die along with her sister: "In this dreadful silent house, where no mention of my sister was made and no one cried, I tried my hardest to be good, because I was all that was left. But at every waking moment I knew that no matter what I did, I could never be good enough."

Though the first 50 pages of Bereft are quite gripping, setting up the dynamics of the murder and the numbing effect it had on her family, there follows a long passage which traces Bernstein's experiences as a university student and junior editor of a "true confessions" magazine. The intensity of the opening sequence sags a bit into a self-analytical and sometimes disjointed dissection of the trials of her youth.

Bernstein eventually came to believe that her entire life was colored by Laura's murder, a quite plausible thesis. But it is sometimes tempting for a writer with a strong conviction to bend the facts retrospectively, as if to fit the theory. She often makes statements that reveal a supposed fragility, a terror of allowing her feelings to slip out of control: "I was like a poorly-sewn garment, and so much as opening my mouth would cause me to split all my seams." But this description doesn't match with the competent and joyful young woman the rest of the world sees.

There are also some frustrating loose ends. Jane's obsession with her gifted but neurotic roommate Leslie completely dominates the story for a time, detailing the shocking amount of abuse she took from her boyfriend. Then, suddenly, she is dropped from the narrative and never mentioned again. Subplots about two other school friends who die tragically feel disjointed, not integrated into the flow. Perhaps this fragmentation reflects Jane's ability to split off unpleasant events from the mainstream of her thinking, but the effect is decidedly odd.

When Bernstein begins to relate the story of meeting Will, a charming older man described by a friend as "brilliant but crazy," the story takes a turn for the creepy. From then until near the book's end, Jane's sick relationship with Will permeates the story. From the beginning she knew he had a violent, explosive temper but tried to encapsulate each episode as if it were unique. This reveals an almost unbelievable capacity for denial.

"We had the best relationship of anyone I knew," she insists, often emphasizing his good qualities and his manipulative sweetness after the explosions. But she could not deny his nature: "He was prone to rages that were like forces of nature. Sometimes I could see a storm building, but more often they materialized without warning. In a rage his face swelled and reddened, his lips got sucked in, his eyes bulged. In this monstrous transformation, he lost all sanity, all memory of tenderness."

When two daughters are born, one of them mentally disabled, Will is a devoted father who does not directly abuse them. Perhaps this is why Bernstein stays for over 20 years with a man who is capable of biting her on the face during an argument. "You bring it on," Will claims and, incredibly, Bernstein believes it, her self-esteem apparently permanently flattened by her sister's murder decades before.

But at a certain point when she tries to write about the murder and comes up empty, she becomes obsessed with the details of the crime she tried to bury all those years before. Bernstein digs up old records, talks to the officials involved and learns more about the murderer, David Mumbaugh, who (frighteningly) comes up for parole again and again. The story once again becomes gripping as long-buried feelings begin to emerge along with the facts: "I cried all the time, tears that I sometimes thought were made of acid instead of water." She realizes with great shock that Mumbaugh's flash rage parallels Will's explosions of temper. Finally she finds the energy and clarity to make some long-overdue changes in her life.

The powerful beginning and ending of Bereft are marred by an unsatisfying middle which doesn't always connect well with the primal trauma of the murder. It is also frustrating and disturbing to read about abuse that goes on for decades unchecked, particularly when it affects young children. "That I would do anything to keep the peace felt like an act of great political skill," she claims, but to an observer it seems more like acquiescence to oppression. Yet there is great courage in the way Bernstein finally faces it all and makes a kind of sense out of a senseless act. Bereft is a flawed drama, sometimes as messy and nonlinear as real life, but equally charged with intensity and unexpected illumination. | August 2000

 

Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.