Roger Cohen’s memoir of his mother’s battle with depression gives Ed Vulliamy fresh insight into his friend’s Jewish roots
Of all the stories in this book, two stand out, unforgettable. One is this description – in the mind’s eye – of a son’s anguish for his mother: “I see my slight, fragrant young mother with metal plates being affixed to either side of her head, flattening her dark curls, her heart racing as a doctor straps the plates to her swabbed temples, enclosing her skull in its high-voltage carapace.” The other is Roger Cohen’s discovery of his mother’s admission sheet at the Victorian mental hospital in Surrey – now a luxury gated-housing development – where the electric shock treatment was administered in 1958 (as Cohen discovered half a century later). The registry names her, and in the box marked ‘Religion’ reads simply: JEW. “The noun form” writes Cohen, “has a weight the adjective, Jewish, lacks. It seems loaded with monosyllabic distaste, redoubled by the strange use of the upper case.”
This is a book with three strands. Above all, it tells the story of Cohen’s mother, June. It also tells the story of his family, from its origins in Lithuania, via South Africa to Britain and Israel. And its riptide is Cohen’s own journey towards the identity he feels to have fled, but then found, as a Jew himself. But first, I must declare an interest: when I was 12, I attended a good school in Hampstead that was mostly Jewish, partly for reasons of geography, partly because of quotas.