Ellen Ullman

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Ullman, Ellen

Last Updated: Feb-19-2014
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


The first-person, nameless narrator is in mid-1970s San Francisco on a "sabbatical" that is more like an exile from his academic post in the east. He takes an office in a downtown building to force himself to leave his dull accommodations. Occasionally he can hear everything that transpires from the space on the other side of the wall, which is the office of psychiatrist, Dr. Schüssler. Normally, the woman doctor runs a white-noise machine to ensure privacy, but one patient — who becomes “my patient” — hates the noise and insists it be turned off.

Adopted in infancy, “my patient” is in a fraught lesbian relationship. Her doctor has been encouraging her to find her birth mother, but she keeps resisting. Finally she embarks on a long exploration that is told through her accounts to the doctor, through conversations repeated and letters read out loud. As an academic scholar, the eavesdropping narrator is able to trace records that could not be found by the patient; he takes the liberty of meddling, falsifying an agency letter and setting her on the correct path. He also realizes that the psychiatrist’s father was a Nazi officer by listening to telephone conversations with her own mentor.

“My patient” learns that her mother was Jewish and escaped death by being in a special facility as a comfort woman. Chameleon-like the mother’s identity changes over and over. In contrast to the nameless patient, her name moves from Maria to Miriam to Michal; she lives in Israel where the patient goes to find her. The biological father’s identity is a mystery—perhaps someone whom Michal loved, perhaps a Nazi officer. The sacrifice of her child to a Catholic adoption agency moves from inexplicable selfishness to desperate selflessness. Surprises continue to the end when "my patient" finds an Israeli sister who has been in contact with the mother but is no less confused over her identity.

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