Book Review: By Blood by Ellen Ullman

I’ve read a bunch of really excellent books lately (including Wild by Cheryl Strayed and We the Animals by Justin Torres), but one that I cannot stop thinking about is By Blood by Ellen Ullman.  This is one CRAZY book.  Completely insane.

By Blood takes place in San Francisco in the 1970s. The narrator, unnamed throughout the book, is a professor who is on leave from his university for reasons he does not clearly explain, but we learn they have something to do with immoral conduct involving a student. The professor rents an office in a large building as a place to get some work done, but soon finds himself distracted by the noises emanating from the office next door.  That office is occupied by Dr. Dora Schlussel, a therapist, and most of the time the narrator can only hear garbled voices muffled by the whirring of a white noise machine.  Soon, the narrator discovers that one patient prefers the white noise machine off, allowing the narrator to listen to the patient’s entire counseling session.

The narrator becomes obsessed with the life of this particular patient, who we know only as “The Patient,” a woman who is struggling with her identity.  The woman is a consummate outsider — she is a woman in the financial industry, she is a lesbian (and within that community, she finds she does not relate well to more political lesbians), and she is adopted.  The narrator listens intently as the Patient decides whether to pursue more information about the circumstances of her birth.

There is something intriguing and, of course, voyeuristic about listening in on a counseling session.  We learn a person’s deepest secrets and various weaknesses.  Things are said that would never be repeated in everyday conversation. Of course, there is something comforting in confirming that other people harbor problems and vulnerabilities, much like ourselves.  As a reader and writer myself, I am always thinking about how other people think, what motivates my characters, and the pretense of By Blood is having that rare and secret window into another person’s internal monologue.  What a revelation!

And yet, we know it is fundamentally indecent and immoral to eavesdrop, and completely horrible for our narrator to do this in during someone’s counseling session, when the Patient is most open and vulnerable.  A normal person would have informed Dr. Schlussel that he could hear through the walls, or at the least, cleared his throat or made some noise so she would have been made aware that someone was there.  Further, a stable person would not have developed an obsession with The Patient and her life story. But our narrator is far from a normal person.  Although we don’t know exactly the nature of the narrator’s demons, we know his family is rife with mental illness and suicides, and he has visited many psychologists himself.  He alludes to stalking people and having desires to hurt or kill them.  In short, he is one scary dude.

If the narrator represents the worst of our natures, the damaged psyche who would repeatedly indulge in that guilty pleasure of eavesdropping, as a reader I’m quite glad he did it, because the Patient’s story is utterly fascinating.  Over the weeks of fifty minute hours, we learn that the Patient was born soon after World War II in a displaced person’s camp.  Raised as a WASP, the Patient learns she was born Jewish.  As if this is not shocking enough, at every turn the Patient uncovers more information about the circumstances about her conception, birth and complicated adoption that is enough to send even the most stable person into a complete tailspin.  The patient learns much of this information with the help of our eavesdropping narrator, who has taken it upon himself to research the patient’s origins and forward her information about what he has learned under the guise of a clerk working for a adoption agency.

The narrator’s insertion of himself into the patient’s life is the beginning of the end of his eavesdropping sessions.  We read on, knowing that the Patient will eventually learn that the “clerk” sending her information does not actually exist, and steeling ourselves for that moment when the narrator is discovered.  I thought it was rather deft of the author to build suspense in this way.  And yet, despite this quasi-sympathy for the damaged narrator, I also felt anxious that the narrator would do something to harm the Patient.  He discovers so many details of her life, and becomes so obsessed with her, that it would be easy for him to harm her psychologically or even physically.

However, the book ends abruptly.  We’ve learned a lot about the Patient but many questions about her background remained unanswered, which is so unsatisfying.  We also don’t learn what happens to our crazy narrator, and if he faces any consequences for his various sins.  Although the author leaves us hanging, I love the complicated questions she raises throughout this unique book.  How much do our biological origins determine our selves?  What unseen forces are meddling in our lives? How much does a therapist’s personal issues affect their advice to us? Most intriguing, though, and most discomforting, is that Ullman gets us to grapple a bit with our darker sides. We know the narrator is repulsive, but we can’t stop reading/listening in, like he does.  What does this say about ourselves?

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