perm_identity Beneath the Surface

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 123 ~ August, 2007

This is not so much a book review, I suppose, as it is a personal reflection of sorts after reading Dinah Lenney’s compelling memoir Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir. On the book jacket cover, it states that the murder of Lenney’s father, Nelson Gross, by a couple of teenagers propelled her to write “both a meditation on grief and a coming of age story,” an experience many have been through or are entering, as is the case with me, or inevitably will be at some point down the line.

I’ve actually met Dinah, but don’t really know her, and, of course, had no idea her father had been kidnapped and murdered not far from where I live. I was first introduced to Dinah by Sven Birkerts of Agni Review, whom I don’t really know either, when the two of them were sitting at a table at a book fair in Vancouver in late February of 2005. Earlier this year, I heard her moderate a panel entitled “Leading the Double Life” about the interaction between one’s writing life and day job, and thus, bought a copy of Bigger Than Life, as promised, and zipped through it once home in my living room, fascinated by the secret emotional life beneath the surface of Lenney’s naturally exuberant face which one would never otherwise know about.

The impression I had of Dinah, especially based on her natural wide smile, was of a confident woman in control, someone who knows what she wants and takes the steps necessary to achieve it. But, then again, she is an actress, and I’m certainly not clairvoyant, so my perceptions and first impressions are open to be woefully wrong, which they were in the case of Dinah Lenney, or at least from the very private side of her revealed in her memoir.

So, lesson one, I guess, is that as we meet or run into people during the course of our pedestrian lives, there may at times be extraordinary events or personal conflicts in such people’s lives — whether with parents, spouses, or children — hidden behind the masks of the everyday. And looking at Dinah Lenney, how would one ever guess that her father had been senselessly murdered in a horrific manner, and even more amazing, though it has nothing to do with her story, I remember the murder when it was first reported and was familiar with the restaurant her father owned?

At the beginning of her book, Lenney wonders about when she should tell her two young children, Eliza and Jake, how their grandfather really died, concerned about the truth of the existence of arbitrary events which can rock one’s world, but especially a child who has not accumulated the proper distance to somehow keep tragedy in perspective, if such can even be accomplished by adults.

Lenney is the oldest of five, and I’m the oldest of four, with the major difference being that Lenney’s siblings are all step siblings, the result of each of her parents remarrying and moving ahead in their new respective lives, with Lenney the one common link tying them together. Talk about potential family dynamics. It’s all there, and Lenney dissects and analyzes her feelings, and what truth she can, in what I call being “subjectively objective,” with herself in the middle, or maybe exiled on the West Coast with her own family, as her father’s unexpected murder, as if murder can be expected, forces the extended family to at least truly begin to acknowledge each other’s existence, and past pains or hurt, whether verbalized or not.

Questions arise, and not necessarily ones that can be answered, such as Lenney wondering what her stepmother, her father’s wife, is to her and her children, whether indeed a stepmother is family, and furthermore, with her father gone, would she ever see her stepmother again?

Lenny’s father owned the Binghamton, a ferryboat moored on the Hudson River across from Manhattan in Edgewater, New Jersey. I remember when the Binghamton opened, and I’ve been there many times over the years. Dinah and I have sat at the same bar there, though the Binghamton is a common memory for different reasons, with hers more intricate than mine; but I still have lasting snapshots of my mother on the deck of the ferry with my sister’s child Katy, about three at the time, bundled up against the cold and hugging my mother, who, suffering with breast cancer at the time, is stooping down to receive a kiss of unconditional trust and love.

In the wake of her father’s death, Lenney is forced to confront the multiple roles her father played, that of father and husband, but also his relationship with his two younger brothers, and that of New Jersey politician and entrepreneur. And, of course, the role, realized or not, intentional or inadvertent, which her father played in her emotional life, in her concept and belief about herself.

I recently asked the head of the Democratic Party in the Borough of Fort Lee if she remembered Nelson Gross, Dinah’s father, and she did, as I knew she would.

“He was a nice guy,” Kay Nest, the Democratic chair, said. “It’s tragic what happened to him.”

“I think that’s the first time I ever heard you say something nice about a Republican,” I said.

Kay brushed off my comment. “He couldn’t help being a Republican.”

In 1972, Gross’ father lost his bid running for U.S. Senate in New Jersey, the election year in which Richard Nixon beat George McGovern in every state but Massachusetts. I was at school in Massachusetts at the time, but Dinah was at her grandparents’ house in Englewood, N.J., the town where I was raised, and I couldn’t help wondering where their house was, the house they returned to from Trenton after the final election results had been tallied.

As I read Bigger Than Life, I was immersed on two levels, Lenney’s story, and then also my identification, my associate feelings about similar emotions which were triggered by what Lenney went through. That’s certainly not to take away from Lenney’s memoir — in my mind, I think it’s a compliment that I was compelled to think of personal specifics while reading her book which I might not ordinarily have faced. But who knows, maybe a professor of something or other would consider me a poor reader for not only being solely aware of Lenney’s trauma and her ability to continue ever onward.

My father played many roles too, foremost being that of a renowned psychiatrist, one whom many respected. He would stay away during the week in his office in Manhattan and come back to the house in New Jersey where my mother stayed, in Leonia, the same town Lenney’s paternal grandmother was raised, and effortlessly slip back into the role of husband and family man. And, my father was very big on taking my mother and various children and grandchildren, myself included, at times, to the Binghamton for Sunday brunch, and everyone would perform, repetitively exclaiming what a wonderful brunch it was that they served at the ferry.

When Lenney’s mother says she’s all right after the murder, Lenney states, “As well you should be. You divorced the guy thirty-seven years ago.” And that is an example of Lenney’s dilemma of “belonging but not belonging” as the “product of the first marriage, the bad marriage” or possibly in the eyes of others, the one marriage that should never have happened.

In some respects I’ve been fortunate, growing up oblivious to the concept, much less the reality, of step families and all that it involves in terms of families extending and ultimately having more branches and individuals supposedly related to each other in some manner or fashion. I think of Henry XIII, or any medieval monarch, for that matter, and the bloodlines, with second marriages, and second cousins, removed or otherwise, and in Henry’s case, three children given birth by three different wives, and what it means in terms “of belonging” and one’s sense of self.

Lenney writes about her mother and stepmother’s feelings toward her, feelings in relation to her father, how she can’t quite escape the feeling that she represented the biggest mistake of her mother’s life, and conversely, how she wasn’t sure if her stepmother could ever separate her from her mother, the ex-wife, the ex-wife who was the mother to the first child, the daughter who remained the only tie between two separate families.

Pretense, something Lenney and I are both aware of, something that has been performed around me since early childhood, and maybe that’s why Lenney took up acting and I became a writer, who knows? I do know that I have always been the outside observer, though that never meant my conclusions were right, but at least they were honestly wrong and not a matter of pretense.

I forget the name of the movie — but I could probably find it on the Internet from remembering that Danny DeVito and Kevin Spacey were in it — but one of the voice over lines while the credits are scrolling down at the end to music went something like “Be nice to your siblings, they are your link to the past, and are probably the only ones that will be there in the future.”

Lenney has a husband and two children, and I have my brother and two sisters, and we move on, not forgetting, but perhaps understanding better who we are and how we became that way.

I, for one, am glad Lenney had the courage to write Bigger Than Life and that somehow, though I certainly haven’t traveled much in my life, I happened to run into her and as a result, ended up reading her book and am now writing about it, partly to deal with my own demons, but also, and I hope it is clear, to highly recommend this memoir to anyone who has reached this point in what I have just written.