Myopia, a memoir

How love and laughter flourish in an endangered garden

Myopia1The year is 1949. Jeannette sits on the edge of her hospital bed dressed and ready to go home with her newborn baby. She collapses onto the floor. Her brain is bleeding. Jeannette’s husband, Nathan, is in the army, a brand new ophthalmologist. Their eight-year-old daughter lies in the hospital with a burst appendix.

The year is 1905. Nathan is born into a shtetl in Bershad, Russia. He doesn’t know he will come into life during the worst Jewish pogroms in Russia’s history, a bleak world filled with fear of starvation and death from hatred.  

The time is the Great Depression. Jeannette and Nathan meet and marry in Philadelphia. He is from poverty and she is from wealth. He is a struggling student and she has graduated from the University of Pennsylvania at the top of her class in mathematics. The marriage takes place without her family’s approval.

I am the baby born in 1949. I will come into this world of past and present, of horses hooves and bleeding brains and burst appendix. How do love and laughter flourish and grow in this endangered garden? How is intergenerational fear transmitted and survived? What does trauma do to blur our vision? This is Myopia, a memoir, a few of the tales I can tell from my life.

Where to find it

Signed copies of Myopia are available at Bookworks in Albuquerque. If you are not in Albuquerque, you may also buy copies through IPBooks, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and many other booksellers.

Early praise

From Kirkus Review

A memoir traces the history of a Jewish family from Russia to New England.

Novelist Skoy (What Survives, 2016) turns to nonfiction in this exploration of her family history that presents a panorama of Jewish life, from Bershad, a shtetl in what is now Ukraine, to the whaling town of New Bedford, Massachusetts. The central character in the book is Skoy’s father, Nathan Mitnick, who is introduced as an ailing 91-year-old man so intent on dying that he asks his daughter to poison him with potassium. “Have I ever known him?” the author wonders. “How well does one ever know another human being? Has there always been a part of him that stayed behind in those frozen places of his past where I’ll never walk?” Life in Bershad, then part of Russia, was brutal, with one of Mitnick’s uncles beaten to death by the anti-Semitic sons of local farmers and another burned to death in a synagogue while Cossacks guarded the doors. “If this is the best God can do for his chosen people, I wish he’d choose somebody else,” Mitnick’s father would say. Mitnick eventually fled with his mother and brother in a hay wagon, ending up in the U.S., where he fashioned a career as an ophthalmologist, raising his two daughters in Philadelphia and New Bedford. With a keen ear for dialogue, Skoy skillfully portrays the joys and sorrows of family members’ lives and the idiosyncrasies of the relatives and others who revolved around them. There’s Uncle Morris, “casting an eerie shadow between the kitchen and the living room, like an apparition from Auschwitz,” and Aunt Kathie, who converted to Roman Catholicism, even going to a convent to become a nun. In one particularly comical episode, Skoy’s mother makes the best of the situation after she crashes the family car into a drugstore during a driving lesson. “As long as we’re here, we might as well pick up my prescription,” she reasons. And at the center of the action, there’s Mitnick, who, memorably, can’t fathom why Sammy Davis Jr. would convert to Judaism. “Whatever could’ve made him want to be Jewish?” he asks. “He has to be nuts.”

The author deftly captures the humor and pathos of Jewish life and the many quirks of her colorful family.

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Thomas H. Ogden, author of the novels The Parts Left Out and The Hands of Gravity and Chance

Myopia is a pleasure to read. Phyllis Skoy uses her talent as a writer of fiction to turn each chapter of her memoir into a beautifully wrought short story. Myopia is not simply an account of an individual and a family, it is the story of the complexity of human nature, complete with love and jealousy and sorrow and selfishness and generosity, and not least of all, humor. There are no saints and no villains in this story, simply compelling characters doing their best in the face of adversity and opportunity. Skoy’s use of the first person present throughout contributes to the work’s immediacy and suspense, qualities found only in the best of memoirs.

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Hilda Raz, co-author of What Becomes You, with Aaron Raz Link

This funny, tart, moving and altogether brilliant memoir by novelist and analyst Phyllis Skoy presents her Jewish family to readers who love understatement, close looking, and the indispensable details that signal trouble every time.  Read Myopia and rejoice!
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Reviewed for the SFWP Quarterly by Beth Osborne

Keep It In The Family

As the great Elizabeth Bishop taught us: “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Phyllis Skoy tackles this one art in her reflective memoir Myopia. Within the course of the novel one witnesses the loss of the mind, of innocence, and of family, just to name a few. The title choice, Myopia, embodies the idea of loss of or alienation from family: how we can lack insight into our parents, even after they have passed on; how we are oblivious to small moments in our childhood that ultimately shape our entire lives. Life itself can be a form of myopia. We grope through the shadows, trying to do life “right,” and often times fail to stray from the path others have laid out for us, or else stray too far.

The novel begins as Skoy’s father Nathan is dying. He welcomes the idea of death, scarfing down lethal amounts of potassium-filled foods which the narrator buys him. The inner monologue about her father’s resolution to die, and her complicity in it, is piercing: “He’ll never see my triumph transform into helpless defeat: I’m killing him with love and I’m doing a lousy job of it.” This one line captures the multitudes of the memoir. The narrator has struggled her entire life with her sense of worth, with the love family must have for one another, and just how completely our parents can shape us.

Myopia functions as an immersive into Skoy’s family. The main players include the narrator’s cold and controlling father Nathan Mitnick, her absent-minded yet loving mother Jeannette, and her strong-willed and supportive sister Gay. The family lives an unassuming existence in Connecticut, with Nathan running his doctor’s office out of the home and Jeannette keeping house beyond the office doors. Within the utterly normal, however, runs the darker thread of familial dissonance. The family has a difficult time grappling with Jeannette’s traumatic brain injury, which has left her mind foggy and her memories jumbled. Nathan, asserting himself as the patriarch, expects order and perfection from his wife and daughters. Having grown up in poverty after a harrowing immigration to America, Nathan pursues the image in his mind of what his family should be, rather than taking stock of the family he has. This thread runs thick throughout Skoy’s novel. Even after he has passed away she struggles with reconciling the woman she is with the myth of Nathan’s Daughter.

Skoy’s narrative is regressive one, often written with the voice of a child. Her mother is “mommy,” her father “daddy”; Skoy uses simplistic language as a tool to frame her youth. “The walls are an icky yellow and green,” the narrator tells us. “When we make fruit pies… we make long, skinny snakes that Mommy crisscrosses over the fruit.” It’s important to note the persistent capitalization of “mommy” and “daddy” throughout the novel. The parents represent an Other within Myopia, something larger and more important, something not fully understood. It is only within present-day Phyllis Skoy that Nathan is referred to as “my father.” However, this characterization is alienating in a wholly different way. In an effort to distance herself from Nathan’s expectations and disappointments, he has morphed into “my father,” rather than “dad,” “daddy,” or even “father.” Even as the narrator reflects on Nathan’s final days, he is referred to as “Dad,” a signaling a change, a breaking down of the Other who once ruled her life. “My birth seems to have gotten the Mitnicks kicked out of their Garden of Eden,” she writes. The use of present tense and the more adult biblical reference reveals to the reader that the narrator still struggles with this separation of “me” and “them.”

The chapter “Hiding Places” beautifully encapsulates the retrospective that is Skoy’s novel. Though scarcely more than ten pages, “Hiding Places” details what children hide from, and the sorts of hiding we attempt as adults. She begins small and literal: running from Nathan to the garden or to the basement. But as the chapter continues, the hiding places bloom into the drawers and boxes of her parents, the places where they hide their true selves in the forms of old clothes, books, and letters. Children and adults alike have something to hide from: whether it be parents or chores or growing up or late bills or the ghosts of who we once were. In this slim chapter, Skoy provides a meditation on what it is to be human, and what connects us all.

 

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Myopia: A Memoir

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