This is a tale of two sisters. The elder, poet and novelist Lily Brett, has built an international literary career on her memories of childhood as the worst of times.
Her parents were Holocaust survivors and she has told of growing up in “a house full of anguish”. Her traumatised mother would weep and weep in front of her; her mother screamed in the night; her mother was tyrannical and envious of her daughter.
The younger sister, psychotherapist and writer Doris Brett, remembers their childhood in Carlton and Elwood as the best of times. In a memoir published this week, Eating the Underworld, she challenges Lily’s accounts of their history and of their mother, Rose, who died 15 years ago.
She says she shared Lily’s bedroom until Lily was 13 but she never heard her mother scream in the night; that her mother never wept in front of her and barely mentioned the Holocaust; that their home was a haven to which children of more damaged survivors were drawn for comfort. Her mother was no tyrant but cosseted both daughters and was “as good as she was beautiful”.
The family problem was not her mother but Lily: “There were a lot of tantrums and she certainly had an explosive temper, and I think my mother was very hurt by that.”
Doris Brett says that at 18, after years of trying to ingratiate herself with Lily, she realised she could never win her big sister’s love. She later came to believe that Lily would never forgive her for having unseated her as the only child: “She hated me.”
A relatively private estrangement has now become a public literary feud. Lily Brett, who lives in New York, and her father Max, who is in Melbourne, were sent copies of Eating the Underworld. Lily Brett issued this statement through her publisher: “There are some things not worth replying to. This book is one of them.”
There was also a statement from 85-year-old Max Brett: “This book, Eating the Underworld, by my daughter Doris, is a book of madness. It makes me very sad. I recognise very little of our family life in this book. My daughter Doris has made up a picture of her sister Lily which I don’t recognise at all.”
Doris Brett was expecting this kind of response: “My father basically said that if I wrote anything that hurt Lily’s career he would denounce me; he would call me a liar … It just didn’t matter how many times I said, `This is not aimed at Lily.’ ”
Is this a case of terminal sibling rivalry? A Helen Garner-like row over a writer exposing one side of shared private moments to the public gaze? A reflection of the way some children of survivors end up with their parents’ experience as a big part of their identity, and others don’t? Or an object lesson in the way truth is never absolute, and memory is at best a fuzzy reconstruction?
Lily Brett’s publicity material tells her parents’ story as part of her own. Rose and Max Brett were married just before they were imprisoned in Poland’s Lodz ghetto. They were sent to Auschwitz, where they were separated. They found each other six months after the war and Lily was born in a German camp for displaced persons in 1946. They came to Melbourne in 1948 and Doris was born a year later.
Lily, 54, has won prizes for her Holocaust poetry, Poland and Other Poems and The Auschwitz Poems, as well as an international audience for her novel Too Many Men, in which the main character travels with her father to Auschwitz. Lily is married to artist David Rankin and has three children.
Doris, 51, is married with one daughter – she says having Lily as a sibling made her reluctant to have a second child – and is also an award-winning poet. Her work includes the novel Looking For Unicorns, a book on therapeutic storytelling for children called The Annie Stories, and The Constellation of the Crab, poems about her battle with ovarian cancer.
Eating the Underworld is largely a memoir of the cancer battle but it also reflects on questions she had been reluctant to face until the prospect of death forced her to reassess her life. These included the need to defend her mother’s memory.
She writes that she had held her silence for a long time, “Because I was told it was shameful to expose differences. Because I wished to protect people … Because of the difficult question of who `owns’ shared stories … Because of my concern that if I spoke out, then I would only be doing what I had criticised my sister for. And also, I am not proud to say, because of fear … All too often, the bearers of news which bursts bubbles … are themselves turned on …
“It has been painful seeing the accounts of my family recounted so publicly by my sister … I have had strangers stop me in the street and commiserate with me for having had such a terrible mother. I find myself saying again and again to them that no, that was not my experience. I have had patients who have come to see me as a psychotherapist because they had abusive mothers and, having read my sister’s books, they `knew’ that I had one too and would understand.”
Doris writes that she does not recognise Lily’s view of her mother: “It is clearly the way Lily has chosen to interpret her experience and yet in the minds of many, it has become who my mother actually was. It is how she will be remembered by readers, critics, academics; people who never knew her.”
Her parents did not discuss the Holocaust with their children because they wanted to protect them, Doris says. But they failed to protect her from her sister’s antagonism as they were growing up – perhaps because they were blind to it, perhaps because the death camp had engendered a kind of passivity in her mother, she writes.
Doris first challenged Lily in a letter to the Jewish News in the late 1980s. In her book she writes that Lily stopped speaking to her then and that her father, who had initially approved the letter, rang her close to tears after speaking to Lily. He accused Doris of trying to wreck her sister’s career.
The Brett sisters are in fine literary company. The chill between British writers A. S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble, who also have differing views of their mother, has been much written about. But Doris Brett says their situation is different: “They were each allowed to write, even though they didn’t like what the other wrote. I was silenced. It was made very clear that I shouldn’t be writing about these things and I shouldn’t be talking about these things.”
Now, “The reader can read Lily’s, they can read mine, and they can make up their mind. And that’s how it should be.”
But what is the reader to make of such contradictory accounts? Is this bitter tussle itself a symptom of the emotional damage caused by the camp experience?
Psychiatrist Dr Paul Valent has treated children of Holocaust survivors. He says he cannot comment on the Brett family but that in Holocaust families generally, “one child can take the brunt of the family’s (bad) experience and the other child might represent the hope of all the good things that should come in the new life …
“It often happens that the oldest child is colored by the Holocaust experience, whereas the youngest child escapes it, relatively speaking – especially if, for instance, the older child was born in a displaced persons’ camp and the younger child was
born in Australia,” he says.
Louise Adler is an arts and literary commentator whose Jewish father fought in the French resistance. “Lily’s central preoccupation has been with making sense of that moment in history and how it affected her life,” she says. “That’s a legitimate activity.
“The problem of fiction is the morality of using material that you share with other people. For Lily Brett, the added problem is that there are other ways of viewing the family history. Is this struggle between these two sisters a poignant symptom of the drama of the second generation struggling to make sense of the horror that actually belongs to another generation?”
Doris Brett, who has been a psychotherapist for nearly 30 years, shares Dr Valent’s view that siblings often emerge with entirely different experiences of the family. But she also points quietly to Lily Brett’s acknowledgement in interviews that she tends to embroider stories.
Doris says, “For me, the issue ultimately was that I had been living with the sense that if I kept silent, that it would somehow fix things in the family – on a personal level, with my father … But in the end, I realised my silence wasn’t fixing anything.”
First published in The Age.