Sunday, November 16, 2014

My Brain's Big Bang


            I stare stunned as, on the blackboard, the professor writes a scientific formula that stretches into its third line of squiggles and numbers. He spews incomprehensible narration of what sounds like chemistry, physics of light, and astrophysics.
            Was this science course listed as non-prerequisite? I must complete a single science requirement this last semester for my M.A. in Economics. When I graduate in three months, I will leave my husband, take my two babies, and move to the city where the jobs are. Without a science course, I’ll lose my investment of four years and money I can ill-afford.
            At the blackboard, the professor explains how to measure the temperature of a mass of compact matter called “a star” based upon its thermonuclear fusion, and then shows how to extrapolate in the process how old this star is and how many eons will it live before its supernova nucleosynthesis. The kinematic viscosity is helpful here, and don’t forget the hydrostatic equilibrium, of course.… No science prerequisite? When I signed for Cosmology, I thought of Astronomy. I could already point out the Great Dipper and Orion, but would flaunt new expertise about constellations at a beach party on dark summer nights….
            At recess, I stop at the professor’s desk. He is munching on a sandwich.
            “Professor, this class was listed specifically as one with no science prerequisite.”
            “Do you have high school math?”
            I nod.
            “Well then, you have all the background you need.”
            I point at the blackboard. “Not this—”
            His hand waves in dismissal. “Cosmology is fun.” He gulps coffee from his thermos. “Trust me. You’ll be okay.”
            After everyone has written their names on the yellow legal pad, introductions are made. Of the over thirty students, I am the only one who is not a science teacher, a Brookhaven nuclear lab worker, or an engineer taking this “safe” course for a graduate management degree.
            Before next week’s class I verify that none of the university’s other science classes is listed with no prerequisite. They must all be worse than this Cosmology business. Besides, this class is scheduled in the evening, off campus, closer to my house. It’s difficult to pay for a babysitter and gasoline these days when my husband is MIA, yet suing for custody of my babies, and my legal fees have already depleted my parents’ savings.
            I can only switch classes in the first two weeks of the semester. It’s now or never. My entire future is on the line. Therefore, when in the second lecture the professor explains why Einstein’s Law of Relativity does not apply to cosmos, I plant myself in front of his desk at recess. I wait until he passes around the yellow legal pad for all to sign attendance.
            “Professor.” My eyes filled with tears. “I don’t know why Einstein’s Law of Relativity works on our Planet Earth. How can I figure out why it doesn’t elsewhere? This class is for scientists.”
            “High school math is all you need,” he repeats.
            “If I don’t drop out today, I won’t be able to get into another course.” I place in front of him the printout of the school program. “Can you suggest another one for a lay person?”
            “Look.” He picks something caught between two molars. “I believe that if you just sit in class and listen, you’ll get it.”
            I am certain that if I lay in the river for months I won’t turn into a crocodile. I shake my head. “No way.”
            “I’ll make a deal with you,” he says. “If you just show up for all classes, I’ll give you a B.”
            Just like that? “What about the quizzes and the semi-final and final exams?”
            “You’ll get a B. Just for attending.”
            Maybe it doesn’t look good for him when people drop out, but I am willing to buy the arrangement. Off the hook, I take a jaunty jig to my seat.      
     For the rest of the semester, I ignore the two multi-choice quizzes in which I fail, followed by the mid-term. I also do not attempt to decipher the formulas the professor scribbles on the blackboard. I am light-years away from caring what happens to helium at 40,000 degrees Fahrenheit or calculating the velocity of matter gravitating toward a nebula (what’s that?) by converting the heat volume to light units. Or perhaps, the reverse deduction? Oh, yes, all these pieces of data also tell us how old the star is. Or is it a planet? Calculate it all, please, with your high school math. Did I mention distance? It can be extrapolated from this data if we also add the color of the light of a given star because it can be deduced from its electromagnetic spectrum….
            That is Cosmology. The science to top all sciences because it includes all of them.
            I show up every Wednesday at seven in the evening and sit down to doodle. The only thing I learn is that quantum mechanics and molecular physics are also incorporated into the formulas on the blackboard. It doesn’t matter, really. I will get a B. At recess, I sign my name on the yellow legal pad, then leave and go home to my babies and to study for the other classes I must complete. Actually, my home is no longer “my home,” as I have escaped domestic violence, and we now sheltered in someone’s basement. Soon, I’ll finish this semester and begin a new life far from here.
            Three weeks to finals. A judge with an unabashed dislike of women wishing to liberate themselves grants me only twenty-five dollars a week for the three of us. If not for the kindness of strangers, we’d starve. I polish my resume and start applying for jobs.
            I stop at the professor’s desk. “Remember our agreement?” I ask. “I don’t need to do well on the final. I get a B.”
            “Oh, no,” he replies. “The agreement was for you to sit in the classroom. You left every week at recess.”
            The hair roots stand on my head. A split second later, the blood drains from my temples. “You can’t do this,” I whisper. “I can’t graduate with less than a B.”
            “Sorry. That was the deal.”
            I begin to hyperventilate.
            His sympathy must be genuine because he says, “Look. If you get an A, I will ignore all these failed quizzes and the mid-term.”
            “An A?” I blurt like a dimwit.
            “I’m giving you a new deal.”
            I walk away in a daze. My celestial fantasies of a life outside the doomed marriage is sucked into the kind of black hole the professor talked about, some mass so compacted that nothing escapes from it, not even light.
            There is no choice. I must get an A in Cosmology as if my life depends on it, because it really does.
            I go to the public library and plant myself in the children’s section. I begin reading first-grade books about planets and novas and black holes. I study the colorful pictures of the expanding universe and read about stellar dynamics and galaxies and what they are made of. Junk, really, clouds of particles and gasses—hydrogen and helium mostly—that under high pressure change from one chemical composition into something else whose density can be measured using luminosity and temperature.
            Equipped to put it all in some context, I move to middle-school level books. I should be able to learn material suitable for a ten-year old, even a fourteen-year old. The Big Bang theory; the Hubble telescope; white and red dwarfs; isometric theory; gravitation; black spaces; nuclear fission. Artists’ renderings are very helpful. I begin to get it. Presented in a way I can understand, the material piques my curiosity. Suddenly, I even enjoy it. Coming out of the library late on a moonless night, I look at a pinprick of a star in the sky and know that I am staring at history: this light left its source eons ago, but only now it reaches my human eye here on earth. How awesome is that?
            I am soon in the library’s high school science section, then check another library to make sure I cover all available easy books. I have no idea what material was taught in class; to be on the safe side I read everything.
            By the end of an intensive three weeks, I close the last page of The Encyclopedia of Cosmology, having read every value in it. To my bewilderment and surprise, I comprehend it all.
            The transcript of my grades arrives. Scared, I hold the envelope in my palm. I’ve already moved my family. I glued stickers of galaxies and constellations on the ceiling of my babies’ new bedroom. My lawyer guaranteed the first two months’ rent, uncertain how I would pay it. I’ve taken the first semi-decent marketing job offered. The unknown, the responsibility, and the fear bear down on me so much that I’ve lost the grip on who I am.
            I open the envelope.
            Cosmology: A.
            In the decades that have passed since my last exam, I’ve stared many times into the depth of the Milky Way. I know that our galaxy is merely one of hundreds of billions other galaxies, but rather than feel small, I feel victorious: I explored the farthest reaches of our vast, ever-expanding universe and came out a winner.
            # # #
            Author Talia Carner’s heart-wrenching suspense novels, JERUSALEM MAIDEN, CHINA DOLL and PUPPET CHILD (and her upcoming HOTEL MOSCOW) deal with social issues. Please check

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tunneling Under Jerusalem

Talia in a 1900 kitchen yard (The Old Yeshuv Museum)

(Featured lead article, The Red Room, May 2011)
            Thomas Carlyle said, “What is knowledge but recorded experiences?” However, I could find no recorded experiences when I set out on the road to writing a novel inspired by my grandmother’s untapped artistic genius.
            I had a sense of the world she grew up in. She regaled me with stories from her childhood in Jerusalem in the early 1900s—her father’s roll-top desk that served as a bank and how she scraped the inside of a red candy wrapper in order to blush her cheeks. She taught me to sew pouches from old sheets and stuff them with beans and rice for our Shabbat cholent. Once she took me on a long bus trip from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and we walked in the yard of her English-language all-girls’ school. “Elegant” she called the place that at her time had been attended by only three hundred privileged girls. But these experiences were the outside scaffolding holding up the soul of a woman who, I was certain, had been born in the wrong time and place. What was the inner life of my feisty young protagonist trapped in a religious society and compelled to follow a predetermined path?
            Although my core family was secular, my Tel-Aviv neighborhood was mixed: I played hopscotch with Orthodox girls, and on Shabbat was careful to keep my music down. Throughout my twelve years in secular schools I studied Bible, in which I excelled, in addition to some Talmud. Our Hebrew literature was often steeped with religious overtones.
            Yet, digging into the nuances of the more extreme faction of an Orthodox Jewish woman’s life one hundred years ago in Jerusalem, I hit a wall. Historians, all male, never covered women’s concerns, while ultra-Orthodox Jewish women of that era rarely documented their own daily existence. They believed that suffering in Jerusalem—starvation, shortages, maggot-filled water cisterns, or fifty percent children’s mortality—wasn’t just a fact of life, but helped hasten the messiah’s arrival.
            There were short stories, articles, letters, and journals—and eventually some academic research—about Zionist women who, driven by ideology, immigrated to the Holy Land in the early part of the 20th century to seek equality with men in either the new agricultural communities (Kibbutzim) or whose voice was heard in politics. Israel’s late Prime Minister Golda Meir was the product of such Zionist venture and aspirations.
            But the ultra-Orthodox Jewish women in the Holy City remained invisible.
            At the end of the backward Ottoman rule, Jerusalem was a strategic city that attracted foreign embassies jostling for power by filling the void in governance. As they built hospitals and settled local disputes while their missionaries served hot meals and opened schools, the insular ultra-Orthodox community further closed itself off from their influence.
            A typical neighborhood in Jerusalem featured a large communal space lined by rows of identical one- and two-room houses that clung together, their back walls bordering the thoroughfare to form an impenetrable blockade. Life took place in the central common area, called “hatzer,” courtyard: the residents shared the oven, well, laundry shed, outhouses, yeshiva, mikveh, and synagogue. Even as overcrowding crisscrossed the open space with alleys, that’s where the women worked, cooked, gossiped, and watched over their young children. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women were hidden not only behind the thick stone walls, but also underneath heavy clothing and hair coverings—and behind a fear of “others,” which included less observant Jews. Adherence to a strict modesty precluded speaking to men, beyond the absolute necessary exchanges with merchants who ventured into their courtyard. Furthermore, the women were sheltered by rules, Commandments, dictates, norms and social expectations—as well as by ignorance: while one-hundred per cent of boys studied from dawn to dusk, starting at age three and well into adulthood, most girls were not schooled at all.
            One late fall day I checked into a Jerusalem hotel on the same ancient road leading to Bethlehem that my protagonist took when traveling to visit Rachel’s Tomb. Like a detective returning to the scene of a crime for more clues, I explored anew the city I had known and adored, but whose secrets I sought to expose.
            When I had lived there as a student at The Hebrew University, my fingers had turned blue in the freezing winters in centuries-old rented rooms. On warm summer nights, I had walked in the Old City (it was safe then) to the Arab bakery for pre-dawn freshly baked pitas. I attended a male cousin’s ultra-Orthodox second wedding to a mature woman he had never met, arranged by the rabbi and witnessed by five hundred disciples. I had strolled with a boyfriend on the ramparts of David Citadel, and on blistering hot days, had waded in the cool water of Hezekiah’s Tunnel, hugged by its tight walls and its biblical history.
            Yet, none of this had opened a window into the mystery of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women’s lives in the obscure past. I needed to dig a tunnel into history.
            Yad Ben-Zvi library held several preserved hand-written, personal journals. I also discovered barely legible fourth or fifth copies Ph.D. dissertations typed on manual typewriters decades ago. I spoke with historians, recorded oral histories of old female relatives, and walked the streets of Jerusalem aided by a 1912 map that showed most of the buildings—sometimes whole neighborhoods—unchanged.
            My mind’s eye stripped the streets and buildings of all modern accoutrements, for in the Ottoman era even the thoroughfares remained unpaved as in biblical times. Running water, electricity, and sanitation were only added gradually by the British after taking over the mandate of the Holy Land in 1917. The first car arrived in Jerusalem a decade earlier, during the time my story was set—but the rabbis forbade looking at this abomination. With no news broadcast, no music, and no vehicular traffic, streets and markets sounds were much different. But what was the cadence of life that early-1900s Jerusalem women heard? What were the smells?
            The breakthrough in my research came in The Old Yishuv Court Museum in the Old City of Jerusalem. With donations of old tools, utensils, beddings, furniture, books and mementos, the founder had turned her parents’ old home into a museum that showed life in Jerusalem in the olden days. Here I was able spend time in a replica of the cramped kitchen in which my protagonist and her mother had toiled and, holding the washboard in the adjacent handkerchief-size yard, I bent over a knee-high tub and imagined scrubbing clothes with recycled water.
            I stared at the one tight bedroom with its high vaulted ceiling, where a lace curtain separated the parents’ sleeping nook. The stack of mattresses, I knew, would be spread on the floor at night. I just hadn’t realized how small the mattresses were and how few of them could actually fit in such a tiny space. In the center of the next bedroom, which didn’t exist in the average dwelling of the time, stood a four-poster maternity bed. It moved from home to home when women gave birth, which was often. Unfortunately, I had learned, almost half the birthing mothers eventually died. My own grandmother’s mother had borne fourteen children, eight of whom survived to adulthood—a rare achievement.
            I studied the jobs women kept in order to support their husbands’ studies while bearing and raising all their children—in printing, millinery, bookbinding. Women, the guardians of home, served both as the carriers of the future of Jewish people as well as the prisoners of this aspiration. 
            A friend arranged for a thirty-minute interview with Rivka Weingarten, the founder of the museum, who was old and sickly. We talked for over two hours. She knew my family that lived in Jerusalem for ten-generations and after whose members some streets were named. She described a scene I later used in my novel, in which my protagonist Esther ironed clothes with a heavy press iron, heated by sizzling embers inside. Her sister’s blew through a straw into a hole on the side of the pressing iron, thus raising the heat….
            Emerging outside into the bright Jerusalem sun reflecting back from the cream-colored chiseled stones, I followed my protagonist, a budding artist with passion for painting. Since visual expression was forbidden by the Second Commandment “Thou shall not make any graven images,” where would she quench her thirst for art? It dawned on me that I, a secular Jewish woman, had never set foot in a Jerusalem church. There had been occasions when my job required me to accompany a group of tourists to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I always I hung back just inside the doorway, queasy with a vague sense of my betrayal. How much weightier would my protagonist’s apprehension be? How sinful would she feel, with God crouching in her head and registering everything her eyes saw?
            For the first time in all my years and frequent visits to this holy city, I entered my protagonist’s shoes and, moving inside a bubble of foreboding sense of transgression, I set to explore the city’s churches and their magnificent art.
            After that, when I examined photographs of women shelling broad beans or standing in line at the single street faucet for the scarce water distribution the Turks failed to maintain, I did so with the tension derived from my protagonist’s wish to break away from a life of unceasing labor, squalor, and worries, to let her soul soar as high as the angels floating in a church’s mural. As I peeked in Me’ah She’arim into the still-standing vaulted ceiling, crowded rooms where whole families of ultra-Orthodox Jews still lived in poverty, subsisting on women’s small enterprises and charity while the fathers studied all their days, I knew that—except for the running water and toilet facilities in the yard—I was looking at history.
            Once, on a blistering summer day, waiting at the intersection by Me’ah She’arim for the traffic light to change, I glanced at a fully covered woman standing next to me. She was very young—and pregnant. In the stroller and hanging onto her long, ample skirt were four more children. Although under Israeli law she probably married at seventeen rather than at thirteen, I wondered how much freedom she had had as a teenager to assess her world and her future. Had she dreamed of living in Paris instead?
            My protagonist, Esther, did, and she was determined to follow her heart. And she did. I had no choice but to follow her to Paris….
# # # 

Talia Carner’s novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN, was published by HarperCollins (2011)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Public Thoughts To be Read At The Rosh Hashanah Table

Rosh Hashanah 2014— Year 5775 of proud Jewish history  

By Talia Carner
            The New Year has always been a time of reflection about life within the broader context of one's relationship with others and one’s relationship with God. For atheists, the latter is an examination the moral values by which each of us lives. This is the time of spiritual reconnection with Jewish traditions and of remembering those who, over generations of persecution, were killed for the single sin of their faith.
            The tradition of eating sweet foods carries with it the optimism of a sweet new year. It is a new beginning, a sweet chance to start over.
            All across the globe, Jews share these moments—and the hope carried in them. This sharing of rituals ties us all together and remind us that no Jew is ever alone.
            Yet, as a community, we are often alone. Friends of the Jews come and go, their loyalty never taken for granted. This year, Rosh Hashanah falls in the midst of rise of anti-Semitism sweeping the through Europe, Africa and Asia, and has landed right in our midst at the Manhattan's UN building. The centrality of Jewish identity—the Jews’ right for self-definition and sovereignty in their own land—has been challenged not only by ignoramus, but by intellectuals in leading universities, mainstream media and civic organizations claiming to be unbiased and inclusive.
            Rosh Hashanah now stands to remind us that hate can come knocking on our door first with words, followed by denying our identity, then erasing the lessons of our history, and continues with biased resolutions and economic boycotts. Before long, it is with , and guns, bombs, and showers of thousands of rockets that no empty promises of “never again” are able to stop.         
            Let the fresh start of Rosh Hashanah therefore remind us how much pride we take in Jewish extraordinary achievements in science and medicine, unsurprisingly reflected in Israel’s miraculous contributions to technology, agriculture and science.

            Israel makes us walk tall. Without her, Jews would have been like the Gypsies and Kurds of the world. Yet, she is now in mortal danger of a war orchestrated by enemies delighted to sacrifice the lives of millions of their people to see the Jews disappear from the Middle East.
            As we move into the New Year, let us bless all the good things the world has given us while we send our prayers for those who have already been taking the first bullet for us--and this year, 67 beautiful souls of Israeli soldiers did just that. Their friends will continue to do so to preserve a home for all Jews persecuted in their countries. And as we do so, let us search within ourselves whether we have done all we could for Israel and its people who need us now more than ever.
            Several years ago, then-Israel’s president Shimon Peres said that even Ben-Gurion had not dreamed big enough. Let us dream big tonight—stretch our dreams to encompass all the vast possibilities of hope, and let us dream tonight of a world of peace.
            Let’s bless all the good things God has given us so far, and celebrate our resilience and our heritage of strong Jewish values that we have shared with the world over for centuries. And let's allow that dream bring joy to our hearts and to our Rosh Hashanah table.
Author, speaker and activist Talia Carner lives in New York. Her next novel, Hotel Moscow (HarperCollins, summer 2015) deals with anti-Semitism and Jewish identity.       

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Debt

             In 1934, at a Maccabiah camp near Warsaw, Rosa, age sixteen, lost her wallet. In it was her car-fare back to her village. Shlomo, an eighteen year old camper, lent her the money.
            Afterward, they corresponded. She wanted to send him the money she owed him, but when he heard about her plans to join a “Gar’ein,” a core group of young people organizing in order to establish a kibbutz in the land promised to the Jews, he suggested instead that she give it to his sister, Sarah, who lived in Palestine.
            Fresh off the boat at the edge of the Mediterranean, Rosa and her comrades settled in the inhospitable land to toil the rocky soil and to dry swamps. They fought mosquitoes and malaria, and eventually deserted their spot and moved to another, then another, until finally they found a home at the foot of Mount Gilboa. There, they built a kibbutz far from the main thoroughfare of the country’s dramatic events.
            In all of that, Rosa forgot all about her debt.
            Rosa’s eightieth birthday was celebrated by her family. Rosa’s grandchildren gathered around her and asked her to tell them about her life. They wanted to look at pictures.
            Every bit of her history was stored in an old cardboard suitcase—the same one she had brought from Europe. Or perhaps it wasn’t the same one; Rosa could no longer recall. She hadn’t brought it down from the crawl space in the attic for decades. It didn’t matter. Now, with her grandchildren eager to hear about her life, she opened it.
            She was surprised to find there a sepia-colored photograph of young Shlomo. It had been taken by a professional photographer, and the young Shlomo’s features were distinct.
            “Oh, my God,” she exclaimed. “I forgot to give the money to Sarah!”
            “Sarah who?” asked a granddaughter.
            “Shlomo’s sister.”
            “What’s her last name?”
            Rosa no longer remembered.
            “What’s Shlomo’s?”
            Rosa shrugged. “No problem,” she said. “I’ll call Tel Aviv. It’s a big city. They’ll know.”
            She blocked out her children’s protests that things weren’t done this way.
            The next day, Rosa phoned her niece in Tel Aviv asked her to find Shlomo. He must have made Aliya—immigrated to Israel—because some time in the late 1930s he had told her that he planned to do so.
            “And what did this Shlomo do?” her niece asked.
            “Well, he trained at a Maccabiah camp, so he was athletic. He must have become a gym teacher.”
            “Why don’t you call this school on my street and ask where you can find him?” Rosa’s niece suggested, a bit impatient.
            “I will,” Rosa replied, and called the school.
            The school secretary was sympathetic to the story. “But we are all young here. You are looking for an eighty-two-year-old retired gym teacher. Let me give you the name of an old teacher who used to work here. Maybe she knows him.”
            “Do you know Shlomo, the gym teacher?” Rosa asked to old teacher in her next phone call.
            “Of course. I was at his son’s wedding. But Shlomo died several years ago.”
            How would Rosa repay her debt to a dead man? “What’s his son’s name?” she asked.
            “Yair Haberman. He was my student in third grade, as was his wife.”
            Shlomo hadn’t been Yair’s father, but his father-in-law, Yair explained when she called him.
            “Well, is your wife’s aunt Sarah still alive?” Rosa asked.
            In four phone calls she had located the family of he man who had lent her the trip fare in 1934 in a village in Poland, in a country that had been ravaged by war, of people annihilated by savagery.
            Rosa will call Sarah and will send her the equivalent of a car fare from Warsaw to a village that no longer existed. But in her world, in which simple things operate on a simple logic, nothing changed.
            (Story told to the author by Yair Haberman.)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Responding to a Higher Calling

            The American Judges Foundation reports that seventy percent of abusive fathers are the winners in custody fights. As children are handed to their molesters, protective mothers must watch helplessly—or respond to a higher calling than a judge’s order.
            Ms. Toni Schott’s oldest daughter was three-and-a-half years old when a caseworker from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare found that the child’s scarred vagina was the result of sexual abuse. The articulate child told two therapists that her father had done it, but the judge misinterpreted a physician’s testimony and gave the father overnight visitations. A higher court refused to reopen the case to hear the physician’s offer of clarification. Less than two years later, before age three, Toni’s younger daughter contracted vaginal herpes and, like her sister, told of her father’s abuse to a Department of Health and Welfare counselor.
            After a pediatrician discovered large fissures around two-and-a-half-year-old Anne D’Angelo’s son’s rectum, he concluded that the boy had been raped many times. The child pointed to his father as the perpetrator, and a therapist on behalf of the X State Department of Children and Families supported the pediatrician’s conclusion and determined that the boy’s father was raping both him and his older brother. Nevertheless, the judge gave the father joint custody.
            Although Bonita Shain’s three-year old son reported to a Kentucky Child Protective Services’ worker about his father and his father’s friend touching his private parts, the DA did not prosecute. When four years later the boy continued to report sexual abuse, which was substantiated by CPS, and refused to see his father—an alcoholic who had threatened to murder Bonita and other family members and admitted in court to drug dealing—a judge determined that Bonita had alienated her son. Although no evidence was heard to discredit Bonita’s mothering skills, the judge ruled that both her boys be transferred to the father’s sister’s custody, allowing Bonita only three hours a week supervised visits.
            Toni, Anne and Bonita—and countless protective mothers—stand bewildered and livid against a complex legal system that refuses to help their molested children. Instead, against all corroborating evidence of sexual abuse, that system holds the mothers accountable for their children’s reporting, on the rationale that the mothers must have coached their children.
            Experts such as Louisiana attorney Richard Ducote, who has tried such cases in over forty states, say that the culprit is a bogus theory, Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), which is unsupported by any sound research and unrecognized by any medical, academic or psychological organization. Coined by Dr. Richard Gardner, a psychiatrist who believed that “pedophilia is an accepted practice by billions of people” but our society’s response to it is “excessively moralistic and punitive,” PAS successfully places violent, abusive fathers as the victims of women’s presumed vindictiveness. “If someone punches you—or rapes you—you wouldn’t want to be around that person,” says Mr. Ducote. “Yet judges routinely assume that when a child refuses to be with his or her abusive father, it is the mother who must have alienated the child—not the violent father through his abusive ways.”
            Gardner, who committed suicide on May 25, 2003, stated that “there is a certain amount of pedophilia in all of us,” and wrote that in cases of child molestation, “a mother’s hysterics…will contribute to the child’s feeling that a heinous crime has been committed.” The mother “should be helped to understand” that her child possibly “enjoyed immensely the sexual activities.” If she persisted in her insistence to keep the child from his father, Gardner recommended a change of custody to the father. For over twenty years, Gardner was hailed by fathers’ groups and widely accepted as the “guru of child custody evaluation” by many judges. His unauthenticated theory and its derivations are taught in courses geared toward attorneys and judges.
            Toni Schott’s experience of the court’s indifference toward her older daughter taught her not to count on the court for help for her younger child. She hid in Texas under an alias for four and a half years until the FBI arrested her and the girls were returned to their abuser, now living in Pennsylvania. Even though the Idaho court dropped the parental kidnapping charges after reviewing the previously ignored medical testimony, the Pennsylvania judge dismissed the ruling without a further hearing. In spite of the fact that the younger girl’s case had never been heard in court, Toni lost custody of her daughters.

Anne D’Angelo fled with her children to Virginia, where she lived for five years until 1992, when the boys were captured and returned to live with their father. In a subsequent custody hearing—and in spite of the evidence collected before Anne’s hiding—the judge ruled that the father’s sexual abuse of the younger boy was “uncorroborated.”
            When Bonita Shain’s boys, ages four and seven, heard the judge’s verdict that would place them with their aunt, they begged their mother to hide them because their father had threatened to kill them if they told what he had done. In November 2002, Bonita Shain packed her car and left town with her children. 
            In these three cases, the judges applied PAS, ignoring the fact that each case of abuse was discovered or diagnosed and reported by ER physicians or child welfare professionals—not by the mothers. The physical evidence was supported by the each child pointing to his or her father as the abuser.
          Research has shown that children are reluctant to report abuse, often denying it against evidence, as they feel shame and guilt over it—if not outright fear of the abuser 1. Moreover, studies show that in 98.4 percent of the cases where very young children point to their molesters they tell the truth 2. However, in most states family court judges are not required to take certification courses in domestic violence and child abuse, nor are judges held accountable for ignoring or refusing to hear evidence. Instead, favoring the interests of the fathers—the presumed victims of the mothers’ vicious fabrications—over the safety of the children, judges employ the unsupported PAS theory or its derivations. They seek no evidence that indeed a mother has actively alienated her child as they sever this relationship.
          These past few years, across the nation, children have been encouraged to tell a trusted adult about abuse. Child-friendly websites have been established to help abused children. Mandatory reporting laws have been imposed on educational and medical institutions and their employees. Local police officers visit schools to talk to the children and encourage them to seek help from trusted adults.
          Yet, in “Small Justice,” an award-winning documentary by Boston University film professor Garland Waller, Dr. Richard Gardner suggested that a mother’s response to a child’s report of abuse should be, “I don’t believe you. I’m going to beat you for saying that. Don’t ever talk that way about your father.” Dr. Gardner added that mothers who allege sexual abuse of their children should be jailed.
          So much for asking children to report abuse. Those who report it soon learn that no one listens. A therapist at the not-for-profit North Shore Child and Family Guidance Association in Long Island, New York, who asked to remain anonymous, recently said, “I no longer see these kids. We promise them that if they tell, the abuse would stop. Instead, the opposite happens.”
          Child sexual abuse is a criminal matter, which family courts are not equipped to adjudicate. Yet, provided with broad judicial discretion, they stand powerfully protected from scrutiny—or appeal—when failing to apply standard principles of justice and constitutional rights of due process. In January 2003, in her investigative Boston Phoenix article, “Custodians Of Abuse,” Kristen Lombardi describes how, nationwide, three problems plague the system: First, criminal investigation has been replaced by evaluation provided by guardians ad litem (GAL), who are social workers, psychologists or lawyers, but not qualified forensic investigators. In many cases, GALs fail to represent their clients—the children. The GAL assigned to Bonita Shain’s son never met him. In Anne D’Angelo’s case, the GAL never spoke in court. Second, with no juries—and protected by a cloak of secrecy—family courts are bastions of extraordinary power where one person is judge, jury and executioner. Evidence of abuse is suppressed while, as in Toni, Anne and Bonita’s cases, no evidence of the mothers’ presumed role in alienation is sought. Third, bias and traditional stereotyping of women’s roles is heightened in high-conflict custody cases, where judges commonly scrutinize a mother’s parenting practices while viewing a father’s sole act of seeking custody as proof of parental commitment and skills.
          Although an Association of Family Conciliation Courts’ 1990 study shows child sexual abuse allegations are made in less than two percent of contested divorces involving child custody, that figure still represents thousands of molested children. They are protected by mothers like Toni, Anne and Bonita, who find themselves mired in years of expensive litigation in courts that show neither sympathy for them nor compassion for their children. Beyond losing custody, mothers are often stripped of their rights when the costly child support they are slapped with make it impossible for them to also pay the hourly fees of supervised visitation centers. In the process, children’s rights to fair treatment and justice as well as the preservation of the maternal-child bond are being violated.
          Toni’s daughters, now ages nine and ten, are prohibited any contact with their mother, but they also cannot have contact with any member of their maternal family.
          In hiding, Bonita Shain’s children missed holidays and birthdays with everyone they knew back home, while their father led a normal life and “went to ball games,” Bonita says. “This is not surprising since he was not asking for custody; he wanted his sister to have the children as long as they are not with me or my family.” The hope to one day restore her children’s stolen life was shattered in June 2003 when the boys were captured in Indiana and sent to live with their aunt. Fearing jail sentence, Bonita refused to sign extradition papers that would put her in the mercy of the Kentucky judge whose gavel of justice is all too familiar.
          Anne D.'s former husband was a Children's Rights Council official and now sits on a panel to "redesign divorce" in Ms. D's state with a Judge whom, Ms. D. claims, is aware of the rape evidence against Mr. D.. Furthermore, in 2002 he was appointed by that State Governor to a committee to recommend changes in laws regarding the courts' handling of custody cases.
          Says Anne D’Angelo, “I have met several mothers who lost custody to very abusive ex-husbands. Among them are a nurse, an engineer, a teacher, and an attorney. We are well educated and articulate. We are not on welfare. We are not alcoholics or drug users, and we do not have a history of physical or mental illness. We are good mothers.”
            These are good mothers whose only chance to save their children is to defy the court and run for their lives.

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Author Talia Carner's first novel, PUPPET CHILD, paved the way to her launching The Protective Parent Act. Please check

Monday, June 30, 2014

A Parisian Soirée

Jim Haynes with Author Talia Carner

          Tucked in a Parisian residential is an unkempt garden. Or rather, it is a pathway along the side of a building in which two-storey high windows allow peeks into artists’ ateliers. Just past a shed with boarded windows, one side of the path is planted with fruit trees. Take a few steps onto a narrow brick terrace, and you face the door to Jim’s world.
            Jim’s home is built upon a quirkily impressive history of literature and theater—and his love of people. The home has a kitchen that occupies one-third of the first-floor living area. In that kitchen, every Sunday evening for the past three decades, volunteers cook up a dinner for up to seventy strangers who’ve heard of Jim’s soirées.
             In our American standards—and perhaps in European standards, too—the living room is tiny for such an ambitious hosting. An upholstered bench runs along one wall, supplemented by a couple of chairs. Above them, a long shelf exhibits books by authors close to Jim’s heart.
             The real action of the evening, one soon discovers, is in the people who gather in that room, and by necessity, spill onto the terrace and the garden. A couple of ex-pats who’ve long settled Paris are helping around the party. The rest are either tourists from all corners of the globe seeking the flavor of old literary Paris, or temporary residents of Paris. It is easy to make introductions as one must squeeze close to a dozen people to fetch ice from the only commercial-size appliance in this otherwise modest dwelling that manages to whip up a meal for so many guests. The red and white wine, extracted from the spigots of cardboard pegs, help set the mood.
            I was first handed a bowl with three servings of three totally unidentified food. Each piece or mush challenged me with its different shape and texture, but I failed to guess what it was. Nevertheless, I trusted myself (and Jim) enough, and found the food to be quite tasty—yet still unidentified. Someone said this dish had Asian influence, and I was unable to argue one way or another. The main course was more familiar, though less edible, for the slab of meat that had never suffered the heat of fire or oven was to be consumed with only a fork. I recalled my visit to a French family back in the 1970s, where I was served my first raw meat, but it was eaten at the table, with the benefit of a knife.
            Even though we were all Jim’s guests, in his e-mail he suggested a 30 Euro donation (about $40) per person. He asked that the money be discretely placed in a recycled envelope, while Jim, sitting high on a stool at the back of the room, welcomed every person and ticked them off his list, noting the envelopes. One guest speculated that the octogenarian Jim landed a weekly income, cashing in on his long reputation and the media exposure his evenings had received. Totally legitimate in my mind—and well worth it. I found myself engaged in interesting conversations: An Australian duo of a mother-daughter visiting Paris; a Minnesota couple on a tour of Parisian most notable gardens (Jim’s is not on the list;) a mixed Caucasian and Black American couple that had inherited an apartment in Paris; a French web designer practicing his English; a retired architect with set views about the many countries in which he had worked.
            There is no secret to a successful Parisian evening: Put dozens of strangers who enjoy travel and meeting other people in a room with a garden, feed them, pour them wine, and let them start talking.
More about Jim Haynes:
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New-York-based novelist Talia Carner's explores the world's social issues. See

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Allure Of A First Love


            What had attracted me, at age fourteen, to choose a long daily commute to a high school far from my home, when I could have attended a similarly high academic school merely two blocks away?
            French. Having mastered basic conversational English, I was ready for the challenge of taking a second foreign language. I also loved the new, spacious building of the new school in the outskirts of the city, so unlike the crammed classrooms in the center city of Tel-Aviv where I lived.
            We, the student body of Alliance Française, soon became Francophiles. We loved the language and the music of it. We staged plays in French, sang songs in French, and cursed each other in French. As a romantic teenager with three languages at my disposal, I wrote poetry in French.
            Fast forward, in my twenties, I moved to the United States and found myself immersed in the language and culture of my adoptive land. I soon entered the corporate world, where I never encountered Israelis or French, for that matter. In the early 1980s, it was a world of white American men, and I was a woman breaking the glass ceiling while raising a family in secrecy, because my boss told me, “We don’t hire women with children.”
            Many years later, in 2005, I was deep into a second career as a novelist, in English, when my protagonist took off from Jaffa to Paris. I had not planned that move as I was writing Jerusalem Maiden. What was she doing there? I had to follow her.
            In the two weeks between Esther’s fleeing to Paris and my arrival to discover her whereabouts, I bought a French dictionary. For the first time in decades, I knew, I had to use the language. I reflected on all my visits over thirty years to France with my American husband, where I acted like an American tourist, never using the language in which I had once been fluent. I never even asked a waiter, in French, for a glass of water….
            Now I followed Esther in Paris of 1924, and realized it had been the avant-garde era. What was Jewish life here between World War I and II? I found myself at libraries poring over tomes of material, in French. For the first time in decades, I actually spoke French with art mavens and historians. I was surprised at how much of the language I had retained, and disappointed at how much of it I had forgotten.
            This is when, seeing the city through the eyes of my protagonist, living there, that I made Paris my own.
            But there was no time to reflect on any of it. I had a novel to finish and a life to live in New York.
            In 2009, I reconnected via Facebook with a woman who had attended my French high school. Our lives had intersected many times, starting even before our births, when our respective grandfathers had been business partners. She still lived in Israel, but in recent years had purchased a magnificent apartment in Paris. I was delighted when she invited me to stop there on my way from Tel-Aviv to New York.
            The weekend I visited, I accompanied her to a day-long party at close friends’ castle. The family welcomed me warmly, and for the first time in so many years I actually had long, social conversations in my no-longer-good French.
            The following summer, while waiting for Jerusalem Maiden to be published, I decided to trace the history of a painting that had been in my family since the mid 1930s. It had belonged to the grandparents of a pair of cousins, a brother and a younger sister, each of whom I had met only once, in our youth. I found them both living in two areas in France, married to French-only speaking spouses.
            The bond was instantaneous, starting with the one hour and forty-five minute phone conversation with the sister, and followed by an hour-long conversation a week later with the brother, who then put his Swiss-French wife on the phone. Turned out that while they had not been on my radar screen all those years, they were up-to-date on my life.
            Since my husband had to be in Europe for a meeting in November 2010, we all decided to meet in Paris. The three couples spent four glorious days together, and although my husband speaks only English, he got along extremely well with the French-only speaking spouses. And I had to chat with them from morning to night, filling all the blanks of our lives. I managed well enough to speak, but was fully aware of how poor was my language level.
            In 2012, in the midst of an extensive two-year book tour for Jerusalem Maiden, I had a conversation with a young man in New York who was on remission from cancer.
            He asked me, “If you had one year to live, what would you do?”
            “I’d eat chocolate,” I said.
            He looked at me with astonishment. “That’s it? You’ve done everything, you’ve been everywhere?”
I gave a humble nod, “Yes.”
            Back home, I thought that my response had been pathetic. I no longer had dreams. Had there been something I ever wanted and simply suppressed?
            Back in high school, I had dreamed to one day take a semester at the Sorbonne in Civilization Française. But after a two-year service in the Israel Defense Force, I had to rush my university studies along.
Suddenly, this old dream began to bloom. Studying in Paris had been the only thing I had once desired strongly, yet never fulfilled.
            There were two issues with reviving this dream: First, I did not wish to uproot my life for a whole semester. The other was that the student body, which had so appealed to me when I was fifteen and sixteen, was still made of twenty-year-olds….
            I broached the subject with my husband and asked it as a birthday present—not the funding as the time off to do something he had no interest in sharing. I coached my request for only one month, and, thanks to the internet, was able to stitch together a full day program of language and culture immersion.
            April 2013 was my debut month, the first time ever to be on my own, (an experience that I chronicled in a series of blogs.) When Ron visited for a few days, a visit that cut on my language immersion, I asked him “to try to incorporate Paris into our life.”
            “I am not saying ‘No’” he replied.
            And so, today, a year later, we arrived in Paris for four weeks, this time with the idea of feeling the pulse of life here. My French is improved, and although I had not reached the level of my post high-school years, I will take only a few classes. I’ve been learning some slang; even though I will not use it, I must understand it.
            At dinner at a sidewalk café, we chatted with a couple from Bordeaux. The wife commented on my excellent vocabulary, and when I expressed astonishment, she said that all I needed was the proficiency of speed. Luckily, she hasn’t seen my writing samples.
            As Ron and I are settling in the apartment we’ve rented in the heart of the historic Saint Germaine area, I am feeling the return of that first blush, of first love, and I feel happy about somehow living a version of my youthful dream.
            Stay tuned.
 (To read previous Paris posts, please click  )

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Myth of Self-Publishing

More often now, I am approached by people who have just written a novel and immediately self-published it. Starting with their poorly presented request, continuing through their poorly presented material on their website or Amazon--and immediately upon reading the first page or two (sometimes the first paragraph,) the work reeks of amateur writing. I am all for trying to write, but it takes a lot more to reach the publishable stage.
While some books get the full professional treatment by the authors who have honed their craft and eventually hire editors to make their manuscripts as perfect as can be, I've heard would-be authors that "never want to bother" with the many rounds of revising and editing--"too much work and it's boring"--not to mention the cost of a professional editor who can shepherd a writer. (Beware of phonies, though, as the field is peppered with them.)
This lazy attitude is reflected in the first few page(s) of many self-published books I've been asked to read and to give my endorsement or write reviews--after publication. Unfortunately, the stigma is justified. It is simply too hard to find the gems among these many half-assed efforts in the self-publishing arena. The rare success stories give false hope to many would-be writers the same way that inner-city African-American boys dream of becoming the next Michael Jordan....  These boys stand no more chance to emulate his successful career as any writer can "pull $50,000 a month" as described in some articles or promised by self-publishing outfits. Those print-on-demand outfits make their $$s not from selling books they print, but from the hefty fees paid by authors for "marketing"--another scam since they do little more than make the books available on Amazon.
No star dust of success will be sprinkled from above unless you are willing to do the work.
Rare is the concert pianist who sits at the piano at age four, and then proceeds to compose and give performances at Carnegie Hall with little training. Most professional musicians spend a lifetime of daily practicing. Writing--especially fiction--requires mastering the craft, revising and editing numerous times--often for years. (I go over each of my manuscripts 80 times and have half-a-dozen astute readers with red pens give me their feedbacks.) It's not for nothing that many authors report 4-10 years of working on a single novel.
The exception to this doom-to-fail efforts are those who write personal biographies for their own family recorded history and do not expect to sell (or give away) more than 60 copies. The other exception are consultants who wish to put their wisdom into books they can use as promotions to obtain assignments, establish credibility to get on radio and TV shows, or give or sell copies at their workshops. But their books better be good! It is simply embarrassing to give out a book filled with errors.
I am all for the write-your-novel-in-one-month projects as they jump start many would-be authors. But that first month is only the first baby step. If you are writing your first novel, just make sure you love the long and lonely process, so that the journey will be the most exciting you've ever taken.