My Defense of My Parents
Recently I read the collected letters of Lionel Trilling. Afterward, curiosity prompted me to look in the file folder I had under that name. Trilling had been, possibly, the most influential opinion-shaper in mid-twentieth-century America. In the folder, I found a copy of a long-forgotten letter I had written to his widow, some years after his death.
Diana Trilling was also a public intellectual. She had just published her memoir of their marriage: The Beginning of the Journey. It contained 13 indexed references to my parents – all unflattering.
Here is the letter I wrote to the late Diana Trilling. It registers a daughter’s defense of her parents.
Dear Mrs. Trilling,
I am Abigail Rosenthal, the daughter of Henry and Rachelle. I have just purchased a copy of your memoir, in which my parents appear, and I hasten to write you – even before having read the book through – about them.
Without preamble: their absoluteness wasn’t arrogance. His intransigence wasn’t a pose. It was one reflection of other qualities: a strong sense of self, the good fortune of a true and lasting love – great courage and energy for life – and tremendous humor. I wish I could reproduce his funniness. [Clifton] Fadiman spoke of it at his memorial.
What united all these implausible strands – and mother’s natural coquetrie with her untarnished devotion as wife and mother? Though they seldom used the word, it would not be spoiling the story to say that they both believed in God. I don’t mean fanatically. He, after all, had left the rabbinate and eventually shrugged off the outward practices of Judaism. But his originality was his transparency to the transcendent. It made him funny because it made him essentially unafraid. And his relative isolation came from an ability – at least in the years I knew him – to see people with a laser vision, a vision that also pained him. He saw what they were, with great compassion, and with a love many people felt even if he separated himself from them.
Like most Jewish men of his time, he felt the weight of a tragic reality, the outnumbering weight of the anti-Semitic configurations in the world. It did not surprise him. He understood it. I suppose in a way it frightened him, as it would any thoughtful person. Yet he and my mother faced into it with all their love and courage. Among much else that they did, they brought over ten families, total strangers, saving them from the Holocaust – walking through the State Department’s endless paper barriers.
I adored them both. It was a real friendship, born in adulthood, after they had given up trying to shape me or my life.
He and your husband could not live out the distinct and significant dramas of their respective lives side by side. Yet I do not think that my father ceased to love Lionel Trilling. And, once in a while, word would come back to us of your husband’s ongoing regard and concern. …
I thank you for your book, its honesty and its historical effort – of recuperation of precious time and people. But I ask you to believe their daughter – that my parents were much more than what must have been visible to you then.
Mrs. Trilling did not reply to my letter.