Conflicted about American Melting-Pot: Cultural Identity in Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

America is a massive social experiment in which ethnic groups from all over the world come together and form a new blended culture by divesting some of their culture of origin. However, in the process of blending, we leave behind some of the familiarity of being in an ethnic group.This is not an easy process, since group identity can be built into our self-images through rituals, accents and food. And even built into our genes, through skin and hair color, nose and eye shape, and other inherited traits.

So what happens when you attempt to assimilate into a culture where you feel like an outsider? The dissonance between who you see at home and how you are received out in the world can create internal strife.

The feeling is highlighted in Sue William Silverman’s third memoir Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White, Anglo-Saxon Jew. In this third part of our interview, I ask her to help me understand the experiences that drove her to write the book.

Jerry Waxler: I was born into a Jewish family, and when I attempted to assimilate into American culture, I felt enormously conflicted, as if I was betraying my religious heritage by blending into the larger culture. Because the whole process required emotions that I didn’t clearly understand, I spent a lifetime in an unconscious battle, assuming that to be American I had to distance myself from being Jewish. This paradox caused endless confusion about my identity. Now that I’m reading memoirs and writing my own, I’m consciously reviewing the journey of assimilation and cultural identity. The undeniable fact that I did grow up Jewish makes me realize how ludicrous it’s been to try to pretend I’m not.

What was your experience? Say more about the process of reflecting back on your journey as a person born into a well-defined ethnic culture trying to blend into the larger culture of Americanism.

Sue William Silverman: I have a feeling we’re not alone, that many Jews are conflicted about whether – and how much – to assimilate. Growing up, I had Jewish friends who had nose bobs, or tried in other ways to look more Christian. I also have relatives who Americanized their last names in the belief they’d be more successful in their careers.

Of course there were – and are – tangible reasons for this. I grew up in a time when colleges still had quotas on the number of Jews they would accept. Likewise, housing subdivisions once had restrictive covenants to keep Jews out – as well as African Americans, and Latinos, and anyone else considered “other.” Anti-Semitism has always existed, so there are always incentives to pass.

As much as I myself once wanted to pass…I now just as much don’t want to. As you can see, I publish under my real name, “Silverman.” So no mistaking that name as anything other than Jewish. (For those of you who haven’t read my book, I’ve been married twice – and divorced twice – but, while married, I took each of my husband’s decidedly Christian names.)

I’ve now come to a much more comfortable place within myself. I owe a large part of this to the writing process. By writing the first memoir, I was able to process much of the destruction of growing up in an incestuous family. By writing Love Sick, I was able to work through the shame of a sexual addiction. Now, by writing The Pat Boone Fan Club, I’ve been able to explore the ambiguous feelings toward Judaism while growing up and, through this exploration, am much more accepting of myself, more at peace.

Notes
Sue William SIlverman’s Home Page
The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew

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2 thoughts on “Conflicted about American Melting-Pot: Cultural Identity in Memoir

  1. Nicely put, Jerry and Sue! For me, too, trying to fit in by concealing my ethnicity came before fully accepting where I came from, and embracing it as part of who I am. Just like growing from adolescence to maturity, when we first try to be like everyone else and finally (if we’re lucky) realize that who we are is just fine.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Linda. This inner battle afflicts many young people, whether they are trying to fit in with the jocks or the goths, or the smart kids or pretty kids, etc. We are social animals and want to be accepted.

    Your comment brings back memories. I read and reviewed your memoir, Off Kilter in 2009 (see the article here: http://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/story-ordinary-woman-memoir/) And when I first went to Doylestown in 2002 to figure out how to write, you were working on it back then. There’s a span of 12 years during which I have interacted with you through story writing. Memoirs are tools for life.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

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