Excavating the past

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In her memoir, Linda I. Meyers touches on family tragedy, comedy and some celebrity cameos


  • Psychologist and author Linda I. Meyers. Photo: Dylan Patrick

Linda I. Meyers, a psychologist and author of “The Tell: A Memoir,” did not have an easy start. The only child of a troubled mother and a ladies-man father who dabbled in the Jewish mob, Meyers was often a pawn in her parent’s tumultuous marriage. She spent much of her youth with her grandmother, an Eastern European immigrant who settled in Brownsville, Brooklyn. At a young age, Meyers left an unhappy childhood for a miserable marriage.

Then, when Meyers was 28 and the mother of three young boys, her mother took her own life. Meyers was devastated, conflicted — and determined not to end up the same way.

“The Tell” is a personal and family history about using tragedy as a catalyst to turn life around. It’s also deliriously funny. Meyers’ interconnected essays are written with crackling prose; in the most memorable chapters, her personal history intersects with that of New York City. She tags along with her grandmother, who runs a concession stand in the Catskills, and falls madly in love with a young Ralph Lauren (nee Lifshitz). She schelps her three red-headed sons around town on auditions to earn extra money as a single mother until one catches a big break when he’s cast as a young Alvy Singer in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.”

Meyers, who now lives on the Upper West Side, spoke about grieving a loved one’s suicide, finding humor in tragedy and becoming a writer in her 70s.

What prompted you to write a memoir?

Well, I wanted to write it mainly for my grandchildren so they could have it and read it at some point in their lives. I would’ve loved to have had a recording or a book written by my parents or grandparents. I’d love to know the backstory of my life. So I wanted to provide that for them.

You capture an old Jewish Brooklyn that doesn’t really exist anymore. I love so many of your descriptions of the old neighborhood: “The butcher shop had sawdust on the floor, a finger on the scale, and Esther, the chicken plucker, in the corner.”

I was a little girl and I stayed with my grandmother. I lived that experience of old Jewish Brooklyn. I was little, but I remember ... I’ve not been back to that part of Brooklyn, so I’m not sure what it’s like these days but the sense of community back then was very powerful.

You wrote about your mother with a lot of empathy and understanding, but it obviously wasn’t easy growing up with her.

The book started with the chapter about her suicide. It was a difficult chapter to write, but what was striking to me was that after I’d written it, there was humor in it. It’s what we call operating room humor, it was black humor, but somehow I still managed to find the humor, which sort of shocked me. I mean, woo! It was difficult growing up with her, it really was, and now I look back and I really feel very bad for her. She had such a hard time of it.

I’ve written about this because I’m also a psychologist and a psychoanalyst, and I think it’s one of the hardest deaths to grieve because the victim is also the perpetrator. So when you feel this remorse, and this sadness for the loss, you also feel this anger for the murder.

You write that your mother’s suicide was the catalyst for leaving your husband. Can you elaborate on how your mother’s death prompted you to change your life?

Her death, even though she threatened [suicide] and made attempts, it was still shocking. It was incredibly shocking, and it pushed me out of my lethargy. I was unhappy, I was very unhappy, but I hadn’t really taken any steps to make a change. And what she did was so devastating that I was terrified that if I didn’t change my life I might end up in the grave next to her, I was that depressed.

It takes a lot of courage to do what you did with three kids.

I don’t think of myself as brave. I think of myself as desperate in a way. I had to get out of that marriage, I had to get my education. I felt that my children were the carrot on the stick that kept me moving forward because I wanted to provide a life for them that I didn’t have. I wanted them to be able to go to the college of their choice when they were 18 years old, and to really have those experiences, so I had to figure out how I was going to make the money to do it.

And you did it.

I did it! Go figure.

Tell me more about being a reluctant stage parent.

It was a glamorous experience, and I didn’t want to get caught up in it to the degree that my children’s childhood would be sacrificed. And it even got more difficult when Jonathan was so successful with the film [“Annie Hall”] because there were a lot of calls for him for auditions. At that point, he had really had it. He didn’t want to do anymore, and I needed to respect that. I wanted to respect that, and so I stuck to the promise I made to myself when we started the business — that I would always put their wants and desires first. So we quit.

What did you discover about yourself in the process of writing?

It gave me a cohesive and coherent narrative. I was able to see myself in a sort of arc, and that was kind of cool. That was neat, to step back and see that. I’m also finding it very exciting to discover that I’m a writer. I’ve published academic papers, but this is my first foray into creative nonfiction.

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