Interview: Roger Cohen, Author Of 'The Girl From Human Street' New York Times columnist Roger Cohen looks back on his life and asks: Could a family's constant movement — four countries in four generations — contribute to a mother's struggle with mental illness?
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A Memoir Of A Family's Diaspora, And A Mother's Depression

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A Memoir Of A Family's Diaspora, And A Mother's Depression

A Memoir Of A Family's Diaspora, And A Mother's Depression

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen's family history covers a lot of ground - literally. His ancestors lived in Lithuania. Then, starting with his grandparents, the moving began.

ROGER COHEN: My parents were born in South Africa, and they were immigrants in the UK, where I was born. And then when I was an infant, we went back to South Africa for a couple of years and then moved to Britain, where I mainly grew up. So in each of the past four generations, the family has moved - Lithuania, South Africa, London. I'm now an American citizen and consider New York to be home.

RATH: Cohen's new family memoir is called "The Girl From Human Street." The girl in that title is Cohen's mother, a focus for much of the book. She died in 1999, after a long battle with depression.

COHEN: My mother, shortly after we immigrated, immediately after my younger sister's birth, broke down. She had what was then called post-puerperal psychosis, now generally called postpartum depression. And she had insulin shock treatment - a treatment since completely discredited - this is in the late '50s in England - and electroshock treatment. It was only in researching the book that I finally was able to put dates and times on this.

And now I know, for example ,that on August 1, 1958, one day before my third birthday, she had this treatment. But she came back to the family after an intimate absence of a couple of years, and a great effort was put into preserving an appearance of normality. And I didn't - I was not aware - consciously aware - of what had happened to my mother until, in my late teens, she began to become mentally unstable again and was manic-depressive for the rest of her life - first tried to commit suicide when I was 22.

And I suppose a genesis of "The Girl From Human Street," Arun, was - it was a box in the attic. And in it were my mother's suicide notes. And my dad was a doctor. And there was a pretty detailed chronology of what had happened. And there was a family tree that he's obviously made in a moment of desperation with black dots next to every family member who had suffered from manic depression. There were more relatives with black dots than without them. And I began to think about how this family condition had been hidden within my own family. And then there was a wider story of how displacements with each generation and the trauma, if you like, of losing a home, of upheaval, of beginning again.

RATH: Can you talk about growing up in South Africa because you were in kind of an unusual position. You were a - sort of an English-Jewish family in South Africa and in kind of an interesting time.

COHEN: Yeah, well, my parents were South African Jews. They'd come from Lithuania. They grew up there. My dad came to England as a young doctor at the end of World War II and then went back. And he abhorred apartheid. He was actually the dean of the last black house within the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. And then he saw how, as a result of apartheid, black students were no longer able to attend. And that, for him, was the last straw.

I lived there as an infant and then would go back every year. And there was always this faint menace in the horizon. The blacks were going to rise up and sweep away these beautiful homes where I stayed in Johannesburg. And I remember cousins saying to me, enjoy the swimming pool. Next year, they'll be red with blood. And I didn't quite get it. You know, sometimes I would sit on the wrong bench or wander into the wrong place because I was part of South Africa, but I wasn't from there.

And, of course, one of the particularities of apartheid was that blacks were banished, except in the most intimate of settings - the home, the family. And more or less every white family had black staff. And I would wonder why these utensils were set apart, and I would see them going to sleep in these little concrete outhouses with their baleful, single windows. So there was this combination of intimacy, of closeness and of threat, fear, menace, always out there. And it gave me a profound abhorrence of this evil.

You know, I spent a lot of time the Middle East. I don't think Israel practices apartheid. Some people, when it comes to Palestinians - some people use that phrase. But there are echoes. You know, when you're in the West Bank, and you're on the road, and it says only for Jews, only for settlers, only for Israelis and not for Palestinians, those echoes are there. And it's one of the reasons why I'm a Zionist who believes very strongly that Zionism must involve two states for two peoples.

RATH: You and your family had been through various upheavals, various new homes. And you come to America. Now, America is a place, we like to think - where it's easier to assimilate than a lot of other places in the world.

COHEN: It is easy, Arun. That's why love it. That's why I became an American citizen. You can't imagine what a relief it was, as a Jew, to arrive in New York City. And the bright stars, I think I put in the book, of immigration, of moving on, is new opportunity. And its black sun is loss - the loss of a home, the loss of a country, the loss of a community. And for some people, the project of beginning again is overwhelming. It's too much. That was the case for my mother. Even in America, for me, it's hard. But even the most open of European societies has nothing like the openness of the United States, which is a country that is still, in my view, endlessly enriched by immigration.

RATH: Roger Cohen is a columnist for the New York Times. His new memoir is called "The Girl From Human Street." Roger Cohen, real pleasure speaking with you. Thank you.

COHEN: Thank you, Arun.

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