As its title indicates, Esty: A Novel/Memoir is a fusion of literary genres, both memoir and fiction. The core of the work is a memoir that DiStasi’s mother, Margaret Weisz DiStasi, wrote about her youth in both Hungry and the United States.
The family discovered Margaret’s manuscript among her papers after her death, and, as DiStasi explains, when he read it he knew that the story about his mother’s young life had to be told. It contained a scandalous secret that she had harbored her entire life. Among the family members, including DiStasi’s siblings, Margaret had never breathed a word of her sexual abuse by her father.
In his interesting fusion of the two literary genres, DiStasi reprints Margaret’s memoir and then intersperses his own running commentary on his mother’s revelations. In addition, DiStasi creates an imaginary dialogue with his mother that at times is contentious. In the most interesting of these imaginary conversations, DiStasi raises doubts about the veracity of some of his mother’s assertions, and she attacks him for doubting her rendition of events.
Margaret’s narrative is a familiar one. Esty, Margaret’s mother, is born into an orthodox Jewish family in the village of Haddud, Hungary, before World War I. Her orthodox rabbi father, Martin Hertz, works for the local royal family, Duke and Duchess Von Ripacoff, who live in a castle on a large nearby estate.
Esty: A Novel/Memoir, book cover
Hired to tend to the royal family’s vineyards and orchards, Martin earns the duke and duchess’s respect, which brings their growing families and their children, which includes Margaret and her sister, into a close relationship. By the time that Margaret is fifteen years old, she and the royal family’s son, Vonny, have fallen madly in love. Or, as DiStasi questions in his commentary, so it appears, according to his mother’s version of events.
From the outset, their relationship is doomed. Vonny is Catholic, and Margaret is Jewish. Worse, her rabbi father runs the family according to strict, orthodox laws. Without Esty’s knowledge, when she is in her mid-teens, her father arranges her marriage to a Jewish man named Alfred. Esty is horrified. She has never seen the man before, and when she does, she describes him as a “five feet five, blond, skinny little runt.” She protests. But her rigid, controlling father refuses to budge. She is forced to marry Alfred, who shortly after they are married and just before the outbreak of World War I immigrates to the U.S.
Esty is left alone with her family. With Alfred gone Esty is able to continue her relationship with Vonny, at least according to Margaret’s manuscript. Just before he is drafted and sent to fight in World War I, they have one last night together. According to Margaret, her mother becomes pregnant. She is the offspring of Esty and Vonny’s passionate love affair. Solidifying Esty’s fate, Vonny is killed in the war. Esty, Margaret, and her sister later join Alfred in Indiana, where he has gone into business with a brother.
Lawrence’s grandfather, Alfred, is, according to Margaret’s version of events, a sexual predator. This is the story that Lawrence feels that he must tell about his mother’s young life. Alfred rules the family through threats and violent attacks. He keeps his wife and daughters in a constant state of anxiety over what he will do next to them. Worst of all, according to Margaret’s manuscript, when she reaches the age of about fifteen, Alfred begins visiting her in bed at night. Margaret writes that, terrified by her father’s threat that he would kill her if she told her mother, she keeps silent for a month and a half. Then she finally works up the courage to tell him to stop, or she will tell her mother.
Though the sexual abuse stops, Alfred’s psychological and physical abuse of the family continues. When Margaret attempts to exert her independence and become a working, self-supporting young woman, Alfred refuses to allow her to leave the house. Finally, Alfred arranges a marriage for Margaret to a Jewish man, whom Margaret, of course, loathes. But her protests, like her mother’s in Hungary, fall on deaf ears. She is summarily married to a man named Julie Hertz, whom Margaret will not allow to touch her.
In the end of Margaret’s narrative, she escapes from Julie and her father’s control with Italian American, Edmond DiStasi, Lawrence’s father, a man whom she fell in love with at work. They flee to Connecticut, out of the reach of Margaret’s father and husband. Margaret’s manuscript ends suddenly in mid sentence. That was all she had to say.
In the closing chapter of the work, Lawrence recreates a discussion he had with his siblings over the veracity of Margaret’s account of her life. But there is little agreement among family members about dates. Nor do they have the same recollections of their family’s history. We have all had this experience. As we grow older, when we discuss family matters with our siblings, it seems that we did not grow up in the same family. Impressions, facts, and events are never recollected the same or at all.
The question remains: was Margaret really the offspring of Vonny and Esty’s relationship? Lawrence and his siblings cannot agree on birthdates, immigration dates, and so on, which would support Margaret’s claims. Did Alfred hate Margaret and abuse her because he somehow suspected that she was not his daughter? How could he not have known she was not his offspring? Did he commit incest with his other daughter, Margaret’s sister, and did she remain silent about it? How did Alfred sexually abuse Margaret without anyone knowing in the house, especially her older sister who was sleeping right next to her the entire time? In his imaginary dialogue with his mother, Margaret protests angrily when Lawrence raises these questions.
How reliable is Margaret’s memoir? How reliable are our own family narratives that are handed down by our grandparents and parents? If Margaret was abused as a girl by Alfred, did she construct an alternative narrative as a defense against her tormented early life? If we look closely at what Margaret says about her lineage, Esty’s love affair with Vonny sounds too much like a fairytale. With his royal family, Vonny lives in a castle surrounded by a picturesque estate, as Margaret describes the setting in the early part of the manuscript.
If Vonny was a prince, then Margaret is a princess, a person born of royal blood. That would make her an heir of the Duke and Duchess Von Ripacoff. Thus, her rightful place in life was living in that medieval castle towering over an idyllic country estate with its beautiful gardens, orchards, and vineyards.
What is true and what is the product of Margaret’s imagination? Lawrence ends his text with more questions than he is able to answer. But as in any good story, does it really matter?
Lawrence DiStasi is the author of Mal Occhio: The Underside of Vision (1981) and the editor of Dream Streets: The Big Book of Italian American Culture (1989) and Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment During World War II (2001).
Ken Scambray’s most recent works are The North American Italian Renaissance: Italian Writing in America and Canada, Surface Roots: Stories, and Queen Calafia’s Paradise: California and the Italian American Novel