Jewish lore has a rich history of the supernatural, from the clay golems whose creators bring them to life to dybbuks, spirits from the afterlife who inhabit weak bodies to send messages from the great beyond. One author had an idea that kicked around in his head for years: To have a dybbuk take over the body of Sigmund Freud.
What emerged from that idea is A Curable Romantic, Joseph Skibell’s third novel, about a dybbuk who manifests itself not in Freud, but (initially) in one of his most well-known patients, Emma Eckstein.
Getting the idea off the ground took a lot more than inventing a dead character, however. It involved research — into Freud and his writings, into the Esperanto movement, and into the Warsaw ghetto — to create a story about Jakob Sammelsohn, an eye doctor married at a very young age to the village idiot in late-19th-century Galicia, who then escapes to Vienna to begin his life anew.
Sammelsohn is similar to Woody Allen’s Zelig or to Forrest Gump, fictional characters who pop up in some of modern history’s most important moments, except, as Skibell points out, “Forrest Gump runs.”
Skibell spoke with JTNews when he visited Seattle on Oct. 7 to kick off his tour in support of A Curable Romantic. Between novels, he’s an associate professor in the English Creative Writing program at Emory University.
Sammelson exhibits some of the same haplessness as the fictional film characters, though where Gump himself was the village idiot — and not married to her — Sammelson is still ignorant in the mysteries of love, despite having been married twice before he even reached the tender age of 21.
“I was really interested in that kind of protagonist who was terrified of sex as much as he was drawn to sex, and what seemed to me the honesty of the portrayal of the man who really wanted love that actually also wanted sex,” Skibell says.
And what better way to tease that terror than to inhabit the man’s object of desire as she lies prone in the city sanatorium? This dybbuk, it turns out, is the spirit of Sammelsohn’s jilted wife Ita, who drowned herself upon the discovery of her husband’s escape.
“The thing about demonic possession is the person is free to act out this other…libidinal self,” Skibell says. “It was a real letting out of oppression, so I think it was intimately connected with sex.”
In doing his research, Skibell found as many as a hundred documented cases of dybbuk possessions, dating as far back as Josephus in Rome and as recent as 1999 in Israel — though even the most holy of modern rabbis believed, as Freud purported to, that these supposed possessions were merely psychiatric problems.
Sammelsohn and Ita are fictitious, but many of the other characters in this book are not.
“Very little is actually made up,” Skibell says. “At one point, Freud has boils in between his legs that he needs to get lanced. That is in The Interpretation of Dreams.”
Skibell considers himself an admirer, but Freud still comes off as a cocaine-addicted narcissist. It was a balance he simply had to come to terms with.
“A lot of the dialogue is just Freud,” Skibell, who used text from the doctor’s letters, says. But, he asks, “Why did people revere Freud so much for so many years? When you read his case histories, like the case history with Dora, it seems like he doesn’t help her. But then at the same time, you realize he transformed all of society, universally almost, and probably for the better, so what can you do?”
This story isn’t Freud’s, however. It’s Sammelsohn’s. And it’s a classic love story, written with a very Jewish sensibility. Sammelsohn promises Ita, in return for her taking leave of Eckstein’s body, that he will wait for her. But as men will do, in particular men who have never partaken of the wonders of the marital bed, he forgets and pursues another.
And it’s that woman who leads us to Dr. Ludovic Zamenhof, a fellow eye doctor and the creator of the international language Esperanto, to whom Sammelsohn becomes a confidante. And from there, as Sammelsohn squanders that relationship and enters his later years, comes the Holocaust and basic survival. But Ita is never too far away, and whether it’s reminding him of his promise or saving his life, she continues to remind her husband of her presence.
On one level — both figuratively and literally, though we’ll leave it at that to keep from spoiling the story — the story is about how God sees humanity.
“What I was also trying to do was show that God was weeping, and the way that human beings end up treating each other on earth, it’s not that God wills it, it’s the way that human beings act,” Skibell says.
But Skibell also sees his book as a commentary on differences in perception as the centuries turned, from the 19th to the 20th and the 20th to the 21st.
It’s here that this very Jewish book becomes a story that can appeal to everyone, Skibell believes.
“It wasn’t even just Dr. Zamenhof who had this utopian idea that humankind was on the lip of perfection. I read a lot of Emile Zola’s work, because of the Dreyfus trial, and here was this heavy-hitting French novelist intellectual, but he too believed that war was about to disappear, and disease was about to disappear and science and rationalism [would take hold],” Skibell says. “I thought it was interesting that in the year 1900 there was all this great hope, but when the year became 2000, we were probably as cynical as we’ve ever been.
“Even though it really follows the character in the Jewish experience, it really is the creation of the 20th century and how it went from such bright hopes to such dark realities.”