Can trauma be inherited? It is this question that sets Alex Halberstadt off on a quest to name and acknowledge a legacy of family trauma, and to end a cycle of estrangement that had endured for nearly a century.
His search takes him across the troubled, enigmatic land of his birth. In Ukraine he tracks down his paternal grandfather – most likely the last living bodyguard of Joseph Stalin – to reckon with the ways in which decades of Soviet totalitarianism shaped and fractured three generations of his family. He returns to Lithuania, his Jewish mother’s home, to revisit the legacy of the Holocaust and the pernicious anti-Semitism that remains largely unaccounted for, learning that the boundary between history and biography is often fragile and indistinct. And he visits his birthplace, Moscow, where his glamorous grandmother designed homespun couture for Soviet ministers’ wives, his mother dosed dissidents at a psychiatric hospital, and his father made a living by selling black-market jazz and rock records.
Finally, Halberstadt explores his own story: that of a fatherless immigrant who arrived in America, to a housing project in Queens, New York, as a ten-year-old boy struggling with identity, feelings of rootlessness and a yearning for home. He comes to learn that he was merely the latest in a lineage of sons who grew up alone, separated from their fathers by the tides of politics and history.
As Halberstadt revisits the sites of his family’s formative traumas, he uncovers a multigenerational transmission of fear, suspicion, melancholy, and rage. And he comes to realize something more: nations, like people, possess formative traumas that penetrate into the most private recesses of their citizens’ lives.