Randy’s modern-day story is juxtaposed with her grandmother’s story, which begins with five-year-old Vera enduring the carnage of the Kishinev pogrom and her travel amidst vile circumstances with what remains of her Jewish family as they immigrate to the United States. Ten years later in New Jersey, while her family fights for labor rights amid sweatshop conditions, teenage Vera experiences her first kiss with her best friend and cousin, Mary, who was orphaned during the Kishinev slaughter. This kiss provides Vera with a newfound sense of understanding and fulfillment; however, this relief directly counters with instinctual fear that revealing her sexuality may be dangerous:
Hours later, Vera has not yet slept. She doesn’t mind. She’s waiting to unmelt. And for her frightened heart to steady itself. As she has so often since her first days in this country, Vera feels two things at once. As if she’s sliding uncontrollably toward a steep and scary precipice. And as if she can’t wait to leap across to the other side.Randy, whose birth name is Mary (named after Grandmother Vera’s first true love), has a different coming-of-sexual-orientation revelation. From childhood, she dresses like a boy, and as a teenager, she asks her mother to please rename her Randy. Her mother jokes about it, suggesting silly names that might be more appropriate, but then, studying her daughter in a moment of calculating clarity, she understands.
She shook with laughter. Then suddenly she stood straight, passed her hand in front of my face like a hypnotist and stared at me with an expression I couldn’t read.In the back-and-forth between the two eras in which Ettinger’s story is structured, we return to Vera’s story, finding her now married to her late lover Mary’s cousin, Peter, and pregnant. This new life, though acceptable to society, has left Vera distraught and depressed. “I’ve become like those Great War soldiers, hollow and dazed. Would Mary even know me now?”
“You shall be called Randy,” Mom intoned.
Shortly after Vera’s second son is born, her husband Peter realizes that Vera’s relationship with her best friend Florence is more than just a friendship: the two are lovers. In his erudite fashion and without speaking about it to Vera, Peter and his physician friend research writings by the world’s greatest psychiatrists, including Ulrichs, Adler, Freud, Stekel, and more. Only when Peter has as enough documentation to damn her does he confront Vera, thrusting into her hands a sheaf of journal articles, medical writings, and scholarly papers:
. . . . The pages are a study of his wife’s pathology. She is reading about her own diseased self.Armed with proof of Vera’s so-called incurable sickness, Peter exacts the cruelest vengeance for Vera’s dishonesty. “You are as you are, Vera,” he tells her. “And as you are, you will not raise my sons.” Peter makes Vera sign all rights to her children over to him and exiles her to a boarding house for the next two years, after which time he even quits paying rent for that, leaving Vera to find a place to live and a means of supporting herself. Vera’s sons, believing she abandoned them, are grown men before she is finally able to forge any kind of tenuous relationship with them.
So many terms. She had not known. She is an Urningig, elsewhere an Urnind, Uraniad. Uwomanish woman. Intersex. Invert. Homosexual. Tribadist.
She is tainted. Congenitally depraved. Hereditary degeneracy. So say the esteemed doctors of Vienna, Berlin. Neuropathic disorder.
Adjacent to these solemn years in Vera’s story, we revisit her granddaughter Randy’s story, now taking place in the summer of 1974. Randy has taken a job between semesters at the University of Michigan to work in the institution’s industrial laundry facility, where—much like her grandmother’s story—she becomes an activist, striking against the terrible labor conditions in the university’s laundry sweatshop. It is amid this environment of dangerous working conditions and political activism that Randy decides to come out of the closet. Fast-forward ten years, and Randy’s mother (Vera’s daughter-in-law Ruby), still hasn’t come to terms with her daughter’s lesbianism: “You know, Randy, I’m not like you. Maybe I don’t want everyone to know everything. Maybe I don’t care to hang my dirty laundry out for the world to see.”
The story’s poignant ending isn’t nearly as grim as the difficult subjects Ettinger tackles throughout: ethnic cleansing, The Great Depression, McCarthyism, prohibition, civil rights protests, union strikes, AIDS, and more.
The only quibble I have with this broad-sweeping story is that of the many named characters within the text that require careful attention in order to keep track of who’s who. Most of the main characters have nicknames, name changes, or go by more than one name, such as Vietka/Vera/Veralah/Vee, Dorothy/Dee, Mary/Randy/Randelah, Wilhelm/Willy/Bill, and so on. I found myself mentally mapping a family tree in order to keep track of the many names and characters, which somewhat slowed my progress. I pushed past these brief moments of confusion, however, as will you, when reading this saga—and you absolutely should read it—because clarity and understanding are soon revealed. And if Ettinger accomplishes anything at all in this beautiful story, it is the lofty goal of patience and of human understanding.