The Girl Who Was Born That Way
a novella by Gail Benick

Print: 978-1-77133-213-2
ePUB: 978-1-77133-214-9
PDF: 978-1-77133-216-3

128 Pages
April 28, 2015
Fiction All Titles Novel Novella

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The Girl Who Was Born That Way a novella by Gail Benick

The Girl Who Was Born That Way is the story of the Berk family, not exactly an ordinary Jewish family, trying to bury its Holocaust past while starting over in post-war USA. The novel centers on the dynamics between the family’s four daughters, the two oldest girls who grew up in the Lodz Ghetto and he two youngest who came of age in an idyllic American suburb. The story is told from the perspective of the youngest child in the family, whose sisterly love and compassion drive the novel’s action. Can her curiosity bring the family’s dark Holocaust history into the open? Can she save her anorexic third sister whose short stature and physical anomalies are a source of family embarrassment and shame?  The Girl Who Was Born That Way considers the life of immigrants living in the diaspora, the miracle of their survival and their helplessness when faced with the disabling condition of their third daughter.  

The Girl Who Was Born That Way

 

"Gail Benick's clean prose brings one family's love and secrets into focus, letting us feel the longing for connection across the chasm of the unsayable. While the Berk family's life is steeped in Jewish culture — and the memory of the Holocaust — this finely-crafted novella encompasses universal themes. Familial love and loss transcend all boundaries of history and culture; Benick has brought these themes home through her beautiful portrayal of Linda Sue and her siblings."

— Marianne Apostolides, author of The Lucky Child and Voluptuous Pleasure: The Truth About the Writing Life

"Survivors of the Lodz ghetto, the Berkowitz family is renamed Berk, “with the flick of an immigration officer’s pen.” But assimilation to North American culture is nowhere near that simple, especially for one daughter born with Turner’s Syndrome, a condition which renders her visibly different from her peers. Commonplaces of 1950s girlhood become the vehicle for this meditation on identity and difference. In the voice of her young protagonist, Gail Benick maintains an exquisite tension between poignancy and wit, depicting a life where each day brings collisions between outer confidence and inner trauma, between boundless opportunity and irretrievable loss."

—Maria Meindl, author of Outside the Box: The Life and Legacy of Writer Mona Gould, the Grandmother I Thought I Knew

The Girl Who Was Born That Way has a rare genetic condition, Turner Syndrome, which only affects females. As someone with Turner Syndrome who was born in the fifties and spent part of my adolescence in the sixties, this novella makes me appreciate the great strides made since Terry Sue’s days. In this book, Gail Benick approaches both the social and medical issues of this syndrome in a delicate, insightful and sympathetic manner. A compelling must-read for everyone."

—Susan Charney, founder of The Turner Syndrome Society of Canada

“At the heart of Gail Benick's The Girl Who was Born that Way is a double ring of four sisters. On the outer rim, move the eldest two, Hetty and Tilya, child survivors of the Lodz Ghetto eager to reinvent themselves in their adopted country; in the inner circle, we greet the younger American-born sisters, the novella's narrator, Linda Sue, and her older sibling, Terry Sue, who was born with Turner's Syndrome. I looked forward to the spirited letters Terry Sue writes at the end of each chapter, letters which lend an epistolary mode to the novella.

In spite of her genetic mutation and the physical and mental afflictions she suffers (she becomes anorexic and is hospitalized) Terry Sue's voice remains inquisitive, youthful, and loving. In turn, Linda is protective and considerate of her sister, at one point buying foam rubber to make falsies for Terry Sue, who does not develop normally. Highly attuned, Linda decodes her child and adolescent world, making sense of her family and of a broken past that imposes without warning like a sinister wind funneling its way into the home. Often that wind is chased away by her father's sense of adventure and her older sisters' desire to regain normalcy, to keep their Jewish identity under the radar, and to integrate with dignity into St. Louis society circa the 1950's-60's. Danger lurks, though, real or otherwise. Linda Sue has internalized some of her mother's palpable fear. At one point, Linda Sue watches an antique fan turning overhead and conjures up decapitation, imagining her mother's suicide should such a catastrophe befall her. Of course, her family did survive a cataclysm before she was born. In a segment that reminded me of Anne Frank's rules for the Annex, Hetty relays to her younger sisters the Berkowitz Guide to Surviving in the Lodz Ghetto. Her memories here, with credit to Benick, are transplanted onto the page authentically, sparely, through the eyes of a child. (How the family survived the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto and deportation to Auschwitz in the summer of 1944 is not dealt with in the back story.) Along with the sadness, the "shadow of grief" her mother conveys, the narrative moves at a buoyant pace as navigated by Linda Sue, highlighted by flashes of family outings, pubescent dances with boys, and by her interaction with colorful neighborhood characters whose voices add texture to the novella and perspective to Linda Sue's world view.

All this before the novella takes its tragic turn in the untimely death of Terry Sue. At the end of the novella, it is Tilya, renamed Toni, who writes a dissertation in honor of her sister's misunderstood disease and death. In this instance, unlike so many of Linda Sue's questions left unanswered in the novella, Toni's inquiry is a gift of scholarship and commemoration, one that is both fruitful and life-affirming.”

— Carol Lipszyc, author of The Saviour Shoes and Other Stories and Singing Me Home

Gail Benick is a professor in the humanities and social sciences at Sheridan College in Oakville Ontario. She holds an M.Ed from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto and an M.Phil from the City University of New York. She has served as the coordinator of Sheridan’s Joint Program in Communication, Culture and Information Technology with the University of Toronto at Mississauga. Her publications include works of fiction and non-fiction bridging scholarly and literary domains.

The Girl Who Was Born That Way by Gail Benick
reviewed by Carol Lipszyc
Canadian Woman Studies / les cahiers de la femme 31.1,2 (Fall/Winter 2016)

At the heart of Gail Benick’s The Girl Who was Born that Way is a double ring of four sisters. On the outer rim move the eldest two, Hetty and Tilya, child survivors of the Lodz Ghetto eager to reinvent themselves in their adopted country; in the inner circle, we greet the younger American-born sisters, the novella’s narrator, Linda Sue, and her older sibling, Terry Sue, who was born with Turner’s Syndrome. I looked forward to the spirited letters Terry Sue writes at the end of each chapter, letters which lend an epistolary mode to the novella. In spite of her genetic mutation and the physical and mental afflictions she suffers (she becomes anorexic and is hospitalized) Terry Sue’s voice remains inquisitive, youthful, and loving.

In turn, Linda is protective and considerate of her sister, at one point buying foam rubber to make falsies for Terry Sue, who does not develop normally. Highly attuned, Linda decodes her child and adolescent world, making sense of her family and of a broken past that imposes without warning like a sinister wind funneling its way into the home. Often that wind is chased away by her father’s sense of adventure and her older sisters’ desire to regain normalcy, to keep their Jewish identity under the radar, and to integrate with dignity into St. Louis society circa the 1950s-60s. Danger lurks, though, real or otherwise. Linda Sue has internalized some of her mother’s palpable fear. At one point, Linda Sue watches an antique fan turning overhead and conjures up decapitation, imagining her mother’s suicide should such a catastrophe befall her. Of course, her family did survive a cataclysm before she was born. In a segment that reminded me of Anne Frank’s rules for the Annex, Hetty relays to her younger sisters the Berkowitz Guide to Surviving in the Lodz Ghetto. Her memories here, with credit to Benick, are transplanted onto the page authentically, sparely, through the eyes of a child. (How the family survived the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto and deportation to Auschwitz in the summer of 1944 is not dealt with in the back story.)

Along with the sadness, the

“shadow of grief” her mother conveys, the narrative moves at a buoyant pace as navigated by Linda Sue, highlighted by flashes of family outings, pubescent dances with boys, and by her interaction with colourful neighbourhood characters whose voices add texture to the novella and perspective to Linda Sue’s world view. All this before the novella takes its tragic turn in the untimely death of Terry Sue. At the end of the novella, it is Tilya, renamed Toni, who writes a dissertation in honor of her sister’s misunderstood disease and death. In this instance, unlike so many of Linda Sue’s questions left unanswered in the novella, Toni’s inquiry is a gift of scholarship and commemoration, one that is both fruitful and life-affirming.

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"Ultimately, in the 117 pages of The Girl Who Was Born That Way, Benick has compactly shown the complexities of migrating to a foreign land with few belongings and resources and many differences. She tells the story honestly, sensitively and with lots of heart."

The Canadian Jewish News

     We sat on the front steps after school, elbows propped on our knees, in the pale
light of October. Our eyes searched the street for Papa who had promised to take
us to a special event, some sort of a parade, downtown, in St. Louis. I felt excited.
And relieved. I’d go anywhere to get away from the smell lingering in our kitchen.
All houses had their own smells. I knew that from my best friend Fruma Goldfarb’s
house which always reminded me of herring. But ours stank from something much
worse: kasha. Mama made kasha varnishkes every Sunday. She never cooked the
bowtie pasta until just before she served brisket for dinner. “Your Auntie Tzophia
would prepare hers with lots of kasha and not so many bows,” Mama repeated
each time she made the dish. “My recipe is more like pasta with some buckwheat,
mushrooms and onion tossed in.” At the mention of Tzophia, the tears began, like
pools of sadness rippling through her to us.
     I didn’t need to ask who Aunt Tzophia was. One Sunday several months ago,
as Mama was roasting the dry kasha in a hot pan, she started to tell us about her
younger sister who was called Tzofie for short. Hetty had interrupted. “That frying
pan is smoking, Mama.” The kasha was already sticking and turning black. “You’re
going to start a fire in here.”
     Using a wooden spoon, Mama shuffled the kasha around in the pan. “You remember,
Hetty, how we left Lodz with Aunt Tzophie and Uncle Shmul?” I waited
for my sister to answer, but she didn’t.
    “Hetty,” Mama went on. “Remember how we packed the tea cups, forks, knives
and my bubbie’s candlesticks into a suitcase? “
     I said, “Hetty isn’t in the kitchen anymore, Mama.”
    “All of us together, we went to Warsaw in a buggy pulled by a horse. Late at night.”
    “Mama, she’s not here.”
    “Do you remember your little cousins Shana and Yitzy went with us?” She had
removed the kasha from the heat. “How, when Papa and I decided to came back to
Lodz with you, we never saw any of them again?”
     I gazed at Terry Sue now, hunched next to me on the porch. When had she
stopped eating Mama’s kasha? Don’t know. As I advanced the film, the clicking of
the plastic knob seemed to startle her. Seven exposures were left.
     “Don’t you dare show that picture of me to anyone.” She sat up and wrapped her
arms around her chest. “I’m so fat.”

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