There is one subject no writer in the world, even the most talented and eclectic, would hope to have as a book project, and that is the death of his own child.
A Cracking of the Heart by former Marxist, but long-time conservative public intellectual and best-selling author David Horowitz, takes as its starting point the moment he was informed that “something terrible has happened.” The police had discovered the body of Horowitz’s 44-year old daughter Sarah, alone in her apartment, when she failed to show up for her job at a school teaching autistic children.
The book’s title refers to the process of atonement associated with the Jewish high holy days. For in addition to natural grief, the shock of his daughter’s death opened a floodgate of remorse: “I should have spent more time with you when there was time to spend. I should have told you how much I love you, or told you more often. I should have been less contentious when we had our disputes.”
Mere days before dying, Sarah, for whom literature and writing were foremost amongst her cultural passions, had been interviewed for a literary website on the subject of life and death. Horowitz recalls the intensity with which he studied the dialogue. “Her thoughts were guiding me towards the future, as though she were my parent rather than hers.” In particular he was struck by a lesson Sarah took to heart from her rabbi, an important spiritual mentor and second father in her life: “Pay attention to the ways in which your relationship continues.”
These two thoughts – “as though she were my parent” and “the ways in which your relationship continues” -are the inspiration and guiding themes for the rest of the book. A Cracking of the Heart is not so much the story of Sarah, but the story of a relationship, imperfect in life, that has not been cut short by her death. And, through his explorations of Sarah’s past, her friendships and work and activities and beliefs, Horowitz experiences a posthumous spiritual reversal of their filial roles.
Sarah Horowitz’s life is a study in deliberately hidden heroism. She was born with a condition called Turner’s Syndrome, caused by missing cells in one of her two X chromosomes. This resulted in a litany of afflictions that governed her corporal existence, but never her mind or spirit.
Sarah was extremely short, with a wide and webbed neck and a low hairline. She was infertile. She had high blood pressure due to a kinked aorta (a medical indicator for early death). She was near-sighted and hard of hearing; eventually she became almost deaf as a result of deformed eustachian tubes, which meant frequent ear infections. She also suffered from diminished spatial perception and a propensity to get lost easily. Even reduced mobility was painful due to an arthritic hip.
None of these disabilities deterred her from walking two miles to synagogue and home on Shabbat in fair weather and foul, from making her way across town to cook and serve meals to the homeless, or from traversing oceans and enduring physical hardship in remote and primitive communities. Bivouacked in a Ugandan mud hut, she taught school to impoverished children of the Abayudayu tribe of African Jews; desperately dehydrated in the slums of Mumbai, she gave aid and comfort to sexually abused Hindu girls.
Determined to live autonomously, Sarah eked out a frugal existence through menial jobs, ate excruciatingly boring, but cheap vegetarian meals and settled for the meagre delights of free neighbourhood entertainment.
Determined as well to fulfil her educational ambitions – and refusing all financial help (after her death Horowitz found an uncashed $500 cheque he had sent to ease her Spartan existence) – she managed to earn two Masters degrees, one in fine arts and one in special needs education for children, all the while holding down a menial 8-hour a day job, and spending hours shuttling to classes on three different buses each way at night.
Included in the book is the eulogy Horowitz delivered at the funeral (it was posted on the Internet and garnered warm feedback), which he wrote through a “hail of tears.” He describes Sarah as an unusually temperate and undemanding child: “I don’t ever remember losing my temper with her.” Once, he recalls, in an absurd bid to educate her childish palate, Horowitz urged her to choose a sour-apple flavoured ice cream instead of her preferred staples. An obedient child, she acquiesced at once. Only fifteen minutes later did he notice that she was not eating the ice cream. He tasted it. It was terrible, but “In all the time that had elapsed she had uttered no word of reproach, and she never did.”
She showed early promise as a writer, and Horowitz cites with pride her greatest public success, a ground-breaking article on hermaphrodites whose gender was arbitrarily chosen for them by surgeons. In one of the passages from her writing Horowitz includes, she says of one of her subjects: “I can’t get this woman out of my head though. It is the irrevocability that haunts me. What was done to her cannot be undone. Private pleasure has been sacrificed for public normalcy.” Hermaphrodites’ pitiable condition – a genetic accident leaving them stranded between one defining identity and another – obviously struck a resonant chord with someone who was herself a victim of physical and intellectual inheritance realities that held a mirror up to her limitations rather than her achievements.
In a way, although she was clearly talented and deeply intelligent, as several included nuanced and polished examples of her prose and poetry attest, it was unfortunate for a young woman already so disadvantaged to take up her formidably credentialed and prolific father’s craft, virtually guaranteeing herself additional torment on that account.
Horowitz is a seasoned and combative professional polemicist who, motivated by ambition for political influence and worldly success, writes powerfully and fast. Sarah was a self-effacing, pacifistic amateur writer who, motivated by the need for aesthetic self-expression and her father’s approval, wrote delicately and slow. Her writing inevitably became the locus of unresolved emotional and psychological contentions between them that had nothing to do with writing.
Horowitz recounts a telling moment in their “collegial” relationship. Sarah had sent him a dozen pages of a novel she was writing. He was pleased by the quality of her prose. His mind leaped ahead to publication, leading to a teaching post perhaps or a secure literary job that would include health benefits, a continuing anxiety for him on Sarah’s behalf, and with reason, given her multiple fragilities. So instead of being content with praising her writing – his validation was what she’d hoped for in sending the pages – he asked her how long it would take to finish the novel, emphasizing the need for a professional writer to get “product” on the market. “You write well,” Horowitz said, fatally adding, “but you need to write faster.”
Reliving the morbid silence with which his “helpful” advice was greeted, Horowitz takes full responsibility for the estrangement that followed it: “Now that so many years have gone by and it is too late to retrieve my words, I realize how far removed from her reality they were.”
Another teaching moment came during a family dinner at an East Bay restaurant when Sarah was in her early twenties. The conversation had turned to political themes. Even though he knew Sarah was an active peacenik, Horowitz admits to indulging in “near ferocious” indignation at the anti-war movement which, he believed, gave comfort to America’s enemies and undermined democracies.
Giving free rein to his passion, Horowitz reports he was at first oblivious to the effect of his rant on Sarah, who had remained silent. “But all of a sudden her features came into my view with an excruciating clarity. I saw that her eyes had grown red and liquid, and her face was convulsed as though an immense weight was pressing inexorably down on her. Her expression in that instant was one of such mute and irremediable suffering that the distress of it has never left me.”
Overcome with remorse, Horowitz wondered to himself, “Who is this angry person? What sort of individual could do this to his child?” From that day on, “I never did another thing to reduce her to tears or inflict such pain. Yet I cannot forget that I did.”
As both anecdotes imply, while her father’s reality was political, public and aggressively ideological, Sarah’s “reality” was essentially spiritual, private and task-oriented. During her last decade, it was her commitment to the disciplines and rituals and social justice causes of a synagogue community led by a charismatic rabbi trained in eastern mysticism that led to inner peace and transcendance of her physical trammels.
In Sarah’s writings and in conversations with her friends, Horowitz discovered some happy surprises amidst reminders of his mistakes. Although chary of saying so, Sarah appreciated who and what her father was, and the training in coherent thinking he had gifted her with. Thus, even though she instinctively leaned toward leftist causes, she could not be bamboozled by mindless political correctness. She says in one of her essays, “This habit of arguing both sides of issues is a legacy from my father…” Elsewhere she writes that Horowitz’s early Marxism and later embitterment “left me with a twofold legacy. I have always felt driven to pursue justice, but am wary of ideology and partisan politics.”
In the hands of a sentimentalist or a lesser writer, A Cracking of the Heart could have been a maudlin exercise in hagiography and self-flagellation. Instead, it is a loving tribute and a profound meditation, with universal appeal, on the bond Horowitz and his daughter shared in their common passion to effect “tikkun olam” – to repair the world. They disagreed about the ways in which such a redemption might be accomplished, but they were as one in believing that making the world a better place was something which one had to do with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul and with all one’s might. Sarah did what she could – a great deal – in the straitened circumstances that were her portion. Part of what she achieved was to help her father become a better man. The relationship continues.
Jews say of the departed, “May her memory be for a blessing.” Sarah Horowitz’s “blessing” is this book. Read it, and your heart will crack a little too.
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