Yesterday, an essay appeared in ELLE Magazine (online) under the headline, “Ann Bauer Looks Beyond the Mirror.” I wrote the majority of this piece in 2009. And back then, it was about anti-Semitism.
Bernie Madoff had been arrested in December 2008. The country’s economy was tanking. And the hate mail I’d been receiving for years had taken an “ugly” turn. There were more and more letters skewering my appearance, including the ones that I cited in the piece. They came from certain conservative factions. A few of them were so threatening, the Southern Poverty Law Center launched an investigation. They contained messages like these:
“We always knew you were a Heeb (sic)…”
“you dogucking sodomite Jews must be exterminated”
“Only a fucking Jew would dream up such vile shit.”
I am, as I wrote in the essay, the product of a German-Catholic mother and a father of Russian-Jewish descent. Were my mother’s people Spanish or Black Irish or pedigreed Blueblood, I might have turned out with the sculpted mix of, say, a Natalie Portman or Gwyneth Paltrow (who are also half-Jewish). As it is, I have Jewish features that are just ever-so-slightly “off.” Blue eyes instead of brown. A rounded, prominent nose rather than a grand Sephardic one. Here in the American Midwest, I do not fit any category. And that makes some people uncomfortable. It always has.
But it was only after those hate messages began streaming in that I began thinking about the way people (mostly men) had responded to my appearance all my life. It is a fact that there are those who find me “ugly” and those who find me beautiful—perhaps many women would say this. But in my case, the divide is extremely deep. And under the veil of simple preference lurks a somewhat darker truth.
In its original form, my essay included a scene of me visiting the Brainerd International Raceway in northern Minnesota, where my husband (then boyfriend) went one weekend a month in summer to participate in a motorcycle race. The stands were full of young, blonde women in halter tops made out of American flag material and rural men who took an instant, pathological dislike to me. As I walked through the crowd, I heard foul words and whispers. One guy told a “joke” about concentration camps. Another walked up to John and said: “You know what you and a vacuum have in common?” He nodded at me. “You both wear your bag on the outside.”
It also included this section on my own “inner anti-Semite:”
The wormy little truth is that the very features those bigots found piggish and haggy have always bothered me, too. I’ve always disliked these things about myself, my Ruth Bader Ginsberg-nesses, if you will. I wish my nose were smaller, my cheekbones higher, my forehead less broad; I hate the fact that as I age I’m developing the squared-off jowls of Golda Meir. Whereas I don’t fret about my pale skin, blue eyes, or thick, red hair (my more “Christian” traits) — those I tend to think of as assets in an otherwise beauty-challenged life.
My essay did the rounds back in ’09. It was considered for publication by Self, O Magazine, The Sun and—interestingly—ELLE. But ultimately, nearly everyone said it was too provocative to publish. “While the executive editor and I both thought it was intriguing, the editor-in-chief felt the subject was too loaded (the Jewish thing in particular),” wrote one editor. “I’m afraid we’re going to pass.”
The editor at ELLE rejected the essay in early ’10 for other, more business-related reasons. Simply put, I wasn’t a name; how I felt about my appearance was irrelevant. They were far more open than others to including details about the thread of anti-Semitism. That’s why my publicist and I went back to them first when THE FOREVER MARRIAGE was about to come out.
But I also softened the essay, by choice. I happened to have had an experience in Budapest that gave it a fuller, more narrative frame. It was a more positive piece—the story of my finding “my people” in a faraway opera house at the end. To her credit, my editor—Laurie Abraham—bravely left in the overt references to Jewishness and let smart readers decide how to interpret the piece.
The response to this essay has been overwhelming, and it’s been out only a single day. What surprises and delights me is the breadth of people who relate to the piece. I’ve heard from grateful readers with Asian and Scottish and biracial DNA. Within hours of publication I received this wonderful note from a young man, a computer scientist and new father, who wrote: “I love your writing, you articulate the defining life moments that some of us (me) have had without ever putting them into words.”
Maybe we’re still not ready to deal with the issue of anti-Semitism straight on. But if what I write promotes understanding of a general kind—understanding of ourselves, of our lives and of our connections to others—I guess that’s all I could ever ask.