As A Writer: What Do I Own?

What are the ethics of writing about what is, at heart, someone else’s tragedy? Name Withheld

THIS QUESTION was sent into the Ethicist at the NYT. The writer had witnessed a murder. Although I’ve never seen anyone killed, this kind of question has haunted me my entire writing life.

I’ve tried different approaches: ignoring the material, disguising it, writing it raw, then cycling back to ignoring. Some of this has worked well. Some, not at all. The unwritten about events haunt me, but frankly so do things I’ve written about.
Contrary to contemporary therapeutically-influenced ideas about memoir—-writing is not closure. In fact, if I’m any kind of example of the human psyche—-closure is a tidy aspirational ideal that cannot be attained.
Sure, I’ve put things behind me. But that doesn’t mean they are over.
And I continue to dither. Take the AIDS epidemic. It devastated the neighborhood I lived in in San Francisco—and killed two of my friends and many of my acquaintances. But I’m still trying to truly write about it. Is it “mine”—and is that pov simply that of an observer, or…or…I go round and round.
The Ethicist gives an incredible response I couldn’t have predicted:

“It’s worth recalling that “tragedy,” a word we use to describe events like this one, originally designated a literary genre, a form of storytelling. Whatever is going on in us when we experience a tragic narrative — Aristotle wasn’t the last to speculate about it — we surely learn something about our own emotional repertory; it may serve as a rehearsal of our responses to actual horrors. Classic novels have taken inspiration from real homicides; nonfiction works immortalizing such events have joined the literary canon, too.
We’ll do better, in my view, if we don’t think about what happened as someone’s possession.”

STASH–a new chapbook from Miriam Sagan

This is memoir, mostly of childhood, mixed with poetry. Here is a section.

The Snake

The boy wanted the snake. Ten years old, my first husband stood by the side of the pond in the deciduous woods. The snake was thick, thick as his boyish wrist, and he was good with snakes; often caught them and took them home. Kept them alive and what passed as happy for a snake in a glass terrarium, fed them mice. His mother forbade this, despaired, eventually collapsed and gave in. She just refused to clean his room. He kept it tidy.
And this snake was free of charge. Twisted on a branch out in the water, healthy skin, its sharp, glittering eyes perceived like part of its brain. Its tongue tasted the air. He tried and tried, using every trick he knew. Another, longer branch, like the snake handler he was. But the snake would not comply. The pond was too murky, too cold, too deep. The sun began to set. And then the snake swam off, in the opposite direction. Tired and muddy, he went home.
And looked up the snake in his big snake book. And identified it properly for the first time. It was a species of pit viper. The world’s only semiaquatic viper, and New Jersey could be the top of its range. North America’s only venomous water snake. As an adult, it was large and capable of delivering a painful and potentially fatal bite.
It was a water moccasin, and it could kill a child.
He’d tell me this story more than once when we were married, and it would remain the story of the one who got away—the snake. But to me it was the story of the one who got away but was surely coming back—death.

From Cyberwit in India–I’ve enjoyed working with them.
I also have a few to give away–just ask me at

Grandpa George, The Gangster Lepke, and a Platypus by Miriam Sagan

My grandfather, George Sagan, founded the New York Girl Coat Company in 1916. That was not his real name. He was born Gershon Liesenbaum in the Ukraine, a borderland between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Holy Russian one, between Kiev and Odessa.

Gershon became George in America. But until the late 20th century we did not know that our family name was not Sagan. My father had found George’s exit visa from Russia. It was for Liesenbaum.

My father searched for an answer in his own imagination. George had bought Mr. Liesenbaum’s exit visa. Or, George had murdered Mr. Liesenbaum for the visa. My father actually proposed this theory without irony. My grandfather’s power to impose his will was legendary and survived even his physical death.

The most likely answer was more mundane. My grandfather Gershon, a young teenager, was in the Ukraine with his sister and her three children. She died. He was entrusted with bringing his two little nephews and one niece to their father Louie in New York City. Louie may have already remarried at this point. It is likely that Louie’s last name was Sagan.

George tied nephews and niece together with a rope so he wouldn’t lose them on shipboard. At Ellis Island, it probably made sense to take their and his brother-in-law Louie’s last name, Sagan.

One of the children tied to the rope grew up. He attempted to get an education but by the Great Depression found himself working in the garment industry for George, as one of the prime cutters. His son was Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer. On his deathbed, Carl told one of my first cousins who was interested in family history: “You aren’t really a Sagan. The Sagans were the smart side of the family.” George’s descendants were educated and successful. But we’d been told, and had to believe, we weren’t smart like the Sagans, i.e. Carl. And in fact we weren’t Sagans, but Liesenbaums.

In his own way, my grandfather cared not just about material success but beauty and justice. However, it was the justice of a gangster and the beauty of a robber baron that drove him.

The iconic story told about him was George’s meeting with the famous if perhaps second-string Jewish gangster Lepke. When my grandfather opened for business, it was in a storefront on the lower east side. One of Lepke’s henchmen came around and dunned George for protection money, the price of doing business, to be paid every Wednesday. Of course he paid.

A few months later, a second henchman appeared, demanding protection money to be paid on Fridays. My grandfather rebelled. He, a callow youth, demanded a meeting with Lepke. He was taken to a dairy restaurant on Avenue B., a table in back, men in hats.

George made his speech about justice—he would pay once, but not twice.

Lepke nodded in his fedora. Then, he offered my grandfather a job working for him. George politely declined, paid protection but once a week, and went on to make millions.

This story was told in my family not so much as an example of how ballsy George was but of how he had a true sense of fairness. It was not until I was middle-aged that I realized the absurdity of this, crusading for the right to pay protection money only once.

My grandfather’s gangsterism extended to his philanthropy, which was itself vast and generous, yet self-serving. As a small child, I too had been encouraged to be
philanthropic. I had saved up part of my allowance week after week to join the Bronx Zoo. I would be a member, with free admission, discounts, and best of all, a member’s garden party with a private viewing of a rare platypus. I was about ten years old, and ready to give my money to the zoo, when Grandpa George got wind of my stash.

We were alone, on the wraparound screened porch of my parents’ house. He loomed over me and demanded I hand over my savings to donate to plant trees in Israel. But my goal was already set. Israel, no. Platypus, yes. George yelled and screamed, towering over me. My father appeared like a deus ex machina, also shouting, “Leave her alone! It’s her money!”

I went to the members’ party and ate finger sandwiches and chocolate cookies shaped like leaves. I saw the remarkable platypus. I was the only child there, the only young person who had bought herself a membership. Old ladies in hats smiled at me. I planted not one twig in Israel.
This first appeared in the memoir BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE from Red Mountain Press.

My Grandfather Avrum: My Teenage Guru


My mother’s mother dies, and my grandfather Avrum comes to live with us. He is short and wrinkled, and covered in scars. Most of these are from surgery, but between his eyes he has a crescent moon from when a cow kicked him. As a boy, he was trying to ride the cow. He also dipped the braids of little girls who sat in front of him in school in his ink pot. Today perhaps the diagnosis would be ADD, but he always seemed completely cheery in these accounts.
He has a tremor– Parkinsonian souvenir of the 1918 flu. His mother died in childbirth with him. I don’t know her name, and never will.
 However, it is likely I inherited the condition that killed her. When my daughter was born, the placenta did not detach and come out. Since I was in a modern hospital, I did not bleed to death as she did in Ukraine.
As a child, my world is a rough one, maybe rougher than it will be when I grow up. We are tested for TB because Avrum had TB in his liver, of all places. I love him, and when he moves in with us I spend my evenings worrying that he will die.
At night, I sneak in to watch his breathing, asleep in front of the television.
“The tsar did not like me, personally,” my grandfather says. “So I came to America. In Russia, I turned the other cheek. And they hit the other cheek too. So…I came.” He neglects to mention that all his money was in tsarist gold when he left The Pale to work in the shipyards in Germany. The Russian Revolution rendered it worthless. By then he was already in Boston, working in the Quincy shipyards.
I adore him, although he is bad-tempered and apt to yell at us that we are talking too much at the supper table. He yells, inhales a piece of raw carrot, begins to choke, and rushes from the table to get a glass of water. He survives, and goes on to give advice.
“I’ll be your guru,” he tells me. It’s the late Sixties, and even the Beatles have a guru. He assumes I need one, and he is right. He doesn’t tell me to take a deep breath, but he takes my side in everything, particularly against my erratic mother.
My grandfather loves sub gum chicken with almonds and all kinds of Chinese food. He saves nails and string in glass jars. Actually he does not have much real advice for me. He doesn’t tell me how to live, or what to do. He models…something…by eating eggs and bacon, smoking mentholated cigarettes, and drinking schnapps every day.
“Look at the moon,” he tells me.”That’s not the real moon. It is a moon- sized replica of the moon in the sky. The Russians have the real moon in the basement of the Kremlin.”
My favorite story about him is that when he was about 13 he accompanied his own father, a miller, to Kiev (always pronounced the Russian way in his stories) by train. There in the station he sees two Chinese merchants in brocade gowns with skull caps and braids down their backs. Are they men or women? Unsophisticated, Avrum knows nothing outside his village. His father makes the blessing: Blessed art Thou, the Lord our G-d, who has created human variety.
Avrum dies when I am thirteen, and I will always miss him. I play an odd game of pretend. What if he had born—presumably to me—in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. Been raised in hippie Santa Fe and gone to Little Earth School? Been in a band, and had lots of sex and eaten psychedelic mushrooms in the arroyo? Maybe studied technical theater, or been an architect? Worn loud shirts and gone through a motorcycle phase?
Would he have been happier backpacking in Europe rather than running from Cossacks? Less angry if he’d had sushi and YouTube?
I can’t know, but keep imagining.

Bluefish by Miriam Sagan

New Issue:

Miriam Sagan

First you burned, and then everything else went up in flames. I unhooked you from the respirator, and then you died. Do you remember that evening when we caught the bluefish in Menemsha Bay? We were ill-prepared, had neither a bucket nor a knife. We didn’t expect to catch anything, but a large vicious bluefish took the hook. We pulled it gasping to the sand, and had no way to kill it as its teeth went for our bare feet. You took a large rock and brained it. At that exact moment the moon rose full and orange over the eastern shore of the island, behind us. We put our hands in gassho and bowed to the fish. Took it home, cooked, and ate it. Only I remember, as both you and the fish are dead. You were cremated in your gray under kimono, along with your lineage papers, certifying that you were an ordained Buddhist priest.

Fresh fish (bluefish) on the boat floor

Bubbe Report: A Grandmother By Any Other Name…

Well, I finally have my grandmother name! And it is…grandma. G., almost two years old, finally stopped called me MOM??? and said “Grandma.”

She’s been calling Rich PopPop Rico for some time. (Rico is his commune name, used in the family, too).

It is all tea parties all the time here. The real tea party, which goes like this:
1. smelling and approving the herbal tea bag
2. water in cup–hot!
3. dunking the bag (say dunk dunk dunk)
4. pouring cream from little pitcher
5. two teaspoons sugar
6. stir stir stir (say stir stir stir)
7. a sip, a sigh of happiness
8. check that I am also drinking mine
9. drink cup

Then the imaginary ones, using the little tin set with the hedgehogs on it. Then drinking bath water with measuring cups. And then the most mysterious–a set composed of small breakable objects that were mine but now co-opted…a Chinese tea pot, a bunch of cat-shaped chopstick holders, an Anasazi replica cup and spoon…These things live together but not always in harmony (the cats get stuck in the teapot) and not in a fixed way.

The question of “what do we eat?” remains an ongoing discussion. I added my favorite amethyst crystals to a rock collection, turned my back, and G. was hiding in a corner, looking guilty, and licking them with a hypnotized expression as if they were Turkish Delight from the White Witch in Narnia.

I’d like to eat them, too. But traded them for a spice drop which G. then fed to a legless plastic flamingo.

So that is what is happening at my house.

Bubbe Report: Language Is A Virus

I may be a writer, but I’m not the enemy of non-standard English. This is particularly useful because here in the pandemic’s “Bubbe’s Daycare” I spend three afternoons a week chatting with a toddler. I often feel we’ve had rather extensive conversations on the topics of “can you eat soap?” and “what happened to the cookie in the tea?” as well as more philosophical explorations about “if something is big, is it a mom?”

Speaking of moms, it seems that is my name too. I’m not bubbe, grandma, Mir or anything like that. Generically, I am a mom, and called as such.

My youngest niece called all her aunts and uncles “Steve.” She had an uncle Steve, and she extrapolated to the rest of us. I didn’t mind and I knew what she meant. One nephew called Rich “aunt Richard” which I also found cute. Anthropologists are interested in kinship systems, and little kids are no exception.

My daughter Isabel of course refers to me as mom, and so the toddler sees me greeted that way. My vibe must be similar enough to Isabel’s that the comparison is obvious. I try “yes, grand mom” but that does not take. The truth is, everything is mom right now–people, animals, large blocks, a Navajo doll. And I am mom too.

After all, Isabel once, in a toddler fury, called her father “a suitcase.” As long as you don’t angrily refer to me as an inanimate object, I’m fine.


I’m working on a new memoir with some difficult material. I’m puttig bits of it in “stash” boxes and hiding them in plain sight in this funky art town. It’s a bit of guerilla art, but also an editing process to see how I feel.

Here is a bit of the text:

The habit I can’t break—probably don’t even want to—is that I am amazed by everything in my world and afraid of all the adults in it. It’s going to be difficult to work this one out.

Ariel Gore interviews me about Bluebeard’s Castle

Ariel Gore asked me some questions about writing Bluebeard’s Castle for her experimental story structure students.

Which came first in this project . . . structure or content?
Did you have content and then build a structure to accommodate it then add the connective tissue?
Or did you have a structural idea and then write the content to fit that concept?
Or something else?
I guess the question is how and at what juncture(s) did you stop and map it out?

Somewhat paradoxically, Bluebeard began by my writing about my illness and hospitalization. I was really trying to write about it once and for all. I even went to Boston and did a series of private rituals for soul retrieval. But I kept being haunted by the fact that my father blamed me–and not just for that. That created a bridge to the Grand Canyon material–which set up a relationship to the Southwest, my home as an adult. At about this point I realized I had something. I also had a few flash memoirs, like the 9/11 piece. I started to fill in the holes–the most interesting was the family history of my grand-father, the garment industry, etc. Many of the poems were already written but uncollected–Firebird, Cossacks…sort of obsessional material. Then I did my father’s decline and death, soon after it happened, linked to Icelandic poems. So the three central sections were written in order. The “Psyche” poems had been written as a suite a few years before, and are a contrast–introspective, female, mythic.

So, basically yes–Did you have content and then build a structure to accommodate it then add the connective tissue?
I was about half way through before controlling the structure. I worked the whole book the way I would a single hybrid piece–listening for musicality and contrast, controlling repetition, leaving some holes for ambiguity.