A Daughter Brought to Life: Review of “A Cracking of the Heart” by Jay Nordlinger
David Horowitz’s unusual new memoir David Horowitz has done what few could do: He has written a memoir of a child of his who died (age 44); and he has brought it off beautifully. A Cracking of the Heart makes for raw reading at times, but it also makes for thought-provoking and uplifting reading. It is a very unusual book, written by an unusual man — about an unusual woman — and when I say “unusual,” I mean something positive, no doubt.
Horowitz will need no introduction to readers of National Review Online. A leader of the New Left, he became a leader of the fighting Reaganite Right. He is a thinker and a doer, an intellectual and an activist. His mind ranges widely, and so do his books. He has written about politics and policy, of course. But he has also written about matters literary, cultural, and spiritual. His 2005 book, The End of Time, is a meditation on mortality. A Cracking of the Heart is a meditation too, plus other things.
Sarah Rose Horowitz — the second of David’s four children — died in March 2008. Several years before, her beloved aunt Barbara died: and her rabbi told her, “Pay attention to the ways in which your relationship continues.” That is part of what David is doing in this book.
She spent much of her time writing, did Sarah Horowitz, producing poems, stories, articles, notes of various kinds. But she published very little. She is certainly published now, as her father stocks this memoir with the writings she left behind. Indeed, she is a co-author of this book, often its main voice.
We sometimes speak of “filial piety,” and “acts of filial piety” — this memoir is an act of fatherly piety, or parental piety. The father wishes to honor his daughter, and he does so in a way that benefits others (i.e., the readers of this book). He decided to look deep into her life, and interviewed friends of hers, and other family members. He wishes he had known her better when she was alive (who would not have such a wish?); he unquestionably knows her now.
Sarah was dealt a rotten biological hand. She was born with an insidious thing called Turner Syndrome, which brings with it a host of afflictions. During her life, Sarah suffered from heart problems, hip problems, hearing problems, vision problems — the works. But she was stubbornly opposed to complaint, and equally opposed to dependency. She refused to apply for the Social Security benefits available to the disabled. In fact, she did not view herself as disabled.
And yet, Horowitz tells us, her “determination to be independent didn’t seem to affect her sympathies for others who lacked her grit.” Far from it. “I never knew a kinder person with a bigger heart.” As we learn, her life was lived in perpetual kindness to others. She gave money to the homeless, when she had very, very little money to give. She went to El Salvador, to help build homes for the poor. She went to Uganda, to help yet more people. And remember that she did all this with serious physical challenges. She also worked with autistic children, including her own niece. She wrote an account of this experience, which her father includes in this book.
Her politics were of an interesting, touching kind. She was on the left, as David tells us, but she was not at all blinkered. A friend of hers comments, “She was a thoughtful person, not a party liner.” David writes that she attended demonstrations, and could be “swept up in their enthusiasms.” But “she always remained more interested in individuals than crowds, devoting most of her political energies to the appeals she wrote in behalf of political prisoners.”
I particularly warm to two facts: Sarah was against capital punishment, and would stand vigil outside San Quentin. (She lived in San Francisco.) But she did not imagine that the condemned were innocent, as many of her fellow protesters did: She simply thought that it was wrong for the state to take a life. And here is the second fact: She was a vegetarian, and she cooked for the homeless — but she would make them meat dishes that she learned from the Internet. She figured that the hungry should get the kind of food they wanted. And that is a magnanimity not inherent in everyone.
In the last years of her life, she was closely drawn to the spiritual. She embraced Judaism, of a certain kind — a kind of Zen Judaism, practiced and taught by a Berkeley rabbi, Alan Lew. The rabbi told David, “A great student is a once in a lifetime thing, and Sarah was mine.” In a notebook recording her spiritual progress, Sarah wrote, “When I meditate, I feel this very powerful sense that I am exactly who I am supposed to be, exactly where I am supposed to be.”
A Cracking of the Heart is not only about Sarah, of course, but about David as well, and about Sarah and David. He is very, very critical of himself: wishes he had done more, or done differently, where Sarah is concerned. He tells many stories on himself, by which I mean, against himself. Personally, I do not believe he is always guilty — but Horowitz is in no mood for self-exoneration.
He says that his daughter gave him this gift, among others: “When I see a homeless person destitute on the street, I think of Sarah, and my heart opens. If there is a criminal shut behind bars, I force myself to remember her compassion, and a sadness shades my anger.” And so on.
Horowitz is known as a flamethrower and a brawler, a very tough political customer. There is that dimension, yes (thank God). But there are other dimensions: and in this book, he is exquisitely sensitive and tender. The writing is graceful, lyrical, lovely. He can write like an angel, can that ferocious bearded bomber. And he is a natural memoirist. He proved this, not least, in his 1997 autobiography, Radical Son.
Toward the end of his latest memoir, he writes, “I do not really know why we all forgot about the prediction of an early death for Turner Syndrome children. Perhaps it was because Sarah always had so much life in her, right to the end.” In the eulogy he delivered at her memorial service, he said, “Her spiritual buoyancy was . . . one of her most irresistible traits. She probably never realized what a profound and uplifting impact she had on everyone who knew her.” As I see it, he is lucky to have her as a daughter, and she is lucky to have him as a father.
And the present tense of that sentence is just right: “Pay attention to the ways in which your relationship continues.”
– Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor of National Review.