By Blood

By Blood

by Ellen Ullman


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250023964
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 12/24/2012
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 867,979
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ellen Ullman is the author of a novel, The Bug, a New York Times Notable Book and runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the cult classic memoir Close to the Machine, based on her years as a rare female computer programmer in the early years of the personal computer era. She lives in San Francisco.

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Chapter 1

I did not cause her any harm. This was a great victory for me. At the end of it, I was a changed man. I am indebted to her; it was she who changed me, although I never learned her name.

My involvement with the young woman in question began several years ago, in the late summer of 1974, while I was on leave from the university. I sought to secure for myself a small office in the downtown business district of San Francisco, where I intended to prepare a series of lectures about The Eumenides—The Kindly Ones—the third play in Aeschylus’s great trilogy. A limited budget brought me to the edge of a rough, depressed neighborhood. And my first sighting of the prospective office building—eight begrimed gargoyles crouched beneath the parapet, their eyes eaten away by time—nearly caused me to retrace my steps.

Yet there was no question of my turning back. Immediately upon my arrival in San Francisco, a month earlier, a great gloom had descended upon me. I had arranged my leave in great haste; I knew no one in the area. And it must have been this isolation that had engendered in me a particularly obdurate spell of the nervous condition to which I had been subject since boyhood. Although I was then a grown man of fifty years, the illness, as ever, cast me back into the dark emotions of my preadolescence, as if I remained unchanged the desperate boy of twelve I had been. Indeed, the very purpose of the office was to act as a counterweight to this most recent spell, to get me dressed and out of the house, to force me to walk on public streets among people, to immerse myself, however anonymously, in the general hum of society; and in this way, perhaps, sustain the gestures of normal life.

It was therefore imperative that I do battle with my trepidations. I suppressed my fears of the neighborhood and my distress at the building’s dreary mien. We were in the midst of the Great Stagflation, I reminded myself. The whole city (indeed the entire country) had a blasted, exhausted air. Why should the building before me not be similarly afflicted? I therefore turned my gaze from the eyeless gargoyles, told myself there was no reason to be unnerved by the shuttered bar on the ground floor (whose sign creaked in San Francisco’s seemingly perpetual wind). Somewhat emboldened by these mental devices, I took the final steps to the entryway.

I opened the door to a flash of white: a lobby clad entirely in brilliant marble. So clean and smooth was this marble that one had the sudden impression of having entered a foreign landscape, a snowy whiteout, where depth perception was faulty. Through the glare I seemed to see three cherubs floating above the elevators, their eyes of black onyx, which, as I watched in fright, appeared to be moving. It took some moments to understand what hung before me: elevator floor indicators, in the form of bronze cherubs, their eyes circling to watch the floor numbers as the cars rose and fell.

To the right of the elevators was a stairway, above it a sign directing visitors to the manager’s office on the mezzanine. I climbed this short flight—its marble steps concave from years of wear—then I followed the manager into the elevator and rode with him up to the eighth floor (the cherubim ogling us, I imagined). He led me along hallways lined with great slabs of marble wainscoting, each four feet wide and as tall as an average man of the nineteenth century. Finally we stood before a door of tenderly varnished fruitwood, its fittings—knob, back plate, hinges, lock, mail slot—all oxidized to a burnt golden patina.

The room he showed me was very small. The desk, settee, and bookcase it contained were battered. The transom above the door had been painted shut. But I had already decided, on the strength of the building’s interior materials—clearly chosen to withstand the insult of time—that this would be my office. So with the manager’s agreement to restore the transom to working order, I signed a one-year lease, to commence in three days, the first of August. And then throughout the first weeks of my tenancy, while I struggled to regain my footing and begin my project, I was calmed by the currents of dark, cool air that flowed through the transom (the sort of mysterious air that seems to remain undisturbed for decades in the deep interiors of old buildings), and by the sight of the aged Hotel Palace across the way, where I could, in certain lights, see the doings of guests not prudent enough to close their shades.

Each weekday, I rode downtown on the streetcar, anticipating the pleasures of sitting at my desk, the rumble of the traffic eight stories below me. Before reaching the city center, however, one had to pass a grim procession of empty storefronts, vacant lots, and derelict buildings—a particularly blighted district. Nevertheless, despite the proliferation of such neighborhoods, the good San Franciscans seemed to rouse themselves each morning to perform at least the motions of civic life, producing an air (however false) of gainful industry. This impression of restorative public energy helped me to put myself aside, so to speak, and by month’s end I had made progress on my lectures, producing my first coherent set of notes.

Then, shortly after Labor Day, as I sat down to draft the first talk in the series, I found that the acoustical qualities of the office, previously so regenerative, had abruptly changed. Cutting through the pleasant social drone from the streets below, superseding it in both pitch and constancy, was an odd whirring sound, like wind rushing through a keyhole. And just audible above the whir, coming in uneven and therefore intrusive intervals, was a speaking voice, but only its sibilants and dentalizations—only the tongue and teeth, as it were. I am certain it was only the general darkness of my mood, but I felt there was something mocking and threatening in this sibilance, for the sound drew me to it the way a cat is lured—psst, psst—for drowning.

I jumped up from my desk determined to know the source of these intrusions. Immediately I suspected the doors to the adjoining offices. My room, small as it was, had two interior doors to what were once communicating offices, both doors now kept locked. Aside from noticing the fine wood of which they were made, I had paid these vestigial entryways no attention, as I had never heard anything issuing from them. Indeed, I had had no awareness of the other offices at all, my goal in securing my own room having been, as I have said, to find a place outside of my own life, so to speak, to immerse myself in a general, anonymous social sea.

Now forced to consider the reality of the tenants around me, I went out into the hall. The stenciled letters on the office door to my left identified its occupants as “Consulting Engineers.” I moved my ear closer and heard nothing, but through the frosted glass in the door’s upper portion (unlike my office, many doors retained their original etched-glass panels, with finely wrought patterns), I could make out two heads moving, as if over a desk or drafting table. The only odd thing I noticed about this office was that its number was out of sequence, being 803, whereas mine was 807, and my other neighbor’s 804. I then recalled the building manager saying, when I signed the lease, that tenants, as they changed offices over the years, were permitted to take their numbers with them as long as they remained on the same floor, their suite numbers obviously constituting some kind of property or identity. And indeed, as I looked around the hallway, I saw that the office numbers were a complete jumble, 832 next to 812 next to 887, and so on, indicating that the lessees had proved themselves loyal to the building and to the eighth floor but were otherwise restless and inconstant. I wondered for a moment if I should want to retain 807 in the event that I should move away from my neighbor, and I decided that I would, for there was something orderly in the descent from eight to seven passing around zero, and, in the number 7, perhaps an aura of luck.

Rousing myself from these distractions and resuming the surveillance of my neighbors, I came to the office on my right, number 804. As I drew closer, the whir became unmistakable, as did the voice. There was no glass panel in this door; its gold letters simply read, “Dora Schussler, Ph.D.”

I stood immobile in the hall for some seconds. My first association with the designation “Ph.D.” was that this Dr. Schussler should be an academic like myself, and that she and I should coexist quite well, her time being spent in the quiet pursuits of reading and writing. Why, then, was there this whirring, and this persistent hissing? And why hadn’t I heard it from the first, on the day I inspected what was then my still prospective office, thereby preventing me from being bound to such an incompatible neighbor?

These questions (posed to myself with an aggrieved, affronted, indignant air) distracted me from seeing the truth of my situation, which became clear only as I stared at the swirls of the ancient, wear-darkened broadloom that lined the hall. I recalled the first time I had ever heard a sound like the one issuing from Dr. Schussler’s office, which had been many years ago, in the office of one of the many therapists I had had reason to visit during the course of my life. In the waiting area, there had been a small beige plastic machine, placed on the floor, which had given off just such a whir, its role being to blur the clarity of the spoken word that might be audible from the therapeutic offices, thereby preventing anyone, as he waited, from understanding what was being said within (though I myself, still a young man, often tried to overhear, telling myself such curiosity was natural). With great force, the whole period of time surrounding my meetings with the psychotherapist came back to me, and I could see quite clearly the little yellow lamp she kept on a low table beside her, and the vine that covered the single north-facing window, its leaves perpetually trembling.

I did not wish to recall this portion of my life, especially not at the office where I had sought to escape the great black drapery of my nervous condition. Indeed, finding myself tied to such an enterprise seemed to me an evil joke, as I had wagered both my emotional health and my professional reputation against the efficacy of the therapeutic relationship. Over the course of thirty-five years—meeting weekly, twice a week, sometimes daily—I had looked across small rooms into the bewildered, pitiable faces of counselors, therapists, social workers, analysts, and psychiatrists, each inordinately concerned about his or her own professional nomenclature, credentials, theories, accreditations; all of them, in the end, indistinguishable to me. Now, still battling the hooded view of life that had haunted my family for generations, I had come to the conclusion that their well-meaning talking cures, except as applied to the most ordinary of unhappinesses, were useless.

What now could I do to separate myself from this Dora Schussler? How could I escape her analysands with all their fruitless self-examinations, beside whom I was now obligated to spend the remaining eleven months of my lease? I had no legal recourse, I realized. I could not go to the manager and say I had been duped, my neighbor had been hushed, paid off to silence the babblings of her profession on the day I had first surveyed the premises. The situation of my room had not been maliciously misrepresented. I had engaged the office in August, iconic month of the therapeutic hiatus. It was now September. Dr. Dora Schussler, Ph.D. and psychotherapist, was back at work.


By Blood Copyright 2011 by Ellen Ullman

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By Blood: A Novel 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
sandiek More than 1 year ago
It is the 1970's and a disgraced professor has come to San Francisco, awaiting the judgement of his college. A tenured professor, there is an allegation of improper student contact, and now he must wait for the wheels of collegial justice to grind out his fate. Knowing that it will take months, he has fled to another city where he is to work on research and papers. It is an unsettled time in San Francisco. The peace and love generation has given way to terrorists similar to those who kidnapped Patty Hearst. The Zodiac killer is stalking the streets. There is unease everywhere, including the professor's mind. He takes an office in a cheap location, and there he finds his solace. He is placed next to a psychiatrist's office, and the construction is so cheap that he can hear through the walls. Not everyone; for most patients there is a white noise machine. But one patient, the one that the professor begins to think of as 'his patient' wants the machine turned off and he can hear everything she says. The patient is caught up in the same identity crisis the professor has fought his whole life. Both feel they don't belong anywhere, that there is something unique about them that sets them apart and makes them unlovable. The patient believes it is her past as an adopted child. The professor comes from a family rife with mental disease and suicides. Both struggle to determine if they are a product of their genes, fated at birth to become what they are, or if they have the strength to define themselves apart from their heredity. The professor has spent years in therapy and has removed himself from that setting. Yet he finds himself drawn into the struggle of the patient as she confronts her adoptive parents. He uses his research skills to find her birth mother and the truth of her background and mails the results to her pretending to be a clerk at the adoption agency. He then sits back and waits to see what will happen, if his gift will enable the patient to move forward with her life or if the truth of her background will swamp her. Ellen Ullman has written a brooding tale that draws the reader in hypnotically. Set in short chapters, the hour long therapy sessions are juxtaposed with the actions of the professors. The story rackets up the suspense as the truth is revealed a bit at a time. Will the therapist have the skills to free the patient, and the professor who looms in the background and is just as needy? This book is recommended for all readers, an atmospheric tale that will not soon be forgotten.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great read that explores therapy and the Holocaust from a different perspective than any other book I have read. Deeply moving and memorable. Hope she writes more that incorporates the psychological elements.
barefoot1 More than 1 year ago
This is one of those books where you don't know if you are going to be able to get into it and then you are hooked big time.  The whole psychiatric play between the patient the listener, and the psychiatrist herself is worth the read.   The addition of the Holocaust mystery along with the psychological drama makes this a very engrossing story. and it leads to an engrossing story...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful. Loved it! I couldn't wait to find out about "the patient" and of her "mysterious origins".
reilly1 More than 1 year ago
This book started off great. Unusual story that quickly gets gripping. Liked it a lot until the end.  When I finished the last page I was astounded. No ending. It just stopped. I must have missed something. I go back and reread the last few pages. What????? Great book with awful ending.
Darcia on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have mixed feelings on this book. If I eliminate the narrator, the story of the nameless patient in search of her birth parents and her origins is a powerful one. The journey is rich in information on Europe during the Second World War, the Nazis and the Jewish people's battle to survive, and what it would feel like to find out you'd been born in this environment. That being said, that part of the story was far too removed for me. We learn all this through the eavesdropping of the narrator, a mentally unstable man whom we learn little about. All of the patient's emotions are interpreted and given to us through this narrator. The details are there but the emotion is lacking.Other problems I had with this book: The narrator rents an office to supposedly do some sort of research, yet he never does that. In fact, he spends his time doing a whole lot of nothing. He seems to have an endless supply of money, since he doesn't work and never worries about paying rent or buying food, but he lost his job and isn't looking for another. Aside from his obsession with the patient and his occasional desire to stalk random people, we learn little about him. For me, his character is more of a block to the real story than enriching to the story. I couldn't connect to him, didn't have enough detail to know who he was. And because everything else came through this character, I never got to know the patient well enough to connect, either.The very fact that he hears every single word of what goes on in the office beside him didn't feel believable. Not only does he hear the entirety of each conversation, he also hears subtle things like the therapist's nylons rustling as she crosses her legs and the patient pulling a tissue from a box. I can't hear these things from one room of my house to another, much less from one office to the next, with closed doors between. Overall, the book is slow moving. I felt like I was digging through weeds to get to what could have been a powerful story.
karieh on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The first half of this book took a LONG time to get through. The nameless narrator was too much of a mystery to me ¿ the intrigue about who this was and why he was telling the story soon faded. My interest piqued a bit once we met the also nameless ¿patient¿ who becomes one of the objects of his obsession¿but until the story of her heritage begins to unfold, there was very little in ¿By Blood¿ to hold my interest. There was so little life in the narrator prior to his discovery of ¿the patient¿ that I began to doubt his existence. ¿My presence in the hallway, my body before the door so close to hers, would force upon her the very fact of my existence, my face and physique giving visual form to any sound she might hear. Yet she must not imagine a body in Room 807; she must believe the room holds nothing but air.¿And THEN (while on a long plane ride ¿ perfect timing) ¿ I was all in. The story of the patient¿s mother(s) and her conception was fascinating. This young woman, frustrated with her inability to connect with the mother she¿s always known, reaches out to the birth mother she never knew. And her frustration only increases. ¿I knew she was lying, that I did have another name, one she gave me, or intended to, a name she carried around in her mind all these years ¿ or one she wanted to forget. In any case, I was angry. I felt my names belonged to me, and that I should have them, know them. I couldn¿t stand being a person dealt out in little pieces, different people owning parts of me, different ideas of me.¿ ¿I wanted to gather up all the pieces and own myself.¿This story deals with characters that are missing pieces of themselves. Pieces of their history, pieces of their heritage, pieces of their soul ¿ taken from them through monstrous acts of others¿and pieces of their sanity as evidenced by the narrator. (I still haven¿t decided if I believe that he existed at all, but he certainly did not exist in the fashion he believed himself to. Which probably doesn¿t make any sense¿but so goes this story.)This story also deals with love. Messy, frustrating, flawed and incredibly strong human love. Most powerfully, it reminds the reader of the horrors that humans can inflict on one another ¿ as evidenced by the Holocaust.¿You will see this in all the stories of us survivors: improbable moments like the one I just described, events that turn on luck, on nonsensical holes in the fabric of logic, tears in reality itself. Otherwise if we had followed the inevitability of normal events, one thing expected to follow another, the way the world works most of the time, we would be dead. There would not be that moment when the guard hesitates. The disgusting tenderness the tormentor feels for the object of his evil deeds ¿ it could not exist.¿There are few names in this story. Some omitted, some only temporary. Maybe that is because these stories represent so many names, so many lives. It becomes increasingly important that we remember them not only as individual lives, but as a group. A group of fellow human beings that experienced what no person should, and certainly no person should experience again. The impact of their individual lives matters, as does the impact of their lives as a group, and what that scope of loss of life means.¿The dead were buried in mass graves ¿ tossed in with bulldozers ¿ just as everyone has seen in the magazine pictures. But if you have never seen anything like it before, you can search the depth and breadth of all you have ever learned about language, and you will not find a word or a figure of speech, or a form of rhetoric, to help you pronounce in your own mind what you are seeing.¿This is a vague review, I know. But this book is unlike any I have read before. The reader knows so little of what might be true, what might be lies. What (or who) might exist and what might be delusion. Yet at the heart of ¿By Blood¿ there beats a heart of pain and loss¿and a very human desire to be lo
bobbieharv on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I LOVED this book. I've now read all the reviews on Amazon, as well as the interview with the author. Several people commented that it was slow; that they only got into it after the first 100 pages; but I was hooked from the first page. The device of the mysterious narrator was fascinating. It removed us from the protagonist, the patient whose therapy he overheard, in the same way she was removed from her mother. The sense of place, San Francisco in the 70s; the descriptions of the building; grounded us, providing a counterpoint to the almost dreamlike recounting of the patient's (and the narrator's own) story.Until the end, it was a 5 star book for me - but I didn't like the ending, which I won't give away. I also became so intrigued with the narrator's own mysterious difficulties that I wanted the book to go on and on. But perhaps Ullman wil give us a sequel!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The narrator seems to be a man who is so unhappy in his own work that he uses voyeurism to escape. It is an interesting subject with a unique point of view.  While i found it generally gripping, there were moments (generally in the beginning) where the story seem to drag on and I felt I was forcing myself to read on, instead of being pulled to the next page. In all I am very glad I finished to book, the feeling I had from the conclusion of the the story was well worth it. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really wanted to like this book. The plot device of having the narrator listening to the secondary main character's therapy sessions through the wall was a really interesting concept. However, I felt the book didn't deliver. I felt we never got enough answers about the narrator himself and the book ended somewhat abruptly (which does make sense in the context of the book, but left me hanging a little bit). I also did not expect this book to be so heavily focused on the history of World War II. I have no problem with it, I just didn't think the summary of the book made it clear, so I am noting it here.
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The book started out a little slow, but then the story really developed. About 159 pages into it, I could not put it down. There are themes in the book that really made me think. I enjoyed is book.
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MisterHistory More than 1 year ago
Anyone who has ever had any experience with psychoanalysis in any capacity will be enthralled immediately. Great read.!!!
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bayareagirl More than 1 year ago
Not done yet in fairness -- but I don't feel like finishing.  Maybe i jsut don't care all that much about Freudian analysis as a plot revealer.  Maybe suddenly in the next chapter it will get "gripping" and be the promised "page turner'.  I think it is very awkward writing Father hates Catholics, Grandfather hates Jews , oh woe what is to bcome of me?  type thing. I just want to shake the patient and tell her to go live her life. So I am impatient with this book so far. Going to start skipping and scanning but... "Notable Book of the Year"   it is not.