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Becker novel is a triumph of ambiguity

Is narrator-protagonist a False Messiah or Not?

Pamela Becker of Jerusalem, daughter of Jean and Marty Becker of Loudonville, has written a first novel. Click here for an interview with the author.

By JONATHAN WEIL
Pamela Becker’s first novel Memoirs of a False Messiah presents a challenge —and a struggle —for the reader —not because of its writing style or language – which is clear, crisp and straightforward— but because of its ambiguous ending. The novel asks:  Is the narrator, MiMi, a false messiah or not?  It is not a bad thing or a criticism to say at book’s end we don’t know. We might even say that, as in of our Talmudic tradition, the answer is maybe both or “none of the above.”

Structure—and MiMi—Cultivate Ambiguity
Becker structures her novel non-chronologically — with chapter heads as years — to embrace and cultivate ambiguity around this central question. She moves back and forth —for dramatic effect and affect —between MiMi’s early years (1973 when she is three and has her first vision from God) and the last year of her life, 2001, at age 31, when she is murdered and “taken” by God. In between, she covers MiMi’s growing up years (1973-1983) with a loving father, Adam, and distant, depressive mother; her “coming of age” in 1983, at 13, when she loses both parents – her father to murder and her mother to suicide; her move to New York City (1983-1986) to live ostensibly an Orthodox Jewish life with her less than loving paternal grandparents and a first cousin, Baruch; her college years (1986-1990) at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where she finds both humiliation and perhaps her first self-affirmation; her return to New York City (1990), when she begins her first uninspiring job and starts her cult for “like-minded women”; her move to Israel (1993) to establish her cult, the “Community of God” (COG); and her creative years (1993-2001) that see the growth of the cult and its good works, her authorship of several key works, and her rising fame and infamy.

MiMi cultivates ambiguity from the very first with her continual questions and self-doubts.  Is her Messianic status true or false?  Are her visions “real” or “imagined”?  Is her mission, her “Community of God,” positive or negative, success or failure?  Is COG an affirmation and triumph over a troubled past and unloving childhood or simply a product of her own ego and conceit?  Is she sinner or redeemer?  Is she doomed and cursed because of the “sins of the parents” and punished by a “jealous God” or is she saved and redeemed by a “merciful” one?

Her name is pronounced “Me Me,” suggesting, along with the novel’s memoir “I-narrative” style, narcissism and ego; at the same time, alluding to Mimi, short for Miriam, Moses’ highly regarded sister.  But this is narcissism not wholly out of place for a first-person memoir by an American protagonist who creates a world-famous Israeli cult!

‘Sins of the Parents’ Pervades, Informs Novel
…for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the parents…

Exodus 20: 5
This quote foreshadows all the horrific events to follow, and seems to answer every question posed above on the negative side — on the side of sin and curse and falsehood.

Thus, the novel’s very first pages appear to substantiate the falsehood and the lie, as, on her deathbed, Mimi asks, “What have I done?” to deserve this. What is my sin? … “Perhaps I’m not a messiah. The messages I received from God were not really sent.”

But her first vision, at age 3, in 1973, detailed on the next page, in Chapter Two, immediately casts doubt on this interpretation. In this vision, which alludes to the story of “Daniel and the Lions’ Den” — and is recurrent, with significant variations, throughout the memoir, MiMi is a grown woman trying to escape growling lions and a glowering fire by climbing a rope attached to nothing.  She is rubbed raw by the rope and her feet are bloodied.  And when she awakes, it is her father, Adam, (First Man and savior?) who is there to comfort her.  Of course, he believes it is simply a “bad dream brought on by an overactive imagination,” but MiMi sees her dream-vision as signifying much more—a godlike mission, perhaps, to live by for the rest of her life.  She proves it to herself by finding the telltale signs the next morning — of what could have only been an authentic vision—in the very real “scratch marks on the bottoms of [her] feet.”

So, Becker, in two chapters and just a few pages (importantly, framing MiMi’s entire life, 1973-2001, but in reverse order), places MiMi—and, in turn, the reader— on the edge, on a precipice between authenticity and doubt. This she does throughout the novel, confronting us—and, in doing so, engaging us — again and again, with both MiMi’s innocence and MiMi’s sin. And, ultimately, leaving us— as if we were ourselves in a precarious Lion’s Den and climbing MiMi’s rope attached to nothing—to make up our own minds…

‘Parental Sins’ and MiMi’s Curse
So it is this “parental sins” biblical passage that resonates throughout the novel, from first page to last.  But what are the “sins of the parents” that leave MiMi —and many others — to account for every mishap and tragedy in her life as being the result of this “curse”? It starts with her own father’s sin but includes her grandparents. It reverberates in numerous ways throughout the story.

First, her father Adam intermarries and is promptly disowned by his father.  Her mother is “cursed” with mental illness and MiMi finds little love for her or from her. Her father and mother die when she is 13 — her father murdered—on MiMi’s birthday, and her mother a victim of suicide, for which MiMi cannot mourn.

MiMi is sent to live with her grandparents and “the orphan,” as she is derisively known, undergoes a Jewish conversion, but is shunned if not estranged because the “lie” of her non-Jewish birth is hidden from all. When “the lie” is discovered, the curse rears its ugly head again, and MiMi is sent away. Later, her grandparents disown her, as they disowned their son, for starting a radical anti-Orthodox cult.

MiMi’s loneliness and unloving family are also indicative of the curse.  So is her very real “difference” from both her Orthodox and college peers. She believes she is ignored and shunned by God when she becomes less observant at college; when she studies the Apocrypha, those biblical texts that are not in the canon; and when she has her first sexual experience.  As she puts it, as messenger of God, how can she be an ordinary, earthly woman putting her boyfriend before God?

She even sees her barbaric shooting at the hands of her Orthodox first cousin Baruch as her own sin; she deserves it for violating Judaism’s sacred 4000 year-old tradition and the precepts of Orthodox Judaism.  She asks, Was the gun just an extension of God’s desertion, and the shooter just his tool?  For being, in short, a false messiah.

Self-Affirmation through the ‘Community of God’
But, with the creation of her cult of “like-minded women,” MiMi begins to blossom and shine. The “Community of God” (COG) cult —and MiMi herself —become a voice and a refuge for women who feel like second-class citizens at home, at work, and at synagogue.  Her community of progressive Jewish women flourishes, especially when she moves to Israel, God’s chosen land and “home to the prophets of the past.” She writes popular but serious essays and books like The Womb of God and Exodus from Discrimination: The Redemption of Women.  She creates groundbreaking feminist readings of the Bible. She finds in the Bible clear “indications of a female messiah and a paradigm for a new Hebraic society.”  COG’s goal is to create a kind of utopia — “a joyful community living and working as one.”  Its basic tenet is to care for the world’s children now and in the world to come.  She is anointed the messiah by a modern-day prophetess and Hebraic scholar Debra (allusion to the biblical Debora).  Upon sharing a godlike ecstatic vision with MiMi, Debra states conclusively:

You MiMi are the chosen Queen that will prepare the people of Israel for the World to Come …  Together we will lead the people of Israel to peace and God.  (pp. 157-58)

MiMi’s birthday becomes a holy day among her followers.  Her fame spreads far and wide.  COG’s good works — a free daycare center for children, a free dental clinic, organized classes and studies — gain in notoriety, even as the group continues to be rejected in most of the press. A consequence, MiMi pointedly and correctly states, of COG’s having rejected society’s traditional norms for women.

MiMi’s self-doubts and constant questioning of her mission and of her sincerity continue.  In 1998, three years before her death, as she receives a prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award, she observes ominously, “I felt untouchable. Almost equal to God.  Maybe that was my sin.  Maybe I came too close.”  And, in the final year of her life, with time running out, she says:

“I know my sin now.  I came too close to God during my period on earth to effectively fulfill my mission.  My own ideas had mixed with God’s word, blurring the messages God sent me to deliver.  I no longer know where my words come from — God, Debra, Paula [her agent] or me.”  (p. 203)

Self-Doubt and Questioning Ennoble and Humanize
This reader has no problem with MiMi’s continual self-doubts and questioning. Quite the opposite. Are not all our prophets — a distinctive and unique feature in Judaism as opposed to say Christianity and other religion— people with feet of clay, real people with doubts and challenges to the very end.  MiMi tells us that her sin is that she got too close to God, too close to fulfill his mission for her. Even Judaism’s greatest prophet, and its most humble —Moses— is punished by God for perhaps getting too close, for assuming a god-like state himself (he is denied the promised land for this reason). So, it is indeed MiMi’s humanity, and not her sainthood, which redeems her and makes her the engaging and genuine character she is. And which elevates her, in this reader’s view, to heroic status.  If she is not saved by God, she is saved by her own humanity.  In the end, isn’t that all we want, and can demand, from a heroine?

Personal Emotional Disconnect
Some who finished the book said they didn’t know what to think or feel. How curious! Why? Perhaps it was due to MiMi’s inherent coldness, which leads to a certain distancing, even unlikability. This reader felt a need for a heroic and triumphant MiMi, a heroic martyrdom, a need for a clear redemption and even apotheosis.

Perhaps, on the more personal side, the apparent emotional disconnect results from his own loveless, unnurturing and upsetting childhood and adolescence. One that, like MiMi’s, finds a distant and unloving mother, who, while being a paraplegic, accomplished everything from driving a car to playing the piano to creating a 30-foot grape arbor, which, incidentally, she heroically tended by drawing herself across the ground on her belly on a self-made dolly. But did she tend her children so well as she did the grape arbor?

A childhood, too, with a distant and mostly absent father.  Like MiMi, the early deaths of his parents, mother at 6, father at 16. The craving and need for the attention that was sadly lacking— if not outright neglect then benign neglect. The instability of being shuffled from aunt to aunt in his adolescence. Even a bar mitzvah which was the product of a crash course in Hebrew and snuck or fit into, unlike with the other “coming of age” boys, a quick non-Shabbat Mincha-Maariv service…  And to make matters worse, it was a bar mitzvah in which the father he so desperately wanted to be proud of, could not read a word of the Torah blessing upon being called for the first aliyah —not a single printed word even on the hurriedly provided homemade card with its phonetic transliteration of the Hebrew … because he had forgotten his glasses.  And even the older sister from whom he was estranged even while living in the same household, for reasons he does not understand to this day.  These are identity themes of this reviewer-responder that pervade his countless readings of countless books.  Even in the visual arts where he could not look — at least didn’t like to look— at a single “Madonna and Child” painting on a student independent study in Italy because of the intense feeling, the warmth and nurturing shared between mother and child.

Book Requires Second Reading
Putting this aside, on second and third reading, he believes he has found the true MiMi How could she be anything but somewhat cold and distant given her own uncaring childhood and adolescence?  But look what she did with her life!  Out of her unloving and unnurturing past, she finds redemption and self-affirmation by transferring her own lack of care to caring for others— indeed a whole family of others —those women who are the alienated, the displaced, and the disenfranchised. Out of this loveless childhood comes her cult-creation, her innovative writing, and her ability to transform a 4000 year-old Judaic tradition with a paucity of feminine role models into a religion that gives, endows women, with a voice, an identity, and a sacred place and space. A cult that brings self-respect and ego strength and that emanates not from a selfish ego but a humane one. A cult that results in the creation of a daycare center for children, a dental clinic, a place to study and learn —all free. And countless other instances of Tikkun Olam and tzedekah —a true moral and ethical hallmark of Torah and Jewish tradition.  As one new cult member observes, “Previously, I had no respect in marriage, work or synagogue.”  Anti-tradition and anti-Orthodox though COG may be, is it a bad thing, something to be cursed for, humiliated for and die a brutal death for — at the hands of a first-cousin no less?  Or is this what the world does to its saints and heroes?  Like Jesus, Ghandi, Martin Luther King…

Ambiguous and Affecting Ending
Now we come to the book’s end and this reviewer’s favorite part —a masterfully created final dream-vision—which contains elements— symbols, images, thematic motifs —of both positive and negative, real and imagined, innocence and sin, true and false, heaven and hell, redemption/salvation and death and despair —all the elements previously raised by an honest and insightful, even wise and prophet-like MiMi throughout her memoir. And raised of course by the author as well.

We are not certain whether this is a vision from God or a dream-hallucination created by her drug-induced delirium. Again, is the vision real or imagined?  (MiMi mentions her heavily medicated “crazy” state, and she calls it a dream.)

First, MiMi spies her murderer-avenger, Baruch (“blessed”), dressed in all black —evil incarnate in contrast to her cult’s distinctive white dress.  The author reprises from the Apocrypha Daniel the “Suzanna and the Elders” story, but, in this instance, MiMi is Suzanna and, like her, on trial.  But on trial for what?  For giving false testimony —presumably for being a “false messiah” on a false mission, for controverting and perverting 4000 years of sacred Jewish tradition, as Baruch believes?  Baruch then shouts at her to take off her veil— apparently to reveal her true self and her alleged sin — but she wears no veil. Neither did Suzanna. So is she, like Suzanna, being falsely accused? Thus, no veil, no shame, no sin is to be found. As usual, Becker asks again, is she false or true, guilty or innocent? Is she but a victim of Orthodox Judaism’s rage?

The dream-vision now switches to the ever familiar Lion’s Den and “a bald woman” in sweatpants, presumably MiMi, who, like all cult members, has a shaved head.  But the woman is accuser as well, yelling tellingly at MiMi to not leave the den without her father. Clearly, MiMi is guilty for her father’s murder and for not being able to save him, unlike Daniel, who has many times saved MiMi (and others) in the novel, and, of course, did save Suzanna from her accusers. Her father’s death is but one of many of Mimi’s “sins” and “the curse” she believes she lives under from the oft-mentioned and all-pervasive “parental sin.” But she is no more responsible for her father’s death than for her mother’s suicide or for her unloving childhood or for her humiliation endured from her grandparents or from her college mates.

And, then, an incredible twist on the Daniel story and on Daniel as savior…  MiMi’s father, Adam, – and not Daniel —in blood-stained white shirt (from his brutal murder), previously her savior, carries her not up (the rope) and out of the fire but, incredibly, INTO it.  There is no Daniel to be found. Here, the dream becomes so painful for MiMi that she desperately tries to stop it, but, only seconds away from death, she is too weak and too near her demise to wake up.  What to make of being carried to danger and death INTO a glowering fire and not to safety and security —and redemption-salvation? — OUT of it?  Could it be a cathartic and purifying fire, expunging her sins — God’s expiation of her curse?

But, how can it be thus when next come her tears – tears that “turn into boiling water as they drop down the sides of [her] face and burn holes in [her] ears.”  These are “burning” tears, not tears of pity or mercy or relief or joy— tears that seemingly would accompany her descent into hell, not her ascent into heaven.  Tears that are said to destroy the very organs (eyes, ears) —and source —of her godlike vision and testimony.  Can these be tears from anything but an “angry” God; how could they possibly be from a “receptive” God? A question MiMi has raised and posed just seconds before her dream-vision began? And to “double down” on this harrowing hellish descent, Mimi says her father carries her deeper into the fire until together they disappear.

But not so fast, sayeth the all-seeing, all-knowing master-creator — the author, who has the last word, or, shall we say, imposes the last ambiguity. What does MiMi see next, cry out in the novel’s final sentences:

I see the silver eyes before me. They are crying too. Silver tears drop on my face. The silver lids close. God wants me now.  (p. 205)

Thus, here are the “silver eyes” — the silver eyes that from the very early pages of the book have been the way that God appears to MiMi – the way she knows she is hearing directly and truly from God. Is she a TRUE messiah after all?  Can God’s own tears be anything but testimony of His compassion and pity and mercy?  Can this really be a MiMi doomed to hell and everlasting damnation?  Surely, it is heaven and redemption and salvation that she spies and that greets and awaits her in these tears of love?

Again, not so fast.  Examine carefully MiMi’s own words. The “silver lids” that close are ambiguous: they are both God’s and MiMi’s. Thus, is God “closing” his eyes, shutting himself out from MiMi, literally and figuratively, denying her the redemption and salvation she so dearly craves and desires, because indeed she Is a false messiah. Or is God imparting his tears of mercy upon her, transferring his own silver-godlike state upon her, and conferring her, at last, with true messianic status as one of his own?

Moreover, “God wants me now” seemingly implies redemption-salvation, but this is a common expression and euphemism for death and one the dying often use to allay their fears at life’s end. Simply put, is this but wishful thinking on MiMi’s part or is God welcoming his true messiah?  Is this apotheosis or yet another lie?  It’s a secret no one —least of all, the author —is revealing.

Dr. Jonathan Weil is a retired professor of literature and the humanities who specializes in reader response and the psychology of art.  (jweil@gtel.net)

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