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Lemple_025_1958_1200px_1-(1).jpgI was not born mute. My silence is not genetic. Something jammed up inside me and I stopped speaking - when and why, I no longer remember. I listen to what people say, but I cannot answer them. In my mind, I speak to the shadows that populate my world, to the wind and the rain - and to the cat living outside my door. The cat is the one who insists on the separation, not me.
So begins “Even the Heavens Tell Lies,” a story written by Blume Lempel. Blume Lempel was born in 1907 in Khorostkov (now located in Ukraine), moved to Paris from where she fled at the outbreak of WWII, and lived in New York until her death in 1999. She composed only in Yiddish and was unknown to English readers until 2016 when a collection of her translated works, Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, appeared. Through stream-of-consciousness, flashbacks, and other temporal disruptions the poetic prose in her stories evokes the inner world of survivors of horror and of dislocation.
First published in 1981 in Lempel’s short story collection A Rege fun Emes (A Moment of Truth), “Even the Heavens Tell Lies” brings the reader into contact with the experience of a woman who has gone mute after her world has been shattered. Following the roundup and murder of her parents, the narrator ran off to hide in the woods and, when she emerged, she was unable to utter a word.
The cat outside her door, the one who insists on separation in the first lines of the story, is a character who right at the outset marks the theme of boundaries and barriers altered by traumatic experience. The narrator describes the house where she was born as her personal fortress: the walls, the roof, and the sky above all provided a sense of security: “When my father shut the gate every night I was certain that nothing harmful would befall me.”  This earlier state of security in her environment and relationships has been broken and in its place is an alienating relationship to caregivers and her surroundings with emotional numbing and flooding:

People wonder why I never cry. The doctors think that if I did, the walls of my resistance might crumble and I might be able to speak again. They've even tried hurting me physically, but the pain only made me laugh.
And also:

I searched and searched until the pain exploded, and then I began to laugh. I was taken to a doctor who peered into my eyes, my heart, and my soul, and declared that I needed to rest. Total rest and good care, he said, would calm my nerves and make me normal once more. I'm sure he meant no harm, this Jewish doctor in his Russian uniform. But the word "normal" provoked me, touching a nerve at the root of my illness. Long-sealed sluices of buried pain burst open. Waves of molten wrath, shame, and murdered hope flooded over the banks, accompanied by spasmodic laughter. I laughed until the flames smothered my breath and I lost consciousness. It was then that the doctor administered the first injection.

The references to doors and gates, once secure and now destroyed, reminds the reader of how trauma breaches the stimulus barrier. Freud first wrote of the stimulus barrier in his 1920 work Beyond the Pleasure Principle. There he described how the psyche has a protective shield that binds psychic energy, modulates responses to stimuli, and helps with affect regulation. Freud wrote:
[an organism] would be killed by the stimulation emanating from these if it were not provided with a protective shield against stimuli. It acquires the shield in this way: its outermost surface ceases to have the structure proper to living matter, becomes to some degree inorganic and thence-forward functions as a special envelope or membrane resistant to stimuli. Protection against stimuli is an almost more important function for the living organism than reception of stimuli. (Freud, 1920, p. 169)
The psychoanalyst James Grotstein saw the stimulus barrier as being like “… a two-way membrane which, like the cell membrane, acts as an active interface between two domains, the domain of the internal world and the domain of external reality, and it is the forerunner… of the function of the skin boundary itself.” (Grotstein, 1986, pp. 108-109). Without the protection of psychic skin, survivors can feel too raw.
With extreme traumatization, the stimulus barrier needs repair. Also in need of repair is the experience and image of an inner protective and empathic caregiver. Without a protective shield, the narrator laughs, “against my will, against my better judgment. I laugh until I stick in the needle and try to convince myself that I’m normal.”
The mute protagonist, walled off from interacting with those in her current life, describes her efforts to repair her lost faith and heal what’s been broken:
When I crossed the ocean, I carried with me the habit of speaking to the shadows, and it became my way of life. I look up at the stars that were extinguished long ago. For me they still shine with the first fire of creation. I don't care that the heavens tell lies. I accept the fantasy along with the fact. I'm not looking for truth. I'm seeking the faith that I've lost, a way out of chaos, a place where my broken self can put down roots. I know the evil powers that live within people and make no attempt to cloak them in pretty words. I don't separate myself from the community, but I live on the sidelines, like a stranger in my own world.
To judge from stories about Blume Lempel, she herself may have needed to live on the sidelines. She is reported to have isolated herself in her house for years after learning of the murder by the Nazis of her brother and her stepmother and the subsequent suicide of her father. Perhaps her storytelling, specifically using her mother tongue, was no small part of Lempel’s healing. As she once wrote:
My older brother watches over me, telling me what to write in Yiddish. I can’t very well ask him not to speak in the language of exile. I have tremendous respect for my brother. He believed in the goodness of man, the goodness of all…. Now he watches over me, directing my stories from beyond the grave with a sure touch. This is how it was. This is what happened. So must it be recorded. Each according to his ability must convey what he saw, what he lived through …. You did not survive simply to eat blintzes with sour cream. You survived to bring back those who were annihilated. You must speak in their tongue, point with their fingers." (from “The Fate of the Yiddish Writer” by Blume Lempel)

About the Author

Michelle Kwintner, PhD, LCSW-R is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Ithaca, NY, and a faculty member at the International Psychotherapy Institute based in Chevy Chase, MD. Prior to that, she was a scholar of ancient Greek and Latin literature.


Freud, S. (1920). Beyond the pleasure principle (pp. 7-64). Hogarth Press..
Grotstein, J. S. (1986). The psychology of powerlessness: Disorders of self-regulation and interactional regulation as a newer paradigm for psychopathology. Psychoanalytic Inquiry 6, 93-118.
Lempel, B. (1981). A Rege Fun Emes. (A Moment of Truth). Y. L. Perets.
Lempel, B. (1986). “The Fate of the Yiddish Writer.” (originally published in Yidishe Kultur) in Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories. Mandel Vilar Press.
Lempel, B. (2016). Oedipus in Brooklyn and other stories. Mandel Vilar Press.