Domestic Abuse Hits Home in Something Wild
By Hanna Halperin (Viking)
The data is stark: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 25 percent of women and 10 percent of men in the United States will fall victim during their lifetimes to sexual and/or physical violence perpetrated by an intimate partner. Authorities say that the incidence of such abuse is as widespread in the Jewish community as in the general population. And with reports that domestic battery has risen in the country due to stressors caused by Covid-19, the picture of an idyllic home life is thrown further askew.
First-time novelist Hanna Halperin, who has worked as a domestic violence counselor, draws on her career experiences to create a detailed and engrossing depiction of the complicated dynamics that fuel violence within one fractured family. Tanya Bloom, 28, and her sister, Nessa, 30, are devastated when they discover that their mother, Lorraine, who lives in a working-class suburb of Boston, is being physically abused by her second husband, Jesse.
Tanya, a happily married assistant district attorney living in New York City, and Nessa, an office manager for a psychiatrist in western Massachusetts, put their lives on hold to help their mother and try to protect her from further harm—to little effect. Lorraine is paralyzed by fear, doubts and a diminishing level of self-worth, as Jesse, her husband of 10 years, has taken control of her life on every level: sexually, socially and professionally.
The novel excels in delineating the tangled web of abuse and family members’ varied responses to it. Tanya, who was sexually assaulted by a stranger when she was 14—an episode that she was loath to discuss with anyone, even her sister—leads the charge against Jesse, imploring her mother to take out a restraining order. Tanya has come to identify, both religiously and intellectually, with her father, Jonathan, and his second wife, Simone, who are both Jewish. “Tanya has always associated Judaism with Jonathan—but she also associates Judaism with family, with togetherness, with childhood,” writes Halperin. “To her, the memory of Judaism is a tender one, like waking up on a snow day as a kid—outside bright and glittering; inside, dark and warm with sleep.”
Nessa, however, is more drawn to her non-Jewish mother and Jesse, and she has difficulty reconciling her affection for her stepfather with the new information about his treatment of her mother. In addition, she is floundering in both career and relationships and, like her mother, struggles with issues of self-esteem.
The toxic cocktail that often allows domestic abuse to continue unabated—secrecy, shame, denial and magically thinking that “things will be different next time”—is masterfully limned in Halperin’s sure hands. Something Wild is an important book for our times, indeed for any time. That it is written with such virtuosity is only an added benefit to the reader.
Robert Nagler Miller writes frequently about the arts, literature and Jewish themes from his home in Chicago.