Jewish characters born from therapy tackle life, death

Religious Jews, says novelist Barbara Stevens Sullivan, would waste no time debating whether or not to help someone commit suicide. They would call such assistance a sin and reject it outright, and that would be the end of the discussion.

But Sullivan's first novel "The Eighth of September," published this year by Astarte Shell Press, is not about religious people. It's about a family of atheists and secular thinkers, old left-wingers who may once have placed their faith in the Soviet Union, but never in God.

"The Eighth of September" chronicles seven months in which the Friedmans of Boston watch the family's matriarch gradually deteriorate to the point where she asks her loved ones to help her kill herself.

The 52-year-old author, who lives in Berkeley, is a Jungian analyst, and one of her patients inspired the novel. But in the book, Sullivan uses details and characterizations based on her own family.

The central characters are Shirley, a once-vibrant Communist Party booster whom a stroke has reduced to a state of dependency; her husband, Ralph, caught between his own physical problems and the burden of caring for his invalid wife; and their two daughters, Ellen and Molly, who must start making life-or-death decisions for their elderly parents while raising their own children.

Jewish culture and issues involving Israel pervade the characters' thoughts, even though they are nonobservant. Like many secular Jews, the Friedmans lack the clarity and certainty that strict religious guidelines can provide.

Sullivan's own formal involvement with Judaism began when she was a full-grown woman raising her own daughter. She chose to attend renewal synagogues.

"A fair number of Americans have feelings of being Jewish but of not being observant," Sullivan said. Though such individuals share in Jewish culture, "when you take the religion out…you're taking out the center of what being Jewish is about. You have kind of a hole in the middle, and people struggle with that and come to different conclusions.

"It's impossible to come up with an answer of what's right."

The family approaches the subject of assisted suicide in a characteristically Jewish way, Sullivan says. The characters base their decision on logic instead of emotions.

After they make their decision, they use Derek Humphry's book "Final Exit" as a guide, seeking its counsel often.

Jews tend to orient themselves toward books, Sullivan said, adding that in ancient writings Jews are dubbed "the people of the book."'

In "The Eighth of September," Jewish identity also manifests in other, lighter arguments — about Israel, about in-laws, about each other's old habits. Many aspects of Jewishness, Sullivan says, are simply in the bones.

The novel's gripping emotional style derives from Sullivan's quarter-century as a therapist and from her experiences counseling patients who helped a parent commit suicide.

"You live through what your patient goes through," Sullivan said.

The author reveals her clinical background as she explores the characters and their interactions, at one point probing a character's sleeplessness.

"In many ways the work of a novelist is similar to the work of a psychotherapist," Sullivan said. "In both cases you're watching human beings develop. Of course, the novelist has to convey that, and the analyst has to absorb it."

The result of this combination of writing and analysis is a very personal story. "But every novel is like that," Sullivan said, "giving a universal story from a personal story. From looking at others, you can learn of yourself."