“Where we come from changes us, whether we are aware of it or not,” Carly Israel writes in the opening pages of her debut memoir, Seconds and Inches. “The heat and the weight of what our ancestors endured is passed on.”
What follows is a deeply introspective look at the ways in which trauma can move through a family, beginning with ancestors who survived the Holocaust, continuing with the author’s struggles with drug addiction and the dissolution of her marriage, and culminating with the terrifying unknowns of parenting a child with a rare, life-threatening medical condition. Through sobriety, divorce and, eventually, remarriage, she unveils personal and familial truths, always seeking love, connection, and gratitude.
Readers of the author’s Huffington Post columns about divorce and parenting and listeners of her podcast, Northstar Big Book, which takes a deep dive into the text of the Alcoholic Anonymous guidebook, will feel at home with this memoir.
Seconds and Inches is ambitious in scope in that it covers a wide range of the author’s lived experiences, as well as the experiences of her predecessors. One thing that makes this book unique are the thank-you letters that follow most chapters, born out of her commitment to post a message of appreciation on social media every day for a year. Sometimes addressed to relatives, other times to strangers, these letters acknowledge hard lessons learned along the way.
In one, addressed to “Patch the Pony”, the name classmates called her when she wore a medically necessary eyepatch as a child, she thanked the bullies who teased her. “What I want to thank you for is the frame of reference, and empathy, and understanding you gave me,” she writes. “You humbled me and taught me how it feels when the mean kids target you and how I never want to make anyone feel that way, ever.”
In another, she thanks her mother for “becoming the lighthouse I would need when I washed up on the shores, drowning and desperate. If you were not there with the light on, helping me find this new way of living, I don’t know where any of us would be.”
Most compelling to me were Israel’s stories about her ancestors who survived not only the Holocaust but also a terrible house fire on Christmas Eve in 1959. The writing is vivid and clear as she describes how her maternal grandfather, Harry, and his siblings escaped the ghettos in occupied Poland as children by running through the forest one night with stolen bread. One sibling was recaptured by German soldiers and forced to work, while others hid in farms or homes and worked as child-maids. Two generations later, Israel identifies with their survivor stories, as illustrated by the book’s title, which refers to the many close encounters in her life, as well as the lives of her ancestors and her descendants. She writes, “I was born of these stories, and I carry them with me wherever I go. They burn within me, begging to be told.”
On the paternal side of her family, the blaze that ravaged her grandparents’ home after a holiday party endangered two of their four children, both of whom remained inside the house as the fire burned. “Both children,” she writes, “were found unconscious, and their limp bodies were passed from fireman to fireman. There were two resuscitators on the fire trucks, and men worked on each little child as they laid them on the blankets set up on the driveway.” The author closes out the section with thank-you notes to her grandfather Bernie and grandmother Gerry, acknowledging the difficulties of sharing painful memories.
In her more immediate family, addictions ruled the day—her mother’s to pills and alcohol, and her father’s to alcohol. Though her parents would eventually recover and find sobriety, their addictions would be passed on, along with the need to make everything look normal to people on the outside.
The secret we were never to share with anyone, especially our grandma, Lulu, was what was happening inside our house. No one could know that our mom was passed out drunk and high on the couch most days after work or that our dad drank all night after he got home. What I learned early on was to keep the outside looking good. Be well dressed and well behaved, and no one would know anything about what was going on inside.
Israel was already drinking and taking diet pills by age nine, getting drunk for the first time at Passover dinner. In her teen years, as her parents worked on getting sober, her addictions flourished, along with social anxiety, an eating disorder, and troubled relationships with boys. By college, she was drinking, taking drugs, and feeling lost. “I put every and any drug I got my hands on in my mouth. The world around me felt like a ride I couldn’t get off of. At night before I passed out, I would beg God to not let me wake up. And when I did, I felt betrayed.”
In a pivotal moment in the book, Israel overdoses on speed, painkillers, and prescription medications in front of her college roommate and is taken by ambulance to the hospital, only to check herself out without treatment. At her mother’s urging, she leaves school, moves home and goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, where a focus on gratitude and a newfound relationship with God open a path for her own sobriety.
The people in recovery told me I could believe in any God I wanted but that it needed to make sense to me. . . . When I really thought about it, what I needed from God was courage because without alcohol or drugs, everything in my life felt so big and challenging and I didn’t know how to do it. But if God was courage and God was with me, then I could use that courage to do each Sisyphean task.
In this section, the author offers only a few thank-you notes, including messages to her teachers, her parents, and an ice cream store employee in France who gave her the wrong flavor, prompting her to speak up for herself.
From there, Seconds and Inches becomes a story about parenting three sons, most notably the youngest, Levi, who was born with a rare, possibly fatal condition relating to the way blood drains from his brain. When Levi was five months old, she took him to a specialist about the prominent, pulsing blue veins in his head. For years, the condition would stupefy medical experts and strain Israel’s marriage, eventually contributing to her divorce. Readers who are parents to small children or who are also navigating the healthcare system themselves might relate to her persistence and tenacity, as well as the helplessness she feels when she can’t make everything better.
I found and contacted all the best pediatric neurosurgeons at the top hospitals in the country. My phone became permanently attached to my hand. The thought crossed my mind that this couldn’t have happened to a better mother. If something needed to get done, I was the woman to do it, and I would not accept no for an answer, especially when it concerned one of my babies.
In one thank-you letter, she praises her pediatrician, Dr. Joseph, for teaching her how to be an advocate for her son.
You lit a fire of permission and obligation for me as his mother. And since that evening, nothing has come between me and getting Levi what he needs. I cannot think of a more sacred relationship for raising a family than the trust and respect between an outstanding doctor and a concerned parent.
For most of the second half of the book, Israel details trips to emergency rooms for Levi’s extremely high fevers, to Boston Children’s Hospital for tests, and to the National Institutes of Health for research studies, including extensive conversations with doctors about his condition. Sprinkled throughout this part of the narrative are references to mounting disconnection between the author and her spouse, as well as the manifestation of parental stress as a threat to her sobriety.
I couldn’t get out of my head the vision of Levi’s tiny body lying silent in surgery with all those tubes and machines and doctors trying to keep him alive. I sat on the closed toilet seat and went through everything I could do to make these feelings go away. Each option – getting drunk, getting high, smoking, stealing, hurting myself, running away – was no longer on the menu for me. . . . All I had left was God.
By the end of the book, Levi has grown into a mostly healthy eight-year-old boy who experiences the occasional flare of fever. Israel writes, “He is just a regular kid running around, being inappropriate, fighting with his brothers, being dramatic, and kicking soccer balls.”
In some ways, Seconds and Inches is four books in one. It’s an ancestry memoir, an addiction memoir, a memoir about parenting a sick child, and a memoir about divorce, without a lot of overlap or connection between each narrative section. Some parts move quickly, with gripping scenes and short chapters. Others take longer, with more exposition and summarization, where the writing reads more like remembering than storytelling. If there is one through-line to the book, it’s that trauma may be ever-present, but it is also survivable. You can live through it if you ask for help, have faith, and listen to your heart.