It starts with an apology. “I’m really sorry,” Orli Auslander says. She calls from a cab caught in traffic, late for our interview, having forgotten how long it takes to get through Midtown Manhattan. I assure her it’s no problem, and she again apologizes.
In a new book, “I Feel Bad: All Day. Every Day. About Everything” (Blue Rider Press), Auslander, an artist and writer, catalogs the 100 ways she experiences remorse. She feels bad about saying no and for saying yes (when she’d rather say no), for hiding in the bathroom from her kids, indulging her kids, being judgmental, using clichés, making rules, feeling envy, eating meat. Each numbered confessional statement is illustrated with a line drawing, rough in style but with sharp humor. She’s a dark Roz Chast.
Auslander admits that Jews and women are particularly prone to guilt, but have no monopoly.
Auslander says that in England, where she grew up, people say they’re sorry all the time, at the slightest things. But they don’t necessarily feel bad. Her “bads” aren’t apologies, but rather admissions of falling short, iced with guilt. For the next few days after we met, I count the number of times I hear “I feel bad” in conversation, and there are more than a few. In the book’s introduction, Auslander admits that Jews and women are particularly prone to guilt, but have no monopoly.
Readers may recognize her last name: She is married to Shalom Auslander, the memoirist and novelist who has chronicled in raw detail his break from Orthodox life, and his adventures trying to build a new way of life. His memoir, “Foreskin’s Lament,” in which she appears as an accomplice, bursts with anger and humor. The couple left the metropolitan area for upstate New York several years ago, and is thriving.
“I don’t know what it is about being a mother. The guilt comes at you at a much more rapid pace. You’re responsible for these little people and there are so many ways to mess them up.”
In person, Orli Auslander is much better looking than the self she depicts. She’s funny and very open. Some of the “bads” in the book involve her father, or the people she encounters, but most are about being a parent. “I don’t know what it is about being a mother. The guilt comes at you at a much more rapid pace. You’re responsible for these little people and there are so many ways to mess them up,” she writes.
On one page, she is holding a crying child as he gets an injection, feeling bad that she can’t protect him, and in another, she runs eagerly, with open arms, to welcome the babysitter at the door, leaving her child aside. In #62, I Hide My Favorite Chocolates, her son is going through the pantry, pushing aside cartons of “organic holier than thou food” and “toxic sugar cereal” in search of the chocolate she has squirreled away. Several panels are too explicit for the pages of this newspaper.
Auslander started making these drawings sometime after her first son was born when she was in her mid-30s. In those early days of motherhood, she says, “I was miserable. I was beating myself up a lot, about everything. I was talking to my psychiatrist about it, and he said, “You should try writing it down.” She started keeping an “I feel bad” notebook, the list kept growing and 200 reasons later, she began adding drawings while the baby was asleep, as a way to make herself laugh.
She then showed some of them to a local gallery, which asked to show the work. They covered a room with these “feel bads,” each 10 inches square, with a title and a drawing.
“It was hilarious,” she says. “People would come in, go around the room in a circle, laughing and crying and getting very emotional. It was the first time I saw such feedback instantly.” A few years later, she showed the drawings to a publisher who decided to publish them in book form. Now, she’s working on an illustrated memoir, more of a linear story than this volume.
Auslander grew up in London in a traditional immigrant community; her mother is from Egypt, her Israeli-born father’s family is from Uzbekistan, and her parents now live in Israel. She went to Jewish schools as a child, and drew a lot, but it was never encouraged. By high school she was rebellious and gave up on Jewish tradition. Intent on escaping her family, leaving London and coming to the U.S., she got a summer job in an Orthodox summer camp. She then shifted back to religious life, and spent the next year learning in a women’s seminary in Israel.
After that, she returned to New York, studied millinery and went on to establish a hat business, with shops in Manhattan and Great Neck, L.I., and a wholesale business as well. Around that time, she was introduced by friends to Shalom. Both were still part of the religious community — and their subsequent paths out of religion were parallel.
She’s wearing a necklace, with the Hebrew words shelo asani, who did not make me, strung on leather. The words are the beginning of the traditional blessing that is part of the morning prayer, in which men thank God for not making them a woman (and the same formula is used by both men and women to give thanks for not being made a slave).
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“That blessing always annoyed me,” she says. Truncating the blessing, she announces that God didn’t create her. “This makes me feel good about being a rebellious Jew.” She’s also wearing a small razor charm around her neck, an anniversary gift from her husband, “just in case we’re 80 years old and they don’t legalize euthanasia. You go. I go.”
“But now, because of the current climate, I feel more Jewish. I feel a sense of identity not in practice, but mostly it’s a sense of being part of a culture that is really a culture of thinkers, people who question, just don’t go with the flow.”
With all of her rebellion against God and against her parents, she feels very Jewish. When she was growing up and was sometimes beat up in London when wearing her school uniform, she felt most identified. And when she came to New York, she began to feel more British.
“But now, because of the current climate, I feel more Jewish. I feel a sense of identity not in practice, but mostly it’s a sense of being part of a culture that is really a culture of thinkers, people who question, just don’t go with the flow. I have never been anything else. Apart from being a woman.”
The husband and wife mark holidays at home, in their own way, and on Yom Kippur they go for a long walk and talk about what the day means. “It’s the one day of the year when I don’t feel guilty,” she says.
Did putting these thoughts on paper make her feel better? “It didn’t go away completely. I still feel bad. But it got me to laugh at my own neuroses, which is so helpful. I hear the laughter more than the side berating myself.”