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Chernin, Kim

CHERNIN, Kim

Born 7 May 1940, Bronx, New York

Daughter of Paul and Rose Chernin Kusnitz; married DavidNetboy, 1958 (divorced); Robert Cantor, 1971 (divorced); children: Larissa

Kim Chernin, daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, spent the first five years of her life in New York City, before moving with her father (an engineer) and her mother (a radical organizer) to Los Angeles after an older sister died. Her early life was profoundly influenced by the loss of her sister, her mother's political activism, and the incarcerations and trials of the McCarthy years. Chernin's writings reflect this heritage, joining the poetic intuition of the child's memory to a political voice, and presenting a mother-daughter conflict embedded in the modern woman's search for self and the immigrant's search for home. While a student at the University of California at Berkeley, she met and married David Netboy. They traveled to England and Ireland, where Chernin studied at Oxford and at Trinity College in Dublin. Returning to the U.S., she received her B.A. from the University of California in 1965 and an M.A. in psychology from New College of California in 1990.

Chernin's dual career as writer and therapist and the tension of her political and poetic sensibilities are evident in her publications, which include poetry, fiction, fictional autobiography, and meditative studies on women's psychological issues. Work as a consultant on writing projects and on women's eating disorders led her to focus initially on a series of books about contemporary problems of female development: The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness (1981), The Hungry Self: Women, Eating, and Identity (1985), and Reinventing Eve: Modern Woman in Search of Herself (1987).

In this trio of autobiographically framed works, Chernin addresses first the middle-class ideal of slenderness as a problem with women's power, and then the mother-daughter bonds and patriarchal culture as influences on female development. Through these books she evolves a visionary yet theorizing form to describe the essential psychological challenge, coming in Reinventing Eve, with its formulation of modern woman as the "Woman Who Is Not Yet," to insist that theory be developed out of experience, particularly of the body. Her thesis leads her to challenge traditional psychoanalytic interpretation with the voices of the women who have come to her for consultation and to confront Judeo-Christian mythologies with the narrative of her own identity crisis, attempting to find the form that will successfully realize the female self and unite its conflicting voices.

Chernin both uses and revises traditional psychology in her volume of poetry, The Hunger Song (1982), presenting childhood memory as a tool for the reimagination and recovery of a female goddess. Chernin's use of story to present psychological ideas is pronounced in her fiction and fictionalized autobiographies, which develop the themes of ethnic identity and modern intergenerational conflict. In My Mother's House (1983) begins when Rose Chernin asks her to write about her Communist party activities. Chernin uses this request to make a point about identity and interconnection, as she weaves a narrative that is as much a story of mother-daughter encounters as a transcription of the tales she and her mother tell. Different voices allow the author both to reclaim her heritage, beginning with life in the Russian shtetl, and proclaim her difference from it. Furthermore, as the two women's stories of themselves as daughters and mothers come into counterpoint, the presumed narrative of Rose Chernin's life becomes Chernin's own tale, the story of four generations of immigrant Jewish women and their intimate connection.

The Flame-Bearers (1986) and Sex and Other Sacred Games (1989) also reflect the themes of Chernin's psychological writings. The Flame-Bearers tells the story of Rae (Israel) Shadmi, the rebellious inheritor of leadership in a mystical Jewish women's sect. Once again exploring the relationships between several generations of Russian-Jewish immigrant women and tracing their heritage back to the Old World, Chernin both claims for her heroine the wisdom of a matriarchal spiritual tradition and identifies the reasons why this tradition must be reformulated. Sex and Other Sacred Games connects this spiritual drama directly to the social world. Chernin and coauthor Renate Stendahl tell a story of relationship by tracing conversations on women's sexuality. Using two voices, plus written letters and journals, to reinvent the Platonic dialogue on eros and beauty, they participate in a project that both utilizes tradition and creates a new and uniquely feminine narrative.

One very powerful contribution to Chernin's work is its demonstration of the way women's narratives are reinventing form and in so doing are beginning to integrate the conflicting voice of personal and political, psychological, and literary consciousness. In Crossing the Border: An Erotic Journey (1994), Chernin uses third person to recall her 1971 stay on an Israeli border kibbutz and her ensuing relationships with male and female Israelis. She explores the cultural conflict between herself and her lovers, who include a young soldier, a fellow kibbutz member, and her married Hebrew teacher. In A Different Kind of Listening: My Psychoanalysis and Its Shadow (1995), Chernin chronicles her therapy with three different analysts over a period of 25 years. She joins traditional psychology and literary narrative in her reminiscences about her search for self through psychoanalysis.

Chernin's next book, In My Father's Garden: A Daughter's Search for a Spiritual Life (1996), complements her earlier work In My Mother's House. The former reveals Chernin's growing awareness of her father as a kindred spirit and her appreciation of his quiet expressions of love. The second and third parts of this three-part book provide accounts of Chernin's guidance of a dying woman through the process of death and of the author's spontaneous trip to Germany to meet a spiritual guru.

My Life as a Boy (1997) continues Chernin's search for self-identity through literary memoirs. She writes about her affair with an elegant, worldly German Jewish woman and the eventual breakup of her second marriage. The title comes from her desire to break out of her old life by discovering "the capacity to act, the freedom to take, the license to choose desire" that she believes requires "the instinctive wholly natural ruthlessness of a boy." Chernin switched gears for her next book, Cecilia Bartoli: The Passion of Song (1997), a part scholarly, part psychoanalytic, and part enraptured fan's account of the life and performances of opera singer Bartoli. Chernin and coauthor Renate Stendhal include biographical information on Bartoli, transcripts of interviews with the singer, and plot summaries of operas in which she has appeared.

Chernin returned to psychoanalysis and the quest for self in The Woman Who Gave Birth to Her Mother: Seven Stages of Change in Women's Lives (1998). This volume provides fictionalized accounts of six mother-daughter stories Chernin obtained through private counseling of one or both of the women. The title comes from Chernin's belief that women go through seven stages in their relationships with their mothers. The final stage of "giving birth" occurs when women learn to understand and accept their mothers after gaining a greater understanding of themselves.

Bibliography:

Reference Works:

CA (1983). CANR (1998). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other reference:

Feminist Studies (Spring 1991). PW (5 July 1985). Women's Studies (1987). WRB (Mar. 1990)

—KAREN E. WALDRON

UPDATED BY LEAH J. SPARKS

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