My Favorite Fictional Character: Dr. I. Joseph Kellerman
A Row House At 4991 Hopewell Street
The shingle outside the Boston row house reads, "I. Joseph Kellerman, Psychiatrist," but inside exists a tormented man.
Under the watchful eye peering through a hole hidden by a bizarre painting, Dr. Kellerman listens to the problems of those who sit in the yellow armchair. The same yellow chair beckons the doctor, who struggles there with his own demons.
As he comes to terms with his past and attempts to salvage what remains of his future, the psychiatrist and those who know him perform a dance of relationships, imaginary and real.
Why I. Joseph Kellerman?
When self-proclaimed "slightly snarky, fully passionate, Bohemian freethinker and idealist," Ayngel Overson first announced the Write Club Challenge, focusing on our favorite fictional characters, my mind raced through the dozens ... no, the hundreds ... of works of fiction that I'd read.
And so many wonderful characters came to mind. Anne Tyler's beautifully flawed heroine, Maggie Moran, in Breathing Lessons and restless Rebecca Davitch in Back When We Were Grownups. Diana Gabaldon's Jamie, Claire and Lord John in the sexy, adventurous, time-traveling Outlander series. My childhood favorite, Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables. There were simply too many beloved characters to recall.
Then I remembered ... Joseph. How could I leave out my Joseph? But how egocentric of me, I thought, to choose a character of my own creation. That's not right.
But it's the truth. After all, I lived with Dr. Kellerman for months on the Appalachian Trail, as he and the other characters "fleshed out" in my mind and became so real. I lived with Dr. Kellerman--Joseph--as I scribbled notes and bits of dialogue in my tent at night while the other hikers were asleep in theirs. I laughed and cried with Joseph as I wrote and re-wrote his story, week after week when I eventually returned home after finishing my long walk. And I struggled for months--years, really--to bring Joseph to life between book covers. So how can I not choose him? After all, in a way, he chose me.
So, is I. Joseph Kellerman the greatest American novel ever written? Well, my husband thinks so, but I know certainly not. It is, however, special to me, and though I may not have done Joseph the best justice I might have, I don't think that should count against him. I say, he and those like him--real and imagined--deserve their time in the spotlight.
"Once upon a time, there was a boy named Isaac in a cattle car. The moans of the sick and the stench were making his stomach hurt almost as much as the question lodged in his mind.
"Is it my fault we're here?"
The "I" Is For....
I'm afraid I can't say. Fifty-nine year-old Dr. Kellerman can't bear to hear his real first name.
During the noon hour each day, Dr. Kellerman sits in the chair usually occupied by a patient, recalling events that occurred when he was a child. Not only did he witness his father's murder, but he feels responsible for it, as well as for the deaths of his mother and sister. The doctor cannot tolerate hearing anyone call him by his given first name--the name Papa shouted the moment before he was killed by a Nazi bullet.
Yet, Joseph keeps the "I." as a reminder. As penance for what he still believes, all these years later, was his fault.
"Forty-nine years later, there was a man in a chair in a building, with a name and occupation on a shingle next to the front door. The door was heavy and gray, the shingle, brass. Engraved on the shingle was “I. Joseph Kellerman,” and he was a psychiatrist. The chair was in Dr. Kellerman’s office on the first floor of the building, a row house on Hopewell Street in Boston. This was an old chair, its yellow Jacquard fabric worn thin on the seat, with armrests soiled from years of use by thousands of people. A few feet in front of the dingy armchair sat the doctor’s large desk and, on a corner of the desk, an alarm clock radio. At 12:12 on a Monday afternoon, the numbers on the clock faded with cigarette smoke as a vision faded in. Today, the midday session had taken twelve minutes to begin. Two minutes earlier than on Friday."
A Row House On Hopewell Street
The Man And The Boy
They're one and the same I. Joseph Kellerman
If the hole in the wall of Dr. I. Joseph Kellerman's office were a portal into his mind, what his secretary would see would horrify her. For within the boundaries of a world peopled by the troubled souls who come to 4991 Hopewell Street and by Constance Fairhart, the woman who has long watched over the man who lives and works inside those row house walls, Dr. Kellerman struggles to dispel the demons of his past and salvage what remains of his future. Once well-respected, the doctor is now emotionally drained and often unethical. Patients still come and go, but Dr. Kellerman hasn't left his building in years.
Dr. Kellerman often speaks with his own image, becoming both doctor and patient, man and child. His frustrations are sometimes expressed in self-deprecating and argumentative dialogues. At other times, his alter-ego is compassionate and supportive.
"The man sitting in the yellow chair knew he was about to watch a series of familiar scenes from long ago, yet they always felt so now. At times confusing and disjointed, these scenes were more real to the reluctant observer than most anything in the present. He could see and hear them so clearly. He could smell them, and feel them on his skin, and sometimes taste them. Though they were someone else's memories.
"At least, it was much easier to think of them that way.
"So, through the cigarette smoke, a familiar boy appeared. As usual, the boy didn't move straight off. He just stood there in the midst of nothing, expressionless and silent, staring back at the stranger in the armchair. The man knew the boy was ten, born in Austria on February 21, 1934. The man knew the boy so well, he could read his mind as if it were his own."
So, through the cigarette smoke...
The long-time secretary and patients
For the past twenty-three years, Constance Fairhart has been the woman who's often watched and listened through that small hole in the wall to what happens in the back office. She'd discovered it two years after someone else had drilled through paneling on both sides and plaster in between. On the other side of the wall, the hole is obscured by amassed belongings. The doctor and his patients are unaware the hidden hole exists.
One of those patients is Bernie Babbish.
There was a time when Bernie, along with the rest of the hourly occupants of the yellow armchair, had seemed to Joseph more real than anyone else. But, over the years, that has changed. Now they're mere projections from the world beyond that narrow tunnel and distant front door, as through a zoom lens but warped in the process. Most of all Bernie Babbish.
"A long puff of smoke streamed over the desk, gathered into a disorganized swirl, then dissipated, revealing the profile of the speaking man's upper half. A light-pink oxford much too big for the pubescent-like body it covered. An Adam's apple about to poke a hole through a straining neck supporting a constantly moving head. What the face was lacking in chin was overcompensated for with an ample forehead and a thick lower lip. A familiar face and a nasal voice, repeating the same basic story as last Tuesday and so many Tuesdays before that. The details changed, but the plot and theme did not. Weeks had turned into months, months to years, and years into more than two decades, and still the man came. He flopped back in the yellow chair, clenched his fists, and continued in his usual, agitated tone. He spoke quickly and stumbled over his tongue."
A Dance Of Relationships
And then there's the expansive, vice-ridden Orla Heffel. Long ago, Dr. Kellerman had tried to see the beauty in her. He'd tried in his mind and sometimes with words to peel away the layers of this woman still sitting in the yellow chair on Mondays between one and two o'clock after all these years. But he'd never been very successful, and Orla had only become more grotesque. In his eyes and hers.
Besides long-time clients, Bernie and Orla, there's also blubbering Lucille McBride and the long-gone but certainly not forgotten Linda Payne. We learn about Dr. Kellerman's former fiancé, Marta VanSchlossberg, and eventually meet new patient and the doctor's new infatuation, the traumatized but infectiously optimistic Maggie Carlisle. And, perhaps most important of all, I. Joseph's Kellerman's secretary, enabler and forever friend, Constance Fairhart.
We come to know Dr. Kellerman as much from the glimpses into his own tormented mind as we do from his interactions, and lack thereof, with those around him.
"Cigarette number five was used up, snuffed out, and laid to rest with the remains of the other four. Two more numbers came and went on the alarm clock as Joseph sat there, watching time pass away. Waiting.
"He heard a door open and close, another door open and clunk moments later, then Constance's distant, "Hi, Delilah!" Muffled voices.
"What is she doing out there?
"He looked at the vase of fresh flowers Constance had set on the end table next to the yellow chair yesterday morning. Ah yes, it's springtime again.
"Suddenly very unsettled, Dr. Kellerman scanned the riffraff amongst the stacks on his desk, picked up a silver letter opener given to him many years ago by a client he wasn't trying to remember, and examined its tapered edges. He touched the sharp tip to his index finger, pressed and twirled until it hurt, then continued to twirl and press harder. He heard a door open and clunk and louder murmuring. He pressed and twirled. Another door opened and closed, and Joseph examined the indent in his skin. Then he glared at his skewed reflection in the dagger-like implement that had never been used for its intended purpose, only to clean the dirt from his fingernails and carve divots in the desktop.
"'You don't even bleed, you inhuman schmuck," scoffed the warped man in the silver. "You're useless, too.'"
An Internal Struggle
Joseph knows he's little more than an old body in a row house with a name and occupation apparently still out there on that embarrassing brass shingle. He's able to recognize through the haze in his mind what kind of man he's become. And he knows that all that remains of his dignity, not to mention his livelihood, is owed to the benevolent woman who acts as liaison between himself and the worlds on either side of that distant, heavy door. Through her eyes and her window dressing people see Dr. I. Joseph Kellerman.
With one significant exception, humanity has forgotten, or at least disregards, Joseph Kellerman. And that's how he wants it. Or so he's thought for a very long time. He's now, he feels, less than nothing. He feels guilt. And he feels ashamed. Despite all his schooling, reading and studying, however, and all the good he's done for many, Joseph understands himself the very least.
"To Joseph, Constance was ageless and full of grace, the embodiment of tranquility. The way her hair was drawn into a loose French braid that often lay in front of her shoulder. Her smooth, cream-colored neck. How each part of her petite figure flowed like liquid into the next. He felt with his eyes the soft roundness of her cheeks, their hint of rosy pink matching the color of her lips.
"Unpainted pink lips that had never spoken a harsh or angry word. Not to him, anyway, which was all he knew for sure. Nothing more than lighthearted sarcasm, banter was what it was. He could always see the gleam in her eyes and the upward twitch of her mouth when Constance tried to look annoyed with him. And when she wrinkled her brow and gritted her teeth to enhance censure of his intentionally childish behavior, Joseph delighted in the play even more. That was the closest he could get, the most he could manage."
And The Story Continues....
Of course, this is only a peek into the warped lives of Dr. Kellerman and the others. There's much more to the story, both before and after you first meet the man in a chair in a building with a name and occupation on a shingle next to the front door. But I'll leave that for the pages of the book.
Meanwhile, a little backstory....
Children Of -- And After -- The Holocaust
Over one million children under the age of sixteen died in the Holocaust. They were grabbed from their homes and robbed of their childhoods. Like I. Joseph Kellerman, many children witnessed the murder of parents, siblings, and relatives. They faced starvation, illness and brutal labor, and were even used as human "guinea pigs," until they were sent to the gas chambers.
But some, like Joseph, survived. Imagine what it must have been like for a child, after all he or she had been through, to be suddenly whisked away to another country to live with a surviving relative, often a complete stranger. And many child survivors had no remaining relatives and were taken to orphanages and camps.
The impact of the horrible experiences these children faced during the Holocaust is inconceivable. Though many survivors went on to lead creative and productive lives, married and had children, had professions and were functioning members of society, many others were emotionally paralyzed by the trauma. Most couldn't bear to express their painful memories in words. Oftentimes, those around them had no way to comprehend what these children had been through, nor did many want to talk about it.
As Joseph says, "Everyone smiled. Everyone but me, was how it seemed. There was no way they could comprehend the ... annihilation? What's the right word? I don't know, there isn't language for it. But I wasn't going to talk about it. I wanted it to go away, to forget everything I'd tried so hard to believe wasn't real. And everything I thought was my fault."
Deborah Dwork, Rose Professor of Holocaust History at Clark University in Massachusetts, is quoted as saying, "The people who took in these children did so because they thought it was the right thing to do. And we can only admire them for doing so. But that doesn't mean that they had any love or affection for these children in their hearts."
It's no surprise that, as adults, these child survivors of the Holocaust often had difficulties with relationships.
The Real Man, A Child Survivor
On June 22, 2000, I was 82 days and 935 miles into my Appalachian Trail hike, walking along near the northern end of Shenandoah National Park, talking with my friend, Kit. Our conversation that morning touched on many topics and eventually turned to writing and real people who would make great models for fictional characters. And that's when Kit began telling me about a psychotherapist a friend of hers had known, until the man passed away in 1992. I was fascinated.
What little I learned of that real man while walking and talking with Kit took on much greater, fictional detail and turned into the character I soon named I. Joseph Kellerman. But it wasn't until after I finished the final draft of the novel many months later and turned it over to my publisher that I did any further research into the man called Pavel.
Paul G. Pavel, to be exact, a Czech-born Holocaust survivor who became a New York City official and a psychotherapist who influenced many writers, performers and artists, including Art Spiegelman, Spalding Gray and Melvin Konner.
Here's an article about Pavel from the New York Times, written just after his death in 1992: Paul Pavel, 67, Authors' Mentor, Psychotherapist and Official, Dies
Feedback From Readers
I was nervous. I'd put my heart into this novel and now it was time for people other than family and friends to read it. What would they think?
Of course, not everyone liked the book, I'm sure, but here are some of the gratifying comments I received:
From a reader in Virginia:
"It was dark and sad and depressing and uplifting and encouraging and inspiring. You ran the gamut with my emotions."
From the friend of a child of a survivor:
"She thinks it's an accurate picture of living with someone who survived the Holocaust (her Dad) and the insanity that it inflicted upon the person. Her father witnessed his mother, father and two brothers machine-gunned in a ditch in Poland. Imagine what kind of a twist that would do to a man's mind. Anyway, thought you'd like to know."
From a reader in Rhode Island:
"My sister loaned me your book which she purchased from your parents. She delivers their mail. I loved it. I'm a Psychiatrist practicing in Providence."
From a reader in Pennsylvania:
"I am finished and I wish I wasn't. I thoroughly enjoyed it and got into the characters so much I miss them."
© 2009 Deb Kingsbury