Monday, October 24, 2022

Q&A with Jerry Stahl




Jerry Stahl is the author of the new memoir Nein, Nein, Nein!: One Man's Tale of Depression, Psychic Torment, and a Bus Tour of the Holocaust. His other books include the memoir Permanent Midnight, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Esquire and Vice. In addition, he writes for film and television.


Q: What inspired you to write Nein, Nein, Nein! and how was the book’s title chosen?


A: After prolonged, seemingly endless depression, I had this insane idea that the best move in the grips of absolute despair would be to visit some concentration camps. I couldn’t tell you where the notion came from. And I don’t pretend that it’s logical, let alone defensible.


But at that time – health shaky, marriage gone south, my youngest child moving with her mom to Texas, my career (a concept I’ve never really liked, or at best, been in denial of) somewhere between atrophied and doomed – it all made perfect sense.


Nein, Nein, Nein! is something Bruno Ganz screams as a deluded, maniacal Hitler in the classic late Nazi film Downfall. It was also something another movie star, Connie Nielsen, did not, or could not, scream in a scene from the movie made from my memoir Permanent Midnight.


In the book, and in, as they say, “real life,” a German woman I was seeing shrieked this at the top of her lungs during sex. A bit of horizontal anti-semitism that evoked the malevolent attitude I’d experienced since childhood, when, as pretty much the only Jewish kid in a grade school of 800, I was routinely accused of killing Jesus. Which I must have done in a blackout, since I had no memory of the event….


In the movie version, at any rate, the full dialogue (based, as mentioned, on real  life) was “Nein Nein Nein, I’m being fucked by a Jew!” A line that ended up more muttered than wailed, in the big screen version.  


Questionable anecdote aside, it’s impossible to say why a book’s name sounds right – or doesn’t. As Raymond Carver liked to say, “A story is a house, and the title is the roof.” And, for whatever reason, Nein, Nein, Nein! seemed like a weirdly appropriate roof.  

Q: In the book, you write, “All I know, since returning from Eastern Europe, since deboarding that ‘luxury coach,’ is that I have never loved my children--and feared my neighbors, my country, and my century--more.” Can you say more about the impact your trip had on you?


A: Fascism – impending, imminent, or inferred – has a unique effect on a person. Seeing what can happen when a society buys into the Big Lie the way Germany bought in, and seeing – remember, this was 2016 – the lies Donald Trump had already marched out, from birtherism to murderous Mexicans – I wasn’t the only American to have That Sinking Feeling.


Flying to Poland, I thought I was visiting the past. To my surprise, thanks to Trump, it felt more like I was visiting the future.


And seeing what that future’d been, for German Jews (and German Gypsies, German homosexuals, German dissidents and German Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others) just made me want to savor whatever comfort and joy I had from those I loved. Before the trapdoor of history opens up and we all drop into it.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, “The author doesn’t hesitate to make pointed comparisons between Nazis and the members of the mob who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, ‘Trump’s fecal lynch mob [who] bore chuckly logos like Camp Auschwitz.’” What do you see looking ahead when it comes to antisemitism in the United States?


A: Looking ahead, I see a nation where the publicly Jew-shunning Doug Mastriano, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Steve Kings of the world are the rule and not the exception. Who’s to say how long before the QAnon Shaman looks normal and Kamala Harris swings for sedition?


It’s not the most original observation, but, fueled by up-close and personal visions of Nazi Germany, it’s important to remember that, in the beginning, everybody thought Hitler was an ass-clown, too. Nobody thought It Could Happen There, either.


And, as ever, anti-semitism stands out at as the horrific harbinger of horrors to come. While Republicans make it their mission to turn the US into a Christian Nationalist State, those non-Christians among us, call me crazy, may find ourselves wearing the yellow star on our parkas before you can say Protocols of Zion.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: Perhaps, for lack of a better term, the power of positive despair. There are times in life when, despondent as you feel, taking an action, any action, however insane, can be redemptive. And coming out of a time of mass misery, also known  as the pandemic, this was a lesson I personally was grateful to learn.


Beyond that, for me, experiencing the worst humanity had to offer, experiencing the living, breathing Holocaust, had the curious, revivifying effect of making me appreciate whatever humanity exists in my own little corner of reality.


Now that Nazi-signaling has become as commonplace as virtue-signaling, we need to know what world we are living in. Then figure out how to keep it from disappearing before our eyes.

Q: What are you working on now?


A: Robert Downey optioned Nein, so we’re kind of zeroing in on that. At the same time, given the spermatozoa-esque odds of a Hollywood project actually resulting in conception, let alone birth, I am continuing to work on fiction, journalism, and – occasionally – making a living.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment