By Blood – Ellen Ullman

I did not cause her any harm. This was a great victory to me. At the end of it, I was a changed man. I am indebted to her; it was she who changed me, although I never learned her name.

The unnamed narrator of By Blood is a 50-year-old, male, university professor. He has come to San Francisco after being suspended from his job. We never quite find out what the investigation he faces is a result of, simply that it involves a young male student.

Arriving in San Francisco in the summer of 1974, depressed and alone, our narrator rents an office downtown. This is an attempt to cajole himself into getting out of bed in a morning and for him to prepare a series of lectures on Aeschylus’ The Eumenides.  However, after taking the office, he discovers that his neighbour in the building is a therapist – Dora Schussler, PhD.

Over the course of thirty-five years – meeting weekly, twice a week, sometimes daily – I had looked across small rooms into the bewildered, pitiable faces of counselors, therapists, social workers, analysts, and psychiatrists, each inordinately concerned about his or her own professional nomenclature, credentials, theories, accreditations; all of them, in the end, indistinguishable to me. Now, still battling the hooded view of life that had haunted my family for generations, I had come to the conclusion that their well-meaning talking cures, except as applied to the most ordinary of unhappinesses, were useless.

Our unnamed narrator wishes to take himself as far away as possible for Dr. Schussler, that is until the one session a week when Dr. Schussler turns off her sound machine and he (and therefore we) can hear an entire consultation. By the end of the fifty minutes, we know that the patient is a woman, a financial analyst in a relationship with another woman called Charlotte, a bicycle messenger and that she was adopted.

I like not knowing where I’ve come from. I like it. Every child thinks it must have been switched at birth, these can’t possibly be my real parents, it’s all a big mistake. Well, I just happened to have more evidence than they do. Mine really aren’t my parents. I told you this a hundred times: I am not adopted! I have mysterious origins!

The revelation of her adopted status thrills our unnamed narrator who feels that he has arrived at ‘one of those mysterious fulcrum points…she must give way’. And this is where we reach the essence of the novel:

The plot was turning just as I had predicted. And it was now about to address the subject of my most ardent hopes: how the adoptee creates himself (or herself, in this case).

Although By Blood isn’t just about how an adoptee creates their identity, it’s about how we all create our identities – in relation to our parents and siblings (whether birth or adopted), in relation to our friends and lovers, in relation to our work. It’s also about how we create stories – our identity (identities?) is a story after all, one which we adapt and moderate depending whom we’re telling it to.

We follow our unnamed narrator as he shows us parts of his identity and particularly as he plays auditory voyeur with the unnamed client. But our narrator can’t handle simply listening to the client’s issues and despite his negative comments regarding Dr. Schussler’s over-identification with the client and attempts to push her towards the solution she wants, he can’t help but insert himself into the client’s story in the one way he feels he can without being found out.

By Blood is a complex and fascinating novel. Each time I thought the concept was in danger of becoming stale, a new idea or twist was introduced. It also looked at an element of Nazi behaviour that I was unaware of, quite a feat considering the depth and breath in which WWII and events surrounding it have been covered. This isn’t an easy read in terms of the issues addressed or the narrative construct but it is one that will reward time spent on it.