The Absent Moon
Published May 12 2023
The Absent Moon is a memoir by Luiz Schwarcz that explores family, family’s influence on one’s identity, and the struggle with mental health. Recently translated from Portuguese, The Absent Moon has a somewhat clunky feel, possibly from translation, that makes me wish I read Portuguese. I’d love to experience the full beauty of Schwarcz’s prose that is briefly captured throughout the book, “…it’s rare that my mind is capable of living in the present, because the present has no room for perfection…But the future is always more accepting of our illusions.” The Absent Moon reflects on, analyzes, and explores the past to understand the person Schwarcz becomes as he struggles with his mental health as an adult.
I’ve been unconsciously drawn to books dealing with intergenerational epigenetic inheritance (like this review and this other review). In the memoir’s epilogue, Schwarcz specifically states he is not writing about this form of inheritance, yet it’s hard for me to keep from reading into moments that exemplify the way Schwarcz carries pieces of his family within him. Schwarcz does an amazing job trying to understand his own trauma through the lens of the deep pain experienced by his family, “It had never occurred to me before that Mici’s wild effort to attract attention, taking too many pills, and mine, cutting my arms—which I would do at the lowest points of my depression—would create a deeper tie between my own story and that of my grandmother.” Here, Schwarcz draws connections between his grandmother’s behavior and his own. There is this recurring focus on the parallel manifestation of trauma between Schwarcz and his mother, father, grandmother, and grandfather that is continually drawn upon throughout the book.
In other moments, Schwarcz explores the personhood of his father, André, and the way he is consumed by the suffering he could never process after leaving his own father, Schwarcz’s grandfather Lajos, on a train that would inevitably take him to a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, “My father’s image of himself as a bad son who obeyed his father when he should have rebelled deeply affected my sense of self…If András was guilty of a double failure—frequently disrespecting Lajos’s religious rigor only to later allow his father to save his life—I had to right the ship, save my own father from a life of sadness…” Through these explorations of his family’s stories, Schwarcz undertakes a beautiful examination into the complicated nature of the self and how the understanding of oneself can impact the understanding of another. A core question that resonates throughout the book is: Who are we in relation to our family? As the book explores Schwarcz’s own life, it highlights the fact that as much as we are our own person, we are also extensions of our family.
Another theme that branches from the exploration of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance is mental health and illness. Schwarcz begins to experience signs of mental health struggles early in life. At first, he believes he suffers from depression before later, as an adult, he is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. My favorite moments of the book are Schwarcz’s frank discussions about being out of control. He attributes these episodes to his bipolar disorder, “Now and then, I pick a fight with overly aggressive security guards or ushers…Picking a fight with the police can only lead to disaster, but I don’t always keep this in mind or manage to control myself.” Schwarcz doesn’t hide the “bad.” He frankly discusses the ways that his mental health impacts his daily life and those around him with a refreshingly keen sense of self-awareness.
By the end of the book, it becomes clear one of the resounding themes is Schwarcz’s lost his childhood because of his parents’ lack of boundaries and emotional maturity. Schwarcz was forced to take on an adult role at a young age that led to him growing up too fast, “…I was treated as a friend and confidant, which put me in a position more akin to that of a peer.” Part of Schwarcz’s analysis on his childhood is devoted to exploring his past to understand his family and his mental health. At the same time, it is also an attempt to reclaim the childhood that was overshadowed by the struggles that his parents went through.
The clunkiness of the prose does make reading challenging at times. Yet, despite the awkward progression of the prose, Luiz Schwarcz’s memoir, The Absent Moon, is a beautiful investigation of the self through the exploration of the influence of family. The memoir manages these elements of internal and external investigation well while refraining from placing blame. Framing the analysis of the past through a lens of curiosity and a desire to understand weaves a successful element of empathy throughout. In the end, it is a striking examination into the self, “I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t gone through this journey of self-discovery, when I often found myself at the edge of the abyss yet managed now and then—thanks to the tools I discovered within myself—to glimpse redemption.”