“The Rope of Life: A Memoir” is the product of Chatham author Mirinda Kossoff’s lifetime mission to reconcile two versions of her father: the adventurous, gentle and “fun guy” of her memory, and the profoundly broken man who would take his own life when she was 31.
But in recounting her eventful life and the moments that in retrospect seem to portend her father’s tragic demise, Kossoff tells a larger story of America’s ugly character — of a nation doggedly fixated on its people’s differences and blind to its enduring injustice.
Hugh Kossoff was the consummate American hero. The World War II army air corpsman from New York served valiantly overseas. He was bold and confident and dashing. After coming home, he won himself a southern bride and set to building a new life in the American dream. In every endeavor, it seemed, Kossoff succeeded and prospered.
Despite his service and talent, however, Hugh was never afforded the praise and respect he deserved. Even when “he embraced the fundamentalist Baptist faith with fervor” and dismissed his nose job as a deviated septum surgery to cure incessant snoring, Hugh could never shirk the fact “that he would always be a foreigner in his adopted town, that he would always be considered a Jew.”
He was one of just 225 Jews in Danville, Virginia, when Mirinda was growing up. It was a “minuscule” sum, she writes, “but considered enough of a threat to warrant neighborhood covenants ... barring blacks and Jews.” His background nearly derailed Hugh’s career in dentistry when the governing board tried to prevent his licensure, and it would remain the lifelong asterisk that stifled the acceptance he craved.
“I discovered early on,” Kossoff writes, “that Southerner’s place a high value on a person’s roots and sense of place.” She learned eventually — no doubt as her father had learned in his dealings with discriminatory peers — to sidestep the inevitable questions about background and heritage, the ever polite but duplicitous inquiries.
“The effect of these questions on me was a feeling of being different” she writes, “of not being good enough.”
As her father worked tirelessly to elevate their status, growing his practice and moving the family every few years into successively larger homes, the feelings of being an outsider only worsened. The higher they ostensibly climbed amid Danville’s social circles, the less inclined its generational members were to extend hospitality.
In school, “the other kids ignored me as if I were the gum on the bottoms of their shoes,” Kossoff writes. She retreated always into the background, desperate to go unnoticed lest her presence inspire retribution. When teachers would call on her to participate, “my heart thrummed, my knees knocked, and my hands shook. I sweated and I could barely rasp out the words that felt like hot pokers in my mouth. I was humiliated. All I wanted was to disappear.”
In her alienation, Kossoff took refuge in reading.
“For relief from my profound shyness,” she writes, “I found consolation in books.”
Eventually her childhood escape spawned a booming career as a journalist, reporting for several outlets and serving as the News & Observer’s assistant managing editor, and teaching essay writing at Duke University Continuing Studies.
Her father, while successful in his practice, could not create the same positives from constant exclusion.
The once cool-headed, confident gentleman became an irritable curmudgeon. Then his brusque impatience turned aggressive. Twice he ran for positions of public office and twice he lost. His detractors bristled at the Jew’s audacity in presuming to lead a southern town in which he never belonged.
It crushed him.
Hugh Kossoff spent regular and extended stints in the hospital as he progressed through middle age. He cited chronic back pain and issues with his feet, but his erratic behavior betrayed problems extending beyond just physical ailment. Eventually, the man Mirinda had known and loved ceased to exist. Now her father was cruel, abusive, conniving.
In their final exchange, Mirinda took a stand. “I love you dad,” she told him. “But I can’t let you manipulate me anymore.” She left then, unceremoniously.
A week later, Hugh Kossoff subverted 24-hour suicide watch and hanged himself in the bathroom of a hospital room.
Discrimination is a central theme in “The Rope of Life” — from people of one color against those of another; from people of one religion against believers of another; from some members of a family against others of their own kin.
Her upbringing as daughter of a northern Jew attuned Kossoff’s perception to recognize the plight of America’s minority groups and to empathize with those worse off than her. As a child, she identified with her family’s house maid, a Black girl named Cora, just a few years Mirinda’s senior. The Kossoffs treated Cora well — better, as Mirinda would come to learn only years later — than most white families treated their Black help. In fact, Hugh Kossoff always treated Black people with dignity. He was the only dentist in town who would treat them, and usually he did it for free.
But his decency was not unqualified. While he harbored no malcontent toward Danville’s Black residents, he would not be seen with them by other whites. If they needed dental care, it had to be early in the morning before his practice opened, or in the evening after business hours.
Likewise, when Danville’s Civil Rights Movement erupted in the 1960s, the Kossoff family stayed out of it. Mirinda wouldn’t come to learn the realities of what had happened until adulthood. Her family, and most other whites — whether they condoned the injustice or not — feigned ignorance and remained silent.
“Looking back, it’s ironic, that while Danville’s blacks were deep in a struggle for basic human rights, nothing about the civil rights movement was mentioned in my civics class,” Kossoff writes. “I was in Latin class learning about the lives of the Roman emperors whose rule was absolute and who understood slavery as the natural order of things. Centuries later, we hadn’t come very far.”
Now, another half-century removed, the United States is again undergoing social upheaval. People are again fighting for equality and human rights, and Kossoff hopes her experience might serve as a warning.
“Since learning what really happened in the 1960s, I have carried the guilt of my obliviousness, and not having done anything to help,” she writes. “It doesn’t matter that I was only a teenager at the time. I should have known.”
The story of Kossoff’s quest to expand her cultural lens takes her from small-town southern America to a U.S. naval hospital in Japan, through the hippie era and a stint in England and finally to her father’s death and its tragic aftermath.
But “The Rope of Life” serves to accomplish more than just chronicle one person’s maturation and self-discovery. Rather, it demonstrates with vivid imagery and refreshing prose the powerful effects of inaction, and the troubling consequences of apathy. Her experience informs a world-view that challenges the United States to reckon with its history and to plot a different course moving forward.
In a chilling final chapter, Kossoff illustrates with gut-wrenching imagery the boundless human capacity for hatred, but the beauty and restoration that is possible when people take time to learn about each other.
Kossoff’s writing is unaffected, without agenda. As she admits in the afterword: “My goal was to understand my father, why he was sometimes cruel, what drove him to suicide. Did he love me? Who was he?”
She didn’t find the answers to her questions. But her efforts were not for naught. “The Rope of Life” is not a comfortable read; honest examinations rarely are. But it deserves wide exposure. I recommend and will be reading it again.
“The Rope of Life: A Memoir” book launch will be held at 2 p.m. on Feb. 21, hosted virtually by FRANK Gallery in Chapel Hill. Mirinda will be in conversation about her book with N.C. mystery writer and author of “The Worst Thing,” Nora Gaskin. Details on how to tune into this event will be shared on Mirinda’s website, www.mirindakossoff.com.
Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @dldolder.