Michelle Brafman’s debut novel, Washing the Dead (Prospect Park Books, 2015) is, above all things, about the healing power of love and forgiveness, about letting go of the toxic wounds of betrayal and hurt. In fact, Brafman experienced a similar transformative purge; she admits that she felt “fluish” at times when writing it. The novel, told in first person by Barbara Blumfield when she is 17 and also when she is 53 (the two narratives woven together in what Brafman calls a double helix), centers on her family’s expulsion from their Orthodox Jewish community after her mother has an affair with a gentile. After Barbara is called back to the community thirty-five years later to perform the ritual burial washing of her beloved teacher, she is forced to confront her mother’s sins and secrets, as well as her own.
JEN MICHALSKI: Washing the Dead explores themes of exile, forgiveness, and redemption in an Orthodox Jewish community in Milwaukee, and you start it off with a bang: an affair. So where did that come from?
MICHELLE BRAFMAN: Yes, the inciting event in the book occurs when the main character, Barbara, discovers that her mother is having an affair, and so begins the family’s exile from their spiritual community. I’ve been told that the story reads a bit like a mystery, and as you read on, you learn that nothing that happens in these opening pages, including the affair, is as it seems. Affairs are complicated, I think. Perhaps they are often less about succumbing to some hot sticky lust and more about escaping an unbearable emotional intensity or healing old wounds or filling unmet needs for love or myriad other motivations. I wasn’t thinking so clinically, though, when I decided to use the affair as a means to launch this family into the diaspora. The idea evolved from digging into my characters’ family history and imagining how the carnage from their secrets might be expressed via misdirected and destructive efforts to secure love.