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23 November 2017

My Mother’s Lost Children: a funny and powerfully touching film about family

In this BBC Storyville documentary, Danny Ben-Moshe tells an extraordinary tale.

By Rachel Cooke

In the age of social media, it’s easy to forget that most families used not to talk about things much; even now, many of us are more inclined to favour denial and avoidance over emotional incontinence as a life strategy. This is, perhaps, one reason why My Mother’s Lost Children (20 September, 10pm) – Danny Ben-Moshe’s funny, sprawling and powerfully touching film for the BBC’s Storyville documentary strand – felt like such a breath of fresh air. An alternative title might have been: “Her Lips Were Sealed”.

Outwardly, Ben-Moshe’s Jewish, north London family tended to loquaciousness; teasing and fights were par for the course around the Friday night dinner table. But this disguised a long and painful history of silence: the kind of distilled quiet without which, we eventually learned, Lillian Ben-Moshe might otherwise have gone completely mad.

The story is complicated, and my summary will likely do it no justice. But here goes. In the 1950s, Ben-Moshe’s mother, Lillian, met a student called Raymond who belonged to a wealthy Iranian Jewish family. He was handsome, and she was a naive 15-year-old; she soon found herself pregnant. And so, they were married. This was not a success. They were poor because Raymond couldn’t find work in London, and it wasn’t long before Lillian was living with her Yiddish-speaking refugee mother again, along with her two small children: Andrew, then three, and Michelle, then just two.

One day, Raymond knocked at the door. He wanted to take the children to the park and, having no reason to refuse, she let him. She would not see them again for 40 years. “Did you go to police?” asked Danny, the son of her second husband. She shook her head. “You didn’t go to the police, doll,” she said. “You went to the Jewish Board of Guardians.” These Guardians told her that no crime had been committed. That there was, in other words, nothing she could do.

Her family went along with this, though why I cannot say exactly. A kind of listlessness seemed to strike – or perhaps they were just terrified of her pain. What about Lillian? She blessed God for “all the good things” she had been given: for her new husband, Henry, and her children Danny and Ira. Somehow, the pit sealed over before it could pull her in.

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Ben-Moshe’s film told this story (it had more twists than I’ve mentioned) with what I can only describe as sceptical empathy, and an abiding patience that he somehow managed to maintain even when Raymond, tracked down in Iran, announced that Lillian had never been “on my level” and that “the bitch was not your mother, it was your grandmother”. It was exemplary work: another reminder, if it were needed, of the strength of Storyville right now.

Its star, though, was Lillian: her vivid way of speaking, her cartoon-like manner, her warmth and occasional flintiness. There was a kind of ruthlessness in the way she had negotiated her survival, and it tore at your heart. Reunited with Andrew and Michelle, there were no adequate words, only a sense of misery, handed down unwittingly, and deepening like – the phrase has never been bettered – a coastal shelf.

There was also plenty of misery, albeit of a slightly louder kind, in Stalkers (20 November, 10.45pm) a documentary about the work of Paladin, a charity that supports those on the receiving end of this horrible crime. It was queasily fascinating, of course, not least because (social media again) life is so easy for perpetrators nowadays, all the necessary information being at their fingertips. (Perhaps this is one reason why a million people in the UK are now stalked every year.) But it was also frustrating.

I wanted its director Katharine English to tell us more about the psychology of those who stalk, and about what treatments, if any, work (prison, it was clear, only sometimes breaks the cycle). When is it meanness and spite and when is it a question of mental health? Not, of course, that understanding the difference is likely to be of much consolation to a man who must wear a stab jacket to work, or a woman who receives dead mice and baby scans in the post. 

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This article appears in the 22 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder