Ranging from poetry to investigations of women’s eating disorders, from fictional autobiography to the story of a voice, Kim Chernin’s works radiate the “spiritual politics” she considers the essence of her Jewishness. Born May 7, 1940, in the Bronx to Paul Kusnitz, an engineer, and Rose Chernin, a radical organizer, Chernin was profoundly influenced by her family’s experience as Russian-Jewish immigrants and their commitment to Communist ideals. Chernin spent the first five years of her life in New York, but when her older sister died the family moved to Los Angeles.
A declared radical after high school, Chernin traveled to Europe and Russia to study the Communist political system she idealized. She entered the University of California at Berkeley severely disillusioned, however, and met and married David Netboy in 1958. Chernin then traveled with her husband to England and Ireland, studying for a time at Oxford and Trinity College in Dublin, where her daughter, Larissa Nicole, was born in 1963. Returning to California, Chernin received her B.A. with honors from the University of California in 1965. Her marriage to Netboy ended in divorce, as did a later marriage to Robert Cantor. After spending nine months in an Israeli kibbutz (1971), Chernin returned to Berkeley, where she began a writing and consulting practice. In 1982 she met Renate Stendhal, now her life partner. In 1990 she earned an M.A. in psychology from New College of California. Chernin still resides in Berkeley, which she says provides a necessary immigrant and radical atmosphere for her work as writer, teacher, and therapist.
Chernin’s literary innovations, blended with a poetic and political focus on women’s psychology and spirituality, have helped radicalize American women’s culture. Her most famous book, In My Mother’s House, weaves a narrative of multiple voices to produce both a tale of contemporary mother-daughter encounters and a family history that traces back through several generations of Eastern European Jewish women to the Russian shtetl. She returned to the mother-daughter theme in The Woman who Gave Birth to her Mother, a collection of stories that delineates this complex relationship (1999). Chernin has also written poetry, novels, and an autobiographically framed series focusing on women’s search for spirituality through food, psychotherapy, and the body. Sex and Other Sacred Games, written with Stendhal, uses two narrating voices plus letters and journals to create a stunningly intellectual and uniquely female story of a spiritual and erotic relationship.
Chernin’s work in the mid-1990s consolidated her interests in gender, spiritual politics and literary form. Crossing the Border, a novel dealing with Jewish-Arab conflict through sexual relationships, and A Different Kind of Listening, which traces Chernin’s psychoanalysis, completely subvert traditional modes of storytelling. My Life as a Boy, In My Father’s Garden, and Chernin’s tale of Cecilia Bartoli’s voice synthesize the psychological, ethnic, spiritual, and literary aspects and richness of her work. Chernin’s use of the self as living laboratory for engaging multiple questions of identity has dramatically expanded the potential of American prose while recording one Jewish American woman’s lifework in “the politics of the small.”
Cecilia Bartoli: The Passion of Song, with Renate Stendhal (1997); Crossing the Border: An Erotic Journey (1994); “Current Trends in Psychoanalysis: Social Constructivism,” with Michael J. Bader. Tikkun (1993); A Different Kind of Listening: My Psychoanalysis and Its Shadow (1995); The Flame-Bearers: A Novel (1986); The Hunger Song (poems, 1982); The Hungry Self: Women, Eating and Identity (1985); In My Father’s Garden: A Daughter’s Spiritual Journey (1996); In My Mother’s House: A Daughter’s Story (1983); “A Matter of Attitude.” In The Erotic Edge: Erotica for Couples (1994); My Life as a Boy (1997); The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness (1981); “The Politics of the Small.” Tikkun (1993); Reinventing Eve: Modern Woman in Search of Herself (1987); Sex and Other Sacred Games: Love, Desire, Power and Possession, with Renate Stendhal (1989); The Woman who Gave Birth to her Mother (1999).
Barker-Nunn, Jeanne. “Telling the Mother’s Story: History and Connection in the Autobiographies of Maxine Hong Kingston and Kim Chernin.” Women’s Studies 14, no. 1 (1987): 55–63; Chernin, Kim. Telephone interviews with author (May 18, 1992; May 1, 1996); Contemporary Authors (1983); Faderman, Lillian. “Clouded Hindsight.” Los Angeles Times, February 27, 1994, 10; Gagnier, Regenia. “Feminist Autobiography in the 80’s.” Feminist Studies 17 (Spring 1991): 135–148; Jamison, Kay Redfield. “Physician, Know Thyself.” Washington Post, March 19, 1995, 5; Mantell, Suzanne. “PW Interviews Kim Chernin.” Publishers Weekly 228, no. 1 (July 5, 1985): 72–73; Penn, Shana. Review of Sex and Other Sacred Games. Women’s Review of Books 7, no. 6 (March 1990): 28; Waldron, Karen. “Kim Chernin.” American Women Writers: Supplement. Edited by Carol Hurd Green and Mary G. Mason (1994).