Review: Doris Iarovici on Sharon Dolin's "Hitchcock Blonde: A Cinematic Memoir"

February 11th, 2021

The iconic film director Alfred Hitchcock rose to fame during the 1940s, a time of novel global threats. Around that same time psychoanalysis was gaining a cultural foothold in the US. In a post-WWII era when people were trying to process new horrors, Hitchcock's portrayals of crime, obsession, and mental illness contributed to a burgeoning American awareness of trauma and its aftermath. More than a half century later, in her captivating memoir Hitchcock Blonde, poet Sharon Dolin turns to Hitchcock's work to help understand a childhood marked by a different kind of trauma: that of living with a schizophrenic mother and an often absent traveling-salesman father. During a global pandemic, this book is an especially timely reminder that art can do more than entertain. 

Dolin grew up watching Hitchcock movies; Hitchcock figured prominently in a recurring childhood nightmare. In Hitchcock Blonde, Dolin deftly juxtaposes scenes from ten of Hitchcock's most famous films with memories of painful episodes in her own life, "which often feel as distant and oneiric as a movie." The movies serve not only as a lens through which she can make sense of her life, she tells us, but also as a shield from the intensity of single-minded focus. "Sometimes I find it easier to remember things by not thinking about them directly," she writes. Indeed, psychotherapy makes use of this insight: traumatic memories, often difficult to face head-on, are often more effectively approached obliquely. 

The interwoven movie scenes not only trigger new insights for Dolin, but also draw the reader into a deeper engagement with Dolin's story. Our familiarity with the Hitchcock movies creates a kind of intimacy with and interest in the stories we don't yet know. We may remember, for example, how an evil Mrs. Danvers torments the young second wife of a widowed man in the movie Rebecca, and this heightens our curiosity about Dolin's experience as the new wife of a recently widowed man. Dolin's vivid writing evokes a cinematic experience even when the narrative shifts from movie scenes to her personal lived moments. And she's had a very interesting life. There are certainly moments that could have been in a horror movie: a mother with unpredictable psychotic episodes, who sometimes takes off with the kids. A husband who is not at all who he claims to be. Other partners who torment her or disappear. Just as the Hitchcock films serve as lens and shield, so too does Dolin's writing throughout her life. The evocative, beautiful poems scattered in the book show Dolin's mastery as a writer, and demonstrate how art helped her process her life. 

Freud famously credited poets and philosophers with discovering the unconscious, rather than himself. As a poet, Dolin understands the power of the unconscious, and harnesses it in this book to powerful effect.  

Doris Iarovici’s writing has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York TimesThe Guardian, and Crab Orchard Review. She works as a psychiatrist at Harvard University. Her latest book is Minus One: Stories, published by University of Wisconsin Press.