The Golem of Brooklyn
Four Hundred Pounds of Clay
Len Bronstein was not so much in need of a golem as he was in possession of a large quantity of clay, and very stoned. Three hours earlier, after his morning coffee and in lieu of breakfast, he had eaten a hazelnut lace cookie containing twenty milligrams of THC, the last of a batch his friend Waleed had baked and brought to Len’s Memorial Day cookout a few weeks earlier. Waleed did this regularly—it was how he expressed love, and also how he gained new customers. The nature of an event was always fundamentally altered by Waleed’s arrival. It was awesome.
For the last several years, Len had been stealing one five-pound brick of premium sculpting clay each week from the private high school in Brooklyn Heights where he worked as an art teacher. He didn’t really know why. Len liked his job, liked his co-workers, got along fine with his students—both the merely wealthy and famous actors’ kids. Had Len asked, his department head probably would have invited him to take home all the clay he wanted. The school was awash in resources of every sort: the filmmaking lab had professional-grade cameras and editing suites, the fifth grade math teachers had PhDs. If Len had been fortunate enough to attend a school like this, he never would have ended up a high school art teacher.
Len was no sculptor; his artistic disciplines were not-painting and not-writing, which made the vast reserve of clay stacked up in the shed in the backyard all the more perplexing. But as Waleed’s cookie—and with it, Waleed’s genius—hit him full force, Len walked out of his garden apartment and into his apartment’s garden, and the splintering, hard-to-latch door of the shed listed open, affording him a glimpse of the wall of light gray clay, and Len decided that today was the day to begin writing the masterwork of speculative fiction he’d been sketching out in his head, here and there, for the last however-many months.
The concept of the novel was that in the very near future, the study of epigenetics—the notion that trauma can be passed down in the DNA, can ramify across generations—takes a massive leap forward when an NYU biologist named Henry Kazinsky happens upon the work of a UC Berkeley anthropologist named Desiree Parrish, and they get to talking, and six years later they’re married and six years after that they publish a paper in a peer-reviewed journal announcing that they can isolate and time-stamp extreme epigenetic traumas, pinpoint the historical moment they enter the DNA. He is the grandson of Polish Jews who watched everyone they knew incinerated at Treblinka; her people are descended from Ashanti warriors kidnapped and forced into slavery in Jamaica who escaped into the hills, intermarried with the indigenous Arawak population, and waged war against the Spanish and then the British and became known as Maroons, from a Spanish word that means “cannot be tamed.” The media runs with these family histories, the very personal nature of the work.
The book they write is an instant bestseller. They almost hadn’t published it at all, they reveal on a morning talk show. They know all the ways biology has fueled racism in the past, and they understand that their findings will be thrown into the great centrifuge of the culture, spun and tumbled into bludgeons. But it’s not theirs to withhold the progress they have made—not out of fear.
Also, they’re about to become billionaires.
Sure enough, two opposing arguments soon march forth from their respective strongholds to meet and do battle on the opinion pages, the political shows, the last bastardized bastions of discourse. Both take for granted that epigenetic testing will soon be as ubiquitous as DNA testing—remarkable in its own right, since nobody had ever heard of it a week before.
The conservative position is that epigenetic trauma is a disability—a disqualifier. Now that we know how real the damage is, we are morally obligated to take it seriously, and that means having a real conversation about how much responsibility someone quantifiably damaged ought to be given. And no one is talking about sterilization here, Matt, but you have to really think, do we want to pass these kinds of things on to our children? We can’t fix the past, but we can fix the future. And at the very least, that starts with transparency. With knowing who among us may have experienced so much ancestral . . . oh jeez, what’s the right word . . . so much difficulty that they might be at an elevated risk for, and the science isn’t in on this yet, but an elevated risk of mental illness, or heart disease, or, I don’t know, a predisposition to violence. I mean, wouldn’t you want to know if a person with those—are we calling them markers?—with those markers was teaching your kids, or representing you as an elected official? Or, gosh, even sitting across the table from you on a first date?
The opposing argument is about amends. Reparations tests poorly with focus groups—too loaded, too closely associated with an argument that had never gathered steam—but amends is not so fraught. Surely, now that we’re no longer speaking in abstractions, no longer speculating about whether the past lives inside us, now that we can finally agree on that much, we can turn to more fruitful discussions. We should be talking about a systematic way of compensating those whose ancestors have passed along the cellular records—the receipts—of their debasement. The governments and corporations who have been on the brutalizing side of history would do well to get out in front of this, Mark. I can envision, for example, a situation where the U.S. says Okay, from 1619 to 1865, we had chattel slavery, so if you’re an American of African descent and your epigenetic marker appears during those years, you’re entitled to something. Or if you’re a European Jew and your epigenetic marker appears between 1933 and 1945, then the German government—
But hold on, Michelle—if you’re a European Jew, what if you’ve already got an epigenetic marker from 1492, when your family was kicked out of Spain, or 1306, when they were kicked out of France, or 1096, when the Crusades started, or—
Well, that’s why we need a system, Mark. So the courts aren’t overwhelmed. Maybe we say, okay, you have a five-year window of time to get tested, and after that the books are closed. Maybe your settlement indemnifies the government or the corporation against any claims by your descendants. And I would think that just for the financial stability of the world, these would not be lump sum payments, but spread out over some number of years . . .
A month later, the first epigenetics case reaches the Supreme Court, and the justices rule 5–4 to enshrine plaintiffs’ right to sue for ancestral trauma. Epigenetic testing centers spring up all over the country; transnational regulations are erected to preserve the interests of the too-big-to-fail.
Then somebody figures out how to transplant epigenetic markers from a donor to a recipient—a seller to a buyer. The DNA of each person who goes for testing is on file, so double-dipping is not an option. Choosing to sell means forgoing your claim.
Buyers pay twenty cents on the dollar, but they pay up front. Some cash in their claims immediately; others are hedging, stashing, waiting to see how the pendulum will swing. Sellers are more cynical; they presume that the trauma-makes-you-less-than position will win out. Better to sell high and stay off the radar, the registry.
Then buyers start to experience the genetic memories of the donors. The implantation process activates these dormant ancestral horrors, decades or centuries old, each one the discrete experience of a single person: the night the village burned, the day a child was caged or a parent sold away. These memories begin to drive people insane—to commit suicide in some cases, especially in the early months before the phenomenon is understood.
The revelation that recipients can access these memories directly births a secondary black market, with buyers selling the sellers’ histories back to them—if they can find each other, because all this is highly illegal and everybody’s identity is shielded. Other buyers begin to feel a growing conviction that what is in their bodies is theirs now—to own, to claim, to talk about. Have they not now, in some way, become survivors of slavery, exile, experimentation, holocaust?
A surrogacy market springs up next, allowing people who would rather know the origins of their trauma than receive amends for it pay to implant it into others—who then assume the burden and perform the telling. From these transactions is born a religious sect, the Trauma Eaters. They believe in consuming as much trauma as possible as a form of penance, though they prove useless in relaying the information back to the sellers, because all the competing trauma fries their brains.
Len intended to explore this world by telling the story of an epic journey by a woman who gets tested, fully expecting to find epigenetic trauma markers, and instead finds none. This so thoroughly obliterates her understanding of herself that weeks later she becomes a buyer, hoping in some desperate, half-understood way that this will restore her self-identity. When the memories begin to manifest, she sees something not just horrible, but personal, and actionable—something that will change the world, if only she can track down the person from whose DNA these memories were extracted.