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Celebrating Marilyn Yalom with "Books of Death and Life"

photo of Marilyn in hat

Marilyn Yalom

Apr 21 2021

“Our life started and ended with reading books,” said Irv Yalom of Marilyn Yalom, his wife of 65 years. “I can never forget her.”

In celebration of her last two books, as well as her life as a scholar, friend and beloved partner, the Clayman Institute hosted “Books of Death and Life,” an event filled with readings, memories and reflections on the life and work of Marilyn Yalom. An esteemed historian and feminist scholar, as well as a prolific author, Marilyn served as director of the Clayman Institute from 1984-85 as well as a senior scholar for many years. Following her death in November 2019, Stanford University Press released this year her last two books, Innocent Witnesses: Childhood Memories of World War II and A Matter of Death and Life, co-written with her husband.

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Her editor Kate Wahl, author and longtime friend Stina Katchadourian, and husband Irv Yalom came together for the evening, with introductory remarks from Clayman Institute Director Adrian Daub. He acknowledged that the Clayman Institute is “a place that is indebted to Marilyn Yalom in so many ways.” Wahl, editor-in-chief and publishing director of Stanford University Press, noted that with these two particular books, “Here we have the bookends of life: one work focused on childhood, the other on old age.” Praising Marilyn’s writing as clear and precise while open and inviting to the reader, she said, “It is not surprising that her two final book projects are shared efforts. These writings are the culmination of a lifetime prioritizing mentorship, collaboration and feminist practice.”   

“It is not surprising that her two final book projects are shared efforts. These writings are the culmination of a lifetime prioritizing mentorship, collaboration and feminist practice.” -- Editor Kate Wahl

Author, journalist and literary translator Stina Katchadourian echoed those observations about Marilyn as both a writer and a lifelong friend. Marilyn “was a master of adding people to her life, and of making connections with like-minded people,” Katchadourian said, noting that Marilyn was largely responsible for introducing her to the Center for Research on Women (CROW), now the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Katchadourian became an affiliated scholar of CROW: “That’s a connection that I treasure to this day.” She also recalled Marilyn’s role in establishing the Bay Area Women Writers Salon – along with another Clayman Institute director, Diane Middlebrook – which met for years in San Francisco and facilitated connection among area writers.

The book Innocent Witnesses recounts World War II through the recollections of those who experienced the war as children. Katchadourian read at the event from her chapter in Innocent Witnesses, in which her family relocates several times to flee Finland’s conflict with Russia, and she struggles to adjust at a new school.

Katchadourian recalled a call from Marilyn in 2018 inviting her to tea, and her intuition that a new book was in the works. Marilyn invited Katchadourian to submit an excerpt from her book The Lapp King’s Daughter, a memoir of her childhood wartime experiences in Finland and Sweden. Susan Groag Bell, a former senior scholar of the Clayman Institute, also contributed a chapter, on her memories as a young Jewish girl in Czechoslovakia. “The impetus for this came from the compassionate person that Marilyn was,” Katchadourian said. 

She recalled a meeting a few months later when Marilyn first mentioned some health concerns, later revealed to be multiple myeloma. After that, her longtime friend remembered, “It was my impression that it was the work on these books that really kept her going.” 

photo of Irv
Irv Yalom

Irv Yalom spoke of the first time Marilyn suggested the idea for their book, A Matter of Death and Life. He and Marilyn were walking in a favorite park close to their home. “Marilyn said to me, I have an idea for a book for us to write. … Marilyn’s often coming up with book projects,” Irv said. “I thought about this for a moment and then I told her, well I am working on another book, so I think it would be a great book for you to do. And she said, no no no no, you and I are going to write this book together. She was very strong willed at times,” he said. They began writing the book with alternating chapters. When Marilyn could no longer continue, and then after her death, Irv wrote the remaining chapters. “It was a very difficult book to write,” he said. 

The two shared a long life together. They met as teenagers in Washington, D.C. Irv recalled elbowing through a crowded party at Marilyn’s house to introduce himself and ask for a date. She agreed, and when they met for milkshakes, it was at age 15 his first date. He learned that Marilyn had skipped school that day, because she had stayed up late the night before finishing the book Gone With the Wind. “That’s how our life began: with books,” he said. “As soon as I heard that, I was absolutely hooked.” 

They remained avid readers – her favorite was Proust, his Dickens – throughout their lives, as well as prolific authors. A historian and former professor of French, Marilyn’s well-known titles include Blood SisterA History of the BreastA History of the WifeBirth of the Chess Queen and How the French Invented Love. Irv, a psychiatrist and Stanford professor of psychiatry, emeritus, is an author of both fiction and nonfiction books, including Love's ExecutionerThe Gift of TherapyBecoming Myself and When Nietzsche Wept.

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