The Search for Self: Ellen Ullman’s ‘By Blood’

Ellen Ullman is known by too few as author of the cult novel The Bug and Close to the Machine, her memoir of being one of the earliest female computer programmers in a then-nascent industry. Her third work, By Blood, leaves computers in favor of the soul.

Set in San Francisco in 1974, the soul in question belongs to a nameless patient who is seeking therapy from German therapist Dora Schussler. We know this not from the patient, but from the professor renting the office next door to Schussler’s. Normally the doctor uses a white noise machine to ensure privacy, but this patient, idiosyncratic in numerous ways, hates the machine and has asked that it be turned off during her sessions.

As for the professor, also nameless, also idiosyncratic, he’s initially upset upon learning his officemate’s profession, which he finds intrusively loud. His work—a series of academic lectures—suffers as patients come and go next door. Distraction also creeps in as he tries avoiding the real reason he’s sitting in a rented San Francisco office rather than his University space.

As By Blood unfolds, we come to learn this nameless man, who has shunned family contacts, friends, and romantic entanglements, has a long history of mental illness. That illness, manifesting in depression he refers to as his “crows”, leads him into inappropriate behaviors with younger people. He follows an adolescent boy and his sister through San Francisco’s Union Square shopping district. He’s done something to alarm one of his students, a young male, and his unspecified crime has landed him on leave while the University investigates the charges.

It’s difficult to parse how sexually driven his behaviors are. Now, as he listens to the young woman next door pouring out her story, he becomes obsessed with “my dear patient”, to the point that he takes actions that tremendously impact her life. Only by the greatest willpower does he manage not to inform her or Schussler, struggling to remain completely silent during the woman’s sessions.

The entire story, the entire novel, will come to us through him. And though his intentions are good, there’s no denying he is deeply troubled. A saner man, privy to such information, would inform the doctor or leave the office during sessions. A saner man would not happily give himself over to imagining what his dear patient looks like, or take pleasure in her obvious intelligence and “creamy” alto voice.

Yet this interest, perverse though it is, is not sexual; rather it is fatherly, even avuncular. The professor, a veteran of therapy and its practitioners, quickly realizes Schussler is ill-prepared for the task of leading the dear patient to safety. He uses Schussler’s lacks as an excuse for his own actions, which he comes to define as necessary.

The dear patient is in her late 20s, an economist from Chicago. She has moved to San Francisco to live openly as a lesbian, far from her conservative, disapproving family. Apolitical, she fights with her girlfriend, Charlotte, over Lesbian Feminist polemics. But the patient’s cold family and difficult girlfriend only touch on the real reason she visits Dr. Schussler: the dear patient is adopted. And she longs to know the circumstances of her birth. “I couldn’t stand being a person dealt out in little pieces, different people owning different parts of me, different ideas of me.”

Ullman is adopted, thus she’s uniquely qualified to address the insecurities and questions that plague some adoptees. The patient, uncertain of her background, feels herself an outsider, “born unhappy”, puzzled by her mother’s insistence that her brown hair is “dirty blond”, her brown eyes “hazel”. It’s important to her adoptive family, blond and blue-eyed Presbyterians, that she resemble them.

The patient’s younger sister, Lizabeth, a biological daughter, is referred to as “a wet birth”. During a Thanksgiving visit home, the patient confronts her mother while Lizabeth and her father are shopping. Her mother, wearing a suit, hose, and heels, nervously pats her freshly done hair, sprayed into a helmet, and issues her daughter commands couched bizarrely in future tense: “You know, darling… you’ll put this in the dishwasher, and then you’ll make me a martini.”

After three martinis, the story partially emerges, throwing the patient into a tailspin. She returns to San Francisco desperate for the doctor’s help. But Dora Schussler can muster only weak commentary, reassuring the patient she may always telephone in emergencies. The professor is outraged, the reader dismayed. It’s at this moment that the professor takes action.

Ullman’s depiction of San Francisco in 1974 is truly a visit back in time. The patient may not plumb a search engine to locate her biological family. The professor eavesdrops as Schussler makes telephone calls on a rotary dial phone. Patty Hearst is kidnapped from her Berkeley apartment, reappearing as Tania. Homeless Viet Nam veterans crowd doorways. (Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.) The Zodiac Killer is terrorizing the city, and a new word has entered the national vocabulary: stagflation.

More of the professor’s story unfolds, as well. His best childhood friend, an adoptee named Paul, claimed to enjoy the freedom adoption held. The two were sexually involved, though their relationship seems adolescent sex play attached to a friendship. The professor admired Paul’s confidence, his artistic talents, which he defied his family to pursue.

The professor, by contrast, studies his own family, a collection of suicides, hospitalized relatives, and gun-related accidents. He longs to be free of blood ties, of the genetic links to an illness that continually lays him low. As the dear patient digs into her past, he’s frequently assailed by visits from his crows, which leave him bedridden, unable to eat or bathe, for days on end. He fervently wishes his dear patient will arrive at Paul’s notion of freedom from blood ties herself, viewing her lack of biological family as a gift.

Ullman’s treatment of lesbianism sensitively manages to convey what it meant to be homosexual in 1974 (not that it’s a disco now). In 1973, homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, meaning the removal of pathology from sexual preference was still new to doctors like Dora Schussler. Schussler feels the dear patient’s lesbianism is part of her general maladjustment, a sentiment that we must remember is cogent with the era, even if it makes current readers shudder. Further, Ullman gives the dear patient an active sexual life, at times graphically described—acknowledgment that the patient is a vibrant, sensual individual.

It’s impossible to say much more without giving away critical portions of the plot, which is unfair to author and reader. Ullman is an imaginative writer, at times playing her storyline out perilously close to unreality, then skillfully reeling the reader back into the small adjoining rooms where three people struggle with their demons. There are moments, particularly late in the novel, that may arouse doubt; they’re outrageous, painful, too much of a much. But any thoughtful individual, willing to stop and consider the possibilities, can only conclude that the circumstances of the dear patient’s birth are entirely, sadly possible.

And so the reasons to pick up By Blood are numerous: for the luminous writing, for a picture of San Francisco nearing a half-century old, to better understand the adoptee’s plight, for the ways the horrors of the past continue intruding on the present, and finally, the terrible loneliness of so very many people.

RATING 8 / 10