Germantown High School * Philadelphia, PA. * Class of 1957

Life After Germantown High

Marlene Oscar

I was born on the wrong side of the tracks. On second thought, maybe I wasn't. Maybe it just felt that way. My father was a butcher; my mother was a mother. Until I was nineteen, we lived in a house attached to my father's store in a lower middle class neighborhood. Except for our religion (we were Jewish), we blended into the neighborhood beautifully. No; actually, we stuck out like sore thumbs. Also, I was smart, and I was a tomboy. Though I played with some neighborhood kids at the park down the street, I felt as though I didn't have any friends.

There was a real cultural difference between my parents and the "outside world," which I was taught by example to see as a distant, untrustworthy establishment of privilege. Survival, not the broadening of intellectual and emotional experience, was the guiding motive of most of the people in my family. Both of my grandmothers had lost their husbands when the youngest of their children were infants. Of my more than twenty-five first cousins, I was the only one to get a college education.

The summer I was nine, I was sent to a camp for underprivileged Jewish girls. I hated it that summer because the whole environment was strange and unfamiliar to me, but during the next eight summers I came to feel wanted and valued there, and I wanted to feel that way all the time. The counselors provided role models for me. Most of them were college students from upper middle class families; most of them were also psychology majors. I wanted to be like the counselors, so I set as my goal going to college and majoring in psychology. I enrolled in the academic program of my high school, took a foreign language, algebra, and geometry, worked very hard learning everything I was supposed to learn, wound up tenth in a class of 356, and won a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. Adjusting to college was not hard. I lived in the city and commuted to Penn with my neighborhood friends, returning to my parents' house to study at the end of the day. [NB: Some of these were GHS classmates, e.g., Miriam Brody, Merle Gross, Linda Kosmin, Helen Lob, Nadine Nicholson, Phyllis Shaffro, and Selma Spector.] Penn was like high school except bigger. However, I couldn't find anything in my study of psychology that satisfied my need to "fit in," to find a niche for myself. Finally, in Professor Teitelbaum's course in Physiological Psychology and in an "independent study" course with him, I found out not only how to conduct an experiment, collect data and write up the results, but about the powerful influence of a mentor relationship on future growth, creativity, and development. The trusting support of a young student by a revered professor can be critical. For me it was more than critical, since I had not yet left the values of my parents behind. When I reached my teens, I became aware of the gulf and felt ashamed of my working-class background. As I grew older, perhaps culminating in my thirties, the difference no longer seemed to matter. It just happened to be my background, and in some ways, today, I cherish it. It has helped me to become aware that people are people, that they may not be what 1 first imagine based on their credentials. I know that sounds naive, but when I was young, I was naive….

As I began to grow away from my family, I began to think that being well educated or rich or sophisticated or famous made you a better person, a good person. I thought I would make myself a better person by traveling and becoming educated. In the summer of 1960, just before my senior year at Penn, I spent three months traveling through Europe with a friend from college (Nadine Nicholson). We met up with Miriam Brody in France for part of the trip, and we hitchhiked around Great Britain. Then Nadine and I rented a small Citroen and saw Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Exposure to different customs, although still Western, was invaluable for teaching me the differences and similarities among people. Now, having been all over the world—Eastern Europe, the Far East, Israel, Central America, — I feel more strongly than ever that few values are "absolute." The realization that there are many "peculiarities," many of them culturally determined, is most significant for me because I felt so different from the people with whom I grew up. (Ironically, I now belong to that "distant and privileged establishment" that was not to be trusted.) Because of my love for the independent research I conducted in my senior year at college, and with continued encouragement from my first mentor, Phil Teitelbaum, I decided to go to graduate school. At Bryn Mawr College, my advisor was Bill Wilson. He and his wife, Martha, were superb mentors. They treated me like a person, instead of like the naive, immature, shy, blundering kid I felt like. I've known the Wilsons for over 20 years now, and they have always been kind, fair, and unselfishly giving of their time, their talents, and their Christmas festivities around a warm fire. Their influence on my values, my career, and my life cannot be minimized. I have tried, through their example, to guide my students and help them grow into happy, creative teachers, scientists, clinicians.

I am very much aware of my own role as a mentor to women, to men, as a professional, as a colleague, and as a person on both sides of the tracks. I still carry with me all those early experiences from my working-class background, and lecturing to community groups or teaching students, or even chatting with the blue-collar people with whom I work, keeps me in touch with my early past. I'm very happy about that. Sometimes, though, my background tricks me, when I do something that borders on being crass, for example, cursing at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Then I say to myself, "Well, that's the kid from the streets . . . try to restrain yourself." Yet it helps when I'm with other people who curse when they get angry, people who are not terribly concerned with social protocol.

My husband, I thought, would teach me what my parents couldn’t. He was a third-generation American WASP; he was outgoing and verbal; he knew how to be gracious; he knew about “manners” and about the rules of superficial personal interaction. However, he was also a very troubled person; he had been a troubled child. I thought I was going to help him become happy. When we married, I didn’t know that people don’t change unless they want to change – and work hard at it. My divorce in 1979 was in part the eventual result of my own naiveté; I didn’t realize when I was in my early twenties the complexity of human nature and the power of the influence of childhood experiences. Because family is important to me, and also because there were many aspects of being married that I enjoyed, I don’t like being single as I am.

It took me a long time to establish a satisfying relationship with my mother. I was in my late thirties, and by then my father had died. I don’t know what led to the change; maybe, as the old joke says, “My mother grew up.” Since my parents both were raised in large fatherless families, they had to fend for themselves; I was left, or “taught” to do the same thing, and it was difficult. There are advantages to that sort of upbringing: if one survives, one has developed, by necessity, a strong sense of independence. Yet, as a child, I felt that I had no guidance from my parents, no one to lean on; therefore, that my relationship to my parents was trivial or non-existent. I was angry then because I had to choose for myself what I wanted to do with my life without any advice or direction from my parents; now I am proud of it.

I was able to guide my sister (who is 16 years younger than I) when she was a child. She and I now have academia in common: we are the only ones on the family who share those values. But she borders on being a radical feminist, and she did not get along with my ex-husband. She now lives out west, and I don’t get to see her very often. One of my brothers (two years younger than I) has drifted away from everyone; he is unemployed, unmarried and out of touch. My other brother, Richard, six years younger than I, is one of my best friends. He has a high school education and has taken additional night-school courses at Drexel. Despite our educational differences, he and I have a great deal in common: we both value marriage, family life, children running around a house, and a “business” – the staples of everyday life. Richard and I never talk about science – except for the lay psychiatry that goes along with family gossip – yet we get along extremely well. Although there is a part of myself that is neglected in my relationship with my brother – the genteel professional part – I still feel comfortable and good with him and with his wife and son.

At present my relationships with my mother and youngest brother are better than they ever were when I was younger. However, they (and some of my friends from my childhood) represent only a part of myself. There’s another part of myself, a newer part chronologically, that I began to develop in graduate school, and that I now live with every day. That is the part I can talk about with my mother and brother, but which I do not share with them. These two parts are not “together” enough. Sometimes I feel sad about the split between the uneducated working-class life I left behind and the comfortable intellectually stimulating life of a researcher and professor I now have. When I am with my mother or my brother in Philadelphia, I feel lonely for the part of me I left in Boston. When I am with my friends and colleagues, I feel lonely for the other life. However, the shy girl from the wrong side of the tracks keeps me company and is very helpful in communicating with other shy people, some of whom are also from the wrong side of the tracks. That is why I like so much to go out into the community and talk about science and the research I have done. Reaching out like that is, for me like Going Home.

After taking a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1961, Marlene Oscar Berman came to Bryn Mawr for her Masters, then received a Ph.D. in 1968 from the University of Connecticut. She was at Harvard from '68 to '70 as a U.S. Public Health Service Postdoctoral Fellow. Now Professor of Psychiatry, Professor of Neurology, and Director of the Laboratory of Neuropsychology at the Boston University Medical Center, she is also a Research Psychologist at the Boston, V.A. Medical Center, and affiliate Professor of Psychology at Clark University. She has been a national lecturer for the scientific honor society, Sigma Xi, and has received two Research Scientist Development Awards from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The above piece appeared in the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin/ Fall 1982. It has been edited by Marlene and appears with her permission.

ADDENDUM TO THE PUBLISHED PIECE: The piece that was published in the Bryn Mawr College Alumnae Bulletin was written in 1982. The past 22 years just flew by. Although my life in 2004 isn't much different from what it was in 1982, I do feel freer and happier as the years pass. I still live in a suburb of Boston and work in the city. My son Jesse (now 30 years old) lives nearby and works at a local hospital. In 1991, he and I spent part of his senior high school year in Armidale, a small town in eastern Australia where I was a Fulbright fellow. I still love to travel, and I've been back to Australia for short stints as a visiting professor in Melbourne (1999 and 2001). I've also taken vacations abroad, to Japan (Jesse was an exchange student there), China, South America, South Africa, and Europe.

Besides travel, the life events from 1982 to now that come to mind are my mother's death in 1993, Jesse's graduations, a surprise 60th birthday party, my relationship with Murray (a lawyer whom I met in the '80s), a few new research grants, the renovations (almost finished) on my house, and reconnections with GHS '57 folks.

Oh yes, in 1996, I had a bad back (bulging disks), and part of the treatment involved my exercising at a gym. This unveiled a hidden talent: My back (and the rest of me) became quite strong. My trainer Steven, a 24-year old competitive weight lifter, encouraged me to compete in weight lifting events, and last year I won several trophies for the bench press (maximum 105 pounds) and the dead lift (maximum of 220 pounds). Imagine my thrill standing in front of about a hundred strangers and hearing them yell out, "Go Marlene!" as I strained to lift those metal weights. After one competition, a young girl about age 8 came up to me, gave me a kiss, and said, "That was awesome. My grandmother told me to tell you that she's 52, and all she does is stay home and bake cookies." Because competitors are grouped by gender and age, one of the benefits of being an older woman is that the competition at weight-lifting competitions is minimal. Another advantage is that many people can relate more to weight lifting than to academic achievements, so I get frequent kudos at the gym.


Click Here To Return To Home Page

Special Thanks to Lois Addison for Scanning Yearbook Photos &
Special Thanks to Katherina Kripl Bonner for sending Lois Her Copy of the June 1957 Yearbook
& to George Palmer for sending Lois His Copy of the January 1957 Yearbook.

This Page Updated 02/20/04 gwf