Pain Woman Takes Your Keys

Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System

Huber_frontAmerican Lives Series, University of Nebraska Press
Hardcover, 204 p.
ISBN: 0803299915
March 1, 2017
Available from University of Nebraska Press
and any other outlet where you buy books

  • Amazon #1 New Release in “Chronic Pain,” March 2017
  • Bitch Media “Spring Reads,” March 2017

Advance Praise

“Sonya Huber works magic by articulating the indescribable. With her lyrically written and witty account, she better describes her own pain experience than a patient rating scale of 1 to 10 ever could.”—Paula Kamen, author of All in My Head

“This is an important book, a necessary book, a book that, in the right hands, could change how our medical establishment deals with pain. These essays are at once vulnerable and fierce, funny and smart, unflinching and dappled with stunning metaphor.”—Gayle Brandeis, author of Fruitflesh

“Huber has captured what it is to be a woman who lives with chronic pain in all its nuanced complexity.”—Sarah Einstein, author of Mot: A Memoir

Rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10. What about on a scale of spicy to citrus? Is it more like a lava lamp or a mosaic? Pain, though a universal element of human experience, is dimly understood and sometimes barely managed. Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System is a collection of literary and experimental essays about living with chronic pain. Sonya Huber moves away from a linear narrative to step through the doorway into pain itself, into that strange, unbounded reality. Although the essays are personal in nature, this collection is not a record of the author’s specific condition but an exploration that transcends pain’s airless and constraining world and focuses on its edges from wild and widely ranging angles.

Huber addresses the nature and experience of invisible disability, including the challenges of gender bias in our health care system, the search for effective treatment options, and the difficulty of articulating chronic pain. She makes pain a lens of inquiry and lyricism, finds its humor and complexity, describes its irascible character, and explores its temperature, taste, and even its beauty.

Praise for Pain Woman Takes Your Keys

“Meditative, intimate essays consider the experience of suffering….Frank, thoughtful reflections that should resonate with the 47 percent of Americans reported to be living with chronic pain.” Kirkus, Nov. 21, 2016

“Huber uses pain as a lens through which she examines disability, gender bias, motherhood, and the very basic condition of living in a body….The lyricism and poetry-prose hybrid continues throughout the book, interspersed with narrative reported pieces, humorous anecdotes, and sharp social commentary. [An] honest, wise, and droll book.”-Gila Lyons, Bitch Media, Jan. 25, 2017

“Material handled in a manner like these essays contains impressive universality, worthy of a large readership. Those with depression, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, or myriad other types of pain from diseases and conditions—even romantic breakups or family deaths—will find it relatable. However, before this University of Nebraska Press book has a chance to become whimsical or superficial, its author controls the prose with grace and elegance, and some humor.”–Nichole Reber, Ploughshares Blog, Feb. 28, 2017

“Please Read Sonya Huber’s Book, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, for me or not for me and because it’s brilliant and good and while she is a woman and the world mostly publishes men and hears them as spectacular rock star stellar daring voices I promise you hers is so good so put your damn prejudice aside that she’s a woman being daring and make her rock star and make her go viral and give her millions and make her cult movie and make a plush toy in her honor that makes you feel better when you see it and even because you’ve named that plush toy Pain. And honor it as the pain every woman who is in pain almost all the time feels. Almost 99 percent of the time but manages to make art.” — Katherine McCord, Compulsive Reader, March 29, 2017

“As someone who hasn’t yet experienced chronic pain, I relied on Huber to draw me into her world, to show me what it feels like, to allow me to begin to understand an experience that many of us will, eventually, know first-hand. And she takes on this project masterfully, introducing her readers to pain just as she might introduce a family member. By the end of the book, I’d begun to see my current pain-free state as an aberration, as a temporary fiction, and I was grateful that she’d facilitated my entry into a world that is, in many ways, more real than the one I inhabit.”–Vivian Wagner, Brevity, March 21, 2017

“Pain Woman wrote this book. It is through the voice of Pain Woman that Huber tells her stories. She tries on metaphors; she makes pain a character with actions and personality traits. She tends to it, cares for it, listens to it, lets it speak.” Elizabeth Dark, “The Kingdom of the Sick,” River Teeth blog, April 7, 2017

“Humor and offhand brilliance meet testimony and literary art. All crafted from hard experience and a fierce struggle.” Richard Gilbert, “Pain’s Parallel Kingdom” (Author Q&A and Review), April 12, 2017

Media & Mentions

Featured on Amy Hassinger’s Podcast “The Literary Life” with audio recording of “In the Grip of the Sky,” March 29, 2017

Featured on the Quivering Pen blog, March 16, 2017

“Ah, Sonya Huber is one of my muses and simply being with her for ten seconds makes me want to stop everything and begin writing something. She has that Tinkerbell, Punky Brewster, Hermione, Katniss thing going on, so I never quite know if she is real or a figment of my imagination. Last night, Sonya was real. So was her collection. So is the Pain.” Bryan Crandall, March 3, 2017

The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton

ISBN: 9781911335276 (paperback, pocket-sized, 188 pages) Available June 1, 2016 from Squint Books, an imprint of Eyewear Publishing (UK): Order $14.49
Order paperback from Small Press Distribution
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Bestseller (5th) for July-Sept. 2016, Small Press Distribution
Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 6.04.13 PMWho is Hillary Clinton, beyond the right-wing smear campaign and the reputation of her husband? Sonya Huber’s short, accessible book takes a balanced look at Hillary, delving into the evolution of her image, her detractors and their attacks, and her policy decisions, offering an overview of the forces that have shaped her. From her role as Secretary of State to her commitment to women’s rights, her changing positions and charges of unreliability on issues of trade and the environment, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s political agenda has changed over time. Do these changes make her a reptilian “shape-shifter” or just a politician? Will she be responsive to a changing Democratic Party in America, and how will she govern as President of the United States?

Sonya Huber has achieved the near-impossible: she’s managed to contextualize Hillary Clinton’s long political career with precision, clarity, and wit. Examined herein are Hillary’s complicated relationships with her husband, the American public, Wall Street, feminism, Mother Theresa, and even the author herself…you’ll find no better primer on this fascinating, polarizing woman.” –Shannon Drury, author of The Radical Housewife: Redefining Family Values for the 21st Century

“Finally, a book for people who are unsure about how they think about Hillary Clinton. Cutting beyond the partisan attacks from the Right and the Left, Sonya Huber presents a politician who is flawed yet principled, willing to compromise yet also holding on to bedrock principles. In short, Huber has humanized Hillary Clinton in a way no one else has—or is willing to. An essential read for anyone on the Left.” –Robert Greene II, Book Review Editor, Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians

“During an election cycle in which political coverage often comes across as a farce, it is refreshing to read a sincere exploration of a complicated political figure….Huber tackles meaty topics related to Hillary’s political life independent of her role as First Lady of the United States. Chapter titles include: ‘Hillary is a Woman, and That’s Apparently a Problem’; ‘Is Hillary a Feminist?’; ‘Hillary is a Capitalist’; ‘H is for Hawk’; and ‘Foreign Policy Nightmares and Quagmires.’ Readers looking for mere sound bites will be sorely disappointed as Huber presents evidence and comments on the nuances involved in political life.” (Full review here) – Wendy Besel Hahn in Barrelhouse, July 4, 2016

“She looks at Clinton’s record and history with a truly unbiased eye, offering a perspective, in the opinion of this writer, as close to objective as can be, peppered with Huber’s signature wit, in telling the story of the first female presidential nominee of a major party. Immensely readable, and in parts laugh-out-loud hysterical, I swallowed this text whole in one sitting, finding myself pulled in headfirst into the details of the record of a woman who seeks to make history.” – Nick Mancuso in Millennial/Political, August 5, 2016

“In The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Huber assesses fair and unfair criticisms of Clinton. I found Huber’s look from the Left balanced and interesting—and, more to the point, useful. With her historical overview, Huber clarified my own mixed feelings as a moderate progressive.” – Richard Gilbert, Nov. 2, 2016.

Press Coverage

Frank Juliano, “Fairfield Professor Authors Book on Hillary Clinton,” CT Post, May 27, 2016.

Meredith Guinness, “Fairfield U. Professor Handicaps Clinton’s Chances in New Book,” Fairfield Voice, July 27, 2016.

Thomas Fitzgerald, “Democrats’ Goal Ahead of Convention: Shifting Thinking about Hillary Clinton,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 28, 2016. Reprinted in The Wichita Eagle.

Kevin Zimmerman, “Fairfield University Professor charts Hillary Clinton’s life in new book,” Fairfield County Business Journal, August 4, 2016.

Da Chen, “Shifting Towards Clinton: A Voter’s Evolution” in Los Angeles Review of Books blog, August 26, 2016

Podcast interview: Gangrey segment 47 on The Evolution of Hillary Clinton and Sonya Huber’s other works; journalism and creative nonfiction; writing process.

Richard Gilbert, “The case for Hillary.” Nov. 2, 2016.

My Blog Pieces & Commentary

Make American Nuanced,” Stamford Advocate Op-Ed, July 24, 2016. Also appeared in Greenwich Time

Essaying Hillary,” University of Nebraska Press Blog, August 1, 2016.

Two Eyes Are Never Enough

More about the issues in Two Eyes are Never Enough

TwoEyesNeverEnoughBuy Two Eyes are Never Enough: A minimum-wage memoir, 8000 words, $2.99, SheBooks, 2014.

Two Eyes are Never Enough: A minimum-wage memoir
is an ebook that was just released, one in a new series of short ebooks by women, including some writers whose work I follow and love, including Hope Edelman, Susan Ito, Faith Adiele, Marion Winik, and many more forthcoming.

This piece is the length of a long magazine article, and it explores the world of direct care workers, those who work in nursing homes, residential care centers, and mental health facilities. They are often immigrants, often women of color, usually working for very low pay. I once did that work, which got me interested in the first place. That’s why the piece is called a memoir, though there’s a good chunk of reporting in there too.

How to Support Direct Care Workers

Much of this little e-book is about the physical and emotional labor of caring for others, particularly those in crisis. It’s hard work, sometimes physically dangerous, yet often very low-paying; in fact, home health care workers–one category of direct care workers–are not even covered by minimum wage legislation, which is outrageous. Yet there are many organizations advocating to change this. One huge victory came about late last year, when legislation was passed to cover these workers, which have been left out of wage protection since 1974. This ruling is scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2015, but there are twists and turns ahead: the New York Times editorial page (“No Reason to Delay Fair Wages,” 5/17/14) states that a group representing state Medicaid officials is asking for a delay in implementation.

As the editorial states:

“Sixteen states already require that home care workers be covered under state wage and hour laws, so there is a template for how to apply the federal rule. The rule change was researched and analyzed for almost two years before being finalized last September… Any delay would further the exploitation of home care workers–mostly women, minorities and immigrants–who bathe, dress, and feed elderly and disabled clients and assist them with other daily activities. For-profit home care agencies that pay subminimum wages or deny overtime and state Medicaid officers accustomed to balancing their budgets on the backs of underpaid labor will have to get used to paying more.”

If you’re interested in getting active on these issues and adding your voice, consider supporting one of these organizations:

Caring Across Generations: A coalition of nonprofits and unions working for legislation and public attention.

Direct Care Alliance: An advocacy group for direct care workers.

National Domestic Workers Alliance

Thoughts on the Writing Process

This piece of writing has been a labor of love, and a tough nut to crack: I started writing this piece about twenty years ago as I worked in direct care, writing journal entries to help me process my experiences. I published a few articles in small magazines that explicitly called for change in the way that mental health was staffed in these centers. Then, I put it aside.

Thirteen years ago, I tried to approach it from a journalistic perspective and delved into this problem for my major project for a master’s thesis in journalism on this topic at Ohio State University as part of the Kiplinger Fellowship Program. I queried many magazines but couldn’t get interest because the topic seemed depressing and completely “unsexy.” This fundamental unsexiness of women and low-wage work was so hard to write into, because it’s a bedrock blind spot in our society. We take the presence of these workers for granted, so much so that this is the fabric of our society, the one we don’t even comment on. We expect low-wage female workers to care for our bodies and our spirits when we falter and when we die.

Then, during my MFA program, I wrote the story again, from the memoir side, which resulted in an essay that was a finalist for an AWP “Intro” award and was later published in Kaleidoscope: A Journal of Disability Studies.

I pretty much gave up on it until last year, at which time I tipped the balance back and forth between memoir and journalism. The challenge was that I couldn’t find a way to make it “light.” Being less ranty is my cross to bear as a writer, and sometimes I apologize too much for ranting when I should just let it rip with a good old-fashioned harangue. Having done the work and having been a labor activist for a long time, I had lots of commitment to this issue. I wasn’t a journalist who had gone into this as an investigation. I was first a patient, then a worker, then an activist, then a writer. Writing on subjects I care the most about–especially political subjects–has been a challenge when it comes to voice and tone.

The essay is a flexible form, and I believe the essay can contain not only dispassionate observation but also engagement and multiple emotions including anger. But “the essay” is often thought of as a bit distanced, maybe a bit removed, maybe even a bit arty. I love much of that stuff. I write some of it. However, I read many examples of the form that don’t look like the essays I want to write, which is fine. For balance, and for encouragement, I have found it important to read and re-read to examples of engaged essayists like James Baldwin, Jamaica Kincaid, Joy Williams, Rebecca Solnit, George Orwell, and Cherrie Moraga, as well as my recent favorite Kiese Laymon. I like my essays troubled and even sometimes downright mad.

What is an essay? Can it include hot-button, yell-out, pissed-off? Can it have an agenda? Is it marked only by formal experimentation or reflection on a subject whose sting has faded with the passage of time? We shouldn’t confuse the full breadth of possibilities in an essay with a narrowed sense of the role or voice of the average essay. While distance and perspective are important, it is sometimes impossible in a practical sense to step away from one’s vivid emotions. If your topic itself is a large social problem, that topic and its resultant pain will persist over time. Does this mean you should not be an essayist? No–on the contrary, I think. I believe the world needs more essayists and essays that trouble their subjects–not at the surface level of form or fragmentation (though that is fine too, and all respect to those who do that work), but at the deep level of wrestling with a topic, coming away from that topic changed, acknowledging that the topic itself is bigger than the author.

Update: Here’s a blog post I wrote over at the Direct Care Alliance on this book!

Thanks for reading. And check out all the great titles at

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Backwards Research Guide

The Backwards Research Guide for Writers: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and Inspiration

Published by Equinox Publications,Writing & Pedagogy Series, ed. Dr. Martha Pennington, November 30, 2011 ISBN: 9781845534417 Paperback $39.95, Hardcover $115.00 362 pages, 8 Figures
Buy it on or your local bookstore.


Silver Medal from Nautilus “better books for a better world” in 2012


May 18, 2012: Melanie Rockenhaus of The Linguist describes the book as “an organized, thought-provoking and practical guide book for would-be writers…her emphasis on self-knowledge and contemplative resourcefulness, or “backwardness”, is refreshing and timely. The book is well-written and carefully edited and invites both cover-to-cover reading and intermittent dipping into. Instructors and students alike will find something to appeal to their needs and tastes, and it would be a useful book to have in the library of any writing program.”

Choice, June 2012, Vol. 49, No. 10: J. Stevens describes the book as a “very helpful perspective on writing and the writing process.” Recommended.

This research guide features quotes from Buddhist monks, poets, and neuroscientists. Each chapter provides exercises to nurture curiosity itself and to rekindle the ability to use that curiosity for research.

Each chapter also including informative context about the assumptions we bring to the research task itself.

It’s called “backwards” because it starts with a series of exercises that invite the writer to tune in to themselves. At certain points, students are invited to close their eyes and watch their minds. And yes, it does work as a composition textbook. It might even be fun and rigorous and off-the-wall at the same time. This book is for writers looking for brainstorming ideas and teachers working with students who have lost the thread of their own curiosity and need to find it again.

Can a writing and research textbook have these subjects listed in the index? This one does! anthropology; anxiety; beginner’s mind; confusion; contemplative

  • creative writing
  • curiosity
  • emotions
  • empathy
  • enjoyment
  • excavation
  • freaks
  • imagination
  • intuition
  • meditation
  • mindfulness
  • neurons
  • noodling
  • noticing
  • openhearted
  • passions
  • quantum physics
  • questioning
  • randomness
  • reflection
  • relax
  • self-awareness
  • wabi sabi


Introduction for Instructors: The Context for Seeking as Research Section I. Research: An Inside Job Chapter 1. Write About Anything Chapter 2. Meet the Author: You Continue reading “Backwards Research Guide”

Opa Nobody

Opa Nobody, University of Nebraska Press, American Lives Series, 2008/2013

Huber final coverISBN: 0803243626
Hardcover (2008): $24.95; Paperback (2013): $18.95
Buy from IndieBound
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Read an excerpt (PDF)

Shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, 2010

“[S]harp human insights on the omnipresent moral complications of living in Nazi Germany make this a worthwhile read. . . . [A] unique, imaginative take on the family memoir.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Grounded in extensive research and enriched by family anecdotes. . . . The result is thoughtful discourse on political activism and the toll exacted from those dedicated to unpopular causes.”—Deborah Donovan, Booklist

“In her first book, teacher and activist Huber reaches across time and space to find guidance and camaraderie in the reconstructed life of Heina Buschmann, the German grandfather she never met. . . . Family relationships and political situations are wrought finely enough to illustrate what’s at stake for Heina.”—Publishers Weekly

“In every chapter, [Huber] weaves stories of her activist life with richly imagined scenes of her grandfather, reconstructing his life from anecdotes and documentary evidence. . . . By connecting with history on such a personal level, she reveals how ordinary citizens can get swept up into movements of all kinds; allegiance is never as simple as a membership card. Most radically of all for a progressive activist, Huber embraces the past. Instead of tossing it all out in search of something new, she ties a firm knot between then and now.”—Karrie Higgins, Los Angeles Times

“Writing family history is a notoriously fraught enterprise. . . . Sonya Huber’s book of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody, tracks an innovative course through this thorny landscape. . . . [I]t is precisely Huber’s play with the imaginative possibilities in the gaps between historical fact and family memory that makes her project so poetic and moving. . . . Through her admirably candid writing, Huber makes visible the inability of political activism to manage failure and despair.”—Valerie Weaver-Zercher, The Christian Century

Opa Nobody is good, folks. . . . Fiction and nonfiction flow together so easily under Huber’s control that it looks easy to accomplish. . . . Opa Nobody is a masterful book and a testament to the talent of its author. After reading this, there will be many people impatient for Sonya Huber’s next work. I am.”—Connect Statesboro

“There’s plenty to learn from [Opa Nobody’s] accessible and accurate portrayal of a leftist German family before and during World War II. Its evocation of the sense of revolutionary possibility and political tumult is especially effective. . . . It reminds us that now more than ever, we need political histories that feed both our politics and our hearts.”—Chloe Tribich, Against the Current (Detroit)

“Opa Nobody wasn’t really sad after all, not entirely. True, as I sat on the couch waiting for the clamor of the Buschman Family to melt from my mind, I felt a bizarre cocktail of emotions: regret for that family torn by poverty, politics, and fascist war; horror at the Holocaust and the way evil governments can turn people into animals; and fear for my future as a father in a country wrought with its own sense of superiority. But under all that, there was hope.”— Joey Franklin, Brevity

Opa Nobody is a masterful layering of lives, a beautifully readable and often poetic tracing of the heart lines between grandfather and granddaughter, old leftie and new, Nazi-era German rabble-rouser and present-day American activist. Sonya Huber imagines her way into her hero’s childhood, his neighborhoods, his friendships, and finally into his passions—both political and romantic—which in the end are her own. The research in Opa Nobody is prodigious, the history fascinating, the quest for justice inspiring, but the lives here are what will keep you reading, page after page, long into the clamorous night.”—Bill Roorbach, author of Temple Stream and Big Bend

“Sonya Huber is a writer of remarkable talent and courage. With great passion and skill, she resurrects her grandfather in this story of a family in the years leading up to and away from Hitler’s Third Reich. Painstakingly researched and richly imagined, Opa Nobody is a brave book of politics, history, and love—a book filled with an irrepressible embrace of humanity.”—Lee Martin, author of The Bright Forever and From Our House

“Sonya Huber begins her innovative memoir with a question: ‘Why try to change the world?’ Thus begins an intimate dialogue with her long-dead, activist grandfather—part fact, part imagination—that delves into the nature of political resistance and the toll this stance takes on those intrepid souls who dare to live on the edge of change.”—Brenda Miller, author of Season of the Body and coauthor of Tell It Slant

Review on H-Net, April 2009, “Wrestling with the Past,”

Sonya Huber. Opa Nobody. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008. xvi + 358 pp. Illustrations. ISBN 978-0-8032-1080-6.

Reviewed by Alexander Peter d’Erizans (Department of Social Science, Borough of Manhattan Community College (CUNY))
Published on H-German (April, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher

Wrestling with the Past

In recent years, scholars have grappled with the specific manner in which recent generations of Germans and Austrians have confronted their own familial complicity in Nazism. The narratives revealed by these studies reflect varying degrees of acknowledging complicity, constructing rather coherent and comprehensive stories of self-victimization, and simple denial.[1] At times, individual writers have even struggled to offer intimate portraits of their very own family history. In Opa Nobody, Sonya Huber attempts to connect with her past in such a personal way. In her novel, the author strives to connect with her German grandfather, a coal miner, union organizer, and socialist activist, a man whom her mother had always described as a “nobody.” Huber seeks to delve into the public and private life of a man who died five years before she was born by attempting to imagine his happiness and hopes as well as frustrations and challenges of fighting for the socialist cause while building and maintaining a family. The book emerges as an ongoing dialogue between the author and her grandfather, a conversation offering scenes and insights from the latter’s life interwoven with those of Huber’s as a social activist and mother. While becoming “acquainted” with her grandfather, the author fervently explores her own family’s relationship to Nazism, acknowledging that such a history, despite a separation in time, is still very much her own. The book represents Huber’s effort to bond with her grandfather, not only by relating her optimism and hopes, but also by revealing anxieties and feelings of ambivalence.

In order to imagine, and immerse herself, within her grandfather’s world, the author drew primarily from family stories, anecdotes, documents, and photos. In order to connect her narrative to larger historical processes, she conducted research in nonprofit organizations as well as local, regional, national, and international archives. She found materials relating to her grandfather’s work as well as documentation detailing more generally the history of the German socialist movement in the Ruhr before and after the world wars. Her background sources include not only activist newspapers, newsletters, organization reports, campaign information, and transcriptions of oral interviews, but also personal memoirs of socialist activists. Finally, she examined the scholarly literature on the development of socialism in Germany during her grandfather’s life. In the end, Huber’s narrative thus emerges as a series of snapshots representative of probable, real-life events bolstered by historical research. All along, however, she admits that her grandfather’s life as she relates it must necessarily remain a fiction.

Throughout the course of the novel, Huber works to construct a coherent narrative of her grandfather’s life. Born on April 19, 1902, to working-class agitators (his father was a miner) in the small town of Marl on the northern edge of the Ruhr district, Heinrich (or Heina) Buschmann, Jr. came of age within an increasingly assertive socialist “universe” of workers’ hiking, gymnastics, drama, chess, and women’s clubs as well as a multiplicity of socialist newspapers, cooperative grocery stores, and bars. The Buschmanns moved from place to place, for mine owners, landlords, and governments throughout Germany often blacklisted Heina’s father. In 1913, however, for reasons unknown (perhaps an unbearable longing, according to Huber), the family moved back to Marl.

At an early age, Heina engaged in grassroots activities for the SPD. According to Huber, in 1909 and afterwards, Heina assisted his father in handing out pamphlets. Certainly, like other German children of the period, Heina was drawn into the cultural and social sphere of the home front of the First World War, but socialism always remained present. Heina’s father prevented him from procuring work in the mines and instead enrolled him in a secretarial technical school in Recklinghausen. Heina became a member of the Arbeiterjugend, which opened his eyes to the divisions plaguing the socialist movement, for other boys explained to him how union leadership often actively fought youth organizing, seeing it as potentially too extremist. After finishing his training at age twelve, Heina worked for the Recklinghausen County administration. During the so-called Turnip Winter of 1917, with its severe food shortages and numerous miners’ strikes, the split among socialists became critical. Many SPD members (Heina included) resented a party leadership that called upon the membership to support the war. The most outraged agitators subsequently formed their own party, the Unabhängige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (USPD). Unlike his father, who was sickened by interparty warfare, Heina seemed to embrace the ideas of the more radical party. Whether he stayed in the SPD or moved to the USPD, however, is unknown. In any event, joint efforts were common between the youth in the SPD and the independents.

Heina was gripped with excitement at the militant uprisings that broke out across Germany at the beginning of November 1918. His frustration with the SPD leadership, however, became unbearable when the governing socialists ordered Reich troops and Freikorps to crush a local miners’ strike in February 1919 and later rounded up and executed independent socialist leaders. Throughout the following years, and as a member of the SPD (officially joining in 1921), Heina directed his attention to the building of one of the first socialist youth centers in the Ruhr, which opened in 1924. He seemed to have been energetically involved at every level of the project: leasing of land, construction and layout of the building, correspondence between members, and requests for funds from an often indifferent, terse, and fearful SPD government principally concerned with survival. Heina’s political activities throughout the 1920s led to tensions between an ever-optimistic, frustrated, socialist youth and a party leadership suspicious of rebellious agitators within its own ranks, as it sought to secure its local and national political position. Heina probably witnessed vicious political street-fighting between rival youth groups across the political spectrum, for his closest friends clashed with communists and nationalists, including members of the SA. In 1932, he joined the Reichsbanner; later he engaged in military training as a member of the Iron Front. Despite his increasing extremism, Heina nonetheless exhibited disappointment when some of his close comrades in 1931 joined the Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands, a left-wing organization formed to oppose the SPD. Such divisions continued to ravage the socialists throughout the last months of Weimar and the final appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor.

During the Third Reich, Huber’s grandfather experienced government harassment because of his past socialist activism. He was forced to answer questions about his political views, membership in political organizations, and “Aryan” ancestry. His fellow administrators were asked for confidential statements on his political work. Periodically, Heina underwent criminal background checks. Local authorities twice searched the family home. Nazi authorities arrested, beat up, and forced into exile many of his comrades. In 1936, the local SA commandeered the youth center he had established to use for interrogations and torture. Heina witnessed assaults on Jewish stores and stalls in open-air markets by SA men and severe attacks on Jews themselves, culminating in Kristallnacht.

Heina coped with the rise of Nazism in a variety of ways. Although he never joined the Nazi Party, he did join some of its auxiliary organizations; he also served in the Reichsarbeitsdienst and, on the day after the Nazis remilitarized the Rhine, shipped off to “Pioneer” military camp #5 in Stettin, where he spent two months. During the latter half of the 1930s, after years of service as a clerk, he finally received a nod to apply for promotion to public administrator, a more secure, well-paid position. Even so, he continued to engage in socialist agitation. Huber indicates that her grandfather became involved in the distribution of banned literature, most of which entered the Reich from abroad, even as he sensed the frustration, exhaustion, and apparent hopelessness of comrades remaining in Germany. At the outbreak of war, Heina was drafted into the Wehrmacht and managed to be assigned as a medic. He probably saw service in the campaigns of 1939 and 1940, but in October 1940, he returned to work as a civil servant. At the beginning of April 1942, he received a promotion to Kreisobersekretär, or county head secretary. Two months later, he returned to military duty in the Crimea. For the last eleven months of the war, his whereabouts are again unknown. He did make it back home by the end of the war with a bullet wound to the thigh.

With the fall of the Third Reich and the beginning of the occupation, Heina immediately found himself under suspicion from British authorities for the posts he had held in National Socialist civil administration and membership in Nazi organizations. Eventually, the British cleared him and, despite some vague local political opposition, he obtained employment as a civil administrator and justice of the peace at a small city government office near his home in Huels. Heina’s extensive political involvement (he immediately re-engaged with SPD youth work as an elected leader, always wearing a party pin on his lapel) before his death in 1966 led to chronic tensions with party leadership.

In order to understand her grandfather’s life, Huber engages with the life stories of other prominent figures of his immediate history. The author introduces readers to Heina’s wife, Elfriede “Friedchen” Klejdziski, whom her grandfather probably met at a local socialist meeting of youth activists shortly after the 1918 revolution (they would marry ten years later). Never truly accepted by Heina’s mother, Friedchen was a committed ideologue herself (during the 1920s, she became an elected socialist youth group officer). While she clearly adored Heina’s intelligence, keen mind, and readiness for action, Friedchen nonetheless became increasingly frustrated with a husband who always seemed to be more concerned about changing the world than with attending to the pressing needs of his own six children. Detailing a strikingly different path, Huber reveals how her great-uncle Josef “Jupp” Buschmann, an athletic, energetic, confident left-wing socialist himself, became a member of the Waffen-SS, a move that caused an irreparable rift with his brother. Jupp probably interrogated political prisoners at the youth center and was involved in the expulsion of about a thousand Jews from their homes and preparations for their removal to the Riga Ghetto. After the war, family stories revealed, Jupp used his connections to procure a prime appointment in Marl’s central administration that paid more than the post Heina held.

Throughout the novel, the author aims to connect more closely to her grandfather by “telling” him about her experiences as an American social activist. She wishes her grandfather to know that he had always been a hero to her. Huber explains that, like him, she often distributed pamphlets and flyers in support of a multitude of national and international causes, most recently opposing the America’s 2003 campaign against Iraq. She wonders whether Heina experienced the same sense of possibility in demonstrating during the First World War that she herself felt while planning demonstrations at her small private college in Minnesota. She compares Heina’s images of far-off battlefields as his father left for the First World War with her own fears throughout the Vietnam conflict in the 1970s. She connects Heina’s frustration as he commenced with his secretarial training with her fears that her privilege of attending college made her a “snob” disconnected from the “people.” She imagines her grandfather working in his office while wondering about the 1917 revolution raging in Russia and compares his longings with her own search for answers to the questions about the Soviet Union that have preoccupied socialists ever since. She relates her surprise and confusion as a witness to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to the exhilaration, violence, and political divisions Heina experienced during November, 1918. By relating her own myriad experiences as a radical agitator in college and a subsequent dropout in the radical milieu of downtown Minneapolis, Huber attempts to understand more closely Heina’s concerns: fears and pressures as a youth group leader, the formidable work of an organizer, loss of freedom, physical strains, conflicts with “old” leadership, constant concern about militarism from all sides, and the ability to reconcile one’s activist aspirations with falling in love and establishing a stable, loving family.

The author reveals a keen awareness that some gaps in her knowledge of her grandfather’s life are truly difficult, if not impossible, to fill. Although she made a concerted effort to uncover the unknown, Huber admits that her favorable interpretations might contrast with the unpleasant (albeit hidden) truth about certain events and relationships. At one point, for example, Huber reflects upon a militaristic portrait of an unknown group that includes Heina, Jupp, and their father. Huber longs to imagine her grandfather confidently donning a uniform as a young socialist activist who railed against the growing militarism gripping the country, but knows that any such pride was most likely tarnished by a sense of confusion, frustration, and betrayal. Finding the life story of Stalin and a book of excerpts from Lenin’s essays among a stack of her grandfather’s books, she expresses uncertainty as to whether such works would have been in the possession of any respectable SPD member, or if they signified that Heina’s view of communism was perhaps more complex than one of mere contempt.

The author’s uncertainty about the past especially emerges in her discussions of decisions and actions of not only her family, but of other “ordinary” Germans as well, during the years of the Third Reich. Huber constantly raises questions, but honestly concedes that she can only guess at the answers. She reflects upon why a youth socialist ratted to the Nazis that SPD leadership lists could be found at the Buschmann house: had he or she sought to reap personal gain or spoken out of fear to protect family, or believed that the Nazis would have found out anyway? Describing a huge 1933 NSDAP rally that took place on the market square in Recklinghausen, she reflects upon the motivations of the schoolteachers who brought their pupils.

Huber feels particularly in the dark about the precise sentiments of Heina and his comrades at the moment when the Nazis assumed power. Perhaps they rolled their eyes and laughed with weary cynicism; perhaps events simply paralyzed them (and Huber relates her own sense of hopelessness and depression following the September 11 attacks). She wonders whether the government ban on all non-Nazi political activity made her grandfather contemplate withdrawal or voluntary exile. She expresses bewilderment that her grandfather did not simply join the party, reasoning that such a move would have provided increased security for the family. Huber yearns to understand why, despite the immense danger, her grandfather chose to distribute literature against a regime that clearly enjoyed widespread active and passive support. Perhaps such activity countered Heina’s feelings of political demoralization.

Huber admits that Jupp’s Waffen-SS membership marked him as an active executor of the most extreme Nazi policies, but wrestles with unanswered questions here as well. Indeed, his complicity in Third Reich crimes, and the subsequent family rift was one motivation for the book. Jupp’s motivation remains unclear–did he seek to protect his family and save lives, or was he motivated by frustration as a former socialist? Jupp was likely carrying out Kristallnacht on the very night his father was dying in the hospital. Huber considers that perhaps he had no choice, or that he believed that such attacks would serve as a wake-up call to Germans concerning the inhumanity of Nazism. All such arguments, however, ultimately remain inadequate for Huber in explaining the actions of her uncle, which she admits may have been committed out of conviction.

Though Heina expressed unabashed disapproval at Jupp’s behavior, Huber questions whether her grandfather (or anyone) had a right to judge. She points out that Heina himself might have enjoyed fleeting feelings of accomplishment within Nazi auxiliary organizations; she is resigned to the idea that Heina was most probably complicit in the assault on local Jewish homes and property in 1941. Although she wishes to imagine her grandfather on the eastern front as a confident activist distributing anti-Nazi flyers, she fears that he witnessed mass death and heard whispers of bodies in ditches. She acknowledges a distinct possibility that his unit might have crushed Polish resistance during the Warsaw Uprising or might have joined other Wehrmacht detachments that led the death marches from Auschwitz. In the end, she knows that Heina probably contributed fully to last-ditch Nazi attempts at survival. Questions about the postwar period confound Huber as well: for instance, Heina never took her mother to any socialist meetings, although he threw himself back into socialist youth activity. She wonders whether Heina had perhaps somehow developed middle-class prejudices. She ponders how he might have reacted to the SPD’s reorientation after 1961 as well.

Huber’s novel reflects her poignant, sincere, moving effort to connect with a grandfather she never knew and a world she could only hope to imagine. All along, she is sharply aware of the limitations, pitfalls, and possible abuses of her endeavor. Her constant acknowledgment of both the good and bad in the history of Heina and the rest of the family reflects an honest effort to forge a genuine bond with her grandfather. In this sense, Huber’s work reflects recent trends in post-unification literature on Nazism that adopt more pluralistic attitudes toward German narratives of perpetration and victimhood instead of a stark portrait of crime and innocence. By allowing for a more complex examination of individual complicity, such works do not necessarily reflect efforts simply to reject the Nazi past and refuse acknowledgement of its crimes, but, as Robert Moeller has persuasively argued, demonstrate instead the successful incorporation of the Holocaust into the national memories of individual Germans (and their descendants elsewhere) and betray a self-reflective, critical engagement with an uncomfortable past in the search for a livable present.[2]


[1]. Harold Welzer, Sabine Moller, and Karoline Tschuggnall, Opa war kein Nazi: Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Familiengedächtnis (Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 2002); Harold Welzer, Robert Montau, and Christine Plass, “Was wir für böse Menschen sind!” Der Nationalsozialismus im Gespräch zwischen den Generationen (Tübingen: Edition Diskord, 1997); Margit Reiter, Die Generation danach: Der Nationalsozialismus im Familiengedächtnis (Innsbruck: Studienverlag, 2006); Sabine Moller, Vielfache Vergangenheit: Öffentliche Erinnerungskulturen und Familienerinnerungen an die NS-Zeit in Ostdeutschland (Tübingen: Edition Diskord, 2003); Nina Leonhard, Politik- und Geschichtsbewusstsein im Wandel: Die politische Bedeutung der nationalsozialistischen Vergangenheit im Verlauf von drei Generationen in Ost- und Westdeutschland (Muenster: LIT Verlag, 2002); Michael Kohlstruck, Zwischen Erinnerung und Geschichte: Der Nationalsozialismus und die jungen Deutschen (Berlin: Metropol, 1997); and Gabriele Rosenthal, ed., Der Holocaust im Leben von drei Generationen: Familien von Ueberlebenden der Shoah und von Nazi-Tätern (Giessen: Psychosozial-Verlag, 1997).

[2]. Robert G. Moeller, “Germans as Victims? Thoughts on a Post-Cold War History of World War II’s Legacies,” History and Memory

Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir

Cover MelowresCover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir. Class in America Series, University of Nebraska Press. 2010
ISBN: 978-0-8032-2623-4; 208 pp
Hardcover: $22.95; Kindle (from Amazon): $13
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Finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year 2010
Finalist for the Grub Street Prize in Nonfiction 2010

Growing up in middle-class middle America, Sonya Huber viewed health care as did most of her peers: as an inconvenience or not at all. There were braces and cavities, medications and stitches, the family doctor and the local dentist. Finding herself without health insurance after college graduation, she didn’t worry. It was a temporary problem. Thirteen years and twenty-three jobs later, her view of the matter was quite different. Huber’s irreverent and affecting memoir of navigating the nation’s health-care system brings an awful and necessary dose of reality to the political debates and propaganda surrounding health-care reform. In Cover Me, Huber tells a story that is at once all too familiar and rarely told: of being pushed to the edge by worry; of the adamant belief that better care was out there; of taking one mind-numbing job after another in pursuit of health insurance, only to find herself scrounging through the trash heap of our nation’s health-care system for tips and tricks that might mean the difference between life and death.

“Wise, irreverent, honest, and utterly compelling. . . . Sonya Huber finds unexpected truth and gentle comedy in every bizarre corner of this insane labyrinth we call our health-care system.”—Dinty W. Moore, author of Between Panic and Desire

“The sheer, jet-propelled energy of this memoir elevates it into a tour de force. I found it by turns hilarious and heartbreaking.”—Sue William Silverman, author of Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir

“Timely, passionate, informative, and moving, Sonya Huber’s Cover Me is a scathing memoir of an uninsured young mother’s encounter with health care in America.”—Floyd Skloot, author of In the Shadow of Memory

Press Mentions & Reviews

Thoughtful review by James Nickras in The Ohio Book Review, July 31, 2012: “To me, Cover Me perfectly captures (for some of us) those post-liberal arts degree years where one is trying to find his or her way with different jobs (home for runaway teens, community organizer, journalist, adjunct professor) in different towns (Minneapolis, Boston, Chicago, Columbus) with a series of youthful love interests and motherhood. Each move is a progression to hopefully-something-better to build a future….That is the bare bones of the memoir, dressed in Huber’s anxieties toward maintaining or losing benefits.”

Review by Jennifer Niesslein in Brain, Child, Nov./Dec. 2010: “In this memoir—possibly the only book about yearning and the body that doesn’t involve much sex—Huber chronicles her two decades with only intermittent healthcare insurance. Although she’s well-educated, with a background in community organizing and journalism, she belongs to that certain class of Americans: those who, as she once did, have to make decisions like the one to have an otherwise salvageable tooth pulled because it’s the far cheaper option. (‘The middle-class, orthodontized little girl inside me lodged a righteous protest… What about the headgear, the careful brushings, the hooks and rubber bands?’ she writes.) In often lyrical prose, Huber shows how this missing chunk of security informs decisions ranging from the small (stealing a prescription allergy pill from a friend) to the large (can she afford to have a baby?). ‘Worry is a knife,’ Huber writes. ‘You watch the blade. Tensing against that knife-edge takes the attention and focus that might have gone to your family.’”

Review by Lisa Romero in ForeWard Reviews, Nov./Dec. 2010: “Huber’s tale resonates. Who hasn’t encountered obfuscating obstructions in even the best health plan, to say nothing of the millions of un- and underinsured who will read with head nodding (and maybe fist pounding). Amid her many joyless ironies—like working without benefits for a coalition advocating universal healthcare—Huber injects humor and wit, tinged with a humanity clearly honed by experience at every rung of the slippery healthcare ladder. The rest of the story—about love, friendships, motherhood and career—keeps the reader rooting for Huber, hoping she’ll find not just healthcare but a happier, healthier life.”

Review by T. Tamara Weinstein in Elevate Difference (formerly Feminist Review), 9/15/10: “Cover Me is a moving portrait of how access to healthcare determines who is a “have” and who a “have not” and in Huber’s hands, the issues surrounding healthcare reform become clear and relatable. Improbably, given the toll the struggles exact, the author is also very funny, telling her stressful tale with an irrepressible sense of humor.”

Review and author interview by Joan Hanna in Author Exposure, 10/8/10: “Cover Me makes us all a little more willing to share our stories and give a voice to our frustrations. This book isn’t a radical call for change, it doesn’t offer solutions; rather, it begins a much-needed dialogue. Political party battle lines and “what ifs” about medical care dissolve into the idea that medical care and our health are very basic needs that every United States citizen should be able to rely on without stress, frustration, or embarrassment. This book illustrates, in a way that mere political rhetoric cannot, how the lack of accessible, affordable medical care negatively affects everyone on a personal, emotional and economic scale.”