Welcome to “Behind the Byline,” the column in which we share conversations with current NER writers in all genres.
This month, NER editor Carolyn Kuebler speaks with former US Figure Skating champion, retired anesthesiologist, and now-author Lorraine Hanlon Comanor. Comanor’s essay “In the Shadow of Parsenn” (NER 36.1) reveals some heart wrenching truths about being a teenager on the road and at the rink, and at the highest level of competition.
CK: Your essay describes what seems like a central chapter in your life—the transition from becoming the US Figure Skating Champion to giving up the sport altogether. And you were still only seventeen! Have you written other chapters in your life, both during and after competitive skating?
LHC: A modified version of this piece is the final chapter of the first part of my skating memoir, “Coming off the Edge.” The first section of the story tells of my journey under the tutelage of an overzealous mother and anorexic coach from compliant asthmatic kid to independent national champion who gradually becomes disillusioned with the skating life. The second part takes me back to Europe fifty years later where, in the company of my old boyfriend, I meet with former East German coaches and athletes damaged by doping. Gradually, I see my childhood devoted to the god of the ice in a new light. I’m also working on a piece about discovering my family heritage, which had been hidden so they might advance in the Late George Apley’s Boston.
CK: What did you do after your dramatic departure from Switzerland that day, on a train with your mother?
LHC: As I had refused to train in Chamonix, Mother took me to Juan les Pins, a small town on the French Riviera, hoping I would come to my senses. Instead I took a course on Proust at the University of Nice and tried my hand at translation. I also met a young Italian. When my mother realized he was serious, she put me on the next flight back to Boston. Nine years ago, at the time of her death, I found among her effects pieces of his destroyed letters. Two and a half years ago, he found me through the internet and we have since become close friends.
CK: I love how you describe the awkward, passionate, and ultimately hopeless relationship with Seppi, your German skater boyfriend. And I can’t help wondering, did you ever see him again, after that awkward Christmas visit?
LHC: We saw each other several months later at the world championships in Cortina, but didn’t talk. After I wrote this piece, I wondered what I might have said differently had I known what had become of Sepp. After several months of fretting, I finally typed his name into Google and discovered his impressive Lebenslauf (a detailed curriculum vitae): Olympian, Ice Capades performer, graduate of technical photography school, photojournalist for Bild Zeitung, doctorate in biomechanics, coach. Through Facebook, I sent a short message in German: “A voice from your past. Merry Christmas.” The almost immediate reply: “Is that really you? Where are you? I looked for you for years.”
After five months of Skyping, I finally agreed to go back to Germany for a visit. Part of me wanted to understand what had come between us and another part wanted to come to terms with my skating past.
Over the past two years we have explored the War and its aftermath, skating in the Cold War era, the isolation of a skating childhood, the feeling of never quite measuring up, and what became of the DDR skaters. To help me understand more of his childhood, the division of his family by the Wall, what made our relationship so difficult, as well as sports in the DDR, Sepp organized several trips through Germany. Together we visited both our old haunts and cities I’d never seen. We spoke with old DDR coaches and athletes damaged by state-sponsored doping and read their Stasi files. We spent time in the archives of the University of Leipzig’s library where theses on doping research are carefully hidden. Gradually my dreams of failure started to fade into the background. What emerged was a clearer picture of the value of sports and the damage they can inflict when the price for gold becomes too high.
CK: You seem to have fallen under the spell of German literature and Mann’s Magic Mountain while you were living with the Bruckmanns in Davos. Did you continue to read German literature after your teenage years?
LHC: The Harvard French department was stronger than its German one, so I started with nineteenth-century French history and literature, only getting in one course on Goethe before deciding on a medical career. Medicine is a time-consuming mistress and all forms of literature went by the wayside as I tried to learn it.
Not until I reconnected with old friends a few years ago did I realize how much language, both French and German, I had lost in fifty years of only speaking English. Ill-prepared by “ice rink German” to tackle German literature during my year in Davos, I struggled with the Mittelschule’s curriculum of works from Germany, Austria, and German-Switzerland. The plays of Brecht and Frisch were definitely easier for me than the novels of Mann and Hesse, emphasized because those Germans had left their homeland to become Swiss citizens. The stories of Kafka and Stefan Zweig stayed with me for years, as did some of the poetry of Rilke and Heine before they too began to fade.
Initially, Sepp gave me biographies of German skaters to read, gradually progressing me to brief histories of DDR events and Stasi files. Before returning to Prague, we both reread Kundera, which led us to reading more on the postwar era. Looking up something on Sebald, I discovered that he had been Sepp’s classmate in Oberstdorf and pushed him to read Austerlitz. A book review of Nicht ich introduced me to Joachim Fest, a famous Berlin journalist, and I also recommended him to Sepp. These books became part of the discussion of our postwar years. Currently I am reading Houllebecq’s Soumission, but one of these days, I’ll get back to the classic German literature.
CK: How did you come to write this piece, after so many years practicing medicine?
LHC: I went to Bennington [Writing Seminars] determined not to write about skating or medicine, only coming finally to realize that they were the lenses through which I saw the world. As I often ended up in train towns, I, at one point, attempted an essay on the trains that ran through my life. Sven Birkerts, my astute teacher, said, “All very interesting, but I think the heat is in the ride between Davos and Oberstdorf.” At first, I was reluctant to open the Pandora’s box, to revisit an unhappy romance and the end of my skating career, but gradually he teased the story out of me and it led to a great adventure.
Lorraine Hanlon Comanor was the 1963 US Figure Skating Champion and member of the US Figure Skating Team. She graduated from Harvard University and Stanford Medical School, completed her residency at both universities, and is a board-certified anesthesiologist. Following twenty-five years in the operating room, she became a medical writer and a research consultant to numerous pharmaceutical companies. More recently, she received her MFA in fiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She lives in the high Sierras, where she enjoys hiking, cross-country skiing, and kayaking.
Read “In the Shadow of Parsenn” by Lorraine Hanlon Comanor