Writing under the pseudonym Daniel Kupfermann, a Sofia-based expat has published a new book “Don’t Be So Sensitive!”, an alternately hilarious and heartbreaking story of an ostensibly loving, even enviable 1970s boyhood – with a large house in London, and a holiday home in Praia da Luz – degenerated into a fiasco of drunkenness, antisemitism and neglect.
The book relates a touching story of how a sensitive, stammering boy almost self-destructed completely with drink as he battled anxiety and depression – only to turn what he was always told was his greatest curse into a virtue.
The memoir evokes a brutish decade in which children suffered in silence, senior educators occupied a compassion-free zone, and parents were able to seclude themselves in phone-free paradise.
Ultimately, it’s also a story of love and forgiveness as the author comes to understand his parents’ anguish, and how good people came to do bad things.
The book tells the story of a 10-year-old boy, Daniel, beaten senseless by his “stepfather” in a holiday villa in Praia da Luz in Portugal in 1977 after protesting at his mother’s drunken outburst against his Jewish father from whom she is divorced.
Praia da Luz becomes the backdrop for an escape plan for his London-based mother and “stepfather”.
Their seasonal jobs enable them to escape every winter to Praia da Luz. Daniel is left in a large house in London with a drunken half-brother and, later, a housekeeper.
We see his growing sense of abandonment; we follow him on some lonely escapades around London – at his posh preparatory school in Chelsea – and travelling as an unaccompanied minor to Praia da Luz for the Christmas holidays. We see that his family is drinking heavily and Daniel’s daily task in London and Portugal is to squeeze oranges until his wrists ache for lunchtime and evening gin and orange sessions.
Daniel too starts drinking at a precocious age, finding that it helps him to speak – he has a stammer – and calm his anxieties. He faces growing antisemitism from his stepfather, half-brother and at school.
His “stepfather” eventually walks out after a drunken row.
Daniel feels different from young men. Later he learns he was always a Highly Sensitive Person. But the early 1980s were no era to be highly sensitive, especially in the context of his all-boys’ independent school and his dysfunctional background.
We see how he “internalized” that being sensitive was a shameful characteristic, just like his Jewish extraction and his speech impediment, all to be covered up. He starts drinking heavily.
When he turns 19 his father dies and Daniel, with some inherited money and battling anxiety and depression, sets out on a drunken path of self-destruction, dropping out of university and doing menial jobs.
We come to see how early events in his life, including some pivotal humiliations early on in his life, shaped his diffidence and self-doubt. He reaches rock bottom in his mid-twenties, eventually finding redemption through an organization that helps him with his speech. Gradually, he comes to see the damaging effects of alcohol on his mother, his half-brothers and himself.
We see that his mother, although ostensibly caring and loving, was manipulative to a degree, a discovery which manifests itself more in her old age. The book ends with Daniel now aged 55, still battling but managing anxiety and depression, having learnt that his own drinking was probably falsely diagnosed as alcoholism.
In reality he was self-medicating for loneliness, anxiety, depression and lost Jew syndrome. He is now happily married with two children. In the final segment Daniel revisits Praia da Luz in 2022, the scene of the best and worst of times.
As he rediscovers the beauty of the place he sees how the lotus-eaters of the 1970s had their reasons to escape to the sun. He scatters the ashes of his recently deceased mother on the beach at Praia da Luz.
He has come home and finally understands why his parents were so troubled. He realises they were both HSPs. He comes to accept and even celebrate his own sensitivity after having seen it as a curse. He walks away from Praia da Luz, past orange groves …the fruit he used to associate with heavy drinking. And now, for the first time, as the sun sets over the magnificent beach, he can appreciate them as a beautiful fruit in their own right. He has also forgiven his parents for their shortcomings.
Extracts: “Drunks delude themselves that they’re cultivating great fun memories. How was it then that boozing had always ushered in anger, guilt, anxiety, conflict, self-loathing, recriminations, and violence?”
“I enjoyed a solitary hillside walk above our villa in Praia da Luz and found the field laden with Mediterranean marigolds, oxalis, and mimosa. I could never have shared my delight with anyone of my own age. They’d have thought I was a pansy.”
“Problem drinking is not just for alcoholics.”
Don’t Be So Sensitive! is available now from Amazon: