I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, a few weeks after my parents arrived in the United States, and raised in Topeka, Kansas, where my father, along with other refugee psychoanalysts, found work at Menningers, a mental sanitarium. While the small town comforts of the Midwest form the landscape of my childhood, this pleasant landscape is threaded by the strains of assimilation, as well as the darker memories of Nazi Europe that I heard from my parents and the other refugees who clustered around Menningers. And as events in Kansas sometimes recalled the prejudice my Berlin mother and Viennese father had suffered, and the difficulties of their flight and homelessness, I learned to have a kind of double vision—to be both an American girl and the wary child of immigrants.
Over the years, I have employed both memoir and fiction to write about the mix of lyrical and sinister in my childhood. My new memoir Afterimages, (Holmes & Meier, 2008), is the story of growing up in the American heartland, as well as my return to Vienna to uncover who my father had been before emigration. My novel, The Flood (Curbstone Press, 1995) takes place in 1951, as Eva, a Jewish ten year-old, tries to make sense of the flooding Kansas River and a suit that a black family has instigated against the Topeka Board of Education for running segregated schools.
The woman who had given my parents visas to the United States, had graduated from Vassar College, and when I was ready to go to college, in the hope that I would as helpful to others as she had been to our family, my parents encouraged me to go there. But New York City was both tantalizingly close and too far away from Vassar. After two years, I transferred to Barnard College, in New York, where I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology and Religious Studies.
While marriage was a must for young women of my generation, having a serious career was still a relatively new idea. I worked in a number of areas, including a publishing company and a mental hospital, and, through a fluke, wrote a book about women in medicine—which led me to consider becoming a doctor. But when the Office of Economic Opportunity initiated Head Start, I was hired to write about the program’s early years, which led to research on educational inequality and eventually my returning to school at Columbia University, where I earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology and Education.
For the past decades, I have divided my time between turning my more personal thoughts into fiction, memoir, personal essays, and book reviews, and conducting research on issues related to inequality and prejudice in public schools. I have been Research Associate at the ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education at Columbia Teachers’ College; Senior Research Scientist at New York University’s Institute for Education and Social Policy; and Principal Associate in the New York City office of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. Although these two worlds have been quite separate, they have each nourished the other and come together in me.
One day a number of years ago, the director of the institution where I was working got a telephone call from someone at the Library of Congress, who wanted to know whether the Carol Ascher who writes about public education might have a middle name. This would the Library of Congress distinguish between the Carol Ascher who writes about educational policy and the Carol Ascher who writes fiction, literary nonfiction and book reviews. My boss was as amused as I was. Perhaps one day I’ll write a story about someone who does research on public schools!