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The Brothers Emanuel

Did success for Rahm, Ari and Ezekiel come at their mother’s expense?

While everyone admires the Pyramids of Egypt, the workers who toiled and bled to build them have never been properly celebrated. The same could be said of Marsha Smulevitz Emanuel, mother of brilliant physician/ethicist Ezekiel, Hollywood super-agent Ari, and Chicago mayor Rahm. Ezekiel has just released a memoir called Brothers Emanuel. In terms of gripping life stories, it’s not, unless you’re enthralled by sentences like “The multiplication exercise was typical of the way our teachers fostered both competition and group cohesion,” and “After the castle project, Jack got the idea to build a rudimentary computer based on a plan he saw in Scientific American.” (Augusten Burroughs: You have nothing to fear.)

The book crackles is in its depiction of family psychodrama, in which Marsha Emanuel’s thwarted ambitions provided the compost for her sons’ prosperity. Her parenting style could be summed up as passive-aggressive-tiger mom-meets-Jane Fonda. So should Brothers be read as a guide on how to raise three overachievers? Perhaps—if you think raising a child who grows up to be a bold-faced name is adequate payoff for suppressing your sense of self.

Marsha was the whip-smart, spirited daughter of a union organizer, but she never went to college because her father wouldn’t permit it (and she had to give her college savings for her brother Sheldon’s tuition). She met pediatrician-in-training Benjamin Emanuel in Chicago when she was a 23-year-old X-ray technician. Within six years of their wedding, Marsha was the stay-at-home mom to three boys under the age of seven. And although she and Ben had a marriage of equals, he had the final word. So, the family went camping, even though Marsha loathed it. She was thrilled to be invited to LBJ’s inauguration, but didn’t go after Ben told her not to. In his biggest display of dominance, he put a deposit on a house in the suburbs without asking her because he knew she’d object since she loved the city.

Ezekiel Emanuel

But her life wasn’t all cooking, cleaning and wiping runny noses. She organized a local chapter of CORE and picketed Woolworth’s. She took her sons along as she protested segregated classrooms, saw Martin Luther King speak and canvassed voters for the McCarthy campaign. She (without the boys) was arrested three or four times. “…Marching and shouting and getting arrested were a way for our mother to express who she was,” Ezekiel writes.

Unsurprisingly, her anger came out at her loved ones, too. When the boys complained about her at family meetings, she’d yell “I hate you all equally!”, lock herself in the bathroom, and smoke. When the Emanuel males disappointed her by overlooking her on Mother’s Day and her birthday, she’d say, “You don’t care! I work hard all year long and it means nothing to you!” She’d follow this either by screaming for hours or by going silent (sometimes for days). Her rage also found an outlet in her exhorting Ezekiel, Rahm and Ari to achieve more and more. “Straight A’s on your report card?” she’d say. “Great. Now what are you doing about the big project due in two weeks?” Ezekiel writes about the toll this took on them—”No matter what her husband or sons tried she felt disappointed, cheated, and ultimately angry.” Still, in his book’s last (and most interesting) chapter, about the secrets to his brothers’ success, he concludes, “The desire for [our mother’s] approval was a powerful motivator. At this deepest level, this anxiety lies behind much of what we achieved.”

Marsha Emanuel seems to have made peace with her choices—in an interview before Rahm’s 2011 inauguration, she welled up with pride in him and her sons’ accomplishments. Considering the renewed debate about working vs. stay-at-home moms (the New York cover story last week is the latest to fan the flames), does her example endorse SAHM-ness? Not so fast. When Marsha thought the family would remain in the city, she’d considered getting a job, going back to school or running for local political office. Maybe she could have been the Emanuel running Chicago. Too bad she never got the chance to find out.