In the acknowledgments at the end of Alan Lightman's revealing new memoir, Screening Room (Pantheon Books), there are matters to keep in mind before you even begin the book. Some of his characters are based on real people. The names are unchanged; their stories are "for the most part true." Other characters are "loosely based" on family members, and their names have indeed been changed. Some of the characters are "amalgamations" of real people; some are "fictitious." But there's nothing "for the most part true" about gilgul neshamot. As Lightman explains in the body of the book, it's a concept drawn from the mystical element of Judaism known as Kabbalah, and the phrase means "cycle of souls."
Phasma, however, is pure invention. It was a term Lightman and his distant (and fictionalized) Uncle Nate coined, and it means "ghost" — the ghost of the family patriarch, Lightman's formidable grandfather, Maurice Abraham Lightman, but he was known to relatives, friends, and colleagues throughout the movie business as M.A. It was M.A. who gave his name to the M.A. Lightman Company, shortened to Malco, which would grow to become a major chain of theaters still operating in Memphis and across the Mid-South.
The phasma doesn't operate just geographically, however. Nor does it "necessarily obey the usual relations between time and space." It's a force that can travel forward in time to haunt subsequent generations. It can even travel back in time "to fasten its grip" on family members who lived before the patriarch was born. "No one can control a phasma," Lightman writes in Screening Room. "Being aware that a phasma is at work offers no help, and being unaware also offers no help." Though Uncle Nate can somewhat help when he observes: "It's a weird, weird thing .... But then everything is weird. We've got a problem, my friend."
"Weird" is not exactly the word to describe religious observance in the Lightman household. A prominent East Memphis Jewish family of the Reform variety, the Lightmans were proud of their heritage, but that pride ran along the lines expressed by a family friend, who once said: "I want a mezuzah [for the doorway], but one that is not too Jewish." Not exactly orthodox either but plenty prevalent when Lightman was growing up: the alcohol-fueled evenings his parents and their friends enjoyed as members of Memphis' Ridgeway Country Club in the 1950s and '60s. But Screening Room doesn't limit itself to those decades. It travels back and forth in time and touches on all of Memphis history, and by the 1930s, that history was often linked to the Lightmans. Uncle Nate was, however, more than right about the other thing: "We've got a problem, my friend." That's one way to describe Lightman's conflicted feelings for his high-strung mother and his emotionally detached father. Add in, too, the ambivalent attitude toward his hometown and the South in general when the author was a young man.
What is Alan Lightman — physicist, MIT faculty member, novelist, essayist, and avowed atheist — doing writing of a time-traveling ghost-patriarch in the pages of Screening Room? It's the same Alan Lightman, artist-scientist, who can imagine a cycle of souls as one way of interpreting a troubled family universe.
On Thursday, February 19th, 6 to 8 p.m., Lightman, who has lived for decades outside Boston, returns to his hometown to read from and sign copies of Screening Room at story booth (438 N. Cleveland). The evening, presented by Burke's Book Store in conjunction with Crosstown Arts, will also include a Q&A with the author. That landmark building on Cleveland, a few doors down from story booth? It used to be the Crosstown movie theater. Alan Lightman once worked inside it. The Malco company once owned and operated it. And you might say the phasma who built it still haunts it.