Three writers, an historian and two memoirists, grapple with questions of family secrets, shame, and reinvention in their works, presented at this meet the authors program.
In Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day, historian Deborah Cohen explores scores of previously sealed records and offers a sweeping account of how shame–and the relationship between secrecy and openness–has changed over the last two centuries in Britain. Cohen uses detailed sketches of individual families as the basis for comparing different sorts of social stigma. In delving into the dynamics of shame and guilt, Family Secrets explores the part that families, so often regarded as the agents of repression, have played in the transformation of social mores from the Victorian era to the present day.
Journalist and senior editor Steve Luxenberg delves into his mother’s past in Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret. Shortly before she died, Beth Luxenberg revealed that she had had a disabled sister who had been sent away at age two. As Luxenberg began digging, he found discrepancies in his mother’s story: the sister, Annie, had been twenty-one, not two, when she had been committed to a Michigan psychiatric hospital. While Annie spent the rest of her life there, her sister buried all mention of her. Employing his skills as a journalist while struggling to maintain his empathy as a son, Luxenberg pieces together the story of his mother’s motivations, his aunt’s unknown life, and the times in which they lived. Annie’s Ghosts explores the nature of self-deception and self-preservation. The result is equal parts memoir, social history, and riveting detective story.
Writer and journalist Emma Brockes grew up hearing only pieces of her mother’s past—stories of a rustic childhood in South Africa, glimpses of a bohemian youth in London—and yet knew that crucial facts were still in the dark. Brockes soon learned that Paula’s father was a drunk megalomaniac who terrorized Paula and her seven half-siblings for years. After finally mustering the courage to take her father to court, Paula was horrified to see the malevolent man vindicated of all charges. Ultimately she booked one-way passage to London—but not before shooting her father five times, and failing to kill him. Smuggling the fateful gun through English customs would be Paula’s first triumph in her new life. She Left Me the Gun reveals how Paula reinvented herself to lead a full, happy life. A beguiling journey across generations and continents, She Left Me the Gun chronicles Brockes’s efforts to walk the knife-edge between understanding her mother’s unspeakable traumas and embracing the happiness she chose for her daughter.
Raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Deborah Cohen was educated at Harvard (BA) and Berkeley (PhD). She is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Humanities and Professor of History at Northwestern University. Her speciality is modern European history, with a focus on Britain.
Steve Luxenberg has been a senior editor with the Washington Post for twenty-two years, overseeing reporting that has won numerous awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes for explanatory journalism. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
Emma Brockes is a freelance writer, based in New York, who writes for the Guardian newspaper.
Free and open to the public; no registration required.