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BOOK REVIEW: Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s ‘Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy’

The miracle of Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s book, which is labeled a memoir but is far more, is that she has declared war on shame (and secrecy, its handmaiden), and has prevailed.

Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy
By Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Post Hill Press, 2022

Whatever you are reading, put it aside; it can wait, unless you are already reading Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s latest book, Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy. It’s a book that is unflinchingly honest, at times horrifying, at other times very funny, and throughout, simply wise. Much of the book will resonate specially for Jews, but its insights are universal.

Most people (well, me, really) are under the impression that everyone else’s family is perfect or nearly so. Parents are loving to one another and to their children. Everyone knows the basics of their family tree for one or two generations. Parents have values and seek to model and impart them to their children. Of course, there are occasional rough spots, but they get patched up and life returns to its normal, caring routine.

This sugarcoated impression is of course ridiculous, and with a little reflection, research, determination, and moral courage, it’s not that hard to drill down to and grapple with the facts. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a pioneer of feminism, has done this, excavating her own and others’ memories, following the evidence even where it leads to painful places.

The book is an encyclopedia of secrecy, powered by fear of disgrace (hence the title Shanda, which means shame in Yiddish). It would be fascinating to do a “Survey Monkey” poll among readers: abortions obtained but never discussed; prior marriages entirely suppressed; elaborate conspiracies of silence about a host of once-scandalous events; half-siblings lurking in the family tree; marriages concealed for years; suicides attributed to natural causes; closeted gay and lesbian relations; parents’ ill-advised concealment of anything (including fatal illnesses and early remarriages) that might upset their children. Did I mention hypocrisy? The kosher home where a mother—wed to a synagogue president, no less—carefully keeps a frying pan hidden away, separate from the endless sets of pots, pans and dishes, to be used only to cook up occasional bacon strips for a daughter who was a picky eater.

Add to this stew the challenges of immigration, assimilation, hoped-for upward-mobility, as well as the tidal wave of social changes that have affected American society as a whole since World Wars I and II. My hunch is that many readers will be able to check off many of these same pathologies in their own immediate or extended families. Some, unfortunately, will keep these matters to themselves.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Photo by Mike Lovett

The author methodically unearths unpleasant truths that have been concealed in response to the compelling impulse to maintain respectability either within the Jewish community or the larger community. Fear of disgrace—shame—is a powerful and for some, an irresistible motivator, and even otherwise balanced personalities can be thrown off course by it, with devastating effects that may well have toxic effects decades down the road, destroying what might otherwise have been loving and emotionally rewarding family relationships. The miracle of Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s book, which is labeled a memoir but is far more, is that she has declared war on shame (and secrecy, its handmaiden), and has prevailed. The result is a challenge to readers and, in a way, a kind of ethical will for her own family and others. She doesn’t spare herself where she has been unfair to others, and she takes pains to maintain the privacy of friends who have shared secrets with her. What emerges is a strong sense of both honesty and basic decency. At a time of year when Jews in the United States and elsewhere are supposed to engage in introspection, I can think of no more appropriate reading matter.

Editors note: Letty Cottin Pogrebin will be speaking on Friday, September 23 at 3 p.m. at the Bookstore and Get Lit Wine Bar in Lenox, Massachusetts. And on Sunday, October 9 at 3pm, she will be interviewed by Andre Bernard at the Stockbridge Library, Stockbridge, Mass.


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