Diane leads a panel discussion about Jacqueline Woodson's memoir in verse, "Brown Girl Dreaming," winner of the 2014 National Book Award for young people's literature.
Guest Host: Steve Roberts
Some people experience more than their fair share of tragedy. Will Boast lost his mother to cancer when he was a freshman in college. Two years later his brother died in a car accident. When his father succumbed to complications from alcoholism, Boast was only 24 years old and the sole survivor of his immediate family. Days after the funeral, Boast found himself in his family’s Wisconsin home, sifting through his father’s papers. It was then he discovered a deeply held secret – he had two half-brothers living in England. “Epilogue: A Memoir” is a journey through intense pain, but also an exploration of the hope that comes with second chances you never thought you’d have.
- Will Boast Author of "Power Ballads" and "Epilogue: A Memoir"
Read A Featured Excerpt
“Excerpted from Epilogue: A Memoir by Will Boast. Copyright © 2014 by Will Boast. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.”
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts of the George Washington University, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. She's recovering from a voice treatment, and will be back in this chair on Monday. Will Boast is a fiction writer, trained to use his imagination to create characters, plots, stories. But when he sat down to write this story, he kept coming back to was his own. His mother and brother died while he was in college. At 24, Boast found himself completely alone when his father succumbed to alcoholism.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSWhile settling his father's estate, Will discovered a family secret that would complicate his grief and offer hope for a future he never expected he'd have. Will Boast joins me in the studio to talk about his new book, "Epilogue: A Memoir." Will Boast, thanks for joining us here on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. WILL BOASTIt's a real pleasure to be here.
ROBERTSYou can join us too, as always, at 1-800-433-8850, email@example.com. Now I also want to say a special welcome to our new live listeners from WHQR public radio in Wilmington, North Carolina. It's 91.3 FM. And it's Wilmington, the home of one of America's greatest broadcasters, David Brinkley, so we're particularly honored to have you with us, and welcome to our family here at "The Diane Rehm Show." Will, this title, "Epilogue," is kind of an odd title for a memoir.
ROBERTSYou're only 35. And to call your memoir an epilogue. Explain that word and that title.
BOASTWell really, the title refers to my family's story, you know, not necessarily to my own. Although I kind of also did feel that the seeming end of my family's story, when my father passed, after my mother and brother had already passed away, felt like the end of my own story, almost. You know, I think our families give our lives context and meaning. And when family is no longer present in your life, it's hard to understand what the meaning of your life is and how your life continues.
BOASTAnd so, the "Epilogue" is actually also the title of the third chapter in the book. So, when I come to that point, I feel like it's the end, and then there's a discovery that tells me that it's not the end.
ROBERTSWell also, you talk about, in some ways, it's almost contradictory. Because you talk about being alone at 24, that your family's story had come to an end.
ROBERTSAnd yet, there's this resurgence of feeling, as you put it, that now I have to live for all of us. So, it was an ending and a beginning at the same time.
BOASTYeah. Certainly. You know, and a funny thing -- well, the funny thing about writing a true life story is that it's always in the process of continuing and evolving. And so, I try to mirror that in the way that the book is structured by titling "Epilogue." And the first section of the book is a prologue, but the last chapter of the book is also titled, "Prologue," to suggest that even though this book is finished, this story, because it's a true story, continues on.
ROBERTSWell, one of the comments that some critics have said is he's 35. He's too young to write a memoir.
ROBERTSHe hasn't lived enough. Hasn't reflected enough. How do you answer that point of view?
BOASTYeah, well no. It comes up often, I think, and, you know, I came to the form with some reluctance, to be honest. I started this book as a novel. And, for various reasons, which I'm happy to talk about more, it didn't fit into the novel form.
BOASTWell, you know, I wanted to tell the whole story of my family. I didn't just want to tell part of it. And part of the reason for that was I wanted, you know, this kind of incredible thing that happened to me. And I wanted to tell that story. And it actually involved something that, if you saw it in say a Victorian novel, you'd say, oh my God, what a convenient. What a convenient coincidence for this narrative. So I just felt that the pieces of the story wouldn't fit into the novel form. And after writing it -- trying to write it as a novel for a couple years...
ROBERTSReally? That long?
BOASTYeah. Well, quite some time.
BOASTAnd writing many, many pages of that novel, so, yeah.
ROBERTSAnd what was it about the non-fiction form that you -- it's funny, because yesterday, on the show, I had an author who had started his book as non-fiction, and then turned it into fiction.
BOASTI listened to that. Yeah, I listened to that.
ROBERTSAnd you did the opposite.
ROBERTSAnd what was it about the memoir form that you found more congenial, that you found more useful, cause you trained as a novelist.
ROBERTSYou've written a book of short stories. That's your instinct.
ROBERTSAnd yet, what was it about this form that was a better fit for you?
BOASTI think a lot of it had to do with trying to understand the mystery that was my family and perhaps, more particularly, the mystery that was my father. A man of many contradictions when he was alive, and then even more after he passed away. So, part of the process was saying, okay, I'm gonna do this as non-fiction. I'm gonna kind of confront it directly. And also, I'm gonna try and do it as honestly and accurately as possible. And that required me to dig very deeply into my own memories and feelings to understand the story.
BOASTSo, in a way, writing it as non-fiction sort of upped the honesty quotient, if you will. And actually probably made it a much more difficult book, technically, to write.
ROBERTSThat's a very interesting observation, because in some ways, you seem to be saying that fiction, you could also hide in some ways. You could gloss over some elements. You're not obligated to deal with some issues. But by dealing, by making it non-fiction, you almost forced yourself to confront the most difficult elements of this story.
BOASTYeah. I think so. And, you know, in a way, the book is a meditation on that question, as well.
ROBERTSYou know, another question that comes up, one of the readers here said, you know, this was a very private family. Secrets are a big part of the story.
ROBERTSYour dad left England and came to America, settled in Wisconsin. In part, to hide a path that you then uncovered.
ROBERTSWhat do you think your parents, in particular, dad, would think about the fact that you now have been so honest and so revealing about a family that had kept so many secrets?
BOASTYeah, well, in the first chapter of the book, there's a line that's very important to me. And, you know, my father, he was born just at the end of the war and grew up in a time when the English had, I think, sort of perfected their talent for privacy and discretion. And I mean, I also grew up in the mid-west, a place also known for keeping things tied to one's chest. But the English really take the cake there, I think. And, you know, so he taught me, you know, really to never to express pain.
BOASTYou know, never to dwell in difficulty, but move on. You know, always stoically move on. And I think that that code of silence and perhaps also quite a bit of shame and heartbreak caused him to conceal so much about his past. And when I kind of unwittingly revealed these things, well, first of all, I wondered, why the need for this? It seems so unnecessary in a way.
ROBERTSThe need for secrecy.
BOASTThe need for secrecy. And I think it's generational. I guess, would my father -- I think my father would love to have talked about these things, and he never was able to. And I wish we would have been able to. So, in a way, the book was written against that silence. Because I don't think it's useful. I think it was part of that generation's code, for particular reasons, but I think that taken to such an extreme, it's very harmful.
ROBERTSCould you have written the same book if your father was still alive?
BOASTYeah, I don't know. Well, I mean, I wouldn't know what I know about my family if he was alive. So, but I don't think I would have.
ROBERTSBut including the pain and the difficulties he went through.
ROBERTSIt's, you know, I face the same question writing a memoir about my own family and I -- my mom was still alive when I wrote it, but there were things that I wrote in that book that I don't think I could have written when my father was alive.
BOASTYeah. You wonder about that. You wonder, well, this person's still here. And in a way, that's the interesting thing about writing in this form, writing this non-fictional, true personal story is that the -- you have to look at all sides of the thing. You have to consider it from the actual person's point of view, as well. You know, otherwise, you won't have as dimensional a book. And so, I think realizing that made it a deeper, richer experience writing for me.
ROBERTSMy guest this hour is Will Boast. His memoir is called "Epilogue." We have a couple of lines open, so give us a call. We'll turn to our phones before too long. Share your stories about your family, with, and dealing with parents, and telling family stories and telling family secrets. We'd like to hear it. 1-800-433-8850 is our number. Or send us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. One of the things you mentioned Will, that family from England.
ROBERTSA combination of the British stiff upper lip, mid-western reserve.
ROBERTSBut you're of a different time and place. You're a fiction writer, you are 35-years-old. In some ways, are you wrestling with a clash of cultures? The one you grew up with and the one that you now live in.
BOASTYeah, very much so, I think. And, you know, I think we're more forthcoming as a culture now. And, you know, sometimes that gets expressed in sort of sordid ways, like reality television, for example. But I think, also, it's a great boon to our culture, as well. Both English culture and American culture. That we're willing to look at painful subjects in a kind of unblinking way and essentially say, we can deal with this. You know, we can talk about this. We can, perhaps, not always move beyond it, but at least try to understand it.
ROBERTSNow, one of the core elements of this story is your father dies and then you going through his papers and discover a secret.
ROBERTSAnd as you say, if you'd put that in a novel, maybe people wouldn't have believed it. But what was the secret you found?
BOASTSure. Well, at this point, you know, I'd lost my mother to cancer when I was 18. And then two years later, my brother was in a car accident. And so, really, at this point, it was up to me to sort out his personal affairs and, sort of, his estate and take care of the funeral and everything. And as I was going through his desk -- he had this sort of big, monolithic oak desk that he kept all his papers meticulously organized in. And as I was going through, you know, all the kind of boring insurance, bank statements and stuff. I found jammed back in the bottom, in the very bottom drawer...
BOAST...a sheet of papers. Yeah.
ROBERTSAnd we're going to come back and you're gonna tell our listeners. We're gonna leave them guessing what you found out. But Will Boast, his novel, his novel? His memoir is called "Epilogue." He'll tell you what he found. You stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. My guest this hour is Will Boast, short-story writer, novelist, but now the author of a memoir. It's called "Epilogue." And Will was just describing before our break that after his father died and his mother had died, his brother had died, he was now the last member of the family alive at 24. And he went through his father's papers and found something wedged in the back of the desk. And it was a revelation. Will, tell us.
BOASTWell, the file was marked in his very distinctive handwriting, divorce. And my immediate thought was, did my parents start divorce proceedings? You know, I considered that idea but I never thought they would have gone that far. But when I opened the folder and it was quite yellowed and aged, I realized that he had been married to another woman before he met my mother, something he'd never spoken about or even hinted about before.
BOASTAnd then a couple days later the real revelation came to me from my grandmother and my aunts on my dad's side that he'd also had a couple children from their marriage.
ROBERTSWhat was your reaction to realize that this profound secret had been kept from you and that you had two half brothers, particularly given the fact that your full brother had died?
BOASTYeah, well, immense confusion. I was still pretty numb with shock from losing my father and just really a very fresh event. And I was immensely confused and I suppose I was angry as well. You know, I had a real flood of emotion that really took several years really, I mean, probably at least five or six years to sort of untangle and come to some comprehension of.
ROBERTSAnd one of the most stunning sort of images in this book, I gather your grandmother said that she actually had photos of your half brothers on the wall. And when you visited she'd take them down to help keep your father's secret. I mean, that's extraordinary.
BOASTYeah well, he was a very keen photographer. He took, you know, hundreds and hundreds of portraits of my brother and I, artistic portraits. And...
ROBERTSOne of which is on the front cover of the book.
BOASTThat's actually a school photo from when I was in Ireland. But his photos actually were in that vein, very beautiful black and whites. So he loved cameras, he loved photography but in our house among the thousands of family pictures he had, not a single one of his first family. And when we would visit his mother in England, he would call ahead and have her take those photos off the wall.
ROBERTSWhy do you think he did that?
BOASTWell, I mean, it's one of the mysteries that the book seeks to explore and I think for a variety of reasons. You know, his first marriage failed pretty spectacularly. He was pretty young when he entered into it. And for reasons that I would kind of find out later he, I think, had a reason to fill a lot of perhaps heartbreak and shame from that first marriage ending. So I think in a way he didn't want to touch those feelings and he didn't want to go back there. He wanted to sort of wipe the slate clean. And perhaps also that English stoicism that says, that chapter's over, we don’t go there. We don't talk about those things.
ROBERTSAnd of course it's one of the myths of American history but real rooted in reality that America is the place to start over. America's a place to reinvent yourself.
BOASTIt is. It's still that place.
ROBERTSAnd do you think that was part of why he came and...
BOASTYeah, well, my father was also a very intelligent, ambitious man. He didn't have -- he had a few months of night school training and engineering but a very intelligent man with many patents to his name. Very kind of a clever, always sort of turning over engineering problems in his head. So he had an opportunity to take a job that was really a step up from -- we were basically working poor in England. You know, we did okay but so we were still kind of broke.
BOASTSo I think part of the reason he wanted to come here was that opportunity, an adventure kind of with a capital A, you know. But I think he also wanted to kind of, you know, start a new life almost, a new family, a new life.
ROBERTSNot the first or the last person to come to America with that idea in mind.
BOASTNo, that's right.
ROBERTSBut once you learned from your grandmother and aunts that there was this other family, and particularly given the fact that you -- as you write in the book, you were alone. Take us through your thought process. Did you immediately think you'd track these folks down? Were you hesitant? And how and why did you decide to do that and how did you do it?
BOASTWell, you know, my reactions were so complicated, I don't think I understood them in the time. And, you know, I told a very few close friends about this sort of amazing discovery and I could -- I would watch their faces when I told them. And, you know, they would have sort of this curious mixture of sort of surprise and concern and sadness. And often they would sort of laugh and kind of cry at the same time. And...
ROBERTSWhich was sort of what you were doing, too.
BOASTWhich was what I was doing too except maybe I was a bit sort of numb to even understand that, So it was sort of seeing in their faces what perhaps I would, you know, come to experience. And sure enough it was this sort of amazing thing where it's like, well, you know, you've lost your brother, you've lost your mother and father. And guess what, you have two other brothers.
BOASTAnd so the initial contact for me for them was that I wrote them a letter. And I wrote them a letter and said...
ROBERTSWho told you hot to find them, your grandmother?
BOASTYou know, it's something I don't touch on a great deal in the book but it was an important moment that they had to be involved in settling my father's estate. And so the lawyers that did that, you know, found a way to contact them. So I had an address. And, you know, I wrote them a letter and said, you know, although I suspect you've heard this already, your father has died. And if you'd like to know a little bit about him, I'll share some of my memories of him. And I did that.
BOASTAnd, you know, I told them a little bit about my life and...
ROBERTS...in the letter.
BOASTYeah, in the letter. And some -- I got a response from the older of my half brothers. And it was a very considerate, concerned friendly letter. And I think he suggested that we meet. I was actually visiting home at the time. I was in England. So we did meet that summer.
ROBERTSWhat was your reaction when you met him?
BOASTIt was completely and utterly surreal. What made it most strange was that he looks just like my father, handsome.
BOASTSo I went outside. I opened the front gate of my aunt's house and shook his hand and said, this is my father standing in front of me, a younger version of my father almost. I mean, the resemblance is very striking. So we had a very interesting afternoon together. He works in the arts world and really had been the only person in my family I'd ever met. And no one in my family works in the arts. And so we had quite a bit in common. And so that was a pretty amazing and kind of harrowing first meeting. And I was sort of feeling that mixture of wanting to sort of laugh with joy and cry at the same time. It was an amazing experience to meet him.
ROBERTSAnd then you eventually met the second brother as well.
ROBERTSAnd I gather he sounded like people in your family.
BOASTYeah, so he's lived his whole life where I was born and most of my family lives. And he has that Hampshire accent, which is not the kind of upper crusty BBC, Hugh Grant accent, but is sort of, you know, a kind of actually very musical accent. And the funny thing about that was that my older half brother looked so much like my father, my younger half brother and I look very much alike. And so that was very odd as well. You know, I sort of thought I was the only person in my family who had kind of curly hair. And then I realized that he does as well.
BOASTSo, yeah, I think it's just the -- you recognize your blood in someone else so immediately. And also it's not just things like hair and sort of facial features but, you know, my older half brother laughs like my father. My younger brother -- younger half brother and I, we walk the same way. You know, we have sort of the same mannerisms. So it's incredible what gets passed down.
ROBERTSWell, when you, you know, talk about nature versus nurture, which is an eternal question, and of course it's always both, but there have been a number of studies done of twins separated at birth.
ROBERTSOf course it's a relatively small dataset but some of them are even eerie of people who have never met their twin and show up dressed the same way.
ROBERTSYou know, I mean, those...
BOASTIt makes you think, yeah.
ROBERTS...those are very powerful ideas. And I have just been through some tragedies in my own life, lost my own twin brother this summer. And we look -- we're not identical but we've always looked very much alike. And for years I would pass a -- you know, if I caught my reflection in a window, I would think, what's he doing here?
BOASTWhat's he doing here?
ROBERTSAnd a few years ago, Will, I started thinking, what's our father doing here? And I went from, you know, it was just a different stage of life, right. But imagine seeing that in a sibling you never even knew existed. It's in a whole extra dimension.
ROBERTSAnd are you still in touch with them?
BOASTYes. We're very close now. And, you know, sort of part of the book is about us growing close. It wasn't all easy, by any means. I mean, they're lovely, considerate, beautiful people. And I'm very lucky to get close to them now. And it was just my nephews birthday last -- two weekends ago. Said hello, had a little chat and he was excited about what I sent him for his birthday. And so, yeah, it's good. I also got to be an uncle as well, which was something I never thought would happen. And suddenly I was an uncle.
BOASTSo it's funny that you think, you know, I thought the story was -- felt over but really it continues even past us so...
ROBERTSWhat do they think of the book?
BOASTYou know, I had to sort of write it in my own privacy I think. I talked about it many times with them. You know, they're quite English so, you know, perhaps there's an Englishness that I try to reflect in the book and try to honor. You know, I changed names and occupations as you often do in this genre. And, yeah, so I think, we'll see. But, you know, when -- I've talked about it with them, but I had to sort of write it in the kind of sort of privacy of one's own desk and...
ROBERTSI mean, as you said earlier, if you're going to do this you had to do it right.
BOASTIt had to be a...
ROBERTSHad to tell the true story.
BOAST...literary object as well. So it is for my family but it's also for readers as well. And so it had to be true to that.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Will Boast, let's talk to some of our callers, many of whom want to share stories. And let's start with Ann in Venice, Fla. Ann, welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
ANNThank you very much. I watch it every day -- listen to it every day. Just a few months ago my mother passed away at 91, almost 92 years old. And we always knew she was adopted and she told us she was born out of wedlock and gave us a last name of her birth mother, but it was incorrect. And going through her papers we found adoption papers. And had she given me this information, it didn't take me more than a day or two to actually track down family members. But the interesting thing is her birth mother was biracial. All of her half siblings were raised in the African American race. And we were all raised white.
ANNAnd I have now contacted a cousin in the area in which my mother was born. And I now have pictures of my birth grandmother and I know where she's buried. And it was just such a revelation to me. Whether my mother knew that she was of mixed race or not, I don't know because all of her family, her half siblings are all deceased. And my cousin said that she asked one time about family history and everybody just clammed up.
ANNThey wouldn't say anything. It was very common...
ROBERTSAnn, stay on the line. I want to get Will's reaction to your comments. And then maybe you can comment on his comments. Go ahead, Will.
BOASTWell yeah, Ann, what an amazing and interesting story that is. You know, the thing that I've experienced, and perhaps you have too, is that, you know, when you mention this to other people you know or they realize that you've experienced something like this, I'm just always surprised how many people say, oh yeah, my mother had a family and we never knew about them. Or my uncle had a family and we never knew that this had happened in the family.
BOASTAnd I think it's a generational thing perhaps that a few generations removed from now that they felt this need to keep those things secret. And I'm always surprised at -- well, I'm just always stunned that what I learn when I share my story with other people. So I think it's much more common than we think.
ANNWell, I agree with you on that except the interesting part that I think -- and we're talking about generations -- plus my siblings aren't going to tell their children that we have this history.
BOASTOh, interesting. Interesting, yeah.
ANNThat they're embarrassed. (unintelligible) like there's still this stigma. And I think it's fantastic. I embrace the fact that I have this history because I never knew. But their attitude really surprised me. They didn't want to know. They don't want to know anymore.
BOASTThat's interesting, yeah.
ANNYeah, I found that part in there. Thank you.
ROBERTSThank you for your call, which leads, Will Boast, to the fact that you also discovered something about your mother, similar to Ann's story.
BOASTYeah. Well, you think the sort of secrets are over and then, you know, so a funny thing is that a couple years after I found that file of papers, I revisited it. You know, I said, I haven't looked at this for such a long time. And as I was revisiting it I realized that I'd missed something. I couldn't believe that I had, that my mother had been married as well before she met my father. And, you know, I think she was in her early 20's when it happened.
BOASTAnd it was a marriage that didn't last long but, you know, I went to my grandmothers on my mother's side and said, is this true? And she said, it is true. And I said, well, there's no more surprises, right? You know, I don't have any other half siblings, do I? She said, nothing to worry about. It's okay.
BOASTWell, today we live in an age where you can do genealogy research quite easily. And just last year I discovered -- well, I got an email quite out of the blue that said I'm doing genealogy research and could you confirm this information? And I said, what is this all about? And it led to me learning that I also have a half sister, that my mother had a baby girl when she was very young.
ROBERTSMy goodness. Will Boast. "Epilogue" is his book. Stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. My guest is Will Boast, short story writer, novelist, and now author of a memoir, "Epilogue." And so many folks, Will, have been touched by your story and want to share theirs, as well. So let me read some emails. This starts with -- this one is from Debbie, who says my parents had always insisted that I was their biological child, but I always felt different. Much to my chagrin, at least three people came up to me at my mother's funeral and told me, I remember when they adopted you.
BOASTOh my God.
ROBERTSI was about 37 or so. I was very confused, angry and upset for years. I still don't know who my birth parents are. I've tried to find them, but to no avail. I'm an only child also, so I have no family now. Someday, she says, I will find them though. Do you get a lot of comments like that?
BOASTWell, it's, it's sort of stunning. And I sometimes say, half-jokingly, every family has secrets, you just haven't asked yet. But it's quite true, and you know, again, I do feel it's a generational thing, that these secrets were kept for reasons that seem not as necessary now. But I'm always surprised by how many people share very similar stories.
ROBERTSAnd here's Mary, writes to us, when my father died, I had the same task in England, to perform, as your guest. I found letters from my mother to my father, before they were married in the early 1940s, which completely changed the way I viewed their relationship and their history, which I thought I knew. But evidently, did not know the whole of. It was a shock and it's taken me some time to process.
ROBERTSThat's another version of this.
ROBERTSRight? Discovering these letters. I had that experience when I was writing a memoir.
ROBERTSI said to my mother, is there anything you have, mom, that I could help me. And she said, oh yes, Steven, I do. So, she brought up a box of over 100 letters.
ROBERTSThat my parents had exchanged, like the caller, before they were married.
ROBERTSAnd it does change -- it's an insight into your parents' youth that you never heard, never saw.
BOASTYeah, it's a funny thing, because I think that you think you know who your parents were, and then when you really look at it, when you really examine it, you realize, oh my God, they were so much more complicated than I realize. And it's such an odd to know, to think you know someone so intimately, and then realize there was dimensions you never could have guessed at, really.
ROBERTSA lot of the letters reinforced for me what I knew about my parents' personalities, but one of the -- my dad had always been a writer and an editor. And when I read these letters, I realized my mom was the better writer. She was clearer, sharper, more concise. I mean, it was a total revolution. She never published a word in her life, yet she was actually the better writer.
BOASTShe was the talent.
ROBERTSHere we have, from Sally. I was adopted as an infant, always knowing about my adoption as I grew up, but I never really was interested in searching out our direct family.
ROBERTSAbout 15 years ago, I was contacted by a half-sister, birth mom's side, and that resulted in being introduced to five half-siblings. In the last month, I've been introduced to a half-sister on the birth father side. I would agree that the feeling upon meeting these people was surreal. The word you used.
ROBERTSYou find yourself in contact with people who share your genes, but not your experiences.
BOASTAre a stranger to you. Such a strange feeling. Yeah.
ROBERTSAnd here's one more from Diane. How did Will's half-siblings deal with their father's lack of contact with them after the divorce from their mother? Interesting question.
BOASTYeah. Good question. Well, in two different versions of that story that I -- you know, that their mother was the one who sort of kept my father at a distance. And then the other version would be that, you know, my father never sought them out. And I've gotten two very different versions of that from my family members. And I don't think I'll ever be able to reconcile that. I think it was very painful for them, and part of the book is coming to understand how they think about their father. That they knew when they were young, but had seen, well, not at all for, well, since then.
ROBERTSAnd yeah, one of the dimensions here, as these callers reflect so many versions of this story. But in your case, immigration is an important dimension of it.
ROBERTSBecause you're separated from the homeland. You're separated from the culture in which you grew up. And as we said, many people come to America to reinvent themselves. But it aggravates the sense of separation.
ROBERTSThat your half-siblings must have felt.
BOASTYeah, I think, I mean, I think, you know, what I came to realize is that from their perspective, their father walked out of their lives when they were quite young. And then he not only left the city where we had all kind of lived, but he left the country as well. You know, that he completely broke ties with them. And, in fact, he kind of did in his memory. He tried to, anyways. He got rid of all those photos. But, of course, I don't think he ever was really able to cut it out as cleanly as he thought he would. And I think one of the real revelations of thinking so deeply about my father was realizing that he had lost two families. Not just one. You know, he lost both families.
ROBERTSLet's turn to Molly in Cary, North Carolina. Molly, welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MOLLYHi. Thank you so much for taking my call. And I cannot believe the timing of your interview, because we knew that my mother was adopted, and for many years, we tried to find her family. And she just turned 75, and she is English as well. So, this amazing. And she always felt that her mom did not want to put her up for adoption, but she was born out of wedlock, which, of course, is a big secret, especially a generational one. And it's a shame. But I email -- or, I wrote a letter to someone who I, you know, probably dropped a huge bomb on.
MOLLYBut I said, you know, I think my mother is your half-sister. And yesterday, I got an email from someone who is my cousin. And she can't believe it. And it's just -- we're at the very beginning stages of this discovery, because we knew about -- we knew my mother was adopted, but they had no idea that she existed. And yesterday, we were exchanging photos, and they had said, she looks just like our mother, more so than we do. And so basically, my mother has two half-sisters who are twins, and a half-brother who passed away. But we are all very excited. It's a shock for everyone, but we are in the very nascent stages of finding that we have new family.
MOLLYAnd we did speak yesterday, and for us, it was very comfortable. It felt very natural. So, you know, I'm going to go buy your book now, but thank you for having this interview.
ROBERTSThe fact that she felt so comfortable is a blessing. You know, it's not always true that way.
MOLLYIt isn't. Yeah. Mmm-hmm. Yeah, and I think that when you set out on that -- and that's the beginning of the journey, that she's on. But when you set off on that journey, you don't know. You don't know who those people are going to be. And I -- you know, my belief is that people are basically good and decent and that you can trust them to be concerned about you and as you're concerned about them. But it doesn't always go that way. And I was lucky, you know, that my brothers are.
ROBERTSMolly, are you still on the line?
ROBERTSAre you -- one of the things that Will has written about in his book is he discovered some things about his father that were not so positive. That he had drunk heavily and had left this family behind. Are you worried that you're gonna learn things that you might not want to know. Or are you just excited?
MOLLYI think we're very excited. I think we knew that she was a very nice person. And I don't think there was anything quite like that in her past. But for us, it's just such a shame that she didn't feel comfortable sharing that with us. Because there could have been many years of happiness all together. It's ironic, because there was one comment from an aunt who wanted to tell her half-sister something and died later that week. Like, she was very old, but she never had a chance to tell them. But it had some elusions to there was something in Isabelle's past. So, it was a shame. But we're very excited and I don't think there's anything too scandalous besides...
ROBERTSGood for you.
MOLLY...an illegitimate child. Yeah, thank you.
ROBERTSThanks for sharing your story, Molly. We appreciate it. Let's turn to Judy in Wixom Lake, Michigan. Judy, welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JUDYHi. Mine isn't a -- well, there's been two things happen in my life that were really weird. The first thing, 12 years ago, I took my mother up to Grayling, Michigan, to visit her grandmother's grave. Well, we thought she was going to see her grandmother's and her grandfather. But his grave wasn't there. And when we checked at the courthouse, well, the courthouse had burned down in the late 1890s. So there was no record. Well, she went to visit her cousin, oh, about a year and a half later.
JUDYShe went to visit her cousin. And her cousin said, she had a trunk up in her attic that her mother had left there. And they went up -- the trunk was my grandfather -- my great grandfather's. My mother's grandfather's trunk. And they opened the trunk. They had to break the lock and they opened it. And they discovered a whole bunch of newspaper articles and a suicide note. Come to find out, my great grandfather is buried in Potter's Field in Grayling because he committed murder on an 18 month old baby.
JUDYMurdered the baby. He was a butcher by trade. He slit the baby's throat. And then he bathed the baby and dressed her in a little nighty. And crossed her hands over her chest and put her in a crib. And then he went looking for the baby's mother with his rifle. Couldn't find her, though he went all through the town. The newspaper articles were just, oh, scary. Screaming and hollering, looking for this woman. He didn't find her, praise God, but he went back home and killed himself with that rifle.
JUDYThe suicide note was shoved under my grandfather's door, his only son. He put it under the door. My grandfather was 16 at the time. And then the shot woke my grandfather up and of course, then came the police knocking on the door. It was totally out of the blue. It just shocked all of us. We had never heard even a hint. None of mama's cousins knew the story. None of them. And all the old aunts were already dead, so nobody spoke about it. We did not know. No one in the family knew. It was really frightening.
JUDYAnd then two years ago, my stepmother died and her daughter brought me a box of things that had been my father's. Hidden in that box were some photos taken during World War II when he was in Vienna. One of the pictures, well two of them, actually, he was had his arm around this young lady who was holding a newborn baby. He was engaged to my mother at the time. We had not known any of this. So, somewhere in Vienna, I have a half-brother that we know nothing about. It was a baby boy. That's all we know from the pictures.
ROBERTSWhat a story.
JUDYAwesome. Awesome. But you never know the secrets in the family until you start digging. I mean, you know, no one would have opened that trunk, probably, until after mama's cousin Lucy died. No one would have known what was in that trunk in our lifetimes, probably. It was just a total shock to everyone in the family.
ROBERTSWell, thank you so much for sharing that story with us, Judy.
ROBERTSWe appreciate it.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." These trunks in the attic.
BOASTMetaphorical and actual.
ROBERTSContain a lot of secrets, but part of that is because people kept -- wrote letters and kept diaries.
ROBERTSAnd you wonder -- the internet giveth and taketh away. It allows you to track people down, as several of our callers have pointed out.
ROBERTSThey've used the new modern forms to find people, but on the other hand, are there going to be trunks in the attic a generation or two from now to be opened?
BOASTWho knows? Yeah, and that's how I found out about my half-sister, because of genealogy websites and emails. So, yeah, it's a different world.
ROBERTSLet's turn to Zachary in St. Louis, Missouri. Zachary, welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
ZACHARYHi there. Thanks for taking my call. I am calling because I actually am kind of in the reverse of this situation that the writer is. Where my mother left me when I was about 13. I have since discovered that when she left, she now has a son that's of an age that would suggest that he was conceived at either just before or right after that time. I don't believe he knows that I exist at all, but that would make him, I suppose, my brother. And I just wanted to know whether you wished that you had known about your half-brother's existence before it had to come to you, discovering them in the wake of your father's death.
BOASTYeah. Well, I think it's different for everyone, I suppose. For me, yes, I wish I would have known, and I wish I would have been able to have that conversation with my father. You know, I think, in part, because it would have been a great comfort for both of us, I think. Perhaps, for him, to finally get that off his chest, but for me to understand that I did have family that I could sort of rely on in the future. And so, yeah, I do wish that I would have known.
BOASTAnd I wish that we could have talked about that. There are many other things I wish we could have talked about, but that's probably the biggest, really.
ROBERTSAnd are you going to try to find this sibling?
BOASTWell, we email every few weeks, and I hope that -- well, it's a pretty recent revelation, but I hope to meet her when I'm in England next, which will probably be this Christmas.
ROBERTSSo you -- the story continues.
BOASTThe non-fiction story continues.
ROBERTSThank you, Zachary, for sharing that. We have time for just one other quick comment. And so Rebecca, in Atlanta, you get the last word.
REBECCAThank you for taking my call. I -- when I was growing up, my father never knew his own father. And we were always told that my grandmother left him shortly after my father was born. And she never remarried or anything. And in doing some ancestry investigation, I found that his birth, that their marriage date was a year after my father was born. So I started to ask around to family members and found out that was father was actually the product of a rape and that her father had made him marry her, just so she would have the name.
REBECCAAnd my father never knew that. And we just lost him a few months ago. And I never told him, because I felt like it would really break his heart. And I didn't see any good that could come from it.
ROBERTSSometimes there are secrets worth keeping.
BOASTYeah. Well, I mean, people have their reasons, for sure. Yeah. For sure.
ROBERTSThank you so much for sharing that with us, Rebecca.
REBECCAThank you. And I look forward to reading the book.
ROBERTSThank you very much. So, you got another writing project?
BOASTYes, I do. On to a novel I've been working on for a little while, completely unrelated to this subject. And a few other things. I'm, you know, working on a couple scripts. I do some journalism. I'm very interested in all kinds of different sort of writing, so I -- but mostly, it will be this novel. Yeah.
ROBERTSWill Boast. Novelist, short story writer, and now memoirs. "Epilogue" is the name of his book. And I'm Steve Roberts. I'm sitting in today for Diane. She's gonna be back in this chair on Monday. And thanks so much for sharing your stories and sharing your hour of your morning with us.
Most Recent Shows
Ken Burns tells Diane that tracing the history of baseball offers rich insight into the history of the country.
A flurry of lawsuits are exposing new information about the Sackler family's role in the country’s epidemic.
Susan Page on her new book, "The Matriarch," a biography of Barbara Bush.