Shan­da: A Mem­oir of Shame and Secrecy

By – November 28, 2022

With Shan­da, fem­i­nist activist and writer Let­ty Cot­tin Pogre­bin deliv­ers a pow­er­ful new mem­oir that mines her life expe­ri­ences as they per­tain to cross-gen­er­a­tional shame and secre­cy. Pogre­bin, one of the founders of Ms. Mag­a­zine and a con­sult­ing edi­tor for the ground­break­ing tele­vi­sion ver­sion of Mar­lo Thomas’s Free to Be … You and Me, is beloved by a gen­er­a­tion of Jew­ish fem­i­nist read­ers for her 1991 mem­oir, Deb­o­rah, Gol­da, and Me: Being Female and Jew­ish in Amer­i­ca, and her 2003 nov­el, Three Daugh­ters.

Inspired by her granddaughter’s biog­ra­phy project for a col­lege course, Pogre­bin returns to a trove of fam­i­ly let­ters and doc­u­ments that she inher­it­ed when her old­er sis­ter died. She puts these mate­ri­als to good use, demon­strat­ing both how valu­able fam­i­ly mem­o­ra­bil­ia is to under­stand­ing the past and also how fraught, con­flict­ing, and incom­plete mem­o­ry and passed-down sto­ries are. Com­bin­ing the doc­u­ments with con­ver­sa­tions with fam­i­ly mem­bers, Pogre­bin explores her ear­ly life and the secrets of her fam­i­ly and then expands to reflect more broad­ly on pub­lic secre­cy and shame.

Pogrebin’s com­mit­ment to exam­in­ing her own life is inspir­ing. She pro­ceeds with a steely deter­mi­na­tion to dis­cov­er truths and hold her­self account­able while main­tain­ing com­pas­sion for her younger self. She recalls a time when she and her fam­i­ly did not do enough to sup­port a cousin with cog­ni­tive dis­abil­i­ties, hav­ing lacked the skills and resources to treat them with care. Pogre­bin also draws on exam­ples of fam­i­ly sup­port alle­vi­at­ing the suf­fer­ing of those with hid­den shames: abor­tions, rel­a­tives strug­gling to come out as gay or trans, issues with drugs and alco­hol. In these sto­ries, shared inter­gen­er­a­tional knowl­edge helps peo­ple nav­i­gate their shan­das in ways that are incred­i­bly mov­ing. In moments when Pogre­bin seeks not to expi­ate her­self but to lay bare the dynam­ics of shame and secre­cy and their real con­se­quences on people’s lives, Shan­da nec­es­sar­i­ly shimmers.

As a sto­ry­teller, Pogre­bin is breezy and con­fi­dent, mak­ing the book as plea­sur­able as it is infor­ma­tive. She seems to sug­gest that, while many of these large­ly Jew­ish sto­ries describe events of yore, pub­lic and pri­vate shan­das con­tin­ue to take hold.

Julie R. Ensz­er is the author of four poet­ry col­lec­tions, includ­ing Avowed, and the edi­tor of Out­Write: The Speech­es that Shaped LGBTQ Lit­er­ary Cul­ture, Fire-Rimmed Eden: Select­ed Poems by Lynn Loni­di­erThe Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er, and Sis­ter Love: The Let­ters of Audre Lorde and Pat Park­er 1974 – 1989. Ensz­er edits and pub­lish­es Sin­is­ter Wis­dom, a mul­ti­cul­tur­al les­bian lit­er­ary and art jour­nal. You can read more of her work at www​.JulieREn​sz​er​.com.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Let­ty Cot­tin Pogrebin

  1. Among the ani­mat­ing themes in Shan­da are fear of shame, the ruinous impact” of pub­lic dis­grace, and the bur­dens of secre­cy. Do those issues still res­onate in this era of hyper- shar­ing? What role do shame and secre­cy play in your life?

  2. While writ­ing this book, Pogre­bin hap­pened upon a trove of deeply per­son­al let­ters exchanged between her par­ents more than eighty years ago. That dis­cov­ery great­ly expand­ed her purview of the past and some­times chal­lenged her own mem­o­ries. Were you to write a mem­oir, what writ­ten mate­ri­als would be avail­able to you? Since long- form let­ter writ­ing has large­ly been replaced by slap-dash texts and inart­ful emails, do you think future biog­ra­phers and his­to­ri­ans will be hob­bled by a pauci­ty of orig­i­nal doc­u­ments and will read­ers suf­fer the consequences?

  3. The author writes, Guilt is the by-prod­uct of our actions toward oth­ers; shame is the by- prod­uct of our judg­ment of our­selves. Guilt says, I did a bad thing;’ shame says, I am a bad per­son.’” How would you define the dif­fer­ence between guilt and shame? Which of those emo­tions is more famil­iar to you personally?

  4. Pogre­bin delves into many secrets that her immi­grant Jew­ish fam­i­ly con­sid­ered shame­ful– failed mar­riages, pover­ty, men­tal defi­cien­cy, cer­tain phys­i­cal con­di­tions, infrac­tions of Judaism, to name a few. What do you con­sid­er shame­ful today?

  5. Revis­it­ing her sex­u­al assault in the 1960s by a famous play­wright, Pogre­bin admits, Now, in 2022, I’m ashamed of hav­ing sug­ar-coat­ed my ordeal in Bren­dan Behan’s hotel room, reduc­ing it to a breezy anec­dote, and I’m embar­rassed by how blithe­ly I trans­formed an aggra­vat­ed assault by a pow­er­ful man into a sticky sex­u­al encounter.’” In this age of #MeToo, how do you regard her expe­ri­ence in that hotel room and her reac­tion to it? If you’ve sur­vived some­thing sim­i­lar, what did you do about it?

  6. Shan­da describes Holo­caust sur­vivors who hid their wartime trau­mas from their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren; she also describe Jews in Amer­i­ca who secret­ly felt ashamed that mil­lions of their fel­low Jews went to the ovens like sheep.” What was your response to those stories?

  7. Pogre­bin shows how fear of shame can over­pow­er self-inter­est and self-respect. How did you react to the request by the com­fort” women’s grand­chil­dren that the old women stop seek­ing jus­tice from their Japan­ese tor­men­tors? How about the deci­sion by Ruby” not to expose her father’s vio­lent incest? What needs to hap­pen for sur­vivors to feel safe admit­ting such secrets? Is pub­lic expo­sure of the per­pe­tra­tor nec­es­sary before sur­vivors can attain jus­tice and achieve closure?

  8. The scene at the pool par­ty when Faye arrives is a famil­iar one. Do you con­sid­er your­self to be sizeist?” Have you ever expe­ri­enced body shame? Have you ever been a secret eater? Binger? Purger?

  9. In her chap­ter, Moth­er­guilt,” Pogre­bin, a staunch fem­i­nist, social jus­tice activist and moth­er of three, con­fess­es, Whether the focus of my work out­side the home was on women, Jews, or Israel, it some­times led me to short­change my role as a moth­er.” If you’re a par­ent, do you feel you’ve achieved a sat­is­fac­to­ry work/​family bal­ance? If not, how weighed down are you by moth­er­guilt? (Or fatherguilt?)

  10. The author writes about pub­lic shame, the shame of nations, and can­did­ly describes her pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics and her con­dem­na­tion of Israel’s treat­ment of the Pales­tini­ans. If you dis­agree with her views on that Mid­dle East con­flict or any oth­er polit­i­cal or reli­gious issue dis­cussed in the book, does it col­or your feel­ings about her or her story?

  11. For more than thir­ty years, Pogre­bin sought her mother-in-law’s love and approval and felt ashamed of her fail­ure to get it. Have you ever blamed your­self for a com­pa­ra­ble rejec­tion? Did the mother-in-law’s deathbed apol­o­gy redeem her in your eyes?

  12. Every immi­grant and every eth­nic group has its own ver­sion of Pogrebin’s sto­ry. Did some­one Amer­i­can­ize your fam­i­ly name? Was any­one in your fam­i­ly ashamed of their eth­nic, eco­nom­ic, or reli­gious ori­gins to the point where they denied or altered their iden­ti­ty? Do you fault that per­son for fal­si­fy­ing who they are, or do you cred­it them with adap­ta­tion, assim­i­la­tion, and reinvention?

  13. If you’re an Ashke­nazi Jew, did you relate per­son­al­ly to the author’s descrip­tion of her family’s incli­na­tions regard­ing shame and secre­cy? If you’re not an Ashke­nazi Jew, dis­cuss how your her­itage and expe­ri­ences have differed.

  14. Let­ty Cot­tin Pogre­bin wants to be free of all secre­cy but not of all shame. Do you share that goal? How close are you to achiev­ing it?

  15. If you were cast­ing the movie, who would play Let­ty? Bert? Their kids? Bet­ty? Rena? Jack? Ceil? Aunt Tillie? Nathan? Jen­ny? Uncle Al? Jef­frey? Sim­ma? The boy with the bro­ken hand? Dr. Spencer?