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 a scholar and poet. She is the author of four collections of poetry: Avowed, Lilith’s Demons, Sisterhood, and Handmade Love, and is the editor of The Complete Works of Pat Parker and Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry.