Review by Walter Cummins
In her latest book, Shanda, Letty Cottin Pogrebin revisits the early and mid-twentieth century obsession with covering up family scandals that, if revealed, would destroy the reputations of the people involved and even of an entire ethic group. “Shanda” is the Yiddish word for the concept of such shame, scandal, and disgrace. This fear may seem an odd notion today, when many people broadcast and even flaunt their misdeeds on social media. Pogrebin is aware of this irony as she joins the contemporary trend to reveal secrets the extended family of her parents’ generation took great pains to hide. This spirit of openness also leads her to expose mistakes she believes she has made in her life, but mistakes more in the category of guilt than shame. The distinction is subtle and significant.
I derive the distinction between guilt and shame by parsing the linguistics. For instance, why do we say, “I feel guilty” but “I am ashamed?” To me, the reason is obvious; it’s the difference between feelings and actions. “I am ashamed” conveys a negative self-assessment. “I am guilty” admits an act of wrongdoing. 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.”
She cites Biblical passages that make shame the ultimate punishment for transgressions: “Shame is among God’s most fearsome punishments.” Shanda is the dread that explains why so many behaviors and happenings were not revealed.
In her preface, Pogrebin explains such alarm: “Besides figuring out how to thrive in the New World, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins learned through bitter experience that nothing could overcome the ruinous impact of public disgrace, and any act, fact, person, or circumstance with the potential to humiliate them had to be circumvented at all costs or converted into a secret. Their need to avoid scandal was so compelling that, once identified, it provided the lens through which I could see my family with fresh eyes, spotlight their fears, and, in so doing, illuminate my own.”
Shame, she notes, “adheres like superglue” to anyone associated with the behaviors of family members and, beyond that, members of their ethnic group. Jews after centuries of oppression and, in the relatives’ lifetime, Nazi genocide, are especially fearful of such disgrace.
By writing Shanda, Pogrebin liberates herself from this fear, perhaps hoping that going public will defang any potential disgrace. In the first part of the book, she spills enough family secrets to provide plot material for a network of soap operas, primarily crucial information hidden from others, particularly children, for decades.
For example, it wasn’t until Pogrebin was an adolescent that an angry remark by a cousin revealed the young woman sixteen years older wasn’t the full sister she had assumed all of her young life, but rather the child of her mother’s first marriage. Pobrebin had known nothing of this early marriage nor that of her father, which produced another half-sister with whom her father had no contact. Her parents, unwilling to be stigmatized as divorcees, lied about the year of their marriage. Despite their complicity in shaping lies, Pogrebin’s parents were hardly partners in life, pretending in public but immersed in hostile shouting matches at home. Of course, they wouldn’t consider second divorces.
And that’s only one example of the many hidden truths revealed in Shanda. Despite their specific variations, most, if not all, may arise from a similar cause that, at least in this book, would lead to a revision of Tolstoy. Unhappy families are all alike. At their core is a mismatching of husband and wife that explodes in anger and betrayal, poisoning the associated relationships, yet disguised from the world through a series of pretensions and fabrications. In contrast, Pogrebin extols the success of his fifty plus-year marriage to her husband, Bert, with its mutual support and openness.
Pogrebin’s relations lied about their dysfunctions because of their status as immigrant Jews fearful of giving “real” Americans reasons to mock and reject them as decadent and inferior. Pogrebin notes that other groups obsessed with proving themselves worthy—for example, Latinos and African Americans—share a similar concern with protecting the reputation of their kind, worried that one bad apple would rot an entire group.
When Pogrebin turns to her own life, detailing transgressions that are primarily treated as causes for guilt rather than shame, most of the transgressions seem minor, such as, in childhood, locking a cognitively challenged cousin in a shed. As a college senior, however, she did have two abortions before Roe vs. Wade.
Those she considered a potential Shanda: “I’d rather be dead than see my private shame become a family shanda.” But revealing them to her sister Betty not long afterward, she learned that she was not the only one in her family. Even her mother and her grandmother had undergone abortions. In revealing her own in this book, Pogrebin has rejected Shanda.
Perhaps not quite. This outgoing, assertive woman who cofounded Ms magazine and responded to breast cancer by writing a book about it, when recently diagnosed with a benign brain tumor, feared telling friends because people might begin to question her intellect, the source of her prestige. It wasn’t until her friend Alan Alda, who had gone public with his Parkinson’s, convinced her to finally share the news, which she did to her great relief.
Even the most forthcoming of us can confront subjects we are unwilling the share even to those closest to us. This book makes a case for the liberation of letting go.