Letty Cottin Pogrebin wants Jews to own up to the corrosive power of shame


(JTA) — When a lawyer for Donald Trump asked E. Jean Carroll why she didn’t scream while allegedly being raped by Donald Trump, I thought of Letty Cottin Pogrebin. In her latest book, “Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy,” she writes about being assaulted by a famous poet — and how the shadow of shame kept women like her silent about attacks on their own bodies.

That incident in 1962, she writes, was “fifty-eight years before the #MeToo movement provided the sisterhood and solidarity that made survivors of abuse and rape feel safe enough to tell their stories.”

Now 83, Pogrebin could have coasted with a memoir celebrating her six decades as a leading feminist: She co-founded Ms. magazine, its Foundation for Women and the National Women’s Political Caucus. She served as president of Americans for Peace Now and in 1982 blew the whistle on antisemitism in the feminist movement

Instead, “Shanda” is about her immigrant Jewish family and the secrets they carried through their lives. First marriages that were kept hidden. An unacknowledged half-sister. Money problems and domestic abuse. An uncle banished for sharing family dirt in public. 

“My mania around secrecy and shame was sparked in 1951 by the discovery that my parents had concealed from me the truth about their personal histories, and every member of my large extended family, on both sides, was in on it,” writes Pogrebin, now 83. “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.”

“Shanda” (the Yiddish word describes the kind of behavior that brings shame on an entire family or even a people) is also a portrait of immigrant New York Jews in the 20th century. As her father and mother father move up in the world and leave their Yiddish-speaking, Old World families behind for new lives in the Bronx and Queens, they stand in for a generation of Jews and new Americans “bent on saving face and determined to be, if not exemplary, at least impeccably respectable.”

Pogrebin and I spoke last week ahead of the Eight Over Eighty Gala on May 31, where she will be honored with a group that includes another Jewish feminist icon, the writer Erica Jong, and musician Eve Queler, who founded her own ensemble, the Opera Orchestra of New York, when she wasn’t being given chances to conduct in the male-dominated world of classical music. The gala is a fundraiser for the New Jewish Home, a healthcare nonprofit serving older New Yorkers.

Pogrebin and I spoke about shame and how it plays out in public and private, from rape accusations against a former president to her regrets over how she wrote about her own abortions to how the Bible justifies family trickery.

Our conversation was edited for length and clarity. 

I found your book very moving because my parents’ generation, who like your family were middle-class Jews who grew up or lived in the New York metropolitan area, are also all gone now. Your book brought back to me that world of aunts and uncles and cousins, and kids like us who couldn’t imagine what kinds of secrets and traumas our parents and relatives were hiding. But you went back and asked all the questions that many of us are afraid to ask. 

I can’t tell you how good writing it has been. I feel as though I have no weight on my back. And people who have read it gained such comfort from the normalization that happens when you read that others have been through what you’ve been through. And my family secrets are so varied — just one right after the other. The chameleon-like behavior of that generation — they became who they wanted to be through pretense or  actual accomplishment. 

In my mother’s case, pretense led the way. She went and got a studio photo that made it look like she graduated from high school when she didn’t. In the eighth grade, she went up to her uncle’s house in the north Bronx and had her dates pick her up there because of the shanda of where she lived on the Lower East Side with nine people in three rooms. She had to imagine herself the child of her uncle, who didn’t have an accent or had an accent but at least spoke English.

You describe yours as “an immigrant family torn between loyalty to their own kind and longing for American acceptance.”  

There was the feeling that, “If only we could measure up, we would be real Americans.” My mother was a sewing machine operator who became a designer and figured out what American women wore when she came from rags and cardboard shoes, in steerage. So I admire them. As much as I was discomforted by the lies, I ended up having compassion for them.  

It’s also a story of thwarted women, and all that lost potential of a generation in which few could contemplate a college degree or a career outside the home. Your mother worked for a time as a junior designer for Hattie Carnegie, a sort of Donna Karan of her day, but abandoned that after she met your dad and became, as you write, “Mrs. Jack Cottin.”

The powerlessness of women was complicated in the 1950s by the demands of the masculine Jewish ideal. So having a wife who didn’t work was proof that you were a man who could provide. As a result women sacrificed their own aspirations and passions. She protected her husband’s image by not pursuing her life outside the home. In a way my feminism is a positive, like a photograph, to the negative of my mother’s 1950s womanhood.

Letty Cottin Progrebin

“I’m not an optimist. I call myself a ‘cockeyed strategist,” said Pogrebin, who has a home on the Upper West Side. (Mike Lovett)

You write that you “think of shame and secrecy as quintessentially Jewish issues.” What were the Jewish pressures that inspired your parents to tell so many stories that weren’t true?

Think about what we did. We hid behind our names. We changed our names. We sloughed off our accents. My mother learned to make My*T*Fine pudding instead of gefilte fish. Shame and secrecy have always been intrinsically Jewish to me, because of the “sha!” factor: At every supper party, there would be the moment when somebody would say, “Sha! We don’t talk about that!” So even though we talked about what felt like everything, there were things that couldn’t be touched: illness, the C-word [cancer]. If you wanted to make a shidduch [wedding match] with another family in the insular communities in which Jews lived, you couldn’t let it be known that there was cancer in the family, or mental illness.

While I was writing this memoir, I realized that the [Torah portion] I’m listening to one Shabbat morning is all about hiding. It is Jacob finding out that he didn’t marry Rachel, after all, but married somebody he didn’t love. All of the hiding that I took for granted in the Bible stories and I was raised on like mother’s milk was formative. They justified pretense, and they justified trickery. Rebecca lied to her husband and presented her younger son Jacob for the blessing because God told her, because it was for the greater good of the future the Jewish people.

I think Jews felt that same sort of way when it came to surviving. So we can get rid of our names. We wouldn’t have survived, whether we were hiding in a forest or behind a cabinet, a name or a passport, or [pushed into hiding] with [forced] conversions. Hiding was survival.  

I was reading your book just as the E. Jean Carroll verdict came down, holding Donald Trump liable for sexually assaulting her during an encounter in the mid-’90s. You write how in 1962, when you were working as a book publicist, the hard-drinking Irish poet Brendan Behan (who died in 1964) tried to rape you in a hotel room and you didn’t report it. Like Carroll, you didn’t think that it was something that could be reported because the cost was too high.

Certainly in that era powerful men could get away with horrible behavior because of shanda reasons. 

Carroll said in her court testimony, “It was shameful to go to the police.” 

You know that it happened to so many others and nobody paid the price. The man’s reputation was intact and we kept our jobs because we sacrificed our dignity and our truth. I was in a career, and I really was supporting myself. I couldn’t afford to lose my job. I would have been pilloried for having gone to his hotel room, and nobody was there when he picked up an ashtray and threatened to break the window of the Chelsea Hotel unless I went up there with him.The cards were stacked against me.

In “Shanda,” you write about another kind of shame: The shame you now feel decades later about how you described the incident in your first book. You regret “how blithely I transformed an aggravated assault by a powerful man into a ‘sticky sexual encounter.’” 

I wrote about the incident in such offhand terms, and wonder why. I wrote, basically, “Okay, girls, you’re gonna have to put up with this, but you’re gonna have to find your own magical sentence like I had with Behan” to get him to stop. 

You write that you said, “You can’t do this to me! I’m a nice Jewish girl!” And that got him to back off.

Really painful.

I think that’s a powerful aspect of your book — how you look back at the ways you let down the movement or your family or friends and now regret. In 1991 you wrote a New York Times essay about an illegal abortion you had as a college senior in 1958, but not the second one you had only a few months later. While you were urging women to tell their stories of abortion, you note how a different shame kept you from telling the whole truth.  

Jewish girls could be, you know, plain or ordinary, but they had to be smart, and I had been stupid. I could out myself as one of the many millions of women who had an abortion but not as a Jewish girl who made the same mistake [of getting pregnant] twice.

The book was written before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. In the book you write powerfully about the shame, danger  and loneliness among women when abortion was illegal, and now, after 50 years, it is happening again. Having been very much part of the generation of activists that saw Roe become the law of the land, how have you processed its demise?  

Since the 1970s, we thought everything was happening in this proper linear way. We got legislation passed, we had litigation and we won, and we saw the percentage of women’s participation in the workplace all across professions and trades and everything else rise and rise. And then Ronald Reagan was elected and then there was the Moral Majority and then it was the Hyde Amendment [barring the use of federal funds to pay for abortion]. I was sideswiped because I think I was naive enough to imagine that once we articulated what feminism was driving at and why women’s rights were important, and how the economic reality of families and discrimination against women weren’t just women’s issues, people would internalize it and understand it and justice would be done. 

In the case of Roe, we could not imagine that rights could ever be taken away. We didn’t do something that we should have done, which is to have outed ourselves in a big way. It’s not enough that abortion was legal. We allowed it to remain stigmatized. We allowed the right wing to create their own valence around it. That negated solidarity. If we had talked about abortion as healthcare, if we had had our stories published and created organizations around remembering what it was like and people telling their stories about when abortion was illegal and dangerous…. Instead we allowed the religious right to prioritize [fetal] cells over a woman’s life. We just were not truthful with each other, so we didn’t create solidarity. 

Are you heartened by the backlash against restrictive new laws in red states or optimistic that the next wave of activism can reclaim the right to abortion? 

I’m not an optimist. I call myself a “cockeyed strategist.” If you look at my long resume, it is all about organizing: Ms. magazine, feminist organizations, women’s foundations, Black-Jewish dialogues, Torah study groups and Palestinian-Jewish dialogues. 

Number one, we have to own the data and reframe the narrative. We have to open channels for discussion for women who have either had one or know someone who has had one, even in religious Catholic families. The state-by-state strategy was really slow, but Ruth Bader Ginsburg wanted that. She almost didn’t get on the court because she didn’t like the nationwide, right-to-privacy strategy of Roe but instead wanted it won state by state, which would have required campaigns of acceptance and consciousness-raising.

So, the irony is she hasn’t lived to see that we’re going to have to do it her way. 

You share a lot of family secrets in this book. Is this a book that you waited to write until, I’ll try to put this gently, most of the people had died?

I started this book when I was 78 years old, and there’s always a connection to my major birthdays. And turning 80 – you experience that number and it is so weird. It doesn’t describe me and it probably won’t describe you. I thought, this could well be my last book, so I needed to be completely transparent, put it all out there. 

My mother and father and aunts and uncles were gone, but I have 24 cousins altogether. I went to my cousins, and told them I am going to write about the secret of your parents: It’s my uncle, but it’s your father. It’s your family story even though it’s my family, but it’s yours first. And every cousin, uniformly, said, “Are you kidding? You don’t even know the half of it,” and they’d tell me the whole story. I guess people want the truth out in the end.

Is that an aspect of getting older?

I think it’s a promise of liberation, which is what I have found. It’s this experience of being free from anything that I’ve hid. I don’t have to hide. Years ago, on our 35th wedding anniversary, we took our whole family to the Tenement Museum because we wanted them to see how far we’ve come in two generations.

is editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and managing editor for Ideas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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