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(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.

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