Happy Friday, friends! Today I am excited to introduce you to a blog friend of mine, Rachael, of Life Stories Today/Family Resemblance (business and blog, respectively).
As Rachael mentions later, we met through an interview on a favorite blog of mine (yesandyes). I stumbled upon an interview there where Rachael was talking about her job as a Personal Historian–a career I had never heard of, but immediately grabbed my attention. Since I came across the interview, Rachael has become a mentor of sorts to me, as I think about starting my own business.
In addition to family history, Rachael and I also love books, and particularly memoirs. Below, Rachael talks about three memoirs that influenced her as a person, and in her career. I think my favorite story is the last one about her own grandfather. I love knowing what books and stories have shaped people, and hope you find her perspective as interesting as I did.
Inspired by the Lives of Anne Frank, Lauren Bacall and Sidney Goldstein
My love affair with books started at an early age, so even with some less passionate years (I’m talking about you, year I was forced to read The Scarlet Letter and Heart of Darkness in English class) I’ve still loved a long list of books. I could easily write a prolific, interesting-only-to-me dissertation on them and their influence on my life, but there’s only a couple books that left a significant mark on my life path and sense of self.
The Diary of Anne Frank
I read The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time when I was 11, and would return to it again and again over the years. With each repeat reading, I’d get something new out of it.
At first, it was about identifying with someone around my age. I can still remember how ridiculously relieved I was to discover that someone else understood what I was going through (i.e., pre-teen angst).
Then it was about so many things. Storytelling, the writer’s process, inner world vs. outer personality. It was about being Jewish (something I also had in common with Anne), prejudice and hate, the Holocaust, war, finding normalcy amidst chaos. It was also about believing in the good in people and planning for life after the war, becoming a journalist and Dutch citizen.
Because of Anne, I studied abroad in the Netherlands, visited the Secret Annex, and discovered why she’d loved the Netherlands/Dutch (it’s beautiful, the people are generally open-minded and accepting—pot and gay marriage has been legal for well over a decade—morning toast comes with sprinkles, etc.). Through Anne, I began to form my thoughts on injustice, war, and writing. My love for autobiographies, memoirs and diaries began with her.
For years I would pause on August 4, the day she and the other members of the Secret Annex were arrested. As of this August 4, it’s been 70 years since their capture.
Lauren Bacall: By Myself
I was kind of pissed off when Lauren Bacall died. Not because she died—though I definitely wasn’t happy about that—but because she passed away a day after Robin Williams. A celebrity death has not been this overshadowed since Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson died the same day.
If anyone deserved more time in the tribute spotlight, it was Lauren Bacall (aka Betty Joan Perske, her pre-stage and preferred name). Her career lasted nearly 70 years, she was a part of the original Rat Pack and the Golden Era of Hollywood, was married to Humphrey Bogart, stood up to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (though she and Bogie eventually backed down), campaigned for presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, and preferred to take studio suspensions over bad roles.
I’ve been somewhat assuaged by the trickle of articles that continued to come out even a week after her death (see here, here, and here), but if I had my way there would be Lauren Bacall movie marathons and memorial parades.
Just like with Anne Frank and my other favorite non-fiction writers, my love for Lauren Bacall initially stemmed from the things we had in common. The big similarity was that we both fell in love at 19 and married at 20 (my husband and I just celebrated our 12th anniversary!). This left quite an impression on me because I didn’t know anyone else who’d gotten married as quickly and young as I did. As an added bonus, reading her autobiography took me back to the giggly headiness of my own romance. I also identified with her anxiety (“the look” wasn’t just a sexy pose, it was the only way she could get herself to stop shaking while on the set of her first movie), and the way she compensated for her insecurities with humor.
At the same time, she knew who she was and refused to put up with bullshit. She famously said, “I think your whole life shows in your face, and you should be proud of that,” and corrected reporters when they called Nicole Kidman a legend. (“What is this legend? She can’t be a legend, you have to be older.”) She was strong and smart, and she showed me what self-acceptance looked like. Because of her I am a classic movie fan and history aficionado, both important precursors for the next influential book in my life.
My grandfather’s Korean War memoir
My grandfather, Sidney Goldstein, spent 20 years turning the letters he wrote to my grandmother during the Korean War into a memoir. When he was done, he sent out some query letters but never got very far. I had heard he’d written a memoir, but by the time I found it in my grandparents’ garage a couple years after he died, I’d almost forgotten about its existence.
My grandfather circa 1951 was 27, married just three years and still in that lovey-dovey stage. His prose revealed an enthusiastic young intern with a detailed eye and good sense of humor. He wrote about his boredom, loneliness, hopes, and longing for my grandmother. He was articulate and silly, grumpy and passionate.
This Sidney Goldstein wasn’t just my grandfather, he was a peer in the same stretch of life. It was easy to identify with his enthusiasm, curiosity and impatience. But I was surprised just how much of myself I saw in him. How alike our observations, opinions, worries, and writing voices were—all things that I thought were singularly unique to me.
It was this mini epiphany that started me on my current trajectory. I fell in love with people’s personal stories and family histories. I became a personal historian (i.e., I help people write their life stories and turn them into books) so I could help other people save their life stories. Before that I was a journalist and liked what I did, but it never felt quite right. Now I absolutely love what I do.
To learn more about personal historians, visit www.personalhistorians.org or here for an interview I did about personal historians. (Jenny and I met through the interview!) To read some of my grandfather’s memoir, check out my blog.
Thank you so much for being here today, Rachael! I have a really embarrassing confession to make: I have never read The Diary of Anne Frank. It has been on my list for quite some time, and after reading how it influenced you, it has moved to the top of my list (again). As a child, I did read Corrie ten Boon’s, The Hiding Place, another well-known Holocaust story, which made a big impact on me.
The most recent biography I have read is Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. While I love fiction, there is something about reading the true stories of inspiring humans that can be so powerful and truly instrumental in shaping a life. Just a small peak into the sufferings and triumphs of another can be life-changing. It can change your perspective on the world in an instant. Reading makes the world so much bigger.
What books have shaped your life? Do you read memoirs and biographies? What have you read lately?