Talk Show 8 with Allison Lynn, Joshua Neuman, Thisbe Nissen, Dan Pope, and Rachel Sherman
Allison Lynn is the author of the novel Now You See It (Touchstone/Simon and Schuster). She lives in New York City, where she writes, edits, teaches fiction, and is at work on her second novel. More on Lynn at allisonlynnbooks.com.
Joshua Neuman is the Publisher of Heeb Magazine. A graduate of Brown University and the Harvard Divinity School, he has taught undergraduate courses in the Philosophy of Religion at New York University, and written for Slate, eMusic and ESPN and appeared on VH1, Food Network, Court TV and National Public Radio. His first book, The Big Book of Jewish Conspiracies, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2005.
Thisbe Nissen is the author of Osprey Island, The Good People of New York, Out of the Girls’ Room and into the Night, and co-author/illustrator of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook. A graduate of Oberlin College and of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she’s taught in the MFA programs at Iowa and Columbia, and currently teaches at Brandeis University.
Dan Pope is the author of In the Cherry Tree published by Picador. Dan’s stories have been published recently in Crazyhorse, Post Road, Iowa Review, McSweeney’s, Shenandoah, Gettysburg Review, Night Train, Witness, and other magazines. Dan is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where he attended on a Truman Capote Fellowship. He is a winner of the Glenn Schaeffer Award from the International Institute of Modern Letters, and a grant in fiction from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. See danpope.com.
Rachel Sherman is the author of The First Hurt (Open City Books), a book of short stories. The First Hurt was a finalist for The 2006 International Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, short-listed for the 2007 Story Award, and was chosen as one of the 25 Books to Remember of 2006 by the New York Public Library. Her fiction has been published in McSweeney’s, Open City, Post Road, Conjunctions, n+1, and Story Quarterly, and in the book Full Frontal Fiction: The Best of Nerve Anthology (Three Rivers Press, 2001), among others. She holds an MFA from Columbia University. More at thefirsthurt.com.
––Describe a family myth that has grown up around you or another family member.
Lynn: My late grandmother, Sophie, claimed that she and my grandfather taught Bette Midler’s parents to have sex. As my grandmother told it, they were all friends back in the 1930s in New Jersey – the kind of friends who would drive around together at night, the guys in the front seat talking shop, the girls in the back singing the latest hits and bopping their heads to the beat. Then, the Midlers got married, came back from the honeymoon and fessed up that they hadn’t consummated their love. Because they didn’t know how. This is where the suspension of disbelief kicks in. According to my grandmother, she took Bette’s mother into one room, while my grandfather took her father into another, and they explained how to do it.
Neuman: There are people who constantly compare life to Seinfeld. Then there is our family who has gone one step further, constantly likening Seinfeld’s life to ours. We do not trace our roots to the Mayflower or to European nobility, but we do think of ourselves belonging to Seinfeld stock.
Nissen: The story, as my mother tells, goes like this: when I was little we got a cat. We hadn’t had her too long when my mother came to tuck me in one night and to have a serious talk. My father, it was becoming clear, was allergic to the cat. He was having trouble breathing, sleeping, etc, and we were going to have to do something. It was all very sad, but Daddy and the cat just couldn’t live together in the same house. I looked up at my mother earnestly from bed, eyes wide, and said: “But where will Daddy go?”
Pope: Around the turn of the last century, Colonel Albert Augustus Pope was Hartford’s major industrialist. He founded the Columbia Bicycle Company, which manufactured about a quarter million bicycles annually in the mid-1890s, earning himself a fortune. A few years later, Colonel Pope diversified into automobile production with the Pope Motor Carriage. In 1895, he donated Pope Park to the City of Hartford for the use of his employees and city residents, a lovely piece of earth landscaped by the Olmstead Brothers. I grew up in Hartford in the 1970s, when the city still bore the legacy of this industrial giant in communal memory, and the myth in my family is that we are descendants of this Pope.
Sherman: We believed that my family was normal because we were all in therapy. We believed that families that were not in therapy were not normal. We were not in therapy together: we each went individually. But, we believed, each of our “therapies” worked to help the family at large.
Lynn: Well, who knows, maybe it’s true. If not, the genesis was completely my grandmother’s imagination. She considered herself the family storyteller, and had a tendency to tell tales that just slightly romanticized her role in all sorts of situations. At the time of her death in 2004, she was writing these tales down for posterity. It’s not entirely clear who she thought might be interested. Other than Bette Midler.
Neuman: It started when my mother and I saw a young comic named Jerry Seinfeld perform on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I was probably around 10 years old at the time. My mother was named after her maternal grandmother, Jennie Seinfeld, who lived from 1890-1943. The Seinfelds, my mother told me, were originally from Poland (present day Ukraine) where their last name was Stanislavaw. She wondered whether the wise-cracking comic joking about missing socks and the cereal aisle of the supermarket was related to us. Phone calls were made. Shoe boxes of old photos were excavated from attics. Family trees were drawn up. In anticipation of tracing a straight line between us and comic aristocracy, my mother let me stay up late when Jerry made his first appearance on Late Night With David Letterman. We taped Jerry’s first HBO special and watched it over and over again. Soon after, we learned that our suspicions were correct: Jerry was one of us.
Nissen: Like many small children, I’d really wanted a pet, and a cat was the only reasonable pet to have, living, as we did, in New York City. (This because the only reasonable kinds of pets to have at all, according to my parents, were cats and dogs, and though my mother claimed to really be a dog person, not a cat person, keeping a dog in the city was cruel.) The problem was that my dad was ostensibly allergic to cats. (I say ostensibly because we’d never actually seen him around a cat, but he claimed to be allergic. He also professed an allergy to Goldenrod, which always struck me as too specific to be legitimate. He also once told me that his favorite color was yellow, which I found out years (and many yellow Fathers’ Day tie presents) later was something he’d just said so I’d stop asking him what his favorite color was.) But we had some friends who had a cat named Pushkin who was a fancy breed of cat called a Korat––a short-hair, all gray, from Thailand––who was supposed to be hypoallergenic somehow. We had Pushkin come stay with us for a weekend, and my dad seemed fine, so it was settled that we too would get a Korat. Being a fancy-bred cat, we had to go to a breeder, so we drove to some crazy cat-woman’s house somewhere outside the city where she bred Korats for showing. It was Christmas time, and she had a tree up in her living room, and a million gray cats running all over the place. These cats were full-breed Korats, and they were seriously expensive, but there were two cats from a recent litter who had defects and were going for cheap. One had a white spot on her chest; that was her championship-disqualifying imperfection. She also had a cold and sneezed a lot. It was pretty cute. I thought the white freckle was cute too. Plus she’d been the runt of the litter, so she was tiny. As we watched the cat zip around the breeder’s living room we came to identify her as Sneezy. About the other cat-show-reject Korat I don’t recall any physical flaws, but I remember him as a gremlin of a cat, a hyperactive monster-child, a maniac in kitten’s clothing. By the end of the evening he’d eaten a box of tinsel and knocked over the Christmas tree. We called him Beastie.
Perhaps it’s needless to say that it was Sneezy we brought home with us that night. She got over her cold, but the sneezing continued, and her name stuck. The irony? She made my dad sneeze too.
Pope: My father, Donald Pope, referred to Colonel Pope and his descendants in the Hartford area as the money Popes, and whenever an opportunity arose in public, my father let it be known that we—my brother, sister and I—were Money Popes. My father relished the deference afforded to him by others who thought him rich and powerful, and I once heard him tell a car mechanic, in the middle of some minor dispute, Do you know who I am? I’m Don Pope.
Sherman: The genesis is a person. Her name is Mom. She is a Freudian psychoanalyst. The genesis is also four individual therapists, all working outside the home, unknown to one another, but existing inside our house in the forms of two parents, two children.
Lynn: Well, Fred and Ruth Midler did live in Paterson, New Jersey during the 1930s. Apparently my grandmother once had a slew of pictures of she and my grandfather hanging out with Bette’s parents. But sometime after both Fred and Ruth (whom my grandmother hadn’t spoken to in probably 40 years) both passed away, my grandmother packaged up the pictures and sent them to the Divine Miss M, via her management, since she thought Bette would like to have them. To my grandmother’s chagrin, Bette never wrote a thank you note. Bupkis.
Neuman: Jerry Seinfeld is my mother’s third cousin (my third cousin, once removed), distant enough to have never met him, close enough to be able to pass a lie detector test by claiming kinship. My mother distinctly remembers the story of her grandmother’s first cousin Sam Seinfeld (Jerry’s grandfather) visiting her apartment in the Bronx when she was an infant. Apparently, Sam showed up with a bad cold, which upset my over-protective grandparents. The story was soon canonized in the annals of family hypochondria (lodged somewhere between the time my brother’s friend Jeff threw up in our recreation room and when my mother discovered where I was secretly stashing the Wash N Dries she routinely placed in my brown lunch bag before school). To this day, my mother has never met Jerry Seinfeld, though she suspects that they were both named after Jennie Seinfeld (who was apparently very close to Sam). I haven’t met Jerry Seinfeld either, though I do recall receiving several checks from Seinfelds at my bar mitzvah (one from Joe Seinfeld from Montreal, an eighty-year-old "bachelor" and magician).
Nissen: My mom is a former actress, and a big storyteller, and a generally dramatic human being. When she tells a story, truth is not, shall we say, her first priority. It’s about drama. Truth she’s willing to sacrifice for the sake of the story. (And we wonder how I become a fiction writer!) There is, in fact, a great deal of fact in her story of Daddy and Sneezy. Up until a point.
Pope: The myth is a total lie. In fact, we were not descendants of Colonel Pope. My father was born Dominic Roberto Papa, the son of Carlo Angelo Papa, a poor Italian who immigrated to this country in 1898. Soon after my father graduated high school, he legally changed his name, Americanizing it, to the WASP-ish Donald Robert Pope. (Papa means Pope in Italian, so the change came naturally.) He liked that his initials, DR, would make some think he was a medical doctor (he was, in fact, a general contractor). Perhaps this change of identity provided my father with a buffer against any anti-Italian sentiment of the times C the 1940s, when during wartime Italian-Americans were required to register with the FBI and some Italian families were even relocated to interment camps. But, mainly, my father had a waggish quality, and he liked fooling people and being considered a big-shot.
Sherman: That therapy is probably good for some people, but not for every person; that being in therapy might help you read other people, but that it might not be the best thing to help you know yourself; that if your mom is a therapist, then you probably need therapy anyway; that if you are in a family, trying to work within your family, you should probably just move out; that therapy can reach a saturation point.
Lynn: In 1987, Bette had a daughter, and named her Sophie. My grandmother used to say that Bette might have named the girl after her. I really can’t imagine any woman doing this: naming her child after the woman who taught her parents to have sex.
Neuman: When Jerry Seinfeld became a national icon, my family started referring to him as "Cousin Jerry." We started wildly speculating that the character Newman was an allusion to us (even though my father’s side spells its name "Neuman" and has absolutely no relationship with any Seinfelds). When I became the editor of Heeb Magazine, my grandparents gloated that both Jerry and I had made it in "show-biz." Apparently, my mother’s cousin Stewie from Huntington, Long Island (an arms dealer at the time) attended one of Jerry’s performances in the Catskills to introduce himself and officially welcome him to the larger family. Unfortunately, he was unable to get a word with Jerry after the show.
Nissen: I feel like the story gets shorter every time she tells it. The listener doesn’t have time to think before she’s there with the punch line and everyone’s laughing and I’m the one standing there saying “But wait a second…!”
Pope: The myth was passed down to my brother, sister and me, and we permitted its dissemination. It was easy to pretend that we, the children of D.R. Pope, were inheritors of old-WASP wealth. We looked generically American in appearance, if a tad swarthy, and we lived in one of the better neighborhoods of West Hartford, an affluent suburb of the now-downtrodden city. I spent my high school years at prep school in West Hartford, the Kingswood-Oxford School, whose most famous graduate was Katherine Hepburn. My classmates were well-off suburban kids like me, with a few scholarship students tossed into the mix. We were required to wear blue blazers and gray slacks (except on Fridays). In school, I did not actively perpetuate the myth of my false heritage, but somehow the myth grew anyway. I let this happen because it afforded me social status among some of my classmates, these sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers, politicians and judges.
Sherman: We have all been in and out of therapy. I attempted to break the cycle at certain times, but have not fully succeeded. Other people in the family have not evolved. My myth is still their truth.
––Which part of the myth is a blatant untruth?
Lynn: Well, the naming bit. I mean, my grandmother seemed not to notice that Sophie, as a name, was quickly coming back into vogue in the late ‘80s. The name has become so ubiquitous that it would have been shocking if Bette had named her child anything but Sophie. As for the rest of the myth, it’s curious that my grandfather, who outlived my grandmother by a year, always kept oddly silent when she told this story (which was often). After she died would have been the time to get his side of things, but I never asked. Honestly, I loved my grandfather, but the idea of talking sex (even Midler sex) with him seemed pretty unappealing.
Neuman: At one point, an apocryphal feud was posited between the "Newmans" and the Seinfelds, perhaps as a result of Sam Seinfeld coming to my grandparents’ (whose last name was not even "Neuman," but Speigel) apartment with a bad cold. I guess the idea was that somehow Sam felt so rejected that he passed it along to his son Kalman, who passed it along to his son, Jerry, who somehow found out that his third cousin Janet had married someone with the last name of "Neuman." As the illogic goes, he then avenged his grandfather’s hurt feelings by having America forever associate our last name with the hideous character portrayed by Wayne Knight.
Nissen: Look, I’m not going to call my mother a liar. (Can I call her a blatant un-truther? Maybe…) Let’s just say that I find it very very difficult to imagine that I had such a fabulous, story-ready response at the time. My memory of that night when I ostensibly spoke my great one-liner is very vague––and probably really only a construction compiled from the retellings of the story––but I feel like I either recall, or have extrapolated from the context, that I was confused by what my mother was trying to tell me, talking in circles about Daddy and Sneezy, hedging her point, waiting for me to catch on. It was bedtime; certainly I was tired. I was a child! I’ll concede this much: it’s possible my eyes were wide. It’s possible I seemed confused. It’s possible I really didn’t catch what she was trying to get at. I’d even say it’s possible that I was trying to read between the lines and what I thought, or feared, she was trying to tell me was that Mommy and Daddy were getting divorced, and she was couching the whole thing in some mishigas about cat allergies, hoping I’d think Daddy was leaving because of Sneezy, not because of Mommy.
As it turned out, no one was leaving. Not Daddy, and not Sneezy either. Daddy seemed inclined to stick it out, (though he never did have much of a relationship with Snee, who remained a sneezer all her life, and for much of it was a big barfer too. Those full-breeds––not the strongest constitutions…) and Dad’s allergy (of which I, for the record, have no tangible recollection) just seemed to dissipate after a while. Sneezy lived and sneezed and vomited expensive cat food for many many years. And was then replaced by Clementine, until she passed on, and then by Albert, who was the feline love of my mother’s life but who lived only six months longer than my father in the end. They both died last year, and my mom’s alone now. They may have gotten Sneezy for me all those years ago, but she was always my mother’s cat. She never has had a dog. Nor will she, I don’t think, have another husband. But she’ll have another cat. Of this I am sure. And she’ll continue to tell the story of that night in my childhood when I was ready to trade my father for a defective Korat who probably had more allergies than my father did! I never saw him sneeze…
Pope: The entire myth was a blatant lie, but it was easy to fool everyone. People assumed I was a descendant of the Popes of Hartford because of my aunts’ mansion. My grandfather, a stonemason who worked tirelessly his whole life, saving his dollars with a Depression-era thriftiness, in his later years purchased an enormous Tudor mansion on Prospect Hill, the premier neighborhood in Hartford, where the descendants of the old-rich did, in fact, reside in a row of outsized, Gilded Age architectural wonders overlooking the city of Hartford, culminating in the Governor’s Mansion, the last house on the street. Next door to my grandfather’s house was an 18th century brick mansion, which had once been an inn where George Washington stayed the night. After my grandfather died, my four spinster aunts remained in the mansion, with the name POPE proudly displayed on the mailbox beyond the outlying gates for all to see.
Sherman: That therapy is a lifestyle choice.
Jaime Clarke is the author of the novel WE’RE SO FAMOUS, editor of DON’T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME: CONTEMPORARY WRITERS ON THE FILMS OF JOHN HUGHES, and co-founder of POST ROAD, a national literary magazine based out of New York and Boston.