Sue William Silverman is a stunning, unconventional writer of memoirs. This new work is her third memoir. Although it stands alone as a worthy volume unto itself, it helps to have some idea of how it also picks up where her other books left off.
Back in 1996, Silverman’s first book appeared: Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You. From the get-go, it was clear that her work was not for the faint of heart.
That first memoir calmly (somehow), objectively (which was even more amazing) and dramatically told her true-life story. From age four until age 18, Sue William Silverman was sexually abused by her own father, who was an unassailable man in the community; a white-collar archetypal “upstanding” citizen. In fact, her father was a high-ranking government official during her youth, and later had a career in international banking. To call him a high-functioning sociopath is too polite.
And “abuse” scarcely describes the extremities of his monstrous behavior. He sexually assaulted his own daughter in every way, starting with “bath time” when she was a pre-kindergarten child and eventually invading her bedroom at night on a regular basis. Her mother ignored all this, hiding out elsewhere in the house (thus avoiding her husband’s beastly rage attacks) with her spurious illnesses and sleeping pills. Silverman’s most horrific line might be this sentence about her mother: “I was a present to her husband.”
Absorbing Silverman’s first memoir can induce dizziness and panic. It’s that visceral a reading experience. Then: Her next memoir Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction chronicled how the violations that she endured as a child and as a young adult played out in her troubled later years, which finally resolved in miraculous ways thanks to her indestructible spirit, a true commitment to recovery, a great therapist, and at long last an admirable husband. Plus her writing, of course.
Which brings us to The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life As a White, Anglo-Saxon Jew.
The title alone deserves scrutiny (and a prize). In most accounts of early Rock ‘n’ Roll and Americana at large the name Pat Boone signifies the ultra-square, clean-cut, lily-white facade of white-picket fence USA in the 1950s. Boone was the anti-Elvis, so to speak. In Presley’s case, his halcyon years in the Fifties really were a Southern-fried, blues-based, greaser’s explosion, until the Army and then Hollywood tamed the man with the swiveling hips. And, needless to say, both Elvis and Pat Boone were put forward by their record companies to profit from “covering” the kind of music that African-American innovators like Chuck Berry had made into an art form.
But though he recorded “covers” of everything from Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” to Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” nobody ever ranked Pat Boone as a true rocker. And that was fine. Boone was the ultimate all-across-the-board pop singer, beloved by many teens, most mothers, and plenty of grandmothers too. In later years, his white-buck shoes would be filled by the likes of Wayne Newton and Donny Osmond.
In the early life of Sue William Silverman, however, Pat Boone was more than a singer.
He was an icon of courtesy, sweetness, restraint, good manners, and a perfectly safe manifestation of Christian manhood. In short, he was the polar opposite of her crazed father, whose high-profile career masked his psychotic nightly forays as a sex criminal whose sole victim happened to be his daughter.
It is a tribute to the strength of Silverman as a person and as a writer that she can offer unto readers not a victim’s tale, but instead the story of an ultimate survivor.
In her newest memoir, Silverman covers a wide range of her lifetime experience.
Deftly interconnected chapters not only recapitulate some of the horror of her childhood, but much more: Readers are able to travel along as Silverman embarks on a 1972 cross-country trip in a beat-up Volkswagen camper. Rewind to 1967, and shortly after the Six-Day War, Silverman flies to Israel to try to establish—after a lifetime of yearning to be Christian a’ la Pat Boone’s tribe—some sense of her Jewish identity. She lives on a kibbutz. Fast-forward to 1969 and she’s awed by the moon landing, but, like so many others, she is just as preoccupied with the America that’s imploding via the agonies of the Vietnam War and the long, hot summers.
Unlike her prior works, which have linear narratives, this new book features a fluid timeline and the author effectively segues between varied decades in her life. The unifying theme of the book brings us back to the title. Regardless of changing tastes and the passage of time, Silverman (going against the grain of her Woodstock-era demographic) always harbors respect and affection for Pat Boone and the ways in which her nightmarish girlhood was somewhat comforted by what he represented.
In the end, this memoir peaks with Silverman’s poignant anecdotes about where and how she met Pat Boone himself, exulting in the fact that she could finally tell him what he meant to her in her youth. The tone is never self-indulgent or hackneyed.
“Pat Boone is innocent, all-American teenage summers at Palisades Park,” she writes: “He is Ivory soap, grape popsicles, screened porches at the Jersey shore . . . He remains all the things that, as you age, you miss—the memory of this past smelling sweeter than honeysuckle on the Fourth of July.”
It’s telling that Silverman’s latest book is a university press release (kudos to the University of Nebraska Press), as was her first volume of memoir back in 1996. Even more telling is that this new book is part of the esteemed “American Lives Series” that’s edited by author Tobias Wolff. They all deserve a round of applause.
(M. J. Moore is at work on a biography of novelist Mario Puzo.)