FINDING MY VOICE
By Diane Rehm
Knopf. 246 pp. $24
By Reeve Lindbergh, whose most recent book is a family memoir, "Under a Wing."
"Finding My Voice" is a memoir by radio broadcaster Diane Rehm, who has struggled recently with spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological disorder affecting the vocal cords. This was by no means the only difficult struggle of her life. Born the daughter of Christian Arab immigrants from Turkey, she grew up in Washington, where her father owned a grocery store, and she eventually became a nationally acclaimed public radio talk show host whose guests have included Hillary Rodham Clinton and Salman Rushdie.
Rehm was raised by a hard-working, traditional father and a complex, secretive mother whose behavior toward her two daughters included alternating periods of silence and rage. Rehm became accustomed early in life to strict order and harsh discipline. She writes of being "slapped in the face or beaten with a belt, a metal pancake turner, a large wooden spoon, or a hard-soled shoe," for such minor infractions as tearing her clothing or being late for dinner. More painful still was her mother's habit of withdrawing into herself and refusing to communicate, sometimes for weeks at a time, so that her children felt "invisible."
To this day, Rehm admits, "Silence unnerves me. I am uncomfortable in it. It's as though I don't fully exist in silence." By contrast, some of her happiest memories are of comforting moments curled up with her mother in bed, or on the sofa, listening to radio dramas such as "Stella Dallas" and "The Green Hornet." It is little wonder that she was drawn to broadcasting or that she influenced the women of her generation to speak up and speak out nationwide.
Rehm was a young Washington housewife in the mid-1960s and 1970s, a time when Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" was about to make a huge impact on the lives of American women. After a brief, unsuccessful first marriage, Rehm had married again. She and State Department attorney John Rehm had "two beautiful children, a lovely home, a secure income." Surely this was the American dream that her immigrant parents had envisioned, and yet, the author writes wistfully, "it never seemed to do the trick."
Still, with absolute dedication, and with a kind of instinctive expertise, Rehm pursued her first adult vocation as "homemaker," as did most of the women she knew. She raised her children enthusiastically, kept house diligently and did volunteer work, some of which opened the door to her later career in broadcasting. She also accompanied her husband to official functions, played the piano, took courses in fashion modeling and designed and created most of her own and her children's clothes.
In remembering this part of her life, Rehm pays tribute to her own mother, that enigmatic and certainly by today's standards "abusive" parent who was nonetheless, in her daughter's words, "a marvelous cook and seamstress, making most of my girlhood coats and dresses." Her mother was also a remarkable gardener, coaxing from the dirt of their Washington back yard flowers, figs, peaches, cherries and grapevines, "the source of delicious leaves that my mother would stuff and roll with lamb and rice and a topping of homemade yogurt."
One of the most appealing aspects of this book is that it offers an authentic, if ambivalent, glimpse of both personal and national history. In the story of Diane Rehm's parents, of their arrival in this country and of their adjustments to its ways, there is a poignant parallel to her own journey, with all its setbacks, hardships and ultimate resolutions.
There are fascinating ambiguities here, questions that lie at the very heart of the American experience. How can we assess the effect of immigration itself, for instance--that extraordinary dispossession, that profound displacement--on the behavior of our ancestors, and the resulting impact upon their children and grandchildren? To what extent are child-rearing parents even today dependent on family systems imported from other countries generations ago? How easy it must have been for our parents and grandparents to become lost and confused within the chaos of intermingling cultures in America. How hard it must have been for new arrivals to sort out unfamiliar customs from chicanery, fraud or even pathology.
One heart-rending episode from Rehm's childhood involves an unnamed "congressman" who approached her parents, promising to make their daughter a child film star. Her parents were impressed with his manner and credentials, and brought Diane to lunch at his hotel. Appallingly, they also agreed to allow him to take her home, while they went on ahead. The man then took Diane to his hotel room and made sexual advances. When she reported his behavior to her unsuspecting parents, her father and an uncle "became enraged and quite physical" with the man, while Diane was instructed "never to speak about" the incident afterward to anyone.
In speaking about this and other events, in telling us her whole story, Rehm has found her own voice and with compassion and courage opened herself to many others, too. In her memoir we hear not just the voices of the celebrities she interviews today but also the haunting voices of the past, the ones that echo mysteriously in our hearts all our lives. It is good to know that a woman who has struggled for so many years to speak has not forgotten, even for a minute, how important it is to listen.
CAPTION: Radio host Diane Rehm.