For any author coming through Washington on a book tour, "The Diane Rehm Show," on public radio, is the show to be on. Just getting booked is a mark of stature: You've been invited to participate in one of the most thoughtful conversations going on that day.
Rehm is as warm and lively in person as she is on the air. Outwardly, she is the essence of poise, but she, like most of us, has an inner child -- in her case, a little Arab girl who has battled self-doubt and self-loathing seared into her by years of physical and psychological abuse. Her memoir, "Finding My Voice," tells of a childhood that left her terrified of silence. It has taken her most of her adulthood and years of therapy to recover.
Life could not have been easy for her parents, immigrants from Turkey. Rehm's father owned a grocery store in the District with two of his brothers. Her mother was an industrious cook and seamstress, but she never mastered English and rarely visited her daughters' schools. The Aed family were Christian Arabs and held views on child-rearing that were not uncommon: Children were to be seen and not heard. The most important relationship was between parents; the relationship between parent and child was secondary.
In the Aed family, however, those beliefs were orchestrated to extremes, mainly by her mother, who today would most likely be diagnosed as having a mental illness. She was charming to the outside world, but physically and psychologically abusive to her two daughters, to the point of not only beating them herself but also manipulating their father into beating them.
"My parents' needs and wishes, especially my mother's, were paramount in the household, and my sister and I understood that very clearly," Rehm writes. She was constantly admonished "not to tell" anything about her family, which created an atmosphere of secrecy and shame. "To question decisions made by my parents, or to protest any action of theirs, would have been unthinkable."
She tells of being slapped in the face and beaten with a belt, a large wooden spoon or a hard-soled shoe, blows she could not avoid. Parental control was so absolute she did not try to defend herself or run: "Presumably, I knew that if I did, the punishment would be even worse." One time her mother beat her with a pancake turner, "her rage beyond anything I'd ever experienced, so terrifying that I crumpled to the floor, trying to hold on to myself, hoping she'd stop. But the beating intensified as she struck blow after blow to my head, shoulders and arms, to the point where, out of fear, I lost control of my bladder. It's a moment that makes me cringe even as I recall it more than fifty years later." By then, she was too hammered psychologically to blame her parents for losing control; she blamed herself for being bad. Her mother's behavior was so erratic, however, that Diane and her sister never knew what to expect -- a surefire formula for an insecure child and an insecure adult.
After the beatings, her mother would withdraw and ignore her, sometimes for weeks at a time. Physical confrontations with her mother did not end until Diane graduated from high school. By then, her mother was dying from liver disease, possibly caused by malaria.
At 19, Diane married a man from a prominent family in the Arab community. Her mother died 2 1/2 months later. Her father died of a heart attack 11 months after that. She and her husband grew distant as she grieved and rejected his solace. At 21, they divorced, something she could never have done had her parents been alive. It "would have brought shame on them and they would have done everything in their power to see to it that I continued in the marriage."
Diane was working as a secretary in the State Department when she met "a brilliant, talented, and brash young lawyer named John Rehm." They married and had two children, and Diane became a homemaker. She accompanied her husband to various functions and discovered she could participate in conversations with better educated people by asking questions -- a skill she has since turned into an art form.
Rehm is candid about her marriage: It has lasted 40 years and many of those were rocky. Her husband's response to those rough periods was to withdraw. Some of us would respond with, "Oh, he'll get over it." But for Diane, nothing could be more devastating. Tension became the fifth member of the household. And here, Rehm does something few women can: She admits she was sometimes not a good mother to her son and daughter. "I feel particularly guilty because there were times when, by my voice and actions, I took out my own frustrations on them, failing to recognize just how insecure they were feeling."
Rehm and her husband have worked at their marriage. They've done therapy. They've sorted out differences over child-rearing, religion, money and their behavior toward each other. Whatever their private differences, she credits him with encouraging her at each step of her radio career, from the time she began as a volunteer at the fledgling WAMU in 1973. Given her success, that is a mark of a very confident man -- as is his willingness to go along with such a personal memoir. He has been through the mill with her as she has struggled with voice problems since 1991. A frightening, debilitating illness can drive spouses apart, or bring them much closer. If you are lucky, you both finally figure out what's important in life. During the months Rehm was on leave from WAMU -- and her voice was on leave from her -- she began appreciating the magic of silence for the first time in her life.
"Finding My Voice" is a story of recovery and genuine courage. In the end, Rehm has made peace with her mother and peace with herself. It is a remarkable journey, by a remarkably strong woman.