As readers of this blog know (and I am grateful to each of you, especially as the one-year anniversary of this blog arrives tomorrow), I am writing a book tentatively titled Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. The impetus for the book came from a career-related conversation with my ever-supportive wife.
The notion of “interrogating memory” emerged when I began to research and write this book. My initial plan was simply to trace my path to becoming a film noir aficionado: from the still-hazy circumstances of my adoption through being a precocious child reader of mysteries through my discovery of the 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan films through my widened exposure to films and hardboiled detective fiction at Yale through the perpetual lure of “night and the city” through my ongoing embrace of the Film Noir Foundation and its annual NOIR CITY film festival (about which I have written here).
But as I began to think more critically about relevant childhood memories—stories I had refined to a high gloss after decades of retelling—I realized they did not always neatly align with verifiable facts from independent sources (e.g., newspaper accounts, contemporaneous records, diaries, photographs).
For example, the story of my in utero adoption always included my Colombian genetic father and Native-American great-grandparent (or was it great-great-?). Only this past summer did I learn through 23andMe genetic testing that I am, at best, 0.5% Iberian and not at all Native American.
And in still other instances, I discovered that memories I had convinced myself were false (or, at best, completely mangled through the mnemonic equivalent of a game of Telephone) turned out to be almost entirely true, like the story of the early childhood friend I never saw again after he severely burned himself.
I still adhere to the last sentence in that post: “It is remarkable what you can learn (good and bad) when you interrogate your memory.”
Thus, “Why do I love film noir so much?” morphed quickly into “Who am I?” (driven externally by ongoing conversations with my psychotherapist) leading inexorably to the epistemological exercise of memory interrogation—and the resultant traveling of unexpected and unusual research paths: from an influential Masonic lodge to a mid-20th-century “Crime Prevention Squad” to a seaside motel that was demolished in 1978.
The latest bit of memory interrogation is the direct result of setting the historic stage (in what I expect will be Chapter 7: “Chinatown”) for that Saturday night in July 1976 when a bored nine-year-old version of me stumbled across a Sherlock Holmes/Charlie Chan double-feature on Philadelphia’s Channel 48.
If it had been either of the previous two summers, I would have missed these movies entirely, because my mother, father and I would have been at the Strand Motel in Atlantic City, New Jersey (seedily nestled in the square lot bordered to the east and west by the Boardwalk and Pacific Avenue and to the north and south by Boston and Providence Avenues)…or strolling the Boardwalk…or visiting my maternal grandfather at the Warwick Apartments on Raleigh Avenue (which look exactly the same as they did 40 years ago).
I am still interrogating memories of why our family finances did not allow us to spend the summer of 1976 in Atlantic City (with my father driving back-and-forth the 84 or so miles every weekend), as we had the previous two summers.
But those two blissful summers on the Jersey shore were particularly liberating for reasons that had nothing to do with finances.
My legal parents married in January 1960. Over the next four years, as they sought to have children, my mother had two miscarriages before being diagnosed with cervical cancer (or uterine cancer, depending on the report) in 1964, when she was just 26 years old. As a result, she had a full hysterectomy, limiting her natural childbearing to a girl—who she and my father named Mindy Joy—born in March 1962.
Unfortunately, Mindy’s birth followed an extremely painful, 18-hour-long labor. In the process, Mindy’s head kept emerging in and out of my mother’s vagina, possibly restricting oxygen flow to Mindy’s still-developing brain.
Perhaps this is why Mindy had delayed developmental milestones, leading to a 1960s-vintage diagnosis of “Severe Mental Retardation” (along with Seizure Disorder—although she has not had a seizure since June 1993), which is now “Depressive Disorder due to another medical condition w/Mixed Features and Pervasive Developmental Disorder.” This disorder may (though medications now greatly reduce their frequency) result in “[u]npredictable changes in mood states, which can lead to tantrum behaviors. Mindy can scratch, bite, hit, pinch and pull others’ hair.”
My parents, of course, loved my older sister absolutely (my father was the one person who could adequately control Mindy—who was inordinately impulsive and strong—when he was around to do so).
Still, in the late summer/early fall of 1966, they arranged through a private attorney they knew to adopt a second child. This is how a four-day-old version of me got driven away from Pennsylvania Hospital to a three-bedroom home on a quiet Havertown street in October 1966.
But that is a story for another day.
As difficult and uncommunicative as she could be, I generally got along well with my older sister, as this 1971 photograph shows.
It helped the impish younger version of me that Mindy often exhibits echolalia, parroting back words and phrases just spoken to her. Attempting to play with her, I would sit Mindy down and have her repeat words like “Czechoslovakia” and “Yugoslavia.” This would only last a short time, until she began to get agitated. That was my cue to move on to a less potentially destructive activity.
Younger siblings may be a bit cruel at times, but they ain’t stupid.
As of last year, Mindy’s annual progress reports are now being prepared by a non-profit advocacy agency called The Arc Alliance.
These reports have incorporated more detail about a process I vividly recall from my early childhood: the ceaseless search for a long-term care and education facility that would accommodate Mindy for more than a few months.
Between 1970 and 1974, alone, Mindy attended the…
- Elwyn Institute (Media, PA; 1970-71),
- Melmark School (Berwyn, PA; February 1971-73),
- Martha Lloyd Residence (Troy, PA—a 3-4 hour drive north, nearly to the New York state line; July-August 1973),
- Crozer-Chester Medical Center Intermediate Unit Program (Chester, PA; fall 1973)
- Van Hook-Walsh School (Middletown, Delaware—an hour-plus drive south; February-June 1974) and
- NHS School Woodhaven (Philadelphia, PA; since December 3, 1974)
It was not atypical for Mindy to have been “terminated” from the Van Hook-Walsh School after “the neighbors complained.”
Mindy’s requirement for 24-hour care and supervision made it next-to-impossible to do much in the summertime (or in the evenings, as babysitters who could accommodate Mindy were scarce, to say the least).
So when I look at that June 1974 termination date in Mindy’s Arc Alliance annual report, I feel like my memory is playing tricks on me.
There is simply no way we could have spent one night in Atlantic City, let alone an entire summer, if Mindy were not in a residential care facility in July and August 1974.
But if Mindy really was “terminated” from the now-defunct Van Hook-Walsh School in June 1974 and did not move into the brand new, Temple-University-operated Woodhaven campus (where she has been a resident for 43 years and counting) until that December…then where was she that summer?
Just bear with me while I tell a quick story (which I may never be able to interrogate):
By the fall of 1974 my mother had finally tired of finding a permanent program for Mindy, and she wanted to get her enrolled into the newly-opened Woodhaven facility as quickly as possible. However, she was getting nothing but delays and “be patient” from Woodhaven administrators. One afternoon, she and Mindy were in “the offices” [I have no idea where these would have been], and she was getting the same “be patient” message. My mother finally snapped…and she stopped trying to keep Mindy from being disruptive. Mindy promptly ran around the office throwing papers, yelling and generally wreaking havoc. My mother then vowed she would bring Mindy back there every afternoon until she was enrolled. Within a few days, Mindy was accepted into Woodhaven, where she remains to this day.
I am certain there is more than a kernel of truth to this story (I would not have invented it, and my mother certainly had her badass moments), but I may never know how much.
As you would expect, I will now interrogate the memory that my mother and I spent the summer of 1974 living at the Strand Motel in Atlantic City.
As evidence, I submit three photographs with the same developer’s code stamped on the back of each one, two of which have also have “Aug 1974” written on their backs in my mother’s handwriting.
The first two photographs are of Luvey, the keeshond we acquired in January 1973. In the second photograph, he is clearly sitting in the doorway that led to the patio we shared with the “B” penthouse (we stayed in the “A” penthouse—a slightly larger motel room with a walk-in closet) overlooking the outdoor pool and, across the adjacent Boardwalk, the Atlantic Ocean.
Incidentally, the resident of the “B” penthouse both years was this interesting man. I used to walk his beautiful golden retriever Whiskey with Luvey, and I once asked him (he would have been 32 or 33 years old) what he wanted to be when he grew up.
I do not remember his answer.
The third photograph shows my mother sitting on the motel room patio of family friends (cropped out to protect privacy) who also spent that summer at the Strand Motel. The second photo of Luvey was taken in their motel room.
If my mother looks, umm, blissed out in this photograph, well…she used to buy her grass from the Strand Motel’s handsome young male lifeguards.
(My mother once told that I was not allowed to start smoking weed until I was 32, because that was how old she was when she started. No comment on whether or not I heeded her advice.)
The bottom line, though is that my memory is correct: my mother and I spent the summer of 1974 staying at the Strand Motel in Atlantic City.
So where was Mindy?
I see two possibilities:
- Mindy left Van Hook-Walsh in June 1974 then went into a different facility for the summer, and whoever provided Arc Alliance the list of schools forgot to list it (or someone forgot to include it).
- The “6/74” written in the 2017 report is simply a typo. Perhaps somebody inverted a “9” into a “6?
The second possibility makes the most sense to me given the scramble to get Mindy into Woodhaven a month or two later.
When my mother died in March 2004, I acquired all of her paperwork relating to Mindy. It is sitting in a folder in the filing cabinet just to my left as I type.
The answer may lie somewhere in those papers.
Now THAT would be a fascinating interrogation of memory.
For now, though, I leave you with this photograph taken in December 1979, almost three years after my parents separated (they would divorce two years later, seven months before my father’s untimely death at 46), the only photograph I have showing all four of us together.
Until next time…
 Much of the information in this and ensuing paragraphs is taken from Mindy’s Individualized Support Plan (ISP), which I receive annually as her plenary legal guardian. I was made co-legal guardian in 2002, when my mother was first diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer, in what may have been the shortest legal proceeding in history. In my memory, the presiding judge from the Orphans Court of Delaware County took one look at Mindy and said “You’re her legal guardian. Next!”
 According to a June 27, 1974 (pg. 10) Philadelphia Inquirer story titled “Woodhaven program is working,” the facility was new as of April 1974.