REGAN ARTS Q&A with GLORIA NORRIS
You’ve been toying with the idea of writing about Susan for many years, what finally made you decide that the time was right?
There were a couple of things that really spurred me on to finally write the book. One was my mother, Shirley, passing away three years ago. Shirley very much wanted this story to be told and I felt if I didn’t do it I would be letting her down. Especially in the last few years of her life she was very clear-eyed about her life with my father, Jimmy. Unlike many people who idealize their spouse after they’re gone, Shirley was able to see and talk about Jimmy more honestly—once she was no longer living in fear of him ‘knocking her block off,’ as he might put it. The other main motivator to write the book was seeing the continuing proliferation of gun violence and domestic violence. Sadly, these are not problems that have lessened since the 60s and 70s—they’ve gotten worse. In some ways it’s even harder for women to escape from dangerous relationships because it’s so much easier to track a person down, harass them and shoot them with one of the millions of weapons that are floating around out there. I wanted to try and shine a light on this issue through my own personal experience of it and hopefully to move the needle a bit in the right direction.
What made you decide to tell this story in the voice of nine-year old Gloria?
I think a lot of kids emulate not only their parents’ ideas and points of view but also their language and speech patterns. At least I know, I did. We’re like baby gorillas—monkey see, monkey do. My father Jimmy had such a funny, colorful way of speaking, and he seemed like such a big shot to me, that for a while anyway I wanted to be just like him. It wasn’t a conscious, intentional mimicking, it just came naturally. In writing the book I thought it would be interesting to show the evolution of my thinking, to show how my personality slowly diverged from Jimmy’s, reflected in how I spoke. And also to show how bits and pieces of Jimmy hung around, and still hang around to this day. Occasionally, when I’m stuck behind a bad driver, his word ‘dummkopf’ still pops into my head.
What surprised you the most in researching the book?
Probably the biggest surprise was finally getting to know Susan, the real Susan—not the golden girl I imagined her to be, but the real flesh-and-blood person. In many ways, over decades, she had remained on a pedestal for me. A big part of me still wanted her to be that perfect person who inspired me to make it out of the projects. The journey of working on the book was learning how to be objective and accept her for who she really was.
Did you reacquaint yourself with people in New Hampshire while doing the book? What were their reactions?
There was a fair amount of resistance to my writing about Susan and her family that came from some of her relatives and from people in the criminal justice system. People shouted at me and people hung up on me. The local librarian didn’t even want to give me the microfilm of the old newspaper stories about the Piasecnys. There’s a phrase Jimmy often used, “keep it on a stone wall,” meaning keep it in the family, and I think that describes the Yankee temperament pretty well. New Englanders are not touchy-feely, self-examining types like the people out here in California—KooKooLand—my adopted home state. That said, there were some people who were extremely forthcoming—sometimes shockingly so. One guy who had worked with Susan’s father, Hank, described coming into work and finding his desk all a mess and learning Hank had just had sex on it. Another person I spoke with at length was my father’s psychiatrist. I had power of attorney for my father toward the end of his life and was able to get a copy of the shrink’s file on Jimmy after he had died. It was amazing to see how little the guy actually knew about my father after seeing him for so many years! Jimmy just went in there and charmed the pants off the guy, talking about his philosophy of life, the books he’d read and his colorful escapades. The shrink told me emphatically, “Your father was one of my favorite patients.” But I don’t blame the man. Jimmy was a master con artist!
How has Calvin Trillin’s memorable New Yorker piece about the case shaped the legacy of the Piasecnys?
The New Yorker piece brought what had been a local, New Hampshire story into the national limelight and into a broader context. Other journalists got interested in the story of this family—and people actually learned how to pronounce the Piasecny name (Pee’ – as – knee.) I think the article made it clear that there was something emblematic about this family that spoke to the dark side of the American dream. Susan’s father’s family had been Polish immigrants and her mother’s family had been French Canadian immigrants. These were people who toiled in some of the numerous factories that were all over New England at that time, just as many of today’s immigrants work in the hardest, lowest-paying jobs. Hank had been a success story, working up to owning his own business, driving a Cadillac, and Susan accomplished something that was almost unthinkable for a young woman in the 60s— attending medical school. But the struggles that immigrants face being marginalized can leave deep scars and the Piasecny story serves as a stark reminder of that.
Did the process of writing this book change how you feel about your parents?
Writing the book definitely affected how I feel about my parents. It gave me more understanding of the world that shaped my father, Jimmy. The pressure on him to be a ‘man’s man’ was so powerful. He grew up around boxing, gambling and hunting and later on was in the Merchant Marine. It was always clear to me that he had a sensitive side, a side that loved to cook, cherished the beauty of nature and even painted! But he had to repress a lot of his true nature and we’ve seen time and again, in the Catholic church for example, that when people feel they have to hide who they really are, very bad things can happen. As for my mother, I was always empathetic about her difficult situation of living with Jimmy, but I think there was a part of me that blamed her for staying, blamed her for exposing me and my sister to such darkness and trauma. But writing the book made me really see there was no good choice she could have made. It was definitely the lesser of two evils to stick it out with him. I believe she was trying to protect us from a worse fate in the best way available to her. She’s really my hero, even more so since I wrote the book, now that I understand her better. I always thought I got my strength to succeed from Jimmy, because he was a tough guy and taught me how to ‘roll with the punches.’ But now I see my mother was really the toughest one of us all, and I owe my life to her—literally.
How do you think each of your parents would feel about the book?
My mother would be showing it to everyone she met in the supermarket. And my father would say I made him look like a ‘sissy.’