'Nobody's Son': A Memoir Of Childhood, Immigration And A Mother's Love

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

How do you write a memoir if you don't trust your memory? That's a question at the heart of Mark Slouka's new memoir "Nobody's Son." It covers his childhood in Pennsylvania, also the lives of his Czech parents who lived through World War II, the Soviet regime that followed and their immigration to America. As Slouka chronicles the last 60 years, he circles back on himself. He tells a story and then a chapter or two later it emerges that events maybe weren't quite as he had described. Mark Slouka is with us now. Thanks so much for being here.

MARK SLOUKA: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Walk us back to those early years because this book is - it's about a lot of things, but it's mostly about your mom and the relationship that you had with her and how that changed. And you do write in your early years about how close you were. You describe it as a church of two.

SLOUKA: Yeah. You know, we're like two halves of the same cell or something. We were just really close. The thing is that she was carrying with her too much it seems to me. You know, my parents had sort of witnessed the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s. They barely survived the communist coups in late 1940s. They cleaned toilets and shoveled coal in Sydney, Australia, and cut sugar cane in Queensland and eventually made their way to to the United States, dragging with them this history, all these ghosts. And at some point, it was time to look at them and say, OK, what is it I'm looking at here? Who am I if these are my memories?

KELLY: You tell the story in a way that the reader is figuring along almost with you that all was not right with your mother. When did it first dawn on you that your mom was not well?

SLOUKA: You know, my mother was abused as a child, which is something I didn't even really get until I began to write this book. Her father was a Nazi sympathizer. That's not easy. Her father also sexually abused her. That's horrendous at any time but particularly so at a time when you didn't feel that you could tell anyone about this. So she carried that particular nightmare with her. And then you throw in, you know, a 30-year addiction to pills. It all - eventually it sort of degenerated into, you know, not a good place, these sort of pill-induced stupors, these epic four and five-day rages. It was not good. It was not pretty. But one of the things that I had to do was reconcile the memories I had of this really beautiful childhood. I mean, she was a wonderful storyteller. She had a wonderful sense of humor. And eventually I had to pull away. I mean, she would have drowned me along with herself.

KELLY: The other story that runs through this book - there's the love story between you and your mother. There's also a love story between your mother and her lover who was not her father.

SLOUKA: No.

KELLY: Who was he?

SLOUKA: She met this man. He was a former Green Beret. He was, I think, a year younger than her. They had this extraordinary love affair. The force of it was really kind of indisputable.

KELLY: Why do you say that?

SLOUKA: I think it's a very rare thing. But every now and then, there are two people who are just meant to be together. In my mother's case, it was as though everything sort of wrong in her life had one answer, and all of those answers were embodied in one man. He stayed behind in Czechoslovakia, and life went on. The generations passed. Suddenly it's 1968 and it's 1972. And my mother's able to return back to her home, except she's not 21 anymore. She's 50, and life will do this now and then. Just for the fun of it, it'll throw you an extraordinary coincidence. Purely by coincidence, they met again.

KELLY: They were at a traffic junction, and your mom stopped the car.

SLOUKA: Yeah, yeah, she was with her - I heard it from her friend who's the most unimaginative (laughter) person I ever met my life. She could no more embellish the story than I could sing opera.

KELLY: (Laughter) OK.

SLOUKA: She just - she just didn't have it. And she told me this story. They were sitting in a car, this busy intersection in Czechoslovakia. And suddenly my mother, who's a very timid driver, stops in the middle of this intersection and turns the car off. Thirty feet away, there's a man in a white, you know, sedan, and he's gotten out of the car and these two people are looking at each other. And it was - it was this man. And the extraordinary thing is that their love affair resumed precisely where it had left off. I encouraged her to marry him. It would have been a kindness to my father. It would have been a kindness to her. It would have been - maybe it would have been an answer. It didn't happen. It came close.

KELLY: That's an extraordinarily generous thing to say. Did it take you a while to get to that point?

SLOUKA: No, no, it was immediate. I could see it in her. Listen, I still loved her. You know, we were - you know, we were fighting for survival, each in our own way. And for me, survival necessitated moving away from her, abandoning her frankly. But I could still see what made her happy, what made her whole. I think...

KELLY: And when you think of your mom now, is it a happy picture that comes to mind?

SLOUKA: It's not a happy picture. It's a complete picture. It feels - it feels legitimate to me now. You know, in a sense, when you've been - when you've been hurt, it's easier to remember the bad stuff. And it was bad. It was - it was really bad. But what those defensive memories do is that they block out all the good, and I needed to find that balance. This is - this was a coming to terms with the life I've known, the people I've known, and try to come to a place from which I can then move forward.

KELLY: Mark Slouka talking about his new memoir, "Nobody's Son," and he spoke to us there from member station WSHU in Connecticut. Mark, thanks a lot.

SLOUKA: It's been my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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