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November 16, 2023 67 mins

It started with a wreck – a car accident steeped in the history of Cassandra’s family. When she learns about the accident and the secrets it bore, she can at last begin to understand who she is, and who she will become.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Family Secrets is a production of iHeartRadio. I am six
years old and standing next to a gravestone with my
name on it. The little girl with my name is
buried here, along with her mom, who was my father's sister,
and her dad. There were others who died in the

(00:22):
wreck too, some who were buried here and some who
are buried at the other cemetery that looks just like
this one. I cannot keep up with all the dead people.
I am not sure how many there are, because I
have never heard anyone list all of their names at once,
or tick them off on their fingers, one by one.
I do not ask what happened to the girl, because

(00:43):
I already know what my father will say, the same
thing he said when I ask why I have just
one grandmother the wreck. That's Cassandra Jackson, professor of English
at the College of New Jersey, where she teaches classes
about African American literature and visual culture. She's the author

(01:07):
of several books, most recently The Wreck, a Daughter's Memoir
of Becoming a Mother. Cassandra's is a story of a
tragedy that happened before she was born, a loss so
profound that it seeped into every corner of her childhood
and her family's life, until finally, in the fullness of time,

(01:28):
she was able to lay it to rest. I'm Danny Shapiro,
and this is family secrets, the secrets that are kept
from us, the secrets we keep from others, and the

(01:50):
secrets we keep from ourselves. I grew up and were
class black family. Everybody in my family the most part
it spent their entire lives in Alabama. It was a really,

(02:10):
in some ways, a really tough way for place to
grow up in that it felt like history was all
around us, like we were always walking on hallow ground,
in part because even though I was born after the
Civil Rights Movement, the world just hadn't changed that much
in that space. So I remember it as being incredibly oppressive.

(02:35):
I remember being very aware of what it meant to
be black in that space where the people who had
the power, who had the most prestigious jobs, who ran
the town were almost exclusively white men. And in some ways,
it creates this really sort of strange idea of what

(02:59):
home is when the first place that you grow up
in is one where you are very alien to that place,
even though it's the place that you're from, and you
grew up with your mother, your father, and a much
older sister and brother. Yes. Yeah, So I was a

(03:21):
very late baby with siblings that were already in their teens,
so I didn't have a chance to get to know
them as children. They were already sort of like many
adults by the time I could remember them. My sister
did a lot of stuff with me when I was
a kid, and a lot of the things that people

(03:43):
sometimes expect moms to do, Like she was the one
who did my hair, the one who, you know, would
make a little picnic and we'd take it outside in
the backyard fresh peaches. She was that person. And my
brother was gone a lot when I was a kid,
Like he sort of started moving into adulthood, I think,

(04:03):
at a different rate from my sister, which I think
is not uncommon, particularly in the part of the stuff
that we grew up in. So he was already sort
of moving out into the world even as a teenager.
I felt like he was like sort of gone in
his car all the time. You know, my sister, my mother,
and my father were the people who were present the
most in the household. Did you feel in any way

(04:25):
like an only child, given that your sister was how
many years older? Thirteen years older. Yeah, I did feel
very much like an only child because they moved out
before I was even you know, in the fifth grade.
It was incredibly lonely. I played by myself a lot.

(04:47):
I played with some of the kids in the neighborhood,
but it was not the same as having another child
in the household. I remember being alone a lot. I
remember being very aware of the relationship between my parents
in the house because there was no other place for
my focus to go. It's not as though there was
like another child there. So yeah, it was much more

(05:11):
like growing up as an only child, and I definitely
was really aware of my isolation in that way. Yeah.
One of the things about only children, and I say
this as one myself, or actually as someone who had
a much older half sister, which is why I asked
that question, there's a way in which only children or

(05:32):
people who feel like only children study their parents. And
I'm wondering what you can tell me about your mother
from your early memories of her and what she was
like for you. She was a big presence in the
sense that she had very specific ideas about how things

(05:53):
should be done and what things should look like. She
was very obsessed with our house, and our house was
constantly being redecorated based on things that she saw in
various magazines, and everything was in this constant state of transformation.

(06:15):
And it was interesting because no matter how much she
did it, she was never completely satisfied with the result
for very long and it became clear that the transformation
part of it was the point, not the end result.
And that was largely her entertainment. And it was unusual

(06:37):
though in the sense that it was sort of obsessive.
She was also a very anxious person, and so one
of my memories was of her getting dressed on an
ordinary morning and she would come out wearing one outfit
or half of an outfit and say, how does this look?
And I would say, oh, it looks great, and then

(06:58):
she would go back to her room and then she'd
change again, and then she'd come out wearing half of
another outfit and she would go back and change again.
So self presentation and having you know, sort of control
was very important to heart. Some of it was about respectability.
I think she had grown up in poverty and you know,

(07:20):
hadn't always had the things that she needed, and so
she was absolutely meticulous about having control over the way
she looked when she walked out of the house. What
did I feel like to you? As the kid, It
felt anxiety producing. It's like a child sometimes you know

(07:42):
something is wrong and you don't know exactly what it is,
but you are certain that something's not right. This was
definitely that thing in that I understood that you weren't
supposed to change clothes six times before you left the
house on an ordinary work day, and by the time
we would leave, she would be in a complete panic

(08:04):
because of course we would be late, and that lateness
did not fit with her ideas about respectability. And yet
at the same time she struggled with just organizing herself
to get out of the house. And I absorbed a
lot of her anxiety as she was sort of going

(08:25):
through these paces in the morning, and I can remember,
you know, sort of I'd be sitting on the sofa
Washington o'clock as this was happening in my own anxiety
getting higher and higher as I watched her going back
and forth. As for the transformations, I think that one
of the ways that it affected me was that my
body was also a part of it, and that she

(08:46):
was not satisfied with how I look either. She wanted
control over everything that I wore, but she was constantly
shopping for something that would make me look different. She
thought it was too thin, and she wanted me to
be bigger. She thought my sister was too big and
she wanted her to be thinner. And so some of

(09:08):
the anxiety was really about the fact that I think
I understood that there was something wrong with me in
her eyes, and that I didn't know how to address it,
something kind of unfixable, and I felt like I didn't
have control over the things that you know, she was

(09:32):
disappointed in. Tell me about your father. I remember him
as this very loving father who was much more accepting,
and yet he really wasn't that present in the sense
that he drank. He was, you know, sort of trying

(09:56):
to cope with a lot of grief and things he
experience in his past. And I think that he was
self medicating for a good portion of my childhood. And
he was very susceptible to alcohol as well. So you know,
if I were to say to somebody how much he
was drinking, they would say, well, he wasn't drinking very much,

(10:18):
but very little alcohol could really knock him out, and
it made it such that it was lights out usually
during and sometime after dinner, because it didn't take a
whole lot of alcohol for him to fade into a
dream like state where he would be kind of snoozing

(10:42):
in our home, usually in the din and so it
was pretty normal to walk into the den and for
him to basically be sitting in this like lounge chair,
but he's actually like asleep and he's dreaming, and I
can hear him. I think sometimes, you know, I've heard
people imagine that the parent who is the alcoholic is

(11:03):
this you know, horrible person who is out doing all
of this harm in this very sort of vindictive way.
But really, in a lot of ways, he was somebody
who was incredibly like sort of loving and accepting when
he was present with us. He just couldn't be present
with us. He just wanted to check out. Yeah, he
wanted to check out. And it was something my parents

(11:26):
argued over as well, about his you know, drinking, And
yet it was difficult because on the one hand, they
argued about it, but at the same time, you know,
I don't think either of my parents understood that was alcoholism,
I think in their minds, because he got up and
went to work every day, and he was a very
hard worker and he was very sort of successful at

(11:48):
the factory where he was working. I think that that
meant that he couldn't possibly be an alcoholic, because in
their minds, an alcoholic as somebody who drinks to the
point where you know they can't go to work. He
wasn't doing that, but he was the functional alcoholic. When
Cassandra's a little girl, her father often asks her to

(12:10):
take a ride to the country. That's what he calls it,
the country. Her mother goes along for the drive as well.
These regular outings stand out as unsettling and strange. Where
I grew up, there was this distinct difference between living
in a town and then the more rural areas outside
of it. And my father had grown up in one

(12:31):
of those really rural areas, and so we would go
to visit people that he knew in his childhood. We
would go there to visit relatives, and we would get
there and I would meet these older people who in
my mind were really at the time because I was five,

(12:54):
and they would stare at me, they would act very
oddly sometimes around me. They were very interested in my appearance.
I remember them trying to feed me constantly, Like I
would get there and they would say, oh, let me
go get some cookies, let me go get some candy.
There was always take lemonade, something that they wanted me

(13:15):
to eat. And they would often remark about how much
I looked like my father's family, who died before I
was born, And they would have these really kind of
interesting expressions because they were often, I think, sort of
trying to figure out if the resemblance was just a resemblance,

(13:40):
or if there was something of the occult that was
happening in these encounters, right, And so in some ways,
the whole thing about trying to get me to eat
was about trying to make sure that I was like
a real child and not something else. And so they
would sit there and watch me eat whatever it was,
and then they would be sort of satisfied, like, oh,

(14:02):
it's just a resemblance. But they talked about it constantly.
They would say to me, like, you look so much
like my father's sister, Maggie Joe, or you look so
much like Bernice's his mother. And they would say that
to my father over and over again. They would say, Oh,
she's just like them, mains, She's just like them. And

(14:24):
it's interesting because this was one of the things that
became pretty regular in my childhood when we would do this.
It happened over and over again, and even as I
got older, people still often responded in that way of
feeling as though they were trying to figure out or
understand something about the ways in which you know, there

(14:45):
was this genetic link between me and the past, and
what did it mean. It also seems like those comments
that they would make in front of you as a child,
they weren't even really directed to you. It was almost
like you weren't even there. They were talking to your
parents about them, talking to your father about them, they
were talking to each other about them. It's really true.
And frequently it was if I was an object in

(15:09):
the room or so than a person, right, And even
with the staring without any real you know, sort of
self consciousness about the fact that you were looking at
another person was related to that in the sense that
it was something to be addressed and to be talked
about and to be discussed, but not necessarily with me.

(15:29):
Do you have any recollection of what that felt like
at the time. I found myself thinking about it a lot,
because I think it felt different at different times. When
I was really little, I remember wanting to go home,
and I knew that we weren't going to stay at
these places for very long because my father couldn't stand
to be there for very long either, So we might

(15:50):
drive a good forty minutes and within ten minutes he's like, well,
it was nice seeing you, repeatedd back out the door.
But I do remembering rather nervous and like I was
supposed to do something and I didn't know what it
was I was supposed to do. I felt as if
I did not really want this attention that I was

(16:12):
getting any situations, especially when I was really small, and
it didn't make sense to me. I didn't know the
people that they thought I resembled. I had never met them,
and we didn't talk about those people as a family either.
When you were a child at that point, what did
you know about your father's family before you were born

(16:36):
and what had happened to them. I knew that there
had been a car accident that my father always referred
to as the wreck when it did come up, but
we did not talk about it ordinarily. Occasionally I would
be looking at a photo album and maybe point to
a relative in that photo album, and he would say, Oh,

(16:57):
she died in the wreck. I knew there had been
a wreck, I did not know where it happened. I
did not know when it happened, and I wasn't clear
on who was in the wreck and who survived it
and who died. I knew there were a lot of
people who died, but no one ever said to me,

(17:23):
this is what happened, this is where it happened, this
is how it happened, and this is how these particular
people died. And so it was one of those things
that I felt like I was learning about it kind
of like piecemeal. But I had a very hard time
as a child keeping track of all of these people.
I was too little, I guess, in some ways to

(17:44):
keep track of it. But also we just didn't really
talk about it unless my father was saying, oh, the wreck,
and that was the explanation in those two words. So
did you have a sense as a child that you
shouldn't bring it up? Yes, absolutely, I think I understood
that there was a reason that we weren't talking about

(18:05):
this and I think I also understood that this was
a very painful thing, and that in our family you
don't talk about painful things, and so I figured if
they weren't talking about it, I wasn't supposed to be
talking about it either. And I'm not even sure if
I knew how to talk about it, because at no

(18:28):
point was there and open enough conversation about it that
I would have understood, like the language in terms of
that kind of conversation about grief and loss. And so
there was no model by which to understand how you
talk to someone about what was, you know, the worst

(18:50):
day in my father's life. You also had a grandfather,
so Daddy Blewett, it was your father's father. He was
a presence in your childhoo. Absolutely, he was there in
the summers usually, And he was the only person too
who ever really talked about the wreck. And he didn't

(19:10):
tell me what happened, as much as he would repeatedly
tell this story about the aftermath and an incident he
remembered in the hospital of someone coming and trying to
give him a shot and having to be held down
when they were giving him this shot. And so that
one story was really the only story I ever heard

(19:34):
about what happened exactly, and even that wasn't about what happened.
It was really about the aftermath in the hospital. So
I knew that he had been in the wreck, and
you know, he never said very much about when, how, where,
none of that. But he did tell that one story
about it over and over again, and it was clear
that he was telling that story in a repetitive way

(19:56):
that suggested trauma. And I would listen to him to
tell the story over and over again, and I felt
like I understood how to participate in that particular conversation
about it, because you know, he could be very sort
of emphatic when he was saying things, and I would
sit there like a little later and be like, mm hmmmm,

(20:17):
that must have been awful, like very like responding in
ways that I understood how to talk about this, because
we weren't really talking about loss or emotions. He wasn't
talking about the fact that his wife had died from
that accident. He was just telling this story about what
happened to his body after this accident. The way you're

(20:38):
describing it makes so much sense to me. I mean,
trauma is recursive. The mind goes to the same place
over and over and over again. The story doesn't progress
until it does if it does, and so he was
trapped in that story. When he would tell you that story,
would you welcome it? Were you sort of hungry for
it because maybe you were going to find out a

(21:00):
little bit more? Yeah, I was so hungry for it.
It was very clear to me that my family was
really keeping secrets about what had happened, and it felt
like being let in, you know, it felt like I

(21:22):
was being treated as if I was somebody who deserved
to know. And in all the other ways, I felt
like with my father that that story was not mine,
even though it was obviously impacting our family in ways
that impacted me and it was part of my story,
I did not feel like I could lay claim to

(21:43):
it enough to be able to say, hey, what happened?
And I think that I performed that sort of role
with my grandfather because it felt like I had a
role now, you know, like it felt like, oh, I'm
being told about this, and he's telling me because I'm
somebody who's supposed to know, and that felt like a

(22:07):
kind of belonging in a really sort of interesting way.
We'll be right back when Cassandra's nine years old, her

(22:30):
mother tells her that one of the people who died
in the wreck was her father's first wife, a woman
named will A Deane. This is the first time Cassandra
hears this name, and the first time she's told her
dad had been married before her mother. Cassandra's mind begins
to work overtime, trying to figure out how it's possible

(22:51):
that there could be something so big about her father's
past that she didn't know, and what does it mean
to have not known. She also begins to about her
older sister, Annette. The two of them look nothing alike,
which is something that's always commented upon. Maybe she's not
a full sister, Cassandra wonders, maybe Annette's mom is Willa Deane.

(23:15):
I remember that experience so well because my mother said
it so matter of factly, like I'm just looking through
a photo album I see and I'm like, oh, who
is this, Oh that's your daddy's first life. And she
just went back to reading, like I think it was
like a newspapers, Like she just went back to what
she was doing. And I felt like somebody had just
snatched the floor out from U under me, not the rug.

(23:37):
The whole floor was gone for a moment there because
I'm thinking, like, if you didn't tell me this, what
else do I not know? I just remember it being
such an uncomfortable experience, and that it raised so many
other questions, including about my sister, because everywhere we went

(23:57):
people remarked on how different we look I mean, and
it was a constant kind of conversation. I was very
very thin, my sister tended to be heavy. We did
not resemble each other in any way. Our hair with
different colors, like, there was nothing, and people are remarked
on it all the time, and at no point had

(24:19):
anybody ever said there's a reason for this. At that point,
and I thought, well, maybe this is the explanation, Maybe
this could explain it. And I began just sort of
snooping through my parents' things, you know, trying to figure
out who is my sister, Does she have a different parent,
could this woman have been her mother. It's funny because

(24:43):
snooping comes up so regularly on this podcast. There's something
about there's something about the deep knowledge, there's something you
don't know, that there's something that's hidden, there's something that's
being withheld what other records is there? Then you know
I'm going to turn into a little child detective and

(25:04):
figure that out. Tell me about the snooping. I go
to my parents' room, and I know where they keep
all of their paperwork, and it's in this sort of
briefcase that my father received as a gift. He worked
in a factory and he used for a briefcase. So
they put all of our paperwork, like birth certificates and
insurance papers and all this stuff is in it. So
I go, I pull it out. I open it up.
There's no lock on it, and I'm looking through it

(25:27):
and looking through it, and I find my sister's birth certificate.
And I'm a little kid. I don't know how birth
certificates work at this point. And I pull out this
birth certificate and it's got both of my parents' names
on it and my sister's name, and I'm like, wow,
it was so unexpected. I just knew it was going

(25:49):
to say something else. And I'm looking at this piece
of paper and almost disappointed because I'm so certain that
there's something I don't know. I thought this would be
the key to this missing piece of information among many
missing pieces of information, and yet I still knew something

(26:12):
wasn't quite right, and at one point I even asked,
my sister was my father's first wife without your mother?
And I remember her just really laughing this off. But
she must have mentioned it to my mother, because it
was after that that my mom showed up in my
room in the middle of the night one night and

(26:32):
starts telling me in the darkness, she does not turn
on the light, starts telling me the story of a
relationship that she had before my father that resulted in
my sister. I remember being just utterly destroyed by it
in the moment. It was one of these moments when

(26:57):
you think it's one thing that you don't know, and
it turns out there's a whole world of things that
you don't know, and they're probably connected in ways that
you don't understand. And it felt like such a colossal
piece of information to withhold, But it also felt a
little scary in that part of me was thinking, I

(27:21):
have so many questions about who you are, mean and
my mother, but who this person was, because I've never
met that person. So in my mind I had already
worked out an explanation of what the secret was, and
I'm hearing an entirely different one from my mother, and

(27:43):
then wondering who knows and who doesn't know. I mean,
I think that's one of the first things I said.
He I was like, well, does she know? Does she
know this? Because given everything that had been said at
that point, I felt like it was quite possible that
she didn't know. And it turns out she did know.

(28:04):
My mom said, yes, she knows, and then as she
was leaving, I remember saying to her, does my brother know?
She didn't answer, and I knew then that he didn't know.
If he did, I think she would have turned around
and said he did. And then of course I found
out much much later that he didn't know, and he

(28:25):
was so hurt by it all, you know, so he
was probably in his forties by the time he don't know,
and he ends up finding out because my sister thought
he knew, and so she mentioned something about a half
sibling who was not our mine or my brother's sibling,

(28:45):
and he did not know what she was talking about,
and she just assumed that if I knew, he knew,
and that was not the case. You know, it's such
an interesting thing with secrets, because there are secrets and
then there are in a way, either the implicit or
explicit instructions to people to also keep the secret. And
it sounds like, I mean, when you found out your

(29:06):
father knew something, your mother knew something, and your sister
all knew something that you did not know. And then
all those years later, your brother finds out as a
grown man and finds out that all of you knew
something that he didn't know. Yeah, he was really devastated
by it. Ye and my sister really grew up together.
They were not that far apart in age, like around

(29:26):
two years, and so they really spent their childhood together,
and they grew up together. And I don't even know
if I can completely fathom what that must have felt
like to him, as opposed to what it felt like
to me. For that reason, because in his mind, this
is a secret that they kept from them even in
their childhood, and I found out in childhood. The tragedy

(29:51):
of the wreck and the avalanche of secrets kept in
its wake make for an environment that Cassandra wants to flee.
She starts thinking about leaving home and making a life elsewhere.
As early as eleven or twelve years old, I was
thinking I'm out of here I'm not saying, and there
were a whole lot of reasons for that. As I said, like,

(30:13):
you know, it felt like a very oppressive place to
live for a black girl. But my house didn't feel
like my house either, you know, So those feelings of
like alienation that I was experiencing, I think in the
larger community were really matched by what was happening in
my own household, because it all felt like a secret.

(30:37):
Most of the people who lived outside of our home
would never have guessed that my father was drinking in
the way that he was, that he was, you know,
sort of engaged in addiction and really unhealthy when and
I don't think that that was something that anyone around

(30:58):
us knew so much so that I could remember there
were quite a few teenage boys in the neighborhood who
they had a problem. They would come and want to
talk to my dad, and sometimes they were friends with
my brother, but oftentimes they weren't. They would just come
knock on the door and say can I talk to
mister Jackson? And he would go outside and they would talk,

(31:19):
and he would offer advice, and you know, it was
frequently about school or helping kids think through their futures,
like he was an extremely respected person who was pretty
much completely checked out on us, you know, And I
don't think I wanted to live with all these secrets anymore.

(31:40):
It felt like secrets on top of secrets, and I
didn't feel that I could speak or talk openly about
anything that was happening in my household. Like I think
I really understood that I was not supposed to do that.
And I think that in my mind, the solution was
go somewhere else, so you can be somebody else, you know,

(32:02):
that you could separate from the space, and that that
would be enough to create a kind of launching point
for like a different life. We'll be back in a
moment with more family secrets. Cassandra goes off to Spelman College,

(32:28):
a black women's college in Atlanta. At Spelman, for the
first time in her life, she sees all these different
possibilities for who she might become and undergoes several important
shifts in her identity. She starts to imagine herself as
a writer a professor. She also comes to realize that
her background is quite different from the young women surrounding her.

(32:53):
It's kind of the first time I was in a
space where majority of people who were around me had
parents who were black professionals, and many of them had
been a college educated for generations, where I was first generation.
So I felt myself different in those ways in terms
of class, and yet there were other ways of which,
like it just made all of these you know, sort

(33:15):
of new things seem possible. The other thing I think
though that happened there was seeing other people's family lives.
You know, when you go to college and you're staying
in a dorm and you were hearing people making phone
calls to their family, or you're seeing little care packages
that their family sent that they want to show you

(33:35):
or share with you. And I remember thinking like, who
are these people? You know, they keep saying I love
you to their parents, and I think their parents are
saying it back to them. And I'm seeing like these
little cards and love notes and these care packages. And
we were not a family that said I love you.

(33:57):
We were not a family where there was hugging and touching.
We were very much, you know, kind of a family
that didn't communicate a lot and certainly didn't have these
like intimate conversations. So I would hear these young women
calling their family and saying, oh, that's such a best day.
Well this happened, and thinking, why are you telling her that,

(34:19):
like you really need to grow up? You know. It's
like it never occurred to me in that first year
that there was something normal about that. I was like,
what happened to all these people that they can't seem
to cope with their lives with at having these conversations
where they say I love you to their parents and
it was that alien to me. And I think that

(34:41):
it was when I began to recognize that there were
a whole lot of people living in relationship to their
family in a way that was completely foreign to me
that I started thinking, oh, so there were actually a
whole other ways of being in the world, Like not
everybody is carrying around all of these things that I'm

(35:03):
carrying around and all of these conversations and questions that
could never be said aloud. That not everyone is carrying
that around. There are people who were actually having these
conversations where they're expressing these intimate parts of their lives
and they're talking about their feelings and they're vulnerable with
their own parents. I had never seen my mother cry,

(35:26):
I'd never seen my father cry like there was no
way in which I was really privy to their internal
lives in that way. Instead, I got glimpses of things
that I wasn't supposed to see. And when I say
wasn't supposed to I mean things that my parents wouldn't
have wanted me to be aware of. So, you know,

(35:46):
I was aware that my father was often having dreams
when he was drinking, in which he was constantly trying
to save people from something in these strains. And the
main reason I was aware of it is because he
was saying my name frequently during these dreams, or at
least I thought he was saying my name, but frequently
he was saying the name of the child that I

(36:07):
was named after, and this was his niece who died
in the wreck. And so even when I got glimpses
of my parents, you know, sort of internal lives, it
wasn't something we could talk about because I was never
supposed to see it in the first place. And so
being this person who had gone away to this other
space was really really important to me because it gave

(36:28):
me other ways of living that were entirely new to me,
so new to me that at times these beautiful things
were a little repulsive because they made me uncomfortable. When
I was a kid, whenever my parents would see couples
expressing public affection, they would kind of recoil from it,

(36:50):
and my mother would always make a point of saying that,
you know, he probably beats her as soon as they
leave here, you know, like that's that's the only reason
they would be doing that, is that this person was
doing some terrible to the other person in private. That's
the only reason they would be expressing affection in public.
And it was all very strange to me having this

(37:12):
window into other people's lives during that period of time.
Where does the wreck reside inside you? You're coming into
your own your meeting mentors and professors and role models,
and your world is expanding at a really rapid rate

(37:33):
in terms of like just seeing the possibilities and different
ways that families live during those years, you know, as
a college student, as a young adult, where does that
history live inside of you? Is there still the hunger?
Is there still the wanting to know more? Or does
it subside for a while. I think that both of

(37:56):
those things happened, And what I mean by that is
I did become more outward thinking because I was seeing,
you know, the way that other people's families operated. But
it made me long for more intimacy with my own family.
Part of that was this past that we didn't talk about.

(38:18):
So on the one hand, I found myself becoming much
more demanding of my mother, especially in terms of wanting
her to start saying I love you. Right. This is
this is an actual conversation that we have to have
when I come home from school and I'm like, how
about you never say this? Her response is because you
already know that. And I had to explain to her

(38:42):
why expressing that is important to me. And yet I
think there's some part of me that also understood that
if you can't even say I love you, then you
have no avenues to talk about the past. So in
some ways, this longing for intimacy was also a longing

(39:04):
to be let into this secret history that I didn't
know about. Also, during these college years when she's a junior,
Cassandra meets Reginald, the man who will become her husband.
We met in a philosophy because very early on we
were having these very intimate conversations about our childhoods. And

(39:26):
I mean, I know that that's how I fell in love.
That relationship was a place where I could have these
conversations where I was really sort of reflecting on these
very personal and cultural and familial experiences, and he didn't
turn away from any of it. As Cassandra becomes more

(39:47):
involved in the academic world as well as more involved
with Reginald, she engages in the adult version of snooping research.
In her research, she encounters the term replacement child, and
she comes to realize that by giving her the same
name as the child who died in the wreck, her
parents had in some ways placed this loss directly upon her.

(40:12):
When Cassandra and Reginald decide to try to have a
child of their own, something which it turns out isn't
simple and easy for them, Cassandra feels an especially intense
longing to know more about her family history. I think
that it really struck me in that moment, as we

(40:33):
were trying and failing to get pregnant, that there was
something about legacy that was really important to me to
be able to pass on. And it's interesting because I
would have had a hard time expressing in words at
the time, but what began to happen as we were

(40:56):
trying is I found myself thinking more and more about
genetic legacy and this resemblance that was so meaningful to
so many other people in my life, and yet understanding
that it's quite possible that we were not going to

(41:19):
be able to have a child, and trying to put
together the pieces of that past felt really urgent in
that moment, because on the one hand, it felt like
I would at some point want to know this stuff
in order to pass on to a child, like I

(41:41):
would want to be able to share a family history
in some way. But it also felt like I was
in some ways trying to create an extension of our
family in this way that I was created. So I
guess it made me recognize something about the way in

(42:03):
which reproduction was often connected to certain ideas about what
survival looks like, especially for black people. My father could
not talk to me, you know, about that accident, and

(42:24):
yet he had made me I existed because of the accident,
and there was a way in which he was creating
the future even when he couldn't fully talk about the past,
and it was all still connected. I was an extension
of that, and it made me think a great deal,

(42:48):
probably almost obsessively at times about these ancestors that I
had never known, and particularly my father's mother and his sister,
and that you know, they were the ones that people
all that she looks just like them, and you know,
people would look at my face and clearly be seeing
somebody else ohm I had never known, and so it

(43:10):
felt like I needed to at the very least know
what happened to them. I knew a few stories about them,
because when our extended family would get together when I
was a child, which is usually funerals, but when our
extended family would come to visit, all they did was
tell stories about their mother mostly, and they would be

(43:31):
these just incredible stories about her sort of heroism, and
all the stories were about her really sort of defending
her children against you know, Jim Crow, segregation, racism, And
so I felt like I needed to know more than
I knew, because I knew very very little. I knew

(43:53):
about the resemblance, obviously, and that was about it. And
it felt like whether or not I had a child,
and whether or not that was a logical childlie. It
felt like I need to know this. This is my
story too, and I need to know it. The problem
was my mother didn't think so. During this time, Cassandra

(44:14):
is on two parallel journeys that are deeply entwined. The
first is into the complex and harrowing world of assisted reproduction.
She and Reginald are determined to do absolutely everything they
can to have biological children. They go through IVF cycle
after IVF cycle, their hopes dashed again and again. At

(44:34):
the same time, her powerful desire to know more about
the relatives who died than the wreck becomes something she
can no longer pack away. She sends for their death records,
which include five names Bernice Jackson, Willa Deine Jackson, Maggie
Joe Ray, Robert Ray, and her namesake, Cassandra Ray, along

(44:57):
with the dates of their deaths. Sandra is startled to
realize that much of the information on the death records
isn't accurate. For instance, her grandmother and her father's first
wife are listed as having been employed as domestics, and
they were not employed as domestics, had never been employed
as domestics. It was all anyone could think a black

(45:18):
woman in Alabama could have done at the time. I
felt like at that point, when I get the death certificates,
there's stuff written on them, and it's been marked out,
and there are all these ways in which I'm realizing
that this record is not just inaccurate, but was done

(45:43):
in a way that would suggest that these people's lives
don't matter very much. And you know, the one thing
that I think I learned from those that I think
was really important was looking at the dates and realizing
how long the dying went on, because it's not as though,
you know, there was a wreck and everybody died instantly.

(46:05):
You know, you've got a child who dies on site.
You've got people arrive at a hospital alive and die after.
You've got another person who has the surgery that afternoon.
Even the accident happens in the morning, the surgery and
then dies after that one and another person who was
retent days and it was overwhelming, I think to look
at those death certificates and understand that this was something

(46:31):
that was happening in time right, that it happened in
a place. And I realized from the death certificates as
well that I didn't understand the circumstances of the accident
in terms of like I didn't even know where my
relatives were living. The death certificates indicated that some of
them were just visiting when this happened to them, and

(46:55):
so I realized them It's like I have to go
home because the only person who can really sort of
fill in the blanks in the story is there in Alabama.
I need to talk to my dad. When I had
tried to talk to him over the phone about what happened,
it was really hard for him to talk about. He

(47:16):
could give me a certain amount of information for a
certain amount of time, and he would stop. And the
last time that he had stopped, he had said to me,
you know, it was in the newspaper. And I remember thinking, like,
what do you mean it was in the newspaper and
he said, no, it was on the front page of
the newspaper. And he's like, this was a really big accident,

(47:38):
and he kept saying it was in the newspaper. You know,
I don't know how you would get the newspapers, but
you could get the newspaper. And I thought, I know
how to get a newspaper. I'm an academic. If I
could do anything, I can do research. I was like,
I have to go to Alabama and find out the
secret of what happened there. Yeah, I got on a
plane and I went down there, and I think that

(47:58):
in the beginning, I really thought but that I would
be able to have the revival conversations with my father
over the phone and a lot of this. Neither of
us had the practice talking about any of this that
we would have needed to be able to have like
really productive conversations about it. And I get there, and
I get up the next morning and I'm on my

(48:21):
way to the library and he's finishing up, picking breakfast
and cleaning up, and he says, oh, wait, mine, honey,
I'm going to take you down there. And I remember thinking, what, No,
I thought the whole point of me going to look
at the newspapers was so that you wouldn't have to
relive this experiences what I was thinking. But it was
very clear to me that he wanted to do this
with me, and he said, oh, no, I'll drive you

(48:43):
down there, and we go down there to the library together.
It's important to know here that your father had stopped drinking. Yes, yes,
he is like a different person at this point, and
I think that his life could change pretty dramatically since
you know, the time when I was a kid, in

(49:04):
the sense that he had started going to church more.
He had become a leader in that church, and it
was around that time that he just really stopped drinking,
and it made him into just an incredibly different person,
Like suddenly he's present and he's like, Oh, yeah, I'm
gonna drive, I'm gonna take you, I'm gonna do this
with you. And I think part of what was so

(49:25):
scary for my mom about this was that I think
she was concerned that him revisiting his grief in this
way might snatch him back to drinking, because I do
think that the drinking was a primary way in which
he coped with what had happened, and it was a

(49:48):
way of just turning everything off. I think she was
really worried that he would start drinking again if he
was really sort of faced with that tragedy again. So
what happens in the library? To go to the library,
and it was such a strange experience because you know,

(50:10):
I'm at home in library, you know, like I know
what I'm doing in those spaces, but this felt scary
to me and that I know what I'm looking for,
but I don't know what it looks like, right, Like,
I don't know if we're looking for something that's like
a small column on an accident that happened, or if
we're you know, looking for something bigger. And what happens

(50:33):
is we're using a machine where you've got to kind
of scroll through the newspapers to get to the daily
paper that has the accident in it. And it was
a really troubling experience in that you are completely engulfed
in another time, and these newspapers really bring what saigation

(51:00):
looked like at that time in Alabama to life. So
we get to this page, but by the time we
get to it, I've seen about three dozen articles with
the title that's a Negro prowler, right, Like, there is
no good reason that you're in a newspaper in you know,

(51:22):
Alabama in nineteen sixty if you're black, right, Like, you
don't want to be in that newspaper. And so you
begin to realize all of these customs white supremacy are
present in the newspaper. And so that's the context within

(51:44):
which I encounter this article. And so it's on the
front page the day that it happens, but the paper
came out in the evening back then, and so the
first story is a little bit shorter than we get
to the second story and it's a little bit longer,
and there's all these pictures and they are devastating vehicles

(52:07):
melded together. I can see my ancestor's shoes that have
come off in this horrible wreck. And I'm trying to
read the articles and my father is reading them at
the same time, because I'm realizing he has never read
these before. Right, he was at the hospital watching his
family die, so he was not reading about this accident,

(52:29):
and so he's reading these things for the first time,
just like I am. And I'm feeling like he's kind
of adjusting in some ways to nineteen sixty way faster
than me because he lived through it. But I can't
get past the first part of the article because I
noticed that the names of the white victims in the
accident have to be mentioned first, like that's the custom, right,

(52:52):
and they get a moniker, so it's like mister and
missus so and so, and then black people's names have
to be listed after all the white people have been listed.
They don't get a moniker, so it's just a name
and then a comma and the word negro behind them.
And I'm supposed to be this expert in like race

(53:12):
in the United States. I've written books about this, and
I am floored by this in the sense that you're
reading about how your family died, and you're at the
same time recognizing all these ways in which their humanity

(53:36):
is denied even in the telling of what happened to them.
And then I quickly see these accounts of the wreck,
and you know, my father stands up at one point
and he says, they've got this all wrong. They dodn't
got it all wrong. And at this point he had
already told me how the accident had happened. But the
account that's in the newspaper is clearly suggesting that the

(54:02):
problem is these you know, Negro drivers, and when the
accident happened, my uncle was in the accident, he's like
driving a new Pontiac. And there's clearly this idea, and
they make a point of saying, and he was driving
a new Pontiac Like it's very like biased in the
sense that if an accident happens between a white person

(54:26):
and a black person and it's nineteen sixteen, you're in Alabama,
it's the black person's fault. It does not matter what
happened because black people are supposed to get out of
the way of white people, so no matter what happens,
it's the black person's fault. And my father knew what
had happened, and he knew the account was not correct

(54:47):
because his mother had lived for ten days and he
remembered her telling him exactly what happened and telling him
he needed to remember it because they would tell a
different one day, and just sort of recognizing all these
ways and when which all these just humiliations that were
part of the way in which the newspaper operated because

(55:09):
it adheres to all of these customs. So the next
thing that we were trying to do, after we go
through all of the articles, and there's quite a few
of them, we start looking for the obituaries because I
was trying to understand something about all of these funerals,
because you know, he then had to basically bury five people.
How old was he He would be about twenty five

(55:31):
at the time, and he buries his wife first, but
you know, there are other family members who are waiting
for other family to arrive for certain funerals. So all
this to say, though, is that we can't find the
obituaries while we're sitting in the library. And finally, while
we're looking for them, there's like one of those like

(55:53):
library dudes, these guys who like they hang out and
read all newspapers in the library all the time. Them.
You know, I don't know what exactly they're doing them,
but they live in the library. And there was a
guy like that. He was sitting back there. He was
back there the entire time we were there, and he
had not made a sound, even when my father was

(56:14):
saying out loud, they've got it all wrong, they got
it all wrong, like he had said nothing. And he
looks over at us and he says, excuse me. He
actually begins with I don't want to offend y'all or nothing,
and I was like, oh god, this is not going
to go all already. He said, are you looking for
the obituaries of people who are African American? And we

(56:35):
said yes, and he said, well, you're not going to
find them in the obituary section because they didn't print
black people's obituaries in the section where white people's obituaries were.
They had to be printed on a separate page. And
it only came out in a column called News about

(56:56):
Negroes that came out once a week and my father says, oh, yeah,
like the guy had said, Oh, they moved, you know,
they changed the peanut butterial at the grocery story. It's like,
oh yeah, it was like that wasn't it. And I'm
just sitting there like you have got to be hitting me,
Like you couldn't even print a black person's obituary next

(57:21):
to a white person's obituary, and yet you claim to
be a news source about an accident that black people
were in. You know, it said so much about how
that world operated, in the ways in which sort of
journalism was both a reflection of that world but was
also creating and participating in segregation, in white supremacy. And

(57:45):
so we go to the column News about Negroes, and
it shocked me because it's basically a column that was
written by a black woman, and it had every single
thing that could have happened to a black person that
was good or bad in it. And for the most part, though,
it read like a society column. Oh, such and such,

(58:07):
we'll be visiting the so and sos this week, you know,
And it was the only part of the newspaper where
black people had titles. So it'd be like, oh, Colonel,
Lieutenant so and so was opposed to just such and
such negro It would have all the weddings, all the
church socials, everything crammed into this tiny column. And at
the very end of it, it would have funeral announcements.

(58:29):
And that was how we were able to locate the
obituaries and so that I could understand the sequence of
funerals that my father had to attend and basically arrange
as well. And so, yeah, it was all in a
little section called news about Negroes. And like I said,
like I'm supposed to be some sort of expert, and

(58:50):
you recognize that there's something about so much of this
history that has been actively repressed that when I go
out and I get talks and this comes up, most
people are pretty stunned. And it's hard to believe. It
wasn't that long No, it just wasn't that long ago.

(59:14):
I'm imagining like the experience, you know all of this
as an academic, as an author. You're sitting there as
a daughter and a member of a family in the
town that you grew up in, looking at this nineteen
sixties newspaper. It makes it so incredibly stark and personal,
so personal because it hurt to see my family's names

(59:40):
not just without monikers, but also this common negro because
the point of it was to make sure that no
white person picked up the newspaper and thought that blew
with Jackson was the one that they know, right, like,
oh no, it's just a Negro. And of course half
the information is wrong too, like there's biographical mistakes or

(01:00:00):
other ways in which they make mistakes, plenty of them,
but they don't make any mistakes when it comes to
white supremacy. And so yeah, it was incredibly painful. It
was also I think very painful for my father, though,
to see the accident reported in the way that it was.
What was it like to then have had that shared

(01:00:24):
experience with your father? Was there a shift in your
family in your sense of the secret is no longer
a secret? There's this shared kind of uneersing of it.
What was that like for you? It was meaningful in

(01:00:44):
ways that would have seemed unimaginable to me before that day.
And I think what I mean by that is that
it opened up this shared space that allowed for me
to be able to ask questions about his experience. It

(01:01:05):
was as if this idea of sort of sitting here
and reading about it together, and his willingness to relive
it in that moment in that way with me as
a witness to that that felt like a new kind
of bond between us for sure, and that me reading

(01:01:28):
those papers in this way is like completely freshed, like
never seeing any of this before and then recognizing it. Wait,
this is also fresh to him, and it clearly took
him back into the past in a way that was
different from the way in which I was experiencing it,
but it was simultaneous, like we were there together reliving this,

(01:01:50):
and it allowed me to be able to experience that
with him, but also to be able to ask questions
that I had spent my whole life afraid of asking.
And knowing that I could ask that question and that
he would not fall apart and I would not fall apart,
that we would still be whole at the end of

(01:02:11):
the day, that felt like a completely new possibility to me,
because you know, when you spent your whole life tiptoeing
around secrets and not talking about things, it feels like
if you broach the subject that that will be enough
to destroy all of you, that you will all sort

(01:02:33):
of go up in flames if someone brings up something
that hurts. And we got in the car and we
drove home together, and it felt like I knew him
in a way that I hadn't known him before, and
that it wasn't accidental, that it was very purposeful because

(01:02:57):
he just didn't have to come with me that day.
It felt like such a gift, like such a gift
that he would go there with me, do this with me,
experience this with me in this way, and that we
could trust that we would still be there together at
the end of it. And that felt very new, And

(01:03:21):
I will always be really grateful for having had that
experience with him. Very shortly after this extraordinary experience with
her father, something else extraordinary happens. After several IVF attempts,
on the fifth try, Cassandra becomes pregnant. She and Reginald

(01:03:44):
have a daughter, and just a couple of years later
they have another. It's almost as if the excavation of
her legacy allowed her to continue it. But when Cassandra's
daughters are seven and four, her father, who has that
cancer for some time so it comes to his illness.

(01:04:04):
She is heartbroken. Of course, but feels grateful that he
did get the chance to know and spend time with
his granddaughters. I think about talk about gifts him being
able to spend those like last days. We just happened
to be there visiting when he was dying. You know,

(01:04:25):
when we got there, he's like playing with the kids,
And we get there on a Tuesday, and he dies
the following Tuesday. And I remember thinking that what a
gift it was that he got to spend his last
days with them, and that they were there and had

(01:04:46):
this chance to say goodbye. Because we don't live in
the same place. You expect to get a phone call,
and it was so incredible that we were there and
there was this opportunity to say goodbye, and to know
that you're saying goodbye and in a way, I guess

(01:05:07):
to be saying the best kind of goodbye is it
has to be goodbye, which is that it's all been said,
it's all been expressed. Oh definitely. One of the last
conversations I had with him was about the book that
I was writing, and to be able to say that
and to know that that was what he wanted to

(01:05:31):
was also incredibly sort of freeing as a writer to
have a parent basically sort of give you their blessing
in writing about the ways that you experienced your life
with them. Here's Cassandra reading one more passage from her

(01:05:55):
powerful and beautifully written memoir The Wreck. I will tell
my daughter that the body is a story that does
not end with the body. That we carry others from
room to room on our backs, calling out the names
of our dead and our sleep, and that this is
why I have given her a new name of her own.

(01:06:17):
I will teach her the other names in due time.

(01:06:41):
Family Secrets is a production of iHeartRadio. Molly Zacur is
the story editor and Dylan Fagan is the executive producer.
If you have a family secret you'd like to share,
please leave us a voicemail and your story could appear
on an upcoming episode. Our number is one eight eight
eight Secret zero number zero. You can also find me

(01:07:02):
on Instagram at Danny Ryder. And if you'd like to
know more about the story that inspired this podcast, check
out my memoir Inheritance. For more podcasts from iHeartRadio, visit

(01:07:37):
the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to
your favorite shows.

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