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November 30, 2023 29 mins

When Sarah is a young child, her parents vanish at sea. They are never found. How does she mourn what she cannot remember? 

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Family Secrets is a production of iHeartRadio. Only recently did
my father Larry appear in a dream. We were together
in a small harbor, crowded with sailboats, tied one to
the other in a web of lines, hopping from one
deck to the next. Despite their jostling by waves, the

(00:21):
holes didn't bump. The water sounded alive, proud that I
would finally take up ocean sailing. My father wanted to
help me choose the best boat. His words of encouragement
were brief, but his smile was ripe with paternal love.
Perhaps the imprint of my parents exists in the truthful
tale of my genes. The color of my hair, my

(00:43):
mother's dark brows, my conover wide smile, my father's easy laugh,
my small muscled body that loves to dance a wild streak,
as I'm told my mother did. And two whatever I
experienced as an infant must also be within me. The
tethered gaze between my mother and me, her voice that

(01:05):
I surely recognized straight from the womb. My father's touch
as he stroked the tiny wings of my shoulder blades,
the smell of my parents, the taste of her milk,
my primal known world. That's Sarah Conover, author of the
recent memoir Set Adrift. Sarah's is the story of a

(01:29):
family tragedy that occurred when she was a very young child,
so young, in fact, that she has no memory of it.
She's left with a lifetime of questions, of longing, and
of the profound desire to understand all that has been lost?
What can we piece together even when the pieces have
been shattered beyond recognition. I'm Danny Shapiro, and this is

(02:06):
family secrets, the secrets that are kept from us, the
secrets we keep from others, and the secrets we keep
from ourselves. It's kind of a complicated map my childhood.
So my parents and grandparents vanished on January eighth, nineteen

(02:28):
fifty eight. My grandfather spent a lot of winters down
in the tropics sailing. He was one of the most
trophied ocean racing yachtsmen of his time, commodoer of the
Cruising Club of America, publisher of Voting Industry, on the
board of Yachting Magazine, and my father was a contender

(02:48):
for the Olympic Trials, and they had invited my parents down.
My grandfather and grandmother to join them. Right after Christmas.
January first, nineteen fifty eight is when they left the
Florida Keys headed extensively to Miami, but actually by way
of the Bahamas, and they ran into the worst unpredicted

(03:09):
storm in the Miami Weather Bureau's history at that time,
where the day started out as you know, life breeze
is expected, and then like within six hours, there were
seventy mile an hour winds and forty foot waves. Many
boats foundered, many many and my family's voat was the

(03:30):
only one that didn't return. And because of my grandfather's
renowned in the yachting and business worlds, it was probably
one of the most extensive private searches, private and public
searches of the time. The Navy, the Coast Guard, the
Cuban Navy, all sorts. They combed twenty four thousand square

(03:51):
miles looking for them, truly needle in a haystack, and
one of the problems was that the weather state stormy
for a number of days. They were reported missing on
a Saturday, and the search couldn't start till a Tuesday,
and that might have been the only window where they
could have been saved. They were seen by a fishing

(04:13):
boat nineteen hours after the storm almost capsized five people
hanging off the lines what are called drogues by the
end of the boat sea anchors. But the boat that
saw them was also foundered. Their motor had cut out,
so there was a search that went on for quite

(04:34):
a bit, and the dinghy of the boat, the kind
of the little lifeboat, washed ashore on north of Miami
about eighty miles five days later or so, and nothing
else was found. Pieces were put together of maybe what happened,
but really, you know, forty forty five foot wave, seventy

(04:55):
mile an hour winds, it tells a lot, and there
might have been a mechanical fil on the boat. We
don't know. You were eighteen months old, your sister Eileen
was almost three. At what point did you have any
sense of anything about the story of knowing that you
have lost your parents. It's a funny question because you know,

(05:19):
back then with doctor stock era, you don't talk to
kids about these kind of things, right, They can't understand it. Really,
adults can't understand it either. So my sister, who was older,
she was the one who was told. My grandmother said
your parents are dead, and I know, my grandmother must
have said it a number of times. But this is
the weird thing about early childhood loss is one of

(05:42):
the things you mourn is that you just know your
world vanished, and you don't you don't have those stages
of recognizing cognitively, Oh, I lost my parents. You know,
it was almost preverbal and all that, so you don't
have those stages of grief. There was no in a
way to recognize it. My sister seemed to. She remembers

(06:04):
people coming into her room and she was in her
crib and it was like a big black cloud that
came over the hole. Everything the world just stopped. But
after the world stops, it also must go on. When
Sarah and her sister are orphaned by this mysterious boating accident,

(06:26):
they're sent to live with their aunt, their father's sister,
fram and her husband, who have two children of their own.
But Sarah and Eileen's maternal grandmother puts up a fight,
a long fight. A custody battle persists for ten years,
during which Sarah and Eileen are required to see their
grandmother every other weekend. The atmosphere in their aunt's home

(06:49):
and their grandmothers could not be more different. She was
the one who was fighting for custody for a decade
and filled me with vitriol about the family with majority custody.
They aren't your real family, Those aren't your parents. You're
not one of them. My father's sister's family, the way

(07:10):
they had to respond to the grief was fran My
father's sister couldn't talk about the accident at all. She
lost her favorite brother, she lost her hero, her mother,
her father. She just couldn't talk about it. So there
was one family that just couldn't talk about it and
wouldn't despite all the sailing trophies on the India hutch.

(07:32):
And then the other family, the other one fighting for custody,
would only talk about it and would say that those
conivers they killed my daughter. You have this phrase in
your book that really struck me, which was that you
were schooled in dissociation and numbness. And we've talked a

(07:53):
lot about dissociation on this podcast as sometimes a healthy
defense mechanism degree you know, that protects us until we
don't need protecting. Obviously, it can also be unhealthy. I mean,
one of the things that also really strikes me is
the way that and you as so many kids in
that era in particular, where there was a tragedy in

(08:14):
a family or something difficult in a family, were left
to piece it together for themselves, right, And you know,
in a way you're dissociating, but at the same time
you're working overtime to try to piece it together between
what your grandmother, who you don't really trust, is saying
to you and what your adoptive parents were raising you

(08:35):
are saying or not saying to you because they don't
really want to talk about it, especially Fran. Yeah, one
of the tragic things is that the family that a
majority custody was really blown apart, and Fran, my mother
there just you know, she had four kids and she
just couldn't give me the attention that my grandmother could.

(08:56):
And so you know, in certain ways I gravitated like
this person could give me all the attention I need.
And my sister and I we would visit my grandmother
and she was rather an amazing artist and had oil
paintings that she'd done of my mother and had professional
photographs of my mother, no conovers, but of my mother

(09:17):
all over her house in Connecticut. And she moved from
Fresno to be close to us and to try to
rest us from the other family. And the weird thing was,
you know, there were pictures of her mother all over
the house, but it was that era where people didn't
smile in photographs, and my sister and were like, that's
our mother. I mean, you did not want to attach

(09:39):
to these photographs, and it just it just did not
really compute that this could be our mother. My grandmother
was complicated and fascinating too. You know, she lost her
mother and her sister in the nineteen eighteen flu, so
she had a tragedy behind her and I think her
losing her daughter just center over the edge and she

(10:02):
would do anything to get custody of us. Why was
she so against your aunt and uncle, who became your
adoptive parents. I think it was existential for her. And
she was a bit of a kookie character. She was
always weirdly ended up as a single not weirdly, I
think very intentionally ended up as a single parent and
married in the end about five times. And she had

(10:26):
sort of amazing perseverance and as a single mom, but
she would divorce whatever guy she got married to pretty fast.
And your mother was her only child. No, she also
had a son by a different father, and that when
she kept her son laying very close in ways that
you know, I'm sure could be psychologized very easily in

(10:49):
terms of the Oedipus something. You know, he never got
his own career. She always supported him. He was actually
very very smart guy and a great flamenco guitar player.
She kept him close, and I think it was existential
for her after losing her daughter that she didn't lose him.

(11:09):
So in a way, she made everybody's life miserable between
the two families. And on another hand, she taught me
to see beauty. In some ways she really saved my life.
She would set up an easel for both my sister
and I and a beautiful still life on her breakfast table.
The weekends we were with her and teach us to
paint watercolor and oil colors, and she played the piano

(11:33):
and danced. You know. It was she would let us
have the run of the house and that was pretty fun.
She also didn't want you to call her grandma right right,
so that was another thing, so she had us call
me mayor, which means mother in French. We did not
know that, and it also ironically means the sea in French.

(11:59):
We'll be right back buck. Memory is such a puzzle.
We need witnesses, especially in circumstances like Sarah's. As she writes,

(12:23):
orphans not only lose their parents but also the historians
of their early years. And in Sarah's case, she's on
the receiving end of contradictory stories from her aunt and
her grandmother. So pieces of the story of the truth
come to her over time, like bits of buried treasure.
She begins to be able to assemble, little by little

(12:46):
the truths of who she is and where she belongs.
There's different stages where you can think, oh no, wait
a minute, wait, I look like her. But when you're little,
you're just trying to land somewhere. And the whole family,
everybody was set adrift by this accident, and where do

(13:08):
I belong? I think orphans have the ability to you know,
they're kind of a desperate figure, but they also can
remake themselves. And at some point I just decided that's
what I'm going to do. I watched the Sound of
Music probably twenty times, and you know, decided that mountains
weren't going to be my thing. I just couldn't go

(13:29):
near the water, and so completely left the whole sailing
business behind and pretty young, went out to rocky mountains
and took a mountaineering course. And you know, I was
probably maybe seventeen or eighteen when I walked across Switzerland
by myself after having watched the Sound of Music, not

(13:51):
realizing that that movie was in Austria, thinking it was
in Switzerland. But I orphaned myself. I orphaned the grief,
and you know, it seemed okay. I was restless, but
I also looked around me and I saw alcoholism. You know,
by the time I was a teenager, my sister, Eileen,

(14:14):
the other orphan, she had really disengaged from my grandmother,
and my grandmother had shown me a lot of favoritism
by then, and so that wasn't really a refuge anymore
at all. And I didn't I couldn't trust my grandmother
then either. You know, my father's siblings, except for Friend,
really dove into alcohol and very troubled lives. And that

(14:37):
nobody would talk about the elephant in the living room.
You know, I understand that that generation, the greatest generation.
They had no tools. Nobody was talking about post traumatic anything.
Nobody knew what to do with grief. So I understand
it now. But you know, I had that group not
talking about it, and the other group who was so skewed,

(14:58):
my my grandmother. I just thought, nobody's telling the truth here,
and I need to know. I need truth. There has
to be some authenticity. So at a very young age,
I became, you know, a religious seeker. At first, it
was through nature. When I was walking through Switzerland, I
happened to walk into the tent where the great Indian

(15:20):
saint Christiana Murdy was teaching of all people, and that
started to open other doors, and I became a religious
studies major. Fran used to call me the biggest why
kids she ever met, And I think I've been asking,
you know, what is the question we've been asking our
whole lives. One of them is why? Why? And what?

(15:42):
And are we loved and by whom? And so there
was a lot of why for me, why and where
is truth? Where's our foundation? I left home when I
was seventeen. I graduated early from high school, went out west,
went to a commune. But you know, along with the

(16:03):
hippie era, there was a lot of spiritual banqueting around
as well, and I guess I, you know, religious studies
certainly gave me a view of it, and I had
to just keep searching. There was a time when I
was hiking in Nepal and I was hiking by myself.
I was trekking in Nepaul and a Tibetan monk came

(16:25):
in the opposite direction and smiled at me in a
way that I'd never seen a human being smile in
my life. And this was right before college, and I
felt like, Okay, that is my compass, whatever that is,
that's my compass. I can so picture that encounter with

(16:45):
the monk on the path. I can picture that smile.
I really, I can just see it. And you know,
I wonder. I mean, you were, on the one hand,
trying to stay ahead of what was haunting you as
you were making these tracks, these trips and searching for
something that you weren't sure what you were searching for.
You quote the Buddhist psychologist Tara Brock as saying that

(17:11):
trauma is severed belonging, and that really really struck me.
It struck me as a deep truth. And it seems
that your sense of belonging was ripped away from you
as an eighteen month old. And if that's your story,
then it would seem that life becomes to some degree

(17:36):
at some point about finding a way for that belonging
to become a whole. Yeah, and I do think that's
what you know. Sometimes I call it the mother whole,
but it could be the God hole. It could be
what makes this steel whole. I think orphans is a

(17:56):
noun and a verb. We are orphans, but we are
also or in others that you know as a protective mechanism.
And it gets mixed up with that horrible thing of
you know, independence in American culture, but we orphan ourselves
from one another. And yes, the need for belonging is
so fundamental, and I was looking for that, whether spiritual nature.

(18:21):
I was looking so hard for that. I was looking
for bedrock. So I decided the Gagnes, my eventually adoptive family.
I'd already been told by my grandmother forever, they're not
really your family, And you know, your name is Sarah
Conover and their Gagne. Even though I grew up as
a Gagne. I think that I just was looking hard

(18:44):
and working hard for that sense of belonging. What do
I belong to? What do we all belong to? Which
is our bedrock? How old were you when you changed
your name back to Conover. Yeah, I was in their
early twenties when I moved out west. It kind of like, Okay,
I'm just gonna do the whole thing. I'm going to
take my birth name, my beautiful birth name back, and

(19:06):
I left the Gagnes. They're all back on the East
Coast and I'm my own self here and there we go.
I'm going to just take that name back and like
you know, putting them all in a bottle in the sea,
like goodbye. And of course we can't do that. Of
course we can't do that. So my biological sister still
has the last name by wing Gagne, and my other

(19:27):
siblings kept that name. But they were my I don't
call them my step siblings. Well, and they were your cousins.
They were my cousins. They were my first cousins. Yeah.
As often happens, when we open one door, other doors
open too. Sarah changes her name back to the name
she was born with, and she also meets her future husband, Doug.

(19:51):
She's studying to become an aikido, a Japanese martial arts instructor,
in Boulder, Colorado. Doug is practicing martial arts too. They
have shared interests and an immediate connection. They get married.
Within a couple of years, they moved to California to
start a family. Things seem to be going smoothly for Sarah.

(20:12):
She feels far from her childhood, which have been defined
by secrecy, tragedy, and grief, but her grief returns and reverberates,
because that's what grief does. I was still running hard
ahead of the grief, I think, and numb and pretty
excited about a new baby. And I think the first
big wake up call was that when my you know,

(20:35):
there's that book bussel Vandercock's The Body keeps the Score.
I also think the body keeps the clock. And at
eighteen months. I only put this together about six months ago, Danny.
Eighteen months is when I started not to be able
to sleep. When your son was eighteen months old. Yeah,
when he was eighteen months old, that's when sleep got

(20:56):
very challenging for me. And later on I realized. We
left California. We left and fran I moved to California.
We decided all to move there together. You know, I'll
move there. Let's do it at the same time, her
second husband had family there. And I put this also
together about six months ago. Is that when my daughter

(21:17):
turned eighteen months old, I also left fran behind and
moved up to Washington State from California. Even though I
had told people in California, I had said, I finally
have the mommy I've been looking for. Brand was there
all the time for us. It was a beautiful thing.
And yet, and yet I wanted to move back to

(21:40):
the mountains, my safe place. As Sarah enters midlife, she
can no longer outrun her grief. She sinks into a
depression that seems, on the surface of things at odds
with the beautiful life she has created with her family
in this beautiful place. It's one other thing I wanted

(22:01):
to say about orphaning being an orphan and orphaning others
and orphaning yourself, orphaning your own feelings from yourself. I
orphaned my grief when I looked up you know, secrets.
As in family secrets, it also means to separate. I
really kind of thought about that. To separate, surely it
does that. Yeah, and all of this, I mean, there

(22:23):
was just separation and secretivity everywhere the ocean. Secreted my
parents away, people secreted their guilt, their grief. We separated ourselves.
I mean, I think that was the biggest tragedy of
this is that it didn't bring you know, grief to
heal has to bring a community together. It blew us

(22:43):
apart till recently, really, until my book was done and
we could kind of all see the map of the grief,
because grief can be horizonless, kind of like the sea,
and for my sibs to see their pain on the
page and my pain, we could find finally drop it.
But meanwhile we just separated from each other and kept

(23:04):
orphaning ourselves from one another. Well, in the process of
writing your book, you do a lot of research, but
part of the story are the interviews that you do
with your siblings, with Eileen and with your two cousins
slash siblings. You grew up with them all of your
remembered childhood, and you give them really space and a

(23:28):
chance in your book to allow for their own feelings
and their own reality, which is I would imagine part
of what ended up being so healing about the book
for all of you. Yeah, that's one of the things
I recommend to everybody's interview your siblings and you know
those big touchstones in your family history. How did they

(23:49):
experience it? Because you will learn a lot and it
just diminishes any self involvement because everybody he'll surround you
is suffering as well. I think it's a really important
thing to do. We are meaning makers as we go
through life. We're story makers, and stories can also use us.
And the fact that this tragedy blew our family apart

(24:11):
meant that people were making up stories about each other.
And if you ask any dysfunctional you know, anybody who's
not getting along with somebody in their family, they have
a story about that other person. So we had these
stories about each other that couldn't get underneath the pain.
And that's why I think interviewing your family so important.

(24:34):
But stories can be so dangerous. They're important when they
work for you, when they work for another person. But boy,
and we've all experienced this thing where somebody tells you
just a little something about somebody you haven't met. By
the time you meet that person, it's tainted already. And
this is like one hundredfold with your family. So it's

(24:56):
the unwriting of the fictions that we have about each other.
And I also felt like I had to unwrite my
own fiction. First I was Sarah Conover, and then I
grew up as Leslie Gagney, and then I wanted to
drop the Leslie Gagney because she had had this kind
of chaotic childhood, and so I became Sarah Conover. But

(25:17):
those things are all inside you. So all of that
for me had to get untangled, and I had to
unwrite those fictions as well. Fifty eight years after the accident,
after the vanishing, Sarah's sister Eileen, has the idea that
the family should come together for a proper memorial to

(25:40):
honor their parents and grandparents. I had asked, fran why
didn't you have a memorial? I mean, they had been
finally declared dead by the insurance company, and she said,
we just thought we'd discovered them on a deserted island
in the Caribbean. I kind of blamed Gilligan's Island for

(26:01):
this or something, you know, But also that generation didn't
have the tools to say, what, you know, what are
the constellations of grief? You know, it's not just sadness,
it's all this other stuff. And she had to bunker
her own grief. So we fifty eight years after my
sister and I held a memorial and it was beautiful,

(26:24):
and Fran was there, and my cousins slash siblings. I
grew up with the two. They didn't come out for it,
but Fran really stood tall. And we had a memorial
benchmad saying Pops and Dan, Larry and Laurie's sail on
and looking at golden gardens out on Puget Sound. There

(26:45):
just happened to be a sailing regatta going on, with
the boats, the horns coming off the I forget what
you call those boats, and a beautiful, beautiful day. And
it was lovely to hear Fran and talk about what
a gift we had been when she lost her parents,
that she was able to adopt us and to raise us.

(27:07):
And yeah, there was finally some closure around that. Here's
Sarah reading one last passage from her powerful and probing
memoir Orphan. Every year I passed the moment when the

(27:30):
sea held and turned you, when exhausted, you surrendered. You
lie in wool, silks and taffetas heavy with water at
the bottom of my ceed or trunk. You hang on
the wall, crooked chipped, waiting to be straightened. How surprised
I am at your face is growing into my son
and daughter. Perhaps you are coming back to me now,

(27:53):
given back by the ocean in the bits left on
the sand you wash ashore, and I'd pick through the sea,
lifting shells to my ear and listening, fingering the sea
scour and colored beach glass, resting the fragile carpses of
the long dead in my palm. Little nothings to anyone else,

(28:14):
but we know better. Blood is our private See my
covenant with the two of you, my parents, remembering you.
I won't throw anything back. Family Secrets is a production

(28:41):
of iHeartRadio. Molly's Accurr 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. That's the
number zero. You can also find me on Instagram at

(29:03):
Danny Ryder. And if you'd like to know more about
the story that inspired this podcast, check out my memoir Inheritance.

(29:24):
For more podcasts from iHeartRadio, visit the iHeartRadio app Apple podcasts,
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