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December 21, 2023 30 mins

In his journey toward self-discovery, Shane must reconstruct his past by cobbling together memories of his kidnapping, upbringing, and the enormous swell of questions which once defined his identity.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Family Secrets is a production of iHeartRadio. I was three
when I was kidnapped. Any age, the day must have
been a Saturday or a Sunday, because when my grandmother
and I stepped from the fabric store, we were shocked
at how dark the day had become. So it must
have been midday. Me not in school, unless it was

(00:22):
the summer day. Usually, whenever we shopped for fabric store things.
Whenever my grandmother shopped for fabric store things, we went
to a Michael's and a strip mall down Highway one
eighty three, just far enough for the strip mall to
seem alien impossible to get home if I were ever
left there. But on this day we had gone to
a fabric store I had never seen before. It's name

(00:44):
a blank stucco edifice. To me, now, am I misremembering it?
That's Sean McCrae, award winning poet, an author of the
recent book Pulling the Chariot of the Sun, a memoir
of a kidnapping. Shane's is a story about Yes being

(01:05):
kidnapped by his white grandparents to keep him away from
his black father, But at its heart, it's about the
attempt to recover memory to put together the many blank
or missing pieces that were kept from him to assemble
a life and a whole complete self. I'm Danny Shapiro,

(01:34):
and this is family secrets, the secrets that are kept
from us, the secrets we keep from others, and the
secrets we keep from ourselves. I suppose I could start
with ground Rock, Texas, which is where I lived from
the age of almost four until the age of ten

(01:55):
or eleven. I lived in a three bedroom house that
was made of brick, and the bricks were painted a
very light yellow. The neighborhood that I lived in was
a suburban neighborhood, but far away from anything that one
might call a city center. It was like a kind
of stripmolish area, too far away to walk to or

(02:19):
anything like that. But that was the closest to a
kind of urban center near where I lived, and so
there was just a bunch of houses across the street
from me. There was the elementary school that I ended
up going to. I think that sidewalks are now there,
but when I lived there, there weren't any sidewalks. There
was a creek that I felt sort of separated the

(02:41):
part of the neighborhood in which I lived from the
rest of the neighborhood, or the rest of the neighborhood beyond.
This creek was a lot larger than the part in
which I lived, and the creek, as far as I know,
doesn't exist anymore. I saw my old neighborhood about ten
years ago, and where the creek was, it seemed like
it had all been covered with cement, and so there's

(03:03):
still a channel, I guess for water. But when I
lived there, there was a creek with sort of these
natural little rock islands in it, and a lot of
catfish and snakes, poisonous snakes. You could kind of see
the elementary school from my house. Behind the elementary school
was I don't really know the history of this space,

(03:26):
but it was. It looked kind of like a ruin
of a very small settlement. There were a few houses
in this kind of large warehousey space, and it was
really very very strange. You accessed it by kind of
going through a little kind of foresty area, a large

(03:46):
patch of which somehow was bamboo. And on the other
side of this bamboo area were a few ruined houses.
It looked as if they had been torn up like
a storm had gone through them, but there were still
remnant things that would indicate that people had lived there,
like bits of furniture things like that, but they must
have been abandoned or whatever it was it happened to

(04:09):
them some years before my family moved into that area.
Did that exert a pull on you at all? You know,
that sort of abandoned area. Visiting that space is one
of the few relatively clear memories that I have of
my childhood. But now when I think about it, it
sounds like a sort of impossible space, like how could
it have been real? How could I have ever gone there?

(04:31):
Even though I feel really confident that I went there,
I also doubt the possibility of it even existing. But
it did exert a pull on me. I like to
explore a lot when I was a small child and
tell me who you lived in the yellow house with
my maternal grandparents, my grandmother, who was my mother's biological mother,

(04:54):
and my grandfather, who had adopted my mother when my
mother was I believe, thirteen years old. So Shane is
living with his grandparents. He refers to them as mom
and Dad, even though on some level he's aware that
they are his grandparents, and when his mom a young
woman who had him at just eighteen years old, comes

(05:15):
to visit. He calls her by her first name, Denise.
When my mother came to visit me, I don't think
there's any way for me to know whether she felt
like my mother, because I wouldn't know what it feels like.
She's the only model that I would have, and so
particularly as a child, I guess maybe in some ways,
not just because the person that I called referred to

(05:36):
as my mother was my grandmother, but I was aware
that my mother was my mother, and so in a
kind of abstract way, I felt a very strong connection
to her insofar as she was my mother and I
was aware of it. I lived with her up until
I was about four. I guess most of the time.
You describe at one point sitting by the window, you know,

(05:57):
when you knew she was going to be coming, And
it struck me the way that you described that that
there was a kind of combination of excitement and a
kind of longing. Sure, so what was the story that
you grew up being told by your maternal grandparents about

(06:17):
your father and about why you were living with them
away from your family. So my grandparents told me that
the reason that I didn't live with my father, well, really,
the reason I didn't see him, didn't really know him,
was that he didn't want me, and also that even

(06:41):
if I were interested in seeing him, it kind of
didn't matter, because they told me that he lived in
Brazil and he had a whole new family, other children now,
and that he just wouldn't be interested in seeing me anyway.
And they told me that I had started to live
with them when I was eighteen months old, and that

(07:04):
they had essentially taken me in as a favor, a
favor to my mother because she felt like she couldn't
take care of me, and since my father was out
of the picture, whatever his opinions about whether he could
take care of me, those were irrelevant. The general sense
that I was supposed to have was that my father's
family were sort of disreputable criminal. Even my grandparents had

(07:28):
told me the story that one of my relatives on
my father's side had one year when I was very little,
I guess it must have been one year old, had
stolen all of my Christmas presents. And I think that
that I think they told me that story just to
sort of reinforce the idea that I shouldn't even want
to have anything to do with my father's side of

(07:50):
the family, and I was better off not knowing them.
I should also say that, I mean, you know, as
a small child, my sense of how biology worked was
regard to parents and children really vague. But I was
aware of my father's blackness, and I was aware that
my father's blackness had something to do with my own identity,

(08:11):
something very significant. And did you have a sense that
that was an issue for your grandparents. Yeah, my grandparents
were very clear about not liking not white people to
various degrees. My grandfather was a self identified Republican, my
grandmother was a self identified Democrat. But they could agree

(08:35):
that not white people were not good. That was what
they wanted to communicate in various ways. My grandmother was
more subtle than my grandfather was, but that was a
point of agreement for them. Yes, all the years that
Shane lives with his grandparents, he always sleeps with his
lights on. Something's going on internally, something that doesn't feel

(08:58):
quite right. Always know, don't we when something's amiss, even
though we can't quite identify it. One day in school
where Shane has skipped a grade, so He's five or
six years old and already in second grade. He draws
a swastika on a white T shirt with a black
magic marker. Shane has seen swastikas in books about World

(09:18):
War Two in his grandparents' house, where they admire as
a Nazi military effort, so he has no idea he's
doing something that people will find troubling, and the principal
sends him home. My grandmother in particular, felt that that
was an abusive authority to send me home for drawing
swastikas all over my shirt, which it hadn't occurred to

(09:41):
me because I didn't know anything about the history at all.
It hadn't occurred to me that that was a sort
of offensive thing to do. Had no idea. When I
was in elementary school, when I was asked about my father,
I would just say that I didn't have one. I
felt really strongly actually, like I just didn't Whereas by
the time I got to middle school, I started asserting

(10:05):
that I hated him. I didn't know him, obviously, but nonetheless,
if I were asked about him, that's what I would say.
And Shane, where was the hate coming from? That? He
was not interested in me? And so I hated him
for that, or at least thought I it. Meanwhile, there's
other hateful behavior within the wall of Shane's grandparents' home.

(10:26):
His grandfather is violent toward him, and when Denise comes
to visit, she sometimes asks if he wants to come
live with her instead. Whenever my mother would ask me
whether I wanted to live with her, it was very
uncomfortable because I was aware that she was my mother
and that I was supposed to feel a particular way,
and you know, I did love her. I didn't want

(10:46):
to hurt her feelings, but I was also I also
sort of thought of my grandmother as my mother, and
I didn't want to leave my grandparents. And I've often wondered,
you know, why did I want to stay so desperately
with these abusive people. And it wasn't until recently that

(11:07):
I was sort of able, finally able to make sense
of it, thinking about you know, well, along with so
many other things, this is almost certainly a consequence of
being kidnapped. That I didn't want any sort of major
change in my living arrangement. That my anxiety about that,
even though I couldn't articulate it, was incredibly high. I

(11:32):
was very, very anxious and also always feeling always worried
that I was going to be forced from the particular
living arrangement that I had, and so it was always
extremely stressful. I think I understand why my mother wanted
me to be aware that I could live with her
if I wanted to, but it was always an extremely

(11:54):
stressful interaction to me. But during these exchanges with his mom,
she never tells him that she too had been beaten
by her father when she was younger, which makes it
even more striking that she also never asks Shane whether
his grandfather is also abusing him. It's something that I

(12:14):
guess to some extent I still kind of can't really
understand unless I told in my mind that she was
very desperate to please my grandfather. There's only so much
I can read in her own motives. But I think
it partly has to do with he adopted her when
she was thirteen, but he had been living with her

(12:35):
for by that time, like eight years or something, and
he had told her from the beginning that if she
was quote unquote good, he would adopt her when she
was thirteen, and so he kind of loading her with
worry about living up to some sort of idea of
goodness so that she could have a father, because you know,
my grandmother had kidn up my mother from my mother's

(12:56):
father when my mother was too had just taken my
mother and not told him where they were going, and
my mother didn't see him again until she was about
sixty when she found him. And so I think that
there was a lot of desire for a father and
a lot of worry that she would be rejected by
her father. And so I think that when she allowed

(13:20):
my grandparents to take me, she couldn't allow herself to
believe that it wouldn't be a safe place for me
for a couple of reasons that were sort of reinforcing
each other, because she maybe felt that she couldn't take
care of me herself, but she also felt like, as
I said, she really wanted to please my grandfather. We'll

(13:45):
be right back. At age thirteen, Shane does ultimately move

(14:09):
in with his mother. In his adolescence, he's beginning to
stand up to his grandfather, and as a result, their
relationship has become even more violent, so much so that
Shane's memories of the beatings have receded into parts of
his mind. He still cannot fully access These memories are
blocked in ways that both cost and protect him. He

(14:31):
does remember, however, in broad hazy strokes moving in with
his mom. Being at my mother's house is sort of
like an island, Like it's a visible island where I
can see days and I can see place, and I
can see arriving, you know, but it's surrounded by blackness,
like there's no before and there's no after. I know

(14:54):
what it was like, you know, like physically, but I
don't have any memory of the time leading up to
being with my mother. I just suddenly remember being there,
but I feel like I remember a long stretch of
being there and then I leave and I don't remember again.
I mean, that's such an interesting image, and I wondered,
I mean, do you think that you felt, briefly while

(15:15):
you were there, a certain kind of safety that you
hadn't felt before, Like did you feel safer? I guess
I must have felt safer at my mother's house, but
I don't know that I recall a feeling of safety.
I recall a degree of anxiety, a lot of worry.
It was just different from my grandparents' house, was I think,

(15:38):
in some ways really different there, But I was only
there for a few months. But in a lot of ways,
I guess actually my life was different, and I think
I was different. Of course, Denise's life is different during
this time too. She's never had a child under her roof.
She's never really had this experience of being a mother.
It's a struggle for her, and it turns out she

(15:59):
isn't of taking care of Shane. She tells him that
he'll have to go back to live with his grandparents,
but before he goes, she tells him something else. The
truth about what happened when he was three years old,
when he was kidnapped. So before I left my mother
to return to my grandparents was when my mother told
me that my grandparents had taken me from my father

(16:22):
without telling my father where they were taking me. Up
until this point, it was my understanding that my father
just wasn't interested in me at all, and so learning
this was a shock. But because my grandparents had so
effectively raised me to have no interest in my father,

(16:46):
and because I didn't have any kind of memory of
my time with him, and because I didn't have any
understanding even of the timeline, you know, I didn't know
that I was almost four years old when my grandparents
took me up. I was eighteen months old. And because
I assume, because there's such a huge conflict between reality
and the story my memory of it also, I mean,

(17:06):
because I think the kidnapping itself is such a traumatic event,
the memory is just it's all gone. I mean, I
did know that at this point, I had already decided
that I didn't hate my father, but I didn't know
what to do with that, you know, because I didn't
have any contact with him still, and so hating him
or not hating him in a sense is sort of

(17:26):
it's not exactly irrelevant, but it's not what is its
practical effect. I don't think that I stopped hating him
for any particular reason. I think it was just getting
a little bit older. I mean, I wasn't, you know,
still a child, but maybe sort of beginning to think
for myself a little bit helped me to get beyond
the point where I felt like hating my father was

(17:48):
sort of necessary. Chane's grandparents are in California at this point,
and he does end up moving back in with them.
He has nowhere else to go. The throes of so
much instability Shane's early teenage years are defined by depression
and flux. When he's fourteen, his grandmother decides to leave

(18:08):
his grandfather, so she and Shane moved back to Salem, Oregon,
back where it all began. During this time, Shane becomes
increasingly curious about his father. He now has the information
his mother told him, as well as his father's name
Stanley or perhaps it's stan Lee. What he doesn't note

(18:29):
is where this man is. The stories about Brazil suddenly
don't sit right. Shane begins to wonder if perhaps his
father is right here in Salem. I was with some
friends and we were skating in an apartment complex and
have been skating for some time, and for whatever reason,

(18:50):
at that moment, I felt like I should look at
my father. I want to know if he's still here.
So I, with my friends knocked on a stranger's door.
This would have been, I guess, probably nineteen ninety two,
and it's a somewhat unusual thing to do. It's a

(19:10):
weird thing to do now maybe, but in nineteen ninety
two it wasn't completely bizarre, you know, because there weren't
cell phones, et cetera. And so I knocked on a
stranger's door and asked if I could use her phone book.
She said yes, so I, you know, open up the
white pages. I slipped around until I got to the
MS and I saw an S. McCrae, and then I

(19:32):
closed the book and that was sort of it. I
didn't write down his number or anything, but from that
moment I was aware that there was at least somebody
who could be my father, because same initial, same last name,
you know, SA. It's not a huge city, so that
there was somebody who could have been him in the town.
I don't think that I sat around with that information

(19:54):
for very long before I tried to get in touch
with him. I think it might have only been a
few days. As I remember it, I called his number.
This was at my house where I live with my grandmother.
I called my father's number and my stepmother, Candace answered.
Obviously at the time, I didn't know who she was,
and I asked if he was there, and I didn't

(20:16):
know his name exactly, you know, and so I asked
if stan Lee was there, but I said it stan
Lee McCrae. I said it in a way that I
hoped would cover the possibilities that either his name was
Stanley or stan middle name Lee, and I tried to
say any way they would do both, And so I

(20:37):
recall my stepmother, Candace, saying hold on a minute, and
putting the phone down and getting my father and talking
with him. My father has a different memory of it,
that he wasn't at home at the time, and that
so that we talked later. I still feel like my
version of it is what happened, but you know, I
have to at least acknowledge that he remembers it differently.

(21:00):
And that was it. He came to see me that
night and then drove me around Salem, introducing me to relatives.
The McRae family is a pretty big and well known
family in Salem, and so I knew who the mccrays were,
which is I guess part of the reason that I
thought he would might very well still be around. And

(21:20):
so he kind of drove me around, introducing me to them.
And it was a sort of bewildering time. I learned
during the time that I was a kind of spectral
presence in their lives and had been my whole life.
Folks had talked about me. I want to say that
it felt like in some ways being a ghost, like

(21:41):
I was inhabiting an idea of myself that had come
before me. But of course I don't know what it's
like to be a ghost. But that's how I would
That's how I would describe it, that I was walking
around in the place of a previous version of myself
and it was just very self dislocating and also well,

(22:01):
maybe renewing, maybe affirming. It was a strange, a strange day.
Shane imagines a parallel life, a life in which he
hadn't been kidnapped, in which he would have grown up
in Salem and been one of them, a craze and
part of this big family. And then all these years later,

(22:24):
he's a late teenager and something has been restored, but
in something being restored, what's been taken away is thrown
into even starker relief. I don't want to describe it
in a way that's too melodramatic, but you can never really,
at least I can never, I think, really be healed

(22:45):
if one conceives of healing, as you know, having a
sense of wholeness in relations to in relation to the
family that I didn't grow up with, and in relation
to the self. I could have been. I am instead,
very very aware of all of these lives that might

(23:07):
be my actual life and that might be, you know,
have something to do with my biological information, et cetera.
And I'm aware that I can't know any of them
for sure. I don't really know who I am, and
I can't really know who I am, And partly that's
the result of an effort on the part of my
grandparents to ensure that I couldn't know. Partly that's because
they had their own secrets that they were trying to

(23:29):
hide from me and my mother, like my grandmother being
married five times. I remember having a conversation with my
mother some time after my grandmother died where my grandmother
had somehow raised me with an awareness. Really when I
was a teenager, I started to get the awareness of
how many times she had been married, and I had
a number that was one more than the number that

(23:52):
my mother had. And it turned out my number was
also not all of them, so that neither of us
had the complete picture, but our own pictures. Our pictures
were different from each other's. You're right that your father
says to you in one of your early conversations that
part of why he was still in Salem. Was because

(24:12):
he always wanted you to be able to find him.
It was sort of the opposite, if such a thing
can be. It was a kind of one hundred and
eighty degrees from the story that you had been fed
by your grandparents who kidnapped you. You describe him as
someone very kind and very much not angry, and it
seems like he was described in a very different way

(24:35):
to you, presented as a very different kind of person. Yeah,
my father is one of the calmest people that I
know and doesn't seem to hold any grudges, certainly doesn't
seem to hold any grudges in any way having to
do with being kidnapped. I think that it was something

(24:57):
that he had to kind of live with and work
through for real long time before we reconnected, before I
found him. My understanding of it is he was really
thoughtful about it, sort of from the beginning. Beyond the
sort of visceral, very intense feelings that he and any
parent would have, he also was very I was thinking
about it and being aware of that. One of the

(25:20):
reasons that he didn't leave Salem is he wanted me
to be able to find him. I mean that means
a lot to me, and it meant a lot to
me at the time. One of the things, maybe the
chief thing beyond not having a real memory of my
childhood and not really having a childhood in my memory,
is that I don't have with regard to my parents.

(25:43):
I think I have a really difficult time accessing or
sort of experiencing my feelings, you know. And it feels like, ironically,
I suppose my relationship with my feelings feel like one
of the reasons that I have such difficulty accessing my
feelings is I'm trying to protect myself from something. It's

(26:07):
the same mechanism that you know results in me having
blocked so many memories. It's a sort of it's the
same kind of desire to protect myself. So when I
think about being told, you know, that he hadn't left
because he was hoping I could find him, of course
that fills me with emotion. But it fills me with
emotion in the way that like if you're watching a

(26:30):
glass being filled with a liquid, I am aware, I
can see it. I can see the being filled with
emotion happening, as opposed to I am in the glass,
or I am the glass you know, there's something about,
you know, the inability to be the glass, you know,
to just have to watch it happening that I feel

(26:52):
as an impoverishment. I would like to be able to
experience those emotions in a more immediate way. But I
also feel in a sort of abstract, vague way that
I wouldn't know, I wouldn't be able to handle them,
I wouldn't know what to do with them. And so

(27:15):
even though I in my late forties, I'm still at
this stage with relate which regard to all this information
at which I have barely begun to sort of incorporate
it into my life, to sort of figure out how
to have some control over it or have some healthiness

(27:37):
in relation to it. I was going to say to heal,
but I think that's not right. I don't think that's
the right word. I think there are ways in which
I'm lucky that I got so good at blocking out memories,
about blocking out sort of painful things. Insofar as if
I'm going to have this big, enormous mess in the
middle of my life, it's good that I can live

(27:57):
without it dominating every moment of my life. On the
other hand, I am aware that it would probably be
a good thing to someday get to the other side
of it, but I don't know how. So when I
think about things like that, things like what my father said,
it's very emotional, But I'm also aware of how emotional
it is in a way that sort of interferes with

(28:19):
the full experience of the thing. I think, yeah, that
makes perfect sense, And yet at the same time, you
have been able to create and build a family and
have a happy relationship with a partner and three kids.
That strikes me as an extraordinary thing, Like maybe all
of this is compartmentalized, but the love isn't compartmentalized. That's true.

(28:47):
Here's Shane reading one last passage from Pulling the Chariot
of the Sun. My father is picking up the phone.
Then his voice Hello, I hadn't heard for thirteen years.
Immediately like no other person's voice, an accent. I couldn't
place music from somewhere I didn't know anymore, wavering in

(29:10):
each syllable, even a simple word like hello, loosened by music,
made difficult to understand. Though I knew he had said hello,
though I had heard only music, and I asked him
his name. Family secrets is a production of iHeartRadio. Molly's

(29:36):
Acre 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 Danny Rider. And

(29:58):
if you'd like to know more about the story that
inspired this podcast, check out my memoir Inheritance. For more

(30:28):
podcasts from iHeartRadio, visit the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or
wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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