A Mysterious Portrait And Chance Encounter Reveal Tragedy On Family Secrets

Hand holds Vintage photograph of child with hobby horse toy

On this episode of Family Secrets, author Dani Shapiro hears from fellow writer and novelist Joanna Rakoff about mysterious portraits that revealed a terrible secret her family had been keeping from her her entire life. As a child, she lived in a small town called Nyack in the Hudson River Valley. “It's a lovely place to live,” she tells Dani. “The kids all walk to school there. It's sort of a utopian place.” But then, when she was about three years old, her family moved to an even smaller town called Pomona. “It couldn’t have been more different from Nyack,” she says, because there, everyone knows everyone else; in Pomona, they were much more isolated from the other residents. “In retrospect, I realized that was what my parents wanted. They wanted privacy, they wanted to be anonymous in this town.”

 

She found it a strange, scary house, and it was obvious her mother wasn’t happy there. She would often fly off the handle for no reason, screaming “in a hysterical way” at Joanna, “‘Get away from me! I can’t look at you! I can’t see you! Get away from me!’” She had one much older sister, Amy, who had already graduated from high school by the time Joanna was born. She was more of a “fond aunt,” Joanna says, but she remembers being very lonely, wishing her sister could live with them and be there all the time. Like many lonely children, Joanna escaped into her imagination, creating characters for the people portrayed in a trio of portraits that hung in their family room: A boy, hair parted and brushed to the side, “sort of a 1950s look,” and two girls, one with “dark brown hair and bright green eyes...a fierce intelligence...very captivating” and the other, younger, with beautiful blonde hair, “kind of shy, almost bashful.” 

Joanna “also recalls a mysterious photograph,” Dani tells us. “In a home that has no family photos at all, there's one picture in Joanna's dad's office...of a family. But whose family? These people are strangers to her.” One day, when Joanna was ten, she finally asked her father who they were. The woman was her mother. The man, her father. And the children were her sister, Amy, her brother Mark, and her sister Anita. Joanna remembers reeling with shock that she had two other siblings she knew nothing about, but couldn’t get more out of her father: “They never again spoke of her siblings, Anita and Mark,” Dani says. “In a way, she unconsciously conspired with her parents to allow the secret to go back into its hiding place.” 

But she couldn’t stop wondering what had happened to them, of course, and she got some hints: when her mother was on the phone at night, talking to her friends, she would sometimes say things like “‘We weren’t at that wedding, that was right after the accident,’” Joanna recalls. “My child brain started to realize that…’the accident’ meant something to do with my brother and sister.” But she couldn’t ask for details, so she retreated to her imagination again, fabricating any story that could make sense of everything she was picking up on.

Girl sitting with book and looking thoughtful out of window

Years went by, and Joanna became a writer; her first book was about to be released in paperback, and Joanna was at a book release event at an independent bookstore in New Jersey. The owner of the shop approached her, asking nervously if they could talk. In the privacy of his office, he told her, “‘We were neighbors in Nyack. I was your brother Mark’s best friend, and I was in love with your sister Anita.’ He just full-on started crying...he just started talking about the accident...and how the accident had affected our town,” Joanna says, fighting tears. “I finally said, ‘I need to tell you something. I actually don’t know anything.’” 

Stunned, the bookstore owner, Jonah, told her he’s available to fill her in, should she want the details, and asked if he can put her in touch with other residents of Nyack. “There was a whole world of people affected by this accident,” Dani says. “They’ve spent their lives devastated by it, talking about it. All the while, Joanna’s family...lived in complete silence.” Over the course of several conversations with Jonah, the full story of the tragedy that killed her siblings came out. Join Joanna and Dani for this heart-wrenching story, and how the secret continues to affect Joanna’s life, on this episode of Family Secrets.

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Photos: Getty Images

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