Colorado Review Editorial Assistant R. B. Moreno interviews Peggy Shinner, whose essay “Leopold and Shinner” appears in our Fall/Winter 2010 issue (an excerpt from this essay follows the interview)
R. B. Moreno: Your essay “Leopold and Shinner” centers on a letter your mother received from Nathan Leopold, one of two University of Chicago students convicted in what newspapers called the “Trial of the Century” in 1924. It’s a history both personal and national, and full of careful research, but what’s most striking, for this reader, is the array of questions you pose. Do questions drive your writing in some way?
Peggy Shinner: I think a nagging curiosity is what drives my work. There’s something that I want to know or find out. Of course most of the time I can’t know it. I can only circle around it, questions generating more questions. It’s a rhetorical approach that leads to a kind of exploration or meditation. I don’t know that I ever answer the questions but I create a kind of web or thicket around them that is hopefully dense and interesting and provocative.
RM: “The letter was an artifact,” you tell us, “like her wallet, wristwatch, key chain, social security card, also put away in a drawer—a memento of my mother.” What compelled you, 29 years after her death, to examine it anew?
PS: I’ve had this letter for a long time, and from the very beginning was intrigued, puzzled, and moved by it. I’ve attached a certain amount of longing to it, my own longing. What did it mean? Who was the woman on the receiving end? The questions, the same questions, don’t stop coming. I tried writing about it before, but to no avail. I had nothing to push against the letter, no context or resistance or countervailing force. It wasn’t until I started searching for her letter, and immersed myself in the other letters, that something began to shift, that I could sense a gathering of momentum within myself, and simultaneously that I could go beyond myself, in fact needed to go beyond myself, to investigate the place or places where this personal history intersected the history of the larger world, which was very important for this essay. That’s the boundary I find interesting—where personal concerns nudge or collide against the larger polis.
RM: In a spring 2007 essay published in Fourth Genre, you write about “a document brimming with possibility,” your father’s death certificate, in similar terms: “I know what it says but I’m sure it says more. It’s layered, if only I could read it. Part of its power lies in the fact that it remains.” Do you approach most of your work through this kind of reading—the sense that a text can be both legible and inscrutable?
PS: I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before, but I guess most of my essays are exactly that—legible and inscrutable. A maze of questions which lead not to answers, but to digressive paths of more questions, circling back, in the end, to more questions, which form a kind of architecture of the whole.
And I take text to mean an individual as well. We can only know each other so much, so far. In the case of my parents, they were both dead when these questionings took place. So besides memory, an incomplete resource, I had to rely on objects, documents, stand-ins for the real thing. A palimpsest of information.
RM: The letter your mother wrote to Leopold in prison, the one that prompted his response, can’t be found among the Leopold and Loeb archives at Northwestern University. You say you “searched calmly enough at first” but then grew restless, as if you were looking for a piece of her instead of an envelope. Could you sense, at the time, that the search itself would become as important to your essay as its artifacts?
PS: I felt that it had to, or I would have nothing. I reconstructed my mother out of those other letters; they, too, became stand-ins. But in a different way: those other letters became not her, a collection of who she wasn’t, and out of that assembly of non-evidence, perhaps I could fashion something about her. In visual terms, foreground and background; positive image, negative image.
RM: Along with a troubled mother-daughter relationship, “Leopold and Shinner” explores Leopold’s identity as both Jewish and gay. You tell us that you didn’t know much about this man before delving into his story. Did these facets of his life offer a means of reimagining your mother’s life or attitudes?
PS: As I suggested before, these facets of Leopold’s life became a kind of resistance or countervailing force, something I could measure or assess her life against, even if it was only in my imagination. I suppose you could say Nathan Leopold was another stand-in, or, put another way, a mirror that might reflect back an image of my mother.
RM: There’s a surprise near the end of this essay. How did you decide to situate the revelation we encounter in section 11?
PS: That revelation, if you will, seems to confirm one of the main premises of the essay. That nothing or no one can be completely known. That everything is subject to questioning. That even my own sureties and righteousness can be called into question. It was a kind of final upending.
• • •
An excerpt from “Leopold and Shinner” (Colorado Review Fall/Winter 2010)
LEOPOLD AND SHINNER
by Peggy Shinner
June 2, 1957: “Should Leopold Be Paroled?”
The Chicago Sunday Tribune wanted your opinion. So did Nathan Leopold. Leopold, who, along with Richard Loeb, murdered Bobby Franks in 1924. It was dubbed a “thrill kill,” murder for kicks, “the crime of the century.” Leopold and Loeb: young, smart, wealthy, educated, Jewish, homosexual. At the time of the murder, they were nineteen and eighteen years old, respectively, students at the University of Chicago, and lovers. Loeb was killed in prison in 1936. Now, after thirty-three years, Nathan Leopold would soon be up for parole. “Expiation? Atonement? Whether I have paid my debt to society? . . . Other people will have to decide.”
Other people did. Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of the Perry Mason detective series, and author of the introduction to Leopold’s prison memoir, Life Plus 99 Years, wrote, “Here is a man who [is trying to] live down the tragic mistake of his youth. . . . Will society meet him halfway?” Carl Sandburg invited him to his home. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet (Kup) expressed confidence that he would make an “exemplary parolee.” And, noting that his support was not limited to people of influence, Leopold said, “Little John Smith and Mrs. Mary Jones . . . are writing me every day.”
My mother was one of the Mrs. Mary Joneses. Harriet Shinner, née Alter. She wrote a letter in support of Leopold’s parole. She was thirty-three, married with two children, ages six and two. Paying monthly mortgage payments on a two-bedroom brick ranch in Peterson Park on the northwest side of Chicago. She wore housecoats, monitored her weight, smoked Marlboros, played mah-jongg. Worried about money. Read popular novels (Peyton Place made the New York Times best seller list for fifty-nine weeks in 1956–57). She had fair skin, a sharp nose, melancholy eyes. She was easily hurt. Born in 1924, the same year as the murder; Jewish, like both the victim and the perpetrators (although Loeb’s mother was Catholic; thus, according to some, Loeb was not Jewish); and her husband’s name, my father’s, was also Nathan. As far as I know, she wasn’t particularly civic-minded; she wasn’t a member of the League of Women Voters or a volunteer at a soup kitchen, nor did she write letters to the editor about local ordinances, like some women did. She wasn’t that kind of woman. Nor was she, as far as I know, the kind of woman who would watch the House Un-American Activities Committee (huac) hearings during the spring of 1951, while she was pregnant with me, but, as she later told me, she did.
I know that my mother wrote to Nathan Leopold because I have the letter that Leopold wrote to her. It’s addressed to Mrs. Nathan Shinner, a common erasure of self my mother subscribed to, I suspect, without hesitation. When I was at Stateville, making every effort to win my release, I promised myself that, once freed, I would send personal replies to all who wrote me. In prison I was restricted in ways that made general correspondence impossible, and I longed for the time when I might show my gratitude to all who were friendly enough to write a stranger. It has taken a long time, I fear, to get around to this letter, but finally the day has come. Finally the day has come. Did she await his letter with as much anticipation as he apparently felt before he wrote it? The letter is postmarked Puerto Rico—where Leopold went to work as a medical technician—and stamped with a soaring airplane, whose skyward trajectory seems to highlight the eager flight toward its destination. Postage was seven cents; the name of the return addressee simply NL. The raised punch of the typewritten letters, pounded, it appears, with steady force, comes through to the back of the envelope.
I found the letter in a drawer in the hutch in our dining room when I was snooping around for secrets. It was an idle kind of snooping, a listless looking around, propelled by a subterranean, undirected energy. I did it often, starting at ten, eleven years old, when my parents were out with their monthly couples’ club and I turned to my weekend amusement. Going through the nightstand, the dresser, my mother’s old, floral jewelry bag, coming across some old, long-forgotten scarf, heavy with the odor of makeup and musty perfume, or a smutty birthday gift someone had given my father, a mock trophy for his putter. Once, from these drawers, my mother had taken out a condom and filled it with water, to show me what it would look like stretched over something—an off-the-cuff lesson in contraception and, inadvertently, my parents’ sex life—and I remember being embarrassed by the word engorged. And after my father died, when I was thirty-seven years old and newly orphaned—a status that simultaneously throws you back into being a child and confers upon you the mantle of irrevocable adulthood—I emptied the drawers, whatever dug up now part of my rightful inheritance, and found a manila envelope labeled “For Peggy Only.” Inside was a copy of one of my stories, cut-up, the lesbian references excised, and the remaining sections taped back together, so, I surmised, he could be the proud father (but not too proud) and show my work to his lady friend, Rose.
Did I expect to find the goods on my parents during these nosings? A part of me was looking for excitement, something that would put our lives up on the marquee or at least toss them in the air and set them back down in a slightly different arrangement. As a child I had chafed against the navy blue hooded hat my mother made me wear in winter, with holes for the eyes, nose, and mouth, a hat that seemed to close off everything. I wanted to get out. Please don’t let me be like my mother, I prayed years later lying in bed as a teenager, unsure about the ethical legitimacy of a plea to God when I’d never before shown my allegiance, but sure, in my hyper-inflated angst, about its meaning. Don’t let me lead a life so confined.
We kept a few dusty bottles of liquor in the hutch, and the china (which I’ve since inherited and given away to the resale shop), and a few random pieces of little-used glassware. In one of the drawers there was a set of specialty knives, each in its own cushioned bed. I don’t remember when I found the letter or how old I was or if my mother was alive or not, but if she was alive I do know I never asked her about it. I don’t remember if I even knew who Nathan Leopold was. (My brother says he remembers talking to her about the letter, or he thinks he remembers, and part of me doesn’t believe him, as if he’s lying, not intentionally, but because he doesn’t want to be left out, doesn’t want to miss his chance at a piece of history. But I don’t want to miss out either; I want the same piece if not more, which is why another part of me is jealous he has a memory I don’t, even if it’s a memory he hardly remembers.) The envelope, a #10, had been slit across the top, and I can picture her long-nailed finger running under the sealed edge.