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Book details
  • Genre:HISTORY
  • SubGenre:Americas (North, Central, South, West Indies)
  • Language:English
  • Pages:317
  • eBook ISBN:9798985521719

Interrogating Memory

Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History...and My Own

by Matthew Berger View author's profile page

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Overview
Everybody has great stories to tell once they "interrogate memory." Those Dr. Berger tells in this timely, innovative and entertaining book began with "Why do you love film noir?" The answer starts with four Jewish families leaving the western fringes of the Russian Empire between 1893 and 1912, eventually settling in the "city within a city" of West Philadelphia. Two sons of these families – a successful merchant and a police officer during film noir's classic era – marry two daughters of these families. The merchant's son marries the police officer's daughter as that era ends in 1960. In 1965, they move to the suburbs, where they adopt a boy in utero. Dr. Berger then interrogates his own "origin story," which involves the Freemasons, Drexel University and a powerful city official. After a data-driven reevaluation of film noir itself, successive chapters mark Dr. Berger's film noir "personal journey" milestones: detective fiction, Charlie Chan, the "dark city" and cinematic freedom. Sprinkled throughout the narrative are tales – often funny, sometimes heartbreaking, always true – Dr. Berger learned while writing this book. They include tragic and untimely deaths, a brazen kidnapping, fires of suspicious origin…and that time wife caught husband in the hotel room with her cousin. Dr. Berger's own life story foregrounds themes of alienation, mental illness, critical thinking and control (or lack thereof) – as well as those of love, acceptance and joyous exploration. Uniting all of these stories is the idea of "interrogating memory": carefully assessing all available information with the humility to be proven incorrect. Dr. Berger let go of a few cherished stories, including "The Dancing Rabbi of Shpola," but what he learned along the way more than made up for it. Because just as truth is often stranger than fiction, the interrogated memory is even more often superior to the original.
Description
Everybody has great stories to tell once they "interrogate memory." Those Dr. Berger tells in this timely, innovative and entertaining book began with "Why do you love film noir?" Part I – The West Philadelphia Story – begins with histories of the Pale of Settlement ("Pale") and Philadelphia, particularly the Jewish "city within a city" of West Philadelphia. Chapters 1 through 3 trace the early history, immigration and lives in Philadelphia of four key families – Berger, Zisser/Caesar, Cohen/Kohn, Gurmankin/Goldman – through the marriage and subsequent move across the city line of David Louis "Lou" Berger and Elaine Kohn. Chapters 4 begins with the history of the Freemasons, focusing on Philadelphia's La Fayette Lodge No. 71, which links his father, his uncle Jules Berger and Herman Modell, the attorney who arranged my adoption; then told is the story of Modell – state representative, Assistant City Solicitor, Metropolitan Hospital lead counsel – himself. The complex and often-frustrating story of how Dr. Berger learned the names of his genetic parents comprises Chapter 5. Part I ends with Dr. Berger's birth in September 1966. A one-chapter Intermission bridges the two halves. Analyses of a film noir database reveal a new and better way to think about what films are "noir" and introduce a discussion of the idea of film noir as well as two versions of how it originated: inevitable artistic movement and reaction to economic necessity. The latter introduces the Charlie Chan films, which arguably provided a template for early film noir. Part II – Film Noir: A Personal Journey – opens with the histories of the western Philadelphia suburbs called "The Main Line" and Harriton High School. Chapters 7 and 8 begin to detail Dr. Berger's film noir journey steps, tracing his life from birth through his parents' separation in March 1977. Key events include a Jewish upbringing, finding a permanent home for severely intellectually impaired older sister Mindy, learning to read at a very young age, a dangerous house fire, starting a lifelong love of detective fiction, the author's father's gambling addiction, the John Rhoads Company fire, summers in Atlantic City and the "transition year" of 1976: black-and-white Universal horror films, radio dramas and a key double feature. The year ends with the dissolution of Dr. Berger's parents' marriage. Chapters 9 through 11 end the journey. Undiagnosed depression is presented through a lack of critical thinking skills, erratic behavior, alcohol consumption and suicide attempts. This is lightened by a checkered romantic history and some unusual nation-building. Lou Berger's tumultuous final years are catalogued, as are his ex-wife's successes. Bar Mitzvahs, est, new friendships and television lure the author into the dark city – different from his suburban enclaves. As high school begins, he watches inappropriate movies in my new bedroom. Learning to drive provides freedom and helps to spur critical thinking. The author enrolls at Yale University, then home to six film societies. A chance visit to a Somerville, MA bookstore completes the circle. Sprinkled throughout are tales – often funny, sometimes heartbreaking, always true – Dr. Berger learned while writing this book. They include tragic and untimely deaths, a brazen kidnapping, fires of suspicious origin…and that time wife caught husband in the hotel room with her cousin. His own life story foregrounds themes of alienation, mental illness, critical thinking and control (or lack thereof) – as well as those of love, acceptance and joyous exploration. Uniting all of these stories is "interrogating memory": carefully assessing all available information with the humility to be proven incorrect. Dr. Berger let go of cherished stories, but what he learned along the way more than made up for it. Because just as truth is often stranger than fiction, the interrogated memory is even more often superior to the original.
About the author
Born and raised in the Philadelphia area, Matthew Berger has degrees in political science from Yale (BA) and Harvard (AM), as well as a biostatistics MA and epidemiology PhD from Boston University School of Public Health. After two decades as a professional data analyst and research project manager working primarily in health-related fields, he launched the data-driven storytelling website Just Bear With Me in December 2016. On this platform, Dr. Berger wrote long-form essays on everything from American politics to film noir, from how best to measure one's favorite art to data-driven assessments of his family (and that of his wife) ancestry. From these latter essays emerged the concept of "interrogating memory" - a combination of critical thinking, methodological rigor and intellectual humility. In July 2017, he declared himself a full-time writer as he started his first book: Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into His Family History...and His Own. Seeking creative control over his own work, Dr. Berger launched the InterrogatingMemory (IM) Press imprint in 2021. Dr. Berger lives in Brookline, MA with his wife Nell, two children and Casper the Friendly Golden.
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