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 begins in the Pale of Settlement and leads to Philadelphia, particularly the Jewish "city within a city" of West Philadelphia. The first three chapters 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. Next comes the history of the Freemasons, focusing on Philadelphia's La Fayette Lodge No. 71, which links the author's father, his uncle Jules Berger and Herman Modell, the attorney who arranged the author's adoption. This is followed by the story of Modell – state representative, Assistant City Solicitor, Metropolitan Hospital lead counsel – himself. The complex and often-frustrating story of how the author learned the names of his genetic parents concludes the first part of the book - which ends with his birth in September 1966.
A one-chapter Intermission bridges the two halves. Analyses of a massive 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.
The second part of the book opens with the histories of the western Philadelphia suburbs called "The Main Line" and Harriton High School. Two chapters begin to detail the author's film noir journey, 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, the start of 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 the author's parents' marriage.
The final three chapters chart the end of the author's "film noir 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. As high school begins, the author watches inappropriate movies. Learning to drive provides freedom and helps to spur critical thinking. He enrolls at Yale University, taking full opportunity of six film societies. A chance visit to a Somerville, MA bookstore completes the circle.
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 these stories is the idea of "interrogating memory": carefully assessing all available information with the humility to be proven incorrect. Dr. Berger had let go of a few 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.