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51 Birch Street

NOW ON DVD

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"A spellbinding detective story"

– Peter Travers, ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE

Violetta dei’Contorni (age 52)

I just finished watching your film and I was captivated. I was moved many times, and it brought up many feelings. I have always been a huge fan of Ross McElwee and Michael Apted’s Up series--I could watch that forever, and I felt that way with this film as well. When I was about 15, my mother sat me down and told me that when she was an infant, in 1920, her mother, presumably in self-defense, shot and killed her father. She also told me that I had an uncle I never knew about because he was in an insane asylum since he was 27, and that my grandmother did in fact live until my mother was in her twenties, and did not “die when she was a baby” like my mother had always told me. I was told that after the unspeakable event, my grandmother was put in the same mental hospital for the rest of her life, where my mother only got to see her a few times. In fact, even though she was in the same hospital as her son, they almost never were permitted to see one another...that is pitiful beyond imagining.  My mother, who is Jewish, was in fact given to an Italian neighbor for three years to be wet-nursed, and when the authorities came to take my mother from her Italian foster mother, the woman fled--kidnapped my mother--and took her with her to Florida, where she was apprehended and my mother was taken to the Orthodox Jewish Children’s Home where she was raised. My mother is now 87 and still lives in the garden apartment in Queens where I grew up, with my dad who is also 87, and they have, for better or worse, been married for 63 years! Many many MANY years after I heard this story (I used to tease my mother by watching The Bad Seed with her on The Late Show), a geneologist presented me with the front-page newspaper story I had always wanted to see about my mother’s parents, as well as coroner’s reports and so on--as a kind of a gift. What a shocking thing that was to see in print! I am a cartoonist and always wanted to do a graphic novel about this story. But in some ways, like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the really interesting story is not only about my finding out more about what really happened--or what the newspaper and other documents say happened--but how telling my mother about this when she was 83 affected us. Of course it turned out that my grandmother, who had had to come to Ellis Island twice from the Ukraine, and married a man she was warned not to marry by his first wife, and had tried to get a divorce but was unable to, and had attempted suicide--was brutally beaten nightly by her husband. She just finally decided to shoot him--and shot him point-blank while he was sleeping, in the head and neck and back, five shots, with her five children in the house! I had always thought of my mother as overly childish and emotional and weak, and it was learning more about this story that made me realize in fact that my mother was in some ways a hero--married for 63 years to my father who has (or so I think) been totally devoted to her. Not to mention having worked her whole life, been active in community politics, raised two daughters etc. There are so many related stories--and two of my mother’s sisters are still alive, and coherent, like my mother, at 89 and 93! (The 93-year-old even has a boyfriend!) Anyway, I want to get a grant or an agent or something to help me write this story, but my father, who thinks sleeping dogs should just lie, asked me to promise not to write this story, and because of that so has my mother, even though my sense is she really would like this story known. My mother also asked that I don’t try to interview her sisters about it--but how much longer do I have? Years ago she was thrilled at the prospect, when I thought of doing this (the little that I knew) as a fictionalized work for a young adult comics anthology. I am a good writer and have notoriety in the field of comics; I have also thought of just doing it as a screenplay or a documentary. All I know is I want to do it. I cannot describe the feeling that went through the pit of my stomach when I read that story about Bessie M. on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from Passover morning April 3rd 1920! I literally doubled over in pain, like a thread connected my womb to that of my mother and my mother’s mother; I felt her pain and so want her life to mean something, it was so very miserable. So I guess your film brought all of this up for me: what do I live on while I am trying to get this written/produced? What are the chances of Hollywood being interested in this if I do it as a graphic novel? Will I ever get interviewed by Terry Gross? I am a divorced, self-employed writer/illustrator/designer on the West Coast with a 14-year-old son. If you have any advice for me please share it. I loved your film, and would very much like my work to bring out many of the same feelings: inspiration, that it’s never too late to be who you are, that in each person’s small life a whole world exists, that ordinary people in their own way are often big heroes...anyway, it’s late, but I’d love to hear from you to know what you think. Thank you for a beautiful, meaningful work of art.

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