"Secret Daughter: A Mixed-Race Daughter and the Mother Who Gave Her Away"
(Reviewed by Guy Savage APR 30, 2008)
"Over the years Mom and Larry developed two circles of friends: those who knew about me and those who didn’t. Gradually my visits began to coincide with those occasions when it was convenient for me to be seen."
There are some biographies and memoirs that make us wonder how people survived. June Cross’s memoir, Secret Daughter: A Mixed-Race Daughter and the Mother Who Gave Her Away is one of those books. But what’s so very different about Cross’s story of survival is not that she suffered physical hardships or ever experienced any threat to her life, but that she went through emotionally, and mentally wrenching years of rejection and identity confusion before emerging as a strong, vital woman in spite of it all. As Nietzsche says: What does not destroy me makes me stronger.
June Cross was born in 1954 from the union of a beautiful white actress and a black comedian. Her parents’ relationship did not last, and by the time June was five, she went to live with a black family who had befriended her mother. Years of confusion followed. June didn’t understand what being “colored” meant, and she didn’t understand that she was the offspring of mixed parents. This confusion manifested itself in the minutest details—from confusion about her hair, to wondering what it meant to “pass for white.” It’s hardly surprising that June was confused—after all how do you explain racial prejudice to a small child? But what is surprising is the years that passed into adulthood—years of silence—years without explanation.
In many ways, June was a very lucky child. She was raised with love by a childless, middle-class black couple—“Aunt” Peggy and “Uncle” Paul in Atlantic City, New Jersey. While her unofficial family didn’t "approve" of many of June’s mother’s actions, they continued to nurture June in a rich environment, laden with opportunities for education. June’s mother Norma married Hollywood actor Larry Storch, who starred in F Troop, and June relates her deep feelings of confusion as she spent a month a year with her glamorous mother. These annual visits were basically episodes in culture shock. For example, Aunt Peggy always treated all classes with respect and courtesy, but to Norma, servants remained depersonalized. June was forced to lie about her relationship with her mother, calling her “Aunt” Norma. In some of the conversations held between mother and daughter, Norma seems almost blissfully unaware of the heart-stabbing wounds lobbed by a few thoughtless words—at one point vocalizing that June could only remain in her life as long as she could “pass for white,” and “You know, if you hadn’t gotten darker as you grew older, you could have stayed with me.” It is as if Norma discounted race when it came to certain salient moments (i.e. her daughter’s emotions and identity), but then at other times, when it came to hiding the facts, race was the entire motivating factor. It’s no surprise that at times June felt as though she had been “erased.”
What’s so fascinating about this memoir—which begins in the 50s and ends in the 21st century--is that even though times and attitudes changed, Norma’s rejection and desire to hide the fact that her daughter is part black continued well into the author’s adulthood. June passes through the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the Watts Riots. There’s one section when June at age 35 is a phenomenally successful producer for CBS, and Norma STILL introduces her daughter as her “friend.” As I read this passage, I found myself angrily muttering, “What will it take? When will her daughter be good enough to acknowledge?” And then the author voices these feelings just a few sentences later. At this point, I realized how engrossed I was with June’s story.
I really admire the author’s determination to avoid wallowing in an orgy of self-pity. Instead she perseveres in her desire to understand her mother, and by the time the memoir ends, this goal is achieved. Connecting with other siblings is an integral part of this quest. Eventually we understand that Norma was also a product of less-than-perfect circumstances--a fellow product of a dysfunctional society, poverty and irresponsibility. The book underscores the mystery of ever fully understanding another human being. Written a different way, this memoir could so easily focused on pain and rejection, but instead the author refuses the burden of victimhood and elects to concentrate on strength of will and the power of identity.
- Amazon readers rating: from 22 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Secret Daughter at SeeingBlack.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Official website for June Cross with excerpt
- aalbc.com article on June Cross
- PPS.org Frontline show Secret Daughter produced by June Cross
- New York Times review of the PBS show Secret Daughter
- Reading Guide for Secret Daughter
- AARP review of Secret Daughter
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About the Author:
June Cross is assistant professor of journalism at Columbia University. She has been a television producer for Frontline and the CBS Evening News and was a reporter, producer, and correspondent for PBS's MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.