Interview: November 25, 2003
November 25, 2003
Walter Anderson is the chairman and CEO of Parade magazine, and the author of five books. His latest, MEANT TO BE, is a touching memoir in which he talks about the emotional and physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his alcoholic father and the question that haunted him for years.
In this interview with Bookreporter.com reviewer Tom Callahan, Anderson discusses the challenges he faced in writing MEANT TO BE and the important role that reading played during his early years of turmoil. He also pays special tribute to two women who each had a major impact on his turbulent life --- his mother and a neighborhood teacher.
BRC: Your friend and mentor, Elie Wiesel, winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Price, is quoted in your book as saying, "I could have been crushed by events or saved by them." Do you feel the same way about your life?
WA: Absolutely. Ultimately every human being experiences disappointment, loss and tragedy in their life. No one escapes it. But that does not determine the quality of our life or our character as human beings. What determines the quality of our lives and our character is how we respond to disappointment, loss and tragedy. And that's a choice.
BRC: How hard was it to write this book?
WA: On the one hand, I didn't realize until after I wrote it how desperately I wanted to write this story. I wanted to tell it for myself, but also because I promised my mother I would write it before she died. On the other hand, I was repelled because I knew I would have to tell the truth on every page. And tell the truth in a non-sentimental, non-pitying way. I would have to tell truths that I would really rather not disclose. So I struggled. And some of the stories were very painful.
BRC: How difficult was it to write about the violence that marked your early years?
WA: I did not want the violence to seem romantic. When I got beat, it wasn't romantic. When I fought on the streets, I fought because I was afraid or enraged. No good ever occurred from the fighting that I was involved in. Somebody got hurt. That was all that occurred.
BRC: How much turmoil did the promise you made to your mother cause in your life?
WA: It is hard for me to put in words the pain it caused me to make that promise. But my mother was so frightened that I endured my own pain to relieve her of hers. She looked so frightened and it was so genuine, I said I couldn't have my mother like this. But I never let her know how painful that promise was for me over the years because I didn't want to punish her for what she was afraid of. My mother was a victim, and I did not want to be another abuser in her life.
BRC: Your mother seems like the real hero of this book.
WA: That is exactly right. She was a loving woman who was much larger than her education would describe. She was centered, talented and creative. Had she had a couple of lucky breaks, her whole life would have been different. She was deadly afraid of my father --- not my real father --- killing her and killing me if he found out. But I think she was more afraid of him killing me.
BRC: How important were books and reading as you were living this nightmare?
WA: In my case it was as essential as the air I breathe. It was my avenue of escape and growth. I could go to a library and open a book. I could be anybody. I could be anywhere. I could do anything. I could image myself out of a slum. I read everything. I didn't realize the depth and breadth of what I read until I went to college and was assigned to read books I had already read. I would pick up an author, say Herman Wouk or Irving Wallace or Norman Mailer, and if I liked them, I read everything they wrote.
BRC: What do you want people to get out of this book?
WA: If there is one lesson in my book and only one lesson, it is this: every child needs or deserves someone who is crazy about him or her. That is the lesson of my book.
BRC: You described a neighborhood woman and teacher, Mrs. Ilza Williams, who took an interest in you and pushed you to get an education.
WA: Mrs. Williams made all the difference in the world to me. She gave me a privileged childhood. The important thing to understand is that I am who I am not because of the abuse I suffered as a child but despite the abuse. Abuse is always wrong. What saved me was the love of others. I was loved as a child even in the midst of the worse abuse. Mrs. Williams loved me as a son. My mother loved me. I was always confident in my mother's love and in the love of Mrs. Williams.
BRC: Is there anything else you would like readers to take from the book?
WA: I wanted to write a story that people could enjoy reading. But I think what's important to understand is that success has nothing to do with the accumulation of capital or influence. Success is always and only one thing: to live in dignity. Of all the wealthy and powerful people that I have known, have any of them had more success than Mrs. Williams? She was a teacher, and because she was a teacher she touched the future. Her son and I are her memorial.
BRC: This book is ultimately a spiritual journey. Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
WA: Yes. I have a deep faith in God. I never intend to proselytize anybody into what I believe. But if I were asked to define myself, I would define myself as a Jew. I believe in a direct relationship between God and myself. I believe that my behavior matters. I believe I have a responsibility to my fellow human beings. All human beings are God's children. Every human being everyday of their life has good thoughts and bad, or evil, thoughts. We choose our behavior. We choose what we are going to respond to.
BRC: You've spent most of your life struggling to manage your anger. Do you consider yourself now at peace?
WA: Yes. But it has taken me many years to find that. I still get annoyed when I can't get a cab, or I spill something on a suit. But I have a sense of perspective. When I die, God isn't going to ask me if I was CEO of Parade or how many books I wrote. What He is going to ask me about is my relationship with other human beings. What did I do to improve the lot of human beings on this planet? You have to be able to do that. It's a choice you make everyday.