Former Obama speechwriter discusses trauma, family in his new memoir “The Survivors”


Daily file photo by Alison Albelda

Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Ave. EPL’s board of trustees discussed their 2020 priorities at a Wednesday meeting.

Anika Mittu, Reporter

Author and former Obama speechwriter Adam Frankel spoke to an audience of around 50 people on the process of digging through family trauma and heartache to write his memoir, “The Survivors,” at Evanston Public Library on Wednesday.

Frankel’s family memoir covers how his maternal grandparents’ experience in the Holocaust created pain that bled through generations, impacting his mother’s mental health. By looking closely at his mother’s life, Frankel said he learned that the man he thought was his father is not his biological parent.

“The truth is I needed to write the book,” Frankel said. “I needed to write it for myself just to process this.”

Frankel had to unpack more than his own trauma to write the memoir, he said. He also had to consider his grandparents’ Holocaust experience, reflecting on how his own grandmother never slept through the night in her old age due to nightmares.

When he discovered that the father figure in his life is not his biological father, Frankel grappled with a loss of identity.

“Parents are such a fundamental part of your identity,” Frankel said. “I still remember looking at my body, my legs and my hands and thinking ‘I feel like I’m inhabiting a stranger’s body.’ There would be many hours over the coming years where I would just stare into a mirror feeling like I didn’t recognize myself.”

Despite the pain of searching through trauma, Frankel said he wrote the novel for good reason. Not only did it let him process his thoughts, it allowed him to write about the emotion behind discovering that a parental figure is not a biological parent and create a story for people experiencing similar heartache.

Frankel’s story resonated with discussion attendee Ann Jacobs, who adopted a son but didn’t tell him that he was adopted until years later. She hopes that by attending the discussion, she can learn more about her son’s experience after he found out about his biological parents.

“I wanted to know he handled finding out about his biological family,” Jacobs said.

While others felt stunned by Frankel’s story, Northwestern University archivist Kevin Leonard had thoughts about the writing. He said the memoir did “not (have) a lot of wasted space or words” and wanted to know how Frankel learned to express himself in eloquent and concise prose.

Frankel said his writing talent emerged from spending hours creating speeches as a former presidential speechwriter.

“The truth is, working on a presidential campaign is a great place to learn how to write because you write so many speeches and writing is practice,” Frankel said. “Candidates do not take breaks on weekends so you’re working around the clock.”

Frankel said he hopes that reflecting on intergenerational trauma can help others move forward like he did by writing the memoir.

Everybody has trauma, he said, whether it’s the legacy of the Holocaust or addition, abuse or racism. But Frankel emphasized his hope for healing.

“We can situate ourselves in the larger landscape and see how trauma can reverberate across generations,” Frankel said. ”It doesn’t make the trauma go away but, at least in my experience, it helped me move forward, and I hope it does that for other people too”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @anika_mittu

Related Stories:
Obama Speechwriter, Northwestern Prof. Cody Keenan discusses career path, gives career advice
History professor’s exhibit opens at Holocaust museum in Washington