To Know As If
For The First Time
To Know As If For The First Time is a family memoir/history which, after two years of research and writing, tells the unknown story of my grandfather’s suicide and explores its impact through the generations. Bill Gustafson was a singer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York who shot himself in 1931, at the height of the Depression. My mother was eight at the time; his death was shrouded in silence.
The themes of To Know As If For The First Time are those of many memoirs and family histories: the secrets, silences and shame that often accompany traumatic deaths in families. There are intriguing narratives: this story of a forgotten, catastrophic battle in WWII, the world of opera in 1920s New York, the history of women librarians at the turn of the 20th century, the long, slow decline of a marriage, and the author’s own journey to self-knowledge and insight through excavation of her family story.
To Know As If For The First Time is in three parts. Part I, Ricochet, is based on photographs and clues from documents and artefacts I discovered in my grandmother’s old suitcase, as well as research I carried out into my grandfather’s suicide while living in New York in the seventies. Ricochet tells the interlinked stories of my grandmother, great grandmother, uncle, grandfather and mother. My grandmother, Mary Capewell, was a pianist and singing teacher who took on Bill Gustafson as her protégé before falling in love and marrying him. Her mother, Emma Capewell, lost her husband at a young age to alcoholism and became one of Boston’s earliest women librarians. My uncle, William Gustafson, was killed aged just 20 during the first assault on the German “Winterline” on Mount Pantano in November 1943.
Part II, Portrait of a Marriage, is based on a collection of letters left to me by my father, which I did not open or explore until I had written Part I. Once read and transcribed, the letters fell neatly into three “Acts”: the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies. Each act has three scenes. The letters include copies of letters kept by or returned to my father; letters to him from my mother and several mistresses. An epilogue is extracted from journal entries I wrote in 2005-7, while my father was in his final illness.
Part III – Chapter Eleven is a final “sensemaking” chapter which draws together and reflects on the content of the book – and the ways in which I have transcended the trauma and damage suffered by my mother, uncle and grandmother.