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Parallel Lives: Having A Twin With Mental Illness.

Composer Allen Shawn's twin sister, Mary, was diagnosed with autism and sent to an institution when they were 8 years old. He writes about his relationship with Mary — and his feelings of survivor's guilt — in a new memoir, Twin.


Other segments from the episode on January 3, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 3, 2011: Interview with Allen Shawn; Obituary for Pete Postlethwaite.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Parallel Lives: Having A Twin With Mental Illness


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Allen Shawn, has a fraternal twin sister Mary, who is autistic. He's
often wondered what her experience of the world is, which he sees, hears and
feels. Allen and Mary Shawn were very close until the age of eight, when she
was institutionalized. His new memoir, "Twin," is about how Mary's presence and
absence affected his life.

Shawn also writes about a secret that his parents kept from him. His father,
William Shawn, who was the long-time editor of the New Yorker, had another
woman in his life, the New Yorker writer Lillian Ross. That relationship lasted
from 1954 until William Shawn's death in 1992.

Allen Shawn wonders how his mother lived under the strain of having a disabled
child and a partially absent husband. Allen Shawn is a composer and teaches at
Bennington College. His previous memoir was about living with his many phobias,
which include agoraphobia, fear of heights, fear of vast, open spaces and fear
of closed spaces.

Allen Shawn, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to do a short reading from
the book, just to set it up for us.

Mr. ALLEN SHAWN (Author, "Twin: A Memoir"): (reading) Mary disappeared from my
daily life when we were eight years old, when my parents placed her in an
institution for the mentally disabled. And as a reader of my previous book will
know, it took me painfully long even to recognize that the event had left a
kind of ocean of disquiet in me that manifested itself in panic attacks and a
lifelong struggle with agoraphobia and in my difficulties negotiating some
aspects of public life, as well as in my reactions to trivial losses.

Indeed, that it was so hard for me to openly disclose my own problems was
partially due to my fear of the mental illness that Mary had exhibited and
which had led, or so it had seemed to me as a child, to her being ostracized
from the family.

I suppose that as her twin, it was doubly hard for me to know how and where to
draw the boundary line between her nature and mine, between the inherent
strangeness of being a person and the kind of strangeness that led to what I
saw as banishment from normal human society.

Yet, I wasn't aware of any of this when I was growing up. It wasn't until I
reached late middle-age that I could even begin to acknowledge that being
Mary's twin was a central fact, perhaps the central fact, of my life.

GROSS: That's Allen Shawn, reading from his new memoir "Twin." It must have
been so confusing to be a twin and do everything together - sleep together, eat
together - and then suddenly your twin is moved to another room, and then your
twin is moved to an institution for the mentally disabled.

Did you sense, before she was taken away, that something was wrong, that you
were different or she was different?

Mr. SHAWN: Yes, I think - from my earliest memories, I think I was aware of
Mary as being on her own track and in a way, needing to be explained not only
to my friends but even to my parents at times. I was sometimes like a kind of
go-between between Mary and my parents, as I remember it anyway.

But this was such a fact of life that, you know, I wasn't terribly conscious of
the idea that there might be another way to be a twin or that there were
families with no such issues in them.

GROSS: There were things that she did that were considered very unusual. She
had an obsession with her right arm. She would kiss it and smile at it, and
when she was upset, she would scream unusually long and loud. She sometimes
smeared the wall with feces. Did that just seem normal to you because you grew
up with it?

Mr. SHAWN: It did. It seemed completely normal. And to be honest, I may have
written this book, but I still find it very difficult to talk about as
something strange, and I feel a great deal of shyness about the subject.

There's a funny experience that you have when you're writing that is unique.
You can say things that, on print, even knowing that others are going to read
them, that are very hard to talk about in person. And...

GROSS: It sounds like this is, in part, an impulse to protect your sister.

Mr. SHAWN: Definitely. Well, writing the book was very difficult from that
point of view. I constantly was asking myself, well, what would she feel about
my saying this? And yet, that question is - it's not only unanswerable, it's
really unaskable.

I did talk to her briefly about the fact that I was writing this book, but I'll
never really know if she understood what I was asking.

GROSS: Yeah. When your parents realized that Mary had a disorder, they moved
her to a different room. Then they moved her to an institution. And you say
your parents started to try to protect you from her and encourage you to think
of yourself as simply an individual, as opposed to a twin.

Mr. SHAWN: Right.

GROSS: How did being an individual feel different from being a twin?

Mr. SHAWN: I don't think I've ever felt like an individual the way a non-twin
does. And I haven't taken a survey of twins, of course, but I literally feel
like a bookend, you know, as if there were a set of books next to me, and at
the other end of those books, there was another bookend.

I have a sense of being a part of a pair of things. And even in relation to
Wally, my brother, I feel in some sense that he's an individual but that I am
part of something.

GROSS: What did your parents tell you when they sent Mary away?

Mr. SHAWN: Well, it happened in stages. The first stage was that she went to a
summer camp for children with mental disabilities. And so, we were told that
she was going to this camp, and certainly the impression was that she was doing
very well there and very happy and far happier than she'd been in New York

And the next stage was that my parents said that Mary would be staying there.

GROSS: What is your twin sister's official diagnosis?

Mr. SHAWN: Well, today she's diagnosed as autistic and still says she suffers
from schizoaffective disorder on her diagnosis, although I'm not convinced
myself that that's accurate. And she's mentally retarded, as well.

It's possible to be autistic, as you know, and be very high-functioning. And
she - she's in some ways like a third-grader or a second-grader in terms of her
reading skills, for example. She's very good at certain mathematical
operations. Other things mean nothing to her. But certain things, she's far
better than I am, that's for sure.

GROSS: When your sister was first diagnosed, it was a time when parents were
often blamed for their child's autism, that it was something the parents did
wrong. Did this happen to your parents?

Mr. SHAWN: Well, obviously we weren't sitting around discussing this. As you
know from the book, we barely touched on the subject. I certainly remember
soaking up the idea that maybe Mary could be cured of her problems.

There was a tremendous amount of fantasy about Mary in the family, at least it
seems like fantasy now. I used to wonder if she was pretending to not be well.
I still feel that there is a kind of intelligence in her that simply is on a
different wavelength from mine or yours and that we just don't have the right
receiving instruments to decode what she's thinking and to comprehend her kind
of intelligence.

But certainly a fantasy was that she could be cured. And that would imply that
there was a cause in the world for what was ailing her, which suggests that on
some level I wondered if I or my parents had harmed her in some way and made
her withdraw to herself.

This thought was certainly not just a fantasy because at that time, most
parents of autistic children were told by their pediatricians that it was
probably the result of usually coldness on the part of the mother. And it's an
appalling thing to think that parents in that era were first saddled with the
unimaginably difficult task of trying to raise a child who is just not
responding to them and secondly, being told that it's something they're doing
that has caused this, even though they may have other children who are
relatively OK.

GROSS: And you're talking about the 1950s and the early 1960s.

Mr. SHAWN: Yes. We were born in 1948. So we're talking about the '50s, early

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is the composer and music professor
Allen Shawn, who has written a new memoir called "Twin," and it's about being
the brother of a twin sister who is autistic and, at the age of eight, was sent
away to an institution.

Allen Shawn's father is William Shawn, the late editor of the New Yorker
magazine, and his brother is Wallace Shawn, the writer and actor. Let's take a
short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Allen Shawn. He's a composer and
music professor at Bennington College, and he's the author of a previous memoir
that was about his phobias. His new memoir, "Twin," is about being the brother
of a twin sister who, at the age of eight, was sent away to an institution
because she's autistic.

Now, you later learned that there was another big problem in your family, which
is that your father was having an affair with Lillian Ross, a writer at the New
Yorker, and this is when he was editor of that magazine.

And this lasted until your father's death, and he'd have dinner with your
mother every night and spend the night at home, but he'd also spend time most
days at Lillian Ross' home or at least with her, wherever they were.

And I'm thinking, like, what a strain this must have been on the family to, on
the one hand, have an autistic daughter who is sent to a special institution
and, on the other hand, to have your father having such a long-term affair. It
lasted until the end of his life. It started in 1954 and lasted until the end
of his life.

Mr. SHAWN: Right. I didn't, in fact, know about this relationship until I was
close to 30 years old. And I certainly didn't know Lillian's name or anything
in detail at all about the relationship. And I heard about it only by chance,
in fact.

GROSS: By chance, not from your father but from somebody else?

Mr. SHAWN: No, in fact, to call it an affair when it lasted such a long time is
- it's a funny word. We don't really have language for these things, do we?

GROSS: No, it's almost like a parallel marriage.

Mr. SHAWN: It is. I mean, there's so much one never knows about a marriage. My
own memory of my parents as a married couple would certainly surprise any
listeners who, you know, would expect to see a dead, finished marriage that's
sort of just progressing in a pro-forma way, and they're imagining that my
father's real life was elsewhere.

I mean, obviously he loved both women. Well, perhaps it isn't obvious because,
as I say, we don't have language for these things. The extent to which he loved
our mother can hardly be overstated. And he expressed it in hundreds of
hundreds of little notes that he left her and an incredibly beautiful poem he
wrote on their anniversary in the last 15 years, anyway, of his life.

GROSS: During an early evaluation of your sister at one of the institutions
that she was in, the doctor wrote: Father is a rather short, very anxious man
who is editor of the New Yorker magazine. Mother is also a very anxious woman.
Both parents seemed reluctant to convey any information about the nature of
their anxiety or its cause. I have the sense of some sort of mutual protective
alliance underway. I could not discern the basis for this or be sure who was
protecting whom.

You know, I read that, and I thought, were they kind of unknowingly in this
kind of protective relationship and the doctor picked up on it, and what the
doctor was picking up on was this secret relationship that your father had?

Mr. SHAWN: Well, they were born secretive. I mean, they were secretive about so
many things, including my father's own phobias, the difficulty he had getting
to that institution, for example, the fact that they were both seeing

Nobody ever knew that, or at least very few people knew it. I certainly didn't
know it. My mother used to say quite often, about many different things: Now,
don't mention that. Don't mention this.

Our Jewishness was not actually denied but it was very much soft-pedaled. When
I started having my problems with phobias, my parents said, well, just don't
tell anybody about it.

So there was a lot of secrecy. So I don't think it was only his, what people
call double-life by any means that they were concealing. I think they had a
very strong sense of privacy. I have it myself, and I'm sure Wally does, too.

GROSS: Well, you're not helping with the memoir.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAWN: Yes, it's a funny thing, isn't it?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. So - but I'm thinking about the burden it must have been to
carry around so many secrets. I mean, like don't tell people about your sister,
don't tell people about your father's phobias, don't let on you're really
Jewish, don't tell people about your own phobias. And you probably sensed that
there was a secret that your father was keeping, even though you didn't know it
was there.

Mr. SHAWN: You know, people have asked me that, and it sounds like it must be
true. But it was a very complicated household, and it's very much like a late-
19th-century, early-20th-century, you know, Viennese household.

It feels like I'm remembering something that happened at least a century ago or
more. It was very, very complicated. There were lots of little hidden rules,
and the rules were not explicit very often.

In fact, sometimes the rules themselves were secret. If you pointed out a
certain thing - well, for example, you mentioned that my father was short.
Well, we were all short, and those of us who are alive are still short. And I
remember once saying that we were short, and that elicited an hour-long debate,
discussion, and believe me, there was no doubt about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Do you think your parents did the right thing in sending your twin, who
is autistic, to an institution?

Mr. SHAWN: Well, the options available to them at that time were very, very
few. I think - obviously, I've asked myself this question, and some people have
already written me and asked me, you know, whether I think this was barbaric
and so on.

Mary was a very, very unhappy child. There were very few people who could
understand how to comfort her, how to sooth her. She would run through the
corridors of the house screaming, sometimes screaming and holding her ears, as
if her own screams frightened her.

Sometimes she would be peaceful and she would look very contented. Sometimes
she would be very absorbed in things. But quite often, she was very, very

Mary was an outsider at schools for the so-called normal. There really was no
place for her to go to school with her peers. Then they found a place in a
beautiful part of Cape Cod, Chatham, Massachusetts, on the water.

There was a routine there that was fun. There were kids there that Mary played
with. She had her first real friends. She seemed happier. She looked happier.
And as I say, there wasn't that much understanding of the kind of condition
that Mary had.

But anyway, yeah, I mean, I think given the options they had, they made the
decision that, you know, good people would make, you know, under those

GROSS: Allen Shawn will be back in the second half of the show. His new memoir
is called "Twin." Shawn is a composer and pianist. Here he is performing one of
his compositions. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Allen Shawn.

His new memoir, "Twin," is about how it's affected his life to have a twin
sister, Mary, who is autistic. The memoir is also about growing up the son of
William Shawn, who was the long-term editor of The New Yorker. Allen Shawn is a
composer and teaches at Bennington College.

In trying to understand the mental state of your sister, you say that you think
that maybe when you're composing and you're kind of in a composing trance, it
may be the closest thing that you experience to what Mary, your sister,

Mr. SHAWN: Mm-hmm. Yes.

GROSS: Outside of other things that you think are close, like when you're sick
or exhausted.

Mr. SHAWN: Right. Well, yeah. In writing this book I was realizing more and
more the degree to which I could identify with her. And one of the ways I can
identify is in the isolation that she experiences. And when I'm writing music
I'm in my own little world and I guess I like to think of that, after writing
this book anyway, as my own kind of autistic state.

GROSS: Why do you think of composing as being similar to being in an autistic

Mr. SHAWN: I think one of the characteristics of Mary and people like Mary is a
quality of absorption in small things and a lack of social connectedness. And
although I'm reasonably sociable, not as sociable as I'd like to be, but when
I'm composing I'm really, deeply alone and it's just me and these notes on the
page and these sounds in the air. And that quality of absorption reminds me of
the way Mary used to look when she would be studying some plastic necklace on
the floor at the age of five and just getting lost in the way the beads
connected to each other. So I guess I'm theorizing that we all have an autistic

GROSS: What's your twin sister Mary like now as a woman in her 60s?

Mr. SHAWN: She has a very different quality when you're with her than she does
if you're trying to talk to her on the phone. I spoke to her a couple of days
ago and I was thinking about that. She's not someone who's going to originate
thoughts and perceptions or ideas or make comments on the phone. She'll be most
likely to just answer your questions with either the most routine answer or
even a repetition of the question.

But when you're with her she's intense. She looks at you. She's full of
personality. She's full of humor. There's a kind of vibrating, passionate
quality to her. As I say, it's almost as if she's repressing all kinds of
perceptions of the world that she can't articulate in the way we're used to
things being articulated. But you can't expect the give and take with her, even
in person, that you can normally with people.

GROSS: For you, being a twin, and knowing that your twin sister is autistic and
that she was taken away from you because of that and sent to an institution,
this is a formative experience in your life. This is one of the basic building
blocks of who you are emotionally and mentally. But do you have any fact of how
much knowledge your twin has of you as being her twin, as somebody who she was
once very very connected with and then at the age of eight, separated from?

Mr. SHAWN: I really don't. She certainly asks after Wally as much as she asks
after me. And all I can say is that when we're together she looks very, very
pleased. She immediately takes my hand and the connection is instantaneous. I
wouldn't differentiate it, though, from the connection she feels for Wally or
that she felt for her parents.

I don't think the concept of twin means anything but I think certain memories
are ineradicable in her, you know, the passage of time doesn't mean a thing. So
she must carry within her some sense of intense familiarity with me. That's all
I can say for sure.

GROSS: I think about what an extraordinary family that you're from. Your father
being William Shawn, the former editor of The New Yorker. Your brother, Wally
Shawn, an actor and playwright. You being a composer and music professor. Your
sister, autistic. You and your father both sharing a lot of phobias. And also,
your father having this huge secret that he was having an affair for most of
his marriage, from 1954 till his death in the '80s, with Lillian Ross. It's
such a mix of kind of like talent and secrecy and phobia and eccentricity.

And so, you know, I know you found out kind of accidentally when you when you
were 30 that your father was having an affair. I know you kept it from your
mother until your father got sick.

Mr. SHAWN: Right.

GROSS: What happened after you found out from somebody else, who had a little
bit too much to drink...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...that your father was having this affair? Did you tell your father
that you knew? Like, what happened after that?

Mr. SHAWN: Well, at that point I wasn't sure if I believed this. And, of
course, it wasn't described as an affair so much as a way of life. I think the
thing that disturbed me the most, to be honest - this may offend some
listeners. What really disturbed me was that everybody else knew about this and
that it seemed like we'd grown up in a strange bubble of not knowing this very,
you know, simple and basic fact of his life.

I can see now how it happened. But rather than think, oh, what a terrible thing
he did, I thought how terrible it was that both my parents thought it was fine
that we would just find out, you know, 40 years later by chance, maybe when we
couldn't even discuss it with them. So at that point, I was very eager to talk
to him about it and we did have some wonderful long talks about it.

GROSS: He told your mother. Your mother knew. Your mother decided that she was
willing to live that way and they both kept the secret from you and your
brother, Wally.

Mr. SHAWN: That right. And I think it was something she never came to terms
with and never accepted. But the one thing she couldn't tolerate was its being
discussed with us - with the boys, as we were called at that point.

GROSS: So when you told your father that you knew, he told you not to tell your
mother that you knew?

Mr. SHAWN: Yes. And he explained...

GROSS: That must have been so hard to do. I mean, we were talking about keeping
secrets in a family. But, like, to know that she knew and then to know yourself
and yet not to be able to acknowledge to her that you knew and that you knew
that she knew, I mean, what a huge secret.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAWN: Right. Well, one of the ironies of this is that constraint of that
kind really interferes with having a good loving relationship. So...

GROSS: Well, it forces you to lie. It forces you to both lie.

Mr. SHAWN: Yes. And to see her lying and to know she's lying and it's a
circular thing. The sad thing is that it wasn't until she and I talked about
this that I felt as close to her as I really would have all along. It was a
barrier. I hadn't known there was a barrier to full understanding of my
father's life. But I was highly conscious of the fact that there was this
barrier between me and my mother after I knew this.

GROSS: When she started opening up to you, did you get a sense of what was in
it for her to live in a relationship where your father had a lifelong
relationship with another woman at the same time? She was willing to accept

Mr. SHAWN: She was...

GROSS: So what was in it for her, on her end of accepting that, as opposed to
what a lot of women would do, which is give an ultimatum, like, you can't be
married to two people so choose her or choose me, you can't live with both?

Mr. SHAWN: Well, obviously they all decided at some point that you can be
married to two people. I think it wasn't that she accepted it. She accepted
him. She deeply loved him and their relationship was still alive. It certainly
wasn't a matter of just convenience that they stayed together. But also for his
part, I think that this kind of duality was something in him. He was incapable
of making a choice either. And one way of looking at it is perhaps this was
also necessary for their marriage.

As I say, there is a lot you don't know about any marriage. Because perhaps it
was even more alive than it would have been otherwise. That's possible. When I
think back to the atmosphere at home, yes, there were mysteries, but there was
also love and romance in the air.

GROSS: Seeing your parents' unusual relationship and watching them parent you
and your brother, as well as your autistic sister, did that make you any more
enthusiastic or reluctant to enter into a marriage yourself and to become a
father? Were you afraid if you became a father that your child would have
developmental problems? Were you afraid if you became a husband that you'd have
to have two marriages instead of one? I mean, you were exposed to such extremes
in your own family.

Mr. SHAWN: Well, I probably should have been afraid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAWN: But I entered into my first marriage and parenthood of my first two
children very unaware of how burdened I was by all of these issues. But I think
the net effect of all of that was to make me feel quite strongly about family
and to want to be a parent. So you're going to have to figure that one out,
Terry. But I think that's the effect it had on me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: OK. Allen Shawn, thank you so much.

Mr. SHAWN: Thank you.

GROSS: Allen Shawn's new memoir is called "Twin."
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Actor Pete Postlethwaite, 1946-2011


We're going to listen back to an interview with the British actor Pete
Postlethwaite. He died of cancer yesterday at the age of 64. Americans came to
know Postlethwaite through the 1993 movie, "In The Name of the Father," for
which he earned an Oscar nomination.

In '94, he co-starred in "The Usual Suspects," playing a mysterious and
sinister character named Kobayashi. Steven Spielberg called him probably the
best actor in the world, after directing him in "Amistad" and "The Lost World:
Jurassic Park." His recent films include "Inception" and "The Town."

Postlethwaite had a face that made an impression on you. An AP article
described it as remarkably cranky and timeworn. One critic described his cheek
bones as boiling out of his head like swollen knuckles. His voice made an
impression, too. He could play very vulnerable or very tough, as in this scene
with Ben Affleck from Affleck's film "The Town."

Postlethwaite played a crime boss in a working-class neighborhood. Affleck
worked for him pulling heists. When Affleck tells Postlethwaite he wants out,
Postlethwaite threatens him and tells him how he ruined the life of Affleck's

(Soundbite of movie, "The Town")

Mr. PETE POSTLETHWAITE (Actor): (as Fergus Colm) You play the horses? You know,
they had to kill the horse with a knife or with the chemicals. When your daddy
said no to me, I did him the chemical way. Gave your mother a taste. Put the
hook into her. Ah, she doped up good and proper. Hung herself with a wire
around their car. And you, running around the neighborhood looking for her.
Your daddy didn't have the heart to tell his son that he was looking for a
suicide doper who was never coming home. If there's a heaven, son, she ain't in

GROSS: Pete Postlethwaite in a scene from last year's movie "The Town." I spoke
with Postlethwaite in 1997.

You're from the working-class family, I believe, in the north of England.

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: How were you exposed to acting? Was it mostly through movies or did you
actually see a lot of theater where you lived?

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: No, I didn't see a lot of theater to start with. I suppose
it was pictures, really, Saturday morning cinema and things like that. We used
to go and see Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy and things like that. But I suppose
in terms - I don't know. Maybe something to do with the Catholic background. I
mean with, you know, being an altar boy, you know, being on that altar, you
know, it's a bit like being on stage, you know? Maybe it was something in that.
I don't know. And then at grammar school I started to do a couple of plays. We
did "The Importance of Being Earnest," I remember and "A Man For All Seasons."
Quite enjoyed that, doing then those kind of things. Then I went to college and
read drama and P.E., a strange mixture, physical education and drama, and drama
eventually took over.

And these were times in the late '60s when there was some extraordinary writing
coming of England, plays by Pinter and Beckett and all these guys were all
writing these extraordinary plays like "Waiting for Godot" and "Look Back In
Anger" and stuff like that, all happening at the same time and I thought,
blimey, these are extraordinary stuff. So I really enjoyed all that.

But then I thought well, you can't, you know, you still can't go be an actor. I
mean people from Warrington don't go and be actors, really. And so I decided to
carry on - I'd teach for a couple years and then see what happened after that
and if I still fancied it after that I'd follow - I'd go and do it.

GROSS: So you taught physical education?

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: No. I taught - in the first year actually when I left, I
didn't - I taught, really it was hardly teaching. It was in what we called an
approved school in England, which is for the naughty kids, really, for children
who have - find it very difficult to fit into the system and rebel against and
that generally the schools can't cope with them so they send them to approved
schools, which they were then. So that was more like social work than teaching,
even though I was, you know, employed as a teacher and I did that for a year.
And then, went - changed and went to a girls convent grammar school, would you
believe, in Manchester.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: And taught a thousand girls a week - drama that was. I was a
member of the English department, start with an English teacher on the staff
and the staff was massive; there was 77 on this staff. It was a big school but
I realized there wasn't a drama department so I thought well, I'll create a
drama department and then I can be head of it, really. So that's what basically
I did. And so I taught drama there. But then, even after that, after a year of
that, I thought still not really what I want to do. And so I went back to
school. I applied back to drama school and went back to school, went back to
basics at the Bristol Old Vic and left there in 1970 and now find myself in a
studio in New York talking to you about it in 1997.

GROSS: What did your parents say when you left teaching? Did they think you
were being unrealistic?

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: Yes they did. Yeah. Yeah. It took about 10 or 11 years
before my mom stopped saying well, eventually you'll get a proper job and I
think that basically came as well. These sound terrible stories against my
mother and they're not meant to be. But I think she realized being in The Royal
Shakespeare Company, which is a massive wonderful company in England - or can
be wonderful. They can also do some awful stuff now and again. But we opened a
new theater there, the Swan Theatre, and Queen Elizabeth, our queen, came to
open it. And my mother, who's my queen, I suppose, came as well to there to
watch it.

And when she saw me being introduced to the queen on the stage of The Royal
Shakespeare Company, I think then she thought well, now yes, it's a serious job
now. That's all right. That's perfectly all right thing to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: But it was strange. Yeah. I think they did think oh well,
he'll grow out of that or whatever. It was a strange choice for somebody from
my background.

GROSS: You really made your mark in America with the movie "In the Name of the
Father," in which you played the father of a young man who is unjustly accused
of an IRA bombing of a British pub.


GROSS: And the son's family is held as co-conspirators so you are imprisoned
with your son played by Daniel Day-Lewis.


GROSS: And it's a great role. You know, you start off in the movie looking like
a real spineless guy. You know a father who would never stand up for himself or
for his son or for anybody, someone who would let people walk over him. But in
the jail scenes you show this surprising inner strength. And watching the
dynamics change between the father and the son in jail are just so really
fascinating. Very subtle performance.

Tell me your take on this character, what your profile of him was when you were
figuring out how you should perform in the role.

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: Well, he was my dad, really. He was exactly my dad who died
in 1988. Who was Northern working-class, Catholic. But there is a breed of
these people that have this extraordinary inner strength. They appear to be
spineless. They appear to be easy meat. But in fact when the pressure is on
they resort to their inner strength - this resilience that they have, which is
based on their values and their beliefs and what they think. My dad and
Giuseppe were very similar, except Giuseppe was Northern Irish, whereas my
father was Northern English. But they were exactly the same kind of background.
And there's a whole breed of these kind of men and women and that's the kind of
profile you think well, you've got to do justice to these people.

GROSS: We're listening back to an interview with actor Pete Postlethwaite. He
died yesterday at the age of 64. We'll hear more of the interview after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1997 interview with British actor Pete
Postlethwaite. He died of cancer yesterday at the age of 64. When we left off
we were talking about his film "In the Name of the Father."

Now you played a very different kind of character in an earlier movie called
"Distant Voices, Still Lives."


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And in this movie you are an abusive father and husband.

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: Horrendous. Yeah.

GROSS: And I know when I saw the movie, every time you appeared on screen my
whole body would tighten. I mean like uh-oh, here it comes again.

(Soundbite of laughter)


GROSS: So it's interesting how you were able to embody two such different kinds
of fathers and husbands. And I wonder what the difference is in how you carried
your own body, how you presented your own self physically in both roles, and
"In the Name of the Father" and "Distant Voices, Still Lives."

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: But I never thought about it like that, really, but looking
at it now, you're obviously right. Yeah, there was a difference. Strange,
really because maybe the father in "Distant Voices, Still Lives" was inherently
weak, whether it was because of his lack of employment or his migraine or his
drinking problem, I don't know, but he wasn't terribly weak, whereas in a way
Giuseppe Conlon was inherently strong and outwardly weak. I mean he had - he
was ill, whereas the father in "Distant Voices, Still Lives" wasn't.

And it's strange that I don't identify that father with my father, isn't it? I
don't. I mean he wasn't like that.

GROSS: Good.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: But that was actually very autobiographical. A Terence
Davies film, yeah?

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: Directed by Terence Davies. It was completely
autobiographical, I believe. Well, I know because that's what he said. That's
what he used to do. That's what it was like. And I don't know, I thought...

GROSS: Would he critique your performance by saying no, no, no. My father was
more like this?

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: Oh yeah. Very much. Yeah. Oh, no he would do that. Yeah. I
remember in one particular scene where I think the daughter went in the cellar,
cleaning up the cellar I think. And the daughter asked for some money to go to
a dance and I think I hit her with a brush, with a yard brush. And I sort of
whacked her a couple of times with the brush and Terry said no, no, he didn't
do it like that. Oh, no, and he got a hold of this brush and he turned it the
other way around where the end of the broom was. And we had this metal cage
around the camera and so the brush whacks would go into - directly into the
camera, and he bent this metal with this brush. I said now Terry, come on,
don't be silly. No father could do that. Nobody would do that to a child. Said
no that's what he did. That's what he - I said, no. do you mean that that's how
it appeared to your sister as a child, I mean this massive thing come at? No,
that's how hard he hit. I said well, he'd kill her. And he said, no he didn't
kill her and that's what he did. And you just think blimey. Where do you go
from there? So I don't know. I mean he had a lot to feel angry about his father

GROSS: I have one last question for you.


GROSS: Now I understand when you were co-starring on Broadway in "Cyrano,"
"Cyrano de Bergerac," that Derek Jacobi, who played Cyrano...


GROSS: ...tossed his nose to you at the curtain call of the last performance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: Absolutely true.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, that must've been quite an honor.

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: Absolutely true. I still have it. I still have it in a
little tin box at home and it's still there. That's true.

GROSS: Did you know that was coming?

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: No, not really. No, I didn't, no. Are you making sort of
references to kind of, you know, catching the bouquet of the...

GROSS: Right. Right. Go ahead.

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: ...when the bride throws her bouquet and I'm the bridesmaid?
No, that did happen. That did happen on the last night. Terrific last night in
New York. Wonderful.

GROSS: And so where is the nose being stored now?

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: It's in a little tin on the shelf and with all my other
memorabilia they are about, mainly from films as well as plays but I even have
the rosette was on my right shoe from that show and lots of little things,
keepsakes, lots of little memories. They're all good. They all remained.

GROSS: What other memorabilia have you kept from new shows and movies?

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: Well, I have the baton from "Brassed Off". I have the belt I
wore as Roland Tembo. I have the plaque from the coffin of Giuseppe Conlon. I
have the rosette that I wore on my shoe for "Cyrano de Bergerac," the nose-
catching-incident one. I have lots of things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: There's always something. You always take a little bit back,
I think just to say well, that's mine.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: No problem.

GROSS: Pete Postlethwaite died of cancer yesterday he was 64. Our interview was
recorded in 1997.

You can download podcasts of our show on our website, I'm
Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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