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Veteran Jazz Musician Olu Dara Finally Records His Own Music

After over 30 years in the business, Dara he's just released his first solo album, "Olu Dara: In the World: From Natchez to New York" (Atlantic). During the 70s and 80s Dara played in Art Blakey's band, as well as that of advante gardist Henry Threadgill and others. His new CD blends the two worlds and the two sounds that influenced him most: his hometown of Natchez, Mississippi and New York City where he lives now.

34:52

Other segments from the episode on July 29, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 29, 1998: Interview with Olu Dara; Interview with Evan Imber-Black.

Transcript

daShow: FRESH AIR
Date: JULY 29, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 072903NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Olu Dara
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When Olu Dara's new CD was released this year, jazz critic Bob Blumenthal (ph) wrote, "The greatest unhyped trumpeter -- or rather cornetist -- of the last 20 years has finally made his own album. He's created a folk, blues, Afro-beat CD stew where his singing and guitar playing are as prominent as his horn."

This music is different from the music Olu Dara first became known for in the '70s and '80s when he was part of the avant-garde jazz loft scene and worked as a side man with such adventurous jazz composers as David Murray (ph), Henry Threadgill (ph), and Hemmet Bluitt (ph).

Olu Dara's own band makes music that bridges the music of Mississippi where he grew up with the sounds of New York where he's lived since the '60s. The CD is called "In the World: From Natchez to New York."

This song is called "Harlem Country Girl."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF OLU DARA MUSIC)

OLU DARA, MUSICIAN, SINGER AND COMPOSER, SINGING:
Harlem country girl
You're so sweet
Harlem country girl
You're so complete
You know I met you dancing
On asphalt
Wasn't too much grass...

GROSS: Olu Dara, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me be the millionth person to ask, why didn't you record something like this sooner?

DARA: I was too young. And I had a lot of living to do. And another is that recording was not the thing that was a goal for me. My goals were to do other things like theater, dance, film, and whatever. But I felt that recording too early would put me in a position of doing -- playing the same thing to the public. And the public wouldn't -- I wouldn't get a chance to do what I really want to do.

GROSS: If you don't mind my mentioning your age, I think you're 57?

DARA: Yes, I am exactly 57.

GROSS: Which most people would think of as...

DARA: Old.

GROSS: ... hardly too early to be recording.

DARA: Yeah, it -- some people record because just to get into the business, you know. I didn't have any reason to record, you know, because I already -- I was already doing what I wanted to do. And recording -- I hate to repeat myself -- but recording would have put me into a position where people would have expectations like they do now.

GROSS: Do you feel any more at home singing or playing?

DARA: Singing is something I started to do late in life. But I'm very comfortable doing that because it has to do with the -- something that's very satisfactory to me is the voice. And also, you can tell a story.

GROSS: Yeah, so what made you decide to start singing? And did you enter it really slowly?

DARA: No, I just started right away. The first time I attempted to sing was when I recorded. I recorded in 1977 "The Wildflower Series." Mine didn't come out. But everybody else's came out. But I just started to sing.

I wanted some singers on there. I called some professional singers. And they -- I tried to show them how to do it. And they said, "Well, why don't you do it?" That's when I started to sing.

And of course, that record never came out. And when I formed my band, I just started to sing without ever even practicing singing or thinking about singing. I just needed to sing because the horn could only say so much.

GROSS: Although you've lived in New York since, I think, 1963, you obviously feel very culturally rooted in Natchez, Mississippi. What was the music -- well, let me ask you first what kind of town you grew up in, just to like describe the atmosphere that you grew up in.

DARA: Well, Natchez is a very beautiful town. It's on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. It's a very historical town. It's the oldest city on the river. It pre-dates New Orleans when it comes to Mardi Gras and gambling and prostitution and whatever you want to say.

But it was also a very nurturing place to grow up, very small. But there were some brilliant, loving people there.

GROSS: One of the tracks on your new CD, the opening track in fact, is called "Okra." And it's a song based on the kinds of calls that fruit and vegetable sellers would do. Tell me what you remember about those calls.

DARA: Well, I remember being very influenced by that sound from the vendors. I like that sound. It's a very old sound, and it was very beautiful. And they had things to offer. What I mean by that is fruits and vegetables that we loved. And it was fresh.

And I was very impressed by that. I liked to go out and smell the fruit and the vegetables. I liked to smell the horse that he was driving, or the mule. And I liked to look at the wagon. I liked the sounds of the wagon. I would follow them sometimes. And it always stayed in my head and my heart.

GROSS: Well, let's hear your song. Tell me a little bit more about this song and the exact sounds that you based it on.

DARA: Well, I kind of merged cultures there. There's an African high-life feeling there, which is what I felt was happening. I didn't know it was really high-life until I discovered what high-life was. But I merged that Mississippi vendor sound, that holler, with the high life. And it came out to be "Okra..."

GROSS: OK, well let's hear it...

DARA: ... the song itself, yeah.

GROSS: ... let's hear it. And this is the first track on Olu Dara's new CD, "In the World: From Natchez to New York."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF OLU DARA MUSIC)

DARA, SINGING:
Okra, okra, okra, okra
Green peanuts from Miss Mary's backyard
Plenty, plenty tomatoes
Pecans, pecans, pecans, pecans
Blackberries
Two berries
I'm told, man
Told, man
Call the children
He's got candy
Call the children
He's got seeds
Call the children
He's got candy
Call the children
He's got seeds
Call the children
He's got candy
Call the children
He's got seeds
Ella Mae (ph) she makes some good okra
And crawdad peas (ph)
You better look out your window
Come outside...

GROSS: That's Olu Dara from his new album "In the World: From Natchez to New York."

Now how did you learn to play trumpet? And, you know, just like the cliché of Mississippi is almost that when you're born, they issue you a guitar so you can sing the blues...

DARA: Yeah.

GROSS: ... how did you end up with a trumpet?

DARA: Well, trumpet, I guess we came from another side of town I guess. And I met a man who just found his way into Natchez. And he was looking for a place to say, something to do. And he turned out to be a very brilliant man.

And I would help him -- I helped him unpack his goods. His name was Lavona Kines (ph). And he was a very young man. I thought he was older because he was mixed gray.

But he asked me, "What did I want to do?" I asked him what could he teach me. He said, "Anything." I remember that today, he said, "Anything."

So he did teach me anything I wanted to learn. I started with clarinet first, the piano, and the cornet. And I learned typing in there with him, how to set a typeset for newspaper, photography, filmmaking -- this was in the '40s -- tap dancing, metaphysical talk, you know, art, everything. He was that kind of a guy.

So I stayed around him at all times. And I started playing cornet with him at the age of 7. And at the age of 10, 9 or 10, I was traveling with him throughout Louisiana and Mississippi.

GROSS: Playing?

DARA: Playing, yeah, playing cornet.

GROSS: And what kind of music?

DARA: Oh, popular music standards, Ellington music, show music, movie music, you know, the standards of the time. You know, "Sophisticated Lady" and "Smoke Rings," stuff like that, rhythm and blues stuff.

GROSS: Was it unusual for him to be traveling with somebody that young?

DARA: No, it wasn't unusual for young kids in Mississippi to travel, young, I mean, during that time, kids could -- I mean, I was driving a car at 11.

GROSS: Wow.

DARA: You know, and, you know, we were drinking at 12 in public. That was in the '40s and early '50s, you know. So I thought the whole world lived like that, you know? But Mississippi evidently is different.

GROSS: So why cornet and not trumpet? What really are the differences for you as a player between the two instruments?

DARA: Well, the cornet is an old school trumpet. I can say it like that. Louis Armstrong (ph) and those guys in New Orleans and the deep south, they played cornet first for whatever reason. And the trumpet, it came along, the trumpet was like, let's say, going from electric guitar -- from acoustic to electric guitar in a way because it has a higher -- you could hit higher notes and it's more -- has a more brilliant sound to it.

And I remember my brother stopped playing the cornet because everybody had trumpets except my brother and myself. So my brother decided that he wouldn't play a cornet because it's too ugly, too short, too silver, you know. In those days, they started making gold trumpets. So if you had a gold trumpet, you were OK, whether you could play well or not.

So my brother stopped playing. And I stayed with the cornet until I decided to get a trumpet so I could be in with the guys, you know? And I played trumpet for quite a few years.

And when I got to New York, I was still playing trumpet. Then I started acting in plays. And I got a part as a cornet player. And it just took me back to where I started. And I got into the cornet again, late '70s I believe, and I've been with it ever since.

So it's related to the trumpet. But to me, it's another bird, you know?

GROSS: Yeah. Do you like the sound better?

DARA: Oh, yes, it's like a voice, like a human voice. It makes me feel like it's a human voice rather than a horn itself, you know? With the trumpet, I feel like just another guy playing high notes and trying to get a decent sound.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Olu Dara, cornetist, singer, songwriter. He has the first album under his own name, first album as a leader, it's called "In the World from Natchez to New York."

Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Olu Dara, cornetist and singer. And his new CD is called "In the World: From Natchez to New York."

Now you left Natchez in 1958 to go to Tennessee State and...

DARA: Yes.

GROSS: ... Nashville to study music, yes? To study music there?

DARA: No, I went to study medicine.

GROSS: Medicine?

DARA: Medicine, yes. I was going to go from there to Mahara (ph) University, which was right there, medical school which is in the same city. That was our plan. I say "our plan" because, you know, my mother was involved in that plan also.

But I decided that Nashville was so rich with music in the campus, where I went to school Tennessee State, was so rich with wonderful musicians, I decided to join the band. And still, studying medicine, pre-med, taking pre-med courses, but I just got the music bug.

So what I did was I decided to go to the Navy School of Music. I joined the Navy and went to the Navy School of Music in Washington, DC, only because I heard that John Coltrane and Cannonball Adley (ph) and Clark Terry (ph) had gone to that school. So I decided to go to the Navy.

And that's what happened. I did a year in school there. Then I played for another three years on ship.

GROSS: So you went through the Navy in the Naval band?

DARA: Yes, yes.

GROSS: So what kind of material would you have to play on ship?

DARA: Anything from "Nearer My God to Thee..."

LAUGHTER

... to marches to dance music. I mean, we would be out to sea sometimes so long, and we played dance music, you know? We played dance music, or we played anything. Anything they wanted you to play, you had to play.

And then back on shore, you play nightclubs, officer's clubs. You play jazz clubs, you know, officer's clubs who like jazz and play for dances. You have to play everything. You play big bands also.

GROSS: Now how did you end up staying in New York after your years in the Navy?

DARA: I spent my last year in the military in New York. I was discharged in New York. I stayed around, and I ran out of money in New York.

I was planning on going back to east Africa or Spain somewhere to live. I was only 24 years old. So I had, you know, nothing but freedom, nothing but time.

And I ran out of money in New York. So I wound up in New York City.

GROSS: I understand after you ended up in New York, decided to live there, you went for eight years without performing?

DARA: Yes, some -- I think it's around that -- '64 -- yeah, maybe eight years or whatever.

GROSS: Why?

DARA: Well, I was kind of intimidated with the big New York scene. You know, I'm still a, you know, a small-town person. And I was living in a neighborhood with all these great artists, artists I had heard about. I had seen them in person. I had seen their records, heard their records or whatever. And I didn't think I was capable of playing on their level.

And I hadn't tried. So, you know, I just thought that I was not good enough to play with them, until I was basically forced into playing with them. In a way, they would -- I would run into musicians who knew me in school -- high school or college or military -- and they remembered my talent better than I did.

So eventually, I got pushed back into the music world. So it just happened naturally I believe.

GROSS: So what kind of music did you start playing when you started performing again?

DARA: Rhythm and blues. I love rhythm and blues. Rhythm and blues and theater. I went on the road with "Hair," the road company, "Hair," in 1971.

GROSS: Boy, that show has launched more careers. It is just bizarre.

DARA: Yeah, it has.

LAUGHTER

It really has. That really got me back into the ballgame I believe, because I stayed with them maybe three or four months, and then I couldn't stand that anymore. So I said, "Well, the money was good for that time, very excellent for that time for a musician." But I felt that I needed to get back into New York and play with the creative musicians, even if I've got no money or -- you know, no money at all, I felt that I was back into, and I wanted to.

So I rushed back. I quit the play "Hair" in Madison, Wisconsin, and came back to New York and really got into it.

GROSS: You ended up playing in Art Blakey's (ph) band for a while, The Jazz Messengers...

DARA: Yes, I did.

GROSS: ... and Blakey's band was always considered, oh, just like a training ground for great musicians. I'm wondering what it was like for you.

DARA: Yeah, it's a good training ground for jazz musicians, especially. But I felt that I had had enough of that. I thought I needed that. I thought that's what I really wanted. But you have to go somewhere to find out what you don't need, you know?

And I found Blakey. Blakey was very nice, he's a very sweet man. He thought that I had another vision. So he let me explore my vision within his group. Most musicians would not allow you to do that. He allowed me to sing, which I wasn't a singer, or to tell jokes, or to play different trumpet styles that I didn't get a chance to play with other bands.

And when I left his band, I had another vision, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

GROSS: What?

DARA: I wanted to explore musics that I really enjoyed. I guess you'd call it world music now. But at the time, in the early '70s, my thinking was that I wanted to play everything that I could play that was enjoyable to me and I knew would be enjoyable to my listeners. And I didn't want to bore myself or my listeners with the same sound.

GROSS: A lot of jazz listeners were introduced to your work in the mid-'70s through the '80s when you were playing early on in that period in what was known as the loft jazz scene. And then you were a really important side man in bands led by the emerging composers of the period, composers who had a foot in the avant-garde. I'm thinking of people like Henry Threadgill and David Murray (ph), Julius Hemple (ph). And I'm wondering how you fell in with that group of people, those emerging composers of the time, who were very adventurous in their compositions and drawing on basically all of jazz history.

DARA: Well, it was -- I don't know how it happened either. But I do remember being here before they were here. And they were -- yeah, so, you could say emigrating from cities, Chicago, the St. Louis musicians and California musicians.

And I was already here. And they found it very difficult to find good trumpet players who could interpret their music since it was new to this area. And I was also looking for something else to do. I had just left Blakey's group, and there was nothing else happening here.

And so when they came here, it was a perfect opportunity for me to do something and to be able to help them expand sounds they wanted to get out here. And I found it very easy for me to fit in with their groups. And I found that I was of some use to their bands.

And it really helped me. And I think I really helped them.

GROSS: Olu Dara's new CD is called "In the World: From Natchez to New York." He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with cornetist, singer and guitarist Olu Dara. His new CD is called "In the World: From Natchez to New York."

When we left off, we were talking about how the songs on this record contrast with the more avant-garde music he played in the '70s and '80s when he was a side man in bands led by such important composers as Henry Threadgill (ph) and David Murray (ph).

I want to play something from a 1980 album that you were on. This is The David Murray Octet (ph). The album is called "Ming (ph)." And I'll play a David Murray composition called "Dewey Circle (ph)." And you're featured on cornet or trumpet on this. I'm trying to remember.

DARA: It must be trumpet...

GROSS: Probably trumpet.

DARA: ... It must be trumpet.

GROSS: Yeah, trumpet. And you were very prominently featured on this. And you take the first solo. So let's hear "Dewey Circle" recorded in 1980, my guest Olu Dara on trumpet.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF THE DAVID MURRAY OCTET PLAYING SONG FROM "DEWEY CIRCLE")

That was "Dewey Circle" from the 1980 David Murray album "Ming." And we heard David Murray on tenor, Henry Threadgill (ph) on alto saxophone, my guest Olu Dara on trumpet.

The energy on that recording is so great and really typical of some of the best kind of playing of that period, combining like the energy of the avant-garde with the energy of say New Orleans music of '20s and '30s and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Did you like that kind of energy, that combination of temporary adventurousness with the early spirit of jazz?

DARA: That was a very difficult period for me. Let's be truthful about this.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: OK.

DARA: I was like a fish out of water because I didn't come up playing that type of music, nor was I playing it ever up until that time. And I was just listening to that recording and knowing what I was feeling then when I was playing it, you know?

It's hard to explain in words. But I like to use the word interesting...

LAUGHTER

DARA: ... because...

GROSS: Oh, yes. You know, I know...

DARA: ... you understand what I'm saying?

GROSS: Right.

DARA: Yeah, I was trying to find my way within the -- on the sharp edges of that music because that music was atonal in a lot of ways. And I came up in a tone world, you know?

So it was geometrical, if you can understand what I mean by that, you know, trying to fit -- sometimes trying to fit a triangle into a square. OK, and that it was scientific in that way. And so I enjoyed the scientific aspect of the music. And I enjoyed being from another culture.

It's like being from another culture trying to play in another culture's thing. That's really all it's about. And you don't know what it is. But you try to figure out what you can do to help it. And unless -- that was my job, you know, to find -- to try to make it better than it was, to try to add an ingredient that they did not have.

GROSS: In a way, I feel like part of what you added was this theatricality and sense of show business. I remember seeing you, it must have been in the early '80s, at a loft space in New York. And I think you were playing with the Henry Threadgill band.

And, you know, everybody's up there, and the music's great. And everybody's like playing, and they're very serious about their playing. And you were up there wearing this beautiful suit. And there's just this sense of like theatricality in your presence, you know, that you just had this sense of theater in a way that the other members of the band didn't seem to. And you had this look in your eyes of just knowing that this was a performance, and you wanted to make it a performance.

DARA: Well, that's the way I am. I grew up in theater from elementary school. And I always like to see people satisfied in the audience, whether they're smiling or just satisfied, whatever.

But that was always my feeling. When I get on stage, my first thought is, "I'm going to do everything I can to give them something fresh, something they haven't seen before, or another twist on something they've seen."

GROSS: So, you know, being from a small town, being from the south, being from a tonal world, did you sometimes feel like you were in another country when you were in New York playing?

DARA: Look, you just read my mind because that's just the way I felt. I always felt that -- the island of New York -- is another country, you know, when you really look at it, you know. It feels -- it's an international feeling, of course.

But I could be anywhere, you know. I've been in other places that feels -- has the same feeling, out of this country.

GROSS: So do you feel that with the music that you're doing now on your new CD, and the music you were playing earlier that wasn't recorded with your band the Okra Orchestra, that you've managed to kind of put together the two worlds, the New York that you live in and the Natchez, Mississippi, that you're from?

DARA: Yes, it is, it's a perfect mix, I think, of the two worlds I've experienced in my life, the two worlds that have affected me mostly.

GROSS: You've said about your own music, "I've been put here to relieve tension..."

LAUGHTER

... which I thought was a very interesting thing to say. Tell me what you mean by that.

DARA: Well, I guess I've felt that all my life because I always felt that people had little problems, you know. Even in first grade, I felt that people were so uptight, or not comfortable with themselves or their surroundings.

And I always had a sense of humor. And I think I use my sense of humor to relax people, to relieve tension. I found that that was my job in my community, in school, in my family or whatever. Even now today I find people are very -- I don't know what word to use, but not comfortable, you know?

And being an artist and entertainer, I felt that my job was to relieve tension because, you know, when I get up on stage, a light comes on. I look out in the audience first. And I'm comfortable and they're not. And they paid to see me. And I just always wondered why.

They should be really comfortable. I should be the nervous one, you know? But I found it was the other way around. People are just not very relaxed. I don't know what -- if it has to do with the culture or has to do with human nature or whatever. The human being is very tense, very aggressive, and can be very scary. So I felt the way to help myself get through this maze of uptightness is to have a sense of humor and to be a stress reliever myself.

You don't have to go to the pharmacy to get me. I'm right here in the flesh.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: How did you get your name, Olu Dara?

DARA: An African priest, a Yorba (ph) priest, spoke to me one day. He said, "You know, I was dealing with shells, reading coconut shells the other night and asked my god through the shells what your name was, you know, in another life. And the shells told me that your name was Olu Dara."

And it sounded -- the name, it fit me so perfectly. This was in the '60s.

GROSS: Is this when you were in the Navy?

DARA: Right after I got out of the Navy. It means "God it good." And I accepted that name. I called my father and told him that I had accepted another name that fit my personality.

GROSS: What did your father say? I think sometimes parents would be very offended by having the family name replaced.

DARA: He just said, "Are you a communist?"

LAUGHTER

That's all he said. That's all he said, and I laughed, you know. You know, I think he thought it was a Russian name or something, you know?

LAUGHTER

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

DARA: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Olu Dara's new CD is called "In the World: From Natchez to New York." One of the tracks features his son, the popular rap performer Naz (ph). It's called "Jungle Jay."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF OLU DARA PERFORMING WITH HIS SON)

OLU DARA AND NAZ, SINGING AND RAPPING:
Jungle
I have to look out everywhere I go
I have to turn around
Watch my back
Watch my front
That's what it's all about
It's a jungle in the mind
It's a jungle when you hang where they bang
The world is so big yet so small
It's one block
Many die mentally before they reach what they wanted
I choose to get blunted
And cruise the 125th street
Music loud as hell in my Jeep
Eyes meet, people, strangers
Not thinking of danger
Amongst my people
Some I see do
But one guy stares
Maybe he thinks he knows me
Or maybe he's crazy
Killer, baller (ph), diller (ph)
Suffer (Unintelligible) he wants to show me
Well, I'm at this red
Is it me, or is he looking dead right in my face
As I pull a strap that I keep underneath the seat just in time
I was able to fled the scene
And leave him standing there
With his hands in the air
See, my life is green...

GROSS: Coming up, family secrets. This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Olu Dara
High: Musician, singer, composer Olu Dara. After over 30 years in the business he's just released his first solo album, "Olu Dara: In the World: From Natchez to New York." During the 70s and 80s Dara played in Art Blakey's band, as well as that of advante gardist Henry Threadgill and others. His new CD blends the two worlds and the two sounds that influenced him most: his hometown of Natchez, Mississippi and New York City where he lives now.
Spec: Music Industry; Jazz; Olu Dara

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Olu Dara
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JULY 29, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 072903NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: The Secret Life of Families
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:35

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Sometimes it's healthy to keep a secret. But other times, the secret stays in your system like poison. When it comes to family secrets, it can be difficult to figure out which is which.

Family therapist Evan Imber-Black reflects on secrecy and the mixed messages our culture offers about it in her new book "The Secret Life of Families: Truth Telling, Privacy, and Reconciliation in a Tell-All Society."

She's been a family therapist for about 25 years. She's also a professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the past president of the American Family Therapy Association.

I asked her what she thinks of the school of thought that says, "Secrets are bad. And if you keep a secret, it will fester inside you. Therefore, you should just be open."

EVAN IMBER-BLACK, FAMILY THERAPIST, AUTHOR, "THE SECRET LIFE OF FAMILIES: TRUTH TELLING, PRIVACY, AND RECONCILIATION IN A TELL-ALL SOCIETY": Some secrets are bad. And I think that's part of why I did this book because I think there needs to be a careful thinking through about every secret.

Each secret is its own instance. It occurs in its own special context. And I think the view of "just blurt it out," which has become an unfortunately popular view in our culture, is extremely simplistic in terms of the complexities of every secret.

GROSS: Why not just blurt it out?

IMBER-BLACK: Well, I think if you just blurt it out, a number of things happen. One, when you do that, it's done with a lack of concern very often for the set of relationships in which a secret lives. So the popular notion that if you simply tell a secret, that's all there is to do, and that's it, and let's move on, certainly has not been my experience.

I think once a secret is opened, that's the very beginning of the work. And then, as in any fairly complex ecology when new information is released, all kinds of things begin to shift and change, and that's when the real work begins.

GROSS: You write that you've seen a lot of damage done both from extreme secrecy and from extreme openness.

IMBER-BLACK: Right. I think, you know, certain kinds of secrets indeed do fester and poison relationships over time, the kinds of secrets that when people keep them, they're using a tremendous amount of energy to keep them. It's requiring, for instance, telling lies to children or to spouses. It's taking away from a person's own sense of their own integrity.

I think those kinds of secrets you want to begin to think very carefully about how to open them. On the other hand, I think openness needs to be done in some careful kinds of ways, lest we fall into what I call in the book the "talk-show telling model" where, again, it's the "just blurt it out." It's the model that says you don't have to worry about empathic, connected relationships to open a secret. You don't have to open secrets in a careful relationship context. And that's the kind of openness that concerns me.

GROSS: How do you help your clients examine their secrets and help them decide whether it's helping them to keep the secret or hurting them?

IMBER-BLACK: Part of what we always begin to do is to look at where this particular secret lives. Who knows it? Who doesn't know it? What would be the advice of various people in the family system or the friendship network?

Who's saying, "Don't tell." Who's saying, "Open it," and so forth so that I can begin with whoever I'm working with to get a sense of what is the world in which this secret lives and breathes? Then we begin to think about what's the impact of opening it or keeping it closed? What's the impact on each person? What's the impact on each relationship? And what's the impact on the whole set of relationships in the family.

Then we might begin to look at, if a person decides they do want to open it, what would be a good time for that? One of the things I talk about in the book is telling secrets in regular time, not ritual time.

You would be amazed at the number of people go home and decide that Thanksgiving is a good time to open a secret. And then they're remembered forevermore as the person who ruined Thanksgiving in the family.

So we look at what would be a good time. We look at what might be an order of telling so that, for instance, there may be some people that it's better to tell the secret to first because they're going to be the most supportive people that you can get on your side as you move along to open the secret to who might be the most difficult person to tell.

GROSS: Do you think it's important to try to define for yourself the difference between secrecy and privacy? And if so, how do you find that line?

IMBER-BLACK: Yeah. I think private matters don't have shame attached to them the way secrets do. So that's one definition I think.

Private matters also do not harm another person or another person's ability to make decisions in a good way in their life. In other words, if I'm keeping something private, it doesn't impact what I call another person's capacity to play life with a full deck. And I think that's an important distinction to draw.

You know, for of course, hundreds of years, people invoked privacy around things like sexual abuse and physical abuse of wives and children, saying, you know, "My home is my castle. And I'm allowed to do things here. And that's private. It's my own business."

So I always want to look at, you know, is there a self-serving component here that really distinguishes this? This is not privacy. This is in fact secrecy. It's putting other people in danger. It's keeping other people from accessing good resources outside the family, as for instance with alcoholism.

On the other hand, I think we want to make sure that people certainly have privacy in their lives. And there's been some very interesting research showing that in couples, the need to have, for instance, what we might call a room of one's own, whether that's a drawer of one's own or a diary of one's own, in fact leads to greater trust in couples. If you can leave your diary out and know that your mate is not going to open it and violate, you know, your privacy, that bespeaks a very high degree of trust.

GROSS: Now let me give a complicated example that you gave in your book and ask whether this is about privacy or secrecy. A woman makes a will, leaving all of her money to her children from her first marriage and doesn't tell her new husband. Is this her private business or a troublesome secret from him? What do you think?

IMBER-BLACK: Yeah, I think it is a troublesome secret in the sense that, why for instance would she keep it from him? It's a kind of issue where this needs to get talked through in the couple. It doesn't mean her decision won't still be the same, as it often is in second marriages, to leave one's main resources to grown children.

But there's something in her keeping it that starts to tell you that all is not right in this relationship.

GROSS: My guest is Evan Imber-Black. She's been a family therapist for 25 years. Her new book is called "The Secret Life of Families: Truth Telling, Privacy, and Reconciliation in a Tell-All Society."

Let's take a short break. And then we'll talk some more about secrets.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

We're talking about secrecy and keeping secrets in the family. My guest is Evan Imber-Black. She's a family therapist and the author of the new book "The Secret Life of Families."

I think it's often very difficult for parents to figure out where to draw the line in terms of what to keep secret from their children. And again, it's the issue of privacy and secrecy. I don't think parents need to tell absolutely everything about their lives to their children.

IMBER-BLACK: That's for sure.

GROSS: What kind of advice can you, general advice, can you give to parents about that?

IMBER-BLACK: The issue I think with young children -- there are several. Does the child know the difference between in the house and out of the house? And that's where we get again into the issue of privacy. Once you tell something in the family, it may then shift from being secret to something that is private to your own family.

But many young children cannot use that distinction yet. I have a wonderful cartoon of a little girl outside at what looks like a lemonade stand selling family secrets, five cents each. And so clearly, this is a kid who hasn't figured out yet that there are some things that you keep in the family and some things that could, for instance, put the family in danger.

I certainly have worked with families where there have been HIV secrets. And the family could lose their apartment, for instance, if this were known outside the family.

So that's one thing. The second thing I think is the question: Does this secret go to the heart of this child's life? So, for instance, adoption secrets, secrets about conception, reproductive technologies and so forth, that are really about who that child is, I think need to be handled in a way that there's a sense that this -- this child has a right to this information.

And then I think we begin to get into the whole arena, of course, with adolescence and secrets. And what are some of the differences there because there we begin to get into not only what secrets may the family be keeping from the adolescent, but what secrets are the adolescent keeping -- is the adolescent keeping from the family in making those tentative first moves outside the family to be a little more independent.

GROSS: In other words, it gets the question of should parents have the right to go through their kids' drawers to see what their...

IMBER-BLACK: Exactly. Exactly.

GROSS: ... teenager or adolescent is up to.

IMBER-BLACK: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: What kind of advice do you give on that?

IMBER-BLACK: Well, you know, that's one of those things that I always wish we could start a lot earlier than age 14 or 15 because I think when parents can trust that their child, why they may be trying some things outside the house that are, you know, flirting a little bit with the edges of things that the family might not approve of, that they don't need to be so worried that the kid is going to get into really dangerous activities.

However, in a lot of families, because the communication has never been established in the first place, then adolescence becomes the full-blown episode of that. So I like to try to work on that a lot sooner.

I don't think there's a lot of advantage in snooping around because the argument then becomes more "Why were you looking?" than whatever the particular subject matter at hand might be.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Imber-Black. She's been a family therapist for 25 years. Her new book is called "The Secret Life of Families." And it's about secrets.

TV talk shows encourage people to come on and tell their secrets and that might end in reconciliation or in a big brawl. But, and you know, the audience kind of applauds boos...

IMBER-BLACK: Yes.

GROSS: ... depending on what the secret was. And people come on and say, "I had an affair a whole three years we were married," and you know, this kind of thing. And I'm wondering if you think that that's affecting the way -- how the people who see you in your therapy sessions feel about their own secrets and how they should go about telling their own secrets?

IMBER-BLACK: Well, I've certainly noticed a change over the years of the talk shows being on starting with I think a change that looked very positive to me -- and I still think was positive -- which was the initial breaking of a lot of taboos, the talking, for instance, by celebrities about their alcoholism, their bulimia, their drug addiction and so forth, very different say from when I was a kid and these kinds of things would be reported in movie magazines and, you know, the star would do whatever they could to stop the information or to sue or whatever.

But the shows shifted rather rapidly. I guess they ran out of celebrities, from celebrities to regular folk, and not only to regular folk, but primarily to working class and poorer people who come on these shows and are encouraged to -- quote -- tell secrets for the first time on national television.

Some of the shows, I've been rather amazed to see that the partner or the father or whoever it is who's hearing the secret has been told they're coming on the show for some other topic, you know, something general enough like family communication or whatever. And suddenly, they're hearing this secret for the first time in a context, as you said, with an audience cheering and booing. Then somebody called a relationship expert -- God help us -- is brought on the last five minutes to criticize or excoriate or blame or cheer. And I think it's a very poor model of telling secrets.

What I've seen in the consulting room is first the breaking of the taboos. And so people were more willing to come in and talk about some things. And that I thought was great.

But the other thing I've seen is that in my own practice, I end up doing a lot more of what I call "secret mop-up action" where people are coming in, having a thought that all you need to do is go home and blurt it out, and how come everybody's not cheering like they do on television, and then we begin to, you know, to do the hard work.

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

IMBER-BLACK: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Evan Imber-Black is a family therapist and author of "The Secret Life of Families."

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Evan Imber-Black
High: Evan Imber-Black is a family therapist who has written the new book "The Secret Life of Families: Truth Telling, privacy and reconciliation in a tell all society."She makes the distinction about what is a private matter and what is a secret. Her previous books include: "Rituals for Our Times," "Secrets in Families and Family Therapy." She is the director of program development at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City and a professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Spec: Books; Authors; The Secret Life of Families

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Secret Life of Families
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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