Maine author corrects memoir
By JERRY HARKAVY The Associated Press | November 30,2008
SCARBOROUGH, Maine — It has the makings of an author's worst nightmare: Writing a critically acclaimed memoir about one's mother only to learn soon after it's published that the account of the pivotal episode on which the story turns had a critical omission.
That, according to Don J. Snyder, is what happened to him after he wrote "Of Time and Memory," a tale rooted in his 19-year-old mother's death 16 days after she gave birth to him and his twin brother in a small Pennsylvania town in 1950.
Haunted by his erroneous account, Snyder wants to set the record straight and is turning to film to do so. He has put more than five years of work into a screenplay for a movie adaptation that he says could break new ground in understanding the conflicting emotions surrounding today's abortion debate, much as the 1979 movie "Kramer vs. Kramer" compelled audiences to look at divorce in a new way.
Snyder, 58, is the author of five novels, including "Fallen Angel," for which he wrote the screenplay for the Hallmark Hall of Fame film version. His nonfiction works include "The Cliff Walk," a memoir of self-discovery after his loss of his college teaching job, and "A Soldier's Disgrace," the account of efforts by a former prisoner of war in Korea and his wife to clear his name.
In "Of Time and Memory," Snyder unearths a family secret that remained hidden until 1998 when he received a wedding day photo in the mail from his father, who had suffered a brain tumor and was falling into dementia. The bride in the picture was not the mother Snyder had known, but a young woman named Peggy Schwartz, about whom he knew nothing.
Researching the past, Snyder learned that his family had erased every trace of Peggy in an attempt to keep him and his brother from going through their lives with the knowledge that they had caused her death in childbirth. He felt a sense of mission to carry her voice into the world.
Peggy had fallen victim to eclampsia, an unusual complication of pregnancy in which feedback from the fetus is toxic to the mother; only the mother or the babies can survive, and she chose to give up her life for her sons. Now, with modern-day prenatal care, that agonizing choice can be averted.
After "Of Time and Memory" was published, Snyder got a phone call from his mother's doctor, Edward Wright, the same man who denied that Peggy had been his patient when the author confronted him on his doorstep while researching Peggy's sad history.
"I read your book. You got it wrong. I could have saved your mother's life, but the family wouldn't let me," Snyder recalled Wright saying.
The author found that Wright was willing to perform an abortion. Back then, according to Snyder, the word abortion was unspoken: "It was called 'taking the baby,"' he said. But the family, particularly Peggy's father, would not hear of such a thing.
But after her sixth month of pregnancy, as Peggy's sickness grew worse, she returned to the doctor on her own. It was on a Sunday morning, when the rest of the family was in church, that the abortion was to take place. But as Wright examined her with his stethoscope, heard two hearts beating instead of one and told Peggy she was carrying twins, she told him she could not go through with the procedure.
"So all he could do then was send her home to die," Snyder said. "She stayed up every night sewing her baby clothes and she knew she would never get to dress her babies."
When asked why he didn't tell this to Snyder when he stood at the doctor's door, Wright replied that he wanted to protect Snyder's father.
"When your mother chose you over her own life, don't you know what she was really doing?' Wright asked. "She was choosing you over him, over the boy who loved her."
Snyder's father and Peggy had been married only 10 months at the time of her death. She was buried in a cemetery a few blocks from their home in Hatfield, Pa., and for the next month her husband would sleep atop her grave, bringing an army blanket with him to place on the ground.
Snyder wrote the book as a love story for his father, who remarried when his sons were 4 and never told them about the mother who died. The belated discovery of what really happened doesn't change the nature of the love story, the author said, but it reveals the truth.
It also offers a vehicle to address America's abortion debate in which the two sides seem irreconcilable. Snyder, who believes that abortion decisions should rest with the mother and her doctor, says he wants to make a film about his mother's experience that might draw the opposing sides together. He sees it as a story that takes no sides and has no villains.
Snyder, a father of four, said he wrote 3,763 pages to get the 120-page draft of the screenplay that he will take to Hollywood on Dec. 7, leaving his family at home in Maine. He wrote the final sequence of scenes this summer in Scotland, where he moved in February to be trained and to work as a golf caddie. He plans to support himself and live in a sublet apartment by working at a Los Angeles country club while he tries to get his movie made.
The book remains in print in a paperback edition, and rights to it remain with the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. Snyder isn't considering revising the book based on his new information, and in any event his editor at Knopf said the publisher would have no interest in such a project. Sales for "Of Time and Memory" were "modest," Victoria Wilson recalled.
"But it was a wonderful book," she said, and "I think it would make a great movie."