Adam Frankel on Family Secrets and Intergenerational Trauma

When Adam Frankel was 25 years old, he discovered something shocking: he wasn’t his father’s biological son, a secret his mother had kept from him his whole life. At the time, he was making waves as a talented speechwriter for President Obama. His debut book “The Survivors” captures his experience, and he sits down with Walter to discuss his powerful story.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now we move to an incredible personal story. When Adam Frankel was 25, he discovered something shocking — he wasn’t his father’s biological son, a secret his mother had kept from him his whole life. At the time, Frankel was making waves as a talented young speechwriter for President Obama, but the revelation upended his world and fueled a search for truth which exposed generations of family trauma. Frankel’s debut book “The Survivors” captures his experience, and he sat down with our Walter Isaacson to discuss this powerful memoir.


WALTER ISAACSON: Adam, welcome to the show.

ADAM FRANKEL, AUTHOR, THE SURVIVORS: Thank you for having me.

ISAACSON: You know I love this book. In the end, I cried, which I think you’ve now put as a blurb, but it’s a very emotional book. But it starts politically, you getting a phone call saying, hey, come be a speechwriter for Barack Obama. Who called you and how’d that happen?

FRANKEL: I’d been waiting for that call for months. That was Jon Favreau, a friend of mine from the Kerry campaign. And after John Kerry lost, Favs went to be a speechwriter for Barack Obama, I moved back to New York City. And when Barack Obama was deciding whether he’d run for president, I let Favs know I’d do anything I could to join the campaign and we exchanged some e-mails about it. And that call said, he said you know what, Gibbs gave me a little budget to hire a deputy, why don’t you move to Chicago and we’ll figure things out? And that was as formal as things got with Favs and it was good enough for me.

ISAACSON: You know, you’re the only person I can imagine who grew up as a little kid saying I want to grow up and be a presidential speechwriter.

FRANKEL: I’m the only person I know.

ISAACSON: You even ghosted Ted Sorensen’s book, who was a great speechwriter. So you really wanted this. Where were you when you got that phone call?

FRANKEL: Yes, I was walking out of a therapist’s office with my mother in lower Manhattan. Months before, she had told me that my dad is not my biological father and that this was a secret that she had kept from me and my dad and my whole family. And we had stopped speaking. I was furious. And I had stopped talking to her, which precipitated a break of some sort. And I found her in her — in our — in the apartment I had grown up in, virtually unresponsive, rocking in her chair, particularly upsetting still to think about. And didn’t know what to do. And I called my uncle, my mother’s brother, and he drove from Philly into the city, and we took her to a psychiatric emergency room. And during the months to come, we — for years to come, we had a very difficult relationship. And in those months, we barely spoke. And so, my mother at one point pleaded with me to go see a therapist with her to try and repair our relationship. And truthfully, I didn’t want to go, but I was worried about her. I love my mother, and I knew that it was her safety and her health that was on the line. And so I went with her. And we’re walking out of that therapist’s office and Favs calls and says, come up to Chicago. That call was perfect timing, because I never wanted to do something more, and I’d never wanted to be in New York City less.

ISAACSON: Tell us the back story, because it’s your mother who decides to have a child with another man and keep it secret, and you’re that child.

FRANKEL: Yes. Well, it took me many years to figure out that truth. But when I left the White House where I had essentially had an identity crisis in the White House as I started facing this, and I started asking questions. I went back to my mother. I went back to my biological father, who was a presence in my life growing up. I’d known him my whole life, but as a family friend, not as my biological father. During one lunch with Jason Black, which is the name I give to my biological father in the book, he said to me you were wanted. I said, what does that mean? He said you were a planned pregnancy. Now, bear in mind, he was married at the time and had a family. My mother was married to my dad. So, I’m thinking, what? I don’t even know what to make — I don’t know how to make sense of that. I go to my mother, and I say, Jason said that I was a planned pregnancy. Why did you want to have me? And my mom says, well, I wouldn’t say it was my idea. OK. You know, I still — even telling you this, Walter, I can’t even believe this is my life. I mean, I still have moments where I can’t believe it. And so, I went back to Jason and I said, I had just one question for him. I said why, why did you want to have me? And he kind of leaned back. We were at the Carlisle on the Upper East Side. This is the place he insisted on having our lunches. He said, well, you know, the idea of having a secret baby appealed to my sense of mystery and the erotic.

ISAACSON: And you have to go back to your mother’s parents in some ways to start unpeeling this onion.

FRANKEL: I wanted to understand my mom and how this had happened. And my mother, who struggled with depression and mental health issues all of her life. And as part of this process of trying to understand how this happened, I went back. I went back to her parents, who were holocaust survivors. My grandfather — my mother’s father — was at various Nazi concentration camps, Labor camps, ultimately ending the war at Dakkal. My mother’s mother was in the woods for much of the war with the Jewish resistance and Russian partisans with a couple of her brothers. And I grew up with this legacy. I mean, a family gathering during my childhood are just sort of immersed in the holocaust and holocaust stories. My grandparents had thick accents. And when I was a child, I go see them. Many of my grandparents’ friends were holocaust survivors. All of their relatives were holocaust — in this holocaust diaspora essentially in Connecticut. And the trauma never left them. And my grandfather, who passed away only few years ago in his 90s was an extraordinary human being. I revered the man, and —

ISAACSON: He was a watchmaker.

FRANKEL: He was a watchmaker, yes.

ISAACSON: And you went up to see him once when he’s fiddling, and he says something about, be better to your mother. And he didn’t know this story, right?

FRANKEL: That was very difficult for me and our family. I mean, the truth that my mother shared with me was something that I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone else, because my dad didn’t know. And it was almost a decade before I would talk to my dad about any of this. And as far as I was concerned, if my dad doesn’t know about this, nobody else can know. In that initial conversation where my mother had shared this information, I asked if my dad knew and she said, oh, no, it would break his heart. And I thought she was very sure she was right. And so, nobody knew. My mom’s siblings didn’t know. Her parents, her father certainly didn’t — could never know. I mean, in that conversation, I asked my mom, does Zada know, which is what I call my grandfather, and she was visibly shaken by the thought of her father finding out. But what happened was, after this revelation was made, my mother and my relationship deteriorated, and her family saw that deterioration, but they didn’t know the reason. And they saw that I didn’t want to spend time with her, but they didn’t know the reason. Even later, I did end up confiding in my mom’s siblings. But none of us told my grandfather, because you know, look, this is a man who had been separated from his family in a concentration camp. This is a man who nearly lost his entire family in the holocaust, who lost all of his friends in the holocaust, who never saw his own mother, again, after being separated from her at that concentration camp. And in his 90s, he would tear up at the mere mention of his mother. You know, what am I supposed to say to this man? He wouldn’t — so, I did — I wanted to protect my mom’s relationship with him, too. I knew that if I had shared any of this with him, I didn’t know what he would do or how he would respond. I thought he would come down very hard on my mother and their relationship was so important to my mom. And he was in his 90s and I wasn’t going to do that to her. So, he continued, even until his final years, to say, why won’t you be a better son to your mother? You’re not being a good son. And you know, as he lay in a hospital bed after a catastrophic stroke at the end, and I had a few minutes alone with him, one of the things I said to him, one of the things I said was you’re my hero, Zeda, because he is. But I also said, you know, Ellen — his daughter, my mom — she’ll be OK. We’ll take care of her. I’ll take care of her, OK? And I, you know — but it was tough. I mean, part of what was so challenging about this whole experience is the way that trauma can be passed down through the generations, the way it reverberates and strains relationships and creates all kinds of after effects that can’t be foreseen.

ISAACSON: So, you think the trauma of the holocaust is passed down and was part of your family story?

FRANKEL: I do. Look, it’s not a one to one. I don’t think that one can draw a straight line with these things, but we now know more about trauma than we’ve ever known in history. We know more about intergenerational trauma than we’ve ever known. You know, there is a woman named Rachel Yehuda, who I believe has appeared on this program.


FRANKEL: At Mount Sinai and she’s done groundbreaking research in an emerging field called epigenetics. And the epigenome is a lair of information that sits on top of the gene and it can be affected by external factors like your diet, pollution and chronic stress.

ISAACSON: And trauma.

FRANKEL: And chronic stress and trauma, exactly. And one of the things that she’s found is that children of holocaust survivors are three times more likely to display symptoms of PTSD when exposed to traumatic events than demographically similar people who are not children of holocaust survivors. She’s shown that children of women who were pregnant on 9/11 and at ground zero, near ground zero, have displayed similarly low levels of a stress hormone called cortisol, as their parents — also consistent with PTSD. So, we know that trauma can leave a genetic impact. How it’s passed down is a subject of some scrutiny and discussion and debate, but we know that. We also know through other research that the way that families respond to trauma can have impacts on the likelihood of their children developing mental health issues.

ISAACSON: What happened when you told the father who raised you this secret?

FRANKEL: So, after almost a decade, I decided that it was time. And I called him up and I said I’d like to come see you tomorrow. And he said, you know, why, what’s it about? And I said I’d rather not get into it on the phone. You know, telling your dad that you’re not his son doesn’t seem like something you do over a phone call. And he said all right, now you’re making me worried. So, but I take the train up to see him, picks me up from the train station, and I start to get choked up in the car. We get back to his house, and I just start right in. And I say, you know, do you remember me telling you, dad, many years ago, that my uncle and I took my mom to the psychiatric emergency room? He said, yes, he remembered that. I said, well, what I didn’t tell you at the time was that the reason that we had to do that was because I’d stopped speaking to her, and the reason I had stopped speaking to her was because she told me that I’m Jason Black’s biological son. And I mean, I’m bawling at this point. I can barely get the words out. And through my tears, I hear him say uh huh, uh huh, I know, I know. And I just — I couldn’t believe it. What, you know? What do you mean you know? And he said, I’ve always known it was possible. And I made a decision a long time ago, Adam, that it doesn’t matter one way or another, that you’re my son, no matter what. And I was just, you know, a puddle of tears, and gave him the biggest hug and the longest hug that I’d ever hugged anybody in my life and just held onto him close. And then he said is that all? Is that all you wanted to talk about? You know, now I know not to come to you for a blood transfusion. So he always knew how to lighten the mood. But we then talked about it. And he had had suspicions for the same reason that looking back I did that were latent. I don’t look anything like my dad. My biological father was a presence in my life. He always kind of hovered around my childhood, coming to birthday parties and such, even when my dad didn’t want him there, my mom would insist on him being there. And you know, founding our relationship on that level of honesty and truth, we’re closer now than we’ve ever been in my life.

ISAACSON: So, what was it like when you told Barack Obama?

FRANKEL: I went to Barack Obama’s personal offices about a year ago. And you know, he asked, what are you up to? And I said, oh, I’m working on this book. Whoa, what’s it about? So, I start to tell him. And I should just say, you know, I was on his staff for a number of years, and I was a staffer. He was the president. You know, the time we were spending together virtually all of it with only a small number of exceptions, it was all business. There was work to be done. We were working on major policy addresses. We were working on major speeches. That’s what our conversations were about. But this one was different. This one I shared with him all of this, and I’ve got to tell you, I was very moved by his interest, by his empathy. When I told him I was writing about intergenerational trauma, he said sounds like a real beach read.

ISAACSON: Yes, right.

FRANKEL: But I’ve got to tell you, I was very moved by it.

ISAACSON: What did your mother say to you when you said, I’m now going to write a book about it?

FRANKEL: She was very uncomfortable with this book. Her family has been very uncomfortable with this book. But she also knew how important it was to me, to my processing all of this. I think that, look, we’ve had a strained relationship. Anyone who reads the book will know that. But I do appreciate that, that she knows that she did something that caused me a lot of pain, and she felt deeply that I should do whatever I needed to do to work through that. So, we had a lot of conversations, many of which I write about in the book. I’m very intimate, personal information that is shared. And she was supportive, and she knew that I could include it. And it made her very uncomfortable, but she did support it. She never asked me not to write it.

ISAACSON: And then what happened when you sent her the galleys of the book?

FRANKEL: I waited. I waited. I mean, that was what I was dreading the whole time I was writing this book. I was dreading her reaction. I should say as context, part of the reason why I dreaded it is because of her background with mental health issues. And I have seen her spiral. I’ve seen — I’ve been scarred by that experience. You know, as I write in the book, just several years ago at a lunch in Brooklyn, she told me that she would commit suicide after she spent down her savings. I mean, I’ve heard these things from my mother. So I was deeply concerned about it. But I didn’t hear anything, so I called her up, and she said, oh, how are you doing? What’s going on? And I’m like, so, you know, have you started reading the book? Oh, yes, I finished it. Oh, OK, do you want to talk about it? No, Adam, unless you do. So, that was her initial response. She also said I’m very proud of you, which I thought was very gracious. She — subsequently, we had a long conversation where she expressed in different terms displeasure about some of what I include. So, it’s been a range. And look, I get it. And I even understand and — it is extraordinarily personal. This book is as raw and honest as I know how to be, and a lot of that is about her. And so, that’s difficult. But I think and hope that she understands that this was important not just for my healing but our healing, my relationship with her, and as a family, and also more broadly. I mean, the revelations like the one I’ve experienced people are having all the time with 23 and Me and Ancestry.com. This is an explosion of these sorts of paternity and other kinds of family revelations. I came across a term called late discovery adoptee, which are people who find out late in life that they were adopted or donor conceived and the emotional journey of that was very familiar to me. And I read their testimonials. And a lot of it felt very similar. And so, a big part of why I wrote the book was to show people that you’re not alone if you’re going through this and that there is a path. And also show people that trauma has ripple effects across the generations, that, look, in my family, it’s holocaust trauma, but there are all kinds of trauma, right? As I was talking to researchers, I talked to a professor at Harvard Medical School who writes about post-traumatic slavery syndrome and the physiological risks of African-Americans that white people don’t face in this country, due to racism and the legacy of Jim Crow and slavery. There are people who write about the soul wound in the Native American community, the legacy of the genocide as it contributes to the host of social and economic challenges in native communities. This is real. And I think that when we can kind of look at it that way and understand it and situate our own experience and our own trauma in a sort of broader historical lens, it doesn’t make it go away, but at least for me it helped me make sense of it and understand it and helped me move on. And I hope it does that for other people, too.

ISAACSON: Adam Frankel, thank you for being with us.

FRANKEL: Thank you, Walter.

About This Episode EXPAND

Nancy McEldowney and James Baker join Christiane Amanpour to analyze the Ukraine investigation and its impact. Mark Ruffalo and lawyer Rob Bilott discuss the new film “Dark Waters,” a true story of secrecy and a shocking chemical disaster. Adam Frankel tells Walter Isaacson about his debut book “The Survivors” and his discovery that he wasn’t his father’s biological son.