My parents subscribed to the Reader’s Digest when I was growing up, and I eagerly read every issue. One article that has stayed with me all these years was the true story of a child prodigy named Ruth Slenczynska. She made her first sensational appearance as a pianist at the age of six.
Eventually the secrets came out: she suffered years of emotional and physical abuse from her father, a driven man who desperately wanted her to be a famous (and well-paid) pianist. But her love for music sustained her, and she has spent her life playing the piano for the sheer joy of it. The teachers who lavishly praised her musicianship included Josef Hoffman and Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Her life is one of those you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up stories, and I’ve always wondered what happened as she grew older. That Reader’s Digest article dates back to 1957. Slenczynska was born in 1925. Surely all that craziness and cruelty she endured as a child eventually caught up with her, right?
Wrong. Two years ago, at the age of 90, she was still giving concerts. And so I’ve been wondering: Who is this woman?
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I’m in New York City right now for my sister’s 80th birthday. I flew in a few days early to see friends and cross some items off my NYC Bucket List. It’s a project that’s not going well because New York keeps adding new things that excite me, so the list never gets any shorter.
Thursday afternoon I headed for the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center to read Slenczynska’s autobiography, Forbidden Childhood. (No way was I going to be able to buy a secondhand copy from Amazon – the price is a whopping $175.)
It’s a powerful book, and an honest one. You get a vivid sense of her colossal talent and appetite for hard work. You also get to know her as a human being and – most important – you can learn a lot about how to tell your own life story.
What astonished me was that Slenczynska refused – over almost 300 pages – to simplify her life into the conventional story you might expect: “I was victimized” or “I have a super-human capacity for forgiveness.”
She doesn’t gloss over her talent and achievements (or her suffering as a child) and she doesn’t make excuses for her father. (He once told a young violinist to give up any idea that he might be a great musician some day. That boy grew up to be Isaac Stern.)
Slenczynska also spotlights some of her own personal and musical failings – her poor manners and clumsy social skills as a child, and her inability even as a professional musician to sight-read well enough to play with a chamber group.
I think there are several takeaways for more ordinary mortals like you and me. Don’t shy away from talking about complex people and tangled situations. Simplicity is overrated, at least when it comes to your life story. Slenczynska’s sensitive and nuanced description of her troubled family went straight to my heart.
Here’s something else that really impressed me: she differentiated between her thoughts and feelings as a child and what she experienced as she grew up. Too many autobiographies are written from one point of view, as if an eight-year-old child could think like someone who’s thirty or forty.
But there’s one thing that her book doesn’t (and couldn’t) do that I wish some musician would tackle. Slenczynska talks about the lessons she learned from some great teachers. I wish – I wish – I could understand. For example, she had a teacher who showed her that there were little openings in a musical piece where the pianist’s personality and creativity could shine through. If only she’d videotaped a lecture where she demonstrated, sitting at a piano, what that was all about!
(You, reading this – is there an insight, or experience, or skill that you can explore more deeply than anyone else has so far been able to do? Please think about putting it into words!)
I’d love to urge you to hurry to your local library to read Forbidden Childhood. Alas, you’re unlikely to lay your hands on a copy. But do think about it the next time you’re in New York!