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Monday, April 28, 2008

Public radio host appearing at Lake Geneva Library

John Halverson/The Week

Jean Feraca's voice.

Awed and knowing at the same time.

Controlled, but with a restless intelligence chomping at the bit.

Sometimes, in the midst of a sentence, she'll caress a single, hopelessly common word as though it had just arrived and she was meeting it at the station.

Feraca's voice has been familiar to public radio listeners for a quarter century, first for Conversations with Jean Feraca and now for Here on Earth, Radio Without Borders.

It sounds the same over the phone, even when she's sick, as she was when The Week interviewed her about her new book I Hear Voices, a Memoir of Love, Death, and the Radio.

"I'm lounging on the couch reading the Bible," she said--sounding melodious, as usual, and slightly amused.

Feraca seems comfortable switching roles, answering instead of asking. She respectively ponders, even savors, questions. You can feel the unseen listener in the pauses.

Feraca is also comfortable as a writer--she's been writing all her life.

Both her verbal and written voices will be present at the Lake Geneva Library Monday night where Feraca will be discussing her writing and signing I Hear Voices, which, a press release says, "pulls back the curtain on her private life, revealing unforgettable portraits of the characters in her brawling Italian-American family; Jenny, the grandmother, the devil woman who threw Casey Stengel down an excavation pit; Dolly, the mother, a cross between Long John Silver and the Wife of Bath ... her story moves far afield; a sojourn in a Benedictine monastary, a courtship through the California wine country ... an expedition in the Peruvian Amazon ..."

Author and fellow Madisonian Jacquelyn Mitchard once wrote:

"Behind every lighted window you see as you walk through a neighborhood at night is a whole, fully formed drama of pity, passion, terror, elation, hope, abandonment, discovery, contentment. I think readers ... want to identify with someone like themselves, who has the same dreams, fears, ambitions, losses."

Those words would have been an apt discription of Feraca's book.

Voices was not the book Feraca intended to write. It was intended to be about her radio experiences, but the voice that eventually took over channeled her life instead.

She explores her formative years when she decided that she would not follow the likes of Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath, who sought creativity through pain.

"I promised myself that I would not feed my own self-destructive tendencies for the sake of my poems ... as much as I wanted my poems to ring true, even more, I wanted my life to ring true."

Epiphanies sometimes came to her when least expected. In the midst of a bad marriage with her son sick in a foreign land she wrote: "I shall live out my life rejoicing. There is no reason for this joy, knifing through me like a canyon. There is nothing in this landscape that defines me."

She writes about her troubled brother--who like Jean and many in her family seems equal part provocateur, sensualist and seeker.

She writes fervently about her mother.

"My mother was a monster who lived well into her nineties. Toward the end of her life, much to my surprise, I grew to love her."

When her mother's dementia took hold, Jean's perspective changed as they slid together down that strange rabbit hole.

"Call it an essence, or a soul. Something had come to occupy the place of what had been my mother's personality."

Feraca is honest enough to tell the forbidden truth, recall those moments when frustrations and fears make people think the unthinkable. Once, drained by her mother's needs, Feraca found herself pushing her wheelchair past Lake Mendota.

"...past the scudding sailboats and the bobbing ducks, past the dogs with their wet underbellies flopped in the shade and their tongues hanging out, past the coeds lounging on the terrace, past the ice-cream cones licked by children who had their whole lives ribboning out before them, I felt that we were the only dark blot on this otherwise sunny scene. I caught myself imagining what might happen if the brakes slipped, and I lost control and the wheelchair rolled out to the end of the pier, and my mother fell in."

The scene ends with imagined misdeeds giving way to humor and catharsis.

"Could you have written the book had your mother and brother been alive?" Feraca was asked.

"No," she said instantaneously. "When the book came out I had a strange reaction."

Feraca felt she had betrayed them. She fled to a retreat where it took a nun's encouraging words to allow Feraca to accept, even revel, in the book's sometimes grisly truths.

So how does a radio talk show host separate her own life traumas from life on the air?

"Sometimes I'd turn off the microphone and scream," she said. "But having that microphone in front of you is a real governor ... it teaches you how to listen carefully and displace yourself."

Early in the book, Feraca quotes Rumi: "Your real country is where you're headed, not where you are."

By the book's end, Feraca had found a soft and true landing place. After two failed marriages, she worked up the nerve to fall in love and eventually marry again. This time it was with a man who was her opposite in many ways.

"He likes clean lines. I like rococo clutter."

Ultimately, he challenged her with two questions: "Are you capable of happiness? Can you bear loads and loads and loads of unconditional love?"

She had to think about it, she admits.

"I checked the box marked Yes."

Feraca's happy ending is still happy, she says.

Her book gives testament to the promise that we can reframe pain and exalt in the occasional lightning strike of providence.



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