Ruffalo, Panjabi and O’Donnell Shine in HBO Literary Adaptation

“There has always been the tyranny of the word over the image: anything that’s written has got to be better. Most people feel it’s more genuine if you express yourself in words than pictures.”Martin Scorsese.

Works of literary fiction and nonfiction have been the source material for filmmakers since the dawn of cinema. Marty Scorsese’s lifelong dedication to the “picture business,” as he likes to call it, has certainly not precluded his ample use of narrative originally born in literary circles. If re-imagined on film in the hands of Scorsese, James Ivory and others of their caliber, the genre enriches our appreciation of great literature, the limitless potential of cinema, and our understanding of history and the human condition.

Two recent HBO literary adaptations, The Plot Against America and I Know This Much Is True, based on critically acclaimed novels by Philip Roth and Wally Lamb, respectively, tackle the daunting task of turning Roth and Lamb’s complex family period dramas into limited six-part TV series. Both adaptations feature topnotch production teams and outstanding casts. Both series explore fundamental and fearsome family challenges that merit our attention. However, while Roth’s novel worked as a riveting, six-hour attention-grabber, Lamb’s novel may have been better served within a shorter time slot.

Mark Ruffalo impressively tackles the dual roles of twin brothers Thomas and Dominick Birdsey in I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima for HBO.

Mark Ruffalo impressively tackles the dual roles of twin brothers Thomas and Dominick Birdsey in I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima for HBO.

Episode One of I Know This Much Is True debuts on HBO tonight, Sunday, May 10, 2020, 9:00 -10:00 p.m. ET/PT. Premiere Episodes 2-6 follow on successive Sundays, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT.  The Plot Against America premiered on HBO in March and April 2020.  Check listings for repeat air dates for both limited series in the days and weeks ahead. The series are also available on HBO Now, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.

Based on Wally Lamb’s New York Times Best Seller, the entire six-part TV adaptation of I Know This Much Is True was directed and written by Derek Cianfrance, who also serves with Wally Lamb and others as Executive Producer.

Five of the series’ six episodes chart an unrelentingly grim family saga played out by twin brothers damned by mental illness and the mystery surrounding their illegitimacy and their immigrant grandfather’s legacy.  I Know This Much Is True focuses on the identical twin Tempesta brothers, Thomas and Dominick, born six minutes apart on December 31, 1949 and January 1, 1950, respectively, to an unwed Italian-American mother in a fictional small town in Connecticut. Their newsworthy birth dates, straddling “the first and second halves of the 20th century,” held the promise of great things, but instead jump-started a lifetime of roadblocks facing firstborn Thomas, as he crumbles from emotionally challenged child to paranoid schizophrenic adult, and his brother and self-described caretaker, Dominick.

Social worker Lisa Sheffer (Rosie O'Donnell) is determined to help Dominick Birdsey (Mark Ruffalo) save his brother from incarceration in I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima for HBO.

Social worker Lisa Sheffer (Rosie O’Donnell) is determined to help Dominick Birdsey (Mark Ruffalo) save his brother from incarceration in I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima for HBO.

Their story is told from Dominick’s point of view. His life has been upended at every turn as he struggles to defend and protect his brother at school, at home against their domineering stepdad, at college, and as they enter middle age.

As Thomas unravels, Dominick’s attempts to remedy the fallout from his brother’s shocking instability backfire and lead them both down a painful path of no return.  Consumed by rage, bitterness and self-blame, Dominick treads on shaky ground as he continues to mourn the death of his daughter and breakup of his marriage to the love of his life. Hovering over all of this Sturm und Drang is the mystery of the  twins’ biological father, a man who their beloved mother refuses to identify, even on her deathbed.

Writer/director Derek Cianfrance weaves as many expository threads from the original 912-page novel as he can into this six-hour series.  Needless to say, this is a rocky road to travel.  Aside from  flashbacks highlighting pivotal, politically timelined incidents in the boys’ 1950’s childhood and 1960’s college years, Cianfrance jumps even further back into the family’s past to explore the detritus left behind by their arrogant Sicilian grandfather.

Dr. Patel (Archie Panjabi) attempts a last ditch effort to repair the Birdsey brothers' emotional scars in I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima for HBO.

Dr. Patel (Archie Panjabi) attempts a last ditch effort to repair the Birdsey brothers’ emotional scars in I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima for HBO.

This series certainly won’t lift your sagging spirits during the pandemic and could stand some fine-tuning; but the outstanding performances by its notable cast are well worth your time and commitment.  Mark Ruffalo is extraordinary in the dual lead roles of identical twin brothers Dominick and Thomas Tempesta Birdsey.  Rosie O’Donnell and Archie Panjabi are refreshingly empathetic and catalytic as the brothers’ social worker and psychiatrist, respectively.  And Kathryn Hahn shines as Dominick’s subdued, tender hearted ex-wife Dessa. Also memorable is John Procaccino as the brothers’ stepfather, Ray Birdsey, whose brutish parenting skills soften with age and infirmity to reveal his surprising devotion and deep affection for his stepsons.

I Know This Much Is True will not make you smile or inspire you to do cartwheels on your front lawn. But it should make you think about your own family and its generational impact, for better or worse, on your current emotional and physical well-being. Words like communication, secrets and, above all, love, hope and forgiveness, and the complex threads that bind them are all important themes here if you chose to see them.

Former married couple, Dessa Constantine (Kathryn Hahn) and Dominick Birdsey (Mark Ruffalo), reestablish ties in I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima for HBO.

Former married couple, Dessa Constantine (Kathryn Hahn) and Dominick Birdsey (Mark Ruffalo), reestablish ties in I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima for HBO.

Episode One of I Know This Much Is True debuts on HBO tonight, Sunday, May 10, 2020, 9:00 -10:00 p.m. ET/PT. Premiere Episodes 2-6 follow on successive Sundays, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT.  Check listings for repeat air dates in the days and weeks ahead. The series is also available on HBO Now, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.–Judith Trojan

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Remarkable Rabbits Are Hopping on PBS Nature

Can this little fuzzball be any cuter or stressed? Snowshoe Hares are resilient denizens of snow covered North American landscapes but face determined predators. NATURE: REMARKABLE RABBITS documents an especially challenging chase in Yukon, Canada, triggered by the hare's prime nemesis, a hungry Canada lynx. Photo © Remarkable Rabbits Inc.

Can this little fuzzball be any cuter or stressed? Snowshoe Hares are resilient denizens of snow covered North American landscapes but face determined predators. NATURE: REMARKABLE RABBITS documents an especially challenging chase in Yukon, Canada, triggered by the hare’s prime nemesis, a hungry Canada lynx. Photo © Remarkable Rabbits Inc.

“I’m just a little wabbit!”Bugs Bunny.

Bugs and his fictional peeps–Peter Cottontail, White Rabbit, Roger Rabbit, and the Easter bunny–are consummate people-pleasers. Who better to spend time with while we’re sidelined or sickened by the global pandemic than these celebrated, cotton-tailed bunnies with an attitude.

If, like me, you’ve enjoyed having rabbits as pets or seasonal backyard visitors, I encourage you not to miss filmmaker Susan Fleming’s latest hour-long documentary for the PBS Nature series, Remarkable Rabbits.

Nature: Remarkable Rabbits debuts on PBS tonight, Wednesday, April 8, 2020, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for broadcast dates and times in your region and http://www.pbs.org/nature and Amazon Prime Video and the PBS Video app for streaming and PBS.org for DVD availability.)

While 60 minutes is hardly enough time to provide more than a brief introduction to these shy, prolific creatures…believe it or not, there are more than 100 types of domestic and wild rabbits and hares…the film does much to distinguish various species and zero in on their secret lives.

As with all films in the PBS Nature series, the camerawork is extraordinary. Rabbits and hares (their differences as newborns are quite distinctive) are resilient. Despite facing threats to their habitats and lives due to climate change, over-development and predators, they manage to thrive in a surprising range of disparate environments, from city parks and rural swamps to steamy deserts and snow-covered mountains.

Despite their name, Antelope Jackrabbits are hares not rabbits. Photo © Remarkable Rabbits Inc.

Despite their name, Antelope Jackrabbits are hares not rabbits. Photo © Remarkable Rabbits Inc.

They are amazing athletes and shrewd survivalists.  Against the backdrop of the Chicago skyline, we watch the midnight mating ritual of male and female Eastern Cottontails. In the Tucson, Arizona, desert, an Antelope Jackrabbit (actually a hare), weighing more than nine pounds, standing almost two-feet high and clocking speeds up to 45 m.p.h., attempts to outmaneuver a pack of Harris hawks. And an adorable Snowshoe Hare, with some surprising survivalist tricks up its sleeve, blends in with the frozen Canadian Yukon landscape to dodge the advances of a hungry lynx.

Despite their remarkable ability to reproduce, many wild rabbits face eradication, while their domestic counterparts, if accidentally or deliberately released in the wild, are in danger of overrunning residential neighborhoods. Other domesticated rabbits are bred, primped and promoted for show.

Coifed to perfection, this Lionhead rabbit, a domestic breed, competed at the American Rabbit Breeders Association rabbit show in 2018. Photo © Remarkable Rabbits Inc.

Coifed to perfection, this Lionhead rabbit, a domestic breed, competed at the American Rabbit Breeders Association rabbit show in 2018. Photo © Remarkable Rabbits Inc.

We meet biologists, a paleontologist and wildlife professionals intent on breeding and returning near extinct species to their original habitats, as well as a surprising number of rabbit enthusiasts who descend upon the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA) rabbit show determined to win “Best in Breed”and the penultimate trophy for “Best in Show” for their coiffed and coddled contestants. Forty-nine breeds compete for the coveted prize of “Best in Show.”

I am one of those lucky kids, raised in the 1950’s, who received a tiny pure white, pink-eyed (Albino) rabbit one year for Easter.  Adorable little Frisky grew very big very fast, and cuddling was eventually out of the question.  She thankfully lived a long life in an elevated coup and run built in the backyard especially for her by my dad.  Today, she would be a spoiled house pet… an unheard of arrangement in those days.

Two-week-old baby Cottontail rabbits in Port Rowan, Ontario, Canada. Photo © Remarkable Rabbits Inc.

Two-week-old baby Cottontail rabbits in Port Rowan, Ontario, Canada. Photo © Remarkable Rabbits Inc.

This episode in the award-winning PBS series, NATURE, is not only a timely programmer for Easter week but also a fascinating evergreen introduction to an animal that is often taken for granted in the wild and overshadowed by cats and dogs in the home.  Written, produced and directed by Susan Fleming and executive produced by Fred Kaufman, the documentary is a Production of Remarkable Rabbits Inc. in association with THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Terra Mater Factual Studios for WNET.

Nature: Remarkable Rabbits debuts on PBS tonight, Wednesday, April 8, 2020, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for broadcast times and dates in your region and http://www.pbs.org/nature and Amazon Prime Video and the PBS Video app for streaming and PBS.org for DVD availability.) –Judith Trojan

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Fauci, Cuomo and Feel-Good Media Help Us Heal

New York State Governor ANDREW M. CUOMO’s daily COVID-19 status reports reassure American citizens in the New York metro area and beyond with hard facts, reality checks and, above all, empathy.

“America is America because we overcome adversity and challenges. It is what makes us great.”Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Let’s face it. This may not be the most opportune time to catch up on documentaries and feature films about killer viruses, natural disasters and alien invasions.  The COVID-19 (Novel Coronavirus) pandemic has become the world’s worst nightmare in real time.  And now, as the virus spreads across America, the ramifications are frightening because we’re late to the game and medically unprepared for the numbers of critically ill Americans who may need care.

As news reports of the devastation ravaging Italy and the rest of Europe reach our shores, we can’t afford to look away. At the end of this piece, I do recommend a number of “feel-good” films and TV programs to watch during our national quarantine that may help lift your spirits.  But first, I need to applaud two men who have grabbed the national media spotlight in a good way during this crisis.

Never, in recent memory, has the adage “Knowledge is Power” been more important.  And for that to work, we look to our leaders in government and the medical community to do everything in their power to stem the tide of this scourge and protect and support those in the trenches whose job it is to heal us. Our leaders, if they are capable of exhibiting real leadership, must also clearly, accurately and on a daily basis communicate to American citizens the facts…updated statistics, medical directives and lifestyle restrictions…impacting us, as a nation and our local communities.

Knowledge is power, and when responsibly communicated by leaders via the media, it is balm for fears fanned by unfounded rumors, hunches and fake news spread by irresponsible hotheads, hucksters, and foreign operatives on Facebook and Twitter.

Knowledge gives us a feeling of security in the midst of chaos. We can breathe a bit easier knowing that our leaders care and are nonpartisan problem solvers who are doing what they were elected, educated and hired to do…serve their constituency and their patients.

We can depend upon the truth, and nothing but the truth, from ANTHONY S. FAUCI, M.D. He has served as Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) under six U.S. Presidents.

Sadly, although there are no FDRs, Winston Churchills or JFKs on the national or international horizon to calm our psyches at this writing, two New York Italian Americans deserve kudoes for their outstanding daily media communiques:  Andrew M. Cuomo, the governor of New York, a State currently with the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases nationwide; and Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

No-nonsense Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of NIAID since 1984, keeps the White House press briefings on track with medical updates and best and worst case scenarios.  He doesn’t deal in hunches, partisan politics or verbal jousting. He artfully treats President Trump respectfully, as well as the journalists in the briefing room who are there, despite threats to their own well being, to accurately talk the talk and walk the walk for all Americans. If Dr. Fauci is set to appear on any talk or news show, I make sure to tune in. His boundless energy, clear thinking and articulate interviews continue round-the-clock to the point where I’m starting to worry about his own well-being.  Where would we be without Dr. Fauci manning the charge and keeping us informed?

The same goes for New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.  Never known for being a passionate, powerhouse communicator, Governor Cumo has stepped up to the plate and delivers.  His empathetic, measured delivery works wonders during daily briefings to his statewide constituents, the press and those of us in the tri-State area lucky enough to catch him midday on broadcast TV or cable.

Governor Cuomo updates all aspects of the coronavirus–testing and treatment sites and availability, medical equipment and statewide restrictions–as they relate to New Yorkers.  He seamlessly balances these daily stat reports with candid reality checks and admonitions peppered with extemporaneous personal reflections and anecdotes about his family, the “pain of isolation,” and the call for collective selflessness.  His message is universal: “We are all in this together.” He is riveting and reassuring; and despite the fact that I live in New Jersey, I will continue to watch him for as long as this nightmare unfolds.

TV programs and films featuring MISTER ROGERS or TOM HANKS (currently a coronavirus patient) are spirit boosters during this difficult time.

If my current personal Rock Stars, Anthony Fauci and Andrew Cuomo, don’t float your boat, you have many other film and TV/cable options to lift your spirits.  Looking for laughs?  Re-watch “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”; “Horrible Bosses”; “DodgeBall”; “Clueless”; “Wedding Crashers”; “There’s Something about Mary”; “Bridesmaids”; and anything produced and directed by Mel Brooks or Wes Anderson.  Catch up with NBC’s current reboot of “Will & Grace”; reruns of “The Big Bang Theory”; “I Love Lucy”; “The Office”; “Cheers” or “Frasier.” Sit back and enjoy “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons” and “Maude,” or anything else produced by Norman Lear.

Looking for feel-good films?  Revisit “It’s a Wonderful Life” or almost anything else starring Jimmy Stewart; “Big” and “Forrest Gump” or almost everything else starring Tom Hanks …or featuring his latest incarnation: Fred Rogers. Check out “Nine to Five” and “Moonstruck”; “WALL-E” and “UP”; “Norma Rae”and inspirational sports films like “Field of Dreams”; “Chariots of Fire”; and “Hoosiers.” And don’t forget animal-centric dramas, docs or animation like “March of the Penguins”; “The Lion King”; “Babe”; and absolutely anything starring Kermit the Frog!  The list is endless!

Remember time is a precious commodity!  It’s definitely time to be kind to yourself and others… and be well. –Judith Trojan 

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Remembering Mary Higgins Clark (1927-2020)

The characters in my books are resilient and resourceful. When calamity strikes, they carry on.”–Mary Higgins Clark.

America's "Queen of Suspense," novelist MARY HIGGINS CLARK (1927-2020). Photo © Bernard Vidal.

America’s “Queen of Suspense,” novelist MARY HIGGINS CLARK (1927-2020). Photo © Bernard Vidal.

There are times in our lives when we hit that proverbial fork in the road… when our feelings of self worth are shaky and we’re in need of a reminder of how incredibly blessed our lives have been.  Mary Higgins Clark’s recent passing did that for me. January 31, 2020 was a sad day for her millions of fans around the world for sure. For me, news of her death hit closer to home.

Remembering Mary and the impact she had on my life as a writer and friend also reminded me of the many other remarkable people I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with during the course of my career. Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award recipients; Newbery and Caldecott honorees; Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe, Peabody, and Christopher Award winners… super achievers, icons, legends in the publishing, film and TV industries.

In the case of Mary Higgins Clark, I not only interviewed her several times as a journalist and PR professional, but was delighted to work with her during my Corporate Communications stint at her career-long publisher, Simon & Schuster, and during my 11 years as Director of the Christopher Awards.  We also met and mingled at various charity events in Manhattan.

MARY HIGGINS CLARK with me JUDITH TROJAN, Director of the Christopher Awards, at the 54th annual Christopher Awards gala in Rockefeller Center, NYC, February 27, 2003. Photo: Paul Schneck.

MARY HIGGINS CLARK with me JUDITH TROJAN, Director of the Christopher Awards, at the 54th annual Christopher Awards gala in Rockefeller Center, NYC, February 27, 2003. Photo: Paul Schneck.

During my tenure at The Christophers, we honored Mary with a Life Achievement Award at our 54th annual Christopher Awards gala on February 27, 2003. Five years later, she graciously accepted my invitation to present a well-deserved Life Achievement Award to her friend and fellow Simon & Schuster author, historian David McCullough, at our 59th annual Christopher Awards gala on April 10, 2008. It was a spectacular evening in Rockefeller Center, made all the more memorable by Mary’s presence and her charming, heartfelt speech honoring her pal, David McCullough.

At the time of Mary Higgins Clark’s death at age 92, the perpetual #1 New York Times best-selling author had written 40 suspense novels, four short story collections, a his­torical novel, a memoir and two children’s books. She collaborated with another best-selling author, Alafair Burke, on the Under Suspicion series; and co-authored five suspense novels with her daughter, author Carol Higgins Clark.

With more than one hundred million copies of her books in print in the U.S. alone, Mary Higgins Clark consistently topped both The New York Times Best Seller Hardcover and Paperback lists simultaneously, which, needless to say, was a remarkable and singular achievement in the publishing world.

Mary Higgins Clark perusing her first book circa 1969, a biographical novel about George Washington. The book was re-issued in 2002 with a new title, "Mount Vernon Love Story." Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster.

Mary Higgins Clark perusing her first book circa 1969, a biographical novel about George Washington. The book was re-issued in 2002 with a new title, “Mount Vernon Love Story.” Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster.

But reaching that pinnacle wasn’t easy.  Not surprisingly, her protagonists were invariably feisty women who prevail in the face of unexpected adversity. Raised in the Bronx, Mary, an Irish-Catholic, lived that plotline firsthand.

Her father died suddenly when she was 10, and her husband’s untimely death in 1964 left her a young widow with five children, ranging in age from five to 13. Like her mother before her, Mary struggled to keep her family afloat. But she never lost sight of her goal to write books.

As a teenager, Mary Higgins window shopped her way past pricey Fifth Avenue department stores, fantasizing about the glamorous dresses she’d wear someday as a famous author. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Young Mary Higgins’ compulsion to write paid off handsomely. She grew up to become Mary Higgins Clark, America’s “Queen of Suspense.”

The interview with Mary Higgins Clark that I share with you below is edited and condensed from the original published in the Fall 2007 issue of Healthy Edge magazine.  We chatted by phone, she from her seaside home in Spring Lake, New Jersey, on July 24, 2007. It was a beautiful summer day that found her hard at work on her latest novel.  This was not to be our last interview; but it proved to be the most intimate, focusing less on specific career highlights that we’d covered in the past and more on the personal life experiences that strengthened her faith and shaped her life’s work.

With refreshing candor, Mary revisited a series of heart-rending family tragedies and personal challenges as a daughter, sister, wife, widow and single mother with career aspirations that would have broken the best of us.  But she was born and bred in the Bronx, afterall. This witty, street smart Irish storyteller of deep faith made it abundantly clear how and why she’d surmounted these personal setbacks… and flourished.  Despite its often dire subject matter, this remains one of the most enjoyable and inspiring interviews I’ve ever conducted.  I will never forget her and, believe it or not, how much she made me laugh on that sunny summer day in 2007.

Judith Trojan:  As a young woman, with a budding literary career, you had five school-age children and your terminally ill husband, Warren, to care for. How did you cope?

Mary Higgins Clark: Well, of course, you know what you start with. I had 14 years and nine months of a wonderful marriage. A lot of people don’t get that. For five years, we knew that Warren was dying. Every Christmas and every birthday, I was so grateful we had one more. In fact, I wrote an article, “The Five Years that Taught Me How to Live,” for Redbook magazine. I had to work because Warren had changed jobs. It was exactly the job he wanted. Before he took the new job, he said, ‘If I have a physical, I won’t get it.’ I said, ‘You can’t live as though you’re going to die. Tell them you have so much money, you don’t want to know anything about their pension plan,’ which was the biggest joke in the world.

Mary Higgins Clark at home with husband Warren and their kids in 1961. Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster.

Trojan:  His illness must have been terribly difficult for you both.

Higgins Clark: He had constant chest pains. The doctor told him ‘Get a lot of rest. Don’t run for a bus, don’t pick up the baby, don’t wrestle with the boys.’ Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. They told us he would have a major heart attack and die because all the tests showed that his arteries were almost totally clogged. That was before bypass surgery.

Trojan: Did you ever have hope for a positive outcome during that time?

Higgins Clark: Warren had said, ‘If I can last 10 years, there will be an operation.’ So, there was always that little peephole of hope. He died in 1964, and the first bypass operation was done a year later. How many lives has it saved? Warren looked healthy. He had always been a terrific athlete. He turned 45 less than two months before he died. I was 36.

Trojan:  Did heart disease run in his family?

Higgins Clark: His father had a stroke in his 50s. Warren was a heavy smoker. You couldn’t get him off it. In the end, when we got that verdict from the doctor, he said, ‘Of course, no smoking; it’s a nail in the coffin.’ I gave up smoking, but Warren couldn’t kick the habit. I told him, ‘The prescription was not that I give it up while you keep it up.’

Mary Higgins Clark sold her first suspense novel to Simon & Schuster in 1975. She remained with S&S for the rest of her life. "It marked a turning point in my career," she remembered.

Mary Higgins Clark sold her first suspense novel to Simon & Schuster in 1975. She remained with S&S for the rest of her life. “It marked a turning point in my career,” she remembered.

Trojan:  What advice would you give to moms today who find themselves widowed at a young age?

Higgins Clark: Be grateful you have your children. I wasn’t sure if I was pregnant when Warren died. I wasn’t, but I was secretly thinking I could handle six as well as I could handle five.  I remember running into a very nice man I knew in town who said, ‘You’re handling Warren’s death very well.’ I said, ‘Do I have a choice?’ When you really look at it, you do not have a choice. You have to accept what you can’t change.

Trojan:  You suffered through an inordinate number of losses in your early life—first your father, both brothers, your husband, your in-laws—one after another. The death of your husband and your mother-in-law, both on the same day, must have been devastating.

Higgins Clark: My mother-in-law loved her son so much. She knew how bad Warren was and said, ‘I don’t want to survive him.’ She was sitting by his bed. He had one of those crushing heart attacks that you hear the pain. I was downstairs and heard his ‘Agh’ all through the house. I thought the oxygen tank had exploded. I raced upstairs, and his mother was trying to hold the oxygen tube over his face. I started CPR. When she saw that he was dead, she just said, ‘Oh Warren,’ and collapsed and died. Really, they died together. Her heart simply gave out.

Trojan:  What a tragedy.

Higgins Clark: Four months later, her second son died. I thought God gave her a break that she died before she would have to see another of her sons die.  She was a very good woman, a most charitable woman.

Trojan:  During WWII, your older brother, Joseph, joined the Navy. I’m sure you and your mother feared for his life in combat, but instead he died during basic training.

Higgins Clark: It certainly was not something we expected. He got spinal meningitis and had a fever of 104 and violent headaches. They had him in sick bay for a week before they took him to the hospital. He was only 18.

Trojan:  Your younger brother, John, lost his wife and child in quick succession and then died an untimely death from a fall. How did you get through all that?

Higgins Clark: There were so many at one time that it just seemed as though there was blow after blow after blow. Of course, you have a constant sadness. You can’t lay that on other people. But a fact of life is that people die out of their time.

“Kitchen Privileges: A Memoir” by Mary Higgins Clark was published by Simon & Schuster in 2002.

Trojan:  In reading your memoir, I was intrigued by your mother. No matter what tragedy befell her, she forged ahead.

Higgins Clark: I think the great grief of her life was Joseph. The loss of my father was, of course, devastating; but there’s something about losing a child. He had been a ‘preemie,’ and she never left his side during that first year; she was so afraid he would slip away. She would have thrown herself across the tracks for any one of us, but there was something so tender about her relationship with Joseph.

Trojan:  What attributes best describe your mom?

Higgins Clark: My mother never stayed angry, even if she had a reason to be mad at someone. She always had a sense of humor. Her heart was broken, but she was never gloomy. She never said ‘Why me’ to me or my brothers. When you have faith, if someone is sick, you can storm heaven with prayers. And you take comfort that there has to be a reason for all this; there must be a bigger plan that you don’t know about.

Trojan:  Was your mom’s resilience following the sudden death of your father a model for you when your husband died?

Higgins Clark: Since I knew how much I missed my own father, I knew exactly how much my kids would miss theirs. I thought it was my job to be a mother who didn’t take the grief out on them, but also to do the best I could because I knew how much they would miss him.

Trojan:  In the 1950s and 1960s, most mothers didn’t work or have the kind of goals and drive that you had. Your husband didn’t seem to be threatened by your determination to write. He sounds like a prince!

Higgins Clark: He loved it. Warren’s attitude about it was, ‘Look, so many people try and don’t make it. Go ahead, but think of it as a hobby. Some women bowl, you write.’ When my work started selling, no one was prouder than he.

Trojan:  Throughout your career, you’ve given generously of your time to various Catholic causes and to literacy. Why literacy?

Higgins Clark: I’ve always been active in the literacy program in New York and have done a lot with former First Lady Barbara Bush. I think the biggest gift you can give someone is education, and there’s nothing more basic in education than to be able to read.

Trojan:  You were a Bronx girl, yet you’ve lived much of your adult life in New Jersey. How have your hometowns impacted your work?

Jokes about New Jersey were no laughing matter to Mary Higgins Clark. She intentionally set more than a half dozen of her best-selling suspense novels in New Jersey to shed positive light on her adopted home state. This is one of them, published by Simon & Schuster in 2018.

Higgins Clark: All my life I have had to defend the two places that I have lived–the Bronx and New Jersey. This is why I’ve written books specifically set in New Jersey, to try to get people to appreciate our state.

Trojan:  Despite all of the responsibilities you’ve shouldered as a single mother of five, you’ve never lost sight of your personal goals. You wanted to write, to travel to exotic places, to wear those gowns you admired in shop windows along Fifth Avenue. You were also determined to graduate from college. How old were you when you got your degree?

Higgins Clark: I was 48. I gave myself a prom. It was a darn good party!

Trojan:  How do you manage to maintain your energy level, especially on grueling book tours?

Higgins Clark: Travelling has gotten so obnoxious now with the security and getting there early. There are so many delays. That has made going out on tour less attractive. But it’s really a pleasure when you meet people who say they’ve read every one of your books, or who say how they were able to escape while reading one of them at a time when they were either sick or had terrible grief. I’ve had four generations stand in front of me—13, 35, 57 and 75— and great grandma says, ‘We all read your books, dear!’

Trojan:  In retrospect, what stands out most in your life beyond the losses we’ve discussed and the great success you’ve achieved through your writing?

Higgins Clark: I’ve been very blessed. I’ve been married since 1996 to John Conheeney [1929-2018].  So, God gave me a good man at the beginning and a good one at the end! After Warren’s death, I knew I was going to educate my children, that I would never depend on a man to do it, rich or poor. I worked hard to make it happen. I wanted them educated, and I wanted them to do well.

Trojan:  Some women have been known to choose a man over their kids.

Mary Higgins Clark and John J. Conheeney dancing at their wedding in 1996. They were married for 22 years when he passed away in 2018. Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster.

Mary Higgins Clark and John J. Conheeney dancing at their wedding in 1996. They were married for 22 years when he passed away in 2018. Photo courtesy Simon & Schuster.

Higgins Clark: Following Warren’s death, I just thought I would not get involved. Suppose I married a guy with a lot of money who said, ‘I want you to bake cookies, and I like four of your kids and I don’t like the fifth.’ I made a deal with God: ‘Don’t take the kids and, I promise you, I will never ever be one of those ladies who’s sleeping around, promise.’ Better the picture on the wall of a father who loved them, than somebody who might find one or the other a pain in the neck.

Trojan:  What life lessons would you most like to pass on to your children and grandchildren?

Higgins Clark: Be aware of how blessed you are. Look around at the education you’ve had, at the home you have, the friends you have, and the health you enjoy. Be grateful because so many people have nothing and some less than nothing. Someone once said, ‘If you want to be happy for a year, win the lottery. If you want to be happy for a lifetime, love what you do.’ Ω –Judith Trojan

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The Poison Squad Provides Food for Thought on American Experience

The 50-year crusade for food safety by U.S. government chemist Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley (1844-1930), leading to the creation of the FDA, is the timely focus of John Maggio's new documentary THE POISON SQUAD for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The 50-year crusade for food safety by U.S. government chemist Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley (1844-1930), leading to the creation of the FDA, is the timely focus of John Maggio’s new documentary THE POISON SQUAD for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

“One obsessive, determined person can change the world, and he did.”

If you care about the purity of the food and beverages you consume, then grab a bottle of Pepto and keep it handy as you watch The Poison Squad, the latest installment in WGBH Boston’s Award-winning American Experience series debuting on PBS tonight, Tuesday, January 28, 2020, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region and  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/ and the PBS Video app for streaming and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD availability.)

You may need to take a swig or two of the pink stuff during the first half hour of this fascinating two-hour documentary, but please stick with it.  As The Poison Squad wends its way through the back alleys of the blossoming food manufacturing industry during the last half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s often not a palatable picture. It was a period when Americans transformed from healthy agrarians into city folk chiefly dependent upon food and beverages processed cheaply and sloppily for mass consumption by powerful food manufacturers.  If our grandparents didn’t grow their own produce or raise cows and pigs, they bought what they assumed to be the same clean meat and produce packaged and sold in their local markets.

Unfortunately, there were no standards and practices in place to assure the cleanliness of food processing plants, confirm packaging claims, or question the toxicity of additives used to bring questionably fresh food and beverages, including milk for children, back to “life.” Slaughterhouses, meatpacking plants and the dairy industry were rife with unsanitary assembly lines and non-existent refrigeration.  At the top of the food chain, industrial giants like Heinz, Pillsbury, Nabisco, Coca-Cola were well-connected in Washington and seemingly untouchable.

As a result, by the late 19th century, Americans were consuming a hearty dose of garbage. The only thing “pure” about foods like honey and maple syrup, for example, was their primary ingredient: “pure corn syrup.”   Unsuspecting Americans mistakenly thought they were buying such staples as butter (beef tallow, pork fat and worse) and coffee (chicory and sawdust). Chemical additives like copper sulfate, borax, sodium benzoate and formaldehyde were used to freshen up food and beverages as they were being canned and bottled. When it wasn’t being used in food processing, formaldehyde was the go-to embalming fluid during the Civil War.  And borax was a popular cleanser and ant killer.

In 1902, Congress authorized funds for human trials of controversial food additives to determine their safety. Dr. Harvey Wiley (third from left in back row), then Chief of the Bureau of Chemistry, tested the additives on 12 young men who became known as “the Poison Squad.” Photo courtesy of the FDA.

Now the good news!  Enter Dr. Harvey W. Wiley (1844-1930) with a medical degree from Indiana University and another degree in chemistry from Harvard in hand, as well as lessons gleaned from growing up on a farm.  Armed with a passion to insure clean food and a take-no-prisoners evangelical zeal inherited from his progressive dad, Wiley kept his eyes on America’s kitchen tables from his perch as Chief of the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture.

In 1902, he embarked upon a controlled experiment with a panel of 12 young men who came to be known as “The Poison Squad,” to whom he fed food and beverages laced with chemical additives commonly used by food manufacturers of the day.

“In exchange for free food and five dollars a day, these volunteers agreed to eat only the meals served by Dr. Wiley, submit to a battery of physical examinations after each meal, and promise not to sue the federal government if they were sickened in the process.”  Yes, some got sick, but no one died.

As Wiley faced off with government officials who were in the back pockets of the food industrialists, he was supported by some fascinating allies.  Since women were the prime shoppers and cooks for their families, Wiley received a boost from powerful leaders of the women’s suffrage movement.

Teddy Roosevelt’s on again, off again support of Wiley’s cause thread throughout the film… from Roosevelt’s early stint on the battlefield through his terms as governor of New York and President of the United States.  Rough Rider Roosevelt remarked that he would rather eat his hat then the putrid canned meat served in soldiers’ rations.

Influential cookbook author Fanny Farmer and author Upton Sinclair, whose explosive novel, The Jungle (Doubleday, 1906), exposing the disgraceful conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry, were also key to Wiley’s success.

Emmy Award-winning writer/director/producer John Maggio (recently interviewed in FrontRowCenter) peppers The Poison Squad with vintage film clips and photos as well as insights from culinary historians, investigative journalists, popular cookbook author Mark Bittman, and Deborah Blum, the author of The Poison Squad (Penguin, 2018), the book on which Maggio’s film is based.

In 1906, Dr. Harvey Wiley’s crusade finally paid off, leading Congress to pass the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, the first consumer protection laws in U.S. history, paving the way for the creation of the FDA.

Despite its late 19th and early 20th century timeline, The Poison Squad is remarkably timely today.  Cancer-causing chemicals and air pollutants are returning to our environment in a big way, as the Trump administration caters favor with big business by weakening or eliminating long established bans and restrictions on their products. Lax food labelling, e.g., fish, is also a continuing area of concern.

American Experience: The Poison Squad debuts on PBS tonight, Tuesday, January 28, 2020, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET (Check local listings for air times in your region and http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/ and the PBS Video app for streaming and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD availability.)— Judith Trojan

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A Whale of a Tale Debuts on PBS Nature

PBS NATURE wildlife filmmaker Tom Mustill became obsessed with whales after a humpback whale almost breached on top of his kayak in Monterey Bay, California. Photo© Viralhog.

PBS NATURE wildlife filmmaker Tom Mustill became obsessed with whales after a humpback whale almost breached on top of his kayak in Monterey Bay, California. Photo© Viralhog.

“The mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable.”Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

If like me, you are captivated by whales and emotionally invested in their health and well-being, you will definitely not want to miss The Whale Detective, a tantalizing bit of personal whale lore recounted by wildlife filmmaker Tom Mustill.

In September 2015, a 30-ton humpback whale breached and just missed landing on Mustill and his friend Charlotte as they kayaked in Monterey Bay, California. They miraculously survived. But the traumatic close encounter haunted Mustill.  He became obsessed with the whale’s intentions.  Was the whale putting on a show? Was it a deliberate aggressive act aimed to topple the kayak and crush the kayakers?  Or did the humpback mistakenly cut its breach too close then turn away so as not to hurt them?

Tom Mustill’s personal mission to determine the motivation of “his” whale, subsequently named “Prime Suspect,”and, in the process, learn more about the species that almost killed him is played out in his latest film for the PBS Nature series, The Whale Detective.

Filmmaker Tom Mustill and fellow kayaker,Charlotte Kinloch, holding onto another whale watcher's kayak after surviving the whale breaching onto them in September 2015.  Photo© Michael Sack Sanctuary Cruises.

Filmmaker Tom Mustill and fellow kayaker,Charlotte Kinloch, holding onto another whale watcher’s kayak after surviving the whale breaching onto them in September 2015.  Photo© Michael Sack Sanctuary Cruises.

Nature: The Whale Detective debuts on PBS tonight, Wednesday, January 8, 2020, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region and http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming and DVD availability.)

Monterey Bay off the coast of California is an expansive, deep and rich whale feeding and breeding ground. It not only lures various species of these extraordinary mammals, but is a magnet for their fans:  avid whale watchers from around the globe, as well as marine biologists, behaviorists and concerned citizens who photograph, record, study, save (untangle) and examine post-mortem the showstopping whales that breach, feed and mate around and under them.

Self-described whale detective Tom Mustill interviews these locally-based whale aficionados and reviews their extensive research and close encounters, paying special attention to the photos and viral videos shot by others before, during and after his near-death confrontation with the breaching humpback in 2015.

Although Mustill’s film is just under one-hour long, it manages to highlight some fascinating work being done to study and protect various species of whales but most especially humpbacks. And in the end, it reminds us, that we, as humans, hold their fate precariously in our hands. Whale expert Dr. Joy Reidenberg underscores the importance of protecting whales from human detritus as she performs a necropsy on a young beached whale killed by a ship’s massively damaging impact.

A curious young humpback approaches cinematographer Howard Hall. Photo ©Michele Hall.

While humans are their biggest threat, somehow whales seem to know that humans are also out to help them. Filmmaker Mustill joins an elite, specially trained crew on a dangerous mission to disentangle and cut a whale free from its “captor”… a rope snagged on the sea floor.

In one viral video, we see a humpback tuck a diver under its fin to protect her from a shark and swim her to the safety of her boat. The seasoned diver recalls at one point being eye to eye with the whale and the physically painful encounter that abruptly saved her life.

Surprisingly, humpback whales have not only been documented coming to the rescue of human divers, but fellow air breathing denizens of the deep as well. Humpbacks swim in to save the day when seals, sea lions, whale calves and dolphins are being bullied or attacked by killer whales.  As seen here in video footage, killer whales can be seen making a quick exit instead of facing off against their mortal enemies, humpback whales.

In the end, Mustill uncovers some fascinating tidbits about his whale’s origins and backstory. And there is every indication that “Prime Suspect” may, in fact, have simply goofed and made a bad breach on that September day in 2015 and choreographed an immediate “auto correct” so as not to hurt the kayakers.

THE WHALE DETECTIVE aka filmmaker Tom Mustill interviews a fellow whale "near-miss" survivor. Photo ©Tim Burgess.

THE WHALE DETECTIVE aka filmmaker Tom Mustill interviews a fellow whale “near-miss” survivor. Photo ©Tim Burgess.

This episode in the award-winning PBS series, NATURE, executive produced by Fred Kaufman, is a Gripping Films production for THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC and BBC Studios in association with WNET.

Nature: The Whale Detective debuts on PBS tonight, Wednesday, January 8, 2020, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region and http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming and DVD availability.) –Judith Trojan

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Animal Reunions Tug Heartstrings on Nature Rebroadcast

Conservationist Damian Aspinall reunited with chum Kwibi after the gorilla, who was raised in Aspinall’s animal sanctuary in the UK, had been released for five years in a West African national park. Kwibi’s journey is documented in NATURE: ANIMAL REUNIONS. Photo courtesy Tigress Productions.

If you’ve ever doubted that animals are capable of forming enduring bonds with their human friends and caregivers, I urge you not to miss the rebroadcast of Animal Reunions, a 2016 episode of the PBS series, NATURE, airing tonight, Wednesday, January 1, 2020, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region and http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming and DVD availability.)  I guarantee you’ll set aside your doubts and be moved to tears during the extraordinary reunions documented in this film.

My belief in the capacity of wild and domesticated animals to feel and show love and loss, not only for their own kind but for their human counterparts, was validated 25 years ago. At that time, I was a fan of ABC-TV News 20/20, when it featured empowering think pieces, as well as fascinating reports on “the better angels” of our nation. In a concluding segment one Friday night in 1995, host Hugh Downs explored the problematic exploitation of chimpanzees in the space program and biomedical research. Both of those dubious enterprises were finally being scrutinized, even by those who were employed to implement them. As a result, retirement sanctuaries for these physically and emotionally damaged chimps were starting to spring up.

Downs zeroed in on animal rights crusader Dr. Roger Fouts, then at the helm of Central Washington University’s Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI). Fouts had pioneered communication with chimpanzees through sign language; his first pupil was a baby chimp named Washoe.  Another language studies student, Booee, was taught to sign by Dr. Fouts beginning in the late 1960s. But Booee was inexplicably sold to a medical research lab by his owner in 1982.  In the name of “science,” he was infected with, among other things, the Hepatitis-C virus.

ABC documented Dr. Fouts’ reunion, after a 16-year separation, with Booee, who was then forlorn and isolated in a small, barren lab cage. Would Booee remember his old friend and mentor and the communication they had shared?  As Fouts entered the lab and called out and signed to Booee, the chimp joyfully recognized Fouts, signed Fouts’ name and easily communicated and engaged in the games the pals used to play together. Booee reached out of his cage to kiss and touch Fouts.

When it came time to say goodbye, Fouts sadly noted Booee’s heartbreaking acceptance of his friend’s departure. The chimp continued to sign as Fouts waved and signed good-bye.  You can watch a repeat of this emotionally devastating broadcast @  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0T8ozlxqJI

I was not the only viewer that night who was overwhelmed by this gut-wrenching reunion and its disturbing implications. I immediately wrote to ABC News to find out how I could help Booee. I was not alone. The episode drew unprecedented response and was subsequently updated with a report on Booee’s status.  The moral outcry incited by this ABC News coverage led to Booee’s retirement from medical research. But because he had been infected with Hepatitis-C, Booee could not be returned to Fouts.  The chimp was released into a sanctuary in California where he could live out his life in a healthier environment.

Dr. Jane Goodall receives a spontaneous goodbye embrace from Wounda, once a traumatized orphaned chimp, now grown-up, healthy and about to be released back into the wild. From NATURE: ANIMAL REUNIONS. Photo courtesy of Tigress Productions.

It’s apparent, as witnessed in the remarkable human-animal reunions documented on PBS in Nature: Animal Reunions, that animal researchers and conservationists have made great strides in the quarter century since that ABC News 20/20 episode aired. They have ably added to our understanding of interspecies communication, respect for animal emotions and feelings, and acknowledged the positive bond that can grow between wild animals and their responsible human caregivers.

Animal Reunions recalls, in riveting fashion, more recent examples of how Great Apes, like chimpanzees and gorillas, as well as elephants and even cheetahs have formed lasting bonds with caring human beings.  The animal rights champions profiled include Dr. Jane Goodall, wild animal conservationist Damian Aspinall, chimp veterinarian Dr. Rebeca Atencia, wild animal photographer Kim Wolhuter, and elephant rehabilitator Edwin Lusichi.

The hour-long film narrated by actor Richard Thomas focuses especially on the years following the restorative rehabilitation of orphaned, traumatized and/or captive-born animals and their release back into the wild… and how they never forget and continue to cherish their human saviors.  It’s a must-see for anyone who respects the well-being of animals, wild or domesticated, and the depth of their emotional core.

Head Keeper Edwin Lusichi with once-traumatized orphan elephant Lempaute, as the pals reunite after the elephant’s reintroduction into the wild at Tsavo East National Park, Kenya. Lusichi recalls his tender relationships with elephants under his care in NATURE: ANIMAL REUNIONS. Photo courtesy Tigress Productions.

This evergreen episode in the award-winning PBS series, NATURE, executive produced by Fred Kaufman, is a Tigress Production for ITV in co-production with THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET.

Animal Reunions will be rebroadcast tonight on PBS, Wednesday, January 1, 2020, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region and  http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming and DVD availability.)  I encourage you to watch with an open heart and a box of Kleenex within easy reach! And make 2020 the year you advocate for the rights and protection of animals in the wild and the preservation of their natural habitats! –Judith Trojan

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