Secret Life Secret Death

My Grandmother on the grass & her sister, 1911

My dad in Chicago 1918

At the beach in Chicago 1921

 

Chicago in the 20's

 

Northern Wisconsin, 1935

Why I Made this Film 

from Producer/Director/Writer Genevieve Davis 

   Originally begun as a matter of curiosity, my investigation into my grandmother's secret life quickly became a book project, as so many people encouraged me to write about it.  I met Voyageur Magazine editor Bill Meindl at a Civil War reenactment in northern Wisconsin.  He indicated that if I wrote an article about my grandmother's story, he would publish it.  

    The research on my grandmother Minnie was so fascinating as one piece of information led to another.  Finally, I had a pieced together a horrifying matrix of her life.  I could drop the tiniest new fact, like a piece in a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, and see how it functioned in bringing about the inevitable tragedy of her existence. I saw how Minnie's love affair, initially a beautiful thing, later became a trapdoor to hell when her fiance, her parents and society rejected her, as she became a mother without the sanction of marriage.  She tried the best she could to be a good mother to her son.

    But her precarious social status, unemployable as an "unwed mother" on her own in 1914, made her ripe for entrapment into Gangland Chicago. And that set the course for the rest of her life, as she was subjected to the occupational hazards of organized crime, which including bootlegging and prostitution, resulting in psychological trauma and problems with alcohol abuse. Brothels were the only place she could make a living, at first because of the social stigma of single parenthood which rendered her unemployable anywhere else, and later as the self-perpetuating, solitary option for an alcoholic, trauma-ravaged victim of sadistic customers and industry managers. I saw how a single event, the failure of her engagement, forced her down a road she could never turn back from, and how as she continued down that road, her options diminished until there was only death waiting for her to give up.

    Additionally, I uncovered a sinister legacy, which descended from Minnie's father to her, to my father and to my generation. It was a legacy of emotional trauma, which had brought about the deaths of not only my grandmother and her father, but also my father and my younger brother. As I began to have conversations about her story with other people, I found a host of people who also had ancestors who had suffered greatly as a result of social attitudes toward sexuality. These family secrets included a baby that had been born before marriage to a friend's parents and given up for adoption, babies born outside of marriage and given away or raised as siblings to their mother, a wife who had died from an illegal aborting procedure, a widow who had lived outside of wedlock with an abusive brother-in-law in order to give her children a home, a great aunt who had disappeared from the family records after being mutilated and murdered by her brothers in a so-called "honor killing."

    Fairly early in my investigation, my grandmother's niece told me on the telephone, "You know your grandmother was kind of a black sheep.  She played fast and loose." This was the prevailing attitude in the family, that Minnie had diverged from the family because of who she was. A closer look at the situation, however, revealed that Minnie, with her sexual liaison to a man she had an understanding with that she was engaged to, behaved no differently than anyone else in her family. She had a father who had had a love affair under their mother's nose, an older brother who lived in Paris with a lady patron, while his wife and child remained in the States, an older sister had likely become pregnant before marriage and been railroaded by the family to marry a lout, and another sister who a few years after Minnie left home, lived with a Catholic man for over two decades before his wife died and they could marry.  

    It was not Minnie who was different. It was not that Minnie was a "black sheep" but rather that her family and fiance had ostracized her for exactly the same behavior they themselves had engaged in.  The family made her a "black sheep" by estranging themselves from her.  In 1914, it was very difficult for any woman to earn a living wage.  The discrimination against single mothers in the work place was universal.  Did Minnie play "fast and loose?"  Or was it that left without resources by her family and fiance, she became entrapped into criminal activity as a victim and a pawn in a highly profitable, unregulated, illegal industry controlled by underworld kings?  A kind of slavery that became self perpetuating from its inception as soon as psychological trauma set in? 

    In telling my grandmother's story, it seemed to me, we could share one family's secret in a way that might inspire other people to perhaps find healing in their own families by reevaluating what they had been told about their ancestors, with understanding, acceptance and appreciation for the suffering and sacrifices their ancestors made facing similarly impossible situations.

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