Author Diana Raab Digs into Family History

Personal Archaeology

Diana Raab

Closets have a tendency to accumulate artifacts that eventually become buried in time and dust. Sometimes these mementos of vacations, friendships, and family history are carefully organized; more often, they’re deposited in a haphazard pile whose layers represent the various periods of an unfolding life. As Santa Barbara resident Diana Raab points out in her new book, Regina’s Closet, a journal is a similarly stratified record of the eras it describes. Like digging through a pile of photo albums, reading a journal is a process of uncovering layer upon layer of history.

Thirty-five years after Raab’s grandmother, Regina, took her own life, Raab’s mother gave her Regina’s secret journal. The diary documented the early part of Regina’s life in Poland during World War I, the death of her own mother, her subsequent life as an orphan, and her emigration to Vienna and the United States. Two years after receiving Regina’s journal, Raab was diagnosed with breast cancer. As she grappled with the disease, she reread the journal of the beloved grandmother who had helped to raise her, trying to grasp the depression Regina battled and hoping to find consolation in her grandmother’s writing. She wanted to try to understand Regina’s demons so she might fight off her own. “I wondered if my grandmother’s journal could offer tips on how to cope with difficult times,” Raab explained. “During the 1960s when my grandmother was battling depression, therapy and medications were either taboo or done secretly. After reading her journal, I understood her tumultuous life, and how all the mishaps kept piling up on top of one another.”

Raab’s new book is a deftly written duet between grandmother and granddaughter. The book incorporates Regina’s words in italics and photocopies of pertinent historical documents alongside Raab’s own narrative, which fills in gaps and answers questions about Regina’s history, depression, and eventual suicide. “My grandmother’s primary joy in life was being my caretaker,” Raab said. “As I grew more independent, she saw her role diminishing, and felt there was little left to live for.”

The experiences of grandmother and granddaughter-a battle with depression and a battle with breast cancer-turned out not to be parallel; instead of equating them, Raab drew conclusions from Regina’s examples that helped her face difficult circumstances. Raab was determined not to give in to despair after her breast cancer diagnosis; after witnessing the effects of depression take hold of her mother and grandmother, she “feared depression more than death.” The discovery of Regina’s journal, and the reminders it provided, seem to have been a saving grace for Raab, guiding her forward just as her grandmother guided her during her childhood.

In fact, it was Regina who taught the young Raab to type on her old Remington typewriter, telling her, “This is a handy skill for a girl to have, plus you never know what kind of stories you’ll have to tell one day.” Now an award-winning essayist and poet with a large number of national publications, Raab teaches journal, essay, and memoir writing through UCSB Extension. Immediately after Regina’s suicide, Raab’s mother gave her a journal to help her cope with the loss, and writing in it became a passion and a habit, a way of charting a roadmap of her inner workings and the circumstantial highs and lows she encountered. “Journaling is an important expression of one’s true self,” Raab noted, “because it’s writing that originates from your central core. It is the voice of your true emotions. It is the voice of your heart.”

In Regina’s Closet, Raab uses the intensely personal style of journaling to share childhood memories and reflections on family. Her deeply moving journey through Regina’s journal becomes a discovery of a grandmother she comes to know more fully after death, and a remarkable record of her own unfolding revelations.

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Regina’s Closet is available in bookstores this month. You can learn more about the author at her Web site (dianaraab.com) or by attending her reading and signing at the downtown Borders Books (900 State St.) on Thursday, September 20, at 7 p.m. Raab will also host a panel discussion, Memoir: Where Memory Meets Imagination, at the Santa Barbara Book & Author Festival on Saturday, September 29. For more information, visit sbbookfestival.org.

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