I met Danuta Pfeiffer last August in Portland, OR at the Willamette Writers Conference. I was volunteering in the “So You Want to Write a Memoir” salon where writers could get some refreshments and chat about their memoirs to get advice on any story problems they were having. Danuta joined in and I liked her instantly. The group of us, which included Che Guevara’s nephew, brainstormed titles with her. She mentioned that she was a former host of the 700 Club and one idea, The Black, The Blonde and The Baptist, tickled my irreverent funny bone. I’m happy she kept it as a chapter heading but as big a deal as that may seem, now that I’ve finished reading her amazing memoir I know that her tv career is only a small part of her story. She is much more than that and Chiseled:A Memoir of Identity, Duplicity, and Divine Wine is a much better title. I’m honored to call this inspirational woman my friend and look forward to reading with her on June 14 at Pfeiffer Winery.
Here’s my interview with this dynamic woman followed by my, yes, lengthy review of her book. Grab a glass of wine and read on. I promise you won’t be disappointed. And there is nothing duplicitous about that.
K3: Why did you write Chiseled? Why this book; why now?
DP: The book was never supposed to be about me. I had made a promise to my father—who told us stories of his life as a war hero, a world-class sculptor and Olympic ski medalist—that I would write his book one day. Years after he died, I discovered audio tapes he had made of his life, and began to transcribe them and write his book as promised. But circumstances in my own life led to false starts on the book, dead ends in my research and surprising discoveries. Eventually, I realized the book was about my own story blossoming under the shadow of my father’s life.
K3: How long did it take you to write Chiseled, and what was your process like?
DP: Oh brother! It took me 25 years to complete the book because the ending kept changing! Not only that, but the themes evolved over time. My greatest asset was my writers critique group—Authors of the Round Table. We met once a week for about 17 years. We were all good cooks and wine lovers, so we drank and ate our way through to completion of each of our books.
While it was a social group, certainly, we were no-nonsense when it came to critiquing and assessing each others work. We were quite disciplined and the motivation helped our process. Interestingly, all three of us quit working on our books, feeling pretty exhausted and disappointed in the agent and publishing rejections we were receiving—then, bam! All three of us published within two months of each other. Two of us are self-published and the third was published through a small, independent publisher.
K3: What are some of the book’s themes?
DP: The themes begin with the title itself. Chiseled can mean to cut close, to carve out, or to trick and deceive. The story involves the themes of faith, identity, betrayal, family secrets, redemption, forgiveness, alcoholism, single Moms, blind adoption, deception, dysfunctional families, overcoming obstacles, love and finding peace—whew!
K3: What was especially difficult about writing the book?
DP: Life is a moving target. My life was evolving and the memoir had to keep up with the changes I was going through. Even more demanding was the need to process those changes into something meaningful and constructive. There were times in my critique group when I would be reading a passage for review and I’d break down and cry halfway through, or my fellow writers would tear up. Those passages in the book told me that while difficult to write, they were honest and spot on. In other instances, I found the twists and turns and discoveries I made completely upended the earlier assumptions I had about the story. Dealing with that as an author was a challenge.
K3: Was there anything that you learned unexpectedly in the process of writing this book?
DP: I learned many things: how to be a good writer and how to persevere. I examined the forces that made me tick and the impulses that affected my father and mother. It was a very intimate experience to dig that deeply into the psyche of my family.
K3: Now that your story is out in the world, tell us a little bit about how the book is being embraced by your readers? Is the experience everything you expected?
DP: I am stunned by the response to Chiseled, Kelly. My perspective was so personal and subjective that I didn’t really have a clue how it would affect my readers until the reviews starting coming in. I think you might feel the same way with Breathe—you learn how it touches others who may be going through the same sense of loss or betrayal and discover the book is a healing agent for some. Some of my readers have said the book has empowered them as women, or given them a different way of seeing their lives. And others have couched their impressions with vague references to pain in their lives as though they have not yet learned how to talk about it, but found some encouragement between the pages of Chiseled. That feedback has surprised and honored me in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
K3: What has been the best thing that’s happened to you because you’ve published this book?
DP: I have left a legacy for my children and grandchildren—an explanation for my life. It is surprisingly gratifying. And I have come to terms with my understanding of the Divine and have been able to lay aside dogma, religion, and the deities in my life.
K3: You were a public figure and you used real names. Did you consider changing names or were there any special considerations you had to make? Have you had any response from people whose names you used?
DP: I changed many names out of respect except for a few public figures and one person, the former producer of the 700 Club who allowed me to use his real name. The response has been positive, although one public figure in my book had claimed a faulty memory for some of the scenes I have described. All in all, I tried to be fair and did not write the book to denounce or condemn anyone. This is the story of my life and not theirs and I tried to make the other characters more of a backdrop to my own story.
K3: Do you have another book in the works?
DP: I have a screenplay in mind—called Chiseled!
K3: Thank you! I, for one, look forward to eating lots of popcorn while watching that film!
Here’s my (lengthy) review of Chiseled:A Memoir of Identity, Duplicity, and Divine Wine.
“Ultimately, this is the memory of a lie.” So begins this powerful memoir by a woman I’m honored to call my friend and fellow author. “This is a story of how that lie carved a greater space for my soul.” Throughout this amazing story there are so many, many beautiful lines like that one as she weaves her life story with themes like carving, faith, family, marriage, wine, and success.
Danuta Pfeiffer’s childhood began like a fairy tale and ended in a nightmare, her father presiding over his family as both lover and monster. Of the former version of him, she writes, “he seemed so rooted to the ground that the very earth seemed to hold him up higher than the rest of us.” He was a master carver and some of her very best language derives from her observations of his work. There are so many wonderful passages to savor and I highlighted 34 notes on my Kindle. “He caressed wood like a lover, fingering the grains, reading the cambial Braille, fondling the sinews and muscles hidden in the fibers. My father was an alchemy of flesh and steel swinging his mallet, chiseling rhythmically into the wood. Long into the night my mother, brother, and I slept to the lullaby of the sculptor’s song: tapping tools and the gentle rasp of wood chips spiraling to the floor. By dawn, curled shavings rustled underfoot like crisp autumn leaves, remnants of his long night of lovemaking.”
Her father carved beautiful statues for a church he’d long abandoned. She writes, “I watched in wonder as shape emerged from the unshaped. Grotesque at first with the effort of becoming, body parts wrenched themselves from the fibers: fingers arthritic with unfinished knuckles; a coarsely hewn arm; a chin stubbing out from the grain; a rib as new as Adam gave to Eve. Before my eyes, Jesus was born next to the refrigerator.” That last is one of my very favorite lines. Ever.
But as time went by, his descent into drunken madness accelerated and he channeled his anger and frustration into both his work and his family. “His tools were both delicate and destructive. Sometimes he coiled bits of wood with an instrument as dainty as a dentist’s probe and other times he lunged at a carving with a chisel shaped like a soup can. His mallet was a rounded stump of wood concave from years of pounding, held by a rolling pin handle. I often marveled at how his biceps looked as round and hard as his mallet.” Again, she describes so wonderfully, “This was, in part, his genius. It was also his flaw. His creations seemed to claim bits and pieces of his life; their muscles flexed with his strength; their tendons tensed with his will; their faces filled with his sorrow . . . until slowly, agonizingly, bit by bit, Daddy became the man on the cross.”
As Danuta matures, she realizes, “We enjoyed much happiness on the bruised and battered back of my mother’s youth, shielding us from the scorching heat of my father’s blazing temper.” Ultimately, they had to escape. Following Danuta’s fall from the grace of her father’s eyes, which I won’t spoil by recounting here, her mother moves them from Michigan to Alaska, proving this very thing, “Though my mother was as soft as an English mist, she was stubborn as a London fog.”
Before she has her first wrinkle, she has lost sons and lovers. Of this she writes, “This ate at me like groundwater nibbling at the foundations of my emotional life, generating little landslides of failures until my losses outweighed my gains.” She glides into the 700 Club hostess seat as if by divine intervention, admitting, “My learning curve as a sidekick-cohost evangelist looked like a hockey stick. Within weeks of joining the television ministry, I stumbled into the role of an unordained surrogate pastor to millions of people who asked for my prayers, requested guidance for their lives, and wanted my interpretation of scripture. Before I learned the words to “Amazing Grace”, Christian organizations booked me for speaking engagements.”
But eventually the bloom fades from that particular rose. The political aspirations of her co-host lead to daily shows with scenes like this. Pat Robertson tells his devoted followers, “We need to pray that Congress approves a plan for a stronger military and a stronger nuclear defense. We need those weapons. It’s just got to happen.” Pat turned to us, signaling our support for big guns and bigger bombs. It was just another day proclaiming the love of Jesus on CBN.” When Roberts is exposed for dealing with African tyrants, among other things, she writes humorously, “The Second Coming of Christ would have to wait for another John the Baptist.”
Ultimately Danuta’s own faith is tried and some very big questions plague her. She asks, “As for the death of people, did they not pray hard enough for their lives? Did the Lord take them because they were termites, or nonbelievers? Or were they good solid Christians and the Lord just wanted to “take them home?” If the Lord wanted them because they were good, was being spared a punishment? Or did they die because, of all the people who were saved, they lacked God’s mercy the most? I wish I had asked those questions.” These are some of my own top questions and I hope some day we’ll both get some answers. She writes, “I carried that glow even after the love dimmed. Then I carried that glow by faith. And when faith wavered, I continued my relationship with Jesus as a memory of what used to be.” She might have left the show on her own volition, but before she has the opportunity, she’s fired as quickly as she was hired.
After the 700 Club, Danuta’s life slides into a downward spiral fueled by her alcoholic husband, their failed marriage, and the loss of everything they own. At the risk of simplifying things, divorce and biking combine to save her soul. And angels. As she writes, “Sometimes, in God’s silence, there come angels. Two angels in my case and not easy to see because they came while I was clouded by despair, but they persevered.” She bikes the west coast from Vancouver Island to San Diego with one of these angels and learns to Breathe again. And she meets her soulmate, the owner of a winery in Oregon where she can fulfill this affirmation she has written, “I want happiness, passion, hope, choices, time to write my father’s book, control of my own life, peace, to be in love, a home in the country, to ride my bike, freedom from stress, to plant a garden, to make a difference with my life.”
Ever the prodigal daughter and in spite of their alienation, she carries her father’s voice in her head, “Danuta, some day you will write my story.” Her father has long since died, but she has tapes he recorded, “thirty-six reels in the same sorry shape as our relationship, corroded by time and neglect, some parts flimsy as gauze.” Here her story comes full circle, looping back to page 26 where she writes, “And so we lived, bound to a longing that was not ours and to a past we couldn’t share, imposters attending my father’s counterfeit life.” She travels to Poland where “On the table, empty vodka bottles posted the rounds to oblivion and ashtrays brimmed with half-smoked cigarettes that smoldered like forgotten days.”
There, instead of filling in the missing facts of her father’s life, she learns that his stories have mostly been lies. There, she learns for herself what she’d written earlier as she prepared to tell her brother that he was actually her son. “Identity is your root and your foundation. I wouldn’t know how it felt to have those securities shattered until years later, when it happened to me, when I would lose my own identity. Only then would I understand how precariously we walk the tightrope of trust—a thin wire of confidence. Balance is an art form that requires sure footing and focus, maturity, flexibility, and an ability to waiver without falling. These things I would learn when my time came.” It is at this point in the story that her time has, indeed, come.
In spite of my lack of brevity in this review, there is so much more to this story than what I’ve recounted. More plot points. More characters. More beautiful imagery. Danuta Pfeiffer is a skilled writer and story teller. But art imitates life, so more than that she is an amazing woman who has led a fascinating life. I’ll leave you with this final thought and hope that you will have your own experience of her words, discovering for yourself where this last sentence leads. “Like my father, I shied away from God, losing my faith to sorrow and neglect, allowing it to ebb away one small grace at a time. The lifeline to the God of my catechism frayed until the threads could no longer sustain the weight of my needs. When the power of the sacraments and the saints no longer sheltered me from the ravages of my young life, I looked elsewhere for my salvation.”