A veteran journalist with three published novels and a Stonewall Book Award, Hoffman didn’t plan to spend long on the question. Ten years later, his book is a testament to the complexities of trying to solve a murder mystery with ever-changing details. Woven into his search is the account of his own mother Susan’s memory slipping away as Alzheimer’s progressed and she became unable to assist in this intergenerational pursuit. The End of Her delves into the turn-of-the-century immigrant experience, how we seek truth in our own family histories, and the heartache of witnessing as older generations lose the art of storytelling. I interviewed Hoffman by email.
LISA WISE: You grew up hearing disturbing details of your great-grandmother’s murder in 1913. Many would have been horrified by the image of a front-porch murder and left it at that. But your surprising response to this family tale was: “I call bullshit on the drive-by sniper story.” Who taught you to question given truths and gave you permission to call bullshit on family legends?
WAYNE HOFFMAN: Growing up Jewish, I was taught to question everything. Questioning is key to Judaism; rabbis and scholars are still reopening 2,000-year-old discussions about the Bible and the Talmud on a daily basis. But as a journalist for more than 30 years, I wanted to do more than ask questions. I wanted to find answers. I was never going to find the truth by nodding along while my mother told the same unlikely story year after year. I had to call bullshit eventually. When she developed dementia, I didn’t have any more time to procrastinate.
You quickly discovered that the sniper story was, in fact, a myth. Instead, an intruder entered the house in the middle of the night and shot her while she slept. Rumors about possible perpetrators ran rampant across the Jewish immigrant community, and newspapers indulged in sensationalist whodunnit stories, with suspects ranging from a disgruntled former house worker, who had been heard shouting antisemitic slurs at Sarah, to a secret society in Russia that had sent a hit man to finish her off to her rebuffed lover back in the old country, who had vowed vengeance, even if it took a lifetime. When you began your research, were you absolutely clueless, or did you have sneaking suspicions about who was guilty of this ruthless crime?
Once I realized it was a murder, I didn’t have any clues because I had only ever heard this one story about my great-grandmother. I didn’t know a single other thing about her — I wasn’t even sure what her name really was. I was years into the research before I had a clear idea about what actually happened to her, and it was only then that I could start to theorize about who might have killed her.
Your great-grandmother made front-page news across Canada. Despite the case being probed by police and covered extensively by journalists, no one was ever charged. You explain:
Antisemitism was widely assumed — by police, journalists, and the Jews of the North End — to be part of the motive for murder. But that didn’t help to significantly narrow the list of possible suspects since, as the [Winnipeg] Tribune noted, such feelings were “more or less rampant amongst certain of the foreign element in this district.”
Were you surprised by the role that antisemitism played not only in the murder but also in the investigation?
The overwhelming majority of Jews in Winnipeg in 1913 had arrived in the past five to 10 years, fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. But many of their European neighbors also immigrated to Canada around the same time, and they lived side by side in the city’s North End. So all the animosities that haunted them in the Old World followed them to the New World. And the Canadians didn’t understand or like these newcomers either — the Jews or the non-Jews, neither of whom spoke much English.
Police and journalists had their prejudices too. They talked about the Jews being “naturally very excitable” and prone to gossip and therefore didn’t take what they said seriously. They didn’t like the non-Jewish immigrants either: one newspaper argued that a Galician — a man from what is now Poland — couldn’t have committed the murder because the crime had been cleverly planned, and Galicians were basically too dumb to plan such a cunning crime.
I wasn’t surprised to find how widespread this kind of prejudice was. But I was surprised to see what role it probably played in the murder and in the investigation.
Chief Constable Donald MacPherson called the murder “the work of a most steady hand and a heart of stone” and remarked that “not a really tangible clue was left” at the scene. Except for missing house keys. He admitted: “It is one the most difficult murders we have ever had in the history of Winnipeg, and it will have to be sifted out by a slow, steady process which will likely take a long time.” I doubt the constable could have envisioned a 110-year cold case. Did you ever imagine it would take one whole decade of your life to discover the truth about your great-grandmother’s murder?
As a journalist, I’m used to research being fast and sources being plentiful. But in this case, there were few sources, they were very hard to find, and they weren’t always reliable. I didn’t think it would take me a decade. But spending so much time meant I could keep looking for sources and going over what I’d found. And it meant I could step away from the investigation for months or even years and come back with fresh eyes — which was when the light bulbs started going off in my head.
Chief of Detectives Eli Stodgill told the Tribune: “The greatest difficulty we have to contend with is the many garbled stories which are told us by people who either knew, or think they knew the story of the woman’s life.” This sentiment weaves through several stories in your braided tale about different women in your family: your great-grandmother’s unsolved murder, your grandmother’s journey, and your mother’s devastating decline from Alzheimer’s. When did you decide to intertwine the stories of these women’s lives?
I wove the stories together in the book because they’re woven together in my mind. I spent the last decade researching my great-grandmother’s murder while I watched my mother’s decline. I can’t think of one without the other at this point. And my grandmother was the connection between those two generations: she was a small child when her mother was murdered, and then she passed on the sniper story to my mother. So it became one story about three generations of women, braided together like a challah.
In September 2013, on Yom Kippur, you got a phone call from your mom, asking: “Where’s Mom?” In that heartbreaking moment, you illustrate the profound pain of losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s. After you tried to calmly answer her very confused questions, she sounded relieved. “I knew you’d have the answers,” she said. “That’s why I called you.” I wept reading this passage. How quickly we move from sitting at the kids’ table to running the show, from being nurtured to caregiving. What’s it like becoming the one holding the answers?
At first it seems like a burden: Why do I have to learn all this history? Why do I have to be the keeper of the stories? But in the end, it’s a necessity — I have to know because there’s nobody else to answer my questions anymore. And it’s also a gift: these women were brave, interesting, funny, smart. They’re worth having stories told about them. And the person who can tell those stories is me. That’s the gift.
As you made steady progress in finding answers through your research, you brought forgotten family history to the foreground. Sadly, at the same time, your mother was slowly declining. You state that the one person you wanted to share it with was:
unable to join me in this journey of discovery. […] Not only were my mother’s memories of the past getting blurry, her ability to form any new memories or hold on to any new thoughts at all was vanishing. […] If she was losing her memory of everything that had happened in the last 50 years, I worried that meant she might soon forget about me entirely. Will my entire life vanish from her mind?
What’s it like living with the fear of being forgotten by your mom?
For a long time, it felt self-centered to worry about my own feelings when my mother was the one going through this ordeal. But at some point, yes, I realized that she’d lose me long before I lost her, and I dreaded that moment when we wouldn’t really be together in any meaningful way anymore — in conversation, in shared thoughts, in shared memories. And then that happened, sooner than I thought. She didn’t know who I was. I was just a random stranger. And suddenly I felt very alone, even when I was sitting next to her.
During your research you found a relative who had an old teapot with handwritten family notes stuffed inside, carefully passed down through the generations. It feels like you became the embodiment of that teapot, holding your precious family stories for safekeeping. Any words of wisdom — or caution — for those wanting to begin researching their own family histories?
Lots of people research their families through DNA swabs, and that’s a great way to learn very specific facts: Was my mother adopted? Are we really German? Does baldness run in my family? But if you want to learn the important things — who your ancestors really were, not just their genetic traits — you’ve got to talk to people. Find as many relatives as you possibly can, and share stories with each other. Each of them will know a little bit, and that all adds up. Plus, chances are, if you talk to a lot — I found more than 20 cousins — you’ll find what I did: the one relative who’s the self-anointed keeper of stories and photographs and family trees, who answers your questions and connects dots. There’s one in almost every family; keep looking until you find them.
Cartoonist Roz Chast’s graphic memoir about her parents’ deaths resonated with you. “Her Jewish family dynamics were familiar to me, as was her ability to turn difficult events into funny stories.” Although your book’s serious subject is heartbreaking at times, it is also filled with great humor — your mom had the best lines! Was humor your family’s coping mechanism? Is it a Jewish value to turn tragedy into comedy?
Humor is definitely a Jewish value. But humor isn’t just about the person telling funny stories; it’s also about the person hearing them. Every great comedian needs a great audience. Everyone in my family is funny in their own way, but more importantly, we’re all a good audience. And with humor being so central in my family’s life, we could find funny moments during my mother’s horrible decline. It’s been more than a decade of very depressing news; a laugh every now and then isn’t disrespectful. It’s the only way to get through it.
The book opens with a prologue about you coming out to your mother when you were a teenager and her coming to terms with having a gay son. Why is this the place you chose to start this story?
I came out in the 1980s, which was a scary time for me to come out — thanks to AIDS and anti-gay violence. But it was also a scary time for her to find out her college-age son was gay, for the same reasons. When I told my mother, it marked a turning point in our relationship: she was still my mother, and I was still her child, but after that, we started to treat each other like adults. We opened up to each other in new ways and got to know each other more deeply, more candidly. I’ve read so many stories about families being torn apart after they find out their child is gay; my family got closer. So if you want to understand why I care so much about my mother, this is the place you need to start.
You describe the Jewish custom of naming babies in memory of lost family members: “For Ashkenazi Jews, there’s a bittersweetness to being named after someone. It means you carry a piece of the deceased person’s soul, if you believe in that kind of thing. […] I don’t have any children. This tradition will end with me.” Through this book, you have carried multiple generations — and their names — into the future. Why is that important to you?
I don’t have children of my own, but I can still pass things down to the next generation — nieces, nephews, cousins. I want them to know their history, where they came from, what their family went through to get where we are today. There are tragic events, and there are funny stories; there are moments of joy and moments of despair. And at the center of it all, there are these remarkable women who deserve to be remembered — yes, for the way they died, but also for the way they lived.
Lisa J. Wise is working on an essay collection titled Incurable & Other Compliments about living fearlessly with third-generation lymphoma. Visit her website at lisajwise.com.