Susan Letzler Cole '62, Constructing a Maternal Tribute

November 30, 2007

Sue Matthew

Before her death from cancer in 1990, Alice Parson Letzler gave her daughter, Susan Letzler Cole, a gift. Cole was wrapping up Directors in Rehearsal: A Hidden World, a behind-the-scenes look at the dynamic between theater directors and actors during rehearsal sessions. She asked her mother to proofread the book draft, which captured, among other things, the familial aspect of presenting dramatic works for an audience.

"In the theater, casts become families," says Cole. "So I had been writing about families that were temporary, families that disband after each production. My mother was terminally ill and on chemotherapy, and as she finished proofing the book, she said to me, 'I hope some day you will write my story.' And it took my breath away."

The women set aside three separate occasions within a six-day period to talk, amassing a more than two-hour oral history of Alice Letzler's life. After her mother died, Cole put the tapes aside, too distraught to listen to her mother's voice. But her mother's physical absence was almost too much to endure. "For years after she died, I could not bear the silence, and so I began to write letters to her." One day a computer glitch forced her to take her machine to a repair shop to retrieve missing data; when the file containing the letters she'd written to her mother was retrieved and printed out, Cole was shocked to discover it amounted to ninety pages.

With the idea of pairing excerpts of the oral-history transcripts with selections from her letters, Cole had the foundation for what would become Missing Alice: In Search of a Mother's Voice. Serendipitously, as Cole was looking through an old filing cabinet in her brother's basement, she discovered a journal that Letzler had kept as a fourteen-year-old girl, and incorporated that earlier life perspective into the book, as well.  Cole calls Missing Alice, published earlier this year as part of the Syracuse University Press' Writing American Women series, "an experimental memoir, the autobiography of two voices."

An English professor and director of the concentration in creative writing at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut, Cole says she was inspired as an undergraduate by English professors William Blackburn, George Walton Williams and William Combs (both of whom she still corresponds with), J.A. Bryant Jr., and Helen Bevington, among others. After Duke, Cole went on to earn her master's and doctoral degrees from Harvard University. In addition to Missing Alice and Directors in Rehearsal, Cole has written The Absent One: Mourning Ritual, Tragedy, and the Performance of Ambivalence, and Playwrights in Rehearsal: The Seduction of Company.

Cole is careful to point out that Missing Alice is not intended to be the definitive account of her mother's life. "The subtitle is important and intentional," she says. "I wanted to write against the trend of authors who write biographies about their parents that claim to be the final word. We all want to know who our parents are, but full knowledge is impossible. I do recommend that people who are interested should find out as much about their parents as possible while they are still alive. But the ironic truth is that we will never fully know those whom we love most, and whom we want to know most fully."