Robin F. Schepper served at the highest levels of American politics and government for more than 30 years. She worked on four presidential campaigns and in the Clinton White House, was staff director for the Senate Democratic Technology and Communications Committee under Sen. Tom Daschle, and served in the Obama White House as the first executive director of Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity initiative, Let’s Move! She’s advised numerous nonprofits and helped draft policy reports for the Bipartisan Policy Center. She lives in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, with her husband and two sons.
SunLit: As you mention in the prologue, you’ve come a long way. What made you decide that this was the point in your life to write your memoir?
Robin Schepper: I have been writing short stories for about 20 years. I took a creative writing class after we adopted our second child because I needed some intellectual stimulation in between changing diapers. But, every time I worked on the story arc, I did not like the ending.
When I got my DNA results back from Ancestry.com and 23 and Me I realized that the person I thought was my biological father could not have been my father because the genetic make-up was not 100% German. When I was contacted by my paternal first cousin and we figured out who my dad was, I knew I finally had the final chapter of my book. I finally had the answers to my lifelong quest. I thought that sharing my journey to find him as well as navigating life on my own would be an interesting story to others.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. Did you have an overarching theme in mind before you sat down to write, or did you see it evolve as you worked on the book?
Schepper: At first, I wanted to write about my amazing mother and grandmother, but the memoir evolved when I realized that so many parts of my life were influenced because I did not know my biological father.
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The desire to know where we come from and why we are who we are is a question that so many people ask. Am I who I am because of my DNA or my upbringing? This question continues as I raise two adopted sons. How much have my husband and I influenced them and how much is just programmed in their DNA? So to answer your question, the content evolved as I wrote.
SunLit: Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? Were there moments when by recounting and putting your life into a written narrative that you discovered things about yourself that you didn’t realize in the moment?
Schepper: I have heard many memoirists share that writing about your life is a cathartic process. I discovered that writing about my trauma helped me heal and that some of the anger I had kept inside for so long evaporated.
It was like the words on the page allowed me to state my feelings and finally let them go. I also saw patterns of my behavior that I never noticed before. I learned so much and shed many tears but I feel so much stronger now that I finally put my emotions to paper.
SunLit: Your narrative includes a lot of detail, including conversations. How did you approach reconstructing and writing about events well in the past?
Schepper: I was able to write details from different ages because I still have all my journals. I started writing in journals in the second grade. As an only child, I think writing in my journal was like talking to a friend.
Reading them was sometimes cringe-worthy, but it helped me find my child-like voice to write from the perspective of a 5-year-old, 10-year-old and 15-year-old. It also reminded me of events that I had forgotten.
SunLit: In the excerpt, you describe your mother sharing stories of her travel as a Pan Am flight attendant, and the famous people she got to meet. How big of an influence were those conversations on your own future – and did you regard her experiences differently as an adult than you did as a 13-year-old girl?
Schepper: My mother was so beautiful and glamorous to me. Her stories instilled in me a desire to travel and have my own adventures. I never made the connection of my mother meeting heads of state and then me meeting heads of state years later until my editor remarked on the similarity.
As a 13-year-old, I just knew I wanted to see every continent and as an adult, I am so grateful that she set an example to be curious about the world, cultures, and people. The most important lesson she taught me — and it was reinforced by my travel — is that not everyone thinks like Americans or shares the same values. It has been very helpful for me to have a multicultural perspective and speak different languages for my career. I thank my mother for starting me on that journey.
SunLit: You mention that family secrets, and your lifelong search for truth, impacted the way you defined yourself growing up. How did that experience influence your adult life as you started your own family?
Schepper: Family secrets ate at my self-worth, and I vowed to be honest and not have secrets as a family. There are a few lines in my prologue that explain my feelings about family secrets: “I grew up surrounded by other family secrets too, and over the years, the shame of truth, and work of keeping all those secrets from the outer world, eroded my sense of self-worth, like a cancer eating away at healthy tissue. Living with secrets also meant living in a family that never behaved how I thought a family should … Eventually I realized I had no choice about the life I needed to build for myself … I would seek the truth … I would create a family where honesty and love would bind us together instead of DNA.”
“Finding My Way”
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SunLit present new excerpts from some of the best Colorado authors that not only spin engaging narratives but also illuminate who we are as a community. Read more.
As parents, My husband and I agreed to tell our adopted boys as much as we could about their past and even hired a private detective in Kazakhstan to find their birth parents. The truth is sometimes painful, but I believe it has given all of us in our family a solid foundation to build upon for the future.
SunLit: You refer in the book to DNA families and families built on values and beliefs. How has your life experience shaped your perception of what family means?
Schepper: I am so incredibly lucky to have found a man who wanted to adopt as much as I did. Family to me meant giving and receiving love as well as wanting the best for each person in our family. But my family goes beyond my nuclear one.
The friends I have known for more than half of my life would do anything for me, we care about the same issues, and they have nursed me through heartache, sickness and joy and I know if anything ever happened to me or my husband, they would take care of my children. Our shared values and beliefs make us a chosen family I plan to have for the rest of my life.
SunLit: A lot of writers have had different and sometimes difficult experiences creating their work amid a pandemic. What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
Schepper: I think there have been many major lessons in completing this book during the pandemic. I saw death from COVID because I served as the Public Information Officer for Routt County and had to write press releases when we lost treasured members of our community. Seeing how quickly COVID could take a life motivated me to share my story, especially for my boys.
I saw how anyone could be taken by the disease and I hoped that writing my story would demonstrate to my children that life is not a straight line; that family is what you create; and that I love them with all my heart.
The other things I learned were typical experiences every writer faces regardless of whether there is a pandemic. The book is about half of what I wrote. I had to edit down or take out stories that were dear to my heart but did not fit into the storyline. I had no idea how hard it would be to market and promote myself and my memoir. I have promoted elected officials, non-profits, and causes for years, but it is harder for me to promote myself. I also had no idea how long it would take from writing to actual production of the book. I have had to learn patience!
SunLit: What do you hope readers learn from reading your memoir?
Schepper: Many people ask why I wrote this memoir which recounts the shame and trauma of my youth. I tell them that I believe that if we are more open and honest about our shame and trauma, we can create healthier relationships in our lives.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Schepper: I write in two places. I have a leather-bound journal where I take notes, add quotes, or describe places I have seen. Then I write on my laptop. I like to keep my original writing and go through many drafts.
In addition to writing, I use photographs. Since New York City was a major character in my memoir, I went back to my childhood neighborhood and took photos to help me describe the buildings and streets.
In addition to writing, I must mention that hiring an editor was the best decision I ever made. My editor, Shannon O’Neill, helped me weave all my short stories into a narrative. And she was the one who recommended me to my publisher. Investing in an editor is what I would recommend to anyone who plans to publish a book.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Schepper: I have a few projects in mind. My memoir is half the size of what I originally wrote. I plan to write another memoir focusing on what it is like to raise two adopted boys from Kazakhstan.
I also have started doing research on developing a historical fiction novel about German Americans in New York City in the early 19th century, focused on the sinking of the General Slocum in 1904, when 1021 people perished.
(Robin Schepper will participate in a discussion of “Finding My Way” at 6 p.m. on July 13 at the Tattered Cover at 2526 E. Colfax Ave. in Denver. State Rep. Meghan Lukens, from Schepper’s home district including Steamboat Springs, will moderate the discussion.)