Beryl Radin is exactly the kind of woman you’d hope would write a memoir. She has lived around the world, advocated for some of the most important causes of the last century, worked in government and academia, and won numerous awards.
In her new book, “Leaving South Dakota: A Memoir of a Jewish Feminist Academic,” Radin spans eight decades from her childhood in the Midwest to her varied career on the East Coast and beyond. Weaving together her own reflections on her life and choices, along with firsthand looks at disparate places and cultural milestones, her book is a portrait of a complex and fascinating life.
Radin, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy who lives in Northwest D.C., started the project in part to share her story with future generations of her own family. But writing it was also an exercise in introspection.
“The process of aging provided me with an opportunity to reflect on my life, pulling together bits and pieces that often seem unrelated to one another,” said Radin, who published the memoir this spring with Mascot Books.
Her story starts in Aberdeen, S.D., where she grew up in a small Jewish community. Her parents were immigrants, and she describes the home in which she grew up as unlike any others in the small city. It contributed to her sense of “living in multiple worlds,” as she writes in the book. From a young age she knew she wasn’t going to stay there for the rest of her life.
“I think it’s the combination of being an insider as well as an outsider that is most important for me,” Radin said. Her relationship to the Midwest also reflects this dual identity. “I don’t usually emphasize my origins in the Midwest. At the same time, Midwesterners are quite open and friendly — I think that’s had an impact on my style,” she said.
The book also captures Radin’s process of moving beyond her limited childhood understanding of her parents to a more complex view. As an adult she found a box of letters between her parents that offered her unique new insight into their lives together and the dynamic between them. She had long seen her mother as shy, and someone with whom she shared few qualities. But the letters showed another side — far more complex and daring, and with a similarly complicated sense of self that Radin saw in herself. It was a revelatory moment that changed the way she approached her memoir.
“I did need the jolt that I found in the box of letters and mementos from my parents to rethink my impressions of both of them,” she said. “As I have written, I really changed my views about my mother. But that took me a long time.”
In the memoir, Radin identifies many threads connecting her mother and other women in her family to her own feminism.
The author also has a complex relationship with D.C., the place she calls home and where she first landed in 1963 to work on civil rights issues. While she connected to the city, she spent much of her time away from it — in places like India, Hong Kong, Israel and Azerbaijan. Washington became a home base, however, for the self-described “citizen of the world.”
“I’ve spent quite a lot of time in both Canberra and Delhi — as national capitals, both have some of the same characteristics as Washington,” Radin said. “But at the same time there are other things that have lured me both to leave and to return … I have found that Washington is a good place for professional women — particularly single women — to be accepted both personally and professionally.”
Radin’s resume is as varied as her many addresses, with time spent with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as a Fulbright lecturer in India, as an elected member of the National Academy of Public Administration and other positions both academic and otherwise. She has written multiple books and articles, and she has received honors from the American Political Science Association, the American Society for Public Administration and others.
Reading her memoir, one gets the sense that Radin doesn’t consider her personal and professional lives to be separate, but instead tightly woven reflections of each other. Her career afforded her opportunities others could only dream of, but the experiences were so varied she never felt like she was following one direct path.
“It took me a long time to describe my interests in a way that seemed coherent to others,” she said. “Since I like to dabble in different things, that was not something that came to me naturally. I had to put together my dossier for tenure in one of the universities I’ve taught in and was confronted with a [curriculum vitae] that had lots of different items within it. I was afraid that people would think that I didn’t have a clear sense of what I wanted to do.”
By now, Radin has overcome that pressure to apply a rigid mold to her diverse experiences. As she says, “I don’t apologize for having a lot of interests these days!”