Susan Silverman On Anxiety, Adoption And Making A Family In An Uncertain World In Casting Lots, the rabbi and mother of five explains how Judaism helped her come to terms with her anxiety. She says she and her sister, comic Sarah Silverman, are "two sides of the same coin."
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Susan Silverman On Anxiety, Adoption And Making A Family In An Uncertain World

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Susan Silverman On Anxiety, Adoption And Making A Family In An Uncertain World

Susan Silverman On Anxiety, Adoption And Making A Family In An Uncertain World

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Maybe you've heard the irreverent comic Sarah Silverman mention that one of her older sisters is a rabbi who lives in Israel. People are usually surprised to hear that. That sister, Susan Silverman, is my guest. She's written a new memoir called "Casting Lots" about the family she grew up in and the family she created. When she was young, her infant brother died in his crib. She writes (reading) the shape of my life formed itself around ragged fears of death. It demanded vigilance. She now has five children - three birth daughters and two sons she and her husband adopted from Ethiopia. She considers adoption her mission, and she started an organization called SecondNurture to promote a culture of adoption and give homes and families to children who have none. She's also on the board of the group Women Of The Wall, whose mission is allow women to wear prayer shawls, pray out loud and read from the Torah at the Western Wall, which is also known as the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Susan Silverman, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, since your sister Sarah has been on the show several times, I have to start by asking you did having Sarah as a younger sister contribute to you wanting to have five children of your own?

SUSAN SILVERMAN: You know, it's funny because for the first few years of being a parent and even occasionally until today, I call my oldest daughter Sarah...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SILVERMAN: ...Because she was my baby. We're seven years apart. And to this day, I'll sometimes look at Eliza (ph), our oldest, and say Sarah - - Eliza, you know? Yeah, I think it did because she was just delicious, delicious little one.

GROSS: (Laughter) So we can't talk about your mission in life - adoption - without talking about your infant brother who died 'cause I'm sure there's a profound connection there someplace. So the story is when you were I think 2 years old and your brother Jeffrey was an infant, your parents went on a cruise. And that's a complicated story. Your mother was a contestant on the game show "Concentration." And she won all of these things, which I think they sold because they needed the money. Your parents sold them, but they kept the cruise. The cruise was about to expire, so they had to use it or lose it. And Jeffrey was an infant but, you know, two sets of grandparents, one of the maternal grandparents took you. The paternal grandparents took Jeffrey, the infant, while your parents went on the cruise. Why don't you describe what happened?

SILVERMAN: So they returned from the cruise, and they arrived in New York. And they were going to spend the weekend at the World's Fair. And before they sort of went off to, you know, the various World Fair activities, they called in and - just to check on the kids. And my grandfather's best friend answered and said Donnie, Jeffrey is gone. And my father thought Jeffrey had been kidnapped, like the Lindbergh baby and said what, gone, what does that mean? And they found out that the fluke accident in the crib - the crib had broken and had killed him.

GROSS: It strangled him.

SILVERMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: So you were 2. What was your understanding of what had happened?

SILVERMAN: I don't remember it. I - you know, it took me many years to understand that there was even any significance to that in my life because I thought I was 2, he was an infant. I didn't know him. I don't remember it. And it wasn't until, you know, being in therapy after college that the therapist - I didn't even mention it to her, seeing her for, like, two years or three years. And finally, when it came up, she said wait, what? You have all this separation anxiety of all this fear that the people you love are going to die and you didn't think to mention that you had an infant brother that died? And I was like oh, he was a baby. I was 2. And she said no, when you're that age, that kind of loss just becomes part of your DNA. It just becomes part of who you are. And as soon as she named it for me - I mean, it certainly didn't go away. You know, I mean, the phone rings and I'm sure that, you know, it's - something horrible happened to somebody, you know? My father has the same thing. We answer the phone saying is everyone OK...

(LAUGHTER)

SILVERMAN: ...Instead of hello. But a big part of that heaviness, I actually saw it, like, fly away in that office on that day. Just naming it was huge.

GROSS: Well, you mention separation anxiety. You had a really bad case of it as a child. You were afraid to let your mother out of your sight. You were afraid she was going to die. How did you - how did that kind of hyper-vigilance and fear express itself in your life?

SILVERMAN: It was a constant battle to be able to live my life without the people I loved in my sight. And the anxiety - even sometimes - even at school as a kid through - maybe not through high school but into high school, I would feel - I'd need to be able to check in need. I would need to know that everyone was OK. I was - there such anxiety the whole day. I was so distracted by the possibilities of people dying that it was hard to focus on - or just be in it. I would look at other kids who were laughing and having lunch, doing their thing, and I think how can they be so carefree? How can they not be worried right now?

GROSS: How did your mother deal with it? Because you didn't want to let her go. You didn't want to separate from her.

SILVERMAN: Oh, I cannot even imagine how she managed to, like, survive me. It would've made me crazy. I mean, she must've just been desperate for me to leave for a few hours to give her a break.

GROSS: So your parents would not entertain any thought of God, total atheists. You had made deals with God, and then you became a rabbi. I mean, you got real about it (laughter). And your parents had tried to open the door to religion after your infant brother Jeffrey died. It didn't stick for them. I mean, they weren't finding the meaning and the solace that they were looking for, so they abandoned that brief flirtation with being a practicing Jew. What walked you to the door of being a practicing Jew and then becoming a rabbi...

SILVERMAN: Right.

GROSS: ...Going all the way? (Laughter).

SILVERMAN: Well, I'm not sure that actually they even flirted with it really. They were handed stuff after his death by the rabbi. You know...

GROSS: Oh.

SILVERMAN: ...You go through the motions of having a funeral...

GROSS: Right.

SILVERMAN: ...He hands you stuff. And they sort of stood there looking at it like what are we supposed to do? I mean, there's a famous story if I backtrack a little bit. When my parents were first married, somebody gave them a mezuzah. And probably many of your listeners may have seen a mezuzah. It goes on the side of a doorpost. And Jews will kiss it when they go in and out. And inside is a scroll with a - you know, a central Jewish prayer. And so my parents opened up this gift. My mother - they were like oh, it's a mezuzah. It goes on the door. How does it go? And my mother pulls this scroll out of the mezuzah, unrolls it and says God dammit. The directions are in Hebrew.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's hilarious.

SILVERMAN: It's hilarious. So then how did I get from there to becoming a rabbi? Well, the truth is that I think there were a few strands that sort of came together. One was Yosef, who was then my boyfriend, now my husband, was living in Israel. And I wanted to find something to do for a year and lived there with him. And I thought it would be really funny if what I did was the first year of rabbinical school because that's crazy.

GROSS: You thought it would be funny?

SILVERMAN: Yeah, I thought it would be funny...

GROSS: You did it because you thought it would be funny.

SILVERMAN: I thought it would be funny. I mean, listen, I wanted to learn some Jewish stuff. I wanted to be in Israel near him. And there were lots of, like, year programs where you can study here, study there, volunteer here. And I just thought what if my first year - my year of study was actually in a rabbinical program? Like, that's crazy, but also, you can't - you know, it's not just that. Also, I had met Yosef and he was like me in a million ways - like, liberal, activist, cared about issues. But when I talked about - you know, we met in the anti-apartheid movement at BU. And when I talked about the issue, about apartheid and about divestment, I could say things like racism is bad (laughter), you know. Oppression is bad. But he had this eternal language. He would say that everyone's made tzelem elohim, in the image of God. And I thought, wow, these, like, eternal concepts that someday, if I have kids then I can teach them these eternal concepts that they can then apply as needed - right? - in their lives. It's not just racism is bad. It's that there's this essential truth that can guide them. And I sort of fell for him and fell for Judaism. But I didn't know anything, really, about it. So those things sort of came together and I thought, you know, I probably won't really finish rabbinical school, but I'll go there. I'll learn. I'll, you know - this is such a crazy idea. Why not? And it just grew on me.

GROSS: What about your fear that people who you love would die? By this time, you're an adult. You're not a child. But embracing religion and studying to be a rabbi, did that ease any of your suffering in constantly imagining the death of everybody you love?

SILVERMAN: Becoming more Jewishly (ph) engaged gave me some really meaningful metaphors and stories that I could use and, you know, replace anxieties with those - I mean, imperfectly. You know, so - you know, there's this song that I learned early on that, you know, kids who are - grow up in Jewish contexts learn, like, in kindergarten. But I learned it as an adult. And it's the whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the important thing is not to be afraid. And that was really helpful to me. And I used to joke to Yosef that, like, I wish that that was the soundtrack that played in my head growing up instead of, like, "Help Me Rhonda" or, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

SILVERMAN: ...And so these metaphors were very helpful. You know, it's about risk. It's about an uncertain world. It's about having a vision despite it all. And that was really helpful - and so was Zoloft.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But you actually joke in your book that had Zoloft been invented when you were in college, you might not have gotten married.

SILVERMAN: Right.

GROSS: (Laughter) So yeah, I get it. OK. OK, so let's continue your story. Where we left off, you had discovered that you were interested in practicing Judaism, not just being a secular Jew. You became a rabbi. You got married to your boyfriend, Yosef, who is your husband. And I should say before you were married, you were pregnant. You, the rabbinical student (laughter). Was that, like, considered a sinful thing for you?

SILVERMAN: No...

GROSS: Really?

SILVERMAN: ...Not at all.

GROSS: What branch of Judaism is this?

SILVERMAN: Reform.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SILVERMAN: Absolutely not.

GROSS: OK, so - and before you knew you were pregnant, you were saying to Yosef, like, we have to adopt. Like, let's file now before we're even married. You knew you wanted to have children. You knew you wanted to also adopt children. Why was this a calling of yours, to have - five was your goal, five children. Why was having such a, you know, relatively large family so important to you?

SILVERMAN: The Partridge family (laughter).

GROSS: Really?

SILVERMAN: I loved the Partridge family, and they had five, and that was (laughter). I...

GROSS: ...Did you want them to be a band? Wasn't the Partridge family a band?

SILVERMAN: (Laughter) They were, yeah. We - you know, our oldest is a musician, but it stops there. I - you know, when people, like - when they're - like, little girls sometimes would write, like about who they're going to marry or write, you know, like, hearts, I would write lists of kids' names. Like, that was what I was into. I always knew I wanted a big family. And I would write, like, in different order boys and girls or twins or, you know, whatever the fantasy was. I just - my whole life, that's what I wanted, was to make a family. It's - I don't know. I mean, I can imagine that my, you know, family configurations in, you know, a child dying and divorce and all of these things sort of feeling like they're falling apart could make me want to focus on what I was going to build and create. I think part of it also - and certainly in terms of adoption - was that my parents were foster parents to two different girls who were in the system. And I was older than - I could remember, you know, 6, 7, 8 and 9, around when the two girls were there at different times, and I remember thinking, how is it possible that kids don't have their own family? And that just - it was just, you know, not OK. And I thought, I want to help to change that.

GROSS: So when you decided to adopt, you wanted to do an international adoption, and you and your husband decided it would be Ethiopia. Why?

SILVERMAN: Well, we had both been active in Ethiopian Jewry, in the issue. And my husband, especially, was really, really active - had, you know, went to Ethiopia a number of times and documented stuff that was happening to Jewish communities there and was a very strong advocate of bringing Jews from Ethiopia to Israel. And so we felt just kind of a real heart connection to the place. And it was also nice for us as sort of a, you know, sort of actively engaged Jewish family that Ethiopia had its own Jewish culture and that it was very natural to kind of engage Judaism in an Ethiopian way in our home.

GROSS: So when you went to Ethiopia to get your son - who was how old?

SILVERMAN: He was 9 months. Adar was 9 months then.

GROSS: You did have this little fear that you wouldn't love him. And I think this is probably a fear that a lot of adoptive parents have on the way (laughter) to meeting their child for the first time because, you know, you're being handed a surprise whether you've seen your photos - you know, the photos of your child or not, a photo isn't a person. So would you talk a little bit about that fear that you had and how it played out?

SILVERMAN: Sure. Listen, I said to myself basically, I will definitely love him enough to be able to fake it, right? Like...

GROSS: (Laughter) That's really reassuring.

SILVERMAN: ...I relied on that, right? But it was sort of like - and, you know, I had the same fear when I was pregnant with our second daughter. How could I possibly love this new baby as much as I love Aliza? It seems impossible. And then to have that fear with adoption, with the added layer of not having the biological connection in the same way - but, you know, it was sort of nice because when I met Adar, and as the love just kind of...

GROSS: ...That's your son.

SILVERMAN: My son. And the love sort of just, like, flowed. It was nice to be able to love him in a relationship with him because I'd already had two kids, and I knew how different the love was between them. It was still, you know, endless, but it was different. And so to have a third child and have it be yet different and endless again was nice to know that oh, it's not because of adoption. It's because love between people has its own shape and form because it's a different synergy.

GROSS: You - I think it's fair to say that you had, like, a dual mission in adopting Adar. You wanted to adopt because that was your vision of your family, and you also wanted to feel like you were rescuing a child from not having a family. That was the other part of your mission. But when you were filling out the forms to adopt, you had to make some tough choices. Your first was, like, what country do you want to adopt from? So you decided Ethiopia. Then you're handed papers where you have to check off what medical conditions are you willing to accept - right? - HIV, spina bifida, cleft palate, deaf, blind. And, you know, as a potential adoptive mother, you're looking at all these conditions and you want to be feeling like you're rescuing somebody. Did you feel like this is a test of how big my heart really is? Like, what went through your mind when you had to decide what to check? And what did you check?

SILVERMAN: Right, we checked only minor conditions as being something we were willing to accept. And it's a hard thing because on one hand, you do know that all of these children need families. And on the other hand, you know, there's a limit to what you're willing to do. And I think that's true also in pregnancy, right?

GROSS: Yes, right.

SILVERMAN: And...

GROSS: ...For a lot of women and men.

SILVERMAN: Sure, yeah.

GROSS: For a lot of couples and single women, yeah.

SILVERMAN: Yeah. I mean, we got a mistaken amnio (ph) with our youngest bio, and it was clear to me that I would have terminated the pregnancy had that not turned out not to be the case. So - but here you have kids who are already there and alive. And it's true, it's a test of how big is your heart. And you have to sort of come to terms with the fact that our hearts are not just completely wide open. And so we made our decisions. I mean, come to find out later, when we adopted our second son, he was deaf.

GROSS: He was already deaf, or did...

SILVERMAN: ...He was going deaf.

GROSS: Was that a condition that developed?

SILVERMAN: He was deaf in one ear and limited hearing in the other. And sometimes I look back now and I think - what if I had known that ahead of time? And it's - you know, it brings back these old anxieties. Like, oh my God, I could never live without him. Like, it's terrifying to even imagine not having Zamir. So, you know, I'm grateful I didn't know because I don't know - what would I have done? Would I have said, who needs it? You know, there are plenty of kids.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Susan Silverman who is a Reform rabbi and is one of comic Sarah Silverman's sisters. Susan Silverman's new memoir "Casting Lots" is about the family she grew up in and the family she created. She and her husband who now live in Israel have five children. Their two sons were adopted from Ethiopia. Susan and her husband were living in the Boston area when they adopted their first son. So you bring home your son from Ethiopia. And we live in such a racially conscious and often racist country. So now you have a family of - at that time - a white husband and wife, two white daughters and an African son. So what are some of the issues you had to go through initially in having a family of two different colors? Because it's a thing in the United States, and you can't pretend like it's not.

SILVERMAN: Right. I think we were very lucky where we lived. We lived in a suburb of Boston that was just very progressive and kind of openhearted in our very liberal Jewish community that we were a part of. And he was beloved and, you know, friends of all of the other little kids and preschoolers. And, you know, we moved to Israel when he was 7, so it was before he hit teenage years. Now he's this 6-foot-1 man, you know? And even, like, I would look for racism because I was writing stuff. I needed good stories. You know, I really - it didn't sort of come to us in any way that I recognized in that moment. And maybe I was blind to it. There was one sort of incident that was funny where Adar was probably a year old. And I was pushing him in the cart in the market. And he was kind of dancing in the cart. And this woman, who was Hispanic - I don't know, it seems relevant to the story, I don't know why - said to me, I'll bet his father likes to dance (laughter). And I was like, yeah, the Hora.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. So, I'm sure you were expecting your son to be very grateful to you and your husband for rescuing him from the kind of poverty that he lived in in the orphanage in Ethiopia. As he grew - you look like you're trying to interrupt me here.

SILVERMAN: No, not just to interrupt you. I just - no, I don't think I ever expected that. He's my kid.

GROSS: But I'm thinking of the time when he says to you - because you quote this in the book, I want to be in a brown family. I don't want to be in this family. I hate this family. I'd love to know what went through your mind when he said that. And if you were expecting that at some point he would say that.

SILVERMAN: Right. Yeah, I thought at some point this could come up. And it's probably when he was 5 and 6 - maybe 4, 5 and 6 - that it was, like, sort of this vicissitudes of awareness about his color. And he would sometimes always bring it up. And it was just, like, excruciating because he was in pain, and I couldn't fix it. I just had to be in it with him.

GROSS: So what was the cause of the pain? What do you think he was experiencing?

SILVERMAN: I think he had a lot of - sort of confusion about what it meant to be in a family. He wondered. He went through a period of really, really wondering. And I think it's sort of been an undercurrent for him in a lot of his life of wondering who his birth parents were. And it's not something we will ever know, so I think that's been an undercurrent.

GROSS: Not because you don't want to, but there's no - there's no history of that.

SILVERMAN: Right. No. I tried when I was there.

GROSS: There's no evidence.

SILVERMAN: I, you know, I figured, you know, I owed it to him to try to find out anything I could. And it wasn't available. So I just - I felt a lot of pain, and you know, and I feel worry like, well, can I be enough for him? And, you know, you sort of realize that everyone has their struggles. And, you know, maybe for adopted kids they have their struggles plus adoption or maybe it is adoption or maybe it's not adoption, it's other struggles. I know I always - I sort of half-joke that if my daughter Hallel who's 21 now - but when she was a teenager - if she had been adopted people would say, look what happens when you adopt because she was a nightmare.

(LAUGHTER)

SILVERMAN: She was horrible. She was, like, scaring the hell out of us all the time. And had she been adopted people would have been like, uh-huh, that's what happens. You know, but I sort of learned over time that with Adar, with all my kids, that they're going to have their struggles. And that I can't always fix it. It's their struggle.

GROSS: How far apart in age are your two sons who are each adopted from Ethiopia?

SILVERMAN: They're three years apart.

GROSS: OK. And how old was Zamir, your second son, when you adopted him?

SILVERMAN: He was 4 years old.

GROSS: Did you feel comfortable adopting a child who was 4 years old as opposed to somebody, you know, who still - who hadn't turned 1 yet, like your first son?

SILVERMAN: Right. Yeah. Well, that's where we had an opening in our family. And also because older kids are harder to place. I thought, you know, we're experienced parents now. We could do this.

GROSS: I think part of the reason why older kids are harder to place is that adoptive parents feel those children are already shaped for better or for worse and considering the conditions in some of the international orphanages, there's this fear that they've been, you know, not treated very well, not cared for well and that that will have shaped them in a way that might be damaging in some way. Did you think about that?

SILVERMAN: I did think about that. And when I was especially worried about that, I would think if my children were in need of a family would I want the potential families making pros and cons lists or would I want them to just do it? And so I just put it out of my mind, and I thought whatever it is will be. And he's a delight. And now, I mean, it's years later and I'm much more involved in international adoption and have a much greater understanding of it. And I see the incredible damage that happens to kids in institutions - I mean, really like unthinkable damage. But what the research has also shown is that the ability for kids to be rehabilitated is huge. That they learn - they can lose an IQ point a month in an institution. It's crazy. You can lose sight because kids' optic nerves aren't stimulated. Like all of these things that happen to children, these emotional difficulties is like inability to attach all these things. There actually all - they could carry it with them and have - the way - the death of my infant brother, I carried with me in many ways. And people will carry things with them, but the ability to love and live fully is really still there. And the research has shown a lot of power. And if you get the right support, the right help, kids really can grow fully.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here...

SILVERMAN: Sure.

GROSS: ...And then we're going to talk some more. My guest is Susan Silverman. She's a rabbi. She - one of her missions is to adopt children and work with people who are adopting children. She has a new memoir called "Casting Lots: Creating A Family In A Beautiful, Broken World." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Susan Silverman. And her new memoir is called "Casting Lots: Creating A Family In A Beautiful Broken World." And the memoir is in part about becoming a rabbi even though she was brought up in a very secular Jewish family. It's in part about having three birth children and adopting two sons from Ethiopia and creating a family of her own. In terms of the family she was born into, her sister is comic Sarah Silverman. So we were talking early in the interview about how a very traumatic experience in your life happened before you have any memory of it because you were 2 years old, when your infant brother, Jeffrey, died by strangling in a crib. It's one of those horrible, traumatic accidents. Your parents were profoundly changed by that and you acknowledge, you were probably profoundly changed in ways that you can't even really explain. But one of the phobias you grew up with is that any time somebody you really loved was out of your sight that they might die. So I'm thinking, so now you have responsibility for five children, right? How did you handle that responsibility with all the phobias that you had? You don't recover that well and that completely from such, like, deeply-ingrained phobias. And to be responsible for five children, especially when they're very young - but then when they're teenagers, there's so many things to worry about. How did you cope with that?

SILVERMAN: Sometimes not well. There were times where I would completely lose it in fear over the kids. There was one time that we were going - we were living in the States and we were going over to Israel because I had a teaching job there for the summer, and Yosef was flying separately with the two girls. And the job I was working with was flying me. And I completely lost it. Like, I could not bear the thought that the three of them were going to be in an airplane separate from me. What were we thinking? We did this just to save money. Are we crazy? Get rid of the tickets. And I - I mean, remember being on my bed and just screaming and yelling and Yosef standing there saying, OK, honey, if you want me to, like, just by new tickets, I will just buy new tickets, like, what do you need? Then (imitates distress noise) that's not going to help. You know, and I was just out of control. And that led to Zoloft right away, which is extremely helpful. I went to this therapist, the same one. I went back to her years later as an adult married with kids. And she's like we've got to get you on something. And that really made a very big difference for me. My whole family's on it. I mean, Sarah's on it, my, you know, mom and her sister have been on it...

GROSS: Sarah won't mind you saying that? I think she's talked about it.

SILVERMAN: Oh, no, Sarah?

GROSS: Yeah, I'm pretty sure she's talked about it.

SILVERMAN: Oh, yeah, absolutely has talked about it. Our grandmother was on it when it first came out. My mother was like, oy, she's so much nicer now, like, if only we had had this (laughter).

GROSS: But did your fear - until you medicated yourself - did your fear of loss multiply by five when you had five children?

SILVERMAN: Yeah, with every kid. I mean, and I still, of course, like you said, it's completely correct, like, it doesn't go away, even with medication - that, you know, I sort of - I can use some humor around it now. And I can say to myself wow, like, I'm focused on the potential of ISIS kidnapping my 12-year-old. But really, that's not so likely, and the truth is that at this moment in time, I have five happy, healthy, well kids. Why don't I think about that? You know, imagining the good and being in the moment of the good instead of, like, fearing. I mean, and now our son Adar is 17 and a half. And in a year, he's going in the army. And...

GROSS: In Israel?

SILVERMAN: In Israel because it's mandatory. Our older girls - both, you know, served and they're done. And that was fine because they're girls and they were not in combat. But he, you know, it's a different story. And even though statistically they're fine, right? It's terrifying and it's tapping into all of that for me. And I'm, you know, trying not to impose my anxieties on him, and that's hard.

GROSS: So are your children practicing Jews, and are they, you know, active in their religion?

SILVERMAN: Well, so our oldest went to Boston to go to Berklee College of Music. And I called her on erev Rosh Hashanah to say happy new year, sweetie, you know, shana tovah. And she goes - oh, is that tonight? And I was like, stab me in the heart, why don't you?

GROSS: (Laughter).

SILVERMAN: They're - not really. I mean, they all keep kosher, like, the Sabbath is a centered family place in our lives. Our son Zamir (ph) is probably the most kind of strict. He's very concerned about not breaking religious law. Like he - you know, I have a little hope for him to become a rabbi, but the rest of them there's really no hope.

GROSS: So your sister Sarah Silverman, who is among the most irreverent comics out there. She breaks, like, every taboo in the books and is really hilarious. Is it fair to say that you were both exposed to some of the same traumas and fears in your family from - you know, she wasn't born yet when your infant brother died, but it still was looming over the family. She was exposed to your parent's divorce, as you were. And it seems like her response to a lot of this has been like comic irreverence, and your response has been reverence. Is that fair to say that?

SILVERMAN: That's beautiful. Yeah, it's interesting, I - you know, sometimes - you know, you're sort of putting Sarah and I, like, in sort of, like, in a similar place with reverence and irreverence. And I think that's really true. I think that's really right on. Some people say, how did two sisters get to be so different? And I feel like it's actually not too different. It's sort of more like what you said, it's maybe two sides of the same coin. And I think that, you know, the things that Sarah and I care about are really the same things. We frame it and we name it with kind of a different - using different paradigms, but they're very similar. And we're both very interested in getting to the essence of what matters. And...

GROSS: And naming it.

SILVERMAN: And naming it, exactly. So I think that maybe it is a response to, like, this same family. Maybe there's something genetic. Who knows what it is? But that I do think that's really right. We kind of respond to these things with a similar mode but with different language.

GROSS: Were you very close as children, and are you close now?

SILVERMAN: Yeah, we're - I mean, as kids it was - I was the big sister. And it took me actually a long time to kind of - I think I still haven't let go of that. I mean, I'm very much the big sister. But I had to, like - once she became an adult realize, you know, I can't control her life. I can't protect her from everything. You know, when she left college after freshman year, I was a wreck. I mean, I called my parents - you can't let her do this. I called her. Like, I thought she was going to ruin her life. (Laughter) Oh, my God, how can you ever get anywhere if you don't finish college? Of course, she was completely right to have done it. But it was sort of around that time that I thought OK, she's 19 years old, 20 years old. You know, she's going to do what she wants to do. I can't control this. And then that's when it kind of shifts to more of a peer loving relationship. And yes, we're very close. My sisters are my whole heart.

GROSS: What was your reaction when she got famous?

SILVERMAN: It happened very slowly. So it was kind of just an evolution. Like at the beginning, whatever she was on, oh my God, I'm telling you, I'd watch it a hundred times. And now there are times where someone's like oh, I Sarah on "Conan." I was like I didn't even know she was on "Conan." You know, like, it's because she's on so much stuff, it's not such a - but when it was - when she was - like, when she was on "Saturday Night Live," oh my God, like, just turning on the TV, like, pleading - because you don't know until the last minute if her skits are going to be on or not, right? And just being like oh please, like, let her skit be on, let her - you know, and if her pictured appeared at the beginning, I was like yes. You know, and then it kind of becomes more normalized. I feel like I have the best of both worlds because I get to kind of, like, bask in her glory, but I don't have actually have to live with the realities that she does.

GROSS: Susan Silverman, thank you so much. It's been great to talk with you.

SILVERMAN: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Susan Silverman's new memoir is called "Casting Lots: Creating A Family In A Beautiful Broken World." After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review the new album by the singer-songwriter and musician who performs under the name Little Scream. This is FRESH AIR.

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