An only child, Iris lives with her mother in a rambling house in a small midwestern town. Her mother is everything: provider, confidante, friend. But at seventeen, Iris begins to question their nearly symbiotic relationship—and the noticeable lack of others in their sheltered world. Where is Iris’s father? Where are her grandparents? What is her mother keeping from her? When she stumbles upon the explosive truth, Iris begins a monumental journey of self-discovery—one that will throw everything she has ever known into turmoil.
Eva Hoffman was born in Krakow, Poland, and emigrated to America in her teens. She is the author of Lost in Translation, Exit Into History, Shtetl, The Secret, and After Such Knowledge. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Whiting Award, and… More about Eva Hoffman
“Inquiring and intelligent . . . The Secret is a meditation on that central puzzle of human life, the puzzle of identity.” —The Washington Post
“An intelligent and delightfully bizarre excursion into ethical and philosophical issues raised by technology.” —Elle
“THE COMPELLING STORY OF AN INDIVIDUAL GIRL TRYING TO FIND OUT THE TRUTH ABOUT HERSELF.” —The Independent
“Hoffman’s consistent sensitivity is informed by her wide erudition. . . . The Secret is compelling throughout for Hoffman’s prose, for her insights on identity, for her reflections on history.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Hoffman brilliantly meditates on [a] mystery in her auspicious fiction debut. . . . This is a novel of ideas in the tradition of 1984 and Brave New World.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Hoffman’s . . . multilayered, cautionary ‘fable’ of genetic engineering in the near future proves compelling, in both its cool intelligence and its insistent moral questioning. . . . The Secret is intriguing and deeply sinister, even as it ultimately affirms those mysteries of life and human freedom that still elude us.” —The Guardian
“VERY MUCH RECOMMENDED . . .[A] thoughtful, philosophical treatment of the devastating effects a wholly fatherless state can trigger. An uneasy look at the potential fallout from biological tampering, this first novel . . . is ripe for lively book discussion.” —Library Journal
“A serious, intelligent, psychological novel which will enhance Hoffman’s reputation for wise words gracefully expressed.” —Financial Times
“Hoffman sketches a creepily plausible near-future in which her protagonist experiences a very 21st-century identity crisis.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A modern allegory somewhere between Frankenstein, the golems of Jewish folklore, and Blade Runner.” —Independent on Sunday
1. How did the idea of writing on such a strange subject occur to you?
I’m not usually a writer who hears voices, or is "taken over" by her subject, but "The Secret" announced itself to me with a voice and the first paragraph all complete. But this was probably because the ideas leading up to these unexpected manifestations had been brewing in my mind for quite a while. The "germ" of the novel was first planted when I started reading — with awed fascination — about the new developments in the field of genetics, and the experiments in the manipulation of human organisms to which they were giving rise. These, I thought, were entirely astonishing — and it seemed to me we weren’t astonished enough. So the basic impulse from which "The Secret" arose was a kind of primitive sense of wonder. I wanted to articulate the vexing, profound and eerie questions raised by this new science, or vision, of the human. At the same time, these practically futuristic conundrums merged with some of my own, long-standing preoccupations. So that, when that first paragraph came into my head, spoken in the soft but audible tones that I instantly recognized as belonging to my heroine, I thought, you’d better grab this baby and run… 2. Do you think of "The Secret" as science fiction?
I was recently told I should, because women’s sci fi is such an interesting phenomenon and field. But actually no, I distinctly do not, if by science fiction we mean an interest in technological wonders, and the invention of utterly improbable worlds. What I wanted to do in "The Secret" was to use the near future as a plausible extension of the present, and therefore as a way of thinking about problems that are very much with us already. But then, the future comes very fast these days, and since I wrote "The Secret," some of the imaginary – or rather, hypothetical – scenarios I envisioned have been turned into realities, or at least actual experiments already. 3. On one level, "The Secret" seems to be an old-fashioned, realistic story…
Well, I suppose that in writing this narrative, I was trying to walk a delicate tightrope. On the one hand, I wanted to give full force to the quantum leap in consciousness that cloning represents. It really is something new under the sun, and its very possibility throws into question the most basic assumptions about our origin and selfhood: that we are of man and woman born, that we are physically, no less than psychologically unique; that, unlike assembly-line products, we are unpredictable and unrepeatable.
At the same time, the genetics revolution returns us to and ups the ante on some very ancient and fundamental questions: What we are made of and where the soul, or psyche resides; what our subjectivity consists of, and how it relates to our bodies; what, in fact, is the human factor in our humanity. And so, I wanted to use cloning as a metaphor for such questions, a way of posing them more sharply or more dramatically.
Then there is the relationship between my young heroine and her mother — a kind of mother/daughter bond from hell… There, too, cloning seemed to me a kind of eerie realization of certain fears and needs so often present in mother-daughter relationships: identification so total that it may threaten identity, the dread of merging, and the desire to do so. My mother, myself, indeed.
At the same time, I did not want to give up on the possibility of individuation, growth, or love on my heroine’s behalf. Such processes of separation and development would undoubtedly be made vastly more difficult by cloning; and yet, their possibility should not be discounted. And perhaps I couldn’t bear to deprive my protagonist of her human chances after all.
4. What is your opinion of Dolly the sheep, and of the recent human cloning activity in South Korea?
Alas, poor Dolly. She is dead now, a hardly tragic, but perhaps not insignificant casualty of our Faustian urges. She died of premature aging, and this points to one of the practical dangers of cloning as the technique stands now. But beyond that, I do feel there’s something disturbing about the way she was made, and what she represents: the possibility of manufacturing living organisms as if they were inanimate things, for entirely instrumental purposes, and with the possibility of mass production right around the corner. What are such creatures? Are they in fact animals, or just animated objects? I suppose cloning is in a sense an extension of breeding techniques we’ve been using for a long time now. But at the same time, it is a leap that alters our relationship to nature and indeed the very idea of life.
In answering the second part of the question, though, I must confess that on this score, authorial ego has gotten (at least temporarily) better of ethical concern. The scientist in "The Secret" who creates my heroine is Korean, and so about this, I can’t help feeling rather pleasantly prescient. I made him Korean, by the way, not on a whim, but on an informed hunch: I thought that the experiments going on in South Korean labs in the area of cloning looked the most serious and advanced. However, to return to larger issues, I do think there is a great difference between cloning for medical purposes, and creating a full human through this process.
5. To what extent is the book based on research?
Of course I felt I had to do sufficient research to understand the mechanics of cloning, the biological implications, the genetics debate. It was important to get these things right, and aside from reading, I talked to scientists and visited a cellular research lab. But in a sense, this was not, for me, the point. Rather, what I wanted to do was to explore the psychic and psycho-philosophical implications of cloning — aspects of the problem which are, incidentally, almost entirely missing from the official debates on the subject. The debates concentrate on the medical, sociological and even economic consequences of cloning; but leave out almost entirely questions of its human impact on the cloned pair. What measure of narcissism would be implied in the decision to reproduce oneself exactly? What would be like for a parent to behold a replica of her or his childhood self? How difficult would it be for a parent to distinguish reflection from self, and what kinds of fears, or even unconscious revulsion, might a copied child arouse? And, from the child’s perspective, what would it be like for a daughter to realize that she has no biological father at all; that her grandfather is in effect her father; and that her mother is her genetic twin? How will the cloned child bear the knowledge that she was created as an offprint of someone else — that she is, in effect, an efficiently manufactured product? This is a knowledge that Dolly the sheep was spared — and which makes all the difference between animal and human cloning. What deep self-doubts about the nature of one’s humanity might follow from such awareness, and what disturbing confusion of identities?
6. Do you view THE SECRET as a sort of warning?
I do not think a novel should be a polemic, nor, one hopes, a screed. A novel is a form which allows one to explore aspects of experience with the fullest imaginative force, and without having to come down on one "side" of an issue, or another. I wanted, above all, to contemplate the subjectivity of a cloned person, and what the world would like from within such a self. At the same time, I do think that such an exploration may be in itself a warning; that if we really did take the trouble to imagine the inward, human, affective consequences of cloning, then we might refrain from following our Faustian urges just for once.
And, more broadly – but no less essentially – if the production of life can be effected through mechanical manipulations of sub-microscopic matter, then what does it do to our assumptions about the depth, the dimensions, the mystery of each person? Of course, such assumptions may be based on illusion in the first place – but it is an illusion on which our sense of privileged human preciousness, love, curiosity and discovery has much depended. It is such dilemmas that vexed me and propelled me as I was writing my particular narrative; but it is also such questions, I believe, that we should be aware of, as we enter the brave new world of cloning.
7. You wrote three non-fiction books before "The Secret." Was the process of writing fiction very different?
Very. The process of writing fiction turned out to be both more pleasurable and more anxious than that of non-fiction. Non-fiction carries with it a weight of responsibility: to the facts, to actual people who form part of one’s subject, to the material itself (especially if it touches, as mine often has, on somber or even tragic matters). In comparison, fiction has about it a heady freedom, a kind of psychic lightness. It allows you, above all, to play. At the same time, it is that very freedom which can be so nerve-wracking, so positively scary. With each new chapter, I felt I was stepping into an ocean, or a large lake, and trying to draw some firm lines in the water. With each turn of plot, the novel could move in an infinite number of new directions… But slowly, gradually, the text begins to gain its own weight and shape; at some point, one begins (or so I found) to feel a kind of imaginative responsibility to the material which has accumulated: its integrity, its narrative coherence, its emotional truth.
8. How do the themes of the novel connect with your other work?
One reason why the subject of cloning, and the genetic revolution, fascinated me so instantly and so deeply, is because they do in fact converge with some of my longstanding preoccupations, and themes I’ve explored in my earlier work: the nature of subjectivity and how our identities are constructed; how we tease ourselves into individual being; and how our earliest bonds and the deeper past affect us – and the lack of these as well. For me, such preoccupations emerged from the formative experience of emigration, and its potent lessons about the shaping power of language and culture. But in a different, perhaps more universal valence, here they were again.
9. Did you draw to any extent on personal experience in writing it? E.g. in the rendition of the mother-daughter relationship?
Oddly enough, fiction can allow you access to layers of the psyche which more directly autobiographical writing cannot easily touch. One of the pleasures of writing The Secret was that it allowed me to dip into and draw on those very early (pre-Oedipal, as the shrinks would call them) sources of sensation and feeling that can be intuited only half-consciously, and expressed only metaphorically. This I was dimly aware of as image after image of mother-daughter mirroring, love, mutual reflection, kept coming up from the psyche as if they’d been waiting there all along. Such images are supposedly the ubiquitous stuff of our early psychic life, and if they were autobiographical, they were not really personal. But it was not until I started writing my subsequent book, about the legacy of the Holocaust, and its impact on so-called "second generation," that I realized how much I had been impelled, in writing the novel, by a dilemma which does belong to my specific history: the problem, so familiar to children of survivors, of a kind of existential secondariness — of coming after great events, and having less claim to significance, attention, or just existential primacy, than parents who had lived through extremity. And so, while the mother in The Secret is distinctly not based on my mother, and while I can tell the reader with a fair degree of assurance that I am not my own mother’s clone, some deep vein in the novel was excavated (indirectly and symbolically) from an autobiographical mine.
10. What was the most pleasurable aspect of writing it?
Inventing a plausible near-future world, complete with a brand new line of men’s and women’s fashions. I still keep hoping that some real-world designer will notice the discreet and ineffable charm of the clothes in which my characters are clad.
There was also a great deal of fun in playing around with a whole panoply of classical myths and fictional archetypes that kept unexpectedly cropping up in my story: Chimeras, grotesques, Echo and Narcissus, automata and Frankensteins; but also, visions of ideal beauty and promised cities. In a sense, this made a great deal of sense, for genetic design has the potential of making real our most far-fetched fictional inventions. But in any case, it was interesting to me to see how fertile such ancient imaginings still were, and how naturally they made their appearance, as I was writing my fable of very old conundrums and a new kind of creation.