It is impossible to read a novel like Shawn Nocher’s “The Precious Jules” and not feel a ping of connection with one’s own family, whether biological or chosen. Family secrets are at the heart of this book, and every family—no matter how harmonious—harbors secrets.
There are two main types of family secrets: the ones we keep from the world in order to present our family in a particular light. The other kind are the secrets we keep from our family members. While reading “The Precious Jules,” I couldn’t help wondering what purpose this latter type serves. Do we keep secrets out of shame? Is it out of fear that revealing those secrets might affect our family structure? Maybe it’s because of our perceived inability to communicate them appropriately to other family members. Or perhaps we just don’t have enough faith in those closest to us.
The center of Nocher’s novel, the Jules family—Ella’s family—come to realize what secrets have cost them over many years. “The Precious Jules” traces this slow awakening, eventually leading the family members, if not to healing and reconciliation, to a greater understanding of themselves, their family, and the world around them. The story is told from the perspective of multiple characters (most of them members of the Jules family), set both in the present and in the past, and woven seamlessly into a single narrative by Nocher’s skillful hand. Each chapter unfurls to reveal the history of this seemingly-perfect family—and the secrets they’ve so desperately clung to.
I met with Nocher over Zoom to discuss “The Precious Jules.” Our interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Where did the inspiration for “The Precious Jules” come from? It is an important book that deals with what’s often left unsaid, even if we now recognize people like Ella for their contributions to society.
Shawn Nocher: when I was growing up, my parents’ best friends had three children, or so I thought. As a small child, I was eavesdropping on the adult conversation, as I tended to do, and I discovered that there was a fourth child. And so, I asked my mother, and she said this isn’t a secret, but it isn’t something we talk about a lot. They explained the situation and that the child had been sent to Rosewood, an infamous Baltimore institute. This would have been in the late 1960s. She was about seven or eight when they sent her, and over the years, as I got older, I did go with my mother to visit her. I did see Rosewood and what went on there.
I loved these people. They were amazing. They were loving, kind, and brilliant, and their children were huge overachievers. But I couldn’t reconcile the choice they made either way, and I wondered how it affected the children in their adult life. But mostly what I wondered was, what does this do to a family, to have to make a decision like this, especially to a family that is kind, and is good, and is smart? And while this story I wrote is completely fictional, I just wanted to honor the difficulty of making a decision like this. I wanted to honor families like this, people with similar stories.
BFB: Baltimore is prominently featured in the novel, in neighborhoods like Roland Park and Homewood, and in the ubiquitous crab feast at the novel’s end. Why did you set the story here, and what role did Baltimore play in the writing of it?
SN: I love Baltimore. I’ve been here all my life. I was raised way out in the county on 40 acres of land, and all I wanted to do was get into the city. I just love it, with all of its warts. I know it, so it’s easy for me to immerse myself in Baltimore, but I’m also a little bit fascinated by the old money. The blue-blood culture of Baltimore is a little different from everywhere else, so I hope I touched on that in some way. It’s a little strange, and I love to watch it from a distance.
BFB: The book also touches on class issues: The Jules and Lynetta and her pop come from two different Baltimores. How much does this affect how they view and treat Ella?
SN: It was so important when I was writing the book. Part of the reason that I created a family of some means, but not limitless means, was because it would have been very easy for a reader to think if I had used a family of lesser means that the disadvantages were in some way responsible for what ensued with Ella. I wanted to eliminate that possibility. If I had made this the child of someone in very urban Baltimore, or even Lynetta’s background, it’s easy to other it for some people and say, well, you know, they had all these disadvantages; they didn’t have any choice. And it’s not just a financial problem for people who have children with special needs; it’s a problem for everybody. So giving this situation to a family of some means felt like it eliminated the possibility of othering this family. It felt like more people might be able to relate to the idea that they had everything, and yet this was still a dilemma, and it wasn’t about finances as much as it was about a lack of support socially. It was very purposeful.
BFB: The Jules family used to see Ella as their personal failure. How much of this is due to societal views of that time? How much has changed since?
SN: We weren’t that far away from the explosion of eugenics in the 1960s, so that was part of it. There was just inherent shame, and shame is often the result of isolation. Shame eases when people meet other people who share their story, and no one was talking. And it was not abnormal to think that someone who had a child like this did something wrong or that something was wrong in their gene pool, lineage, whatever. Even though Ella’s situation was an accident of birth, there’s a lot of self-incrimination when people have a child like this.
I do think it’s changing. I remember, as a child, you seldom saw children in public who were like Ella, and when you did, your mother told you not to stare and don’t ask questions. So immediately, even as a young child, you knew something was wrong, and there was a lot of shame associated with it. I believe we are much better. But I also think that deinstitutionalization happened so quickly and suddenly, with no safety net, that there was a lot of chaos, and there still is a lot of chaos around caring for children like this. There are more programs than there ever were, and I’m really happy to see that, but it also gets tangled in all kinds of social issues, and it’s not easy. There are more resources, but you have to be a magician to find most of them. I think as a society, we’re trying. I think we’ve taken it out of the closet. We’ve stopped locking them away, and that’s a good thing; that’s a wonderful thing. I’m very hopeful that things will continue to change.
BFB: What do secrets cost a family, like the Jules? What’s to be gained by their eventual release?
Secrets are insidious. They eat away at us. Have you ever met someone who, the minute you meet them, you know they want you to like them? So, they share some ridiculous thing about themselves as if they’re daring you. They tell you something silly or stupid that they did. And you know that they are insecure, and they’re saying, hey, I’m going to put this out there and see if you like me anyway. I meet people like that all the time; I love them; I might be a little bit like that myself. I think that’s because when we carry a secret and we want to be liked, we feel like if somebody doesn’t know our deepest, darkest secret, can they really like us?
And the Jules children, the way I saw it, it wasn’t so much a secret; it was something they kept very quiet about, that they didn’t talk about. And letting it out risked alienating people, but in reverse, they’ve isolated themselves. They’re not putting their real selves out there; they’re not showing the world their warts. Secrets become a part of who we are. And when we can’t share that secret, we don’t feel like we’re really known. We don’t feel like we’re really understood.
Signed copies of The Precious Jules will be available at Bird in Hand’s local author holiday event on Thursday, December 1 from 5-8 PM.