The third Authorlink interview of three finalists for The Story of My Life
A project of ABC-TV and Simon & Schuster
By Doris Booth
Mercedes Florencia Brudnicki, finalist in The Story of My Life contest
Everyone has a story to tell, but few have the resources and connections to find a publisher and an audience. For the three lucky finalists of The Story of My Life contest, however, their stories are being publicized nationwide as Simon Spotlight Entertainment, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, teams up with ABC-TV's Good Morning America to discover a first-time author of a compelling American memoir.
The finalists were chosen from among 6,000 essay entries and have appeared on ABC-TV's Good Morning America and 20/20. They are Betty Ferguson, a mother who forgave her daughters killer; Mercedes Florencia Brudnicki, a sister whose brother was trapped in Castros Cuba; and Farah Ahmedi, an Afghan girl who lost her leg to a landmine. The American public voted through April 8 on whose story they want to read. The winner, to be announced on April 22, will receive $10,000 and will have their book published by Simon Spotlight Entertainment and released on the announcement date. The winner also will embark on a national 10-city publicity tour.
An Overview of Mercedes Brudnicki's Story:
For eighteen years, Mercedes Brudnicki had an older brother she never knew. He was trapped inside Castro's Cuba by world events, political upheaval, and a relative's selfish control.
Mercedes was born in America, after her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Infante, fled Cuba. Her mother and father never intended to leave their baby son behind and so his absence haunted their new privileged and free American life. Mr. Infante's barren aunt, with whom they had temporarily left the child, kept the boy against the parents' will in Cuba for 18 years. Thinking his parents had abandoned him, he grew up to become a naval engineer, a valuable asset to the Castro regime.
When Castro opened Cuba to outside visitors in 1976, Mercedes went with her parents to meet her brother for the first time. She was 15 years old. Mercedes' father eventually figured out a way to get his son out of the country. He lost weight, let his hair grow long, and swapped identities with the boy, smuggling him out of Cuba. However, when the ruse was discovered, Mr. Infante was sentenced to Castro's prison for more than a year. The U.S. government ultimately secured his release, but the experience took its toll. Mr. Infante died three years ago.
Mercedes' brother has adjusted well to his family and his new country. He married his sister's best friend and has four children.
Here, Mercedes, a nurse, talks of the importance of being able to tell her family's story.
"Though my father wasn't very attractive, he was quite an extraordinary person. I wanted people to know about him."
AUTHORLINK: How did you find out about The Story of My Life contest?
BRUDNICKI: I believe it was fate. I watch Good Morning America every morning on the TV next to my refrigerator in the kitchen. I happened to see Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson talking about the contest. It appealed to me because I had always wanted to write about my father's story. He died before he was able to write it down. So, I decided to enter the contest.
AUTHORLINK: What made you want to write your father's story?
BRUDNICKI: Though my father wasn't very attractive, he was quite an extraordinary person. I wanted people to know about him, and I felt his story was so unique people would want to read it. I had never heard of a person impersonating another to escape a country. My dad never even told my mother what he was about to do because she would have worried that he couldn't pull it off. He didn't want anyone else in the family responsible for what he was going to do.
AUTHORLINK: All this time, you never knew your brother?
BRUDNICKI: Not until he was 19 years old. I always knew I had a brother. My parents talked about him and sent him things, but he was like a ghost to us. He seemed unreal to me.
AUTHORLINK: On your trip to Cuba where you first met your brother, what was your experience like?
BRUDNICKI: I remember thinking, 'He looks just exactly like me, except he's not a girl.'
"I always dreamed about being a writer. When I was in nursing school, one of my electives was creative writing."
AUTHORLINK: Your great aunt had held your brother hostage in Cuba. Why?
BRUDNICKI: I don't think she was a vicious person. She loved my brother, but she didn't love him the same way a real mother would love. I think she was selfish, that she just couldn't let him go. She was going to squeeze that little bird so tight she would crush him.
AUTHORLINK: Is the aunt still living?
BRUDNICKI: No, I wouldn't have participated in the contest if she were alive. My father felt he had a duty to respect her as a member of the family. In fact, she raised not only my brother, but also my father. My father never uttered a bad word against her.
AUTHORLINK: How did your brother wind up with your great aunt in the first place?
BRUDNICKI: My father was born ill, with rubella. At the time his mother (my grandmother) thought he would die. She and her husband lived in the middle of nowhere. My grandmother's sister, who lived in the city, offered to take him and raise him there, where he'd be closer to medical care. She was wealthy and had no children of her own. My grandmother didn't mean for her sister to take the child permanently, but my great aunt apparently thought she had agreed to a permanent arrangement. When my father had a son of his own and had to flee Cuba, my great aunt offered to temporarily keep the child. Then, later she refused to give him up.
AUTHORLINK: Before hearing of the contest, did you ever think of writing your family's story?
BRUDNICKI: I always dreamed about being a writer. When I was in nursing school, one of my electives was creative writing. But it wasn't anything I felt I could enter as a career. I have written many short stories and poems, nothing major.
AUTHORLINK: And how has it felt to write your story together with a professional writer assigned to you by Simon & Schuster?
BRUDNICKI: It has been very exciting! I was really proud of myself that out of all those 6,000 people who applied, I was one of those chosen to tell my story. Tim Wendel, the professional writer, came to my house and spent the day with me. I showed him pictures. He met my mother, and he recorded our conversations. Later we spoke on the phone for an hour three or four times per week. Tim would put the story on paper, and I would read it and add things or rewrite passages to make it more personal.
"Every story has many sides. What you see depends on where you were standing at the time, and how you thought."
AUTHORLINK: Will you write other books?
BRUDNICKI: I would like to write other books, but this particular story is my life. I wrote about something very close to me, so I don't know where other books would lead me.
AUTHORLINK: What made you decide to become nurse?
BRUDNICKI: In college I didn't know what I wanted to do. I knew I didn't want to be stuck in a 9 to 5 job as something like a secretary. In one of my college math classes I met several nurses. They would talk about the things they were doing, and I became fascinated. The following year I entered medical training. I love what I am doing. I can't imagine not being a nurse. It's part of who I am.
AUTHORLINK: We understand only the winner will be published. So what if your story isn't picked?
BRUDNICKI: Even if I don't win, I will have the manuscript and the recordings. Either way, my family and I have won.
AUTHORLINK: Were there any surprises as you began to tell your story?
BRUDNICKI: Every story has many sides. What you see depends on where you were standing at the time, and how you thought. As I talked to my mom, there were so many little things that came out, things I didn't know that she had not known. We got to see the same story unfold through each other's eyes. The experience has definitely made us closer. Now I have a real appreciation of what it means to be a mother.
AUTHORLINK: What is the best part of this whole story experience?
BRUDNICKI: The best part is being able to get my father's story out there. He'd be so proud. I know that somewhere up there he's smiling.