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Jewish Journal

The Flames of Truth

by Naomi Pfefferman

February 7, 2002 | 7:00 pm

"Two fires taught me lessons about my life, two fires separated by nearly six decades," says the heroine of Kate Wenner's debut novel, "Setting Fires," about a documentary filmmaker and her dying father.

The statement is also true of Wenner, a former "20/20" producer who'll speak about her book on Feb. 10 at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Chatsworth.

The Manhattan journalist's odyssey began in 1987, the day her beloved Connecticut country home burned to the ground. Like her protagonist, she recalled two previous fires that had destroyed Jewish property, but squelched her suspicions of anti-Semitic arson. "Though I was an investigative journalist, I chose denial in the face of evil," says Wenner, who learned about the second fire while videotaping her father's oral history in 1988.

She had brought out the videotape recorder not long after her father had been diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, but he didn't reveal his darkest secret until he was on his deathbed. His body shrunken, his skin paper-thin, he described how his mother and sister had deliberately torched their dry goods store for the insurance money, nearly killing the immigrants who lived upstairs. "I was part of evil," he told Wenner, who had begun attending synagogue to cope with her father's impending death. The shame he felt about the crime all but destroyed his life.

His revelation changed Wenner's life, however. "When my father confronted something he had denied for so long, it gave me the courage to face my own denial," she says. The author began investigating her Connecticut fire and eventually discovered the cause was arson.

In her novel, she uses the image of fire as a metaphor for the truth. "Both can be searingly painful, but ultimately shed light," she says.

For information about Wenner's Los Angeles appearances, call (818) 360-2258.

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