Category Archives: Memoir

Women’s History Month: Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty about Lucy Grealy

Ann Patchett writes about her friendship with Lucy Grealy in this touching book.

Having arrived at my mid-40s, I have found that I savor just about everything more than I did when I was younger, even if I need occasionally to remind myself to do so.

A short drive to school with Aidan for his 6:00 a.m. morning lacrosse practice.  Stopping to hug Dunreith during one of our walks.  Being able to go just a little faster on the exercise bike than I did in 2006.

And, of course, the pleasure of longtime friends.

The nature of friendship has changed dramatically from when we were Aidan’s age and much of our lives revolved around spending time together.  Geography, family, and personal and professional choices has made on-line and phone, let alone, in-person contact far more rare than it was during our high school and colleges.

Still, there is something enormously gratifying in talking with and seeing someone who knew you when, someone to whom you don’t have to explain yourself, someone with whom you share a reciprocal unconditional acceptance.

Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy appeared to have that kind of relationship.  The two met at Sarah Lawrence during the 1980s, when they were both aspiring writers, and continued and deepened as they applied for and received fellowships, wrote books, took lovers, married and divorced (Ann), and grappled with drug addiction and ultimately overdosed on heroin (Lucy).

Grealy went through dozens of surgeries and excruciating pain due to the aftereffects of the cancer she contracted during her childhood.  In Autobiography of a Face, a book I have not yet read, she tells her story of having been the subject of endless taunts from other children during her youth, among other subjects.

In Truth & Beauty, Patchett tells her version of their friendship (Like many, if not all, good things in my life, this book came at Dunreith’s suggestion).

Patchett seems to have understand and accepted Grealy’s constant need for affirmation, and to have stuck unflinchingly by her as she spiraled down her unfortunate path of destruction.  Some, including Grealy’s sister Suellen, criticized Patchett for baring unattractive sides of Lucy they would have preferred had been kept private.  The book, Suellen wrote in a Guardian article, made her ask, “what can we do with a grief thief?”

Others felt that Patchett was getting back at Grealy in death that which she had not done during life, and questioned what was in this apparently one-sided relationship for the Bel Canto author.

As a non-family member, I cannot comment on Suellen Grealy’s very real feelings, but I can say that I had a different take on the book.

I found the book a celebration of an enormously gifted and courageous writer who died far too soon.  Patchett does indeed show Grealy as simultaneously needing support and being self-absorbed, and my feeling was both that she was often there for Patchett and that Patchett, who tended at times to defer her own desires, learned something profoundly important from Grealy about living closer to herself.   Patchett’s more dutiful side emerges in her description of her discomfort at Grealy’s partying and focusing on social activities rather than writing during a fellowship they both had in Provincetown, for instance.

The inclusion of letters between the two gives the work a sense of the relationship unfolding in time and heightens the feeling of anticipatory dread as Grealy spiral down a self-destructive cycle of drugs, surgery and despair that culminates in her premature death.

I imagine that many, if not all, of us have had similar experiences with a friend with tremendous gifts and deep trauma falls into the grip of uncontrollable urges that have destructive and even deadly consequences.

While I respect Suellen Grealy’s feelings, I did enjoy the book and look forward to savoring Lucy’s Autobiography of a Face and to talking with old friends about the subject that underlies all conversations: life.

RIP, Miep Gies.

Anne Frank's diary would not have been published without being found by the late, brave Miep Gies.

UPDATE:  Fellow Massachusetts transplant Jack Crane offered the following comment:

Thanks for the Miep Gies remembrance Jeff. Are you familiar with Corrie ten Boom’s book, The Hiding Place, another extraordinary story of a devout Christian Dutch family that risked their lives to hide their Jewish neighbors. Corrie survived Ravensbruck, her sister Betsy died there. One of my fondest parts of the story was Corrie’s Dad (who owned a watch shop) going off to Amsterdam to meet with the Jewish watch wholesaler. They would talk business for a few minutes and then go in the back room, pull out their respective bibles, and open their hearts to to the “real” business of God’s mysterious presence in our lives. Mr. ten Boom would eventually put a yellow star on his jacket in solidarity with his Jewish friends. He died in the Scheveningen prison. Another amazing story you are probably familiar with is the village of Le Chambon in southern France, particularly the leadership of the local pastor, Andre Trocme. Phillip Hallie, originally very skeptical of the story, wrote a good book (Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed) about how this village of a 1000 or so Christians, saved a 1000 or so Jews. There is also an excellent documentary by Pierre Sauvage (a French-Canadian Jew), who went back to Le Chambon as an adult to visit the villagers who had rescued his parents and him when he was a baby. I have a copy of the film if you want to borrow it – it may be out of production.

Peace, Jack

Miep Gies, the brave office secretary who defied the Nazis to hide Anne Frank and her family for two years, died today at age 100.

Gies found the diary by Anne Frank that her father Otto edited and that for decades was many people’s introduction to the Holocaust.  Told through the eyes of a maturing young woman, the story of the German Jewish family’s ultimately doomed efforts to survive the war has touched millions since its initial publication more than a half-century ago.

Gies appears in a film, Remembering Anne Frank, which extends beyond the diary’s end to her family’s being deported after having been turned in by a neighbor.  She died of typhus at the Bergen-Belsen death camp after suffering greatly.  Venerated literary scholar Lawrence Langer wondered if she would have repeated her oft-quoted sentiment shortly before her death about people being essentially good at heart.

Frank was a classmate of artist, survivor and general inspiration Netty Vanderpol, whose husband Ries, also a survivor, I worked with while I was at Facing History and Ourselves.

Gies’ heroic actions and Frank’s diary have led to the false impression that Holland was a supportive nation for Jews during World War II.  In fact, about 75 percent of Dutch Jews were murdered, the second highest percentage in Europe after Poland.  Westerbork was the site where many of the Dutch Jews were killed.

These facts only make Gies’ choices that much more courageous, and also makes judgment more possible of those who sat by or participated in the destruction.

We honor Gies for her honorable life.

Jacobo Timerman’s Survival of Torture

 

Jacobo Timerman's account of surviving torture should be compulsory reading.

Jacobo Timerman's account of surviving torture should be compulsory reading.

 

 

I’ve just finished an utterly courageous, moving and haunting book: the late Jacobo Timerman’s Prisoner without a name, Cell without a number. 

I remember Mom talking about this work before her accident in 1986, when she was doing work with Amnesty International.

The book ostensibly tells the story of Timerman’s 30 months in detention in Argentine prisons during the late 70s.  A longtime journalist who founded a publication, La Opinion, to counter fascism of the Left and Right in the hope that bringing the truth to light might help his country to advance to a more democratic and open society. 

Timerman writes without pity about the torture he endured, the coping mechanisms he developed to get through-in one of the book’s most poignant passages, he writes about cursing his wife for a letter she wrote that punctured his defenses-the extinction of tenderness that the torturers sought to achieve, the complete disorientation one experiences, and the meaning one can gain from simply seeing another person’s eye through a slit in a door.  

Timerman is literate, eloquent and understated in his account of his own travails-an experience that he notes in the Epilogue that he refuses to tie up neatly because that is not how it lives in him.  

If it were only a recounting of his personal suffering, Prisoner without a name would be a remarkable book in its own right.

Fortunately for us and the world, it is far more than Timerman’s story.  

The book evokes the era during the 70s when thousands of Argentines were disappeared, often never to be seen again.  It dissects the thinking of the military leaders and their obsessive quest for a neat and orderly world.  It explores the links between Nazi ideology and that embraced by the generals.   It contains a deep analysis of antisemitism and its enduring appeal a generation after the Holocaust.   

Timerman brilliantly intersperses these reflections, analyses and assertions into the telling of what happened to him.

Beautifully translated by Toby Talbot, the result is a book that should be compulsory reading for all those concerned about human rights abuses. 

Timerman’s humility animates the book and gives it even more power.    Perhaps the supreme example of this quality come in the book’s final paragraphs, which contain at once a reminder of what he has seen, the duty he feels to those people and those memories, and the limitations of language, or any form of communication, to transmit others’ experience:  

“Have any of you ever looked into the eyes of another person, on the floor of a cell, who know that he’s about to die though no one has told him so?  He knows that he’s about to die but clings to his biological desire to live, as a single hope, since no one has told him that he’s to be executed.

I have many such gazes imprinted upon me.

Each time I write or utter words of hope, words of confidence in the definitive triumph of man, I’m fearful-fearful of losing sight of one of those gazes.  At night I recount them, recall them, re-see them, cleanse them, illumine them.

These gazes, which I encountered in the clandestine prisons of Argentina and which I’ve retained one by one, were the culminating point, the purest moment of my tragedy.  

They are here with me today.  And although I might wish to do so, I could not and would not know how to share them with you.”

Lac Su Shares The Love

The reader travels from Vietnam to the United States and back in this coming of age memoir by Lac Su.

The reader travels from Vietnam to the United States and back in this coming of age memoir by Lac Su.

This past week marked 34 years since the Vietnam War officially ended.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees streamed out of the south of this once-divided, but eventually united country.  Many took boats toward their new destinations.  A large number of these families eventually arrived in the United States, where they attempted to rebuild lives that had been shattered during two decades of war.

First-time author Lac Su and his family were one of these transplants.  He shares their journey from Vietnam to Hong Kong to the streets of Los Angeles and, finally, a return visit to his home country in I Love Yous Are For White People: A Memoir an affecting book that is part of a growing body of authors sharing their experiences of dislocation and American immigration.

Su begins his story in the war’s waning days, shortly before his family’s flight from Vietnam.  An accident while playing leaves his best friend dead and Su with a heavy burden of guilt to bear.   After a harrowing journey, the family spends a brief amount of time in Hong Kong before relocating to the United States.

Su’s time in Los Angeles makes up the bulk of the book.  He, his parents and his siblings must figure out the often bewildering tasks of learning English, finding work, coping in school, establishing a community with other Vietnamese immigrants and navigating the completely foreign norms of American life. 

Much hardship ensues. 

The Su family lives in a roach and rat-infested apartment; his father’s efforts to counter them leads to his applying heavy doses of Raid, the fumes of which end up killing Su’s younger brother.

Su’s father is a disciplinarian who repeatedly beats his son and wife.  The abuse often comes from whatever he can find, and the father also selects his tool based on his calculation of which tool will inflict the most damage.  These scenes are painful to read, as the physical beatings are also accompanied by heavy doses of verbal abuse and denigration.

Su describes himself as hungry for his father’ s explicit approval.  But his telling his father that he loves him, as he has seen characters on television shows, only prompts even greater levels of physical abuse because of this “weakness” and adoption of “white ways.”  

Su’s father and his contemporaries display ambivalence toward their children’s ongoing assimilation into American culture, alternately displaying approval when the children do well in school and seem to be making a smooth adjustment and concern about the diminishing connection to Vietnamese ways. 

A older visiting cousin’s sexual advances only complicates Su’s domestic difficulties.

Su’s struggles at home constitutes only part of the action in I Love Yous.  He also spends a lot of time describing his efforts to navigate the often perilous streets of Los Angeles.  He ends up stealing money from his money to pay for another boy’s video games, falls in with two local gangs, and starts drinking alcohol on a regular basis. 

Su is unflinchingly honest in depicting the lengths to which he will go to gain acceptance from his peers, while also providing an implied critique of the society into which he has arrived.

Without giving away too much, the multiple strands of the work converge toward the end, although in a way that left this reader with more question than answers. The epilogue contains Su’s return to the homeland he left under such duress many years earlier; the book also includes an author interview and list of music that has been important to him.

Written in a conversational tone, I Love Yous sheds important on a community whose experience in America is beginning to be chronicled by those who lived it.  While the book is not great literature, it is a helpful introduction to one of an emerging group of writers.

Heading out of town, but the posts continue.

The late Studs Terkel called his final memoir, Touch and Go.
The late Studs Terkel called his final memoir, Touch and Go.

I’m leaving for a week for Costa Rica with my family today, but will make sure to post quick tips about books that  I consider worthwhile reading.

Today’s selection is Touch and Go, the final of three memoirs by the  inimitable and recently deceased Chicago legend Studs Terkel.  Published in 2007, the book compresses his epic life into several hundred literary-drenched and adventure-filled pages. 

It’s well worth the effort.

Women’s History and Social Studies Methods Class Converge with Marjorie Agosin

The prolific Marjorie Agosin in a reflective moment.

The prolific Marjorie Agosin in a reflective moment.

Ever since her departure to the United States from her native Chile in 1972, shortly before the CIA-sponsored coup that toppled Socialist PresidentSalvador Allende, Majorie Agosin has been writing. 

A lot.

I will write at another point about individual books that this prolific, empathic, socially engaged and generous writer and family friend has produced.

For today, though, I want to talk about her both as an author for Women’s History Month and as someone whose work could be useful to the Urban Teacher Education Program students in my Social Studies Methods classes.

A professor and former department chair of Spanish literature at Wellesley College, Agosin has shown remarkable versatility in the nearly 30 years since she earned her doctorate from Indiana University.  While much of her early work took the form of traditional literary analyses-one of her first books discussed the work of fabled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda-she since has branched out to produce many different types of books. 

Readers who care to can take in a collection of letters between Agosin and childhood friend Emma Sepulveda, an account of her global travels, or more historical recordings of conversations with the mothers who protested their loved ones’ murder at Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo during Argentina’s Dirty War.

Through each of these forms,  and the material about which she writes, Agosin makes statements about what constitutes legitimate forms of self-expression and subjects for scholarly inquiry.

Then there is the poetry.

Above all, Agosin considers herself a poet. Despite being fluent in English and participating actively in the translation of her work, she always writes in Spanish because, she says, that is the language that is closest to her soul. 

Through a profile I wrote about Agosin for Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education, I learned that she has several translators with whom she works regularly and does on occasion change how she expresses something in Spanish after talking through the English translation.

A Chilean Jew whose family’s roots are in Eastern Europe, she taps deep into the many veins of her identity. At different points she writes about being Chilean, about being a woman and a mother, about being Jewish, about the experience of exile, and about her family’s origins.  She repeatedly links her experience to those of past generations-one collection is focused on diarist and Holocaust victim Anne Frank, while another pays homage to Auschwitz survivor Zezette Larsen

Agosin collaborates actively with visual artists, so many of her books combine her work with that of painters like in the work Secrets in the Sand: The Young Women of Juarez.  In this book Agosin bears witness to the more than 350 women who had been murdered on this border town in Mexico and the consuming grief with which their families must live daily. 

Agosin’s moral vision anchors her work.  She has consistently shown her passionate commitment to human rights-a passion that has been manifested both through the anthologies she has edited and in her work with the arpilleristas she has known in Chile.

The arpilleristas are Chilean women whose sons, husbands, brothers and uncles were “disappeared” during the Pinochet era that followed the 1973 coup. Forbidden by law to speak and protest against these crimes, these women wove their experiences into heart rending tapestries.

As a young woman, Agosin smuggled many of these pieces of art and protest out of the country. She wrote about the women and their work in a number of books.

Facing History and Ourselves, where my wife Dunreith works, has published a study guide authored primarily by Dani Eshet that helps students and teachers think about how to understand the work and transfer the process to where they live.

Agosin has also shown generosity to other artists throughout her career, editing collections of emerging writers so as to give them venues for their work and publications for their resumes.

Having written close to 100 books, Agosin has given interested readers plenty of material from which to draw.  I have read about a dozen of her books and recommend only that you start somewhere.  The chances are high that your first book by this talented and dedicated woman will not be your last.

End of Women’s History Month, Helen Zia’s Asian American Dreams.

Helen Zia's fine book blends personal and community history.

Helen Zia's fine book about Asian Americans blends personal and community history.

Women’s History Month is almost over.

 While I’ve written about the works of fine women authors like Christina Lamb, Sonia Nazario, Samantha Power and Ida Tarbell, I want to am making sure to focus today and tomorrow on two female writers.  

Journalist Helen Zia is today’s author. 

While she has co-authored a book with falsely accused scientist Wen Ho Lee, I am writing about her wide ranging, informative and intensely personal work, Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People.

Asian American Dreams covers a lot of ground.

Zia opens the book by writing about her childhood experiences in New Jersey as the daughter of Chinese immigrants, with all the attendant familial pressures and external lack of understanding that many other Asian American children experience.  She continues the personal strand of the book by beginning each subsequent chapter with a recollection that in some way connects to the chapter’s content.

The book is divided into four sections, each of which advances in time and in the theme of an emerging people as the sub-title suggests.  Although Zia includes a chapter about the history of Asian people in America in the United States, the bulk of the work focuses on the second half of the 20th century, with particular attention to life in Asian communities after the landmark 1965 immigration legislation passed during the Johnson administration. 

Zia is committed to showing the diversity within Asian and Asian American cultures.

As a result, readers learn in different chapters about Filipino cannery workers in Alaska struggling for justice, a Korean American community in Los Angeles devastated by sa-i-gu, the riots or uprising following the 1992 Rodney King verdicts, Asian American actors and actresses fighting against white actors like Jonathan Pryce playing the lead roles in plays like Miss Saigon, and South Asian cab drivers banding together to fight for better treatment. 

In each of these chapters, Zia does an effective job of pushing against the myth of a monolithic and uniformly high achieving group of people.  Instead, the Asian Americans that appears on the pages of Asian American Dreams are struggling to belong in a country where they in many cases either have lived for generations or have arrived at some point in the decades followed the 1965 law. 

The struggles differ by generation. 

Zia writes candidly about her parents’ efforts to impart Chinese values of filial obedience and respect for the community and notes the tensions that arise, especially for female children of immigrants.  These young women have particularly difficult balancing acts, as they are often encouraged in a more domestic direction from home and in a more outspoken direction by the society at large.  She cites Angela Oh, a Korean American activist who ruffled feathers both because of her plain talk and because of her being a woman. 

On the other hand, like many immigrant parents, many of the Asian transplants find themselves working hard to preserve their culture and transmit the values and practices they inherited to children who may not be as willing to receive the lessons and, even if they are, are bombarded by many other conflicting messages.

Asian American Dreams is also a story of national identity. 

Zia makes the point throughout the book that, to this day, many non-Asians immediately assume that Asian Americans must be from overseas, cannot possibly love the country without reservation and are fair game for the seemingly endless variety of stereotypes, fake accents and other forms of degradation. 

Yet, even among many of the older generation, including Zia’s father, who belatedly gains his citizenship after at least two decades in the country, there is indeed among many Asian Americans a love of country and a desire to belong in meaningful ways.

Zia writes movingly too about being a lesbian and having at different points to deny that part of her identity to other civil rights “allies.”  This poignant section introduces a chapter about the struggle for gay marriage in Hawaii that was spearheaded by three couples who sued the state for the right to marry.   One part that stayed with me was when gay marriage advocates within the Japanese American community made the connection between the arguments used for internment and to oppose gay marriage. 

Zia’s willingness to show divisions and conflict within the communities is an additional strength of the work.  She includes a letter she wrote to fellow Asian American journalists urging them to be themselves and not to shy away from or hide parts of their cultures that the larger American society might find objectionable.   Clearly written and argued, the document shows Zia’s courage, intelligence and dedication to the truth.

The book winds down with a chapter about former Washington Governor and current Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke.  Zia writes about his election as governor over opponent and then-Seattle Mayor Norm Rice in a state with a small Asian American community as evidence of the ongoing advancement of Asian Americans in the country. 

The book ends where it began, with her family and her father’s death.  Zia recounts his continual exhortation for his children to achieve and his wish, in the end, that they had turned out to be more American. 

Yet one cannot help but think, after reading this thoughtful and courageous book, that Zia’s father’s vision did materialize, if altered by his children having grown up in a different land where they took his wishes and hatched their own dreams that combined the lessons they inherited, the possibilities they witnessed and the struggles they and others in their community endured.