‘Imagine Us, Because We’re Here’: An Interview with Mira Jacob

Naomi Elias | Longreads | March 2019 | 18 minutes (4,793 words)

Nearly five years after the release of her award-winning debut novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, Mira Jacob returns with a graphic memoir, Good Talk: A Memoir In Conversations (One World, 2019). Jacob tells the story of her life in a series of conversations between illustrated figures of the author and her constant companion, her son, who is six-years-old at the beginning of the book and is referred to as Z throughout. Z’s hyper-observant nature leads him to ask complicated questions about race and politics the likes of which Jacob first illustrated for BuzzFeed in a 2015 graphic article entitled “37 Difficult Questions From My Mixed Race Son” that quickly went viral. The resulting memoir is a stunning achievement — it’s already being developed into a TV series — that offers a look at America through the eyes of three generations of Jacob’s family: herself, her Syrian Christian immigrant parents, and her mixed race son whom she is raising in Brooklyn with her husband Jed Rothstein, a white Jewish documentary filmmaker.

Jacob’s tracing of her family’s history in this country — from the start of her parents’ immigration story, to meeting and falling for her husband, to the present day where she is raising a brown son in Trump’s America — is a resonant testimony to how difficult but necessary it is to find and fight for your place in the world. In a heartfelt address delivered to her son in Good Talk, Jacob neatly condenses the existential dilemma that is the crux of the memoir: “I can’t protect you from spending a lifetime caught between the beautiful dream of a diverse nation and the complicated reality of one.”

While framed by Jacob’s conversations with her son, the book spans several different pivotal periods in the Indian-American author’s life. Jacob takes us time-traveling through her early years growing up in New Mexico as the daughter of immigrant parents, invites us to relive her dating foibles, walks us through the highs and lows of her early career as a writer in New York, and lets us overhear intimate conversations she’s had with her husband about how to nurture and protect their interracial family. Each period we revisit is filled with revealing snapshots — sometimes literally when Jacob shares actual family photos — of the type of life she lived and the people and experiences that shaped who she has become. Like any good conversation, the book is generously punctuated by humor, has an effortless flow, and is more concerned with thoughtfully exploring questions than in arriving at definitive answers.

The author opened up about her family life and her writing process in a candid conversation with Longreads earlier this month.

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Naomi Elias: This is an atypical format for a memoir. What is it about the nature of conversation that made you choose it over traditional narrative structure?

Mira Jacob: When I was writing this book, the reason I even started it was my son was in this moment that he was figuring out that he was brown. And he sort of had this natural trajectory of questions about brownness and what that meant. Some of the questions were really funny and some of them were just body-shattering. He asked me the question “Are white people afraid of brown people?” in the middle of the subway in the cutest chirp. He’s like [imitates son’s voice] “Are white people afraid of brown people?” and the whole subway just sat quiet and I was like oh shit.

He asked me these questions and I knew how they were affecting me, and also it was at the moment when the comment sections hit their peak of really being able to affect me, because it was before I learned that you just don’t look at the comments ever on anything if you want to remain in an interesting conversation. The minute I tried to write an essay about this I felt the comment section coming in and all the different ways that people could not believe the story I was writing, and then I felt how they would make fun of me and how they would make fun of him.

I think making fun of people and deciding you don’t believe them is a really great defense when you don’t want to interrogate things like racism and the systems that are preserving your life over someone else’s. So, I drew us on printer paper and I cut us out and then I just put those bubbles over the albums and then stood on my dining room table and took pictures of them. The great thing about that format is I no longer had to beg someone to care and I didn’t have to kind of walk through the minefield which is trying to open up somebody’s heart with your carefully explained argument. I could just say here it is, this is the conversation. You can choose to listen to it or you can not, but what you can’t do is tell me that it’s just not happening. It’s happening. It just changes the responsibility in some ways and, you know, you can argue out of that but that’s what it felt like for me, that was the psychic weight that was lifted.

Along with that was the idea that I didn’t really have to emote because I drew us as these fixed expressions. We never cry, we never laugh, none of the drawings ever have an emotional reaction to anything that’s happening around them. That also was incredibly freeing mentally, to just not have to perform racial pain in that way.  

I really tried to follow his lead. I really tried to answer the questions that he asked, and there are times in the book where that doesn’t always happen because mine sort of unspool in the same moment.

You attempt to have incredibly delicate and nuanced discussions with your son, but the talks gets hilariously and understandably derailed by his wandering mind. For instance a conversation about what distinguishes a racist from a bigot evolves (or devolves) into one about superheroes. In moments like that how do you know your words have reached him — that you have, as your book title suggests, had a “good talk”?

Oh, you don’t. The title is really tongue in cheek because so many of the talks in here are not anything you would ever call a good talk. For me, it’s almost like when you step away from a conversation that you know has gone bafflingly off-the-rails and you’re like, ‘good talk, good talk’ you know? You just say it to yourself in this way that’s like, ‘that was a disaster, I don’t know how anyone is going to recover from that one!’ Mostly I would leave conversations with him and I would be like, ‘that’s another five years of therapy right there.’

This is the really frustrating thing about being a parent especially in this moment, but I imagine all parents in every moment feel this — that despite all your carefully laid ideas about how you’re going to grow a small human into a big one, it’s just a disaster. It’s a shitshow left and right. You’re doing your very very best and it is so not even close to enough.

I think many parents, particularly parents of children of color, will respond to your desire to shield your son from harm and confusion by arming him with information about what it means to be a racial and religious minority in America. But there’s also the possibility — a concern you voice in the book — that you’ll overwhelm him with that information. Did you only answer questions your son asked organically or were there certain topics you felt he just needed to be briefed on?

I really tried to follow his lead. I really tried to answer the questions that he asked, and there are times in the book where that doesn’t always happen because mine sort of unspool in the same moment. It’s not like you get a list of questions that your child is going to ask you and then you come up with the answers and then you have the conversation. I am really conscious with him of just trying to go toward the thing he’s asking about as opposed to my unspoken fears about it, which are many. I also think that our adjacency to whiteness makes that possible for me.

Makes it possible not to answer questions?

Yeah, I mean it makes it possible for me to only answer the questions he’s asked. Indians in America, the thing that people get most often, the thing that I get most often is the assumption that I am somehow a suspect or un-American or possibly a terrorist. That’s a different kind of treatment than the treatment that my black friends and their kids are getting. It’s not like we’re just walking around the streets with people assuming that they have dominion over our bodies and our every word. That’s not how it breaks down for us day-to-day. There are situations we can get into where that certainly happens, and the place I feel it most is in airports, but that’s not my bodily experience so that means that I live differently and I get to answer questions differently. It’s not a one-size-fits-all question, because what you arm your child in the world with is very much how they experience the streets around them, and that’s a really different thing depending on what body you’re inhabiting and what place you’re in.

I have lost countless white friends over the last few years … They can’t have any conversation except for the one where you say they’re not racist. Any other conversation you want to have, you cannot have it until you first say they are not racist.

b>In recent years there has been a ramp up in efforts to romanticize interracial relationships and present them as a cure-all for racism and racial strife. But here you deliberately write about how living in a mixed race household has complicated your familial dynamic from having to navigate life with pro-Trump in-laws to fielding questions that your son only feels comfortable asking you and not his father. How did that revelation change your parenting style?

Well, I’ll say two things about that. One is that I think two things are happening in America. There is a ramping up of interracial relationships as a cure-all and the idea that there is an inherent understanding there and that is the thing that will fix us all in the end. But we also know that’s a lie. People don’t just understand each other magically. The converse of that is, really there’s a deep distrust of interracial relationships, too. There’s the idea that one person or the other really does not like themselves or their race and they’re settling in one way or another. So I think both of those things are in play in America always. For me, it was really important to walk right into that and stop being ruled by other people’s opinions about what this marriage looks like and just actually say what it looks like; and that means exposing the parts of it that are really good and the parts of it that are difficult.

The other part of your question was how has that affected my parenting style?

Yes because in the book you talk about how your husband was surprised to hear that his son had asked if he was afraid of him.

It’s really interesting because as the dark parent — and my son is brown, he could’ve easily not been — but as the parent that he most looks like skinwise, I think there are just certain things that I understand about his experience and I see coming that my husband doesn’t. That conversation was a real moment for us because I said it exactly like that, ‘you know he said the thing about are you afraid of him’ and my husband was like ‘wait, what? He said what?’ and it took me a minute to realize that oh shit this is brand new information. This has never occurred to you. It was hard because I saw his heart breaking because it’s his son, he was in the delivery room, he’s the first person that held that baby. This is every bit his son as much as mine, and then the idea that this little person that you would do anything for could think that is just heartbreaking. It was heartbreaking for him. And I understood that he was getting to a piece of knowledge that was newly heartbreaking for him and it was a piece of knowledge for me that was so old as to be calloused.

How that works out in our parenting style is that I’m often ahead of the conversation in that regard, meaning I often have to say things and then we have to clear it up a few times because I will take for granted that we all know this thing; and Jed will say we don’t know that thing, do we know that thing? Why would we know that thing? And we have to have a discussion about it. He’s a real person with opinions. It’s not like because I’m the dark person in the relationship I just get to say how race goes; that’s actually not how it works.

In one of the anecdotes you share in the book, a Boston radio producer who had asked you to read an excerpt from your first book on air made some unexpected edits to your language before broadcast — specifically how you identified your brown characters as ‘East Indian’ which he replaced with the redundant term ‘Asian Indian’ before you eventually settled on ‘South Asian.’ The producer thought the edit was what his audience needed to hear to be able to keep up with your story. How do you decide which concessions to make, if any, to be legible to your readers?

My assumption is that my readers are readers of color. I’m sure I have many white readers as well but I’m not writing myself to explain myself to my white readers. I’m writing for the people that I know are there, who are reading just as avidly, who most often are not being spoken to in books. I’m writing to the people like me who have been reading their whole life [waiting] to see anyone address them.

In a publicity situation, which is what the thing with the Boston radio producer was, that’s a really tough situation because I’ve already made a piece of art that is writing to its intended audience, and what he’s doing is inserting himself in that and saying ‘no, people really aren’t going to understand you.’ I’ve already made the thing that I want to make and he’s coming in and saying ‘yeah, but you’re going to have to translate yourself if you really want people to understand.’ That’s something that I’ve heard my whole life. My entire creative life people have said ‘well if you really want people to understand…’ and I always say, ‘which people are you talking about?’

I think we’re onto it now. At this moment the assumption of whiteness is not worth making anymore. It’s not only insulting, it’s bafflingly backward at this point in time and it always was but it’s an especially violent thing to do now. If you’re still doing it, you’re doing violence to many people. In that moment, he was trying to get me to do that, and I don’t want to do that; and that was what was so troubling about that moment. His assumption about his own audience — which is also crazy as a Boston radio producer — was that it was white and also he assumed his white audience wouldn’t understand Indian names. I think those are two crazy assumptions to make right off the bat and then to ask me to then change my art to satisfy his fantasy of what readers not only looked like but what they were capable of is just insulting.

I was raised in this white supremacy like everyone else. I had the same problems, I had the same sickness that I’m trying to get rid of. There’s no moment in which I’m going to be free of it. There’s just going to be me continually pulling back the curtain on it.

Have you felt like since that incident you’ve taken more of a hard line if anyone else were to ask you to do something like that?

You know, it’s really hard in the moment. I find when you’re doing something ancillary to your work — i.e. promoting your art, which is very different from making it — those conversations come at you very quickly and in a flood. It is really hard to always know ‘wait, where is the line? What is the line? Where is the thing that is actually being rubbed up against?’ I’ve had to stop myself in the middle of conversations to say, ‘wait I don’t want you to put that kind of a title on my work.’ I’ve had to stop certain things like that, but you can’t possibly stop all of them. I think at this point in my life I know that if I’m uncomfortable it’s for a very good reason. I am not easily made uncomfortable. I’m not particularly precious about my work. If something is upsetting to me, it’s because someone is gunning for something that is unfair to me and it’s unfair to my work, and it’s unfair to my readers.


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There’s a moment after you are mistaken for the help at a party thrown by your mother-in-law where you internally debate talking to her about why it happened. You write, “Sometimes you weigh explaining against staying quiet and know they’re both just different kinds of heavy.” That really leveled me. Very few people understand that constantly having to explain yourself or defend yourself against microaggressions is exhausting. How do you begin to make people understand the concept of emotional labor when it goes largely unseen even to family members?

Not only does it go unseen, I think it’s expected. That to me is the hardest part. Yes, it’s invisible, but even if it is visible, it is expected. Of course you should do this work for me, your job is in fact to do this work. Your job is to do the work of explaining yourself to me because I am in charge of the room, I am in charge of how our relationship goes and you should do everything you can to keep that a pleasant relationship. That’s the inherent unspoken part of it that’s really decimating. It’s really hard to explain to someone who does not want to know that information on their own. It’s really hard to convince them of the veracity of it, and I think that’s true of many of these conversations. I think if someone is genuinely uninterested or too defensive to hear, they will stay too defensive to hear.

I have lost countless white friends over the last few years in kind of this brutal shakedown of white liberalism, people who have always considered themselves to be on the right side of everything but the minute you say hey you’re hurting me, this hurts they have such an intolerance for hearing. They can’t have any conversation except for the one where you say they’re not racist. Any other conversation you want to have, you cannot have it until you first say they are not racist. Being put in that position over and over again has taught me that it’s really common that people will expect you to do this work for them; it’s really common to be told that when you are refusing to do that work and when you say ‘hey this is what your show looks like’ or ‘hey this is what your part of this burden looks like’ they will say ‘how dare you?’ How dare you say that about me? How dare you think that of me? as though you asking for help and for them to own their part in this is somehow a tremendous insult to the entire idea of friendship. I’ve gotten really comfortable with the knowledge that that is just the place that some of these conversations will land. Those particular relationships are not going to be easily turned into something else.

Does that make sense?

It does. I’m black and I’ve felt the irritation of someone — even someone well-meaning — saying “I don’t know why this is wrong, can you explain it?”

No, I don’t want to. I don’t want to spend my day doing that for you! Can you Google it? And if you can’t, can you turn to a different friend because I’m tapped out right now.

Yeah!

Alison said this great thing to me; it’s not in the book, but when I was writing the book I had a falling out with a person that we mutually knew and she — so Alison’s my best friend you probably know that if you read the book, she’s in many parts of it — she said this funny thing to me in a bar once where she’s like, “Do I need to have the white lady to white lady talk with her?” And I was like, what? “What is the ‘white lady to white lady’ conversation?” And she says it’s the one where you turn to that person and say, You just flipped out on Mira about your own racism, you just threw every funny feeling that you had in your body about racism at a woman who has been dealing with nothing but her entire life. Who in this situation do you think maybe needs a break from that moment and who do you think needs to pick it up and carry it forward? I’m going to give you ten minutes to figure that out and then we will continue this conversation. And I was like, “that’s the white lady to white lady conversation?!” It was so funny. And she was like, “that’s it.” And I was like, amen.

The fact that the institutions and establishments managed to not imagine us into existence means nothing. Imagine us, because we’re here.

While most of the stories you share are about times when you’ve been on the receiving end of a racist or sexist remark, you also share memories of instances when you’ve subjected others to your own prejudices. Why was it important to you to include that?

a., Because they happened, but also b., because I am seeing around me, as I’m sure you are, the performance of wokeness and the idea that being woke is a destination. It seems to me that some people think it’s literally a plane trip and you’re in another land and then you are woke and from that land you can criticize the land you used to be in and all people that remain in it. I just find that such a load of shit. I think there is only ever waking, right? There’s only ever going to be waking. There is not a moment in which you’re going to ever truly be woke, and I say that as a person of color who everyone always assumes is on the right side of things and I’m not. When I was writing this book I was like ‘if you’re going to write honestly about something, you’re going to write something that in a week or month or three years, you’re going to look back at this and think [makes heaving noise] that was another way in which I expose myself to be a jerk, and it’s true and I know it’s in there. There are things in there that if you sort of unpack them, they’re still unsettling, and they’re painful; and it’s because I was raised in this white supremacy like everyone else. I had the same problems, I had the same sickness that I’m trying to get rid of. There’s no moment in which I’m going to be free of it. There’s just going to be me continually pulling back the curtain on it and trying to figure out where it’s coming from and trying to go forward in a different way.

Memoirs — the good ones at least — demand vulnerability from their authors. What was the bigger challenge for you, writing a memoir or sharing it with the world?

I mean, ask me in a month honestly. It’s much easier to expose yourself than it is your family, especially in a country that is so violently racist. I am nervous about what this country will do to us. I’m nervous about the various ways in which we will be positioned as saviors or abominations when all we are is just human. That’s it. All I’m saying is that we’re human, not particularly good or bad, just real and muddling forward.

I think people will be pleasantly surprised to find that President Obama figures prominently in this memoir. You even devote a couple of pages to reprinting a segment of a speech he made about America’s racial divide at a pivotal point in his first presidential campaign. How did he earn such an important place in the story of your life?

Here’s the thing about where America had been before: there was a stalemate in the conversation about race because there was the idea that no white people had any problem with race anymore, and there was no way to really talk about it. If you were a person of color and you were bringing it up, it was more about the chip on your shoulder than anything else. Everyone else was totally fine. It was this incredibly slippery situation and informed very much by the baby boomer generation and the sort of like ‘we fought all the wars that needed to be fought, we fought all the cultural wars and now we’re in a better place,’ and an inability to parse through why then the prison system looked the way that it did, why the crack epidemic looked like it did. So when that moment happened and when President Obama — Senator Obama at that point — talked in this way about race, when he said if we’re going to talk about this, we’ve really gotta talk about it and you can’t pretend these problems don’t exist, they exist and yes you’re upset about this man and I’m upset about part of what he said, the part that upsets me is he doesn’t think Americans can change because I do but we’re not going to pretend the other thing he said here is also untrue, we’re not doing that for your ego. Just having him say that? I was sitting on my couch bawling. I couldn’t believe it. It was such an obvious way forward and no one had said it before. No one had found out a way to say of course you are hurting and killing us, that is the reality and we have to find a way forward. No one had said that. It was just amazing. It was just wild. I remember watching that speech and just thinking oh my god, how is this happening? And being so relieved on a cellular level. I felt like my atoms were rearranging to take in oh this too is a way forward, who knew? That’s why that figures prominently in there.

People like to reduce that and say oh you just like him because he’s brown and you’re brown. I feel like they don’t even begin to understand what it was like for all the bodies in America that had carried that history to hear him say this and to stand differently having heard it. It was different. My vision of America in that moment is a thousand different living rooms of people just sitting up straighter. I’m not saying everything about Obama is flawless, of course not, but this thing that he said was a real and measured response to real and valid pain, and that just hadn’t happened. In my lifetime that had not happened, not on that national level. It was always in quiet groups with people of color and never televised, never that publicly.  

There is a page in this book that’s full of the bad advice you’ve received from other people about how to build a career as a writer including working for exposure instead of pay, a warning to not “ghettoize yourself with ethnic writing,” and to stay away from writing for the Web. Is there any writing advice you’ve received that has actually helped?

Yes, absolutely. It’s advice that Kiese Laymon gave to his many students and it’s really simple: write for us. Write for us, write for the multitudes of us that are here, that don’t fit into any Census box so neatly, that somehow have not been quite imagined by the country we’ve been in our whole lives and for decades and centuries. We are here, we exist, you know we exist. The fact that the institutions and establishments managed to not imagine us into existence means nothing. Imagine us, because we’re here. And write for us.

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Naomi Elias is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared online and in print at a variety of publications including New York MagazineNylonTeen Vogue, and Brooklyn Magazine.

Editor: Dana Snitzky

from Longreads https://ift.tt/2YrCorp

Naomi Elias | Longreads | March 2019 | 18 minutes (4,793 words)

Nearly five years after the release of her award-winning debut novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, Mira Jacob returns with a graphic memoir, Good Talk: A Memoir In Conversations (One World, 2019). Jacob tells the story of her life in a series of conversations between illustrated figures of the author and her constant companion, her son, who is six-years-old at the beginning of the book and is referred to as Z throughout. Z’s hyper-observant nature leads him to ask complicated questions about race and politics the likes of which Jacob first illustrated for BuzzFeed in a 2015 graphic article entitled “37 Difficult Questions From My Mixed Race Son” that quickly went viral. The resulting memoir is a stunning achievement — it’s already being developed into a TV series — that offers a look at America through the eyes of three generations of Jacob’s family: herself, her Syrian Christian immigrant parents, and her mixed race son whom she is raising in Brooklyn with her husband Jed Rothstein, a white Jewish documentary filmmaker.

Jacob’s tracing of her family’s history in this country — from the start of her parents’ immigration story, to meeting and falling for her husband, to the present day where she is raising a brown son in Trump’s America — is a resonant testimony to how difficult but necessary it is to find and fight for your place in the world. In a heartfelt address delivered to her son in Good Talk, Jacob neatly condenses the existential dilemma that is the crux of the memoir: “I can’t protect you from spending a lifetime caught between the beautiful dream of a diverse nation and the complicated reality of one.”

While framed by Jacob’s conversations with her son, the book spans several different pivotal periods in the Indian-American author’s life. Jacob takes us time-traveling through her early years growing up in New Mexico as the daughter of immigrant parents, invites us to relive her dating foibles, walks us through the highs and lows of her early career as a writer in New York, and lets us overhear intimate conversations she’s had with her husband about how to nurture and protect their interracial family. Each period we revisit is filled with revealing snapshots — sometimes literally when Jacob shares actual family photos — of the type of life she lived and the people and experiences that shaped who she has become. Like any good conversation, the book is generously punctuated by humor, has an effortless flow, and is more concerned with thoughtfully exploring questions than in arriving at definitive answers.

The author opened up about her family life and her writing process in a candid conversation with Longreads earlier this month.

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Naomi Elias: This is an atypical format for a memoir. What is it about the nature of conversation that made you choose it over traditional narrative structure?

Mira Jacob: When I was writing this book, the reason I even started it was my son was in this moment that he was figuring out that he was brown. And he sort of had this natural trajectory of questions about brownness and what that meant. Some of the questions were really funny and some of them were just body-shattering. He asked me the question “Are white people afraid of brown people?” in the middle of the subway in the cutest chirp. He’s like [imitates son’s voice] “Are white people afraid of brown people?” and the whole subway just sat quiet and I was like oh shit.

He asked me these questions and I knew how they were affecting me, and also it was at the moment when the comment sections hit their peak of really being able to affect me, because it was before I learned that you just don’t look at the comments ever on anything if you want to remain in an interesting conversation. The minute I tried to write an essay about this I felt the comment section coming in and all the different ways that people could not believe the story I was writing, and then I felt how they would make fun of me and how they would make fun of him.

I think making fun of people and deciding you don’t believe them is a really great defense when you don’t want to interrogate things like racism and the systems that are preserving your life over someone else’s. So, I drew us on printer paper and I cut us out and then I just put those bubbles over the albums and then stood on my dining room table and took pictures of them. The great thing about that format is I no longer had to beg someone to care and I didn’t have to kind of walk through the minefield which is trying to open up somebody’s heart with your carefully explained argument. I could just say here it is, this is the conversation. You can choose to listen to it or you can not, but what you can’t do is tell me that it’s just not happening. It’s happening. It just changes the responsibility in some ways and, you know, you can argue out of that but that’s what it felt like for me, that was the psychic weight that was lifted.

Along with that was the idea that I didn’t really have to emote because I drew us as these fixed expressions. We never cry, we never laugh, none of the drawings ever have an emotional reaction to anything that’s happening around them. That also was incredibly freeing mentally, to just not have to perform racial pain in that way.  

I really tried to follow his lead. I really tried to answer the questions that he asked, and there are times in the book where that doesn’t always happen because mine sort of unspool in the same moment.

You attempt to have incredibly delicate and nuanced discussions with your son, but the talks gets hilariously and understandably derailed by his wandering mind. For instance a conversation about what distinguishes a racist from a bigot evolves (or devolves) into one about superheroes. In moments like that how do you know your words have reached him — that you have, as your book title suggests, had a “good talk”?

Oh, you don’t. The title is really tongue in cheek because so many of the talks in here are not anything you would ever call a good talk. For me, it’s almost like when you step away from a conversation that you know has gone bafflingly off-the-rails and you’re like, ‘good talk, good talk’ you know? You just say it to yourself in this way that’s like, ‘that was a disaster, I don’t know how anyone is going to recover from that one!’ Mostly I would leave conversations with him and I would be like, ‘that’s another five years of therapy right there.’

This is the really frustrating thing about being a parent especially in this moment, but I imagine all parents in every moment feel this — that despite all your carefully laid ideas about how you’re going to grow a small human into a big one, it’s just a disaster. It’s a shitshow left and right. You’re doing your very very best and it is so not even close to enough.

I think many parents, particularly parents of children of color, will respond to your desire to shield your son from harm and confusion by arming him with information about what it means to be a racial and religious minority in America. But there’s also the possibility — a concern you voice in the book — that you’ll overwhelm him with that information. Did you only answer questions your son asked organically or were there certain topics you felt he just needed to be briefed on?

I really tried to follow his lead. I really tried to answer the questions that he asked, and there are times in the book where that doesn’t always happen because mine sort of unspool in the same moment. It’s not like you get a list of questions that your child is going to ask you and then you come up with the answers and then you have the conversation. I am really conscious with him of just trying to go toward the thing he’s asking about as opposed to my unspoken fears about it, which are many. I also think that our adjacency to whiteness makes that possible for me.

Makes it possible not to answer questions?

Yeah, I mean it makes it possible for me to only answer the questions he’s asked. Indians in America, the thing that people get most often, the thing that I get most often is the assumption that I am somehow a suspect or un-American or possibly a terrorist. That’s a different kind of treatment than the treatment that my black friends and their kids are getting. It’s not like we’re just walking around the streets with people assuming that they have dominion over our bodies and our every word. That’s not how it breaks down for us day-to-day. There are situations we can get into where that certainly happens, and the place I feel it most is in airports, but that’s not my bodily experience so that means that I live differently and I get to answer questions differently. It’s not a one-size-fits-all question, because what you arm your child in the world with is very much how they experience the streets around them, and that’s a really different thing depending on what body you’re inhabiting and what place you’re in.

I have lost countless white friends over the last few years … They can’t have any conversation except for the one where you say they’re not racist. Any other conversation you want to have, you cannot have it until you first say they are not racist.

b>In recent years there has been a ramp up in efforts to romanticize interracial relationships and present them as a cure-all for racism and racial strife. But here you deliberately write about how living in a mixed race household has complicated your familial dynamic from having to navigate life with pro-Trump in-laws to fielding questions that your son only feels comfortable asking you and not his father. How did that revelation change your parenting style?

Well, I’ll say two things about that. One is that I think two things are happening in America. There is a ramping up of interracial relationships as a cure-all and the idea that there is an inherent understanding there and that is the thing that will fix us all in the end. But we also know that’s a lie. People don’t just understand each other magically. The converse of that is, really there’s a deep distrust of interracial relationships, too. There’s the idea that one person or the other really does not like themselves or their race and they’re settling in one way or another. So I think both of those things are in play in America always. For me, it was really important to walk right into that and stop being ruled by other people’s opinions about what this marriage looks like and just actually say what it looks like; and that means exposing the parts of it that are really good and the parts of it that are difficult.

The other part of your question was how has that affected my parenting style?

Yes because in the book you talk about how your husband was surprised to hear that his son had asked if he was afraid of him.

It’s really interesting because as the dark parent — and my son is brown, he could’ve easily not been — but as the parent that he most looks like skinwise, I think there are just certain things that I understand about his experience and I see coming that my husband doesn’t. That conversation was a real moment for us because I said it exactly like that, ‘you know he said the thing about are you afraid of him’ and my husband was like ‘wait, what? He said what?’ and it took me a minute to realize that oh shit this is brand new information. This has never occurred to you. It was hard because I saw his heart breaking because it’s his son, he was in the delivery room, he’s the first person that held that baby. This is every bit his son as much as mine, and then the idea that this little person that you would do anything for could think that is just heartbreaking. It was heartbreaking for him. And I understood that he was getting to a piece of knowledge that was newly heartbreaking for him and it was a piece of knowledge for me that was so old as to be calloused.

How that works out in our parenting style is that I’m often ahead of the conversation in that regard, meaning I often have to say things and then we have to clear it up a few times because I will take for granted that we all know this thing; and Jed will say we don’t know that thing, do we know that thing? Why would we know that thing? And we have to have a discussion about it. He’s a real person with opinions. It’s not like because I’m the dark person in the relationship I just get to say how race goes; that’s actually not how it works.

In one of the anecdotes you share in the book, a Boston radio producer who had asked you to read an excerpt from your first book on air made some unexpected edits to your language before broadcast — specifically how you identified your brown characters as ‘East Indian’ which he replaced with the redundant term ‘Asian Indian’ before you eventually settled on ‘South Asian.’ The producer thought the edit was what his audience needed to hear to be able to keep up with your story. How do you decide which concessions to make, if any, to be legible to your readers?

My assumption is that my readers are readers of color. I’m sure I have many white readers as well but I’m not writing myself to explain myself to my white readers. I’m writing for the people that I know are there, who are reading just as avidly, who most often are not being spoken to in books. I’m writing to the people like me who have been reading their whole life [waiting] to see anyone address them.

In a publicity situation, which is what the thing with the Boston radio producer was, that’s a really tough situation because I’ve already made a piece of art that is writing to its intended audience, and what he’s doing is inserting himself in that and saying ‘no, people really aren’t going to understand you.’ I’ve already made the thing that I want to make and he’s coming in and saying ‘yeah, but you’re going to have to translate yourself if you really want people to understand.’ That’s something that I’ve heard my whole life. My entire creative life people have said ‘well if you really want people to understand…’ and I always say, ‘which people are you talking about?’

I think we’re onto it now. At this moment the assumption of whiteness is not worth making anymore. It’s not only insulting, it’s bafflingly backward at this point in time and it always was but it’s an especially violent thing to do now. If you’re still doing it, you’re doing violence to many people. In that moment, he was trying to get me to do that, and I don’t want to do that; and that was what was so troubling about that moment. His assumption about his own audience — which is also crazy as a Boston radio producer — was that it was white and also he assumed his white audience wouldn’t understand Indian names. I think those are two crazy assumptions to make right off the bat and then to ask me to then change my art to satisfy his fantasy of what readers not only looked like but what they were capable of is just insulting.

I was raised in this white supremacy like everyone else. I had the same problems, I had the same sickness that I’m trying to get rid of. There’s no moment in which I’m going to be free of it. There’s just going to be me continually pulling back the curtain on it.

Have you felt like since that incident you’ve taken more of a hard line if anyone else were to ask you to do something like that?

You know, it’s really hard in the moment. I find when you’re doing something ancillary to your work — i.e. promoting your art, which is very different from making it — those conversations come at you very quickly and in a flood. It is really hard to always know ‘wait, where is the line? What is the line? Where is the thing that is actually being rubbed up against?’ I’ve had to stop myself in the middle of conversations to say, ‘wait I don’t want you to put that kind of a title on my work.’ I’ve had to stop certain things like that, but you can’t possibly stop all of them. I think at this point in my life I know that if I’m uncomfortable it’s for a very good reason. I am not easily made uncomfortable. I’m not particularly precious about my work. If something is upsetting to me, it’s because someone is gunning for something that is unfair to me and it’s unfair to my work, and it’s unfair to my readers.


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There’s a moment after you are mistaken for the help at a party thrown by your mother-in-law where you internally debate talking to her about why it happened. You write, “Sometimes you weigh explaining against staying quiet and know they’re both just different kinds of heavy.” That really leveled me. Very few people understand that constantly having to explain yourself or defend yourself against microaggressions is exhausting. How do you begin to make people understand the concept of emotional labor when it goes largely unseen even to family members?

Not only does it go unseen, I think it’s expected. That to me is the hardest part. Yes, it’s invisible, but even if it is visible, it is expected. Of course you should do this work for me, your job is in fact to do this work. Your job is to do the work of explaining yourself to me because I am in charge of the room, I am in charge of how our relationship goes and you should do everything you can to keep that a pleasant relationship. That’s the inherent unspoken part of it that’s really decimating. It’s really hard to explain to someone who does not want to know that information on their own. It’s really hard to convince them of the veracity of it, and I think that’s true of many of these conversations. I think if someone is genuinely uninterested or too defensive to hear, they will stay too defensive to hear.

I have lost countless white friends over the last few years in kind of this brutal shakedown of white liberalism, people who have always considered themselves to be on the right side of everything but the minute you say hey you’re hurting me, this hurts they have such an intolerance for hearing. They can’t have any conversation except for the one where you say they’re not racist. Any other conversation you want to have, you cannot have it until you first say they are not racist. Being put in that position over and over again has taught me that it’s really common that people will expect you to do this work for them; it’s really common to be told that when you are refusing to do that work and when you say ‘hey this is what your show looks like’ or ‘hey this is what your part of this burden looks like’ they will say ‘how dare you?’ How dare you say that about me? How dare you think that of me? as though you asking for help and for them to own their part in this is somehow a tremendous insult to the entire idea of friendship. I’ve gotten really comfortable with the knowledge that that is just the place that some of these conversations will land. Those particular relationships are not going to be easily turned into something else.

Does that make sense?

It does. I’m black and I’ve felt the irritation of someone — even someone well-meaning — saying “I don’t know why this is wrong, can you explain it?”

No, I don’t want to. I don’t want to spend my day doing that for you! Can you Google it? And if you can’t, can you turn to a different friend because I’m tapped out right now.

Yeah!

Alison said this great thing to me; it’s not in the book, but when I was writing the book I had a falling out with a person that we mutually knew and she — so Alison’s my best friend you probably know that if you read the book, she’s in many parts of it — she said this funny thing to me in a bar once where she’s like, “Do I need to have the white lady to white lady talk with her?” And I was like, what? “What is the ‘white lady to white lady’ conversation?” And she says it’s the one where you turn to that person and say, You just flipped out on Mira about your own racism, you just threw every funny feeling that you had in your body about racism at a woman who has been dealing with nothing but her entire life. Who in this situation do you think maybe needs a break from that moment and who do you think needs to pick it up and carry it forward? I’m going to give you ten minutes to figure that out and then we will continue this conversation. And I was like, “that’s the white lady to white lady conversation?!” It was so funny. And she was like, “that’s it.” And I was like, amen.

The fact that the institutions and establishments managed to not imagine us into existence means nothing. Imagine us, because we’re here.

While most of the stories you share are about times when you’ve been on the receiving end of a racist or sexist remark, you also share memories of instances when you’ve subjected others to your own prejudices. Why was it important to you to include that?

a., Because they happened, but also b., because I am seeing around me, as I’m sure you are, the performance of wokeness and the idea that being woke is a destination. It seems to me that some people think it’s literally a plane trip and you’re in another land and then you are woke and from that land you can criticize the land you used to be in and all people that remain in it. I just find that such a load of shit. I think there is only ever waking, right? There’s only ever going to be waking. There is not a moment in which you’re going to ever truly be woke, and I say that as a person of color who everyone always assumes is on the right side of things and I’m not. When I was writing this book I was like ‘if you’re going to write honestly about something, you’re going to write something that in a week or month or three years, you’re going to look back at this and think [makes heaving noise] that was another way in which I expose myself to be a jerk, and it’s true and I know it’s in there. There are things in there that if you sort of unpack them, they’re still unsettling, and they’re painful; and it’s because I was raised in this white supremacy like everyone else. I had the same problems, I had the same sickness that I’m trying to get rid of. There’s no moment in which I’m going to be free of it. There’s just going to be me continually pulling back the curtain on it and trying to figure out where it’s coming from and trying to go forward in a different way.

Memoirs — the good ones at least — demand vulnerability from their authors. What was the bigger challenge for you, writing a memoir or sharing it with the world?

I mean, ask me in a month honestly. It’s much easier to expose yourself than it is your family, especially in a country that is so violently racist. I am nervous about what this country will do to us. I’m nervous about the various ways in which we will be positioned as saviors or abominations when all we are is just human. That’s it. All I’m saying is that we’re human, not particularly good or bad, just real and muddling forward.

I think people will be pleasantly surprised to find that President Obama figures prominently in this memoir. You even devote a couple of pages to reprinting a segment of a speech he made about America’s racial divide at a pivotal point in his first presidential campaign. How did he earn such an important place in the story of your life?

Here’s the thing about where America had been before: there was a stalemate in the conversation about race because there was the idea that no white people had any problem with race anymore, and there was no way to really talk about it. If you were a person of color and you were bringing it up, it was more about the chip on your shoulder than anything else. Everyone else was totally fine. It was this incredibly slippery situation and informed very much by the baby boomer generation and the sort of like ‘we fought all the wars that needed to be fought, we fought all the cultural wars and now we’re in a better place,’ and an inability to parse through why then the prison system looked the way that it did, why the crack epidemic looked like it did. So when that moment happened and when President Obama — Senator Obama at that point — talked in this way about race, when he said if we’re going to talk about this, we’ve really gotta talk about it and you can’t pretend these problems don’t exist, they exist and yes you’re upset about this man and I’m upset about part of what he said, the part that upsets me is he doesn’t think Americans can change because I do but we’re not going to pretend the other thing he said here is also untrue, we’re not doing that for your ego. Just having him say that? I was sitting on my couch bawling. I couldn’t believe it. It was such an obvious way forward and no one had said it before. No one had found out a way to say of course you are hurting and killing us, that is the reality and we have to find a way forward. No one had said that. It was just amazing. It was just wild. I remember watching that speech and just thinking oh my god, how is this happening? And being so relieved on a cellular level. I felt like my atoms were rearranging to take in oh this too is a way forward, who knew? That’s why that figures prominently in there.

People like to reduce that and say oh you just like him because he’s brown and you’re brown. I feel like they don’t even begin to understand what it was like for all the bodies in America that had carried that history to hear him say this and to stand differently having heard it. It was different. My vision of America in that moment is a thousand different living rooms of people just sitting up straighter. I’m not saying everything about Obama is flawless, of course not, but this thing that he said was a real and measured response to real and valid pain, and that just hadn’t happened. In my lifetime that had not happened, not on that national level. It was always in quiet groups with people of color and never televised, never that publicly.  

There is a page in this book that’s full of the bad advice you’ve received from other people about how to build a career as a writer including working for exposure instead of pay, a warning to not “ghettoize yourself with ethnic writing,” and to stay away from writing for the Web. Is there any writing advice you’ve received that has actually helped?

Yes, absolutely. It’s advice that Kiese Laymon gave to his many students and it’s really simple: write for us. Write for us, write for the multitudes of us that are here, that don’t fit into any Census box so neatly, that somehow have not been quite imagined by the country we’ve been in our whole lives and for decades and centuries. We are here, we exist, you know we exist. The fact that the institutions and establishments managed to not imagine us into existence means nothing. Imagine us, because we’re here. And write for us.

* * *

Naomi Elias is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared online and in print at a variety of publications including New York MagazineNylonTeen Vogue, and Brooklyn Magazine.

Editor: Dana Snitzky


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And They Do Not Stop Until Dusk

Daisy Alioto | Longreads | March 2019 | 14 minutes (3,722 words)


“I beheld thee rich in sorrow,
Graceful in the bloom of youth,
Where, like gold within the mountain
In the heart lies faith and truth,
On the Danube,
On the Danube, bright and blue.”
—Karl Isidor Beck, “On the Danube”

“At last I penetrate into the distance, into the soundproof blue of nostalgias.” —Jean Arp

*

I have an adolescent memory of walking along a lake near my Massachusetts home and finding a child’s blackened shoe caught in the murky inch of water at the shore. I knew that not long ago a pilot had died crashing a single-seat Cessna into this same lake, and I had lately been looking at piles of shoes as part of the school’s Holocaust curriculum. The combination of these two facts — totally unrelated — filled me with deep dread, and I turned around and hurried back to my family.

Artist György Román’s childhood was characterized by such dread. The painter was born in Budapest in 1903 and suffered a bout of meningitis in 1905 which left him deaf and temporarily paralyzed in both legs. As a result, “his mind was swamped in the chaos of meanings around visual images,” writes Marianna Kolozsváry in her monograph of the artist. (Kolozsváry’s father was one of Román’s first collectors.) Although Román regained use of his legs, he was deaf for the rest of his life.

Out of vivid dreams and passive observation of the surrounding world, Román formed his own vernacular of symbols and omens. Cats, monkeys, carnivals, and men in mustaches were imbued with evil intentions and disease. The glowing red signage of shops and brothels were both indistinguishable and sinister. Toy soldiers were the protagonists of this world.

The Hungarian actor Miklós Gábor wrote of Román’s work, “He paints dreams, but he is not a surrealist. He paints naively, but he is not a naive painter. He is a clever man, but not intellectual. He sees nightmares, but he is no expressionist.”

Painting, boxing and even a failed attempt at chocolate making would take Román around the world. However, fate would deliver him back to Budapest in time to watch his country cave to fascism, his Jewish relatives rounded up like cattle. The childhood nightmares were just a rehearsal.

As a man, Román channeled the keen observations of filth he made as a young boy into an aesthetic rebuke of Hungary’s embrace of fascism. “His ‘nose had already picked up the stench of the decaying carcass’ in the sunny peacetime and revealed the destitution that begat heinous ideologies, and the horror,” Kolozsváry writes, quoting Román himself.

Hanging at a Circus

“Hanging at a Circus” (Ildikó Regényi / the György Román Estate)

*

Hungary’s capital has been called the ‘Pearl of the Danube.’ It straddles the river, holding itself together by way of seven seams (bridges) between the hilly Buda and flat Pest. Hungary sits in the Carpathian Basin, which will mean little to the average person — including me. It is much easier to imagine the city as a pearl itself, squatting at the heart of a mollusk, instead of as a flat plain of ancient sediment bounded by mountains and beset by invaders. Each of the subsequent intruders (Mongol, Ottoman, Habsburg, Soviet) are like the foreign critters calcified within a mollusk until the scars of repeated displacement accidentally become indistinguishable from the iridescence of culture.

In his book Budapest: A History of Grandeur and Catastrophe, Joe Hajdu describes fin de siècle Budapest (through 1914) as the Golden Age of the city’s intellectual achievement. On the ground floor of an opulent building called the New York Palace was a coffee house called the New York Café, nicknamed ‘the New York,’ a literary haunt and the birthplace of Nyugat (West) which would become the country’s premiere literary journal. Among the writers, critics and turn-of-the-century scenesters that frequented the cafe was my great, great grandmother Helene’s nephew, Artúr Elek.

The childhood nightmares were just a rehearsal.

In her memoir In the Darkroom, Susan Faludi points out that by the 1910s a quarter of Hungary’s artists and writers were Jewish despite making up just five percent of the total population. “They were instrumental in creating a cultural environment in which artists and intellectuals, both Jewish and Christian, could thrive. A notable segment of the gentile literati embraced that collaboration, pinning to it their greatest hopes for a cultural renaissance.” My ancestors saw themselves as Hungarian first and Jewish second, taking new names to signify their cultural (and sometimes, religious) assimilation. “More than anyone else, the Jews invented what it meant to be Hungarian,” Faludi concludes.

Artúr Elek is listed among the ‘first generation’ (1908 — 1918) of Nyugat writers and editors by Mario Fenyo in his book Literature and Political Change: Budapest, 1908-1918. I imagine him expounding on the events of the current day, his legs (one slightly shorter than the other) tucked under a chair. His hands picking at a plate of cold meat, cheese and bread called the ‘Writers’ Plate’ which the New York offered to creatives at a discount, according to Hajdu.

Elek had another important purpose: guiding his nephew, György Román, into a career as a painter. (Román’s mother was Helene’s niece, making György Román another distant cousin of mine.) György Román would singularly capture Hungary’s moral poverty through his artwork. The dark side of a pearl still struggling in its tongue of silt.

*

The layout of Budapest hasn’t changed much since the turn of the century. “The major arterials developed after 1870 are still the main routes for the cars, trams and buses, and many of the streetscapes are still defined by the buildings which were built during this golden era before 1914,” writes Hajdu.

In September 2017, I met Janos Gat in front of Budapest’s neo-baroque Comedy Theatre. It was my first time in the city. In February, having stumbled upon the connection between my grandmother and Elek, as well as Elek and Román, I emailed Gat asking to purchase a catalogue from his 2002 exhibition György Román (1903-1981): A Survey at his former gallery space on the Bowery. He wrote back within two hours: “György Román is one of the greatest painters, ever … so you have much to be proud of.”

And yet, Román’s international recognition remains sparse, a problem that plagues the entirety of the post-war Hungarian canon. After WWII, the country’s art was largely behind the Iron Curtain. For a brief period at the fall of the USSR, the West embraced Hungarian art, just as the democratizing nation was embraced politically. Eastern European art was in vogue!

However, as Hungary has reverted back to far right leadership, it has distanced itself from America and Western Europe, isolating itself and its arts culture. The country’s art market is riddled with forgeries, not to be trusted by foreign buyers. Its government has consolidated public art under the umbrella of the privately founded and politically conservative Hungarian Academy of Arts, where it’s been mismanaged or pulled from view as part of ongoing ‘renovation’ projects with unclear objectives. Its thuggish private collectors tend to overlook historical importance in favor of kitsch.

Katalin had dreamt that a man would come to her with an odd request and that she was to agree, no matter the circumstances.

In 2016, the NGO Atlatszo reported that friends of the government were ‘renting’ works from The Museum of Fine Arts’ public collection for ‘pennies.’ Contemporary art gallerists, reluctant to lend works to the public collection for fear of losing custody of them, have picked up the slack by arranging shows expressly for visitors from foreign museums, including a pop-up exhibition staged for the Tate committee, a team of curators from New York’s Museum of Modern Art and a group from the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The grassroots OFF-Biennale, started in 2015, is also an effort to raise the profile of contemporary Hungarian art without relying on government institutions.

When Gat approached György Román’s daughter, Katalin, in the 1990s asking to represent her father’s artworks he thus met with little resistance. Taking after her father, Katalin had dreamt that a man would come to her with an odd request and that she was to agree, no matter the circumstances.

Decades later, Gat and I walked to where his Román paintings are stored. Together, we pulled them into view, leaning them around the room as sunlight streamed in to illuminate the blood reds and (blood) blues and (blood) browns of Román’s palette. The paintings are far more textured than they could ever appear in print. In 1924, Román began thickly layering oil paint and, after the 50s, began twisting the brush as he applied it. Later in his life he would almost always apply paint with a palette knife. (I scraped my knuckle on the surface of one of his works, a visible wound for the duration of my trip.)

Blue Hitler

“Blue Hitler” (Ildikó Regényi / the György Román Estate)

Gat and I stood in front of Kek Hitler (Blue Hitler) and he waited for me to see it. ‘It’ being Hitler’s face, in blue, among the writhing bodies of the Holocaust’s abused — flung toward death through Hungary’s complicity. The chancellor’s mustache is the black sweater of a woman or man who has lost everything. A companion work, Anatomiai Lecke (The Anatomy Lesson) is even more explicit. A Polish soldier is held down and butchered by German generals. (“Like a patient etherized upon a table” — T.S. Eliot) There is a third painting; Gat considers them a triptych. It depicts a Jewish woman bleeding a Christian girl like a slaughtered animal — the blood libel origin story. The painting is called Tiszaeszlár, a reference to a notorious 1883 anti-semitc show trial. Thirteen Jews in the village of Tiszaeszlár were accused of killing and drinking the blood of a teenage girl. The defendants were acquitted, but the murdered girl is remembered by the Hungarian far right as a martyr to this day.

Anatomical Lessons

“The Anatomy Lesson” (Ildikó Regényi / the György Román Estate)

Tiszaeszlar

“Tiszaeszlár” (Ildikó Regényi / the György Román Estate)

Other depictions were far more symbolic: subverting Nazi propaganda of Jews as rats and vermin and using these images instead to depict the mob mentality of Hungary’s alliances with Germany and Russia. In Román’s Epidemic, a yellow snake weaves through the countryside as citizens observe safely from a tower of stacked opera boxes. ‘Theater of the absurd’ is a phrase that comes to mind. In another painting, simply titled Rats, they stream around the side of a brick building. Crawling, falling on one another in a crowd of texture so visceral it caused me to shiver in the afternoon sunlight. A third — Great Flypaper — uproots the sprawling Hungarian plain and bends it into a wheat-colored trap for fallen men. Out of his isolation, Román issues a grave social diagnosis. (In 1963, Román wrote an autobiographical novel called Out of Solitude.) Gat compares his work from the 20s to Otto Dix or Max Beckman.

Epidemic

“Epidemic” (Ildikó Regényi / the György Román Estate)

06-patkanyok

“Rats” (Ildikó Regényi / the György Román Estate)

The Great Flypaper

“Great Flypaper” (Ildikó Regényi / the György Román Estate)

“From a moral perspective, I could best characterize my works painted in that period in the following way: they portrayed disharmony, confusion, insecurity, and fear, in short, the atmosphere of fascism,” Román wrote. Art historian Julianna P. Szucs saw parallels between Román’s work and that of young concentration camp victims. “I have only seen anything comparable to György Román’s Epidemic, Rats and Great Flypaper on surviving drawings made by children in Auschwitz. People would only wallow in so much graphic detail of horrors in extreme situations, when they subconsciously expect the end to these horrors from the monotonous listing of them. These panel paintings are covered with so many germs, rodents and insects so that magic performed through the visual media could eliminate all enemies simultaneously,” she writes.

*

It’s a bad time to be Jewish in Hungary. It’s a bad time to love freedom in Hungary. A wave of protests against right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán have hit the country after attacks on the independent press, consolidation of the courts and the passage of a “slave law” increasing legal overtime to 400 hours a year.

The Jewish population, approximately 100,000 people, is a tenth of what it was before WWII. In 2017, Hungarian Jews criticized an anti-migrant poster campaign that uses the face of emigrant George Soros, who supports open immigration in the country. The posters, which read “don’t let George Soros have the last laugh,” evoke anti-semitic stereotypes. As if to underscore these undertones (or overtones), some billboards were defaced with the phrase “stinking Jew,” according to Reuters. In October 2018, the Soros-founded Central European University announced it was moving to Vienna as a result of government antipathy. That same month, Orban’s government passed a law that further criminalized homelessness, adding teeth to a June constitutional amendment that made homelessness a crime in the country.

Certain things seem imbued with sinister energy because they are unknown. To a child, everything is unknown. Gyorgy had reason to be scared of foreigners, but he wasn’t. His condemnations of the country’s moral poverty feel timely, if only the public and the world could see them. Fear, they whisper, does not demand hate.

*

The content of the experience is so important to him that he neglects craftsmanship.

György Román’s first known painting is called Hanging at a Circus. Admirers call it his ‘final judgment’. A crowd looks on as apparent circus performers are stripped and dragged to the gallows. A festive atmosphere prevails amid the mob violence. Román considered the painting primitive by the technical standards of the time.

Elek, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of Italian art, recognized Román’s talent and was his early champion. Perhaps it was Elek who introduced Román to Caravaggio’s The Tooth Puller which Román emulates in his Tooth Extraction.

Tooth Extraction

“Tooth Extraction” (Ildikó Regényi / the György Román Estate)

Elek encouraged Román’s father to hire the painter Emil Róbert Novotny as a private tutor for his son. He recommended that he study at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts and eventually continue his studies in Munich. When Román was baptized, the famous Hungarian novelist Zsigmond Móricz became his godfather because of his friendship with Elek.

The Nyugat editor saw through, and forgave, Román’s refusal to adhere to classical styles. “The content of the experience is so important to him that he neglects craftsmanship,” Elek said after one of his nephew’s shows. This echoes Elek’s defense of his favorite writer, Poe, whom critics of the period called a sick man. “The great magic of Poe’s narrative arc is that no matter where we follow his imagination, there is neither break nor leap in the sequence of visions,” Elek wrote.

Everything that could have prevented Román from being a witness to history was a dead end. In 1933, he moved to Shanghai with his family. His father was bankrupt, and the family planned on going into the chocolate business together. “As summer arrived, the chocolate went off, stocks went rancid,” Kolozsváry writes. I can only imagine how this contributed to Román’s lifelong perception that he was haunted by rot.

The painter had taken up boxing to compensate for his sickly childhood, and he stayed in Asia trying and failing to make a living as a sportsman in Shanghai and Tokyo even after his father went back to Budapest. In 1936, Román returned home as well. In May 1938, the first anti-Jewish law was passed in Hungary, setting quotas on the numbers of Jews that could work in certain fields. Román’s father was reduced from businessman to salesman.

The second ‘Act on Jews’ was passed in 1939, and in February 1942 Román received a restricted certificate and notice that he was qualified for forced-labor service. Nevertheless, he exhibited his art in a socialist group show the next month for three days before it was shut down by police.

During this time, his early champion Artúr Elek refused to leave home so as not to wear the requisite yellow star. The great intellectual became increasingly depressed by his circumstances. In Vanished by the Danube, Charles Farkas shares a letter that Elek sent to Farkas’s mother on April 7th, 1944, describing life confined indoors. It starts out hopeful:

“Now that I am leading the life of a recluse the garden has grown in importance … On the right side of my window the bent chestnut tree puts forth its buds. And what an orchestra of birds! In the early hours, the blackbirds, with their magical throats, begin to sing, and they do not stop until dusk. Life is beautiful, regardless of one’s destiny.”

However, as the letter goes on, Elek reveals his true mental state.

“Oh, I wish I were not alive! I have had more than my share of life.” On April 15th, Elek wrote to another friend, “Believe me, it is not painful to say goodbye. Imperfectly and poorly, but I have done my duties in this world. I do not wish to experience more than what I have, mostly without me wanting to experience them. It hurts me, that by the time I reached an old age I became an outcast, who cannot go out into the streets. It is probably the least significant of all the insults, as it is purely a formality, but still, it hurts me most. It hurts because the intention behind it is so obvious: hatred and humiliation.”

Elek had been called to an island on the Danube where Jewish writers and journalists were interned, Farkas explains. Instead, “His body was found slumped before his desk, a small revolver at his side” — his day of death recorded as April 25th, 1944. Román received his own draft papers in November 1944, fleeing to Paszto an hour northeast of Budapest.

As the Soviet army bore down on Hungary, “Final Solution” mastermind Adolf Eichmann attempted to deport all Jews out of Budapest. By this point, it’s estimated that only 23,000 Jews remained in Hungary as 400,000 had already been deported from the countryside. Despite the support of the Hungarian government, the chaotic state of the city’s infrastructure meant that there were no trains available to carry this plot out. Instead, the city’s Jews were locked in a ghetto. By November 1944, 65,000 people were confined to Budapest’s old Orthodox Jewish district, Hajdu writes. Another 3,600 Jews were tied together and shot on the banks of the Danube, falling like beads instead of bodies.

He hid in a knife shop.

Swedish and Swiss diplomats attempted to harbor members of the Jewish population by issuing “letters of protection” or “diplomatic passports.” György Román’s father, Vilmos, was one of them. Though Vilmos avoided deportation, the 50-day Siege of Budapest by the Russian army and subsequent famine took its toll.

Kolozsváry writes that when Román returned to Budapest in January 1945 he was totally emaciated from his time in hiding. The next month, he found his father’s body in “a heap of cadavers two storeys high … temporarily [burying] him rolled in a carpet, in an empty plot behind a theater.” For the rest of the month, he hid in a knife shop. A few months passed, and Román began to paint again. In 1947 he was married and in 1948 his daughter, Katalin, was born.

By the time Román and his wife divorced in 1962 he was practically destitute. His sister Agnes bought him the tiny apartment on Szechenyi Street and he lived there until his death of a stroke in September 1981.

Self Portrait in the Bath

“Self Portrait in the Bath” (Ildikó Regényi / the György Román Estate)

*

In his book Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere André Aciman writes, “I feel like someone visiting the land of his ancestors for the first time. He knows better than to expect the spirit of lost forebears to rise up and lead him back to the old homestead. But he still hopes to connect to something. What he finds instead is wreckage and phantom lanes and a locked gate to a defunctive world.”

When I arrived in Budapest, I did not feel an instant connection to the Danube. There was no nagging feeling that I might have seen some of the city before in a dream. No perceived resemblance to Román’s round cheeks — although something about the warmth in Artúr Elek’s stare looked vaguely familiar.

I come from a family of converts. Elek and Román were not my only Jewish relatives to be baptized. Elek’s uncle, decorative artist Miksa Roth, converted to Catholicism. Four decades before Kristallnacht, Roth was commissioned to design all of the stained glass windows in the Hungarian Parliament Building. In his home, which is now a museum, sits a double inkwell, a gift from the father of his Catholic wife, upon his conversion. He died June 14, 1944 — forbidden from practicing his craft, and heartbroken about Elek’s suicide.

To me, the double inkwell signifies a life lived in two parts. My great grandmother, Rose Stern (married to Helene’s son, Alfred), was among the thousands of American Jews that converted to Christian Science in the 20th century. Before I went to college, I didn’t have a concept that there was such a thing as the Jewish intellectual tradition or that I could be included in it. Perhaps I never would have if I hadn’t found myself splitting a makowiec with Janos Gat at a Polish cafe in Greenpoint as he passed me György Román’s monograph across the table.

When I visited her apartment on Falk Miksa Street, Katalin was gone. Her friend, Ildiko Regenyi, now lives in the apartment and manages Román’s estate. Charcoal portraits of the people Román met in Shanghai line the walls. The painter’s self-portrait, seated in a bath of moss-green water, hangs over an armoire and a bowler hat is perched atop a shelf of hardcover books. Ildiko brought out raspberries speared on toothpicks. She is a history teacher, and a writer herself.

Ildiko pressed a copy of Elek’s Poe translations into my hand. She showed me a smiling portrait of Agnes, lit like a great Hollywood beauty. As Gat translated, we gathered around her desktop computer and she pulled up a video of Román hitting a punching bag. He looked to be in his seventies, shorts pulled above his belly button and mouth set like a melon stem.

Thwack. Thwack. I didn’t understand the language, but I recognized the gesture.

*

There are spiritual beliefs we do not dare utter because we cannot afford to lose our air of intellectualism. Then someone comes in the night and takes it away anyway.

I don’t know what it means to feel Jewish, but I am grateful to have a past to go back to. I call this the inner aristocracy; we want to believe that we were kings and queens. Deep down we know that it’s not true. We were peasants, farmers and tribesman. On the steppe or on the sea. In which case, we will settle for knowing that we were free.

Free to live; free to die. Free to create a little fiddlehead of faith. A pearl the swine can never seize.

03-utcasakok

(Ildikó Regényi / the György Román Estate)

* * *

Daisy Alioto has written for New York Magazine, GQ, WSJ, Topic, Curbed, The Paris Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Food & Wine and more. She splits her time between Brooklyn and the Hudson Valley.

Editor: Dana Snitzky

Factchecker: Sam Schuyler

from Longreads https://ift.tt/2OrWOfj

Daisy Alioto | Longreads | March 2019 | 14 minutes (3,722 words)


“I beheld thee rich in sorrow,
Graceful in the bloom of youth,
Where, like gold within the mountain
In the heart lies faith and truth,
On the Danube,
On the Danube, bright and blue.”
—Karl Isidor Beck, “On the Danube”

“At last I penetrate into the distance, into the soundproof blue of nostalgias.” —Jean Arp

*

I have an adolescent memory of walking along a lake near my Massachusetts home and finding a child’s blackened shoe caught in the murky inch of water at the shore. I knew that not long ago a pilot had died crashing a single-seat Cessna into this same lake, and I had lately been looking at piles of shoes as part of the school’s Holocaust curriculum. The combination of these two facts — totally unrelated — filled me with deep dread, and I turned around and hurried back to my family.

Artist György Román’s childhood was characterized by such dread. The painter was born in Budapest in 1903 and suffered a bout of meningitis in 1905 which left him deaf and temporarily paralyzed in both legs. As a result, “his mind was swamped in the chaos of meanings around visual images,” writes Marianna Kolozsváry in her monograph of the artist. (Kolozsváry’s father was one of Román’s first collectors.) Although Román regained use of his legs, he was deaf for the rest of his life.

Out of vivid dreams and passive observation of the surrounding world, Román formed his own vernacular of symbols and omens. Cats, monkeys, carnivals, and men in mustaches were imbued with evil intentions and disease. The glowing red signage of shops and brothels were both indistinguishable and sinister. Toy soldiers were the protagonists of this world.

The Hungarian actor Miklós Gábor wrote of Román’s work, “He paints dreams, but he is not a surrealist. He paints naively, but he is not a naive painter. He is a clever man, but not intellectual. He sees nightmares, but he is no expressionist.”

Painting, boxing and even a failed attempt at chocolate making would take Román around the world. However, fate would deliver him back to Budapest in time to watch his country cave to fascism, his Jewish relatives rounded up like cattle. The childhood nightmares were just a rehearsal.

As a man, Román channeled the keen observations of filth he made as a young boy into an aesthetic rebuke of Hungary’s embrace of fascism. “His ‘nose had already picked up the stench of the decaying carcass’ in the sunny peacetime and revealed the destitution that begat heinous ideologies, and the horror,” Kolozsváry writes, quoting Román himself.

Hanging at a Circus

“Hanging at a Circus” (Ildikó Regényi / the György Román Estate)

*

Hungary’s capital has been called the ‘Pearl of the Danube.’ It straddles the river, holding itself together by way of seven seams (bridges) between the hilly Buda and flat Pest. Hungary sits in the Carpathian Basin, which will mean little to the average person — including me. It is much easier to imagine the city as a pearl itself, squatting at the heart of a mollusk, instead of as a flat plain of ancient sediment bounded by mountains and beset by invaders. Each of the subsequent intruders (Mongol, Ottoman, Habsburg, Soviet) are like the foreign critters calcified within a mollusk until the scars of repeated displacement accidentally become indistinguishable from the iridescence of culture.

In his book Budapest: A History of Grandeur and Catastrophe, Joe Hajdu describes fin de siècle Budapest (through 1914) as the Golden Age of the city’s intellectual achievement. On the ground floor of an opulent building called the New York Palace was a coffee house called the New York Café, nicknamed ‘the New York,’ a literary haunt and the birthplace of Nyugat (West) which would become the country’s premiere literary journal. Among the writers, critics and turn-of-the-century scenesters that frequented the cafe was my great, great grandmother Helene’s nephew, Artúr Elek.

The childhood nightmares were just a rehearsal.

In her memoir In the Darkroom, Susan Faludi points out that by the 1910s a quarter of Hungary’s artists and writers were Jewish despite making up just five percent of the total population. “They were instrumental in creating a cultural environment in which artists and intellectuals, both Jewish and Christian, could thrive. A notable segment of the gentile literati embraced that collaboration, pinning to it their greatest hopes for a cultural renaissance.” My ancestors saw themselves as Hungarian first and Jewish second, taking new names to signify their cultural (and sometimes, religious) assimilation. “More than anyone else, the Jews invented what it meant to be Hungarian,” Faludi concludes.

Artúr Elek is listed among the ‘first generation’ (1908 — 1918) of Nyugat writers and editors by Mario Fenyo in his book Literature and Political Change: Budapest, 1908-1918. I imagine him expounding on the events of the current day, his legs (one slightly shorter than the other) tucked under a chair. His hands picking at a plate of cold meat, cheese and bread called the ‘Writers’ Plate’ which the New York offered to creatives at a discount, according to Hajdu.

Elek had another important purpose: guiding his nephew, György Román, into a career as a painter. (Román’s mother was Helene’s niece, making György Román another distant cousin of mine.) György Román would singularly capture Hungary’s moral poverty through his artwork. The dark side of a pearl still struggling in its tongue of silt.

*

The layout of Budapest hasn’t changed much since the turn of the century. “The major arterials developed after 1870 are still the main routes for the cars, trams and buses, and many of the streetscapes are still defined by the buildings which were built during this golden era before 1914,” writes Hajdu.

In September 2017, I met Janos Gat in front of Budapest’s neo-baroque Comedy Theatre. It was my first time in the city. In February, having stumbled upon the connection between my grandmother and Elek, as well as Elek and Román, I emailed Gat asking to purchase a catalogue from his 2002 exhibition György Román (1903-1981): A Survey at his former gallery space on the Bowery. He wrote back within two hours: “György Román is one of the greatest painters, ever … so you have much to be proud of.”

And yet, Román’s international recognition remains sparse, a problem that plagues the entirety of the post-war Hungarian canon. After WWII, the country’s art was largely behind the Iron Curtain. For a brief period at the fall of the USSR, the West embraced Hungarian art, just as the democratizing nation was embraced politically. Eastern European art was in vogue!

However, as Hungary has reverted back to far right leadership, it has distanced itself from America and Western Europe, isolating itself and its arts culture. The country’s art market is riddled with forgeries, not to be trusted by foreign buyers. Its government has consolidated public art under the umbrella of the privately founded and politically conservative Hungarian Academy of Arts, where it’s been mismanaged or pulled from view as part of ongoing ‘renovation’ projects with unclear objectives. Its thuggish private collectors tend to overlook historical importance in favor of kitsch.

Katalin had dreamt that a man would come to her with an odd request and that she was to agree, no matter the circumstances.

In 2016, the NGO Atlatszo reported that friends of the government were ‘renting’ works from The Museum of Fine Arts’ public collection for ‘pennies.’ Contemporary art gallerists, reluctant to lend works to the public collection for fear of losing custody of them, have picked up the slack by arranging shows expressly for visitors from foreign museums, including a pop-up exhibition staged for the Tate committee, a team of curators from New York’s Museum of Modern Art and a group from the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The grassroots OFF-Biennale, started in 2015, is also an effort to raise the profile of contemporary Hungarian art without relying on government institutions.

When Gat approached György Román’s daughter, Katalin, in the 1990s asking to represent her father’s artworks he thus met with little resistance. Taking after her father, Katalin had dreamt that a man would come to her with an odd request and that she was to agree, no matter the circumstances.

Decades later, Gat and I walked to where his Román paintings are stored. Together, we pulled them into view, leaning them around the room as sunlight streamed in to illuminate the blood reds and (blood) blues and (blood) browns of Román’s palette. The paintings are far more textured than they could ever appear in print. In 1924, Román began thickly layering oil paint and, after the 50s, began twisting the brush as he applied it. Later in his life he would almost always apply paint with a palette knife. (I scraped my knuckle on the surface of one of his works, a visible wound for the duration of my trip.)

Blue Hitler

“Blue Hitler” (Ildikó Regényi / the György Román Estate)

Gat and I stood in front of Kek Hitler (Blue Hitler) and he waited for me to see it. ‘It’ being Hitler’s face, in blue, among the writhing bodies of the Holocaust’s abused — flung toward death through Hungary’s complicity. The chancellor’s mustache is the black sweater of a woman or man who has lost everything. A companion work, Anatomiai Lecke (The Anatomy Lesson) is even more explicit. A Polish soldier is held down and butchered by German generals. (“Like a patient etherized upon a table” — T.S. Eliot) There is a third painting; Gat considers them a triptych. It depicts a Jewish woman bleeding a Christian girl like a slaughtered animal — the blood libel origin story. The painting is called Tiszaeszlár, a reference to a notorious 1883 anti-semitc show trial. Thirteen Jews in the village of Tiszaeszlár were accused of killing and drinking the blood of a teenage girl. The defendants were acquitted, but the murdered girl is remembered by the Hungarian far right as a martyr to this day.

Anatomical Lessons

“The Anatomy Lesson” (Ildikó Regényi / the György Román Estate)

Tiszaeszlar

“Tiszaeszlár” (Ildikó Regényi / the György Román Estate)

Other depictions were far more symbolic: subverting Nazi propaganda of Jews as rats and vermin and using these images instead to depict the mob mentality of Hungary’s alliances with Germany and Russia. In Román’s Epidemic, a yellow snake weaves through the countryside as citizens observe safely from a tower of stacked opera boxes. ‘Theater of the absurd’ is a phrase that comes to mind. In another painting, simply titled Rats, they stream around the side of a brick building. Crawling, falling on one another in a crowd of texture so visceral it caused me to shiver in the afternoon sunlight. A third — Great Flypaper — uproots the sprawling Hungarian plain and bends it into a wheat-colored trap for fallen men. Out of his isolation, Román issues a grave social diagnosis. (In 1963, Román wrote an autobiographical novel called Out of Solitude.) Gat compares his work from the 20s to Otto Dix or Max Beckman.

Epidemic

“Epidemic” (Ildikó Regényi / the György Román Estate)

06-patkanyok

“Rats” (Ildikó Regényi / the György Román Estate)

The Great Flypaper

“Great Flypaper” (Ildikó Regényi / the György Román Estate)

“From a moral perspective, I could best characterize my works painted in that period in the following way: they portrayed disharmony, confusion, insecurity, and fear, in short, the atmosphere of fascism,” Román wrote. Art historian Julianna P. Szucs saw parallels between Román’s work and that of young concentration camp victims. “I have only seen anything comparable to György Román’s Epidemic, Rats and Great Flypaper on surviving drawings made by children in Auschwitz. People would only wallow in so much graphic detail of horrors in extreme situations, when they subconsciously expect the end to these horrors from the monotonous listing of them. These panel paintings are covered with so many germs, rodents and insects so that magic performed through the visual media could eliminate all enemies simultaneously,” she writes.

*

It’s a bad time to be Jewish in Hungary. It’s a bad time to love freedom in Hungary. A wave of protests against right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán have hit the country after attacks on the independent press, consolidation of the courts and the passage of a “slave law” increasing legal overtime to 400 hours a year.

The Jewish population, approximately 100,000 people, is a tenth of what it was before WWII. In 2017, Hungarian Jews criticized an anti-migrant poster campaign that uses the face of emigrant George Soros, who supports open immigration in the country. The posters, which read “don’t let George Soros have the last laugh,” evoke anti-semitic stereotypes. As if to underscore these undertones (or overtones), some billboards were defaced with the phrase “stinking Jew,” according to Reuters. In October 2018, the Soros-founded Central European University announced it was moving to Vienna as a result of government antipathy. That same month, Orban’s government passed a law that further criminalized homelessness, adding teeth to a June constitutional amendment that made homelessness a crime in the country.

Certain things seem imbued with sinister energy because they are unknown. To a child, everything is unknown. Gyorgy had reason to be scared of foreigners, but he wasn’t. His condemnations of the country’s moral poverty feel timely, if only the public and the world could see them. Fear, they whisper, does not demand hate.

*

The content of the experience is so important to him that he neglects craftsmanship.

György Román’s first known painting is called Hanging at a Circus. Admirers call it his ‘final judgment’. A crowd looks on as apparent circus performers are stripped and dragged to the gallows. A festive atmosphere prevails amid the mob violence. Román considered the painting primitive by the technical standards of the time.

Elek, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of Italian art, recognized Román’s talent and was his early champion. Perhaps it was Elek who introduced Román to Caravaggio’s The Tooth Puller which Román emulates in his Tooth Extraction.

Tooth Extraction

“Tooth Extraction” (Ildikó Regényi / the György Román Estate)

Elek encouraged Román’s father to hire the painter Emil Róbert Novotny as a private tutor for his son. He recommended that he study at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts and eventually continue his studies in Munich. When Román was baptized, the famous Hungarian novelist Zsigmond Móricz became his godfather because of his friendship with Elek.

The Nyugat editor saw through, and forgave, Román’s refusal to adhere to classical styles. “The content of the experience is so important to him that he neglects craftsmanship,” Elek said after one of his nephew’s shows. This echoes Elek’s defense of his favorite writer, Poe, whom critics of the period called a sick man. “The great magic of Poe’s narrative arc is that no matter where we follow his imagination, there is neither break nor leap in the sequence of visions,” Elek wrote.

Everything that could have prevented Román from being a witness to history was a dead end. In 1933, he moved to Shanghai with his family. His father was bankrupt, and the family planned on going into the chocolate business together. “As summer arrived, the chocolate went off, stocks went rancid,” Kolozsváry writes. I can only imagine how this contributed to Román’s lifelong perception that he was haunted by rot.

The painter had taken up boxing to compensate for his sickly childhood, and he stayed in Asia trying and failing to make a living as a sportsman in Shanghai and Tokyo even after his father went back to Budapest. In 1936, Román returned home as well. In May 1938, the first anti-Jewish law was passed in Hungary, setting quotas on the numbers of Jews that could work in certain fields. Román’s father was reduced from businessman to salesman.

The second ‘Act on Jews’ was passed in 1939, and in February 1942 Román received a restricted certificate and notice that he was qualified for forced-labor service. Nevertheless, he exhibited his art in a socialist group show the next month for three days before it was shut down by police.

During this time, his early champion Artúr Elek refused to leave home so as not to wear the requisite yellow star. The great intellectual became increasingly depressed by his circumstances. In Vanished by the Danube, Charles Farkas shares a letter that Elek sent to Farkas’s mother on April 7th, 1944, describing life confined indoors. It starts out hopeful:

“Now that I am leading the life of a recluse the garden has grown in importance … On the right side of my window the bent chestnut tree puts forth its buds. And what an orchestra of birds! In the early hours, the blackbirds, with their magical throats, begin to sing, and they do not stop until dusk. Life is beautiful, regardless of one’s destiny.”

However, as the letter goes on, Elek reveals his true mental state.

“Oh, I wish I were not alive! I have had more than my share of life.” On April 15th, Elek wrote to another friend, “Believe me, it is not painful to say goodbye. Imperfectly and poorly, but I have done my duties in this world. I do not wish to experience more than what I have, mostly without me wanting to experience them. It hurts me, that by the time I reached an old age I became an outcast, who cannot go out into the streets. It is probably the least significant of all the insults, as it is purely a formality, but still, it hurts me most. It hurts because the intention behind it is so obvious: hatred and humiliation.”

Elek had been called to an island on the Danube where Jewish writers and journalists were interned, Farkas explains. Instead, “His body was found slumped before his desk, a small revolver at his side” — his day of death recorded as April 25th, 1944. Román received his own draft papers in November 1944, fleeing to Paszto an hour northeast of Budapest.

As the Soviet army bore down on Hungary, “Final Solution” mastermind Adolf Eichmann attempted to deport all Jews out of Budapest. By this point, it’s estimated that only 23,000 Jews remained in Hungary as 400,000 had already been deported from the countryside. Despite the support of the Hungarian government, the chaotic state of the city’s infrastructure meant that there were no trains available to carry this plot out. Instead, the city’s Jews were locked in a ghetto. By November 1944, 65,000 people were confined to Budapest’s old Orthodox Jewish district, Hajdu writes. Another 3,600 Jews were tied together and shot on the banks of the Danube, falling like beads instead of bodies.

He hid in a knife shop.

Swedish and Swiss diplomats attempted to harbor members of the Jewish population by issuing “letters of protection” or “diplomatic passports.” György Román’s father, Vilmos, was one of them. Though Vilmos avoided deportation, the 50-day Siege of Budapest by the Russian army and subsequent famine took its toll.

Kolozsváry writes that when Román returned to Budapest in January 1945 he was totally emaciated from his time in hiding. The next month, he found his father’s body in “a heap of cadavers two storeys high … temporarily [burying] him rolled in a carpet, in an empty plot behind a theater.” For the rest of the month, he hid in a knife shop. A few months passed, and Román began to paint again. In 1947 he was married and in 1948 his daughter, Katalin, was born.

By the time Román and his wife divorced in 1962 he was practically destitute. His sister Agnes bought him the tiny apartment on Szechenyi Street and he lived there until his death of a stroke in September 1981.

Self Portrait in the Bath

“Self Portrait in the Bath” (Ildikó Regényi / the György Román Estate)

*

In his book Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere André Aciman writes, “I feel like someone visiting the land of his ancestors for the first time. He knows better than to expect the spirit of lost forebears to rise up and lead him back to the old homestead. But he still hopes to connect to something. What he finds instead is wreckage and phantom lanes and a locked gate to a defunctive world.”

When I arrived in Budapest, I did not feel an instant connection to the Danube. There was no nagging feeling that I might have seen some of the city before in a dream. No perceived resemblance to Román’s round cheeks — although something about the warmth in Artúr Elek’s stare looked vaguely familiar.

I come from a family of converts. Elek and Román were not my only Jewish relatives to be baptized. Elek’s uncle, decorative artist Miksa Roth, converted to Catholicism. Four decades before Kristallnacht, Roth was commissioned to design all of the stained glass windows in the Hungarian Parliament Building. In his home, which is now a museum, sits a double inkwell, a gift from the father of his Catholic wife, upon his conversion. He died June 14, 1944 — forbidden from practicing his craft, and heartbroken about Elek’s suicide.

To me, the double inkwell signifies a life lived in two parts. My great grandmother, Rose Stern (married to Helene’s son, Alfred), was among the thousands of American Jews that converted to Christian Science in the 20th century. Before I went to college, I didn’t have a concept that there was such a thing as the Jewish intellectual tradition or that I could be included in it. Perhaps I never would have if I hadn’t found myself splitting a makowiec with Janos Gat at a Polish cafe in Greenpoint as he passed me György Román’s monograph across the table.

When I visited her apartment on Falk Miksa Street, Katalin was gone. Her friend, Ildiko Regenyi, now lives in the apartment and manages Román’s estate. Charcoal portraits of the people Román met in Shanghai line the walls. The painter’s self-portrait, seated in a bath of moss-green water, hangs over an armoire and a bowler hat is perched atop a shelf of hardcover books. Ildiko brought out raspberries speared on toothpicks. She is a history teacher, and a writer herself.

Ildiko pressed a copy of Elek’s Poe translations into my hand. She showed me a smiling portrait of Agnes, lit like a great Hollywood beauty. As Gat translated, we gathered around her desktop computer and she pulled up a video of Román hitting a punching bag. He looked to be in his seventies, shorts pulled above his belly button and mouth set like a melon stem.

Thwack. Thwack. I didn’t understand the language, but I recognized the gesture.

*

There are spiritual beliefs we do not dare utter because we cannot afford to lose our air of intellectualism. Then someone comes in the night and takes it away anyway.

I don’t know what it means to feel Jewish, but I am grateful to have a past to go back to. I call this the inner aristocracy; we want to believe that we were kings and queens. Deep down we know that it’s not true. We were peasants, farmers and tribesman. On the steppe or on the sea. In which case, we will settle for knowing that we were free.

Free to live; free to die. Free to create a little fiddlehead of faith. A pearl the swine can never seize.

03-utcasakok

(Ildikó Regényi / the György Román Estate)

* * *

Daisy Alioto has written for New York Magazine, GQ, WSJ, Topic, Curbed, The Paris Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Food & Wine and more. She splits her time between Brooklyn and the Hudson Valley.

Editor: Dana Snitzky

Factchecker: Sam Schuyler


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Memoirs of a Used Car Salesman’s Daughter

Nancy A. Nichols | True Story | January 2018 | 35 minutes (7,098 words)

 

Back in the 1920s, my father’s brother, Donny, was killed at the age of seven in an accident of some kind. Exactly what happened has never been clear.

My father told many versions of this story. He used to say that an older boy had been playing with his little brother, and there was a rope around Donny’s waist. Donny was playing the part of the pony, and the older boy was riding him. In one version of the story, the older boy pulled the rope, and the little boy crashed into the curb and died almost instantaneously. In another version, Donny broke free and ran into the street, where he was hit and killed. Sometimes the older boy was my father; sometimes it wasn’t.

Sometimes it was an army truck that hit Donny, or maybe an ice truck. My father hit a ball into the street, and Donny ran after it. He told Donny not to go into the street, but Donny did anyhow. Or maybe he didn’t say anything; maybe he just stood staring. The truck driver tried to brake but couldn’t. Or he didn’t brake at all.

Both blamed and punished at the time for his brother’s death, my father began to lie as a child — perhaps as an understandable response to a terrible tragedy or maybe to cover up his own role in his brother’s death. Eventually, lying became a habit. My father lied about everything, consistently, reflexively, whether his lies served a purpose or not. He lied about which grocery store he went to and whether the car was insured or whether there was oil in the burner. Eventually, my father would become a car salesman, and lying would become his business.

During the 1960s and ’70s, he sold used cars on a small half-acre lot in our hometown of Waukegan, Illinois — just south of the Wisconsin border. I can picture him alone in the small shack at the back of the lot, his feet perched on an old aluminum desk. Cigarette hanging from his mouth, he was slow to get up but a fast-talker once he reached you.

Sometimes, he worked in the dealer’s new-car showroom on the other side of town. There, he sold Chryslers and Dodges under bright fluorescent lights that reflected off the showroom cars like a disco ball turned upside down.

Our bank account may have been empty, but the gas tank was always full.

In 1970, when I was in the sixth grade, he sold more Dodge Darts than any other man in the state of Illinois. The company gave him a small diamond pin to mark this achievement, and he wore it religiously. The automobile industry had embraced the “new and improved” sales strategy, and each year’s version of the Dart was slightly more alluring than the last. The cars all looked pretty much the same to me — the Dart was a boxy economy car that I remember in mostly pale pastel colors with shiny vinyl upholstery — but my father excelled at extolling the small virtues and changes in each new model.

He dressed the part of a car salesman as well as he played it. At nearly six foot four, he was unmistakable in his lime-green leisure suit and white belt and shoes. His slicked-back silver hair was a perfect match for black shirts paired with white ties and checkerboard sports jackets.

Though he mainly sold used cars, he would often drive new ones from the showroom floor, tooling around in the latest models, trying to gin up interest from the factory workers in town. This meant we had a new car every week. We rode around in one stylish model after another, the price tag stuck on the rear window, small paper squares beneath our feet to protect the carpet, that sweet new car smell burning our nostrils. Each new car filled us with hope and aspiration. Our bank account may have been empty, but the gas tank was always full.

* * *

While the invention of the modern gasoline-powered car can be most accurately ascribed to Daimler and Benz of Germany, the mass production and mass marketing of the automobile was perfected in my own fertile Midwest. Henry Ford’s Model T was introduced in 1908, and Ford’s assembly lines — inspired by the carcass disassembly process of the Chicago stockyards — lurched into action in the Detroit area in 1913.

Far from the complicated, sophisticated business we now think of when we contemplate the auto industry, Detroit was then populated by a group of smart, determined tinkerers, quarrelsome young men who were capable of working with their hands, men determined enough to work in unheated garages during long midwestern winters, men strong enough to lift the engines and turn the cranks that started early models.

“The auto was born in a masculine manger,” writes Virginia Scharff in Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age. But beyond the men-and-machine myth lies a different story: women, too, have always loved their cars.

Scharff describes how the car liberated rural and small-town women from the farm and introduced them to the pleasures of the world: boyfriends, parties, libraries, and soda fountains. It took ladies in smart outfits to the country club and matrons in pearls and black velvet to the opera. Most of all, the car permanently altered the terrain of romance. Once confined to the parlor or the front porch, courtship now took place far from parental supervision, in cars on dark, country roads.

The car also changed the way women worked and lived. Automobile culture dissected towns and cities and led to the construction of a vast network of highways that delivered families to the suburbs. There, in surprising ways, the car enslaved women even as it liberated them. Where once “women’s work” was visible to all — say, in the vegetable garden or as laundry hanging on a line — much of women’s work in the suburbs took place within the confines of the car as the almost constant shopping and chauffeuring of children to activities outside the neighborhood became both necessary and routine.

But for my mother, the car was all about freedom. It took her to work and to the hairdresser — the unfortunately named Betty Gray’s on Grand Avenue — where every Saturday she had her dark black hair styled. During the week, she kept her hair in place with copious amounts of Aqua Net to stave off the fierce midwestern winds. At night, she slept on satin pillows.

She was striking — five foot nine and thin — and if she wasn’t exactly beautiful, she certainly gave the impression of great beauty. Perhaps it was her clothes, which were meticulous and impractical — bouclé suits in winter and, in summer, starched skirts with dozens of tiny pleats she hand-ironed, only to watch as their sharp edges wilted in the unrelenting heat and humidity.

Her car was as fashionable as her clothes and just as impractical. She drove an old light-blue Chevy Impala convertible from the 1960s. The car had white vinyl bucket seats, and the shift was on the console between the driver and the passenger seats. She drove fast, and if she had to stop on short notice, she flung her arm across my chest in the impromptu seat-belt move common to mothers of the day.

We made our getaway from my father in that old Chevy on one cold winter night. I’m not certain what exactly prompted her to leave; I guess she had had enough. She took me with her; I was five years old, and it was 1965. We left behind my older brother and sister. They were in their late teens, and I suppose they got to choose.

I remember sitting in the driveway, the engine running to keep us warm, my breath blowing a light fog onto the window. My father came out to the car. I rolled down the window, working that old-style crank hard, and he handed me a sleeve of saltines.

“Here,” he said.

And then the Chevy lurched into gear, spitting gravel as we turned out of the driveway and headed across town to the one-bedroom bungalow my mother had rented. The thin convertible roof leaked cold air, the car bucked as the engine slipped into gear, and the crumbs gathered in my lap.

I drank my first sweet cup of coffee that night out of an old lilac melamine cup. Munching on crackers and sitting on the floor of the tiny one-bedroom house, I thought it was going to be an extraordinary adventure. Although I didn’t know the word at the time, it was exhilarating.

As a child, I didn’t appreciate what a desperate act it was. My mother was the only divorced woman in town. She made little money as a secretary in the athletic department at the high school, and my father’s support came in fits and starts — probably because his own success was so tenuous. Sometimes he would hit it big with a new model or sales promotion, but other times a plant closure or a strike at a factory would slow sales for months. During the long winters, it wasn’t uncommon to come home and find the heat or electricity shut off because she’d been so late paying a bill.

Adult lives are always a source of mystery to children, and my mother’s was no exception. Our small industrial town had almost no social outlets for a newly divorced woman. My mother was Catholic, and she was either tossed out of the church or simply felt too uncomfortable to continue to attend.


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I remember one picture of her sitting at a restaurant with some of the other secretaries from the high school. She was wearing a white dress and a peach silk coat, her cigarette waving in the air.

She used to listen to high school basketball games on the radio on Friday nights. She knew many of the boys personally — those who were acting out or in danger of becoming ineligible to play because of poor grades were sent to her office during homeroom — and I would hear her calling out encouragement to them as she listened. She clapped her hands at each free throw they hit. She knew well enough that an opportunity was not something anyone could afford to waste.

On cold winter nights, her old Chevy would idle in the drive as she put on her makeup and waited for me to fall asleep. I didn’t know where she went at night, only that she was out.

Sometimes I would awaken to voices in the living room. Whenever she had a man visit, I was instructed to call him “Mr. X.” One night I awoke to a tall fellow whirling my neon Hula Hoop on his hips in the dark, and for the longest time that was my vision of sex — that lurid green Hula Hoop twirling in the nighttime.

* * *

Cars and sex have been linked almost since the very inception of the automobile. Wealthy ladies — especially socialites — were among the first women to own cars. And yet the early cars often demanded a physical force both to start and to steer, and footmen or other servants soon found themselves in the role of chauffeur — a term originally derived from the French, chauffer, to stoke or fire up. The word probably refers to the job of early drivers, who cranked the motors of the first cars.

But of course the engine of the car wasn’t all the chauffeur might fire up — or at least that’s how the pulp fiction writers of the time imagined it. In the colloquial, chauffer une femme meant to make hot love to a woman. The chauffeur threatened class and gender lines by leaving women alone with men of another class in an enclosed space and out of the house for the first time.

As a result, the car became both the source of and the setting for sensational, melodramatic tales. Victoria Scharff cites, for example, a 1905 Hearst Motor magazine serial, in which a fictional character named Lady Beeston waxes poetic about her car:

To think of “The Monster,” as she called it, was to long for it. That great living, wonderful thing with its passion for motion seemed to call and claim her as a kindred spirit. She wanted to feel the throb of its quickening pulses; to lay her hand on lever and handle and thrill with the sense of mastery; to claim its power as her own—and feel its sullen-yielded obedience answer her will.

This combination of lust and the car would play out again and again across the decades. In fact, women and their clothing were an early, but often unacknowledged, source of inspiration for car culture; some of the first terms for car parts were at least in part derived from women’s clothing. The “bonnet” or the “hood” covered the engine, and “skirts” hid the machinery of the automobile. And then, in turn, the car inspired clothing — coats, goggles, and driving gloves — designed to withstand the rugged and sometimes dangerous conditions early drivers faced.

As cars became more comfortable and easier to drive, protective gear was replaced by fashionable “car” clothing. In 1953, aware of women’s growing involvement in the purchase of the family car, the Ford Motor Company developed a line of “Motor Mates” — coats and accessories that matched their Victoria model. The handbags were made from the same nylon used in the upholstery and were advertised in Vogue as coordinating with both the interior and exterior of Ford cars. Ford dealers were encouraged to sponsor fashion shows, give the coats to local actresses to wear on television, and hold essay contests encouraging customers to write short testimonies about their love for the cars and, perhaps, their matching accessories.

About a decade later, Ford targeted women with “Sweetheart of the Supermarket Set” ads for the Mustang and ran a sing-songy promotion with a cosmetics company that went something like this: “Match your lipstick to your Mustang and add miles to your smiles.”

The Mustang, with its upbeat vibe, was famously Mary Tyler Moore’s character’s car of choice. Modestly priced at just under $3,000, it was engineered to create excitement among an ever-expanding set of baby boomers — especially young women. Auto writers dubbed it “the perfect car for the Pepsi generation.”

* * *

My sister, Sue, nine years older than I, drove a red Mustang convertible with white interiors that my father had bought for her used. It was a fast car, but my sister drove it slowly. She was absentminded and unhurried in the way of many great beauties. She would play with her hair while she drove — shifting gears and flicking her hair in a kind of rhythmic beat. Flick, shift, flick, shift.

Driving a convertible in Illinois was stylish beyond a doubt, but also impractical most days of the year. Sue’s car was a kind of fashion note — a perfect accessory to her white lace mini-dresses, flared bell-bottoms, and halter tops. It was a statement piece made of metal.

My sister continued to live with my father, but when I was in grade school she acquired her driver’s license and would often zip across town to pick me up for a small afternoon adventure. In the Mustang, we escaped from the mundane chores of small-town life, driving the hour into Chicago to explore bookstores and the vast oasis of Marshall Field’s, the giant department store. She took me to the beach — that sliver of sand in our town down near the factories and the coal-fired generating plant. Or we would go clothes shopping, fingering materials under the watchful eye of snooty store ladies and trying on clothes we couldn’t afford. Sometimes, when we wanted to go out to lunch, we would eat a grilled cheese sandwich at the counter at Woolworth’s or drive north to an A&W restaurant, where a waitress would bring us their signature ice-cold root beer and a sandwich called the Belly Whopper on a tray that hooked over the side of the car window.

But the ride I remember most clearly was anything but a pleasure drive. My sister came to pick up my mother and me just after nine on a weekday evening. A light summer rain had hit the streets earlier, and a slight steam was rising from the pavement.

Some of the first terms for car parts were at least in part derived from women’s clothing.

We piled into her little red Mustang and headed to the only hospital in town, the one I had been born in. At nine, I was still too young to visit a regular hospital room, let alone the emergency room, so my mother and sister left me alone in the waiting room.

Bright lights beamed down on me. I sat on a small couch and ran my hands over the rips in the upholstery. Empty Styrofoam cups surfed on Formica tables, and old newspapers—their coupons torn out — lay crumpled on the floor.

Eventually, my mother came to tell me that my father had been in a devastating collision with a drunk driver. He had been driving a Dodge Charger, the epitome of an American muscle car: fast and loud. My father used to sell them to boys back from Vietnam, wallets flush with battle pay, the fear and allure of death still close at hand. On summer nights you could hear their tires peel off the asphalt as they drag raced or screeched around corners, laying down rubber in the hopes of impressing some girl or letting everyone know how pissed off they were about something or nothing at all. They were shamelessly macho.

But on the night of his accident, my father’s high-powered performance automobile did him no good. He was stopped at a red light when he was hit head on.

The accident would leave my father with a permanent traumatic brain injury, a diagnosis that did not exist then. We knew he had a gash that ran all the way from the top of his head down to his eyebrows. The extent of his unraveling would reveal itself to us only later.

* * *

If the accident had an upside, it was that it briefly united my “broken” family. For a few months, my mother and I returned to the small red A-frame house where we had lived before the divorce to help tend to my father along with my sister and brother. For a child who desperately wanted a united family, it was a small, if fleeting, miracle.

But, of course, everything was different. Before the accident, my father was just a garden-variety kind of drunk. He would sit at home in his white undershirts, the kind we now call wife-beaters. He would drink Budweiser out of quart bottles. When he finished one, he would drop it under the coffee table and say, inexplicably: “One little dead Indian.” By the end of the night, a whole tribe would be polished off under the coffee table.

As a kid, you don’t understand that lots of folks drink. You think your dad is the worst, the most awful, the most embarrassing ever. Once, when he was drunk at a restaurant, I remember him falling over a waist-high wall and landing like a circus seal on his nose.

And really, as a child there is nothing you can do but try to be the most perfect child. Because, like thousands of other kids whose parents drink or do drugs, you think that if you are perfect enough no one will notice him. Or you think that somehow you will be magnificent enough to cure your parents. But, of course, you can’t cure them, and there is no way to distract anyone when your father has just landed like a seal on his nose in a restaurant. Everyone knew. Everyone always knew. At best, there was a little comedy in the anecdotes.

But, after the accident, my father became a violent raging drunk. The stories became darker, the kind of thing you couldn’t even whisper about to friends.

I remember one day he came home and beat the dog nearly to death while I cowered in the kitchen and listened to the whelping. There was no rhyme or reason to it. It was brain induced or drink induced — I never knew.

He went back to work, but he had lost the sweet-talking patois of sales, and our income eroded swiftly.

* * *

Books became my anchor. The words were printed in black and white, steady and unmovable, there to be checked and rechecked again, their logic forever bound together with a simple seam.

At home, we had only a half-complete set of encyclopedias that my father had bought from a college student going door-to-door. He had bought them more out of salesman simpatico than a lust for knowledge, and he must have arranged some kind of payment plan, since our set stopped with the letter M.

I don’t know what I would have done without Gertie. That’s what we called the library’s bookmobile.

The name came from the manufacturer, the Ohio-based Gerstenslager Company, which had originally made horse buggies but later specialized in retrofitting buses for multiple uses. Most famously, the company made five “Wienermobiles,” vehicles in the shape of hotdogs, for the Oscar Mayer company.

In summers, to help fill the long, empty hours of school-age children, Gertie moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, supplying books. Librarians, being no fools, were smart enough to park Gertie next to the candy store or the town pool. On hot summer days, Gertie had the remarkable advantage of being air-conditioned. She offered salvation, two books at a time.

* * *

After the accident, my father’s house — where my siblings lived and where I visited on weekends after my mother and I moved back to our bungalow — became more chaotic than ever. He was unable to mow the lawn or keep up with basic maintenance, so the grass grew knee-high and screen doors flapped wildly as the wind whipped off Lake Michigan.

We lived in an area of small but tidy homes, but our lawn — such as it was — was scattered with broken cars of different makes and models in need of various repairs or parts. Chevys sat on blocks beside a Mustang missing a door and a stock car covered with grease.

Maybe because of the cold winters or because of the unreasonably high winds that swept in off the lake, my father and brother also kept many spare parts in the house. Tires, chains, mufflers, and oil pans — all piled high next to the couch, on the TV, and on the dining room table. Some of the parts were for regular cars, but many were specifically designed for my brother’s dragster, which he took to the track on weekends on a trailer bed attached to his pickup.

Because, like thousands of other kids whose parents drink or do drugs, you think that if you are perfect enough no one will notice him.

My brother was thirteen years older than I. His name was Vanderbilt, but everyone called him Van. He was tall and thin, with greasy hair and ears that stuck out from the side of his head. In winter, when he couldn’t race his car at the Speedway, he played pond hockey behind our house, whipping pucks into a makeshift net with breathtaking speed.

One summer when I was eight or nine, wanting to play catch with him, I went running after a baseball he had tossed sky high. Despite his warnings, I swooped in to catch the ball barehanded. The ball slapping into my hand produced a pain I still remember today — one that spoiled my desire for almost any interaction with him; most of them seemed to hurt in one way or another.

A few months before my father’s accident, we’d all gathered at a local tavern called Louie’s to await my brother’s return from his physical after the draft. No longer married but linked permanently by parentage, my mom and dad held hands under the table as they waited. Towns like Waukegan supplied a steady stream of boys for the Vietnam War. They were summoned to a large armory in Chicago, where they followed red, yellow, or blue lines for physical and mental testing that would determine their futures.

Never a picture of health, my brother was six foot three but had a kind of scoliosis that made him appear slouched even when he was standing straight. He also had ferocious acne that would last his entire adult life. His general ill health made him an unlikely recruit. Half a dozen of his friends had already been called up—boys without a hope of deferment based on a college acceptance or a letter from a well-placed relative.

My brother lurched through the door and flashed a goofy smile and a quick thumbs-up. His category was 4-F — which translated roughly at the time to forever free. My mother erupted in tears of relief, and my father gasped, then awkwardly rose to hug him. “Atta boy, Butch,” he said. “Atta boy.”

My brother called his drag car “The Moving Van.” On weekends, he towed it to the track, where he drank beer and ogled women who wore halter tops and hoop earrings. Even in the wake of the car crash that almost killed our father, my brother would continue to race every weekend.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t very good at it. In drag racing, everything has to go right: the wheels must be aligned, the fuel must be injected in the proper amount at the proper time, and the pistons must fire in an even rhythm.

My brother could never get the hang of jumping fast off the line, and midway down the strip, his axle would break, or a tire would fly off, and the screeching sound of metal on metal, with its distinct acrid smell, would mix with the exhaust fumes. The car would sometimes slide sideways, smoke obscuring our view — my mother and I would clutch hands and hold our breath — until we saw his tall body wriggling out the side window. He would be swearing and whooping. “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,” my mother would mutter, part in prayer and part in exasperation.

* * *

By the time I was growing up in the Midwest, Cadillac had cornered the market for hearses. In fact, there used to be an old joke: “It doesn’t matter what you drive today since your last ride will always be in a Cadillac.”

I had never ridden in a limousine before the frozen February morning one pulled into our driveway to take us to my mother’s funeral. I was ten, and my mother had died in my arms just days before, and a kind of shock had come over me. I was tingling on my right side, a symptom I didn’t disclose to anyone and an effect that would linger into adulthood any time I felt overwhelmed by events.

I don’t know whether my mother succumbed to stress or a complex cocktail of prescription drugs and alcohol. She took a heady mix of drugs, including Darvon (now banned), a drug known to create an irregular heartbeat, and birth control pills, which in their earliest forms were linked to blood clots.

I was alone with her when she died. I knew she wasn’t well. When she walked up  hills her breathing was labored, and her drinking had left her so weakened that she sometimes did not get out of bed on weekends. So, when I saw that she was unable to get out of bed that morning, I had refused to go to school, as I sometimes did when she had had too much to drink. She complained about it, but fell back asleep. I had made myself a frozen waffle and flipped on the TV when I heard her head hit the wall. I was fast calling 911, but they were unable to revive her. I sat near the corner of the room as the bed shook from the defibrillators, my small dog trapped beneath the bed and snarling as each vain attempt was made.

AP Photo/J.Pat Carter

My mother had always loved yellow roses. Roses were the flower and symbol of her saint namesake, Saint Rita of Cascia — appropriately enough, the patron saint of desperation and hopeless marriages.

Saint Rita was from a warring family in Italy and was likely an abused wife. It was thought that her prayers changed the violent ways of her husband and brought an end to a decades-long feud with another village family. After her husband’s death, Rita petitioned three times to join the convent and was eventually admitted. She is credited with several miracles from her time there — one of which was making a rose bush bloom in winter in the frigid hills of Umbria. Thus, petitioners often leave roses and rose petals at the memorial to her at the Basilica of Saint Rita.

My sister, in some mixture of anguish and guilt at the death of our mother, decided that her casket would be covered in yellow roses. It was the kind of dramatic gesture we were good at: the carpets at home were threadbare, the electric bill was overdue, and my mother’s death meant the loss of one-half of our family income, but no matter. We would have a six-foot blanket made of hundreds of roses to cover her casket in the dead of a midwestern winter. It was a small miracle in and of itself.

So, that’s what I remember. Hundreds of small yellow tea roses wired into one great blanket, their petals quivering in the frigid winds as the casket was lowered into the ground. That, and the pallbearers — six tall men from the athletic department where she worked, many of them coaches of one sport or another at the high school, and all of them who might, at one time or another, have answered to the name of “Mr. X.”

* * *

The years after my mother’s death are a haze. In the days after the funeral and for years afterward, I was numb and fragile. My sister soon married, and my brother left home.

I was alone with my father, who rallied — until he didn’t. There were vast swaths of uncertainty — each of us lost in our own sadness and disassociation. He worked most days from ten to nine, with Thursdays and Sundays off.

In the wake of the accident, my father’s steady stream of lies had become a torrent. Dinner would be chicken at five, or noodles at seven, or maybe there was never a plan for dinner in the first place. There would be a birthday party for you, only there wasn’t. He was going to pick you up at school, but never showed. It was cold, sometimes below zero, and the snow was blowing. You waited and then eventually just started walking.

Still, you wanted to believe, so you told yourself you were the one who was confused. You were the one who got it wrong. And it went on like this for a long time. Until you doubted not only yourself, but reality itself.

I had never ridden in a limousine before the frozen February morning one pulled into our driveway to take us to my mother’s funeral.

I once got a D in geography from a teacher who felt I was being impudent for asking her how sure she was that Africa existed. Had she ever been there? I thought it a reasonable, even urgent, question. She sent me to the principal. She thought I was just being cheeky, maybe even rude.

My report cards from those years tell the story. Pleasant and compliant when engaged, I would as often as not simply drift away when not being spoken to directly. Illinois did standardized testing, and I remember having to go to the principal’s office to retake the tests orally. On test day, I had sat in my seat without filling in even a single bubble on the test sheet. I hadn’t flunked, exactly, but I had been completely absent while being fully present. “Being traumatized is not just an issue of being stuck in the past,” writes Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score. “It is just as much a problem of not being fully alive in the present.”

My mother’s old Chevy Impala rusted away in the front yard, and I would sometimes sit in the front seat, running my hands over its seats and sniffing the interior to see if it held any remnants of her perfume.

* * *

My father still sold cars — sometimes used and sometimes new — with varying degrees of success. By the early 1970s, as I was about to enter high school, sales of new cars began to fall as OPEC tightened production and gas lines formed at the pump. A few years later, Jimmy Carter, looking like Mister Rogers, famously appeared on television in a cardigan to warn us of the dangers of dependence on foreign oil.

“The rise of OPEC and the subsequent oil embargos of 1973 and then 1979 sent gasoline prices soaring and engendered dread among Western drivers that the availability of oil could not be taken for granted anymore,” writes Jeffrey Rothfeder in Driving Honda. The production of high-speed cars would drop precipitously in the ensuing years, along with Detroit’s single-handed grasp of the automobile business. In 1974, according to Rothfeder, only three years after entering the US market, Honda introduced its four-door Civic, which met stringent Clean Air Act emissions standards that called for significant decreases in carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon, and nitrogen oxide levels. It was the first car to meet those standards and was introduced at a time when Detroit’s big three automakers and Toyota were arguing vehemently that it couldn’t be done.

The slow unraveling of the American auto industry had begun. The era of the muscle car was being replaced by that of the efficient, if dull, daily driver. Chrysler would teeter on the brink of bankruptcy and then emerge again, but neither my father’s business nor his brain would ever fully recover.

* * *

Is it an overstatement to say I didn’t come alive again until I could drive? Probably, but that’s how I remember it.

When I turned sixteen, my father swapped an old snowmobile and an old boat he had kept in the backyard for the kind of car commonly known as a “beater” back then. It was an enormous old Chrysler, two-toned gold and brown with a tan interior — beige in both color and affect, and enormous.

I remember vividly the feeling of getting behind the wheel for my first solo drive. I got in and pulled the door shut. It made a kind of clunking sound as it closed. I put the car in reverse, and it made a popping sound like the joints of an old man. Cars today are largely made of plastic, but back then they were all steel.

I backed out of the driveway and onto the hardtop of the road. A light rain had done little more than darken the pavement. It was there that I felt the car accelerate as I gave it a little push up the hill. My car was ugly, but it was fast, with a 360-cubic-inch V8 engine. The feeling was unmistakable: pure power and freedom.

No longer would it be necessary for me to hide myself away in a fantasy world of my imagination. No longer would I have to be isolated in a small town without an adequate system of transportation, dependent on rides that didn’t show up. Now, I could easily take myself to the library or the Dairy Queen.

My Chrysler had long bench seats that fit six to eight giggling girls and made it perfect to “scoop the loop,” as we called our endless, aimless circles around downtown. Slowing down, we would flirt with sailors just released from basic training at Great Lakes naval station, located in the town next to ours, and then speed off as they rushed to talk to us.

Like most cars back in the days before four-wheel drive and anti-lock brakes were common, mine was a sled in the snow. I used to take it out into the country to turn doughnuts. Putting a foot on the accelerator and a foot on the brake at the same time made it turn wide, lazy circles on icy pavement and snow-covered lots.

My mother’s old Chevy Impala rusted away in the front yard, and I would sometimes sit in the front seat, running my hands over its seats and sniffing the interior to see if it held any remnants of her perfume.

In summer, we would take a six-pack of beer down to the lakefront. One person would drive, and another would hook her feet under the dash and hang out the passenger-side door, dragging a can along the pavement to create long trails of sparks behind us.

The science fiction writer Ray Bradbury was born in Waukegan in 1920 and spent part of his childhood there. In his 1957 novel, Dandelion Wine, he painted an idealized picture of a town he called Green Town: vibrant, with rain barrels and grape arbors and fireflies lighting up a verdant landscape. But the Waukegan of my childhood, forty years behind Bradbury’s, was anything but green.

By 1976, when I turned sixteen, the pollution in the Great Lakes had reached its peak. Over one million pounds of PCBs were discovered leaking from a factory in my hometown. During the summer before my senior year, waves of small fish washed up on the town beach, forming a stinking carpet so thick that backhoes would have to be brought in to clear the area.

There was a highway to nowhere that ran down along the lake; an almost three-mile-long stretch that was supposed to connect our industrial lakefront to the thumping, prosperous metropolis of Chicago. Unfortunately for the town, the road was never connected to the interstate, but Amstutz Expressway (as it was named) made a fine drag strip.

On warm summer nights I raced past the dying factories. The acrid smell from the smokestacks mixed with the stink of the dying fish washed up on the shore. It all wafted together into the crisp scent of despair. Undeterred, I rolled down the windows, turned up the radio, and pushed the pedal into the floorboard. Even as a teenager, I understood the irony of driving eighty miles an hour on a highway to nowhere.

* * *

Eventually, I drove that old brown Chrysler out of Waukegan and down the toll road to Chicago, where I started on the long journey to becoming a writer, reporter, and editor.

Over time, I sorted out the chaos of my childhood, one fact at a time. I checked and rechecked each story, each number, until eventually I arrived at, if not the truth, then at least some version of a story that made sense.

If my childhood was spent keeping track of my father’s lies, my adult life as a reporter at The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and as an editor at the Harvard Business Review was about making sense of a symphony of falsification, deception, and obfuscation at all levels of business and government. There were the major chords of corporate scandal and the minor notes of misinformation we know as marketing.

“You can sell anything if you’re shameless enough,” a marketing person told me once.

“I know; my father was a used car salesman,” I said. He laughed.

He thought I was kidding.

Over the decades, there were lies, deceptions, and outright disinformation meant to sow confusion. “Doubt is our product,” one executive famously said of the tobacco industry. That, I discovered, was true of a great many industries.

As an editor, I once published an account written by the man who had run the Manville plant in my hometown; it made asbestos-laced building products. Every member of his staff had succumbed to mesothelioma — a direct result of their exposure in the plant. The dangers of asbestos had been known since the early 1900s, but, as the plant manager wrote, “Manville managers at every level were unwilling or unable to believe in the long-term consequences of these known hazards. They denied, or at least failed to acknowledge, the depth and persistence of management accountability.”

At the bottom of each story or scandal there was always the same truth: somebody knew. Somebody always knew. The plant manager knew about the leak; the engineers knew the airbags didn’t work correctly; the accountants knew the numbers didn’t add up; the bankers knew the mortgages would never be repaid. Dozens of executives at Volkswagen, for example, knew that the software in their vehicles had been programmed to make it seem as if their diesel vehicles met emissions standards when, in fact, they didn’t.

Chrysler would teeter on the brink of bankruptcy and then emerge again, but neither my father’s business nor his brain would ever fully recover.

In the past, the car industry has vehemently fought against the need for safety improvements such as seat belts, air bags, and emissions standards. Eventually, even the automobile itself, that piece of technology that once offered Americans freedom and the ability to access the wide-open natural spaces of America, revealed itself to be a powerfully deceptive and seductive fantasy.

In almost every way, the poetic promise of the automobile has proven elusive.

The stylish and powerful cars of my youth — the Dodge Charger, the Chevy convertible, the Ford Mustang — have given way to dozens of nearly identical daily drivers that clog the roads at rush hour. As one auto critic wrote recently: “Look, the mission is dreary, cost-effective shambling back and forth, day after day, between school, and store, and home, and work or station, until you die.”

Originally engineered and created, in part, so that city folks could enjoy the countryside, cars and the highways they require have infringed in almost every way on the nature they were meant to deliver us to.

“I will build a motor car for the great multitude,” Ford once said. “No man making a good salary will be unable to own one — and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

Today, the average American spends over 300 hours driving every year, despite knowing the truth about the dangers of car exhaust and its detrimental effects on one’s health, despite the undeniable fact that auto emissions are a primary cause of climate change. Today, naturalists and forest rangers report, the sound of automobiles can be heard deep into the wilderness.

Where once we drove fast on highways to nowhere, now we are more often stuck in traffic on our daily commute. And there we sit, as our government purposefully ignores the all-encompassing environmental degradation its policies and our collective exhaust will undoubtedly deliver.

And, of course, this policy of denial is just another form of lying — a fanciful story we tell ourselves about our future even as we fight to free ourselves from the personal lies of our past.

***

Nancy A. Nichols is the author ofLake Effect: Two Sisters and a Town’s Toxic Legacy. She is a former senior editor at the Harvard Business Review and a former reporter for PBS’s The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.

This story first appeared in Issue 24 of True Storya monthly mini-magazine published by the Creative Nonfiction Foundation. Our thanks to Nancy A. Nichols and the staff for allowing us to reprint it at Longreads.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath

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Nancy A. Nichols | True Story | January 2018 | 35 minutes (7,098 words)

 

Back in the 1920s, my father’s brother, Donny, was killed at the age of seven in an accident of some kind. Exactly what happened has never been clear.

My father told many versions of this story. He used to say that an older boy had been playing with his little brother, and there was a rope around Donny’s waist. Donny was playing the part of the pony, and the older boy was riding him. In one version of the story, the older boy pulled the rope, and the little boy crashed into the curb and died almost instantaneously. In another version, Donny broke free and ran into the street, where he was hit and killed. Sometimes the older boy was my father; sometimes it wasn’t.

Sometimes it was an army truck that hit Donny, or maybe an ice truck. My father hit a ball into the street, and Donny ran after it. He told Donny not to go into the street, but Donny did anyhow. Or maybe he didn’t say anything; maybe he just stood staring. The truck driver tried to brake but couldn’t. Or he didn’t brake at all.

Both blamed and punished at the time for his brother’s death, my father began to lie as a child — perhaps as an understandable response to a terrible tragedy or maybe to cover up his own role in his brother’s death. Eventually, lying became a habit. My father lied about everything, consistently, reflexively, whether his lies served a purpose or not. He lied about which grocery store he went to and whether the car was insured or whether there was oil in the burner. Eventually, my father would become a car salesman, and lying would become his business.

During the 1960s and ’70s, he sold used cars on a small half-acre lot in our hometown of Waukegan, Illinois — just south of the Wisconsin border. I can picture him alone in the small shack at the back of the lot, his feet perched on an old aluminum desk. Cigarette hanging from his mouth, he was slow to get up but a fast-talker once he reached you.

Sometimes, he worked in the dealer’s new-car showroom on the other side of town. There, he sold Chryslers and Dodges under bright fluorescent lights that reflected off the showroom cars like a disco ball turned upside down.

Our bank account may have been empty, but the gas tank was always full.

In 1970, when I was in the sixth grade, he sold more Dodge Darts than any other man in the state of Illinois. The company gave him a small diamond pin to mark this achievement, and he wore it religiously. The automobile industry had embraced the “new and improved” sales strategy, and each year’s version of the Dart was slightly more alluring than the last. The cars all looked pretty much the same to me — the Dart was a boxy economy car that I remember in mostly pale pastel colors with shiny vinyl upholstery — but my father excelled at extolling the small virtues and changes in each new model.

He dressed the part of a car salesman as well as he played it. At nearly six foot four, he was unmistakable in his lime-green leisure suit and white belt and shoes. His slicked-back silver hair was a perfect match for black shirts paired with white ties and checkerboard sports jackets.

Though he mainly sold used cars, he would often drive new ones from the showroom floor, tooling around in the latest models, trying to gin up interest from the factory workers in town. This meant we had a new car every week. We rode around in one stylish model after another, the price tag stuck on the rear window, small paper squares beneath our feet to protect the carpet, that sweet new car smell burning our nostrils. Each new car filled us with hope and aspiration. Our bank account may have been empty, but the gas tank was always full.

* * *

While the invention of the modern gasoline-powered car can be most accurately ascribed to Daimler and Benz of Germany, the mass production and mass marketing of the automobile was perfected in my own fertile Midwest. Henry Ford’s Model T was introduced in 1908, and Ford’s assembly lines — inspired by the carcass disassembly process of the Chicago stockyards — lurched into action in the Detroit area in 1913.

Far from the complicated, sophisticated business we now think of when we contemplate the auto industry, Detroit was then populated by a group of smart, determined tinkerers, quarrelsome young men who were capable of working with their hands, men determined enough to work in unheated garages during long midwestern winters, men strong enough to lift the engines and turn the cranks that started early models.

“The auto was born in a masculine manger,” writes Virginia Scharff in Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age. But beyond the men-and-machine myth lies a different story: women, too, have always loved their cars.

Scharff describes how the car liberated rural and small-town women from the farm and introduced them to the pleasures of the world: boyfriends, parties, libraries, and soda fountains. It took ladies in smart outfits to the country club and matrons in pearls and black velvet to the opera. Most of all, the car permanently altered the terrain of romance. Once confined to the parlor or the front porch, courtship now took place far from parental supervision, in cars on dark, country roads.

The car also changed the way women worked and lived. Automobile culture dissected towns and cities and led to the construction of a vast network of highways that delivered families to the suburbs. There, in surprising ways, the car enslaved women even as it liberated them. Where once “women’s work” was visible to all — say, in the vegetable garden or as laundry hanging on a line — much of women’s work in the suburbs took place within the confines of the car as the almost constant shopping and chauffeuring of children to activities outside the neighborhood became both necessary and routine.

But for my mother, the car was all about freedom. It took her to work and to the hairdresser — the unfortunately named Betty Gray’s on Grand Avenue — where every Saturday she had her dark black hair styled. During the week, she kept her hair in place with copious amounts of Aqua Net to stave off the fierce midwestern winds. At night, she slept on satin pillows.

She was striking — five foot nine and thin — and if she wasn’t exactly beautiful, she certainly gave the impression of great beauty. Perhaps it was her clothes, which were meticulous and impractical — bouclé suits in winter and, in summer, starched skirts with dozens of tiny pleats she hand-ironed, only to watch as their sharp edges wilted in the unrelenting heat and humidity.

Her car was as fashionable as her clothes and just as impractical. She drove an old light-blue Chevy Impala convertible from the 1960s. The car had white vinyl bucket seats, and the shift was on the console between the driver and the passenger seats. She drove fast, and if she had to stop on short notice, she flung her arm across my chest in the impromptu seat-belt move common to mothers of the day.

We made our getaway from my father in that old Chevy on one cold winter night. I’m not certain what exactly prompted her to leave; I guess she had had enough. She took me with her; I was five years old, and it was 1965. We left behind my older brother and sister. They were in their late teens, and I suppose they got to choose.

I remember sitting in the driveway, the engine running to keep us warm, my breath blowing a light fog onto the window. My father came out to the car. I rolled down the window, working that old-style crank hard, and he handed me a sleeve of saltines.

“Here,” he said.

And then the Chevy lurched into gear, spitting gravel as we turned out of the driveway and headed across town to the one-bedroom bungalow my mother had rented. The thin convertible roof leaked cold air, the car bucked as the engine slipped into gear, and the crumbs gathered in my lap.

I drank my first sweet cup of coffee that night out of an old lilac melamine cup. Munching on crackers and sitting on the floor of the tiny one-bedroom house, I thought it was going to be an extraordinary adventure. Although I didn’t know the word at the time, it was exhilarating.

As a child, I didn’t appreciate what a desperate act it was. My mother was the only divorced woman in town. She made little money as a secretary in the athletic department at the high school, and my father’s support came in fits and starts — probably because his own success was so tenuous. Sometimes he would hit it big with a new model or sales promotion, but other times a plant closure or a strike at a factory would slow sales for months. During the long winters, it wasn’t uncommon to come home and find the heat or electricity shut off because she’d been so late paying a bill.

Adult lives are always a source of mystery to children, and my mother’s was no exception. Our small industrial town had almost no social outlets for a newly divorced woman. My mother was Catholic, and she was either tossed out of the church or simply felt too uncomfortable to continue to attend.


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I remember one picture of her sitting at a restaurant with some of the other secretaries from the high school. She was wearing a white dress and a peach silk coat, her cigarette waving in the air.

She used to listen to high school basketball games on the radio on Friday nights. She knew many of the boys personally — those who were acting out or in danger of becoming ineligible to play because of poor grades were sent to her office during homeroom — and I would hear her calling out encouragement to them as she listened. She clapped her hands at each free throw they hit. She knew well enough that an opportunity was not something anyone could afford to waste.

On cold winter nights, her old Chevy would idle in the drive as she put on her makeup and waited for me to fall asleep. I didn’t know where she went at night, only that she was out.

Sometimes I would awaken to voices in the living room. Whenever she had a man visit, I was instructed to call him “Mr. X.” One night I awoke to a tall fellow whirling my neon Hula Hoop on his hips in the dark, and for the longest time that was my vision of sex — that lurid green Hula Hoop twirling in the nighttime.

* * *

Cars and sex have been linked almost since the very inception of the automobile. Wealthy ladies — especially socialites — were among the first women to own cars. And yet the early cars often demanded a physical force both to start and to steer, and footmen or other servants soon found themselves in the role of chauffeur — a term originally derived from the French, chauffer, to stoke or fire up. The word probably refers to the job of early drivers, who cranked the motors of the first cars.

But of course the engine of the car wasn’t all the chauffeur might fire up — or at least that’s how the pulp fiction writers of the time imagined it. In the colloquial, chauffer une femme meant to make hot love to a woman. The chauffeur threatened class and gender lines by leaving women alone with men of another class in an enclosed space and out of the house for the first time.

As a result, the car became both the source of and the setting for sensational, melodramatic tales. Victoria Scharff cites, for example, a 1905 Hearst Motor magazine serial, in which a fictional character named Lady Beeston waxes poetic about her car:

To think of “The Monster,” as she called it, was to long for it. That great living, wonderful thing with its passion for motion seemed to call and claim her as a kindred spirit. She wanted to feel the throb of its quickening pulses; to lay her hand on lever and handle and thrill with the sense of mastery; to claim its power as her own—and feel its sullen-yielded obedience answer her will.

This combination of lust and the car would play out again and again across the decades. In fact, women and their clothing were an early, but often unacknowledged, source of inspiration for car culture; some of the first terms for car parts were at least in part derived from women’s clothing. The “bonnet” or the “hood” covered the engine, and “skirts” hid the machinery of the automobile. And then, in turn, the car inspired clothing — coats, goggles, and driving gloves — designed to withstand the rugged and sometimes dangerous conditions early drivers faced.

As cars became more comfortable and easier to drive, protective gear was replaced by fashionable “car” clothing. In 1953, aware of women’s growing involvement in the purchase of the family car, the Ford Motor Company developed a line of “Motor Mates” — coats and accessories that matched their Victoria model. The handbags were made from the same nylon used in the upholstery and were advertised in Vogue as coordinating with both the interior and exterior of Ford cars. Ford dealers were encouraged to sponsor fashion shows, give the coats to local actresses to wear on television, and hold essay contests encouraging customers to write short testimonies about their love for the cars and, perhaps, their matching accessories.

About a decade later, Ford targeted women with “Sweetheart of the Supermarket Set” ads for the Mustang and ran a sing-songy promotion with a cosmetics company that went something like this: “Match your lipstick to your Mustang and add miles to your smiles.”

The Mustang, with its upbeat vibe, was famously Mary Tyler Moore’s character’s car of choice. Modestly priced at just under $3,000, it was engineered to create excitement among an ever-expanding set of baby boomers — especially young women. Auto writers dubbed it “the perfect car for the Pepsi generation.”

* * *

My sister, Sue, nine years older than I, drove a red Mustang convertible with white interiors that my father had bought for her used. It was a fast car, but my sister drove it slowly. She was absentminded and unhurried in the way of many great beauties. She would play with her hair while she drove — shifting gears and flicking her hair in a kind of rhythmic beat. Flick, shift, flick, shift.

Driving a convertible in Illinois was stylish beyond a doubt, but also impractical most days of the year. Sue’s car was a kind of fashion note — a perfect accessory to her white lace mini-dresses, flared bell-bottoms, and halter tops. It was a statement piece made of metal.

My sister continued to live with my father, but when I was in grade school she acquired her driver’s license and would often zip across town to pick me up for a small afternoon adventure. In the Mustang, we escaped from the mundane chores of small-town life, driving the hour into Chicago to explore bookstores and the vast oasis of Marshall Field’s, the giant department store. She took me to the beach — that sliver of sand in our town down near the factories and the coal-fired generating plant. Or we would go clothes shopping, fingering materials under the watchful eye of snooty store ladies and trying on clothes we couldn’t afford. Sometimes, when we wanted to go out to lunch, we would eat a grilled cheese sandwich at the counter at Woolworth’s or drive north to an A&W restaurant, where a waitress would bring us their signature ice-cold root beer and a sandwich called the Belly Whopper on a tray that hooked over the side of the car window.

But the ride I remember most clearly was anything but a pleasure drive. My sister came to pick up my mother and me just after nine on a weekday evening. A light summer rain had hit the streets earlier, and a slight steam was rising from the pavement.

Some of the first terms for car parts were at least in part derived from women’s clothing.

We piled into her little red Mustang and headed to the only hospital in town, the one I had been born in. At nine, I was still too young to visit a regular hospital room, let alone the emergency room, so my mother and sister left me alone in the waiting room.

Bright lights beamed down on me. I sat on a small couch and ran my hands over the rips in the upholstery. Empty Styrofoam cups surfed on Formica tables, and old newspapers—their coupons torn out — lay crumpled on the floor.

Eventually, my mother came to tell me that my father had been in a devastating collision with a drunk driver. He had been driving a Dodge Charger, the epitome of an American muscle car: fast and loud. My father used to sell them to boys back from Vietnam, wallets flush with battle pay, the fear and allure of death still close at hand. On summer nights you could hear their tires peel off the asphalt as they drag raced or screeched around corners, laying down rubber in the hopes of impressing some girl or letting everyone know how pissed off they were about something or nothing at all. They were shamelessly macho.

But on the night of his accident, my father’s high-powered performance automobile did him no good. He was stopped at a red light when he was hit head on.

The accident would leave my father with a permanent traumatic brain injury, a diagnosis that did not exist then. We knew he had a gash that ran all the way from the top of his head down to his eyebrows. The extent of his unraveling would reveal itself to us only later.

* * *

If the accident had an upside, it was that it briefly united my “broken” family. For a few months, my mother and I returned to the small red A-frame house where we had lived before the divorce to help tend to my father along with my sister and brother. For a child who desperately wanted a united family, it was a small, if fleeting, miracle.

But, of course, everything was different. Before the accident, my father was just a garden-variety kind of drunk. He would sit at home in his white undershirts, the kind we now call wife-beaters. He would drink Budweiser out of quart bottles. When he finished one, he would drop it under the coffee table and say, inexplicably: “One little dead Indian.” By the end of the night, a whole tribe would be polished off under the coffee table.

As a kid, you don’t understand that lots of folks drink. You think your dad is the worst, the most awful, the most embarrassing ever. Once, when he was drunk at a restaurant, I remember him falling over a waist-high wall and landing like a circus seal on his nose.

And really, as a child there is nothing you can do but try to be the most perfect child. Because, like thousands of other kids whose parents drink or do drugs, you think that if you are perfect enough no one will notice him. Or you think that somehow you will be magnificent enough to cure your parents. But, of course, you can’t cure them, and there is no way to distract anyone when your father has just landed like a seal on his nose in a restaurant. Everyone knew. Everyone always knew. At best, there was a little comedy in the anecdotes.

But, after the accident, my father became a violent raging drunk. The stories became darker, the kind of thing you couldn’t even whisper about to friends.

I remember one day he came home and beat the dog nearly to death while I cowered in the kitchen and listened to the whelping. There was no rhyme or reason to it. It was brain induced or drink induced — I never knew.

He went back to work, but he had lost the sweet-talking patois of sales, and our income eroded swiftly.

* * *

Books became my anchor. The words were printed in black and white, steady and unmovable, there to be checked and rechecked again, their logic forever bound together with a simple seam.

At home, we had only a half-complete set of encyclopedias that my father had bought from a college student going door-to-door. He had bought them more out of salesman simpatico than a lust for knowledge, and he must have arranged some kind of payment plan, since our set stopped with the letter M.

I don’t know what I would have done without Gertie. That’s what we called the library’s bookmobile.

The name came from the manufacturer, the Ohio-based Gerstenslager Company, which had originally made horse buggies but later specialized in retrofitting buses for multiple uses. Most famously, the company made five “Wienermobiles,” vehicles in the shape of hotdogs, for the Oscar Mayer company.

In summers, to help fill the long, empty hours of school-age children, Gertie moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, supplying books. Librarians, being no fools, were smart enough to park Gertie next to the candy store or the town pool. On hot summer days, Gertie had the remarkable advantage of being air-conditioned. She offered salvation, two books at a time.

* * *

After the accident, my father’s house — where my siblings lived and where I visited on weekends after my mother and I moved back to our bungalow — became more chaotic than ever. He was unable to mow the lawn or keep up with basic maintenance, so the grass grew knee-high and screen doors flapped wildly as the wind whipped off Lake Michigan.

We lived in an area of small but tidy homes, but our lawn — such as it was — was scattered with broken cars of different makes and models in need of various repairs or parts. Chevys sat on blocks beside a Mustang missing a door and a stock car covered with grease.

Maybe because of the cold winters or because of the unreasonably high winds that swept in off the lake, my father and brother also kept many spare parts in the house. Tires, chains, mufflers, and oil pans — all piled high next to the couch, on the TV, and on the dining room table. Some of the parts were for regular cars, but many were specifically designed for my brother’s dragster, which he took to the track on weekends on a trailer bed attached to his pickup.

Because, like thousands of other kids whose parents drink or do drugs, you think that if you are perfect enough no one will notice him.

My brother was thirteen years older than I. His name was Vanderbilt, but everyone called him Van. He was tall and thin, with greasy hair and ears that stuck out from the side of his head. In winter, when he couldn’t race his car at the Speedway, he played pond hockey behind our house, whipping pucks into a makeshift net with breathtaking speed.

One summer when I was eight or nine, wanting to play catch with him, I went running after a baseball he had tossed sky high. Despite his warnings, I swooped in to catch the ball barehanded. The ball slapping into my hand produced a pain I still remember today — one that spoiled my desire for almost any interaction with him; most of them seemed to hurt in one way or another.

A few months before my father’s accident, we’d all gathered at a local tavern called Louie’s to await my brother’s return from his physical after the draft. No longer married but linked permanently by parentage, my mom and dad held hands under the table as they waited. Towns like Waukegan supplied a steady stream of boys for the Vietnam War. They were summoned to a large armory in Chicago, where they followed red, yellow, or blue lines for physical and mental testing that would determine their futures.

Never a picture of health, my brother was six foot three but had a kind of scoliosis that made him appear slouched even when he was standing straight. He also had ferocious acne that would last his entire adult life. His general ill health made him an unlikely recruit. Half a dozen of his friends had already been called up—boys without a hope of deferment based on a college acceptance or a letter from a well-placed relative.

My brother lurched through the door and flashed a goofy smile and a quick thumbs-up. His category was 4-F — which translated roughly at the time to forever free. My mother erupted in tears of relief, and my father gasped, then awkwardly rose to hug him. “Atta boy, Butch,” he said. “Atta boy.”

My brother called his drag car “The Moving Van.” On weekends, he towed it to the track, where he drank beer and ogled women who wore halter tops and hoop earrings. Even in the wake of the car crash that almost killed our father, my brother would continue to race every weekend.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t very good at it. In drag racing, everything has to go right: the wheels must be aligned, the fuel must be injected in the proper amount at the proper time, and the pistons must fire in an even rhythm.

My brother could never get the hang of jumping fast off the line, and midway down the strip, his axle would break, or a tire would fly off, and the screeching sound of metal on metal, with its distinct acrid smell, would mix with the exhaust fumes. The car would sometimes slide sideways, smoke obscuring our view — my mother and I would clutch hands and hold our breath — until we saw his tall body wriggling out the side window. He would be swearing and whooping. “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,” my mother would mutter, part in prayer and part in exasperation.

* * *

By the time I was growing up in the Midwest, Cadillac had cornered the market for hearses. In fact, there used to be an old joke: “It doesn’t matter what you drive today since your last ride will always be in a Cadillac.”

I had never ridden in a limousine before the frozen February morning one pulled into our driveway to take us to my mother’s funeral. I was ten, and my mother had died in my arms just days before, and a kind of shock had come over me. I was tingling on my right side, a symptom I didn’t disclose to anyone and an effect that would linger into adulthood any time I felt overwhelmed by events.

I don’t know whether my mother succumbed to stress or a complex cocktail of prescription drugs and alcohol. She took a heady mix of drugs, including Darvon (now banned), a drug known to create an irregular heartbeat, and birth control pills, which in their earliest forms were linked to blood clots.

I was alone with her when she died. I knew she wasn’t well. When she walked up  hills her breathing was labored, and her drinking had left her so weakened that she sometimes did not get out of bed on weekends. So, when I saw that she was unable to get out of bed that morning, I had refused to go to school, as I sometimes did when she had had too much to drink. She complained about it, but fell back asleep. I had made myself a frozen waffle and flipped on the TV when I heard her head hit the wall. I was fast calling 911, but they were unable to revive her. I sat near the corner of the room as the bed shook from the defibrillators, my small dog trapped beneath the bed and snarling as each vain attempt was made.

AP Photo/J.Pat Carter

My mother had always loved yellow roses. Roses were the flower and symbol of her saint namesake, Saint Rita of Cascia — appropriately enough, the patron saint of desperation and hopeless marriages.

Saint Rita was from a warring family in Italy and was likely an abused wife. It was thought that her prayers changed the violent ways of her husband and brought an end to a decades-long feud with another village family. After her husband’s death, Rita petitioned three times to join the convent and was eventually admitted. She is credited with several miracles from her time there — one of which was making a rose bush bloom in winter in the frigid hills of Umbria. Thus, petitioners often leave roses and rose petals at the memorial to her at the Basilica of Saint Rita.

My sister, in some mixture of anguish and guilt at the death of our mother, decided that her casket would be covered in yellow roses. It was the kind of dramatic gesture we were good at: the carpets at home were threadbare, the electric bill was overdue, and my mother’s death meant the loss of one-half of our family income, but no matter. We would have a six-foot blanket made of hundreds of roses to cover her casket in the dead of a midwestern winter. It was a small miracle in and of itself.

So, that’s what I remember. Hundreds of small yellow tea roses wired into one great blanket, their petals quivering in the frigid winds as the casket was lowered into the ground. That, and the pallbearers — six tall men from the athletic department where she worked, many of them coaches of one sport or another at the high school, and all of them who might, at one time or another, have answered to the name of “Mr. X.”

* * *

The years after my mother’s death are a haze. In the days after the funeral and for years afterward, I was numb and fragile. My sister soon married, and my brother left home.

I was alone with my father, who rallied — until he didn’t. There were vast swaths of uncertainty — each of us lost in our own sadness and disassociation. He worked most days from ten to nine, with Thursdays and Sundays off.

In the wake of the accident, my father’s steady stream of lies had become a torrent. Dinner would be chicken at five, or noodles at seven, or maybe there was never a plan for dinner in the first place. There would be a birthday party for you, only there wasn’t. He was going to pick you up at school, but never showed. It was cold, sometimes below zero, and the snow was blowing. You waited and then eventually just started walking.

Still, you wanted to believe, so you told yourself you were the one who was confused. You were the one who got it wrong. And it went on like this for a long time. Until you doubted not only yourself, but reality itself.

I had never ridden in a limousine before the frozen February morning one pulled into our driveway to take us to my mother’s funeral.

I once got a D in geography from a teacher who felt I was being impudent for asking her how sure she was that Africa existed. Had she ever been there? I thought it a reasonable, even urgent, question. She sent me to the principal. She thought I was just being cheeky, maybe even rude.

My report cards from those years tell the story. Pleasant and compliant when engaged, I would as often as not simply drift away when not being spoken to directly. Illinois did standardized testing, and I remember having to go to the principal’s office to retake the tests orally. On test day, I had sat in my seat without filling in even a single bubble on the test sheet. I hadn’t flunked, exactly, but I had been completely absent while being fully present. “Being traumatized is not just an issue of being stuck in the past,” writes Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score. “It is just as much a problem of not being fully alive in the present.”

My mother’s old Chevy Impala rusted away in the front yard, and I would sometimes sit in the front seat, running my hands over its seats and sniffing the interior to see if it held any remnants of her perfume.

* * *

My father still sold cars — sometimes used and sometimes new — with varying degrees of success. By the early 1970s, as I was about to enter high school, sales of new cars began to fall as OPEC tightened production and gas lines formed at the pump. A few years later, Jimmy Carter, looking like Mister Rogers, famously appeared on television in a cardigan to warn us of the dangers of dependence on foreign oil.

“The rise of OPEC and the subsequent oil embargos of 1973 and then 1979 sent gasoline prices soaring and engendered dread among Western drivers that the availability of oil could not be taken for granted anymore,” writes Jeffrey Rothfeder in Driving Honda. The production of high-speed cars would drop precipitously in the ensuing years, along with Detroit’s single-handed grasp of the automobile business. In 1974, according to Rothfeder, only three years after entering the US market, Honda introduced its four-door Civic, which met stringent Clean Air Act emissions standards that called for significant decreases in carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon, and nitrogen oxide levels. It was the first car to meet those standards and was introduced at a time when Detroit’s big three automakers and Toyota were arguing vehemently that it couldn’t be done.

The slow unraveling of the American auto industry had begun. The era of the muscle car was being replaced by that of the efficient, if dull, daily driver. Chrysler would teeter on the brink of bankruptcy and then emerge again, but neither my father’s business nor his brain would ever fully recover.

* * *

Is it an overstatement to say I didn’t come alive again until I could drive? Probably, but that’s how I remember it.

When I turned sixteen, my father swapped an old snowmobile and an old boat he had kept in the backyard for the kind of car commonly known as a “beater” back then. It was an enormous old Chrysler, two-toned gold and brown with a tan interior — beige in both color and affect, and enormous.

I remember vividly the feeling of getting behind the wheel for my first solo drive. I got in and pulled the door shut. It made a kind of clunking sound as it closed. I put the car in reverse, and it made a popping sound like the joints of an old man. Cars today are largely made of plastic, but back then they were all steel.

I backed out of the driveway and onto the hardtop of the road. A light rain had done little more than darken the pavement. It was there that I felt the car accelerate as I gave it a little push up the hill. My car was ugly, but it was fast, with a 360-cubic-inch V8 engine. The feeling was unmistakable: pure power and freedom.

No longer would it be necessary for me to hide myself away in a fantasy world of my imagination. No longer would I have to be isolated in a small town without an adequate system of transportation, dependent on rides that didn’t show up. Now, I could easily take myself to the library or the Dairy Queen.

My Chrysler had long bench seats that fit six to eight giggling girls and made it perfect to “scoop the loop,” as we called our endless, aimless circles around downtown. Slowing down, we would flirt with sailors just released from basic training at Great Lakes naval station, located in the town next to ours, and then speed off as they rushed to talk to us.

Like most cars back in the days before four-wheel drive and anti-lock brakes were common, mine was a sled in the snow. I used to take it out into the country to turn doughnuts. Putting a foot on the accelerator and a foot on the brake at the same time made it turn wide, lazy circles on icy pavement and snow-covered lots.

My mother’s old Chevy Impala rusted away in the front yard, and I would sometimes sit in the front seat, running my hands over its seats and sniffing the interior to see if it held any remnants of her perfume.

In summer, we would take a six-pack of beer down to the lakefront. One person would drive, and another would hook her feet under the dash and hang out the passenger-side door, dragging a can along the pavement to create long trails of sparks behind us.

The science fiction writer Ray Bradbury was born in Waukegan in 1920 and spent part of his childhood there. In his 1957 novel, Dandelion Wine, he painted an idealized picture of a town he called Green Town: vibrant, with rain barrels and grape arbors and fireflies lighting up a verdant landscape. But the Waukegan of my childhood, forty years behind Bradbury’s, was anything but green.

By 1976, when I turned sixteen, the pollution in the Great Lakes had reached its peak. Over one million pounds of PCBs were discovered leaking from a factory in my hometown. During the summer before my senior year, waves of small fish washed up on the town beach, forming a stinking carpet so thick that backhoes would have to be brought in to clear the area.

There was a highway to nowhere that ran down along the lake; an almost three-mile-long stretch that was supposed to connect our industrial lakefront to the thumping, prosperous metropolis of Chicago. Unfortunately for the town, the road was never connected to the interstate, but Amstutz Expressway (as it was named) made a fine drag strip.

On warm summer nights I raced past the dying factories. The acrid smell from the smokestacks mixed with the stink of the dying fish washed up on the shore. It all wafted together into the crisp scent of despair. Undeterred, I rolled down the windows, turned up the radio, and pushed the pedal into the floorboard. Even as a teenager, I understood the irony of driving eighty miles an hour on a highway to nowhere.

* * *

Eventually, I drove that old brown Chrysler out of Waukegan and down the toll road to Chicago, where I started on the long journey to becoming a writer, reporter, and editor.

Over time, I sorted out the chaos of my childhood, one fact at a time. I checked and rechecked each story, each number, until eventually I arrived at, if not the truth, then at least some version of a story that made sense.

If my childhood was spent keeping track of my father’s lies, my adult life as a reporter at The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and as an editor at the Harvard Business Review was about making sense of a symphony of falsification, deception, and obfuscation at all levels of business and government. There were the major chords of corporate scandal and the minor notes of misinformation we know as marketing.

“You can sell anything if you’re shameless enough,” a marketing person told me once.

“I know; my father was a used car salesman,” I said. He laughed.

He thought I was kidding.

Over the decades, there were lies, deceptions, and outright disinformation meant to sow confusion. “Doubt is our product,” one executive famously said of the tobacco industry. That, I discovered, was true of a great many industries.

As an editor, I once published an account written by the man who had run the Manville plant in my hometown; it made asbestos-laced building products. Every member of his staff had succumbed to mesothelioma — a direct result of their exposure in the plant. The dangers of asbestos had been known since the early 1900s, but, as the plant manager wrote, “Manville managers at every level were unwilling or unable to believe in the long-term consequences of these known hazards. They denied, or at least failed to acknowledge, the depth and persistence of management accountability.”

At the bottom of each story or scandal there was always the same truth: somebody knew. Somebody always knew. The plant manager knew about the leak; the engineers knew the airbags didn’t work correctly; the accountants knew the numbers didn’t add up; the bankers knew the mortgages would never be repaid. Dozens of executives at Volkswagen, for example, knew that the software in their vehicles had been programmed to make it seem as if their diesel vehicles met emissions standards when, in fact, they didn’t.

Chrysler would teeter on the brink of bankruptcy and then emerge again, but neither my father’s business nor his brain would ever fully recover.

In the past, the car industry has vehemently fought against the need for safety improvements such as seat belts, air bags, and emissions standards. Eventually, even the automobile itself, that piece of technology that once offered Americans freedom and the ability to access the wide-open natural spaces of America, revealed itself to be a powerfully deceptive and seductive fantasy.

In almost every way, the poetic promise of the automobile has proven elusive.

The stylish and powerful cars of my youth — the Dodge Charger, the Chevy convertible, the Ford Mustang — have given way to dozens of nearly identical daily drivers that clog the roads at rush hour. As one auto critic wrote recently: “Look, the mission is dreary, cost-effective shambling back and forth, day after day, between school, and store, and home, and work or station, until you die.”

Originally engineered and created, in part, so that city folks could enjoy the countryside, cars and the highways they require have infringed in almost every way on the nature they were meant to deliver us to.

“I will build a motor car for the great multitude,” Ford once said. “No man making a good salary will be unable to own one — and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

Today, the average American spends over 300 hours driving every year, despite knowing the truth about the dangers of car exhaust and its detrimental effects on one’s health, despite the undeniable fact that auto emissions are a primary cause of climate change. Today, naturalists and forest rangers report, the sound of automobiles can be heard deep into the wilderness.

Where once we drove fast on highways to nowhere, now we are more often stuck in traffic on our daily commute. And there we sit, as our government purposefully ignores the all-encompassing environmental degradation its policies and our collective exhaust will undoubtedly deliver.

And, of course, this policy of denial is just another form of lying — a fanciful story we tell ourselves about our future even as we fight to free ourselves from the personal lies of our past.

***

Nancy A. Nichols is the author ofLake Effect: Two Sisters and a Town’s Toxic Legacy. She is a former senior editor at the Harvard Business Review and a former reporter for PBS’s The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.

This story first appeared in Issue 24 of True Storya monthly mini-magazine published by the Creative Nonfiction Foundation. Our thanks to Nancy A. Nichols and the staff for allowing us to reprint it at Longreads.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath


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