Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

What We Talk About When We Talk About Others

Ian McEwan's celebrated novel Atonement tells the story of a young girl named Briony Tallis who, fancying herself a writer and jumping to create narratives in her head, miscontrues a series of events between her sister and the young man who becomes her lover. Based on the story she's created in her head, she later concludes that she's witnessed the young man raping her cousin, despite being unable to see the perpetrator, and her false testimony sends the man to prison. Later in the novel, a repentant Briony encounters her sister and the man, and humbly accepts an oddly theatrical comeuppance and shaming. And still later, at the end of the book we discover that Briony has grown up to be a respected novelist, and has written the earlier section to atone for her deeds and to create a new, happier ending for the wronged pair.

A fascinating literary experiment, and McEwan is a skilled enough writer to make it almost plausible, but the problem is that now the reader doubts everything in the book. What is true? What is false? Is the whole novel a construct of Briony's imagination? Which pivotal details really did happen as presented? Does McEwan even know which parts of his story are real, and which are imagined?

And this is only fiction we're examining.

There's been a lot of discussion of Alex Tizon's April cover article in the Atlantic about Lola, the woman who lived with his family and raised him, and whom he came to realize was not simply a live-in helper and maid, but a slave. The article is well worth reading: beautifully written, soul-searching, and all the more poignant for the fact that Tizon died suddenly in March.
Her name was Eudocia Tomas Pulido. We called her Lola. She was 4 foot 11, with mocha-brown skin and almond eyes that I can still see looking into mine—my first memory. She was 18 years old when my grandfather gave her to my mother as a gift, and when my family moved to the United States, we brought her with us. No other word but slave encompassed the life she lived. Her days began before everyone else woke and ended after we went to bed. She prepared three meals a day, cleaned the house, waited on my parents, and took care of my four siblings and me. My parents never paid her, and they scolded her constantly. She wasn’t kept in leg irons, but she might as well have been. So many nights, on my way to the bathroom, I’d spot her sleeping in a corner, slumped against a mound of laundry, her fingers clutching a garment she was in the middle of folding. 
To our American neighbors, we were model immigrants, a poster family. They told us so. My father had a law degree, my mother was on her way to becoming a doctor, and my siblings and I got good grades and always said “please” and “thank you.” We never talked about Lola. Our secret went to the core of who we were and, at least for us kids, who we wanted to be. 
After my mother died of leukemia, in 1999, Lola came to live with me in a small town north of Seattle. I had a family, a career, a house in the suburbs—the American dream. And then I had a slave.
Tizon passed away in March, just as the Atlantic had decided to run Lola's story. We can't turn to him for more details of Lola's life, or why, even acknowledging the complex web of obligations to his mother and the cultural differences between the Philippines and America, he didn't do more to emancipate Lola from a life of abuse and humiliations. (His parents maltreated her emotionally and physically, in front of the children. The family didn't even give her a place to sleep.) We hear very little about his four siblings, despite his account that his brother, eight years older, was outraged at Lola's treatment. In this article, Tizon seems to be trying to atone for his family's moral culpability for Lola's slavery, and to give an honorable, fair account of both this meek, gracious woman and of his complex, contradictory mother.

It turns out that this was not Tizon's first eulogy for Lola. In 2011, the year of Lola's death, he contacted the Seattle Times, his employer, about running an obituary for Lola. Susan Kelleher, the reporter assigned to the piece, spoke with Tizon and, based on his account of her life and his anecdotes, wrote a moving account of Lola's life and devotion to the Tizon family. This week, Kelleher wrote a horrified correction and apology after reading Tizon's Atlantic article with the salient details he didn't choose to reveal to her in 2011.

Tizon was a career journalist, so writing was hardly foreign to him. It sounds as if he wrestled for years with how to tell Lola's story, how to do justice to her and grapple with his own complicity and responsibilities to her and to his family and to the truth. And yet in the end, each attempt to acknowledge Lola ended up revealing more about Tizon himself than about a woman who, ultimately, never was given the opportunity to tell her own story. His atonement is as layered and convoluted as Briony Tallis's attempts to reconstruct her own complicity in a crime she didn't commit, and as contradictory as her literary versions of atonement.

But this isn't fiction.

It is a rare person, a rare writer, who, in trying to recount or account for another person, can truly tell that person's story. Often when we speak of other people, we are speaking of ourselves, viewing that person's life through the lens of our own experience and emotions, baggage and convictions. Tizon's Atlantic article suggests an honest grappling with his family's history and legacy, but read in the light of the initial obituary for Lola (for which he alone contributed all the biographical information), it seems like another draft of Atonement. In the obituary, Lola's many virtues and beautiful devotion are made much of -- even the time that Lola took a beating from the mother's father for the mother's misdeed! -- without the critical information about the slavery that formed her character and compelled that devotion under threat of punishment. Tizon's guilt impels him to mold and remold the clay of Lola's life, but the stories are ultimately constructed in his own image. He writes of his surprise at reading his mother's journals:
Before she died, she gave me her journals, two steamer trunks’ full. Leafing through them as she slept a few feet away, I glimpsed slices of her life that I’d refused to see for years. She’d gone to medical school when not many women did. She’d come to America and fought for respect as both a woman and an immigrant physician. She’d worked for two decades at Fairview Training Center, in Salem, a state institution for the developmentally disabled. The irony: She tended to underdogs most of her professional life. They worshipped her. Female colleagues became close friends. They did silly, girly things together—shoe shopping, throwing dress-up parties at one another’s homes, exchanging gag gifts like penis-shaped soaps and calendars of half-naked men, all while laughing hysterically. Looking through their party pictures reminded me that Mom had a life and an identity apart from the family and Lola. Of course.
Lola leaves no personal account of her life, being unable to read and write until the last years of her life. All we know is what Tizon tells us. And Tizon himself wrote movingly about the underdog, as the Atlantic note about his death tells us:
The Pulitzer prize–winning reporter Alex Tizon built an exemplary career by listening to certain types of people—forgotten people, people on the margins, people who had never before been asked for their stories. Alex’s wife, Melissa Tizon, told me recently that her husband was always impatient with small talk, because he believed that all people had within them an epic story, and he wanted to hear those epic stories—and then help tell them to the world. “Somewhere in the tangle of the subject’s burden and the subject’s desire is your story,” he liked to say. 
But in trying to tell the truth of Lola's story, he reveals more about himself than her -- not just because their lives are intertwined, but because he is both grappling with and trying to excuse his own part in it.

"Blessed are the pure of heart," Jesus says in the Beatitudes, "for they shall see God."  The pure of heart, who see Truth, are perhaps the only people who can speak the truth of other people. Everyone else sees facets of that truth through the lens of their own biases. In The Horse and His Boy, Aslan tells Shasta, "I tell no one any story but his own.” It seems that we can tell no story other than our own, no matter how hard we try.

If you know someone in similar circumstances to Lola, or suspect that someone may be living in forced servitude, please contact the National Human Trafficking Referral Directory, or call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

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