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Novelist Bernice McFadden highlights Book and Author Luncheon

A few weeks ago my friend Gail Malloy invited me to be her guest at the Book and Author Luncheon sponsored annually here in Stamford by the Ferguson Library. I figured it would be a staid affair, as these things usually are, but the proceedings were surprisingly lively. The first unexpected liveliness came in the form of Mickey Sherman, the attorney famous for his television appearances, his controversial legal tactics, and mostly for his losing defense of bail-skipping, convicted Darien rapist Alex Kelly, and convicted Greenwich Kennedy-cousin murderer Michael Skakel. Plugging his book, “How Can You Defend These People,” Sherman, when his turn came to speak, insisted he isn’t really a writer and acted as if he’d both written the book and wandered into the place by accident, but he did prove to be quite a hilarious storyteller, so I may just pick up his book anyway at some point.
The second and more interesting liveliness, at least from a bibliophile’s standpoint, came in the form of the beautiful, talented novelist, Bernice McFadden, whose fourth novel, “Nowhere is a Place,” I bought on the spot. (Actually, Bernice also writes sexy “chick-lit novels” under the pseudonym Geneva Holliday, so her total “books-written” count is somewhere around ten, she informed the crowd that day.)
I finally got a chance to read “Nowhere is a Place” and it turns out to be an extraordinarily compelling tale about family, family secrets, journeys of self discovery, and the personal and ancestral history that make us who we are as people. Using a technique similar to the one I used in “Saving Elijah,” Bernice weaves back and forth between a contemporary story and a historical one and manages to compel us with both. In the contemporary story, an estranged mother and daughter, Dumpling and Sherry, embark on a road trip across the country to a family reunion in Georgia, and along the way we discover the tragic, brutal and sometimes joyful history of this compelling African-American family. With startlingly vivid, often sensuous language, Bernice not only compels us to turn the page but with great bravery shows us in stark reality the absolute violence and uncompromising brutality of the institution of slavery, the psychological and physical dehumanization, the utter disregard for the common humanity of its victims. And with great, subtle wisdom, Bernice also shows us how that legacy affected and still affects the children of slaves and their children’s children, even to this day.
As a person deeply interested in the psychological effects of grief, trauma, and loss, I found the novel utterly moving, though I admit I often found myself cringing when confronted with scene after scene showing the depraved cruelty perpetrated on blacks by whites. I see why Bernice has been compared to Toni Morrison, and I highly recommend the book.
I also love it that Bernice included a short section at the back of the book called “Are We Related?” Well, Bernice, I doubt that you and I are related, since my family history (about which I admittedly know very little) is one that seems to deny that possibility. Here’s what I know about my family and it isn’t much: Because of brutal persecution of Jews in Russia, my great-great grandmother and father (whose names I don’t know) sent two of her sons, ages 10 and 11, my grandfather Abraham Freedman and his brother (whose name I don’t know) to America. They came alone in ship steerage around 1900. I have seen an affidavit my grandfather signed when he arrived, in which he renounced the Tzar of Russia. I suspect, as you say, that it is a labor of love to research one’s family tree that is not always fruitful. Though I would seriously like to find out more about my own family, fruitfulness might be an issue for me too. The problem is that name Freedman was probably not even my grandfather’s real name, since it was common for immigration officials to simply make up names that would be more “American” when people came before them. My mother’s people also came from Russia around the same time, I think, and on that front I do at least know their name, which was Balabanovich. Any Balabanovich’s out there?
Bernice has agreed to answer some questions–on the writing and publishing process, on how grief figures in her fiction, on some of the startling scenes in her novel, and on the legacy of slavery today. I’ll post that in the next few days.

More guns, more death, more grief

Every day now, it seems, we have to eat more of the poisonous fruit that has grown out of the election and re-election of George Bush. Yesterday’s 5 to 4 decision by the Roberts Supreme Court endorsed a so-called “personal right to own guns,” and overturned precedent of seventy years. What happened to Roberts and Alito’s promises during their confirmation hearings that they would honor precedent whenever possible? We can’t have “activist” judges, conservatives scream.

The net effect will be more guns, more death, and more grief. More mothers and fathers will suffer unspeakably over the tragic and unnecessary deaths of their children. More sisters will grieve over brothers. More brothers will weep over sisters. More grandmothers and fathers will have to bear watching their children endure the worst possible thing that could happen to them. Perhaps the honorable Justices who think there should be MORE guns in this society and not fewer guns would like to provide funds for grief counseling for the victims of their decision, one which completely defies decency, reason, and common sense. Oh, I forgot, Congress provides funds.

According to Adam Liptak’s news analysis in today’s NY Times, the precedent in this case was a 1939 decision in which the Court, in United States v. Miller, upheld a federal prosecution for transporting a sawed-off shotgun. A Federal District Court had ruled that the provision of the National Firearms Act the Miller defendants were accused of violating was barred by the Second Amendment, but the Supreme court disagreed and reinstated the indictment. This was followed by decades and decades which a majority of “courts and commentators regarded the Miller decision as having rejected the individual-right interpretation of the Second Amendment.

The court’s slim decision is yet another in a long line of devastating and destructive decisions that have followed from the stacking of the Court with conservatives. Here’s NPR’s Nina Totenberg, writing a year ago, about this matter.

“For conservatives, this term was pretty close to the best of times, and for liberals, it was pretty close to the worst of times. Although Roberts and Alito both promised at their confirmation hearings to honor precedent whenever possible, in their first full term together, they effectively reversed a number of key precedents. In each case, it was by a 5-to-4 vote.”

And the trend has only escalated during this current term.

During the arguments the appallingly arrogant and seriously misguided Justice Antonin Scalia, the darling of the right, parsed the meaning of the words “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Justice Scalia argued that “the prefatory statement of purpose should not be interpreted to limit the meaning of what is called the operative clause.” His word-parsing, semantic argument is not unlike the argument over the placement of the comma in the clause that has been going on for some time now, and which, for all I know, may even be part of the decision. How do we argue semantics over common sense? That’s what I want to know. The “liberal” Justice Stevens argued more globally and sensibly that the majority’s understanding of the Miller decision was not only “simply wrong but reflected a lack of respect for the well-settled views of all our predecessors on the court, and for the rule of law itself,” and was “based on a strained and unpersuasive reading of the Second Amendment.”

As the kids say, “Whatever.”

The net effect will be more guns, more death, more grief.

I so well remember a conversation I had back in 2004 with a young woman who said she was going to vote for George Bush, because he would keep us safe. I decided not to address the “safety” argument, and pointed out that the reelection of George Bush would lead to the overturn of Roe v. Wade, which I knew she cared about, and many other laws that she counted on without even realizing it. She looked at me and shrugged, “Never happen.” Well, it IS happening, and it will continue to happen…

And it is yet another reason to support Barack Obama for President. John McCain comes right out and says he will continue to appoint conservative Justices like Scalia and Alito and Roberts to the Supreme Court. We cannot and SHOULD NOT just shrug that off, we should take John McCain at his word. Here’s yet another case of the unquestioning acceptance and operational reality of “doublethink” in this country. WHO are the “activist” judges?

Let’s do some real straight talking. If John McCain is elected, we can look forward to even more poisonous decisions by the Supreme Court, with majorities that will not be so slim.

Immersed in the language of our dissolving country

their cronies

and the poor

American landscape

disappearing in the rockets and red glare,

battle hymns of them and us.

Who are these people who

hang unbroken in creation

stimulate their Jesus action figures

steamrolled by flat-out hucksters

stupefied by the complex,

stream across the detritus of America

abrogate treaties, inform parades

circumnavigate the globe with their

misbegotten little wars,

sell any crapola like Good News,

stir any Orwellian double talk into their soup,

eat any fiction they find strewn across the open plains,

while little girls spread their legs

and people die without good reason

and we eat the poisonous fruit.

What is human without a microphone?

To which country did my grandfather Abraham come,

carrying his clothes on his back?

Movie Review: Grief is the backdrop for the wonderful film, “The Visitor”

Grief is both the thematic underpinning and the overarching aura in an absorbing, powerful film called “The Visitor.” While this low-key, underplayed film is humanistic and realistic in the extreme, memories of the dead loom over the characters like silent, watchful ghosts. The Visitor was written and directed by Tom McCarthy, who several years back gave us another extraordinary film, “The Station Agent.” Like that earlier film, The Visitor explores issues of identity and place, belonging and connection, but this film also looks at immigration and other post-9/11 issues, and indicts the US government for its arbitrary, callous policies. It is a mark of McCarthy’s mature sensibility that the film makes this indictment quietly and subtly, by engaging us with a charismatic and likable young man living an attractive, authentic life, and then arbitrarily taking that life away from him. This stands in contrast to more traditional “Hollywood” fare, a movie like “Rendition”, which makes its indictment with a bludgeon. And the immigration issues, while crucial to the plot and deeply disturbing, are clearly secondary to the psychological and interpersonal matters this gifted director wants to explore. His vision is psychologically sound, particularly evident in the way he deals with grief.

“The Visitor” revolves around a depressed, middle aged economics professor named Walter Vale, played by the subtle actor who so memorably played the ghostly Fisher patriarch in my favorite television series of all time, “Six Feet Under.” With his hunched shoulders, immobile expression, furrowed brow and everyman face, Richard Jenkins literally inhabits this character. It’s a restrained performance, yet highly effective. While neither the circumstances of Vale’s wife’s death nor when she died are ever specified, it is clear that Vale continues to carry the weight of his grief, and that grief has transformed him into a silent, somber, disaffected man, lonely and isolated, floating through life, or rather going through the motions of his life, teaching his class, attending faculty meetings, pretending to work on a fourth book, and returning every night to his neatly kept suburban home.

It’s not that he isn’t trying to find some avenue back into the world, and some enjoyment or at least engagement in life. He’s been taking piano lessons, but while it is clear here that both he and his wife loved music, she was the pianist, and as the movie opens we find him dismissing his fourth piano teacher, played to spinsterish perfection by veteran actress Marian Seldes. I can’t help mentioning here that Seldes eerily reminded me in this role of my own elderly spinsterish piano teacher of long ago. Her name was Alma Drum, and she used to place a pencil under my hands just the way this one does with Vale. Miss Drum was as petite as she was stern and humorless, with her helmet of gray hair. Miss Drum would by now be about a hundred and thirty years old. (Hmmm, maybe I should meditate on her for a while, and do a post on her.)

We get some sense that Vale must have been something in his heyday, and we find some hope that he can actually make a spiritual comeback when circumstance forces him goes to present a paper at New York University, and he arrives at a Village apartment he and his late wife owned, but he hasn’t been to in years. There he finds a pair of young, undocumented squatters in residence, Tarek, a Syrian musician played with winning charm and charisma by Haaz Slieiman, and his girlfriend Zainab, who is originally from Senegal and makes jewelry which she sells from a table on the street, the character played with with wary fierceness by exotic beauty Danai Guiria. These two freak out when he arrives; they think they were living in the apartment legally, and they offer to leave immediately. Walter agrees, but then realizes the couple has nowhere else to go, and changes his mind, for reasons even he doesn’t quite grasp. They stay, and Walter befriends them, first Tarek, who embodies youth in all its impetuous enthusiasm, and eventually Zainab, who is aloof and wary at first, but who gradually comes around. Now we begin to see some sparks of life in this graying, somber character, as Tarek introduces him to the lively New York City jazz scene, the filmaker here celebrating New York City in all its diversity. Finally, Walter Vale begins to take the first steps out of his isolation, most particularly in a scene of extraordinary power in which the reluctant Vail joins in an African drumming circle in Washington Square Park, a balding white man in a suit amidst the primarily black, hip drummers, dancers, and percussionists.

But then Tarek is arrested for no wrongdoing while with Walter in the subway, imprisoned in the kind of unnamed, unidentified detention center we’ve been hearing a lot about lately, this one somewhere in Queens. The arrest and the imprisonment are both arbitrary and capricious, a disturbing reminder that human rights are being violated every day in this country. Continue reading

Proportional Outrage in the Presidential Election

RJ Eskow, in a May 18 Huffington Post piece, used the term “selective outrage” in connection with Hillary Clinton’s tactics during this endless Democratic primary battle. While the accusation is ITSELF selective outrage, it is actually an accurate term for the way the spinners in our society disingenuously and selectively take note of some outrages at the expense of other outrages. Outrages abound in politics, and selective spinners on all sides focus only on those outrages that seem helpful to their own cause or candidate. I would, however, like to propose a different term that may be more useful in selecting our next President, or perhaps in analyzing how this should be done: PROPORTIONAL OUTRAGE. I touched on this idea in another context when talking about grief in my last post. I said that the “inoculation” effect of big time grief has helped me keep whatever trauma I’ve faced since the loss of my child in perspective. In other words, a strong sense of proportion keeps hysteria in check.

In the political arena, we unfortunately find an appalling lack of proportionality. Certainly one of the most disturbing bits of information to come down the pike in an era of disturbing information is that the latest polls show that a large proportion of Obama supporters say they won’t EVER support Hillary, and a similar percentage of Hillary supporters say they won’t EVER support Obama. Even scarier is the news that in certain quarters of Camp Hillary, they’re planning to actively work against Obama, should he be the candidate. I can only hope that this is all just talk in the heat of the moment, and that when the time comes, they will come to their senses.

To help them, I’d like to remind them that whatever offenses or outrages either or both of the Democratic candidates may have committed against one another, they are small potatoes compared to the big outrages committed by Republican George Bush and his outlaw Administration, outrages that with only few exceptions have been consistently seconded and supported by John McCain, who for all this talk of distancing, has agreed with George Bush 95% of the time. Taking this country to war under false pretenses, ruining our good name and reputation around the world, torturing people and holding them indefinitely without charges like the torturers all over the word do, squandering the good will we might have used to good purpose after September 11, 2001–these are some of the very BIG outrages of this (Republican) administration. These are outrages of policy. Outrages of tactics (which are used to greater and lesser degree on all sides) are ALWAYS small potatoes compared to outrages of policy. Tactical outrages affect only individuals, whereas policy outrages affect millions. Tactical outrages may be difficult for candidates to handle, or may upset their supporters, or arguably speak to character issues, but outrages of policy get people killed and maimed. And I haven’t even mentioned the Republican party’s ECONOMIC outrages of policy, which have ruined millions of lives.

This morning before the rain came, I got in a walk with my pooch, Molly, and was thrilled to run into some friends who have in the past self-identified as “staunch Republicans.” Surprise, surprise. They both told me that they will probably support Barack Obama in the general election. Asked their reasons, they both mentioned how impressive and smart Obama seems, and how he managed to keep mostly to the issues, rising above all the negative partisan attacks. One of also them said, “McCain is a war monger.” Yes. Indeed. In my view, this is the main reason to support the Democrat, whomever it may be. The policy differences between Hillary and Obama are miniscule. The policy differences between either Democrat and McCain/Bush are HUGE. l can only hope that Hillary and Obama supporters who claim they won’t support the other Democratic candidate will join with these two “staunch Republicans” and millions of other who understand proportional outrage, and will make the right choice for the country in the end–the Democrat, whomever it is.

We can all honor Senator McCain’s service to our country, but Senator McCain has learned the wrong lessons from his experiences. Senator McCain is a Bush clone, no matter how much lip service he pays to distancing himself from Bush. We saw this in stark relief during the recent, disgraceful “appeasement” episode. Winston Churchill said “It’s always better to jaw, jaw than to war, war.” Jaw, jawing, which involves having a dialogue, is NOT the same thing as appeasing, which involves substantive concessions, and it is proportionally OUTRAGEOUS that George Bush, whose own surrogates at this point are doing plenty of talking with whomever will talk to them, would equate the two in so sensitive a setting as the Israeli Knesset. It is OUTRAGEOUS that the so called straight-talking McCain would second such a misrepresentation, and further, try to distract the American public by calling Barack Obama naive for understanding the difference.

The Republican attack machine and its surrogates are already gearing up to throw everything they can dig up or make up at Obama, in an effort to distract Americans from the proportional outrage they should rightly feel at the Republican party for getting us into this mess, but with current polls showing that 81 per cent of the public believes the country is on the wrong track, and with McCain having sided with Bush 95% of the time, the country WILL make the right choice this time.

More on Amnesty

I’m supporting Amnesty because I’m sick of being spun, because we need some proportion in our lives, and because I can’t contain my anger any more. I’m supporting Amnesty because Amnesty is the true no spin zone. Amnesty supports human rights, what’s right and human–REGARDLESS of politics.

Here is Kerry Kennedy at the EDLC (Amnesty Executive Directors Leadership Council), talking to Tim Aiken, Legislative Director for Congressman James Moran of Virginia, about the URGENT need of the UN-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) : “There’s genocide, and we can’t get 20 damned helicopters!”

We’re spending $5000 a second in Iraq and we can’t find a few helicoptors to save the people of Darfur?

Here is the charismatic Democratic Congressman Jim Moran of Virginia, addressing the Amnesty Delegation on the Bush Administration outrage known as Gitmo, where people are being held for YEARS without charges, without even knowing why they’re being held:”These detainees were brought to Guantanamo Bay in 2002 to avoid United States laws and public scrutiny. Most are innocent of any crime, and were captured by the Pakistanis when the US was giving cash rewards.”

Cash rewards? I’d bet my life that we could fill a Guantanamo exclusively with Americans prisoners if the US government offered Americans cash rewards of, say, $5000, to turn people in. Then maybe then we’ll set up a concentration camp to hold these people indefinitely and without charges. Maybe we should build it in Topaz, Utah, the place where Japanese Americans were held during the hysteria that followed Pearl Harbor.

Hysteria? You bet I’m hysterical. Who are we, and what way of life are we defending if America holds people without charges and tortures people like the torturers all over the world do?

Public scrutiny? Are we even a public any more? Or are we sheep, consuming and entertaining ourselves to death?

Who is going to be held accountable for all this? Are we so spun that we actually believe that wearing a flag pin has more to do with patriotism than exercising our right to speak out about outrages being committed in our name?

And here is Congressman Jim Moran on Gitmo detainees: “More have committed suicide than have been brought up on charges.”

And Congressman Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts on the issue of how America is viewed in the world, and on the broadening anti-American sentiment being a threat to American security: “We’re in trouble, folks.”

White-haired white men speaking truth.

And just in case you think I forgot what I said before about the non-partisan nature of Amnesty’s work, here’s a grim-faced Chris Shays, who happens to be my Connecticut Congressman, speaking about the last eight years: “There’s no excuse for the arrogance of Cheney and Rumsfield… We ALL think Gitmo should be closed.”

I did, of course, notice that he didn’t mention Bush along with Cheney and Rumsfield, but still……….. If you ALL think Gitmo should be closed, why isn’t it closed?

Chris Shays: “We should have no secret prisons and we should send (these people) back to their home countries.”

Bill Delahunt: We can’t send people back to their home countries. They’ll be tortured.”

SO YOU KEEP THEM INDEFINITELY? THIS IS NOT AN ANSWER. NOT IN THE UNITED STATE OF AMERICA. NOT EVEN JUST OFF SHORE. AND I SAY THAT AS A PATRIOT.

Yes, let’s do talk about grief. This is grief unbound.

Live from DC: The Amnesty International Leadership Council

The D.C. skies were clear and bright over the weekend, but in the St. Gregory hotel, the pall of grief was thick in the air. Over the course of an extraordinary weekend, Amnesty International human rights activists, along with witness after witness, spoke to an audience of about fifty committed supporters on the Executive Director’s Leadership Council. It was unspeakably depressing to listen to these human rights activists speak of the unbelievable abuses of human rights by the United States government, in violation of the rule of law–complicity in torture, extraordinary rendition, denial of the right of Habeas Corpus, and so much more. And it was terribly disturbing to hear these people of conscience recount the sad statistics about the state of human rights in the world—4 million affected in the Darfur genocide, one out of every three women in the world a victim of sexual violence, four million Iraqis displaced. But it was the first hand witnesses who moved me to tears.

Among them were the amazing Betty Makoni, Director and Founder of the Girl Child Network in Zimbabwe, a rape survivor herself, who volunteers her life to save others, who helps women come up with strategies of how to protect themselves from systematic rape and abuse that they confront every day in their villages and communities, who tells us that rape is a death sentence for women because of Aids, who bears witness to victims like the two year old girl who came to her office bleeding, her genitals destroyed by rape. Little girl bleeding. What can one say to such a thing?

And Sarah Deer, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, a victim advocate and legal specialist, whose words speak of a culture of abuse where Native American women, victims of sexual violence, have no access to even the most basic protections like forensic (rape) kits to help in prosecution for those who have the courage to report these crimes:

My grandmother was raped.

My mother was raped

I was raped.

My daughter was raped.

My daughter has just given birth

I do this work because I want to protect that child

And Garelnabi Abbas Abusikin, refugee from the Darfur genocide, whose father, brother, younger sister, grandmother, uncle and more than 60 friends and fellow Zaghawa tribesmen were killed by government-backed Janjawid forces, bearing witness with his extraordinary photographs.

And General Jose Gallardo, who was jailed for more than eight years for publishing a Master’s thesis that accused the Mexican army of corruption and human rights violations, who spoke through a translator. “They have tried to silence me,” he said, “but human rights are non-negotiable.” General Gallardo is one of THOUSANDS of prisoners of conscience across the globe.

I’ll blog more about these extraordinary people and the many others I heard, and the crucial work Amnesty is doing in my next post. I need time to process such suffering and courage.

On a happier note, I enjoyed time with fellow conference attendee, the great film director, raconteur, and human rights activist, Paul Mazursky, who was in his glory regaling us with tales of old Hollywood, complete with spot-on impressions of Orson Wells, Sidney Portier, Charlton Heston and Peter Sellers.

More on all this tomorrow. It was a long drive back from D.C.