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Friday, July 24, 2015

Luke, I Am Your Father, Atticus. A First Family Changes Their Kid's Name

Okay. The first one has happened. Disturbed by the publication of Harper Lee's new/old novel, Go Set a Watchman, where the heroic, saintly Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird  joins the Klan, (briefly) and foments rebellion against integration and the NAACP, a couple from Colorado, David and Christen Epstein have changed their baby, Atticus' name to Lucas, Luke for short.

http://www.people.com/article/parents-change-son-atticus-name-go-set-watchman

David and Christen Epstein figure little Atticus--er--Luke--won't notice that his name went from three to two syllables. Big sister, Ayala, is already pretty confused, but they're hoping that will wash out with time.

I get this. I totally do. We adopted a dog once who we thought was named Tonto. That was going to have to change. (Turned out he wasn't named Tonto, but Rover, so we were okay, and Rover remains unconfused to this day.)

Harpo Marx was born Adolf, but changed his name to Arthur. And when one of my great-grandparents got super sick, her parents changed her name--so as to confuse the angel of death. (Angel flies down, looking for "Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary. . . Oh, that's Jane. Nope." And flies away.) It worked.

Still, really? Because there are two versions of a fictional character?

I used to wonder at all the little Atticus' running around. If the model for Atticus was really Amasa Coleman Lee, (Harper Lee's real father) why not name these kids Amasa?

Still, best of luck to little Lucas and his big sister, Ayala. Someday, I hope he meets both of his honorary fathers, from both Harper Lee books. And at least he's not named like the kids we met at the pool the other day, siblings named River, Ocean and Stream. 

Go Set A Watchman: Yes, it really was a Harper Lee rough draft, says Charles L. Shields

It's fascinating to dig into Charles L. Shield's unauthorized biography of Harper Lee, published in 2006, when Go Set A Watchman was merely a title implying Atticus standing guard outside Tom Robinson's jail cell and a few notes in Tay Hohoff's files. 

What happened was this: in November of 1956, after some years of part-time writing, Nelle Lee felt she had five good short stories, titled: The Land of Sweet Forever, A Roomful of Kibble, Snow-on-the-Mountain, This Is Show Business, and The Viewer and the Viewed. It seems those short stories have disappeared, and we know next to nothing about them, except Snow-on-the-Mountain, a short story about a southern boy who takes revenge on the flowerbed of a nasty old lady in the neighborhood--a story that later appears in To Kill A Mockingbird, as Jem flattens the flowers of vicious old Mrs. Dubois. 

Harper Lee's friend, Broadway composer and lyricist, Mike Brown, connected her with an agent named Maurice Crain, who said he especially liked Snow-on-the-Mountain, but said short stories were hard to sell, and suggested she try a novel. 

December of '56, Mike Brown sold a novelty song about Lizzie Borden--

 ‘Cause you can’t chop your papa up in Massachusetts
   Not even if it’s planned as a surprise
   No, you can’t chop your papa up in Massachusetts
   You know how neighbors love to criticize. 

and he was feeling flush. As a Christmas gift, Mike and his wife gave Harper Lee gift of a year away from work, writing full time. 

That January, Harper returned to Crain's office with a short story, The Cat's Meow, and the first fifty pages of a novel called Go Set A Watchman. A week later, she was back with a hundred more pages. Every week through February, she dropped off about fifty new pages to Crain. 

By early May, after two months of back-and-forth revisions between Crain and Lee, Crain sent the manuscript out, but with a new title. (He felt the old one sounded like the book was about clocks or something.) The new book was sent to publishers under the title, Atticus, which is how it reached the offices of J.B. Lippencott, whose last best-seller was Betty McDonald's charming (but now dated) The Egg And I, fifteen years before. 

Meanwhile, Nelle surprised her agent at the end of May with 111 pages of another novel, The Long Goodbye. Days later, Lippincott requested a meeting with Harper Lee about Atticus

Male Lippencott editors filled the room, along with one skinny woman with a tight gray bun. Theresa von Hohoff was getting up there in age, her eyesight failing. She'd be raised a Quaker, so Quaker her family used the archaic intimate form, "thee and thou," to indicate that all people were equal, and no one deserved the honorific of Sir or Madam. She loved working with young authors. Thomas Pynchon was a client of hers, and she was working on a biography of a leader in the settlement house movement for New York Cities poor immigrants. 

The editors spent a lot of time discussing Atticus. The characters "stood on their own two feet; they were three-dimensional." But the manuscript was "more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel." They made suggestions. Nelle Lee nodded and said, "Yes, sir. Yes, ma'am." (Nelle was not Quaker, but Methodist.) 

They wished her luck on her revision and hoped to see her again. 

Okay--so stop a minute here and imagine this happening today. Rough manuscript. Meeting with editors around the table, spending quite a long time discussion how they believe the novel could be approved. Polite author takes notes, pays attention, gets to work on the revision. 

Then, they spend the next two years working together on what turns out to be another To Kill A Mockingbird. 

Sigh of envy. 

Back to reality and our story. 

By the end of the summer, Nelle had resubmitted her manuscript to Hohoff, who had volunteered to work with her. "It was better, but it wasn't right. . ." "There were dangling threads of plot, there was a lack of unity--a beginning, a middle, an end that was inherent in the beginning." 

In October, Lippencott offered Nelle a contract with an advance of a few thousand dollars. If other words, if a few means 3-4, then she was paid somewhere between 25,000 and 34,000 in today's bucks, which would have been plenty of to live in in a Manhattan cold-water flat of the time. 

She worked on the book for two and a half years. She battled to find an overarching plot. She battled to find the right voice, writing first in third person, then in first, and later, in the final draft, choosing to use essentially two narrative voices, one an older Jean Louise looking back, the other Scout's immediacy. 

So, yes, Go Set A Watchman was the first endeavor at long form writing by a novelist who steadily gained strength, skills and wisdom under the tutelage of a fine editor.  

Wouldn't you love to get a look at that other novel, The Long Goodbye?

Goodbye. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Danzy Senna, Caucasia, and How We Internalize Bigotry

A few years ago, I read an online review of Danzy Senna's first novel, Caucasia. I love that book. Though it is fictional, many if not most of the details come from Ms. Senna's real life. Her white, Mayflower-descendant mother really did marry her African-American, extremely poor and intellectually powerful father, and they really did have children who did not seem to match both parents (though the author also has a brother) and they really did have a nasty divorce, and the mother really did go undercover because of fear of being arrested over some of their activities together.

Still, this reviewer was irritated by what she felt was unbelievable: that one sister looked white, one black; that the white mother was sloppy and fat, the black aunt elegant and chic. She also did not find the section where the mother hides in Vermont and passes her daughter of as being Jewish, believable.

I found it all too believable.

I am still chilled by the scene, early in the novel, where the then- child heroine is taken by her father, to a park to spend father-daughter time. Usually, Daddy hangs alone with the dark-looking sister, or with the two of them together, so white-looking daughter is excited to have this time alone with Dad.

While father and daughter are at the park, an elderly white couple goes out of their way to talk with the little girl and stare, almost glare at her father. A few moments later, a police officer arrives to question the child. He does not believe the child when she insists she is with her daddy. The officer nearly roughs up the father, and they barely get away safely. 

We are white Jews who lived for several years in South Central Los Angeles. We had our people we knew well and trusted--people we considered family--regularly harassed by the police. There were times we would arrive home unable to get to our house because the home of our beloved neighbor, and adopted nephew, was surrounded by twenty-eight police cars, cops with assault rifles, and helicopters swirling overhead, all in supposed response to yet another prank phone call (this happened nearly every day at one point) by someone claiming that a white woman was being held hostage in the house (probably referring to this boy's white mother, hostage to none, believe me.)

The LAPD, many years later, settled his case for harassment. 

Given our experiences, I could easily imagine this scene, and understand the father's reluctance, after that, to go anywhere, ever, alone with his white-looking daughter, who feels his reality as rejection. Thus external racism is absorbed into our lives when we are too small to understand it in terms other than: I am not black enough to be loved, or I am too white to be cared for. 

I highly recommend Caucasia, though I was less taken with Where Did You Sleep Last Night, and You Are Free. Take a look at Caucasia. Though it's about the author's childhood, it still presents a nuanced exploration of race issues in our culture. 

Rachel Dolezal, Dolphus Raymond, Reverse Passing, And The Vagaries of History

I would be profoundly surprised if Rachel Dolezal is the first person in history to successfully pass as black. When you live in a world of multiple gradations of color that have been divided in power for centuries into black and white, there will be many people who find those flat boundaries don't fit, and who choose ways to cross them.

Some will do it blindly and with self-hatred, like Clarence Thomas, some via fairytale, like Rachel Dolezal.

Then, there's Dolphus Raymond from To Kill A Mockingbird, who pretended to be a drunk so that the white people in his community would allow him to live away from their pale hypocrisy, with his colored family. (And who surely must be based on a real, creative problem-solver, a man who was obviously not the only one in the country.)

It's just, we almost never hear about those people, just as, until recently, it was harder than pulling a healthy tooth to find out about people in this country who were able and willing to pass from black to white.

When I was calling academics, looking for contemporaneous oral histories or accounts of people who crossed the color line, I got, "Oh, that never happened. People might pass to ride the bus at the front, or to shop inside a department store, but as soon as they came home, they reverted back to their true selves."

I understand the desire to pretend this is true. When you're working so hard to find pride in that which is considered shameful by the outer world, when you're struggling every day to imbue your children with pride in themselves, in a culture that shames them, it can be deeply painful to consider those who gave up the battle, who painted on the face powder and left their fellows behind. This is something I'm exploring in my novel, "The Color Of Safety."

Still, Walter White, the blue-eyed, blond-haired, fair-skinned president of the NAACP for many years, said in his 1948 biography, "'Every year approximately twelve thousand white-skinned Negroes disappear—people whose absence cannot be explained by death or emigration. Nearly every one of the fourteen million discernible Negroes in the United States knows at least one member of his race who is “passing”—the magic word which means that some Negroes can get by as whites, men and women who have decided that they will be happier and more successful if they flee from the proscription and humiliation which the American color line imposes on them." 

So, back to Dolezal, who was raised under a different kind of oppression, in a Christian cult that believes children are carriers of the virus of original sin, and thus must have the evil beaten out of them. Dolezal was sixteen when her parents adopted four young children of color and would have been older when her parents sent two of they children off to a camp that was even more harsh than their upbringing at home, in an effort to free them from the devil. Those two children have completely rejected their parents, with one even filing for legal emancipation--something that has to be tough in the rural Western state where he lived.

So, somewhat like Dolphus Randolph, Dolezal recreated herself. In his case, that involved a brown paper bag and a pretense at drunkenness. In hers, it meant studying the culture she had been sideswiped with as a child. She has, it appears, become an expert in black hair, (something a friend of mine who was then starring on a soap opera fought to have but never got.) She has, it appears, become an expert on aspects of black history and politics. She married an African-American man and is raising two African-American boys, and somehow has persuaded herself that color is something you can convert to, like Judaism, or, these days, like gender.

Twenty, thirty, a hundred years ago, that would have been that, she would never have been found out.

But this is now. The world of the Internet makes everything viral. Dill would have blogged about Dolphus Randolph and his secret would have been blown.

The white world ridicules Dolezal. The world of color seems divided, with some saying, 'Welcome aboard," http://time.com/3921404/rachel-dolezal-naacp-race-kareem-abdul-jabbar/ and some saying that she is a deluded example of White Privilege.

Yet, I cannot believe that Rachel Dolezal is historically alone in either her life-masquerade or her choice.

Does anybody have any historical stories of those who passed for black? What do you think about Dolezal's choices? And why?







Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Journey Toward The Color Of Safety


Several years ago, we lived in a house much like this one, (but not quite as fancy) in West Adams, which at that time was a mostly middle class African-American enclave somewhat West of USC, in the heart (or some would say the belt buckle) of Los Angeles. We--white and Jewish, clinging to middle class by our fingernails--were fortunate to have found this warm, friendly, politically engaged neighborhood at that particular time.

The area had been built at the turn of the 20th century. Houses ranged from mansions to more-than-comfortable homes. By the Great Depression, the fancy part of town had moved North and West to Country Club Park. During those tough years of the 1930's, many of the great homes of West Adams took in boarders while paint faded on their mammoth walls.

In 1947 and 48, the first Negroes (as they were then called in polite company) moved in. These were the educated and the well-to-do--lawyers, insurance company owners, teachers, nurses, doctors, even movie stars on the order of Hattie McDaniels, the first African-American to win an Oscar. Their success didn't matter. The rude response was burned crosses, minor riots and white flight. 

Soon the neighborhood was known as Brown Sugar Hill, an almost completely African-American neighborhood with a smattering of Asian, mostly Japanese. 

But it turned out, our block had someone of color who had moved in long before 1947. According to a neighbor down the street, her great-aunt had built their sweet Craftsman cottage in 1908, when that branch of the family was passing for white. They were obviously passing successfully. In fact, Nonny, (not her real name) said that one uncle was an Admiral. In the U.S. Navy. 

My husband's family are Holocaust survivors. On one side alone, the family lost several adults, and at a cousin reunion ten years ago, there were seven missing, corralled, starved or exterminated, in countries across Europe and also in Siberia. This is no surprise, as most Jewish children who survived were blond and light-eyed--in other words, they were able to pass, like these Jewish children, photographed after WWII in an orphanage in Bratislava, Slovakia. 


My neighbor's story, those of my husband's family, combined with other complex ethnic tales from our 'hood sot start me on the long road to writing my novel, The Color of Safety. The Color of Safety is about a century of African-American and Eastern-European Jewish history, and the parallels therein, as told through the inhabitants of one fine old house in West Adams. I have just began to submit the novel. I'm excited about the interest being shown. 

It's obvious that this country needs a new way to approach issues of race and bigotry. I am eager to become a passionate part of that passionate conversation. 


Sakki Selznick  



P.S. Enjoy looking at these lovely ladies from our old neighborhood, or from just south of us. Don't you wish you could join this coffee clutch? 

Sakki

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Go Set A Watchman, Editorial Envy, Drool, and Harper Lee

Go Set A Watchman, for all its fascinating insight into Harper Lee, her father, the development of the story, and visible latent talent, still reads like a very rough draft poured hot onto the page and then shipped off to an editor.

And she bought it.  Tay Hohoff, at Lippencott. Bought it with real money, and then spent hours and hours over two-and-a-half years working with Harper Lee to create a very different novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. In one interview, Hohoff spoke of conversations that lasted six hours, as they argued perspective. Six hours. At at time.

Yes, To Kill A Mockingbird is not the Kumbaya novel most people thought it was. Yes, the world took Atticus Finch as their hero without paying much attention to the nuance of his interactions with race.

But I can't imagine anybody denying that To Kill A Mockingbird is not just beautifully written, but intricately written. It is no longer a series of interlocking stories that more or less comment on a fascinating main action (that ends abruptly.) Its exploration of race and other forms of bigotry is complex and nuanced, particularly for its time. (Remember Boo Radley and kindness towards mental illness? Remember Atticus' empathy-bordering-on-pity for Mayella Ewell, trapped in a brutal, short-lived world, trying to make life better for her younger siblings while longing for more? Remember the vicious, racist addict, Mrs. Dubose, and Atticus' respectful compassion toward her?)  Taken together with a hilarious, honest account of a wayward, creative childhood, To Kill A Mockingbird presents a fully realized vision that also deftly, gracefully--no, brilliantly--manages that most difficult balancing act of presenting a child's point of view from an adult's perspective.

Does that ever happen anymore? Does anybody, drawn to a writer's unique perspective, talent and vision, take in a toddling manuscript and help nurse that wobbly critter until it's a full-flown masterpiece?

Hemingway, anybody?

Sigh, Wipe Drool From Chin and get back to writing.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Where's Our Fiesty Scout? From Go Set A Watchman to To Kill A Mockingbird.

I keep thinking about the woman that Scout Finch grew up to be. Which, to some degree means that I am thinking, too, about the woman that Harper Nelle Lee grew up to be.

The Scout Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird is tough, loving and clear-eyed, with a thermostat set to boiling hot and fierce independence. She is being raised under the benign eyes of a Atticus, an unbelievably patient older father, and Calpurnia, the stern, kind practical housekeeper who is almost--but not quite--part of the family.

The Scout we meet in Go Set A Watchman, though being raised by the same set of parent and pseudo-parent, finds herself a little less certain. The active, fists-ready, punish-me-if-you-will, I'm-going-to-do-it anyway Scout of To Kill A Mockingbird has vanished. At eight or thereabouts, she fights for a place within the triumvirate of older brother Jem, dreamer Dill and herself, sniggering at the lateral emission whistle of a preacher during revival month, gets caught muddy, wet and plumb naked by the same preacher as Jem and Dill fight over the rules for baptism. At twelve, mistakenly fearing a tongue-kiss will make her pregnant, she suffers through nine months of terror before attempting to throw herself off the water tower to avoid her family's shame.

Two years later, with a body like "a bowling pin," she celebrates her budding womanhood at a high school dance wearing falsies that shift and rotate, a humiliating situation saved by her family friend, Henry Clinton, who also saves her from the public humiliation of having to admit that those falsies hanging from a patriotic sign, are indeed hers.

Yet, as an adult, this Scout, now called Jean Louise almost exclusively, is recognizable from To Kill A Mockingbird. She has a wry sense of the ridiculous, a knowledge of her own limitations and continues with that delightful unwillingness to tow the social party line just to fit in, even though, with brother Jem dead and Dill wandering Europe somewhere, this way of being leaves her lonely.

Like her peers, she has absorbed some sickening notions about neighbors of the other race in town--that they are ignorant, child-like, helpless, incapable, unable to find and maintain healthy relationships all except that one exception to the Finch's racial rule, beloved Calpurnia, and even she is considered a poor parent, being able only to make her son, Zeebo, at least marry all the women with whom he cavorts. The grandson, Joshua, whose car accidentally hits a town drunk, is presented at the best of the lot and college-bound, which also puts him at risk of hiring the NAACP to represent him. Jean Louise doesn't use the word "uppity," but her father might as well, and this is the world in which she was raised, in which her attitudes were steeped. Living in New York, she might wind up sitting next to a "colored" person on the bus or at a restaurant, she is hardly likely to have gotten to know any "Negroes" well, even in New York City, unless she is an artist or a writer (or an actor) and though it is hinted that she's one of the first two, we never do find out precisely what she does there.

Still, Jean Louise is initially willing to fight, even with those she most loves--her effete, scholarly uncle, her most irritating and judgmental aunt, Henry Clinton, the young man who longs to marry her and tie her down to his way of life, and even her beloved Atticus, the one person Jean Louise uses as a yardstick with which to measure all others. I say initially, because from uncle on down, all the above do their best to teach Jean Louise that you should love people even as they do things that are appalling, and that loving them means excusing their appalling behavior.

And that's where I miss the old Jean Louise, the old Scout, the one who would have come out fist first, and kept on fighting until long after she was exhausted, no matter how impossible the cause. Where did that confidence go?

The explanation might lie in other missing parts of the novel, like Jean Louise's grief over Jem's death, which is only hinted at. And of course, in the loss of her mother, which is mentioned in both novels as happening when Scout was so little she does not remember the woman at all.  The real Harper Lee's mother didn't die until the 1950's, but according to Truman Capote, never the most reliable of narrators, she suffered from severe mental illness, rarely leaving the house, and twice tried to drown Harper in the bathtub. As Capote said, "When they talk Southern Grotesque, they're not kidding!"

An impassioned young woman, a woman of charm and character, yet who does not fit the standard social mode, a woman who adored her father and may have viewed her mother like the sad and frightened Boo Radley of To Kill A Mockingbird, who then discovered that her potential future husband was a go-along-to-get-along racist while her father was a rabid one, a young woman raised to high moral standards and then betrayed by those she trusted the most, such a young woman might wind up losing her usual oomph.

And here, I'm not exactly certain if I'm talking about Jean Louise Finch in Go Set A Watchman, or the  Harper "Nelle" Lee who never wrote another book after To Kill A Mockingbird, and never found a partner to fill the hole that Henry Clinton, whoever he really was, might have filled.




Saturday, July 18, 2015

Go Set A Watchman: Hot Grief Poured On The Page Over Atticus Finch

Go Set A Watchman reads as if young Harper Lee went home for a visit sometime in 1955, (one year after Brown v. Board of Education tossed out Seperate But Equal schools for children of color) and back in Monroeville, Alabama, encountered the shock of a potential fiancé and her dad taking blatant racist stands--in her finances case through expediency and in her dad's through true belief. 

I would guess Nelle Lee headed straight back to New York and poured her grief and rage onto the page without much editing. This is often painful, powerful stuff, barely shaped. Sometimes, she not even clear which pov she's writing in. She slips into first person then back to close third, Hope to omniscient for a paragraph or two, then back to Jean Louise's perspective again. Some parts read like dialogue pulled  straight from a journal, without Lee going back to the sketch and putting in the grounding details, something she clearly new how to do. 

Her publisher, Lippincott & Co., must have seen value in it, or they would not have spent money to purchase it. Her editor, Tay Hohoff, said, "The spark of a true writer flashed in every line," though she also felt it was less a novel than a string of connected anecdotes. I contend it was shock and betrayal vomited straight onto the page.

There is wonderful stuff in there, much of it beautifully written.  There is also much that provides real insight into Harper Lee, into her father, the times, the town. As strong as a young Harper must have been to see her beloved Amasa so clearly, it would have meant personal disaster for her to publish this novel as it stands in 1957. It would have been the choice to sever her connection with not just her hometown, but her beloved uncle, her irritating aunt, her older sisters, and most of all, her ailing father, who had recently and tragically lost his only son to a brain aneurysm, and who had with exceptional wisdom and grace, shepherded his fierce and wayward daughter to a shining and independent adulthood. I suspect Harper Lee might not have wanted Go Set A Watchman published all these years because of how it showed her father and her uncle, and that Alice Lee kept the family reputation safe by keeping it unworked and unpublished, hidden.

This novel would also have been a shocker to much of the country in those days, both North and South. I don't think anybody anticipated the mammoth, lasting success of To Kill A Mockingbird, but even if this book had been edited as is, its contents, shaking with rage and betrayal, would not likely have sold as well.  Still, it makes me very sad that this once bold, non-conformist, vivid writer was kept from her calling by fear for so many years.  I wonder if the rumor is true and there is another manuscript in that safe deposit box? If so, I'd love to see it.

Go Set A Watchman is very much a product of its time. Nowhere in the novel does Jean Louise or anyone question a paternalistic view of Negroes as childlike. She does not challenge her father's idea that Negroes are too poor or uneducated to vote with the notion that the Old Sarum clan of ignorant white folk would make just as poor and uneducated voters as he fears Negroes would be. She does not challenge Atticus' notion that "more Negroes are gradually registering to vote." She is obviously unaware of the intense voter suppression that had been going on since the Reconstruction, when Negroes had great success in sending people of color to both state and federal Senate and House seats. She does not seem to know that in the ensuing years, those who dared to register to vote were humiliated, forced to answer impossible questions, turned out of their homes, jobs, lynched, had their houses burned, or were even shot on the courthouse steps. She does not explain how busy white folk had been keeping Negroes uneducated, ignorant and immersed in poverty, though she skirts the edges of this notion.

She does not take the time or make the effort to really know any black person beyond Calpurnia, who we see as a half-member of the Finch family even in this novel, where she hovers on the edge, unable to comfort a child Jean Louise in intense pain until Atticus gives her permission to enter. As much as the adult Jean Louise loves her family's ex-maid and feels betrayed by Calpurnia seeming to view her as a White Person, it is as a white person that does not warn Calpurnia against using Atticus Finch as an attorney for her grandson, although Atticus has offered his services to the young man only to avoid having the NAACP take on the case, and thus "stir up" the Negroes further.

Jean Louise, too, is deeply upset by Brown v. Board of Education, though for her, the issue is state's rights, and the Big a guy's bossing the little ones around. There is a lot of flap about individual liberty with a lick and a spit addressing Jeffersonian vs. Madisonian democracy, but she does not really explore these ideas. I wish she had.

Still, for a white Southern woman of that time, I think Jean Louise Finch (and Harper Lee) did a damn fine job of becoming the Watchman of Isaiah's text, keeping a lookout for the betrayal of the whore of Babylon. If this novel had been edited as is rather than drastically changed, I imagine we'd have traveled with Scout on a powerful journey, while the Watchman of the text shifted from the previously all-wise Atticus Finch to a brave and ultimately willing Jean Louise.

One of the most interesting swathes cutting through this novel is the character of Henry Clinton, whose diligent efforts to rise above the label of white trash force him into a bigotry he does not really feel, but chooses, out of ambition, to embrace. Had the editor kept Harper Lee on track to rework Go Set A Watchman, I think this relationship and this character would have been the most enlightening of all--someone who sees bigotry and abhors it, but goes along to get along and get ahead, much like someone joining the SS because it's the best route for advancement.

Also, no one has yet mentioned a most important point, as far as I am concerned, one I wish had been explored in depth: Henry Clinton says that Atticus Finch, his boss, joined the Klan more or less as a spy, to know what he was up against. Was this true? If so, I'd love to know what particularly changed.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Go Set A Watchman: Atticus Finch joins a Citizen's Council--The KKK in business suits.

Half-way through, I am enjoying Go Set A Watchman, though it is clearly a first draft. I only wish I could literally get Harper Lee in a critique group or even just a conversation, and suggest she do some revisions.
Go Set A Watchman is framed as the painful return to her hometown of an independent young southern woman (Jean Louise Finch, also known as Scout) With her father aging fast and near-crippled by rheumatoid arthritis (he has taped long wooden spoons to most of his tools in an attempt to make them easier to handle), her beloved older brother dead and her best friend wandering Europe, Jean Louise, who does not really feel at home in New York City but feels smothered in Alabama, is wrestling with a huge decision--should she marry a fine young man from a "white trash" family, a man who happens to also be her father's young partner. In the midst of what would by itself create a rich, Eudora Welty plot, and after a clothed but risqué midnight swim with her near-fiance, Henry Clinton, Jean Louise makes the gut-wrenching discovery that both Clinton and her beloved father are involved in the local Citizen's Council, a political development Jean Louise has read about from New York but never expected to find in her home town, and with her family involved. (Brief historical note: During this era, Citizens Councils sprang up all over the Deep South. Essentially the KKK in business suits, and with much cross-over membership, Citizen Councils put a civilized face on the suppression, terrorism and oppression of African-Americans throughout the Deep South.)
In the novel as it stands, Jean Louise, bored after father and future fiancé have left for an unexplained meeting, finds herself looking for reading material in her father's home when she comes across a hate-mongering leaflet: Negroes are subhuman, infantile, evil and wanting to Take Over White Homes, Schools and Virgins. Suddenly, the "meeting" the two men just left to attend takes on an ominous cast.
Jean Louise races off to the courthouse, where, from an upper balcony, and in secret, she witnesses them join forces with a local political boss described as a human slug, as white trash and well-to-do businessmen sit around using code words of hatred to discuss ways to intimidate, suppress and continue domination of the local Negroes, without them knowing about it.
The problem is, Jean Louise's discovery of the pamphlet is a fairly passive way for her to come across this powerful information. Far better, I think, for such an important discovery to happen face-to-face, either with father or potential fiancé.
What a scene that would make. These are both astute men who know Jean Louise well. I, as a reader, would love to watch what Ms. Lee would make of Jean Louise struggling to believe her beloved males capable of such actions, and watch them try to read the cues of her reaction, as her revulsion and shock battles with love and sense of betrayal.
When she heads to the courthouse to sneak in on the meeting, I would suggest Harper Lee write a full flashback, not just a mention in passing, to that earlier rape trial seen from this same spot--young Scout, Dill and Jem watching her father represent the black man and then bring us back to the adult Jean Louise as she begins to face that, for her father, equality in the eyes of the law is not the same as equality, and that this man, while clearly the amazingly enlightened father of a fiercely non-conformist girl/woman for his day and age--or any day and age--is still a perpetrator of the same racial hatred and evil deeds as other powerful white folk of his time, white people he raised his daughter to shun and despise.
In fact, Atticus and Henry are not just active members of a council of hatred, they have chosen to try to harm the grandchild of their beloved Calpurnia, the black woman who was essentially mother to the motherless Jem and Scout. This young man has accidentally run over an old fellow known far and wide as a drunkard. Clearly, this is manslaughter, not murder. Atticus' decision to offer free legal representation for the boy could seem generous, but Finch makes his reasoning plain as he educates Henry on how to be a man--we have to represent this boy, or the NAACP will come down and rile up our Negroes even more, he tells his young menthe.
The scene where Jean Louise overhears her father casually explain this way of the world to his young partner is chilling and powerful.
However, here, again, I would like to suggest that Ms. Lee rewrite the way that Jean Louise learns of the accident. Part of that would be based on a decision about another concern of the book. Do we, as readers,  only see the world through Jean Louise's eyes or is this an omniscient narrator?
The times when Ms. Lee slips into omniscient feel almost accidental. I'd love to see her strongly decide to do one or other other. She could repeatedly signal an omniscient narrator by, for instance, letting us witness the accident and Calpurnia's family's reactions as well.
As it stands, though, we do visit Calpurnia and her family as they cope with the tragedy, giving us a distant view of how things may have changed on the other side of the color line as well. (Historical note: soldiers of color returning from WWII, men who had risked their lives in Europe, seen a greater world, and been treated with more equality than they found in the South, were a powerful force for increasing discomfort with the status quo in the Deep South, as was the NAACP. During these years, brave souls like Rosa Parks traveled wide swaths of countryside investigating rapes, assaults and lynchings, looking for those they could use as a wedge to try to change federal laws and force improvements in the conditions of hundreds of thousands.)
The scene where Calpurnia, essentially Jean Louise's mother, treats her as an enemy other, is gut-wrenching, though I would want Ms. Lee to emphasize that this is happening at the same time as her father, Atticus Finch, glad-hands the rest of the family in his effort to repress and control the grandson of the woman who cared for him and his children since the death of his wife.
This is painful stuff. Jean Louise knows her childhood home with a depth, a wisdom and microscopic detail, but what once seemed a town in peaceful stasis has now come unhinged. This discovery leaves her deeply shocked, hurt, and aware that she cannot keep silent about the horrors of what she is learning, yet, if she does speak up, it means abandoning an aging and increasingly frail father who raised his difficult daughter with compassion and love. Yet, home for Jean Louise is most emphatically not New York City, which she finds rude and oppressive in its own fast-moving ways.
When someone sees the world so clearly--and the world is so unbalanced, so wrong--where can she belong? Imagine the story of an uncompromising tomboy who returns to Germany to visit the father who lovingly raised her--a man she may have to return and care for--only to find he has now joined the SS is calling for the round up of Jewish neighbors he used to respect, people he now terms vermin. That would be the strongest parallel I can think of. 
One more note: The whole flashback about Jean Louise's terror over her sexual ignorance and possible pregnancy relate far more strongly to Calpurnia than to Henry Clinton. That is where I would place it, either just before, or even during Jean Louise' visit to Calpurnia at home. I would tie this visit to how Jean Louise learned about getting her period, and how Calpurnia gently, kindly helps the rough-hewn Scout accept an abrupt entry into the world of womanhood.
In fact, I'd reconsider this whole flashback. Yes, it gives us insight into the extreme poverty and ignorance of the community of Old Sarum--a poverty and ignorance accompanied by rigid social boundaries that are, fascinatingly, beginning to fade during Jean Louise's adulthood.
And yes, it shows us how isolated Jean Louise feels in her world, in her problem solving, so isolated that she feels her only option is to kill herself rather than talk to--and thus shame--her father and Calpurnia.
And yes, this flashback provides powerful illustration that Scout, as a child, is not at all protected from this white trash world, though the later concerns expressed are about how horrible it would be with children to be exposed to students of color. And, of course, it shows how close and caring Henry Clinton has been, even back when Scout was only in sixth grade.
However, I would suggest trying to hone this long flashback to make these points more clearly, and I would also suggest finding another flashback to show how important Henry has been to Jean Louise.
More to come. . .

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Rachel Dolezal's brother's charges dropped.

News accounts state that charges against Joshua Dolazel for sexually assaulting his younger sister have been dropped. I guess Rachel's parents achieved their goal. I hope this is justice. Nobody will ever know for sure.

Go Set A Watchman--Insight into the Real Harper Lee, and an Ad Hoc critique Group

Despite life intervening--summer, children, teaching swimming and the comedy routine of trying to replace that bathroom faucet Week 3--I am now up to page 75 in Harper Lee's first draft of Go Set A Watchman, which was released yesterday. I'm excited to have Ms. Lee as a member of our ad hoc critique group. In the meantime, it seems, we are all getting to know Ms. Lee better--her real life rather than her fictional life.  It's a strange feeling, almost like spending time in town and slowly coming to know a neighbor, since Go Set A Watchman is obviously far more of a Roman A Clef than To Kill A Mockingbird.

I say this because, for instance, the dramatic center of To Kill A Mockingbird is Atticus Finch's legal representation of Tom Robinson, a black man who stands accused of raping a white woman. In 1919, Harper's father, Amasa Lee, had been practicing law for only four years when he was appointed to represent two black men accused of murdering a white storekeeper. (This is mentioned early in Mockingbird--“His first two clients were the last two persons hanged in the Maycomb County jail. ... Atticus was present at their departure, an occasion that was probably the beginning of my father’s profound distaste for the practice of criminal law.”)

It's also true that, from November 1933 to July 1934, a black man named Walter Lett was arrested and tried for raping a white woman named Naomi Lowery, despite strong evidence that Lett was innocent. Amasa Lee was editor and publisher of the town's newspaper, the Monroe Journal, which covered the case from the night of the reported rape through the trial's end, which occurred when Harper Lee was eight years old. 

In Lett's case, the jury found him guilty and the judge sentenced him to death, but there was a letter-writing campaign from "many leading citizens of Monroe County," said citizens believing that evidence had not been established to find Lett guilty, and this apparently influenced the Alabama Board of Pardons reduced Mr. Lett's sentence to life imprisonment, which wasn't long. Mr. Lett died in prison in 1937 of tuberculosis, which makes me very sad, since by 1937, penicillin was around for treatment of TB. 

Wouldn't it be fascinating to read the trial transcripts from Mr. Lett's trial? Well, we can't, because they have disappeared. But if some intrepid souls would post online Amasa Lee's newspaper coverage of the trial, the world would be forever grateful. 

I promised that I would approach this like a real critique group, starting with what I liked about the work that I am reading. So here goes:

I love this version of Jean Louise Finch. The possessor of a dry sense of humor and a lovely sense of the ridiculous, she is funny, quirky, battling with technology, getting locked in her train's folding bed, fighting against conformity (insisting on wearing slacks in a town where dresses are de rigeur,) and ducking coming home both to marry, to work and most especially, to care for her father after her brother, Jem's sudden death two years before. 

She also struggles to find her place in the world in ways both direct and indirect. She speaks out softly to an interfering relative-- ("Aunty," she said cordially," why don't you go pee in your hat?") and manipulates her possible future fiancé with humor, finesse and bold strokes. 

At page 75, I don't have any idea what she's doing in New York City, apart from passing commentary when her aunt suggests she return to Macomb to live "you like to paint, don't you?" implying that Jean Louise could dabble in her spare time, but there, the comparison is also stretched--"To Alexandra, there was a distinct and distasteful difference between one who paints and a painter, one who writes and a writer." And our author is not yet specific as to which one Jean Louise is pursuing. 

I'm very impressed with her creation of such a clear and inviting character in Jean Louise. My personal experience with writing characters based on me is that it takes pass after pass and me actually interviewing friends and family about my personality in order to create someone my readers can identify with, yet here she is, showing us this woman in all her quirks, and she seems to make us like her effortlessly. 

I also find myself likely Henry Clinton and Atticus Finch, particularly Atticus as a father. His humor, his patience, his supportiveness of a non-traditional daughter, all come shining through. Of course, I'm only up to page 75, and its clear there are stormy waters ahead for both characters. 

The flashback to childhood is riveting, particularly when the children play at holding a revival meeting in Miss Rachel's fish pond. I can well imagine an editor saying, "This stuff is golden. Can you give me more of it?" 

The character of Aunt Alexandra is clear, funny and irritating. When she begins her aria on the facts of life, the writing soars. "Fine a boy" as Atticus' clerk and Jean Louise' suitor is, "the trash won't wash out of him. Have you ever noticed how he licks his fingers when he eats cake? Trash. Have you ever seen him cough without covering his mouth? Trash. Did you know he got a girl in trouble at the University? Trash. Have you ever watched him pick his nose when he didn't think anybody was looking? Trash--" This stuff is marvelous. 

As are the details about life in the south, the casual things that catch the eye and the heart, like the fact that Calpurnia, the colored maid, who could "speak Jeff Davis' English as well as anybody," drops her verbs in the presence of guests; that the Old Finch House, now a private gambling hell for businessmen from Mobile, was used for years not just for Finch family reunions, but for Negro baseball games, Klan meetings, in the Klan's "halcyon days," and a Knight's tournament "held in Atticus' time in which the gentlemen of the county jousted for the honor of carrying their ladies into Maycomb for a great banquet." 

There are also a lot of descriptions and back story about various locations, family members, the creation of the town of Maycomb, etc that I would prefer to be moved later, condensed, or mentioned each time as illumination of how much history lives on in the lives of Maycombites, so that every corner passed contains a wealth of stories both explaining and placing limitations on the inhabitants thereof. 

I am still fascinated by the fact that Mama is out of the picture. Mental illness, drug abuse, these were the unspokens. Remember, A Long Day's Journey Into Night, which deals so specifically with Eugene O'Neill's family's addictions to alcohol and his mother's addition to morphine, was completed in 1942, but it was not to be published until 25 years after his death--O'Neill had a sealed copy placed in the document vault of Random House with those instructions. It was only because O'Neil''s third wife, Carlotta Monterey skirted the agreement by transferring the rights of the play to Yale University, that the play was first performed in 1956.

 In To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout and Jem's mother is dead, though the real Lee's mother being unable to leave the house and not speaking for many years during one's childhood. Here, so far, there is a passing melancholy, a mention of seeing her mother's things moved to the new house after the grief of a loss--in this case, it seems the sudden death, barely mentioned, of brother, Jem. 

I do have editing mentioned all over the page, as well as, "Love this." I look forward to hearing from others and to sharing more ideas as I am able to read further. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Go Set A Watchman--Put Away Your Claws and Take Out Your Editing Pencil--We're Inviting Harper Lee to Critique Group

So, I'm about to run over and get my copy of Go Set A Watchman. I'm so excited, and yet, I've been horrified by the responses so far, whether it's from the many readers who haven't yet read it--and swear they never will--or from the critics, like NPR, who called it "a mess." If I were Harper Lee I would feel vindicated that I decided not to publish until I could barely see or hear. The claws are out, baby.

When I was a kid, I was in a play created by The Greats. No matter what they did, the material's flaws were--and remain--unfixable. During rehearsals and previews and our brief run, I remember being shocked by the twisted delight I kept seeing on the faces of their most passionate fans as they leaned in, in the classic pose of a gossip, and say, "so, I hear it's awful." Being really young, I would ask them, "why are you so happy? Do you want them to fail?"  (Of course, they all denied it. Passionately. But immediately, the look would return, along with, "but I hear it's really awful."

So--lets change the dynamic. First lf all, let's acknowledge that this book, like To Kill A Mockingbird, belongs to Harper Lee, not to us.

Then let's read the novel for delight.

And after that, let's follow good critique group etiquette: first, what did you love and why? Second: what could be strengthened with suggestions as to how? Last--be kind to your fellow authors. If she were here, we'd want Nelle Lee to feel like a member of our community, not a target.

Anybody in?

Monday, July 13, 2015

Go Set A Watchman. Readers Brains Read: Permanently Closed

I know, I know, I wasn't going to read anything about Harper Lee's new/old book and felt irritated that there were reviews out already.  I get my copy of the book tomorrow and was eager to read it fresh, blind. 

Then, I went to a kid event yesterday, 89 degrees and seventy percent humidity, but five huge bouncy houses and ten bucks giving unlimited bouncing All Day. While my youngest sweated off face paint and I tried to unglue my soaking pants from my legs, I realized I had left any book at home. So I gave in and read the first section of Go Set A Watchman via The Guardian's website, and commentary from the New York Times, guardian, Wall Street journal and Atlantic.

In comment after online comment, people cried passionately, "I won't read it!" (The equivalent of stamping a sign on their forehead that says "this room is closed and locked forever and then bragging about it.) Me, I don't care if the book is good, bad or indifferent or if it presents characters as different than they are. And, spoiler alert: it appears that it does, particularly with wonderful Atticus. People who use To Kill A Mockingbird as their bible and named their sons after this literary character, (a la King Arthur creating a trend in the name Artie,) would be in for a rude awakening, it seems. They may want to change their kid's names, like Harpo Marx did with his, from Adolf to--yup--Arthur, for obvious reasons. 

Others claim To Kill A Mockingbird is so perfect, they are certain Go Set A Watchman couldn't possibly be as wonderful so they aren't going to look, which is akin to saying South Pacific was such an amazingly realized musical, I will never go see The King And I or The Sound Of Music. 

I, on the other hand, cannot wait for tomorrow, for so many reasons. Does this book give insight into 
what lead an active, passionate, pugnacious young woman to live a life of isolation, basically cut off from the writing she must have loved? Does it provide any hint about her mother's mental illness (apart from the dead mother of To Kill A Mockingbird fame?) Give us any idea why neither she nor Alice ever married? What other observances did this fiercely observant woman make about the Deep South at a time of tremendous unrest? If she didn't, in this version, do the eighty-seven rewrites necessary for a gripping first chapter, does the rest of the book live up to the best of the writing in To Kill A Mockingbird, with its hilarious, clear-eyed vision of childhood, it's compassionate exploration of mental illness, and its detailed vision of a small town during a routine summer that becomes far from routine? 

Most of all, will it be an engrossing read? I could really use an engrossing read through the rest of this heatwave. 

One other thought: Harper Lee's father defended a black man in 1919. After that man was acquired and lynched, Amasa never did another trial. So Nelle had to invent his courtroom manner, the details of his reaction, the trial, everything out of whole cloth. That observation was only shaken loose by the idea that Go Set A Watchman showed us a different version of Amasa Lee. I've already gotten insight into Harper Lee's writing process, and I haven't even read it yet. This mind, at least, remains intensely open. Bring it on, Harper Lee. Make it complicated. I'm waiting.

P.s. I always did wonder why those parents didn't name their kids Amasa instead of Atticus. And nobody has named their daughter Nelle.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Go Set A Watchman--Don't Tell Me Anything. I Want To Read It Myself.

Don't tell me anything about Go Set A Watchman, the frantically awaited new/old novel by Harper Lee that will be widely released Wednesday. Don't point to articles about it or hint that it reframes characters or speak of either shock or joy. I want the shock or joy for myself, uninflected by you, or the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Atlantic Magazine.

To Kill A Mockingbird was one of two first books I bought with my own money. It was sold at a school book fair. I was eight years old. I wolfed it down, though I didn't understand half of it. I read it many times. I memorized the opening, and the long section where the adult Scout reimagined spring, summer, winter and fall with a Boo Radley putting a blanket on Scout's shoulders when the house burns, though I was confused and thought that the He referred to in that section was Scout's daddy.

Sometime later, I snuck downstairs to watch the film--shown on TV past my bedtime--in the reflection on my parent's bedroom windows. I didn't see all the film--they kept catching me and sending me to bed--but I saw most of it, and was stunned by it as well.

In my adult life, I kept running into children named Scout and Atticus. My son went to school with an Atticus (he hates his name) whose little sister is Harper. In Los Angeles, I took a mommy and me yoga class next to a very elegant woman whose son was named Harper--she said the Lees were family friends. I ached with envy, even as her four-year-old tempted my turbo two-year-old with Thomas trains, removing much chance to either speak or do yoga . (I'm thinking now that this was Gregory Peck's daughter and her son, Harper, though I'm not sure.)

Also, as a writer, I longed to know what had harmed Harper so that she stopped writing anything but essays now and then. I scrounged around until I found those essays. (Check those out, people, about the history of the region or whatever. They are deep, warm and brilliant.) Betty Smith wrote of her  challenges after writing A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, and how it took her two years and returning from a specially rented room to her cluttered, chaotic apartment before she could write Tomorrow Will Be Better. Was Lee's blockage caused by perfectionism? Was she fearful of airing dirty family laundry? After memorizing parts of To Kill A Mockingbird, with its complex, nuanced understanding and compassionate, poetic narrative voice--and finding those few essays, sporting the same--I had no doubt she could do it, just as I have no doubt this new-old novel is fabulous. There is no way this author would have turned in a manuscript that wasn't publish-ready and brilliant.

And because people have already leaked things to me, I have a very strong feeling that fear of dirty family laundry was the answer and the death of Harper Lee's older sister, Alice, what has sprung Nelle free. Not that I'm accusing Alice Lee of locking her sister down, but A Long Days Journey Into Night and The Glass Menagerie weren't written until the deaths of all characters save the playwrights, while bold Pat Conroy was, for years, persona non gratis after writing The Great Santini and The Prince Of Tides.

At any rate, feel free to speak with me late Tuesday or Wednesday after I have gotten my own reserved copy and joined the Great American Read In of Go Set A Watchman. And Harper Lee, from the bottom of my heart, thank you--for so many things. I hope this late hour I assume vindication gives you joy.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Rachel Dolezal Complications and Solutions.

I view Rachel Dolezal through a slightly different lens. I'm definitely white, grew up suburban, with neighbors threatening a cross-burning when my parents wanted to sell to friends who were African-American. (The friends decided no.) I'm also someone who has spent a ton of time as the only white woman backstage, at the party, on the subway, on the bus, at the mall, the block club, the neighborhood grocery, or as the "white cousin" at the Juneteenth party. One of my adopted nephews was continually and nearly lethally harassed by the LAPD, in front of my adopted niece, and sometimes in front of an hysterical me, and I have also repeatedly observed storekeepers' bigotry towards my much more wealthy best friend who is black.

I'm also a blonde Jew--who could easily "pass" for Swedish--but with a family history of persecution, stories of people I know or know about beginning in the 1880's and continuing through and even beyond the Holocaust.

I think about Delezal, then, in different arcs. F'rinstance, she came from the rabbit hole of her parent's off-grid, Christian-cultish lifestyle, a severely isolated world where infants are "blanket trained" with corporal punishment if they put a finger off the 2' x 3' blanket, children of color are adopted to save them from Hell, and then, as they adjust, accused of having an attachment disorder, (symptoms being things like not looking parents in the eye, or accusing someone of sexually abusing them,) and punishments are meted out with flexible plumbing pipe, or by banishing the child to a correctional camp where they are forced to run around a tree fir a night and a day.

So, yes, I can see someone surviving that coming to identify on a profound level with, say, a Holocaust survivor, or a slave. I think she has hurt her soul and damaged valuable relationships built on trust, mostly because of a flawed vision--that she had to become something in order to be welcomed into it. Or because she wanted to belong so much she lost touch with the truth. Or maybe because she wanted to just belong, to sit in a group of Mocha Moms (the Moms Club movement for people of color) and hear the completely relaxed comments of a people among whom she wanted to belong. It's clear that she did just that--well, maybe not the Mocha Moms--and that those friends are now deeply hurt by her lies and her masquerade.

I think about her cultural appropriation. Is it on a par with the costumer who put Bo Derek in cornrows for the movie 10? Is the parallel closer to African women bleaching their skins or Asian women getting surgery to gain an epithelial fold for their eyes--wanting so badly to belong to a culture that one lies and deforms oneself to gain a safe place in it?

I also think about all the passion over removing the Confederate flag, rather than putting any energy at all into creating sane gun laws, finding a solution to online hate-mongering, and coming up with a more reasonable mental health policy. Like the passionate cries of rage over Rachel Dolezal, these responses reminds me of the Temperance movement. People blamed Demon Rum, but the real problem was the fact that white women and children were legal property of husbands and fathers. Anything these women and children owned, earned, saved, as well as their own bodies, belonged to their men, who were legally allowed to rape their wives, to beat them with a stick no bigger than their thumb, and to spend everything they could get on liquor. In those days, nobody could consider making white women and children people in their own right, so they focused on getting rid of the liquor.

And here we are, faced with complicated horror or complicated farce, and our reponse is to jump for simplicity--she's using white privelege, we should lose the flag. Sure she is, and sure we should, and Rum can be a Demon, but it's definitely not the whole story, or the whole issue. I hope to hear more about Ms. Dolazel and about her colleagues at the NAACP, as the summer continues. I like complicat

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Rachel Dolezal. No really. Not about the race thing, but the rest of it.

The story of Rachel Dolezal fascinated me. I'm not interested in delving into the ethical questions. I'm more interested in the story,--capitol Story-- and where researching it has taken me.

Most of us know the outline of Dolezal's story: she seems to have painted herself black (literally) but only after her parents adopted four younger children of color, after she attended a predominantly African-American college for grad school, after she married a Black man, gave birth to a mixed-race child, and legally adopted one of her brothers who had asked to be emancipated from his (and Rachel's childhood) family.

Her story includes possibly shaky details of race crimes against her that may or may not have been committed by Rachel, herself, though a neighbor did agree that he left a rope (from dressing a deer) tied to a tree on or near his property.

And, it appears that she does believe that she has become black, which I think is a strange concept, but certainly not outside history. This has happened in the past, more often than you would imagine. And  in the past, she would have been able to get away with it. Nobody would ever have been able to figure it out, as was true of those who crossed the color line either way in the days leading up until--well, now.

From a blog called Homeschool Anonymous, written by somebody named R.L. Stollar (before they shut down this line of exploration after deciding it was racial insensitive) there was quite a bit of background material about the church to which Dolazel's family belong (along with the Duggars, another cultural icon that I somehow missed until very recently.) Dolazel's family homeschooled, in a militantly fundamentalist Christian world where anyone might be a minion of Satan, family's are supposed to have a "quiver full" of children, and babies are "blanket trained" by being set on a small blanket and then punished (physically) if they put one toe off it. 

In this world, multiple children are often adopted, primarily so their souls can be saved for Jesus. If these new children don't look their adopted parents in the eye, they may be punished, often by older siblings who are required to do this. (One favorite tool for discipline is flexible plumbing pipe.)

The founder of this organization, an old guy named Bill Gothard, with Reagan-like magically black hair, stands accused of sexual harassment by thirty-four young women who worked for or with him, when he was head of the Advanced Training Institute, a Bible-based homeschooling program. 

Here is Jay Hathaway, a blogger on Gawker, writing about Gothard and the Duggars:


"Gothard last year denied accusations that he had sexually harassed or assaulted 34(!) women, claiming “I have never kissed a girl nor have I touched a girl immorally or with sexual intent.” He was 79 years old at the time.
Although Gothard was forced to resign as the head of the Advanced Training Institute due to the accusations, the Duggars apparently still follow the organization’s teaching plans, which include lessons on how to deal with sexual abuse in the home. 
These lessons include blaming the victim, avoiding any shame being drawn to the perpetrator, and having each child involved in the sexual abuse search their soul as to why they were so chosen--was it a lack of modesty? Temptation? Why were they unable to resist evil? The damage to the younger children, the ridicule to the cause of Christ, the shame of detailed publicity, and the scars to the life and reputation of the boy were indescribably painful to the family and their friends,” one lesson says, and then the boy describes what he did wrong and what he learned from it. 
This is the world in which Rachel Dolezal and her older brother, Joshua, were raised. (Joshua Dolazel is a memoirist and writing teacher facing charges of sexually abusing a younger sibling, in court in August.) This is the world where their younger siblings--those who refused to follow the family's rigid rules--were sent away to even more exploitive and physically abusive "camps." It's a world of isolation, paranoia, and patriarchy. It's the world that created Rachel Dolezal. T

And its that tension that fascinates me. I'm not justifying her behavior. I can't really draw conclusions about it, just as the African-American community is not of one mind about what she did. (Not much of a surprise, given that millions of people are not going to react with one mind about anything, no matter how much eumelanin they have in their skin.) 

But it's also a world that, because of homeschooling, can pass virtually unnoticed within a larger society, even when some of its members are reality show stars like the Duggars. I'm not saying this is about homeschooling per say, but rather about homeschooling within a rigid, patriarchal and controlling community--which could just as easily be Muslim or Jewish because, frankly, there are plenty of rigid, patriarchal, removed-from-the-modern-world Jewish communities where such abuse could happen and nobody would know and no children would speak about it, because they would think this was normal. 

But I live in a big city, an educated city, where the homeschoolers that I know seem to be mostly respectful Unitarians, and the only serious conversations I might have with someone about Satan are with Somali moms at school, very recent immigrants.

Except:  Someone who used to be a friend, a Lutheran, daughter of a Methodist minister, recently knocked on my door, asking me to come for a walk so she could explain her family situation. It has to do with a struggling child, a depression, a straying husband, a child out of wedlock, joint custody, and a lot of self-blame. This woman is trim, pretty, competent, educated, personably, a natural leader, and socially involved. She lives in a major city, but said her depression was her own fault because she had focused on the outside, on looking good. Later, on the walk, she spoke of her mother's criticism of said struggling child as "Satan working in" her mother's life.

I mentioned, lightly, that coping with a child in crisis is a huge drain, and emotional drains over long time are one of the primary causes of depression--not Satan, brain chemistry. I also said that I love the Jewish concept of Good and Evil, the good and evil inclination. Think of it as the angel and devil on the shoulder routine, except both are parts of us--and God created us this way.

Why?

Well, theologically, that's complicated. It has to do with the gift of choice--that we are not animals, but are given the gift of choosing between good and evil. It has to do with the ways we humans gain strength from challenges and how smug perfect people would be. It has to do with--well, it's easier to tell it in a story (of course): some rabbis caught the Evil Inclination in a cage. They were about to kill it, when one of them said, "Look around you." Nobody was working in the fields. Nobody was creating any children. Nobody was starting a business, or working to improve what they had, to learn more, to gain more. "Okay," they said, and let the evil inclination out, and people got back to it. The evil inclination can do a lot of good.

The ex-friend and I were close to home, but I mentioned this, hoping that it might create a window in her self-blaming prison. Working to change depressive thinking is hard enough without thinking it's your fault because you listened to Satan.

But the Dolezals and Duggars of the world don't--or didn't--have a window into another way of thinking, or even into a mental health support system that doesn't blame younger children for being molested by an older sibling--because of lack of modesty. Kept at home, taking care of a quiverful of children, they had few chances to learn other ways of looking at the world.

And okay, I'm sure there are tons of folk who have come out of that world, and recovered, who aren't lying about their race--to themselves, their employers, and to the people they care about.

But it sure makes you think. . . Dolazel didn't have to dye her skin to become one of the oppressed. She was oppressed, at least in her childhood. It seems more like she felt she had to dye her skin and lie to people who trusted her, so she could belong to a people who have created pride from their oppression. It's creepy and weird and bold fascinating. And unnecessary in so many way--Because she automatically belongs to the world of color due to loving Black children, whether it was her sisters and brothers or her sons, young men and women who face the potentially fatal consequences of being a person of color in the U.S., from higher blood pressure and premature birth risks due to stress, to a vastly uneven legal system, to the risks of driving/shopping/sitting in a skyway While Black.  Wherever she is these days, licking her wounds, I hope she does, finally, find a good place to truthfully belong.