Legal Claim Autistic Rapist ‘Didn’t Know Any Better’ is Bullshit

A show that ran as long as Law & Order is, naturally, going to have some off days. I’ll admit to occasionally tuning into the show’s seemingly never-ending basic cable blocks as a guilty pleasure, but one of the telltale signs you’re about to watch one of the shitty ones is when the culprit is … Continue reading Legal Claim Autistic Rapist ‘Didn’t Know Any Better’ is Bullshit
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Scholars for Puerto Rico Relief

Two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, conditions are still dire and in some regions actually worsening. In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, approximately 3.5 million residents were without electricity, and without secure access to food, water, medical care, transportation, stable telecommunications, and other necessities. The latest reports show that continued support for Puerto Rico’s residents is needed — particularly as the media’s attention turns elsewhere.

We are scholars committed to supporting Puerto Rico relief and recovery efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. We join others who are increasing awareness of the humanitarian and environmental crisis in Puerto Rico and raising funds for ongoing emergency recovery efforts.  All funds raised by Scholars for Puerto Rico will be donated to three community-based organizations who are integral to both immediate and long-term sustainable recovery in Puerto Rico: Casa Pueblo, Organización Pro Ambiente Sustentable, and Taller Salud. Please click here for additional information or to donate now.

Since the passage of Hurricane Maria, numerous accounts continue to circulate of the widespread destruction of homes, schools, hospitals, and even whole towns in Puerto Rico. Many Puerto Ricans, both there and in the diaspora, remain unable to reach family and friends throughout the territory because vast swaths of Puerto Rico remain without communication. Moreover, reliable news outlets in Puerto Rico estimate that once communication and transportation are reestablished throughout the territory, the official death toll from Hurricane Maria could soar. Still, the U.S. federal government’s response to the crisis in this US territory has been lackluster at best, even though Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

Puerto Rico was a colony of Spain until the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Considered a war prize, Puerto Rico, along with several other territories, became a colony of the United States. The Jones-Shaforth Act passed by Congress in 1917 granted Puerto Ricans citizenship. However, those residing in the US territory of Puerto Rico do not enjoy the same civic rights as their mainland counterparts. For example, while residents of Puerto Rico can be drafted into the military, they cannot vote for President and lack voting representation in Congress. Puerto Rico’s limited representation has left the territory with few advocates within the U.S. government to push for meaningful and sustained federal relief during this time of crisis.

Puerto Ricans have long been treated as second-class citizens due to the territory’s colonial status. Hurricane Maria has exposed the continued effects of colonialism on the territory since the early 20th century. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (also known as the Jones Act) requires that all goods shipped to Puerto Rico arrive from U.S. ports, on U.S.-constructed ships, with U.S. crews. The Jones Act therefore greatly raises the cost of transporting goods as well as their purchase prices once they arrive in Puerto Rico. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, the Jones Act inflates the time and cost of transporting supplies, personnel, and equipment for Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts from foreign countries.  Ships carrying aid to Puerto Rico from countries like the Dominican Republic and Cuba, which have both offered help, cannot deliver aid directly to a port in the territory. They would instead have to travel to a port on the U.S. mainland before transporting aid to their Caribbean neighbor. On September 28, the Trump administration suspended the Jones Act for ten days to facilitate hurricane relief. However, with recovery efforts expected to take months, a reimposition of the Jones Act will obstruct the ability of aid to reach Puerto Rico in a timely fashion.

Since Hurricane Maria, the federal fiscal control board installed by the US government in 2016 to oversee the territory’s finances has only authorized $1bn to fund the recovery. This is nowhere near the amount Puerto Rico will need to not only rebuild, but create a more sustainable and disaster resistant infrastructure. The federal government has also failed to announce a moratorium on Puerto Rico’s debt repayment or consider any form of debt forgiveness in light of Maria’s catastrophic effects.

The physical and technological infrastructural collapse that followed Hurricane Maria was enabled by more than a decade of austerity measures imposed by the local and federal governments to deal with Puerto Rico’s mounting debt. These austerity measures starved public utilities of the funds needed to make repairs and upgrades and left Puerto Rico’s infrastructure particularly vulnerable. Puerto Rico cannot be rebuilt on a foundation of austerity and colonial neglect.

We must support and aid community-based organizations in Puerto Rico working to rebuild the territory after amidst structural inequalities of colonialism and inadequate support from the federal government. In addition to the most basic supplies, Puerto Rico needs billions of dollars to rebuild its infrastructure, homes, and institutions like hospitals, government buildings, and schools. Community-based organizations like Casa Pueblo, Organización Pro Ambiente Sustentable, and Taller Salud  are central to the recovery and rebuilding of Puerto Rico. Please click here for additional information or to donate.

  • Casa Pueblo, an organization dedicated to community empowerment and the protection of natural and cultural resources;
  • Organización Pro Ambiente Sustentable (OPAS), an environmental organization whose programming efforts focus on education about and management of sustainable resources; and
  • Taller Salud, which works to improve the lives of girls and women, particularly in under-resourced communities.

We stand in solidarity with Puerto Rico and all those committed to not only rebuild but transform Puerto Rico with long-term sustainable recovery and recuperation initiatives. We ask you to financially support this endeavor by making a donation that will support Casa Pueblo, Organización Pro Ambiente Sustentable, and Taller SaludPlease click here to donate now.

Scholars for Puerto Rico*

*Scholars for Puerto Rico is not a group, but rather an effort to raise funds for recovery efforts in the territory. Several scholars worked collaboratively to bring this fundraising campaign to fruition: Frances Aparicio (Northwestern University), Arlene Dávila (New York University), Zaire Dinzey-Flores (Rutgers University), Lorena Estrada-Martínez (University of Massachusetts Boston), Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes (University of Michigan), Marisol LeBrón (Dickinson College), Marisol Negrón (University of Massachusetts Boston), Jade Power-Sotomayor (University of Washington Bothell), Lorna Rivera (UMass Boston), Petra Rivera-Rideau (Wellesley College), and Wilson Valentín-Escobar (Hampshire College).

Scholars for Puerto Rico is in partnership with Scholars for Haiti and thanks Yveline Alexis, Nadège T. Clitandre, Marlene Daut, Darlene Dubuisson, April Mayes, and Kyla Wazana Tompkins for their support.

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The Good Doctor: Season One, Episode Three

This week’s episode of The Good Doctor is titled “Oliver.” “Oliver” is the name of the donor of a very important liver, a liver that will save a life. The episode’s main plot dealt with the ethics of transplantation, which is pretty heavy stuff. Transplant lists literally decide who will live and who will die. … Continue reading The Good Doctor: Season One, Episode Three
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Never Let Me Go and the Human Condition

I teach college English, which means that I spend a lot of time telling people not to write papers about “the human condition.” The human condition, I tell my students, is vague. What about the human condition are you interested in? I ask. Bodies? Money? Desire? Work? Power? These are things that we could make arguments about. The human condition is not. I give my students a handout of writing tips, a series of “dos and don’ts” I’ve honed over the course of a decade in college classrooms. Many of the “don’ts” regard specificity. Don’t write about society. Be more specific. Don’t tell me about gender norms. Be more specific. Don’t write about the human condition. Be more specific.

I hold to these rules tightly; I think they are good rules, and they certainly lead to more exacting student writing. But when I read that Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for literature last week, my first thought was: Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize because he writes about the human condition.

When I teach his 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, I have to break some rules.

For the uninitiated, Never Let Me Go is a novel about a group of young people who are also clones. These clones will grow up and begin to donate their organs in their late teens and twenties and then they will die slow, orchestrated deaths; their bodies will be used to save the lives of others. The clones have been created by a vast government program and there is no escape from it. Never Let Me Go is not a story of rebellion.

The novel is narrated by Kath, who is a carer, which means quite literally that she cares emotionally for other clones going through the donation process. In the first paragraph of the novel, Kath tells us that she’s about to wrap up her work as a carer, that she soon will become a donor. When the novel begins, we don’t quite know what this means. We find out everything very slowly. I have stated the premise of the book more clearly and explicitly than Ishiguro ever does.

Kath is what some people might call an unreliable narrator, but I prefer to think of her as clueless instead. Like the butler of Ishiguro’s earlier novel Remains of the Day, Kath never quite comprehends what’s going on around her, or what’s happening to her. In the parlance of the book, she’s been “told and not told” about her fate. Ishiguro reveals information slowly; the word “clone” doesn’t appear until more than halfway through the novel, and Kath speaks in the euphemisms of the donation program. To die, for example, is to “complete.”

Never Let Me Go is fantastic for developing students’ close reading skills; I start off teaching the novel by close reading its first paragraph with my class for a long time, longer than should be possible. The book is a teacher’s dream: there is almost too much to talk about. We discuss narration and epistemology (how do we know what we know in this book?), genre (is the book science fiction? A crime novel? A bildungsroman?) We can talk Foucault and surveillance, biopolitics, medical ethics, aesthetics, education, gender, sex: this book has everything, which is why I can—and do—fit it onto so many syllabi.

But I also teach this book because it gets under my students’ skin. They tell me this after class, in evaluations, in emails years later, but I can also see it in their faces in my classroom. Never Let Me Go gets to them because it gets them. The narrator is young and confused and sad: so are a lot of college students. Sure, the book is about a massive government program that raises children for slaughter, but so much of the book, a good 80% of it, I’d venture, is about daily childhood and teenage life: alliances between friends, art projects, soccer games, awkward sex ed classes, writing essays, falling in love. There are hazy and obscure threats from the adult world, which the clones feel but don’t quite understand. The clones feel powerless, they know that death is coming—kind of—and yet they live their lives anyway.

In this, the clones are just like us.

Whenever I teach Never Let Me Go, there’s a moment, almost always on the final day of class on the novel, when my students get demonstrably frustrated with Kath and the other clones. They ask: where is their anger? Why don’t they rebel? Why do they passively accept their deaths? Why don’t they do something? (The most the clones try, and fail to do is temporarily defer—not circumvent—their donations.) I, summoning something in myself that I don’t usually summon, pause and then intone: why don’t you rebel? Where is your anger? Why do you passively accept your deaths?

I have taught this book many times, and I know how to orchestrate this moment. I lean forward in my chair. You guys know you’re going to die, too, right? Why don’t you do something?

Sometimes my students are silent, but sometimes they start arguing with me about details that I frankly don’t care about in this particular moment. The clones will die sooner than we will (will they? What do you know that I don’t?) We’re not oppressed by governments restricting what we do with other bodies (It’s never a woman who says this.) We can go round and round, and I will always have an answer.

You are going to die and there’s nothing you can do about it, I tell them. It’s the human condition.

I usually resist such theatricality in my teaching. I prefer not to lecture, I prefer to sit while teaching, I prefer to disperse my power in the classroom and for my authority to hang loose. I like group work and student-led discussions. I’ve read my Freire and I’ve read my hooks. But when this moment comes, and it always does, I love to hold onto it, to hear myself speak, to see my effect on my students, to be the one to tell them that they’re going to die. I can be authoritative in this moment because I have no doubts, no lack of confidence, no moment of wondering what this critic or that professor from grad school would have to say about how I read Ishiguro. Our mortality is not up for debate. This is a wild, obscene heft. And I get to share it.

Sometimes I let the moment hang in the air; sometimes, I undercut myself with a joke about how we’re not supposed to talk about the human condition in my class, but I’m the teacher, so just this once. Maggie Nelson, talking about suspect moments in her own teaching, writes in The Argonauts: “I’m not saying this is good pedagogy. I am saying that its pleasures are deep.”

I’m not saying that this is good pedagogy. I am saying that its pleasures are deep, and that its pleasures are deep for me and for my students. After weeks or months of student-centered teaching practices, of answering questions with more questions, of writing “be more specific” in the margins of their papers, there is pleasure for all of us when I pause, look them in the eyes, and tell them, straightforwardly, that they’re going to do die. It is an uncritical moment in a class founded in criticality, and I sense their pleasure in it. I think they sense mine as well.

Never Let Me Go teaches us that we’re all going to die but we go to class and read our books and write our essays anyway, and sometimes, we get to take deep pleasure in all of it. It’s the human condition.

 

Jacquelyn Ardam teaches at Colby College and usually writes about alphabet books. She tweets @jaxwendy

 

 

 

 

 

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Democratic Congressman Withdraws Latest Attack on Disability Rights

Last week, the Energy and Commerce Committee held a markup session for a bill that would refund the Children’s Health Insurance Program, better known as CHIP.  During the session, there was contentious discussion on topics ranging from the current disaster in Puerto Rico to Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Many disability activists, however, … Continue reading Democratic Congressman Withdraws Latest Attack on Disability Rights
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Heathcliff’s Amours

In the heart of Brontë country in Yorkshire, an unexpected gathering: men, naked, reading Victorian novels to an audience of clothed, mostly female listeners. Appropriately dubbed Naked Boys Reading, this tongue-in-cheek literary salon plays up the perceived absurdity of the contrast between these full frontal dudes and the corseted women’s stories they often tell. The salon frames it this way: reading in the nude “provide[s] two things: a new lens and modality for the texts, and the care-giving experience of being read to.” As the founder of Naked Boys Reading concludes (with satisfaction), “it’s problematic.”

Being read to is a caregiving experience, but that is not to say it is an asexual one. Neither is reading itself without its erotics; in Wuthering Heights, for example, Hareton Earnshaw falls in love as Catherine the Younger reads aloud to . What the Naked Boys Reading really do is bring the sexuality that is just barely hidden inside the Brontë texts right into our frontal view. By making sex visible yet silent, adjacent to the narrative and impossible to ignore, the denuded salon doesn’t merely expose our assumptions about who the Brontë sisters were and how we read them. It also prompts us to rethink the currents of desire—even the implicit ones—that were always already in the Brontës’ books.

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In Wuthering Heights, one such latent current is between Heathcliff and Nelly Dean. Heathcliff is the stand-out male member of the Brontë canon (as a romance writer would say); it’s interesting that he is also the most silent. Compare: in Jane Eyre, we get Rochester compulsively regurgitating all his post-Bertha rebounds; Paul Emmanuel’s tragic infanta-love comes out at the end of Villette; every detail of Arthur Huntingdon’s terrible degeneration is performed for us on the page. But Heathcliff’s story has all these gaps. Is he a “gipsy brat,” a little Lascar, an American or Spanish castaway, the son of the Emperor of China and an Indian Queen—all possible explanations for his origin story given by the book? Or is he (more likely) an Irish foundling or a bastard son of Mr. Earnshaw (who keeps on insisting, apropos of nothing, that he’s “fatherless”)? And later in the story, when Heathcliff gets back to Yorkshire to take revenge, we wonder, where has he been during all his years away from Wuthering Heights? All we know is that he’s a perfect male cipher, “athletic, well-formed,” with an “upright carriage”!

Balancing out Heathcliff’s unique reticence is the super-verbose Nelly, our most charming and perhaps unreliable of narrators. Whatever her morals, Nelly is amazing: she’s an eighteenth-century female servant who’s apparently never left home and she reads in multiple languages! (Some people think her education and “blood relative” fondness for the family means she’s Mr. Earnshaw’s bastard daughter; see Heathcliff, above.) Nelly might be the most forthcoming narrator ever: she tells the incapacitated Mr. Lockwood everything about Wuthering Heights and its denizens—everything, that is, except the nature of the relationship between Heathcliff and herself.

“I know all about” Heathcliff, Nelly tells us, “except where he was born, and who were his parents, and how he got his money at first.” But garrulous as she seems on the Heathcliff point, Nelly says almost nothing about her relationship to him, except that she has a guilty conscience. Why does she feel so guilty about herself and Heathcliff? It’s obvious already that Nelly has been an instrument in Heathcliff’s revenge all along—in fact, she’s pretty forthcoming about her “double-dealing.” Her deep self-blame, which reaches this extraordinary pitch only to be instantly muted—“it was not the case, in reality, I am aware”—must come from another source.

Did Nelly sleep with Heathcliff? Well, maybe. There’s no smoking gun; Nelly’s quite careful to say that she never lived with him as an adult. On his side, although he clearly likes her and says so, he’s obviously (deathlessly) in love with Catherine. But he and Catherine barely see one another; they don’t reach full consummation, and unlike his soulmate, Nelly cares for Heathcliff’s personal needs. She takes real pleasure in maintaining Heathcliff’s body right from his childhood illness through his “dirty” adolescence, his attractive manhood, and his emaciated death. She’s careful to tell us that she is the only one in this story who has an investment in Heathcliff’s body. (We’re back to the erotics of caregiving.)

It’s not just me that has her suspicions about Nelly and Heathcliff. The book features multiple places where characters slip up and tell us that Nelly and Heathcliff have more between them than just fellow-servant camaraderie. And later we see Catherine and Nelly competing for Heathcliff’s attentions in the famous deathbed tableau, where Nelly, now (in name only) the servant of Edgar Linton, has seemingly done everything she can to bring Heathcliff together with his estranged beloved. Here’s Nelly, an excited voyeur to their embrace for literally hours, when Edgar returns:

I heard my master mounting the stairs—the cold sweat ran from my forehead: I was horrified.

 

“Are you going to listen to her ravings?” I said, passionately. “She does not know what she says. Will you ruin her, because she has not wit to help herself? Get up! You could be free instantly. That is the most diabolical deed that you ever did. We are all done for—master, mistress, and servant.”

Look at Nelly’s shifting sense of who her master is! Edgar is the legal master—but Heathcliff becomes the master of the trio caught in the erotic act. As tension builds with Edgar’s approaching step, the imagery of sexual release is split between the two women: Nelly “cr[ies] out… in the midst of my agitation,” while Catherine might be “fainted, or dead.” (“So much the better,” says the jealous Nelly).

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The notion that Heathcliff and Nelly have sex is only hinted at in the original Wuthering Heights, but it’s taken up explicitly in modern afterlives of Emily Brontë’s book. In Max Ferguson’s CBC Radio play of Wuthering Heights (which was bizarrely created for children, including a young Margaret Atwood), the final scene reveals that Nelly and Heathcliff marry after Catherine dies. Nelly and Heathcliff’s marriage is not without its struggles: a Cocknified Nelly admits that “if I’ve ’ad too much beer and chips before going to bed, often in my dreams I see ’eathcliff,” and on the hero’s side, the marriage is yet another form of revenge against the dead Catherine, undertaken after his vow to “write dirty words all over your tombstone, Cathy!” But in a final encomium to his new wife, Heathcliff, who is apparently unperturbed by Nelly’s bedtime carb-loading, says, “you ain’t as good-looking as old Cathy but boy oh boy can youse cook!” The radio adaptation plays the erotics of Wuthering Heights for laughs.

Another revivalist Heathcliff-Nelly sex scene, this time with more serious social commentary behind it. Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel resets Wuthering Heights in postwar Japan and America. After his beloved Yoko (Catherine) dies, Mizumura’s hero Taro Azuma gets revenge in typical Heathcliffian fashion on both her and her husband’s ancient families, who’d kept him as a servant during childhood, by buying their Nagano estates with his newfound American millions. The eleventh-hour plot twist comes with the revelation that Fumiko, the servant telling the story (that is, the Nelly equivalent), had an affair with the teenage Taro. For six months, they were lovers—then Taro left Fumiko for a new life in America.

We hear about the details of Taro and Fumiko’s sexual relationship (“hot and heavy, night after night”) indirectly from a third party long after the affair is over—when Taro, who’s acquired everything from the family in decline, wills all the properties to his former lover and fellow-servant out of a lifelong sense of guilt over breaking her heart. This matches up almost exactly with the end of Brontë’s book, where Nelly, who’s almost the only survivor of Heathcliff’s implacable revenge, becomes the de facto possessor of the now-derelict Wuthering Heights. As the ancient landowners decline, the self-made servants rise: A True Novel helps to reinforce the class breakdown that Wuthering Heights only hinted at. The explicit sex in A True Novel confirms what was already there in the Brontë original: there really is something going on between Heathcliff and Nelly. But in the light of Mizimura’s adaptation, Heathcliff and Nelly’s sexual affair is less a broad joke than it is a provocative drama of star-crossed love and class solidarity.
Back in the real world, and with a different attitude to artistry, the Naked Boys Reading make Victorian subtext not just text but also live flesh. Facing a man in all his glory reading Nelly’s lines about her “dereliction of duty” can make one laugh while also feeling, fully, the often-misunderstood provocations of Victorian desire. If it is, I want to say with satisfaction, “problematic,” then so are the erotic currents of everyday life—caregiving, sex, desire—that emanate, it seems, straight out of those boggy, seductive moors/amours.

Arden Hegele, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Society of Fellows in the Humanities, Lecturer in English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University

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Congressman Tim Murphy Resigns, Neurodiversity Community Breathes Sigh of Relief

As reported by NOS Magazine last week, Congressman Tim Murphy has found himself embroiled in a sex scandal. New information has revealed that while acting as a member of Congress’s pro-life caucus, Murphy urged the woman he was having an affair with to get an abortion. As a result, Congressman Murphy has resigned, effective immediately. … Continue reading Congressman Tim Murphy Resigns, Neurodiversity Community Breathes Sigh of Relief
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“Why Don’t You Fly Home?” Stories from an Afro-Latinx/Jewish Matriarchy

When I was six, restlessly whiny and stuck at my grandparents’ apartment for the day, I made the mistake of begging to go home. Struck at once by my thanklessness and my absurdity, my Nana jeered, in her particular way, “Why don’t you fly home?” Her mouth was heart-shaped, a Cupid’s bow giving way to the soft curve of a constant pout, and it betrayed the intensity of the words that came out of it. From my grandmother, I have learned a great deal about the falsely perceived softness of women.

She began to fashion wings from my Poppy’s notebook paper, folding them into origami shapes and pinning them to the back of my puff-painted shirt, from which they accordioned out, crumpled and pleated and listless. It’s confusing when the physical exigencies of an emotion don’t align with the actual feeling—when sharp, sudden annoyance gives way to careful craft-making. She didn’t chide me; she instead took up a project, transforming what might’ve been an angry tirade into an object. The wings were a strange combination of cruelty, nimble craftsmanship, and fairytale play. They were, to be clear, the result of both the resourcefulness engendered by growing up in rural Puerto Rico and, especially, of Nana’s power, a force that always felt dark and light, equally ostentatious and invisibly simmering. I didn’t want to wear them, but I didn’t want to throw them away, either, imbued as they were with her magic. They could make me fly.

Nana was born Elba, the oldest of three children in an Afro-Caribbean family. They lived in Guayama, a city on the southeastern coast of the island. Now, when I look at photos of her, I search desperately for hints of my own face. It’s a fair observation that the women in my family are more pleasant to look at than I am, but because of our different skin, Nana’s beauty eludes me most. All complexity aside, I’m white, the whitest woman on my maternal side, and so different from my grandmother, mother, and sister (with whom I share a mom but not a dad).

Elba (Nana) and Iriving (Poppy)

Nana married my Poppy, Irving, in New York; he was fair-haired and blue-eyed, the son of Jewish immigrants from Galicia in Eastern Europe. They had two daughters, of whom my mother, born in 1948, is the first, and neither of whom were taught fluent Spanish. Instead, Nana, in a strange, impossible move of self-erasure, began—slowly and then abruptly—to pretend she wasn’t Afro-Caribbean, that she wasn’t black. In hindsight, it reeks of hysteria; there was nothing “passing” about her. She converted to Judaism, got a Hebrew name: “Leah.” She insisted she was not Puerto Rican, that she was actually an American Jew, effectively trading her marginalized identity for another, feasibly whiter one.

In his book Colonial Subjects: Puerto Ricans in a Global Perspective, Ramon Grosfoguel, a professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley, writes:

Latinos are a subordinated group in the hegemonic, and still colonial, imaginary of the United States…. The designation of ‘laziness’ is a typical racist stereotype used by ‘white’ imperial elites in the United States and ‘white’ creole elites in Puerto Rico to dismiss subalterns struggles for equal rights.

My grandmother knew this instinctively, and often reminded me, anxiously, that Puerto Rico was a U.S. territory—implying, naturally, that she was deserving and whole. In the wake of Hurricane Maria’s destruction of her homeland, Nana’s perpetual apprehension would’ve been reasonable. Donald Trump’s callous disregard of the island, of the domestic citizenship of its inhabitants, only seems jarring because of his unique brand of cold and stupid insouciance. His sentiment isn’t new, and my grandmother’s understanding that Puerto Ricans, particularly brown ones, were sub-American—sub-human—was precisely the point of the island’s colonization. A permitted genocide is to be expected; Nana chose to commit her own self-annihilation.

She couldn’t get rid of herself, though, not completely. Everything she did, even the surreal punishments she inflicted, were, my sister Jessica describes it, “saturated in Puerto Rico. She played a role till the day she died, but could not let go completely. She added Latin magical realism to every story she told. Like an Isabel Allende character.”

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Nana with my mother, Helen

Our mother, who’s light-skinned but rarely presumed white, has three names: Elena, in Spanish; Helen, in English; Hannah, in Hebrew. She represents the repetition of ancestral narrative better than anyone I know. Her first husband is Afro-Caribbean; my dad, her second, is Polish and Jewish, the son of two concentration camp survivors. Jessica and I were born ten years apart, have different surnames and skin colors and, as it were, different ways of facing the world, none of which occurred to me as matters of significance during my childhood. I was cloaked in my whiteness like a safety vest, and though I didn’t see it as a cultural default, I didn’t yet know its significance.

Eventually I’d pray to look like my mother and older sister. My Jewishness seemed shameful, an entire religious sect acting as eraser, taken to my maternal mother tongue and replacing it with my gawky nose, my pale skin. Judaism, of course, is not the culprit. “Converting was just a way of shedding,” Jessica says. “‘I won’t even be Elba. I’ll transform.’ Her whole life was about fighting for her place at the table. She had to deny herself.”

The villain, instead, was the mechanism that creates the “other,” a poison leak that trickles down, like a dripping faucet, into the bloodstream, creates mental illness and shame, gives birth to words like “ugly.” I don’t know if there’s a way to heal from self-inflicted cultural erasure; I don’t know if it’s ever, in fact, really self-inflicted. Think of the cellular effect of racism—how it fosters hurt in the bones, disease in the brain, a staggered reproach at one’s own reflection. It’s completed its task once it no longer has to do much at all—when the victim finally hates themselves the most.

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Isidra, my great-grandmother

Three days after my mother was born, her young Aunt Carmen died of rheumatic fever. She hadn’t yet met my mom but, shortly before she passed away, she allegedly whispered to my grandmother, “Don’t worry Elba; I already saw the baby.” Moments prior, while she lay sleeping in her crib, my infant mama turned bluish-purple. She cried and bellowed, but the attack came on just as quickly as it then disappeared.

Though she suspects it was grief over Carmen’s death, my mother is still not entirely sure why, exactly, her parents left her in Guayama. “Imagine what I feel like now, knowing only pieces of my life,” she tells me. I can. I can imagine her past, too, closing my eyes when she describes her early childhood. The memories are pure but fragmented, small shards of something broken and precious: my great-grandma Isidra’s hands, soft and warm; her dark hair a curtain billowing from her scalp, filtered streams of light. Every Sunday, the smell of charcoal and incense in a Catholic church. The cloaked, chanting figures my mom watched on the beach, the Caribbean Ocean thrashing and lashing at their feet like foam. The papery crust of healing herbs on a scraped knee. Elba makes little appearance in these memories, and Irving is never there.

After Isidra died—she was still so young—my mother was sent to New York. It was 1953, eleven years before the Civil Rights Act was passed. When she met her father, she was terrified. We recently discovered that he kept my grandmother and their children a secret from his parents for nearly a decade. He dated other women to appease them, promising he’d marry, until he finally admitted that he already had. Half-invisible, withheld like unsavory information, stowed away like cargo, my mother and grandmother and aunt’s Afro-Caribbean blackness and half-blackness made all the more visible in its attempt to be hidden. Surely this is why my mother, who is beautiful, thinks she’s hideous, picks apart her features, bemoans them like an adolescent.

She’s unsure about the details of Nana’s eventual conversion. The variegated stories from this time have been collected by multiple relatives, shaken clean from their consistencies, fallen back down into half-truths that barely resemble their prior realities. “My mother used to tell me that my dad would say, ‘Don’t worry about what people think about us,’” says my mom. “But at the same time, he didn’t want his parents to know. I guess the bottom line was: you don’t marry outside of your race.”

Whether for love or shame, Nana was converted by an Orthodox Rabbi. Poppy moved the family to Howard Beach, Queens, where neighborhood kids called my mother the N-word, ran from her. My mom recalls, “people would tell my mother I was so pretty. When I got to Howard Beach, I wasn’t pretty anymore. It started the moment I got there, and didn’t end until I left. I receded into myself, didn’t accomplish or become who I was supposed to. I told my mother I didn’t want to go to the pool: ‘They make fun of me, they say I’m black.’ My mother said, ‘You’re not black.’ When I said, ‘I am; you’re black, too,’ she slapped me and said, ‘Don’t ever call me black.’ I was befuddled.” I’ve not heard my mom use the word “befuddled” before or since. I imagine her, quite literally, receding into herself, folding her body like crumpled paper, like flightless paper wings.

******

I don’t know what it’s like to be unsafe in my own skin. I know plenty about hating it, but that’s not the same thing. In a world so profoundly xenophobic, when racism comes both in the form of youthful, torch-toting neo-Nazis and the white girls who flippantly deemed my predominately Haitian high school in Florida “ghetto”—how do we heal each other, recognize each other? As a white woman, I’m still learning how to do it, how to deeply implicate myself in my history and acknowledge my whiteness, and feel, most of all, the responsibility that comes with having a privileged safety my relatives did not and do not.

In the essay Getting In and Out, Zadie Smith discusses Dana Schutz’s controversial painting of Emmett Till, and asks, of her own children (the children of a biracial mother and a white father), “When exactly does black suffering cease to be their concern? Their grandmother—raised on a postcolonial island, in extreme poverty, descended from slaves—knew black suffering intimately.” I wouldn’t paint black suffering; it’s not mine, I feel, to depict. Instead, being the white child of somebody who isn’t white breeds a peculiar and unified dichotomy: you must know your privilege and you must contend with the pain of your ancestors in ways that don’t exploit it. It is work often done alone.

There is, my sister suspects, another narrative in Elba’s story—one about erasing yourself for a man. “Imagine being dark, of African descent, not speaking English,” she muses. “This man keeping you a secret. Of course she thought it was easier to become somebody else.” It’s a special kind of self-loathing, patriarchal and subservient and yet—surely she made her own decision in confidence, stepped into the mikvah not to drown but to cleanse herself, born anew in a wet womb big enough for her to swim in. It is what she felt she was cleansing that unnerves me, that makes me nervous all the time. “I can’t claim Puerto Ricanness,” I tell my sister on the phone one evening. “I don’t look it. I don’t speak Spanish. I want it, I want it so bad. But it’s not mine.” It’s like describing a fleeting lover. Jessica is aghast. “Why would you erase Nana? Why would you perpetuate her erasure?”

In a TED talk on women and creativity—Tales of Passion—Isabel Allende says, “There is a Jewish saying that I love: ‘What is truer than truth? Answer: the story.’” My grandmother’s experience isn’t mine; her pain doesn’t belong to me. But it’s in me, in my cells—the hurt a story in my heart, a book I hold tenderly as a baby, the words never about me but, instead, my inborn, fated duty to read. Read it, read the story, over and over, ad nauseam, alone; repeat it to yourself so much that when you see it elsewhere—when you see the aching, the trauma, and its perpetuators—you are compelled, not by wit but by blood, to try to stop it.

My favorite memory of Nana, a chapter near her story’s end, is of her dressed in dark purple, dancing with Poppy in our living room. Her smile is the kind compelled only by music. They were the kindest, most loving grandparents, and I danced with them that night, spinning dizzy. I can’t remember if it was a Catholic holiday or a Jewish holiday, but I don’t think it matters.

Monica Uszerowicz is a writer and photographer in Miami. Her work has been featured in HyperallergicThe Creators Project/VICE, Temporary Art Review, and the Miami Rail.

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The Good Doctor: Season One, Episode Two

This week’s episode of The Good Doctor is titled “Mount Rushmore.” It delves into issues of autism, honesty, and bedside manner. And to be honest, this week Dr. Murphy’s writing unfortunately tilted him more towards being a DSM checklist than a person. I hope next week’s episode does better. I am intentionally only referring to … Continue reading The Good Doctor: Season One, Episode Two
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ADAPT Action is Not the Entirety of Disability Rights

The Medicaid battle has come and gone again. Senators Graham and Cassidy came up with another plan to attack the Affordable Care Act.  Due to the arcane rules of the Senate, they had until the end of September to pass their amendment with only 51 votes (including a tie-breaker from the Vice President);  otherwise, they’ll … Continue reading ADAPT Action is Not the Entirety of Disability Rights
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