In “France, the Crucible of Europe” The Putz tells us that it is increasingly clear that the Continent’s future will be determined by the French. I’m sure Angela Merkel is fascinated by what he has to say… MoDo is back [sigh] and is spelunking in people’s heads again. In “The Deano Chronicles, Continued” she voyages inside the head of the tanned, rested and ready Speaker Boehner after the tumultuous first week of the 114th Congress. In “Race, the Police and the Propaganda” Mr. Kristof suggests ending the impunity that fuels unequal law enforcement. Mr. Bruni, in “Your God and My Dignity,” says faith warrants respect, but it shouldn’t earn anyone an exemption from laws or permission to discriminate. Mr. Cohen, in “The Battle to Belong,” says his mother suffered as an immigrant, as a Jew set adrift. (I’ve placed Mr. Cohen last since his is a much longer piece.) Here’s The Putz:
The France that endured a vicious terrorist attack last week is a France that has suffered, for decades and centuries, from anxieties about its own decline. And for good reason: Since the 18th century, when it bestrode Europe and seemed poised to dominate the globe, France has seen its relative power diminish, suffering defeats and humiliations at the hands of rival forces, from Britain’s navies to Germany’s jackboots to the invading might of American popular culture.
Now these longstanding anxieties have been thrown into relief by the murderous attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, an attack linked to all the various specters haunting contemporary France: fears of creeping Islamification and rising anti-Semitism, fears of the far right’s growing power and anti-Muslim backlash — and all of it bound up in a larger sense, amid economic stagnation, of betrayal at the hands of the Continent’s elite.
ut notwithstanding these declinist fears, France isn’t actually irrelevant or spent. Instead, it’s arguably becoming more important, more central to the fate of Europe and the West.
No, the age of the Sun King isn’t about to return. But politically, culturally, even intellectually, events in France over the next half-century could matter more than at any point since before the two world wars. Indeed, more than Germany or Greece or Britain or any other actor, it’s in France that the fate of 21st-century Europe could ultimately be decided.
Consider the specific issue at the heart of the Hebdo nightmare: the question of whether European nation-states can successfully integrate Muslim immigrants, and what will happen if they don’t.
Here France looks like the crucial test case. It has the largest Muslim population of any major European country, and parts of that population are more assimilated and others far more radicalized (16 percent of French citizens expressed support for the Islamic State in a poll last summer) than elsewhere on the Continent.
Not surprisingly, the response to Islam is divided as well: Muslims are regarded more favorably in France than elsewhere in Western Europe, and yet French politics features an increasingly potent far-right party, Marine Le Pen’s National Front, whose electoral clout is now likely to increase. Meanwhile, France’s foreign policy has distinctive (often military) entanglements across Northern Africa and the Levant, which means the ripples from French domestic politics have more room to spread and then return.
So if there’s a path to greater Muslim assimilation and inclusion, it’s more likely to be pioneered in France. If Islamic radicalism is going to gain ground or mutate into something more pervasive and dangerous, it’s also more likely to happen in France’s sphere of influence than elsewhere. And if Europe’s much-feared far right is going to complete its journey from the fringe to the mainstream, it will probably happen first in Paris.
French politics is likewise central to the fate of the wider European Union project, which is in crisis at the moment because of the gulf between Germany’s interests and the interests of the E.U. periphery, Greece and Italy and Spain. But that gulf (and the weight of 20th-century history) means that the Germans, however economically dominant, cannot hold the union together on their own. Instead it’s France, for reasons of history and culture as well as geography, that has to bridge the divide between Europe’s north and south and make the E.U. work politically. Unless, of course, the French gradually and fatefully choose not to, in which case the entire project will fall apart or be completely reconceived.
Either way, France’s star may rise as Germany’s descends. Demography, the source of so much Gallic anxiety in the past, suddenly has turned in France’s favor: The Germans are rich but aging, whereas even amid economic drift the French birthrate has risen sharply (suggesting a certain optimism amid the ennui). By the 2050s, under some scenarios, France could once again have the larger economy and population — making it either dominant in a more integrated Europe, or the most important power on a continent more divided than today.
Then amid these political and economic patterns there’s an important intellectual possibility — namely, that if there’s something beyond the West’s current end-of-history torpor, some new ideological conflict or synthesis, it might emerge first in the place where so many revolutions had their birth.
France has always been a country of extremes — absolutist and republican, Catholic and anticlerical, Communist and fascist. Now it’s once again the place where strong forces are colliding, and where the culture’s uncertainties — about Islam, secularism, nationalism, Europe; about modernity itself — suggest that new ones might soon be born.
The decline has been real, but the future is unwritten. If there is real history yet to be made in Europe, for good or ill, it might be made first in la belle France.
That was surprisingly coherent. I wonder who really wrote it… Here’s MoDo:
Kissing the sun. Swilling merlot. Plotting revenge.
Life is good for John Boehner.
Lying in a hammock at his new condo in Marco Island, Fla., the speaker of the House is even closing in on his goal of getting darker than the oxblood leather wingback chair in his Capitol office.
D.C.’s Dean Martin is relaxing, reviewing the tumultuous first week of the 114th Congress. There were the usual annoyances. The speaker told the press that he was comfortable in his skin even as his skin made the press uncomfortable. The Times’s First Draft did a Sherwin-Williams analysis of Boehner’s strikingly darker hue, syncing it to a color called “Husky Orange.”
And there were serious irritations, like another coup attempt by Tea Partiers eager to wreck the celebration of their party’s congressional takeover. This really bugs Boehner. How could a blue-collar Ohio pol who came to Congress in 1991 as a revolutionary be denounced as too establishment? How could critics dismiss him as “a squish?” How could he nearly be toppled from his speakership by a nobody named Ted Yoho?
Even in the flush of victory, the 65-year-old is hurt that some consider him a RINO, a fauxpublican who doesn’t have the brass to stand up to President Obama on immigration.
“That knuckle-dragger Hannity called me ‘cowardly,’ ” he mutters, lighting up another Ultra Light Camel. “I’m the most anti-establishment speaker we’ve ever had.” Hadn’t he always fought the good fight on earmarks? Hadn’t he always kept his regular-guy, son-of-a-Cincinnati-barkeep personality? Didn’t he still cut his own grass and eat breakfast at Pete’s Diner on the Hill?
As they had sat in his office, watching the dramatic vote count for speaker on C-Span, Boehner made his true feelings clear to his rat-pack pal, Saxby Chambliss: “Do these morons think they could do any better? Could Louie Gohmert really run the House better than me?
“I let Ted Yahoo make the response to Obama’s immigration order and he ran against me. Now I want him deported. And how about that Daniel Webster? At least the original tried to prevent civil war. I gave him a plum assignment on the Rules Committee and he ran against me. Then little Danny had the nerve to want his picture taken with me.
“If this were Chicago, those rat-finks would be in Lake Michigan. I did kick two of the quislings off the Rules Committee. My wife and my rat pack want vengeance. But I don’t do anger. I’m going to try to rise above it, and believe me, it’s not that hard to rise above guys like Gohmert and Yoho.
“We got the biggest majority since the Great Depression, but my pallie Mitch might be in for a shock. He’s been bragging that he’s going to get the Senate working again and move beyond the culture of ‘No’ that he created. I found out the hard way that you can’t get these knuckleheads to agree on anything except their right to be re-elected.”
His BlackBerry ring-a-ding dings, flashing a Florida area code.
“That better not be Webster or Yahoo,” he mutters. Listening, he grins. “Hey, Jeb,” he says warmly. “What’s up? I hope you didn’t take offense when I said I was anti-establishment.”
Pause. “Oh, you are, too?”
Boehner chuckles as the call ends, thinking an anti-establishment Bush is going to be an even tougher sell than an anti-establishment Boehner.
With everything else going on, he even had to come to the defense of Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, one of his top lieutenants, who spoke to a racist group back in 2002.
“I told those reporters that I knew, in his heart, Steve wasn’t a white supremacist,” Boehner says, laughing. “How could he be when he hangs out with somebody like me? Even President Obama called me a ‘person of color,’ hailing my orange as ‘the new black.’ ”
Thinking about Obama makes Boehner wince.
“So now President Harvard wants to give everybody free community-college educations? Should we do their homework for them, too? I had to work my way through school as a janitor.”
He wonders if the president saw Glenn Thrush’s piece in Politico revealing that, sometimes when Obama calls Boehner, the speaker puts the receiver on his desk, rolls his eyes and lights a Camel while the president drones on.
The speaker shrugs, rolls his eyes and lights a Camel. “The president keeps saying that he wants to work with us, but then he acts like his pal, the Cuban dictator,” he says. “He’s going to veto the Keystone pipeline. Executive orders have become par for the course. At least he’s par somewhere.
“Obama acts all liberated, but he’s just killing time. He was out of town all week and no one even noticed he was gone. Maybe I’ll retire with him. I don’t do legacy and I can’t bear the thought of going through another one of these battles for speaker with peabrains with slingshots.
“I can give speeches, get on boards and play Augusta National, just like all those other anti-establishment types.”
He refills his glass of red wine as his blue eyes fill with tears.
“It’s still just me, guys,” he sobs, “doing it my way.”
Lord, how I dread the upcoming 2016 campaign and all of MoDo’s drivel. Here’s Mr. Kristof:
Welcome visitors to New York City! This has been the best time ever to urinate on a street, sneak onto the subway or run a red light, for the police force has been on a virtual strike.
Police officers may be making a point for contract negotiations. But many also are genuinely frustrated and, along with millions of other Americans, seem sympathetic to an argument that goes like this:
The real threat to young black men isn’t white cops. It’s other black men. Police officers are numerous in black neighborhoods not because they want to hang out there, but because they’re willing to risk their lives to create order on streets where too many residents have kids outside of marriage, or collect government benefits but disdain jobs. Instead of receiving thanks for their efforts, cops have been cursed and attacked. Hate-mongering led by President Obama built a climate of animosity that led to the murder of two of New York’s finest. And where are the street protests denouncing those racist murders? Don’t blue lives count?
Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and de facto spokesman for that viewpoint, put it this way in November when he was asked about Ferguson, Mo., on “Meet the Press”: “I find it very disappointing that you’re not discussing the fact that 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks. We’re talking about the exception here.”
“What about the poor black child that is killed by another black child?” he added. “Why aren’t you protesting that?”
After the assassination of the two New York police officers, Giuliani declared: “We’ve had four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police.”
That view has gained traction, creating an astonishing impasse in America’s largest city. In one week in late December, the number of police citations, summonses and arrests in some categories fell by 90 percent from the same week the previous year.
That’s not “a few bad apples.” That’s the apple basket.
Most of us understand that police officers are often in an impossible position, and we appreciate their courage and good work. When they work.
So let’s examine the narrative that Giuliani and others have spread.
Take the argument that police killings are a red herring because the biggest threat to blacks is other blacks. The latter part is true. Where the perpetrator has been identified, 93 percent of murderers of blacks are also black. Then again, it’s equally true that 84 percent of murderers of whites are fellow whites.
How would we feel if we were told: When Americans are killed by Muslim terrorists, it’s an exception. Get over it.
Some offenses are particularly destructive because they undermine the social system. Terrorism is in that category, and so is police abuse. Unfortunately, there’s evidence that such abuse is too common.
In 2012, an African-American detective in the New York City Police Department, Harold Thomas, hobbled from a nightclub to his car (he had been shot a year earlier by a would-be armed robber). Other police officers didn’t recognize him and, according to Thomas, slammed his head into his vehicle, threw him to the ground and handcuffed him. He is suing the city.
Thomas, who retired last year after 30 years, admires the police force but says the racial bias is ingrained — caused by a small percentage of officers who “make everyone look bad.”
Reuters interviewed 25 African-American male police officers, some retired, in New York City and said all but one reported having been subjected to unwarranted incidents — from stop-and-frisks to being thrown into prison vans. Five said they had had guns pulled on them.
A 2010 New York State task force report on police-on-police shootings identified 14 officers around the country killed by fellow officers over the previous 15 years in mistaken identity shootings. Ten of the 14 were officers of color.
Then there’s a ProPublica investigation that found that young black men are shot dead by police at 21 times the rate of young white men.
It’s true that some on the left who are aghast at racial profiling are sometimes prone to career profiling: We should stereotype neither black youths nor white cops. Some extremist protesters turned to the slogan “arms up, shoot back,” or to chants of “What do we want? Dead cops.” That was inexcusable. But, of course, that’s not remotely what Obama was saying.
PunditFact reviewed all of Obama’s statements and found that he never encouraged hostility toward police; it labeled that Giuliani assertion as “pants on fire.” Good for Obama and other politicians — including Mayor Bill de Blasio — for trying to shine a light on inequality in law enforcement.
“Many of my peers were deeply racist,” Redditt Hudson, a former St. Louis cop, wrote in The Washington Post last month. He described seeing force used unnecessarily, particularly against blacks, such as the time a boy who couldn’t walk was punched, handcuffed and dragged by his ankles from his home to a car.
Hudson said that the fundamental need is an end to impunity.
“Cops aren’t held accountable for their actions, and they know it,” he wrote. “These officers violate rights with impunity. They know there’s a different criminal justice system for civilians and police. Even when officers get caught, they know they’ll be investigated by their friends, and put on paid leave.”
Race is a nettlesome issue, and I recognize that I’m calling for more diversity and accountability in police forces even as my own institution — the press — doesn’t look like America either.
We can all do better. Put yourselves in the shoes of the family of Tamir Rice, the black 12-year-old boy shot dead in November in Cleveland. A 911 call had reported someone carrying a “probably fake” gun, and Tamir was carrying a pellet pistol.
A white police officer, who had previously been judged unprepared for the stresses of the job, shot Tamir. A video released a few days ago shows the boy’s 14-year-old sister rushing to her fallen brother — and then tackled by police, handcuffed, and placed in a police car a few feet from her dying brother. The officers stood around and gave him no medical aid.
To those who see no problem in policing, just one question: What if that were your son or daughter?
And now here’s Mr. Bruni:
I’ve been called many unpleasant things in my life, and I’ve deserved no small number of them. But I chafe at this latest label:
A threat to your religious liberty.
I don’t mean me alone. I mean me and my evidently menacing kind: men who have romantic relationships with other men and maybe want to marry them, and women in analogous situations. According to many of the Americans who still cast judgment on us, our “I do” somehow tramples you, not merely running counter to your creed but running roughshod over it.
That’s absurd. And the deference that many politicians show to such thinking is an example not of religion getting the protection it must but of religious people getting a pass that isn’t warranted. It’s an illustration of religion’s favored status in a country that’s still working out this separation-of-church-and-state business and hasn’t yet gotten it quite right.
We’re at an interesting crossroads, brought about by the rapid advance of same-sex marriage. It’s now legal in 36 states, including, as of last week, Florida. Equality is increasingly being enshrined into law, and one response from those opposed to it is that the law shouldn’t apply to them.
Why? Because it contradicts their religious beliefs, which they use as a fig leaf for intolerance.
“This is the new wave, the new frame,” James Esseks, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U., told me. He said that last year, more than 10 states considered legislation that, to varying degree, blessed discrimination based on sexual orientation by people claiming that it was a right, a matter of religious liberty. Only one of those states, Mississippi, passed such a law, but efforts elsewhere persist. A Virginia lawmaker introduced this sort of legislation just a few weeks ago.
The issue is also playing out in courts. As Michael Paulson noted in a recent story in The Times, judges have been hearing complaints about a florist or baker or photographer refusing to serve customers having same-sex weddings. They’ve been siding so far with the gay couples.
But this is only the beginning, especially with the contest for the Republican presidential nomination gathering steam.
Several likely candidates — Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee — get a special gleam in their eyes when they’re denigrating gays, and Huckabee has perfected a stew of homophobia and puerility, on display in a new book of his that sounds like a collection of recipes by Paula Deen expressly for the N.R.A.: “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy.” With three copies you get a free sandwich combo at Chick-fil-A.
In “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy” (it bears repeating), he bemoans the acquiescence of air travelers to invasive screenings with this dignified locution: “Bend over and take it like a prisoner.” In fact that’s the title of a whole chapter, with an exclamation point added. This, mind you, is from someone who once governed a state (Arkansas) and won the 2008 Republican caucus in Iowa.
Another probable contender, Jeb Bush, weighed in anew on same-sex marriage last week, and some of his words — that laws must be honored and same-sex couples respected — were encouraging. But he also said that America needed to take care to “safeguard religious liberty,” and there are several problems with that formulation.
For starters, it perpetuates confusion, some of which is cynically engineered, about the consequences of marriage-equality laws. They do not pertain to religious services or what happens in a church, temple or mosque; no clergy member will be compelled to preside over gay nuptials. Civil weddings are covered. That’s it.
But also, “religious liberty” sounds disturbingly like a dog whistle to the crowd that wants specified, codified exemption from anti-discrimination laws; it’s one of the phrases they lean on. If Bush didn’t know that, he should have. If he did, he just sided, for the moment, with religious extremists.
As these lamentations about religious liberty get tossed around, it’s worth remembering that racists have used the same argument to try to perpetuate segregation. Esseks noted that even after the Civil Rights Act, the owner of the Piggie Park restaurant chain in South Carolina maintained that he could refuse to serve black people because his religion forbade the mixing of races. The courts were unimpressed.
Christian fundamentalists in this country are practiced at claiming marginalization and oppression. “They’re always saying they’re kept out of the public square, and that’s baloney,” said Marci Hamilton, a constitutional law expert and the author of “God vs. the Gavel.” “They’re all over the public square.”
They and their churches inject themselves into political debates while enjoying tax-exempt status. They get public support in questionable circumstances. After a student Christian magazine insisted on its right to funds from the University of Virginia, the Supreme Court decided in 1995 that if a nonreligious publication got financial help from a public school, so must a religious publication, even if it’s proselytizing.
And churches have been allowed to adopt broad, questionable interpretations of a “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws that allow them to hire and fire clergy as they wish.
What’s more, in a country that’s not supposed to promote any one religion over others, we do precisely that.
Would we be content to let a Muslim store owner who believes that a woman should always cover her hair refuse service to women who do not? Or a Mormon hairdresser who spurns coffee to turn away clients who saunter in with frappuccinos?
I doubt it. So why should a merchant whose version of Christianity condemns homosexuality get to exile gays and lesbians?
Baking a cake, arranging roses, running an inn: These aren’t religious acts, certainly not if the establishments aren’t religious enclaves and are doing business with (and even dependent on) the general public.
Their owners are routinely interacting with customers who behave in ways they deem sinful. They don’t get to single out one group of supposed sinners. If they’re allowed to, who’s to say they’ll stop at that group?
I respect people of faith. I salute the extraordinary works of compassion and social justice that many of them and many of their churches do. I acknowledge that we in the news media, because we tend to emphasize conflict and wrongdoing and hypocrisy, sometimes focus more on the shortcomings of religious institutions than on their positive contributions.
And I support the right of people to believe what they do and say what they wish — in their pews, homes and hearts.
But outside of those places? You must put up with me, just as I put up with you.
And now here’s Mr. Cohen’s extensive piece:
Never before have so many people been on the move. New opportunity, like a bright star, draws immigrants across the world. In every one of the past four generations my family has moved, hopping from Lithuania to what is now South Africa and on to Britain, Israel and the United States. Sometimes they have found success and happiness. But the other side of displacement, its black sun, is loss.
The strain of burying the past, losing one identity and embracing another, can be overwhelming. Home is an indelible place. It is the landscape of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in the psyche and call out across the years. When home is left behind, or shattered, an immense struggle often ensues to fill the void.
I was born in London to South African Jewish parents. We left almost immediately for South Africa, lived there for two years and returned to Britain. Although the word was never uttered, we were immigrants. Our priority was assimilation into Englishness. Pogroms and penury had been left far behind. The past was as silent as a village at the bottom of a dam.
Why then was I tugged to Israel as a college student? Our Jewish identity had been dribbling away ever since my great-grandparents and grandparents left Lithuania for South Africa around the turn of the 20th century. It was a slow process but appeared inexorable.
Having been persecuted as Jews in the Eastern European shtetl, my forebears put their faith in education and science to usher them from backwardness. My father did have a bar mitzvah in Johannesburg in 1934 but hated the experience, seeing it as an exercise in obscurantism and hypocrisy. He reached England in the mid-1950s with no inclination to inflict such instruction on me.
His was the silence, or at least discretion, shared by many Jews — whether Holocaust survivors or not — in the postwar years, especially in Europe. There was after Auschwitz something shameful about survival that no Jew could abjure. Why them and not me? Better, at least in England, to look forward, work hard, say little, and confine protest to shunning German cars.
Tradition and custom and ceremony went missing. No days were different from any other days. We did not have a Christmas tree. Nor did we have anything else. Our deity was academic and professional achievement. My father’s rise as a scientist in his adopted country was meteoric.
Nonetheless in time I wanted what I was not given, a Jewish identity, because that, simply, is what I felt myself to be, a Jew. Being called a “Yid” during my first year in high school stirred within me a lost and then defiant identity. In England, Philip Roth wrote, people’s voices always drop “just a little” when Jews are mentioned — and indeed my mother’s voice used to drop when she said the word in the land of Lewis Namier’s “trembling Israelites.”
Adaptation to England, with its retreat-from-empire gloom, proved too much for my mother, June. Born on Human Street in the small South African mining town of Krugersdorp in 1929, she was bright and full of laughter, with lovely, pale skin and thick, bouncy curls. She was highly strung, with a rapier wit. In 1950, upon graduation from Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, she married Sydney, a young doctor born on Honey Street in the Berea district of the city. A few years later the girl from Human Street and the boy from Honey Street decided to turn their backs on the horrors of apartheid. They emigrated.
June’s first depression occurred soon after. It came on after she was uprooted, bounced back and forth between England and South Africa, set down at last in north London in 1957, pregnant with my younger sister, Jenny. She had a hardworking husband and was obliged to get on with life as best she could as she raised two infants without all the support she had known in South Africa. She placed coins in a meter for hot water. She strained to fit in, to drop South Africa and its tight-knit Jewish community, to belong again. She wanted to help my father, her overriding goal always. Instead, she collapsed.
She was admitted in 1958 to a sanitarium near London. Diagnosed with “post-puerperal depression,” she first underwent electroshock treatment on July 30, 1958, and again on Aug. 1, 1958, the day before my third birthday, as it took me more than a half century to discover. Later she suffered from manic depression and never shook it off. In each generation of my family the condition recurred — a great-uncle in Johannesburg, a cousin who committed suicide in Tel Aviv at age 28. The question is whether my mother’s condition was endogenous, a purely pharmacological issue, or exogenous, a psychological issue tied to our Jewish odyssey of the 20th century and the tremendous pressure of wandering, adapting, pretending, silencing and forgetting.
There can be no absolute answer. The study of epigenetics is a relatively new one that seeks to explore how something in the external environment can, in the words of Rachel Yehuda, an Israeli-born neuroscientist and psychiatrist, “affect the internal environment, and before you know it a gene is functioning in a different way.” Evidence is growing of such trauma-induced changes. Yehuda quoted Ezekiel in a recent interview with Tablet: “The fathers ate sour grapes, and the children’s teeth were set on edge.” My mother was always on edge. After the electroshock treatment she was like a tree hollowed out by lightning. As her life progressed, she craved return to the sun and South Africa.
This was not supposed to happen. As immigrants, our gaze was to be forward-looking. June, despite her suffering, made an immense effort to that end. But the shock of upheaval can prove too much for some people. The project of starting anew collapses; its foundations are too weak.
European societies make fitting in harder than America. The difference between those who came first and those who came last in the United States is negligible beside the intricate matter of British ancestry — not to mention the subtle matter of British anti-Semitism. June had been raised in a cocoon of new South African wealth so enveloping as to eliminate, almost overnight, the Lithuanian past. I was raised an English boy, as if England were my birthright.
A child of repetitive Jewish displacement, I would sit in a Christian epicenter of continuity, Westminster Abbey, every school-day morning. This irony was lost on me. I was unaware that my paternal grandparents and much of my mother’s family came from the shtetls of northern Lithuania; or that my upbringing, while bestowing the gifts of a superb liberal education, had also been devoted to the expunging of this past, as well as to the suppression of the not-unrelated history of my mother’s mental breakdown.
I see my forebears losing touch with one another and fanning out across the world. I see the ebb and flow of their fortunes and the battle for assimilation. Theirs is a constant, almost manic, reinvention — in Johannesburg, in London, in Jerusalem, in Cleveland. Yet all the while they carry within them a bipolar gene that forms an unbroken chain with the past, liable to surface at any moment. They fight for that feeling of belonging that goes with home, the elusive place where, as Robert Frost noted, “when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
My mother’s suicide note to my father of July 25, 1978, was found in the Hampstead house on the hill she loved; the house she had, in a bout of manic activity, agreed to sell the previous March to buy a Georgian terraced jewel on Lord North Street in central London, only to cancel the sale when she plunged back into a depression in June.
She had suffered from a combination of symptoms: weight loss, dizzy spells, hot flashes, as well as alternating hyperactivity and inertia, or manic depression. In early February, a doctor had again suggested electroshock treatment. No! Two decades on from her 1958 confinement, she would not return to that hell. She would not tolerate again the metal plates being strapped to her swabbed temples, enclosing her skull in its high-voltage carapace.
The strain of hiding her condition was enormous. She had to pursue her work as a magistrate and maintain the outward appearance of familial stability. Voiding the real estate deal concluded in manic March filled June with guilt over the time and money wasted. One thing about mania, with its rashness and rages, is that it provides plenty of legitimate reasons for remorse during the ensuing depressive phase.
My father came home from work and found the bedroom doors closed. He thought little of it. June was often in bed. He fixed himself a whiskey, sat down with the papers. It was a mild summer’s evening, sunlight glinting through the trees, clouds of gnats against the fence. June’s cycles were running at three-month intervals. With luck, come September she would be active again. Sydney tossed the papers aside. He tried the bedroom door. It was locked. He raced around to the other door, from the bathroom.
It was locked. He ran outside. The net curtains were drawn. The windows looked sealed. On closer inspection, one was very slightly ajar.
My mother lay sprawled on the bed, a bottle of gin beside her. She had taken large doses of doxepin and Valium, washed down with the gin. Her arms were thrown back behind her head.
Her pupils were scarcely responsive, her breathing shallow. The suicide note written to my father was beside her bed: “You are made to do great things, make immensely useful discoveries to aid all mankind and I’m leaving you to continue unimpeded by my burden. I so much hoped to help you and to help you and to love and adore you …” June survived, just. The emetic effect of the gin probably saved her. She vowed to us all that she would never again “resort to such a drastic step.” But death was always the cajoling voice in her ear.
June tried to kill herself again on June 15, 1982. Again there was a suicide note. Again, she survived, barely. At last cancer took her on Jan. 2, 1999, at age 69.
Mental illness is a charnel house from which nobody escapes unscathed. My parents’ marriage, in its last two decades, was filled with terrible silences and fierce eruptions. After the loss of my mother, I had to find vitality at any price. Every relationship was a mausoleum in the making.
When a parent dies unhappy, there is something unresolved that keeps nagging. It is irrational to want to save my mother from her torment — and now I cannot anyway. Still, because of her, I had to go back. The void, ever renewed, that her absence has left can be explained only by her refusal to stop believing in love, however compromised by frailty her expression of it was. Love and acceptance and stoicism and dignity were, against all odds, her fundamental and enduring lessons. Her spirit, housed too long in that troubled body, had immense strength.
It was my father she had loved most deeply, despite everything. My father, who had begun another relationship to survive, and who had hardened with the demands and the secrecy of that involvement, crumpled with a grief that shocked him after my mother’s death. He wrote to me:
“Your expanding memories of Mom have become infinitely precious and important; I share with you the vision of a light which is the obverse of her tormenting darkness and which in some miraculous way has become completely dominant since her death. I hope and pray that this vision of her will be an enduring source of strength and inspiration to you in all the years ahead, ever cherished and unsullied.
“For myself, I did have a fleeting dream of a few tranquil years carrying me into the sunset. I still hope for that in a mental and bodily sense. But I know that my spirit will not soon be released from those cruel demons that tore so relentlessly at the entwining fabric of love between Mom and me. I did strive within the feeble limits of my human fallibility to preserve and cherish and sustain her. But alas — for Mama ultimately, death was the only angel that could shield her from despair.”
We were too undone to ask for the urn with my mother’s ashes. I do not know where it ended up. The girl from Human Street left no trace of her anguished passage across the earth, from the Southern to the Northern Hemisphere. After her high school records from Barnato Park in Johannesburg, after the bulk of her medical records from the Holloway Sanatorium near London, her very physical remains vanished, too. From an early age, I had grown used to deploying my imagination as a defense. I told many other stories with many foreign datelines before I realized, returning to the place where I began, that the one story I had to tell was hers — and through hers that of a far-flung Jewish family, tied by the pain of forgetting, the strain of assimilation, the curse of mental illness and the ever-renewed consolation of love.