It’s Not Only Them
Family stories, I discovered, can be a good starting place for a novel, but
amily concerns are mundane. Mine were about social justice issues like how many animals were expropriated, how many hectares shaved off by the Big Shots. But they were mostly about the quotidian stuff. Who was having children, with whom. Who had sausage. How many cords of wood needed to be stacked in the shed before winter. Why wasn’t that stove replaced? Life, but not a story.
Stories grow out of the interface between deprivation, longing, and the pursuit of something that cannot be achieved without a struggle. What did my family struggle against? What did any of those Czech families in those small farm villages struggle against? I had one person sum it up as this gnawing fear of
betrayal. Any neighbor. Any neighbor’s child, indoctrinated in Young Pioneers to believe in the revolution as the one true path to harmony, could finger you. This fear also translated into a fear of sounds in the night. The pit of night is when trouble came. When what they longed for was an ordinary life, they struggled against betrayal. Against fear. Against that blackness, that void that surrounded every day’s labor, every evening’s chores, that showed up in hunched shoulders and pinched expectations.
What really happened? To augment family stories, I did a little research. Included in my reading was a book called “Torture and Democracy” by Darius Rejali. In his book Rejali goes to great lengths to show that the style of mistreatment and torture we have been brainwashed to associate with Soviet oppression was often fine-tuned or even invented right here at home. Below is an excerpt from Better You Go Home that alludes to a landmark 1980’s Chicago case, Wilson vs. Cook County, reported by Rejali.
In 1982, Andrew Wilson, who’d spent much of his adult life in penal institutions, was rounded up during a brief stint of liberty and told to confess to the killing of a police officer. When he refused, under the direct supervision of the commanding office, he was trundled in a sack and beaten severely. When still he wouldn’t confess, the detectives applied alligator clips to his ears and nostrils and shocked him. He screamed from the pain. He fainted and had to be revived. The shocks were repeated until he said what they wanted him to say. If they said he killed the officer, he killed the officer.
What was he thinking when his nerves were being stimulated and his neurons and skin were frying? At what point did he curl up and say enough?
They hadn’t counted on him squealing about his treatment and suing everyone. Plenty of witnesses corroborated Wilson’s testimony and the allegations were proved to the satisfaction of the civil court. Still, all that ever came of it was the dismissal, more than ten years later, of the commanding officer involved. No criminal charges ensued. Why? More than a third of the judges in Cook County were assistant district attorneys at the time when torture was used routinely. They got their confessions. They looked the other way. Now these same people were the judges hearing human rights cases.
Why have my protagonist bring up this seemingly tangential Chicago case? I’m not sure I succeeded with this, but I wanted to build a bridge across the Atlantic. From that time to this. From that place to here. Not to say that torture is torture and torture can happen anywhere, but to try and understand the difference, in human terms.
How is suffering in a society that has a constitution that grants rights and protections to individuals and upholds a belief in the rule of law different than suffering in a society in which your personal liberty can be revoked at any time, in which you can disappear merely for the pointing of a finger?
I wrote a novel in part to understand my family, but also in part to give this question its due.