Was It a Story of Love or Exploitation? It Was Both, and More

Photo illustration via The Atlantic

Reality is always ambiguous, and that is something stories do not want to be.

In real life, people are riddled with conflicting motives, emotions, and ideas. We can both love and hate our families with equal intensity. We can make choices not for one reason, but for a multitude of reasons, sometimes in opposition to each other. Our identities are inevitably, and infinitely, hyphenated.

Stories, by their nature, tend to resist ambiguity. A story is a kind of model of the world, a map rather than the terrain, and therefore they tend toward simplification. This is especially true in journalism, which in its most basic form asks “what happened?” with the expectation that there will be a single, knowable answer.

In his final story, the late journalist Alex Tizon tried to tell a story as full of ambiguity as any. “My Family’s Slave” ran on the cover of this month’s issue of The Atlantic and instantly became required reading, igniting a fusillade of discussion across several threads on Twitter. The reactions were all passionate, and the range of that passion was striking.

For some, the Tizon’s account of the life of Eudocia Pulido—the woman who raised him and who was made to work for his family, unpaid—was about love and redemption. Others found it disturbing, even duplicitous. For some it was an iteration of a shameful American narrative trope, that of the benevolent slave owner. Others argued it was a purely Filipino story and should not be judged through the lens of American history.

Take this painful back-and-forth between the writer Mikki Kendall and several Filipino interlocutors. To Kendall, Tizon’s use of the nickname “Lola” to refer to Pulido throughout the story—and, more importantly, the use of that nickname by white commenters—was tantamount to a slave name. “Ms. Pulido had a name and a family and a life that were taken from her. Stop pretending it is okay to keep calling her Lola instead of her name,” Kendall wote.

Filipinos pushed back, noting that “Lola” means “grandmother” in the Philippines—a detail Tizon left out of his story, leaving Western readers to parse “Lola” as a personal name. “We do not pretend because it IS honorific for us Filipinos. It is OUR language. Don’t take that from us with your Western perspective,” one replied. “You cannot equate Lola with Mammy, if that’s what you’re arguing,” another wrote, “especially since the two terms come from different historical contexts.”

Kendall was not the only person to read Tizon’s story in the context of American slave history. “Pls don’t read ‘My Family’s Slave’ without considering its impact in a society deeply invested in benevolent master/happy slave narratives,” Mark Tseng-Potterman wrote.

In the piece, Tizon paints his immigrant family’s enslaved servant as a secret that set them apart from the American life they aspired to. Sarah Jeong saw this as a flaw: “his willingness to entirely attribute Lola’s abuse to another culture: this doesn’t happen in America.”

“We live in a society whose body was built on African-American slavery,” wrote Josh Shahryar. “Slavery isn’t America’s legacy. Slavery is America. We are a nation built on the backs of slaves. And one that whitewashes that constantly.”

That context was absent from Tizon’s story. “Did anyone have him read slave narratives before he wrote this?” asked Jelani Cobb.

Many commenters seemed to share the sense that Tizon’s narrative, though beautifully written, was incomplete. There was no explanation of the Tagalog meaning of the name Lola. No discussion of American slavery, or how that history intersected with the Filipino history of slavery. No discussion, as Jeong pointed out, of “the connection between feminine familial relations, feminized labor, and exploitation.” No discussion of the larger global context of Filipino slave labor. No discussion of Tizon’s previous, less honest attempts to tell this story, including the obituary the Seattle Times published at his suggestion. The author of that obit, Susan Kelleher, subsequently published an apology for allowing Tizon to “[lie] to me, and through me, to our readers, depriving Ms. Pulido of the truth of her life.”

Another omission: Tizon mentions in passing that his mother worked at the Fairview Training Center, an “institution for the developmentally disabled,” where she “tended to underdogs.” But Shahryar pointed out that Fairview was actually notorious for its human rights abuses during the time Tizon’s mother worked there. “What I am surprised about is that the Atlantic actually read this story, cried over it, but refused to dig deeper into Fairview,” he wrote.

Several people wondered what the Atlantic might have done to make the piece deeper. “I’m glad it exists. It’s an important piece. But if I’d been Tizon’s editor, it would never have been published in its current form,” wrote CUNY history professor Angus Johnston. “I’m not sure what it would have looked like. But there are threads I would have pulled, threads that might have unraveled it. He was very careful to contain his own complicity in the piece—to fence in his guilt. There’s a dishonesty there.”

In the piece, Tizon does examine his guilt in Pulido’s enslavement and asks rhetorically whether he could have done better by her: “I could have turned in my parents, I suppose.” But many others picked up on the conciliatory tone of the article’s final sentence, its kicker: “Everybody started filing into the kitchen, puffy-eyed but suddenly lighter and ready to tell stories. I glanced at the empty tote bag on the bench, and knew it was right to bring Lola back to the place where she’d been born.”

This is the tendency toward simplification, toward resolution, that storytelling often seems to demand. As writers we feel a desire to end on a beat: upbeat or downbeat, a kicker either way. There’s an urge to simplify, to deal in dichotomies: Filipino versus American, devotion versus exploitation. The truth with which Tizon wrestled in this story is much messier. Pulido was his Lola, and she was also an enslaved woman named Eudocia. She was his slave and his parent. He loved her and exploited her. They were Filipino and American, and heir to both difficult heritages of slavery. All these things are true at once, and they cannot be collapsed into a tidy epigram. No amount of beautiful writing can disguise this.

It is very hard to write about these ambiguities as a journalist, and harder still when you’re a memoirist. It may be impossible. We’re not always lighter when we are ready to tell stories.