The Whistleblower in the Family

After her father was arrested for fraud, Pearl Abraham began the the slow, painful process of unraveling her Hasidic family ties.

Pearl Abraham | Michigan Quarterly Review | September 2017 | 18 minutes (5,007 words)

“The power of narrative stems from the narrator’s ability to be there and then, as well as here and now.”

— C. Fred Alford, Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power

1

In 1974, the year Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment, my father, a man with rabbinic aspirations, was deep in his own pickle, indicted for conspiracy and fraud in the federal summer school lunch program.

Nixon was brought down by Deep Throat, the pseudonym given the informant who passed information to Washington Post journalists about his administration’s involvement in what came to be known as the Watergate Scandal. My father got off somehow.

With him in court for one of his hearings, I suffered his ashen face, then his palpable relief when the case was deferred or dismissed, I’m not now sure which. I also don’t know whether his case made headlines the way rabbinic and priestly scandals do these days, “Five NJ Rabbis Arrested for Fraud and Conspiracy” a recent one.

2

The Washington Post‘s Deep Throat was nick named for an American pornographic film released in 1972, starring Linda Lovelace. A triple-x rated film, it earned mainstream attention and gave rise to a trend the New York Times critic Richard Blumenthal named “porno chic.” New Yorker editors were said to have slipped out for long lunches to see it.

3

Released, my father was buoyant, his long stride stretched longer down court corridors, and I had to skip to keep up. He was lighthearted, he was free; his face, seriously Semitic, meaning not exactly designed for lightness, lit up, and it was this that convinced me of his innocence, though I knew that there was no school, only the pretense of one, that even in our Hasidic neighborhood of jumbo-sized families, the lunches delivered were way more than the neighborhood kids available to eat them, that stacks of these sandwiches filled every refrigerator in every household on our block, and still another delivery was scheduled to arrive the next day, offering more of the same, a dollop of egg or tuna salad between two slices of dry white bread.

I was paid $2 an hour to gather the neighborhood children just before noon, sing some songs with them, then distribute the lunches. When federal inspectors were scheduled to arrive, I had to work harder: Get the children into the dank synagogue basement earlier, and keep them there longer, entertain with song and story until the inspectors left. The kids largely cooperated, falling for some form of the us and them mentality of close-knit communities, but there was at least one parent who was onto the scam, who stopped by to retrieve her child while the inspectors watched and made notes on their clipboards.

4

Bob Woodward, the Washington Post journalist, referred to his source as MF. In meetings, Woodward called him My Friend. Thirty years after the 1972 investigation, Mark Felt, a former Associate Director at the FBI came out as Deep Throat. This was in 2005; he was in his 90s.

5

In our neighborhood of home-cooking and baking, in a community accustomed to weekly deliveries of old-fashioned two-pound loaves of rye fresh from Mrs. Frank’s on Main, the white bread was a wonder at first, then a stale bore. We soon learned to eat the quarter-sized soggy middle of every sandwich, chuck the rest, thus making our way through more sandwiches. In other words, I must have known my father was guilty as charged, and yet, some ancient sense of injury, some knowledge of Jewish persecution, of the long history of such persecutions, filled me and I was persuaded of his innocence — he must not have known the rules, must have been conned by his cohorts, the people who were making these federally-funded lunches, delivering more sandwiches than there were children to eat them, inflating numbers so as to increase reimbursements. I convinced myself of my father’s righteousness — he was a good man, a gentle man, a man who didn’t lie, a scholar who adhered to laws way more complex than this most basic of the ten commandments, thou shalt not steal, the initials engraved on every human palm, his, mine, the lamed and the taf.

And yet. I also knew that when I was ten my father found a way to tie into abandoned telephone lines and make long distance calls free of charge. I knew this because the spliced wires supplied me with the colorful strands used to make the popular jewelry of the time. I braided necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Shorter strands became rings with loud colorful baubles. One way or another these “freebies” felt justified. Or were rationalized as the telephone company’s own fault, negligent as it was in its housekeeping, leaving dangerously live wires everywhere. O & R did finally get around to cleaning up after itself, sending someone to cut and tie up unused lines, and then free calling was no longer available to us. We never got in trouble, never paid an extra bill, not even for the weekly overseas calls my father had placed.

7

In significant ways, petty white collar crime can be understood as partaking of the American dream, of the ethics of capitalism, even of the antinomian-style rugged individualism that is at this country’s core. Though my father would take nothing from an individual, from an institution, the government say, the taking qualifies somehow as working the system, as we all learn to do, one way or another, in this corporate nation.

I indict myself here: When in 1989, Time Warner Cable acquired control of cable TV and suddenly even regular networks became less visible without the company’s antennae, a friend and I put on Avenger-style black leggings and black tee-shirts — NYC rooftops are covered in black soot — and armed with a bag of tricks purchased at Radio Shack, found a way to plug ourselves into the system free of charge. Every time someone moved into the building and ordered cable, we were cut off. After a day’s wait, we would outfit ourselves again and re-enact the scene.

A lot of us, it turns out, plugged in for free. For a whole complex of reasons, or unreason, this grift evoked no guilt. Though we didn’t exactly follow the legal arguments, the lawsuits surrounding this merger allowed us an easy out: the corporation was over reaching, was getting away with dominating the airwaves, undemocratically, criminally. There is a foundational argument somewhere in all this: What’s good for the corporation, the white house, the president even, should be, though usually is not, available to the individual. And we were young — the usual excuse — just out of college, paying off student loans, paying NYC rents that depleted our meager first salaries.

8

In All the President’s Men, the nonfiction book that details the Watergate break-in, the authors consider motivation. They describe Deep Throat as passionate, contradictory and gossipy, and gossipy, a “Washington creature worn out by years of bureaucratic battles…disenchanted with the switchblade mentality of the Nixon White House…its politicizing governmental agencies.”

9

Lamed. Taf. For Lo Tignov. Thou shalt not steal. I mastered the Hebrew alphabet and vowels in my father’s lap, as each of us did, at age three. Candy falling from heaven for every correct attempt induced my brain to forge fresh neuronal paths fast and I spent first grade, while my classmates were just learning alphabetic sounds, alternating between boredom and showing off my reading skills, including all the exceptions to the rules. Afternoons, when Miss Aprile arrived to teach us the English alphabet, which was new to me, I perked up. Her long shiny hair came down to the hem of her colorful minis. And she taught through song. She was the first English teacher I fell in love with.

I am a little teapot short and stout,
here is my handle and here is my spout,
When I get all steamed up,
And you hear me shout,
“Just tip me over and pour me out.”

First graders from an immigrant culture that ate too much starch, we were all short and stout.  Standing beside our desks, left arms forming handles, right hands the spouts, we didn’t have to tip far to pour out.

10

When I was still living at home but earning enough to pay for some things, I got myself a private telephone line so I could talk to friends without the mortifying interruption of my father’s slow European halloo. The line enabled late night conversations with a boyfriend — call him X, which is what he later became — who was at a college four hours away. But even on my private line, we sometimes heard an odd click; we would pause, wait, hear nothing, and pick up where we’d left off, foolishly unheedful. One day, after a series of intrusions and betrayals, I learned that my line had never been private though I was paying for it out of my first private checking account, with hard-earned money that could have gone toward providing me with a higher quality life via a higher quality car that didn’t break down or refuse to start every time I wanted to go somewhere. On a rare day when the planets and stars aligned and my car did start, I was away long enough for my father to install in my phone a Watergate-worthy bugging device that allowed him to record all my telephone conversations. This was how he knew that I’d scheduled my first ob-gyn appointment. It was 1981. I was 20.

11

The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 covers federal employees who report agency misconduct. However, between 1989 and 2005, the court ruled in defense of whistleblowers in only 3 out of 203 cases. “Much legislation to protect the whistleblower is practically irrelevant,” writes C. Fred Alford in his study on whistleblowers.

12

At the CVS, where I went to fill my prescription for a diaphragm, I felt the threatening presence of a third person, a man who wasn’t but also somehow was my father, a strange kind of hovering menace. I was both aware and uncertain of this shadow, recognized it somehow, the way one does a recurring bad dream. I’d experienced a similar shadowing at the library, felt eyes on my back, but when I turned to look, saw no one. Minutes later, uneasy still, I gathered my papers and books and moved to a private carrel. But I couldn’t relax. I gathered my things again, walked up the stairs, and noted that a short-bearded heavy-set man in darks came up in the elevator after me. He didn’t appear as a Hasid, not quite; he wore what you might call a professionalized version of what a Hasid might wear. It was clear he wasn’t a student or professor, didn’t fit the profile of RCC library staff, didn’t belong here. Having come to this campus from an unlikely place, with an education that didn’t prepare me for higher studies, from a family and culture that turned women my age into wives and mothers, not scholars, I knew all about not belonging and experienced a momentary twinge of compassion for this man in darks who would always be a stranger outside his own community.

And yet, standing at the CVS counter, feeling this dark hovering presence, recalling the library episode, I convinced myself I was hallucinating. I told myself I wasn’t important enough to be followed, that I was developing a neurotic sense of self-importance.

I was imagining it, I told myself, while looking over my shoulder, avoiding late nights at the library and in parking lots. I was writing an Honor’s English paper on the Jamesian heroine on whom nothing is lost, a characteristic I hoped to make my own, while avoiding facts staring me in the face. The fictional evil schemings of Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle were more intriguing and more credible to me than my all too familiar struggle, Isabel’s deep disillusion more tragic than my own.

13

The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012, ordered by Obama, provides additional protections for intelligence agency employees. In July 2014, the US House of Representatives voted to pass a bill that would extend the period allowed for judicial review of whistleblower cases from two to five years. The enhancements and extensions have not however helped whistleblowers. The Supreme Court responded to the bills by  placing limitations on the protections in areas of national defense and government employment. This gives the administration the legal right to go after whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden.

14

X and I made it through our first year, through two long distance semesters, seeing each other only on the weekends he visited. The drive from Eastern Long Island to Rockland County, NY was long and heavily trafficked, three to four hours was a best case scenario. For Sophomore year, I applied to Stony Brook, a school noted for Math and Computer Science, not Literature.

My father wasn’t  the only one who disapproved of this transfer. For different reasons, my journalism professor also advised against the move. She didn’t understand why an innate facility for Literature and Writing should make these subjects less rather than more appealing; you’re an Honor’s English student, you don’t have to prove yourself to anyone other than yourself, she advised.

But I wanted to move away from home, and I wanted, or thought I wanted, to be with X. She recommended Columbia, which I couldn’t afford, or Hunter College, where a year and a half later, I would wind up, after acquiring a minor in computer science from Stony Brook, proving I could, and after the blush of first love had worn off.

15

Return of the Jedi was released the summer I transferred to Stony Brook to be near X, and  we went to see it with friends at the local drive-in theater. They’d grown accustomed to filling me in, providing background, cultural initiation; once in a while I could return the favor. That hand thing Spock does on Star Trek, I informed them, is right out of the synagogue, what priests do when they bless the congregants. Daughter of the priestly tribe of Aharon, I showed off my ability to separate my fingers too. I had not yet seen Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back, only the third movie, but I had information to offer: Jaba is Yiddish for frog; yoda is an old wiseman

There were movies and TV shows I had to see and know, and X was a good guide. He thrived on all-nighters, pausing only for an episode of Mash or Star Trek, or a Chuck Norris movie, or anything with Clint Eastwood or Bruce Lee in it. Some desperate nights he stopped for John Wayne. For Jim Belushi, who was appearing on Saturday Night Live, we had to give up everything: hurry home from dinner, from a party, from whatever else might be going on, to see that week’s episode.

Somehow, though I was no longer living at home, though I was wearing jeans and Frye boots for the first time in my life, playing tennis in shorts, sunning on local beaches in a bikini, my father’s long dark shadow followed me to the farthest end of Eastern Long Island. He purchased a speaker phone contraption and mailed it to me. Then he called. Place the receiver in the cradle, he instructed, and we will have our weekly study session. To supplement all your foreign learning with some Jewish values, he said. He proposed the Tanya as our first book; together we would read Jewish philosophy.

I was reluctant, ambivalent about the whole arrangement. I had enough schoolwork, papers for classes, programming projects to finish, calculus homework, plus music to listen to, TV shows to keep up with, movies to watch. I didn’t welcome his intrusions into my new life, his attempts at continued indoctrination, but I also missed home, missed my siblings, especially the youngest ones, and our Yiddish, my mother tongue.

I participated in the first two of these scheduled Sunday night phone sessions, begged off on the third, cut short the fourth, avoided the fifth one altogether. My father persisted, calling at odd times, trapping me on the phone and refusing to hang up. I realized it was easier not to pick up the phone. Then I convinced myself it was better not to pick up, more respectful, more moral, stronger even. When the ringing started, I gathered my things and left, went for a swim, or a run. I wondered how he knew when I was at home, whether it was just dumb luck — I was a full time student, attending classes daily; I wasn’t at home that much. Outside, I kept my eyes out for a decrepit station wagon and a man in darks. His persistence, the ringing phone, became an irritant, forcing a pause in the middle of whatever I was doing, forcing the difficult decision: to pick up or not to pick up. His persistence finally hardened me: He wanted to interrupt my studies, pull me back into his world of sabbaths and holidays, of marriage and children, of family and more family; I became more determined to stay focused, attend classes, achieve independence. His Nietzschean will to power brought forth mine.

17

Some weeks later, another box arrived. Inside were more of the books my father wanted us to study, along with several long handwritten lessons. I pushed the box under my bed, the first of the many boxes to come, putting in place a scenario that would replay itself for the next twenty years.

18

Somewhere on the road, in the back of a rattling station wagon, is a box of books on its way to me, another box of unwanted books, copies of which already take up valuable space on every bookshelf in my life. The daily and holiday prayerbooks I grew up with and haven’t cracked in more than thirty years. Sets of the five books. Sets of Prophets and Writings. Also a book of Jewish law, the condensed version; also a how to live book, a proscriptive philosophy written by the Tanya more than two centuries ago; and finally the pocket-size book of psalms meant to serve in emergencies, to recite from as needed.

In my crises, lines of Hopkins rather than psalms appear on my lips: Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain. That Hopkins’ lines were inspired by psalms is good enough for me, but I would not attempt to explain this to my father.

Who is this Hopkins, he would ask. A Jew?

19

A year before X, when I was still trying to figure out how to get myself to college, I was in Miami Beach for a week, staying at the Eden Rock as companion to the woman who had employed me as mother’s helper through high school, and whose television sets had provided me with my first glimpses of pop culture: The Avengers, Charlie’s Angels, The Brady Bunch.

The obstacles in my life seemed insurmountable: First, I had to persuade my high school principal to fabricate a GPA record for me since I had graduated from a non-accredited school. I would have to convince her, principal of an all girls high school whose graduates went on to marry and have children within a year or two of graduation, that college was my next best step. She would hesitate, I knew. Ask for time to consider, consult members of the community. They would worry about my father. Of all my graduates, she would say, why you, daughter of a Hasidic rabbi, a man who wants nothing to do with non-Jewish learning. I also had yet to take my SATs. I expected to ace the verbal, but I had not had Trigonometry, which was necessary for the math portion.

20

The Florida vacation was a last minute decision. The woman, call her Mrs. G, wanted to get away from her husband after a particularly violent fight and invited me along as companion. Her three children were farmed out for the week to nearby relatives.

At the hotel, I noted that the only people my age were the help, which was more or less what I was too, hired help. One evening the entertainment offered in the lobby was a screening of a Buddy Holly film, a biopic with bebop music, soft entertainment. Bored, I went to see it, the only member in the audience under 75.

I was 18, felt stuck with waiting for my life to begin, stuck with watching and helping other people live, and I expressed a desire to see a real movie in a real movie theater.

The next day Mrs. G. offered to take me, and the way she offered, her mood or tone of voice, should have alerted me, but this was an opportunity to experience my first movie theater movie, and I did not say no. Besides she was unpredictable, often moody, slamming the phone down on her husband, then calling back to apologize; storming out of the house, and returning, hours later, with twenty bags from Hit or Miss, Marshalls, Filene’s, every discount store in and around the Nanuet Mall. This was before it was known as shopping therapy; we called it spending her husband’s money, a form of revenge. In the basement of her house were unopened shopping bags full of new clothes, and when the laundry didn’t get done, I could always find something new for the girls to wear.

21

At the ticket booth, she named herself my guardian and paid for the tickets.

The theater wasn’t full, it was daytime, early afternoon, and yet, with seats available everywhere, a man chose to sit beside me, a large newspaper over his lap. On the screen, a film was already running, a plot, as far as I could make out, in which nuns kidnapped men off the street, blindfolded them, and had their way with them in the church basement.

The warm up act, my guardian informed me.

I wish l could say that I watched the warm up, the feature, and the man doing strange things under his newspaper with sophisticated detachment, a young observer of human behavior, that I tucked this knowledge and experience away for future use. I wasn’t that girl. Instead I shifted in my seat, tried not looking left, but I was also having difficulty watching the overwhelming screen straight ahead. Fellatio was new to me — I had no idea — and the contents of my stomach threatened to hurl.

On my right, Mrs. G. ignored me, poker faced. The feature had not yet started, and already I could sit no longer. I stood to leave, stumbled over her legs, stumbled up the aisle in the dark, stumbled out into a bright Miami day, and tried breathing. She came after me in a rage. You wanted to see a movie, she said.

22

The following day her husband arrived for a conciliatory weekend — this marriage was a drama of break ups and rapprochement; over the years, this couple divorced and remarried at least three times — and I was put on a plane home. When she returned from vacation, she informed my father that I was rotten to the core, had flirted with every waiter and bellboy. Everyone, including my father, knew this was a stretch. I was not that outgoing, not that socially comfortable. She said nothing about the movie, counting on my reticence to keep her secret safe. Of course she had nothing to worry about, not for a long time anyway. Fred Alford: As long as the victim can’t make sense of the experience, she can’t speak of it, can’t narrate the story.

23

Somewhere on the road is another worn-out box headed toward me, a box with none of the sharp edges and corners that earn boxes their name, traveling in one car or another, one wagon or another, an unwanted gift that is always coming, always therefore in the continuous present.

At some point I stopped unboxing them, knowing in advance what was inside, having known the contents of these books, the prayers, even before I could read. Why keep them at all? With the name of God on almost every page, these books are near impossible to dispose of, according to Jewish law. Each of these books also features a dedication in my father’s handwriting, front page matter with my name on it, which rules out leaving them on the front stoop of a local synagogue the way unwanted babies are left on the doorsteps of churches.

24

It was some years before I fully comprehended that Mrs. G. had taken me to see Deep Throat, of all things.

Why did she do it? Perhaps she simply wanted to see what had by then become a cult classic. Perhaps the New Yorker editors who saw it made it a literary act, rendering it cool.

Her own half-baked explanation on our way back to the hotel, when she expressed her general disgust with me and my nausea, was that she’d intended the porn as a warning, to keep me away from secular life.

If true, I thought, she was merely trying a reverse form of persuasion, different from my father’s, but still coercive.

She went on to divorce her husband one more final time, and some years later met and married another man, settling into quiet middle-aged life, contented life, my mother reported, and we marveled over this woman’s capacity for contentment.

25

At Hunter College, where I finally landed, I re-declared English as my major and started an apprenticeship in the novel. In the long years of long mornings, when I awoke at dawn to write, when what I wrote scared me and I became afraid, I told myself the work will never see the light, never arrive at publication. This helped. I kept going, added pages, deleted pages, started graduate school, and finally turned in a draft of a first novel as my thesis.

When the novel sold, a mentor suggested a pseudonym, and though this was a good idea, I found I wanted my name on the book. When the first copy arrived, I sat holding it in my hands, a book with my name on it. I wished to share my achievement with my parents, send them a signed copy, my gift to them, my work, a book. I also knew the book would bring shame rather than pleasure, heartache instead of joy, and held back.

26

Gift. An item given without expectation of payment, intended to bring pleasure. In practice, gift-giving more often then not sets up a reciprocal back and forth. In practice, a gift requires acknowledgement of receipt, a card, a phone call, a thank you, though gifts often satisfy the giver more than the receiver. In practice.

27

But bad news finds you. Though my parents didn’t read the newspapers, others in the community did. The phone rang late night, my mother answered, and suffered the pain of a member in the community abusing her daughter’s work, calling it scandalous, a betrayal of Hasidism. There was more. When the novel became the most requested book at public libraries in Williamsburg and Borough Park, Der Yid, a Hasidic weekly, published a rabbinic ban against it.

28

Whistleblowers, according to Fred Alford’s study, do not achieve redemption. They are not, in the majority of cases, acknowledged as heroes or truth tellers. Whistle blowing is rather an act of self sacrifice, a suicide mission.

There was a final gift from my father, and it was not another set of unwanted books. I learned about it some weeks after he passed away, suddenly, in December, a week after Hanukah. Though I had not been calling or visiting regularly, I considered surprising him with a visit on one of the eight nights of Hanukah, tried scheduling it, but in the end, I didn’t make it.

When I’d seen him in April, at the bar mitzvah of my nephews, triplets!, he’d given me a check for $500, for all the Hanukahs you missed, he said. I folded it into my place card, and when I got home, tucked it into a drawer. It’s there still, made out to me in flair ink, in my father’s narrow European script.

My youngest sister found this last envelope among his papers. It had my name on it. Inside was a hundred dollar bill. Your Hanukah gelt, Yenty said.

He had given a hundred dollar bill to each of his nine children. The married grandchildren received fifties. The unmarried ones twenties. The great grandchildren, infants mostly, tens. This had become a regular custom in the last years of our mother’s life, and our father had continued what she’d started with some sense of urgency, as if fulfilling her final will and testament, as if in her memory, or for the sake of her soul. He had to be organized about it too, Yenty reported. The bank required preordering these bills. He placed the order: Nine hundreds, fifty-three fifties, twenty twenties, eighteen tens. The bank provided the envelopes too. At home, he took the time to write the names on each one, insert the correct designation. He left the envelope with my name on it in his safe.

30

In 1976, a bicentennial year, the Federal Reserve produced a new two dollar bill, depicting Jefferson on the front and an engraving of Trumball’s Declaration of Independence on the reverse side. There were only nine of us then and we each received one of these freshly minted bills for Hanukah that year. A rare denomination that never came into full use, these bills were collectibles rather than easy spending money, and somewhere, tucked into a side pocket of a long retired long lost wallet, is my unspent $2 bill.

***

This essay first was first published as “Deep Throat” in the Summer 2016 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review. Our thanks to Pearl Abraham and the staff at MQR for allowing us to reprint this essay.