A misfit in Spooner, Wisconsin, with its farms, bars, and strip joints, Debra Monroe left to earn a degree, then another, and another, vaulting into academia but never completely leaving her past behind. Her memoir My Unsentimental Education was published today, and our thanks to the University of Georgia Press for allowing us to reprint the chapter below. Two previous excerpts from the book have been long-listed for The Best American Essays (2011 and 2015), and an early excerpt also appeared on Longreads in 2013.
—I did it. You’re really here. An astronaut. Jesus.
—You probably have a headache. From the chloroform.
—What? Where am I? Where is this place? Who the fuck are you?
—You don’t recognize me?
—What? No. What is this? Read more…
Below is the first chapter from The Magical Stranger, Stephen Rodrick’s memoir about his father, squadron commander and Navy pilot Peter Rodrick. Our thanks to Rodrick for sharing it with the Longreads community.Read more…
When I stepped into the hospital room, Gerhard laughed. He said something. Weird, throaty words came out of his mouth. Then he laughed again. I can’t remember my grandfather ever being so pleased to see me. The doctor told me the stroke had damaged the language centre in Gerhard’s brain. All he could do now was express emotions. The rational side of him was blocked. I reflected that it had been precisely the other way around before.
Gerhard talked away at me. I pretended I understood. Eventually I told him that unfortunately I didn’t understand anything at all. Gerhard nodded sadly. Perhaps he’d hoped I might be able to free him from his speechlessness. Just as I’d sometimes helped him out of his emotional stiffness in the past. With a joke or a cheeky remark that shook his authority. I was the clown of the family, the one nobody suspected of evil intentions. I could overstep the mark with the hero of the family, the man no one else dared to contradict.
A clear spring light shone through the window of the hospital room. Gerhard’s face was slack and empty. We said nothing. I would have liked to have a conversation with him. I mean a real conversation. Usually conversations with Gerhard turned into monologues about his latest successes after ten minutes at the most. He talked about books he happened to be writing, about lectures he’d given, about newspaper articles people had written about him. A few times I tried to learn more about him. More than the stories everybody knew. But he didn’t want to. Perhaps he was scared of getting too close to himself. That he’d got used to being a monument.
It was too late now. This man, for whom language had always been the most important thing, has become speechless. I can’t ask him questions any more. No one can. He’s going to keep his secrets.
Gerhard was a hero even before he entered adulthood. At the age of seventeen he’d fought with the French Resistance, was tortured by the SS and freed by partisans. After the war he came back to Germany as a victor and built up the GDR, that state in which everything was to be better. He became an important journalist, a part of the new power. They needed people like him at the time. People who had done everything right in the war, people you could refer to if you wanted to explain why this anti-fascist state had to exist. They sent him to schools and universities. Again and again he talked about his fight against Hitler, about torture, about victory.
I grew up with those stories. I was proud to belong to this family, to this grandfather. I knew Gerhard had had a pistol at some point, and that he knew how to use explosives. When I visited my grandparents in Friedrichshagen, there was apple cake and fruit salad. Again and again I asked Gerhard to talk about the past. Gerhard talked about frightening Nazis and courageous partisans. Sometimes he jumped up and acted out a play with different parts. When Gerhard played a Nazi, he pulled his face into a grimace and spoke in a deep, gurgling voice. After the performance he would usually give me a bar of Milka chocolate. Even today I think of those monster Nazis every time I eat Milka chocolate.
In the presence of adults, Gerhard wasn’t as funny. He didn’t like anyone in the family to “go around politicking”, as he put it. In fact everybody who didn’t, like Gerhard, believe in the GDR, was politicking around the place in one way or another. The worst was Wolf, my father, who wasn’t even a member of the Party, but had married Gerhard’s favourite daughter Anne, my mother. There were lots of arguments, mostly about things I only really understood later on. About the state, about society, about the cause, whatever it happened to be. Our family was like a miniature GDR. It was here that the struggles took place, the ones that couldn’t be fought out anywhere else. Here ideology collided with life. That struggle raged for whole years. It was the reason my father went around the house shouting, why my mother secretly cried in the kitchen, why Gerhard became a stranger to me.
Gerhard and I sat together for a while on that spring day in that hospital room, which smelt of canteen food and disinfectant. It was slowly getting dark outside. Gerhard had caved in on himself. His body was there, but he seemed to be somewhere else. It may sound strange, but I had the feeling that the GDR only really came to an end at that moment. Eighteen years after the fall of the Wall the stern hero had disappeared. Before me there sat a helpless, lovable man. A grandfather. When I left we hugged, which I don’t think we’d ever done before. I walked down the long hospital corridor and felt at once sad and elated.
* * *
That day I wished for the first time that I could go back to the GDR. To understand what had actually happened there. To my grandfather, to my parents, to me. What had driven us apart? What was so important that it had turned us into strangers, even today?
The GDR has been dead for ages, but it’s still quite alive in my family. Like a ghost that can’t find peace. Eventually, when it was all over, nothing more was said about those old struggles. Perhaps we hoped things would sort themselves out, that the new age would heal the old wounds.
But it wouldn’t leave me be. I went to archives, I rummaged in cupboards and boxes, I found old photographs and letters, a long forgotten diary, secret files. I asked my family questions, one after the other, for days, weeks. I asked questions that I’d normally never have dared go near. I was allowed to do that, because I was a genealogist now. And all of a sudden our little GDR was there again, as if it had been waiting to emerge again, to show off from every angle, correct a few things and perhaps lose some of the rage and grief that were still there.
On that journey into the past I became reacquainted with Gerhard, Anne and Wolf. And I discovered Werner, my other grandfather, whom I’d barely known until then. I think something was set in motion after that day with Gerhard in the hospital. A speechless man made us speak.
I’m the bourgeois in our family. That’s chiefly because my parents were never bourgeois. When I was ten, my father walked round with his hair alternately dyed green or blue, and a leather jacket he’d painted himself. He barked when he saw little children or beautiful women in the street. My mother liked to wear a Soviet pilot’s cap and a coat that my father had sprayed with black ink. They both always looked as if they’d just stepped off the stage of some theatre or other, and were only paying a brief visit to real life. My mates thought my parents were great, and thought I was a lucky person. But I thought they were embarrassing, and just wished that one day they could be as normal as all the other parents I knew. Ideally like Sven’s parents. Sven was my best friend. His father was bald with a little pot belly, Sven was allowed to call him Papa and wash the car with him at the weekend. My father wasn’t called Papa, he was called Wolf. I was to call my mother Anne, even though her name was really Annette. Our car, a grey Trabant, was washed only rarely, because Wolf thought there was no point washing a grey car. And he’d painted black and yellow circles on the wings so that you could see us coming from a long way off. Some people thought the car belonged to a blind person.
Sven’s parents had a colour television, a three-piece suite and cupboards along the wall. In our house there were only bookshelves and a seating area that Wolf had cobbled together from some pieces of baroque bedroom furniture. It was quite hard on the bottom, because Wolf said you didn’t need to be comfortable if you had something to say. Once I drew a plan of our flat the way I’d have liked to have it. A flat with a three-piece suite, a colour television and cupboards along the wall. Wolf laughed at me when he saw it, because the policeman’s family that had lived there before had furnished it exactly as it was on my plan. He told me it was stupid and sometimes even dangerous always to do what everybody did, because it meant that you yourself didn’t have to live at all. I don’t know if I understood what he meant at the time.
At any rate, from the beginning I had no other choice but to become a sensible, orderly person. At the age of fourteen I ironed my shirts, at seventeen I wore a jacket and tried to speak proper German. It was the only way I had of rebelling against my parents. It’s their fault that I became a good, well-dressed revolutionary. At twenty-four I got my first job, at twenty-eight I was married, at thirty the first child came along. At thirty-two a flat of my own. I’m a man who had to grow up early.
When I stand on my balcony and bend over the railing, I can see the shop where I was born. The shop is only two houses away, on the right down on the corner. You might say that I haven’t moved much in my life. Thirty yards in thirty-eight years. I have no memory of the shop, we moved away when I was a year old. Wolf says they often put me in the street in my pram because the air in the shop was so damp. The shop was Wolf ’s first flat of his own. 26 Lippehner Strasse, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. His studio was in the front, towards the courtyard at the back there was a dark connecting room and a little kitchen. The winter of 1969, when Wolf and Anne met, must have been quite a hard one. The snow was three feet high in the street, and the tooth mug was full of ice in the morning. The first time Anne came to visit, Wolf had heated the stove in the bedroom and put a coffee bean on the bedcovers, like in a hotel. Because the rest of the flat was cold, they ended up in bed pretty quickly. Two months later Anne was pregnant. She always says I was an accident. And the way she says it, it sounds more like Chernobyl than a happy chance. Maybe they wanted a bit more time on their own, just the two of them.
Today there’s an engineering office in the shop. Whenever I walk past, a grey-haired man is sitting motionlessly at his desk. You can just see his head and his feet, because the big shop window has a broad strip of frosted glass in the middle. Sometimes I think the man is a dummy. An engineer who stops at the waist. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never dared to ask if I could take a look at the shop.
The house next door used to be a butcher’s shop. The butcher lady used to slip my father packets of bacon pieces, because she knew he didn’t have money for things like that. An aristocratic lawyer from southern Germany who bought the house a few years ago sometimes plays saxophone in the empty room, still tiled as it was in the old days.
Diagonally opposite was a soap shop whose lady manager recorded exactly which women went in and out of Wolf ’s house and sometimes confronted him about it. Today it’s a design office, run by an American with an asymmetrical fringe, who listens to nothing but opera.
In the photographs that Wolf took of the street in those days, you see grey, broken walls and kerbstones with no parked cars. Wolf ’s scooter stands outside the shop. Everything looks empty, forlorn. Today the street is a dream in pastel colours. Gold leaf gleams from stucco facades, and it’s hard to find a parking space. The people who live in the flats are couples in their late thirties who feel more as if they’re in their late twenties. They are men with expensive sunglasses and women who wear tracksuit jackets with short skirts. They push buggies with sports tyres, buy their meat at the organic butcher’s and emanate that feeling of complete effortlessness that always implies a lot of effort. I live here, and to be quite honest I fit in pretty well.
That’s what Wolf thinks too. He sometimes laughs at me for needing so many things to be happy. Because I’m one of the others now. The Westerners. He can’t believe what’s happened to his son and his street. I wonder about that too. I don’t know how it happened, how the Easterner in me disappeared. How I became a Westerner. It must have been a creeping process, like with one of those highly infectious tropical diseases that spread undetected in your body for years, and eventually take control. The new age has changed my street, and me too. I didn’t need to move, the West came to me. It conquered me in my own home, in my familiar surroundings. It made it easy for me to start a new life. I have a wife from France and two children who don’t even know that there was ever a Wall in Berlin. I have a well-paid job on a newspaper, and my chief concern at the moment is whether we should have floorboards or a stone floor in our kitchen. I don’t need to take a position on anything, I don’t need to be committed, I don’t need a point of view. Politics can be a topic of conversation if you can’t think of anything else. Society isn’t the main subject of my life, I am. My happiness, my job, my projects, my dreams.
That sounds so normal, and perhaps it is. Nonetheless, I sometimes have a bad conscience and feel like a turncoat. Like someone who’s betrayed his past. As if I were still a bit guilty for my first life, as if it were forbidden to leave the things from those days alone. Now, that life in the GDR strikes me as strange and unreal. It’s as if I’m reporting from a distant time that has hardly anything to do with me. I feel like one of those old men who sit in a pink television studio telling Guido Knopp about the siege of Stalingrad. I’ve become an eyewitness, a man who experienced something a long time ago. Like my grandfather, like all the others who were someone else in their youth.
But in fact the East isn’t far away at all. It clings to me, it goes with me everywhere. It’s like a big family that you can’t shake off, that people are always asking you about, that’s forever calling you up. Even in my little family, the East is always there. I sense him when I visit Wolf, who’s now living a few streets away, in an attic that was once his studio. He moved there after he split up with Anne five years ago, when bourgeois coupledom became too constricting for him. Apart from his study area there’s a bed, a circular dining table, two chairs, a home-made shower and a toilet separated off by a curtain. Wolf says it’s enough for him. He’s opposed to all that luxury, consumerism, dependence on money and status. He wants to live modestly and be free, as he had been right at the start in his little shop. Anything else would actually have been difficult, because he didn’t earn that much money after the Wall came down, and only gets 600 euros’ pension a month. Financially speaking, he says, things in the GDR were much more straightforward than now because things like the flat and food were almost free, and only luxuries really cost any money. Again and again we urged him to prepare for his old age. But Wolf refused to worry about the future. “I hope I’ll be dead by the time I’m sixty, I don’t want to rot away in some old people’s home,” he said. Now he’s sixty-six and fit as a fiddle.
I don’t find it easy to be with Wolf in his attic, so I usually invite him to ours. Compared to his poverty, our affluence looks completely ridiculous. I have this constant nagging feeling that I should be justifying myself. I probably find it harder than he does, because Wolf is really content with very little. He has quite a young girlfriend now, and all the time in the world. He says he hasn’t felt so great in ages.
Wolf had lots of time in the GDR as well, or at least that’s how it always seemed to me. He made good money, and was able to work just for a few months a year. The rest of the time he made art. And took holidays. We had a little house with a big garden in Basdorf, in the north of Berlin. We spent our two-month summer holidays there, and usually our one-month winter holidays as well. My little brother Moritz, Wolf and Anne and me. We went on cycling, canoeing and skiing trips. Today the whole of my childhood seems like an endless holiday. Wolf was good at football, climbing trees, building huts and high-diving. So I wanted to be a bit like him. As free and strong as that.
Anne’s a lot calmer and more sensible than Wolf. She doesn’t take herself so seriously, either, probably a good start if you want to live with a man who thinks he’s the centre of the world. When I think back to my childhood, I see a woman in front of me, sitting in the corner with a book and a glass of tea, emanating such deep calm and contentment that you’d have to feel pretty important to risk dragging her from her absorption. Anne says she didn’t really know what to do with me at first. She was twenty-two when I was born, and in the photographs from those days she looks like a fragile princess who shouldn’t be exposed to too much reality. There’s a photograph of her holding me in her arms. Her pretty, pale face is turned slightly away from me, and her dark eyes gaze longingly into the distance. It was only when I started to read that she really started getting interested in me. I got the books that she’d been keen on when she was a child, and she was delighted if I was as keen on reading them as she had been.
When she first gets to know Wolf, Anne’s impressed by his rough, rebellious manner. He’s so entirely different from the men she’s met before. He’s cheeky, he’s an artist, he breaks the rules that she always respects. And he’s a handsome man with merry eyes and a goatee that gives him a slightly raffish appearance. The first time they go out together, they walk through the snowy park that starts at the end of my street. The paths are slippery, and Anne is wearing the wrong shoes, as always. Wolf takes her by the hand and leads her through the park, and somehow she knows she’s found a protector. Someone who won’t let go of her again.
They talk about politics, about the country they live in. Wolf tells her how terrible he finds this GDR, how uncomfortable he feels, how much he hates having these old men speaking on his behalf. Anne says she’s in the Party. Then Wolf stops, lets go of her hand and falls silent. “Everything couldn’t have been right all at once,” he said later. It’s the start of a long love and a long argument. With my parents, the two things always went together.
Anne talks about her father Gerhard, the Communist who fought the Nazis in France. She paints the picture of a tender hero who loves his Party and his daughter. Wolf talks about his father Werner, the little Nazi who became a little Stalinist. A man he doesn’t know much about, a man he fell out with. Wolf says he wished he could find a new father back then. He likes the tender hero Anne tells him about.
Before Wolf is invited to Anne’s parents for the first time, they ask Anne if the new boyfriend is in the Party as well. When Anne says he isn’t, her father’s face darkens, and her mother advises her not to take it too seriously each time she falls in love. Wolf says today that it was all quite clear already, before he even saw her parents. Anne says that’s overstating the case.
At any rate she’s got a birthday, and there’s a dinner at her parents’ place in Friedrichshagen. Anne barely slept the night before, because she’d been summoned for a Socialist auxiliary unit on the railway, along with some other students. A set of frozen points had to be cleared of snow. But in fact all they did was stand around, because there weren’t enough shovels. Anne thinks it’s stupid that she has to join units like that as a student. Gerhard is annoyed. He says: “If there’s a problem in Socialism, everyone has to help.” His voice is unusually harsh. Anne doesn’t understand why he reacts like that. They defend themselves, one word generates another. Wolf looks on in silence and wonders whether this is really the man Anne has said so many good things about. Eventually Gerhard says, looking at Anne, “When it comes to the crunch, you’re on the other side of the barricade.”
I heard that sentence often later on, mostly from Wolf, who quoted it time and again as proof that it was Gerhard’s fault if the family never really came together. When we were doing the French Revolution in school, my history book had a picture of a barricade in the streets of Paris. I imagined my parents on one side and my grandparents on the other. I didn’t know which side I was supposed to be on. I just wanted everyone to make sure we were a real family. Without a barricade.
Anne grabs her clothes, takes a fat blanket and moves into Wolf ’s shop-apartment. For a while her mother tries to talk her out of her new love. She says Wolf is a wayward artist, not someone you can depend on. And he isn’t intelligent enough for her, either. It’s only when her parents discover that Anne’s pregnant that they give up the fight. The marriage takes place at Prenzlauer Berg register office. In the wedding photograph Anne wears a short floral dress, her belly swelling slightly beneath it. She has her hair up and looks like a girl. Wolf wears a dark suit and grins into the camera. Gerhard stands beside him wearing a serious expression.
The wedding is celebrated at Anne’s parents’ summer house. A French friend of the family grills marinated meat, there are roasted snails, baguettes, olives and claret. The guests speak French and English, they wear expensive suits and make jokes about the GDR. Wolf is impressed by the party. He’s never been to a barbecue before. He doesn’t know you can eat snails. He sees his first pepper mill, takes out the peppercorns and then doesn’t know what to do with them. The others laugh, he blushes. Anne introduces him to her parents’ friends, writers or journalists who lived in exile in France, America, Mexico or Shanghai during the Nazi era. Wolf listens to their stories about fighting, fleeing and suffering. They are people unlike any he’s ever met before. Heroes, survivors from the big wide world who have found their new home in the little GDR. Because they aren’t persecuted here, because they are safe here. Their stories are so different from those of his family. It’s all so strange. Wolf wonders if he can ever belong among these people, this family, this woman he’s just married. Gerhard raises a glass to him without looking at him. They drink to a happy marriage and a long life.
Long before the “Wolf of Wall Street” Jordan Belfort made his first million or snorted his first line of cocaine, turn-of-the-century trader Jesse Livermore, the “Great Bear of Wall Street,” accumulated over $100 million short-selling stocks before the crash of 1929. His life and times were immortalized in 1923 by author Edwin Lefèvre in Reminiscences of a Stock Operator. The novel became a bible for those looking to get rich quick (though rarely succeeding), and Livermore’s advice became legendary. “There is nothing new in Wall Street. There can’t be because speculation is as old as the hills. Whatever happens in the stock market today has happened before and will happen again.”
I went to work when I was just out of grammar school. I got a job as quotation-board boy in a stockbrokerage office. I was quick at figures. At school I did three years of arithmetic in one. I was particularly good at mental arithmetic. As quotation-board boy I posted the numbers on the big board in the customers’ room. One of the customers usually sat by the ticker and called out the prices. They couldn’t come too fast for me. I have always remembered figures. No trouble at all. Read more…
Almost everyone who hears the shocking story of the Dozier School for Boys, one of the country’s oldest and largest reform schools, and a model for the nation, asks the same question: how could this happen? How could the Florida government allow generations of young wards to be whipped, shackled, forced into hard labor, and possibly worse for over 100 years? Allegations of abuse dogged the school through its closing two years ago, and continue today, with troubling questions and answers still remaining.
In The Bones of Marianna, which I spent the past year reporting, I tell the story of two determined crusaders who pushed this dark past into light. Jerry Cooper, a star of Dozier’s football team, haunted by the memory of a teammate he accused the school of killing, spends years quarterbacking the fight to expose the truth, while a leading forensic anthropologist, Dr. Erin Kimmerle, digs up grim secrets in the school’s unmarked graveyard. The Prologue, excerpted here in Longreads, draws from Cooper’s recollection of a little white building that he, and hundreds of boys who passed through Dozier, will never forget.
It didn’t take much to get sent to the White House. Smoking. Cussing. Taking an extra pat of butter at lunch. Or, as Jerry Cooper learned late one spring night in 1961, refusing to play football.
The White House was a small building near the cafeteria at the Florida School for Boys, where 15-year-old Cooper had arrived earlier that year. The school was the oldest reformatory in Florida, spread across 1,400 acres of rolling farmland in Marianna, a town of 7,150, an hour from the state capital in Tallahassee. Like most schools in the South, it treated football like religion. But the reform school’s Yellow Jackets had languished of late, and acting superintendent David Walters—who took such pride in the team that he kept its few trophies in his office—wanted Cooper to lead them to victory again.
Cooper was tall, lean, and amiable, the star quarterback at his high school in suburban Orlando before his life veered off course. When Walters, a stocky, crew-cut middle-aged man, summoned Cooper to his office a few months after his arrival, he didn’t ask if he’d play quarterback for the Yellow Jackets. He told him to.
But Cooper didn’t want to suit up. With his good behavior and dutiful work as a teacher’s aide, he had earned an early release from the school and would be going home in a few months. He didn’t want a commitment to the football team to keep him around through the fall. He obligingly attended practices with the other boys, struggling through the Florida heat in thick, ratty pads every afternoon, but he refused to sign up for the coming season.
Then, one night, he was awakened by a hand gripping his neck. Two guards—one larger than him, one smaller—dragged him barefoot from his cottage. They wouldn’t say where they were taking him as they threw him into the back of an old blue Ford. They drove along the rocky dirt roads across campus until they reached a little white building. Cooper had never been sent to the White House before, but he had heard the stories of kids being taken there to be whipped—or worse.
As the guards shoved Cooper through the door, the stench of bodily fluids overwhelmed him. A lightbulb hung from the ceiling of the bare concrete room, illuminating three husky men: Walters, school disciplinarian R. W. Hatton, and a supervisor, Troy Tidwell, whom the boys nicknamed the One-Armed Bandit. As a child, Tidwell had leaned on the muzzle of a shotgun and blown off his left arm. His remaining arm possessed a fearsome strength, and he was known to the boys as the strongest whipmaster of the White House.
“What do you know about a runner?” Walters asked Cooper, referring to a boy who had run away from the school earlier that night.
“I don’t have a fucking clue,” Cooper replied.
Walters lunged for him, and Cooper’s football instincts took over. The boy jammed his shoulder into the superintendent, taking Tidwell down with him. But the men recovered, and Tidwell’s hand closed around Cooper’s neck, hurling him against the wall. Tidwell smashed his heel down on Cooper, shattering the ball of his foot. When Cooper grabbed his foot in agony, he caught a fist to the mouth, which knocked loose his front teeth.
The men threw Cooper facedown on an army cot and tied his legs down. Cooper heard Tidwell’s whip snap against the ceiling and an instant later felt it sear his skin. One burning lash followed another, and Cooper, who never considered himself a coward, begged for mercy. “Jesus, God help me!” he cried. “Mother!” Then he passed out from the pain.
That night in his cottage, Cooper nursed his broken foot. The wounds from the whip were still so raw that the blood soaked through the back of his nightshirt. A boy who had been waiting his turn in the White House during Cooper’s beating later told him he had counted 135 licks in all. The supervisors had told Cooper he was being punished for not helping them find the runaway, but Cooper surmised the real reason for the whipping: They wanted him on the football team, even if they had to beat him into compliance (though they probably hadn’t planned on breaking his foot). Now, on account of his alleged insubordination, he wouldn’t be released from the school anytime soon—certainly not before the end of the football season.
Lying on his bed, Cooper wondered how he would survive the months that stretched before him. The White House had changed him. He vowed to bring the men who had broken him to justice, no matter how long it took.
But first he had to play ball.
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Our latest First Chapter is from Elliott Holt’s novel, You Are One of Them. Thanks to Holt and The Penguin Press for sharing it with the Longreads community.
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In Moscow I was always cold. I suppose that’s what Russia is known for. Winter. But it is winter to a degree I could not have imagined before I moved there. Winter not of the pristine, romantic Doctor Zhivago variety but a season so insistent and hateful that all hope freezes with your toes. The snow is cleared away tooquickly to soften the city, so the streets are slushy with resentment. And I felt like the other young women trudging through that slush: sullen and tired, with a bluish tint to the skin below the eyes that suggests insomnia or malnutrition or a hangover. Or all of the above. Every day brought news of a drunk who froze to death. I saw one: slumped over on a bench on Tverskoy Boulevard with a bottle between his legs and icicles decorating his fingers. Distilled into something so pure and solid that I didn’t recognize it as death until I got up close. The babushka next to me summoned the police.
I cracked under the weight of the cold. My only recourse was to eat. I inhaled entire packages of English tea biscuits in one sitting. They came stacked in a tube, and when I found myself halfway through one, I decided I might as well finish it. I polished off a whole tube every night after work and then pinched the extra flesh around my hips in the bathtub and thought, Atleast I’m warm.
It was 1996. At the English-language newspaper where I worked, the other expats were always joking. Russia, with all its quirks, was funny. There was a sign at Sheremetyevo Airport, perched at the entrance to the short-term-parking lot, which had been translated into English as acute care parking. It was a sign better suited to a hospital, where everything is dire. And at the smaller airports, the ones for regional flights, the Russian word for “exit,” vykhod, was translated into English as get out. A ticket to Sochi, for example, said you would be departing from Get Out #4. I laughed with them, but I knew that eventually these mistranslations would be corrected, that Russia would grow out of its awkward teenage capitalism and become smooth and nonchalant. You could see the growing pains in the pomaded hair of the nightclub bouncers, in the tinted windows of the Mercedes sedans on Tverskaya, in the garish sequins on the Versace mannequins posing in a shop around the corner from the Bolshoi Theater.
At the infamous Hungry Duck, I watched intoxicated Russian girls strip on top of the bar and then tumble into the greedy arms of American businessmen. American men still had cachet then; as an American woman, I hugged the sidelines. (“Sarah,” said the Russian men at my office, “why you don’t wear the skirts? Are you the feminist?” They always laughed, and it was a deep, carnivorous sound that made me feel daintier than I am.) Everyone in Moscow was ravenous, and the potential for anarchy—I could feel its kaleidoscope effect—made a lot of foreigners giddy. Most of the reporters at my paper spoke some Russian. But among the copy editors, many of whom were fresh out of Russian-studies programs and itching to put their years in the language lab to good use, the hierarchy was built on who spoke Russian best. They were not gunning for careers in journalism; they just wanted to be in the new post-Soviet Moscow—the wild, wild East—and this job paid the bills. The Americans with Russian girlfriends—”pillow dictionaries,” they called them, aware that these lanky, mysterious women were far better-looking than anyone they’d touched back home—began to sound like natives. They were peacocks, preening with slang. In the office each morning, they’d pull off their boots and slide their feet into their tapochki and head to the kitchen for instant coffee—Nescafe was our only option then—and they’d never mention their past lives in Wisconsin or Nevada or wherever they escaped from. “Oy,” they said, and “Bozhe moy,” which means “my God” but has anguish in Russian that just doesn’t translate. A little bravado goes a long way toward hiding the loneliness. You can reinvent yourself with a different alphabet.
On Saturdays at the giant Izmailovo Market, tourists haggled for Oriental rugs and matryoshka dolls painted to resemble Soviet leaders—Lenin fits into Stalin, who fits into Khrushchev, who fits into Brezhnev, who fits into Andropov, who fits into Gorbachev, who fits into Yeltsin. History reduced to kitsch. While shopping for Christmas gifts once, I stopped by a booth where a spindly drunk was selling old Soviet stamps. And there, pinned like a butterfly to a tattered red velvet display cushion, was Jenny. Her image barely warped by time. “Skolko?” I said. The man asked too much. He had the deadened eyes of a person who hasn’t been sober for years, and I didn’t feel like bargaining, so I handed him the money. He could smell my desperation. He put the stamp in a Ziploc bag, and on the way back home on the Metro I studied her through the plastic. My best friend, commemorated like a cosmonaut. Her name had been transliterated into Cyrillic: ДЖЕННИФЕР ДЖОНС, it said above the smiling photo of her freckled face. A five-kopeck stamp from the postal service of the USSR. I had just paid ten dollars for something that was originally worth next to nothing.
Conspiracy theorists will tell you that Jennifer Jones’s death was not an accident. They will tell you that her plane crashed not because of mechanical failure, not because the pilot was suffering from dizzy spells, but because the CIA shot it down. She had become a Soviet pawn they say, too sympathetic to the party. Others say that the KGB was responsible, that after the press took pictures of her smiling at the Kremlin and quoted her saying how nice the Russians were, they needed to quit while they were ahead. I’ve read the official reports. I heard the pundits spew their Sunday-morning-talk-show ire. But I don’t recognize the Jennifer Jones I knew in their versions of the story.
Some people will tell you that all of it was propaganda, that she was just a pawn in someone else’s game, but the letter—the original letter—was real. It came from a real place of fear. The threat used to be so tangible. I was prepared to lose the people I loved best. My mother, with her fuzzy hair and lemon-colored corduroys; our dog, Pip; and Jenny. Always Jenny, whose last act must have been storing her tray table in its upright and locked position. Yuri Andropov wished her the best in her young life. Maybe this blessing was a curse.
Or maybe her luck just ran out.
* * *
The first defector was my sister.
I don’t remember her, but I have watched the surviving Super 8 footage so many times that the scenes have seared themselves on my brain like memories. In the film, Isabel (Izzy, for short), four years old, dances on a beach. She is twirling, around and around and around again, until she falls in the sand. There is grace in her fall; she does not tumble in a heap but composes herself like a ballerina. She wears a bathing suit with the stars-and-stripes design that the U.S. swim team wore in the 1972 Summer Games in Munich. It is the same suit that Mark Spitz wore when he swam to gold seven times. On Izzy the Speedo bunches near her armpits but is taut across her stomach. Her body has already lost most of its toddler pudge. Her legs are long and lean and are beginning to show muscle definition. My parents were both athletes; Izzy’s coordination and flexibility suggest that she, too, will win many races. But her belly still protrudes slightly like a baby’s, and there are small pockets of fat on her upper thighs. Her hair is startlingly blond and tousled by the wind. Her eyes are green and transparent as sea glass. Behind her the ocean is calm. Her expression betrays—already!—a hint of skepticism. She is the sort of child who is universally declared beautiful. She looks directly at the camera, unafraid of meeting its gaze. My mother hovers at the right side of the frame in sunglasses and a wide-brimmed straw hat. She wears a pink paisley bikini, and she holds me, a juicy nine-month-old with a half-gnawed banana in my right hand, on her lap. The camera rests for a moment on my face, but I am blurry, and before the focus can be adjusted, the lens turns abruptly back to Izzy, who is kneeling in the sand, strangely reverent and, judging from her moving lips and rhythmically tilting head, singing something. The camera pans to my mother once more. She is laughing, head thrown back.
Three minutes of footage, shot in August of 1973, exactly one year before Nixon resigned. There are several notable things about this short film: (1) My mother looks relaxed and happy. Half of her face is obscured by the hat, yes, but the smile she wears is an irrepressible one. She is laughing at her older daughter, squeezing her younger one. She is all lightness and joy. (2) The camera lingers on her lovely legs for at least four seconds, which suggests that my father the auteur was, at this point, still very much in love with (or at least attracted to) my mother. (3) My sister is alive.
Just three months after this scene on the beach, Izzy died of meningitis. It was the sort of freak occurrence about which every parent has nightmares: a sudden fever that won’t go down, a frantic call to the pediatrician—supposedly one of the city’s best—and six hours later, despite said pediatrician’s reassurances that “it was nothing to worry about,” a visit to the emergency room at Georgetown University Hospital, where my sister’s meningitis was diagnosed too late to save her. It had already infected her spine and her brain.
This happened on November 7, 1973: my first birthday. Forever after that it was tainted. My parents could never bring themselves to celebrate it convincingly. During every subsequent birthday, they would excuse themselves at various points and disappear into their own private corners to grieve. At my fifth birthday party—the first one I remember—I could hear my mother’s wails from the laundry room in the basement. The sound was so alarming that the clown who had been hired to make balloon animals kept popping her creations. She seemed skittish. “Why is your mom crying?” the kids from my kindergarten class wanted to know. “I had a sister, and then she died,” I said. I used to deliver this information matter-of-factly. It was no more weighty than the fact that our house was stucco or that my father was British. I was three when my parents told me I’d had a sister, and it was a relief to know that there was an explanation for the absence I’d felt for so long in my limbic memory. I’d reach for a baby doll—a doll I later learned had belonged to her—and picture it cradled in another set of arms. Sitting beneath our dining-room table once when I was four—I liked to crawl into private spaces to play—I was overcome with déjà vu. I was sure I had sat in the same spot with Izzy. It must have been just before she died. I must have been eleven months old. I could almost hear a breathy, high-pitched voice urging me to “smile, little Sarah, smile!”
And soaking in the tub, even now as an adult, I sometimes sense the memory of bath time with my sister. My foot touching hers under the water as the tub filled, the sight of her leaning back to tip her blond head under the faucet. Letters of the alphabet in primary colors stuck on the porcelain sides of the tub, arranged in almost-words, and my mother crouched on the floor beside us, her sleeves rolled up so that her blouse didn’t get wet as she washed our hair. And after we were pulled from the water, did we wriggle free of our towel cocoons and chase each other around the house naked? Did I make her laugh? I have no proof that it didn’t happen. I feel certain it did.
Intuitively I knew that something was missing long before I knew how to articulate it. Long before I knew that most people’s parents slept in the same bedroom, that most people’s mothers weren’t afraid to leave the house, that some children had never seen their parents cry, I knew that something was off in my family. “Your poor parents,” people would say to me when I was older and I told them the story. But no one seemed to understand that I felt the loss, too. My sister was in heaven, my mother said, with my mother’s parents, who also died too young for me to meet them. I mourned the sister I didn’t get to know. I longed to share secrets and clothes. I wanted a co-conspirator. I was jealous of the kids with siblings, who rolled their eyes at each other behind their parents’ backs, who counted on the unconditional loyalty only a sister or a brother can provide.
I loved watching that film of my sister. My parents had bought the camera right before that beach trip, so there is no earlier footage of her. There are some photographs, of course, but it was a thrill for me to see her move. Her right hand ebbed and flowed through the air, replicating the motion of the waves behind her. Her body language was like a tide pulling me in; I recognized it somewhere deep inside myself. If she had lived, I know that we would be the kind of adult siblings about whom people say, “Their mannerisms are the same.”
My mother liked to watch our home movies every Saturday night, but screening them was a labor-intensive process. You had to set up the projector on the end table we used as a base, thread the reel through the machine—”Careful, careful!” my mother would say to my father—and sometimes, when the projector overheated, the film would burn and darkness would spread across the image on the living-room wall. It was terrifying to watch the dark blot fill the screen, as if our past were being annihilated right in front of us. It happened so quickly: one moment bright with life and then, suddenly, nothing but darkness. We lost many precious moments in this way—”Stop it, stop it, turn it off!” my mother would cry as my father fumbled with the projector, trying to save the rest of the reel from being fried—including the establishing shots of Izzy on the beach. A zoom into her cherubic face and then we watched that face melt. “My baby girl!” my mother whimpered while the loose strand of film flapped hysterically and my father struggled to turn off the machine. The manic whirring stopped, and then we were all quiet as my father put the reel away in its gray steel case.
“Sometimes I think we should just let it burn,” he said one evening.
“It’s the only one we have of her,” said my mother.
“But we’ve got to let go, Alice. We’ve got to look forward.”
She launched her iciest stare at him. “Is there something better on the horizon?”
I could tell he wanted to erupt. I don’t know if he locked up his rage because I was in the room or because he had already given up on my mom.
We didn’t watch the Izzy footage again after that—my mother was afraid the rest of the reel would be destroyed, so she hid it inside a hatbox in her closet. But when I was old enough to operate the projector, I sneaked late-night viewings of my sister. I would wait until I was sure my mother was asleep and then creep into her dressing room. She kept the hatbox on the top shelf, and as I reached for it, my hand would graze the silks of the dresses my mother had long ago stopped wearing. She retired her glamour when my sister died. (“You may not believe this,” my father said, “but at Radcliffe your mother was always the life of the party.”)
In the dark of the living room, where I set up the projector in the same place we always watched home movies, Izzy’s sequence of movements—turn, turn, fall, kneel—became a sort of meditation. I realize that I see all my memories this way. Everything I remember unspools in the flickering silence of Super 8 film. Each scene begins with the trembling red stripe of the Kodak logo and ends with the sound of the reel spinning, spinning, spinning until someone shuts it down.