A Legacy of Guilt
In the summer of 2016, my daughter, granddaughter, and I visited Omsk, the city in Siberia where Dostoevsky was sent as a political prisoner, like so many others who came before and after him. As a young man Dostoevsky fought passionately against serfdom, having seen its abuses as a child on his father’s estate. He had dared in 1847 to read Belinsky’s letter to Gogol that called for the end of serfdom. He was banished by the Russian Czar, Nicolas I, who terrorized prisoners by staging a mock execution: He brought out prisoners wearing white shirts from their cells in the Peter and Paul fortress, tied them in threes to a stake, and lined them up before soldiers ready to fire, before he sent in an emissary who delivered a reprieve at the last minute. One of the prisoners became mad as a result of this trauma.
I was sent to Omsk by my university to do research for a book and decided to take my family so that we could follow in Dostoevsky’s footsteps. I do not recommend the visit. When I told the Dostoevsky guide in Saint Petersburg that we were taking the long train trip—two days and two nights to get there—he said, “I have never been to Omsk,” looking appalled. It is true that the city was disappointing. So little was left there of the past. The fortress where the great writer was imprisoned for four years and wrote about so vividly in his Notes from the House of the Dead was gone. All we found was a small rather-run-down museum with a few photos of Dostoevsky and some of his friends.
One had the feeling that the people there seemed to wish to forget the guilt that might be associated with their gulag past. We did see one photo of Solzhenitsyn, the Russian writer who wrote perhaps the most famous of the books on the gulags; we marveled at the heavy iron shackles the prisoners had to wear constantly and which were displayed behind glass. We even saw the carriage that brought the prisoners on their endless journey across a wide and beautiful country in such severe conditions, traveling sometimes for ten hours at a time, frozen and stiff with cold in thick snow.
I couldn’t help thinking how confusing the various versions of Russian history must be for the ordinary people in Russia. Their czars, once reviled and murdered, have now been given the status of martyred saints, and pictures of them are displayed everywhere. Stalin, of course, who ruled Russia and sent so many Russians to their deaths in the gulags, is no longer much in view; though, of course, there are many statues of Lenin. Even the cities have changed their names. A church once destroyed by Stalin in order to install a public swimming pool is now a church again. What, I wondered, do the people really believe? What effect does this have on them as a people, what will their future be? Who, ultimately, is deciding what version of the past will predominate? From whose point of view is their legacy of great suffering and great triumph being told? Which version will they accept and believe?
In the United States, too, we are guilty of seeing our past in completely different lights according to our political parties, our political views, our personal griefs and gains. Depending on who is telling the story one or another version is told. There are parts of America’s past we would prefer to deny or ignore: slavery, the history of the American Indian, poverty, to name a few. Current political discourse is a good example of differing perspectives. According to President Donald Trump, we live in a place brought low by lawlessness and the free flow of illegal immigrants. President Obama, however, pointed out the positive progress we have made: the slow steady growth of our economy after a recession; a more inclusive health care system, and the freedom to marry anyone we love. Here the past is seen in diametrically opposing views depending on who is telling the story.
Coming from South Africa and having grown up there during the apartheid period, I am particularly sensitive to all of this. In my childhood there were so many subjects considered taboo, so much of the past that was enshrouded in mystery, not mentioned, secret, or frankly falsified. I came to this country at least in part to escape a rigid and racist system set up in my own country at the time. I came believing this was a country of freedom, freedom of speech, a democracy where the Rights of Man—all men and women—were respected.
As a child growing up in South Africa I was subjected to a plethora of rules and regulations that kept the many different races segregated in the most confusing and arbitrary of ways. For example, there was something called the “pencil test.” If a pencil fell freely through one’s hair the person was considered white and thus part of the elite. If not, he or she was classified as “Non-European,” which meant you had to carry a pass wherever you went, without which you were liable to imprisonment. In other words the indigenous peoples of Africa, those who had been there from the start, were considered aliens, and those who had colonized the country, taken it with guns and steel and superior brute force, claimed it as their own.
Everything was separate, from buses and bathrooms to beaches and benches, displaying signs writ large “Slegs vir blankies,” which means “Only for whites.” The people whom we loved and were closest to us, those who had cared for us as children, made our beds, our food, washed our clothes, and carried us on their backs were not considered fully human, we understood even as children. I remember my mother, in a dreadful and unforgettable moment of humiliation, telling the tall distinguished Zulu servant whom we loved, “To clean up this cupboard, it smells Zulu.” The terrible thing was that she was not aware of her insult, or how this man must have felt getting down to clean up the cupboard on his knees.
Of course this was greatly damaging to the blacks, or what were called the “coloureds,” those of mixed race, the Indians and the Malays, but it was also damaging to us. All of this left a permanent legacy of guilt, which many of us have struggled in vain to overcome.
Now South Africa, since the first universal elections were held in 1994 and Nelson Mandela was elected, is ruled by a black president and the most egregious criminals of the apartheid period have been brought before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission where they have at least admitted to their crimes if they have not often been punished for them. Was this the best way to confront the past, to bring it out of the shadows, to admit frankly to crimes committed? Can this freedom of speech, the ability to confront the truth, enable the country to move forward, to prosper, and to care for all its citizens? Does the divulging of past wrongs mean that we will act differently in the future? Does confession, as the Catholic Church teaches, enable us to live free of guilt? Or are we all destined by our very nature to continue to reenact the past with its history of abuses of privilege? Can we overcome this heavy legacy of guilt that we, the white race, carry? What is the truth behind all of this? How necessary is it to falsify or deny our own past to suit our present needs and desires?
In my own writing life I have gradually approached the truth of my own past, my own legacy. After the death of my older sister in circumstances that I believed were not accidental, I wrote a novel out of anger. I was enraged at my sister’s husband who had a history of physically abusing her and had driven their car off the road one dry night, with no other car in sight. I wrote as a witness, a victim, as someone who wished to cry out like Jane Eyre, in a loud voice, “Unfair! Unfair!” How could this have happened to my beautiful, talented sister who had never harmed anyone? How could a benevolent God, I wanted to ask, like Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov, permit such evil to exist?
Upon returning to Paris after my sister’s funeral, I completed the novel in three months. I was fueled by furor at my sister’s husband, whose history of battering my sister had confided in me gradually and so timidly and tremulously over the years, though she never told me about the battering of their six children. “I promised not to tell,” she would say if I discovered a bruise, or if my mother told me of the state my sister was so often in when taking refuge with her.
My novel was immediately rejected. When I called to ask the editor why, she told me it was not good enough. I was obviously too close to this event and saw it in entirely emotional terms. I was thinking while writing not of my reader so much as of myself. I knew little about structure, about mystery, about pacing, or how to use the information I had to engage the reader. The book, no doubt, was sentimental, one-sided, judgmental, and above all it portrayed a victim who I never made very interesting. Basically all of this material had too much heat for me at the time, and for many years I was obliged to write of this event—because I continued to write of it in one way or another, to “tell all the truth but to tell it slant” as Emily Dickinson advised, writing in fictional form and giving voice in some versions even to the man I considered her murderer, in order to establish some distance from this legacy from my own past. It was necessary to write—an exercise I often give my students—from the point of view of someone I was in conflict with.
I had not yet understood that the facts of the story had to be used, structured to form a cohesive whole. I had to lead the reader convincingly and ineluctably to some conclusion, always difficult to do. And what was the truth here? What conclusion could I ultimately draw from this tragedy?
Was my young sister—she was thirty-nine years old—really murdered on a dark road when her surgeon husband drove his car into a lamp post, after a party where they had quarreled, or was it as his son now proclaims, a brief stroke that his father underwent as he drove? And in the end did it matter what the truth was? Was it better for the children to invent their own versions of the truth? Was it more important to believe what might have been a lie if it enabled them to go on with their shattered lives?
At the time this happened, thirty-five years ago now, my mother preferred to treat it as an accident, to cover up the scandal of my sister’s history of abuse by her husband who had been both unfaithful and brutal to her and the children, in order to protect an idealized image of their father for the children. “He has suffered enough,” she said, speaking of her son-in-law, and, indeed, he was damaged in the accident, which may have been an attempt to kill them both. And “Think of the children!” my mother said with indignation when I begged her to get a lawyer to prosecute this man who had ruined my sister’s life before he killed her.
I have now, thirty-five years later, my mother and my brother-in-law both being dead, my nephew and nieces grown, written a memoir, Once We Were Sisters, exposing what I believe to be the truth of my sister’s fate as well as my own life. Am I right to expose this harsh truth about their father to these six living children, to bring into the light of day what happened to their mother and father so long ago? Much of the information in the book came from the children themselves who told me of their father’s brutality, his explosive temper, his beatings of them to the point of unconsciousness. Do they have the right to confront their legacy, a legacy of brutality on their father’s part, that comes from the point of view of the sister of their dead mother? What will this do to them, and do I have the right to voice these secrets? How much of this is the writer’s need to feed like a vulture on a history of crime, to take advantage of a sensational story that evokes interest and perhaps even sells books? The children—the youngest was three at the time of her mother’s death—are now adults, many of them with children of their own, and their own father is long since dead. How necessary is it for these children to know what I know or to read what I think I remember? How necessary was it for me to finally put down what I continue to hold as the truth on the page?
I think of the German people who have been obliged to face the egregious crimes of their holocaust past and who have done so now with exemplary frankness, going on to handle the recent European immigrant crisis with such generosity of heart, in contrast to the French who have often tried to cover up the crimes they committed during the Vichy period in France. In order to advance as a nation or as a private citizen it seems to me we must face the truth of our history as honestly as we are able. History, of course, can be seen in so many different ways, but there are certain facts that need to be confronted and confronted with as much truth as we can muster. It is often by constructing a story that seems true to us that we can continue with our lives.
People often ask me if now that I have written this story, will I be able to put this tragic event to rest, if this trauma will finally be overcome. I have to say that I do not think this will ever happen. Closure in this case will never come for me. There will always be another way to see this story, which is as much about my own story of guilt as it is the story of my sister’s life and death.