Personal History

The Book of the Week is “Personal History” by Katharine Graham, published in 1997.

The autobiographer was born in June 1917. She grew up in a large, wealthy family, in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Mount Kisco (upstate New York). She attended private schools. At high school dances, “Of course, no boys were allowed so all the girls put on evening dresses and corsages and danced with each other.”

The autobiographer’s father, Eugene Meyer, a business tycoon, purchased the Washington Post in 1932. In 1942, she wed Phil Graham, and took his name. Over the next ten years or so, they had four children (a daughter and three sons) who survived to adulthood. In 1946, her husband was named publisher of the Post. In 1963, she experienced serious personal problems that led to her taking over the paper.

Two of the Post‘s journalists, the infamous Woodward and Bernstein, were the first to seize upon the story of the break-in at the Watergate Hotel (the 1972 campaign headquarters of the Democratic party) by Republican party operatives. Over the next few years, the paper proceeded to reveal the corruption present in the Nixon administration with regard to the president’s reelection and the start of the Vietnam War. The story was extremely complex. The paper was at once courageous and foolish for casting aspersions on the Federal government. For, the Washington Post Company owned television and radio stations, in addition to print publications. These media holdings found themselves the victims of retaliatory action when it came time for the FCC to renew their broadcast licenses.

Lawsuits were launched in connection with the scandals over whether news articles published by the Post, were revealing State secrets that would compromise the national security of the United States. Many people thought the government was simply trying cover up its own embarrassing conduct. As is now evident, the post-Nixon decades saw history repeat itself many times over both in terms of similar scandals and overzealous classification of documents.

There occurred a mid-1970’s debilitating four and a half month strike of the many unions on which the Post had become too dependent through lax management. Before disgruntled workers walked out, some sabotaged the printing presses and thereafter waged a campaign of telephone threats and physical violence on picket-line crossers. Graham got right down in the trenches, moonlighting alongside non-union executives to get the paper out. She also achieved several female “firsts” and provided various examples of how being female subjected her to treatment males would not have experienced.

The Post had its ups and downs through the years.  In early 1991, Graham handed down leadership of the Washington Post Company to one of her sons.

Strength In What Remains

The Book of the Week is “Strength In What Remains” by Tracy Kidder, published 2009. This is the biography of a man named Deo who miraculously survived the genocidal violence that spilled over from Rwanda into Burundi in 1994-95.

Deo grew up in the latter nation, where his family, of the Tutsi tribe, did farming and herding in the mountains near Lake Tanganyika. In the 1970’s, the Catholic church owned and operated his one-room schoolhouse. His parents, who believed in education, could ill-afford the school tuition of one dollar. They were able to buy him a pencil but not a pen.

The Germans and later, Belgians (colonizers of Rwanda and Burundi) engendered hatred between the Hutus and Tutsi tribes.  In 1995 in Burundi, a two-month killing spree led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

During that time, Deo was attending medical school in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, far from his home. He found himself in a traumatic and dire situation; traumatic in that he witnessed gruesome scenes, including those of deteriorating corpses of humans and cows lining the roadside, and dire, in that there were hostile soldiers everywhere, seeking out people who looked like Tutsis, pursuant to their facial features  (similar to the way Nazis sought out Jews during the Holocaust) and torturing and murdering them. Over the next decade, Deo was able to overcome his seemingly overwhelming difficulties and fulfill his dream.

Burundi’s people continued to suffer long after the violence was over. There was poor regard for human rights, especially among those injured in the tribal warfare who were indigent. (A lot of those lucky enough to survive, were rendered indigent by the tribal warfare). In the late 1990’s, hospitals had a special section for patients who could not pay their medical bills. They could not be discharged until they paid up, during which time they were given neither care nor food. Family and/or friends were expected to assist them. In addition, the bodies of deceased patients could not be released to their families unless the bills were paid.

This blogger found Deo’s story remarkable and suspenseful. However, she is giving the author the benefit of the doubt with regard to a few ambiguous passages in the book, attributing them to a bad editorial decision. The passages occur in the first half. In the middle, the author explains that over the course of two years, Deo told him his story, and I’m sure that the account of his escape suffered here and there from memory’s usual additions and subtractions, and there was no direct way to verify a lot of it…” This warning should come at the very beginning so that native New Yorkers will not question the geographic accuracy of the following passages, referred to above:

 

“On a day in his sophomore year he was riding the subway home from Columbia [University] and remembered that he hadn’t talked to Claude [in Burundi] for weeks. He got off at 125th Street.” [The story says that Deo was an undergraduate, attending classes at the Morningside Heights campus, not the medical school, and at the time, he was staying with people downtown]

“He figured he needed only twenty dollars a week for subways to and from Columbia, and sometimes he could save part of that by walking from lower Manhattan to the campus up in Harlem.” [same comment as above]

“Deo pushed the grocery cart down the sidewalks of Eighty-ninth Street. There were times when he felt crushed by the height and humiliated by the splendor of the buildings in this part of New York.” [West or East 89th Street? This is an important distinction to New Yorkers.]

 

Try to Tell the Story – Bonus Post

Some people scoff at the endurance of Great Britain’s aristocracy.

The following passage from the book “Try to Tell the Story” by David Thomson, published in 2009, explains why there is still a royal family:

“What is the royal family for? So that shaggy-dog stories may be told about their absurd status. What does that do? It makes them human and trivial. With what result? We knock along with them. Yet somehow the silliness of royalty excuses us from final realities– we can’t cut off their heads again because… well, they’d be offended, wouldn’t they. The way they are if you talk to them first. It’s a fatuous rigmarole, but it helps explain why an allegedly grown-up nation still drags along with these poor idiots.”

Another interesting concept raised by Thomson’s autobiography involves an education experiment. Post-WWII, the English government enacted an Education Act. The Act provided financial assistance to bright boys from lower socio-economic classes, affording them the opportunity to attend an English “public school” (actually what Americans would call a private school, reputed to have high standards). Thomson was one of the lucky few who participated. He attended Dulwich College (high school, in America), and did sufficiently well to gain acceptance to a college at Oxford University. However, his apprehension about his family’s ability to pay tuition there, prompted him to attend film school instead. Due to cases such as Thomson’s, the government’s education experiment was discontinued.

An Unquiet Mind

The Book of the Week is “An Unquiet Mind” by Kay Redfield Jamison, published in 1995.  This autobiography tells the story of someone with bipolar disorder (also called manic-depressive illness) who had gone undiagnosed until, ironically, she started working on her PhD in psychology.

Jamison was showing symptoms in high school– hearing music in her head, clear as a bell, and staying up all night, sometimes more than one night, energetically completing schoolwork. Sometimes she spoke too fast for people to understand her. A little later, she went on credit-card spending sprees and could not remember them afterwards. She also fell into periods of extreme depression. Each continual up-and-down cycle lasted about three days. She theorized that she had inherited the disorder from her father.

When Jamison got to graduate school, she was given a questionnaire on symptoms of her condition. That was the first time she got an inkling that she was mentally unbalanced.  Read the book to learn how she dealt with this revelation.

Casting With A Fragile Thread

The Book of the Week is “Casting With A Fragile Thread” by Wendy Kann, published in 2007.  This is the engaging memoir of a native white-skinned Rhodesian.  She describes the familial and financial hardships she and her two sisters faced growing up with an absent mother and a risk-taking father, in a nation undergoing radical political change.  In 1980, Rhodesia came to be ruled by Robert Mugabe, a dark-skinned dictator, who allowed the country to be ravaged by his previously oppressed countrymen.  Read the book to learn how the author put her difficulties behind her.

The Jack Bank

The Book of the Week is “The Jack Bank, A Memoir of A South African Childhood” by Glen Retief, published in 2011.  This autobiography focuses on the author’s realizing his gay identity in a specific generation– as a white South African male in the last years of apartheid.  While coming of age, he struggled with not only apartheid, but with “authoritarianism, patriarchy and cycles of violence.”

The author explains that his family was English, rather than Afrikaner.  The latter people were militant in nature.  He illustrates this point by recounting his experiences at nine and ten years old, of playing war games with his Afrikaner friend, and looking up to his friend’s father, a police officer, as a role model.

At twelve, he was sent to boarding school.  As a freshman, he was subjected to extremely brutal bullying.  Later, as an upperclassman, he himself did the bullying. He would have undergone this pattern again– in “military basic training, and then the whites-only conscript force… to control forty million black South Africans;” however, Nelson Mandela’s political activities finally succeeded at the tail end of the 1980’s.  Prior to that, Retief witnessed examples of the pattern again and again, at university and later in his black boyfriend’s violent, rundown neighborhood.

Read the book to learn more details of what growing up was like under South African apartheid, and what the author did to find his place in the world.

Street Without A Name

The Book of the Week is “Street Without a Name” by Kapka Kassabova, published in 2009.  This autobiography describes the brand of Communism the author experienced as a child in 1970’s and 80’s Sofia, Bulgaria, and the Bulgarian historical events that interested her.

It was an unspoken, dirty little secret that the Communist lifestyle was actually inferior to that of the West. The Bulgarian government told the people that “Politburo comrades were heroes of the anti-Fascist resistance” and “the labor camps were for enemies of the people.”

The author’s mother branded Bulgaria’s leader and his cronies “idiots in brown suits.”  The State oversaw all academic, athletic and musical events, such as a contest called the Olympiads, in which grade-school kids competed in different subjects.  At ten years old, Kassabova was convinced that the West consisted of drug addicts, criminals, capitalists and dreadful child labor, based on one story:  Dickens’ “David Copperfield.”

Her parents both worked in the field of engineering, which placed the family in the middle class. Even so, the family lived in a third-class (out of four classes) concrete neighborhood where blocks were numbered. At the furniture store, there was a three or four-month waiting list for shelves and beds, that only afforded one the opportunity to physically fight for the desired items when the delivery truck arrived at the store in the wee hours.

One time, when the author was eleven, her father met someone from the Netherlands through his work, and invited his family to go “camping” with his own, on the outskirts of Sofia.  The Dutch visitors arrived in a recreational vehicle (RV), while the Bulgarian family had brought a hard-to-obtain, shabby military tent.  (As an aside, the cost of the RV equalled about twenty years’ worth of the author’s mother’s income.)  The Dutch were horrified by the disgusting state of the toilets, and the “rubbish and dogs everywhere.”  The Dutch, in addition to their sparkling new vehicle, brought Western goods, including Gummi Bears, chocolate biscuits, juice in little cartons, and one of ten varieties of potato grown in their home country.

The Kassabovas knew their standard of living under Communism was way overrated by their government but they could not leave Bulgaria– until the Berlin Wall fell.  Even then, they had to complete a ton of bureaucratic paperwork and wait years.  During such time, the author’s mother underwent a stay in the hospital, where there were newspapers instead of sheets, and soap and towels had to be provided by patients themselves.  The author’s father paid a large bribe to the head doctor so as to see the patient emerge from the hospital alive; during Bulgaria’s transition to capitalism, there was more corruption than before– which is saying a lot.

Read the book to learn more about the author’s perspective on her life and birth country.

An Irish Country Childhood

The Book of the Week is “An Irish Country Childhood” by Marrie Walsh, published in 1995.  This is the kind of book on which a movie or TV show (such as Meet Me in St. Louis or Little House on the Prairie) might be based.  It describes the spirit of the times of a particular culture in a certain era; in this case, an agricultural community in County Mayo, Ireland in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Walsh was born in 1929.  She attended public school where “The teachers were not local and they never mixed socially.  Teaching was a very prestigious job in those days…”  Her maternal grandmother and great aunt attended a Hedgerow School, which evolved during the enforcement of the Penal Laws (1695-1829), a time of oppression of Catholics by Great Britain.  Classes in Irish, Latin and English were held outdoors.  Tuition was in the form of corn or turf.

“Brought up on a daily diet of legends, myths and ghost stories,” Walsh and her many siblings were fascinated by the paranormal.  Various places mentioned in her anecdotes were haunted.  The author’s ancestors thought weasels were actually witches and were therefore scared of them.

The kids performed labor on farms in the community, and received compensation in the form of being taught a song or story, and perhaps some food.  They loved drinking buttermilk, and participated in daring episodes of pinching fruit from the neighbors’ orchards until they got caught.  Read the book to learn more about this and Walsh’s other adventures.

The Cost of Courage

The Book of the Week is “The Cost of Courage” by Carl Elliott, Sr., published in 1992.  This autobiography describes an American politician who acted on controversial matters in a morally correct way, making him unpopular with Southerners and Conservatives.  In so doing, he hurt his career.

In 1930, Elliott had an easy time getting accepted to college.   For, there was no admissions paperwork at the University of Alabama. Anyone who had a pulse and could pay the tuition in that early-Great-Depression year, was in. Most of the coed school’s students were upper-crust residents of the Black Belt and Birmingham.  Freshmen were required to wear beanies so that they were easily identifiable.

Elliott became an eight-term Alabama Congressman who fought for the civil rights of African Americans.  Another politician whose career was harmed by doing the right thing, was Alabama governor Jim Folsom.  In 1954, he invited African American Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. to the governor’s mansion in Montgomery for a drink.  In 1962, Folsom was pushed out of office by people who voted for (racist) George Wallace.

Read the book to learn the details of Elliott’s heroic but unwise career moves.

Testament of Youth

The Book of the Week is “Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain, published in 1934.  This is the depressing memoir of a young woman in England whose hardships were typical for her generation.

Ms. Brittain wrote, “…To me and my contemporaries, with our cheerful confidence in the benignity of fate, War was something remote, unimaginable, its monstrous destructions and distresses safely shut up… between the covers of history books.”  She was in her late teens at the outbreak of WWI.  She had just started college a couple of years after graduating high school, at one of the women’s schools of Oxford University.  Ms. Brittain would not have been afforded such opportunity had a scholarly friend of her family not convinced her sexist father that educating females was worthwhile. Nevertheless, the entrance exams were rigorous. A glutton for punishment, she decided to major in history– about which she knew little– rather than English literature, which she knew well.

Then, to do her part for the war effort, Ms. Brittain took a leave of absence from school to nurse wounded soldiers for the Red Cross. She spent a total of three years in England and France performing unpleasant tasks, witnessing gruesome injuries and dying men, and chafing at orders of the bitchy matrons who were her bosses.  Her younger brother had also just begun school, when he and three of his school chums were called up to fight in the war.  One of the three became her boyfriend; she was friends with the other two as well.  All parties exchanged numerous letters, detailing their activities, and expressing their fears, hopes and opinions about the war.  In the next two years, all four young men died.

Ms. Brittain remarked, “No doubt the post-war generation was wise in its assumption that patriotism had ‘nothing to it,’ and we pre-war lot were just poor boobs for letting ourselves be kidded into thinking that it had.  The smashing-up of one’s youth seemed rather a heavy price to pay for making the mistake, but fools always did come in for a worse punishment than knaves; we knew that now.”

The author described progress on women’s rights issues, as she considered herself a feminist.  In the early 1920’s, England granted the vote to women over thirty years of age, because there was a disproportionate number of women in the voting population after the war.  Oxford began granting degrees to women, rather than simply allowing them to take classes to further their education.  Postwar, Ms. Brittain was no longer considered rude when she uttered the words “pregnancy” and “prostitution” in public (as opposed to “a certain condition” and “a certain profession.”) She and her friends freely discussed sodomy, lesbianism and venereal disease.

After Ms. Brittain finished her degree, she did some lecturing, teaching and publishing, and went to work for the League of Nations.  She took her time deciding whether to marry a man who had pursued her.  She was thinking, if she had a child, she would hope to a have a daughter, because a son might go to war and die.