It is very difficult to ever know, let alone fully relate, the complete story about anything. This is especially true when recalling a parent, relying on memories of your early life, seen through the veil of your own perceptions and in light of how the events remembered affected you, how they played out later.
There are facts, actual events, specific words spoken, which can be shown with some degree of certainty (as with a recording or in a letter or diary), then there is the way these undisputed facts are spun by each party according to their needs and how they play into everything that follows. When reconstructing our past each of us is, of necessity, an inventor relying on a good deal of conjecture, based on our experiences and prejudices.
“That’s a proper observation at this juncture. That’s what critical history is supposed to be, the nuanced exploration of historical artifacts, placed outside of conjecture and prejudice, shown in light of the actual effects the artifacts produced and good luck with that enterprise. Life is much more an art than a science, as I’m sure you’ve noticed,” the skeleton said.
“You were brought up short when your sister was momentarily stunned when you mentioned my keen sense of humor yesterday. How is it possible, you wonder, that your sister could not remember the many great laughs we had together, even on some of those merciless battlefields where we spilled each others’ blood?”
It was surprising, I have to say, that she had no immediate recollection of your dark sense of humor. You were almost always a prick, and grimly determined to win every ‘battle’ at any cost, there was no price too high for you to pony up, but you were also, without a doubt, a clever, funny man with a distinct and sardonic wit.
I reminded my sister of how Arlene and Russ would howl at your tossed off remarks. I reminded her of Murray Susskind, gasping for breath, completely at your mercy that night he came to dinner. Over and over he wheezed “oh, that’s funny! oh, that’s funny!!!!” as he struggled to breathe and howl at the same time. We thought at a certain point he might die of laughing while trying to explain how funny it was. My sister barely recalls that.
“Go figure,” said the skeleton. “Memory is a funny thing.”
I’ll tell you something that’s not funny– crucial things that are never told. You taught me on the one hand to operate like a critical historian, get the facts, primary sources whenever possible, weigh the competing versions, give credence to the version that aligns better with the agreed on facts. At the same time, you gave us a very spotty, redacted version of things that was tailored to your need to control every narrative.
“We’re back to the abstractions that were your mother’s twelve murdered aunts and uncles and their entire families?” asked the skeleton wearily, warily.
That’s the most striking example, yes, but it’s one example. Look, I understand you were at a loss to tell your nine year-old that he was right to be upset by the shooting of everyone in his mother’s family, not to mention everyone on your side of the family. This was not ancient history, after all, it had happened about 20 years before I found out about it. OK, you couldn’t open that painful can of worms, fair enough. What you did, though, was much worse than just clamming up about a difficult subject.
“Here we go,” said the skeleton, “haven’t we already had this out, haven’t I already apologized, told you it was unforgivable? What is it you fucking want from me now? I’m dead, if you haven’t noticed.”
When you redacted those people from history you felt it necessary to give me something else to chew on. Your reaction was not to acknowledge an unknowable horror and explain that it was impossible for you to think about what happened to them because the pain was too great; you turned it into a chance to tell your son that he was being an overly dramatic little wimp whining about a few dozen people with his DNA, not one of whom he never knew, who were, tragically, machine gunned into a ravine.
That’s what I was left with, from the authoritative source that was my father, that I was being the whiny asshole for inquiring, for having strong feelings about, the terrible subject. That is what is necessary for the reshaping of history, recasting the story completely into a counter-narrative. You made the story about my weakness, as a narcissistically dramatic nine year-old, not someone seeking to understand an incomprehensible horror you could not touch yourself.
“Well, you were a kid with a hyperactive imagination, subject to nightmares, and that was my sick way of trying to protect you,” said the skeleton.
A sick way, we can agree now. What was the necessity of making me feel like a weak, melodramatic little turd for asking about the slaughter of our entire family? It closed the subject once and for all. Like you were saying: suck on that, asswipe.
“Well, that’s a harsh way to put it,” said the skeleton, “but accurate, I suppose. But you are making a larger point, I suspect?”
I am. The most brutal enemy of the seeker of truth, or at least understanding, is secrecy. In our origin myth, we the People are an informed populace participating directly and knowledgeably in deciding the issues that effect us all. In reality, the information we have to base any real discussion comes to us in a carefully controlled trickle and our influence on policy nil. The record we get access to is increasingly redacted, classified, off limits. There can be no free and open discussion about facts that are hidden.
This was the way it was in our house growing up. You redact something shameful and then, whenever there is an attempt to dig deeper, you bury it in further attacks on the digger.
“Well, I was a master at that redirection, misdirection. I really was. Not to pat myself on the back, but framing the discussion, as it took you more than forty years to figure out, is 99% of winning the argument. That’s why conservatives have spent millions and millions creating terms to frame every debate: right to life, death tax, collateral damage, friendly fire, Second Amendment. ‘A well regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state…” spun, by the brilliant and destructive Scalia, is now an undisputed American individual’s right to keep and carry guns and ‘Second Amendment’ is all you have to say. Redirection is most of the game, and redaction certainly helps in that, the less real information available, the easier it is to misdirect the conversation,” said the skeleton.
“When you don’t want discussion of something uncomfortable, shift the ground. It is no longer about a secret kill list that the president signs off on now, launching deadly attacks in dozens of countries by drone, it is about disloyal Americans seeking to endanger national security by prying into these highly classified national security areas. You see how that works, right? It’s not about whether killing all these people is right or wrong, whether it makes us safer or increases the resolve of those who hate us, it’s not a question of a precedent an American president can be happy to set for President Trump, it’s about keeping the entire program as secret as possible. I know I’m preaching to the choir director,” said the skeleton.
Indeed you are, pop. I heard a JFK speech yesterday that spoke so eloquently to this very issue. As to the importance of free and open access to the facts the citizens of a free society deserve to know, JFK said it all, then they killed him.
The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.
…No President should fear public scrutiny of his program. For from that scrutiny comes understanding; and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary. I am not asking your newspapers to support the Administration, but I am asking your help in the tremendous task of informing and alerting the American people. For I have complete confidence in the response and dedication of our citizens whenever they are fully informed.
I not only could not stifle controversy among your readers–I welcome it. This Administration intends to be candid about its errors; for as a wise man once said: “An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” We intend to accept full responsibility for our errors; and we expect you to point them out when we miss them.
The text of this wonderful speech to the American Newspaper Publishers Association is here.
“Yeah, it was a great speech, justly famous in its day, one more reason the people who loved him so much loved him. You know, he was fucking all kinds of women in the White House, and the press kept quiet, he was doing plenty of secret things, like all presidents do, but this was a great statement of our democratic values. JFK was a lot like Obama in that way, off-the-charts rock star charisma, intelligence and elegance in stating our deeply held beliefs,” said the skeleton, watching a red-tailed hawk make off with dinner struggling in its talons.
“You know, Elie, it’s virtually impossible to tell anyone’s story in a way that makes sense. A man with all of my gifts should have done a much better job as a father. Instead of using my powers for good…” the skeleton continued to watch the raptor carry his next meal away.
As I told you as you were dying, you did the best you could. That’s all a person can do, the best you can. Do we hope to be better than we are? The most idealistic among us, for sure.
“How do you keep idealism alive in a world that stomps it lustily with every step?” asked the skeleton.
The $64,000 question, dad.
“Hey, tell them about my appearance on that game show, would you?”