The reader should keep in mind that Irv Widaen put an uncommonly high value on honesty. It’s hard to imagine him ever telling a fib, for example, much less calculating a lie to evade having to speak of an uncomfortable true fact. Honesty was his trademark, he was going to tell you the truth no matter what the cost, since honesty itself was a rare and precious thing. My father always spoke his mind and could articulate multiple sides of most issues. He liked putting every available detail on the table for discussion. He had no respect for those who deliberately distorted the facts.
He didn’t need to lie because he was adept at reframing any conversation to his needs. This way he could remain scrupulously honest without talking about anything he didn’t want to talk about.
You will read of times when my father seems to have been dishonest. There is no contradiction with his basic honesty in this, though it’s complicated.
For example, when his eight year-old son came to him with tearful questions about what happened to Grandma’s six brothers and sisters, and Pop’s six brothers and sisters back in Vishnevitz, and their parents, my father did not solemnly lay out what was known of the terrible story. Instead he angrily told his young son to stop being melodramatic, that nobody knew any of those people, that they were abstractions, that the real problem was that the pampered boy, for some insane reason, wanted to feel like a victim, a childhood victim of the Nazi extermination in the Ukraine and Belarus when in fact he was only a middle class American drama queen who never knew any of these faceless, nameless people, people who disappeared into that night and fog thirteen years before he was even born.
It’s easy to think of this evasion as an act of dishonesty, a betrayal. I’ve come to see it also as an expression of my father’s disability, his inability to do otherwise. You can picture a father quietly telling his child: the parts of Europe where our family comes from had a long history of anti-Semitism; in the winter of 1942 into the summer of 1943 followers of the mad Adolf Hitler marched into the areas where we lived and killed everybody. That’s why we fought World War Two, to kill Hitler and his mad ideas.
My father wasn’t able to say something like that. Or perhaps he said something like it, in one clipped sentence like that, and maybe I forced him to say it again, in two sentences, and it was only when I persisted beyond reason that he chided me for being a self-pitying little pussy who just wanted to feel like a victim.
Someone who’d been raised by tender parents would have instinctively drawn the child close, said he understood how upsetting this terrible true story was, petted and comforted the kid. My father, raised with his mother’s lash across his face and a father who was a ghost of a man, was never given these human tools.
At eight I was a little young to be an astute historian. The only notes I took in those days were in the form of disturbing drawings. Some of them, I recall, scared the shit out of my mother. The secondary source in my memory recalls only the bad reaction of the overwhelmed father pushed to his breaking point by his anxious young son.
It is easy to see this now: my questions hurt him too much, frightened him, left him feeling powerless, desperate, angry. I get that now, though it’s taken more than fifty years.
The personal, of course, is political. Consider the powerlessness, desperation and anger of the average American voter right now. Those who voted for the president are disgusted about how little respect the bad people in the media are showing their guy. Those who voted against the president are despondent that it could have come to this sorry pass in America.
Truth is the first casualty of war. “Truth” is now seen by most Americans as synonymous with Point of View. Coming to this opinion is simple if you live in the right Social Media echo chamber, and we all do. The same set of facts now automatically leads to two sets of irreconcilable opposite “truths” that trolls will endlessly goad each other about.
If the president in the blue hat orders the killing of far-away strangers based on a high-tech remote surveillance and profiling process, and you wear a blue hat, you’re unlikely to press for an investigation into possible war crimes when innocents are blown to bloody shreds. If the president ordering the extra-judicial executions is wearing a red hat, the man in the blue hat might get up on his hind legs about these high-tech assassinations that are radicalizing more and more of the world against us.
There are, still, true things. There are things as they exist beyond spin, beyond their commercial and political uses. Facts: where I was born, what day, what year. Facts: what I ate today, what I drank. Likewise in the world: if it is raining, what Cairo’s average temperature was each of the last thirty years, whether there is a law against racial discrimination in America.
Fact: the United States has the highest infant mortality rate of any wealthy industrialized nation. The political is also personal.
My father was the second child born to his tiny, red-haired, angry, religious mother. The first was a girl who died either in childbirth or immediately afterwards. This would have been in a tenement slum or a filthy, crowded maternity ward on the impoverished Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1922 or ’23.
I wonder if my father ever thought about this tiny, dead sibling he never knew. I doubt it. Speculation on such things takes you quickly beyond the realm of fact. In these pages I have tried to stay as close as I could to the facts I knew and limited my leaps of conjecture to things that were truly unknowable, like the nature and extent of my father’s love affair with the amorous young Christian widow in Connecticut.
The photos suggest they saw each other over the course of many years. I never heard my father mention her, I never heard her name. I have Eli’s quick story about breaking up that love affair and a total of three suggestive black and white photos of them together, found after Irv’s death, in a shoe box of miscellaneous photos. In one, they are captured wrestling on a picnic blanket and I’ve never seen my father look happier (the photo is here, at bottom of page). Or, here:
One photo appears to be from before the war, in the summer of 1941, when my father was 17. He is skinny, in a white shirt and tan pants, sitting jauntily on the railing of the porch next to his landlady/lover. In another he’s clearly a college student after the war. The skinny boy in the first picture, renting a room in her Connecticut house, pumping gas to pay his bills becomes, over perhaps ten years, the happy, round-faced young college graduate in the last photo. The woman appears to have made the long trip up to Syracuse to see him. The graduate wears the optimistic expression of a young scholar heading to an elite graduate school and his life of ideals beyond.
A couple more details about this impulse to thwart transparency and why this thwarting bugs me so much, personally and politically.
Reframing was my father’s favorite technique — if you aggressively pursued some matter with him — ju jitsu! — shift the ground of the conversation to a pointed interrogation about why anyone would pry into such things in the first place, or whatever will make the person most uncomfortable. Put the inquisitive fucker on the defensive, there’s no defense like a good offense. It’s kind of like a mini filibuster, just keep talking, run out the clock. You can see virtually every politician today do this maneuver when in a tight spot, spout prepared talking points about something utterly unrelated to the question asked. This tactic is most often coupled with an indignant attack on the character of the person asking the uncomfortable question.
The logical extension to this technique is to preemptively vilify and delegitimize the truth-seeker. If the truth is disquieting, shameful, criminal, best to be circumspect about it, have others respect the secret. Indiscreet persons shall be blamed and attacked immediately. You can bet your nest egg that someone is making a lot of money on the deal if it is disquieting, shameful, criminal and ongoing, and you’d be wise to dummy up.
The personal is political. Bradley Manning tried to report the evidence of probable war crimes by Americans that he was seeing on his computer screen night after night. When he made the evidence public, after being silenced by his superiors, he was made to pay a steep price: prosecution as a traitor to the United States of America. Before his court martial they kept him naked in an outdoor cage, to show he was no better than any other terrorist and just as guilty under a statute that does not allow arguments about intent.
The main thing here is punish the leaker, don’t worry so much about the crimes exposed, no need to probe into those. The probe would likely lead to good, patriotic people being punished for well-meaning mistakes made in the fog of war. The news cycle will focus everybody’s attention back on the real malefactor. Make sure everyone knows the fucking illegal leaker is the traitorous enemy, not the people nonchalantly killing in the leaked videos. Our new president, like our previous one, focuses on these fucking illegal leaker felons, understandably.
In family life, if someone considers a fact embarrassing, say a divorce nobody mentioned to the children, or quietly sitting on tens of millions of inherited dollars, or some other ticklish thing, it is a fact best left unspoken. If you mention the taboo fact in any context, you are a betrayer of shameful secrets, whether you understand the shame or not.
In a family conversation about bankruptcy, for example, if you mention that so and so once declared bankruptcy, and his adult children, who are there, don’t know about it (they were kids at the time), you may have unwittingly whacked a hive of wasps in front of some fast tap-dancing in the family room.
“Dad never declared bankruptcy!” mom will quickly, falsely, assure the children, giving the urgent eye-bugging, throat slashing sign for you to clam up. Picture the look you should try to have on your face when the adult children look at you next.
Transparency is an ideal that our culture of constant selling and spinning makes difficult to uphold. You can’t have a real discussion, effectively explore options, solve problems, without free access to all the pertinent facts. Forget about the uninformed populace of a democratic republic having anything like democracy without access to what their elected officials are doing in their name, without informed public debate.
For reasons that should … be obvious… much as transparency is to be desired, the plain facts, set out, just like that, would be… in many cases, too destructive. You can hear our thoughtful former president B.O. carefully dancing out that explanation. National security. Sovereign immunity. State secrets. Classified. Espionage Act, no defense against treason based on your actual motives in disclosing.
After all, some of our wealthiest, most lucrative corporations have staunchly guarded trade secrets that are worth billions. And if it’s not technically a trade secret, it should be, particularly if certain demographics would be outraged, and we’ll continue to treat it like one.
As I have noticed so often, opacity and misdirection are all that’s needed for every form of mischief and corruption to flourish. The worst among us love it when no difficult questions are asked.