Saturday, April 06, 2019

On Godwin's Law

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

Years ago my friend Eileen and I visited the Dachau memorial in Munich. The first surprise was how we got there: we took the S-Bahn to the Dachau stop, then an ordinary city bus that ran through a pleasant residential suburb — streets of houses that run almost right up to the gate of the camp. I'd imagined Dachau, or any concentration camp, out in some remote area far from human habitation, where atrocities could happen out of people's sight and minds. Dachau's not like that at all. It's situated more like the Naval Academy in Annapolis, a large institution in full view at one edge of town. 

It's hard to imagine how a town could go about its business with 30,000 being starved and worked to death in their backyard. But of course it didn't start that way. It started with the announcement of a camp for political prisoners, mostly Germans, numbering 5,000 at most. Adolf Hitler had just taken office, and Heinrich Himmler, who was Munich's Chief of Police as well as Reichsführer of the SS, was a man known for his organizational skills. Dachau was the first concentration camp he set up, and it became, as he intended, a model for all the others. It was orderly. It was discreet. It offered employment to hundreds, even thousands of men who had been too long unemployed in Weimar Germany. 

This week Kris Kobach, the former Kansas Secretary of State who is openly campaigning for the yet-to-be-created position of "immigration czar" in the Trump administration, told Lou Dobbs that the US should "create processing towns that are confined" for refugees at the border — "We process them right there, in that camp," he said. 

The United States is a vast country. The neighborhood I live in — Pentagon City, Arlington County, Virginia — is one of the wealthiest in the country, and about to get a lot wealthier as it becomes the site of one of Amazon's new headquarters. The Texas-Mexico border is approximately 1,500 miles away. 

It's upsetting and unpleasant to watch the images on the news, to read about the families being separated and the children being taken from their parents — practices, I should say, that did not start with this administration, but have certainly gotten worse. It's alarming to hear the President of the United States say on camera, "These aren’t people, these are animals." 

Godwin's Law, cited above, evolved as a tongue-in-cheek observation about how quickly people compare things they don't like to the worst human crimes imaginable. The danger of these comparisons is that when it is time to compare something to the Nazis, the comparison has lost its power. 

But I think about Dachau. I think about how happy people were to have jobs. I think about how it all seemed benign, even worthwhile, in 1933. I think about the 30,000 prisoners liberated in April 1945, and how thousands of them died anyway, after liberation, because it was too late to save them from starvation, typhus, and everything else they'd been put through. 

Twelve years passed between Dachau's opening and its liberation. You can get used to a lot over the course of twelve years. 

I do not want to get used to any of this, but I don't know what to do. I'm running a voter registration table in my building later this month. I just sent another $50 to Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley

And I think it's time to start talking about Hitler. To hell with Godwin's Law.

Friday, March 15, 2019


I saw the reports of the Christchurch massacre just before I went to bed last night. I haven't been able to read the full coverage of it yet. I want to read the names of the people who died, I want to learn more about their stories, but I haven't been able to bring myself to look because I don't want to know a damn thing about their killer.

Or maybe I do, because the question no one ever asks or answers is, "What would be enough for you?" Asking what they want is missing the point. The answers to that question are always some kind of performance that boils down to MORE. More space (remember Lebensraum?), more privilege, more respect, more money, more love, more more more more more more more. Presumably they think whoever they're killing is taking that away from them, or keeping them away from it. They never go after the people who actually have more power or money or freedom than they do. (That wouldn't be okay, either, but at least it would be understandable.)

No, the question is, "What is enough?" If you feel you have enough, you don't have to pay attention to what anyone else is getting. You don't have to try to take anything away from the people around you.

What would be enough to make these men feel whole? And what would be enough to stop them?

Wednesday, March 13, 2019


The plane from Belfast left late — high winds gusting across Great Britain — and my connection in Terminal 5 was very tight, from the A gates to the B gates in less than an hour. I was carrying my giant Bag of Stuff and am not a runner even when I'm empty-handed, but I made it to the plane to Dulles with about 15 minutes to spare. I lugged my bag down the aisle, down the aisle, down the aisle . . . to my seat, 55E, a middle seat in the very last row of the plane.

"Hurray!" I said to no one. "It's the worst seat on the plane. What do I win?"

The voice in my head was my mother's: You get to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.

Talk about coming to grips with privilege. Among my mother's belongings is an old photograph of some distant ancestor — I think of her grandmother Molony's mother, whose married name was Cahill — with nothing on the back but the printed word BELFAST. My aunt Patricia might have known who the woman in the picture was, but she's gone now too.

I don't know the date of the photograph, but my guess is somewhere around 1880. People had their photographs made before leaving on the great journey, and for most of them it was the first time they'd ever had their picture taken. The exposure time required the subject to be still, so no one smiled. They might not have wanted to, anyway. However much they wanted to leave for America, it was almost certain they'd never be back. That young woman was about to spend six days in steerage on a ship crossing the north Atlantic, all so I could whine about a less-than-luxurious seat on a flying missile returning me home after a weekend of fun.

And this voice is my mother's too: Who do you think you are? The tactical nuclear weapon of the Irish mammy, however many generations removed from the homeland. On a good day, I can say it and laugh; on a bad day, it still sends me to my knees. But it's damn useful as a meditation, and serves a vast spectrum of purposes.

It might be useful for a few of the people in this morning's news, from the mind-boggling college admissions scandal (who even knew Georgetown had a tennis team?) to Bryce Harper. But I'm working on the plank in my own eye before tending to the motes in others', so I'll keep it to myself.

Saturday, March 09, 2019


I'm in Belfast this weekend for a crime fiction convention, and it feels a lot like home to me. That's not Irish-American sentimentality, although at least one of my ancestors left from here. It's about being among a group of people I am glad to see, who are glad to see me. It's about taking common delight in something separate from us and sharing the human magic of storytelling.

Image result for europa hotelI never know what to say when people ask me where I'm from. I was born in New Rochelle, New York, a place I never lived; my mother was staying with her parents in Larchmont while my father (our father, since I'm a twin) was in the South China Sea. But she wasn't from Larchmont, and neither were her parents. They were from Charleston, living the peripatetic life of a corporate lawyer. My mother had been born at Georgetown University Hospital, when my grandfather was an attorney with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.

Anyway, before my eighth birthday I had lived in Larchmont; in Coronado, California; in Norfolk, Virginia; in the Bronx; in Fairfax, Virginia; and in Virginia Beach, where I stayed until I was sixteen. From that point until my mid-thirties I moved every year or two, simply because that felt normal.

I say all the time that the universal human condition is homesickness. That's obviously based on my own experience, but I suspect most people just don't realize that's the name for what they feel. Even people who have lived in the same place all their lives feel it, and why is that?

It's because we were somewhere before we were here. At a minimum, we were in the salt sea of our mothers' wombs. If you believe in a world beside this one, that's where we were before that. Some piece of us remembers that, I think — or almost remembers that, and that almost is the longing for the home we can't name.

We want to believe that we have come from somewhere, that we are going somewhere, and that mysteries have solutions. This is why we have religions. This is why we have crime fiction.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Ash Wednesday, 2019

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn again
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope

T.S. Eliot thought a lot about Ash Wednesday, obviously. Through the wonders of the internet, we can listen to him reading it himself:

This was his "conversion poem," the story of his embracing and renouncing. Lent is all about embracing and renouncing, and I'm reviving this blog for the duration as this year's Lenten observance. Exactly what form it will take is still unclear to me: my goal for Lent this year is to come to grips with my privilege and what it requires. Gratitude, first, but obligations too.

We don't see our privilege — or I should say, I don't see my privilege — because I'm always looking up. Most of us live aspirational lives, always trying to do more, earn more, live better (whatever "better" means). We don't look at the people who are aspiring to our lives. And so I whine about the invisibility of being middle-aged and overweight and female, and forget how that invisibility can be a superpower. I listen to colleagues describe their fancy vacations and wonder when I last took a "real" vacation, forgetting that I have work that lets me go almost anywhere whenever I like. I grumble at the unacknowledged volunteer work and retaliate by failing to acknowledge the work of my fellow volunteers.

Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something 
Upon which to rejoice

Life goes only one way. The worst of grief, pain, anger, envy is the illusion that we could go back and fix things or regain what we lost. So for Lent I want to remember to look forward, to cherish my privilege, and to share as much of it as I can.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

On Halloween

I woke up this morning to the news that the daughter of friends had died yesterday, much too young, much too cruelly. Crime fiction is a small and tight-knit community, and we mostly love each other a lot (with the necessary exceptions who just make the bonds among the rest of us feel even stronger). It's not true that pain shared is pain lessened, but we're grieving together today, and cherishing our friends even more.

It's a dark time of year, literally and spiritually. These three days — Halloween, All Saints' Day, All Souls' Day — originated in the pagan recognition that veils get thin around this time of year. Time starts slipping, and the mortal peril we all constantly live in becomes a little more visible and immediate. Winter is coming.  

Something exists at the edges, something we can't quite see, something our brains are too small to understand. Energy is neither created nor destroyed, merely converted from one state to another. We know this in our bones, we feel it in the crawling of our skin and the cold dread that gathers at the solar plexus when we feel ourselves sliding away.

We can lie down and let it take us, or we can fight it off with masks and jokes and human-built monsters. We can rise up behind our defenders — the saints, Michael the Archangel, the Marvel Comics Universe, whatever works. (It's hardly a coincidence that superheroes have come to dominate our popular culture as organized religion ebbs away.)

Every living creature fights for life. It's our first job, the most important job—and we pretty much have to pretend it will continue indefinitely, or how would we ever get anything done?

Once a year, from up on the tightrope, we let ourselves look down. We might have to dress up to do it, and it might require the fortification of candy. Through the veil, we wave at the things we don't understand, at the night that will eventually take us all.

Happy Halloween.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

On Complicity

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Luke 18:13

My father had surgery, several years ago, for a congenital hand malformation — he can correct me on this, but I think the disorder is called Dupuytren's contracture. It causes the hand to bend in upon itself, and surgery is the only real remedy for advanced cases. My father recovered well enough to go back to sea afterward.

Dupuytren’s contracture is not terribly common, but it’s not that rare, either. My father’s doctor told him that it was called the Viking disease, because it appears almost entirely in people of Viking descent.

Dad and I have both had our DNA analyzed by 23 and Me, and we don’t have that much Scandinavian blood, according to the ancestry report (although we do share ancestry with Niall of the Nine Hostages, so maybe we actually were kings of Ireland once). But Ireland was a land of shipwrecks and invasions, and the Vikings were all over the island, so at some point, some Viking took an Irish girl as his willing or unwilling partner.

I think about that a lot, as I think about my earliest maternal ancestor, a member of the relatively rare H13 haplogroup. Most living members of that haplogroup still live in a small pocket of the Caucasus Mountains, or around the Caspian Sea. But thousands of years ago, a girl child wandered — or was taken, or sold — west, and her descendants kept going.

Somewhere along the way, someone in my ancestry was forced into something that she did not want to do. And someone else in my ancestry did the forcing.

My mother’s family was from Charleston, South Carolina. Her parents met and married there in the 1930s, when my grandfather was a public defender and my grandmother wrote for the News & Courier. They were both Catholics of Irish descent, but my grandmother’s father, Henry Molony, had been a wealthy man, wiped out by the Depression.

Henry Molony was born in the U.S. in 1858. His father, John Molony, had come to Charleston from County Clare in 1845, and had kept a shop in Charleston until the war. John Molony owned no slaves. When the war came, he moved his store to Sumter, SC, and raised seven children. From what I can tell, he was not a Confederate. But one of his daughters married a Confederate veteran, and at least one of his sons — my great-grandfather, Henry — prospered in part by allying himself with the Democratic Party, which was not the Democratic Party as we know it today.

Henry Molony was an official of St. John’s Cathedral, a donor to many worthy causes, a founder of hospitals and a man of honor — but he was also, without a doubt, a man who apologized for the causes of the Confederacy and conspired to keep its memory bright. He left ten children, who have gone on to have hundreds of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of their own — my mother didn’t know all her cousins.

And every one of us — the hundreds, or even thousands — is a beneficiary of Henry Molony’s complicity.

Colonization was America’s original sin, but slavery was the foundational sin, and its repercussions still echo, 150 years after it was outlawed.

We’re not good at atonement, humans. We don’t like to admit we’ve done wrong. Adam and Eve, confronted with their first wrongdoing, lied about it. Lying is what distinguishes humans from other animals; it keeps us separate from God, separate from each other, separate from the real.

So here’s my point, at last: Charlottesville gives us all an opportunity to tell the truth. White Americans, and southerners in particular, are all complicit in some way. It doesn’t matter that we never held slaves ourselves. It doesn’t matter that our parents didn’t. It doesn’t even matter if our grandparents were public defenders (and I’ll say again, mine was). We had — and have — opportunities because somewhere along the way, somebody else suffered.

If we inherited the benefits, we inherited the obligations, too. It doesn’t matter if we’re not racists now. We can still do more. We can still make things better.