Photo of Lola Lafon by and copyright Lynne S.K.. Courtesy Actes Sud.
by Lola Lafon
Translation by and copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
Original text copyright 2017 Actes Sud
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“In this world where everything is rigged, where the only thing that is not divided is money and where the only thing that is spread around is the heart, it’s impossible to rest on the sidelines.”
— Paul Nizan, “The Conspiracy” (1928), cited on the frontispiece of “Mercy, Mary, Patty”
Extract, pages 7 – 19:
You write the vanishing teen-aged girls. You write the missing persons who cut the umbilical cord to look for new horizons which they then embrace without being able to distinguish the rotten apples from the good, evasive, their minds shutting out adults. You ask why we feel this dire need to “just talk some sense into them.” You write the rage of these young people who, at night, in the comfort of their bedrooms where they’re still surrounded by their stuffed animals, dream up victorious escapes, then climb aboard ramshackle busses and trains and get into strangers’ cars, shirking the neatly paved road for the rubble.
“Mercy, Mary, Patty,” your book published in 1977 in the U.S., is dedicated to them and has just been re-issued, augmented with a preface by you and a brief publisher’s note. It’s not yet been translated in France. It concludes with acknowledgments as well as your biography, from your degrees in American Literature, History, and Sociology through the teaching positions you’ve held: the University of Chicago in 1973, the College of the Dunes, France, in 1974-75, assistant professor at the University of Bologna in 1982 and, finally, professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Articles appearing in the academic journals over the past few months tout the importance of your work, magazines question what they dub your ‘rehabilitation.’ The New Yorker consacrates two columns to you: “A controversial theory: Neveva Gene and the capsized teenage girls, from Mercy Short in 1690 to Patricia Hearst in 1974.”
The Northampton bookstore clerk slips your book into a paper bag, he seems curious about my choice, the Hearst saga’s old history, you’re European, aren’t you? You seem to have your own share of toxic teenagers at the moment, those girls swearing allegiance to a god like one gets stuck on a movie star, Marx, God, different eras, different tastes…. I’m guessing you’re a student at Smith, he goes on, if you’re looking to meet the author, she’s listed in the faculty directory.
But I’m not looking for you. Your office is on the second floor of the building I walk by every morning but it doesn’t matter because I’m not looking for you, I’m supposing you. I explain my reason for being here to the bookstore clerk, I pronounce your name, I recount, I say “Madame Neveva” as if you were standing there right next to us and insist upon it, I say “Neveva” the same way as your students in France who venerated you and who I was not one of, Neveva Gene who debarked in a little village in Southwest France in the month of January 1974, a young teacher who in the autumn of 1975 hastily tacked up notices in the village’s two bakeries, Wanted female student with high level of spoken and written English, full-time job for 15 days. Adults need not apply. URGENT.
The three girls who have replied to your ad sit across from you in your cramped office, you offer them a bag of peanuts and cashews, your knees bump up against the desk, your light blue Shetland sweater is patched at the elbows, your hitched-up Levis reveal the malleoluses of your ankles. You say Bonjour, I’m Neveva Gene, pronounced ‘Gene’ as in Gene Kelly or Gene Tierney, no nick-names please, no ‘Gena,’ no ‘Jenny.’
Squeezed into a bordeaux window nook, one by one the candidates detail their trajectories in an effort to win you over, this one is studying English Literature at the university, the next has already been to the U.S. twice, speaking English fluently is important if you’re going to go into business. When it’s the third girl’s turn, she invokes a sabbatical year since graduating from high school in June and the need to make a little money. As they already know, you’re a guest professor. You studied in Massachusetts at Smith College, a university founded in 1875 and reserved for girls barred at the time from higher education. Sylvia Plath was a student. Sylvia Plath, the name doesn’t mean anything to them? You mark an incredulous pause in the face of the embarrassment of the candidates. Margaret Mitchell? The author of “Gone with the Wind”? The young women acquiesce to that one with an enthusiasm which tempers you, it’s a novel that’s more than a little dubious, above all Smith had the honor of admitting the first African-American woman to graduate from college, in 1900: Otelia Cromwell.
“American Lifestyle and Culture,” the course you’re offering at the College of the Dunes, is protean; you speed through what you’d anticipated teaching before you actually got here, the particular architecture of Massachusetts houses, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letters to his daughter Scottie, the history of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, a study of the success of the film “The Planet of the Apes,” a deciphering of the urban legend of the phantom hitch-hiker, the adventure of Apollo 16 and, finally, the invention of the Arpanet and its consequences for communication. Formidable program. The fact is that you nurtured high hopes for this college. They should see the welcoming brochure, three pages on pedagogic innovation, but the reality is something else, this institution is merely the umpteenth private school for girls without any particular qualities who drift about aimlessly after high school, a factory for future homemakers more hippy than their mothers, cute little domestic animals brought up to be consumed before their expiration dates. And who understand nothing in the articles you pass out. The young postulants keep quiet and wait politely to find out what this has to do with them, perhaps they didn’t get the sexual connotation of “brought up to be consumed.” Or maybe they’re just petrified now at the thought of having to submit themselves to your judgment for this work about which you still haven’t said a word. One by one, they recite an article from the New York Times out loud, then translate the essentials, you ask them about the books they read, their musical tastes, pretend not to understand if they answer in French, Sorry?
But where did you learn to speak English like that, you ask the third candidate who immediately blushes, she refers to American songs whose lyrics she likes to copy, they’re actually British you point out, amused, when she recites the words from the Rolling Stones’s “Time Waits for No One” and David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” She rattles off her favorite movies, every week the public t.v. channel shows a film with sub-titles, the ciné-club, she never misses it even if it’s on late, 11 o’clock, you call her an Americanophile, she stammers, not sure if this is good or bad. All three listen to you, dumbfounded, as you imitate the annual speech of the director to parents in an exageratedly nasal and mincing voice, “Oh nooo, it has nothing at all to do with excluding boys from my establishment and everything to do with offering girls special attention! To free them from their own fears!” You want to know what they think: Would they like to study there, with access to so many courses, Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Cinema History, Introduction to Baroque Singing, Judo, and Modern Dance? The third girl’s answer — the tuition is too high — you greet with exaltation, as if it were a scientific breakthrough: Eggs-act-ly! Yes! The very principal of this establishment is a contradiction: Emancipate only those who can afford to be emancipated. At the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of bullshit.
Suddenly you leap up on the transparent Plexiglas chair. You grab a box from the top shelf and place it on the desk. Voila, you declare in designating the package of American origin, as indicated by an impressive quantity of identical green stamps plastered across the top. The job of whoever you decide to hire is entirely contained within, you show them the folders overflowing with press clips, half open a plastic bag filled with cassette tapes resembling those teenagers use to record their favorite songs off the radio. You’ll have to write a report, and you won’t have time to read all this. You must be capable of synthesizing these tons of articles, you point your finger at the box. You insist on an availability that will be indispensable but of a limited duration, 15 days maximum.
“In fact, do you know who Patricia Hearst is?” They’re already on the porch when you pose the question, as if it’s an after-thought, one of the candidates blurts out: During her vacation in the U.S., she saw her on t.v., Patricia is very rich she was kidnapped and…. She’s cut off by her competition, Yes they talked about her in France, there was a fusillade, a fire, and she’s dead. No, you correct her, she’s not dead, the police caught her. It’s her kidnappers who are dead. And they’ve hired you to evaluate the mental state of Patricia Hearst after all these tribulations. A respectful silence follows. None of the three ask who exactly this mysterious “they” is who’s hired you, nor why “they” chose you, you whose specialties are history and literature. You’re the adult, the teacher, and also the exotic foreigner inviting them into a world of adventure, kidnapping, heiresses, happy endings. That alone is enough. The young woman whose English level you praised hasn’t uttered a word, distraught, perhaps, to have lost out in the final leg of the race; she’s never heard of Patricia Hearst. That very evening her mother nudges her bedroom door open, her hand resting on the phone: It’s for you, a funny accent, surely the American professor.
“Is it frowned on here to go to teachers’ homes?,” you ask the young woman you’ve anointed as your assistant. “Because in my office we’d be too scrunched up, we’ll be a lot more comfortable in my home. We’ll talk salary tomorrow, I’m counting on you to not let me rip you off. By the way, are you really 18? I’d put you more at 15.” And it doesn’t matter that she’s never heard of Patricia Hearst, you add before hanging up.
During the ramshackle hiring interview — a real show — you conveniently leave out a major chunk of the Hearst saga. Are you afraid of scaring off these three demeure French girls by telling them any more, do they seem too young to you, are you worried that their parents will be freaked out to see them working on such a subject, you’ve been living in this village of less than 5,000 inhabitants for a year and a half and have already tested its limits, here everyone knows everything about everyone, talks to everyone about everyone, judges everyone. It takes time to explain the complexities and nuances of the drama to your interlocutors and time is the one thing you don’t have a whole lot of. What angle will you use to trace the journey of this young American, which episode will you start with?
That of the kidnapping of Patricia on February 4, 1974 by an obscure pseudo-revolutionary cell, the Symbionese Liberation Army? That of the initial message from the heiress of February 12, a tape recording dropped off by her abductors on the doorstep of a radical radio station which set off a riot in the entire country, her small voice murmuring “Mom, Dad, I’m okay”? How to explain to these French women who just need a job that for the FBI, the victim morphed into a perpetrator in less than two months, converted to the Marxist cause of her captors she was even identified at their sides April 15 on the video-surveillance images from a San Francisco bank, packing an M16. It’s understandable that you’re prudent about what the candidates know and don’t say anything about the metamorphosis of Patricia Hearst.
As for your task, this “psychological” evaluation, you don’t exactly lie but here as well you take shortcuts and leave Patricia’s lawyer, your silent partner, in the shadows. You have 15 days to discover something in the cardboard box overflowing with photocopies that will enable you to write an expert’s report exonerating this child over whom the American media is whipping up a frenzy as her trial approaches. 15 days to decide, who is the real Patricia, a Communist terrorist, a lost college student, a genuine revolutionary, a poor little rich girl, an heiress on the lam, an empty-headed and banal personality who embraced a cause at random, a manipulated zombie, an angry young woman with America in her sights.
A large beige dog with chestnut spots greets your new assistant on the doorstep with outsized enthusiasm, you lunge forward to hold him back — blech!, he’s just planted a big wet kiss on me — a wink, Meet Lenny, you throw a sock at the dog so he’ll skedaddle.
You put out a plate of frosted cookies, offer a cup of tea, jasmine, mint, Russian flavor, whatever she wants, you point to 10 scattered, slightly rusty tin boxes on the kitchen counter. She picks one at random, doesn’t dare tell you that in her family, whether it’s black tea or herbal tea you only drink it when you’re ill. She listens to you standing up, cup in hand, you haven’t invited her to sit down and the only chair in the room is covered with sweaters, an amorphous pile.
“Summarizing the articles will be tedious, we need to stay focused on the details,” you caress the frayed edges of the cardboard box on the dining-room table with a finger. The young French woman nods, looking for clues, are you married, you’re not wearing any perfume, your face is a make-up free zone as the reddened nostrils confirm, your hair is gathered up into a haphazard pony-tail, your nails clipped like a boy’s are stained yellow with tobacco, you laugh your mouth full of chewed-up cookies without excusing yourself, the beads of tangled-up necklaces peek out from a half-open drawer, you tack 33 record covers on the wall, a Nina Simone and a Patti Smith, two times you evoke your “best friend” who lives in San Francisco, the phrase suggests an overly prolonged adolescence, how old are you? The dog follows you everywhere, into the kitchen, the bathroom, when you go to the toilet you go right on talking to your assistant, shouting for her to answer the phone. Mlle Gene Neveva is not available, the flabbergasted girl improvises.
She’s never met an American before you. Speaking this language that she associates with novels and actors, hearing her own voice become foreign turns your first day together into an intoxicating game of role-playing. Everything is part of the scenery, a stop-over in an exotic wonderland, the peanut butter you spread on the crackers whose pale crumbs are strewn all over the rug, your bedroom with the storm-windows shuttered in the daytime, the books piled up at the foot of your bed and the stacks of dailies and weeklies that you ask her to sort by title: Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle. You toss around the words casually, kidnapping, FBI, abductors, when night falls you rub your eyes like a sleep-deprived child and twist around and contort your chest with the eyes half-closed, inhaling slowly, sitting Indian-style on the floor. Re-invigorated, you’re impressed at the manila folders that the girl has prepared and the neat rectangular white labels with sky-blue borders that she pulls out of her pencil case.
“I just love how serious you are, Violette. That name doesn’t really fit you though, ‘Violette,’ it makes you sound like a delicate little flower….”
My middle name is Violaine, the teenager improvises. You stretch your legs out under the table, your mouth forms a careful O, the smoke rings dissipating by the time they hit the ceiling.
“It’s important, a first name, it’s a birth. Violaine. Not easy to pronounce for an American but o-kay. You know, Vi-o-lai-nuh, what will remain unforgettable for me when I go back to the United States?”
The thunder-storms. The mountains. On the beach, on certain days, one can make them out carved into the fog, when they lock themselves around the ocean like an open hand it’s a sign that it will be sunny the next day, your assistant is amused to hear you recite with such conviction the sayings of the old-timers.
The tidal equinoxes, also. Last week the ocean seeped up to the edge of the dunes! The paths along the moors. They all look the same, there are no landmarks, a pine tree is a pine tree is a pine tree is a fern is sand. The sand, you sigh…. That, mixed with the soil in the forest, which turns into mud the instant it rains, the silky beige sand that finds its way into your purse, your notebook spirals, the bottom of your bed, stuck to the soleus muscles of your calves, your socks.
Mlle Neveva won’t forget the sand, she who’s just baptized herself Violaine writes in her diary with the detachment of a documentarian, omitting the fleeting moment when she thinks she hears you describe her as unforgettable even though she barely knows you.
The sand, you repeat practically every day like a mantra, exasperated, taking off your sneakers and shaking them out onto the ground.
Extract, pages 92 – 99
When, on the morning of the 13th day, you announce that you’ve read something which has opened your eyes, no doubt your report will be finished tomorrow afternoon, Violaine is more relieved than you can imagine. This is all she wants, to return to the equilibrium of those first days, to just be your little helper who cuts, translates, and pastes. Instead of being the person who slows you down and irritates you and doesn’t hear the same things you hear in Patty’s recorded messages. You suggest going to the village bar and smoke-shop, a change of scenery will help.
It’s noon, church is letting out, the church plaza is packed, Lenny goes wild every time a hand is stretched out to him, exuberant and shy at the same time, a little kid who never lets you out of his sight, you whistle and put an end to all the social whirl. You deride the devout out loud in English, tell Violaine to observe their holier-than-thou airs, wearing their religion on their sleeves, they’re so relieved to be in good standing with God. There’s no such thing as lost souls, just passive bodies, our own.
When you make your entrance into the café, the men lined up along the counter pivot to stare at you, Violaine follows in your wake, embarrassed to be embarrassed by you who are not at all embarrassed, your jeans just a tad too wide reveal the hemline of your panties, your sea-blue pull-over emphasizes that you’re not wearing a bra.
This providential book, you read it all in one night, the Stanislavsky Method of the Actor’s Studio is the bible of all the great American actors, Robert De Niro used it in playing Travis in “Taxi Driver” (Violaine hasn’t seen it, the film is banned for those under 21). It offers an abundance of exercises to help with building a character. And indisputably, Patricia has become a character. And voila your idea, to envisage the entire saga like a story, a film! You’ll be Patricia and Violaine can play, let’s see, Emily Harris, of the SLA. Your assistant’s aghast refusal amuses you, at the end of the day, Marxism isn’t contagious.
“First exercise: Two words that define your character.”
“Alone,” Violaine suggests.
“Protected from everything. Oops, I used one word too many.”
“Very mature for her age.”
“Too many words, Violaine…! Susceptible and superficial?”
“Typical teenager,” you fire back at Violaine, sticking your tongue out at her.
“A symbolic example.”
A symbolic example? Of what? Your assistant sputters, she has no idea of what, she’s just repeating what the heiress says on the second tape. You admit that you’re perplexed, without doubt Patricia must have said “This is a symbolic example,” and Violaine must have understood “I am a symbolic example.” You’ll have to listen to it again later. Second exercise, write a letter to your character. How would a letter addressed to Patricia Hearst, the college sophomore of before the kidnapping, be different from one addressed to Patricia Hearst, prisoner? One doesn’t change in a few weeks, Violaine protests, all the same distressed to be disagreeing with you once again. You maintain that we’re not entities with immutable identities, circumstances change us, is Violaine the same with her parents as here, certainly not, but Violaine sticks to her guns, Patricia doesn’t really change over the course of her messages, she’d write her the same letter.
The waiter buzzes about you, when he serves the glass of Armagnac the owner insists on offering — the American lady from the Dunes is spending the afternoon in his bar! — his wrist brushes against your hair, Violaine whispers to you, “Il tient une couche celui-là” (He’s one sick puppy, that one), you don’t know the expression but it enchants you, you repeat it to the waiter, who slinks away, the bar is packed to the rafters, the regulars coming from the rugby game, teenagers putting off going home for the traditional Sunday lunch, you can’t hear anyone, you go to the counter to order a beer, you drink to the death of that bastard, Franco finally croaked the day before yesterday, you proclaim rather than simply state, “Those who are against fascism without being against capitalism, those who wail about barbary and who come from barbary, are like those who eat their share of veal but who are against killing calves. They want to eat the veal but don’t want to see the blood.”
A young blonde man applauds you, Bravo, say that again but louder, so that everyone can benefit, a couple approaches you and introduces themselves respectfully, their daughter is in your class, they’ve heard so much about you, you interrupt them, she needs to read Brecht, their daughter, voilà!, the glasses are refilled and clinked, fascistes de merde, then, in the exhilaration of this frenzy, Violaine rises to her tippy-toes and whispers to you these words that she knows by heart, the phrase with which the SLA signs all its communiqués, “Death to the fascist parasite who feeds on the life of the people.” You stare at her, startled, she thinks you’re going to make fun of her and apologizes, she’s read the words so many times in the past few days that they’ve become embedded in her brain, but you grab her hand and kiss it with ceremonious exaggeration, everyone whistles in approval, you bow as if for a curtain call.
You insist on walking Violaine home despite her protests: It’s not like she’s going to get lost over 500 meters. Weaving along the path, slightly buzzed, you burst out laughing recalling the shocked air of a group of your students, seeing you drinking with the farmers seemed to scandalize them, you regale Violaine with your impressions of them, the way you can never separate those two in class, the sadistic books that one devours, stories of girls on drugs, prostituted, beaten, locked in closets, raped, the passion of this other one for Arthur Rimbaud, she keeps a picture of him in her wallet and sobs inconsolably over his death, but she’s incapable of citing a single one of his poems. Arriving at the gate, you can’t seem to decide to leave, you ask about the purpose of the high thickets which surround Violaine’s parents’ property. It’s a question of tranquility, Violaine answers without reflecting. You repeat the syllables, “tran-quil-i-ty.” Your assistant’s parents are therefore insulated from all the racket which rages around here — you indicate with a sweeping gesture the forest and the few scattered other houses. You crack yourself up with your own jokes, do Violaine’s parents have a special thermostat in their living-room for perfect tran-quil-i-ty, with different gradations: “bored like a dead man,” “death-like silence….” Violaine, her keys in hand, doesn’t dare tell you that she’s freezing, that the French phrase is “bored like a dead rat” and that her parents are waiting, the living-room lights are on, if they come outside and find you both on the stoop, they’ll invite you in, and Violaine can’t think of anything worse than you meeting her parents, why do you have to endlessly analyze everything, you tilt your head and hoot at the sky, waiting for the theoretical reply of an owl which never comes. As if it weren’t already night and the sand humid under your naked feet – you grip your sneakers in your trembling hands — you start in on a recapitulation of the afternoon, it was groovy. You’ll return to the bar next Sunday as promised with a Nina Simone 33 because you couldn’t find any of her songs in the jukebox. A propos, did Violaine notice the reaction in the bar when you told about how Nina Simone’s parents, during a concert by their daughter, had to surrender their seats of honor to Whites and Nina refused to continue singing? Nothing. No reaction. Not a shadow of indignation.
The bar had never been so silent. Violaine should remember it, this silence, it has an acrid taste, it’s the silence of that which remains unsaid, those who didn’t flinch at the idea of concert seats being off-limits to Blacks thought they were abstaining from commenting but their silence said it all. In this café, everyone had chosen his camp. There’s no such thing as neutrality.
Day 14 (Excerpt)
Your faith in Method Acting doesn’t last long, the next morning you don’t talk about it anymore. You complain that you have at most two more days before you have to mail the report and you’ve only just started writing it, this report that Violaine assumed you were on the verge of finishing. You hole up in your room for most of the day, from the living-room Violaine can hear the tape player starting up, No one’s forcing me to make this tape, Patricia insists. A brief click, the lisping of a tape being rewound, “You need to understand that I am a, uh, symbolic example and a symbolic warning not only for you but for all the others.” When you find yourself with Violaine in the kitchen, you sip your tea without a word, no mea culpa and Violaine doesn’t dare bring up again Patricia’s expression that she therefore in fact completely understood, nor ask you who these others are, all the others, does she mean “warning” in the sense of an alarm or of a threat, of what exactly is she the example, Patricia…?
You’re expected in San Francisco December 15. There, like the other expert witnesses, you’ll be briefed in depth on the potential attacks from the judge and the prosecutor on your credibility and your past. We’ll turn your revolutionary experience into an asset, the lawyer promises. Who could be in a better position than you to know that, in these groups, you don’t find many 19-year-old heiresses who’ve never participated in a demonstration? That a lawyer whose universe is limited to Harvard and the circle of influential Republicans would harbor this type of certitude is hardly surprising. That you’ve shown yourself so sure to be able to prove him right is more problematic.
But now this skinny French teenager comes along. Why listen to Patricia at all if you’re not willing to hear her?, she innocently asks you over and over. Her question, you can’t permit yourself to hear it either, you whose job it is to show that Patricia doesn’t know what she’s saying. You were right the day you hired her, Violaine understands perfectly well what you’ve given her to read, just not in the way you need her to….
Extract, pages 108 – 112
Are you tired of an experiment which isn’t working out like you wanted it to, these debates in which Violaine continues to whittle away at your attempts to prove that Patricia Hearst was brainwashed. Are you exhausted, between teaching every other day and writing the report, are you pre-occupied with the prison sentence waiting for Patricia if the Defense shows itself incapable of proving her innocence, or worried about seeing your reputation tarnished, you who up until now have led a charmed life, the trial promises to be highly newsworthy, your defeat will be public, Neveva Gene was incapable of coming up with three measly lines to save Hearst. On this particular morning you usher Violaine in and swing the door open to your bedroom in designating, carefully spread out across the carpet, a mosaic of Patricias. Ten tableaux, the magazine covers from Time and Newsweek. Ten attempts to forge a coherent portrait. One
rough draft after another, each superseding its predecessor.
The cover from February 6, 1974, “SHATTERED INNOCENCE,” a Patricia grinning widely, under the delicate blue of an immobile horizon, her hair tussled by a sea breeze, she’s wearing a boy’s striped Polo shirt. The cover from February 13, “WHEN WILL SHE BE SET FREE?,” a pensive Patricia curled up in a vast olive-green armchair, her father with his back against the bookshelves standing behind her, a hand resting on her shoulder. The cover from March 10, “FIANCÉ TALKS ABOUT PATRICIA.”
Violaine kneels, careful not to move the photos. That’s the most recent one, you point to the Time cover of April 4, 1974. No more blue, no more sky, just fire. The background of the image is red, like the fire of a nightmare which seems to surge from nowhere, red like the SLA flag before which she stands, her legs slightly ajar, Patricia is 20 years and one month old, she wears a beret slanted back over her undulating auburn hair, the leather bandolier of an M16 rifle rumpling the khaki fabric of her blouse. A wide black banner splits the image of the heiress in half: GUILTY.
You tell a stunned Violaine that what you’re going to listen to now is a bit shocking. The speech but also Patricia’s tone of voice, the way she talks to her parents. You propose listening to it three times, this tape, once with the eyes closed, to take notes and rapidly go through the dailies from April 1974. Only afterwards will you talk about them.
Tape 4, broadcast April 3, 1974
“I’d like to start out by making it clear that what I’m about to say I wrote on my own. This is what I’m feeling. No one’s ever forced me to say anything on these tapes. I haven’t been brainwashed, or drugged, or tortured, or hypnotized. Mom, Dad, I want to start off with your pseudo-efforts to ensure my safety: Your gifts [the SLA’S ransom demands included food giveaways to the poor] were an act. You tried to hoodwink people. You screwed around, played for time, all of which the FBI took advantage of to try to kill me, me and those in the SLA. You claimed you were doing everything in your power to get me freed. Your betrayals taught me a lot and in that sense, I thank you. I’ve changed; I’ve grown up. I’ve become aware of many things and I can never go back to the life I lead before; that sounds hard, but on the contrary, I’ve learned what unconditional love is for those who surround me, the love that comes from the conviction that no one will be free as long as we’re not all free. I’ve learned that the dominant class won’t retreat before anything in its lust for extending its power over others, even if it means sacrificing one of its own. It should be obvious that people who couldn’t care less about their own child don’t care anything about the children of others.
“I’ve been given the choice between: 1) being released in a safe place or 2) joining the SLA and fighting for my own liberty and for the liberty of all the oppressed. I’ve chosen to stay and fight. No one should have to humiliate themselves to stand in line in order to be able to eat, nor live in constant fear for their lives and those of their children. Dad, you say that you’re worried about me and about the lives of the oppressed of this country, but you’re lying and, as a member of the ruling class, I know that your interests and those of Mom have never served the interests of the People. You’ve said that you’ll offer more jobs, but why don’t you warn people about what’s going to happen to them, huh? Soon their jobs will be eliminated. Of course you’ll say that you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re just a liar, a sell-out. But go ahead, tell them, tell the poor and oppressed of this country what the government is getting ready to do. Tell the Blacks and the vulnerable that they’ll be killed down to the last man, women and children included. If you have so much empathy for the People, tell them what the energy crisis really is, tell them that it’s just a clever strategy to hide the real intentions of industrialists. Tell them that the oil crisis is nothing more than a way to make them accept the construction of nuclear power plants all over the country; tell the People that the government is getting ready to automate all the industries and that soon, oh, in five years at the most, we won’t need anything but push-buttons. Tell them, Dad, that the vulnerable and a big part of the Middle Class, they’ll all be on unemployment in less than three years and that the elimination of the useless has already begun. Tell the People the truth. That the maintaining of law and order is just a pretense for getting rid of the so-called violent elements, me, I prefer being lucid and conscious. I should have known that you, like other businessmen, if you’re perfectly capable of doing this to millions of people to hold on to power, you’d be ready to kill me for the same reason. How long will it take for the Whites of this country to realize that what’s being done to Black children will sooner or later happen to White children?
My name has been changed to Tania, in homage to a comrade of the struggle who fought with Che in Bolivia. I embrace this name with determination, I’ll continue her fight. There’s no such thing as partial victory. I know that Tania dedicated her life to others. To fight, to devote oneself entirely to an intense desire to learn…. It’s in the spirit of Tania that I say, Patria o muerte, venceromos.”
Extract, pages 126-140
Soon after her collaboration with Violaine on the Hearst brief, Neveva returns to the U.S., leaving behind her one lost dog and one “capsized” teenager. Violaine grows up to become the village outcast, adored only by the children who flock to her house after school to eat brown sugar crepes and learn how to question accepted societal norms, much to the consternation of their parents. Her most tenacious pupil is the narrator, in whom Violaine eventually confides the notes she took and the diary she kept while working with Neveva Gene on the Hearst case. (Whence the second-person premise with which the narrator addresses Gene at the beginning of the novel: “I’m supposing you.”) A sort of repository of the influences of Neveva, Violaine, and through her Hearst, the narrator continues to question…. and to search.
Did you really get to know her, your assistant, or did you just skim the surface and size her up in the wink of an eye while you were pontificating about the liberty of women? Of course, in 1975 you were the adult, her elder with whom she didn’t share a whole lot. I have the advantage of the notes she entrusted me with and of the distance of time.
I’m five years old and she who let herself be baptized Violaine to please you is this thin young woman approaching 30 who lives alone with her dog in the house she grew up in, on the outskirts of our little village. From her house you can take a short-cut through the forest which leads directly to the beach, a four-kilometer walk between the columns of towering pine trees. Her dog fascinates me, hieratic and klutzy at the same time. Lenny seems immense to me, Violaine whispers mysterious words to him, my parents explain to me that she speaks English with him because he’s American. Children tend to linger at her place, at snack-time she makes us brown sugar crepes, she listens to us, talks to us like adults never talk to us, we can ask her anything we want. What does she do for a living? She thinks for a moment, let’s see, she translates newspaper articles into English, she helps kids with their homework, she dog-sits when families go on vacation, at the antique shop in the neighboring village she sells bathroom shelves and picture-frames that she makes herself, she repairs shoulder-straps on discarded purses. Why do you have to be limited to one way of making a living?
And why doesn’t she have any children? Well, that depends on what you mean by “have,” can one really “have” another person, what do we think, do we belong to our parents? What if all we can actually own are these scraps of time like the time she spends teaching us to swim, to dig, to read?
I’m seven years old and have the right to hold Lenny’s leash on his walks, the job of making sure there’s always water in his bowl. Violaine teaches me a few English commands that I test out, marveling at how the dog “sits,” “gives me his paw,” and “lies down.” While she reads the newspaper, I get to know Lenny, the silkiness of his dewy, practically hairless skin, the interior crease of his front paws, his leathery nose cracked at the edges, I curl up against him without him batting an eyelid, I hold my face up near his mouth, he snoozes, his breath caressing my cheek. I race to Violaine’s after school to see him, he’s ecstatic to see me, I throw rags to him which he methodically tears to shreds, Violaine warns me about his age, not to be fooled by his healthy appearance, Lenny is a vieux monsieur.
I’m eight years old, summer vacation is over, one September morning, in the glare of the Sun, Violaine’s face seems to have suddenly been drained of all its youth. Lenny died yesterday cradled in her arms, he didn’t suffer, he looked her right in the eyes until the end, a serene trusting look, he was over 15 years old, he lived an incredible life, he traversed a whole continent, he was lost and found at the edge of a lake in America and here also, Lenny was loved multiple times, he had two mistresses, I’m inconsolable, Violaine takes me to discover a path which leads to a part of the beach where normally I’m not allowed to venture alone, there’s no lifeguard. You have to make your way slowly, pushing aside the thistles and blackberry branches to avoid getting pricked, can I tell if the cumin smell is coming from those tiny mauve flowers sprouting up out of the dunes? The sun-baked sand is lined with narrow, barely detectable trails, vipers’ paths. We cry without talking facing the sea then laugh at the idea that what’s making us wail is a dog who landed in France one fine day in 1974 and was lost one fine December morning in 1975. In the spot where he loved to spread out under the Sun, behind the house, Violaine suggests that I plant carrots, which he adored, when I get up to look for a sprinkler, she kneels pressing her forehead against the sand, caressing the soil with her palms.
I’m ten years old and I’m not aware of her tenuous status among the village’s adults. Tolerated but not included, Violaine is never invited to dinner, no one asks for her help in getting ready for the village fête in July; when she is asked for anything, it’s reluctantly, someone needs something translated. They’re all polite to her but without any warmth, like they might be with a foreigner who still doesn’t understand the local customs. For us, Violaine is a miracle in equilibrium between our adolescence to come and the morose adult age of our parents, time circled around her and spared her.
One Saturday afternoon, Violaine passes around a plastic bag in which each child is supposed to place a cracker, an apple, a bon-bon, for “the poor.” We obey, a bit skeptical, no one’s in need around here, we’re not in India. The bag is left out in the open on the City Hall plaza, the morning after it’s empty. What then becomes a ritual generates a buzz that lands us in the local daily, which heralds “a laudable initiative by children identifying the growing poverty in the village since the cork factory shut its doors.” A journalist wants to meet Violaine, she demurs, taking the credit doesn’t make any sense, she didn’t invent anything. The following weeks the priest joins our effort, accompanied by his catechism students, we add to the bags poems copied onto loose sheets as well as drawings. Violaine starts a new club, “The atelier-debate,” Wednesday afternoons from three to six. We cram into her living-room. She hands out a Xerox with the rules: No Interrupting and Show Kindness Towards Others. Such formality makes us feel important, elevates us above the aggressive brouhahas of adults that we dread, Sundays we get up from the table as soon as we’re done eating, plug our ears in our beds to block out the bickering of our parents, “You could have…. If you at least had…. You’ll never do it.”
Sitting on Violaine’s carpet, it doesn’t matter if we’ve already eaten, we compete for cookies, shortbread, marble cake, we hold out our hands, we fidget, me me Violaine, our cheeks reddened with impatience, anxious about not being able to remember everything we have to say.
Violaine presses us about our habits, did we see an ad for our backpack in a magazine, is that why we wanted to buy it, does choice even figure into it?
What if we were starving and we heard about a place where we could get free meals, but where we knew the food was stolen, what would we do? Would we not eat? If we were asked to pass this food out to the poor, what would be more important, where the food came from or feeding those who don’t have anything?
The day after the third Wednesday session, my parents, like the others, receive a letter signed “Concerned Parents” accusing Violaine of justifying stealing. And then I hear them talk about you for the first time: For 15 years they’ve made her pay for the episode of the American professor, it’s time they leave her alone, says my mother, exasperated. I’m eleven years old.
I’m 12 years old, when school lets out Saturday afternoons I race over on my bicycle, I have to scale two hills to get to Violaine’s house. I have my own cup for the tea that she’s taught me to love, a Disney plate dating from when I was eight, Violaine regularly makes like she’s going to toss it and is amused by my protests. My rites make her laugh, aren’t I bored yet of trying on her old scarves in front of the mirror?
I walk by her side. We forge through glades invaded by ferns nearly two yards high, picnic in the hollow of the dune, where we can light a fire without being spotted by the gendarmes, we dine on pepper and zucchini shish-kebobs, wade into the Ocean shivering in April, the water is freezing, that was stupid declares Violaine once we’ve enveloped ourselves in blankets on the sand. I’ve just been authorized to enter her office at the end of the hall, the most beautiful room in the house where the window looks out on the round stones of a dry creek bed. The shelves reach almost up to the ceiling, with books of all sizes which I’m permitted to read but not to take home. The air seems to be in repose, a silence of filtered light impregnated with amber and paper, I pray night never comes, that there’s no interruption of this world that I’ve discovered in the pages of Newsweek, Time, Life. They all have holes in them where articles have been cut out.
In 1991, I’m in eighth grade, Sandrine Cornet loans me a CD her father brought back from the United States, on the cover of Nevermind a plump baby swims in indigo water below a dollar bill attached to a fishing hook. Violaine translates the words of “Something in the Way,” we discuss the meaning of the refrain, America and its wars, says Violaine, seem to be painfully lodged in Kurt Cobain’s throat. I make fun of her lightly, one says the United States, not America. And speaking of the United States, which city does she know the best? I’m not surprised by her response but feel awkward about having made her uncomfortable, what does it matter, she’ll travel later, what does she want to see when she finally goes there?
Violaine gets up on a chair and fetches a folder from the highest shelf, she spreads the photos out on the carpet. Among the snapshots of Northampton and its campus is a portrait: You stare straight into the lens with a mocking smile, your white blouse tucked into the bell-bottom jeans, your feet sheathed in light blue Converses. Sitting on one of the three steps of the building, back leaning against the august portal with its gothic wrought-iron interlacing, the gilded lettering proclaiming: “Smith College, 1875.” Patricia Hearst does not come up that day, just you, Mademoiselle Neveva, for whom Violaine “translated articles and filed papers” in the winter of 1975.
I’ve just turned 16, I half-heartedly prepare for finals. Since Easter, at the request of my parents I’m taking English classes with Violaine, she has me read Emily Dickinson’s poems and excerpts from novels, Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” and James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans,” I have trouble translating the articles she gives me, one of which is an analysis of John Ford’s “The Searchers.” It’s signed Gene Neveva.
She starts your story like this, Violaine: How lucky she was to have been your assistant, despite the migraines every afternoon, the anguish every morning, you needed to work fast, understand complex articles in one reading, summarize them without complaining. But what a chance, what an honor to have contributed, with you, to saving an adolescent from life in prison, here, this is her, Violaine points to the framed photo on her desk. I’ve been looking at this photo since I was a kid, I always assumed it was a cousin, one of Violaine’s friends. I’ve now met Patricia Hearst. Violaine captivates me with the ambiguous charm of the story she reveals to me in bits and pieces. A story of solitude, of encounters, of choice. Of being alive and making sure people know it. Sometimes maybe it’s better to remain with the Indians like in the Westerns, she murmurs.
She pretends to be surprised when I show up on my bicycle the following Wednesday, what, I haven’t had my fill of talking about all this, don’t I have friends my own age? But my classmates and their mundane lives, their preoccupations – what will I do after high school – their Friday nights, their whiskey-Cocas and ground-up aspirin, all this pales in comparison to Patricia Hearst. Violaine holds the key to what I want to understand. The odyssey of a young woman barely older than me whose fracas inebriates me. I tirelessly scrutinize her face on the cover of Newsweek from September 1975. Not a very flattering picture, the glaring lighting accentuates the shadows of the rings under her eyes and her pallid skin. Patricia-Tania stares out at anyone who pauses before the image with a defiant air in this photo taken by the LAPD after her arrest. She looks livid and yet the police have just freed her from her kidnappers, I remark to Violaine, perplexed. Years later, after I’ve spent entire days listening to her and reading her notes, Violaine confides in me that this “livid” surprised her, most of those to whom she’s shown this photo have described Hearst’s expression as “flippant, annoyed.” I’m the only one to catch her anger.
My own is invisible. When it’s time to go back to my role of docile daughter, I ride my bicycle on the bumpy path, where the sand forces me to pedal harder until I’m out of breath, the sadly softened quietude of the family foyer with its bright lights making my eyes fill with tears, I listen without saying a word to my parents recount their day over dinner, two subdued adults with tired smiles. The utter forlornness of blood ties appalls me like it’s only just hit me, I detest what they’re in the process of turning me into, right up to the first name I was given, I’ve been brought up to advance lock-step into the future, whatever the cost, an obedient little soldier who sticks to the family narrative without questioning it, content to obtain what she’s never really wanted, a place in society, a job, a happy home. The prudence of my parents’ life makes me want to throw up, the cowardice of it. Their parsimonious kindness when they toss a coin to a homeless person, their bitter resignation disguised as “character” when they vaunt themselves: “Me, I have no illusions.” I will no longer be the person I was. I open up to Violaine, she doesn’t say anything, her eyes shining brilliantly, she just listens to me debate with myself without being able to identify the strings tying me down. I impregnate myself with Patricia Hearst’s words, hoping that they will contaminate me, I see myself ready to sacrifice everything but the words and the causes elude me, they seem either outsized – the Rwandan genocide, the war in Iraq – or too local, the closing of the pine cellulose factory. Tania’s heroism dwarfs me, forces me to confront my own passivity, she knows how to fearlessly target her enemies, I can’t even find them. What needs to be destroyed, what needs to be attacked first, how, with whom, and which side are you on if you’re not on hers? I scoff at the student demonstrations against the CIP (Contract of First Employment, designed to release employers from minimum wage requirements for workers 26 and under), the counter debates where everyone recites his own personal litany of indignations before sagely returning to the daily grind, and which are useless because no victory exists if it’s only partial. I devote myself to building up my body, push-ups, tractions, abs that I perform on my bedroom carpet, Patricia learned to run and high jump, to load a gun in the dark, to be fearless, to attack. My thirst for knowledge is unquenchable, I spend my Wednesdays stretched out on the carpet in Violaine’s office, I start one book that I discard to grab another that I also don’t manage to finish, I want to read them all. I’m too young I can’t wait. For a class presentation in which the theme is “the other side of the décor,” in the presence of a baffled French teacher I talk about the exposure of the cloistered world of the heiress, how Patricia, in going over to the other side, put an end to several tenacious myths. No, parents don’t love their children unconditionally, not if they embrace another identity besides the one they’re pre-programmed for, no, the police aren’t here to protect us, the police who didn’t hesitate to spray the house in which Patricia was supposed to be with machine-gun fire. I read extracts of her messages to my peers, convinced I’ll find more converts, but there’s an outcry, a millionaire who pretends to care about the poor, who are you kidding, what did Patricia do to change the world, rob a bank? I spout back what are they doing, besides carefully avoiding anything which might slow down their progress, and towards what exactly are they racing with such fervor, I get a 5 out of 20, my work declared “off subject.”
Violaine accompanies me in my humiliations and my questions, cajoles them, anticipates them. She’s no longer the reserved older sister of my childhood who makes me crepes, but a methodical genius with high-speed reasoning, no one besides me knows her, my bilingual heroine saved Patricia in two weeks time with an incredible American. My parents worry more and more about what the two of us are fabricating together, Violaine is after all a mature woman, she’s just celebrated her 40th birthday, and when they pronounce the word “fabricating” their discomfort is palpable, their embarrassment about what they imagine we might be scheming up together.
I’m 18 years old and just barely manage to graduate, my parents want me to “broaden my horizons and create some distance, this school will open doors for me, Bordeaux is a very beautiful city.” I leave behind the fine November rain, the foggy June nights on the cornfields, the mauve thistles, the storms which erode the dunes and Violaine.
If Violaine could only see what they open up to, these doors vaunted by my parents…. Every night I complain on the telephone about my courses in “commercial strategy,” a real brainwashing. Violaine puts me at ease, my brain will resist this like all the rest, I’ve already been subjected to dozens of brainwashings since I was born, my parents, school, the media, religion, and herself all pleading culpable. She sends me numerous letters, no one can force me to stay in this school, photos of the beach and its ferns already turning brown ahead of winter, also one of Lenny, and this text she thinks will please me, its author wrote it when she was exactly my age, 19:
“It seems to me that the term ‘brainwashing’ only makes sense when it designates the process that starts with the education system and is perpetuated by the media, this process by which people are conditioned to passivity, to accepting their pre-destined roles, that of slaves of the dominant class. If I’ve been subjected to any brainwashing, it’s that which conditions all of us to accept and hang on to our place in society. I spent 12 years in private schools surrounded by young people pre-occupied with pursuing their aspirations to dominate. Retrospectively, for me these schools are a training ground for the formation of future little fascists, we’re encouraged to develop all the values of capitalism: individualism, the sense of competition, not to mention racism.”
Tania Hearst takes the words right out of my mouth, I cite her in my paper, I copy this paragraph and hand it out to my fellow students, suggesting that we have a debate about it, isn’t this exactly what’s happening in this school, what are they training us for? The school authorities rapidly summon me and suggest that I “reconsider my objectives.”
I’m 22 years old. I live in a hole-in-the-wall studio apartment in the 18th arrondissement of Paris below Montmartre. I’ve roamed from one university to the next and attempted three freshman years without conviction or success, a year of Anglo-American literature, a year of sociology, and a semester of history, I’ve worked as a waitress, perfume saleswoman, baby-sitter and dog-sitter, translator of various manuals, hair-dryers, bathroom scales and hydrating lotions, none of them lasted and I couldn’t care less, my life starts the moment I push open the doors of the National French Library, I’ve picked up the habit of reading American newspapers several times per week. The ceremonious silence of the room is soothing, I leaf through Time, Newsweek, Life, snuggling up with them as time blurs. These hollowed out moments are where I live, I have no place else to be, going back to my parents’ house is unthinkable, and I get lost in Paris, I shy away from the impatient masses who push and press but to get where? I don’t really think about Patricia Hearst, I forget about her like the childhood friend you hung out with too much and who you now need to break free of. I’ve not responded to Violaine’s latest letters, which have begun to space themselves out.
For the first time in years, in December 2000 I spend New Year’s week at my parents’. They’re sorry to report that Violaine appears to be losing it little by little from living alone, now she’s defending two students at the Dax high school who want to wear the veil, Violaine’s not even Muslim, as far as we know! She wrote a letter to the principal, a bizarre petition in which she sticks up for “teenagers who expose that which embarrasses us. Some are punk rockers, others might wear the veil. We who describe these girls as prisoners and say they’re being manipulated, are we so sure we’re free?” The children no longer scramble to get to her house for snack-time.
I visit her the next day, guilty to have been out of touch for so long, but she hugs me tightly for a long time. She’s just signed up for unemployment. It’s harder and harder to find translating work; it would seem that everyone now speaks perfect English, she rails. On the surface immune to the sarcasm she’s been subjected to since the business of the high school girls, she leaves me admiring her propensity for solitude. She’s so thin I take pity on her, I want to protect or force-feed her. And yet this body isn’t fragile at all but honed by years of effort, Violaine doesn’t cede to anything.
I’m 30 I’m 32, she comes to Paris regularly to visit me, worried about “being under-foot,” she sleeps on a mattress on the floor and gets up noiselessly at dawn, Violaine disappears for entire days. At first, delighted, she copies the names of streets down like a poem she’s just discovered, she loves crossing the bridges, all the bridges! Monuments everywhere you turn! Stonework everywhere, the palaces, churches, banks, and ministries. And the stores, the restaurants, is there any place where you don’t have to pay for the right to sit down, why do all the parks close at 7 p.m.? All I see in this city, she writes me in a note left one morning, is the overwhelming proof of what we’ve enabled to be erected, no one looks at each other, we’re just statistics and social roles. She hopes I won’t hold it against her but she needs to return to her beloved ocean, with its insistent currents, a space where, as Mademoiselle Neveva used to say, “everything is possible but nothing is guaranteed.” To my parents whom she runs into from time to time and who fret about my wandering – spending the whole day in the library, this is not a job! — she retorts dryly that wandering is courageous work and should be obligatory, like doubting. She warns me on the phone, she doesn’t want me showing up one morning on her doorstep announcing I’m pregnant and am moving back, don’t come home. For that matter, why not go to America for a few weeks, me who gets by so well in English. I get excited, suggest to Violaine that we go in the summer, I’ve found a cheap flight and a youth hostel in Northampton, we can visit the campus. She shakes her head without responding as if I were a child she doesn’t want to answer directly, we’ll see.
I’m 37 years old, we’re in 2015, young women are vanishing from their homes. They’re signaled at the frontiers, designated “S” (Suspect), written up in organizational charts, with graphics illustrating the co-relations between them: Coming from middle class homes for the most part, they range from 15 to 25 years old, and displayed no signs in the preceding months of what was to come. The parents didn’t see it coming when they discovered, stupefied, the B-sides of their children on the ‘Net, in video messages they demand accusingly, in monotone voices, How can we claim to be humanists when in the face of injustice we do nothing, are we not guilty, with our indifference to the poor? Let’s admit it and say it out loud, they’re a warning. For hours and hours I watch the reportages, read and cut out the articles for no reason, without any particular end in mind, pages and pages of questions, why these girls, to whom everything was permitted and who now grace the magazine covers, they stare out at the camera, an arm flattening out their breasts dissimulated under a jumble of fabric. I send the articles to Violaine, the declarations of adults panicked by these impenetrable young girls and who
propose to ‘reprogram’ them in a few weeks. Violaine is initially skeptical, Patricia
didn’t want to kill anyone, the SLA’s credo was humanist even if it failed, be careful about over-simplifications. We pick up our abandoned discussions, these editorials, 40 years later, employ the same words as in 1975, Could they be our daughters, our sisters, our friends? Violaine answers with a short phrase copied onto a visiting card: “What some people call ‘conversion’ or see as a sudden change isn’t one at all but rather a slow process of development, a bit like that of photographs, you know.” — Patricia Hearst (Tania).