By Lola Lafon
Copyright 2017 Actes Sud
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
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You cannot remain neutrally on the sidelines of this world without anger where everything is rigged, where the only thing that must remain undivided is money, where the heart is divided.
–Paul Nizan, “The Conspiracy” (1928), cited on the frontispiece of “Mercy, Mary, Patty”
You write the vanishing teenaged girls. You write these missing persons who take off for new horizons and embrace them indiscriminately, elusive, their minds closed to adults. You question our brutal need to make them see things the way we do. You write the rage of these young women who, at night, in their childhood bedrooms, dream of victorious escapes, they climb aboard ramshackle busses and trains and into strangers’ cars, they shun 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 into French. 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, an assistant professorship at the University of Bologna in 1982 and, finally, the tenured position at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Articles appearing in the academic journals over the past few months underline the importance of your work, magazines debate what they dub your ‘rehabilitation.’ The New Yorker consecrates two columns to you: “A controversial theory: Gene Neveva and the capsized teenage girls, from Mercy Short (1) in 1690 to Patricia Hearst in 1974.”
The Northampton bookstore clerk slips your book into a brown 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, these girls swearing allegiance to a god like one develops a crush 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 reasons for being here to the bookstore clerk, I pronounce your name, I share the story, 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 whom I was not one of, Neveva, Gene who landed 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 responded 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-colored window nook, one-by-one the candidates recite their trajectories in an effort to seduce you, 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 planning to go into business. When it’s the third girl’s turn, she says she’s been “on sabbatical” since graduating from high school in June and needs to make a little bread. 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 candidates’ embarrassed silence. Margaret Mitchell? The author of “Gone with the Wind”? The young women acquiesce to that one with an enthusiasm which alarms you, it’s a novel which is 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 giving at the College of the Dunes, is protean; you race through what you’d anticipated teaching before you actually arrived 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 popularity of the film “The Planet of the Apes,” an unpacking 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 of the matter is that you’d harbored high hopes for this college. They should see the welcome 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 aimlessly about after high school, a factory for future homemakers more hippy than their mothers, darling little domestic animals brought up to be consumed before their expiration dates. And who don’t understand one iota of the articles you pass out. The young postulants remain mum and wait politely to find out what all this has to do with them, perhaps they didn’t get the sexual connotation of “brought up to be consumed by….” 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 uttered 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 cites 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 school’s 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 their opinion: Would they like to study there, with access to so many courses, Introduction to Psychoanalysis, History of Cinema, Beginning 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. (2)
Suddenly you leap up onto 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 the 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 out 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 lauded 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, one hand resting on the phone: It’s for you, a funny accent, surely the American professor.
“Is it frowned upon here to go to teachers’ homes?” you ask the young woman you’ve anointed your assistant. “Because in my office we’d be too scrunched up, we’ll be a lot more comfortable in my house. We’ll talk salary tomorrow, I’m counting on you not to 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 rambling job interview — a real show (3) — you conveniently leave out a major chunk of the Hearst saga. Are you worried about scaring off these three demeure French girls by telling them any more, do they seem too young to you, are you afraid 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 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 radio station which set off a riot in the entire country, her tiny voice murmuring “Mom, Dad, I’m okay”? How to explain to these young French women just looking for a job that in the eyes of 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 know and refrain from saying anything about the metamorphosis of Patricia Hearst.
As for your task, this “psychological” evaluation, you don’t exactly lie but here too 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 random cause, 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 and he skedaddles.
You put out a plate of frosted oatmeal cookies, offer a cup of tea, jasmine, mint, Russian flavor, whatever she wants, you point to 10 scattered, slightly rusty tin boxes arrayed 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 one only drinks it when one’s 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 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, twice you evoke your “best friend” who lives in San Francisco, the phrase suggests an extended adolescence, how old are you? The dog follows you everywhere, into the kitchen, the bathroom, when you go to the bathroom you keep 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 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 stopover 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 by the manila folders the girl has prepared and the neat rectangular white labels with sky-blue borders 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 here 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 repeat 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 bananas 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 mock 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 God’s good graces. There’s no such thing as lost souls, just passive bodies, our own.
When you make your entrance into the bar, the men lined up along the counter
pivot on their stools 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 for playing Travis in “Taxi Driver.” (Violaine hasn’t seen the film, it’s banned in France 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.”
“All 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, no doubt Patricia must have said “This is a symbolic example,” and Violaine must have heard “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 distraught to be disagreeing with you once again. You maintain that we’re not entities with immutable identities, circumstances alter 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 a bit slow, 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 match, teenagers putting off going home for the traditional Sunday lunch, you can’t hear anyone, you step up 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 oppose 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, caught up 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 lives 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 emblazoned 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 thus 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 imagine 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 with the sand humid under your naked feet – your sneakers dangle from your hands, locking themselves around you — you start in on a recapitulation of the afternoon, it was groovy. You’ll go back 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 them about how Nina Simone’s parents, during a concert by their daughter, had to give up their seats of honor to Whites and Nina refused to go on 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 unspoken, 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 saying 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 supposed to be, all the others, does she mean “warning” in the sense of an alarm or of a threat, of what exactly is she an example, Patricia…?
You’re expected in San Francisco on 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 milieu of influential Republicans would harbor this type of certitude is hardly surprising. That you’ve shown yourself so willing 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 the way you wanted it to, these debates in which Violaine continues to whittle away at your attempts to prove that Patricia Hearst was brainwashed. (4) Are you exhausted, between teaching every other day and writing the report, are you pre-occupied with the prison sentence awaiting 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 open the door to your bedroom while designating, carefully spread out across the carpet, a mosaic of Patricias. Ten tableaux, the covers from Time and Newsweek. Ten attempts to forge a coherent portrait. Each a rough draft for the next, each effacing the one that preceded it.
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 bookcase standing behind her, a hand resting on her shoulder. The cover from March 10, “FIANCÉ TALKS ABOUT PATRICIA.”
Violaine kneels, careful not to disturb 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 (5), like the fire of a nightmare which seems to surge from nowhere, red like the SLA flag in front of which she stands, her legs slightly ajar, Patricia is 20 years and one month old, she sports 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 words but also Patricia’s tone of voice, the way she addresses her parents. You propose listening to it three times, this tape, once with the eyes closed, taking notes, and then rapidly going through the dailies from April 1974. Only afterwards will you talk about them.
Tape 4, broadcast April 3, 1974
(Translator’s note: All citations from Patricia Hearst in “Mercy, Mary, Patty” are from the public record, including the tapes released by Hearst’s captors and trial evidence.)
“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 were an act. [The SLA’s ransom demands included food giveaways to the poor – one of which, at a church near his family’s house, the translator remembers well.] 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 give a hoot 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 by standing 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 Tanya, in homage to a comrade in 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 Tanya 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
Translator’s note: Soon after her collaboration with Violaine on the Hearst brief, Gene Neveva returns to the U.S., leaving behind her one lost dog and one irreparably altered teenager. Violaine grows up to become the village outcast, loyal to the principles inculcated in her in part by Neveva but alienated from her community, adored only by the children who flock to her house after school to nibble brown-sugar crepes and learn how to question accepted societal norms, much to the consternation of their parents. Her most devoted acolyte among these children is the narrator, with whom Violaine eventually shares the notes she took and the diary she kept while working with Gene Neveva on the Hearst case. (Whence the second-person premise with which the narrator addresses Neveva 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 blink of an eye at the same time you were pontificating on women’s rights? Of course, in 1975 you were the adult, her elder in whom she didn’t confide 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 the teenager who re-named herself Violaine for you is this thin young woman of nearly 30 who lives alone with her dog in the house where she grew up, on the outskirts of our little village. From her house there’s a short-cut through the forest which leads to the beach, a four-kilometer walk between the columns of pine trees. Her dog fascinates me, hieratic and clumsy 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 considers the question 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 limit yourself 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 little snippets of time like the time she spends teaching us to swim, to dig, to read?
I’m seven years old and have earned 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 try out, marveling at how the dog sits, gives me his paw, and lies down. While she reads the paper, I get to know Lenny, from the silkiness of his pink, practically hairless skin to the inner folds of his front paws, his leathery nose cracked at the edges; I curl up against him and he doesn’t bat an eye, I approach his mouth with my face, he snoozes, his breath caressing my cheek. I race to Violaine’s house after school to see him, he’s ecstatic to see me, I throw rags to him which he meticulously rips 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 been suddenly 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’d had an incredible life, he’d traversed a whole continent, he’d been lost and then found on the edge of a lake in America and here also, Lenny was loved many times over, 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 go alone, there’s no lifeguard. You have to make your way down 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 sand turned boiling-hot by the Sun is lined with narrow, barely detectable rivulets, vipers’ paths. We cry without talking facing the sea then start laughing from crying so hard over a dog who landed in France one day in 1974 and was lost one December morning in 1975. In the spot where he loved to stretch 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 fragile 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 with reluctance, 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 get 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 and spared her.
One Saturday afternoon, Violaine passes around a plastic bag into which each of us is supposed to put a cracker, an apple, a piece of candy, for “the poor.” We obey, a bit skeptical, no one’s desperate around here, we’re not in India. The bag is left out in the open in the City Hall plaza, the following morning 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 local cork factory closed down.” A journalist wants to meet Violaine, she demurs, taking the credit doesn’t make much sense, she didn’t invent anything. In the following weeks the priest joins our campaign, accompanied by his Sunday school 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 “Be Kind to Others.” Such formality makes us feel important, elevating us above the contentious brouhahas of adults which we dread, Sundays we get up from the table as soon as we’re finished eating, plug our ears in our beds to block out the bickering of our parents, “You could have…. If you’d only have…. You’ll never do it.”
Sitting on Violaine’s rug, 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 flush with impatience, worried about not being able to remember everything we want to say.
Violaine presses us about our daily 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 just 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 hurry 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 beside her. We forge through glades invaded by ferns nearly two yards tall, 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 shivering in the water ice-cold in April, that was dumb declares Violaine once we’ve enveloped ourselves in blankets back 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 smooth stones of a dry creek bed. The shelves rise up almost 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 that 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 gaps in them where articles have been cut out.
It’s 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 fish 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 the campus is a portrait: You stare straight into the camera with a mocking smile, your white blouse tucked into your bell-bottom jeans, your feet sheathed in light blue Converses. You’re sitting on one of the three steps of the building, your back leaning against the august portal with its gothique 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 study for finals. Since Easter, at the request of my parents I’m taking English classes from 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.” (6) It’s signed Gene Neveva.
She begins 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, be able to 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. (6)
She pretends to be surprised when I show up on my bicycle the following Wednesday, what, haven’t I had my fill of talking about all this, don’t I have friends my own age? But my classmates and their boring lives, their preoccupations – what will I do after high school? – their Friday nights, their whisky-Cocas and ground-up aspirin, all this pales in comparison to Patricia Hearst. Violaine holds the key to what I want to understand, what I need to know.
The odyssey of a young woman barely older than me the fracas around whom is inebriating. I tirelessly scrutinize her face on the cover of Newsweek from September 1975. Not a very flattering picture, the stark lighting accentuates the shadows of the rings under her eyes and her pallid skin. Patricia-Tanya glares 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 have caught her anger.
My own is not visible. When it’s time to resume my role of docile daughter, I take my bike on the bumpy paths, where the sand forces me to pedal hard until I’m out of breath, the mournful enervating calmness of the family foyer with all its lights turned on brings tears to my eyes, I listen without saying a word to my parents recounting their days over dinner, two extinguished adults with worn smiles. The solitude of blood ties appalls me, as if it’s only just dawned on me, I detest the person they’re trying to mold me into, right down to the first name they’ve given me, I’ve been trained to march lock-step into the future, an obedient little soldier who sticks to the family roadmap without questioning it, content to have what she’s never really wanted, a position in society, a job, a happy home. The prudence of my parents’ lives makes me want to throw up, the cowardice of it all. Their parsimonious generosity when they toss a coin to a homeless person, their bitter resignation disguised as “strength of 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 a word, her eyes shining brilliantly, she just listens to me debating with myself, unable to see the strings tying me down. I impregnate myself with Patricia Hearst’s words, wanting them to infect me, I dream of being ready to sacrifice everything, but lack the words and the causes, they seem to be either beyond my reach – the Rwandan genocide, the war in Iraq – or too local, the shutting down of the pine cellulose factory. Tanya’s heroism dwarfs me, forces me to confront my own passivity, she knows how to fearlessly target her enemies while I can’t even identify them. What needs to be destroyed, what needs to be attacked first, how, with whom, and whose side are you on if you’re not completely on hers? I pooh-pooh the student demonstrations against the CIP (7), the café debates in which 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 rug in Violaine’s office, I no sooner start one book than I discard it for 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,” while a baffled French teacher stands listening I recount 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’ve been 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 holing up 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 retort 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 knows her like I do, my bilingual heroine who saved Patricia in two weeks time with an incredible American. My parents worry more and more about what the two of us might be concocting , Violaine is after all a mature woman, she’s just celebrated her 40th birthday, and when they pronounce the word “concocting” 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 exactly they open up to, these doors vaunted by my parents…. Every night I rail 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 being culpable. She writes me numerous letters, no one can force me to remain in this school, sends me 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, the 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 hold 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.”
Tanya 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’m living in a hole-in-the-wall studio apartment in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, below Montmartre. I’ve roamed between two universities 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, for hair-dryers, bathroom scales and hydrating lotions, none of these jobs lasted and I couldn’t care less, my life begins the moment I push open the doors of the French National Library, I’ve picked up the habit of reading American newspapers several times per week. The ceremonious silence of the periodicals room is soothing, I leaf through Time, Newsweek, Life, snuggling up with them as time blurs. These precious 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 around with a bit too much and who you now need to break free from. 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 at snack-time.
I visit her the next day, guilty to have been out of touch for so long, but she just 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 bemoans. 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 down the names of streets like a poem she’s just discovered, she loves traversing the bridges, all the bridges! Monuments everywhere you turn! Stonework everywhere, the palaces, the churches, the banks, and the 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 the society we’ve let 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 get back 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 that 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 whose question she doesn’t want to answer directly, we’ll see.
I’m 37 years old, it’s 2015, young women are disappearing from their homes. They’re signaled at the frontiers, designated “S” (8), written up in organizational charts, with graphics illustrating the co-relations between them: Coming from middle class homes for the most part, they’re between 15 and 25, and did nothing to stand out in the preceding months. Their 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 on end 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 (Tanya).
Extract, pages 218-240 (conclusion of “Mercy, Mary, Patty”)
Translator’s Note: We’re back where the novel began, in 2016, with the nameless narrator – Violaine’s prodigy as the latter was Gene Neveva’s four decades earlier — on a pilgrimage to Smith College in Northampton to find Professor Neveva and perhaps her own way as she nears 40. After a preliminary meeting in which Violaine’s name does not come up, Neveva suggests that the narrator enroll in her course – even though she normally does not accept adults as, in her view, they have a predisposition for short-cuts and simple answers.
Your class is not the Sunday Mass I feared it might be, even if the fervor of the participants lends itself to confusion, the way they stampede into the room, piling into every nook and cranny, spilling over from the seats onto the stairs and hunkering down as if preparing for a siege, provisioned with sandwiches, bottled water, trail mix. The first day you warn us: We’ll emerge from your course neither swept away nor converted, you insist, above all not converted.
The weeks glide by and slip away and I don’t have time for anything, neither strolling in Northampton nor picnicking by the lake, nor even to write a long letter to Violaine. You submerge us in tales of captivity from the 18th and 19th centuries, every one constructed around the same model: “savages” capture a frail young woman, are subsequently slain by the defenders of civilization who save her, freeing the young woman, all the better to enslave her “chez elle.” I’ve chosen, for the oral report which caps the first month of the course, to focus on the cases of Mary Rowlandson and Mary Jemison. The former, a pastor’s wife captured in Lancaster, Massachusetts in 1682, penned a first-hand account of her 11 weeks of captivity, the first best-seller in America, reprinted regularly up until 1913. As for Mary Jamison, in 1823 she confided to a young doctor the story of her kidnapping and adoption at the age of 15, in 1753, by the Senecas. The sophomores recount to me with delectation how you grilled one of them for two hours after her presentation, forced another to improvise, grabbing her papers from her hands, the time you cut off a student before she could even finish her introduction, which you judged “cliché-ridden.” Only to execute perfect figure eights a moment later by contradicting themselves in emphatically evoking how you’d already ‘saved their lives,’ a telephone call on a Sunday when they were feeling particularly gloomy, a last-minute excursion when they felt overwhelmed with schoolwork, the little bags of dried fruit.
The morning of my presentation, my classmates urge me on with taps on the shoulder as I approach the lectern. I await your questions without too much trepidation, I know the texts practically by heart. You have but one sole question to ask me, you say reassuringly:
“Why did these two stories resonate – and why do they still resonate today – so strongly?”
The stunned silence of my fellow students overwhelms me. Nothing about the actual texts, nothing about their authors, the exhaustion from having slept so little for months leaves me drained, it doesn’t help matters that my words come to me in French, the various theses imbibed superimpose themselves one over the other, your own book, “Mercy, Mary, Patty,” which you detest us citing is the only one which comes to mind, your clear grey eyes stare at me, is this how you reduced Violaine to being little more than a spectator of your affirmations, you lean towards me, am I all right, would I like some cashews? You suggest we break for lunch and leave the room, my classmates comfort me, delighted to count me among the victims, Welcome to the Club, this is typical Neveva.
Many days elapse before I dare respond to your question by e-mail: Perhaps the resonance of these stories is due to what their authors suggest: Having learned to be well-behaved and obedient was of no succor to them, this is not how these young women survived among the Indians.
“Nor at Smith College, for that matter,” is your irrelevant response, with this PS: “Don’t forget that despite their sincerity, these stories were politically exploited by the powers that be for their own ends. They served as the pretexts for undertaking all kinds of punitive actions against the Indians in the name of our besieged civilization. They need to be read with more distance than that with which you seem to have read them.”
One morning during the final week, you find yourself confronted with the first grumblings of a revolt. Mercy, Mary, all right but… when are we going to finally get to Patty? We’ve been talking about her since the very first day, you whisper emphatically, exasperated.
I remained at Smith a little over a quarter. I often had the impression of being immersed in the décor of an idealized novel about a model boarding school where no one asks you about your nationality, your sexual orientation, your religion, a happy hermetically-sealed world in which benevolent professors are there to teach without professing. The morning of my arrival, a roll of Lifesavers was left on my doorstep and a postcard bid me welcome to the campus, the following day, on the route leading to the library, a chalk-drawn message on the asphalt pavement celebrated my decision to go back to school; the “Big Sis – Little Sis” rite had begun, each of the newbies would be showered with attention by an upperclasswoman for an entire week. Last month, I was tickled by a day dubbed There’s No Such Thing as a Stupid Question Day, we were encouraged to ask any sociology professors or students we met up with about any aspect of society, they all wore badges to this effect: “Ask me!” I was present for rituals without taking part in them, like the night, on the eve of finals, when everyone leaned out of their windows and simultaneously screamed for a whole minute to release their tension and anxiety, after which they all resumed prepping.
At Smith I was a nearly 40-year-old “provisional” student surrounded by young women bearing no resemblance to me when I was their age. They intimidated me, as if it were me who was their little sister, I envied the splendid nonchalance with which they employed the first person singular and the verb “to choose,” I chose to stay and fight. (9)
On “Ivy Day,” standing beside their parents, I applauded these women who were neither my daughters, my sisters, nor my friends, a procession of hundreds of tulle gowns, of satin, and of ribbons exposing plump arms, of rumpled shorts with matching derbies, of tank tops revealing bra straps, they advanced slowly towards us, being careful not to let the chain of laurels which bound them slip off their shoulders.
At Smith, I listened to all the tape recordings of Patricia Hearst from start to finish, poured through forgotten theses from the 1980s, the anarchist club permitted me to consult the student fanzines of the epoch which supported the SLA and were enamored with Tanya. In the archives, I unearthed articles from the dailies describing your arrest in April 1969. The announcement that Smith had fired you. The tracts calling for your re-instatement. The photos of a demonstration in solidarity with your cause. A petition from 1995 calling for you to finally be granted the academic honors you had a right to. More recent articles deploring the re-release of “Mercy Mary Patty,” Ms. Neveva should stick to indoctrinating the lesbians of her Communist university. But nothing, nothing at all on your report for the Hearst defense team. I believe I can confirm today that you attended the trial as a spectator.
One day I mentioned your personal involvement in the Hearst trial to another student; she nearly fell out of her chair, why didn’t you talk about the report in your course, it must be fascinating, the young woman suggested that we work together, we could read it faster, dividing the report in two, and eventually include it in our final paper. I hemmed and hawed, maybe it was just a rumor, we should ask you first. Which is exactly what she did at the next class. You didn’t bat an eye, for several instants it seemed to me that you noticed my crimson visage and then, with a shrug of the shoulders, you dismissed the matter as a negligible anecdote – in effect, like dozens of others at the time, you were solicited by the Defense team but it didn’t go any further than that, and if one were to list all your moments of glory, you were also handcuffed on campus centuries ago, does dwelling on the past get us anywhere, no, we need to return to the present.
The night before my departure for France, you called me up. Good evening, it’s Gene Neveva. You offered to drive me to Boston in your car, I must have a lot of luggage, it’ll be better than taking the bus in this heat and besides you have some friends to visit there.
You apologized for the sorry state of your car, empty cookie packages strewn over the upholstery and crumbs on the seats, blanket and parka rolled up into a ball on the back seat, ink-stained class pages stuck under the seats and tracts lodged in the front window. We passed Main Street and the bookstore announcing your appearance the following weekend, such hoopla 40 years after the book’s initial publication, “You’re a celebrity!” You winced, not really, unless being accused by Fox News of “glorifying teen-aged terrorists” is something to brag about. Smith will always be your only fiefdom, you concluded, to which one might add California, for the rest, America has never appreciated uncertain terrains and you’ve been reminding it of this for 40 years.
You indicated the glove compartment overflowing with CDs and were surprised by my choice. Patti Smith, this wasn’t my generation. I responded that “Hey Joe” was one of the soundtracks of my childhood – Violaine’s 33 record that you’d given her – we stopped talking while Patti Smith harangued Tanya Hearst.
You know what your daddy said, Patty? He said, well, sixty days ago she was such a lovely child and now here she is with a gun in her hands.
You told me about Patricia Hearst’s entrance into the courtroom, hailed by whistling and vociferations, the rows of teenagers standing up brandishing her photo like a weapon, We love you, Tanya, we love you. You described Patricia pouring water into her lawyers’ plastic cups as delicately as if she were serving tea. She who might have spent her whole life being served by others.
Her mother clad entirely in black, from her pumps through her purse, in mourning for her dutiful daughter. The prosecutor’s opening argument accusing the SLA of being a foreign army at war against the United States. Patricia stammering in front of the jury, moved to tears, that she’d been raped by a member of the SLA. A very short-lived compassion which ended abruptly the moment the prosecutor asked Patricia if the perpetrator might possibly be the same man of whom she’d sketched a loving portrait in a funeral oration, on the last tape. From that point on, the jury had considered her a liar, a manipulator. When in fact both were probably true, as contradictory as this might seem. You confessed your regret that you hadn’t included a chapter expanding on this idea in “Mercy Mary Patty.” The story of a young woman accused of not having said No loudly enough, thus suspected of having given her consent….
You described Patricia’s pallor as the jury entered the courtroom, even before they’d proclaimed the verdict, she’d whispered, “Guilty.” It was so lousy.
The crucial question of whether Patricia had acted of her own free will had been quickly sidelined in favor of an interminable debate of a quasi-religious nature, the taped messages treated like heretical documents. Patricia had not been judged solely for the acts that she’d committed but for having subscribed to the “diabolical” ideology of the SLA, for having denounced a certain America.
As I listened to you I pictured you young and furious, powerless to contradict the simplistic experts from your bench in the audience, yes or no, true or false, good or bad, innocent or guilty. You who’d devoted more than 300 pages to the nuances of irresolute minds, fluctuating identities. In this country, you bitterly concluded while handing me your cigarette so I could light it, we glorify politicians who never change their opinions, it’s even seen as a sign of strength of character, and Patricia had paid the price, she who’d continually responded Maybe, I don’t know, I don’t know any more.
I was expecting you to add that you’d also paid the price, but you slapped yourself on the wrist, We’re not in class Gene, stop!
We decided to make a pit-stop in Springfield, which we took advantage of to buy drinks and ice cream. In the coffee-shop, young African-Americans were huddled in front of a t.v. broadcasting in constant replay the declaration of a state of emergency in Baltimore. The eye-witness testimonies succeeded each other on the screen, a vehement policeman, a woman in tears, a story with the inevitable end: an adolescent body covered in a shroud, asphyxiated, beaten, killed. His feet surpassed the stretcher, the shoelaces of his sneakers half untied, the policeman will plead legitimate defense, he’ll get off. We were less than 10 miles from Smith College, with its glossy brochure vaunting how the school welcomed serious young women of all colors, white, Asian, Black, pictured leaning over books or in lab jackets. A commercial for a fiction in which I loved believing, we expostulated on the equality in the fortress behind the high Victorian gates.
I was talking too fast because time was running out, searching in vain for an angle without finding it, you were focusing on the road, I continued, I loved your course but was disappointed that we hadn’t studied Cinque’s (10) riposte to the FBI official who, several days after the kidnapping, convinced that the SLA was made up entirely of Blacks, had insinuated on t.v. that “the Blacks, these people, we know who they are.” For the first time you seemed disconcerted. Many moons ago, you’d been fired from a pseudo-libertaire (11) French establishment for having read this very discourse to your students, I already knew this but I didn’t say anything. We attempted to recite it from memory, each of us taking over when the other forgot the words.
You know me, you’ve always known me, I’m the hunted and feared Negro, you’ve killed hundreds of my people to find me; but I am no longer he one steals from and assassinates […] oh yes, you know us all and we know you […].
We stopped talking. The closed cockpit of the car warped time, I prayed we’d never get to Boston. The rain had been falling for a while but now it blotted out the atmosphere outside with horizontal lines, a violent tempest, the first summer storm, forcing us to pull up into a parking lot deserted except for a man and his dog. The animal toddled along in the opposite direction of the stick his owner’d just tossed, he hunted without success and finally resigned himself to limping back, embarrassed over having failed at his task, the man stroked his back, the emaciated hind paws of the dog trembled, the young man lifted the animal up into his arms, the dog unable to get into the car by himself, he curled up on the back seat, exhausted. I remembered the disoriented look of an ageing Lenny when he’d hurt himself for the first time after jumping from a wall, out of breath and panic-stricken when Violaine and I had rushed over to him, he’d struggled to his feet like one gets up hurriedly to ward off a threat. Will you come back one day to the Southwest of France, I asked abruptly, without looking at you directly.
I didn’t have any handkerchiefs in my purse and neither did you, we didn’t even know where to start as the beginning of the story had already taken place and we hadn’t met, or not exactly, we kept interrupting each other, Sorry, we needed to resituate the times, your hands leaning on the steering wheel were shaking, how did she pronounce it, VIO-LAI-NUH, you never knew, you closed your eyes momentarily, voila. When we got to the airport, I sputtered out that I didn’t know if we’d ever see each other again and that you’d been right the very first day we’d met, I’d loved Patricia as an image one can never live up to, I hadn’t chosen anything for years, how to fight against what’s ravaging us, what flag of which SLA to raise, do you even have to rally behind a flag and whose side are you on if you’re not completely on Tanya’s?
“And at the end of the day, what was in your report?”
You burst out laughing, as if I’d just said something particularly hilarious, we arrived at the international departures building, you locked me briefly in your arms, more of an accolade than a hug, you didn’t have time to wait around, a horde of freshmen to whom you’d assigned too many books to read – as if such a thing were possible – were no doubt already whining at your door. Then at the check-in counter as we were about to go our separate ways, you asked me if by any chance I had “Mercy Mary Patty” in my purse but it was already stashed away in my suitcase, we hurriedly unpacked it, hunching over in front of the armed security guards, extracting tee-shirts, underwear, skirts and notebooks. You thumbed through the book and ear-marked pages 50 through 65, voila the report, you seized my hand and grasped it between yours, beware of pat stories and I don’t know if Gene Neveva was referring to Patricia Hearst, Violaine, or me.
There’s a certain grace in being one of those who seek to connect the dots, who tirelessly keep their ears peeled for the voices, disseminated over time, of centuries of equivocal missing persons which have trouble reaching us.
You hadn’t saved Patricia Hearst but you’d completed, without fail, your report, which bore little resemblance to a legal brief.
You’d written it for Mercy Short, in 1690 she is 17 years old and has been sequestered in her bedroom for a week. Around her bedside huddle pastors from neighboring villages and boys her own age, 50 bystanders who don’t take their eyes off her, observing what she eats, the way she talks, her dreams that she has to repeat down to the most minute details for the small assemblage monitoring every single word, they sing and chant until daybreak, strengthened by being united against the Devil. Mercy must be saved, she’s unrecognizable since she was rescued, without a doubt her kidnapping has left its mark, she has to get her two-cents’ worth in even when nobody asks her opinion, she has no sense of decency, if we let things go on like this before long she’ll be addressing her boss like he’s her cousin. She calls her father a hypocrite after listening to him pray to God. And the way she dresses, the top button of her frock permanently unbuttoned, it’s indecent! We must save Mercy Short’s soul, bring back the Mercy we all know and love, the adorable Mercy, she in whom, concludes pastor Cotton Mather in the account he consecrates to her, the “faculties are now in complete disarray and who is exhibiting a freedom in her tone of voice that is absolutely extraordinary and in this respect, disturbing.”
You write for Eunice Williams who adoptive parents, Mohawks, baptized Marguerite when they converted to Catholicism. Eunice-Marguerite kidnapped in Deerfield on February 28, 1704 by troops made up of French soldiers and their Indian allies, the Abenaquis and the Mohawks.
Eunice-Marguerite who one day receives a visit from an old man, he stutters, no doubt from the cold, tears flow from his eyes which he dries off with a hand roughened by frostbite, he’s been searching for her for months, he’s scoured all of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. She offers him a cup of tea and invites him to sit down on the warmest bearskin rug, covered with hand-woven blankets. He talks a little bit too loud, detaching each of his words as if she can’t understand him. She doesn’t need to call him Sir, he’s her father. The teenager shakes her head, her father is out there, with her mother. She points her finger at a Mohawk couple who wave back, they’re gathering firewood. The reverend raises his voice, Clearly not, he’s her father, he never gave up, sure that he would find her, bloodlines are so strong, from the moment he’d been freed he’d been searching for her without let-up. And now they’re reunited. The nightmare is over, in a few days, the time it takes to get to Deerfield, Eunice will be safe, nothing can ever happen to her again, John Williams swears it, he’ll make sure of it. Then the girl who no longer goes by the name of Eunice shakes her head firmly, flabbergasted. He’s welcome here. He can stay as long as he likes. She’ll present him to her husband. Show him what he built last month, an ingenious construction of tree branches over which they’d stretched a buffalo skin to protect it from storms. He can rest. Eat. But leave with him, to go where? This is her home, here.
A few months later, the reverend returns. On each of his visits, she listens to him patiently like one might listen to someone afflicted by the fever, his discourse won’t brook any interruptions, he captures the young woman’s time, assails her with this first name with which he re-baptizes her, Eunice my Eunice, I recognize you all the same. The sole account of Eunice’s choice is the one published by her father in 1707: “The Redeemed Captive,” it inspired James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.”
You, you write for Eunice’s descendants who still live in Kahnawake, they tell anyone who asks the story of their grandmother, great-grandmother, great-grand-aunt who refused to be liberated, she was not a prisoner. You write stories without epilogues or revelations, an equilibrist in the gray zones who springs up when one least expects it, you send a postcard, “Attention: Violaine,” which I receive yesterday, if she consents to budge all the way to Northampton, Violaine will feel right at home in your class, it’s off-limits to adults.
1. Like Mary Jamison – the ‘Mary’ of the title – Mercy Short was an Early American teenager kidnapped by an Indian tribe.
2. In English in the original.
3. In English in the original.
4. Although this and the next sentence seem to be interrogative, Lafon ends them both with periods, unusual even in French style.
5. The original French phrase, “le fond de l’image est rouge,” echoes the title of Chris Marker’s landmark 1977 documentary history of the radical Left, “Le fond de l’air est rouge.”
6. While the ending of John Ford’s 1956 film is more ambiguous, in the real story which inspired “The Searchers,” Cynthia Parker was “rescued” against her will from the Comanche tribe which kidnapped her as a child and never adapted to the white society to which she was returned. See Glenn Frankel’s “’The Searchers’: The Making of an American Legend,” Bloomsbury USA 2013.
7. Student protests broke out all over France in 1994 when the Right-leaning government proposed solving the youth unemployment problem with a Contrat d’Insertion Professionnelle (CIP) or First Employment Contract, which would have enabled employers to hire candidates under 26 at wages as much as 70 percent below the minimum wage.
8. French authorities’ designation for individuals it deems likely to commit terrorist acts.
9. In English, followed by French translation, in the original.
10. “Nom de Guerre” of Donald DeFreeze, leader of the SLA.
11. French term for a non-violent stream of anarchism and anarchists. The translator has left it in the French original here because the most obvious English translations, “anarchist” or “Libertarian,” have respectively more radical and conservative connotations in American English than that intended by the French term.