Archives for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers
John Slattery’s (Morocco 1994-96) film is being broadcast (in a shorter form) on BBC Arabic TV this week.
The FILM: Casablanca Mon Amour explores a Moroccan perspective on the entwined relationship between Hollywood and Morocco. The relationship (between the U.S. and Morocco) is examined through the cultural lens of cinema.
A 45 minute version CASABLANCA MON AMOUR will be broadcast on Alternative Cinema BBC Arabic this Saturday March 29th, 2014 at 19:06 GMT and repeated on Monday and Thursday at 22.06 GMT on BBC Arabic TV.
It is NOW streaming live online for a 1 week catch up
here (you can just fast forward a bit past the first NEWS part and then it begins)
Here is the announcement Trailer:
There is also a Cinema Badila facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/BBCArabicAlternativeCinema for comments.
[Larry Lesser, a retired FSO, served as DCM in Bangladesh and Rwanda and as deputy executive director of the Department's NEA Bureau. Other overseas tours were in Belgium, Burkina Faso, India, and Nigeria - the latter as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Since retiring he has been a re-employed annuitant, chiefly for the Office of Inspector General, as an editor of human rights reports for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL), and teaching mediation at the Foreign Service Institute. Lesser has been an OSCE supervisor or observer for numerous elections in eastern Europe. He was an appointed member of the Foreign Service Grievance Board 1997-2003, and an elected member of the American Foreign Service Association board of governors 2005-07.This piece appeared in American Diplomacy. They gave permission to republish it. ]
Marry an Asian Woman
by Larry Lesser (Nigeria 1963-65)
I’m thinking about a man I saw when I was a consular officer in the American Embassy New Delhi back in the ’60s. He was an American citizen; I’ll call him Abner Strong. He came in one day and told our able Indian assistant that he’d like to talk to an American consular officer. He sat down in front of me with my desk taking up space between us. (I was a newly-minted Foreign Service Officer and didn’t as yet have the poise to come out from behind my desk to talk.)
Abner was slightly built and fair of complexion. He had an eager look. He had a short relatively light-colored haircut that stood up an inch or so above his scalp-longer than a crew cut. He was wearing a short-sleeve shirt with narrow vertical stripes-light red as I recall. Jeans. I’d put his age as early-40s. He didn’t make eye contact when he spoke; he looked down almost as if he was talking to himself, and he spoke quietly and quickly. It was a little difficult to catch everything he was saying.
He told me he had come to India to obtain a bride. He was on the engineering staff (not the faculty) of a great American university in New England. He had been working there for a number of years. He lived on a farm that he owned out in the countryside. He told me he was telling me this to establish that he was a responsible and stable person.
Once Strong started talking there was no stopping him. He told me he had been married more than once to American women and it didn’t work. American women don’t make good wives, he said. Then he stopped because it occurred to him that he needed to clarify something before going on. He asked me if I was married. Yes, I answered. “Is your wife American?” he asked. “Yes, she is,” I replied. “Well I’m not saying it’s impossible to have a happy marriage with an American wife,” Abner said, “but the odds are against it.” He elicited the information from me that I had been happily married about five years and that my wife and I had two small children.
Abner’s point was that American women are too independent, too demanding, too selfish. They don’t pay enough attention to making their husbands happy, attending to their husbands’ wishes. They argue too much. They can be very frustrating.
Asian women on the other hand know how to take care of their husbands. Strong had done a lot of research. He was determined not to make another mistake. He had concluded that his best bet was to marry a young Asian woman who would depend on him to teach her everything she would need to be a successful wife with a satisfied husband. Women from anywhere in Asia would meet his criteria but he had decided - based on assiduous research because he wasn’t about to go lightly into something as serious as getting married again… he had decided that taking all the relevant factors into account his best bet was to marry an Indian woman. A young Indian woman. He would bring her back to the States to live with him in his farmhouse in the remote countryside. And she would serve him impeccably in the ways he would teach her.
I didn’t much like what I was hearing from Mr. Strong. In fact I thought he was pretty far off-base -maybe even a little nuts: certainly creepy. Being as charitable as possible, I thought maybe he had a rich interior life but didn’t connect well with other people. It wasn’t hard to imagine why his former marriages-to those American women-hadn’t worked out.
At the same time I thought Abner Strong’s story and hypothesis were pretty interesting. And it was my job to be helpful and friendly. (Remember this was back in the 1960s.) “How are you going to do it?” I asked him.
Strong told me he would be visiting places where young women of marriageable age were gathered and he’d work it out from there. He had written ahead to some places. He would work out the arrangements and then he would be coming back to New Delhi for his new wife’s immigrant visa. He wanted to know whether I had any helpful advice that would expedite the visa process.
It was the first time I had encountered a situation like this. I supposed it was OK even though I didn’t much like it. I was indeed happily married to my American wife and I didn’t mind actually that my wife talked back to me and didn’t always do things the way I preferred; indeed she didn’t always do what I preferred at all. But I chalked that up to the normal give and take of intimate relationships-not knowing any better, you could say: Abner Strong probably would say that. What is the natural order of things after all? I thought about that after my conversation with Abner. I thought about it quite a bit. Maybe I had set my goals too low in life and in my marriage. Maybe I should have expected my wife to concentrate all her efforts on making my life a perpetual pleasure and settled for nothing less. But that idea had no resonance for me. I couldn’t shake the conviction that my life was the happy one organized along workable principles while Abner Strong’s life was probably not so happy and would never be happy as long as he persisted with his unrealistic and illegitimate notion that the central function for his next wife would be providing for his happiness.
A couple of months later Abner Strong reappeared at the embassy-with his new bride. They were ready to advance through the immigrant visa process. The process isn’t especially complicated but it is onerous especially for someone unaccustomed to bureaucratic processes-which was clearly the case for Abner’s bride. The two of them were escorted into my office by our able south Indian assistant Mr. Sundaram. I was the fledgling consular officer who nevertheless held all the cards and was presumed to be the one with a firmest grasp on how the world works.
The girl-she was more girl than woman-was 16 or 17 years old. She was very pretty. Strong had found her at a Christian orphanage in Kerala state in south India. She spoke and understood Malayalam, the local language, plus a little English from the classroom. But she had never heard a native English speaker until Abner Strong came along. Abner of course did not speak or understand Malayalam at all. He and the girl- I’m calling her Indrani-could not yet have an intelligent conversation with one another. I wanted to be sure that Indrani understood what was going on so I asked Mr. Sundaram to interview her and confirm that she was OK with the marriage and with her forthcoming emigration to the United States. Mr. Sundaram reported back to me that he liked the girl very much and that Indrani had been a foundling and was raised by the sisters and had been taught such domestic arts as sewing and singing and comforting the afflicted, but she really had no marketable skills. Her only hope for a good life was to marry well-or else to become a nun of the order herself. Mr. Sundaram told me that Indrani understood well enough what was in store for her and was going into it with her eyes open and with a positive attitude.
Meanwhile I was listening to Abner Strong describe the successful conclusion of his quest for an Asian bride who would minister to his needs and be a comfort to him as he grew older. He told me he liked Indrani the moment he set eyes on her-and she had locked eyes with him from the outset too, meaning that she was similarly drawn to him and was prepared to place her life in his hands. He sensed that animal attraction that is vital to a relationship between a man and his wife, Abner told me. He sensed that Indrani was quite smart and would be a fast learner. That would include improving her English. The sisters at the orphanage had a high opinion of her as one of their star students, and one of their best-behaved. And you can see how pretty she is. And so they were married. Abner pronounced himself very well satisfied with his journey to India.
Strong told me he had sensed in our first conversation that I was skeptical that things would work out so well. He admitted that he had a bit more doubt himself than he had let on in that conversation; it had been important to have only positive thoughts about what he was endeavoring. He recalled that he had maybe hurt my feelings by saying that American wives are no good and Asian wives are preferred, considering that I had an American wife and seemed to be satisfied with my marriage. He remembered all that.
I encouraged Strong to tell me how he planned to introduce Indrani to life in the U.S. He said he had given that a lot of thought. Indrani would live with him in his farmhouse in the countryside. Abner would teach her the rudiments of managing a modern American house: cooking, cleaning, operating appliances. There was no public transit along their rural road, and Indrani wouldn’t have a driver’s license or access to a car. When they would need to go shopping for food or clothing or whatever he would take her in his car and they would do it together or he would do it himself. Indrani’s only social contact with other people would be when Abner would take her with him. But she would have the TV and the telephone in the farmhouse to keep her occupied when she wasn’t doing household chores. And she would have access to books-in English-to improve her knowledge of the American language.
When Abner and Indrani were both in my office I took a closer look at Indrani to get a better idea about whether this whole thing was OK according to my own inchoate standards of how human relationships ought to be conducted and how individual human beings can fulfill their own highest aspirations and achieve self-actualization. (This idea can also be expressed in less lofty terms.)
Indrani was very pretty; that’s the first thing when I looked at her. The second thing was that she looked very young and, by extension, ‘unformed’. She had been brought up in a protected environment and had practically no experience of the great world. The third thing was that she looked intelligent; she was taking in her surroundings and you could almost see her making calculations based on what she saw and the facts and conditions of her new circumstances.
I became convinced-in my own mind, irrespective of outside influences-that for Indrani this was the opportunity of a lifetime. She had picked a winning number in life’s lottery (and until then I wouldn’t even have thought that life had a lottery). Instead of being doomed to a life of drudgery as a lowly person in a traditional culture, she would suddenly be projected into a modern society and creature comforts. She was as lucky as a south Indian female foundling could be…
…provided that Abner would treat her decently. Would he do that? I had not seen anything suggesting otherwise, except that his worldview seemed off-base. Under U.S. law Indrani qualified for an immigrant visa and I was the consular officer who would issue it.
At this point-unless I’ve already offended readers beyond redemption-I better re-emphasize that this happened almost half a century ago. That means my memory of exactly what happened may not be entirely accurate. But more important, the world has changed a lot since that time. In those days Indrani was of marriageable age. In India marriages were made for practical reasons and not because two people fell in love and decided to get married. Parents selected husbands for their daughters. But Indrani had no known parents and she had no prospects of rising from the disadvantaged start of her life except for the remarkable circumstance of Abner Strong discovering her and seeing something about her that drew him to select her and negotiate with the responsible missionaries to obtain her as his next wife… and Indrani had agreed. It was entirely legal and in no way fraudulent. Was this a thinly disguised case of trafficking? We didn’t use the term in those days and we weren’t so sensitive to the concept of trafficking of persons, but I was reasonably confident that Abner’s objective was exactly what he said, and only that. It wouldn’t work according to my own value system… but my job was to carry out the immigration process according to the law and regulation, not according to my personal values. I thought I had done my due diligence and had established that there was little likelihood that Indrani would become a victim of abuse by marrying Abner and immigrating to America.
It was a risk but a risk worth taking-because Indrani’s life if Abner had not rescued her from it was going to be so unsatisfactory (by my standards).
I pictured Indrani learning English. Watching television. Meeting people, even though Abner was monitoring her social contacts. But he was bound to take her to places and occasions where he would introduce his wife to people, and sooner or later one of the women Indrani would meet would like to get together with her apart from their husbands… surely there would be occasions like that. Maybe not the first year or the second but by and by Indrani would become more like other American wives; like the wives she would see in the soaps on TV during dark winter afternoons when Abner was working at the university and wouldn’t be home for a few more hours.
Probably they would have a baby. Indrani would meet doctors and nurses and inevitably other young mothers.
Make no mistake: it would only be a matter of time before Indrani would become an American wife more or less like Strong’s previous wives. More or less like my wife. And then the joke would be on Abner Strong.
We processed Indrani’s immigrant visa with no complications. I shook hands with the American husband and his Indian bride-immigrant and they left the embassy.
John Slattery (Morocco 1994-96) began work in television writing and hosting a pilot for a social-issue TV series at the Moroccan National Institute of Television.
While at UCLA he received the Macgowan Award for Excellence in Documentary Filmmaking, the Drown Award for Motion Picture Production as well as the Edgar Brokaw Scholarship in Film Production-and even worked as an assistant to the French actress Isabelle Huppert.
John also worked in the UCLA Dept. of Film, Television as a teaching assistant to Marina Goldovskaya, one of Russia’s best known documentary filmmakers, in her year long Advanced Documentary Workshop.
While living in the “big, ugly and often misunderstood” city of Los Angeles he realized the many connections to the “big, ugly and often misunderstood” city of Casablanca. This U.S./Morocco connection - and more are explored in his first film.
John’s feature directing debut, Casablanca Mon Amour had its world premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival and will be playing at festivals world wide throughout 2014.
He holds an MFA from the Department of Film and Digital Media at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
Here’s an early review of the film that was in The New York Times on December 21, 2012:
Moroccan Road Film Subverts Hollywood Stereotypes
DUBAI (Reuters) - When director John Slattery first visited Morocco, the familiarity was jarring - and as removed from the images of an exotic Orient conjured up by Hollywood as possible.
That dichotomy between the representation and the reality of Morocco drives Slattery’s charming paean to a country he clearly loves and makes “Casablanca, Mon Amour” a thoughtful rejoinder to U.S. popular culture.
Two young Moroccans spend three weeks travelling their native country, filming what they see on a digital camera while passing by studios and locations that have formed the backdrop for many Hollywood blockbusters, an industry Morocco has cultivated.
The film is spliced with shots of endearingly bemused or nervous ordinary people giving their thoughts to the camera about Hollywood and its global stars, as well as clips from classics such as “Casablanca” featuring off-the-cuff anti-Arab slurs like “you can’t trust them” and “they all look alike”.
“We had the idea of going on this trip and as this naive American film crew going to make the traditional American movie ‘using Morocco,’ but we wanted to subvert that,” Slattery said after a screening at the Dubai international film festival this week.
“There was not really a script but our film would be their voyage, and wherever they went we followed them. So in that way they were somewhat directing the film.”
Shot by Hassan, who narrates the road trip, the images shift from scenes of daily life caught on camera, to his comically testy relationship with his travelling companion Abdel, to a troupe they stumble upon in Meknes that plays traditional Moroccan “malhoun” music.
Hassan, a real-life film school student at the time, is using the road trip for a class project, while Abdel wants to visit a dying uncle on the other side of the country.
Slattery includes footage from Moroccan television from the Marrakech film festival in which comic actor Bashar Skeirej declares that “a country without its own art will never have a history”.
It’s a subtle suggestion that the government should do more to promote domestic film rather than just rent out landscapes for Hollywood misrepresentation.
Morocco has formed the backdrop for a fictionalized Orient in “Ishtar”, doubled as Abu Dhabi in the “Sex in the City 2″ and been various distant planets in Star Wars films.
“National cinemas in many countries are being destroyed or have been destroyed because of this massive power of marketing that is Hollywood,” said Slattery, a California-based American of Irish origin. “They destroy little films, they crush the possibility for little stories.”
The film, a labor of love that took Slattery seven years to complete, borrows from the book “Reel Bad Arabs”, author Jack Shaheen’s study of Hollywood’s anti-Arab stereotypes. Its title references Alain Resnais’s 1959 French New Wave classic “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”.
“(When) I would say ‘I lived in Morocco’, people would say ‘were you scared’, or a polite ‘what was that like?’,” Slattery said, recounting reactions in the United States when he would talk about his first experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
“There was that whole category of fear in the responses, or ‘Morocco, you must have seen Lawrence of Arabia’, or ‘Blackhawk Down’! - all these film titles. And that stuck with me, that fear and movies were the two references for Morocco.”
Yet Slattery’s first day in the North African country could not have been more mundane, he said.
“This older man opens (his door) in an old tweed jacket. This is how these old farmers dress in Ireland, and his hands were calloused and tobacco stained. It just felt very familiar to me,” Slattery said.
“I spent the weekend there, hanging out with these people, cutting hay and drinking tea, it all felt so familiar to me. I thought ‘this is Ireland.’” Both the Moroccan and Irish cultures take hospitality very seriously. Both have a similar sense of humor. And neither culture has any regard for time. The Irish saying, “If you are only a day late, you’re still too early,” has a near exact translation in Moroccan Arabic.
And by the way, Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Alana (Horrigan) deJoseph (Mali 1992-94) was involved in rural small enterprise development as a PCV and today she makes films. She has worked in video and film production for over 20 years and has worn many hats as producer, director, videographer, and editor. Her latest involvement was in the production of The Greatest Good, a documentary about the US Forest Service. Now she wants to do an in-depth, comprehensive documentary on the Peace Corps. As she says on her website: ”In a time when the American public either has a very antiquated notion of Peace Corps, informed by an almost mythological awe of the 60s, or is not even aware that the agency still exists, it is high time to bring this unique organization back into the public discourse, to raise the level of the discussion from quaint to crucial.” Alana goes onto say, “Many books have been written and films produced about the singular experiences of Peace Corps Volunteers. However, there has never been a documentary about the agency itself, its unique history, its charismatic and strong-minded characters, the political machinations that have taken the agency from a presidential campaign platform to an organization so unique that its volunteers’ mission continues for the rest of their lives.” You can learn more about her film at www.peacecorpsdocumentary.com or write her directly at: email@example.com
The Fickle Voter
In late December 2013, I received an invitation to meet and greet the Mayor-elect of New York City, Bill de Blasio, in his new home-to-be, Gracie Mansion. I almost deleted the invite because I was still smarting over the fact that my first choice for Mayor hadn’t made it through the primary. I had voted for Christine Quinn because I thought, even though she was more conservative than I am, she’d earned the right to be Mayor, knew her way around the city’s political system, and was tough. You need to be tough for the second most difficult job in America. Also, I’m tired of super competent women being pushed out of the way when the next tantalizing upstart male comes onto the ballot. And I liked the idea of a married lesbian couple living in the above mentioned Gracie Mansion.
As far as de Blasio was concerned, I didn’t think he had enough experience; he’d never held a high elective position and hadn’t managed any operation even close to the unwieldiness of New York City. Even his votes when he was on the City Council were not impressive. He’d talked a good line but not followed up with his voting record.
But upon thinking further about the invitation, I said to myself, you’re a good Democrat, you voted for him in the end, so get over it, go welcome him. And it was an historic event. It wasn’t to be a lesbian couple in the house, but a mixed marriage of a White Mayor and his Black wife and hip Black children was pretty close. I also had never been to Gracie Mansion and this was my opportunity to see the place. So I accepted.
Sunday, January 5th dawned very cold and overcast and by the time I arrived at Carl Schurz Park overlooking the East River where the mansion is located, it had begun to drizzle and the line of citizens waiting to meet the mayor extended a dozen blocks along the river’s promenade. Thousands of people had gotten there before me. The waiting time by then was two hours. My strength and my failing is that once I start on a project, I see it through to the end. I called my husband to say that I probably wouldn’t be home until after dark. He thought I was crazy but he wasn’t surprised; we’ve been married for over forty years.
The crowd was terrific, totally mixed racially and ethnically, with every age, economic class, and sexual orientation represented. A few people peeled off after an hour, but then no one did. We bonded as a group, laughing at ourselves for doing such thing. “I’m contemptuous of people waiting in line for hours to buy the newest IPads,” one woman said, “and look at me now.” But we were serious, too. I’ll admit that I felt a bit fraudulent, thinking I must be the only person here who hadn’t supported him in the primary. And surely one of the only who still didn’t have much confidence that he could do the job. But I said none of that.
Four hours later when we finally reached the Mansion’s veranda, we were all so frozen that we could barely write our names on the white cards they gave us to fill out, asking us to include our emails. After another half hour in the cold we were inside the house, going through the security checks, only to stand on another snaking line for close to an hour. And then we were at the threshold of the room where the Mayor-elect was to shake our hands! We were then told to take off our coats and keep the white cards at the ready as we were about to have our pictures taken with him. Our pictures, I thought. I didn’t sign up for that! But then what could I do. I couldn’t exactly refuse in front of all my new found friends.
So off went my coat. A young woman took the card from me and gently pushed me toward the six-foot-five de Blasio who stood in front of a fireplace, towering over everyone. All I could think to say was, “Good luck!” shaking his hand. He said, “Thanks for supporting me.” I thought, “But I didn’t.” And next I knew he had his arm over my shoulder and I had my arm around his waist, and someone said smile and the cameras popped and it was over.
But it wasn’t really over, because from that moment I was smitten. He could do no wrong. It was as though I’d fallen in love with him, simply because he’d put his arm around me and, I, mine around him. I was furious when people made fun of him for eating his pizza with a fork and angry when people became impatient with him for not accomplishing everything in his first month. I never, ever thought I had such propensity for fickleness in politics. I worked on Bill Clinton’s first campaign and went to his Inauguration. I worked on voter protection in Ohio during the two Obama campaigns. I shook Bobby Kennedy’s hand once in the Senate basement and John Edwards’ at a campaign stop and Hillary’s in a small venue, but never was I in their embrace and never did I lose my skepticism. It was the embrace, that some of the above have surely discovered that did the trick.
But a hold over from my doubts about de Blasio’s competence, fed into my doubts that I would ever see that photo of the two of us. His people couldn’t possibly coordinate the thousands of white cards we handed in with the pictures taken of us. I joked with friends that I was curious whose photo I would receive. And then on March 5th the email pinged and there I was standing with Mayor Bill de Blasio in Gracie Mansion. It portended well for the future of our city! If he and his staff could keep the thousands of white cards in order, perhaps they can actually execute the promises made to us to recreate a more egalitarian city, affordable to all.
The March 10, 2014, issue of The New Yorker carries a long “Letter From Cairo” piece by Peter Hessler (China 1996-98) from Egypt entitled, Revolution On Trial: The strange world of the Muslin Brotherhood court cases. Peter and his wife, Leslie, and their two babies live in Cairo. His most recent book is Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West.
Novelist, rancher, and country music singer, Kinky Friedman, got one step closer Tuesday to adding another line to his résumé: agriculture commissioner of Texas. Kinky made the Democratic primary runoff for the position.
He’ll compete against cattle farmer Jim Hogan in that May 27 contest. A Republican is favored to win the general election.
A Writer Writes
by Tony Gambino (Zaire 1979-82)
[Tony Gambino taught TEFL for one year in a rural high school and then spent two years teaching at the branch of the Zairian National University in Kisangani. In 2001 he returned to the Congo as the Mission Director for USAID. He is sure that he is one of a very small number of RPCVs who returned to serve as USAID Mission Director in their country of service. (Many RPCVs have become USAID Mission Directors, but didn't do so in their country of service.) Today he is a consultant working on international issues and lives in the Washington, D.C., area. This essay by Tony appeared on February 25, 2014 on the website Slate. It is republished by Tony's permission. It is the story of one son's search for his biological mother.]
Tony and his biological mother, Dorothy
The story of Philomena Lee and her son, told in the new movie starring Judi Dench, scorches me. Like her son, I was adopted. Like and unlike the story of Philomena and Michael (born Anthony), the story of my birth mother, Dorothy, and me, Anthony (born David), is filled with sorrow, mistakes, suffering-and profound, shocking joy.
I was born in Cincinnati in 1956, adopted as an infant, named Anthony for my adoptive father, and raised in a loving home. Parents who adopted then were counseled-correctly-to tell their children as early as possible that they were adopted. My parents told me in a proud fashion that they had “chosen” me (false), that I was the same ethnicity (false), and that because they chose me I was more special to them. Our closest friends included two people whom I grew up calling “Uncle” Jim and “Aunt” Mildred (names changed). No relation, but my parents felt particularly close to them since Mildred had shepherded my adoption through the Catholic adoption agency.
I accepted the doctrine of the era: I was adopted, I had only one family-my adopted family-and had no need to know anything more about anything, or anyone, else. My birth mother was an unmarried teenager from the Cincinnati area who “got in trouble” and gave me up for adoption. I never thought about the man. But then at 13, I started to wonder. An unknown man and woman had had sexual intercourse. I was the result. Who were they? What was their story? I felt I couldn’t ask my father, so, timidly, one afternoon, I approached my mother in the kitchen. Her startled, anguished look told me I had veered into a completely forbidden area. I slunk away, feeling that I had done something very wrong. I never asked her about it again.
Years passed. I left home, went to college, joined the Peace Corps, got married-but never wavered in my acceptance of my parents’ credo that they were all the family I ever needed. I would volunteer readily and rapidly to anyone that I was adopted. Occasionally, someone would ask if I was interested in knowing anything about my birth parents. I would answer that my adoptive family was my real and only family. End of discussion.
Early in our marriage, though, my wife gently asked me to consider searching to learn more about my roots. If we had children, shouldn’t we know at least about my genetic heritage, she would say. Each time, I lashed out furiously at her. How dare she bring up this forbidden topic? I guess I had been so seared by my earlier conversation with my mother that I adopted her view as an absolute: that it was unacceptable, insulting, and inappropriate for anyone to probe this area and if someone didn’t accept my short explanation, they were attacking me-and my adoptive family. But, after I’d repressed the thought for 20 years, my wife had started me thinking again. I quietly squirreled away a Washington Post article in 1993 on tools for searching for birth parents. In early 1994, I followed the article’s advice.
Who were they to tell me that I couldn’t know about something as basic as the man and woman who came together to create me?
Following the required procedure, I wrote to Ohio state officials. Rapidly, they mailed me a copy of my “original” birth certificate. My name on it was David Simpson. My birth mother was Dorothy L. Simpson. Then, I learned that I could contact the Catholic adoption agency in Cincinnati to request additional information from its file on my adoption. One day in the spring of 1994, I received a call from someone at the agency who had gone through my record.
She told me the highlights: My mother wasn’t a teenager. She was almost 26 when she had me. She wasn’t from Cincinnati, not from Ohio at all. She was from a place called Pampa, Texas. Where was that?? (The Texas Panhandle, it turns out.) My father was Jewish, she had told adoption officials at the time. I had no idea of his name.
The record included lots of information from 1956. But it also contained something else: a letter from her to the agency in the late 1980s and the agency’s response. Both were read to me. Dorothy wrote that she had just been diagnosed with brain cancer, and she was looking to find out something about the son she had given up for adoption. Could they tell her anything? The response came from “Aunt” Mildred. No, they couldn’t, she had written to Dorothy. My memory of the short letter is that Mildred employed cold, stiff bureaucratic language.
Now the stories I’d told myself about my life were no longer true. Because I thought she’d been a teenager, I had long had a secret fantasy that I might look for her later in life, after my parents’ death. I never considered that she might be dead. And my father. If he was Jewish, I certainly wasn’t from the same ethnic background as my German mother and Sicilian father. And what about Mildred? I always had liked her and her gentle husband, Jim. But her letter was not just cold, it was cold-hearted.
As I did more research, I learned that, although Mildred had given the “correct” bureaucratic response, many more empathetic people had bent the rules and provided birth mothers with a little bit of information. Mildred could at least have written Dorothy to tell her that she knew that I was healthy and happy, living in a good family. I never felt the same toward Mildred again.
I also realized that my adoptive parents had followed a “script” provided to many parents like them in the 1950s. They were advised to tell me from the beginning that I was adopted, quickly adding that that meant that I was particularly wanted. If they added false details giving the impression that they walked through an orphanage “choosing” me, that was OK, too. In my case, though, I ultimately discovered that the reality turned out to be that they had requested a newborn child ethnically similar to them. I was what the agency came up with. That’s a form of “choosing” but not the vision I’d carried in my head.
I rapidly shifted from a strict believer in adoption orthodoxy and secrecy to someone who wanted to know everything about his background. More than that, someone who believed it was my right-and every other adoptee’s right-to know. Who were the state, the adoption agency, my adoptive parents, anybody, to tell me that I couldn’t know about something as basic as the identity of the man and woman who came together to create me?
My initial focus was my birth mother. The person from the Cincinnati agency had no additional information. I began to search furiously, and, fairly quickly, I was able to trace her to a little place in East Texas called Toledo Village. On advice from my wife, who did so much to help me cope and adjust, I contacted the local post office in Texas. The woman who answered the phone told me that Dorothy had died years before. Since I had known that she had brain cancer as of 1988, I had expected something like this. Still, I was devastated. I remember night after night sobbing as I tried to imagine who this woman was, what she had gone through-thinking that she was my mother, my mother whom I had never known. This only increased my focus on learning more about who Dorothy Simpson had been.
Through various connections, I was able to speak with a neighbor who knew her. I learned from him that Dorothy had died in early 1989. But then, in an astoundingly unexpected twist, I learned that Dorothy’s mother, my birth grandmother, Norma Simpson, was alive and still living in Toledo Village. I immediately wrote Norma and then called her. Over the phone, she immediately and graciously accepted my request to come to visit her. When we first met, I saw Norma merely as my vehicle to get to know her daughter, Dorothy. I soon came to love her on her own terms. She was a magnificently tough, tender woman. And she loved me without reserve. I felt the same. We had 10 spectacular years together, and she got to know and love her two great-granddaughters. One day, we were sitting in our favorite coffee shop in Beaumont, Texas, where she was living. A complete stranger walked over to us. She said “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I just have to tell you that I can’t stop watching you because your love for one another fills this room.” When Norma died peacefully nearly a decade ago, I was at her deathbed. However, when I think of the story of her daughter-my mother-Dorothy, I feel a sadness so profound that I have come to believe that my unconscious self must work tirelessly to repress such grief.
Philomena found out too late about her son; he died before she could meet him as an adult. I searched too late for my birth mother; Dorothy died searching fruitlessly for me. All she could do when she wanted to find me was to give her name to a voluntary registry for birth parents and adoptees-until her final, desperate, unsuccessful appeal to “Aunt” Mildred. Unless I also registered, there was no way for her to find me. But I never even considered registering until too late. Yet, I know this as profoundly as I know anything: If Dorothy had been able to contact me in the late 1980s as she was dying, I, a man then in my early 30s, would have dropped everything-everything-to run and meet her. That that did not happen is the greatest loss, gap, and regret in my life. But my regret shrivels to nothing when I compare it to the unnecessary pain of Dorothy Simpson, wondering on her deathbed what had happened to the baby boy to whom she gave birth in Cincinnati.
Here is a bit more of her story, as I learned it from my birth grandmother and other relatives. Dorothy was unmarried, living with her mother in a small house in a small town in East Texas called Orange in the mid-1950s. Since their bedrooms were close, Norma noticed in the summer of 1955 that her daughter was regularly crying at night. When Norma confronted her, Dorothy confessed her pregnancy. Norma met with the man in question, who told her his name was “Fred Koch” (pronounced “cook”; real spelling unknown. This is the only source I have regarding my birth father, whom I have never been able to locate, despite numerous attempts). He also told her that he was married and Jewish, so he couldn’t “do the right thing” and marry Dorothy. Norma curtly dismissed him. I could still feel her disdain for my birth father when she told me the story nearly 40 years later.
Then, mid-1950s Catholic orthodoxy and its complex system to “protect” girls who “got in trouble” kicked in, similar to what happened to Philomena. Norma and Dorothy consulted with the local parish priest, who advised them what Dorothy needed to do. They agonized over the decision. Norma admitted to me that it was she who pushed Dorothy to give me up for adoption. She also confessed that she knew that Dorothy continued to question whether giving me up was the right decision.
Nevertheless, Dorothy announced that she had gotten a “job” in Cincinnati, far away from her relatives in Texas and Oklahoma. She moved to Cincinnati before she started to show that she was pregnant with me. She stayed there until she gave birth. She held me for two weeks, signed away all rights to know anything further about me, got back on a plane and returned to Texas, telling people that the “job” hadn’t really worked out. Some of her relatives (all of whom I have now met) told me years later that they had suspicions about what had really happened, but the etiquette of the time was to not ask “awkward” questions.
According to Norma, Dorothy never recovered from her choice to go to Cincinnati and the pain of giving me up forever. She returned to Texas miserable, depressed, not eating, listless. She finally moved after a few years to Southern California, where she married an alcoholic man who already had children from an earlier marriage and had had a vasectomy. Dorothy ultimately found work she loved as a school librarian, surrounded by children.
When, five years after Dorothy’s death, I first met Norma, and then Dorothy’s relatives-cousins, aunts, and uncles to Dorothy-one of them told me this: “You don’t understand yet what this means to us, Tony. You look like her. You talk like her. You walk like her. It’s like she’s come back again.” Another was terser. When I walked into the room and he saw me for the first time, he looked me up and down, nodded, and said, “Yep.”
For obvious reasons I have come to strongly believe in the absolute right of adoptees to know about their birth background. I also now believe that birth parents should have the right to contact their children, once they reach the age of 18, with the children given the ability either to respond and engage or to remain anonymous. Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, and Oregon are the only states that allow an adoptee to receive copies of their original birth certificateonce the adoptee turns 18. Ohio adopted a law last year that will permit all adoptees, with some conditions, to get their original birth certificates starting in March 2015. Even before the passage of this law, I fell into a category of adoptees that had access to their original birth certificates upon request.
What can a woman do today to find the son or daughter she gave up for adoption? In a few states, there are systems to facilitate reunions if both parties consent. But in most states, she would still be unable to find her child unless the adoptee joined a registry. In Ohio today, if Dorothy Simpson were still alive (Dorothy would only be 83), and I wasn’t part of a registry, she still would not be able to find me. How many Dorothys are desperately looking today for their Davids?
Oh, and Philomena, the hit movie? It is too close to my story. I can’t bear to watch it. But, like the story of Philomena and her son, Dorothy Simpson’s tragedy must be remembered. That is the task for her only child, the son she named David. I do it now to honor my mother Dorothy’s memory and in the hope that we as a society might move much more rapidly to take the easy steps to prevent such needless pain.
Peace Corps Week Celebrates Volunteers’ Contributions at Home and Abroad for Peace Corps’ 53rd Anniversary
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Peace Corps Week Celebrates Volunteers’ Contributions at Home and Abroad for Peace Corps’ 53rd Anniversary
WASHINGTON, D.C., February 24, 2014 - Ahead of the Peace Corps’ 53rd anniversary on March 1, the agency today kicks off Peace Corps Week to celebrate the contributions of the Peace Corps community both at home and abroad and highlight the importance of service in the 21st century. Through Saturday, March 1, Peace Corps Acting Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet and current and returned Peace Corps volunteers will participate in recruitment events, service projects and networking activities taking place across the country.
“Peace Corps Week is about sharing the volunteer experience and the incredible cultural exchange that results from Peace Corps service,” Hessler-Radelet said. “I encourage both current and returned volunteers to participate in Peace Corps Week to share the world with their local communities and bring Peace Corps service to life.”
Hessler-Radelet will participate in Peace Corps Week events starting Tuesday, Feb. 25 at the University of Miami, where she will speak with students and community members about the inspiring work of Peace Corps volunteers today. She will be joined by University President Donna Shalala, who has been an active supporter of the Peace Corps since completing her service in Iran 50 years ago. On Thursday, Feb. 27, the Acting Director will deliver remarks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on the Peace Corps in the 21st century, and later that day, she will talk with students at the University of South Florida via live video conference.
New this year, Peace Corps’ Office of Third Goal and Returned Volunteer Services invited current and returned volunteers to get involved in Peace Corps Week by participating in a Video Challenge and a Classroom Challenge designed to support Peace Corps’ Third Goal of sharing other cultures with Americans. In the lead up to Peace Corps Week, current and returned volunteers have organized more than 525 classroom events to share the Peace Corps experience, engaging nearly 35,000 students across 49 states. Videos showcasing some of the most remote locations in the world were also submitted to Peace Corps’ #PCWeek2014 YouTube playlist, offering a cultural window into life abroad.
Peace Corps volunteers travel to the farthest corners of the world where they work toward sustainable change while gaining hands-on experience and developing the skills employers are looking for now more than ever. Volunteers who serve with the Peace Corps return home with a global perspective as well as cross-cultural, leadership, community development and language skills. They give back to their communities here at home and enrich the lives of those around them, helping to strengthen international ties and increase our country’s global competitiveness.
The Peace Corps has eight regional recruitment offices across the United States that work closely with prospective volunteers to ensure that all Americans who want to serve have the opportunity to do so. Find the recruitment office near you by visiting the Peace Corps website here.
Visit the Peace Corps events webpage for a full list of Peace Corps Week activities.
About John Coyne Babbles
John Coyne Babbles is a collection of comments, opinions, musings, and outrages from this RPCV who served with the first group (1962-64) in Ethiopia.
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