PEACE CORPS FANTASIES: How Development Shaped the Global Sixties
by Molly Geidel
University of Minnesota Press, $30.00
Reviewed by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965-67)
Please note the subtitle, herein: How Development Shaped the Global Sixties. This book is not a saga of the Peace Corps, but rather the conception and incubation of a plan to offer opportunities where none were available christened, “community development” (a fairly lame term I always thought). It is centered in the 1950s, an era that began in1950 but lasted till around1964, when men were men and women were having nervous breakdowns (treated with submersion in ice water, electric shock and lobotomies). Then 1965, accompanied by the Titan II rocket usher, broke open portal, and suddenly, Cassius Clay is Muhammed Ali; the Second Vatican Council turns altars around; Gloria Steinem dons a bunny suit to give an insider’s account of the casual acceptance of public humiliation and degradation of women; birth control pills are consumed like popcorn; a fragrance of weed will fill the much-awaited Fillmore East; the Vietnam War escalates into debacle; Martin Luther King, Jr. has, oh, such a dream; and mad men begin to understand that if a date takes off her pantyhose in order to stroll the beach, he does not have carte blanche to rape her. Oh, yeah…. And Harvard beats Yale 29-29. Professor Molly Geidel, the author of Peace Corps Fantasies is not cognizant of this sea change as near as I can tell.
So here is a route to publication for you readers who are aspiring writers, a much discussed topic on this website: 1. Get accepted into a PhD program; 2. Write a thesis; 3. Attain a degree; 4. Call the thesis a book; 5. Find a university press willing to publish it. This is what Professor Geidel did. My favorite thesis-renamed “book”-is Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting, by Robert Vaughn who many of us remember as “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” (though as the villain of “Superman III,” he was even funnier than Richard Pryor.) His thesis is a discourse on another of the horrors of the 50s, but unlike the professor he does not draw conclusions from questionable sources-accounts, letters, chronicles, and journals (aargh) that she refers to as “memoirs.” We all know that such writing does not a memoir make. It is, rather, a genre that is carefully filtered and organized, considered literature when not ghosted for a celebrity, or a student of mine who decided that memoir was too difficult, and she would write condensed novels instead and sell them to “Reader’s Digest.”
The professor also draws conclusions from Frank Zappa’s song lyrics (gotta love the Mothers of Invention), and novels of the era with Peace Corps volunteers as characters, primarily Paul Theroux’s Girls at Play, and Josephine James’s, Kathy Martin, Peace Corps Nurse. (And gotta love, too, literature and trash sharing a bed.) Also, she gives a nod to fiction in the vein of “the bondage/torture novel” Peace Corps Bride, author not cited. Haven’t read Peace Corps Bride but I wonder if Fifty Shades of Grey ripped it off. The professor states, Many of the other Peace Corps girl stories feature African settings, seemingly because of the potential for emphasizing the parallels between decolonization and women’s freedom. Good grief. The first and difficult lesson we learn in figuring out how to write fiction is, in the words of Cecil B. DeMille, “If you’ve got message, send a telegram.“
But here’s the especially astonishing basis for some of the professor’s damning opinions: She attributes those opinions to fictional characters who she quotes! Professor! These characters are not real people! We make them up! We make up what they say, what they do and think. We make them believable when they might be entirely outside the realm of reality. I hope the professor doesn’t write a book about 17th century French history and quotes Cinderella.
Cautionary note: This book is written in an unspoken language known as “academese,” where sentences are put to the rack until they become impenetrable convolutions, making for challenging reading especially for people like me who didn’t go to an Ivy League college, not that I had such an option as women weren’t allowed into the Ivy League at the time. I mention this what with having read the professor’s way of saying that Peace Corps volunteers weren’t all that bright-we weren’t graduates of prestigious schools. As a matter of fact, when I was in Peace Corps training at Columbia, minimally trained (the professor sneaks in an insult wherever she can-as if anything at Columbia University is accomplished minimally). The telling statistic is that there was one Ivy League grad to every 38 of us dumb bells in my Cameroon group. I remember this statistic because one of our Columbia staff said, “Hey! There are 38 of you and one of you went to an Ivy League college. That’s exactly the statistic for the Peace Corps training population right now.” The ratio of Ivy League undergrads to undergrads in non-Ivy League schools was far lower.
Cameroon IV group’s 1-in-38 genius was Stu Russell, who to this day is addicted to tinned sardines from Norway available at every weekly Cameroonian market. He went to Dartmouth. I have three old Peace Corps buddies. One (Chile III) says, “We had Pete Walsh. Harvard.” Another (Nepal IV), “Gordon Calhoun, Yale.” Another (Uruguay I), “Are you kidding? We had three. Chris Wiles, Princeton, Eddie Schwarz, Cornell, and Gene Skowronski, Harvard.” Ergo, the notion that Peace Corps volunteers all commuted to state colleges is now debunked once and for all.
Academese has a vocab that includes words used in newly grammatical ways. My favorite such word in this book-the professor uses it heavily-is imaginary, heretofore, an adjective. She uses it as a noun. Example: In the United States, the heroic development imaginary gained prominence in response to two perceived crises that accompanied the country’s wealth and rise to global superpower status: the crisis of capitalism brought on by decolonization, and fears of masculine atrophy in the face of affluence, suburbanization, and allegedly increasing female power. (Did you read that entire sentence? Congratulations.) The noun, imaginary, means something like, a deceptive surface appearance. So in standard English instead of …the heroic development imaginary gained prominence…would read…the heroic development bullshit gained prominence…
If the thought of reading a book written in academese blows your mind (phrase ca 1965), know that John Coyne has written a series of terrific consumer reports on his blog at peacecorpsworldwide.org: What the book is about, a chapter-by-chapter synopsis, women in the agency (this in response to the chapter on “the Peace Corps girl”); and a summary of the conclusions the professor argues as to the Peace Corps/Vietnam connection. John argues back, saving me from having to expand this review another hundred pages.
THE BALCONY SCENE
I’m sorry, but this next deserves to be titled. The professor provides us an opinion on what made Sargent Shriver tick, what went beyond his contribution to the chauvinistic claptrap of the era existing on every level of society (a given). It’s as if she wants to make him into even more of a dip-shit than the original Peace Corps movers and shakers including Kennedy, Moyers, Wofford, Wiggins, Schlesinger, Rostow, Mankiewicz etc., mad men all. She cannot succeed since she believes readers will fall for the notion that just because a biography is authorized it’s valid. The story she repeats from Shriver’s “authorized” biography:
Pre-Eunice, Shriver is in love with Eleanor…who he intended to marry. After a long separation between the time she finishes convent school in France and gallivanting all over Europe, she and Shriver meet up. She tells him she fell for a sailor while travelling and slept with him. Shriver, according to the professor, now has had…a brush with insufficiently contained female sexuality. Say what? No, he had a brush with getting dumped as have we all. Anyway …without betraying how miserable he felt… Shriver assures Eleanor that everything is A-OK, but then runs out of the room, into the hallway, dashes out onto a balustrade and vomits. Hey, at least he barfed over a balustrade, not all over her shoes. Uh…wait a minute. Balustrade? Where the hell are they, Buckingham Palace?
The professor’s conclusion: It was Sargent’s … immediate, physical and definitive reaction… that meant that everything he would become was made possible only by this dramatic incident of violent revulsion. Wow! The guy pukes and the Peace Corp, the War on Poverty, Head Start, an ambassadorship to France, etc. etc. etc. are born. Never mind that he and Eleanor were probably plastered after a night on the town, or that maybe Eleanor was just trying to elicit a little jealousy to liven things up.
As to the pages devoted to the CRV (Committee of Returned Volunteers), I need to say this: Peace Corps volunteers were and are pathologically modest, and they like to gripe. The two CRV meetings I attended demonstrated that. The attendees said they didn’t really do anything as Peace Corps volunteers, and then they all griped about a lot of stuff that didn’t matter.( I didn’t get thrown out of the meetings because I was a girl. I was devoting myself to writing fiction. My rationalization: The pen is mightier than the sword.) Peace Corps volunteers are modest despite building fish ponds to supply protein in Zaire; re-establishing the mangrove swamps decimated by pollution in the Philippines, and replacing all the ex-patriot teachers in many, many countries who had shipped out overnight when those countries gained independence. The schools were empty of teachers. (My minimal three-months of training at Columbia included a month of student teaching at George Washington High School in the Bronx. It was summer; they’d all flunked English and were trying to make it up. They all did.) But how we would gripe about absolutely everything because we never had as many supplies, hours of electricity, water, protein, medicine, support, etc. that we needed. After my group’s end-of-the-first-year meeting, our Peace Corps Assistant Director asked for a transfer. We couldn’t understand his taking what we’d said personally: We told him we didn’t mean anything by it, we were half-drunk what with having three days’ vacation, and we really liked him. We were just griping!
Peace Corps Fantasies in a nutshell: The Peace Corps is an organization of duped imbeciles who think they are bringing something helpful to people with little opportunity for education and good health, while also creating a route to world peace. Instead, “…the Peace Corps…mobilized the idealism of its volunteers in a global modernization project whose explicit aim was to destroy ‘traditional’ habits, values and communities.” I think I’ve just been libeled.
Finally, what incensed me beyond repair: The Bolivian indigenous cultural nationalist response to the Peace Corps’ iteration of 1960s population control imperatives in Bolivia… resulted in the Peace Corps’ expulsion. The professor “argues” that this expulsion is…an opportunity to contemplate the possibility of a feminism that does not force indigenous women to choose between relinquishing their bodies to the cultural nationalistic project or abandoning their communities in favor of Western rights-based individualism.
Upon contemplation, population imperatives were not about force, but about education. Picture this: You are a woman in a community where the infant mortality rate is 75%. A place like my town in Cameroon where one child might come down with measles and within three days every child under five is dead. The government, in addition to begging the World Health Organization for vaccines to prevent childhood diseases like measles, it also makes a request of the Peace Corps to send people who will be able to educate their population as to preventing the dozens of pregnancies each woman endures with only one or two coming to fruition, as in,
“How many children do you have, Mrs. Ngoundu?”
“I have sixteen…” a pause “… but two alive!”
So grateful for the two.
I would say women like Mrs. Attah, their husbands, and their surviving children would relinquish their bodies to just about anything to avoid holding dying babies in their arms, to say nothing of preventing the premature and hideous deaths women suffer from reproduction injuries.
The reality of the Peace Corps is nowhere apparent in Molly Geidel’s imaginary.
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith has written ten novels including Lament for a Silver-Eyed Woman ( a “Peace Corps novel”), and Masters of Illusion: A Novel of the Great Circus Fire, presently under option for a film, a mystery series, and a memoir, Girls of Tender Age. Four of her novels were New York Times Notable Books, and three were People Magazine Page-Turners of the Week. Her short fiction and essays are included in several collections, and her work has been published in seven languages. She was awarded the Diana Bennett fiction-writing fellowship at UNLV in 2010, and has taught writing at Fairfield University and the Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT, and has served as adviser to high school students writing biographies of their grandparents on Inishmoor in the Bay of Galway. She is working on a novel centered on trafficked children forced into prostitution in Las Vegas, and a second memoir revolving around her new husband, her dog (the only dog she ever had), and some skinny-assed bastard cancer cells that took up residence in her left breast and have so far failed in their attempt to breach the walls of a mammary duct.