Tizon chronicles the horror-show elements of this process: the physical abuse Pulido suffers at the hands of Tizon’s father and the inhuman treatment at the hands of his mother, who lets Pulido’s teeth rot out of her head for years rather than sending her to the dentist. But Tizon is less clear about how affection, motherly love, and even attempts to set people free can strengthen the bonds of bondage. Sustained abuse and forced dependency have a way of creating real psychological dependency, and it must be noted that Pulido’s turn as a surrogate mother came in the context of her de facto forced desexualization by the Tizon family: She was not allowed to have a biological family, and confessed to Tizon that she had never had sex. Tizon’s mother’s seeming softening near the end of her life, as well as Pulido’s obvious love and care for Tizon’s children as her grandchildren, are both real instances of compassion and also ways in which Tizon’s family filled the psychological needs and kinship bonds that they prevented Pulido from building on her own.
The Seattle Times obituary proved that in 2011 Tizon could not quite grasp the full gravity of Pulido’s position. Her selflessness is presented as a saintly virtue, not as a possible survival instinct ingrained by abuse. Tizon’s essay in The Atlantic is more self-aware and honest, but still not quite there. Even Tizon’s name for Pulido, Lola, is an assignment (“we called her Lola”) by her enslavers and not an expression of her being—even if it is a familial honorific. Tizon doesn’t know her desires, fears, attachments, or even very much about her own story. He attempts to learn these things, but doesn’t get very far, and we never learn whether the failure is due simply to Pulido’s reticence or to the fact that years of servitude had minimized her story even in her own mind. Tizon’s intentions are noble. But “Lola’s Story” is not a final story of retribution or atonement, but the first step in a journey of absolution that was tragically cut short.
This is not a damnation of Alex Tizon. His position from birth was impossible. It’s a tragedy that he is not here to respond, learn, grow, and engage with both the criticism and praise his piece inspired. Filipino readers and friends have lauded his bravery for opening a taboo topic, and domestic laborers and victims of human traffickers now have an ear at The Atlantic, and some of their stories are relayed in responses.
But the consequences of human exploitation run much deeper than Tizon appeared to recognize, and perhaps much deeper than our own editorial staff realized. One of the common critiques of “Lola’s Story” is that it failed to shed much light on the fascinating woman Tizon called Lola, and seemed to view her only in the wide angles of Tizon’s arc of redemption. That critique seems somewhat limited to me—Tizon did chronicle his efforts to interview her, and did present some moments when we saw her personality. But perhaps it’s also true that her lack of voice and independence in his story are part of the nature of enslavement. The worst sin of the peculiar institution in any of its worldwide forms is that it erases some lives to nurture others. Tizon’s account does not grasp the extent of Pulido’s erasure, but that inability highlights just how slavery warps both the enslaver and the enslaved. To this writer, that makes “Lola’s Story” all the more necessary to read, and mourn.
* This article originally misattributed this description to Alex Tizon. We regret the error.