Responding to Juleyka’s callout for stories of family members living under authoritarian rule, reader Colleen touches upon the experience of her Dutch stepmother:
She spent four years in a Japanese POW camp in Indonesia—from age 12 to 16, and her brother from age 9 to 13. When they were liberated they went back to Holland as displaced persons.
The experience was NEVER talked about. No counseling. Nothing.
When she reached 18 she joined the Dutch Royal Navy, immigrated to Canada in her mid 20s, then to the U.S about age 28. She met my father and, for some unknown reason, married him. They had two daughters, who are now 53 and 52 (I’m 73).
My step-mom was a lovely, funny, gracious, manipulative control freak. Her mother taught me how to cook. Oma [“grandmother” in German] did not speak English, and I did not speak Dutch or German, but we flowed through the kitchen with smiles, laughter, and words that neither understood. Needless to say my step-mom had a wonderful effect on my life.
The period was one of the most critical in Indonesian history. Under German occupation, the Netherlands had little ability to defend its colony against the Japanese army, and less than three months after the first attacks on Borneo, the Japanese navy and army overran Dutch and allied forces.
Initially, most Indonesians joyfully welcomed the Japanese, as liberators from their Dutch colonial masters. The sentiment changed, as Indonesians were expected to endure more hardship for the war effort. In 1944–1945, Allied troops largely bypassed Indonesia and did not fight their way into the most populous parts such as Java and Sumatra. As such, most of Indonesia was still under Japanese occupation at the time of their surrender, in August 1945.
The Dominican Republic, where I’m from, is among the countries in the Americas that had authoritarian rulers for multiple decades. Almost all of my uncles and aunts, and both my parents, were born during Rafael Trujillo’s reign of terror, which began in 1930 and ended with his assassination in 1961. His influence on the country, and on my own life, is still felt today.
When I was growing up, adults in my family talked politics all the time, almost as much as they talked baseball. But in our family, politics was personal because my father’s father briefly worked for Trujillo, as an assistant of some sort. At our weekend family gatherings, some aunt or uncle could be found surrounded by nieces and nephews like me, breathing in a fresh retelling of a hand-me-down story from my grandfather’s past—in hushed whispers, of course. My grandfather himself never uttered a single word about his work with the dictator, and he took that part of his life to his grave a few years ago.
In some versions of my relatives’ stories, my grandfather was the official food taster, to whom his boss’s meals would be presented for inspection and sampling. (To this singular culinary task my family attributed his strict adherence to mealtimes and table manners.) Other renditions described him as a personal secretary of sorts, handwriting dictated letters to society families whose daughters were “invited” to lavish balls thrown at the executive palace, where many young ladies were summarily deflowered by the head of state in well appointed bedrooms.
(Having studied Dominican history, I am highly suspicious of the circumstances that may have led to my grandfather working for such a man. The autocrat was known for conscripting people into his service or else.)
I am partially a product of the codes and mores established by my grandparents, who raised most of their children during the Trujillato. I was raised to accept and respect strict hierarchies in my own family and in organizations in general. I was expected to prefer and defer to men for decisions, control, and public leadership—all things I slowly unlearned and relinquished as an immigrant in 1980s New York City, where the only valid code was hard work.
Dominican author Junot Díaz has said that all Dominicans are Trujillo’s children. I interviewed him in 2007 just before his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was published. Much of the plot takes place during the Trujillato, which the novel presents as a cosmic curse that befalls the island nation. This is what Díaz told me about Trujillo’s place in his own life:
The evil of the father lasts. The consequences of those kinds of patriarchal traumas last to the point where the person no longer has contact with the origins of that evil. I had no concept that I was Trujillo’s son. I had no concept until I was reading, got older, went traveling, and I was like, OK, my dad was a total copy of Trujillo. I mean he grew up in the military, during the Trujillato. He thought Trujillo was a great f* man, and we had in my family—and this is very common in many Third-World families—a dictatorship in the house. La dictadura de la casa. And everyone has different dictaduras, but the one that I lived under was a dictadura that would’ve made Trujillo very, very comfortable, because he helped design it.
The idea of having a genetic link to Trujillo—an evil force so pure that it warped an entire country—has stayed with me ever since. His legacy sometimes cautions me when I encounter limited thinking, when I consider untapped reasons for choices I’ve made, and as I raise two sons whose worldview I hope to make more capacious and expansive than mine.
Did you grow up under an authoritarian regime? Did your parents or other close family members? Please share your stories with us at firstname.lastname@example.org and describe how you think the dictator’s legacy shaped you.
The Democratic Party’s gerontocracy is holding back the political causes it claims to want to advance.
Why have national Democrats and not national Republicans fallen under the tyranny of the 70-somethings? It seems so contrary to common expectation. Democrats are, as they often remind us, the party of progress and the future. The question seems to rival those enduring, unanswerable mysteries such as “What happens when you die?” and “Why did Mick Taylor quit the Rolling Stones?”
People in their mid-to-late 70s are thick on the ground nowadays, while in an earlier era, of course, you’d have been more likely to find them under it. This is especially true in the urban centers of the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, according to a recent survey of census data by the Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. In particular, the Washington, D.C., area is a leader in “senior labor force participation,” by which the researchers mean the region is loaded with people who have passed the age of retirement yet somehow neglected to retire.
Mama was in her 70s before she discovered the true story of her conception.
Late on the eve of my mother’s wedding day, in August of 1965, in Springfield, Illinois, a hoot owl on a tree outside her bedroom window called out “Who? Who?” The call echoed in the darkness of her high-ceiled room. It was a loaded question.
Earlier that day, my grandmother (Granny, we kids called her) had taken my mother (whom we call Mama) aside for a private talk. “Now Beth,” she said. “You know that Daddy and I had trouble having you.” In spite of Granny’s midwestern Methodist reserve and impermeable feminine decorum, Mama did know a little about this. When, as an unusually intense and imaginative little girl, she had begged Granny for brothers and sisters, Granny had finally explained that siblings were impossible. She and Grandpa had tried to conceive Mama for five years and sought the assistance of doctors at a Chicago hospital; it was a miracle she had been born at all. Mama would have to content herself with her cousins in Moweaqua—the children of Granny’s little sister. Effusive and highly sociable, Mama bonded with her cousins as if they were her own sisters and brother, and made near-siblings of the kids on her block, herding them to perform dog circuses and theatricals on their quiet street.
A faction of the religious right has concluded that if liberal democracy does not guarantee victory, then it must be abandoned.
By the tail end of the Obama administration, the culture war seemed lost. The religious right sued for détente, having been swept up in one of the most rapid cultural shifts in generations. Gone were the decades of being able to count on attacking its traditional targets for political advantage. In 2013, Chuck Cooper, the attorney defending California’s ban on same-sex marriage, begged the justices to allow same-sex-marriage opponents to lose at the ballot box rather than in court. Conservatives such as George Will and Rod Dreher griped that LGBTQ activists were “sore winners,” intent on imposing their beliefs on prostrate Christians, who, after all, had already been defeated.
The rapidity of that cultural shift, though, should not obscure the contours of the society that the religious right still aspires to preserve: a world where women have no control over whether to carry a pregnancy to term, same-sex marriage is illegal, and gays and lesbians can be arrested and incarcerated for having sex in their own homes and be barred from raising children. The religious right showed no mercy and no charity toward these groups when it had the power to impose its will, but when it lost that power, it turned to invoking the importance of religious tolerance and pluralism in a democratic society.
The senator from New York is a battle-tested campaigner who thrives as the underdog. But 2020 is proving to be a much tougher challenge than she thought.
DES MOINES—Isaac Rosenberg is stumped. What is it about Kirsten Gillibrand that makes people love to hate her, the rush of coverage eager to point out how her presidential campaign has underperformed?
Maybe, Rosenberg says, “it’s because America isn’t used to such an opinionated and strong woman.”
Rosenberg doesn’t get it. They hit it off. Rosenberg likes her style—in politics, and in fashion. They’d just done their makeup together upstairs. “I like a full, pink lip; she likes a red lip,” Rosenberg tells me.
We were standing in Blazing Saddle, a gay bar in the East Village neighborhood here. Rosenberg had on a white top exposing a bare midriff, and a flowing white skirt that people in the crowd had to be careful not to step on. Rosenberg is better known as the drag queen Vana, and is one of the senator’s biggest fans in Iowa.
Americans are hypochondriacs, yet we skip our checkups. We demand drugs we don’t need, and fail to take the ones we do. No wonder the U.S. leads the world in health spending.
I was standing two feet away when my 74-year-old father slugged an emergency-room doctor who was trying to get a blood-pressure cuff around his arm. I wasn’t totally surprised: An accomplished scientist who was sharp as a tack right to the end, my father had nothing but disdain for the entire U.S. health-care system, which he believed piled on tests and treatments intended to benefit its bottom line rather than his health. He typically limited himself to berating or rolling his eyes at the unlucky clinicians tasked with ministering to him, but more than once I could tell he was itching to escalate.
My father was what the medical literature traditionally labeled a “hateful patient,” a term since softened to “difficult patient.” Such patients are a small minority, but they consume a grossly disproportionate share of clinician attention. Nevertheless, most doctors and nurses learn to put up with them. The doctor my dad struck later apologized to me for not having shown more sensitivity in his cuff placement.
A 1952 Supreme Court ruling gave civil-rights groups a way to combat anti-Semitism and other prejudices—but in the years since, it’s largely gone unused.
“Jews will not replace us.” When 300 neo-Nazis marched with flaming torches through the central quad of the University of Virginia on a late Friday evening in August 2017, their message was clear. The college’s response, in contrast, was a study in confusion. As a public institution, wrote then-President Teresa Sullivan, the University “must abide by state and federal law” regarding the First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of assembly. Short of barring the “torch-bearing protesters” as an imminent threat to safety, university officials’ hands were tied. National Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee concurred, denouncing the shocking display of hatred but urging the public to let the “protesters” voice their “protected speech.”
A growing pattern of attacks across Europe is as much about electoral opportunity as a conflict of ideas.
When Federico Batini, an Italian academic, wanted to research classroom bullying, he distributed a questionnaire to 54 schools in central Italy. The survey was carried out in partnership with local education authorities and sought to explore the extent to which young people faced racial, homophobic, or gender-based discrimination from their peers.
But instead of learning more about students’ experiences, Batini found his name smeared in the national media and his research abruptly discontinued. A senator from the far-right League party condemned Batini’s questionnaire as “gender indoctrination.” A national conservative daily, La Verità, berated the survey as “crazy gender ideology.” Then the Italian education minister, Marco Bussetti, a member of the League, blocked the questionnaire altogether.
Like many rich Americans, I used to think educational investment could heal the country’s ills—but I was wrong. Fighting inequality must come first.
Long ago, I was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, one many of my wealthy friends still subscribe to: that both poverty and rising inequality are largely consequences of America’s failing education system. Fix that, I believed, and we could cure much of what ails America.
This belief system, which I have come to think of as “educationism,” is grounded in a familiar story about cause and effect: Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world. No nation produced more or better-educated high-school and college graduates, and thus the great American middle class was built. But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way. We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall. School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy. As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class. And as inequality increased, so did political polarization, cynicism, and anger, threatening to undermine American democracy itself.
Homes have gotten bigger, but Americans aren’t any more pleased with the extra space.
American homes are a lot bigger than they used to be. In 1973, when the Census Bureau started tracking home sizes, the median size of a newly built house was just over 1,500 square feet; that figure reached nearly 2,500 square feet in 2015.
This rise, combined with a drop in the average number of people per household, has translated to a whole lot more room for homeowners and their families: By one estimate, each newly built house had an average of 507 square feet per resident in 1973, and nearly twice that—971 square feet—four decades later.
But according to a recent paper, Americans aren’t getting any happier with their ever bigger homes. “Despite a major upscaling of single-family houses since 1980,” writes Clément Bellet, a postdoctoral fellow at the European business school INSEAD, “house satisfaction has remained steady in American suburbs.”
Fifty years after the exercise phenomenon was founded, its influence can be seen everywhere in American fitness culture—especially for women.
“You’re not in Jazzercise, ladies,” a trim, tattooed, fitness instructor chided me and the roomful of women who were attempting to work up a sweat one morning a few months ago. I’d never done Jazzercise, but I knew what she meant. The caustic cue conjured grainy VHS tapes—the kind that circulate on social media for their Totally ’80s aesthetic—featuring a gyrating blonde who’s all limbs, leotard, and embarrassing exclamations like “find that boogie body.” My instructor was calling us uncool.
Tempting as it may be to dismiss Jazzercise to the dustbin of fitness history, the dance-cardio program—which turns 50 this month—is more than a punchline. The format founded in a dance-studio basement by Judi Sheppard Missett, the frontwoman in the videos, established the style and substance of “boutique fitness,” the fastest-growing segment of today’s $26 billion industry. Jazzercise set the standard not only for contemporary choreographed offerings, but also for the franchise model exemplified by the likes of Curves, PureBarre, and Barry’s Bootcamp.