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 email@example.com and describe how you think the dictator’s legacy shaped you.
If mothers and fathers speak openly about child-care obligations, their colleagues will adapt.
I’m an economist. I love data and evidence. I love them so much that I write books about data-based parenting. When questions arise about how to support parents at work (for example, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter), my first impulse is to endorse paid parental leave. Mountains of data and evidence show that paid leave is good for children’s health, and for mothers in particular. I am more than comfortable making a data-based case for this policy.
But experience, rather than pure data, leads me to believe that what happens after paid leave is nearly as crucial—that is to say, what happens when Mom and Dad return to the office. We need to normalize the experience of parenting while working.
Some American women see giving up their babies as more emotionally painful than terminating their pregnancies.
Along the highways of states where support for abortion is at its lowest, it’s not uncommon to see road signs that say choose adoption and similar messages. The signs capture a preferred anti-abortion retort to outcries over abortion restrictions, like the kind Georgia and Alabama just passed: Women with unwanted pregnancies should find adoptive families.
Adoption is a choice that certain women who don’t wish to keep their babies enter into happily. Some women find abortion to be anathema and rule it out among their options for an unwanted pregnancy. And for women considering abortion who ultimately settle on adoption, the process often benefits everyone involved.
Of course, adoption is not a reasonable option for all pregnant women. Some girls and women would imperil their health if they carried a baby to term. Many pro-abortion-rights people believe it is immoral to compel a woman to carry a pregnancy she does not want, especially if that pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. And some studies show that abortion is medically safer than childbirth.
I own three pairs of noise-canceling headphones. Two go over my ears, enveloping them in cozy tombs of silence. One pair consists of earbuds, one of which I jam into my ear to block out the world while I use my other ear for phone interviews. Besides the noise-canceling kind, I have headphones for basically every activity I do. In fact, I recently came to the disturbing realization that there’s rarely a moment of my day when my ears are not filled with or covered by something.
Like many other Americans, I now wear AirPods all day at my desk to combat the awful tyranny of the open office. Since they don’t cancel noise, they provide me with writing music while allowing me to listen up for my bosses. I don’t like exercise classes and their preselected, generic playlists, so instead I work out with headphones and listen to my own special running mix, the contents of which can be disclosed only upon my death. (Let’s just say the dream of the ’90s is alive on my Spotify.) I like to listen to podcasts while I cook, so the earbuds come in handy while I chop and sauté. And I can hook up headphones to a Roku when I want to watch a depressing foreign TV show and my boyfriend wants to do literally anything else.
If Democrats want to address simmering middle-class anger, they need to deliver justice.
Normally, a scandal centered on how rich parents used bribes to win their children’s admittance into elite colleges wouldn’t play so heavily in the national news. No one much cared when Donald Trump promised large donations as his children enrolled at Penn. But the outrage over the Varsity Blues investigation perfectly illustrates what may be the most important, least understood, and underappreciated political dynamic of our era: a full-on middle-class revolt against the elites and the privileges they hoard. For all the focus on inequality and social justice, this middle-class revolt is the most important barrier standing between Democrats and the White House. They can’t afford to ignore it.
Smith College's unusual ceremony is more than just a silly tradition.
Smith College’s annual commencement ceremony begins like any other: Graduating seniors at the women’s liberal-arts college are called up one by one to collect their diploma from the president. Perhaps some students exchange a wink with the regalia-clad honorary-degree recipients nearby as they stride across a platform overlooking the dorms they’d for years called home; others may pause to flip their cap’s tassel while blowing a kiss to the sea of parents who have long awaited this milestone commemorating their daughter’s metamorphosis from undergraduate to alumna.
Except the moment, technically, hasn’t happened quite yet: The name, degree, and accolades printed inside each padded holder seldom belong to the woman who receives it. They very likely belong, rather, to one of her nearly 700 classmates.
George R. R. Martin insists that the final entries in his fantasy series are still coming—even though HBO has finished telling his story first.
This story contains spoilers for the final season of Game of Thrones.
For many years, George R. R. Martin has been repeatedly asked the morbid question of what would happen if he were to die before finishing his A Song of Ice and Fire series. Since 1996, when the first entry, A Game of Thrones, was published, Martin has written five novels as well as several spin-off stories. But his progress has slowed to the point where HBO’s TV adaptation aired eight seasons and wrapped up its narrative before Martin has finished his penultimate work, the long-awaited The Winds of Winter. The huge success of HBO’s Game of Thrones brought more fans to Martin’s writing, which in turn has only added to the chorus of frustration about his creative pace.
As White House stonewalling continues, Democrats are starting to speak more openly about the constitutional option, but their leader isn’t budging.
Back in 2007, Donald Trump sent the newly sworn-in speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, a letter celebrating her ascension.
“Nancy—you’re the best. Congrats. Donald,” the entertainer wrote, Politico reported in 2011. The correspondence between the two has taken a more combative tone recently, which makes the current moment all the stranger: Pelosi might be the biggest barrier between President Trump and an impeachment inquiry right now.
Pelosi has made her personal opposition to impeaching Trump clear. In March, for example, she told The Washington Post, “I’m not for impeachment … Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it.”
The brutality of fame can change the basic way people evaluate others.
Human history is riddled with people whose limited credentials have not stopped them from successfully hawking miracle cures and religious salvation, but Grigori Rasputin stands out as a talented wellness grifter even now. After arriving in St. Petersburg in the early 1900s, Rasputin ego-massaged his way into the upper echelons of Russian society, charming the rich and influential to access ever-greater levels of power until he reached the ruling Romanovs, the family that had been in control of Russia for more than three centuries.
Most of what historians know about what Rasputin actually did to ingratiate himself—or what skills he actually had—has been passed down through mere rumor and legend. What’s clearer is that the Romanovs apparently considered Rasputin’s abilities so indispensable to the health of their son and the legitimacy of their government that he was allowed to run roughshod over their court and alienate the trust of the public, hastening the Bolshevik Revolution and the Romanovs’ deaths.
More than 700 years ago, demand for sturgeon, salmon, and other fish was so high that kings had to start regulating fishing.
In the year 1289, King Philip IV of France was worried about fish. “Each and every watershed of our realm,” he proclaimed, “large and small, yields nothing due to the evil of fishers.” Environmental change, expanding cities, and overfishing had sent aquatic populations into a tailspin. Because they were scarce, the fish, King Philip noted, “are much more costly than they used to be, which results in no moderate loss to the rich and poor of our realm.” This state of affairs could not stand. The king promulgated the country’s first fisheries ordinance.
In medieval Europe, an era stretching from about A.D. 500 to 1500, fish was a prestigious food. Chefs experimented with ways to disguise beef as fish: At least half a dozen cookbooks of the era include recipes for turning veal into imitation sturgeon for wealthy lords and ladies. Sturgeon was so rare in England and France that it was reserved for the monarchs, and the Cistercians, a Catholic religious order that used sign language to communicate, referred to it using the sign for fish and then the sign for pride.
The Massachusetts senator is betting big on higher-education funding.
“Race matters,” Senator Elizabeth Warren told me in an interview last Wednesday, “and we need to face it.” Two days earlier, Warren became the latest Democratic presidential hopeful to make the trek to North Philadelphia with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, to meet with union members. These town halls have a rhythm: Brief remarks from Weingarten, a short monologue from the candidate, and then questions from the most important people in the room: teachers. After Warren’s speech, she was pressed about the growing wall of student debt—and it drew out her higher-education pitch.
The Massachusetts senator and former law professor launched into a lecture about how to reform paying for higher education, declaring, “We need to talk about the racial dimension of this head on.” She ran down the stats. “Students of color are more likely to have to borrow money to go to college, they borrow more money when they’re in college, and they have a harder time paying for it when they get out of college,” Warren said. There was a difference, a systemic one, she argued, and the policy makers needed to fix it.