By Roz Chast
New York: Bloomsbury, 2014, 234 pp., $28.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Rebecca Steinitz,
When I told my middle-aged friends—and most of my friends are middle-aged—that I was reviewing Roz Chast’s memoir about her aging parents, they invariably replied, “Didn’t I see something about that in the New Yorker?” Indeed, they did. Chast’s twelve-page comic spread about her parents’ decline appeared in the print and online versions of the magazine in March 2014, to widespread conversation and 22,000 Facebook shares (that it garnered fewer than 1,000 tweets tells you something about the demographics of social media and Roz Chast fans).
The New Yorker piece begins with Chast’s family’s shared complicity in avoiding talk of the future, then moves rapidly through her parents’ difficult childhoods; their hoarding tendencies, trust issues, and increasing inability to care for themselves; the euphemistic absurdity and painful necessity of moving them into assisted living, or “The Place,” as Chast labels it; her father’s surrender to death; her mother’s persistent refusal to die; and her parents’ cremains, which she still keeps in her clothes closet. The piece is trademark Chast, with its radiating lines, googly eyes, flop sweat, acerbic one-liners— “Where, in the five stages of death, is EAT TUNA SANDWICH!?!?” Chast’s character asks, after her mother’s unexpected recovery—and tragicomic captions such as “The Depressing Aisle”—the label on the drawing of a drugstore that stocks everything you need for oldest old age, including “Bed-bath, for when you’re done with baths”; “Liqui-food, for when you’re done with food”; and “Rash-a-way, jumbo economy size.”
The piece seemed fully formed, another self-contained episode in Chast’s decades-long chronicle of life in these times. But it turned out there was more: an entire book, of which the >New Yorker had published just a handful of pages. Excited fans clamored and, happily for them if unhappily for their parents, the book more than meets their desire to see their own stories brilliantly reflected, refracted, and clarified with Chast’s unique brand of anxious acuity.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? explores an experience that is at once universal (the decline of aging parents); demographically specific (the decline of aging parents of relatively well-off, educated baby boomers); demographically and culturally specific (the decline of aging parents of relatively well-off, educated, Jewish baby boomers from Brooklyn); and specifically personal (the painful decline of the aging George Chast, an anxiety-ridden former high school French and Spanish teacher, and his wife Elizabeth, a domineering former elementary school assistant principal, as seen through the eyes of their befuddled yet sharply observant daughter Roz, who happens to be a famous contemporary American cartoonist). Few besides Chast could pull off such specific universalizing, and her cartoon format is ideally suited to her task, making visually explicit the fact that she is talking about three particular people, even as their travails resonate widely.
A veritable cottage industry of books about caring for aging parents has accompanied the graying of the baby boom, and two of the most popular American graphic novels, Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1991) and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), are about, among other things, difficult parents. So it can’t be said that Chast is breaking new ground. But just as Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions made it acceptable to talk about the messy, frustrating, sometimes hilarious complexity of parenting, so Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? takes the conversation about Depends, health-care proxies, and cleaning out decades of accumulated possessions to a new level of despair, humor, and good old-fashioned ambivalence. Indeed, its rapturous reception suggests that the aging-parent memoir may well be the new parenting memoir.
Chast narrates her version in a purposeful hodgepodge of single images, multipanel strips, handwritten text, photographs, typed poems, a six-line play, and a parody of the children’s magazine.
The book begins with this hodgepodge in miniature: a dedication to Chast’s parents; a table of contents, accompanied by a vertical four-panel commentary that introduces her nervous sweating father and imperious cheapskate mother; and a black-and-white photograph of a blond-banged Chast, perhaps five years old, holding a book and sitting between her bespectacled, respectably dressed parents. Chast looks skeptical, and her parents, who look like her grandparents, are beaming. Those three pages set up the entire book, which is as much the anatomy of a family as a soon-to-be-classic of parental decline. Indeed, if hodgepodge is Chast’s mode, it also mirrors the experience of family—again, all families, but in particular her own—in its accretion of different experiences and images into an often-shaky, but in this case at least, surprisingly durable whole.
Chast depicts her father as the embodiment of “chronic anxiety”—a picky eater, easily paralyzed by the minutiae of everyday life. Yet he is also “smart,” “kind and sensitive,” and something of a salvation to his daughter: “Even though I knew he couldn’t really defend me against my mother’s rages, I sensed that at least he felt some sympathy, and that he liked me as a person, not just because I was his daughter,” Chast muses. Her mother, in contrast, was “critical and uncompromising” and “perfectionist”—the detonator of “blasts from Chast,” whenever she was displeased, which was often.
One side of the family dynamic is captured in an image of Chast’s mother’s giant head, half a page high, with spinning eyes and a black hole of a mouth, shouting “I’M GOING TO BLOW MY TOP!!!” in a speech balloon that hovers over tiny cowering figures of Chast and her father. But the other side of the family dynamic is the deep, admittedly “codependent,” connection between Chast’s parents, who “referred to each other, without any irony, as ‘soul mates,’” she writes. This attachment turned Chast, born sixteen years after their wedding, into an outsider. Although she spent much of her adult life avoiding her parents and Brooklyn, a drawing of a sullen blond-banged adult Chast sitting on the couch between her frowning elderly parents, with the words “YOU ARE HERE / SUCK IT UP” in a text box above her head, echoes the photograph that opens the book, in the context of her parents’ changing circumstances.
One of Chast’s observations is that there is aging—and then there is Aging, or extreme aging. As her parents reach ninety, “I could see that they were slowly leaving the sphere of TV-commercial old age—and moving into the part of old age that was scarier, harder to talk about, and not a part of this culture. SOMETHING WAS COMING DOWN THE PIKE.” Written in yellow block letters outlined in black, that last sentence functions like hazard tape, telling readers that we really don’t want to go there. But Chast and her parents, like many of us, have no choice.
The dramatic decline begins with a fall, as it frequently does—a scene depicted in a drawing of her anxious father begging her mother not to climb a ladder, her stern mother climbing, and the arm-flapping mishap itself. After weeks in bed at home, with Chast and her father endlessly uncertain of what to do, her mother ends up in the hospital. After a 22-hour wait in the emergency room, Chast brings her father home with her and discovers that he doesn’t remember where his wife is. “I had had that my father was so far gone,” she writes. “When he was living with my take-charge mother in familiar, never-changing surroundings, his symptoms of senility had seemed pretty low key.” Any reader who has reached the point where dementia suddenly reveals itself as worse than anyone thought will nod vigorously—like a Roz Chast character.
What follows is the tale told in the New Yorker writ large over several years: the frustrating and comical absurdity of her father’s dementia-generated repetitions and obsessions, the tortuous return home, a disastrous visit to one nursing home, the eventual settling in at another. Chast worries about money, confronts the hidden details of aging and her own uncertainties, and discovers that she is, well, pretty much who she knew she was all along: on the one hand, she writes, “I worried about them. (Print can’t possibly capture the variety of Chast’s lettering.) Even—or perhaps especially—as Chast becomes their caretaker, her parents continue to drive her crazy in exactly the ways they always have.
It would be easy to hurl a superficial class and race critique at: this is what happens when white people with resources get old. Even though Chast worries incessantly about money, there is always enough, and her mother is cared for, at the very end of her life, by that stock character of popular culture and feminist critique, the nurturing woman-of-color caregiver, who takes on her role not just by happenstance, but because of the dominant cultural narratives and socioeconomic realities of US history. Except, Chast is completely on to this. “And once again,” she writes, “one of society’s least-wanted jobs was being done by a minority woman. I felt guilty about this, too...but relieved...and jealous...and grateful.” In that sequence of adjectives, she lays out the compromised position of the woman who hands over her traditional caregiving responsibilities to another with full awareness of her complicity in the workings of privilege: “Guess I’ll go home now and DRAW?"
Chast’s parents die as they lived. After a fall of his own, her father essentially gives up. On his last day, Chast “tried to telepath to him how much I loved him, and that I knew how much he loved me, and that we were ‘good,’ and that it was o.k. to let go.” He dies later that afternoon, while she is at lunch with a friend, and her mother is in the bathroom. Her mother hangs on, moving in and out of hospice, taking repeated “turns for the worse” that then turn for the better—that tuna sandwich—and never granting Chast the reconciliation she forces herself to seek.
When Chast’s mother finally dies, Chast is again herself: “I drew her. I didn’t know what else to do.” The penultimate section of the book is a dozen drawings of her mother during the last several weeks of her life, including right after her death. These images are not hodgepodge, not cartoons, not humor, not exaggeration, just line drawings of her mother at rest: straight-up, angst-free memento mori that get to the universal heart of this story. Whether or not we are artists, whether or not we are from Brooklyn, whether or not we ultimately cherish the love of our parents (like Chast and her father) or continue to struggle with their difficulty (like Chast and her mother), our parents die. If we are lucky, we will live to tell the tale, as Chast does so powerfully, for so many of us.
Rebecca Steinitz is a literacy consultant, writer, and editor. She writes regularly for the Boston Globe and Women’s Review of Books, and is the author of Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary (2011). She feels exceedingly fortunate in the good health of her parents and knocks wood every day.
Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot
By Masha Gessen
New York: Riverhead Press, 2014, 308pp., $16.00, paperback
Reviewed by Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild
Russia has a long tradition of female protest. The mastermind of the assassination of Alexander II, the tsar who emancipated the serfs, was a woman, Sofia Perovskaia, and in a perverse kind of gender equity, she became the first Russian female to be subjected to capital punishment, hung for this political murder. Her compatriot, the noblewoman-turned-radical Vera Figner, during her own trial for aiding in the tsar’s assassination and other terrorist acts, declared, according to her Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1991), “The most essential part of the program…which had the greatest significance for me, was the annihilation of the autocratic form of government.”
Much more than in the West, Russian radicals, women and men, embraced female liberation as a key element of their vision for societal transformation. In addition to Figner and Perovskaia, women were prominent in all factions of the social movements opposing the tsarist autocracy—from assassins to agitators, from those organizing among the peasants and the proletariat to those specifically championing women’s rights. Feminists in Russia were the first in a major power to win full women’s suffrage, in 1917, three years before US women. The Bolshevik Revolution brought with it the most far-reaching laws proclaiming women’s equality seen to that time. Lenin proclaimed that, as a result of these measures, the humblest of women would rise to the pinnacle of state power.
Authoritarianism soon dashed democratic hopes. While the new Soviet woman learned to read and climb the educational ladder, the highest realm of the government, the Politburo, more closely resembled capitalist boardrooms in their white maleness than any bastion of women’s liberation. Female protest during much of the Soviet period was limited, with few successes. So called (women’s revolts) influenced Stalin to reverse efforts at collectivizing private peasant garden plots in the 1930s. In 1980, the first openly dissident Soviet feminists, publishers of the samizdat Woman and Russia Almanac, were exiled to the West, a punishment reserved for those who, like Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky, were considered particularly dangerous.
Now comes Pussy Riot, with the same name in English and Russian, advocating a feminist, antipatriarchal, and antiauthoritarian ideology. In Words Will Break Cement, Masha Gessen’s book chronicling the group, she provides a thorough and detailed description of their emergence as key opposition figures against Vladimir Putin and his allies in the Russian Orthodox Church.
Pussy Riot consists of seven to eight women, some of whom have never been caught or identified by the authorities. Gessen focuses on those who were captured and tried for their part in a performance art/protest on February 21, 2012, in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the mother church for Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a close Putin ally with alleged KGB ties.
The three women whose activism forms the center of the book are Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Ekaterina Samutsevich. All are children of the 1980s, the last full decade of Soviet power. Tolokonnikova, born on November 7, 1989, in Norilsk, Siberia, one of the most polluted places in the world (its nickel industry was privatized by Mikhail Prokhorov, the owner of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team). She and Alyokhina, born on June 6, 1988, in Moscow, were toddlers when the Soviet Union collapsed. Both are young mothers. Tolokonnikova has a daughter, Gera, born in 2008, and is married to Pyotr Verzilov, a Canadian citizen. Alyokhina has a son, Philip, also born in 2008. Samutsevich, the oldest of the three, was born in 1982 in Moscow.
Gessen is particularly helpful in highlighting the feminism of Pussy Riot as she details their trial and the conditions of their imprisonment. She describes the origins of the group in the performance art of Voina (War). Voina’s most famous actions included the February 29, 2008, “Fuck for the Heir Puppy Bear,” in which five heterosexual couples, including Tolokonnikova and Verzilov, videotaped having sex in the Moscow Biology Museum. In June 2010, they painted a giant outline of a penis on half of a drawbridge across from the St. Petersburg secret police headquarters. When the bridge was raised, the penis went erect. These bold actions were not enough to keep the group together. One of Voina’s last forays, in 2011, presaged its transition to an all-women’s group. Dubbed “Buss the Buzz,” it involved spontaneous same-sex kissing of the police. The male activists couldn’t do it; the women did. Carrying Julia Kristeva’s Revolt, She Said (2002) with her, Tolokonnikova referred to then Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov’s condemnation of gays as she grabbed policewomen and kissed them. She claims that many put up little resistance.
The group’s transformation took place against the background of growing anti-Putin protests and the Arab Spring. In September 2011, Tolokonnikova and Samutsevich, as Pisya Riot (Pee-Pee Riot), lectured on feminist art at a Moscow conference called to unite opposition groups. They ended with “Kill the Sexist,” a song set to the soundtrack of the British punk rock group Cockney Rejects, with lyrics such as: “You are sick and tired of …your daddy’s stinky socks…your mother is all in dirty dishes…..Become a feminist, kill the sexist!” Recruiting more members, the women rehearsed and then splashed onto the scene as Pussy Riot. On November 7, 2011, the 94th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and Tolokonnikova’s 22nd birthday, they launched a video clip and blog called “Free the Cobblestones.” Borrowing music this time from the British band Angelic Upstarts, they declaimed “Spend a full day among strong women, Find an ice pick on your balcony and free the cobblestones….Tahrir! Tripoli! The feminist whip is good for Russia.” Several other actions followed; one, on Moscow’s Red Square on January 20, 2012, brought the group major media attention. Pussy Riot, in their now-trademark colorful balaclavas, took aim at Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, mocking the Russian leader’s crudeness, shouting, “Putin has pissed himself,….the Orthodox religion is a hard penis.”
They had no such luck the next time. Shouting “Virgin Mary, become a feminist,” on February 21, 2012, several Pussy Riot members, their faces masked by balaclavas, mounted the platform in front of the iconostasis at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. After less than a minute, they were dragged off by guards. The video that spread rapidly across the Internet showed the power of virtual protest. Calculating that they might not be able to complete their song at the main Cathedral, Pussy Riot had prerecorded their protest at the nearby but lightly guarded Cathedral of the Apparition and then mixed the videos together to give the appearance of one complete action. In the wake of the protest, Patriarch Kirill called on the government to criminalize blasphemy. Five days after the incident, prosecutors opened a criminal case against the Pussy Riot members they managed to identify.
On March 5, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were arrested and charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” On March 16, Ekaterina Samutsevich was also arrested and charged as a hooligan. Although Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were both mothers of small children, they were held in jail until their trial.
Some of the most powerful passages in the book describe the surreal atmosphere in the courtroom. The trial was a sham, the action successfully framed as an assault on the Russian Orthodox Church. The defendants were placed in cages in the courtroom, as had been oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovskii during his trial. Gessen gained access to the women’s letters from detention; she includes large excerpts that detail the deplorable jail conditions. Both Gessen and her subjects condemn the defense lawyers as inadequate to the task, but it is not clear what more they could have done to change the predetermined verdict or the clear bias of the presiding judge. On the eighth day of the trial, Tolokonnikova, wearing a blue tee shirt emblazoned with the Spanish Civil War slogan ¡No Pasaran! (“They shall not pass!”) gave a long closing statement, arguing that “it is the entire Russian state system that is on trial here.” The system, she said, resembled the Stalinist purge trials, with the troika pre-wrap;"> of investigator, judge, and prosecutor all working together. “Like Solzhenitsyn,” she stated defiantly, “I believe that in the end, words will break cement.”
On August 17, 2012, the Pussy Riot Three were sentenced to two years in a penal colony. After an appeal on October 10, Samutsevich, with a new lawyer handling her legal affairs, was released on two year’s probation. The judges rejected the appeals of Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina. Despite their requests to serve their time in Moscow, the two were sent to separate penal colonies. Alyokhina was dispatched to IK-32, in Berezniki, near Perm, approximately 700 miles from Moscow, reputed to have relatively decent conditions. Tolokonnikova was initially assigned to the IK-14 camp in Mordovia, a notorious Soviet gulag area, about two hundred miles from Moscow.
Gessen includes long excerpts from Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina’s letters, which describe the appalling conditions at the camps. Lack of sufficient toilets, showers, overcrowded hygiene facilities and bunks, bad food, inhumanly long work hours, corrupt officials who stole the women’s meager wages, hostile inmates, crime, beatings—all were similar to the gulags of the late Soviet era.
The two women responded to the conditions differently. Alyokhina became an expert on the law and prison regulations, and managed to use every part of the penal code to challenge the system, winning a change in the number of work hours for inmates, although it is not clear if this continued after she left. Tolokonnikova in Mordovia faced harsher conditions. Hardened prisoners claimed that the Mordovian prisons were the real thing; those in other prisons had not done “real” time. Camp administrator Kupriyanov boasted to her that he was a Stalinist and that “we’ve broken stronger wills than yours here!” Fed up with the conditions and the hopelessness of challenging them, Tolokonnikova went on hunger strike. Fearing that she might die in captivity, officials moved her to a prison hospital, then back to the camp; then, after she declared another hunger strike, to a tuberculosis hospital in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. For 26 days, while she was in transit, her family and supporters had no word about her whereabouts. They feared the worst.
Finally released on December 23, 2013, by Putin, as he sought to ratchet down concerns about human rights violations before February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Alyokina and Tolokonnikova have been lionized in the West. They appeared at an Amnesty International benefit, made the Manhattan arts scene, held their own with Stephen Colbert, and most recently called for the release of the jailed Occupy activist Cecily McMillan. They have had a much rougher time in their homeland, including being disowned by some Pussy Riot members for supposedly capitalizing on their celebrity status. Their attempts to disrupt the Sochi Olympics resulted in a kind of back to the future moment, when they were whipped and pepper sprayed by Cossacks.Soon after, they were doused with germicide in a McDonald’s in Nizhni Novgorod. In the meantime, Putin’s popularity has risen to more than eighty percent in the wake of his annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and his continued crackdowns on opposition activists and media outlets. With the neo-Soviet revival in full swing, Pussy Riot’s activist future inside Russia is in doubt. Their colorful balaclavas have recently been eclipsed, in the region from which the masks originated, by the black balaclavas of pro-Russian forces, official or unofficial, in Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine.
Asha Gessen, born in the Soviet Union in 1967, emigrated with her family to the US in 1981, returned to her homeland in 1991, became a prominent journalist and LGBT activist in Moscow, and returned to the US in December 2013, after the passage of antigay laws threatened state seizure of the children of lesbians and gays. An outspoken critic of Putin, especially in her 2012 book The Man Without a Face, she brings to this book a keen awareness of the nuances of Soviet and Russian life, and access to sources difficult or impossible for non-native speakers to obtain.
Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova are only the latest in a long tradition of female protest in Russia, yet they and Gessen ignore or minimize this history. Gessen claims that “feminism had never taken root in Russia.” In fact, Russia has rich feminist and progressive democratic traditions, which have persevered despite Soviet and post-Soviet attempts to repress and stigmatize them. Gessen’s view of Russian and Soviet progressivism as largely cynical and manipulative helps perpetuate stereotypes of Russian “backwardness” and intrinsic authoritarianism.
Pussy Riot may be the new face of protest: rather than large mass movements, they employ actions whose message is spread through the Internet and social media. Have they been effectively crushed by the Putin steamroller and become part of yet another Russian exile community more active in the West than in their homeland? Only time will tell. But for readers seeking information on Pussy Riot’s form of feminist activism, Gessen’s book is by far the most comprehensive source.
is a research associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, and a visiting scholar at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center. She is the author of Equality and Revolution: Women’s Rights in the Russian Empire, 1905-1917(2010), and an editor of Aspasia, The International Yearbook of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern European Women’s and Gender History. She spent two years as an exchange scholar in the Soviet Union, and has travelled to Russia frequently since 1991. From 1988 to 1994, she was the director of the Russian School at Norwich University. She is an executive producer of the documentary film Left on Pearl: Women Take Over 888 Memorial Drive, Cambridge. Most recently she has written about Putin’s anti-lesbian and gay laws on WOMEN=BOOKS (www.wcwonline.org/womensreview) the Women’s Review of Books
Global Families: A History of Asian International Adoption in America
Catherine Ceniza Choy
New York: New York University, 2013, 229 pp., $23.00, paperback
Reviewed by Miliann Kang
I was reading Global Families in my doctor’s office when a woman approached me and asked me about my book. I showed her the cover. She explained that she was the mother of two children adopted from Vietnam, so I offered to lend her the book when I was finished. She hesitated, then asked only half-jokingly, “Is this one of those books that will make me feel really bad about my family?” I was saddened but not surprised by or unsympathetic to her response. Like the practices, determinants, and actors in transnational adoption, this field of study can be complex, contradictory, and multilayered.
In thinking about transnational adoption, I wear two hats. The first is that of a feminist sociologist and ethnic studies scholar who focuses on reproductive politics, labor, and migration. The second is that of an Asian American mother who is raising a child in a community that has a large number of Asian adoptees. It is often hard to wear both hats at the same time. I know I am not the only one in this situation: many others are highly critical of adoption practices, and the social contexts and histories that fuel them, yet like me they have great respect and affection for individuals and families who have created strong, loving bonds through adoption. Much popular and scholarly literature, however, has set up these two positions as antagonistic and irreconcilable. Unfortunately, this often has resulted in texts and research that do not speak to—or with—those who might both benefit from and contribute to understanding the histories, current realities, and future directions of transnational, transracial adoption.
reflects and addresses these tensions. It rejects simplistic humanitarian notions of “saving” orphans from destitute, war-torn nations, and celebratory multicultural narratives of acceptance and racial progress. Instead, it offers an incisive critique of the US military, economic, and social policies that have fueled high rates of international adoption, especially from Asia, while remaining attentive to the experiences of adoptees and their families.
Choy offers a wide-ranging yet interconnected history of international adoption in the US from multiple sending countries in Asia (mainly Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and China). In weaving together these disparate national contexts, she develops the concept of “global family making,” which she defines as “a process involving the decisions made and actions taken by people who create and sustain a family by consciously crossing national and often racial borders.” She asserts that this process of global family making is “not solely a personal or local one,” nor one that is relevant only to international adoption. While acknowledging its very personal dimensions, she shows how international social, political, economic, and military developments shape new family formations and determine their potentially widespread effects. For example, Choy discusses how the presence of international adoptees has generated positive attitudes toward immigrants and how they have changed the demographics and culture in regions such as the Midwest, which had been overwhelmingly white.
Choy’s main assertion—that race “is fundamental to understanding ... early Asian international adoption history as well as the lived experiences of Asian American adoptees”—may seem obvious, but it nonetheless needs constant rearticulation to counter current “color-blind” rhetoric. After World War II, many state and nonstate actors became involved in the “problem” of the mixed-race children of US GIs (popularly referred to as Amerasians), arranging placements for them outside of their home countries. While the blame for mistreatment of these children has often been laid at the feet of supposedly backward, homogenous Asian countries, Choy argues that “Japanese, Korean, and American prejudices contributed to the social ostracism of mixed-race children in Japan and Korea” (emphasis in the original). She backs up this statement by pointing to US antimiscegenation laws, which discouraged servicemen from marrying foreign brides and claiming their children as their own.
As a historian, Choy utilizes and unpacks the “gold mine” of material documenting the International Social Service, USA Branch (ISS-USA), which she accessed through the University of Minnesota’s Social Welfare History Archives. While other scholars have drawn on these organizational records to chart histories of international adoption from specific countries, Choy pieces together a longer and broader picture of ISS-USA activities throughout Asia over half a century.
As early as the 1950s and sixties, social workers and administrators at ISS both shaped and challenged US adoption policy; they did not simply enact orders from above. They asked whether overseas adoption served the best interests of children, or whether it would be better to support domestic social welfare programs that would allow these children to stay in their home countries. Although many of the issues they raised were ignored, by bringing in these voices, Choy shows that the high rates of international adoption in the US from Asia were not inevitable or the natural outgrowth of poverty and war. Instead they emerged out of a US public relations campaign that constructed Asian children as unwanted orphans, thereby reframing US military operations in Asia as humanitarian efforts in the face of rising antiwar sentiment.
Yet Choy also views international adoption as a “human story comprised of the efforts of many seemingly ordinary people.” She pays particular attention to the individuals who shaped this story. These include such well-known figures as Henry Holt, the devout Oregon farmer who built links between US Christians and Korean orphanages as part of his missionary vision, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Pearl S. Buck, who founded Welcome House, an agency that facilitated international and interracial adoption. Their efforts served to normalize international adoption and lend it moral authority, while also setting up concrete mechanisms to facilitate it. Choy shows that celebrity adoptions are not a new phenomenon, but hark back to the movie star Jane Russell, who played a leadership role in the World Adoption International Fund (WAIF), mobilizing Hollywood star power for fundraising and policy initiatives. One of the most interesting and in-depth profiles in the book is that of Jim Bouton, the all-star pitcher for the New York Yankees, who adopted a four-year-old Korean boy, Kyung Jo—renamed Bobbie Bouton. The family’s story was publicized by the sportswriter Leonard Shecter in an unusually honest and reflective narrative that dramatized struggles over language, food, and attachment, and challenged the simple assimilationist notion that these children could easily become and be accepted as Americans.
The final chapter, “To Make Historical Their Own Stories,” presents narratives by adult adoptees. Rather than focus on such narratives in isolation, though, Choy brings them into conversation with other aspects of Asian American history. The narratives she examines include Marlon Fuente’s Bontoc Eulogy (1995), about his search for his grandfather, a member of the Bontoc tribe in the Philippines, who was put on live display at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory (1991) about Hollywood and US government representations of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Choy’s close readings of two documentaries by Deann Borshay Liem, First Person Plural (2000) and its follow-up, In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee (2010), are particularly nuanced and moving. Through examination of adoptees efforts to recover and understand the stories surrounding their births, separations, and placements with overseas families, the films show how the adoptees have made sense of the complex histories that they have lived, shaped, and been shaped by. While this chapter is the most theoretically rich of the book, bringing in these new topics and processes only at the end of the book may have prevented Choy from giving them the full attention they deserve. She offers a compelling analysis of the recuperation of history by Asian American artists through memory and imagination across a range of issues—but to appreciate this readers need some familiarity with the films she analyzes and the debates about them. For those most interested in the topic of international adoption, the chapter may be challenging because of its multiple themes and contexts.
Choy’s ability to capture, passionately and compassionately, the particularities of individual, organizational, and national histories is the main strength of her book. Her concept of global family making deserves serious consideration as it bridges the micro and macro processes that come together to shape normative and non-normative family structures, including multiracial, queer, and extended family formations. While the book has the potential to illuminate a range of debates regarding how race, militarism, globalization, and the agency of both groups and individuals have affected international adoption, readers won’t find groundbreaking theoretical arguments here. Choy builds on a number of recent books in the field, providing a welcome synthesis rather than cutting-edge analysis.
Going back to the interaction I described at the beginning of this review, I hope the woman I met in the doctor’s office and others like her, whose lives are directly touched by international adoption, will read this book. In Choy’s incisive and sensitive writing, I hope that they will see themselves reflected not as “good” or “bad” individuals or families, but as participants in a collective saga of personal and political upheaval that is still unfolding.
Miliann Kang is an associate professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work(2010), which won awards from the American Sociological Association and the National Women’s Studies Association.
Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields
By Wendy Lower
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, 288 pp., $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heineman
Really, it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that German women were among the killers in the Holocaust. In any society that includes lethal violence, women perform some portion of that violence: much less of it than men, but some. Most of that violence occurs in “private” settings; historical and literary representations, too, tend to focus on the intersections of women’s intimate worlds and their acts of violence. But women also participate in larger systems of violent domination such as racial and colonial privilege. It’s a testament to the power of stereotypes of women’s nonviolence and subordination that we can imagine that women might be entirely absent from the ranks of killers in such systems.
For this reason, Wendy Lower’s new book is both welcome and necessary. Feminist historians began exploring women’s contributions to the crimes of Nazi Germany more than a generation ago, and compilations such as Alison Owings’s Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich (1995) have enabled a nonacademic English-reading audience to ponder the range of German women’s responses to the regime. (The English-language scholarship on women in Nazi Germany is too vast to summarize here. The books that initiated the conversation were Women in Nazi Society, by Jill Stephenson ; When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany, edited by Renate Bridenthal, Atina Grossmann, and Marion Kaplan ; and Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics, by Claudia Koonz  ). Lower takes this literature a step further by embedding sustained discussion of women’s murderous acts in this larger history.
Statistics, Lower acknowledges, don’t tell us all we wish to know—though at least they disabuse us of any notion that only a handful of women participated in the German occupation of Eastern Europe, a fact already expertly explored by historian Elizabeth Harvey, in Women and the Nazi East: Agents and Witnesses of Germanization (2003). At least half a million German women served in occupied lands, in institutions as varied as the army, the Red Cross, social service agencies, and schools. Some 30,000 were certified for employment with policing agencies such as the SS and the Gestapo. Ten thousand worked as secretaries in the civil administration of the occupied East. Thirty-five hundred were concentration camp guards. The women in question came from the ranks of the racially privileged and politically and socially conformist, though committed Nazis were the exception rather than the rule. Lower focuses on the occupied East, where the most murderous activity occurred, but secretaries in occupied Western Europe also compiled lists of Jews to be deported, and nurses who remained in Germany proper administered lethal injections to victims of the “euthanasia” program.
In considering women’s relationship to the crimes of the regime, Lower organizes them into witnesses, accomplices, and perpetrators. (At least some of the witnesses—those whom Lower most admires—might have slipped into the ranks of the victims had their surprisingly frank letters home been discovered by the authorities.) Allowing for the fact that victims are not the subject of her study, Lower’s schema differs from the more common, though contested, one of victims-bystanders-perpetrators in Holocaust studies: in essence, she expands the two categories of bystander and perpetrator into three. For Lower, “perpetrator” means those who killed with their own hands: there are no “desktop killers.” By this definition, much of the Nazi leadership, probably including Hitler himself, would not have qualified. But no woman in Nazi Germany was in a position to orchestrate murder on a massive scale without “getting her hands dirty” in this literal sense. Women who issued death sentences on a smaller scale—secretaries, for example, who decided which of the hundred remaining Jews in a village would go on a list of fifty slated for execution the next day—fall into Lower’s category of “accomplice.” So do women who accepted or actively sought out plundered goods, as well as wives of SS men who accompanied their husbands to killing sites.
Yet some of the women who appear in the “witnesses” chapter no doubt also received plundered goods; as Lower documents, some accepted invitations to visit Jewish ghettos, where they, like the SS wives in the killing fields, observed atrocities. For Lower, the distinction between witnesses and accomplices is equal part accident, action, and attitude. As she puts it, witnesses
were not presented with the choice to participate directly in the violence, or, as some extremists would see it, the “opportunity” to collaborate. They were German female patriots doing their civil service. They were curious; they sought adventure. Once they entered the eastern territories and witnessed the atrocities . . . they articulated emotions of concern and shock.
Lower’s strategy of tracing individual women throughout the period requires that she place each into one of the chapters organized by these potentially overlapping categories. This organization is limiting if the aim is to praise or condemn particular women on the basis of incomplete sources (which may or may not reveal a woman’s emotional state; which may or may not reveal all the tasks she performed as part of her civil service or her search for adventure). But Lower’s larger goal is to encourage the reader to contemplate the range of women’s experiences and responses in extreme circumstances. The strategy of collective biography also helps to make the book accessible to nonspecialists, and Hitler’s Furies will no doubt be widely read outside academia and in the undergraduate classroom. We get to know such women as Annette Schücking, the law student turned nurse from a social-democratic family whose letters home documented “not only the horrors she heard about and saw but also her own moral indignation”; Liselotte Meier, who—as secretary and lover of the district commissar of the Belorussian city of Lida—coordinated the logistics of shooting by the local security police and luxuriated in a villa renovated and served by Jewish slave laborers; and Liesel Willhaus, the wife of the camp commandant at Janowska in Ukraine, who shot Jews from the balcony of her home, sometimes with her child by her side.
As this sampling suggests, women’s professional and family positions mattered a great deal, not only in determining when and whether they would be deployed in the East, but also in determining what they did once they arrived. Whereas nurses’ explicit duties might include “euthanizing” disabled people, secretaries and wives had no orders to kill—but they were closest to the men who administered the genocide. As Lower drily puts it, they “participated more than they had to.”
Most importantly, we do not simply see snapshots of women behaving well or badly: rather, we see them evolve from their pre-war existence into what they became once they arrived in—and acclimated to—the occupied East. Lower’s concern is “the transformations of individual women in the inner workings and outer landscapes of the Holocaust,” and she approvingly cites a literature that underscores that “environment is the most important factor in determining whether one will become a perpetrator of genocide.” Erna Petri is a case in point. The daughter of a farmer, she had little hope of escape from a lifetime of agricultural drudgery—a fate made especially bitter by the new mass media that exposed country girls to glamorous fantasies of city life. Little hope, that is, until—at the tender age of sixteen—she fell in love with a rising star in the Nazi movement. Against her father’s wishes, they married; she had her first child at eighteen. Three years later she was in Grzenda (in today’s western Ukraine), far from her home and community but with a small child and a husband who beat his laborers and sexually assaulted the female household servants. Unlike some SS wives, Petri does not appear to have joined her husband on the killing fields or to have relished opportunities to display her life-or-death power over Jews. Yet when she encountered a ragtag group of escaped children at a time when her husband was away, the dutiful wife—knowing that escaped Jews were to be shot, and having learned how by overhearing conversations between her husband and other killers while pouring their coffee—performed the task herself.
Had it not been for the Nazi regime, had it not been for her youthful marriage, had it not been for her husband’s assignment to the East, had it not been for her husband’s absence on that fateful day—Erna Petri surely would not have become a mass murderer. Yet she did, and even as Lower makes clear the role of contingency, she does not make excuses. Nor did the postwar East German government, as contingency struck again: as Lower amply demonstrates, female perpetrators of equivalent crimes were harshly punished in East Germany, where Petri landed after the war, but got off scot-free in West Germany.
The inequitable treatment of Nazi-era perpetrators in East and West Germany is an oft- told tale, but Lower’s examination of how gender entered the criminal investigations is worth the price of the book alone—partly because the West German story brings us uncomfortably close to our own culture’s difficulty in imagining women’s participation in atrocity. On the one hand, assumptions of women’s apolitical and nonviolent nature immunized most female perpetrators in the West from thorough investigation. On the other hand, sensationalized accounts of female concentration camp guards, together with Nazi-themed postwar pornography, created images of female perpetrators as uniquely sexually sadistic, stifling a more sober assessment of women’s culpability. Intersecting with these larger trends were a thousand microhistories: married couples or friendship circles forged in war, whose strategies of mutual protection (or passing blame) were shaped by gendered expectations of responsibility and the consequences of prosecution.
The stakes are high in writing a history of Nazi Germany for a popular audience. Such works can prod readers to difficult reflection about their own potential for wrong-doing, or they can reassure readers of their immunity from such behavior by creating a sense of distance between the reader and the book’s protagonists. Hitler’s Furies occasionally establishes distance in ways that let the reader off the hook a bit too easily. After describing Nazi prohibitions against racial mixing, policies of forced sterilization, and criminalization of abortion, Lower notes “the madness of this ideology” and asserts that “we struggle to grasp how a generation became consumed by it.” Yet historians of racial and sexual politics in the United States would confirm that for all too many Americans, grasping this ideology would be no struggle at all; the distinction is in its outcome, not in its madness or the seriousness of its adherents. More generally, there is a danger of confirming readers’ assumption of a liberal norm, drawn on present-day standards, from which Nazi practice deviated. Between the wars, women in many places, not just Germany, “looked forward, not backward” by declining to consider themselves “self-proclaimed feminists”; the same is true today. And nowhere do women have “control over their own bodies”; in many states, elite and popular discourses as well as public policy historically claimed, and continue to claim, women’s reproductive labor as a component of national wealth. It’s precisely the commonalities between Nazi Germany and many contemporaneous states that make Nazism’s areas of radical difference so shocking.
Yet Lower’s larger point, in sketching this background, is that women “learned how to navigate a system that had clear limits but also granted them new benefits, opportunities, and a raised status.” It’s an important message. Despite radical changes in the historiography, the popular stereotype persists that Nazism’s vision for racially approved women was limited to “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (children, kitchen, church). This stereotype may be comforting because we figure we’ve come a long way since then, but it is an incorrect rendering of history. The special appeal of opportunity against the backdrop of limits helps us to understand not only women’s experience in Nazi Germany, but also women’s potential for passivity, resistance, and complicity in unjust regimes worldwide.
Elizabeth Heineman is professor of History and Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa. She is author, most recently, of Before Porn was Legal: The Erotica Empire of Beate Uhse (2011) and the memoir Ghostbelly (2014), and the editor of Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones: From the Ancient World to the Era of Human Rights (2011).