There is no Why


I have been watching Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust epic Shoah over the last few days. This film has been on my “to watch” list for many years, but I had never set aside the time – I knew it would be lengthy and I knew it would be grim viewing.

“Why?” one might ask. Why on earth subject myself to 9 1/2 hours of a documentary film about such an awful event – we’ve all seen countless movies, documentaries, photos, read novels and histories about it. We know it happened (well, those of us who value documented history and truth do). Why revisit something so depressing, especially now, when we are reeling from horrific and frightening events of the last few weeks?

It was precisely that – our new reality.  Paris, San Bernardino, a modern exodus (and its xenophobic backlash) of people fleeing from a barbarism that defies belief. I hear the empty political rhetoric, see the disturbing images flashed endlessly by the media, and ask myself why and how can these things be happening in the 21st Century – is there some flaw in human evolution? Have we forgotten so soon how this kind of thing can end?

Even if only for a glimmer of understanding of troubled times, I always turn to history, to the words, memories, and deeds of those who lived it. So I began watching Shoah, an account of a turning point in history – a new abyss of savagery into which men can be led by an ideology of hate and exclusion.

Claude Lanzmann a French Jewish filmmaker and journalist, conceived of the Shoah project in 1973 (“shoah” is the Hebrew word for catastrophe or destruction, and is the term used by Jews since the early 1940’s for the destruction of the European Jews). In his autobiography Lanzmann writes, “There is no film about the Shoah, no film that takes in what happened in all its magnitude, no film that shows it from our point of view . . . What was most important was what was missing – death in the gas chambers, from which no one had returned to report.” He completed the film in 1985 and it was shown to the world.

Shoah2Shoah is a monumental work of oral history. Lanzmann determined from the beginning to use no archival films or photos, no views or summaries of experts (with one exception, which was masterful). The only people on camera, other than Lanzmann himself and a translator, would be surviving victims, perpetrators, and bystander witnesses. The film is visually compelling and haunting. The images we see are views and landscapes filmed by Lanzmann, quiet rural places, green fields, snow falling in beautiful forests, sleepy towns and train stations. As we watch, we hear the voices of the speakers narrating what had happened in these places, with the camera slowly moving back and forth from the placid scenes to the faces of the narrators. The effect is powerful, stunning in an inexplicable way – because of all that we do not see.

The survivors interviewed by Lanzmann are unforgettable – Abraham Bomba, a barber in Israel at the time Lanzmann was filming, who describes cutting the hair of women before they entered the gas chamber, Filip Muller, a Czech Jew forced to aid in the disposal of victims of the gas chambers, Rudolf Vrba, who tried unsuccessfully to organize an uprising in Auschwitz. It was very difficult for me at first to reconcile the calm and stoic manner of these survivors with the unbelievable events they were describing. They seemed almost emotionless as they began their stories – Vrba in particular would at times briefly reveal a sardonic sense of humor. But as Lanzmann kept returning to them throughout the hours of the film, I began to understand.

For me, the most memorable on-camera contributor was Lanzman’s one exception – his interview with Raul Hilberg, historian and author of The Destruction of the European Jews (brief clip). In one segment of the interviews, Hilberg, whose work focused on the bureaucratic details and the implementation of the “Final Solution,” (how obscene, those two bland words) held an original document in his hands, a one-page railway schedule, filled with normal railway terms, dates, times, routings and re-routings of trains for what might be the transport of goods, livestock, special trains for group vacationers, excursions, seasonal laborers, ordinary, commonplace, part of the country’s public and commercial rail system. As Hilberg methodically decodes the schedule, you understand – the “special” trains were the death trains, loading up at some village, unloading at a death camp, being re-routed to another town, loading up again, over and over. It was chilling.

“To be human,” wrote Irving Howe, “meant to be unequipped to grapple with the Holocaust.” And therein lies the difficulty and the danger.

I finished the film. But it is not finished with me. My question “why” is unanswered, will always be unanswered – we are unequipped. In Primo Levi’s memoir of Auschwitz, he remembers how, suffering from thirst, he grabbed an icicle through the window of his cell. An SS guard knocked it out of his hand. “Why?” Levi asked. The guard responded, “Hier ist kein warum.”

Here there is no why.


An Unstable Mirror

“There are those who would say that I too keenly sought approval and consensus, and if over the years I’ve erred on the side of being too grateful, well so be it. I think one person can hardly understand why another has conducted his life in such a way, how he came to commit certain actions and not others, whether he looks upon the past with mostly pleasure or equanimity or regret. It seems difficult enough to consider one’s own triumphs and failures with perfect verity, for it’s no secret that the past proves a most unstable mirror, typically too severe and flattering all at once, and never as truth-reflecting as people would like to believe.”


Once again, with Chang-rae Lee’s lyrical, quietly powerful novel A Gesture Life, a work of fiction is the lie that tells the deepest truths – who we really are, and the lengths we go to deny that truth.

In the charmingly rustic, affluent village of Bedley Run in upstate New York, Franklin Hata has built a life of tranquility, material success, and some distinction. An ethnic Korean born in Japan and raised by a prominent Japanese family, Hata served as a medical officer in the Japanese army in World War II. In the early sixties, he emigrated to the United States, where he carefully selected Bedley Run as the place to build a new life – it reminded him of the small Japanese city where he grew up. There, he settled and opened a medical and surgical supply store.

As the novel begins, more than thirty years later, Hata is early into retirement. He can, and does, look back with satisfaction on the fruits of his hard work and more importantly, the success of his assimilation into the community. From the beginning, he had carefully tended every personal interaction and ensuing relationship as he tended his immaculately cultivated garden. He recalls the “few small difficulties” in the early years – chalked statements out front on the sidewalk, occasional taunts, axle grease slathered on the dumpster handles – but he never reported them or confronted the perpetrators. And eventually, they became his patrons after all – “they would speak to me as if they had never done the things I knew they had done, they would just make affable small talk and docilely ask my advice as they might from any doctor, their eyes wavering and expectant.”

“The good Doc Hata,” as he is now known to the inhabitants of Bedley Run, has achieved the American Dream. He resolves to direct his energies “toward the reckoning of what stands in the here and now.” In spite of his efforts however, amidst the ordinary events and pleasantries of daily life, he begins to realize that “this happy blend of familiarity and homeyness and what must be belonging, is strangely beginning to disturb me.” Long buried memories begin to intrude. Alone in his beautiful home, swimming in his pool, having achieved what we all hope for in our later years, he observes himself:

“It strikes me that it could be a scene of some sadness as well, of a beauty empty and cold. It is an unnerving thing, but when I was underneath the water, gliding in that black chill, my mind’s eye suddenly seemed to carry to a perspective high above, from where I could see the exact telling shapes of all: the spartan surfaces of the pool deck, the tight-clipped manicures of the garden, the venerable house and trees, the fetching narrow street. And what caught me too, was that I knew there was also a man in that water amidst it all, a secret swimmer who, if he could choose, might always go silent and unseen.”

But the good Doc Hata can no longer choose to go silent and unseen. His carefully constructed life of propriety and accommodation, gesture upon gesture, including one a most profound gesture of atonement, begins to unravel. Masterfully, Lee slowly reveals the mystery, the secret shame buried in the deepest part of this man’s soul.

Beautifully written though it was, this novel was difficult to read – it is a painful story. For a significant time into the book, I could not decide if Hata is a sympathetic protagonist or not. He is inscrutable. I am still not sure and I’ve recently re-read the book. But it doesn’t matter – just as with my initial reading, I was again glad that I stayed with him. The book is a moving reminder of how easy it is to judge from the safe distances of time and space.  For me, it asks those most difficult questions – what would we have done, what could we have done. Continue reading “An Unstable Mirror”

John Williams – An Author Not To Be Overlooked

John Williams (Wikipedia)

I discovered the brilliant writing of John Edward Williams about a year ago by way of recommendation by a fellow reader I’ve come to trust. Persuaded by his review, I began with Williams’ third novel, Stoner.


My friend was right.  Stoner is a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that still haunts me.

StonerSet in the early half of the twentieth century, it is the story of William Stoner, the son of poor Missouri dirt farmers, who is sent to the state university with the expectation of working his way through agricultural studies in preparation for returning to the farm.  Instead, he discovers and falls in love with literature and life as a scholar.  Stoner remains at the university as an instructor, marries disastrously, fathers a daughter whom he loves deeply, is thwarted in his career by the vicious politics of academia, and has a doomed affair with a student.

Stoner could be a story of any unremarkable man who endures with that familiar quiet desperation the disappointments that life indiscriminately metes out to the ordinary.  But in Williams’ hands, with a beautifully quiet, understated narrative style, Stoner becomes truly heroic – his heart, soul, and character revealed through his losses.  We can only cheer him through our tears.


Butcher's CrossingA year after reading Stoner, which is still very much with me, I was hesitant to take up another Williams novel.  I could not imagine another work, especially an earlier one, sustaining that level of writing and I did not want to be disappointed.

I shouldn’t have worried.  I have just finished Williams’ second novel, Butcher’s Crossing, a novel of the American frontier set in the 1870’s. The setting, subject, and characters are completely different from those of Stoner, but the Williams narrative, restrained, reflective and interior to the central character, was instantly recognizable.

Will Andrews is a young Bostonian from an well-to-do family. He has dropped out of Harvard in his third year to go west in search of something, some vague Emersonian ideal of finding himself in the wildness of nature. “I came out here to see as much of the country as I can,” he tells a hide dealer in Butcher’s Crossing, a mean little way-station on the edge of the Kansas prairie, “I want to get to know it. It’s something I have to do.”

Andrews finds himself in a dirty, primitive, harsh environment relying on some very hard men. The story is somewhat reminiscent of a mix of Jack London, Cormac McCarthy, and Hemingway, but the narrative style is all Williams.  And Williams’ detail of the life of that time and place is so minute and rich, it’s hard to imagine the research he must have done – the filth and vermin, the smells, what a mortal thirst can do to a man’s body and mind, the insane carnage of a white man’s buffalo hunt, and above all, how unexpectedly and instantly nature can deal death to man and beast.  Will Andrews wants to test himself against the wild, but powerful elemental forces overtake his purpose.

A PERSONAL NOTE (since this is a personal journal):

I recommend both books.  I will re-read both, as I do with books that I think are worthy and memorable.  As a reader, my emotions were profoundly stirred by Stoner, to an extent that very few books effect for me.  With Butcher’s Crossing, my engagement as a reader was just as high, but more so with the intelligence of the book, its realism of character and setting, and its compelling storyline.  What I do say about each book, equally, is this:  once I started reading the book, I could not let it go.

Sunday, 19 July


“Sunday, 19 July, slept, awoke, slept, awoke, miserable life.”
                      Franz Kafka, The Diaries 1910-1923, edited by Max Brod

Today, Sunday, July 19, 2015, is my birthday, and I am in a reflective mood. Together, the month, the date, the day of the week, of course, recall Kafka’s famous diary entry.  His mordant observation on a particular Sunday in July echoes that of a demon I sometimes hear during a restless night.  Not often, but often enough – I hear him, acknowledge him, wait for him to retreat again to the dark corner, wait for new day.

A new day, another day to fill – with what, and how? My senses are heightened to the flow of time, gathering and quickening like a swollen river.  With that sense comes a strange clarity and urgency, and yet hours, days can evaporate in triviality and indecision. In the face of dwindling time and energy, I find myself constantly asking,  is this necessary? does that really matter? how should I live within the time and space that are mine alone?  Thoreau and Montaigne,  experts in the matters of their own internal states, believed that making those differentiations is the real work of life.  “The cost of a thing,” wrote Thoreau, “is that which I call life, which is required to be exchanged for it immediately or in the long run.”

“A man once said to me, ‘I don’t mind your telling me my faults, they’re stale, but don’t tell me my virtues. When you tell me what I could be, it terrifies me.’  I was surprised then, I understand now, because I believe we may be faced with the need of living our strengths.”
                     Florida Scott-Maxwell, The Measure of My Days

I like that – “faced with the need of living our strengths.”  It is a thing worth working on, preparing for, a thing that really matters.

Sunday, 19 July, slept, awoke, reflected, wonderful miserable life.

I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry . . . . . . . (or die early)

Lately it seems that wherever I turn I am faced with reports and studies warning that my lifestyle is bad for my health and is shortening my life.

Recent reading:

Why Living Alone is Dangerous to Your Health,The Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2015;

The Toll of a Solitary Life, The New York Times, March 16, 2015;

Why Loneliness May Be The Next Big Public Health Issue, TIME Magazine, March 18, 2015


I have lived alone for years. According to conventional wisdom, I am seriously lacking in social connections. It is not unusual for an entire week to go by without my seeing another person. After decades of raising a family and working outside the home, I am free to do as I please without first considering the needs of others. I am serene. I am becoming self-actualized. My circumstances suit me very well. Or at least I thought so until now.

I know that most people would not choose a solitary life and that health experts believe that living alone is not good for physical or mental health. But since I actually prefer such a life, and feeling positively elated at having got it at last, I would assume that living in perfect alignment with my nature instead of counter to it would negate any bad effects.

But you know what they say – if it feels good, it must be bad for you.

According to a study published recently in Perspectives on Psychological Science titled Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality (, “living alone, having few social network ties, and having infrequent social contact are all markers of social isolation” and increase my risk for early mortality by 32%! “Although living alone can offer conveniences and advantages to an individual,” the authors wrote, “physical health is not one of them.”  Grimly unequivocal.

And yet . . .

I’m just not buying it. I am not qualified to judge scientific studies, so I won’t try to quarrel with this latest. But I’ve made it to a certain age with no health issues and no loneliness-induced vices, so maybe the odds are tilting back in my favor. But I also believe that solitude for some people, and I am one, is not only essential, but is life-affirming–not life-threatening. To me, getting to that place where we can thrive in our aloneness is a matter of recognizing that we have, every one of us, been alone right from the beginning. We are born alone, we will die alone, and between those two points in time, no matter how many people surround us in how many degrees of intimacy, we are ultimately completely separate from one another.

No one can ever fully know the interior other person except that other person himself. And self-knowledge, which I believe is the key to maximizing the one life we have to live, gives us an inner strength, and the courage and confidence to make the connections that support us in life, as well as to carry on and live our lives to the fullest when we lose those connections. Knowing oneself, really understanding who we are and what we need in order to pull the best for ourselves out of life and to call up the best we have in ourselves to give back, requires time and enormous chunks of solitude. But once you acquire the taste for that particular stillness within and without, you will never give it up.

Following are a few comments and quotes from some singular lovers of solitude. After all, it is a comfort to know we are not alone, isn’t it?

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills . . .
–William Wordsworth, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

The nurse of full-grown souls is solitude.
–James Russell Lowell

I had three chairs in my house: one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.
–Henry David Thoreau, Walden

She would not exchange her solitude for anything. Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others.
–Tillie Olsen, Tell Me a Riddle

We must reserve a back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude. –Michel de Montaigne, Essays

If you’re lonely when you’re alone, then you’re in bad company.
–Jean-Paul Sartre

If one sets aside time for a business appointment, a trip to the hairdresser, a social engagement, or a shopping expedition, that time is accepted as inviolable. But if one says: I cannot come because that is my hour to be alone, one is considered rude, egotistical or strange.
–Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline toward the religion of solitude. 
–Aldous Huxley

and my personal favorite in this list:

I had become, with the approach of night, once more aware of loneliness and time – those two companions without whom no journey can yield us anything.
–Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet

The Man in the Mirror

michel-de-montaigne1It is said that every person who reads Montaigne looks into a mirror and sees himself.  “Every man has within him the entire human condition,” he said.  One 16th century admirer said that anyone reading Montaigne’s Essays might feel as if he himself had written it.  Over two centuries later Emerson would say that it seemed to him that he himself had written the book in some former life.  Stefan Zweig, World War II exile: “Here is a ‘you’ in which my ‘I’ is reflected; here is where all distance is abolished.  Four hundred years disappear like smoke.”  Of Montaigne’s timeless appeal, William Hazlitt says in his preface to The Complete Essays of Montaigne, “this is true fame.  A man of genius belongs to no period and no country.  He speaks the language of nature, which is always everywhere the same.”

Montaigne sought answers to the same questions that we all ask.  They were not so different in the sixteenth century – what to make of our experiences, how to endure grief and misfortune, whether it’s more enjoyable to have sex standing up or lying down (he preferred the latter), how to reassure a friend who thinks a witch has cast a spell on him (how many of us have tried to help a friend through that!), and what was going through his cat’s mind when he played with her.

Montaigne was intensely curious about human nature.  He believed that a man’s life is not the sum of his deeds, but of his thoughts.  He questioned and wondered ceaselessly about what people thought, how they felt, and why they did what they did.  And because he himself was the specimen closest to hand, he focused the microscope on himself, a subject on which, as he put it, he was “the most learned man alive.”  He deconstructed his mind, his feelings, his experiences in the most minute and astonishingly frank detail and delivered every bit of it to us in his Essays.

In his thirties, Montaigne became obsessed with death.  He lost his father in 1568.  The following year, his 27-year old brother Arnaud was struck in the head by a ball while playing jeu de paume,(an early version of tennis) and died a few hours later.   Montaigne’s first child died at the age of two months – he would bear the deaths of five of his six children.  The most painful loss of Montaigne’s life was the death of his closest friend, Etienne de La Boetie, at the age of 32.

With such frequent and ordinary examples passing before our eyes, how can we possibly rid ourselves of the thought of death and of the idea that at every moment it is gripping us by the throat.   At every moment let us picture it in our imagination in all its aspects.  At the stumbling of a horse, the fall of a tile, the slightest pin prick, let us promptly chew on this:  Well what if it were death itself?

By his forties and fifties, however, Montaigne’s essays reveal a more sanguine state of mind.   Montaigne himself had come very close to death in a riding accident.  Carefully recorded by Montaigne, based on what he remembered and the observations of those around him at the time, it may be the most famous near-death experience in literature.  As recounted in Sarah Bakewell’s lively biography of Montaigne, “How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (a title which Montaigne would surely have approved), he remembered clearly what he felt when he regained consciousness.  His servants were carrying him back toward his chateau, his wife struggling over the rough ground to get to them.  His vision was blurry, but he could see that his clothes were bloody from the clots of blood he had vomited.  Inwardly, he felt very calm and langorous, vaguely aware of his body, but as though from a distance.

It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go.  It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who let themselves slide into sleep.

He felt no pain.  He was aware of but unconcerned by the efforts and anxiety of those around him.  As his servants settled him into bed, he recalled “ ‘I felt infinite sweetness in this repose, for I had been villainously yanked about by those poor fellows, who had taken the pains to carry me in their arms over a long and very bad road.’  He refused all medicines, sure that he was destined just to slip away.  It was going to be a ‘very happy death.’”  Later, however, when he had recovered, the servants and family members who had been present during and after the accident told a completely different story.  Witnesses said that he had “thrashed about, ripping at his doublet with his nails, as if to rid himself of a weight.  ‘My stomach was oppressed with the clotted blood; my hands flew to it of their own accord, as they often do where we itch, against the intention of our will.’  It looked as if he were trying to rip his own body apart, or perhaps to pull it away from him so his spirit could depart.”

Meticulously recreating his sensations, in dying, he now realized, you do not encounter death at all, for you are gone before it gets there.  You die in the same way that you fall asleep: by drifting away.  If other people try to pull you back, you hear their voices on ‘the edges of the soul.’  Your existence is attached by a thread; it rests only on the tip of your lips, as he put it. Dying is not an action that can be prepared for.   It is an aimless reverie.”   From then on, Montaigne refused to worry about death.   “In one of his last added notes, he wrote that death is only a few bad moments at the end of life, and not worth wasting any anxiety over.

It is impossible to read Montaigne’s account of his brush with death and not feel consoled.  It is equally impossible to read his essais and not be entertained and warmed by his friendly understanding, or, as journalist Bernard Levin said “not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity, ‘How did he know all that about me?'”   Hazlitt captured this reader experience perfectly:  “Montaigne took the world into his confidence on all subjects.  Few men have left so much of their life behind them in their writing.”

“Cut these words,” Emerson said, “and they would bleed.”

A Hole in the World

When I was thirteen months old, my mother killed herself.  I didn’t know my mother, except as infants know. At the beginning of my life, the world acquired a hole. That’s what I knew, that there was a hole in the world. For me, there still is. It’s a singularity. In and out of a hole like that, anything goes.

A Hole in the World

So begins A Hole in the World,  An American Boyhood, the remarkable memoir of Richard Rhodes, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and National Critic’s Circle Award for The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

On C-Span recently, I came upon a replay of a book discussion in which Rhodes talked about his 2010 book The Twilight of the Bombs.

Having read A Hole in the World some years before, I watched and listened to Rhodes intently. He was confident, at ease with the audience, knowledgeable, speaking fluently to his subject. Knowing what I did about the darkness of his childhood, I wondered at the man he had become.

My mother [Georgia Saphronia Collier Rhodes] shot herself in the bathroom of the little white bungalow house where we lived, on Alden Street in Kansas City, Kansas, on Monday morning, July 25, 1938. She slipped the stick that weighted the linen bathroom window shade from its slot, sat on the toilet, put her mouth around the muzzle of a 12-gauge shotgun and used the stick to push the trigger.

 Arthur Rhodes, the boys’ father, was a boilermaker’s assistant with a third-grade education. Speaking of the couple’s relationship, Georgia’s older sister Espy recalled that Arthur was “hard on her, didn’t give her enough money for groceries” and suspected that Georgia had been pregnant when she killed herself. They had quarreled the weekend before and Arthur had threatened to leave her. Rhodes writes in the book, “I’m sorry for her pain, but what pain she inflicted on us all with her suicide.”

After the death of their mother, the oldest of the three sons, Mack, went to live with relatives in Washington state. Arthur kept two-year old Stanley and the baby, Richard, with him. For the next nine years, Arthur and his two sons lived in boardinghouses. Life was not easy. The boys were always hungry, as “barring the kitchen is the first principle of boardinghouse cost control.” And Arthur was a firm disciplinarian who did not hesitate to employ corporal punishment when he thought it necessary. But father and sons were together, the boys had him to themselves, they had a protector, the hole receded.

Richard learned to read at the age of four, taught by a boardinghouse owner’s wife who had an enormous supply of love and a devout belief in education.

Once I learned to read, I was launched, adrift in dreamtime half the rest of my life. Now I saw – because Mrs. Gernhardt started me, and my vernacular brother guided me to fluency – that words could boil up worlds that towered overhead like a spring storm, splashed light and shadow the length and width of a city, drove crowds under cover, crashed lightning, uprooted trees, flooded streets, stopped traffic, rumbled away in a passage of cold wind and abruptly dissipated, pure energy, nothing left but clean air and the bright sun shining. That real, that profligate, that leviathan, and all of it open to me without restraint in the pages of books, pouring out into my child’s life like Niagara. Books embellished the hole to a window, worlds beyond the world where the mysteries of the world had explanations.

In February 1947, Arthur Rhodes and his two young sons moved into the home of Anne Ralena Martin. Anne and Arthur would soon marry. They had been seeing each other and it was obvious that Arthur wanted his boys to like her. “I don’t think we did,” says Rhodes, “after nine years of boardinghouses we had sensitive bullshit detectors – her voice was Southern and honeyed, cunning, edged with menace.”

Anne had been married four or five times prior to her marriage to Arthur Rhodes. She was “small, heavily made-up and perfumed, with white skin, a full head of dark hair, large breasts, very curvy, very feminine, and evidently a man-trap, someone who bushwhacked husbands and cleaned them out.”  Their father became her plow horse, said Rhodes, and she worked him for more than fifteen years until he died of cancer of the stomach in 1964.

“Your Dad’s let you run wild,” she said to the boys, “we’ll get along just fine as soon as you two learn that we have a few rules around here.” Thus began the 28-month concentration camp of Stanley and Richard’s new stepmother. The coercion and control began almost immediately. The “rules” were myriad, some simple, some complex and incomprehensible, and the consequences of any infraction were unpredictable and capricious – “the capriciousness was part of the terror, so we scrambled to learn all the rules at once.” Physical abuse progressed to systematic starvation. But it was not enough for her. “More effective control required undermining our boundaries from within. As diseases do, our stepmother sought to harness our physiology to her own ends.”

The boys were forbidden to bathe in the bathtub. Worse, they were denied access to the bathroom at night. As Rhodes wrote, telling someone not to do something is a powerful form of suggestion to induce him to do it.

Every night, I dutifully went to the bathroom before climbing into my bunk, but as soon as Stanley turned out the light and we settled down to sleep, I felt my bladder fill. I then lay awake for hours. I tried to redirect my thoughts, tell myself stories, recite numbers, count sheep. I clamped my sphincters until they cramped and burned. Lying on my back, hurting and urgent, I cried silently to the ceiling low overhead, tears running down my face without consolation, only reminding me of the other flow of body fluid that my commandant had blocked. When clamping my sphincters no longer worked I pinched my penis to red pain. Once or twice, early in the chronology of this torture, I wet the bed. That villainy erupted in such monstrous humiliation that I learned not to repeat it. Thereafter I added struggling to stay awake to struggling to retain my urine.

To this day, forty years later, once a month or so, pain wakes me.  Falling asleep with urine in my bladder or unmoved rectal stool.  I still reflexively tighten my pelvic muscles until my sphincters cramp.  My stepmother, my commandant, still intermittently controls my body even at this distant and safe remove.  I sit on the toilet those nights in the silence of my house forcing my sphincters to relax, waiting out the pain in the darkness, remembering her.

Rhodes writes “but for all her sadistic deprivations, even starving us, I despise her most for forcing us to live in filth. The dirt on my body disrupted not only my bodily integrity but also my fragile connection with other human beings, my classmates, my teachers. My ears were black. My neck was black. My armpits and my groin were black. My socks rotted off my feet. I stank.”

Incomprehensibly, in unforgivable cowardice, the boys’ father did nothing to stop the abuse. He was as terrified of her as they.

Once, for example, she and Dad had an argument that ranted on into the night, so that I fell asleep to it, and was still raging in the morning when I waked. I could see into the kitchen from my upper bunk bed on the sleeping porch. I opened my eyes to Dad standing bareass naked at the stove frying eggs. My stepmother then swung through the kitchen door in her bathrobe. ‘Aren’t you ashamed to be walking around naked in front of your children?’ she challenged Dad contemptuously.

‘Why should I be ashamed?’  he threw back. ‘You tell me I’m not a man. Let them see for themselves.’

‘You dirty bastard,’ she told him. ‘You ought to get some clothes on.’

‘I’ll get my clothes on when I’m damned good and ready,’ Dad blustered.

She grabbed the boiling teakettle off the stove and brandished it. ‘You son of a bitch,’ she shouted at him, ‘You think you can push me around? You go get some clothes on or I’ll scald your ugly prick!’

Dad stared at her. He believed her. He hung his head and walked out. She took over at the stove.


 Rhodes notes that in her book The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry speaks of the prisoner’s steadily shrinking ground that wins for the torturer his swelling sense of territory.

“For two years,” he says, “our stepmother funneled us into smaller and smaller spaces of physical and mental confinement – less food, less room, less nurture, less hope – in order to swell her own. In time, under her vicious regimen, we might have come to occupy no space at all.”


Ultimately, it was Stanley who saved them. After a particularly brutal beating with a brass-studded belt, he ran. He hid for a day in the sewer tunnels, but realized there was nowhere to go, no one who wanted him. He also knew that he could not leave Richard behind unprotected. “Somehow, a 13-year old boy – starved to 97 pounds, bearing the marks of beatings, knowing that if he were returned to that house it could be fatal – found the courage to take responsibility for a frightened younger brother and two criminally irresponsible adults.” He walked into a police station and told their story.

The boys were removed from Anne and Arthur’s custody and admitted to the Andrew Drumm Institute. Drumm Farm, as it is known by locals, was at that time a working farm and home for orphaned and impoverished boys. Today, it is a community for all children in foster care. Drumm Farm is less than ten miles from my home. I drove there during the time I was writing this, on a beautiful summer day in August, about the time of year that Stanley and Richard were taken there. The main buildings sit high on a hill, quiet, narrow tree-lined lanes curving around the neat, red brick buildings, a pastoral island in the midst of the suburban communities grown up around it.

Drumm Farm

I tried to imagine what Richard and Stanley must have felt when they first saw it. Rhodes writes:

Food, work, terrain, weather and people surrounded me and passed through me. I absorbed the beneficence operationally, in and through my body, and the learning took years. There was a child went forth every day, Walt Whitman declares, and all that he looked upon became part of him. I was that child. At Drumm I was that child. I opened into the world and incorporated it. I deflated and solidified and filled.

A Hole in the World is a moving and eloquent attempt by Rhodes to “pack away” the poisonous memory of his stepmother years. It is also an exorcism of repressed anger against a father who failed his sons so miserably. Finally, it is a detailed, heart-wrenching account of how child abuse can progress unnoticed and unimpeded in a community, step by incremental step, not only damaging the child victims physically and psychologically, but polluting the essential human decency of every person touched by it in any way.

In a new epilogue to the tenth anniversary edition of the book, Rhodes says that he has stopped trying to answer the inevitable questions ‘Why didn’t your father do anything? Have you forgiven your stepmother?’

If family, church, school and community fail to protect a child from violence, why should a child credit their authority? Why should I? I rejected religion long ago and I have my doubts about family. Both institutions claim far more sanctity than they have earned. The brutalization of children is the initiating trauma that leads some children to choose violent careers – to assault, rape, and murder. I was lucky. Stanley’s courage rescued me. Surviving childhood should not depend on luck.

For Rhodes, there are no answers and no forgiveness.