In 1968, I saw Robert F. Kennedy at a campaign stop in northern California. I was part of the “welcoming party,” a large group of college women wearing white banners, looking like beauty contestants.
When Kennedy appeared in the plane’s doorway and started down the steps, the crowd shrieked. Surrounded by bodyguards, he pulled his head down like a turtle to protect himself. The next thing I knew, we all were screaming, clawing, pushing, trying to get near him. It was the only time in my life I’ve been part of an uncontrolled, hysterical crowd.
Now I can’t think of a single person in public life whom I’d walk across the street to see. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t the Kennedys. It’s I who have changed. Back then, I believed in causes. I took sides, read books on politicians, devoured newsmagazines cover to cover, and watched presidential debates. Now I don’t want to be bothered with social issues, campaign slogans, the worries of the world. I’m tired. I have what some call “compassion fatigue.”
Last month, my health-maintenance organization abruptly “dropped” the physician I’ve been seeing for years. I can guess why: he spent too much money on his patients, ran too many tests, didn’t play by the rules. But I didn’t get excited, let alone get involved in the larger debate on national health care. I simply got on the phone and found another doctor, writing it off as one more minor irritant in the routine of my life.
These days, I am more likely to tell people about meeting the actor Michael Douglas at a party in college than I am to discuss my onetime enthusiasm for Robert F. Kennedy. I don’t take any of this as a good sign.
It’s been two years since my boyfriend Frank and I broke up, and about a year and a half since my brother Chris and I had a serious conversation.
When Frank moved out, Chris chose to remain friends with him, reasoning that whatever had happened between Frank and me did not affect their relationship. I was crushed. I wanted Chris to hate Frank as much as I did. Chris and his girlfriend, Julie, made it clear that they wanted to remain neutral, but they were extremely supportive throughout the breakup. They invited me out many times, but I declined their invitations until they stopped offering.
Until our falling-out, Chris and I had been very close. Though we’d disagree on certain issues, nothing could diminish my respect for him. He had been a role model, a friend, even a sort of hero. Most of all, I admired his unwavering devotion to his principles.
Two years has been enough time for me to heal the wounds from my breakup with Frank. Now that the angry feelings have subsided, I have begun to miss my friendship with Chris and Julie, and to realize that this loss is far greater than that of a boyfriend. What I wanted from Chris was something he just couldn’t give me and still be true to himself. I needed him to be on my side.
New York, New York
I work with juvenile gang members in a small town in northern California. Many of them have been shot at, and have friends who have been shot and seriously injured. Neighborhoods here are the turf of either the Norteños (Northerners) or the Sureños (Southerners). When they are “banging” or “cruising,” each side wears its respective colors, either red or blue.
I have asked many of them how this deadly rivalry got started. No one seems to know. It’s just been this way for a long time, they say. One sixteen-year-old Chicano told me he’d been chased by rival gang members armed with baseball bats. He said he didn’t even know the guys. “Damn Mexicans!” he exclaimed. Then he paused, shrugged, and said, “Listen to me.”
I raised my two daughters alone. I divorced their father long before people referred to women in my situation as “battered”; long before there were shelters for women like me and their babies; so long ago that my mother wanted to know what I had done wrong, and my dad advised me to wear a padded bra to make my husband happy. I will never forget how it made me feel to be abandoned by my parents.
Now I have two sons-in-law who are not always good to my daughters. Do I butt out? Rarely. I know I may be less than rational on this issue, but do I take sides? You bet I do: my daughters’, every time.
My Mother has no power in our family except through manipulation. Depressed after losing everything but her own life during the Holocaust, and utterly mismatched with my father, she tried to pull my sister and me over to her side. He was to blame for all the troubles in their marriage, she taught us. I grew up disliking my father and calling him mean and cheap. Then, as I got older, I became fed up with my mother’s litany of resentments, and told her to stop complaining and do something. She never even tried.
But I did: over the next twenty years, I gradually got to know my father. It wasn’t a smooth road; some years we didn’t even talk to one another. He was difficult in his own way (as was I). Still, it was obvious we shared a certain spirit. Despite having endured the horrors of the concentration camp, he believed (as I did) that you can always get up again and go on without bitterness, that life is a blessing. I finally realized how much time we had wasted as adversaries.
Last year, at age ninety-one, he told me, “I knew that your mother was poisoning you against me. All I could hope for was that when you grew up you’d come to see otherwise. God let me live long enough for that to happen.”
Asheville, North Carolina
The greatest challenge to being the father of three-year-old twin girls is refereeing their disputes. From very early on, I’ve told my daughters, “You girls need to learn to work it out together,” figuring they stand on even ground, neither having a size or age advantage. Yet, every time I turn around, Ruby is howling and Emma is either smiling with satisfaction or hiding. Although both willingly adopt these roles of perpetrator and victim, nothing stokes my anger like Ruby’s anguish paired with Emma’s gloating.
When I’m thinking clearly during these conflicts, I choose to mediate, but when my rage blinds me, I hear an inner voice screaming at Emma: “You mean, selfish, little bitch!”
I met Charlie at the University of New Mexico after the war. Most veterans on the GI Bill hadn’t arrived yet, so Charlie and I kind of teamed up — we’d both been at Iwo Jima.
As we left class one Friday afternoon, Charlie asked if I wanted to go into town for a beer and a sandwich. From then on this became our Friday ritual, sometimes turning into an all-night outing if we happened to run into a couple of coeds eager to hear war stories. Although neither of us talked much about combat, we both told pretty good tales of R & R in the South Pacific.
About halfway through our second semester, Charlie met Carla, a dazzling blonde with a bland personality. Soon, Charlie began to beg off from our traditional Friday activities. Finally, I faced the fact that I had been replaced. I felt pretty sorry for myself.
Then one Friday just before summer break, Charlie stopped me as we left class to ask if I wanted to go into town for a beer.
“Carla gave me the ax last night,” he said.
“Sorry to hear it, Charlie,” I said without conviction.
Later, at our old watering hole, I tried to soothe Charlie’s wounded heart. “I knew you two wouldn’t stay together long,” I told him. “I never said this while you were seeing her, but you can do a hell of a lot better. When you get right down to it, she’s no mental giant: never been out of New Mexico; probably didn’t even know the war was going on. I can’t imagine what the hell you two ever talked about. Every time I’d try to have an intelligent conversation with her, she’d go blank. Sure, she’s good-looking, but, personally, I think her legs are too fat. Cheer up, you’re better off without her.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right, Jim,” Charlie said.
On Monday, as I walked across campus, Charlie and Carla strolled toward me hand in hand, and passed without a word or a glance.
Charlie never spoke to me again.
Santa Monica, California
In the middle of a business conference, I had a lunch date with my granddaughter. She visited me only rarely, so I was thrilled to see her and couldn’t quit smiling as the waitress brought our menus, but my granddaughter wasn’t meeting my eyes. She was slouched in an oversized leather jacket, looking very pale.
She told me she had lost her job at the mall but had gotten another one in a convenience store, where she worked mostly at night, for minimum wage. Now she would probably lose that job, too, because she’d been in the hospital for four days with a bad kidney infection.
“Oh, Gram,” she finally said, “I don’t have any money, and I’m pregnant.”
I reached across the table to take her hand. “What are you going to do?” I asked. “Have you made plans?”
“I really want to keep my baby, but I don’t see how I can. The doctor thinks I would need special care because of my kidney. Also, I couldn’t work so much and wouldn’t have any way to pay the rent. I can qualify for an emergency-abortion program if I do it this week.”
I could feel the trap closing in on her. The boyfriend wasn’t working and didn’t want her to have the baby. They were behind on the rent, about to be evicted.
“Have you told your mother? Will she help you?”
“She said if I get the abortion and leave Dave, she’ll let me stay with her and help me go to school as soon as I get some of my bills paid off.”
I thought for a moment, then said, “I’ll give you one other option, honey. If you honestly want to keep your baby, and the doctor thinks you can, you can come and stay with me. I’ll help you go to school, and help take care of the baby, but you’ll have to tell me that this is what you really want to do. You don’t have to answer right now, but I want you to know you have that option.”
Both of us teared up. We left our uneaten food on the table and headed out of the restaurant.
That evening, I called her mother, my ex-daughter-in-law, who was angry that I had learned about the pregnancy. I could tell she was set on the abortion and was willing to use any means to make sure it happened.
Pulling together every bit of courage I had, I told her of the offer I had made. She was furious. I tried to point out to her the danger of blackmailing her daughter — that someday her daughter was apt to have some very real regrets and anger. She told me to stay out of it, that her daughter could never have a good career or life if she had to raise a child alone. “I can’t believe you are siding against me,” she said. “You always said I was a wonderful mother.”
My granddaughter is now living at her mother’s and going to school. I help pay her tuition. She seems to be doing pretty well, but she is quiet, and I can see she has built a wall inside her. She has secrets.
Once, during the Depression, the members of my dad’s tiny church in southwestern Oklahoma argued bitterly and divided into two factions over a subject that is now long forgotten. Dad didn’t take sides.
One Sunday, he was asked to “wait on the table”: that is, to pass out the sacraments and make a few uplifting remarks. Dad, a thoughtful man who believed every word of the Bible was divinely inspired, quoted what he probably thought was a conciliatory verse: the one about removing the beam from one’s own eye before attempting to remove the mote from another’s. The two factions took umbrage and immediately united in opposition to Dad’s remarks.
Ruth Haston Norwood
In my family there were Three Smart Ones — Daddy, my brother, and me — and the Stupid One: my mother. Being the youngest and a girl, I was grateful and relieved to be accepted into the ranks of the Smart Ones. We were a self-congratulatory bunch, and took advantage of every opportunity to close ranks against my intellectually challenged mother. Her major shortcomings were her naiveté, a lack of competitive spirit, and a fondness for nature; she would sooner bird-watch than argue over abstractions, a preference we attributed to a weakness of mind. In the face of our derisive laughter, she would affect a mask of wide-eyed guilelessness and play along gamely.
I was fourteen before I recognized the vitriol behind my father’s remarks. By that time, their marriage had been loveless for more than a decade. One day she said to me, matter-of-factly, “You know that when you go away to college your father and I will split up.” But of course I hadn’t known.
I can’t remember what was said that night at the table, or who started it, just that Mom made one of her careless comments and we all derided her, as much from habit as from anything else. For the first time, however, I actually heard the scorn in my own voice. I sat through the meal in sickened silence, angry with my co-conspirators, but not much. They were, after all, men, and therefore incapable of empathy. I was more angry with her, for letting it go on, for playing the victim. But mostly, I was angry with myself.
When I was five years old, Nana, my mother’s mother, came to visit. My other grandmother, Grandma B., lived with us and resented having to share her grandchildren’s affection with this Mexican woman. But we loved Nana. She was, and is, gracious and wise. She didn’t need to bribe us for our affection. That she lived far away only made her visits more special.
One afternoon, I walked by the room where the two women were sitting. “Lisa, darling,” said Grandma B., “come here. I want to ask you a question.” I dutifully approached her. “Which grandmother do you love more?” she asked.
For a moment I was stunned. Obviously, the reply would hurt one of them. “I love you both the same,” I lied, much to Grandma B.’s disappointment. Nana knew the real answer, but it didn’t matter; she wasn’t playing that game.
San Francisco, California
My parents’ fights always start off being about money. “But it only cost twenty dollars,” my mother says, to which my father replies, “We don’t have twenty dollars to spend” — which is a lie, and we all know it.
Eventually, it becomes my fault: “If it weren’t for her trip to Spain, we wouldn’t have to worry about money.”
When this happens, I go to my room to escape. After the screaming has subsided and liquor has been consumed, one or the other stumbles into my room and says, “I hate him,” or, “I can’t stand her.” It’s easier to just agree, but sometimes I forget the consequences and point out why the other has a right to be upset. Then it turns into: “Oh, so you like him better than me,” or, “Why don’t you two just get your own apartment and make each other miserable?” They even have the nerve to say, “Why do you always take sides?” The truth is I don’t: they are usually both wrong.
My years of training in conflict resolution have taught me not to take sides. I travel the world as a professional resolver of disputes, and am quite good at it. I have visited the former Yugoslavia, where I listened to Serbians, Croatians, and Bosnians, and helped them speak to one another. When my parents, who have been married for sixty years, start arguing, however, I lose all ability to be non-judgmental: I always take my mother’s side.
She was in intensive care when I first saw her, that delicate teenage girl with large patches of bare scalp showing, her perfect little ears smashed flat against her head, her face so swollen, bruised, and tattered that her features were almost indistinguishable. She was only sixteen and had managed to escape before her attacker beat her to death, but not before he raped her. Ten weeks of training and a year of service as a volunteer rape-crisis counselor had not prepared me for this experience.
At the time, my husband and I lived in a city with a high crime rate. One night, we thought we heard someone trying to break into our townhouse. We called the police and waited, trapped on the second floor.
The police didn’t find anyone, but after they left I asked my husband, “What would you have done if someone had broken in and come upstairs?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I felt helpless.”
That weekend, we did something we had gone back and forth about for quite a while: we bought a gun.
Every now and then, we clean the gun and take it out to the firing range. As I sight down the barrel at the target and squeeze the trigger, I don’t think about what side I’m on in the debate about handgun control. I don’t think about my constitutional right to bear arms. I think about the last rape victim I counseled.
I grew up taking sides on everything from sporting events to political issues. Taking sides seemed to flow naturally from the democratic exchange of ideas, and I considered it both a right and a duty of citizens. But the last time I engaged in public debate, on behalf of my local trees and water, I was astonished by how far apart the two sides proved to be.
I was inspired to move from the city to this lovely high-desert town. Though I had difficulty finding a job, I was never in any real financial danger. But for the miners, loggers, and ranchers on the other side of the trees-and-water dispute, the threat of unemployment and poverty was the only issue. That most of the jobs they wanted to protect were with big corporate polluters didn’t — couldn’t — matter much in such a job-starved place. The hearings were bitter, hostile, and marked with outbursts against “environmental-trust-fund babies.” I eventually had to withdraw; too thin-skinned to take the heat, I backed out of the kitchen.
While on retreat from front-line activism, I read Being Peace, by Thich Nhat Hanh. I began to sit still and be mindful of my breath. Now I am less often astonished by conflict, because I’ve started paying closer attention, trying to discern what is going on in the present moment where I am, what is needed, and how I might participate in a useful way. I haven’t given up my concern for trees and water, but when I return to the effort to preserve them, I will do so without taking sides.
Taos, New Mexico
I had just gotten out of “the hole,” where I’d been locked up for assaulting another prisoner, and I now shared a cell with an old lifer named Pop and an amiable seventeen-year-old named Wes.
I don’t go out of my way to encourage friendships, because it seems like every time I have a pal either he only wants me to protect him or he tries to overstep the boundaries of friendship, but I would play chess and gin rummy and casino with Wes, who was just a few weeks away from being released on parole. As each day passed and his time grew shorter, he seemed to bubble over with enthusiasm, and talked about the first things he was going to do when he got out. Pop helped him narrow it down to taking an honest-to-God bath, getting laid, and having a steak dinner.
One day, when Pop, Wes, and I went to chow, B. sat down at our table uninvited. B. was the biggest guy in the cellblock. He had a Cro-Magnon face, and crude jail-house tattoos of swastikas and other Nazi symbols on his huge arms. He was the kind of illiterate trash who thinks he’s smarter, by virtue of his white skin, than a black man with a Ph.D.
B. told Wes his mother was a pig and should’ve been shot for rutting with the “nigger” who had fathered Wes. He called Wes a “genetic mutant” and “mud-race, subhuman filth.” Then he pulled Wes onto his lap, kissed him on the lips, and said he and his friends would see Wes later in the shower room and sodomize him as a going-away present. B. hurled Wes to the floor and swaggered off to boast to his Aryan brothers.
I saw stark terror in Wes’s eye. He seemed naked and vulnerable, and I felt sorry for him. I wanted to tell him not to worry, that nothing was going to happen to him while I was around, but instead I took my tray and went to dump it.
As I made my way up the aisle, B. stepped out and blocked my way. I flung my tray to the side and attacked him. When the fight was over, B. went to the hospital for emergency dental work and thirteen stitches in his lip, and I went to the hole for fifteen days.
When I got out, Wes had gone home. For a while he sent me chatty postcards about what he was doing, and once he sent me a money order for twenty-five bucks. He has stopped writing now, though — probably because I never wrote him back — but every Christmas he sends me a card.
I am still treated like a pariah by white prisoners. I get plenty of respect, but it is a respect tainted by fear. I guess when it came down to taking sides, I took the wrong side because I backed up a “mongrel” instead of Aryan purity. But I don’t feel that I was taking sides in black versus white. It was right versus wrong.
Ionia Maximum Facility
Last week was terrible. My boss gave me a marginal job review, no bonus, and the minimum raise; I managed to smile graciously and thank him for his advice on how to improve. Next, my brother married a woman I don’t like, but I was cheerful and gave her a hug, though our bodies didn’t touch. Finally, my house guests and their three children created such chaos that I almost moved to the nearest motel, but I maintained my composure and bade them a polite farewell.
On Sunday afternoon I took my dog for a walk in the woods. Once there, I let him off his leash so he could explore. My four-day headache started to dissipate and I began to relax and breathe deeply. My dog ran over to greet another dog, this one held on a leash by a couple in their midfifties. But the woman backed away from my pathetic, old Labrador and shrieked, “Get away! Get out of here!”
The dogs were just getting acquainted, their tails wagging. I went over and put my dog’s leash back on, apologizing for having caused a stir.
The woman snarled at me, “Don’t you know there’s a leash law around here?”
“You’re right,” I admitted. “I’m sorry.” I laughed at the dogs’ enthusiasm.
“You should be sorry.”
What on earth could make two people so disagreeable? “Hey, I said I was sorry. Are you having a bad day?”
The woman glared at me. “No, we were having a good day until you came along, you fucking bitch.”
With that, the dam broke and I burst into tears, all my stoicism of the previous week crumbling. My dog sat down beside me, ears drooping.
The couple moved away from me. Then a stranger who was jogging by stopped and asked, “Are you OK?”
Tears still streaming down my face, I told him what had happened. He looked at the grumbling couple, then back at me. Facing away from them, he gently said, “You know, I come to these woods to get away from people like that. I hope you come back here again, with your dog. And let him off the leash.”
Mercer Island, Washington
“We are not going to take sides,” we said when our best friends — the people with whom we had shared all our struggles — were getting a divorce. We’d known the divorce was coming but had tried to ignore it. Now we hoped that somehow our friends would both remain our friends, despite their separation.
I was the first to break the vow. Out of anger, the wife was trying to distance the children from the husband. Maybe it was just gender identification, but I felt I had to support him; he had tried throughout the marriage to be a good father.
I listened as my wife related to me the woman’s list of her husband’s faults. He had certainly played a role in the marital difficulties, but we knew a different person from the one she described. My wife struggled with her vow to remain neutral. This woman was her best friend, her closest confidante. My wife loved her, but could not support her against her husband.
It’s been two years now and only the husband remains our friend. I have become aware, perhaps for the first time, that a divorce is a communal event. It is not only the couple and the children who lose, but the entire community. Who gets custody of the friends?
I remember my father in bits and pieces, a thousand memories of late-night phone calls and lies so often repeated that they passed as truth. He was a handsome man, tall, with black hair and golden eyes. I have kept these memories safe in my heart since childhood, when I lived in my mother’s house, where everyone hated me for loving him. He was mysterious and detached, always arriving for visits unannounced or failing to show up for those we’d planned.
The day my brother got married, I wanted to seat Daddy somewhere that he might feel loved, or at least tolerated. Since I was in the wedding party, I put him next to my Aunt Claire, a dear woman who swore that she had always liked my father. I guess he sat next to her, but I don’t know for sure. When I looked for him after the service, he was nowhere to be found.
After the reception, I went back to my mother’s house, and he called from a bar at the Comfort Inn, feeling like hell and wanting company. Still wearing my bridesmaid’s dress and tired from being up all night the night before, I left to go see him.
I sat drinking black coffee while he had cocktail after cocktail in the bar. He talked about sorrow and pain and loss and the past until it was time for me to drive him to the airport. On the way, he asked me to drop him at the VFW club instead, so I pulled into the gravel lot and let him out. He kissed me goodbye and walked to the door, suitcase in hand. I cried in the car, then spent the night in a hotel, unable to return to my mother’s house and the family that had crowded me out so many years before.