I knew Deborah Eisenberg was a fantastic writer, but I had no idea what an awesome person she is. Read this interview.
I had had an experience when I was seventeen that prepared me a bit for one aspect of traveling between the United States and Central America. One of the students at my boarding school was a boy named Thorsten Horton, and his father, Myles Horton, ran the wonderful Highlander Folk School, which trained labor organizers and civil-rights activists. Rosa Parks was one of the people who had gone there.
Thorsten said to me, and I can still remember his voice saying it, Hey, Eisenberg, do you want to get away from your mother this summer?
Well, the school had been in Monteagle, Tennessee, but the property and land was confiscated by the state. In any case, there was to be a campsite built for Highlander in the Smokies, and did I want to join in? I was allowed to go—I think because my brother was getting married later that summer and my mother wanted me out of the way.
The group consisted of a few young white people, mostly northerners, and a number of young black people from Birmingham, Alabama, where all hell had broken out and people were being subjected to all kinds of brutality. It was a proudly Klan county and we all ended up briefly in jail.
The cops came and awakened us in the middle of the night. First they joked about killing us, but then they said they wanted to make a legal example of us instead, so they took us into jail. I was charged with something called “assimilated intercourse.” Very arcane. But eventually it was made clear that I was under eighteen and therefore could not be hanged, so the charge was switched to the other white girl, who was over eighteen, and that part of the case fell apart. Our lawyer was local and, needless to say, astoundingly courageous. This was the summer of 1963, the summer before the three boys—Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, the civil-rights activists—were murdered in Mississippi.
But the shock came when I returned home. People would say, What was it like, what happened? And when I answered, they would say, No, that’s not what it was like, that’s not what happened.
So, long before I went to Central America, I was familiar both with the lengths to which people would go in order to evade information and also with the pain of trying to synthesize mutually exclusive realities. The mind simply could not encompass, let alone reconcile, the reality of what we, as a nation, were enacting in Central America and the reality of the heedless, cheerful life that so many people in New York were leading. If one place was reality, the other place could not be reality.
And naturally the most sickening aspect of the disjuncture was the fact that we in the U.S. were benefitting from the violent and wretched world we had fostered in Central America. No degree of outrage would have been sufficient, but in fact there was very little attention directed to the matter at all.
The second time we went to Salvador, we met these absolutely charming young Americans—I think they were Methodists—bringing medicine to areas of violent conflict. They said to us, Why did you come back? You know this situation—you don’t have anything more to learn here. And we said, It’s just easier, it’s more comfortable to be here than to try to live with this in New York or even discuss it at a dinner party there. And they said, That’s why we’re here, too.
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