Several years ago I was working on a project that put me in contact with a number of Iranian expatriates forced into exile when the Shah fell in 1979. They were mostly businessmen but I also interviewed an ex-minister’s wife and a former Savak (secret police) official. These people, once part of the privileged elite close to the palace, lived in the north of Teheran in the upscale district of Shimran. They told me that in the tumultuous months before the monarchy’s collapse that blackouts, especially during the nights, were a commonplace occurrence. They would huddle in their homes by candlelight, unable to communicate with their friends and family, unable to find out what was happening in the city beyond their doorsteps. But they could hear the sounds of things falling apart – of shattering windows and sirens and the voices of hundreds of angry people in the streets shouting “Allah Akhbar! Allah Akhbar!” – God is Great! Then in the morning they’d go to work downtown to find store and bank windows broken or boarded up. Attempts were made to maintain an air of normalcy but no one was fooled; little by little their world was crumbling and soon it would vanish altogether. Those voices they heard, or thought they did, those cries of “Allah Akhbar,” it turned out, were recordings deployed strategically through the neighborhood at night to give the impression that hundreds of people were outside clamoring for the deaths of the terrified inhabitants. It was a deception meant to inspire fear and sow panic and it obviously succeeded. “The veneer of civilization is so thin,” said one of the exiles, “It’s surprising how quickly it can all fall apart.” I thought of that incident and those people the other night when Hurricane Sandy blew through town – town being New York, specifically Manhattan. It didn’t blow very much actually – some nasty gusts from time to time but that’s about all, and surprisingly little rain – but what it did do is send surges of sea water into Con Ed substations and into subway stations, knocking out power and crippling the transportation system which, only now three days later as I write this, is slowly resuming operations. Much of downtown remains blacked out. Many people living in high rises are without heat or water as well as lights. Those without the ability to get up and down several flights of stairs are also basically trapped in their own apartments. Those along the coastal reaches of New Jersey and in Queens have it worse since their houses were either washed away or burned to the ground (or the water as the case may be); they count themselves lucky to have escaped with their lives (of course, not all of them did.) Some reassuring signs of normalcy have begun to appear – it’s business as usual above 24th Street (you can tell you’re entering what a Wall Street Journal writer called ‘the empowerment zone’ as soon as you spot a working traffic light.) In the morning you can see people streaming back downtown holding coffee containers like holy relics. The obsessive search for a place with functioning electricity to charge phones, laptops, etc. makes a mockery of all those promotions for new, 4G devices – what use are they if their battery dies and you can’t find any juice for them? What happens if we end up in a Mad Max movie for real and can’t get any signal or electricity? But storms like Hurricane Sandy, these so-called hundred year events, are predicted to occur more and more frequently. (Only last year Tropical Storm Irene forced what was then an unprecedented shutdown of the subway system although the city eluded the brunt of its force.) Apocalyptic scenarios which have put much of the lower half of Manhattan under water as a result of a powerful storm no longer seem so unreal or so distant. One day, not as far off as we’d like to believe, the power might go off and stay off and the trains might stop running and never restart. The veneer of civilization, as that Iranian said long ago, is very thin. Whose voices are you hearing outside in the middle of the night? Can you hear what they’re ssaying?
Why God Made Man: A Story
“At Auschwitz if we had an extra crust of bread do you know who we’d give it to?” That was the question that the author and Nobel laureate Eli Wiesel posed to an audience at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan several years ago. It wasn’t the elderly or the ill or even the children, he said. “We gave what extra food we had to the writers because someone had to survive to bear witness.” Someone has to tell the story for the ones who didn’t make it. Of course, that raises the question: What kind of story? In the prologue to his novel Gates to the Forest, Wiesel offers another spin on the creation myth: God made man because He loves stories.
I have friends, many of them bursting at the seams with stories – they’re usually the ones who’ve gotten into a lot of trouble because nothing makes for a good story better than an account of how someone got in – and out – of trouble. Needless to say, they’re probably embellishing and exaggerating or they’re conflating experiences that happened at different times. But just because a story is partly composed of lies and evasions doesn’t make it any less true. Here’s something to keep in mind (because you really aren’t keeping it in mind the way you think): Whenever we pluck out a memory we are changing it (in effect tagging it) so the next time you remember the same thing you’re actually remembering the last time you accessed that memory and not the incident itself. In one study researchers working with children, for instance, told them to remember about the time when they were very young and fell down the basement stairs and broke their leg and how their parents had to rush them to the hospital. The kids would insist that they’d never broken their leg because in fact, they hadn’t. But when the researchers questioned the kids some time later the kids changed their tune. Now they could ‘remember’ when they broke their legs and not only regurgitated many of the details supplied them by the researchers but elaborated on them, adding their own touches. So when my friends tell me what they’ve done, the time they were thrown in prison in Bolivia, the time their ninety-year-old neighbor blew away an intruder with an antique shotgun (I actually tend to believe this), the time a 300-pound man hooked up with a 100-pound girl and then how one night the two got so wasted that the man rolled over in his sleep and smothered the girl and how the cops arrested him for murder but was acquitted because the girl’s parents testified on his behalf, saying that their daughter was so far gone that it was inevitable that she would meet with an ignominious end sooner or later, I don’t question their veracity. Just because something is factual doesn’t make it so. Is the Iliad true? Did the abduction of Helen by Paris trigger the Trojan War? Was Homer making it all up? There are several Troys, one built on top of the ruins of the other. Which Troy was Homer’s Troy? Does it matter? It’s not whether the story is true. What matters is whether it’s good or not. A good story, paradoxically, might turn out to be a truer story even if it’s made up out of whole cloth. Trust the tale, not the teller, D.H. Lawrence said.
The thing is, though, that people often don’t appreciate their stories. It’s a fortune they squander. They forget. Important details slip away. As the years go on the story loses its color, its texture, its meaning. It becomes attenuated, a shadow of itself. I advise people who express an urge to write but who aren’t sure what they want to write or who are too daunted by the prospect of writing a novel, say, or a short story, that they should start by writing down stories -- if not their own stories, other people’s. These stories don’t have to lead anywhere. But by committing them to paper you learn how to observe and how to remember. (Truman Capote reportedly would tape radio news broadcasts and then sit down and try to transcribe them from memory. He did this as training for the interviews he would conduct for In Cold Blood, knowing that he would inhibit candid responses from his subjects if he produced a pen and notepad. He claimed he could attain ninety percent accuracy.) The very process of writing stories --- of transforming the bits and pieces of life lived or recollected or imagined – has its own benefits regardless of what you do with them or whether you do anything with them at all. Stories kept Scheherazade alive. No telling who else they can save – maybe you.