Tuesday, February 5, 2008

I Married a Communist

Readers of this blog will know that I don’t usually address politics, preferring to focus on topics that are more interesting to me, like music and faith. Insofar, however (as the feminists used to say) as the personal is the political, I will be writing occasionally about a political issue that has had a direct impact on my life. The reason that I knew how to pronounce “HUAC” correctly, even as a young soprano, is that my grandmother had been subpoenaed before that body (she went underground rather than testify); she was a member of the American Communist Party. According to family history, she had joined because of her distress over the plight of blacks in the 1930s (it’s true that she later left the CP and devoted her energies to the civil rights movement).

Shortly before my son was born two years ago, at the recommendation of a priest who was giving me spiritual direction, I started reading Witness by Whittaker Chambers. Not more than a few pages into the book, my heart sank when I recognized the name of a man whom I knew to have been a close friend of my grandmother’s and a frequent guest at her home in a large Midwestern city; Chambers named him as the Comintern’s representative to the United States. I decided to request my grandmother’s FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act to try to find out who she really had been.

The first 500 pages (roughly a third of the file) arrived yesterday. The packet starts off with a 1941 letter from J. Edgar Hoover advising that, in case of a national emergency, Grandma be detained. A very cursory glance at a few of the documents shows that she was spied upon by informants, neighbors, and probably also agents provocateurs. I read things about Grandma, her activities, and her beliefs that I never knew, and that run counter to family lore. But it is almost impossible for me to determine at this point what in all of it -- family legend and FBI dossier both -- is true. It will take me a while to go through the documents. In the meantime, I have the uncanny sense of someone walking over my own grave.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your ability to show the contrapuntal in music, life, America, yourself, and your family seems endless!

I too have read "Witness." I believe Whittaker Chambers more than Alger Hiss, but the desperation of those times, the violent injustices common in that day, the search for a political messiah, the seeming collapse of liberalism, the lack of credibility of conservatives after WWI, and the egalitarian audacity of the Bolsheviks make it unfair for us to judge in many cases. Malcolm Muggeridge wanted to believe in Leninism almost as much as George Bernard Shaw.

My ancestors were slaveholders. Some were good. Some were terrible. During Reconstruction, my great-great-grandfather and his brothers led a local effort to prevent the freedmen from voting. They were quite proud of their success.

We live with these facts, and we live through our redemption. If we were Manicheans, we would have to hate ourselves. We are not. We are the children of Adam and Eve. We are the children of an Incarnate God. We are the spiritual children of the Blessed Virgin Mother, Ss. Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene, Mary & Martha, Thomas, Simon of Cyrene, Augustine, and many others.

Venerate your grandmother. Thank God for her, what she taught you, and what she taught you not to do.