True story: A journalist sits across the desk from a high-ranking Communist party official in Hungary in @ 1955, tall windows revealing a broad view of the city of Budapest.
"Where is the fire?" asks the journalist, pointing to dark thick smoke across town.
"What fire?" the official responds. "I see no fire."
Kati Marton writes a disturbing new book, Enemies of the People, describing her parents' arrest on trumped up charges of spying for the U.S. during the early days of the Cold War. It could be about Poland too, or Czechoslovakia or East Germany. The rampant paranoia that seems almost silly to us now, certainly outrageous, overblown, hysterical was common.
In this passage she is writing about the absence of bad news in the news media in Eastern Europe, "behind the Iron Curtain," as she calls it, during those days. Her parents were viewed as dangerous simply because they told the truth, or sometimes only pointed toward it. One couldn't even acknowledge the reality of a fire out in the open, across town.
"Fire? I see no fire."
It's me again.
There are so many delightful, beautiful, lovely things to write about. Aspen, listening to an excellent orchestra play Copland while lying under gently swaying trees and a blue sky, an evening of really fun patriotic music and fireworks on the 4th of July. Waking up early for Wimbledon, and the World Cup, and now the Tour de France. I'm enjoying my tour de France very much. Good friends, loving conversations, keen insights. The pleasure of a fine glass of wine, an excellent vegan salad, watermelon, my best friend from high school's graduation from another master's program, Palm Springs, more Aspen, the thrill of finding the right words, a true sentence, for the novel. Surprises, brilliant observations. The pure dark outline of mountains against the barely light sky. An excellent report from the doctor (yes!). So much so much, so much goodness.
But here I write about the badness. Much of the time. Having discerned that for the time it is my calling to write about ugliness, to shine light in dark corners, I come to you again with this ugly story of an ugly time, a legacy of dysfunction, betrayal, and mistrust that has fall-out that continues to affect the lives of millions in Central (Eastern) Europe to this day.
Being asked to ignore the obvious. Believe the ridiculous. See the invisible. Pretend reality. Pretend pretend pretend. And maybe pretty soon it will seem true.
Marton goes on to write about her father, a sophisticated, cultured, worldly, urbane and elegant man, with a Ph.D and plenty of practical sense, nevertheless,
"that he still trusted his captors to keep their word, still trusted his cell mates with his confidences, was still shocked and appalled when they did not, is a hallmark of a man who seemed incapable of recognizing the full deceit of the (Communist) regime...He simply could not participate in their universe of lying, cheating, betraying, torturing, and subverting." (page 140)
His naivete was stunning.
It was an unreal world. One that many choose to close the door on afterward and forget completely. And in some ways, who can blame them?
But Kati Marton chooses to shine a light on this dark time, to bore down to the truth, no matter how scary it may be.
Okay, so here's the creepy part. I recognized that scene. It played out almost exactly the same in my life, yes, in Poland sometimes. "Fire, I do not see a fire."
But that's NOT the creepy part. I recognized it from the church. From my encounters with the official of the church who sat across the desk from me in his office almost eight years ago to this day and said, in effect, "fire? I do not see a fire."
What he actually said was, "I do not know of any history of clergy sexual abuse in that church."
Never mind, he was the one to tell me about the history of the congregation in the first place, three years earlier. When it seemed safe for him. When it wasn't inconvenient for him.
Why it became unsafe, inconvenient for him to live without delusion, "no fire," I honestly don't know. But it did. And his abandonment of truth pulled the rug out from under me. It felt like a slow-motion slide off the side of a cliff.
And I was likewise disbelieving, still trusting my superiors, my colleagues, still shocked and appalled when they betrayed my trust. I was likewise incapable of comprehending the full deceit of the 'regime.' I could not believe and enter their "universe of lying, cheating, betraying, torturing, and subverting." My naivete was stunning. It still seems unreal. But I took detailed notes. There was a follow-up conversation. She took notes. It happened. It really did. Unbelievable.
Stunning naivete. And devastation when I finally took it in. To say nothing of the consequences, in terms of the behavior of parishioners who knew then it was truly "open season" on Jan.
So. One learned over the forty post-War (WWII) years of communist regimes in eastern Europe to begrudgingly accept the reality of that deceit and delusion coming from officialdom.
But, in the church?