The King’s Choice

I saw “The King’s Speech” with two girlfriends last year, one of whom is a speech pathologist. The three of us liked the film very much. Last night I watched “The King’s Speech” again and enjoyed it even more than I did the first time. Marge, my mom, watched it with me and it was the second time for her, as well. Before the movie started, she told me that she’d really liked the movie, but was unhappy with the way they’d portrayed Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee for whom King Edward had abdicated the English throne in 1936. Marge had been 11 years old at the time.

The first time I saw the film, I’d been most struck by the intricacies of the interpersonal relationship that developed between the Duke of York, Edward’s brother who became King George VI, and the commoner who was his speech therapist, as well as the impact that the emerging wireless technology had on the public perception. This time I was rather more struck with the political aspect: Europe poised on the brink of a second world war less than two decades after the end of the first while her fearful, battered people looked to their leaders for strength.

Watching it with Marge, whose memories of the glamorous Wallis Simpson clearly colored her perceptions, gave me an interesting perspective on the story. As the U.S. struggled to recover from the Great Depression and England limped along economically and politically, the story of a Baltimore socialite and the king who chose her over his throne captured the imaginations of both British subjects and American citizens. This second viewing of “The King’s Speech” also helped me come to terms with the very different points of view held by each.

To Americans still smarting from the economic constraints of the Great Depression, Wallis exemplified the upward mobility they could only dream about. She was raised by a single mother and attended good schools with the help of more landed relations. While attending those good schools, she befriended a few daughters of Baltimore society and she bootstrapped those connections toward the top. First she married a Navy man, then a multinational businessman, while traveling the world on her chic style and sparkling wit. By the time she met the Prince of Wales, she was ready to move up to the next rung.

Edward, for his part, was a somewhat dissolute dandy, by most accounts, caught up in a style that had outlived the reality of the times. He was perceived as a Nazi sympathizer, but it is unclear whether this was the case or whether he was just ridiculously out of touch with the stresses facing the people he had been born to lead. Although he looked good and swaggered effectively, he was not cut out to be king. In fact, one conspiracy theory held that Wallis Simpson was an American spy whose mission was to ensnare the future king to ensure his abdication, but that seems a bit far-fetched even to me.

At least one new film and two new books about the enigmatic couple will be released in 2012. The woman who famously opined that one could “never be too rich or too thin” seems to have captured imaginations once again, more than three-quarters of a century after she first captured headlines on both sides of the pond. Interestingly, I read while researching the backstory of the abdication that Edward believed Wallis had made the greater sacrifice, and I don’t quite know what that means.

In the end, what I take away from my second viewing of “The King’s Speech” and my mother’s indignation is another opportunity to appreciate that what any story means depends entirely upon one’s point of view.

Truth, Accuracy and Immigration

It was the ‘70s and my brother and I were wandering around in Greenwich Village, probably looking for some good pizza. We were bantering about our reading preferences; Jon read non-fiction, while I preferred fiction and the occasionally well written autobiography (which today might be called memoir). Jon said that fiction didn’t really carry much information because it wasn’t true. And that’s when things really got interesting because, of course, we then launched into a discussion of truth and accuracy, yada, yada, yada.

I held – and still hold – that fiction and stories are filled with truth. In fact, somewhere along the way I’ve read that fiction could be considered the “lies that tell the truth.” And I quite like that characterization. Because even if the path is not a direct one, good stories do lead to the truth. But, the truth about what? Not to put too fine a point on it, stories lead us to the truth about our lives, the lives of others, and the entire human condition. They are the purpose behind learning by example; the function behind reasoning by analogy. Just as we learn our very language by paying attention to the interactions between actions and words, we learn our humanity by paying attention to the interactions between entities within a narrative structure. That is, we learn how to react to particular circumstances, to empathize with other humans, and to live effectively in society through the examples handed down to us through stories, be they formal or informal.

This constituted an undeniable stretch, from Jon’s perspective, and maybe from the perspective of others, as well. However, I’m pretty firm in my belief on this one. Many things I know because of the stories I have heard and many more things I know because of the stories I heard once, but then forgot. For example, I have a particular perspective on the whole issue of federal immigration policy based on having read a whole lot of fiction about immigrants, including “My Antonia” (Willa Cather), “Mama’s Bank Account” (Kathryn Forbes), “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain” (Robert Olen Butler),  “The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love” (Oscar Hijuelo), “The Joy Luck Club” (Amy Tan), “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” (Stephen Crane), “’Tis” (Frank McCourt), and “The House on Mango Street” (Sandra Cisneros). I am certain that those stories have colored my views on this issue.

By the same token, my views have also been colored by the immigrant stories passed down through my own family, as well as the stories my Aunt Gen told about serving as a social services counselor at Manzanar Relocation Center (Japanese internment camp in northern California). While the Japanese families detained at Manzanar were not immigrants in the strictest sense of the word, they were considered outsiders nonetheless. Our perception of these people as the “others” allowed the government to develop and implement policies — ostensibly as much for their own good as for the good of national security — that ultimately disenfranchised thousands of human beings, many of whom were actually legitimate U.S. citizens and second-generation Nissei.

At the same time, my mother was telling me stories, passed down from  her mother, about German immigrants through the Great Hall at Ellis Island in the first half of the last century. My grandmother worked for a time as an interpreter at Ellis Island and it was her job to explain the process to the  many Germans who filed through the Great Hall day after day. Many lost all of the belongings they’d managed to bring with them and a few even lost their names. Some of the stories were heartwarming, complete with teary reunions and a few were too sad to repeat. But, coming to America was what these people were about. Today, their descendants are our neighbors and our friends.

Stories such as these help us to know the faceless entities about whom we hear in terms of numbers and locations on the nightly news. We come to know them as who they really are: folks like us who have come here under varied circumstances, similar to many of our own ancestors. The fact that the stories from the 19th and 20th centuries reflect the same faces as do the 21st century versions reminds us that the people haven’t changed, even if official policy has. Decisions made without recourse to such exposure are not fully considered decisions. Platitudes lacking knowledge is really only foolishness.

Having heard the stories about Manzanar from my aunt, I grew intrigued and read more about the history of the Japanese relocation program and the camps in which these people were placed. At Manzanar alone, more than 10,000 people were “relocated” within a matter of months, resulting in huge logistical errors and affronts to human dignity. An undertaking of that scale created practical dilemmas never imagined in the rooms where men made the policy. Now imagine the task of relocating the more than 10 million “illegal aliens” said to currently reside in the United States. Such a policy sounds good, but stories from our past call this out as just so much political rhetoric rather than a real, feasible solution to a pressing social issue.

 

Sally Forth

My name is Sally and my life is just one long chain of stories, one after the other. I really don’t believe that I could even consider my existence or my consciousness or my being without doing so in the context of one story or another. In fact, one way or another, the stories surrounding me have to a very large extent colored my perceptions of the world and of myself, and have developed along with me until they pretty much are me.

Here’s an example: When I was very little, maybe four or five years old, I got the idea that I’d been adopted because an elderly couple visiting my parents kept asking me to tell them my real name. (“What’s your real name, little girl?”) They did this when my parents had left the room to prepare coffee service for the visit so that, finally, by the time they’d left, I was convinced I was not really Sally Donlon, but someone else altogether. That I was not my mother’s daughter nor my father’s daughter, nor my brothers’ siblings; that I was, in fact, a foundling. Or, at the very least, that I’d been adopted.

About a year later, embroiled in a row with my mother, I spat out: “What do you care? I’m not even your daughter!” This really enraged my mother, who set about graphically detailing all the particulars of my birth in an attempt to prove that I was, indeed, her daughter. Then, my mother asked me where I’d gotten such a crazy idea and I had to remind her about the visit that day a year ago with the nice elderly couple. My mother had never heard them ask the question or else had not taken much notice of it, but those four words – what’s your real name? – had seared themselves into my hippocampus and I knew that I would never forget the sound of the lady’s voice, soft and sweet, as she asked them. When I repeated the question, slowly, so my mother could feel them in all their horror, she looked at me quizzically for a moment and then threw back her head and laughed.

This turn of events was hard to take, and angered me even more that I had been when I’d blurted out my revelation. By this time, I was also confused. Finally, my mother got control of herself and told me the story of when my father’s mother, and my namesake, had returned from charm school, having reinvented herself, much like any modern woman of today. The year was 1891 and my grandmother was 18 years old. Sarah had grown up in Arnaudville, Louisiana, in the countryside, and had been called Sadie all her life. When she turned 16 years old, her father packed her off to New Orleans to learn how to live in the city and to become and elegant lady. Sarah took him to heart and returned calling herself Sally because that was considered the proper diminutive by her uptown friends. She would not answer to anything else and continued walking if addressed as Sadie. She was now Sally.

Even so, folks in those days understood that whether she called herself Sadie or Sally, she was still Sarah, and that anything else was simply a nickname, a vanity. So that when that sweet old couple who had known my father’s mother in their youth asked me that simple question, it was simply that: a simple question. They wanted me to say Sarah because that was what Sally really stood for, to their minds. Nothing sinister. Nothing untoward.

However, I was Sally – just Sally – and had always been. My birth certificate, which my mother made a point of pulling out to demonstrate my provenance, clearly said Sally, and it also clearly featured the names of both my parents. Even though I have always hated to lose an argument, I was very glad to see that document.