The Daily Heller: Long, Hot Indoor Summer Reading

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Given how the heat index is dangerously rising, staying inside a nice air-conditioned room with cold beverages, tasty snacks and a good book seems much more appealing than soaking up ultraviolet rays and inhaling toxic smoke from Canada. So, I suggest you consider all three (or just one) of these 300–400–page books below to make your leisure time feel like you’ve accomplished something more than hibernating from climate change.

It is sobering to read Adam Hochschild’s critical history of the United States from 1917–1921, American Midnight. This was a time when President Woodrow Wilson was profusely reluctant and ultimately aggressive in committing the United States into the first World War to “make the world safe for democracy.” All this while he and his minions segregated Washington D.C., allowed for the resurgence of the KKK and enthusiastically continued Jim Crow apartheid in the former Confederate states. The U.S. propaganda factory he helped create (a model later adopted by the Nazis) convinced the patriotic citizenry to invest their dollars and human capital in this, the most destructive of all hellish conflagrations. The same spirit of democracy that was promised for Europe was tightly controlled through exclusionary practices back home. Sedition laws enabled government and its agencies to control the “free” press, meanwhile rampant racism went unchecked. President Wilson, the first Southern Democrat (from Virginia) to be elected President since the end of the Civil War, both tacitly and overtly sanctioned anti-Black legislation and decree.

Hochschild is a fantastic narrator. Although much of this “forgotten” history has come to light since the days when the U.S. brand was of an unblemished hero of the free world, connecting the dots during those critical years is indeed a midnight vision of the nation’s dark reality that was so successfully ignored through official myth and legend for too long.

In this gripping, bestselling French novel, The Postcard, entirely based on real life, Anne Berest learns from her mother a long-kept family secret that will alter her life. A postcard from an anonymous sender mysteriously arrives in the mail. On the front is a color photo of the landmark Opéra Garnier in Paris, on the back are four scrawled first names of the author’s real, but to her, unknown, maternal great grandparents and two of their three children, all killed at Auschwitz. The Rabinovitch family had lived in what became the Vichy part of France, unoccupied by but the puppet of the Nazis. All but daughter Myriam had been rounded up during the wholesale deportation of the Jews to transit camps, awaiting trains to work and death camps. These were the names of those whose existence, no less their fates, were unknown to the author.

Berest and her mother, the daughter of the only survivor—the oldest of the three children—to by luck escape the consequences of being part of a family of Russian Jews who took refuge in France, emigrated to Palestine, but eventually returned to a small farming town in France. The book follows the lives of Berest’s family’s ruin once anti-Jewish laws were brutally enforced by Petain’s Vichy regime. But the plot thickens when Berest and her mother decide to find out who sent it and why the postcard was received years after the family’s fates were sealed. It is an intricate detective story that reads more like a spiritual journey. Triggered by the postcard, Berest, who had not felt she was Jewish, embraces her heritage, if only for the family she did not know ever existed—and in bringing them alive she comes to reflect on the prejudices still simmering in French society today.

Alexander Stille’s first book, Benevolence and Betrayal, is an account of Italian Jews, some of whom were deeply committed to Mussolini and the Fascist revolution from its outset in the early 1920s. It was remarkable to read how the movement attracted its leaders and followers from leading Jewish families, because at the outset it was not anti-Semitic until Mussolini’s alliance over a decade later with the Nazis. The Sullivanians: Sex, Psychotherapy and the Wild Life of an American Commune is also about a radical revolutionary movement from 1955 through 1991, only this was based on a theory of psychotherapy rooted somewhat in leftist politics and led by a charismatic figure surrounded by devoted allies, including six successive, overlapping wives and other Sullivanian-trained therapists and their patient-members.

The movement was similar to many burgeoning extreme ’60s lifestyle transformations designed to redefine the norms of American life. They were taking root in variations on hippie, communitarian and left and right, religious and pseudo-religious cult alternative social systems (from an arguably similar mold earlier came Mormons, Shakers and other iconoclastic and nontraditional belief systems).

Sullivanian principles included the dissolution of the nuclear family, renouncing and refusing to ever contact parents and relatives, group living with constantly changing and arranged polyamorous encounters, and encouraging creativity while ultimately subsuming individuality to the will of the group leaders. The foundation revolved around the idea that all parenting was toxic from birth, and since all of life’s crises lead back to that source, children should be raised separate from parents by babysitters or sent away to boarding schools. Marriage should be fluid if existing at all, and patients should enjoy whatever pleasures were readily available between patients-members and therapists, which meant at any time. Promiscuity was a tenet not a choice. “Chumism,” making same-sex friends, and “dates” were required. All this was under the umbrella of radical psychotherapy, behavioral supervision, communal governance and domination and intimidation. Members were drawn from mostly the middle- to upper middle-classes.

Stile is a studious reporter and engaging writer (yet this book is often repetitious with many retold stories and attributions). He covers the evolution of the Sullivanian Institute (which ran group homes, brownstones and apartments throughout Manhattan, and communal and individual vacation houses in Amagansett, the Berkshires and the Hudson Valley) through interviews or quotes (both pro and con) with former patients (including such luminary artists, writers and musicians as Judy Collins, Jackson Pollack, Kenneth Nolan, Jules Olitsky and Richard Price), senior and trainee therapists and the children of patients, who endured the strictures that rejected any semblance of “family” oversight. Despite some shocking abusive activity, there were many who speak in grateful terms about the lessons learned from their lives in Sullivania.

It is a fascinating and terrifying account of how movements and their leaders (some with the best intentions) turn the corner through varying ingredients of control, power, ego and the manipulation of the needs of many to submit to charisma for any number of tangled reasons.

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