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Gaining Control/ Second Guessing the Second Amendment


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Gaining Control

If you've tumbled down the well of self-loathing and crawled back up, and out of that wrung literature, why would you hand the tale to some fat Manhattan house that wishes you were Danielle Steel?

Self-publication is respectable now, and exquisite books like Lillian Moats's Legacy of Shadows can make it seem the only honorable way to publish.

Moats is a filmmaker who lives in Downers Grove with her husband and their son, and the next big appearance on her author's tour is May 13 at her local library. She's out of pocket about $7,000, which bought a trifling first printing of only 500 books. The best place to find one is at Anderson's Bookshop in Downers Grove--though she's beginning to make headway with the chains, and the book can be ordered from if you're willing to wait four weeks for delivery.

From first word to last, from typography to publicity, Legacy is the way Moats wants it. She also wanted a good word from Robert Coles to show to book editors, and she got that too. Coles, author of Children of Crisis, wrote: "This book will hold its readers close and tight, will teach them its remarkable, affecting and important lesson: that experiences live and live--last over a family's generations as memories that shape hearts and minds."

Last autumn Moats sent Coles the manuscript. He didn't respond. "From what I know of him, it didn't seem in character to hear nothing at all," she says. She tried again at a different address. This time Coles wrote back quickly, saying the first manuscript had never reached him.

"I'm seeing it now as a really liberating experience to do the book oneself," Moats says. "And with this particular story, which is so personal, I would have been concerned about how it was going to be sold and managed, the taste with which it was done, and wanting to be so careful that it wasn't presented in any sort of sensational way."

There's nothing sensational here--no vengeance, no recovered memory of abuse, and no bathetic reconciliations either. What she's achieved in the form of a novel is the wildest dream of anyone who enters therapy--a view of oneself so lucid it reaches back beyond birth to the generation that bore the generation that bore you. Misery is handed down in families like flatware, which is why Moats's account begins in the imagined voice of her grandmother in England in 1904.

"I tried to write this story a decade ago," Moats says, "and I approached it then as nonfiction. I wanted it to be as objective a recording of the symptoms of my illness as I could. It got so painful I had to put it away. When I came back to it I gave myself permission to write it as fiction, as prose poetry, and it freed me up so much not to feel absolutely locked into the accuracy of detail.

"Ironically," she continues, "I felt much more capable of capturing the essence of truth this way than I was capturing it with the so-called objective nonfiction approach. What I did in Legacy of Shadows was to try to convey the essence of my story without being restrained by literal facts."

The broad strokes of Legacy describe "Anna," a young woman who adored her father but sided with the needy mother who felt betrayed by him. The mother, in turn, regarded herself as the unworthy surrogate of a favored older sister who'd died as an infant of whooping cough. Moats writes about a first marriage that's a brief, furtive disaster and a second that suffocates in its intimacy. "I was just living in terror of myself," she remembers, "just not able to function in a normal way, and my days and nights were spent basically trying to convict myself, trying to find the evidence that would indicate where my enormous sense of guilt had originated. It was so white-hot that it must have come from something I had done. I never completely lost the thread that connected me to reality, but it grew so attenuated that--well, my therapist said the reason I couldn't get help for so long was that I was just too good at therapy. Because I didn't feel I deserved help I could go into this intellectual mode and talk about it dispassionately. In some ways it was comforting that I could pass for normal. In other ways it was very disturbing to realize how unobservant people are, and how isolated we all are in our own skins, and how little we can really grasp what the inner life of another person is like."

Close to the heart of the story is her second husband--in the book Jean-Paul, in life J.P. Somersaulter, her collaborator in making animated movies and still her best friend. Putting it mildly, it's helpful to a writer telling all when the person there's most to tell about not only doesn't stand in your way but eggs you on. Somersaulter acted as Moats's editor. "I'd read something and say, 'If this is painful I'll think again,' but there never was a point at which he didn't want something in," Moats says. "He said, 'If the first time you read it to me I don't cry, it's not there yet.'"

And so the book was written. She chose the name Three Arts Press for an imprint because her first choice, Artisans Press, had been claimed by a brewery in England. "My mother had lived at the Three Arts Club in New York, and I thought of three arts as applied to me--film, writing, and graphic arts."

Anna's mother is a gifted artist and teacher who puts aside a career to have a baby, and raises a daughter whose loyalty she's never sure of. Finally, late in life, she has it out. "I'm not going to let you do this to me any longer, Anna. I've been afraid of you--all your life!"

"You've been afraid of me...all my life?" says Anna in horror. And she discovers she's grateful to have been told something she now realizes she always knew.

"That was a real turning point," Moats remembers, "because it finally enabled me to gain a little sympathy for myself as a child even though I couldn't sympathize with myself as an adult. A lot of things came together right then."

Second Guessing the Second Amendment

The national debate over gun control comes down to what Americans who don't trust one another make of the Second Amendment. To the NRA it means what it says: "The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." To champions of strict gun laws, it means what it implies: that the right to bear arms exists only in the context of a "well regulated militia," whatever that might be. It's something the founding fathers considered "necessary to the security of a free State" but did expect to be "well regulated."

So we demand regulation and feel like sophists. And the debate drags on. If it seems unresolvable, that could be the fault of the Second Amendment. No other passage of the Constitution reminds the living more forcefully that they're under the thumb of the dead. Not that we're a society that deems its doctrines sacrosanct: we've changed the Constitution to suit teetotalers and boozers, and we're close to changing it again to protect the dignity of certain patriotic lapel pins. But the gun debate has always shrunk from the useful question: Should we write a new Second Amendment that isn't archaic?

In the wake of Littleton, the nation's newspapers filled with familiar commentary about guns. The editorial cartoon in last Sunday's Tribune pictured a gun, and the lead editorial beneath it was titled "Guns on the run." The editorial praised Henry Hyde and Governor Ryan for stands they've taken, but regretted that "public sentiment" isn't as "refined and focused and packaged" as the gun lobby's. The unstated assumption was that there's plenty of wiggle room in the Second Amendment for a focused public to take advantage of.

But a lot of Americans don't think the Constitution is written on Lycra. Looking for wisdom about guns on-line, I came across "The Embarrassing Second Amendment," an essay from the Yale Law Journal by law professor Sanford Levinson of the University of Texas. Even though Levinson supports regulation, a gun group posted his essay, because it argues that what it means "to take rights seriously is that one will honor them even when there is significant social cost in doing so." My Web search also turned up a letter to a Denver newspaper: "If the Second Amendment is wrong, perhaps the First Amendment is wrong, too. You know, the one that guarantees the right to freedom of speech, assembly, press and religion. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but it seems to me that if you take away from one of our constitutional rights, you're taking away from them all. That is why I belong to the NRA; it is fighting for our constitutional rights."

Americans who pray each morning that the Second Amendment was last night's bad dream don't dare to suggest rewriting the Bill of Rights. If the Second, why not the First? After two centuries of living with the First's literal absolutism, isn't it time to make it conform with common sense? Shouldn't we put in a good word for God while we're at it? And what's that business in the Fifth about self-incrimination? It's of no earthly use to anyone but the guilty. The trouble with the Bill of Rights is that it's soft on damn fools and snakes in the grass. Perhaps it's time to give the whole list more spine.

We put up with rules made by the dead because we're afraid of the ones we'd get from the living. The Constitution is comfortable. Like any other ancient sacred text, it's full of meanings that need to be divined, thereby providing the diviners with a trade and society with flex space. However, the Second Amendment is strangling us. Yet abolition is unthinkable, and even revision would require a compromise between gun-loving Americans who want a Second Amendment that gives them carte blanche and Americans who want no Second Amendment at all.

So the gun-control lobby demands new laws whose constitutional underpinnings would be ridiculed if speech or justice were at issue. A campaign for a constitutional change might be futile, but it would join the debate on the bedrock where it needs to be joined--it would focus the nation on first principles.

Conceivably change could find a consensus. Sure, some Second Amendment absolutists will denounce anything that makes it harder for them to put their hands on a howitzer. But there must be men and women with guns who recognize that every teenager who rounds up an arsenal and terrorizes a high school puts their freedom to bear any arms in greater jeopardy. The present Second Amendment is old and incoherent and discredited, and some future Supreme Court is far less likely to set it back on its feet than to nullify it completely. Sensible sportsmen who want to preserve their access to hunting rifles might decide that a right to carry pistols in their pockets on State Street isn't one they'd be smart to insist on, so long as repudiation of it didn't send gun use down a slippery slope to total abolition.

It might be possible to write a coherent new amendment that strikes a balance, one that lets adults put their hands on certain arms but not easily, doesn't confuse the free trade of arms with God-given rights, and doesn't tolerate carnage as the price of liberty. And because it would be our amendment, written in our language, we would all understand what it means. So we could move on.

News Bites

As Lillian Moats put it, "How little we can really grasp what the inner life of another person is like." But that doesn't keep anyone from trying, and the slaughter at Columbine High School quickly yielded motivation and story line. There's not much evidence that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were carrying out an agenda when they killed, but in the popular narrative they're derided outsiders settling scores. The New York Times in particular has responded by examining the cliquishness and cruelties of high school. The Littleton murders stirred a deep, visceral empathy. I observed a third-grade teacher trying to hold a discussion with her class, and when she said that what had been done to innocent kids was terrible, the class replied, But they weren't innocent--the killers had been picked on first. That's what registered with eight-year-olds, and the lesson shifted to how important it is to tell a grown-up whenever someone's mean to you.

Expect reports of new graffiti in high school bathrooms like "Jocks beware! Eric and Dylan live." Geeks who would never wave a butter knife will want to test the power of the dead to strike terror in the living.

In case you missed it, the Illinois State's Attorney's Association has signed on to the cause of capital-punishment reform--in its own way. "The fact is the prosecution is willing to be as proactive as it can be," said president Kevin Lyons of Peoria County in an AP story carried by the Sun-Times, "without indicating that in fact the status quo is inappropriate." In other words, they're as committed to change as a body can be that doesn't see any need for it. Lyons said the state's present laws allow for "detailed court review, sometimes spanning decades, for those who believe they are not guilty." Those who believe they are not guilty--and they would know--rot in prison during those decades of detailed court review. But the wheels of justice are turning.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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