By Michael Miner
Madness in Her Method
Used-car salesmen and newspaper reporters don't mind if people think they're a little crazy. But used-car salesmen tell it to the public; reporters also tell it to the mirror. They recite to themselves not only the anal-compulsive "If your mother says she loves you, check it out" but the bottom-of-the-whiskey-glass O'Shaughnessy verse that begins, "We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams..."
I carried a new book called Daughter of the Queen of Sheba into the law school of Northwestern University earlier this month when some of journalism's better minds convened to ponder their craft. The topic of the panel discussion I sat in on was "Who is a journalist?" In the book's sway, I wrote in my notepad that a journalist is someone mad enough to think he's a match for reality. The other day I called the book's author to see if she agreed.
The reporters who presume to cut reality down to size come in two broad types, I told her. There are the clerks who think reality can be reduced to three-by-five note cards that if stacked in the right order turn facts into truth, and there are the sojourners to whom reality is lambent flame, balalaika airs, and the tall tales of blind crones remembering the night of the soldiers. These types aren't mutually exclusive, but truth in all its glory is usually up the hill a ways from both of them. "Listen," replied NPR's Jacki Lyden, "journalism is absolutely imperfect." Lyden, the sojourner who wrote Daughter of the Queen of Sheba, didn't quite buy my categories, and she put in a word for the clerks. A stack of small facts is better than no facts at all, she said. "In a place like Syria it's not journalism--it's dictation. Instead of somebody assembling three-by-five cards, Assad assembles them. He'll tell you what to write.
"In Jordan, which is a fairly benign monarchy, I'd get the same answer no matter what part of the country I was in, because there was one source of news--the king--and no one dared question him. When you don't have the right of a free press or the right to express yourself, all you can depend on is gossip and rumor. The light journalists shine on things is a haphazard one, but at least we get to pick up the flashlight."
There's an Assad figure in Lyden's memoir, the rich stepfather she refers to as the Doctor. Her mother, the center of the book, is, if you wish, an emblem of the oppressed everywhere who retreat into fantasy. The other day my daughter who's in high school began talking about the slaughter at Luxor. I responded with a homily lamenting the overabundance of deranged behavior on our planet, and then described Lyden's book. It's the story of a mad-as-a-hatter Wisconsin woman, written by the daughter who discovered a chaotic childhood had prepared her to flee home into an irrational world and comprehend it as a journalist. A foreign correspondent must learn to take in strange behavior at a glance, grasp its flow, and survive it. Where better to acquire these talents than in the household of a delusional, manic-depressive parent?
"I used to worry that the only place I would feel alive in is a very irrational situation," said Lyden, who does most of her reporting from the Middle East. "And I wondered--is the only reason I'm attracted to this place because I'm halfway crazy? It can be hard to explain an attachment to a place like the Middle East when you see the bloody headlines. Doesn't one get weary if it's constantly the same old story--Arabs and Jews or terrorist organizations? Yet if you have a passion for a place, it transcends the things that normally alienate people. It's regrettable there are zealots in this world who think a combination of zeal and force will save the day. I've lived with someone who felt this way, but she was one person medication would restrain. But there's no way to give these people medication. These people will not come to their senses. We like to think it's a third-world sort of problem, but not a day goes by without something that assaults our senses. Look at Oklahoma City."
Far more manic than depressive, Lyden's mother filed preposterous lawsuits against real and imagined adversaries, hung panties from the Christmas tree, and inscribed stacks of purple coffee cups with the haunting legend "Think About Me." She hired a secretary to help run absurd businesses with names like the Deja Vu Gourmet Foods Division of Creative Renaissance. She constructed a new family tree for herself that connected her to the department store Gimbels, not to mention a mob boss in Milwaukee. She lived in the sticks and dreamed of the big city. One day when she believed herself the queen of Sheba she divided her kingdom and bequeathed to Jacki, her oldest daughter, Mesopotamia. Jacki's sisters got Thebes and Carthage.
Lithium finally settled her down and laid the reins of her life back in her own hands. "What she remembers most about being sick," Lyden told me, "is how powerful she felt. How wonderful and giddy it felt to really think you could do these things. And how she would love to have that star burst of confidence again."
If you'd been born into your mother's life, I asked Lyden, would you have been as crazy as she was?
"We're talking about child-raising methods that had more to do with the 19th century than the 20th century," she replied. "We're talking about the equivalent of getting straight As in high school and going straight to the job waiting for her in the bakery and not even thinking of college. We're talking about the instruction that nothing you did in life mattered except your beauty and being prepared to be someone's wife and mother. For some people they weren't enough alone, and they weren't for my mother. Given the tremendous sense of energy I have, and the need for self-actualization, if I'd been thwarted in that I shudder to think what would happen to me. I don't think I'd have become as unstable as my mother, but who knows?"
Rejecting my original proposition, Lyden doesn't consider truth a noble goal but an unattainable one. Truth to a sojourning reporter is largely geographical. It is being in the right place. "Once in a great while," she said, "I have felt I held truth in my hands, and I was damned glad to be there when someone else wasn't. I'm thinking of Marion [the federal penitentiary, where she covered a lockdown]. I'm thinking of feeling damned lucky to be on the Arab side of the line during the gulf war and not down in Saudi Arabia with the 101st Airborne Division."
She was also thinking of her book on her mother.
Yet she agrees that reporters think of themselves as a little mad and that they probably are. "I think journalists are much more willing, even in this day and age where everything is so controlled, to live by their wits than most people," Lyden said. "They know they could make more money doing other things. They know their lives are not safe in ways they imagine doctors' or accountants' lives to be. They're called to it more often than not because they have a mad passion for it. And they do these things that are really quite intrusive.
"Think of any time when the press corps is holed up somewhere," she went on, "such as stuck in City Hall all night while Eugene Sawyer is anointed mayor by Ed Vrdolyak and 5,000 people march around us, or sitting in the Amman International Hotel desperately trying to get a visa to Baghdad so you can go stand underneath the bombs during the gulf war." These were personal memories. "A certain attraction to adrenaline, risk, grandiosity, and daring are assets in journalism, whether it makes us sound grown-up or not.
"Those are certainly qualities I saw in my mother. And yeah, I see them in myself. Fortunately, I've got them enough in hand that I've built a career out of them rather than spent time in a locked ward against my will."
Mancow Falls Flat
It's always a pleasure to tell a troubled caller that he or she has nothing to be concerned about. The other day I found myself speaking with a recent University of Illinois at Chicago graduate who fretted needlessly that something truly appalling had just taken place at the United Center.
She was speaking of Mancow Muller's Halloween show, a night of freaks, strippers, and heavy metal whose highlight was the much ballyhooed opening of a casket. This exhumation was represented ahead of time as an act of charity. A young American teaching English in Guatemala had been hacked to death with a machete, and the heartbroken family, too destitute to return the body to Chicago, had turned in desperation to the morning man at WRCX. Muller offered to reach into his pocket and finance the casket's shipment, on the modest condition that he be permitted to open it onstage and present the decomposing corpse to the whooping faithful.
If you were there that night, or heard Muller's ardent on-air apologies the next morning, you know how things went awry. When Muller opened the casket he announced that a terrible mistake had been made. Instead of the young American teacher, he confronted the body of a Guatemalan, a mere boy, hands bound with rope, executed. Muller reeled in shock and disgust, while the teacher's "brother"--standing by to welcome the fraternal remains back to Chicago--was visibly devastated.
And in this form the story came to the UIC graduate. Knowing something about the recent history of Guatemala, she was dumbfounded that a local radio station would participate in shipping a barely pubescent death-squad victim north to be publicly uncrated like bananas. She called her old professor, Bruce Calder, to ask what could be done to protest such gross insensitivity, and Calder put her in touch with me.
We both agreed that the corpses of adolescent Central American torture victims don't belong onstage at the United Center, and if Muller was responsible for putting one there--well, that would have been in terrible taste. But I made some calls and established to my satisfaction that it was all a hoax. One well-positioned eyewitness said there was nothing in the casket but a wax dummy. Good taste had been respected after all.
Yet Calder, an expert on Central America, had qualms. "It was so close to the ugly, brutal reality in Guatemala that it upset those of us who thought there was any possibility it was true," he told me after the hoax was established. "If you lived in Guatemala or came from Guatemala, and you've seen friends and acquaintances and in fact whole villages of people mowed down by the army or killed by death squads, this is a matter that is hard to make jokes about. Or jokes that are funny."
You can't amuse all of the people all of the time. Muller's other big attraction that night, a 600-pound snake swallowing a live donkey onstage, turned out to be just as bogus as the corpse. Denied the spectacles they came for, some fans booed and departed in a surly mood.
Editorial Afghanistanism, department of circular thinking. From the November 22 Tribune: "The Taliban tyrants should be shunned like the international pariahs they truly are." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jacki Lyden photo by James Watts.