Chapter 12: Communes
A few words about where this chapter occurs in the story: Every university had one in the 60’s, a charismatic teacher, his head in the clouds, in love with ideas. Half the girls in his class are in love with Jeremy. CC is the most beautiful student. By the middle of the semester, she, and most of the students, are aware of where Jeremy’s starry eyes keep lingering. He is smashing out insight after insight impressing CC more and more. They suffer insecurities about each other but eventually sleep together and become romantically entwined. At first she is very happy with what has happened, a girl from Great Neck with a man like him! But things soon get complicated. As has been her habit, she soon wants Jeremy to know everything about her family. He asks questions She gushes with the details, as if he holds the key to her families problems. He isn’t too kind. Jeremy has a thing about Great Neck, about bourgeois existence in general. It is the 60’s. There are a lot of people who think like he does. They are part of a new wave of original thinkers, promising a better society, which reinforces his perspective. She has no choice but to defend her family. It comes natural to her. She is the daughter of a lawyer. This chapter follows the previous chapter, where he has had a lot to say about them.
“It’s still bothering me that your parents never wanted to break away.”
CC rolls her eyes. “I thought we went over this. My grandmother’s kugel?”
“The rest of it.” Jeremy answers, “The way they are so connected.”
“The rest of what? It never occurred to my parents that they needed to break away.”
“Amazing,” he says a little too complacently.
“Amazing? she answers loudly. “For hundreds of years, that’s what people did. One generation after the next. Then along came the 60’s.”
“But to buy into all the conservative propaganda…You can be gobbled up by it.”
“You’re not getting it. My parents got upset with their parents plenty. Really upset. But they couldn’t imagine their parents not being in their life. It never occurred to them. They aren’t unusual. The families of most of their friends are no different. What’s happening in the family is what their life is all about.”
“Give me a break.”
“My mother had a cousin who could only find a job in Michigan. His family had to move there. It was upsetting. Everyone put the best spin they could on it. It was only a few hours by plane. They could get together for the holidays. But the fact is they could see each other maybe once or twice a year. No one said anything but it was like losing them. Their children wouldn’t know their cousins…
“There was another family that lived away for no good reason. The assumption everyone had was Dory, the father had this thing about business, so much so that his family didn’t matter. Not just cousins, his kids. His ambition was all that mattered to him. Everyone knew there was something off about him. There was something wrong in their family.”
She sees she isn’t reaching him. “What I find remarkable is that you’re mystified by all of this. Wasn’t it the same in Brooklyn?”
“That’s how it used to be. Times are changing.”
“Yeah for the worse.”
She can see he is getting impatient, but undeterred she pushes on.
“The real mystery is what’s happening with my classmates,” CC says.
“That’s no mystery. When they’re around their parents they can’t be themselves. Students have complained to me.”
“You mean the new person they’ve invented. Okay. I told you about my mom and me. It’s true. She has a hard time with me being different. But at this point, Mark’s mocking everything my father says. Everything. I don’t know what he’s trying to do! He has to know my father is reeling.”
“He’s mainly angry, but you just have to look closer. He’s hurting. He’s really disappointed. Trying to figure out what he did wrong.”
“You can’t expect Mark to deny who he is.”
“When we were younger my parents understood. He was a teenager! Like me. We had to see everything the same way as our friends. We had no choice. So, my parents were able to ignore it. But now it’s more than that. This isn’t teenager stuff. My class mates intend to be who they want to be. Not a phase. This is it–them.”
“Exactly. They are enlightened. Finally seeing the truth. They can be themselves, not some fantasy their parents had of who they were expected to be.”
“Yes, people don’t have to act like they are expected to act.”
She mocks him, “Freedom, Freedom. You expect me to be in love with destroying everything I know? Excited by freedom?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Right. You just said my parents were weird because they never broke away. What else were you saying?…
Her voice is raised “You are so off. It wasn’t like that at all. When my parents didn’t see things like my grandparents they stuffed it. Actually they hid it. They kept quiet.”
“They were scared of them?”
CC’s exasperation is reaching the brim. She can’t believe that all of this is foreign to Jeremy.
“Not scared! They didn’t want to hurt their feelings. That’s what mattered. It took my mother 20 years to tell her father that she ate ham. And that was only after he got suspicious and started questioning her. I mean she felt free enough to eat the ham, but it wasn’t important for her to let her parents know.”
She thinks further. “Actually, I didn’t realize until my grandmother died that my mother never had ham or shrimp in the refrigerator– in case my grandmother came over and saw it. My mother ate it and fed it to us but she got rid of the evidence. She never told her mother that she loved bacon. Bacon! It’s practically her favorite food.
“But it isn’t just food. Whether my parents agreed or disagreed with things their parents believed, they granted legitimacy to it. It didn’t matter if it made sense. If something was important to my grandparents it was important to them. Period. It deserved respect.”
“Mark’s in my father’s face…With a hatchet. I just don’t get it. It’s almost as if he hates my father. What did my father ever do to him?”
“Freud thought sons want to kill their fathers.”
“Freud’s ideas are wild… Are you into him?”
“Not really. I’ve read some of his books but–”
“My therapist is a Freudian. Mark talks about Freud a lot.”
“He’s going to be a shrink so…”
Jeremy goes to the kitchen, opens the refrigerator and studies its contents. He’s hungry. CC soon follows him there, shuffling behind him face down. Nothing in the refrigerator appeals to him, so he takes out a small container of Dannon yogurt, his occasional homage to healthy eating.
She waves him off. He scoops up the blueberries in it, bringing them to the top of the container. He takes a spoonful of the jellied fruit, then puts the top back on and returns it to the refrigerator.
“So there wasn’t much fighting that went on between your parents and your grandparents?”
“Maybe I’m giving the wrong impression. They disagreed plenty. I’m not talking about the Waltons. Plenty of times they were irritated with each other… for more than a minute, a couple of times a day. Sometimes a day or two. But they always got back to each other.
“There was this line and you didn’t cross it. When it came to what you could eat, it was God’s laws. But beyond that. Everyone knew you could only go so far. It wasn’t exactly defined but you had a good idea about it, what would be a serious transgression.”
“How did you know where that was?”
She looks at him like he’s an idiot. “Not everything’s put into words. You just know.”
“Sometimes my mother would be all over us, lecture us about respect, particularly when Mark went after my father. But that really wasn’t how we learned about it. It just was always there. Like something horrible would happen if you crossed the line. It wasn’t spelled out, but you knew it would be terrible.”
“And Mark crossed that line?”
“Again and again. He didn’t give a damn. He enjoyed stomping on it, getting my father upset. Like the fact that my father is upset proves Mark is really right about things. He’s not going to allow anyone to dictate what he thinks! Particularly my father.”
Her voice turns sad.
“I don’t know when it happened. But all of it was gone! The uncross able line, everything. Like it meant nothing. Never did.”
“That’s happened to you?”
“Not me–But it’s where my classmates are at… They’re shedding any part of themselves that resembles their parents and the way they were raised.”
“That’s because we are winning.”
“I’ll tell you this. It’s no fun being one of the only ones who think like me. I just don’t get it. “How do you do that? You can’t make up a new you.”
“Why not? Why shouldn’t you decide who you are, who you want to be? Why can’t you be liberated from the old bullshit?”
“My grandmother would turn over in her grave if she heard you say that.”
“That’s not how I see it.”
“ You think she’s up there watching you?”
“No but that doesn’t matter. I would know…” She watches him as she proceeds: “My grandmother is still with me, alive.”
“She’s part of who I am. I can hear with her ears, speak with her voice. And that makes me happy. Very happy.”
Give me a break is one again written across Jeremy’s face. She ignores him.
“My grandpa Joseph was the son of Joshua. Joshua made gold jewelry. Beautiful gold jewelry.” She fingers an earring. “Look at my earrings.” She takes them off, hands them to Jeremy. Her expression is insistent. They are beautiful, delicate, yet strong. “My grandmother gave these to me. She got them from Joshua”
Sounding like her grandmother she intones. “Joshua was the son of Samuel. He also was a jeweler. He taught Joshua how to make jewelry.”
CC puts her earrings back on.
“And Samuel was the son of Pincus, who spent his life studying the Torah. He was a rabbi. People came from the surrounding towns to hear Rabbi Pincus’ opinion of what the Torah had to say about their behavior. It wasn’t curiosity. They needed to know where they stood with God.
“My grandmother explained to me that a rabbi who understands the Torah, was very important to everyone. And reading a new portion of the Torah every week? They were fascinated. It was like the adventures of God.”
She doesn’t know why she tried to make that a joke. It wasn’t funny. It also undermines the seriousness of what she has been trying to say. But in the back of her mind she’s worried that Jeremy will begin to think of her as taking herself too seriously.
“Is that how your grandmother put it?”
“Sorry for that one! My grandmother laid it all out for me. We don’t get to hear what God wants from us. People complain about his silence. Rabbi Pincus explained what God wanted. It was all in the Torah, the book God gave to us.”
“That was a jazzy message.”
She ignores his irreverence. “They asked Pincus to speak at all the surrounding Shuls. You asked me about pride–my grandmother’s eyes lit up when she told me that.”
Despite seeming to give the impression that he is not taking CC seriously, he notices the way CC lit up when she spoke of Pincus.
“When you mentioned how synagogues from other towns wanted him to speak at their services you were proud.”
She’s pleased he noticed.
“Pincus was my grandmother’s favorite. He was always examining things, thinking about everything. He was the son of Joseph, another Joseph, who was a chazzan. They say Joseph had a voice that would make the angels cry. Joseph belonged to Moishe.”
She continues to have an identical lilt to her grandmother’s as she recited the family history.
“I get it.”
Ignoring him, CC continues.
“Moishe, means Moses, and Moses was the son of Solomon”
Proudly she proclaims, “Solomon. King of Israel.”
“He was the king?” Jeremy asks
Once again CC lights up. “His mother thought so.”
Calmly, Jeremy asks her “Have you been to Israel?” .
“Where’s this coming from?”
“My grandmother. My grandmother, who you say is dead. Better yet, her grandmother told her these stories. So now we are talking about 4 generations,
Temporarily won over, Jeremy kisses CC tenderly on her forehead.
Not completely in jest he tells her “I am kissing your grandmother.” She smiles, pleased that he’s beginning to understand. He so often seems closed. Her smile suddenly become brighter. CC goes to the window and looks out again. Then turns around.
“My room-mate thinks my grandmother and me are connected at the hip. She can’t believe things I’ve told her. It’s funny. She thinks being beholden to my grandmother makes me less of a person. It makes me more. My room-mate thinks I’ve been assigned an identity which keeps me from finding out who the real me is.
“It’s the opposite. What I got from my grandmother is the only part of me that’s substantial, that seems like me. The rest is swirling around like the wind.”
“I can understand about your grandmother, but can’t you see your room-mate’s point? What students are doing now is replacing all these do’s and don’ts that are a thousand years old. Nobody knows where the rules came from, or why they still exist. Why can’t you replace them with a better conscience. Something that makes sense, that corresponds to what you believe is important.”
“You just invent a new conscience?” she says in a dead pan way.
“A conscience formed from your ideals.”
“Ideals are pie in the sky.”
“Our ideals are the best part of us, what we believe in and value, deep, deep down”
“What? …That the rich should share what they have with the poor, that we should be helping black people get out of their hole, that we should not destroy the planet, that women should be in charge of their own bodies? Are you against any of that?”
“The core of your conscience should come from that, what you believe. What kind of morality did your parents, your grandmother give you? That you should fast on Yom Kippur? That Mark and Jay should wear a yarmulke in shul? You can’t do this. You can’t do that. How does that make you a better person? Growing up means you decide what’s important. Creating your own conscience.”
She smiles, “Do your own thing. You just like the sex part. she proclaims in a silly voice. “You can do anything you want and it’s okay.”
“You mean I can wear my mother’s bra?…Who knows. Maybe one day the movement will bring us there. You never know…Just kidding,” he quickly adds. His voice becomes serious. “Sex is a small part of this. The March on Washington. Hundreds of thousands of people, holding hands, singing We Shall Overcome. That came from the bottom of our hearts.”
“You were there?”
“It was life changing.”
“Mark says the same thing.”
“The point is that those feelings don’t have to exist for just one day. I was at a friend’s wedding. In the church people were singing this hymn. Singing it sweetly. You could see it on their face. They were singing to God. They were sure he was listening. Everyone in that chapel was connected to everyone else, and to God!”
CC is picturing it as Jeremy speaks.
“Why should you only have occasional moments like that? Why not surround yourself with people who have your ideals, who’ll keep you devoted to them. It’s the best you. Why not give it the place it deserves?
“Communes,” she says with a note of irony.
“Exactly. Why not surround yourself with people who share your ideals. Live together. Live your ideals.”
“Been there, done that.”
Jeremy is surprised. “When was that?”
“Last year. My friend, Leila. She graduated last June. For years she had been miserable. Well, not miserable. She had friends. She went to parties. She had a few boyfriends. Some of her relationships were nice. But she began to feel that she was never going to find the person she was looking for. She even tried a lesbian relationship. That wasn’t it. Most of the time she felt lonely. The hours, the days just passed. She had no purpose. She said she had felt that way for so long she didn’t think it could ever be different.” CC hesitates for effect. “Everything changed after she joined a commune.”
“I’m not surprised. Feeling united with other people that share your ideals. It’s like what I described in the church. Bonding the best part of you, with the best part of them.”
“It’s true. It transformed her. All of a sudden, she had confidence. Before she had always seemed to be adrift… worrying. Her eagerness to be liked–she said that really messed her up. No matter how well a relationship was going, she feared that it was only a matter of time. One misstep and she was finished. Or other people would see who she really was. And that would be that. Or they were ‘friends,’ but she didn’t feel connected. There are so many students at school just like her.
“After she joined the commune: poof. It was gone. Completely! Now, her relationships seemed solid. You could feel the difference Her tranquility. Being in the same room with her calmed me.
“I wanted that. To be part of something bigger. To belong. I haven’t felt that since I was a little girl. With my family. I knew I had them. Never thought about being without them. Oh once, when I was four, at the beach, I got lost. But the rest of the time? I belonged. We belonged to each other.
“Mark convinced me to go ahead and do it. I joined her commune. After I did it Mark bragged to all his friends about me.”
Jeremy listens quietly.
“Everyone talks about alienation, the modern condition. We read some essays in sociology.” She looks at him with the enthusiasm of one who has made a great discovery. “My alienation was gone.” She hesitates thoughtfully. “But then…Take that shit eating grin off your face. You know where I am going?”
Jeremy answers “We believe this. We believe that.” His sarcasm deepens. “Like an old married couple. We liked that movie. We didn’t like that one.”
“Exactly… I only stayed two weeks. I mean it started out great. I moved my stuff into Leila’s huge room with 2 others. We were strangers— but there was this warmth. You could feel it almost immediately. To finally belong somewhere. It was like what I had with my family. It felt great…
“People just wandered in and out of each other’s rooms. Drifting. Like everything belonged to everyone. I’d seen it in the movies–people at church finishing the last hymn. As the service ended, turning to each other. Hugging. Speaking softly, caressing every word that was said to them, like their words were like honey, like they were in heaven… I’ve seen it in the synagogue At a Bar Mitzvah. When the service ends, everyone hugs each other. ‘Good Shabbos.’ ‘Good Shabbos.’ The smiles. The warmth. It’s the real deal. That’s what I expected the commune would be. You’re right about it. Not just that moment. 24 hours a day.”
“Wow. You really got into it.”
“That’s how it was in the beginning. It felt so nice, so different, being part of that.
“I really loved the commune. For the first week!”
Her voice becomes deeper “My earrings disappearing didn’t feel so good. Leila told me that they were ‘borrowed’.”
CC touches one. “These, the ones I showed you from my grandmother. Leila– actually all three of my roommates thought I should be flattered that something I loved was loved by someone else.
“I got them back. Saw this girl brazen enough to wear them to dinner.” CC hesitates for a moment.
“She was shocked when I confronted her. She accused me of being possessive. Her friends agreed.”
Jeremy has a nasty smile. He’s heard similar stories before.
“It didn’t take long for everything else to change. I bought some Mallomars. My roommates went ape shit. Not Leila. I snuck one to her, but then she was worried people would find out. One of them turned me in. At this big meeting they brought up the Mallomars. Everyone was offended. Or pretended to be. No, I think they were offended. I don’t know where their head was at. They were conducting a war on processed foods. On corporate agribusiness. They reasoned with me in the deepest most sincere voices. Said I was being poisoned at the supermarket. They were disappointed in me…
“I said nothing. That night, at dinner, I ate plenty of brown rice and alfalfa sprouts. I wanted to prove my loyalty, to belong again. If that meant brown rice…” She sticks a finger down her throat with a false gag.
Jeremy laughingly joins her. “I can do without that ideal.”
“I actually called Mark to check the food thing out. He surprised me. He told me the only case of malnutrition that he had ever seen at the hospital was this patient who belonged to a commune that only ate macrobiotic food. I guess that sort of did it.
“I didn’t give up the commune. Not immediately. Well in a way I did. Once Mark stuck a pin in my balloon the magic disappeared. I started thinking things over. The togetherness I had felt was gone … I began to realize how weird it was that I had to hide my Mallomars… I felt policed. In my own home.
“When I brought Oreos to breakfast a week later, that got everyone all excited. I can’t claim innocence. I knew they wouldn’t like it. But the degree of anger at the meeting… They called me a subversive. It was worse than my grandmother with her kosher kitchen–like I had bought ham and intentionally put it on one of her kosher plates.”
Jeremy remains amused.
“They had no sense of humor. I don’t think I heard anyone laugh the entire time I was there. That’s the down side of ideals. When they are taken seriously like that, they have to be enforced. People were watching me, watching each other, watching themselves! It was a police state.”
“What! You agree?.”
“Not exactly, but…I know what you are talking about.”
She’s relieved she won’t have to argue with Jeremy about this one.
“After I quit I thought about them a lot. I couldn’t get over the anger I saw. The hatred. I knew some of them. They weren’t bad people. But the intensity of their reaction really bugged me. Later I heard gossip about me coming from them. Not Leila, but one of my room-mates. Ugly stuff. Really vicious lies. I know I should have ignored it. The things they made up were ridiculous, but it hurt my feelings. That’s when I really began to question communes.”
“And what have you decided?”
“The hatred for me-that’s a whole other thing -why there was so much of it. I heard the Jehovah Witnesses do that. Excommunicate people who drop out. Refuse to talk to them.”
“But what about the idea of communes?”
“I suppose the idea is good-the goal. If it happens naturally, when along with other people your ideals uplift all of you, connect you, it’s precious. But it’s a moment. Yeah, what you presented to me–wouldn’t it be great if you could remain there by surrounding yourself with like–minded people? It sounds so nice. But there is a lot more to it. The price is very high.
“When you listen to an inspiring rabbi’s sermon, for a while your intentions may be lofty. Unfortunately, it won’t be long until the real you comes out eventually–good, bad, sometimes mean, whatever. Your idealism might have been sincere, but claiming that those intentions are who you really are is nonsense. Okay. Maybe it is who you want to be and you deserve credit for that. You may be very determined to try to be a much better person, to fulfill those ideals, but an hour after the sermon, if you think about it, you realize it is a wish you’ve had to be that way. But it’s not who you are. When you try to define yourself as that person that’s when the trouble begins.
“Believing your wonderful ideals represent the real you makes you sanctimonious. You become a vigilant nut. You catch the slightest hint of racism, or lack of seriousness about the environment. Or whatever. Your identity as an unbelievably good person is at stake. This girl down the hall actually was a vigilante. She started all these rumors about me. She would have sent people to the Gulags.”
“You know about the Gulags?”
“We read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”
It is an opportunity for Jeremy to go into lecturing mode, which he grabs. That they are lovers is irrelevant. He is still her teacher: “If you think about how many people died, the Gulags were as bad as concentration camps. The important point is people did that in Russia when they were trying to make communism work. They believed in it. They were trying to create a Utopia… They thought socialism was an historical inevitability.
“Here’s the important point. People were turned in for impure attitudes not by cynics, but by true believers. You hear stories about the Communists and none of it makes sense. Sure, there were sadists, people grabbing power and enjoying the suffering they caused. But there were an awful lot of idealists who were so carried away by their beliefs, convinced they were bringing forth a wonderful future that every other consideration faded away. How could Sartre continue to support Stalin after the purges? How could all kinds of intellectuals in Russia and elsewhere, people who felt passionately about inequality, party members who wanted to do good–how could they ignore the gulags? People were getting killed for their beliefs. The obvious explanation was that Marxists’ ideals were so ennobling that they overrode any other perception of reality. They so much wanted what they believed was going to happen, that they ignored what was actually happening. It isn’t coincidence. The goodness claimed by passionate idealism perpetuates that kind of blindness.
“At the beginning of the revolution someone you knew might have been arrested and disappeared. Maybe you had had misgivings about his loyalty to the cause. So you half understood that he should be reeducated. Perhaps the rumors were true. As an enemy of the revolution that person might be mistreated. It is a necessary evil. But intentionally? Compared to the evils of capitalism? No way there is a comparison.”
Jeremy once gave a lecture on this subject. He continues.
“Millions of people were turned in by neighbors who doubted them. Millions. Even after rumors persisted that prisoners were being abused, members of the Party insisted otherwise and they were believed. They probably believed it themselves.
“There is no other explanations for these strange public trials. They were essential. The accused made public confessions. It didn’t matter that the prisoner had been tortured. What mattered was that the unity of the public, the purity of their ideals, was maintained by those confessions.
“Year after year members of the Party, true believers continued to insist their motives were for the highest purpose. Here and there a guard may have misbehaved, but the ideals represented by Marxism were sacrosanct. They continue to insist counter revolutionaries were sent away so they could be “reeducated.” They stuck to that rationale long after the reality had become clear. The “reeducated” people who returned seemed like they were shell shocked. They were afraid to complain. It might get them arrested again. Worse, many more didn’t return–millions of them.
“Eventually, out of fear, no one said anything critical of the revolution. No one asked questions. I’m not just talking about inside Russia, because there it was obviously dangerous to openly doubt some aspect of Marxism. You might not have been from the privileged classes but clearly if your questions were persistent you had sold out. You were a traitor. Next semester we’re going to read Koesler’s The God that Failed. It’s six essays by former communists. That book sort of broke the ice outside of Russia, but until then the amazing thing was that as the facts began to emerge, in Paris, in Rome, Milan, intellectuals couldn’t admit they had been wrong. Those who reported details of what was going on were accused of being liars. Even when the evidence became overwhelming, they still held on. There was a lot at stake. Not just their ideals. They were afraid of losing friends, of being an outcast, afraid of being labeled a Fascist. The two components of what was so treasured in the commune, being united with others with superior ideals, meant more than common sense.”
Jeremy’s not done: “It was the same in Nazi Germany. I heard this lecturer who had studied a city in Germany of close to a million people. Can’t remember the name. Hollywood always makes it seem like the Gestapo was everywhere– spying on everyone. There were maybe 20 or 30 SS in the entire city! That was it. But tens of thousands of Bolsheviks, homosexuals, Jews were arrested and sent away. The spies were their neighbors!
And the same thing happened there, not just because they themselves were afraid of being turned in to the SS. We like to think it was that, but that wasn’t the case. It was their idealism, their belief in a future in which the greatness of the German people would, at last, be fulfilled. That was more than enough to counter any pangs of conscience they developed about turning their neighbors in.
“In their minds the magnificence of Germany was just as wonderful as the Utopia Communists dreamt of, a future in which Germany would finally assume its rightful role in the world. I mean if you are German what could be more important than having this pride, believing you are the master race? Arrogant yes. Germans go there naturally, even without Nazism. But never mind the German factor. Doesn’t everyone secretly harbor a belief that their group is superior. I do as a Jew. I’ll bet you do.
“As far as the nasty behavior going on, I’m sure in the beginning the average Nazi thought like the Communists. It was temporary. The usual rationalization¬–you can’t make an omelet without breaking the shell. Ya de da, de da.
“That fantastic feeling you were describing, what you felt, at first, in the commune, being part of an ennobled group…There’s this movie Triumph of the Will. It shows the Nuremberg rallies. Hundreds of thousands of people– ecstatic! Carried away that they are seeing Hitler in the flesh. Then when he speaks, as they listen to his ideas, they really go ape shit. Not long before he came along, Germans were on their knees, disdained by the rest of the world after World War I. It was infuriating.
“Finally! The greatness of the German people was to be realized! At last!!! When they shouted at the top of their lungs Sieg hiels, Sieg Hiels, their voice became part of this amazing huge sound, hundreds of thousands of Germans in unison. Again and again. The drums, the bugles. The might of the united German people, about to take ownership of the future. That confidence you felt in the commune about being connected. How about hundreds of thousands of them lost in an ocean of German people. I mean if you are German, and you feel that you have been mistreated…”
Jeremy raises his voice into a shout:
“Sieg hiels! Sieg Hiels! Victory! In movies with Nazis that greeting always seems obligatory. But it wasn’t. They were ecstatic. Hundreds of thousands of people were in Washington led by Joan Baez, singing We shall overcome. It was the same. Feeling part of something really big, important, hopeful, determined. I loved being there. I treasured the experience. I was not one lousy feeble person, living my life alone without purpose. I was part of a huge moment in history. The Nazi rallies were bigger than the March on Washington.”
They are both quiet for a moment. Encouraged that Jeremy is equally critical of the communes, CC escalates. She grabs the moment to attack him:
“How come the antiwar movement never mentions the 50,000 unarmed civilians killed by Ho Chi Minh. He was inspired by the Chinese and Russians who did the exact same thing, land reform. Ho Chi Minh was proud to match that moment in the revolution. To do what had to be done. Killing the peasants that had managed to buy and own land, taking their land for the “people.”
You’d think the peace movement, if it was decent, would look back in horror at what happened. But the opposite. First the Russians did the killing, then the Chinese. True communists, inspired by income inequality, each respecting revolutionaries who did it before, for going ahead with their plan, doing something, not just talking about it. Somehow the make-love-not war people never mention those killings. It was the greatest atrocity in the history of Viet Nam. The peace movement locks in on the good stuff¬– the Viet Cong not being Communists. Their ports might be clogged with Russian ships bringing war supplies. Khrushchev might have banged his shoe in the UN, bragged that the Communist would bury us, but what can you expect? Peaceniks explaining American policy was based on a ridiculous domino theory. How the fighting is really about nationalism, ending Western imperialism. Fifty thousand slaughtered on the altar of Marxism.”
“Where did you hear about that?” Jeremy asks with skepticism in his voice.
“Jeffrey Satini. He’s head of the Young Conservative Club.”
“And you believe him? It’s amazing how people can make up lies.”
“I checked on it. It’s true.”
Jeremy’s expression is disbelieving. “Fine. Continue what you started to say about communes.”
Jeremy’s disagreement about what she was told about Ho Chi Minh causes her to hesitate. But not for long. She’s built up so much venom on the topic. Plus his agreement with her about the down side of ideals encourages her
“I told you how at first I felt like I had found family.” She shakes her head. “Some family that was. My crime –Oreos. Jay used to hide donuts. And he didn’t even buy them. My mother bought ‘em… Difference is, for us it wasn’t the principle of the thing. We just wanted to know where he was hiding them so we could get at them. He was pretty good at finding new hiding places.
“It would never occur to us that it was because he was rotten. I mean he was, but so are we. We’re all family. It’s simple. If you take your ideals too seriously, you fall into that trap. I mentioned Jay lording over Mark what a goody-goody he was. What went on in the commune was a thousand times worse. Your ideals may be all about love, but you despise anyone who is an obstacle to the purity of your ideals. You think of yourself as full of love, but what you feel is the opposite, hatred for anyone challenging the spell you are in.”
She takes a breath then continues.
“It’s one thing to be disappointed by people. But when you buy into a commune mentality you’re not disappointed. You feel betrayed. Your cause is so righteous. Anyone not going along with you-you see them as evil. You hate them…Here’s the important part. They’re a threat to your community.”
“Jews used to stone people caught eating bacon.”
“Really?” CC asks..
“I’m kidding. But Muslims stone daughters to death who don’t go along with their parents’ choice for their husband. If they run away and marry another man. Muslims don’t fool around. A family can murder a wayward daughter and not be prosecuted. They don’t feel guilty. Honor killings. They are doing the right thing. It isn’t only that they married the wrong person. Left unpunished, that rebellious daughter is a threat to the entire community.”
“It’s true. My Oreos were treated like they were treasonous. ‘It’s just a cookie,’ I argued. They knew I was mocking them. Having sacred beliefs makes you hate people that challenge you.”
Jeremy is smiling, enjoying her story. She continues.
“You have to live up to this idea you have of yourself that you are holy.
“All the time! That’s the rub. It’s one thing if you’re a Trappist Monk. They make vows of silence. They’re gently listening for God’s will. Quieting their own noise is the only way to find him. And guess what? They find him. As they softly chant, they can feel God’s presence.
“People in a commune try to live love. Some of their smiles seem like serenity, like they are there. I suppose they are. It’s alluring. It isn’t platitudes. They really are there. You can feel it. It makes you want to be like them. When they convert someone new–it’s like nectar to them. Can you imagine how missionaries used to feel? Saving savages from hell.”
They are on a roll, but Jeremy’s curiosity is not a 100% satisfied.
“While you belonged to the commune, that calm you felt? Did it last for a couple of hours. For a day? What you saw, how Leila became–did it happen to you?”
“I told you. It did, but it didn’t last. I suppose for some people it does, true believers, but I’ll bet they are the most ferocious in denouncing the impure.”
“It’s funny,” Jeremy adds, “with everything bad we are saying about them, I can’t close the book. I picture all these good-hearted people. Together. You can’t beat that.”
“All I got to say is that if these 60’s ideals catch on, watch out. It will tear the country apart. It already is,” CC adds
‘Still to me, while you were part of it… It just seems like you were in heaven.”
“Maybe for ten minutes.” She smiles. Their discussion is setting off reverberations of previous thoughts she has had. “Mark and I used to talk about heaven all the time, what it would be like. Angels playing harps.”
“Well, that’s easy to dismiss. No one plays harps. But non-stop euphoria–imagine that!” Jeremy can. “Non-stop– even if it lasted 10 minutes. Hell. Zen Buddhists are satisfied with an instant of Satori. 10 minutes has got to be an eternity.”
Like CC, Jeremy’s is delighted with where they have gone. As a kid, he thought a lot about heaven, but even now. Their conversation is flying in every direction, but it’s a turn-on for Jeremy–– knowing CC cares about all of this. When he was falling in love with her he had no idea.