“Other People’s Houses”
These days, the local librarians thank me for paying my fines. I do feel beloved. 😉
Wrapping up Lore Segal’s biography, “Other People’s Houses,” I have been having so many thoughts—about how we could be about more than mere tolerance; about how some psychic wounds never heal; about how being marginalized changes your personality forever; and about how much we are willing to actually work with and advocate for people who need us.
The author was a child in Vienna when the Nazis began their relentless occupation. It is agonizing to read about how people were desperately applying for visas to leave, but every country had quotas for accepting refugees. Meanwhile, they had to try to live without attracting malice and violence from neighbors grown menacing. Laws grew increasingly harsh; assets were seized; friends disappeared to concentration camps.
Desperate to ensure at least their child’s safety, Segal’s parents sent her on a train with other Jewish children, to be placed with foster families in various countries. No one should ever have had to be separated from their children then, and it shouldn’t be happening now. I read in a state of numb horror, hardly daring to look around the room in case I could not make myself return to bear witness.
Segal was sent to England, where she describes lightly yet hauntingly the ways in which she tried hard to be winsome, even artfully distraught, so as to be appealing to potential foster parents. Finally, her parents made it there as well, but since they had visas only to work as a married couple in the capacity of domestic helpers, they were not allowed to board their child with them, per the rules of the time. That separation came to shape their whole future, their ability to love one another without the pain of incompletion.
Here we see the discordant notes sung by people who expect refugees to be grateful. Nothing has changed, has it? Bridging the gap between survival and truly living is not one that the displaced peoples of the world get to experience so long as we look the other way to spare ourselves.
Segal touches on an area we might not otherwise consider—how trauma expresses even amongst people who are technically safe. Additionally, I could not help thinking of how the disabled and the LGBT community were also targeted by the Nazis. She writes of how the foster families hoped to convert the Jewish children under their charge. How could this not mess with the minds of young people coming to terms with what people are willing to do to show how much they hate you for who you are. Whether it is Nazis trying to end you, or benevolent saviors trying to bring you to perceived salvation, it is horrifying and damaging to know yourself so unworthy of basic acceptance. I cried at the story of one of her peers who thought she was ready to convert, but the internalized self loathing ravaged her mental health, and she finally jumped to her death.
We are responsible for one another in ways that do not involve writing colonizing ideas onto vulnerable people. And marginalized groups are only vulnerable because the world continues to fail them.
How much are we prepared to do for people? That question sat in my mind when I finished the book. So many times in the past few years, I’ve heard people say they are fatigued by the awful news that keeps coming. They feel crushed by their own lack of agency. So they turn away to restore some mental balance.
I also hear people expressing disbelief. That things are no worse than they ever were. If we feel so anguished, why not open our homes to the displaced (this last said snarkily).
It’s not my place to say what anyone should do. But every second we breathe is one of those moments in time when what actions we choose can really make a difference to someone’s life.
The quality of someone else’s existence should not be so materially damaged by socio-political movements which we have helped bring into being with our contrived despair or detached indifference. Segal writes about the anxiety of survival that has never left her. I am a personal witness to the struggle for dignity and justice for the severely autistic. I also bear witness to how much we place on the shoulders of LGBT youth; we expect them to love themselves in a world that is still so uncomfortable with and hateful to them. What nonsense are we made of?
Back when I was an FOB, and used to wonder when this country would start to feel like home, I did not know what awaited. Then I plunged deeply into the waters of a life I had not seen modeled for me. I met many people who have shifted my thinking; who have shown me that we are enough; who have exhorted me to keep plunging back even when I cannot. There is so much real courage I have unearthed here, in people who have made choices to be open to helping people like me and mine.
As I read Segal’s concluding pages, I thought of how I became not assimilated (that sounds so jingoistic and shallow), but something more. She writes:
“It is…the way our histories become charged thus upon the air, the streets, the very houses of New York, that makes the alien into a citizen.”
I never saw myself in the people I met before the plunge. Perhaps that was the dissonance I was trying to address. Now I know why I live here.
Segal, Lore. Other People’s Houses. New York: The New Press, 2004.