I blame it on the dining room table. When my mother died, I couldn’t get rid of it; no one in the family wanted a mid-Victorian mahogany table that could seat ten in considerable luxury. Bad karma I thought, remembering the spectacular arguments, wherein every night the most controversial subject imaginable was introduced for debate. We children were expected not only to have an opinion, but to argue it with force. There was a lot of un-WASP-like shouting, and a cavalcade of slammed doors.
I grew up in Westmount, with a father who more than belonged, but who had married an educated prairie girl who decidedly did not. I hated the snobbery, the cruelty, the exclusion she was all too often shown. Further, why didn’t anyone know any French people – barring, of course, the staff. No Jews, no Americans, no people of any colour but ours, all pink and tailored and sporty, in the same semi-grand houses, eating the same food, living a year bound by the Anglican calendar refreshed by a procession of some pretty glorious parties. Class and position were identified by a thousand tiny signifiers. To others it was the most foreign of languages, with no lexicon. Deliberately so. What I didn’t understand was that I was growing up in a pre-modern clan, like every other of the time, cloistered within its intricate cousinage, being trained like a SWAT team member for leadership in business, the battlefield, or charity. By 17 I declared myself at war with all of it, and marched through McGill’s campus with the French students, the anti-war left, and any other protest that was going around.
By 22, I was dating a philosophy teacher, an Indian from Trinidad whose parents had been indentured labourers. He had been sent to Oxford by the Anglican church, was satisfyingly ink-black, and a pal of Paul Goodman and Ivan Illich. My beleaguered parents were suitably horrified, more by his ideas than his colour. For good reason; every Saturday we would go to lunch in Chinatown, and thence to the Communist bookstore, where a new pamphlet would be pressed upon me. The paranoid right is correct about the fate of their kids at college; I was being indoctrinated. But, Mao’s On Practice inspired me. Rather than spend my life reading in the cloister, for which I was far too restless, I would throw myself into the stink and chaos of real life.
My first “action” was the founding of a feminist theatre company, called the Women’s Theatre Co-op, where decisions would be made by consensus, and all the plays were written by women, and all the parts played by women. The nightmare of consensus decision-making gave me pause, but apparently not enough.
When I finished graduate school (leaving as a thoroughgoing Keynesian), I moved to New York and got married. I wanted to write, and a red diaper baby opened the first door. Shaun was the daughter of Joe Slovo, head of the South African Communist Party and Umkhonto We Sizwe, the terrorist arm of the African National Congress. Her mother was Ruth First, Minister of Education in Mozambique, before she was blown up by a letter bomb, sent, it was said, by the South African police. Shaun got me a job at legendary filmmaker Arthur Penn’s office in New York. Arthur wanted someone who could spend the days in his office writing, because the office was a shell, used a few times a year. Shaun worked for Robert deNiro, Martin Scorcese and Al Pacino, all of whom were greatly impressed by her Communist activist parents. When people say Hollywood is left-wing, the cliché masks the deep penetration of the hard left into film and television.
I learned to spell my name before saying it, because of the dumbfounded silence on the other end of the line from people like Warren Beatty or Elia Kazan when I said “Nickson”. But in those years I did teach myself how to write, and another red diaper baby (whose most recent book was a celebration of Fidel Castro) got me my first job writing for the LA Weekly. When my marriage broke up, I moved from New York to London, where Shaun now lived in her family home in Camden Town. My best friend was a young punk musician, who lived in a squat on Fernhead Road. Brer’s father was a poet, an Earl and a Minister in Thatcher’s cabinet. This breadth of acquaintance made me catnip for the Time bureau chief in London, since most of his reporters moved almost exclusively within the expat community.
I moved between Brer’s squat and Shaun’s, kicked out of the latter whenever Joe Slovo came to town and MI6 was parked outside the door. Joe had been on Interpol’s ten most wanted list for a decade, but finally had been allowed to travel around Europe. I met him one night. He sat in the shadows and interviewed me for a few minutes, out of politeness perhaps, and the possibility that given my job at Time, I might be useful. I was thrilled by the favour; to me he was a great man and access to him sharply limited. I was a happy swimmer in the cultural left and everyone I met – and it seems now as if I met everyone – was unhappy only because the right political system, socialism, had not been established. With few exceptions, every publisher, columnist, artist, great and small, thought the world would be made right, if that happened, and most cultural product was deemed to have gravitas only if it moved the cause along.
Time hurled me into hundreds if not thousands of interviews with politicians, artists, deposed kings and princes, scientists, torture victims, blood-soaked IRA chiefs, crooks and Nobel Prize winners. These encounters established a larger reality for me and hairline cracks appeared in my world view. I became European bureau chief of Life magazine and one day Nelson Mandela’s lawyer, Ismail Ayoub, walked into my office and offered me the rights to Nelson’s autobiography. Tout London wanted to know how an obscure Canadian girl with no political heft got the rights to Long Walk to Freedom. There were a couple of reasons; Mandela was familiar with Life which had long treated him as a hero, and one of Time’s South African stringers was a one-time lover of Winnie. The clincher, I suspect, was that I had met Joe Slovo, and was friends with his daughter. I was safe.
When Nelson was released, I went to Soweto, and while waiting for our meetings I interviewed the wives of the men who had been in Robben Island with him. One day I had lunch in a tiny bungalow, owned by a woman whose brother attended. His face was badly scarred, he was missing an eye, and more than a few teeth. One shoulder had been broken and twisted and he couldn’t walk without a lurch. He said he had been tortured by the ANC in Zambia. I said, you mean the South African police or the military. No, he said, by the ANC; at one of their camps, he disagreed with their methods and ideas. He was not a communist, but had leadership potential, so they broke him. I didn’t believe him.
After Time, I wrote a book about the CIA’s mind control experiments in Canada. My English agent was a socialist, despite his childhood as the son of a wealthy Jewish peer. My publishers, both in the UK and Canada, two of the most august literary editors working at the time, were left of center, as were the staff. Because I had met Prime Minister Thatcher, they would ask: “Why was she so popular? What do they see in her?” People who voted for the right were deemed to be primitive and lacking virtue and the allegiance to Thatcher from “the people” confounded them. I am ashamed to say I agreed. In the world in which I lived – literature, theatre, film, design – everyone saw the right as devoid of compassion for the less advantaged. Exploiters all. And profoundly racist.
Change came rapidly. The catalyst was my father saying at a family dinner in Vancouver, when I was at the magic age of 40, that I reminded him of my great-great-grandmother, who declared in 1850, at the age of 20, that marriage was slavery, and set off to see the world. She had a kind of portable piano – a melodeon – which she carried so she could play for her supper. She set off from St. Catharines to the Ohio frontier.
This was fascinating. This was my next novel. My editors agreed – a feminist from 1850! And my agent gave me the help of a brilliant woman editor to help me shape the story. I began to comb my way through the family papers which were lodged in tiny libraries all through eastern Canada and the U.S. And immediately fell into a kind of trance from which I have not fully awoken.
The first thing I discovered was that they were Christian. And I mean very, very Christian. This was unnerving since on the intellectual left, faith in God, and particularly Christ, signifies a weak mind. But these people were anything but weak. They had been town, church and infrastructure builders from the time they arrived in 1630. They were involved, critically, in the first three Great Awakenings, including the one in Northhampton with Jonathan Edwards, into whose family they married. Two direct ancestors were Commissary and Deputy Commissary for the Revolutionary Army, one a member of the Continental Congress. They had enormous families. The patriarch of the branch that moved to Canada in 1824 to dig the first deep cut on the Welland Canal, had 17 living children with one wife, who lived to 101. For decades, they were officers on the Underground Railroad, all through the northern states, with tunnels into Canada. They hid fugitive slaves, donated land for the “colored village” around the Welland Canal, and started schools for black children.
They also fought for the Indians; one of them, who had married a daughter of Joseph Brant on the Five Nations reserve in the Niagara region was such an effective advocate for Indians that he had to be smuggled out of Canada to Chicago before the British could hang him. Another, the family historian and a prolific writer, while serving as mayor of St. Catharines wrote flaming editorials protesting the treatment of the “red man” and illuminating their virtues and strength. The entire clan’s Christianity was hard-wired and their charity never-ending. When they moved anywhere, first they built a church, then a school. My great-great-great-great-grandfather the canal builder would go round the farms every morning and collect little girls out of the fields, quietly giving their parents some money, before taking them off to school.
Because many of them were well established by the 1800s, they traveled, it seemed, ceaselessly, and they wrote letters, in part to weave together far flung family members. The tiny museums through upper New York State and the Niagara peninsula had thousands of documents, photographs, letters, diaries, all original source material. To my dismay, however, none fit the narrative we were aiming for. Evidence of my great-great-grandmother’s oppression did not exist. She was not oppressed, she was free to do what she liked. Free to travel, not marry, and support herself by her own hand. The women of her family were decidedly not of the whining pathetic Susanna Moodie archetype so beloved by Margaret Atwood. They were mightily strong. They loved pioneering, and when they saw a problem, they damn well solved it.
This simply would not do for a modern publisher. There was none of the barbarism expected of those unenlightened times. Instead it was a 400-year history of a family who, like all the other families they knew, constituted a parade of virtue and strength. By 1900, there had been so much enthusiastic breeding and pioneering, a vast cousinage reached through every sector of the culture, stretching from sea to sea in both Canada and the U.S. Finally one of the librarians, after another afternoon of my obsessive digging for dirt, declared in frustration, “Look, they were good people.”
Their Christianity particularly defeated me. Especially the revival thing, for along with participating in the Great Awakenings, in 1859 they started camp meetings in Grimsby Park on Lake Ontario, where revivals ran all summer long for decades. This was an ecstatic Christianity I knew nothing about. So I started to go to revivals, which today take place largely in black communities. I was pretty much the only white person in congregations of a thousand or more, and they treated me like a sister come home. Those revivals – and they are vital, exciting, and filled with extraordinary music and spirit – dragged me out of the Buddhist passivity that is the only approved spiritual attitude on the left. No one who is even a little open to the idea of God can go to these gatherings and not be suffused with grace.
This final lesson popped me right out of the cultural left where I had made my home. It was now clear to me that our contemporary story tellers were telling lies. They had utterly corrupted our idea of our country and culture, religion and past. They misread the very ground of human character. They had taught us that with few exceptions, we came from exploiters, oppressors of natives and blacks. All the “great” writers of our time read to me now as depressives caught in an almost demonic fiction, charlatans who had seized the criminal and disaffected and made of them the norm that must be defeated and replaced by another system. And that system was inevitably command and control socialism.
Ten years after the ANC took over South Africa, Oxbridge scholar R.W. Johnson moved home to South Africa and started a think tank. Joe Slovo, I discovered through reading his research, was an assassin, who ran torture/re-education camps in Zambia and who ranged through Europe neutralizing any African potential leader black or white, who could stand in the way of the communist party in the new Africa. I had set my lodestar on evil.
This summer, I am going to take that mahogany table out of storage, lacquer it a deep Chinese orange, and re-christen it as a table where the big issues will be argued, and where, with luck and love, another generation will learn engagement with the wider world, informed by a true account of our past.
Elizabeth Nickson has been published by Harper Collins, Bloomsbury and Knopf Canada. She has written for Time, Harper’s, and The Sunday Times Magazine, and was European Bureau chief of Life magazine.