November 30, 2008
The Odd Story of Romance in Dreams from my Father
I have as much faith in the hypothesis that follows as astronomers do in the big bang or biologists do in evolution, so bear with me please as I, like they, present my evidence in the indicative.
The hypothesis is simple enough, namely that Barack Obama needed substantial help to write his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, and that this help came from the man who has made "unrepentant" a household word, Bill Ayers.
For simplicity's sake, I refer to the author of Dreams as "Obama." He provided the skeletal narrative and likely maintained executive control. Ayers fleshed that narrative out, imposing, where useful, his vocabulary, his rhythms, his style, his observations, his postmodern perspective, his weary 1960s weltanschauung, and, in some cases, stories from his and other people's lives.
For no obvious reason, Ayers' voice is particularly pronounced in the recounting of Obama's brief New York sojourn. In fact, Obama often seems to be channeling the very thoughts and experiences of Ayers, who lived in the city at the same time. More curiously still, Obama appears to borrow the only romance in his otherwise sexless memoir directly from Ayers' memory.
The opening scene of Dreams, which unfolds in the early 1980s in and around Obama's New York City apartment, offers a prime example of the Ayers' influence. The cited location on East 94 Street is where Obama actually lived. How he lived is at least partially imagined. Ayers knew enough to do so. During his decade underground, he dwelled in many such places. "Gloria met me at the Port Authority bus terminal," he writes of one New York rendezvous in his impressive 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days, "and whisked me away to a safe apartment she'd rented uptown."
Ayers fondly recalls the moments he shared in one humble apartment with his then lover, Diana Oughton. "We made tortillas from scratch on Sundays in our little sloping kitchen on Felch Street," he writes. "A week's worth of homemade tomato sauce simmered hot and happy on the stove, a mountain of chopped onions and garlic sizzled in the skillet."
Cooking metaphors run through all of Ayers' work. In his 1993 book, To Teach, for instance, he describes his class's engagement with cultural study as a "thick stew." Similarly in Dreams, Obama describes "the stew of voices" heard in an evening with his extended family, one of seven references to "stew" in Dreams.
The small New York apartment that Obama inhabits has "slanting" floors. As the scene unfolds, he is making breakfast "with coffee on the stove and two eggs in the skillet." That both Ayers and Obama live in apartments with slanting/sloping floors, use stew as a metaphor, and talk about cooking -- both even using the southern regionalism "skillet" -- proves little, but promises more.
Obama tells us that the buzzer downstairs did not work and that visitors had to call from a pay phone at the corner gas station. There, "A black Doberman the size of a wolf paced through the night in vigilant patrol, its jaws clamped around an empty beer bottle."
Fugitive Days opens at a pay phone. Ayers spent much of his underground years waiting at pay phones. "Pay phone communication," he writes, "always paid for with rolls of quarters, was the main means for the diaspora to be in contact." He writes about pay phones with the loving detail art critics reserve for Picassos. The vivid image of the Doberman almost assuredly comes from his experience. Obama had no reason to use the corner pay phone, if it even existed.
Obama shared his apartment with a roommate. Upon watching "white people from the better neighborhoods nearby walk their dogs down our block to let the animals shit on our curbs," the roommate would yell out to them, "Scoop the poop, you bastards!." He would do so "with impressive rage." Adds Obama, ""We'd laugh at the faces of both master and beast, grim and unapologetic as they hunkered down to do the deed."
This story raises any number of red flags. One is that no sane New Yorker would walk his or her dog into the then drug-infested cusp of Spanish Harlem merely to let the dogs poop. This is likely an Ayers' memory from elsewhere, transposed to Obama's block. Another observation is that in a book as calculated as Dreams, it is, of course, the roommate who delivers the racially-tinged insult.
A third is that both Ayers and Obama speak of "rage" the way that Eskimos do of snow -- in so many varieties, so often, that they feel the need to qualify it, here as "impressive rage," elsewhere in Dreams as "suppressed rage" or "coil of rage," and in Fugitive Days as "justifiable rage," "uncontrollable rage," "blind rage," "and, of course, "Days of Rage."
Another note of interest is that all of the distinctive words in the last sentence above -- "master," "beast," "grim," "unapologetic," and "deed," as well as the phrase "hunkered down" -- appear in Fugitive Days.
"I enjoyed such moments -- but only in brief," writes Obama of his encounter with the dog walker. "If the talk began to wander, or cross the border into familiarity, I would soon find reason to excuse myself. I had grown too comfortable in my solitude, the safest place I knew." These sentiments seem much more natural for a terrorist in hiding -- Ayers uses the word "safe" in all its varieties and "solitude" as well -- than for a famously gregarious guy with a friendly roommate.
"Like a tourist, I watched the range of human possibility on display," writes Obama of his New York experience, "trying to trace out my future in the lives of the people I saw, looking for some opening through which I could re-enter." Re-enter what? This too seems more the reflection of a soon to be ex-fugitive than that of a Columbia undergrad.
On another occasion, the precociously weary and disillusioned Obama tells of an experience at Columbia in which "two Marxists" scream insults at each other over minor sectarian differences. "It was like a bad dream," thinks Obama. "The movement had died years ago, shattered into a thousand fragments." Similarly, when the young Obama pontificates about "angry young men in Soweto or Detroit or the Mekong Delta," one hears the voice of someone who remembers the sixties and who understands the political futility of the decade that followed, not a naïve twenty-year old just in from Hawaii.
In the opening pages, Obama makes an exception to his New York solitude for an elderly neighbor, a "stooped" gentleman who wore a "fedora." In Fugitive Days, it was Ayers' grandfather who was "stooped" and a helpful stranger who wore a "fedora." Obama tells the reader that the neighbor's "silence" impressed him. "Silence" impressed Ayers as well. There are at least ten references to the word in Fugitive Days.
One day, Obama's roommate finds his neighbor dead, "crumpled up on the third-floor landing, his eyes wide open, his limbs stiff and curled up like a baby's." This observation strikingly parallels a death scene in Fugitive Days, in which Ayers tells of watching his mother die, "eyes half open, curled up and panting." In both cases, the eyes are "open" and the body is "curled up."
After the neighbor's death, the police let themselves into the old man's apartment, and for no good reason Obama finds himself in the apartment. "The loneliness of the scene affected me," he writes. Loneliness as a theme courses through Fugitive Days as well. Nearly forty years after the fact, Ayers would still be haunted by "the feeling of total abandonment, of utter loneliness" he experienced in a youthful dream.
On the neighbor's mantelpiece, Obama reports seeing "the faded portrait of a woman with heavy eyebrows and a gentle smile." Obama is the rare writer to fix on eyebrows -- heavy ones, bushy ones, wispy ones. There are seven references to "eyebrows" in Dreams. There are six references to eyebrows in Fugitive Days-- bushy ones, flaring ones, arched ones, black ones.
This eyebrow-fixation is unusual to the point of fetish. In my seven books I have never described anyone's eyebrows. In the lengthy excerpts that I have gathered from a half dozen other contemporary political memoirs -- 150,000 words in total-there is no mention of "eyebrows" at all. Nor is there anyone or anything "stooped," "curled," "crumpled," "hunkered down," or wearing a "fedora."
At the climax of Dreams' opening sequence, Obama receives a phone call. It comes from his Aunt Jane. "Listen, Barry, your father is dead," she tells him. Obama has a hard time understanding. "Can you hear me?" she repeats. "I say, your father is dead." The line is cut, and the conversation ends abruptly.
The opening sequence of Fugitive Days climaxes in nearly identical fashion. This phone call comes from Bernadine Dohrn. "Diana is dead," says Dohrn. Ayers has a hard time understanding. "Diana is dead," she "repeats slowly." Ayers drops the line, and the conversation ends abruptly.
At the conclusion of Dreams' opening scene, after learning of his father's death, a stunned Obama "sat down on the couch, smelling eggs burn in the kitchen, staring at cracks in the plaster, trying to measure my loss."
This passage features Obama's signature rhetorical flourish, a highly distinctive one -- the triple parallel without a joining conjunction, often coming at the end of a sentence. There are scores of such examples throughout Dreams, perhaps hundreds:
"...the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds."
"Her face powdered, her hips girdled, her thinning hair bolstered, she would board the six-thirty bus to arrive at her downtown office before anyone else."
"...his eyes were closed, his head leaning against the back of his chair, his big wrinkled face like a carving stone."
As it happens, Ayers' signature rhetorical flourish is the triple parallel without a joining conjunction, often coming at the end of a sentence. There are scores of such examples throughout Fugitive Days, perhaps hundreds:
"He inhabited an anarchic solitude-disconnected, smart, obsessive."
"He continued, outlining a bottle, roughing in the bottom two thirds with diagonal lines, blocking out the remaining third with horizontals."
"We swarmed over and around that car, smashing windows, slashing tires, trashing lights and fenders-it seemed the only conceivable thing to do."
"...trees are shattered, doors ripped from their hinges, shorelines rearranged."
One parallel between the two memoirs intrigues above all others, and it involves a subject about which Obama is surprisingly mute, namely romance. The one and only relevant scene takes place in Chicago, a few years after Obama has left New York. He is cutting peppers in preparing dinner for himself and his half-sister, Auma, when he answers her question about the challenges of a mixed-race relationship.
"There was a woman in New York that I loved," he tells Auma. "She was white. She had dark hair, and specks of green in her eyes. Her voice sounded like a wind chime." Obama continues, "We saw each other for almost a year. On the weekends, mostly. Sometimes in her apartment, sometimes in mine. You know how you can fall into your own private world? Just two people, hidden and warm. Your own language. Your own customs. That's how it was."
This nameless young woman had grown up on a sprawling estate in the country. It was during a visit to the country home that Obama began to see the distance between "our two worlds." That distance widened irreparably back in New York when the woman questioned the response of a black audience to a play by an angry black playwright. This led to a "big fight, right in front of the theater," one that undid the relationship. "I pushed her away," Obama tells Auma regretfully.
An interracial romance should have been grist for an aspiring writer's mill, especially a writer as obsessed with racial identity as Obama. That he dedicates only a few paragraphs to this romance -- and these in a flashback -- raises questions about its authenticity, not to mention Obama's forthrightness.
I am not the only one to notice this. One careful reader of the book believes that Obama modeled his inamorata on Kay Adams, Michael Corleone's wife in The Godfather. My single best correspondent, a Midwestern contractor I refer to as "Joe the Builder," makes a much more convincing case for a more proximate source, the aforementioned Diana Oughton.
Ayers was obsessed with Oughton who died in 1970 in a Greenwich Village bomb factory blast. In Fugitive Days, he fixes on her in ways that had to discomfort the woman that he eventually married, their fellow traveler in the Weather Underground, Bernardine Dohrn.
Physically, the woman of Obama's memory with her "dark hair, and specks of green in her eyes" evokes images of Oughton. As her FBI files attest, Oughton had brown hair and green eyes. The two women shared similar family backgrounds as well. In fact, they seemed to have grown up on the very same estate.
"The house was very old, her grandfather's house," Obama writes of his girlfriend's country home. "He had inherited it from his grandfather." Writes Ayers of Oughton, "She had been to the manor born -- the oldest of four sisters, she was raised in rural Illinois, her father a kind of gentleman farmer from a previous age."
Ayers knew this manor from experience. According to a Time Magazine article written soon after her death, Oughton "brought Bill Ayers and other radicals" to the family homestead in Dwight, Illinois. There, "she would talk politics with her father, defending the revolutionary's approach to social ills." The main house on the Oughton estate, a 20-room Victorian mansion, was built by Oughton's father's grandfather. Formally known as the John R. Oughton House, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
The carriage house, in which Diana lived as a child, now serves as a public library. It may have already seemed like one when Ayers visited, an impression that finds its way into Obama's words as a library "filled with old books and pictures of the famous people [the grandfather] had known-presidents, diplomats, industrialists."
"It was autumn, beautiful, with woods all around us," Obama writes of his visit to his girlfriend's country home, "and we paddled a canoe across this round, icy lake full of small gold leaves that collected along the shore." As this aerial photo will confirm, the Oughton estate (103 South Street) has a small lake and, despite forty years of encroaching development, is still thickly ringed by trees.
"I realized that our two worlds, my friend's and mine, were as distant from each other as Kenya is from Germany," says Obama of his girlfriend. Ayers expressed similar anxieties about Oughton. "She knew other worlds and other languages and I knew nothing," he writes, "she was sophisticated and I was simple, she was untouchable."
Although Ayers had come from a family of means himself, Oughton's world intimidated him: "Diana's whole story was written on her face, etched with every advantage, accented with privilege." She awed him as she attracted him. "I adored her the moment I saw her," he writes, "but I knew she was way beyond my reach-too mature, too smart, too experienced."
In projecting Ayers' sentiments, Obama suggests more than a metaphor when he describes how he and his girlfriend fell into their "own private world . . . . Just two people, hidden and warm." Ayers and Oughton shared a literal "hidden world," one that functioned, in Ayers' words, as "a parallel universe somewhere side by side with the open world."
Again, Obama seems to be channeling Ayers when he relates how he and his friend developed their "own language," their "own customs." Writes Ayers of Oughton and others in the underground, "We spoke in a language that was meaningless babble to outsiders." He adds, "We invented words; we constructed culture."
"Between the two of us," Obama writes, "I was the one who knew how to live as an outsider." This was a sensation that the fugitive Ayers -- "nowhere a stranger but everywhere an outsider" -- was fully capable of imagining and imparting.
In Dreams, Obama worries that his world would inevitably yield to his girlfriend's. "I knew that if we stayed together," he writes, "I'd eventually live in hers." In Fugitive Days, Ayers describes how seductive the world of the Oughtons could be: "a perfect marriage, a comfortable career in banking, say, or the law, two golden children, the clubs, the country home."
Despite his obsession with Oughton, Ayers had other lovers, but then again, so did Oughton. This troubled Ayers considerably. He does not say whether this led to their parting, but he was not with her at the end. When Obama says, "I pushed her away," are we really hearing Ayers?
This split led one radical feminist in the underground, Jane Alpert, to chastise Ayers publicly "for his callous treatment and abandonment of Diana Oughton before her death." That death continues to haunt Ayers and almost assuredly found an outlet in Dreams, written six years before his own memoir.
"Whenever I think back to what my friend said to me, that night outside the theater, it somehow makes me ashamed," an unsmiling Obama tells Auma, while scraping the peppers into a pot. That shame is likely Ayers' as are the guilt, the girlfriend, the affair, the visit to the country home, the rowing in the lake, the fateful phone call, the dead body, the dog poop, and probably even the peppers.