What Clemantine and Claire endured, as Brooks tells it, was horrific:
To escape the mass murder, Clemantine and her older sister, Claire, were moved from house to house. One night they were told to crawl through a sweet potato field and then walk away -- not toward anything, just away.Brooks seems to understand how extraordinary their suffering was -- but he's David Brooks, and he just can't help turning every story he tells into a cozy little homily suitable for his comfortable, cosseted readership. Today's column is worse than most, because he acknowledges precisely this trap, then falls into it anyway.
They crossed the Akanyaru River (Clemantine thought the dead bodies floating in it were just sleeping) and into Burundi. Living off fruit, all her toenails fell out. She spent the rest of her young girlhood in refugee camps in eight African nations.
Claire kept them on the move, in search of a normal life. Clemantine wrote her name in the dust at various stops, praying somehow a family member would see it. One day, they barely survived a six-hour boat ride across Lake Tanganyika fleeing into Tanzania. Their struggles in the camps, for water and much else, were almost perfectly designed to give a sense that life is arbitrary.
Claire gets work in America. Clemantine, in high school, wins an essay contest, and the two sisters appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Winfrey surprises them by reuniting them with their parents, brother, and sister.
Clemantine’s story, as I knew it then, has a comforting arc: separation, perseverance, reunion and joy. It’s the kind of clean, inspiring story that many of us tell, in less dramatic form, about our own lives -- with clearly marked moments of struggle and overcoming.My thought when I read this was: What kind of upmarket narcissist do you have to be to even imagine a link between this story and your own? Yes, we all suffer at times. Some suffer a lot. But I know that nothing I've experienced compares to what a six-year-old refugee from genocide would have experienced. I don't think this is the sort of "story that many of us tell" -- at least not many of us in the Times audience. It's far worse.
Brooks at least understands one thing, or seems to: that Clemantine's story isn't "clean" and doesn't have a simple, "comforting arc." He grasps this because of an essay Clemantine has written for
... the reality is not so neat. For one thing, Clemantine never really reconciled with her family. After the “Oprah” taping they returned to Claire’s apartment. “My father kept smiling, like someone he mistrusted was taking pictures of him. Claire remained catatonic; I thought she’d finally gone crazy, for real. I sat on Claire’s couch, looking at my strange new siblings, the ones that had replaced me and Claire. I fell asleep crying.” The rest of the family flew back home to Africa the following Monday.So does Brooks, who loves to tie things up with neat little bows, now realize that he can't tie a bow around Clemantine's story? He does seem to have grasped that he shouldn't do that in this case -- but then he ties up her story with a new bow, and turns it right back into a metaphor for his comfortable readers' own lives:
At every stop along the way, the pat narrative of Clemantine’s life is complexified by the gritty, mottled nature of human relationships. The refugee worker who married Claire and fathered her children turned out to be more a burden than a savior. The sisters’ psyches were not unscathed. “Claire made a hard, subconscious calculus: She could survive, and maybe enable me to survive, too, but only if she cast off emotional responsibility, only if she refused to take on how anything or anybody felt.”
Clemantine struggled to reconcile her old life with this one. A teacher she had at the Hotchkiss School gave a class a thought experiment: You’re a ferry captain on a sinking boat. Do you toss overboard the old passenger or the young one? Clemantine lost it: “Do you want to know what that’s really like? This is an abstract question to you?”
At Yale, she couldn’t understand her own behavior. “Why did I drink only tea, never cold water? Why did I cringe when the sun turned red?”
Clemantine is now an amazing young woman. Her superb and artful essay reminded me that while the genocide was horrific, the constant mystery of life is how loved ones get along with one another.That's what Brooks derives from this story? That if I'm a comfortable middle-class American and I'm impatient with my mother, it's really pretty much the same as what takes place between a refugee from slaughter and the parents she didn't see from ages six to eighteen? That happy and unhappy families are all alike? That (to paraphrase one of his op-ed colleagues) the emotional world is flat?
We work hard to cram our lives into legible narratives. But we live in the fog of reality. Whether you have survived a trauma or not, the psyche is still a dark forest of scars and tender spots. Each relationship is intricacy piled upon intricacy, fertile ground for misunderstanding and mistreatment.
I have no words. Brooks really is awful.
UPDATE: Also appalled: Yastreblyansky, Driftglass, and Charlie Pierce.