Tuesday, July 07, 2015


Today's David Brooks column is about Clemantine Wamariya, a 27-year-old Rwandan -- Brooks calls her "my friend." As a small child, she survived the genocide in her country, along with her older sister, Claire. The two sisters now live in America.

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.

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.
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.

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.

Brooks writes:
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 Medium (which he inexplicably calls "Matter") Matter:
... 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.

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?”
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:
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.

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.
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?

I have no words. Brooks really is awful.


UPDATE: Also appalled: Yastreblyansky, Driftglass, and Charlie Pierce.


Minus Spé said...

Yeah, ordinarily I'd be happy for him to perish in a fiery plane crash, but after today's piece I feel that would be neither painful enough nor drawn-out enough.

For what it's worth, Matter seems to be an organ of Medium.

Steve M. said...

Thanks -- my error re Matter.

Victor said...

"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."

Yeah, Bobo.
IF there's any family left.
If not, you need to use the past-tense:
"..is how loved ones GOT along with one another."
What an epic douche-canoe!

He needs to be tarred-and-feathered and have his fat ass hauled out of the Op-ed area.

He should interview my Mom, whose family survived the Battle of Stalingrad before finally leaving with the Nazi's.
They spent 50 days with nothing, in a shell-hole.
When it rained, my grandmother strained bits of human flesh through her head-scarf (babushka - also the word for grandmother), and ate whatever looked edible but wasn't poisonous.

There are veterans families whose military members when through some horrible things.
Bobo's family?

Tom Hilton said...

Brooks knows suffering. Brooks knows struggle. There was that time the salad bar at Applebee's was closed.

aimai said...

Thanks for posting the link to her article. It was one of the most amazing, horrifying, things I've ever read outside of post holocaust literature. There is no excusing Brooks.

petrilli said...

A light kind of went on for me reading this, thinking, "here is an exemplar of the limits of a closed, conservative thought process." A modern flexible mind could share (and accept) Clementine and Claire's story by just letting their experience unfold on its own tragic terms with no artifice as Brooks ladles on. At least that would be the decent way to approach the subject. I imagine struggle for survival isn't an arc at all either in real time or in recollecting it. The women's post traumatic stress also seems to be an inconvenient thread for Brookes to weave.

I also cringe whenever anyone starts using "we" in their narrative. If you're in the same room as such a person, put your hand on your wallet.

Minus Spé said...

Victor, for what it's worth, if you read her original you find out that, in this case, if I'm understanding correctly, her entire immediate family survived, so the present tense isn't inappropriate.

Just everything else about the piece.

Unknown said...

Nobody'd give a shit for what Bobo says or writes if he wasn't on PBS News every Friday and up on the NYT op-ed page twice a week. He used to be on the war mongering WEEKLY STANDARD! And PBS often uses as his back-up the bigot-ibn-chief at the National Review, with no discernible loss of purity.

Belvoir said...

I think Brooks is having some sort of slow-mo breakdown. He's gone strange and mental. What right does he have to appropriate stories of survivors of the Rwandan genocide to apply to his boring whitebread middle-class life again? How in the f-cking world does that apply? And, WHAT is his point, exactly?

He seems like a really damaged sad man at this point, but I feel sorry for him not in the least.

cityspiders said...

I keep thinking that Brooks can't possibly become less human, but every week he becomes ever more alien. If he represents the very wealthy that he would dearly love to be a remora on, at least as he sees them, then Fitzgerald was an optimist. To quote the estimable Muldoon, they should all be destroyed.