Once in awhile, a long, complicated magazine story hits the internet like a tidal wave, suddenly pulling everyone’s attention in the same direction, at least for a day or two, and spawning a thousand conversations and debates. This week, that story is “My Family’s Slave,” which appeared in The Atlantic.
The story, by the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Alex Tizon, who died unexpectedly the same day The Atlantic’s editors decided his article would be this month’s cover story (he never found out), is an absolute must-read that resists easy summary. In short, it tells the story of how Tizon grew up with, as the headline suggests, a slave: a woman named Eudocia Tomas Pulido who went by “Lola” and who was forced to dedicate her entire life to helping Tizon’s family, not just in a domestic-servant sense but also through all sorts of emotional labor ranging from raising Tizon and his siblings while their mother worked to mediating family fights. When the family moved to the United States early in Tizon’s life, they convinced Lola to come with them
Lola was forced to come with them. She was a perpetual presence in the household and, to Tizon and his siblings, a true maternal figure — especially before they fully understood the nature of her relationship to the family. American friends were told she was sort of an aunt. (Correction: A Twitter correspondent pointed out that Lola wasn’t forced to come with Tizon’s family – rather, Tizon’s father convinced her to come along by promising her an “allowance” which would allow her to “send money [back] to her parents, to all her relations in [her] village.” That money simply never materialized.)
It took Tizon a while to realize his family had a slave, and he then spent the rest of his life grappling with what that meant about him and his parents, who, in his telling, were extremely emotionally (and in an least one instance physically) abusive. One gets the sense that by the time he died in March at just 57 years old, he hadn’t come close to truly figuring any of this out — it’s not the kind of thing that can be figured out. Rather, the article simply explains, in a detailed, intimate way, what it was like growing up with Lola and then attempting to assert some adult responsibility for her well-being. Some people have read the article as an attempt on Tizon’s part to assuage his own guilt, but I didn’t read it that way — I thought the piece was veined with guilt, starting with Tizon’s blunt second-paragraph admission that “No other word but slave encompassed the life [Lola] lived.” As in, Don’t get it twisted: Whatever else you read here, whatever other nuances I introduce, this woman was a slave because of my family and never had the chance to be anything else. (You should really just read the story if you haven’t; no summary will capture its texture or fully explain the subsequent cacophony surrounding it.)
Complicating matters is the fact that by the later years of Lola’s life, there wasn’t — at least in Tizon’s telling — much daylight between Lola’s personal identity and her identity as property of Tizon’s (by that point deceased) parents. She also felt, and in some senses was treated as, a genuine member of the family. Again, at least in Tizon’s telling — Lola isn’t around to tell her own story. Slaves rarely are.
That last bit should make you uncomfortable, of course. It’s weird and very fraught — especially in light of some of the slave narratives white slavery apologists have written in the United States — to say that someone who started out as a slave became a “true” member of the family that owned them. But at the same time, it’s hard not to read the story and come away feeling that Tizon really did see her as a mother figure, and really did care about her. This and a thousand other details are what make Tizon’s story such a gripping and infuriating and confounding read. I can’t stop thinking about it, and judging from the online reaction, neither can a lot of people. The ensuing conversation has been fascinating, ranging from some of the aforementioned questions about whether Tizon comes uncomfortably close to the apologetic slave narratives of the past, to Filipinos discussing the ongoing prevalence of this system of slavery to this day.
One category of response, though, seems to have picked up a bunch of steam online — that the story is simply bad because it “normalizes” or “apologizes for” slavery. It’s probably best expressed by the journalist Josh Shahryar:
(Shahryar also notes that the Fairview Training Center, one of the facilities where Tizon’s mother, a physician, worked, had a reputation as a fairly monstrous place that engaged in various sorts of abuses against its developmentally disabled clientele. I don’t want to ignore that, and Tizon should have at least mentioned it in his article when he was partially singing his mother’s praises, but it doesn’t really bear on the rest of this argument.)
I’m not meaning to single out Shahryar here — based on the online discussion about Tizon’s piece, plenty of other people seem to be convinced that the piece crossed some inexcusable line. And this isn’t a new sort of argument. In fact, it’s a common reaction just about any time a journalistic account of evil people or evil acts includes nuance and texture. Back in 2013, for example, some people were furious at Rolling Stone for running a cover image of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in which the Boston Marathon bomber looked like… well, a normal kid. A handsome one, even. Some of the critics accused Rolling Stone of giving him the “rock star” treatment.
This “you’re normalizing evil!” critique didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t make sense now. It’s good to normalize evil, in the sense of showing how otherwise “normal” people and institutions can perpetrate evil acts, and every attempt should be made to do so. That’s how you prevent more evil from happening in the future.
One of the key themes of Tizons’ article is that his family was, in many senses, almost a caricature of the striving, American-dream-seeking immigrant experience. They were normal. They were normal and yet they had a slave. To which one could respond, “Well, no, they’re not normal — they are deranged psychopaths to have managed to simply live for decades and decades with a slave under their roof. That is not something normal people do, and it’s wrong to portray it as such.”
But the entire brutal weight of human history contradicts this view. Normal people — people who otherwise have no signs of derangement or a lack of a grip on basic human moral principles — do evil stuff all the time. One could write millions of pages detailing all the times when evil acts were perpetrated, abetted, or not resisted by people who were, in every other respect, perfectly normal. It’s safe to say, to a certain approximation, that all of us — I really mean this; I really mean you and your family and everyone you love — could, in a different historical context, have been a slaver or a Holocaust-perpetrator or at the very least decided it wasn’t worth the trouble to contest these grotesque crimes. Because that’s the human condition: We don’t have easy access to a zoomed-out view of morality and empathy. We do what the people around us are doing, what our culture is doing. Tizon’s Filipino family came from a place where a form of slavery was quite common, and moving to America didn’t change that fact.
Lines like There’s nothing to explain here — they’re just evil aren’t just inaccurate — they’re also arguably dangerous. If the long-term goal is to understand past evil and prevent future evil, it’s entirely counterproductive to claim that attempts to understand the inner workings of evil normalize or excuse it. What’s the alternative? Should the totality of our engagement with a story like Tizon’s be to shake our fists at the moral outrage? Where does that get us? Why can’t we recognize that what happened was evil and try to understand the complicated social and cultural dynamics — the justifications and rationalizations and self-delusion — that led to it in the first place? Pointing out that cancer is a really, really deadly disease doesn’t get you any closer to curing it: studying the ways in which cell division can run rampant does.
It’s hard to resist the impulse to turn our back on a story like Tizon’s, to slag it as an attempt to overexplain evil, because that impulse is driven by some truly deep and primal psychological drives. Humans always have and always will attempt to separate themselves from the evil and the impure and the harmful through the use of big, imposing cultural and religious and sociological barriers. That’s why so many cultures have ostentatious rituals in which bad people aren’t just punished or prevented from harming others, but rendered less than human: This isn’t who we are; we can’t let this infect us, the pure.
But none of us is pure. With the exception of some moral superhero outliers, just about every one of us could be subtly conditioned into perpetrating or excusing evil, and many of us are, at this very moment, in ways we might not yet recognize. Tizon’s story is wonderful in part because it reminds us how morally frail we are.