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Anonymous Letters

In celebration of Halloween, a completely true story:

My name was handwritten on the envelope: “Ms. C. Bergman.” A New York postmark, no return address, no note. Inside, tear sheets from JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association, a review of a new biography of the manic-depressive poet, Robert Lowell. It was interesting in many ways, most particularly in its assertion that to medicate mentally ill artists risks interfering with their creative process. But why had the sender underlined the words “mutely alone,” or bracketed the sentence, “The reigning assumption is that depression and anxiety are meaningless?" And why send it to me anonymously? Was one of my former students in trouble? A friend? Someone asking for help? Or was it meant to disturb my sense of well-being?

It wasn’t the first time I had received an anonymous letter, or been threatened, or denounced, or stalked. Years ago, in London, I’d written an investigative article for the educational supplement of The Times and received a threatening post card from the National Front. The—unknown someone—wanted me to go back where I came from. And I am not sure they meant the United States of America. Hell maybe? The police considered the message a form of “gentle” terrorism, if that isn’t an oxymoron. Most disconcerting: whoever had penned that sweet note knew my address. So, too, the person who sent me the most recent anonymous message.

Weeks have passed since I received the JAMA article and I have still not thrown it out, nor have I shown it to the police. Dear Anonymous Reader, it’s Halloween, the game of Hide and Seek is over. Come out, come out wherever you are! Patiently, I await a phone call, an email, a broomstick delivery by the Wicked Witch, or a middle-of-the night epiphany that will reveal you/the sender to me. Someone who might say, “Oh, I thought you’d be interested. Sorry if I spooked you in any way.”  Read More 
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John le Carré @ 85

My mother adored his books and gave them as gifts to everyone. The only one I had ever read was “The Constant Gardener,” because it was about a relief worker and le Carré had written a foreword to my book, “Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories.” That book, thanks to him, is still in print in the English-speaking world. His offer to write the foreword , well, dear reader, that was an offer I could not refuse.

I had been invited to the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva for “war games,” and was picked up at the airport by the PR who had arranged my visit, a Brit.

“How is your French?,” he asked.
“Pas mal,” I answered, perhaps too boldly.

He would be introducing me to the assembled in French, which is still the diplomatic lingua franca. I let that daunting thought slip as he continued his questioning about the book, which was nearly complete. Had we commissioned a foreword? Not yet. “How about le Carré?,” he asked. “He’s deeply involved in humanitarian initiatives. He’s high profile. He’ll sell your book.”

“But can you arrange it?”
“I know his agent.”

I was on un nuage, a cloud. This wonderful news dampened, somewhat, the disturbing effects of the war games. I studied the Geneva Conventions—in French and English—and rode in a jeep into a bombed out city, casualties and corpses everywhere. It was difficult to sleep. I’d brought melatonin, useful beyond the jet lag. I returned to New York and called my publisher: “I’m going to write to le Carré’s agent.”

“Good luck,” he said.
I wondered if he believed me. I wondered if I believed me.

Dear reader, it took about five minutes for le Carré to agree to write the foreword to my book. The manuscript arrived before deadline, pristine, not a comma out of place. I had hoped to meet him to thank him personally, but he sent his agent to the launch in London, which was enough. His presence might have upstaged the relief workers who were present, I thought to myself. And I knew he would never have wanted to do that.

Years have passed and there are more refugees than ever before wandering the world in search of shelter. And more relief workers in grave danger. The Red Cross sign and the UN and NGO logos are no guarantee of safe passage any more.

And where is le Carré ? When he is not researching a new book, he lives quietly on the Cornish coast with his wife. His children are grown. He has written his memoir, “The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life,” and finally agreed to an interview on 60 minutes. Shy, retiring, modest, a disciplined writer dedicated to illuminating in his fictions the unending hypocrisies and tragedies of governments. He cannot and will not stop, he has said.

And so I have started reading more of le Carré and, finally, appreciate him as a storyteller as well as a humanitarian. This week—because I found it on a giveaway shelf in my neighborhood—“The Russia House.” An epigraph from Dwight D. Eisenhower begins the book:

“Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of their way and let them have it.”

Two pages in and I was riveted.  Read More 
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Ai Weiwei; Ode to Freedom

Ai Weiwei, who lived in New York in the 80’s and 90’s, is back in a city he loves creating art. It’s a small miracle. Last I heard, his passport had been confiscated, he’d been in jail for 81 days without charge and emerged with a brain hemorrhage requiring surgery, his studio in Shanghai was shuttered, one of his assistants was still missing, and he’d been charged with alleged “tax evasion.”

Is an artist or a writer, by definition, a dissident in a still despotic China? It depends on the artist or the writer. Tow the line, if you can figure out what that line is, and you’ll be okay. Ai is bold, he would not be silenced. He wrote a blog and when that was shut down, he went on to Twitter. A 2000 exhibition in Shanghai was called the “Fuck Off Art Exhibition.”

At times Ai reminds me of a punk Michael Moore—part prankster, part provocateur, part performance artist. I will never forget a scene in “Never Sorry,” Alison Klayman’s 2012 documentary about him. In the midst of a “citizens' investigation” of the earthquake in Yunnan Province in which thousands of children died in poorly constructed “tofu-dreg” school buildings (government corruption revealed), Ai sat down to dinner in the local village. The police were all around standing at attention, surveying, reporting, intimidating. Ai began to talk with them directly and invited them to share his meal. I was smitten; irreverence is powerful, especially when it is knowledgeable irreverence. Ai in the film: “We will seek out the names of each departed child, and we will remember them.”

Once upon a time, Ai was in favor. Trained as an architect, he worked on the Beijing National Stadium. But having grown up in labor camps during the Cultural Revolution with his out- of- favor father, Ai Qing, a famous poet, he also knew the travails of dis-favor and exile. And might have been expecting the same for himself, or worse.

It is unclear why Ai’s passport was returned in 2015. He is now based in Berlin and traveling everywhere to mount exhibitions. He can walk his small son to school every morning and return home to a peaceful, undisturbed working day. He can create art without censorship. China’s loss, the world’s gain.

Now Ai is in New York at the invitation of the Public Art Fund creating installations throughout the city in celebration of the 65 million refugees wandering the world, or living in tents, or trying to breach the walls of sovereign nations that don’t want them to enter, including our own. As a refugee who has himself found refuge, Ai is giving back with this exhibition and a companion film called “Human Flow.” He traveled—freely—to more than twelve countries to get the story.  Read More 
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