“a narcissist in altruist’s clothing”: ’60s radicalism revisited in zoë heller’s the believers

“She fucked up a bank robbery, she made a couple of dud bombs, and she didn’t use deodorant for ten years. For this she thinks she can lord it over me like she’s fucking Aleksandra Kollontay?”

Zöe Heller’s The Belivers tells the story of the Litvinoffs, a prominent socialist New York Jewish family. When when husband and father Joel, a famous radical lawyer, falls into a coma, his wife Audrey and their adult children Rosa, Karla and Lenny are forced to confront the families hidden secrets.  Here Audrey takes adopted Lenny for one of his periodic visits to his birth mother, who’s been imprisoned for over two decades for a Weatherman-style bombing…

The gates werestill closed when Audrey and Lenny arrived at the correctional facility. After Lenny had stuffed the contents of his pockets into the car door, they joined the visitors who were milling around outside the bunkerlike building. At the bottom of the driveway, a bus drew up, and a group of passengers, mostly women and children, got off. A little boy had just thrown up and his grandmother—a weary-looking woman in hot-pink stretch pants—was wiping his face roughly with a paper towel. “Be still!” she shouted at him as he squirmed. “You want to smell bad when you see your mommy?”


Audrey glanced at Lenny. As a boy, he had always been carsick on the journey to Bedford. At least once and often twice on every trip, she would have to pull into a rest stop, swab him down, and change him into a new set of clothes. He had never been sick on other car journeys; it was the stress of visiting his mother that had made him puke. Later on, in the visiting room, he would crouch in his chair, smelling of bile, asking Susan to explain, one more time, how she had got caught, what crucial planning error had led to her capture. When the bell sounded at the end of the hour, he would cling to her, sobbing for her to come home with him. “Why don’t you escape?” he had asked once. “You could climb out a window. If you ran fast enough, they wouldn’t be able to catch you.”


Audrey had found these visits almost unbearably wounding. It had enraged her that Susan should enjoy the privilege of Lenny’s devotion when it was she, Audrey, who was down in the maternal salt mines, reading him stories and singing him lullabies and cleaning up his vomit. What had Susan ever done for the boy, except abandon him to inadequate childcare while she buggered off to play urban guerrillas?


The gates were open now, and the line had begun to shuffle into the visitors’ processing area. There was a window with a counter where you could drop off food and clothes for the prisoners. A handwritten sign stuck on the glass instructed, NO THONG, FISHNET, G-STRING, OR BIKINI PANTIES. NO LACE OR SHEER BRAS. Audrey and Lenny passed through the metal detectors and walked down a corridor into a large cafeteria-like room with vending machines along one wall. Susan was sitting at one of the tables. Her face broke into a wide smile when she saw them enter. “Hey,” she said softly, elongating the syllable. She stood up and wrapped Lenny in a tight embrace, rocking him back and forth for several long seconds. Lenny, Audrey was pleased to note, looked highly mortified.


They sat down now, with Susan on one side of the table and Lenny and Audrey on the other. “It’s good to see you, man,” Susan said, taking Lenny’s hand and gazing solemnly into his eyes. During her days in the Underground, Susan had been a notoriously intimidating figure. She had worn men’s overalls and styled her hair in a fearsome Plantagenet bob. She had carried a knife “for killing pigs” in the sole of her shoe. Shortly after the arrest of Charles Manson and his followers, she had composed an infamous Cong communiqué, praising Manson as “a brother in the struggle against bourgeois America.” But incarceration, or age—or both—had had an emollient effect on her. Her hair was long and white now, and she wore it loose about her shoulders in the prophetess style favored by veteran women folksingers. The pig-killing rhetoric of yore had long since subsided into a dreamy singsong of healing and conciliation. Over the years at Bedford, she had founded several educational programs for her fellow inmates, including one on AIDS awareness and another—much to Audrey’s secret derision—on “parenting skills.” Her literacy program, in which inmates were encouraged to write and perform plays about their lives, was so well regarded that pilot programs based on her blueprint had now been set up in several prisons around the country.

“So, what’s up, man?” she asked. “What’s going on with your band, Lenny? You been playing recently?”

Lenny shook his head. “Not much.”

“Hey, Lenny, man, don’t neglect your music.”

Audrey turned away to hide her smile. Lenny’s band wasn’t really a band: it was a couple of stoner guys with guitars who got together once a month or so to ad-lib tuneless, ironic songs on miniature domestic themes. Their signature number—their anthem, more or less—was a mock-heroic tribute to the drummer’s cat:


You eat tuna and Cap’n Crunch.

You got a face like Alice in the Brady Bunch.


Susan was always trying, in her earnest way, to lend Lenny’s halfhearted pursuits a serious, progressive inflection. If Lenny got a job in a restaurant, he was “getting into food”—which was great, because it was such a special thing to nourish people. If Lenny took a free trip to Morocco with one of his rich, druggy friends, he was “exploring Arab culture”—which was fantastic, because it was so important for young people to fight American parochialism and bigotry. Audrey treasured these misreadings as proof of Susan’s inanity.


“So what else you been up to?” Susan asked now. “What’s going on in the world?”


“Well, a bunch of things have happened with Joel,” Lenny said. “But Audrey should really tell you about all that.” (Out of respect for Susan’s feelings, he did not refer to Joel and Audrey as Mom and Dad in her presence.)


Susan turned to Audrey. “Audrey, how’s it going?”


Audrey looked at her sourly. She never felt quite respected by Susan. There was a labored politeness in the way that Susan spoke to her—an awkward condescension—that seemed to imply some difficulty in relating to a woman of Audrey’s thoroughgoing conventionality. You are a very straight housewife, her tone said, and I am a fearless renegade, but I am doing my best to find a connection here. It drove Audrey nuts. “The cheek of that woman!” she had often complained to Joel. “She fucked up a bank robbery, she made a couple of dud bombs, and she didn’t use deodorant for ten years. For this she thinks she can lord it over me like she’s fucking Aleksandra Kollontay?”


“Joel’s not doing badly,” she said now. “He’s had a couple of infections, but he’s come through them very well—”


“Yeah, Joel’s a tough old fucker,” Susan remarked.


Audrey flared her nostrils, like a rocking horse. Speaking irreverently of Joel was a right she reserved for herself and very few others—certainly not for Susan. Besides which, she had not yet finished her account of Joel’s medical status.


“And how about you, Audrey?” Susan asked. “You keeping strong?”


“Yup.” Audrey thrust her hands in her pockets as a preventive measure against Susan trying to hold one of them. “We’re all doing fine, aren’t we, Len?”


Susan smiled at Lenny. “Is that right? You doing okay?”


Lenny nodded.


There was a brief pause. Susan looked around the canteen. “I got a letter from Cheryl this week,” she said. Cheryl was a young Puerto Rican inmate with whom Susan had become romantically involved some years earlier. She had been released now and was back living with her boyfriend, but she and Susan continued to correspond. Susan wrote her a lot of love poems, some of which she had been known to read aloud to Lenny.


“She’s training to be an AIDS counselor,” Susan went on. “I’m so proud of her.”

Audrey shut her eyes. The woman was shameless, she thought. Having dealt with Joel in three sentences, she was now going to revert to discussing herself and her sordid lesbian romance. Joel used to say it was unfair to criticize long-term inmates for being self-absorbed. It was inevitable, he claimed, that the outside world should become abstract and somewhat unreal to them. But Audrey disagreed: Susan had always been a narcissist in altruist’s clothing.



“my mother explained the ’60s & ’70s to me by giving me her worn copies of Joan Didion’s essays”

It was 13 degrees outside. The winter light was piercing on the western side of Park Avenue. I had on two sweaters under my wool coat, a pair of leggings under my jeans, and winter boots with fur trim up to my knees. An ill-fitting knit hat scratched at my forehead and my sunglasses sat cold on my nose. I had just stepped out of an office where a doctor had told me about my inverted cervical spine, the herniated disc in my thoracic spine, and the pain I would need to accept.

At a previous appointment, another doctor had pressed on my back and said, “You know the old ladies you see up here on the East side that are all stooped over? This is the beginning of that.” I had always imagined that it was the weight of decades of city living that had made those women curve in on themselves. When I thought about it this way it did not seem inconceivable that at the age of 23, and after three years of living here, my own spine would begin to buckle. For four months I had visited this office three times a week for physical therapy with no improvement. The doctor suggested six additional months of the same. He and I both knew that I would not be coming back.

The sidewalk was nearly deserted as I started walking north. There was only one other figure in sight: a small woman with striking white hair, very pale skin, and large dark eyes. She had a cane and was picking her way slowly across 57th Street in my direction. Her tiny frame was draped in a thin coat more suited to 60 degrees than 13. She wore white slipper shoes, thin white chinos, and her ankles were bare to the icy wind.

My first thought was of the doctor’s words, “this is the beginning of that,” but this woman’s spine was straight. This was a woman I had never met, but thought of everyday. Between doctor’s appointments, I had been reading and re-reading my way through her work. This was Joan Didion. I recognized her immediately. She was looking at my boots and then she peered up at my face as we crossed paths. Startled perhaps by my look of recognition, she quickly looked down at her feet and kept walking. I stood there and watched her go.

When I was a teenager my mother explained the ‘60s and ‘70s to me by giving me her worn copies of Joan Didion’s collected essays. Haight-Ashbury was Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Howard Hughes was “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38.” I knew “John Wayne: a Love Song” before I had any idea who John Wayne was. My mother read these titles off to me with a deep reverence and it sounded like a different language. This was before I knew writers to have distinct styles. I would not understand the full meaning of many of the cultural references in Didion’s work until later re-readings in college, but I learned to associate the eras of my parents’ youth with the severe rhythm of a Didion sentence. I did not see Didion’s style as belonging to Didion; I saw it simply as the way sentences were written before I was born. I thought it was as much an indication of time passing as the yellow of the pages. My mother was captivated by Didion’s California and it became the California of my imagination. I would read “Los Angeles Notebook” and get the words mixed up with my mother’s voice.

But my mother’s personal geography never included New York. When I was run down and sought to think of New York City as a force responsible for the bend in my spine, it was Joan Didion’s words that I wanted to hear.

At a dinner party that same night, in an apartment overlooking the Natural History Museum, I tried to relay my afternoon encounter to the group—all writers of varying ages. It was the younger writers who could most appreciate the excitement of the sighting—the ones who still read “Goodbye to All That” repeatedly, who were still unsure of New York City themselves. We had all worked together over the past few months and Didion’s work had been a frequent point of conversation. What did I think of the cane, they wanted to know. Was it temporary? Did she look sad? Why was she dressed so strangely? Our hostess, a contemporary of Didion’s, begged us to change the subject. She hadn’t been able to get through The Year of Magical Thinking, which she thought portrayed an idealized version of Didion and John Dunne’s marriage. There were friends of friends in common, she had heard some stories. The professor among us, a successful essayist in his own right, told me that he would never see her on a pedestal. She was, to him, just another successful writer who had done some very good early work. He could not read the words, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” or “In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature,” and find in them messages on how a life can be lived.

“You should have offered her your boots,” one friend said. “She was cold.”

—from V. L. Hartmann, "Joan Didion Crosses the Street." The Morning News, November 18, 2009.

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“holed up in the library with a bottle of wine and read books”—james ellroy’s road to writing

ellroy.jpg image by tomasutpen

Portrait of the artist as a young dipshit.


Is that when you started writing—after your father died?


The first thing I did after he died was snag his last three Social Security checks, forge his signature, and cash them at a liquor store. From ’65 to ’75, I drank and used drugs. I fantasized. I swallowed amphetamine inhalers. I masturbated compulsively. I got into fights. I boxed—though I was terrible at it—and I broke into houses. I’d steal girls’ panties, I’d jack off, grab cash out of wallets and purses. The method was easy: you call a house and if nobody answers, that means nobody’s home. I’d stick my long, skinny arms in a pet access door and flip the latch, or find a window that was loose and raise it open. Everybody has pills and alcohol. I’d pop a Seconal, drink four fingers of Scotch, eat some cheese out of the fridge, steal a ten-dollar bill, then leave a window ajar and skedaddle. I did time in county jail for useless misdemeanors. I was arrested once for burglary, but it got popped down to misdemeanor trespassing.

The press thinks that I’m a larger-than-life guy. Yes, that’s true. But a lot of the shit written about me discusses this part of my life disproportionately.


Aren’t you responsible for this? You’ve written a lot about this period, and you frequently talk about it in interviews.


I’ve told many journalists that I’ve done time in county jail, that I’ve broken and entered, that I was a voyeur. But I also told them that I spent much more time reading than I ever did stealing and peeping. They never mention that. It’s a lot sexier to write about my mother, her death, my wild youth, and my jail time than it is to say that Ellroy holed up in the library with a bottle of wine and read books.


Still, writing couldn’t have been exactly in the forefront of your mind at the time.


But it was. I was always thinking about how I would become a great novelist. I just didn’t think that I would write crime novels. I thought that I would be a literary writer, whose creative duty is to describe the world as it is. The problem is that I never enjoyed books like that. I only enjoyed crime stories. So more than anything, this fascination with writing was an issue of identity. I had a fantasy of what it meant to be a writer: the sports cars, the clothes, the women.

But I think what appealed to me most about it was that I could assume the identity of what I really loved to do, which was to read. Nobody told me I couldn’t write a novel. I didn’t live in the world of graduate writing schools. I wasn’t part of any scene or creative community. I happened to love crime novels more than anything, so I wrote a crime novel first. I didn’t buy the old canard that you had to start by writing short stories, and only later write a novel. I never liked reading short stories, so why the fuck should I want to write one? I only wanted to write novels.

—from “James Ellroy, The Art of Fiction No. 201.” Interviewed by Nathaniel Rich. The Paris Review. Issue 190, Fall 2009