Conversation — October 24, 2013, 8:00 am

Darling: A Conversation with Richard Rodriguez

Richard Rodriguez on the essay as biography of an idea, the relationship between gay men’s liberation and women’s liberation, and the writerly impulse to give away secrets

Richard Rodriguez © Timothy Archibald

Richard Rodriguez © Timothy Archibald

Richard Rodriguez is one of Harper’s Magazine’s best-loved essayists. (Readers unfamiliar with his work might start with “Late Victorians,” still as poignant as when it was first published in our October 1990 issue, and then read everything else.) Born in San Francisco to Mexican immigrant parents, he spoke almost no English until he attended a Catholic school at the age of six, when he was introduced to what he calls the “public language of los gringos.” As a Ph.D. candidate in English Renaissance literature at the University of California, Berkeley, Rodriguez renounced academia, angered by the culture of affirmative action and wary of benefiting from his status as a “minority student” — a dilemma he discusses in his first book, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, which was published in 1982. His next works, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (1992) and Brown: The Last Discovery of America (2002) similarly combined personal experience and social commentary, which is to say nothing of their poetry and charm. Rodriguez’s latest book, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, was inspired by his bewilderment following the 9/11 attacks. It is an essay collection that ostensibly explores the Abrahamic “desert” religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but that also draws us, in Rodriguez’s characteristically associative style, into his own history and in particular his relationship with women. (An excerpt is available here.) When I spoke with him, he was sitting in the San Francisco apartment where he has lived and worked for the past thirty years — “happy,” he said, “as the spring.”

RR: Have we started?

ES: The interview? I think so, yes.

RR: I remember once watching Rose Kennedy, the president’s mother, on television. She did an entire interview and then asked, “Well, when do we start?” And the interviewer said, “We just finished.”

ES: She probably gave a great interview because she didn’t know she was “on.”

RR: That’s right. She was a bit dizzy, but true, and quite charming for being so unpretentious. One could imagine happily sitting next to her at an otherwise tedious dinner party.

ES: Tell me — how much do you know about an essay before you start writing?

RR: Well, sometimes I use my inexperience or lack of knowledge as the drama of the essay. The essay becomes a kind of biography of an idea — how it reveals itself and comes to a fullness. The essay can begin with inexperience, and as it teaches the reader, so also it teaches the writer. There’s something very exciting about that kind of progress.

Other times I write an essay because I am struck by something. I remember, after September 11, I was struck by the notion that the monotheistic religions of Abraham are desert religions. That is what the terrorists taught me, as they prayed to Allah. They had come to New York and to Washington from desert countries to bring havoc to our lives. Slowly, it occurred to me that the God of the Muslims, who is also the God of the Jews and the God of the Christians, is a desert God.

As a Roman Catholic, I suppose I had long traced my religion to Europe. After September 11, what I realized was that the God I worship had disclosed Himself to Abraham within an ecology of desolation. You know, the non-believer smirks and says, “You foolishly pray in such a place — there is nothing there.” But the believer faces a different question: “Why would God reveal Himself within such a desolate ecology?” That’s the idea that came to me driving down a freeway in California, and the essay followed.

Another way an essay comes into being is when one is tricked by the essay’s complexity. I suppose I began writing Darling expecting that my homosexuality would play against the orthodoxies of the desert religions. But as I wrote, I surprised myself by becoming more interested in women and the desert religions and my relationship as a homosexual man to heterosexual women.

I dedicate my book to the order of nuns that educated me, the Sisters of Mercy. Running schools and hospitals and orphanages in my youth, they were the first feminists I knew — though they would probably have shied from that term. By whatever term you want, they were able to move in the public world precisely because they didn’t belong to the conventional public world. They were dressed like Muslim women in black robes. Their robes were their freedom in a world of men.

As the idea expanded, I began to appraise my adult friendships with women — and in particular with a particular woman I call “Darling.” All I want to say now is that this was not a relationship I had expected would end up in my book, and at the very center of my book.

ES: The relationship between women and gay men has come up quite a bit recently in relation to the Church.

RR: Yes — like a number of my friends, I was relieved to read the interview in America Magazine where Pope Francis admitted that maybe the Church has been overly preoccupied with gay marriage and abortion. Though he didn’t venture from orthodoxy in either case, he did make clear that there is more to Christianity than these two issues. The question the Pope did not go on to ask is “Why?” Why has the Church been for so long preoccupied by abortion and homosexuality?

You know, women are arrested in Riyadh for driving a car. A young girl in Pakistan gets shot in the head on her way home from school. The woman or girl who rejects the cloister of the house is in danger in many desert cities. What is the male anxiety in these instances?

The woman who refuses to give birth, chooses to terminate a birth, represents a violation of the natural order for many in America. The homosexual male — the feminized male — becomes a sort of accomplice to the woman who will not submit to automatic motherhood.

My sense is that, instead of the Stonewall riots in New York, the real liberation of gay men began a century earlier with the processions of women in European streets and in North America demanding the vote. The women who left the parlor anticipated my escape from the closet. And some of the most conservative Christian churches have seen the connection. After all, after September 11, the Reverend Jerry Falwell counted American feminists and homosexuals among those who were responsible for bringing the wrath of God upon our nation.

ES: I suppose that, from a formal perspective, the women in your collection provided a kind of embodied form for some of the more abstract ideas you write about.

RR: That’s right. I experience many of the ideas in my Darling through experiences that were fleshy. My abstractions about homosexuality and feminism, for example, come within a chapter otherwise concerned with a late-afternoon lunch of club sandwiches in Malibu with a friend on the day her divorce was finalized. . .

I don’t know how else to write. Partly because of having grown up in a house in where there were no books — I could never describe to my parents exactly what it was that I was preoccupied by. The question I always ask when I speak to an audience is, “Do you know what I mean?” I have a profound sense that no one quite knows.

ES: This collection seems more than ever a quest for a common language or humanity.

RR: Quite literally sometimes. One of the ironies of traveling within the Arabic world has been that my confrontation with the stranger became a discovery about myself. As I got closer to the Arabic language, I began to hear echoes of Spanish. My first chapter I call “Ojalá” — the expression my Mexican mother often used to mean “Let’s hope it may be so” — which is derived from the Arabic commonplace prayer: Insha’a Allah. The Spanish language has as many as three or four thousand words that are etymologically Arabic in derivation. So the journey toward the stranger’s tongue led me to hear my mother calling out “ojalá” as I left the house for school, decades ago.

But to answer your observation less literally — yes. I am looking for some basis of connection between men and women. Some readers will find that an irony — that a gay man seeks connection with heterosexual women. But beyond sexual difference and obvious sexual passion, what I sense is a compatibility or, as you say, a common humanity.

ES: There are a couple of essays in the collection in which you address a particular woman — Ahuva in “Jerusalem and the Desert” for instance, or the woman you call “Darling.” Do you have a particular reader in mind as you write?

RR: I try not to particularize the reader. In fact, though the woman I call “Darling” has died, what I worried most about was that her children would recognize their mother from my essay. I worried, as well, about her husband, who remains a friend. So I disguised details of my friendship with Darling — like the fact that she invited me into her bed, for example. I wrote to her children to assure them: “This is your mother and not your mother. I have fictionalized details…”

It would have been paralyzing for me to imagine her son and daughter reading the chapter otherwise. So I had regularly to remind myself that I wasn’t writing for Darling’s children but rather for a common reader who knew neither of us.

ES: But are you also drawn to giving away secrets?

RR: Yes! I confess. In my defense, I think that there are some things so personal that they can only be told to a stranger. As a scholarship boy, I knew, for example, that the very anonymity of the writerly “I” gave me a freedom in the city of words to tell family secrets to strangers, and this freedom was crucial to my ability to venture away from the house.

ES: In “Tour de France,” you confess to having been the boy who in fourth grade told your best friend’s secret to get a laugh.

RR: Yes — and worse, I don’t remember now what the secret was! I am often haunted of late, as I progress toward the end of my life, by the thought that I will end up with only a public life, having betrayed so many in my private life. 

ES: Tell me about the presence of death in this collection. Does death make you want to write?

RR: You know, as a Mexican, and as someone formed by Mexican culture, death was ever-present in my life. Similarly, it was death that Irish Catholics at my parish church spoke of. They didn’t use the American euphemism of “passing away.” Nobody passed away in either my Irish-Catholic or my family’s Mexican life. People died. It was death I knew and death I literally carried to the grave. As an altar boy I sometimes helped mourners take a casket to the gaping hole in the earth. As a gay man, I poured morphine down a friend’s throat as he moved from pain to death. That experience would make me ever after reluctant to give myself the adjective “gay.” As I told a television interviewer once, I don’t consider myself a “gay writer”; I am a morose writer — more comic than gay, I suppose . . .

Oh, what extraordinary things I have seen! My mother dies one night and the floor lamp at the foot of my bed — it has a switch that has to be twisted — suddenly turns itself on!

ES: In “Ojalá,” you mention Caryll Houselander, the English artist, writer, and bohemian, who had a mystical experience on her way to pick up the potatoes.

RR: Yes, I love that. I think the great vision of the Divine comes to children or to Houselander — a teenager. How else can complexity and mystery enter our world except through such simple lives?

ES: It reminds me of the famous vision of Julian of Norwich — that image of the world as a walnut in God’s hand.

RR: Yes, wonderful! One of the reasons I like the short stories of Flannery O’Connor so much is that the “vision” of God often comes in a moment of greatest humiliation; at exactly the moment when the woman has her wooden leg stolen by a criminal Bible salesman, she is made to crawl, and then she sees . . .

Yes, whenever I read in the morning paper that a statue of the Virgin Mary has been found to be weeping, I get in the car and take a look.

Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, by Richard RodriguezES: Is there a relationship for you between writing and praying?

RR: I agree with Thomas Aquinas who describes the act of writing as a kind of prayer. Certainly as a person who writes every day it does seem to me that the energy, the inspiration, comes from outside of myself. Yesterday I struggled with this paragraph and nothing came. Today, the words come freely and almost seem to write themselves . . . so, like other writers, I come up with metaphors like grace and the muse and inspiration to explain how it seems that something outside my own efforts had produced the line I could not write by myself.

I don’t mean to become such a— I’ve never liked the word “piety.” And I don’t even like it when people say about me that I am a good man. I just, it makes me nervous — there’s a kind of domestication about such praise. For myself, I prefer the raggedness of my life of faith. I like to consider Andy Warhol a saint, one of the great saints of my lifetime. And I look for God in places like, you know, gay bars, where maybe no one else expects to find Him, in the dark.

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Combustion Engines

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There Will Always Be Fires

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The End of Eden

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How to Start a Nuclear War

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Combustion Engines·

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
The End of Eden·

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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


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Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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