Note from the Editor-in-Chief, Ilan Mochari:
We don’t normally do this.
By “we” I mean Solstice, and by “this,” I mean publish a long-form piece on our blog betwist and between our three annual issues.
But the urgency of Richard Hoffman’s essay demanded a different treatment, one that hews to its now-ness. To quote Denise Levertov: “…a sense of history must involve a sense of the present, a vivid awareness of change, a response to crisis, a realization that what was appropriate in this or that situation in the past is inadequate to the demands of the present, that we are living our whole lives in a state of emergency.”
I’ve always marveled at the historic-artistic moment in 1970 when, only weeks after the Kent State shootings, the band Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released the song “Ohio” as a form of protest. I view Richard’s essay as an “Ohio” of the present moment, one I’m pleased to present on our (web) pages.
Preface from the author, Richard Hoffman:
This essay, “From the Depths,” will appear in my collection, Remembering the Alchemists, coming out in December. The first short section of it appeared in slightly different form on the blog of The Black Earth Institute in 2020. I intended it to be my contribution to the Winter Print Issue of Solstice, but the moment for it is now. It feels more urgent with every racist mass shooting, with emboldened voices worldwide spouting Nazi propaganda, with white people increasingly defensive, dangerous, and susceptible to old poison in new bottles. Nazis are gunning for my grandkids, literally “gunning” for them. I’m 73 years old. I have only my art and my intellect to oppose them, but I am not fucking around.
From the Depths
Now, when photos of neo-Nazis, of White Nationalists, appear again and again in the newspaper, on social media, on TV, I find myself looking for a certain face among them, looking again and again at the pixelated faces of hatred, white men carrying torches, chanting slogans, brandishing weapons, storming the Capitol. In a kind of angry and fearful version of “Where’s Waldo?” I am looking for Andrei.
A dozen years ago, Andrei, whose name is not Andrei, had approached me at a 12-step meeting and asked if I would be willing to help him. He was hollow-eyed, dirty, biting at his cuticles, his face and nose scraped bloody. I offered to buy him a cup of coffee and talk. For whatever reason, this seemed to throw him into a panic, “No, no, I mean thank you, but could I just have your phone number so I can call you?”
We spoke regularly for about six months, Andrei getting visibly better, sometimes even smiling. We were both attending a meeting where the group works through one of the 12 steps each week. Often we talked on the sidewalk outside, where he would hang out with the other smokers. I learned from him that he had been hospitalized for depression, that he’d been kicked out of a group home for drinking, that he was angry at the state mental health system. Once he’d reestablished his abstinence, and agreed to take his medications, he was allowed to return.
It was months before we shared a laugh, when, at the mid-meeting break, an avalanche of snow came down off the roof on a guy trying to light a cigarette. I remember because as I laughed, I touched my hand to his shoulder a moment and he recoiled almost violently. I made a mental note not to touch him again.
Andrei was estranged from his parents, and told me that he could now see how badly he had let them down. He was especially remorseful about the way he had treated his father the last time he’d seen him. “Richard, I really abused the man. I mean, the guy’s doing his best. He came here from Russia, hardly speaks any English even now. When I was growing up the other kids made fun of him and I would get my ass kicked trying to stick up for him. Sticking up for myself, I guess. Richard, I rejected him. I told him he was a fucking loser. What kind of a son does that? What kind of a person? I broke his heart.”
We were coming to Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others, and soon after that, Andrei the prodigal son paid his father a visit in Florida. He wept when he told me about it. “We were bawling our eyes out. He was so happy to see me! Why was he happy to see me? Why? After all I’d said and done, all the hurt I caused him?”
He wanted to go to art school, or to study art history. After his second year of continuous sobriety, he made me a book in which he mounted reproductions of his favorite Rembrandt paintings on colored paper, hand lettering information from art history texts on each page, sewing it together with colored thread and ribbon. It was a beautiful one-of-a-kind gift I still have.
Andrei continued to put his life back together. He moved into his own place. He found a job he liked, with people he enjoyed. Our conversations changed. We talked about recovery, of course, about what alcohol had done for us, and then to us, its outsized place in our lives. I remember telling him that clarity was the virtue I valued most because I had fooled myself so many times. I don’t recall the context of that conversation, but remember I meant it as a gentle admonishment in response to something he’d said. I told him something of my life. I showed him pictures of my beloved grandson, my daughter’s boy, whose Jamaican father was just then in prison. I talked about my father, who was dying. We were becoming friends. He was working full-time, and now that he had a little money, he began to invite me for lunch, always insistent that he would pay.
At one point, when I had not seen him for a couple of months, I arrived to meet him in a cafe and hardly recognized him. He had lost a good deal of weight; he was in great shape, smartly dressed, and with a vitality I had never seen in him before. I told him he looked great. He told me he had gone off his medications.
“It’s dope is what it is. I’ve been so doped up for so long I haven’t been able to feel a thing. To stay in the group home I had to take the meds they gave me. Turned me into a fucking zombie. I’m done with all that.” He’d met a woman he called his girlfriend. “You want anything else? No, no, sit. I’ll get it. Ice tea? A napkin? Remember this is on me.”
Then, about two weeks later I came home late to a message. “Richard. Yeah. This is Andrei. Listen, I just wanted to tell you that I’m going to get drunk tonight. I decided… you know what just fuck it. I just figured I owe it to you to let you know, man. That’s all. That’s it.” I called him. No answer. First thing in the morning I called again.
“Nah. I changed my mind,” he said. “I just went to sleep. Finally.” It turned out his girlfriend, a coworker, had thought he just wanted to be friends, and she’d rejected him as anything more than that. She was a college student. Andrei was in his fifties. Their romance had been largely in his head.
“Listen, I think you need some help, Andrei. You know what I mean? Not just the Steps.”
“So they can dope me up again? No fucking way, man.”
“No, no. Not the state system. I’m not talking about that. What if I found you a referral? You’ve got insurance right? Somebody who could just sit with you and help you sort things out. You wouldn’t have to take any meds. Not like that.”
“I guess you’re right.”
So I made some calls to therapist friends, came up with a name. We’ll call him Mark Silver. Andrei thanked me and said he would continue to let me know how he was doing. A month later, having heard nothing from him, and not having seen him at a meeting, I came home from teaching an evening class to a voicemail from him:
Richard. OK. Here goes — I’m not going to sit in a small airless room and talk about my miserable emasculated white male life and what a fucking loser I am while all the fucking castrated feminized males like you with all your liberal bullshit are getting laid because you sold out to the feminazi bitches who have your balls in a vice, man. So as for your so-called help, no fucking thank you, OK? I’m a Eurocentric white man and proud of it. I know you went to Latin America last summer, and man they pulled the wool over your eyes good. Those ni**ers showed you just what they wanted you to see so you’d look the other way while they go on to ni**erize the world and stupid liberals like you think they’re so primitive and cute. You need to wake the fuck up, man. The ni**ers already got your daughter, man, and knocked her up and took your money and betrayed you. I know you think that ni**er’s gone, in prison for a long time, but you just wait: some Radcliffe cunt who’s already sucking his dick will get him out and then he’ll be back to fuck you over again. And another thing: that guy you sent me to is a Jew. Oh boo fucking hoo for the poor victims of the phony holocaust. Poor poor Jews who are committing genocide and I don’t care if that’s politically incorrect. You tell me I should try to meet a woman my own age but they’re all emasculating cunts, man, and if you don’t have any money they’re not interested. They only want to fuck if they get paid. A bunch of whores. When are you going to wake the fuck up, man, and be white and quit bending over begging for that black ni**er cock up your ass? BEEP. To hear this message again press 1, to save it press 2, to erase it press 3. To forward this message press 4.
I stood there next to my desk shaking as rage coursed through me: wordless, white-hot, I-will-kill-you rage. I remember the smell of me then: fear, metallic and rank, so much so that after I put down the phone and took a long hot shower, I still smelled it when I returned to that room. Although it was January, I opened all the windows. But the tears rolling down my cheeks were grief, too: I had just heard a man crying out from hell. He desired nothing more than to share his agony with all those he believed had cheated him and injured him. I wonder if that desire is not itself the definition of hell. I wanted to call him back, rage back at him, roar at him, put all that ugliness I wasn’t able to wash off back on him.
And there was the voicemail. Not only did I not want to hear it again, I wanted it gone. I pressed 3. As it turns out, a recording would have been redundant: every syllable of that utterance is seared in my memory, and I don’t know how to delete it.
It’s true, of course, that Andrei was deeply, severely mentally ill, and in the midst of some kind of episode. But that’s also a dodge. Our culture offers the menu of perennial scapegoats he chose; he didn’t invent them. And his message could not have been more articulate; there was no stammering, no searching for the right word. His monologue was rapid and efficient. It sounded practiced, as if he had written it out ahead of time. (“OK. Here goes —”?) Had he rehearsed his message? Read it aloud to himself before he called? Is racism a pathology? Is misogyny a sickness? Anti-semitism a disease? Is hate? What is evil?
Should I have called him back? Argued with him? Called the police to alert them to a psychopath who was — what? — making hateful telephone calls? For weeks after that message I was in shock, walking around with an emptiness in the pit of my stomach and a mind full of loose threads as if something had been violently torn from it. I did nothing; it was not a decision, it’s just what I did — nothing. I only wanted him to keep his distance, far from me and my family. I left his message inside a sort of parenthesis for 12 years, a blister or pustule I chose to ignore until now.
I have never fully accepted that people can be at once inspiring and courageous and also vicious and malign. I have always known this of course; who hasn’t learned this in childhood? But knowing and accepting are not the same thing. I still find this twinned capacity for beauty and cruelty a paradox that grinds against hope: cold sparks of irony shoot out and, igniting neither action nor idea, leave me enervated and sadder than I already was.
What the hell had I been telling myself about Andrei? Was my whole experience of him a fiction he’d offered me? I had certainly suspended disbelief. Had I co-authored his story, our story, this story? Was he manipulating me, playing me for his advantage? Of what use to me, to my idea of myself, was he? Were we both reading from an inherited script while busily denying it to ourselves?
These are not even the most important questions but because there is a better chance I might be able to say something useful by asking them, I’ll take them up first.
The story I was telling myself about Andrei both was and was not a fiction, just as the story he told me of a ne’er-do-well, black sheep, fuck-up, loser was both true and not. My version was derived, at least most immediately, from my own recovery and from having seen a couple of decades worth of people regain their dignity, hope, and self-respect, and go on to remake their lives. In my version, informed by my own experience, addicts were trauma survivors who had developed a persona to hide behind. Sometimes it was a hard-drinking world-beater, other times it was a cringing pitiable wreck begging Don’t hurt me, please. Somewhere there was a violated innocence which meant, at least to me, that there was an innocence that might be reclaimed, a capacity for delight, for laughter and kindness, for friendship and connection. I had experienced this in my own life, and I had witnessed it in others’ many times.
So, for me, Andrei’s explosion of hatred and contempt represented a crisis of faith, a challenge, and also a terror — that I could never truly know anyone, only my filtered, subjective impression of them. Something the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa wrote of with more acceptance than I:
We are our dreams of ourselves, souls by gleams,
And each to each other dreams of others’ dreams.
I told myself that I believed in openness, in candor as a disarming strategy, a way across difference, a bridge. Was I a fool? And moreso now if I still think so? Maybe in addition to foolishness, my confidence in people’s good intentions is laziness. Maybe I hate exercising good judgment as much as I hate exercise. In any case, I’ve always been this way. I think that nearly everyone is doing the best they can, that Lucinda Williams is right when she sings (quoting a poem by her father Miller Williams), “You do not know/what wars are going on/down there where the spirit meets the bone.” That Thomas à Kempis is correct: “Be assured that if you knew all, you would pardon all.” But maybe what I tell myself is compassion is really a dodge; suspending judgment precludes most actions, lets me off the hook. Maybe like everyone else, I’m doing the best I can.
The real terror is not that I misread Andrei, but that I could be so ignorant of who I am, that my dream of myself was so far off the mark. I’d been telling myself I had something to do with Andrei’s recovery, that my encouragement and witness were valuable. That felt good. When after a year or so his attendance at meetings dropped off, I told myself that everyone recovers differently, that he was best able to judge what he needed. I wasn’t about to ride herd on him. I never, ever, gave him direct advice. I already knew how that would turn out; in fact, that should have been my first warning, that he complained to me, angrily, about how rigid his earlier sponsors had been.
Even after more than a year of AA meetings and coffees with me weekly, usually in the same booth in the same diner, Andrei had a hard time making eye contact. I thought this was residual shame for having been the ragged and broken man I first met, grimy, bloodied, and smelling like a week’s worth of piss. I tried to talk to him as if he were already a whole person, but I always remembered how he looked that first day. From the start I saw him as more sinned against than sinning, as a man who had fallen among thieves. I didn’t know who the thieves were, other than alcohol and drugs, only that they had taken everything and beaten him nearly to death. For whatever reason, he had arrived at mid-life ill-equipped to meet its demands. I felt sympathy for the soul I saw “by gleams,” the soul that in our age is hard to know how to care for: Every birth is among ruins of some kind, a junkdealer’s yard, an archive with a jumbled index. It seemed simple to me: the best way to support someone seeking respectability was to respect them.
By my anecdotes about work and family and friends, by sharing my own frustrations and failures, by modeling a relaxed honesty, I tried to disarm his suspicious nature and invite a reciprocal candor. I told myself that even if that was a little manipulative, if my interactions with Andrei were a bit studied (as much as I tried to disguise that fact) it was all for his benefit, all part of the rescue effort.
Ah, there we have it — rescue. I didn’t really believe I was rescuing him though; it wasn’t that cut and dried. It was more that I was caught up in a trope that made me feel good. I was a lousy sponsor, with lousy boundaries, and once Andrei began to improve, he slowly and subtly became a personal project. As he cleared up, from both alcohol and the many colliding medications he’d been prescribed, he must have seen the disproportion between our lives, and took my refusal to acknowledge it for the patronizing that, on some level, I suppose it was.
That patronizing was at least partly what kept me from understanding who he really was. At our standing date for coffee on Sundays, I often showed him pictures of my grandson — on my wife’s knee, in my daughter’s arms, in his father’s lap, taking his first steps — until one Sunday I finally noticed how uncomfortable I was making him. I stopped then, changed the subject — what the hell was I doing reveling in the love of family, of children and grandchildren, to a guy alone, in his 50s, struggling still to get a foothold, a car, a job. I hadn’t meant to be cruel. I almost asked him for forgiveness, but I couldn’t figure out how without making things worse. But I had been even more oblivious than I thought: I completely missed it, the racism, the fact that his squirming and grimacing was not about my being insensitive, but about my grandson’s race.
I should have seen it. Why I didn’t is an important question to take up.
When I look again at the handmade book of reproductions he made as a gift for me, I see that he was deeply entranced by Europe, but his Europe was the one James Baldwin encountered in his essay “Stranger in the Village,” a place where there are not and have never been any people other than white Europeans, and certainly no Black people. That is my most charitable interpretation, though; more charitable than his phone message deserves. He urged CDs on me by bands called Peste Noire, Absurd, Screwdriver, Odin’s Law, Prussian Blue. I took them home but didn’t listen to them. I’d never had any use for Heavy Metal. I was stuck in my tastes in popular music: Blues, Jazz, Classical. When he asked me if I’d listened to the music he lent me, I lied, and when he asked me what I thought, I just said it wasn’t my thing. Recently I looked up these bands and found they’re grouped under the heading “National Socialist Black Metal” — neo-Nazi music.
I had no idea 12 years ago that there was such a movement. My parents’ generation had so roundly defeated Nazism that to me Nazis were merely emblems of a vanquished evil. Or they persisted as objects of derision and laughter, cartoonish characters in comedies like Hogan’s Heroes, and Indiana Jones movies. A full-on commitment to Nazism, to white nationalism, so far as I knew, was the province of a few Neanderthal idiots in isolated pockets of the country. Now I can’t help but wonder if today’s reemergence of Nazism, abetted by cynical grifters and opportunist demogogues, is the result of the same kind of denial, patronizing, and self-involvement on the part of my countrymen that I’m accusing myself of in relation to Andrei? Maybe our relationship was a microcosm; maybe we were in different boats on the same tide. Anyway, it’s a recognizable dynamic: the reluctance to see malevolence so long as you’re getting what you need: the assurance that you are a good person, and that you are just fine thank you very much. I thought I was doing something good. I thought I was helping Andrei learn how to be at ease with himself. I’d hoped he would make his way to his real questions and quit punishing himself, quit being ashamed. Back then I believed that questions about self-worth were never the right ones. For anyone. There are people who don’t recover from trauma, or who don’t recover from their addiction, because they don’t believe they deserve to. Now I wonder if I was wrong. I don’t know what Andrei was ashamed of, but any man who could leave a phone message vile as his, mentally ill or not, is capable of doing, or of having done, almost anything. Maybe that’s the hell I heard him curse me from, into which he was cast by his own conscience.
I don’t know, and only here, where I have disguised his identity, do I feel I dare speculate. What if, in Andrei’s case, spirits were the spirit who restrained him? What if his alcoholism was the best part of him, desperately holding him back from expressing his rage and hatred, mercifully incapacitating him? What if his alcoholism was the only constraint left? What if his addiction was his conscience speaking?
I said I would first take up the questions I might find answers to, but with the exception of seeing that I was a fool, that my naïvetè and self-soothing idealism were dangerous, I haven’t come up with much, only more questions. Now when I think back on the last time we met, when he bought me lunch, when he told me he’d gone off his meds, I remember how manic he seemed, and how I kept smiling at him calmly, trying to be supportive. Christ, it was like Don Quixote comforting Faust, Pangloss offering Raskolnikov a fresh start.
I can sneer at myself as well as the next guy, maybe better, but when all is said and done I believe in hope. I don’t know how else to engage with people; without hope, most people just aren’t worth it. To be honest, I believe people’s behavior is more often driven by fear of punishment than by conscience. There have always been thugs and rapists, night riders, pogroms and lynchings, not to mention those who bomb the homes of others, destroy their crops, poison the water, murder, dig mass graves, and then raise statues to commemorate their conquests, legitimize their crimes, and establish themselves as the powers and principalities of the world. How do they bring themselves to do these things? What is life to them? Do they think they know what life is? I don’t. And if they are right I don’t want to.
There have been betrayals and disappontments, of course, but every bit of love I ever received was a response to my hope. When I engaged with people in fear and in shame, I was left with ashes.
What sort of tropism is this abiding hope that it doesn’t seek consolation, that it holds out for joy? Less a resistance to uncertainty than a trust in it, it is a trust in time itself, in the wobble of the planet as it spins. This kind of hope is a question, one we inherit, an orientation of the self, not a wish for a particular outcome.
I have it from my parents, for whom it was a daily requirement, and especially from my mother — it is therefore religious; after all, what is more religious than a mode of being you inherit from your mother? It is larger than — but includes — my Catholic education, along with my boyhood of terror and violent abuse. A part of me is still a boy in his bed in the Cold War dark, terrified and mumbling the rosary for world peace, the droning whisper like a prayer flag in a constant wind. And a part of me is even now reassuring me that my mother’s hope was not unreal. It sustained her (and all of us); it opposed, courageously, the hopelessness of two dying children. And so, a survivor, I am a child of that hope, and I seem to do first whatever it takes to protect hope’s tender heart. I don’t know what resources my mother drew on; I am drawing on hers.
I had never been to Germany, my great-grandparents’ country. I had a friend there, in Nuremberg, and she arranged for me to give a reading and a lecture at Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz so I could get the college where I was teaching to foot the bill for the trip. My wife and I flew into Frankfürt, a gleaming glass city rebuilt after World War II. One of the first things we noticed, walking from the train station to our hotel, was a sculpture dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. Carved from stone, twisted bodies in agony seemed to be praying, clearly to no avail. Along with other monuments, memorials, and museums throughout Germany and Austria, it seemed a penitent acknowledgment of the darkest moment in Europe’s history. My wife and I thought the same thing at the same time: where is there such penitent admission of historial atrocities in U.S. cities? After a nap to relieve our jet lag, we headed for the old city. I wanted some romance, not steel and glass.
The Römerberg is the central cobbled square of the Altstadt, the oldest part of the city, its architecture dating to the Middle Ages. I fell into a dream looking at the half-timbered houses with their graduated roof lines, their plaster and wattle, their balconies of flowering plants, their Romanesque turrets. My first attempt to speak my great-grandparents’ native tongue was to order Schweinebraten mit Sauerkraut und Knödel in a restaurant there. This was my father’s favorite dish, made for him each year on his birthday, first by his mother, then by mine. The pork was delicious, the sauerkraut golden and hot, the dumpling the perfect texture. I looked out onto the square with its colorful array of merchant carts (it was market day), no cars, no trolleys, and for a moment I touched something I knew from my German Catholic boyhood, an aesthetic experience made up of all that my grandparents had been raised to revere, the Old Country: gothic calligraphy on the restaurant menu and on the wooden fascia above its entrance, the carved lintels, the heavy doors with their massive iron hinges. I half expected a Teutonic knight on horseback to come clopping into the square; I imagined my genes were singing as I savored the sweet fat of the Schweinefleisch.
The next day we took the train to Nuremberg to visit my friend, a painter and photographer whose family has lived there for generations, a woman whose parents were members of the Nazi party. For her, I know, the past is not safely in the realm of fantasy, and her anger at her parents’ hateful politics has animated her life as an artist and Buddhist peace activist. Soon after we arrived, she showed us around a bit to orient us. We stood in the Hauptmarkt, another broad cobbled square of medieval buildings, looking up at the ornate mechanical clock on the western face of the Church of Our Lady where, at noon, after the ringing of the church bells, carved trumpeters and drummers come to life, and doors open on either side of the seated figure of Charles IV dressed in gold. A procession of carved and painted puppets, the seven electors who chose Charles IV as the Holy Roman Emperor, pass by him carrying symbols of their offices and their fealty. They have been doing so for more than 600 years.
We had coffee in a little outdoor cafe on a corner of the Hauptmarkt; I remember sitting there and thinking it was lovely, this old world, where attention was paid to beauty, where steel, glass, and price per cubic meter hadn’t reduced the world to a ledger.
My friend thought we should see the Documentation Center, a museum on the grounds of the 1930s Nazi Party Rally Grounds, but she felt no need to accompany us there. Nuremberg’s history was alive for her and painful. “Fascination and Terror,” the Center’s devastating permanent exhibit, traces the factors that gave rise to Nazism, the ways that the Party normalized its cult of hatred, spread its propaganda, and appealed to a demoralized and resentful German population. The exhibition was moving and not a little frightening. Nazism was rooted in centuries of anti-Semitism, and room after room, moving forward in time from the early Middle Ages to the 20th century, exposed the deep rhizome of hatred from which, whenever conditions were right, murderous pogroms sprouted. I was struck by the juxtaposition of two images. The first a medieval painting of serene blonde angels with swords driving grimacing swarthy demons into a pit, and the other a black and white photo of SS troops armed with rifles and submachine guns in the act of similarly prodding Jews to the edge of a mass grave, already half-filled. It was there that I learned that the Romanesque church that had so enchanted me, the Frauenkirche, was built on the site of a synagogue burned to the ground during the pogrom of 1349, which followed an outbreak of The Black Plague. Charles IV erected it to “Our Lady” and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor there, the scene commemorated on its ingenious clock. And I remember my shock when, in an enlarged still from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, crowds marched with Nazi banners, torches and swastikas down the street where I recognized the same cafe on the same corner where I had earlier indulged my fantasy of a pre-industrial market town. So much for ancestral nostalgia.
And so much for Nazis: my aesthetic sweet spot was theirs as well, and they evangelized its beauty, from Goethe and Heine to Bach, Beethoven, and Strauss, down to the last dirndl and lederhosen and beerfest of the Herrenvölk, all the while worshipping death and calling it purity.
So, I believe I understand something of Andrei’s Europhilia, but also its dark turn toward Lebensraum. And, even though I know it is reductionist and simplistic, I can’t help wondering at the value of a culture that, for all its beauty, regularly erupts in genocidal violence.
Over and over, I’d felt the weight of the past, the heft of it, its substance, in a way that is impossible in America. Not only are we a “young country,” but we only barely acknowledge the circumstances of our being here: genocide on a continental scale and the capture and breeding of human beings for profit. As I write this, today’s Nazis, America’s Nazis, are purging school curricula of references to those two foundational facts, persecuting teachers, terrorizing school boards, banning books and films that even mention them. When you live inside a myth, denying history, the past is a theme park. Also a desiccation, a petrifaction, a metaphysical necrophilia. Nostalgia wafting from it like a poison gas.
No vile ideology is without allies. Destructive ideas have much in common despite their differences. Vultures, hyenas, voles, worms, and maggots don’t need to conspire to pick a carcass clean.
Certain things seem occultly bound to other things, certain attitudes seem to have formed a root system in the same darkness. White supremacy is aligned with male supremacy everywhere, and the fundamentalist versions of otherwise warring religions all agree on male supremacy as the primary principle of their envisioned future, including the bedrock idea that masculine dishonor must be met with righteous corrective violence.
Andrei’s mental illness does not explain his choice of targets; he chose them from a menu that seems never to change: women, Jews, nonwhite people, and those, like me, who remain benighted and do not realize the need to fight back against these “enemies.”
It even seems to me possible that Andrei’s mental illness did not precede his encounter with this list of targets, but in fact grew from the broader culture of misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism, grew from it as if it had been cultivated in a petri dish. (I use the word culture the way a high school biology teacher might explain it, as a place where conditions allow some organisms to grow and spread while others cannot.) Andrei’s pain was real, his words were political. He believed it was his pain that was political, an oppression, and that his response was natural, justified, even somehow righteous and revolutionary.
I had never heard the term “incel” until recently, and from conversations with others I suspect that there are still many people unfamiliar with it. The term originated on a website meant to provide support to men and women who were involuntarily celibate. Soon, however, “men’s rights” organizations flooded the site’s conversations and brought along all their ideological cousins, politicizing and martialing cadres of lonely men. After that, the resentments proliferated, various allied groups coming aboard, until a hateful and violent victim identity became the norm.
In 2014, Elliot Rodger, a hero to this new movement of straight men calling themselves “incels,” opened fire at a sorority house at University of California, Santa Barbara. Unable to get inside the sorority, he opened fire on a sidewalk of pedestrians, killing six people; then he turned the gun on himself, becoming a martyr: incels hate women so much that they now have a term for mass murder followed by suicide: “going all ER on them.”
I don’t know for certain that Andrei identified with this movement, but his message to me is certainly animated by the same assumptions: that men have a right to women’s bodies, that white European civilization is under attack, that people of color are plotting white genocide. His actual affiliation doesn’t matter to me; I am trying to grasp what it is that turns suffering into grievance and then into a twisted ideology of violent retribution. That sexual frustration must turn into violence is a simplistic trope that relies on a sort of hydraulic theory of male sexuality: the pressure of celibacy builds until it must explode in violent, perhaps ecstatic, release. I find this idea as insulting to men as the incel’s trope of phallic entitlement is destructive to women.
Andrei didn’t see people, I know that much. Men were superiors, inferiors, or fools; women were, well, pussy. Andrei never knew a woman, in any sense of that verb. But I don’t believe he ever knew a man either, not really. People to Andrei seem to have been all pronouns and body parts, their worth determined by their place in a racial and gender hierarchy. Unable to connect on any level more subtle or complex than the imagined solidarity of the aggrieved, his isolation was complete.
Each of his hatreds, the usual interconnected phobias and bigotries, has a low-grade, chronic form that is widespread and still largely unquestioned. Misogyny is in the air men breathe when together. You hear it in the clubhouse, at the bar, in the locker room, at the poker game, in the box seats and in the bleachers, in jokes and anecdotes and stories, in that punch on the arm, that wink, that smirk. Men showing their disdain for women and insisting to one another, with more than a touch of homophobia, that they love pussy. Can you deny it? It’s Manhood 101. Andrei got an A+ in the course. Most men get a “Gentleman’s C,” having gone along to get along, and profess outrage at attitudes like Andrei’s. Often it seems that the anger is really at the naked expression of hatred, not the hatred itself. It is painful to say it, but I grew up in a liberal-minded working-class family who believed they were not racists because they shrank, mostly, from using the n-word, were polite, and tipped the Black bathroom attendant at the fairgrounds.
As a part of the larger backlash, incels believe they are rising to the defense of a civilizational identity besieged by women and people of color. Arch conservatives, they align themselves with a fundamentalism — Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, it doesn’t matter — that hides its misogyny (though not very well) in rituals, rites, liturgies, and rules, the essence of its various doctrines the same male supremacy.
There is more than the use of a gun uniting the killing of worshippers at Mother Emanuel and Tree of Life; more than the fact of an AR-15 connecting these murders to Pulse and Parkland, Tops supermarket and the Atlanta spas.
But the attempt to understand this plaited knot of hatred, as if it were part of a philosophical conversation, merely, is beside the point, as if one day we will solve the problem, understand evil, and then set everything to rights. Ha. Where would we have to stand to gain that kind of vantage? Too often we confuse verbosity with intelligence, passivity with a sage worldliness, and doing nothing with taking the high road.
Is racism a pathology? Shall we convene a symposium on it? Here’s the thing: it isn’t a conversation. The history of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, is a bellowing voice drowning out any other discourse, or a roaring cascade that remains a part of our interactions, no matter what still waters whiteness leadeth us beside. It’s not a conversation, it’s a struggle. For some it is a struggle for breath itself.
George Floyd was not having a conversation with Derek Chauvin although he did speak to him: “Oh lord, oh lord, please don’t kill me,” is what he said. Rayshard Brooks, the long video of his pleading exchange with his killer notwithstanding, did not “converse” with the police. Philando Castile tried to have a conversation with the officer who shot him seated in his girlfriend’s car, with her beside him and her 5-year-old in the backseat. And on and on and on.
And back and back and back:
Mr. Gore once undertook to whip one of Colonel Lloyd’s slaves, by the name of Demby. He had given Demby but few stripes, when, to get rid of the scourging, he ran and plunged himself into a creek, and stood there at the depth of his shoulders, refusing to come out. Mr. Gore told him that he would give him three calls, and that, if he did not come out at the third call, he would shoot him. The first call was given. Demby made no response, but stood his ground. The second and third calls were given with the same result. Mr. Gore then, without consultation or deliberation with any one, not even giving Demby an additional call, raised his musket to his face, taking deadly aim at his standing victim, and in an instant poor Demby was no more. His mangled body sank out of sight, and blood and brains marked the water where he had stood.
This is from Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845, 177 years ago. He goes on to tell us about several other such murders and the total indemnity of the white murderers.
Mr. Gore’s defence —
He argued that if one slave refused to be corrected, and escaped with his life, the other slaves would soon copy the example; the result of which would be the freedom of the slaves, and the enslavement of the whites. Mr. Gore’s defence was satisfactory.
is nearly precisely the position of Great Replacement fearmongers and White Nationalists today. Recently, Donald Trump, then President of the United States, angered by Black Lives Matter marchers, asked his Secretary of Defense, “Can’t you just shoot them? Shoot them in the legs or something?”
And so, it is outrageous to ask how we didn’t see Nazism coming when we have somehow accomodated a murderous racism for centuries. Nevertheless, I am asking that. For my own part, I’ve sorted and sifted and haven’t come up with much of an answer for how I missed Andrei’s poisonous hatred, except that sometimes I am snowblind, lost in my own whiteness, sometimes I am too trusting, sometimes I’d rather proceed according to my assumptions than check them against what is right in front of me. Whatever constitutes my naïveté is bound up with hope, so that it seems to me now that a true sobriety, a true clarity, can only be had by untangling the two. I can’t give up hope — for justice, for peace, for a culture less hospitable to hate — but the failure to grasp how far we are from those things puts those I love in danger. There are days when the news is so old I despair, but there are others when outrage turns to resolve.
Andrei, OK, here goes: You and I are enemies. You knew that before I did. We are enemies beyond any possible forgiveness. You’re a threat to my family, to my grandchildren, four of them now, and to others I love. There will never be peace between us. You believe the solution to your suffering is to make others suffer, as if you could dilute the poison in your heart by spreading it around. So I do not wish you further harm. But I do not wish you well. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out you’re dead. I heard your howl from the depths and I understood that you were already dead, if not to me then to yourself. So no, it would not surprise me if you, or someone else, finished the job. I recognize the ghost you are, your abysmal emptiness a cyclone of hate. And if I am being honest, news of your death would come as a relief: one racist Nazi misogynist fewer in the world of my grandchildren. As for your romance with Europe, congratulations! You’ve found an identity — Shakespeare, as helpful a touchstone of European culture as any, anticipated you in Richard III: “And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover, / To entertain these fair well-spoken days, / I am determined to prove a villain, / And hate the idle pleasures of these days.” I should thank you for “waking me the fuck up” to the clear and present danger you and others like you represent. Now I’m resolved to fight. I was going to say “if it comes to that,” but it has already come to that; it has always come to that. I see it clearly now. Yes, I should thank you at least for that.
Richard Hoffman is the author of seven books, including the memoirs Half the House and Love & Fury, the story collection Interference and Other Stories, and four books of poems: Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, which won the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the New England Poetry Club’s Sheila Motton Book Award; Emblem; and Noon until Night, winner of the 2018 Massachusetts Book Award for poetry. He is nonfiction editor of Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices.