They say there’s no such thing as a new story; every tale has already been told in some form or another. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I watched the film Red Joan* and witnessed a scene reminiscent of one in my own life, a scene I had also recreated in the last chapter of my recently published novel The Courier: Death of an Illusion.
THE NIGHT I LEARNED THAT MY PARENTS HAD A SECRET COMMUNIST PAST
One evening in early June 1955 my father dropped the alarming news that he and my mother had been Communists before and during the Second World War. The Committee on Un-American Activities of the House of Representatives had subpoenaed him to testify. No way could I assimilate my father’s words into my 13-year-old, 1950s version of reality; it was as if my father was telling me he’d committed a terrible crime. And as the news sank in, I crashed into an abyss of shock and dread that stayed with me for years.
“Why did you do it?” I asked my Dad, incredulous that the most honest, ethical and law-abiding person in my life could have been a member of the Communist Party, an organization most Americans considered a mortal threat to our nation. My father tried to reassure me by explaining how my parents’ desire to help the country recover from its social and economic woes had led them to join the Party but his words did not ease my pain.
THE LAST CHAPTER IN THE COURIER: DEATH OF AN ILLUSION
In the final scene of my novel The Courier, the son of the protagonist telephones his elderly mother and tells her he must see her right away, that they must talk.
“I had lunch last week with Bruce Schlesinger,” the son tells his mother. “Do you remember him from college?
“We hadn’t seen each other for several years. While we were catching up, he asked me if I’d seen a review in the Times, of a book called Messages from Moscow. I said I hadn’t seen it.
“Bruce told me the book revealed new information about Soviet espionage during World War II – information from recently released KGB files and something they’re calling ‘The Venona Documents.’ He suggested I might want to go out and buy it.
“The next day, I bought the book, which I read at one sitting. Can you imagine how shocked I was to see your name appear in a list of spies for the Soviet Union?
“I know my own mother,” the son said to himself. “This can’t be happening. She’s the most authentic, honest person I’ve ever known. And I’m supposed to believe she was a spy for the Russians?’”
A SIMILAR SCENE IN RED JOAN
A disturbing yet intriguing similar scene played out in the film Red Joan. Here, a British attorney learns that his 87-year-old mother has been accused of having spied for the Soviet Union during and after the Second World War. The son is incredulous as he listens to his mother’s interrogation by the British authorities. He struggles to make sense of what he hears. Might the woman he’d known his whole life not be the person he’d believed her to be?
“I heard the strangest thing,” the son in the film tells his mother. “Have you heard of an Mi5 officer named Sir William Mitchell? Well, they think he was a Communist… in a Cambridge spy ring. They think you might be involved.”
And then later, when the truth about her hidden past begins to sink in, the dismayed son cries out:
“You never told me you worked with the bomb….”“It’s like I don’t know you….”
“Did you know what the bomb would do?”
“Did Dad know?”
“Has anything you’ve ever told me been true?”
During the two challenging years of my family’s “troubles,” my father was forced to testify before HUAC in executive and public hearings. Subsequently, his employer, American University Law School, fired him even though the university had earlier pledged to support him. Dad was blacklisted from ever teaching law again.
Though for me, the ordeal receded into the background once my father found work in a different setting, the trauma remained deeply buried in my unconscious. I didn’t talk about it with friends and barely brought up the subject in therapy.
It wasn’t until my father died in 1988 that curiosity led me to research his case and write about it in earnest. Since then I’ve published two books. In the first, a memoir, Legacy of a False Promise: A Daughter’s Reckoning, I resurrected my family’s painful experience and attempted to come to terms with it. In the second, The Courier, I created a fictional story on the same subject, exploring issues I’d still not resolved. Both books involve young, idealistic New Deal government workers who became enamored of communism during the ‘30s and ‘40s, dedicated themselves to working for the cause only to become disillusioned when they discovered that the goals of the Soviet Union were not what they had thought them to be and finally quit. Both books deal with the suffering, the shame, and the danger that arose when the clandestine activities of the young idealists were exposed during the McCarthy Era.
On many occasions during my research and writing, something or someone would remind me of the pain of those years. When this happened, I took the opportunity to face my repressed feelings and try to work them through:
I wept as I read Loyalties, a memoir by Carl Bernstein. In Loyalties, Bernstein, who grew up in Washington, D.C., also the child of Communists, speaks of people, places and experiences familiar to me.
My heart broke when I read We Are Your Sons by Michael and Robert Meeropol, the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who’d been accused of selling the secrets of the atom bomb to the Soviets. Michael and Robbie write of the cruel treatment they sustained after the execution of their parents. There but for the grace of God went I.
I cringed when, on numerous occasions, left-wing friends reminded me that my father had been “broken;” he had betrayed dear friends and colleagues by cooperating with HUAC – had committed the unforgivable sin of informing. My father never forgave himself for this.
I shed tears of relief upon learning about M. Brewster Smith, a psychology professor and former Communist who, in a talk before a group of his peers, admitted his shame and regret at having named names. At the end of his presentation, some audience members approached him to express their appreciation for his candor. I wished my father had experienced such a profoundly restorative moment.
HEALING THROUGH WRITING
My own experiences, the scene I made up in my novel and the one portrayed in Red Joan all bring to light the difficulties that surface when a child discovers a secret about her parents’ past. This revelation can feel like a betrayal, a deception. It can interfere with trust built of many years and, if there’s a threat of danger or hardship accompanying this disclosure, it can leave to lasting stress and anxiety. This was the case for me. But, in my case, writing has been a path to healing.
* This 2018 film, starring Dame Judie Dench, is based on the true story of Melita Norwood, known as “The Granny Spy,” code name “Hola.” Norwood was a secretary in the Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association in London. For many years from World War II through the Cold War she provided information to the Soviet Union. Her story first came to light in 1999 as a result of the defection of Soviet archivist Vasili Mitrokhin who provided the United Kingdom with a vast collection of KGB files.