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Aunt Lola’s Cabin

I can’t quite get Alex Tizon’s Atlantic feature, “My Family’s Slave,” out of my mind. It may be a case of unhealthy “compulsion” – as described in Sharon Begley’s recent book on the syndrome, Can’t Just Stop. On the other hand, the article itself is inordinately gripping. Tizon tells the story of Lola, the tiny, kind, overly sensitive, utterly non-self-assertive indentured maid who served for decades his apparently narcissistic mother (and her husbands). I could barely finish reading the piece to our daughter the other day. But I also keep thinking about the author, a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist with a sizable writing talent.

Tizon was a pre-teen when he “began to see Lola’s situation clearly.” Yet even when he grew up, he never did much to alter the odd relationship between Lola and his mother. He mentions that his brother, 8 years older, first used the word “slave” to describe Lola’s status – yet the brother soon disappears from the story without a trace. Tizon carries Lola’s ashes to her birthplace on a Philippine island in a plastic box tucked in a plastic bag, 5 years after her death (marked by an obituary obscuring her the fundamental truth of her life). He also uses the word “fascinated” to convey how he felt watching a group of elderly, frail relatives and one-time neighbors cry and wail over Lola’s ashes for 10 minutes. All in all, he comes across as rather heartless, despite the sympathy he consistently expresses. And despite the credit he deserves for deciding to finally reveal the skeleton in his family’s closet.

Would it be a bit heartless, too, to suggest there is a pragmatic reason to read such a heart-breaking, well-crafted account? It is perhaps another apt example of the kind of reading material that can help us grow intellectually and emotionally – and learn to write in decent English. It would be truly wonderful if these qualities always went together. As Alex Tizon’s case amply demonstrates, this is hardly a given.

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