Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Sexual harassment investigation at South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand

Wits campus
For the past several months I have been tracking an investigation by the university into allegations of sexual harassment against three scientists affiliated with Wits (as it is often called.) The university has completed its investigation and the results have been conveyed to me today by Shirona Patel, Wits' spokesperson.

I personally looked into the allegations against two of the individuals who were investigated, talking to multiple witnesses, and found them to be credible. Although the university did not name the individuals, I am doing so below.

Michael Balter


The University’s Gender Equity Office (GEO) led an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment involving three individuals associated with the palaeosciences. The GEO was unable to find any recent sexual harassment allegations or incidents involving the three individuals. However, in the case of two individuals, there is evidence that they may have in the past been involved in inappropriate or unwelcome behaviour. At the time of the alleged incidents, there were no University policies or regulations in place reproaching such behaviour and the general knowledge and understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment was less prevalent. Despite this, the GEO has recommended that both individuals be issued with letters advising them that such behaviour is no longer tolerated at the institution, in line with the University’s current progressive gender equity policies.  

However, the GEO has also suggested that it may be necessary to conduct a further inquiry into the extent of sexual harassment in the palaeosciences and recommends that the Faculty undertakes extensive work to make the scientific environment welcoming to all. It further recommends that an internal ethics code be developed or strengthened within the Faculty. The University’s fieldwork policy has already been reviewed and strengthened and was recently passed by the University’s Council. It is in the process of being implemented.

Update and correction:

The two who were given warnings are Rob Blumenschine of Rutgers University and Ron Clarke of Wits. The third was Steven Churchill of Duke University. Some details based on my own reporting:

Rob Blumenschine: During my investigation for Science of the Brian Richmond case at the American Museum of Natural History, several women who had worked with Blumenschine in earlier days told me stories of being personally harassed by him. I did not follow up on these reports, nor do an investigation of Blumenschine, but found the allegations credible given the reputations of the women who told me about it.

Ron Clarke: During my investigation of the Richmond case, three women told me they had been harassed by Clarke on the Wits campus in South Africa. Two of them were willing to discuss their allegations in detail. I find their stories to be credible.

Steven Churchill: While investigating the Richmond case, numerous anthropologists told me that Churchill had been disciplined in earlier days for at least one inappropriate relationship with a student. I did not investigate those claims at the time although they were widely known in the anthropology community. More recently, however, sources approached me who felt that Churchill had not been adequately disciplined by Duke for that alleged behavior. I began to investigate and found a number of sources, currently at Duke and no longer there, who gave me details. The essence of the allegations was that Churchill had engaged in a series of inappropriate relationships with students (mostly undergraduates) during the 1990s, and into the 2000s. As a result of complaints, he was lightly disciplined in about 2007. His position as chair of the evolutionary anthropology department at Duke was not renewed, and according to sources, he was put on paid leave for a semester. He then returned to Duke.

Recently sources at Duke told me that there had been, and still was, concern among numerous colleagues that Churchill's punishment had been too light and that the university had swept it under the rug.

Also recently, this past history was made known to Lee Berger's team in South Africa, with which Churchill is associated. According to multiple sources, Churchill was required to make full disclosure to the team so that team members would be aware. These sources indicate that Churchill apologized and claimed that he had not behaved in such a way since the original episode at Duke.

However, two sources indicated to me that more recently, ie within the last 5 years or so, Churchill did engage in behavior in South Africa that could be interpreted as sexual harassment. No complaints were made about this behavior at the time, nor since.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Truth and Consequences: A #MeToo Saga Finds a Happy Ending, and an Alleged Abuser is Sent Into What Seems to be Permanent Exile

Brian Richmond
Since I began writing about sexual misconduct in the sciences nearly three years ago, I have rarely had good news to report--although many might see the exposure and banishment of alleged sexual predators as a positive sign that academia is coming to grips with its #MeToo problems. My own reporting
--for Science and The Verge-- has led to the banishing of two talented scientists from museums on the U.S. East Coast: Brian Richmond, former curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), who was forced to resign in December 2016 in the wake of allegations that he sexually assaulted a colleague and sexually harassed students; and Miguel Pinto, a mammalogist from Ecuador who was accused of sexually assaulting a student at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and was eventually banned from its premises. (During the Smithsonian investigation, I uncovered considerable evidence that the biology department where Pinto began his graduate work, at Texas Tech University, was a hotbed of sexism and sexual harassment.)

Yesterday, in an online article published by Scientific American, I had the pleasure of writing about Richmond's replacement, anthropologist Ashley Hammond from George Washington University. Ashley will take up the post of curator of biological anthropology beginning June 1. Although I necessarily had to provide the history and context for the position falling open in the first place, this was largely an upbeat story. It was also a milestone for me personally, because the Brian Richmond investigation has had a very big effect on my own life. It led to my banishment from Science, for which I had worked for 25 years, the culmination of a series of events that resulted in a breakdown of trust between me and my editors (I won't link to my blog posts on those events, which you can find by looking at a string of posts from spring 2016, and also include links to an earlier episode in which I publicly protested Science's brutal firing of four women colleagues.)

But what I really want to talk about today is the fate of Brian Richmond and others in biological anthropology and paleoanthropology whose alleged reputations for sexual misconduct have followed them for years, and have resulted in sometimes severe consequences. Because Richmond, as many anthropologists have pointed out to me (a point also made in the SciAm story) is far from the only person in the field whom women have accused of sexual misconduct. Recently, Duke University anthropologist William Hylander, an expert in the evolution of the human and primate face with a long history of harassing women at scientific conferences, was forced by Duke to resign his emeritus status in the wake of a new episode of harassment the university undertook to investigate. Other investigations are currently under way; I will be reporting on them soon.

And, if you navigate to the pinned Tweet on my Twitter homepage (@mbalter), you will find a thread concerning David Lordkipanidze, general director of the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi and leader of the important excavations at the key Homo erectus site of Dmanisi. As I explain there, Lordkipanidze is already being shunned by the biological anthropology community as a result of the allegations against him. Recently, the German National Academy of Sciences was forced to cancel a human evolution meeting it had organized for this coming November in Leipzig and Halle, Germany, after some invited speakers protested the inclusion of Lordkipanidze on the program.

As for Brian Richmond, I do not feel any sympathy for him, nor do I expect anyone else to. Without going into details here (see the original Science piece, which, to protect sensitive sources, did not include all of the allegations concerning him) he reportedly made a lot of women suffer, and in various ways he will remain part of their lives for a long time to come. Some see his downfall as tragic, because he was widely regarded as a talented researcher (the co-discovery and study of hominin footprints in Kenya were his claim to fame) and his sociable manner made him a good choice for the AMNH's curator position, which required a lot of public outreach. (Richmond never really got going on that outreach, because he was accused of assaulting his colleague just a few months after he was hired.) Yet Richmond's attempts to rehabilitate himself have gone nowhere, at least as far as anyone in the anthropology community knows--although not for lack of trying. 

I have linked a number of times to San Jose State University philosopher Janet Stemwedel's wise and incisive article in Forbes, "Advice For the Reformed Harasser on Rejoining the Scientific Community." I would urge you to read it if you have not already. Perhaps if Richmond had followed her advice he might have gotten further in his efforts, but there are few signs that he has.

Richmond’s resignation from the American Museum of Natural History was effective at the end of 2016, and as part of the departure deal he received an additional year of salary during 2017. When the museum announced his resignation, Richmond minimized the charges against him, telling Science that there had been only one formal complaint. “I plan to focus on my family and the next steps in my career,” he told my colleague Ann Gibbons.

Although a number of anthropologists have told me that it is unlikely Richmond will ever get an academic position again, he apparently has not given up on that goal. Early last year, Richmond emailed women he might have suspected were anonymous sources for Science’s original investigation and offered to apologize. “I hope you are well,” Richmond wrote. “I would like to apologize to you and thought this might be best done over the phone.” Richmond went on to ask if it was okay to call and offered his own telephone number in case anyone wanted to call him.

Nevertheless, some senior researchers, concerned that Richmond might be trying to identify those who had given evidence against him to the AMNH’s outside investigators, put a stop to these efforts.

“I don’t think he gets it yet,” one colleague who has known Richmond for some years told me. “He’s more sorry for being caught.” (Richmond did not respond to repeated requests from me for comment about his efforts to contact the women, nor about the episode described below.)

Shortly after he resigned from the museum, Richmond began talking to Jean-Jacques Hublin, director of the department of human evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, about coming to Leipzig at least temporarily. Hublin convened a meeting of his department to discuss the possibility. Two members of the department who were present talked to me about the meeting, although they asked that their names not be used. According to one of these sources, Hublin read part of an email from Richmond asking if he could come to Leipzig, using a research award that he had earlier received from Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. However, the Humboldt Foundation had suspended Richmond’s award when the sexual misconduct allegations against him first surfaced, according to a statement the Foundation provided to me. Richmond was reportedly hoping that if Hublin and the Max Planck Institute supported his visit to Leipzig, the Foundation would lift the suspension.

“Several members of staff raised concerns about the [institute] supporting Brian’s request for the suspension to be lifted, and concerns about him coming to the institute,” one of the sources told me, adding that “several female PhD students spoke about their concerns.” The group then decided to hold a secret vote on the matter, open for 48 hours, which Hublin announced to the entire department. Although Hublin made clear at the meeting that “the vote would not be the deciding factor, but ultimately he would make the decision,” according to this source, the vote went decisively against Richmond’s visit. Hublin then decided Richmond would not be coming.

According to one researcher who knows Hublin well, when the allegations against Richmond surfaced in 2015, Hublin was “obsessed” with the notion that the charges were unfounded and felt he was getting a bad deal. “Jean-Jacques talked about Brian Richmond endlessly. He was very emotional about it.”

In an emailed statement to me about this, sent in connection with another article that has not yet been published,  Hublin said that Richmond was a “top scientist” and admitted that he had “struggled to come to terms with what was reported about him and then what happened to him.” But Hublin denies ever saying that Richmond was “not guilty of wrongdoing. In fact, when I had a chance to talk to colleagues, I privately and publicly said just the opposite.” Hublin also confirmed the basic account provided by the departmental sources about the meeting and the vote. “I took the results of this survey and the opinions of many I talked to, and in the end decided not to invite [Richmond] for this visit.”

I will not speculate here about why Hublin thought it might be appropriate to bring Richmond to Leipzig, even temporarily, despite the allegations against him. (Richmond's resignation from the museum came after a full year of investigation by an outside firm, T&M Protection Resources, which the AMNH had contracted with to conduct the inquiry after its own half-hearted investigations kept him in his job. A look at their Web site will give you an idea of the seriousness and competence that T&M brings to its work.)

I don't feel good about the fact that Brian Richmond has become the poster boy for sexual misconduct in anthropology, even if I think that he is fully and personally responsible for his forced resignation and banishment from the scientific community.  Like other, more high-profile #MeToo abusers such as Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose, he has suffered severe consequences for his actions--and as the reporter on the story, I obviously played a decisive role in making that happen. Some (especially men, but some women too) have questioned whether it is right to close the door entirely on sexual predators and give them no path back into the communities they were once part of. I would refer them back to Janet Stemwedel's Forbes post: There is a path, but who can name a single sexual predator who has chosen to follow it, rather than falsely proclaim his innocence to anyone who will listen?

To change the culture in the future, the consequences for misconduct in the present must be severe. Save the sympathy for later. For each abuser who has been exposed and banished from his former life, there are hundreds of women who have been forced to flee from beloved jobs and positions, or who never got the chance to pursue them at all.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Happy birthday, Alice McGrath

Alice McGrath, in a scene I saw many times at her home.
Today is the birthday of my wonderful friend Alice McGrath. Had she lived, she would be 101 years old. But she died in 2009, leaving behind a group of loyal friends who loved her dearly. I was very privileged to be among them.

Alice was a passionate and life-long political activist. She is probably best known as the "secretary" of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, organized to defend 22 Mexican-American young men who were accused of murder in this famous 1940s case. Luis Valdez turned the historic episode into the play "Zoot Suit" in the late 1970s, which later became a film. (Tyne Daly played Alice, whose last name was changed to Bloomfield; if I recall correctly, it was partly because Alice objected to suggestions in the play and film that she became romantically involved with one of the defendants, although Valdez relied closely on Alice's memories in constructing his plot.)

I got to know Alice around 1984, when the UCLA Oral History Program, for which I worked at the time, assigned me to interview her. I was living in Los Angeles, and every week or so for several months I would drive up to her beautiful home in Ventura for our recording sessions (these are now held in the UCLA Research Library's special collections, and they were transcribed in written form as well.)

That oral history was the beginning of a friendship that lasted until Alice's death. Although I moved to Paris in 1988, I would visit California very year, and each trip included a visit with Alice. I would stay for a night or two at her house, and in the morning she would make me coffee and toast and we would talk for hours. Alice was a very loyal friend, but she could really speak her mind, and she often did. I remember how stung I was when I told her that I had fallen in love with a wonderful English woman and was moving to Paris, and her first reaction was to call me a "coward" for escaping the struggle for justice in the United States. She took it back almost immediately, but it stayed with me for a long time.

Recently, after nearly 30 years' exile in Paris, I returned to the United States. There are many reasons, but one of them was to join our daughter, a political activist of considerable courage and insight, in the struggle against the disaster that Trump's election has brought to our country. I can't help thinking that Alice would be very proud of me.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Note to an editor whose major publication decided to pass on an important #MeToo story (but that does not involve politicians or film stars)

Are #MeToo stories about famous perpetrators or unknown victims?
Note: In the past few days I heard back from the editors of a major publication that it would not be publishing a six month long investigation into a pattern and practice of sexual predation by a well-known paleoanthropologist over a period of more than 15 years. His actions consisted of several well-documented cases of sexual assault, and multitudes of cases of sexual harassment, nearly all targeted at students or other colleagues younger and much less powerful than him. In many, although not all, of these cases these alleged victims came to work at a famous field site the paleoanthropologist ran outside the United States. Last year the story was killed by the publication that first assigned it, out of fear of litigation: The paleoanthropologist in question hired a high-profile US attorney, who threatened in no uncertain terms to sue the publication (and presumably myself) if the story ran.

In the most recent case, after three months of consideration, the latest publication decided not to publish because not enough alleged victims had gone on the record, or they had put some conditions on their participation that were designed to protect them from the retaliation that they would clearly be at risk of. While I did not argue directly with this decision, I shared some thoughts with the editor I had been working with, and I am sharing them here with readers of this blog. I hope in some way, at some point, they will help to convince editors considering running #MeToo stories that this is not celebrity journalism, and that the victims are the central characters in these sad and often devastating dramas.

I will have more to say about these issues both on this blog and in other articles that I am now preparing and discussing with other editors.

Hi _________,

I am now back in the __ area and have collected by thoughts about the decision _____________ has made about this story.

Actually they are not new thoughts, but things I have been observing and pondering for some time now.

Obviously ______________, ________________, and other major publications have done a great service by exposing sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein and breathing new life into the #MeToo movement. This has made it easier for a lot of women to speak out about their experiences.

At the same time, those who have been emboldened to do so are by and large victims whose fears of retaliation have either been greatly diminished by the removal of the predator from his position of power (Weinstein and many others) which leaves them freer to speak.

In proposing a story about the situation in paleoanthropology, and suggesting that we draw broader lessons about academia and the sciences, I wanted to focus on areas of life and work where the alleged predators maintain their power not only up to the last minute before publication, but sometimes even afterwards in various ways.

This was true of the Brian Richmond story for Science, and it remains true of the Texas Tech stories I did for The Verge (I hope you read those, which I sent to you and your colleagues earlier.)

So it's not surprising that women like _______ or ____________ have ongoing concerns about suffering serious consequences from speaking out, and want to put some conditions on the circumstances in which they do so. It is also one of the ironies of academia, which is supposed to be a truth-seeking endeavor (no more so than in the sciences), that the organizational hierarchies are so strong they actually allow men (and a few women) to prey on vulnerable young researchers who end up getting far more attention than they bargained for.

Indeed, one negative effect of the Weinstein revelations is that editors are increasingly insisting that women publicly reveal their identities before their cases can be written about. In the Brian Richmond story for Science, we felt no need to do that, and we did not do it. And yet it did not diminish one bit from the credibility of the story, nor the consequences to Richmond once the museum had done a serious investigation of the allegations. [Both the editors and attorneys at Science were comfortable with the voluminous evidence backing up the claims we were making.]

So the question arises whether this trend towards insisting on victims outing themselves is to move the discussion forward, or to create more dramatic stories to increase the readership of the publications that publish them. [(In saying this, I do not doubt the sincerity of the editors who work on these stories and often passionately defend them, but on the institutional framework and business model of the publications that get them out there. I have been approached by numerous editors in the past months asking that I share my experiences with journalists interested in "getting into" this new and dramatic beat.)] 

This is really all I have to say about it at this time. But I am talking with other editors about exploring this aspect of media involvement with the #MeToo movement, and the strengths and weaknesses of that involvement in getting at the truth--which, after all, is what journalism is all about.

I hope we can work together on something else in the future, as I am a science writer and investigative journalist with 40 years' experience and I could be an asset to __________. And I hope that _____________ will think about the fact that the victims are just as important as the perpetrators, if not more so, even if the focus up to now has largely been on celebrity predators and well-known politicians in most cases up to now. I think the NYT has done the best job bucking that trend up to now, and I hope __________ will follow suit soon; I had hopes that it would do so with this story, and/or the _______ affair, especially after you told me on the phone that __________ wanted to branch out in the domains it covered.

best wishes, Michael

Note: I have made a few small additions to the original note which I have indicated with [brackets]

Afterthought: This particular story involved dozens of sources, but there were two sexual assault victims in particular who were willing to take great risks to themselves to go public and explain their experiences with the sexual predator the story was about. They showed great courage and continued to be committed to telling their stories for many months, but that was not good enough for the second publication that killed this story. The first publication killed it for fear of being sued; the second for fear of being criticized. What about the victims?

Update: A large number of colleagues in biological anthropology know who this story is about. If anyone feels they have a need to know, they can contact me privately and discuss it. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Should Title IX investigations be kept secret? The case of anthropologist William Hylander at Duke University

Duke University/WikiMedia Commons
In recent days I have put it out on social media that Duke University is investigating one of its anthropology faculty for allegations of sexual harassment. This particular individual has been the subject of conversation within the anthropology community for many years, but he became particularly high profile after verbally harassing colleagues at a 2015 anthropology meeting. His remarks to them, extremely sexist in nature and made in front of numerous witnesses, were reported on social media very shortly afterwards. Unfortunately for this harasser, he chose to target women who were actively researching sexual misconduct in their field. The incidents prompted the organizers of the meeting to make a statement to its members that this kind of conduct would not be tolerated, and to take further laudable action to develop strengthened guidelines for members of their professional association.

I became aware of these and other allegations concerning this anthropologist at the time I was reporting on the Brian Richmond case for Science, the story of the curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I did not write about them at the time. But according to sources I consider reliable, the Duke administration was made aware of their faculty member's behavior at the meeting, and was reminded about this the following year when my Richmond story was published. According to those sources, no action was taken.

It would appear that this anthropologist's alleged behavior has finally caught up with him, as evidenced by the current investigation at Duke. Some colleagues in anthropology have raised questions about my looking into this case, out of concern that the Title IX process could be compromised. I responded to one of these colleagues yesterday, and I wanted to share my thinking about this here. Without identifying this colleague, and with editing to remove certain references, I am reproducing what I said here over the course of two email exchanges. I will come back with some additional thoughts at the bottom.

                                                                                    * * *

Dear ____________

You raise an important question, but I think there is a good answer to it.

Let's go back to the Brian Richmond case for a moment. The third investigation, the one the museum contracted with T&M resources to carry out, was a formal Title IX investigation (since the museum gets federal funds they are subject to Title IX, as I pointed out in my Science story.) That Title IX investigation would never had taken place were it not for the impending publication of my Science story, and by keeping tabs on it while it was going on there was some insurance that it would have some integrity and be serious. Indeed, Brian was forced to resign, and the museum did not sweep things under the rug as they had done twice before.

Now back to [the anthropologist.] Duke administrators have known for several years that there was a problem with [him], but did nothing. Anthropology faculty went to the Provost and to the deans after the and asked that his travel funds be cut off, but they were ignored. So there is no reason to think that the current Title IX procedure, which they seem to have been forced into because it reportedly came from outside the university, will be honest unless it is closely watched and there is transparency. Secrecy only helps the institutions to protect themselves, and does nothing for the victim.

There is no question of "outing" the victim in this case. A few, including Duke administrators, have accused me of wanting to do that, but it is not true. My interest is in the process and in Duke stopping [the anthropologist] from going to meetings and continuing his harassment...

I hope this helps you understand why I am pursuing this journalistically, even if you still do not agree...

My purpose is to keep on top of the situation and to publicize, mostly via social media, the fact that the Title IX investigation is actually going on. I think, given Duke's history of ignoring the problem, that spotlight of attention needs to be kept on the university so they will do the right thing. Too many Title IX investigations have been conducted in total secrecy and led to exoneration of harassers who were clearly guilty according to the evidence...

In other words, in my experience, the university cannot be trusted to carry out a serious Title IX investigation without being watched carefully by the community, and by journalists. That there is an investigation going on is a fact, and one worthy of notice, even if the process is still going on.

                                                                                        * * *

Additional thoughts: In fact it is not unusual for journalists and the publications they work for to report on Title IX investigations while they are still taking place. The Brian Richmond case is an example, as discussed above, and so is another recent case published by Science while the investigation was ongoing (that of Dave Marchant at Boston University.)

I would argue that coverage of these ongoing cases is critical to insuring their integrity, given the long, long history of universities and other institutions covering up even the most egregious and longstanding patterns of sexual misconduct. There are so many examples of this that I do not need to list them here. At the same time, alleged victims can be protected, and neither I nor any other journalist I know has identified victims unless they wanted to be. In keeping with longstanding practice in reporting on rape, assault, and other sexual misconduct cases, journalists name the accused but not the accusers.

Perhaps the day will come when institutions can be counted on to privilege the alleged victims rather than their own reputations. But that day has not yet come, and so investigative journalism into these matters if still necessary and desired.

Update 28 February: Further investigation of this case only adds to the evidence that this particular individual has harassed women, especially students, over the past two decades at least, and his reputation has spread widely. In other venues, and in keeping with the principles I outline above, I have named the anthropologist under investigation on social media. For completeness I will name him here:

William Hylander, emeritus professor, Evolutionary Anthropology, Duke University

I should add that I never name accused individuals unless I am quite sure of the facts. In this case there is ample and highly credible evidence that the individual has engaged in past harassment behavior, and that the investigation I refer to is actually taking place. I am making no comments about the validity of the accusations currently being investigated by the Duke administration.

Additional thoughts March 6, 2018:  Since preparing this blog post, something came along to remind me of one of the most egregious examples of the weaknesses in the Title IX process--Michigan State University's investigation of the sexual misconduct charges against Larry Nassar. The university is now facing an investigation by the Department of Education into how and why it dismissed charges brought by Amanda Thomashow, who was subjected to horrendous violation by the good doctor. The Detroit News has kept abreast of this story, and the serious conflicts of interest demonstrated in the "investigation" of the matter by Title IX investigator Kristine Moore. The Atlantic has also covered this well. Moore prepared two reports on the matter, one for Thomashow that cleared Nassar, and the other a confidential document for the university, which also cleared Nassar but warned about its potential liability. Moore consulted "experts" with clear ties to Nassar in reaching her conclusions. Moore was later promoted to be MSU's assistant general counsel.

Update April 9, 2018: Hylander's name has now been deleted from the Duke evolutionary anthropology faculty page. He had been in the "emeritus" section of that page for many years, but has now vanished. I will provide more details as they emerge.

Update April 10, 2018: I now have it confirmed that the university has forced Bill Hylander to resign his emeritus status as a result of the sexual harassment investigation against him. The Duke administration will not comment on that decision publicly, however, according to its chief spokesperson with whom I was in touch yesterday. That's unfortunate, for the reasons I outline above. And there's another very sad aspect of this. Hylander was a talented researcher in the evolution of the primate face, both human and non-human. I have been told by former students in the evolutionary anthropology department that many women would have wanted to either study with him, be mentored by him, or otherwise take collegial advantage of his expertise. But given his longstanding reputation for harassment, they avoided him instead. That's bad for them and their careers, and it's bad for the science.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

My visit to a "shithole" country

Central Managua/WikiMedia Commons
I’ve visited a lot of what Donald Trump might call “shithole” countries in my life, but the one that evokes the most poignant memories is Nicaragua. I spent a week there in 1986, at the height of the U.S.-funded Contra war, as part of a delegation of journalists and artists. There were about ten of us, although I remember only two by name: Bill Press, the liberal talk show host, who back then worked in television in Los Angeles; and Fionnula Flanagan, the Irish actress and political activist. Fionnula, who by then was already well known, had just the year before achieved some notoriety by performing Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in the nude, in the film “James Joyce’s Women.”

The delegation was organized by my good friend Alice McGrath, a legendary political activist who got her start in Los Angeles in the early 1940s coordinating the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee. In Luis Valdez’s Broadway musical and film “Zoot Suit,” based on the Sleepy Lagoon murder case, her character was called Alice Bloomfield (her “maiden” name was Greenfield.) We became close friends in the middle 1980s, when UCLA’s Oral History Program, for which I worked at the time, assigned me to interview her. As a friend of Alice, I was drawn into a tight group of friends and admirers in California who loved her strong spirit and her dedication to social justice; all of us are still in mourning over her death in 2009.

Alice had invited me to join the delegation, which I was thrilled to do. Our group stayed in a guest house in Managua. Every morning during our week-long visit we piled into a van and headed out to visit various Sandinista politicians, political activists, agricultural specialists, and anti-Contra fighters across the country. One day we supposedly ventured within firing range of the Contras, at least that’s what we were told; we were all skeptical that the Sandinista leaders would put us in danger. But while near the front, we did talk to a female soldier who told us the story, interrupted at times with torrents of tears, about the death of one of her comrades during a fierce battle.

We thought of ourselves as a sophisticated bunch, and treated what we were told, especially by Sandinista leaders, with the suspicion that all propaganda deserves. But at the same time, we were overwhelmed by the incredible kindness and generosity of the Nicaraguan people, with whom we had plenty of unrehearsed contact. We were often left to wander in Managua’s central market, or in the villages we visited, and had encounters that could not have been anything but genuine. Back at the guest house in the evening, we would sit around and share these experiences. None of us had ever met people as nice as these, and we were in a state of shock about it. As Fionnula said at one point, “Something is happening here, and we all know it.”

Most of the people we met were incredibly poor, which made their generosity all the more remarkable. One afternoon our van was heading down a dirt road when a couple of girls, perhaps 12 or 13, waved at our driver, asking for a ride to the next village. He let them in the van where they took a couple of empty seats behind Fionnula. There is no way they could have known who she was, but they immediately formed an attachment for the woman they repeatedly called the “ bella dama” (“beautiful lady”) and fluttered around, firing questions at her between their giggles and laughter. (I must confess that I, too, was fascinated by Fionnula, and did a poor job of covering up my star-struck infatuation with a veneer of coolness.)

The van arrived at their village. The girls, obviously looking for some kind of gift to give to Fionnula, suddenly produced a 20 cordoba note (worth less than a dollar today, but probably a few dollars back then) and thrust it into her hand. Before she could even jump up to protest, the girls were off the bus and running towards their home.

I was sitting across from Fionnula, near the front of the van, and I think I was the only person who could see her clearly. As long as I live I will never forget the emotions that passed across her face as she held the 20 cordoba note gingerly in her hand, all the way back to Managua: A mix of shock and guilt, disbelief and anguish, and, I suspect, hopelessness that she would ever be able to completely absorb why two girls who had almost nothing would bestow a valuable gift on her, who had so much.

I guess I have Donald Trump to thank for inspiring me to tell this story, which I have related to only a very few friends over the past three decades. But it’s gratifying to see that over the last 24 hours, a lot of other writers have also been inspired to tell stories about the “shithole” countries they live in or have visited, and the wonderful people who live in them.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Tree Grows in Van Nuys

6032 Woodman Avenue, Van Nuys, CA, as it looks today.
My recent move from Paris to the United States--a return to my home country after 29 years in exile--has provided an opportunity to sift through old files and documents, the remnants of times past. I came across an article I wrote for the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine in 1986, not long after the death of my mother. The Times' editors titled it "The Best Offer," although my original title was the one you see as the headline of this post. I always considered it one of the best things I wrote in my early days as a writer and reporter in Los Angeles, so thought to reproduce it here (if you can't share your experiences on your blog, where can you do it?) I think it speaks for itself, so here is the original text.

The house I grew up in, a house on Woodman Avenue in Van Nuys, will be torn down this summer and replaced by an apartment building. My mother died last September--my father died several years ago--and my brother and I came with some ambivalence to possess a quarter-acre of San Fernando Valley real estate. My parents had bought the new stucco ranch house back in 1949, and the orange tree they planted in the backyard shortly afterward is now one of the few vestiges of the Valley's formerly rural character.

For months after our mother's death, my brother and I procrastinated. Should we rent the house out? Should we sell it? Should we keep it for ourselves? On occasion we would confess to each other our fantasies about moving back in and reclaiming that fragment of our past.

We finally decided to sell. Our broker told us that the house was a "cream puff," real estate jargon for a home kept in beautiful condition. For a while we had illusions that a nice family would come along and fall in love with it. My mother, despite her illness, had completely redecorated her home, with new carpeting, wallpaper, draperies, bookshelves, French doors. In the backyard, she had built a swimming pool.

But although Woodman Avenue was just a dirt road in 1949, today it is a major Valley thoroughfare. Prospective buyers loved the house but balked at living on a busy street. And the land along that strip of Woodman had years earlier been rezoned for apartments; single-family homes were on their way out. When the developers began their bidding, we took the best offer and gave up our hopes of preserving the family homestead.

At the moment, we are in escrow. My father had gone into real estate soon after we moved to the Valley, and every night he and my mother would talk about "escrow" this and "escrow" that. To my  child's mind, it seemed like some strange state of being, an eerie limbo. I realized only dimly that, all around my safe little world, houses were going up by the blockful as the postwar Valley building boom hit full stride.

Our house was in one of the first tracts built in Van Nuys after the war. Across the street and just to the north of us was Marlene Dietrich's estate, and behind us, cowboy star Tex Ritter had a chicken ranch. My brother and I walked past the place each day on our way to school, and when Mom had packed a lunch we didn't care for--bologna was the chief offender--we would feed our sandwiches to the chickens that thrust their beaks through the wire fence.

As the Valley grew, so did the backyard orange tree, and every winter the oranges seemed to get bigger. One year, my father, who was then working for the real estate appraisal department of a downtown savings and loan, took an huge orange to work. The photographer for the office newsletter took a picture, but the editor apparently did not believe it was really an orange. When the newsletter was published, the photo caption read: "Morris Balter and a grapefruit from his tree."

Recently, I took a walk through downtown Van Nuys. Most of the landmarks of my youth still stand, though there are many signs of change. At Sylvan Street and Vesper Avenue, the old Spanish-style building that was once the Van Nuys Library is now occupied by the Bureau of Fire Prevention and the Department of Transportation. (I still remember being perched on the back seat of my mother's green 1949 Pontiac, surrounded by books like a pirate among his chests of doubloons, as she drove me home from an afternoon's treasure-hunting at the library.) And the McDonald's on Van Nuys Boulevard just south of Sherman Way, where I had my first "real" job at the age of 17, cooking hamburgers, is still serving up Big Macs by the billions.

When I was a young teen-ager, my best friend, Jerry, and I would walk down to Van Nuys Boulevard every Saturday, looking for things to do. After stopping off at Cupid's, at Victory Boulevard and Tyrone Avenue, and eating those delicious chili dogs under the stand's distinctive sign--a big red heart pierced by a yellow arrow--we would arrive on the boulevard only to discover, as we did every Saturday, that there was really nothing for us to do there. My circle of friends became determined to explore what was outside the San Fernando Valley. As soon as we learned to drive, rather than cruise Van Nuys Boulevard on Wednesday nights as many of the other kids did, we would travel to the ends of the city and beyond. And at the age of 18, I graduated from high school and moved out for good.

I confess that I have always been proud that I "escaped" the Valley, although I wonder whether I would have been better off growing up someplace more "exciting." Perhaps I appreciate Los Angeles and the rest of the world all the more, having discovered it only in stages. And now, 20 years later, I have returned to briefly reclaim my childhood home. Escrow closes at the end of this month. My brother and I will take one more slow walk through the empty rooms and hallways, grasping at memories already receding from our minds.

We will walk through the backyard, pausing before the orange tree, which, we have been told, cannot be saved and replanted elsewhere, because when it is uprooted, it will die. This past winter, for the last time, the tree exploded into great glowing orange orbs. My brother and I picked the fruit feverishly, knowing we would never again taste their sweetness.

And so with one last look back, we will lock the front door gently behind us and surrender it all--tree, house and land--to the forces of inevitable change and, I suppose, progress.