When Symbols Matter

February 9th, 2007 · 3 Comments
by Diane Lefer

We are proud to say that we meet many fascinating people. What seems like a casual hello at an open house can lead to a lengthy, intense discussion about something you never expected. When we met Diane Lefer at a party, we discovered that a mutual friend had been trying to get us in the same room for years (we also realized that we had, indeed, been in the same room many times, most likely at opposite ends of the bar).

Diane, we discovered, has a secret past, but it is her current avocation that held us in thrall. The author of the upcoming california Transit, a collection of short stories from Sarabande Books, she also spends her days living her beliefs, which means forcing people to acknowledge the realities of the world we occupy. Today is part one of Diane’s story. Part two will be waiting for you when you get up in the morning:

January 11. It will be five years to the day when the first shackled, hooded prisoners arrived at the US base at Guantánamo Bay, so I’ll get into my orange jumpsuit, pull on the black hood, and twist the black binding around my wrists. I’m headed downtown to the Federal Building.

The first time I dressed as the oppressed, it was at an anti-torture event at the First Unitarian Church at Westmoreland and Eighth. Much to my surprise, approximately 100 people—all there because of their opposition to US policy—turned their faces away and took circuitous routes to avoid me. Later, a few explained that my appearance had them terrified. It made no sense. I was portraying the victim, but I guess the hood evokes the image of terrorists and executioners, of the Grim Reaper, Death itself. I wonder if fear in the heart of the observer makes violent abuse by guards an almost instinctive response.

I thought I was sensitive to what would get people upset. A couple of months earlier, I’d made a button that proclaimed I AM A TERRORIST. By paying US taxes, I reasoned I was providing material support to state-sponsored terror and torture. After wearing it a few days, I left the button home. It didn’t feel safe to display the terrorist label in public, but the button never affected people as dramatically as the basic black hood.

Demonstrations are OK, but I prefer riding buses and wandering town on my own, without flyers, without slogans, unaffiliated, hoping to raise the question whether the jumpsuit, hood, and shackles should now be considered an ordinary part of American life. At the shopping mall around the corner, a security guard became enraged. “If you don’t like this country, go live somewhere else!” When I explained I needed to go into Barnes and Noble to buy a copy of the Constitution, he ordered me off the premises and called for backup. (Moral: patronize your independent bookstore.) One afternoon in December, on the #2 bus, I sat across the aisle from Santa Claus. On the UCLA campus, a young man commented that torture turns him on.

It gets hot inside the hood. I become very conscious of my heartbeat. When I kneel or squat or stand with arms stretched and raised, any position held long enough feels like a “stress position,” but unlike the prisoners at Gitmo, I can quit whenever I please and go home. Unlike them, I haven’t been held for years, presented with no evidence and charged with no crime. And yet I feel guilty. I can see through the fabric—but barely. Being enclosed in myself—even if not hermetically sealed, I become disoriented. I screw up my chance at ordinary human interaction. One afternoon, after I’d spent hours wandering the town, a woman at last approached to ask if I was all right—the very first person to show concern. “Yes, I’m all right. I’m not in Guantánamo,” I snapped back at her as though she was a jerk.

People pass by intent on their cellphones and iPods, but I know they see me, and this direct connection to an audience, for a writer, is intoxicating.
Several years ago, I volunteered as a paralegal/interpreter for immigrants imprisoned by INS. This was before 9/11, so the war on terror can’t be blamed. Thousands of people were locked up (still are) in Los Angeles County, some for months, some for years, some with no idea why they were there or how long they’d be held or even how long they would have to wait for a hearing. No personal items. That meant, no underwear, no toothbrush until you received government-issued supplies, and there weren’t enough supplies to go around. No books, no magazines. Prescription medications confiscated. No contact visits with families. Partners, children, parents, brothers, sisters, friends traveled long distances on weekends to wait for hours for the chance of a 5-10 minute conversation through Plexiglas via telephone. Often the phone didn’t work. As a paralegal, I met with people in attorney interview rooms and listened to their stories. It soon became clear that the lawyers I was working for had no intention of taking any these cases. All I could do for the desperate frightened women was to hold their hands, or hug them, or hold them while they cried, giving them the comfort their own families were not permitted to offer.

Contact visits weren’t always what I wanted. One day I found myself locked in with a man who’d been transferred over to INS after serving time on a criminal change. He explained that some guys don’t belong in prison while he, by contrast, was still capable of rape. He drew complicated diagrams showing lines running back and forth between Bill Clinton’s mind and his own and demanded I sue the government to make the United States cease its conspiracy of pretending he had syphilis and trying to poison him with treatment. After listening to him with the most considerate attention I could muster, I made my way around the space to the light switch with which I was supposed to signal the hostile guards that I wanted out. No one came. For the next two hours, I avoided making any promise about legal action while joining my companion in drawing ever more elaborate pictures of Bill Clinton’s brain.

But this is the point about being a writer. I tried to get news media attention about denials of due process, about human rights abuses right here in California, but everyone was focused on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress. I didn’t go into the detention centers looking for material, but since the news didn’t care, I figured I’d try to reach the public through art. I wrote a play. And then, really looking for the mass audience, I wrote a – literary novella! Well, that’s a surefire way to advance social change! (Hooray to the Santa Monica Review for publishing it back then, and to Sarabande Books for including it in my new collection almost eight years after I wrote it.)

I do it anyway. Is it me or is it the times we live in? Almost everything I write these days has at least some connection with politics. But sometimes words are not enough.

So much simpler to snap up the front of an orange jumpsuit and walk out the door. I’ll tell you later how it goes downtown.

Will it make a difference? I don’t know. But I’ll be in your face. I’ll be seen.

Diane Lefer’s collection, California Transit, was selected by Carole Maso for the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and will be published by Sarabande Books on April 1.

File Under: Square Pegs

3 responses so far ↓

  • Nelson Clark // Feb 12, 2007 at 8:02 am

    I’m a complainer, too. But with Diane’s piece I have no complaints, only respect and admiration. She’s one chicka with cojones mas grande.

  • Naomi // Feb 20, 2007 at 10:30 am

    Thank you, Diane, our Higher Self.

  • Bob Squires // Feb 20, 2007 at 11:47 am

    Diane is an uberactivist. She writes exquisitely and deserves far more positive critical attention. She is tremendously brilliant and wry. Thank you, Diane!!!