Refusing to Allow Pressure to Silence a Critical Voice

Chicago Tribune Op-Ed, April 1, 2007

The night we began our invasion of Iraq — March 20, 2003 — I was speaking at the Toledo public library. The day before, my speakers bureau told me that the library wanted me to change my proposed remarks; my talk on how the Patriot Act was affecting writers, readers and libraries was too political. The library wanted instead the kind of humorous anecdotes that other writers used. With war imminent, the library felt that a criticism of the Bush administration was an insult to local families who had relatives in the service.

Days before I spoke, the Dixie Chicks had roused widespread fury by criticizing the impending war and saying they were “ashamed” that the president came from their home state, Texas. Mobs destroyed Chicks albums, lead singer Natalie Maines got death threats, and a Colorado Springs radio station suspended two disc jockeys for playing the Chicks’ music.

I had experienced some of that anger. My 2003 novel “Blacklist,” in which my detective, V.I. Warshawski, encounters the powers the Patriot Act gives the FBI, prompted readers to send e-mails or post on my Web site telling me I hated America and loved terrorists. Over and over I read, “I will never pick up one of her books again.” Hard words to see. They shook me up all over again when I went back to look at them while writing this essay.

Confrontation scares me; when the Toledo library asked my speakers bureau to help rein me in, I thought seriously about changing my talk. Then I thought of the times — too many of them — that I had caved in to this kind of pressure, and remembered the sense of degradation I suffered afterward.

When Disney made a movie based on my detective, I caved in to studio pressure not to talk about my experience with the moviemakers. When editors have cut scenes from my books that they found offensive, I’ve let it go without an argument. The many times as a young adult I let my parents veto any moves away from their authority still sit uneasy in my gut 40 years later.

The lecture I planned to give in Toledo addressed issues of censorship and silence. If I let my voice be muffled, could I ever speak in public again?

When I walked into the auditorium, I was shaking so badly that I had to clutch the lectern throughout my talk. Five hundred people came out in a heavy rainstorm to hear me, and when I was done, they gave me a standing ovation. Afterward, many people said the administration campaign to deride and marginalize all opposition was so effective that they had felt alone and isolated, as if each was the only person in America to doubt the truth of what we were being told by the White House.

The Patriot Act gives the Department of Justice power to demand all records from a library or store on the basis of either a national security letter or a subpoena. To get a subpoena, the government does not have to show probable cause to a judge, it merely has to tell a judge that the target of its investigation “may” have a connection to a terrorist organization.

If you receive such a letter or subpoena, the act says you can go to prison for up to 5 years for telling anyone about it — your spouse, your lawyer, your boss. Two years ago, in fact, four librarians in Windsor, Conn., faced Justice Department sanctions, including a gag order that carried a threat of imprisonment, for consulting the library’s lawyer when they received a demand to produce user documents.

According to The Washington Post, the FBI is issuing 30,000 of these letters each year now, compared with 300 a year before the act was passed. When Post reporter Barton Gellman interviewed FBI agents to find out how many of these letters led directly or indirectly to uncovering a terror threat, the answer was none.

We don’t know how many libraries have been served with these letters, because — like most of us — librarians fear imprisonment. But a survey conducted by the University of Illinois’ Library Research Center in Champaign, in which libraries could report anonymously, found that about 11 percent of libraries nationwide had received subpoenas or national security letters in the act’s first year.

The Patriot Act gives the Department of Justice sweeping “sneak-and-peek” authority, meaning agents can break into our houses when we’re away and take our books, papers and computer files without ever telling us they broke in.

I used that authority as part of a scene in “Blacklist,” and that scene, as well as the ambiguity around the FBI’s search for an Egyptian teenager, sparked the outpouring of fury over my work.

Because my books deal with issues of law, justice and society, in Europe they have always been considered political. In the United States, it was only when I wrote explicitly about the Patriot Act that readers felt I was a political writer. Although “Fire Sale,” my next novel, looked at social justice issues on the South Side of Chicago, readers and reviewers lauded me for returning to what they saw as my proper function of storyteller and entertainer.

I’m not a fan of propaganda novels, novels written to show four legs are better than two, or that women deserve to be raped and beaten, or that men are testosterone-crazed thugs. But I don’t know how to divorce myself and my fictions from the urgent concerns of my life: Who is allowed to speak? Who listens? Who is silenced?

The more I thought about these questions — in the wake of the response to “Blacklist,” and in the wake of my experience in Toledo — I felt the need to go back into my own life, my own history, to understand why issues of speech and silence matter so much to me.

Herman Melville talked about the “the silent grass-growing mood” that writers need in order to write. I think of that as a kind of interiority, a way of getting as deep inside oneself as possible in order to write in an honest, authentic voice. That kind of introspection can be painful as well as rewarding, but it can’t take place easily in an atmosphere of fear or in the tumult of the marketplace. In such an atmosphere it’s hard to hear our own voice, to find out what we really have to say.

I grew up in a tangled nest of outsideness. My father was the first Jew the University of Kansas hired for a tenured position — a daring experiment that left us as the town giraffes, always on display, not treated with hostility, but as oddities.

As is true for many Jews of my generation, the Holocaust cast a long shadow over our lives. For my family, as for many, America was a haven, the Bill of Rights its most valuable treasure. Much of my family was obliterated by a government that imprisoned and killed its citizens for no reason except their religion, or their race, or their political beliefs. This history has made me acutely sensitive to acts by the American government that infringe on our cherished rights.

In my family I was also a kind of outsider. The only girl among five children, I was constrained from the age of 9 to give up my own childhood in becoming the caretaker of my young brothers. My childhood home was run on the lines of the old-fashioned patriarchy, where what boys did mattered and what girls did was second-rate.

Because the pervasive segregation codes of the time extended to Jews as well as to African-Americans, my parents bought a house in the country, which led to my living a life of intense isolation. My brothers could use the family cars to come and go as they wished, but I was forbidden to do anything outside the home except attend school. At home, I looked after the small children and cleaned the house. When my youngest brother started school, he didn’t know I was his sister; he thought he had two mommies.

Every Saturday, from the time I was 7 until I left my parents’ home at 17, I baked for my father and brothers. My parents were highly educated and highly literate. But though they borrowed money to send my brothers to expensive colleges far from home, they sent me to secretarial school and told me that if I wanted a university education, it would be at my own expense, and in my home state. So I worked my way through the University of Kansas.

My parents would not permit me to leave Kansas. When I finally found the strength to leave, I set out for Chicago. In 1968, I started graduate work at the University of Chicago. My father told me not to be surprised if I failed, because Chicago was a first-rate school and mine was a second-rate mind. That criticism, in many different guises, was a constant of my childhood. There are still days when the words start to sink me, and I lack the energy to rise above their effects.

When I started graduate school, I could barely speak above a whisper. A good friend from those years says that when she first met me, she thought she was going deaf when I spoke.

It was a long, slow journey for me, from the silence of the margins to speech. Because of my upbringing, I don’t think I will ever turn away from questions of power and powerlessness, in my fiction, or in my lectures. The questions of who gets to speak, and who listens, are central to how I view the world. These are the issues I explore in my new collection of essays “Writing in an Age of Silence.” I hope through these essays I can persuade some of the readers who responded so angrily to “Blacklist” that silence is more dangerous and more crippling than dissenting from power.