Truth, Lies, and Duct Tape

John Mortimor, creator of Rumpole of the Old Bailey, once commented that “The shelf life of a modern … writer is somewhere between the milk and the yogurt.” If you want to know why that’s the case, you can ask that astute social commentator Sylvester Stallone. Broke and down on his luck, [Stallone] reportedly wrote the script for Rocky in three days. “Yo,” he said, adding, “I’m astounded by people who take 18 years to write something. That’s how long it took that guy to write Madame Bovary. And was that ever on a bestseller list? No. It was a lousy book and it made a lousy movie.”

In his inimitable way, Sly has spoken up for the industry. Although he often portrays the loner hero succeeding against all odds, Stallone has become one of the richest people in America by being a star who is bankrolled by the conglomerates he fights on-screen.

As a country, we are an odd mix that Stallone exactly mirrors: we believe we are rugged individualists, but we take refuge in enormous corporations—Weyerhauser, Enron, Disney—whom we trust to look after our forests, heat our homes, or give us accurate and carefully-researched news.

In publishing, as in most other parts of the economy, the move over the last decade has been to mega-corporations. I recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of my first novel’s publication. My agent worked nearly a year before he found a publisher willing to take a chance on a female private eye in America’s heartland, but he kept on plugging because he had dozens of publishers to try. They had names to conjure with: Knopf, Scribners, Harper and Row. When you said those names you thought of books. You thought of Wharton or Hammett or Faulkner.

Today there are essentially seven publishers, with names like Gulf & Western, Disney, Time-Warner. You say those names and you think of —Mickey Mouse. It’s taking the guy eighteen years to write about a provincial doctor’s wife? Dump the jerk. Which is exactly what Harper-Collins (part of the Murdoch empire) did a few years ago—canceled contracts with a hundred writers as easily as you might cancel a magazine subscription, because they were taking too long to write their books.

While my agent found me a publisher, it was libraries that launched my career. My first book, Indemnity Only, sold 4500 copies; 2500 of those were to libraries. The sales were enough for my publisher to request a second book.

Everything is harder for new authors now, in many ways, and one of those ways is the steep drop in book sales to libraries. Somehow in the last two decades we’ve decided that—as a nation of rugged individualists—it is outrageous to pay taxes to support the common good. As a result, we have repeatedly cut library budgets, until today libraries have about a third of the money to buy books that they did twenty years ago.

Just as libraries have been heavy losers in the budget wars, so they are in the front lines of today’s assaults on our cherished liberties. Today I want to talk as a writer, a reader, and an American about the daunting issues of speech and silence we confront.

Every writer’s difficult journey is a movement from silence to speech. We must be intensely private and interior in order to find a voice and a vision — and we must bring our work to an outside world where the market, or public outrage, or even government censorship can destroy our voice.

This is not a new problem in America. When Melville published Moby Dick in 1851, the reception by both public and critics was extremely hostile. The book we today consider a crowning achievement of American letters sold a handful of copies. The reception left Melville confused—and poor. He worked at dead-end jobs to support himself, and struggled at night to write. For almost thirty years he produced only fragments, wisps of prose that he burned with the dawn.

Kate Chopin, a single mom who supported six children with her writing during the 1880’s and ‘90’s, received such a storm of criticism to her novel The Awakening that Scribners actually halted publication of her next book, which was on the printing presses at the time. The story of a woman’s attempt to liberate herself from a stifling marriage by having an affair might have been acceptable if it had been written by a man—even one who took 18 years to finish the novel—but it was too much for the 300 critics who panned The Awakening in 1899. Chopin herself died five years later, at the age of fifty-four, without seeing her work come back into print.

Silence does not mean consent. Silence means death. When we have something to say and we are afraid to speak, or forbidden to speak, we feel as though we’ve been walled into a closet.

Silence can come from the market, as it did for Melville It can come from public hysteria, as it did for Kate Chopin. It can come from the government as outright censorship. Today in America we are finding pressure to silence coming from all three sources.

About a decade ago, I was on the fringe of an exciting Chicago drama. What happened was this: a couple of men—call them Ben and Jerry—owned a business together on the north side. They had a standard insurance policy for a partnership, so that if one partner died insurance would cover the loss of his investment in the firm.

Ben was having an affair with Jerry’s wife, Lucy, when Ben got greedy: he wanted Lucy and the whole business all to himself. Lucy agreed, and she helped Ben find a hitman to kill her husband. Once Jerry was dead they could collect the insurance and live agreeably ever after. They found a real hitman, not an off-duty cop (I’m forever reading about unfortunate women who go into bars looking for hitmen to kill their husbands, only to find that they’ve hooked up with an off-duty police officer, who arrests them. It seems like our police have better things to do with their time than hang out in bars misleading trusting women, but that’s another story.) Our story is about Ben and Lucy and their real hitman.

At the eleventh hour Lucy got cold feet and ratted to the cops, who stopped the hitman right before he killed Jerry. Ben was arrested, and ultimately found guilty of conspiring to commit murder. When the cops arrested the hitman, they found a stack of index cards next to him on the car seat. The top card read, “Killing Orders—Sara Paretsky.”

The cops were excited; they thought they’d found the mastermind behind the hit. They raced off to the state’s attorney to apply for an emergency warrant. And fortunately for me, the assistant state’s attorney catching night duty was a mystery reader. He explained that Killing Orders was the title of one of my novels. The hitman had a list of books that he wanted to read while he hid out after the job. The cops never did arrest me.

Nowadays, that story has the potential to play out differently. Under the Patriot Act, the police would not have to explain why they wanted a warrant — they could claim that they thought my work was related to a criminal investigation with a possible connection to terror without saying one word more to the state’s attorney. To get a warrant they don’t have to show probable cause: they do not have to offer proof of any kind. They could come and take me away and make me account for myself without allowing me to talk to a lawyer. They could hold me indefinitely without charging me. They could keep me from telling my family where I was.

They can tap my phone. They do not need a warrant for this wiretap. A University of California student found this out recently to her astonishment: an avid video games player, she was talking to friends about a particular game which included bomb icons. Two hours after this phone call, the FBI showed up at her door.

The Patriot Act has no so-called Sundown clause, meaning that a provision must be re-evaluated by Congress or die after a certain period of time (usually two to five years.) The Patriot Act gives these powers to local police and the FBI indefinitely.

Even if they never arrested me, agents could come into my house, search and seize my files, my books, and download data from my computer, without telling me, without showing me a warrant. They can do that to you as individuals. They can do that in your libraries.

On the plus side, they could subpoena the records of bookstores and find out everyone buying my book. Or they could find out if people were checking Killing Orders out of their public or university library: the law says they can force librarians to identify anyone reading such a title. That is a plus, isn’t it? That particular book has been read by about five million people around the world. Wouldn’t it be worth invading the privacy of four million nine hundred ninety-nine thousand readers to intercept one hitman?

So surely the Patriot Act is a step in the right direction—shouldn’t the government monitor everything we read and write, just in case that helps the law catch one criminal?

We do have a model of a country that followed that plan for seventy years. In the old Soviet Union, you could do hard labor for reading the wrong kind of books. Or for writing them.

The Russian writer Abram Tertz, who himself spent six years in a Soviet Labor camp, saw his father arrested several times during the Stalin years. When the police searched the house, they always inspected books and papers first: were people reading or writing anything subversive? In one search of Tertz’s father’s home, they found the work of a Russian poet named “Biely”, which is Russian for “white.” This damned Tertz’s father before the trial even began, because just as we loathed and feared anyone labeled “Red” here in the States, so did the Soviets loathe and fear anyone labeled “White;” (White had been the color of the Imperial standard, so Czarist supporters formed the White army, which opposed the Reds during the Russian civil war of 1919-21.)

We like to think in this country that we are all like Rocky: four-square for individualism and for individual expression, and that only in totalitarian states do people cave in to threats. I’m not so hopeful. Perhaps this is because I grew up in an idyllic Mid-western town in the 1950’s, when America was obsessed with the threat of Communism.

In Lawrence, Kansas, people felt the Cold War as something real and very close. In the first grade, my teacher pulled down a Mercator Projection map and pointed to a gigantic orange blob. That was Russia, Mrs. Postma announced. They were bigger than we were and they were out to destroy us.

Protecting Lawrence, and America, against Communism was an obsession with the town. Freedom committees, the John Birch society, and other right-wing groups monitored everything from school curricula to books in the library; they ran a sideline in monitoring whether African-Americans were using public facilities.

The daily newspaper was vigilant in pointing out godless elements in town and inciting mob action against them. When my parents protested a religious revival held in the town high school — at which student attendance was mandatory -the paper printed their names and phone number and urged citizens to call to tell them how little use America had for Communist-loving atheists. For some weeks my parents got hate calls in the middle of the night urging them to go back where they came from — southern Illinois for my mother, Brooklyn for my father. (The students who petitioned not to attend were locked in a small room during the four hours of the revival.)

Do you remember the TV movie The Day After? This movie was filmed in and around Lawrence. Everyone was excited about having a film crew in town. One of our friends even got paid for letting ABC blow up his old barn. But the day after The Day After aired, angry citizens marched on city hall to demand that the mayor resign. By letting ABC make a movie in Lawrence that showed what life would be like if we actually had a nuclear war — the massive destruction, the burned and maimed bodies, the radiation sickness — the freedom committees said the mayor had shown the Soviets we were soft on nuclear war — we were afraid of its consequences — a view, by the way, shared by many on then-President Reagan’s staff, who tried to talk ABC out of showing The Day After.

Even without a Patriot Act, it was hard to express an opinion outside the vocal anti-communism in Lawrence. People whispered opposition to the local freedom committees; they were afraid to speak out against them publicly.

The HUAC hearings were in full sway during my childhood. The year I turned four, Dashiell Hammett went to prison for two crimes: he gave money to a bail fund for labor figures who Congress thought were Communists, and he refused to name other people who contributed to the bail fund. The State Department saw that Hammett’s books were removed from every library supported by federal money. Knopf, his long-time publishers, suspended publication of The Maltese Falcon in deference to the HUAC blacklist. (Hammett’s first book was called Red Harvest, which was proof in Congress’s eyes that he had long-standing Communist sympathies. In fact, the red refers to the river of blood that runs through the novel — Blanche Knopf named it, not liking Hammett’s original title of Poisonville. So Hammett went to an American prison for writing a book with red in the title, just as Abram Tertz’s father went to a Soviet prison for owning a book of poetry by someone named white.)

Today, we are once again allowing fear to silence our speech. Shortly after the Patriot Act was passed, Barry Reingold, a 61-year-old phone company worker in San Francisco had said while working out in his gym, “Bush has nothing to be proud of. He’s a servant of the big oil companies and his only interest in the Middle East is oil.” Apparently, a fellow exerciser didn’t like these remarks and reported Reingold to the FBI, which sent to agents to talk to him the very next day. Reingold told the FBI he thought he had a right to free speech. The agents said he did, but told him they were still writing up a report on him.

This past October, a man looking at foreign-language pages on the Web in a New Jersey library was taken into custody as he left the building. Another patron, without enough to read on his own, had become alarmed at seeing non-English text on his neighbor’s screen and had called the cops; they held the man for two days without charging him, without letting him call his lawyer or call home. They finally released him without any comment. The FBI recently came into St. Johns College in Baltimore and arrested a student in the school library: the youth was logged onto a live chat room and had criticized the president. The college is under a gag order: the instructor who reported this incident could be arrested for talking about it.

I am not sanguine about the near-term survival of dissenting speech in this country. These days, when we are all in the grip of fear, when the public is longing for action against all our enemies, whether these enemies are real or phantasms of John Ashcroft’s mind, and when we have not just fear, but a law allowing wide-ranging, secret action by the government — my own level of anxiety becomes acute.

We have today a government that mixes silence with lies.

We have a government that has by fiat sealed presidential papers from public view. We have a government that will not reveal the names of the people who created America’s energy policy — your policy and mine — because they claim that naming their advisors will undermine national security. We have a government that is trying to set up a Soviet style system of citizens spying and reporting on each other — whose first consequence was to shut down the Interstate highway to trap three medical students.

We have a government that in the past winter tapped the home phones and e-mails of UN delegates from Chile, Mexico, Pakistan and Cameroon, to see how they might vote in the UN on invading Iraq.

We have a government that is setting up an office called Information Operations, designed to plant false stories in foreign news outlets to help sway world opinion in favor of its actions. This operation was shot down a year ago and Donald Rumsfeld promised it was gone for good. It’s back now under a new name, with a promise of $250 million in funding from Illinois’s own representative Henry Hyde.

We have a government that instituted a Global Gag Rule, forbidding foreign governments to discuss abortion with their own citizens – a rule, by the way, which directly caused the death of 9500 women and 154,000 infants in third world countries in the two years since the Gag rule was implemented.

We have a government that released forged documents to make its case that Iraq has nuclear weapons.

We have a government that has ordered libraries to destroy a whole series of public reports that it doesn’t want the public to read.

And we have a U.S. press is acquiescing easily with the government’s desire for silence in all these arenas.

A chill wind is blowing today, one that threatens to destroy our precious freedoms. Some people say, oh, our freedoms have been assaulted before, but we’ve always recovered them. But we have never recovered them without fighting very hard for them, and it is hard to fight for freedom when you can go to prison, or face ostracism for being “unpatriotic” — as John Ashcroft has labeled anyone who questions the Patriot Act — or face firing — which is what happened to Tom Gutting, a Texas journalist who was fired for questioning the president’s actions in the weeks after September 11.

Every state in the union has laws, either written or established by the courts, to protect the privacy of library patrons: what we read, what we check out, what we look at on-line, is our business — even if we’re reading Killing Orders, or the poems of Biely.

The Patriot Act overturns those confidentiality laws. The Patriot Act allows the government to compel libraries to produce circulation records, Internet use records, or information stored in any medium. If served with a subpoena, libraries and librarians may not disclose the existence of the subpoena, nor the fact that records were produced as a result of a subpoena. Patrons cannot be told that their records were given to the FBI, nor that they are the subject of an FBI investigation. In addition, the government does not have to demonstrate “probable cause” to get a subpoena issued. Instead, the law enforcement agent only needs to claim that records may be related to an ongoing investigation involving terrorism or intelligence activities.

According to the Connecticut Law Tribune and the Library Journal, the FBI or local police used the Patriot Act to seize or search library records at least 546 times in the Act’s first year. These are only the numbers that have been reported: some libraries that were attacked may have been too frightened of the consequences to report the invasion even anonymously. We don’t know which libraries were involved, because if librarians report that their library has been involved in a search of records, they face arrest. Any librarian could spend years in prison for telling me, her or his patrons, or their spouses, let alone a reporter, that the police had taken circulation or Internet records from your library.

At the same time that he is relentlessly pursuing the nation’s readers, the Attorney-General has blocked all efforts to track gun ownership. Perhaps the NRA can adopt a new slogan: guns don’t endanger America, books do.

What is the appropriate response of a writer at times like this? At the simplest basic level, I think it’s my job to continue to write stories that — I hope — people will want to read. But of course, I don’t write in a vacuum, and the public climate affects both what I want to say, and what I feel free to say.

I finished writing my most recent published novel, Total Recall, in February, 2001. There’s always a period of post-partum depression on finishing, as well as a period of intense work in response to editorial comments, so it wasn’t until July 2001 that I felt ready to start thinking about a new project. I had committed to writing a book in my V I series, and was fiddling around with ideas.

I had sent Morrell, V I Warshawski’s lover, to Afghanistan in Total Recall. I actually did it to get him out of Chicago — out of the way of V I’s investigation. Lovers are a difficult part of detective series novels –unless they are directly involved in the plot, they distort the arc of the story.

I sent Morrell to Afghanistan partly because it was far away, and partly because I was interested in the Taliban. I was concerned about the Taliban is a better way of putting it — not as a threat to the United States but as a threat to the life and well-being of Afghan women. As a rather grim footnote, let me add that Total Recall was published on September 4, 2001. On September 9, I had an e-mail from a reader wanting to know what the Taliban were and why was I always filling my books with stuff no one had ever heard of.

So I have the notes I was making in July 2001 as I started imagining story lines. I had been reading Ahmed Rashid’s book on the Taliban. In that book, he described how Unocal and the Argentinean petroleum cartel were helping support the Taliban through the bribes they paid Mullah Omar — both Unocal and Argentina wanted the rights to build an oil pipeline through Afghanistan and Mullah Omar was courting both. I began imagining a story involving large oil companies and bribes, but I couldn’t quite see how to make it Chicago-based. And I like my books to be grounded in Chicago, where V I knows the ropes.

My next set of notes, dated from August 8, 2001, dealt with someone who worked for a large agricultural company that secretly produced weapons-grade anthrax.

After September 11, all these ideas seemed untouchable. Like everyone in this country, everyone in this room, I was shaken to my core by the attacks. I felt fragile, fearful, uncertain. I shied away from exploiting any of the events of that tense autumn for my own novel.

I knew I had to get to work, but my brain was frozen. Eventually I started work on a book that wasn’t concerned with September 11 or its aftermath, except in an indirect way. In the past eighteen months, as events unfolded, as my anxieties became divided between fears of overseas extremists and those of our own government extremists here at home, I felt a disconnect from my work, because my writing wasn’t where my waking thoughts and worries were. But current events are so very current these days—each day brings a new issue, a new threat—that it would be stupid to try to write a book set in these times. Then, too, I think of the advice of the French writer Andre Gide: It is with fine sentiments that bad literature is made.

Anyway, I don’t like social-political novels, books written only to make a point — to show that four legs are better than two, or all males are testosterone-crazed villains, or champagne drinkers are unpatriotic. There’s a reason that the writers we know from Stalin’s Russia are Pasternak and Akhmatova, not Gribachev, who wrote Spring in the Victory Collective Farm. Pasternak may have wanted to make a point, an ardently felt point, about human freedom, about the confusion that we feel in the midst of social upheavals, and how hard it is to know how to act. But he wanted to write about human beings caught up in events, not idealized political types.

At the same time, books are our guides, our supports: they show us that we are not alone in our belief in liberty and freedom. The Russian poet Ratushinskaya, who spent three years in a forced labor camp for her writing, put on a little play when she was a college student in Odessa in the 1970’s. She had a dark stage with twenty people on it. As a spotlight shone on each in turn, the person said, “What can one person do alone, anyway?”

My own stories come to me from the events around me, but the events around me today are defying my ability to turn them into stories. I have often written about corporate corruption, and the cynical indifference of large institutions to the well-being of ordinary citizens. But Enron and Harken Energy defy my imagination.

My detective solves her cases with grit and hard work, but she can’t rely on institutions of justice to punish the well-connected criminal. And voila, once again nature outstrips my art, by placing an Enron insider in charge of the Army; an oil industry lobbyist as deputy secretary of the interior; the chairman of Halliburton Company, which led the world in sales of equipment to Iraq from 1998 to 2000, as vice president of the United States.

My detective often turns to her friend Murray Ryerson, a reporter, who can publicize what’s happened, and make it hard for the criminals to hold onto their jobs, even if they get to keep their stock portfolios. But all over America, newspapers like Murray’s have been bought by giant media conglomerates, which cut staffs of reporters in half, because every time they lay off a lot of people, their stock prices jump. So papers don’t have resources to investigate corporate or government scandals. And many times, maybe even most times, the newspaper or TV station is itself part of a conglomerate that either is actively participating in similar crimes, or won’t reveal crimes by government officials because the conglomerate wants political favors.

Indeed, the president of Fox News is one of President Bush’s media advisers; after the November elections, he boasted openly that he had used Fox News to distort coverage of Democrats in tight races to help ensure a Republican Congress. Clear Channel, whose CEO is another big Bush donor, has been using its 1200 radio stations to orchestrate riots against the Dixie Chicks.

I often feel these days that I’m walking under a toxic cloud, not of germs or radiation, but of lies. When the government says, we will fight AIDS in Africa, but says no one can distribute or even mention condoms, I know I’m in the world of 1984. When the government tells me there’s a code orange alert, to wrap myself in duct tape and plastic, but go shopping, because it’s good for the economy, I become just about speechless from the disconnect between truth, lies — and well, duct tape.

I hate being powerless. I hate my detective to be powerless. But I can’t have her act like a Robert Ludlum super-hero, forcing the FBI and Disney to their knees and walking off unimpaired, because my stories rely too much on the world of the real. My heroes have to take their lumps the way we all do in the world of the real. I just won’t subject V I to the ultimate lumps that some heroes have to take. She won’t die for her beliefs, she won’t be silenced, she won’t sell out her friends. That is the best I can offer her and my readers in the world of today.

Because my own great comfort comes from other writers’ words, my hope is that my stories may also bring readers some solace in the night, provide some lamplight on a darkened path. Twenty six hundred years ago, the poet Sappho — who saw the goddess descend from the heavens in a chariot drawn by sparrows – wrote

Although they are
Only breath, words
Which I command
Are immortal.

As a child, in the world of books and daydreams where I sought refuge from an unfriendly world, I longed for magic, longed for the passage to Narnia or other fairylands. As an adult, I watch the sparrows outside my window closely: I still yearn enough for magic to hope they’ll bring me the goddess, but ultimately I have to realize that these are hard-scrabbling urban birds, trying to stay alive in a world that’s rough on small creatures, and on poets.

When I enter a library, when I enter the world of books, I feel the ghosts of the past on my shoulders, urging me to courage. I hear Patrick Henry cry to the Burgesses, “Is Life so dear, or Peace so sweet, to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” I hear Sojourner Truth tell me that the hand that rocks the cradle can also rock the boat, and William Lloyd Garrison says, “I am in earnest, I will not be silenced.”

It is my only hope, that against those forces which seek to silence us, to rob us of our voices and our precious freedoms, that my words, Sappho’s words, Sojourner Truth’s words, indeed, our Constitution’s words, that all these words which are only breath will not only endure, but triumph.

Sara N. Paretsky