Monday, December 30, 2013

Esty: A Novel/Memoir - Review

Dialogue with the DEAD
            by Fred L. Gardaphe

What if your mother handed you a novel she had written before she died and you read it, only to realize it wasn’t publishable? Most people would have set it aside with her effects, leaving it for future generations to peruse. Not Lawrence DiStasi. As he read his mother’s fiction, he began to respond to it with questions, comments, clarifications, compassion, outrage and joy.

In a brilliant and original move, Lawrence decided to publish his mother’s novel along with his reactions to the stories. The result is a bold and innovative work titled “Esty,” the gathering of family voices first envisioned by Margaret Weisz DiStasi. Margaret is the daughter of “Esty,” a Hungarian Jew who, despite an arranged marriage, manages to consummate an affair with Vonny, her first and perhaps only love, while her husband escapes to the U.S. to avoid World War I. The tryst results in Margaret’s birth, or so the story goes. But is this fact or fantasy?

This is only one of the questions that Lawrence tries to answer as he moves through his mother’s story. Along the way, he offers additional insights he had while conducting his research for the novel. At times, Margaret stays with the fiction, but at other times, she strays into the reality, all the while maintaining that whatever anyone thinks, this is her story, and she’s sticking with it.

Margaret was long dead by the time Lawrence had the idea for the book, but he resurrects her now and then to respond to what he has written. This is where the excitement builds, as mother scolds son for the liberties he takes, and son let’s mother know that he isn’t always on her side. This interaction, along with the voices of other key figures, such as Margaret’s abusive (and possibly alleged) father, marks the brilliance of Lawrence’s work.

Like Esty, Margaret is forced into a marriage. However she escapes with the Italian man of her dreams, and he protects her from her father’s attempts to force her to return to her Jewish husband. Margaret converts to Catholicism and raises her family out of the shadows of her past. The excitement returns when those shadows are recast later in her life, and she must ex- plain them to her children.

Lawrence keeps the voices separate by leaving his mother’s writing in the conventional format of capital letters at the beginning of sentences, while his input appears in lower-case letters: “the question we keep wanting to iterate is: what?” he queries. “what was the irreducible and unadorned fact that leads to this story? or that this story leads to? ... because it’s the story here, that keeps us boxing with shadows.”

Margaret’s imagined voice after her death in italicized sentences as well as lower-case letters: “no, but couldn’t I at least have got a son to help me with instead of — my god, don’t you see what you’re doing? hasn’t my life been misery enough, and writing it more of a misery, isn’t that enough without you making it worse? isn’t it? would it be so hard to just let it be?”

The result is one powerful and engaging read that makes us rethink our own family histories and their relationships to the forces that have shaped not just our present, but also the very way we look at the past.

EXCERPT From the Book

…but this is not just any fiction. this is a fiction that cries out in the night to be told. and its telling travels over three generations and through loin after loin to insist on one overriding truth: i am not my father’s daughter. i have never been his real daughter. as my mother, the breathtaking, chest-nut-haired esty, was never truly his wife. she was vonny’s. and i am vonny’s. royal vonny’s who had to die. and what fitter way for a secret, a noble, mythic father to die than in the very first charge of the very first battle of the very first world war? amen. ... trouble is, it’s not easy to keep real events in phase with mythic events in a novel. you try and try, but time keeps slipping out of joint.

Esty: A Novel/Memoir
by Lawrence W. DiStasi & Margaret Weisz DiStasi
I Pages: 215 I Cost: $16.95 (paperback) I ISBN: 978-0-9652714-2-4 I Visit: or email:
Lawrence W. DiStasi has previously published “The Big Book of Italian American Culture,” “Mal Occhio: The Underside of Vision,” and “Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment during World War II.”

Sunday, December 15, 2013

War or Peace?

This week being the first anniversary of the Newtown school massacre, I thought it a good time to try to write something about that age-old debate: are we humans by nature warlike killers, or are we peacemakers who are driven to pursue happiness?  A book and a video and an article have each added fuel to one side or the other of this argument: anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon’s recent memoir, Noble Savages, about his more than 30 years studying the Yanomamo of the Venezuelan/Brazilian rainforest; the documentary shown recently on PBS called “Happy”; and a piece from Think Progress, “Five Reasons Why 2013 Was the Best Year in Human History.” Though they seem to be at odds, taken together they may add up to a reasonable view of just what we, as humans, are and have been and may be evolving to be.
Chagnon has a fairly simple, though not uncontroversial theory. Based on his years living with the Yanomamo—an essentially stone-age people living in small villages where, until recently, they hunted, fished, gathered local crops, and farmed some of the staples like bananas and manioc that sustain them—Chagnon concluded something radical: their frequent fights and wars with their neighbors were not about gaining better territory or increasing their hold on material goods. Rather, their raids were almost always about capturing women. The headman of a group would almost always initiate such raids, as he was the one who almost always came away with an additional wife or wives (the Yanomamo practice polygyny, where the most powerful men have more than one wife.) This in turn meant, according to Chagnon, that the Yanomamo, like most other biological organisms, compete for reproductive access and success: whoever has the most wives has the most offspring, and therefore the most allies to count on whenever a conflict comes up. Those within a given village cooperate with others (villagers are mostly related), but inter-village rivalry is intense and often leads to ‘wars’ where many warriors get killed. These wars, in turn, most often result from the attempt to avenge a previous raid where women were abducted. This accords with Chagnon’s research which shows that most Yanomamo villages have a shortage of women, first because of preferential treatment of male offspring (who are helpful in wars), and second because of polygyny: even were the number of males and females in a village roughly equal, the fact that powerful men take several wives means that there are not enough females for all the males who want one.
Many anthropologists dispute Chagnon (and also Jared Diamond whose recent books have emphasized this same extreme warlike tendency among tribal peoples in New Guinea, who always consider a stranger a dangerous enemy) about both the warlike nature of primal humans and the reasons for their wars. This is why Chagnon subtitles his book: “My life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists.” According to him, conventional anthropologists insist on a materialist view of human culture. That is, conflict is believed to arise over access to good land for growing crops, over power in the most material sense of ownership of the most valued goods or means of production, but not over access to females. Chagnon, by contrast, is persuasive in his argument that the access to fertile females really is the key to conflict. In his view, humans are like all other organisms, wherein individual males fight with other males to gain access to females and reproductive success; and where females tend to select the most powerful males (and their genes) so as to give their offspring the best chance to survive. Everything then flows from this: the constant wars, the tendency of males to be killed in such wars (thus producing even more imbalance between men and women), and the constant rituals and games training males for combat. And if we look at some of the early documents in human history, such as the Iliad of Homer, we can see that though the Mycenean Greeks had a very advanced culture compared to the Yanomamo, the root cause of their legendary war was the abduction of a choice female—in this case the abduction of Helen, the beautiful wife of Menelaus, by Paris, which led directly to the tragedy: the siege of Paris’ city by the allies of Menelaus and the destruction of that home, Troy, along with all the Trojans save a few who managed to escape. Not coincidentally, those few, according to legend, founded the next great city-state, Rome, where, according to another legend, there followed the abduction or rape of the Sabine women from the indigenous people so that they, the mostly male followers of Rome’s mythic founder Romulus, could have wives and many offspring. Up to the present day, most literature relies for its drama on this same male conflict over females—in a sublimated form, to be sure, but with the same essential roots.
Chagnon’s research uncovered one more contributing fact to this thesis. The male warriors who have killed at least one enemy in their battles are known as unokais. Chagnon has a chart in his book showing the relation of unokais to the number of offspring. The summary is clear: unokais have almost three times as many offspring as those men who have not killed anyone. That is, the unokais had, on average, 4.91 children compared to the same-age non-unokais, who average only 1.59 offspring each. Among the yanomamo, at least, it pays to be a killer.
I should make clear at this point that I am mainly a pacifist with an abhorrence of war and fighting, so these conclusions do not please me. I would prefer a view that accords with Jean Jacques Rousseau’s idea that humans in a state of nature, without the corruptions attendant to civilization, would have been innocent and playful and loving and peaceful—noble savages. But I also have a commitment to the truth, and the truth seems to be that in the earliest human groups, killing of rivals was routine, and that killing, as with all other animals, most often occurred in the conflict that erupted over access to females. Those who were most successful in battle were most often the ones whose genes were passed on through reproduction. It is not hard to see, even today, the indelible marks of that pattern in our cultural preoccupations, in our sports, in our wars, in our very brains.
The video entitled simply “Happy,” takes another view entirely. Like many others today, it emphasizes the benefit of cooperation, of helping others, of being involved in community. We are shown several “happy” communities: the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, where the nation’s output is measured as “gross national happiness;” Okinawa, which boasts more 100-year-olds per capita than any other place on earth; several people being trained to meditate focusing on compassion for others, whose brains are literally said to change for the better as a result; the San Bushmen of Namibia, who testify to their complete interdependence, and therefore their happy outlook; and a co-housing community in Denmark (said to be the happiest industrial nation on earth) where about twenty families live together while working at normal jobs but are happy due to the sharing of cooking, childcaring and other chores. We are also shown the rat-race in Japan, and one family in particular whose male head worked such long, intense hours for Toyota that he simply dropped dead from overwork. Modern industrial Japan is said to be the most unhappy nation on earth.
The documentary also presents us with scientific validation of its message. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson shows us how Buddhist monk Ricard Matthieu is put into an MRI contraption, and measured while he does compassion meditation. His left prefrontal cortex lights up—indicating that not only is this part of his brain activated to make him more happy, but also that focusing on compassion changes the brains of those who engage in it. That is to say, training the brain to focus on compassion for others, and in fact, actually helping others, re-wires the brain for more happiness. We are told in the very beginning, in fact, that it is not material wealth that leads to happiness since, after a certain level of comfort via possessions, acquiring more wealth simply has no effect. Rather, what leads to ‘positive’ brain states and the release of ‘happiness’ brain neurotransmitters like dopamine, are positive acts and thoughts: compassion, cooperation, and relationships with others. P. Read Montague, PhD says this specifically: cooperation, working with others, actually produces dopamine in the brain, in effect being just as good in this regard as taking drugs. Added to the testimony of old women in Okinawa smiling and dancing, and one single mother in the Denmark co-housing community brightly telling us how well cared for she and her children have become since living there—with the children even taking part, once a month, in cooking for the whole community—this becomes a powerful argument for changing the way most modern humans behave (looking out for number one) and how modern industrial communities (commit any act to increase profit) are structured.
It also challenges the post-Darwinian view that humans are naturally prone to conflict and war due to the evolutionary demand to augment, in whatever way possible, the number of offspring one has. Human nature, in this view, is simply a variant of most animal nature: a no-hold-barred competition to survive and out-reproduce all rivals. Rather, according to “Happy,” human nature must be seen to include the positive effects of selflessness and cooperation and a supportive community. To be sure, these emotions have always been available, even to warrior societies. The difference here is the idea that compassion for all—not just one’s immediate family or neighbors or nation—leads to even more positive effects. We see Andy Wimmer, for example, who trained and worked as a banker, until one day he decided there must be more. He signed up to work in Mother Theresa’s home in India caring for the sick and dying. According to his testimony, and despite having to wash and feed dying, suffering humans, he has never felt more fulfilled, happier. The same testimony is given by a woman hospice worker who deals with terminally ill people all day every day. She is bright, cheerful, and apparently unaffected by the dire circumstances that surround her. And it is obvious that those whom she treats and encourages adore her.
Finally, the article by Zack Beauchamp of Think Progress, reprinted on Nation of Change ( offers 5 reasons why 2013 was ‘the best year in human history.’ The reasons are: 1) Fewer People are Dying Young, which shows that as recently as 1950, global life expectancy was 47 years, while today it is 70 years. In other words, averaged globally, most people live twice as long today as they did in 1950. This is due both to medical technology and a growing interest in the welfare of foreigners—as indicated by the assistance given to poor countries in fighting diseases like smallpox, tuberculosis, and HIV. 2) Fewer people suffer from extreme poverty, with its corollary, a happier world. Just since 1981, the percent of the population that lives on less than $1.25 a day has dropped, globally, from 40% in 1981 to 14% in 2010. Even in low income countries, the percentage has dropped from 63% in 1981 to 44% in 2010. 3) War is becoming rarer and less deadly. According to Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature, both war and related forms of violence, including the death penalty, are on a clear decline, especially in the last fifty years. From nearly 300 war-related deaths per 100,000 world population during World War II, the rate has declined to less than 1 death per 100,000 in the 21st Century. Even the death rate in civil wars has declined. Among the factors contributing to the decline are the spread of democracies worldwide, and the invention of U.N. and other peacekeeping operations. 4. Murder rates and other violent crimes are in free-fall. Even in the U.S., violent crime has declined from its peak of 750 crimes per 100,000 Americans in the 1990s to less than 450 in 2009. The same decline is seen in other countries. Among the major reasons—including better lives from improved economies—is one surprising one: the decline in leaded gasoline. With lead banned in 175 countries, the decline in blood levels of lead has reached 90%, and this decline tracks the decline in violent crimes. The reason: lead exposure damages the brain, specifically the parts that inhibit people’s aggressive impulses. With the decline in lead comes more control and less violent crime. And finally, 5) There’s less racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination in the world. This is not to say that racism is dead. Far from it. But there is also no denying that greater tolerance is demonstrable everywhere. Look only at the disabling of white minority rule in South Africa, or the fact that much of the United States, where discrimination was once openly defended, now operates under a national consensus about the ideal of racial equality and integration—not always honored in every situation or locality, but increasingly prevalent, especially among younger populations who will soon be the majority. And when it comes to marriage equality for all, regardless of gender preference, the trend is clearly towards greater tolerance: in 2003, there were no states with marriage equality laws; today there are so many that 38% of Americans live in states with such laws.
What, then, are we to conclude about the nature of human nature? Are we humans, by nature, xenophobic, paranoid killers of anyone who is a stranger or a rival? Or are we cooperative creatures disposed to tolerate each other regardless of outward appearances or origin, cooperate with each other beyond familial or national borders, compassionate creatures who, in helping those who need it, become more and more happy with ourselves?
Perhaps the best we can say is that the truth seems to be both. There is no doubting that evolution has shaped us to be violent, aggressive creatures who fight with little provocation and who routinely kill those who threaten either our well-being or our ability to reproduce. But there can also be little doubt that our brains—particularly the more recently developed parts of our brains: the neocortex and especially the left prefrontal cortex involved in compassion—may well be evolving (spurred by the example of culture heroes like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King and the Dalai Lama) towards less aggressive, more compassionate patterns. Otherwise, why would acting compassionately, placing the welfare of others over our own, and living in cooperative and communal ways deliver the good feeling we now know to be the product of dopamine release? This is not to say that dopamine release was “designed” to make humans cooperate (it was designed to provide a powerful reward for whatever enhanced our survival). Rather, it is to say that human development seems to be employing the available neurotransmitters to a greater extent in ways that foster the expansion of cooperative, communal, helping behavior. Whether this trend will continue is anyone’s guess. Life has a way of confounding our fondest hopes and expectations. But if what some of the evidence shows is true, then human development, as Abraham Maslow long ago suggested, is moving towards an optimum functioning marked by greater tolerance, empathy, and helpfulness towards not only our fellow nationals or even fellow humans but the entire planetary population. The only question remaining is, will it come soon enough to head off the residual disasters—nuclear weapons, global warming, the die-off of species—that our older operating kit has brought to critical mass.

Lawrence DiStasi