[What follows is an excerpt from the unpublished memoir of American journalist, translator, and “dispatriate” Frederika Randall (1948-2020). The excerpt is narrated by her Italian husband, Virgilio.]
This is a story about Frances, a fascinating and dear American woman, my companion: about how she came to fall three stories from a balcony in Rome and what you might call the collateral damage of empire she sustained during Cold War times. I met her in New York, back in the early Reagan years. Daniela had just packed up all her things and moved back to Italy with the kids, and I was all alone in a large Manhattan apartment that faced Queens across the East River. The windows of my sitting room looked out on a huge lumberyard, and on rainy or foggy days the contours of the piles of boards softened and blurred in the mist. When the sun shone, the blocks of boards, painted bright red on the cut ends to seal against waterlogging, became shapes in an abstract composition. The dimensions of those piles of wood were constantly shifting, as orders of boards were taken away and new supplies delivered. I spent many hours looking at that view, there were weekends when whole days went by. I like to think I’m someone who looks on the bright side of things, and that fall I found the silence in my apartment soothing. God knows I was sick of hearing Daniela complain about the patriarchy. I missed the kids though, and worried about them. This was my second marriage that hadn’t worked out. I didn’t think it was entirely my fault, but it was certainly more than a coincidence.
One of the first things that happened, one of the first times Frances came over, was that I left my party card on the table along with a bunch of other things. She saw it and was curious. She could never be persuaded I hadn’t left it out intentionally, but there was no intent, not at all. It just turned up there. I had been moving books and papers around to make some order, to collect the few of our joint possessions that Daniela had left behind and somehow make them into a home. Later when I knew Frances better I saw that her possessions were nearly as accidental, unprepossessing and untethered as my own. Like me, she was a transient; she had detached herself from her origins without settling in somewhere else. It meant she could live anywhere and find things to love and be curious about. But she was always pro-tem somehow, unable to stand on her small hill and claim that piece of turf as her own. It was a frailty we shared.
At the time she was working for a newspaper, that, like most American newspapers, was pretty hostile to us card-carriers. What do they call it? The mainstream media. I used to have a soft spot for the Daily Worker. Not the paper itself, which was pretty bad, but the old comrades who sold it. In the early 1980s I once watched them, survivors of the Lincoln Brigade, marching down Fifth Avenue in a protest against Ronald Reagan, and I raised my fist in a salute to them. Remember, this was the USA, and the Soviet Union was still alive and apparently well in those days, after all. Yes, our Russian comrades were somewhat deluded, but it took courage for an American to go against the anti-Communist grain that runs through American life and thought, an anti-Communism practically indistinguishable from celebrating American hegemony. I mean, were those old US Communists, people who had fought the fascists in Spain, so much less heroic than a Sakharov, or some other Russian dissident?
The Cold War, as it was called, always dictated the shape of my life as an Italian. By the Cold War I mean, not a lethal stand-off between nuclear powers (as Americans I know conceive it) but a Manichean struggle for hearts and minds, conducted by covert and sometimes very dirty means in many countries around the world. A Manichean struggle between two empires: the American, with its creed of individualism, profits and the God-given certainty Americans stand on the side of the right–and the Soviet, with its conviction that what mattered was the collectivity, group, not individual achievement, its holy faith that socialist progress would prevail. Barbarism to some. Socialism, communism. You mustn’t think communists scorned material well-being, not at all. But the Soviet system did try to hide its failures on that front, something that came as a real shock to me when I visited the D.D.R. for the first time in the 1980s. The country was much poorer than I had been led to believe.
As Europe began to thrive in the post-war years, even communists admired the big white American refrigerators we saw in advertisements. We wanted consumer goods too, we just thought other needs should come first. In those same years the US, so eager to prevent the PCI, the Italian Communist Party, from gaining power, lent a hand to the Italian right to destabilize the country and try to create the conditions for a police state (as they did in Greece with the colonels). All this just to protect the right to refrigerators? Material satisfaction is a powerful lure, and sometime early in the miracolo italiano, the postwar boom years, Italy became one of the most materialist societies on earth.
A materialist society without depth but with a deep grain of superstition. Materialist, as opposed to historical-materialist. In France they call the post-war economic boom les trente glorieuses, suggesting prosperity was something they accomplished themselves. For us, it was a miracle. Saints were needed.
That fall I often ruminated on my life with Daniela, with whom I’d lived through fifteen years of ups and downs and had recently parted so rancorously. I missed the children badly. Frances, with her economic independence, seemed so sturdy compared to my ex-wife who had never worked for pay in all our years together. Daniela considered herself an intellectual, a Marxist and feminist and was writing a paper about feminine agency in early Fascist Italy that was meant to become her thesis, but as she often complained, looking after the two boys left her no time to go to the library.
Sometimes, though, it seemed to me that she was the sturdy one. There was a fragile side to Frances, an uncertainty about her right to love and respect, that never seemed to trouble my ex-wife, who had no doubt she deserved full economic support as the mother of our children, no doubt that her status as a scholar earned her all the respect in the world. Frances, an American, considered that any love or respect she earned was an extra. It wasn’t her due. No rewards were ever earned permanently. It could all be taken away from you.
Later, when I knew Frances’ family, I tried to understand this lack of permanency. But it wasn’t them, in the end, but the nature of the capitalist beast, the way it made everyone insecure. I admired them, Henry and Ella, they were decent, honest people. Although God knows, when it came to me, they showed plenty of all-American reticence, they were always very suspicious. To them, I was a trickster who’d mesmerized their daughter. It was true that I’d taken her far away from them. To a country they knew nothing of, but probably doubted was entirely serious. And I don’t think they understood who I was, my social origins, if you will: my rowdy-minded, fiercely independent father, my bourgeois, brilliant and studious mother; the precarious bohemian life they lived during the Mussolini period, their antifascism. And then there was my marriage and the nearly eight (8!) years it took before my divorce finally came through, back in the days when the Catholic Church, although it had lost its great battle against divorce, did everything possible to preserve the long bureaucratic trial that couples had to go through to end their marriages. We did get married after the divorce was final. Our son Finn was four,and puzzled by this peculiar ceremony that had no role for him in it.
At any rate, for years Henry and Ella held fast to their suspicions of me, a fact Frances was very bitter about. The arrival of a child softened their Yankee hearts somewhat, but they always made a distinction between Finn and me. They continued to behave as if Frances was going to snap out of it and come home and marry some American dreamboat, and prove they’d been good parents. Between us, I think she let their hostility to me cripple her. She couldn’t let go of her hurt; her only strategy was to stay away, to avoid them. And she was 35 years old when we met. She took it all too much to heart.
I think I said that the people I really came to admire were the old American Communists. Margaret was an older woman who babysat for us when we lived in the Village. The first time she came over to stay with the boys, she asked about Pier Paolo Pasolini, who had just been brutally murdered near Rome. Somewhat astonished that an American in her 70s working as a babysitter would know of the Italian poet, we investigated and learned that she was the widow of a famous labor organizer, and of course read The Daily Worker. What’s more, she even sold it on the street corner on weekends.
“In the secrecy of the voting booth, God can see you, Stalin, no!” The words come from a flier from the 1950s, when the priests were on the front lines of Italian anti-Communism. One day I showed the flier to Margaret. “I’m pretty sure the FBI can see us even in the voting booth,” she said.
These were the years when the CIA began funding anti Communist writers and journals, promoting abstract art (a laugh; because figurative art might be socialist realism?) and backing business-friendly labor unions, winning hearts and minds. They even supported “creative writing” programs like that of the University of Iowa that taught Americans a psychologically realist model of fiction: intensely interpersonal, avoiding too much social and political framing or themes. The CIA was not all “soft power,” of course. They were also engaged in their usual spook work: spying, dirty tricks, supplying weapons, assassination. Mossadegh, Lumumba. I want to say Olaf Palme, but we don’t know that for sure.
Meanwhile the FBI was persecuting home-grown American communists. Black lists. Un-American activities. The Rosenbergs.
To Frances I was “the card carrier”. She liked to joke about that little card of mine with the hammer and sickle. It was the kind of quip you can only make in America. Did she know that the PCI under Palmiro Togliatti had timidly disavowed Stalin? Togliatti, who had the reputation of devoted Stalinist. Togliatti, who when he died in 1964 drew enormous crowds of mourners. Crowd larger than had ever been seen in in Italy, not even for Giuseppe Verdi’s funeral. When Soviet tanks moved into Hungary and Czechoslovakia, PCI members hung their heads and said nothing, however. Some Italians did leave the party.
Did she know how many of us had intermittently considered the PCI compromised, rigid, reformist at best? In the late 1960s I belonged to a group that believed proletarian revolution was soon to arrive, and we fought the Fascists on the street. Those were the days when I had just returned from being a student in London, and it seemed essential to earn my Italian nationality back.
I was, therefore, Virgilio the card carrier. I’m not sure she had ever met one before. I wasn’t hostile to the US, not at all, there were many things I admired, but it all fit into a larger pattern of global imperialism in which the USA was the strong man. We Italians thought that way, certainly. My company was founded by a man who wanted to thwart Anglo-America’s world-wide control of oil and gas supplies, and make his own energy deals around the world for Italy. The Seven Sisters were neo-colonialists, and they were standing in the way of Italy’s free access to an abundant fuel supply. He wasn’t going to let that happen.
Not that the man was a card-carrier himself, oh no. He belonged to the Vatican party, went to church with his wife, hobnobbed with monsignori, if anyone. But he had fought in the Resistance and a man doesn’t lose his taste for militancy overnight. The oil deals he cut in Africa earned him enemies in the West, some one or several of whom were surely responsible for his premature death in a suspicious plane crash in 1962. I had only just begun working for the company that year.
She and her friends were a little surprised that someone who wore suits and worked for an oil company would be a card-carrier. Communism, for them, was apparatchiks and Stalinism. Anti-Stalinist dissidence was the highest form of political participation. Born in the 1940s and 50s, they had lost touch with the native socialism and anarchism of late 19th and early 20th century America. By the 1980s, American leftism had largely retreated to the universities and become very cerebral. In my opinion.
There’s a fatal streak of something that for want of a better word we can call Puritanism running through American life. No, wait. You think you know what I’m going to say, but hear me out. The intellectual class wears its Puritan past like a brand, like the scarlet letter. The individual conscience is never absent from the picture. The “I” must always be omniscient, and always on the right side. In every soul there is a Cotton Mather, a god-fearing judge, whose job it is to chastise and punish the wrong minded, wherever he finds them.
Because your own salvation depends on having denounced the rot in the dominant ideas. In having extricated yourself from that vat of burning pitch. You must always be in the hangers’ camp, or you will be hanged. As if they were all not co-participants in this culture. And would surely all hang together. After first enjoying all the privileges of being in the camp of power.
Her friends were, what can I say, American exceptionalists, although they didn’t know it. In their twisted way, they believed they lived in the worst of all possible worlds. I.e. the greatest. They did kind of regret that there were no apparatchiks in America, no dissidents, no gulags. No party cards, no poets of the regime. They were envious of people for whom dissent was urgent and heart-felt, a world where samizdat literature circulated hand to hand and books had political currency.
No gulags? I used to say. What about Attica State Prison? What about “three strikes you’re out?” People from the ghetto thrown in jail for some petty drug offense and locked up for 20 years?
That was different, they told me. The American thinking class was worried about the Russian intelligentsia, but of course they were concerned about Afro-Americans too. Blacks needed civil rights. Russians, the intelligentsia, needed freedom of expression. They were pretty sure the American intelligentsia had freedom of expression. There, I wasn’t so sure; they were all in their way organic intellectuals, even the non-believers, lubricating the system with compatible ideas. Maybe their freedom was a little less robust than they thought.
However very few of them fell into the grave error of the armed struggle. Whereas over here, we were all stockpiling weapons and dreaming of the Winter Palace. It was probably lucky for me that I had done my military service before I got involved in politics. It cured me of any romance of weapons; I detested guns. But because I’d been in the army and knew about drills and discipline and how to fire a rifle, the armed struggle wanted me.
Frances, I suspect, also wanted someone like me. She had already had a brief story with an Italian, some cattocomunista she met somewhere, and before that, when she was a student, with a couple of Marxist Turks, graduate student Marxist Turks. A cattocomunista: a Catholic lefty. Back in the day Catholics were some of the wildest in the extraparliamentary Italian left, but about this particular specimen of her acquaintance I know nothing. He didn’t sound very exciting, if truth be told.
And I wanted someone like her. What was it that drew me? The first time we met, she seemed so bright and curious. Her mind was not made up. I also detected a note of melancholy, a little vein of deep sadness, and in time I would be proved right about that. I sensed she was shy, and overrode her natural shyness with manic bursts of apparent certainty, taking stands, asserting things that were often quite absurd, merely in order to show she had a point of view. It was a weakness I recognized, it had often got me into trouble too.
False confidence was just the flip side of her self-questioning. For example, once, when Frances and I had only been sharing a bed for a month or so–it was September 11, 1983, the anniversary of the Pinochet coup d’état in Chile–she bought two cans of spray paint, red and black, and we went up and down the East Side scrawling Viva Allende on advertising posters. It was childish. People do foolish things when they fall in love. I wondered how her newspaper would react if the police caught us and took us in. They wouldn’t be understanding, I was pretty sure. For that matter, what would my company think? Rome tolerated my behaviour and my party affiliation (someone had scrawled “not venal” on my personnel file, and in my business, it was saying a lot that a person didn’t take bribes) but getting arrested for vandalism wouldn’t please anyone, especially not the fascist who ran our New York office. The city was rife with graffiti back then. Also crime, or so they said. It never bothered me.
She used to say she first felt shame about being an American while living abroad. Funny, something not so different happened to me in New York. When I first went to the U.S. in 1972, the man at the US embassy in Rome wordlessly cautioned me not to reply yes to the question: Are you now or have you ever been…”. I didn’t, although I wasn’t a party member then. I thought of myself as quite a bit to the left of the PCI, but the man at the embassy didn’t want to know that either.
But then, on the morning of September 12, 1973 when I went to buy the Times I saw a woman at the newsstand in tears, reading the paper. The regularly elected government of Salvador Allende had been overthrown by right wing thugs. That was the day I decided to join the party. It was time to be part of the big church. In honor of Chile and my Chilean friends. In the weeks before the coup, the Times had published a crescendo of lies and misinformation preparing for Allende’s overthrow. We had talked about that, Carlos and I. “Allende, a Man of the Privileged Class Turned Radical Politician; Put in Jail Twice, A Steady Erosion” read one of the headlines in the paper of record the day after. To me, it sounded like a confession of complicity. It made my skin crawl.
There was also a brief story to say that Angela Davis had organized a demonstration at the U.N. Plaza to protest US involvement. Three hundred people showed up.
Comrade Angela Davis.