Is the memoir trust worthy?

I  recently met with members of the history department at the University of Washington, professors who are interested in the Cold War. One, Professor Elena Campbell, born and raised in Russia’s closed military city where their nuclear submarines were manufactured, has memories of the Space Bridge contact between KING 5 TV and Glastelradio in 1985. She watched with the fascination of a young girl and worried that her city was the primary target of our NIKE missiles. Dr. Campbell is interested in oral history as one major source for her research and writing.

Our conversation turned to how much the historian can rely on oral history or written memoir for assembling the factual content of written history. These professors teach their students to beware of assuming a memoirist has the historic “truth” in their pages.

Professor Eric Johnson followed up on our conversation by sending me two articles that analyzed the problem of taking memoir as history. The first, and you can read it by clicking on this link. hudgins_autobiographers_lies-1, is a scrutiny by Andrew Hudgins of his own memoir, The Glass Hammer: A Southern Childhood. His article, printed in The American Scholar in 1996, is titled An Autobiographer’s Lies.

I commend it to you as you contemplate memoir. The byline of my blog comes from Ernest Hemmingway who said about his last work, the memoir of his early years in Paris The Moveable Feast, “all memoir is fiction”.  My Life as Fiction. The truth as best I can remember, yes. But…..

Enjoy, Betsy

Target Seattle

If you google Target Seattle today, what you get is the location of the Target department store nearest you. In 1982-1984 Target Seattle had another meaning altogether. Try to imagine just how frightened US citizens were of the possibility of nuclear war and of the Soviets from the McCarthy communist witch hunt, the Cuban missile crisis to the shooting down of the Korean airliner in 1983. People were building bomb shelters. Children were practicing duck and cover drills in their school class rooms.

The threat became real to us in the Pacific NW when the first nuclear submarine, the USS Ohio, arrived at Bangor in August 1982.
People started asking if Seattle is a target, what could we do to keep bombs from falling? Leaders in this discussion emerged from the International YMCA in downtown Seattle, the local chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Ploughshares (former Peace Corps volunteers), KING-5 TV, University of Washington professors and lawyers from the progressive firm of McDonald Hogue and Bayless. Kay Bullitt, long time social justice activist and the name you see at the top of the list of sponsors of this exhibit, invited people to her house to discuss what could be done about Seattle’s position as a target. This group conceived of a ten-day series of educational events called Target Seattle: Preventing Nuclear War. The organizers chose my husband Aldon Duane Bell to chair the public events of the ten-day program.

I want to pause here to tell you that my early involvement was solely as Don’s wife. I followed along in the supportive role typical of women born before the Second World War. Many other women and men stepped into leadership positions immediately. Many would be more qualified to tell you all about the creation of Target Seattle and the important role this short-lived organization played in waking people up all across the country. My own leadership came later.

The central idea of Target Seattle is about waking up and taking action. We need to do that now, in 2018. In 1982 these were the stated goals.

  • The apocalyptic effects of nuclear war, to wake people up to the fact that nuclear war would be the end of everything we know and love. 750,000 people in the Puget Sound region were exposed to this reality through the press.
  • An awakening from lethargy, from apathy. Target Seattle would be the tool to rouse people to action, the front edge of a growing wave of anti-war activities across the world. Target Seattle wanted to turn fear into a sharp sense of concern, an awakening to the fact that we had entrusted our future to a small group of cold warriors who be intention or by accident could incinerate the whole earth.
  • An exploration of the alternatives: the Peace Through Strength position accompanied by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which was the Reagan administration’s position; Unilateral Disarmament, the largest peace movement in the UK; the Nuclear Freeze Campaign, adopted by many faith based organizations and the Democratic Party. David Brower reminded us that love is a resource we will love if we forget to use it.
  • Target Seattle strove to inspire people, ordinary citizens, to take action. First by becoming informed. Study the situation. Then, armed with facts, talk to our elected officials and ultimately require them to take action which reflects the views of the American people.

Major players in each of these movements from the government to opinion makers were invited to speak at large public forums, the first of which was held in the Paramount Theater on Sept. 24th, 1982. Then came a week of teach-ins at noon-day brown bag lunches held in a downtown church and evening lectures in Meany Hall at the University of Washington. We were learning.

The week-long program ended with a King Dome events involving thousands of spectators, many speakers and dramatic presentations, a kind of anti-nuclear circus heavy with purpose. Dr. Helen Caldicott, president of the International Physicians for Social Responsibility, a pediatrician from Australia was the key note speaker. Her description of what nuclear annihilation looks like was graphic and painful.

While all this planning was going on, four women, Ann Stadler, Virginia McDermott, Lucy Dougall and Kathleen Braden decided to write a love letter asking people in Seattle’s sister city, Tashkent in Uzbekistan, to join us in working to prevent nuclear war. The peace letter said:

The people of Seattle and Tashkent are united through the Sister City Program, through our love for our cities, and through the hopes we share for our children’s futures. Yet if there is a nuclear war, all that we value would be destroyed. . .. We must work together to create peaceful means of resolving conflicts and take steps to reduce the danger of nuclear war.

This letter was printed in English and Russian, the Cyrillic script below the English. The 8 ½ x 14 inche sheets had room for signatures in the manner of a petition. Committee members, friends and family carried copies of this letter to the various events, to churches, to schools and most of all to the final King Dome event. In all 42,000 signatures were gathered on about 3000 pieces of paper.

At the bottom of each letter was printed the promise This letter will be sent to Seattle’s Russian sister city, Tashkent, and to government officials of the Soviet Union and the United States.
After the public events of Target Seattle, the committee met to consider two objectives:
1. How to get the letters to our Sister City in Uzbekistan?
2. What about the Russians?

The teach-ins and talks had covered the American approach but left everyone with the question, what did Russia want? What was their position?

The letters were a voluminous problem Virginia McDermott tried to get them on a plane with a group of travelers heading to Tashkent, but missed that opportunity. As a lark, really, it was decided that we would go as tourists. The itinerary was Moscow, Tashkent, Samarkand and Leningrad as St. Petersburg was called in those days. We engaged a travel agency and thirty-two people signed up.

At this point we connected with Rosanne Royer, wife of mayor Charles Royer and president of the Seattle Tashkent Sister City committee. We wanted to ask if the trip could be sponsored by them and we could officially represent the sister city organization.

The story of this trip will be published soon by Epicenter Press in Kenmore, WA. It is called Open Borders, A personal story of love, loss and anti-war activism. It is my memoir set during the decade of 1982-1992 and traces our trip. The story follows the creation and dissemination of a multimedia slide show after the trip and the promotion of the Seattle style anti-nuclear movement.

Virginia and Don were the official leaders of the trip. Marlow Boyer was the photographer. Our daughter Ruth and I both went along. There were four other young people, a journalist, two doctors, a lawyer, an insurance salesman, a clergyman, wives and husbands, single women, all paid their own way. We prepared for the trip by inviting Soviet experts to coach us on how to behave, what to say when engaged in conversation. We all took the peace petitions in our suitcases and took our responsibilities as advocates for friendship and love very seriously.

In Moscow we met the chair of the Soviet Peace Committee, Yuri Zhukov. In Tashkent the mayor and his staff spread the red carpet of welcome for us. There were speeches, concerts, school visits and a peace rally. Virginia remembers the conversation she had with the deputy mayor who said to her, “For years we’ve been waiting for you to come. I lost both of my sons and my husband in the war. I don’t want to lose my grandchildren.”

Trying to understand where the Russians were coming from inspired the 2nd Target Seattle: Soviet Realities. The program opened and closed with events televised by KING 5 TV. Over 500 small group gatherings reaching hundreds of people watched the shows and talked about the questions raised during the programs. Interest spread around the state as other towns felt themselves to be targets of Soviet aggression. Congressman Foley and US Senator Dan Evans co-chaired Target Washington, a signal day event held simultaneously in Yakima, Spokane and Vancouver.

The slide show helped stimulate the October 24th 1984 Target Washington events. The 27 minute multimedia slide show is now on DVD and You tube. Please find the earlier post on my web site and watch the full video there. It portrays our message of mutual concern with the people of Tashkent. The pictures and sound track blend the voices of Americans, Russians, and Uzbeks. As the faces blend one into another, by the end you are not sure who is American and who is Russian or Uzbek.

What we did here in Washington inspired cities around the country to stage their own Target events, involving their own citizens in an effort to learn about nuclear war and then work to prevent the unthinkable.

After the October conferences, the steering committee discussed their future purpose, took stock of the three Target Seattle events designed to educate and mobilize that occurred from 1982 to 1984 and the plethora of new organizations forming to continue peace-building through cultural exchanges. They decided to disband. The mission was accomplished—hundreds of people were involved in creating a future without nuclear war, a future of friendships across the continents.

By the end of the 1980s, dozens of cities across the United States would line up to request sister cities in the USSR. They saw Seattle as a model primarily because our connection with Tashkent never wavered in spite of the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR, the Korean airliner incident, and local pressure by Russian and Baltic Americans to exit the relationship. Many newly-organized Seattle groups—the Peace Chorus, the Peace Park builders, amputee soccer players, to name a few—traveled to or were planning trips to the USSR. In 1985 Seattleites and Soviet citizens saw and heard each other over a Space Bridge established by KING 5 and a Glastelradio TV hosted in Leningrad. Citizen diplomacy involving hundreds of people was taking off from both sides of the Iron Curtain. The warlike rhetoric coming from the Kremlin and the White House softened. By 1988 Gorbachev was in power. He and Reagan communicated in the conciliatory terms of glasnost.

Target Seattle had done its job. 1990 saw the Goodwill games here in Seattle. We need this again, perhaps more than ever. As I say in my book Through the latter half of the 20th century, as much as the Kremlin in Russia and the White House disagreed with how our world should be organized, one felt the leaders grasped their sober responsibility for the future of the whole world and genuinely did not want to put all that fire power to use.

Today, I am not so sure.

 

What can we do?

As the storm clouds of nuclear build up gather, we might ask ourselves “what can we do?” as ordinary citizens to prevent nuclear war. Mayor Charlie Royer asked that very question in 1980. By 1984, thousands of people across Washington state and around the country were educating themselves about the threat to nuclear war.

The mayor’s words open the twenty-six minute multimedia show, now on you tube. This show was seen by hundreds of people between 1984 and 1990 up and down the east coast and in towns around the country. It was a bulky show to put on, with its 6 slide trays, two projectors, dissolve unit, speakers, wires and amplifier.

I took my grandchildren to see the Glosnost to Goodwill show at the Washington History Museum in Tacoma. “That’s Grandpa Don’s voice!” more than one grandchild declared. He died before all of them were born. The story of this trip is about to be pubished by Epicenter Press. OpenBorders.

A new movement is slowly emerging to take citizen diplomacy to world leaders to prevent the current threat of nuclear war. Who can imagine or tolerate the administration’s plans to devise an offensive technology for North Korea’s underground defense system? Can’t we talk?

Ever optomistic about the power of a small group of people determined to change the world, I remain,

Betsy Bell

writing this memoir

Open Borders, A personal story of love, loss and anti-war activism.

Writing this memoir served two aims. Through the examination of a period of intense political activity in my life, I have been able to trace my passage to independence. Mine is the story of many women born during World War II and raised at a time when the prevailing expectation of women in America was that they’d marry, raise children, and be a supportive wife. This conflicted with the beliefs my parents had instilled in me. They’d sent me off on teenage adventures and challenged me to do anything I wanted in life. These messages fought for expression in my own development and early marriage to a man five and a half years my senior.

The second aim is political. During the 1980s a group of citizens in Seattle organized around a belief that ordinary people could influence governments to settle conflict through diplomacy rather than war. I took up one small piece of this peace-making effort and charged forward. Open Borders chronicles those efforts. Hundreds of other Seattleites and ordinary citizens across the country have stories to tell about their friendships across the Iron Curtain, all of which may have contributed to its fall in 1989. Four friends who were involved in such efforts have granted me permission to include an essay by each of them documenting how their life and work were affected by the anti-nuclear war efforts.

Writing Open Borders made me realize how proud I am of the many people who worked so hard in the 1980s to prevent nuclear war. We embraced our so-called enemies with curiosity, compassion, respect, and the firm belief that we all shared the common values of love of place and love of family. Nuclear war was not an option for us ordinary people. It would destroy all we hold dear.

Today, I am more frightened by the possibility of nuclear war than I was in 1982. I also feel alone. If there are others trembling before the “fire and fury” rhetoric and the repeating rocket and hydrogen tests, I hope this story of our activism will stir others to find ways to organize and seek peace through cross-border understandings of our common humanity and the love we each have for our homeland.

Why does it seem so few are alarmed at the threat of nuclear war today? Are we in denial or overwhelmed by the enormity of so many doomsday crises at once? Or have we, as I worry, left behind as antiquated that practice humans have engaged in for millennia of gathering in groups to work things out with minds firmly connected to hearts? Eye to eye conversations are much more effective than thumbs tapping through electronic devices. Through the latter half of the 20th century, as much as the Kremlin and the White House disagreed with how our world should be organized, one felt the leaders grasped their sober responsibility for the future of the whole world and genuinely did not want to put all that fire power to use. Today, I am not so sure. Putting words on paper is my way of taking up arms again. Action gives me hope.

Glasnost to Goodwill Exhibit open in Tacoma

It’s here! The public record on display of citizen diplomacy in the Puget Sound area in the 1980s. Watch for it: Yours truly is on the big screen in the main exhibit room of the Washington State Historical Society Museum in Tacoma. You’ll learn all about what people were saying and doing about the threat of nuclear war before the current threat. Maybe you will be inspired to take some action yourself to prevent the horror from happening in our time.

Read my book, Open Borders, nearing publication date.

Citizen Diplomat

Not everything belongs in a good story, even when the scene was an important one in the dramatic arc. Perhaps that is one service a blog offers a writer, giving her a place to share what will not be in the final version.
Not every title is the final and best one. I began Evil Empire as an exercise in Fiction Writing I at the UW under Scott Driscoll. The assignment was to describe someone getting a surprising bit of news. I chose to fabricate a moment in the trip Don, my first husband, and I took with thirty others to the Soviet Union in 1983. We went as tourists, but our objective was to deliver 3000 letters signed by 30,000 Seattlites to people in our sister city, Tashkent.

In the middle of our Tashkent visit, a large peace rally was staged. Don gets some very bad news just as he is about to deliver our message to the good people assembled to hear us.
That scene is in the middle of the first part of the story.
It turns out that the story Evil Empire had a subplot I needed a couple friendly readers to catch and explain to me. The story is really about the protagonist’s unconscious desire to step out from behind the dynamic leadership of her husband and take her own path. I have renamed the piece, Citizen Diplomat.
Here is the scene that ends up on the cutting room floor.
We checked into a Soviet-style modern hotel outside of central Moscow. Don and I joined an optional bus tour of the city, a Soviet version of the Gray Line tour. I wanted to keep moving while there was daylight, but the slate sky and leafless trees, concrete block buildings and empty streets could not keep me from dozing off. I jarred awake at the mention of the College of the Atlantic by a couple of young students. Their English accents called to mind our goddaughter, Elizabeth Ransome, who was a student in that little-known boarding school in Maine. It had been years since we had seen her, talked with her or written. Elizabeth, the young man informed us, was in Moscow but not on this tour. He gave us the name of their hostel and said she’d be there the next evening. What a coincidence. We told him who we were and to warn her that we would find her the following evening if at all possible. There were no cell phones or other methods of communication in 1983. The official plan for our evening was a performance of the Moscow Opera. How could we excuse ourselves from this event to find Elizabeth?

 
Back at the hotel, most of us caught up on much-needed sleep before a quick supper and bus trip to the Bolshoi Theater. What magnificence. The enormous gold and crystal chandelier sent shimmering light over the elegantly dressed crowd. Sable coats, long black gloves, fur hats and leather boots mingled with tuxedos and evening dress. The music of Russian conversation, strident to my ears, rose and fell. Opera goers spoke in tight groupings in the vast, high-ceilinged hall. The vaulted ceiling with its mosaic patterns, the arched windows with drawn red velvet curtains transported me to the time of Czar Alexander. The revolution and iron-fisted communist regime faded.

 At the intermission, Don and I took all our belongings and left through the great columned entrance to the nearest subway station. The few people on the street hurried along taking no notice of the Americans in their midst. Descending into the underground station was like visiting the catacombs. There was no sound coming from below. To our astonishment, we found the platform thronged with well-dressed people standing in complete silence. Was conversing in public a risk? Or were Russians taciturn and naturally private. We found their silence sinister.
Following the directions Vladimir had given us, we discovered our goddaughter and enjoyed a late night visit with her. After saying goodbye, Don and I stood outside Elizabeth’s hostel waiting for a taxi to take us to our hotel. We marveled at the synchronicity of finding her in Moscow. It got us thinking about the Refuseniks whose families were desperate for exit visas and freedom, the freedom we took for granted. Glancing around in the empty street beneath a cold starless sky, Don remarked that we could talk about them but only there, a solitary place. He wished we could get rid of the letters we carried for them while in Moscow, but he didn’t dare. If those film mailers ended up in the wrong hands and were traced back to our group, we would have risked everything. Marlow would have to keep them hidden and remain above suspicion until our last day in Leningrad. Hard as it was for me to keep a secret, I figured if so many people could keep silence on a crowded subway platform, so could I.
Thanks for reading.
I’d love to hear your stories of diplomacy or chilling experiences when visiting, living or working under totalitarian regimes.
May I live long enough to tell all my stories for then I will die contented.  Betsy

Hope in uncertain times

“…creative intelligence is especially concerned with solving problems of meaning.” Justine Musk, blogger on writing.
Justine’s post on the power of story to find yourself is exactly what I’ve been doing with my urgent desire to write the stories of my life. Turns out that I have been more interested in the movie of the story’s action than in the self I was becoming.

Stories are how we shape and understand our reality.
We create the world we live in by the stories we choose to tell about it.
There’s a Hopi saying: Whoever tells the stories, rules the world. Justine
I’ve written pages describing life events and missed the inner voice, the emerging Betsy Bell who needed to tell these stories to find out who she was/is.
Citizen Diplomacy in Seattle in the 1980s, culminating with the Good Will Games, changed the direction of many people’s lives. They found their peacemaking voices. I’ve written this story from my husband, Aldon Bell’s and my point of view, but only now recognize how deeply held values from childhood pushed me to uncomfortable action. The kind of action Sam Adams took organizing the Boston Tea Party leading to the American Revolution, while his brother John Adams remained the gentleman negotiating with propriety. I’ve always identified with Sam Adams.

I’ve written this story from my husband, Aldon Bell’s and my point of view, but only now recognize how deeply held values from childhood pushed me to uncomfortable action. The kind of action Sam Adams took organizing the Boston Tea Party leading to the American Revolution, while his brother John Adams remained the gentleman negotiating with propriety.I’ve always identified with Sam Adams.

I’ve always identified with Sam Adams.
Back in 1976, our family returned from a year in South Africa, Rhodesia, Kenya, Eygpt, Greece, France, Italy and England to Boston. Boston was in the throes of the bicentenial celebration. One exhibit invited the viewer to participate vicariously in various events leading up to declaring our independence from English rule. At each event, we had the opportunity to line up with the actions of the various colonists. Don and I went through the exhibit together and we not surprised to read the computer printout at the end. Who was I most like among the New Englanders of the pre-war period? Sam Adams. I laughed when Don came out the spitting image of Ben Franklin, known for shmoozing on all sides of the issues, sewing seeds in favor of independence without warfare.

Who was I most like among the New Englanders of the pre-war period? Sam Adams. I laughed when Don came out the spitting image of Ben Franklin, known for schmoozing on all sides of the issues, planting seeds in favor of independence without warfare.
My story about Citizen Diplomacy in 1983-4 was more overtly revolutionary than Don’s. I struggled with wanting to play the traditional1950s role of supportive wife and the fire in my belly that called for direct action. This is the central struggle of the narrative, not the Target Seattle trip itself. Many of the original pages have hit the waste basket.

The reader of the final version of my story will resonate (or not) with the struggle we face today in a world lining up US adversaries on all sides against Trump’s American First agenda. Do we give up with the pessimistic view that nothing can be done? Disaster is inevitable. Or do we say it will all be fine while looking through our rose colored glasses?
Neither pessimism nor optimism are helpful. My story is about finding hope in an uncertain world, keeping on with no attachment to outcome. Action breeds hope.