About a week ago, I heard Jonathan Lethem speak at the Dallas Museum of Art “Arts and Letters Live,” about his book Fortress of Solitude. Fortress has been adapted to a new musical, which will have its world premiere at the Dallas Theater Center in March. Lethem waxed about his day of listening to actors rehearse. “I’ve just had the magical experience,” he said, “of having my book sing and talk back to me.”
Fortress, a fictional story inspired by Lethem’s experience, follows the life of a sole white kid thrust into a nearly all-black public school in Brooklyn in the 1970s. The story revolves around the relationship between he and his best friend Mingus, who is black. Lethem’s parents were pro-civil rights, to the point where Lethem heard the “I have a dream” speech in-utero in Washington D.C. To further their ideals of integration, his parents moved the family to Brooklyn to live “the dream.” The dream had a drawback; Lethem was frequently “yoked.” While being yoked, one of the black kids from the projects would loop Lethem’s neck in his right arm, while the other black kids frisked his pockets for loose change. Yoking didn’t involve guns or knives and never became life threatening, but was undeniably humiliating.
Lethem avoided this story for years, thinking that his experience of being “yoked” was his personal Brooklynized nightmare, only applicable to him or his siblings. Lethem didn’t think the non-life threatening yoke matched up to a real mugging. Considering his family background and that he had a long list of black friends that exceeded his black enemies, he didn’t feel comfortable with his story. Yoking was his complex, uncomfortable, dirty little secret.
Well into his career, Lethem discovered the universality of his secret in a Bogart movie. Bogart described a mugging, looping his right arm, fist on hip to demonstrate. Alerted to the idea that a mugging might not involve a life-threatening weapon, Lethem sought out a slang dictionary. There it was, next to the word mugging, an alternative expression: yoked. An idea sparked that his experience might be applicable to others. Fortress, his secret, gained permission to be born.
Perhaps the greatest gift of art is that it builds bridges between our islands of experience. Unlike Lethem, I rarely believe my experience is unique and sometimes assume too quickly that my speck of life is applicable to everyone. This happened yesterday during a long session of hammering out the final edits for the Spanish translation of Struck by Living. I used the expression “FARC” which for me was an acronym for Fallen Away Roman Catholic. Jorge Correa, who translated my book, had assumed that I was referring to the rebel forces in Columbia. He created a whole theory that I was signaling to the reader about my inner rebel.
Later, I chatted with my husband and good friend Bonnie Pitman (who was raised Catholic) about the FARC story. “Oh you know,” I waved my hand dismissively, “‘FARC‘—Fallen Away Roman Catholic.” They returned blank stares. Apparently, "FARC " is my personal-universe concoction. The SBL Spanish translation team decided to leave it out. SBL—you know—Struck by Living. Can you tell I worked in high tech?
In the area of depression, however, I believe most people fall into the Lethem-yoke category instead of the Hersh-FARC category. I can’t count the number of times people have called or emailed me about their personal experiences with depression. “You are the only one I know who understands me,” they say, even when I’ve never seen them face-to-face. I encourage them to reach out to friends, to family, to dissipate the illness. With the support of others, this will spread depression thin until the menace evaporates. They often call me back weeks later, stunned to find a support system that waited, untapped, and ready to help.
Those who know me well, know I see the arts as a vehicle for healing, the canvas to paint our experience so we can obtain perspective. Some may never see me as a true artist because of my utilitarian tactics. Lethem, however, is. His singular experience has touched so many of us, making our individual lives more full and less burdened in the same instant. Just finished the book. It’s a great story. Now that same story has a tune that resonates.