Craig Mazin’s Chernobyl: a personal response

Reactor 4, Chernobyl, under its protective sarcophagus

“With every lie we tell, we incur a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt will be paid.”

These lines are spoken by Valery Legasov, in Craig Mazin’s five-part series Chernobyl. Legasov was the nuclear scientist, who was instrumental in saving the world from the nuclear holocaust that the meltdown of reactor 4 on April 26, 1986 could have been. In doing so, he exposed himself to doses of radiation that would have eventually proven fatal if he had not killed himself on the second anniversary of the disaster. He left behind an oral account, which circulated among scientists and revealed the lies that caused the explosion and the ensuing coverup.

As it turned out penny-pinching, ambition and fear of humiliation were the root causes, but none of these would have endangered Europe or cost so many lives – as many as 100,000 – if not for the lies.

We are living in an age of lies. As of the end of April 2019, Trump is reported to have lied over 10,000 times . His staunch supporters don’t care. Even now, that Fox News is beginning to admit the fact, they don’t care. This week, he has denied knowing E. Jean Carroll, who writes that he sexually assaulted her in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman, even though a picture has been published showing them talking together.

Hitler followed Joseph Goebbel’s advice that if you told a big enough lie often enough, everyone would believe it. Thus he was able to resettle six million Jews.

I remember. But that may be because I am so old that I was alive while he was doing it. A friend of mine, who is even older, on the other hand, does not. Or only partly. She voted for Trump, but may be having slight second thoughts now, at least about his sexually morality. Still, what does sexual morality have to do with GDP?

I also remember learning from George Orwell’s 1984 that it is possible to hold two contradictory ideas to be true at the same time. This he called doublethink, a key principle of government in Oceana.

I was glad to discover there was a name for that kind of thinking. Doublethink was the default mode of the Family. My family – lower case – belonged to the Family. In the great tradition of other arch Families like the Mafia, we were more or less owned by the Family and stepped out of line at our peril. And no, we didn’t live in a walled off commune, we lived where everybody else did. We were indistinguishable. We didn’t wear red robes – except at night, but only if we were high up on the hierarchy. Initially, the goals of the Family were quite admirable. Or at least, some of its members, most of them women, believed in a higher purpose and even eventual enlightenment. Unfortunately, others believed that children were sexual beings and that kidnapping and murder were justifiable instruments of order.

Our father, who had been nurtured in the bosom of this cult, turned out to be a sociopath of considerable stature, who helped himself to cult power for status and extra cash. His alliance with the actual Mafia was helpful in both regards. He was a dab hand at body disposal and much worse criminal mayhem, seemingly unhindered by empathy. He was considerably ahead of the CIA or even the KGB when it came to torture techniques and he practiced on his children and grandchildren.

So why did I keep returning to the family home for family celebrations, thus enabling such abuse.

In my day to day life, I carried around the idea of my family as respectable, hardworking and honest. A little raucous, noisy, prone to shouting matches, but fundamentally good, even God-fearing. We didn’t even speed or run red lights. We became teachers. We served the community.

And because…

My father had threatened the life of one of my children and offered convincing evidence that it was no idle threat. And, of course, he had violently abused me to the point of near-death.

Terror initiates trauma, a feeling of helplessness -“There’s nothing I can do. I’m done for.” The connections in the brain get ‘messed up’. Adrenaline and cortisol release into the body. Adrenaline helps to formulate memories, but cortisol prevents the integration of them because the hippocampus  responds to cortisol by shutting down. And the hippocampus is the part of the brain that links ‘separated areas of implicit memory” and integrates experience. The wires are down between the the conscious and the unconscious. (Quotes from NICABM “Treating Trauma Master Series, session 1, The Neurobiology of Trauma.)

Traumatic memory gets locked there as Dr. Ford said at Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearing: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter”.

After my father died, flashes of memory and dreams began to release these bits, along with the original terror. My sister and I both had to stop teaching for several months. I shook visibly, which wasn’t a good look at the front of a classroom. We went to lawyers, psychologists and the police. We learned that it was not a crime to witness a crime. We learned that none of our allegations could be proved. We learned that telling the truth could cost financially and socially. We learned that our family was split into truth-tellers and deniers.

And that was that.

But no. As time went on, other hippocampuses flashed information into higher brains and other people, who had stood aside from our truth, found themselves dragged into it by their own dysfunctioning minds, their own despair and rage.

We had a rule. Don’t tell until the other person remembers. But after a certain number of close calls, we broke even that rule. It turned out to be a good thing.

If you can ever say that letting a person understand the hidden horror in her past is a good thing. It’s not as if we can replace the graphite tips of the control rods in the brain or replace the AZ 5 emergency shutdown device. The Soviets eventually did both.

So that is what I’ve learned about the truth. I can’t even swear to its exact nature. I know only that it cannot be denied. It catches up to you and its interest rates are astronomical.

On the other hand, partial though it may be, it heals like love.

 

 

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Aftermath: executing Blake’s Estate

This is Blake’s house. Still Blake’s house, although you can’t see him sitting on his third floor balcony, reading the Toronto Star and drinking coffee.

To be precise, it is the house of the estate of Blake Durant, one good reason why you can’t see him sitting in his lounge chair with his coffee near at hand, cursing Donald Trump and angrily refolding his paper

It is, in fact, the house that I have just sold. For the full asking price, modest enough when you consider it is on a Cabbagetown street full of million dollar houses, but large enough to make my eyes bug out. From it, you could walk to work in Toronto’s financial district. You could park one car in the attached garage and another in the driveway. You could enjoy a private backyard deck with lovely small trees.

First, you would want to spend another $150,000 redoing the floors, installing HVAC, including duct work and upgrade the two four piece bathrooms. You might want to redo the windows and the kitchen. But the people who bought Blake’s house have that handled. The family just bought and reno’ed the almost identical house attached to the south.

I got just under $900,000. Blake and I had owned two houses as a married couple and we struggled to get $180,000 for the last one in 1979, the one under the hill, with the pool and the big family room, the gardens, the dry stone wall, the den, and the finished basement, on a cul de sac in leafy Scarborough. An ideal place for children to grow and a brisk walk to a commuter train downtown. You get the picture – our dream home, rendered mausoleum by divorce and teenagers who pissed off in its wake.

And yes, I am both ex-wife and executor. I even volunteered. Frankly, I didn’t trust Blake to protect our children’s interests and he didn’t have any friends that I trusted either. The other thing is that I loved Blake, indeed I love Blake.

That’s a problem.

Having sold the house, I feel as if he’s died all over again. When the deal closes at the end of August, I suppose I’m in for a third Blake death.

A few weeks before he passed, he confided that he was leaving me a terrible mess. He cried. He was in bad shape then, wasting away, wracked with pain and on heavy meds, but Blake always cried easily. He wasn’t exaggerating either. The mess both physical and financial was spectacular.

Five of us set about clearing things up, six if you count Alice who took herself bag and baggage back to the apartment Blake had been paying for for years. With our encouragement. After she left, the place was somewhat less like a hoarder’s paradise. It took six weeks. Waste Management sites in Toronto and Mississauga saw a lot of us, as well as Value Village. Much furniture changed hands at the curb. Some valuables on Kijiji. From time to time, one of the other of us lost hope and had to be invalided out for a few days.

“That place sucks the joy out of you!” one of us declared.

Plus it smelled of pee. It smelled badly of pee. There had been cats. There had been a very old dog. And there had been an incontinent patient. It took a professional, an industrial cleaner, an ozone machine and $3000, not to mention 11 Febreze units to get the air to the point where we could be there without every window and door wide open.

The garage was a horror show all on its own. Got Junk wanted thousands to take its disordered contents away. The only male member of our quintet threw himself at it with all his pent up rage at his father. Weekend after weekend, he dragged stuff out and off-loaded it. One guy, much to his wife’s chagrin, became the new owner of 8 bookcases and a teak table with four chairs. The childhood train set – Blake’s really – fetched $200. The last thing to go was the Bhau Haus sofa which Habitat for Humanity insisted would never go out the door – although it had come in there 25 years before. Blake’s son got it out. Like his father, he understood leverage and angles. He towed it to the curb and it went away.

Afterwards when there was nothing left to do, he found himself grieving.

Grief is a bitch. It ambushes you. Just when you think you’ve got it handled, it smashes you back down. Just when you think you’re too annoyed and overwhelmed by Blake’s lack of responsibility to care that he’s gone, you discover that your heart feels different.