When creators choose to profit on the trauma of children …
I find my fellow New Yorker Jeanine Cummins very frustrating.
She’s the latest author to join Oprah’s Book Club, for her book “American Dirt.” In the book, she tells a fictional story about the troubles facing a family from Mexico trapped in a life-or-death situation, that has to travel to the U.S. for safety and face our immigration system. Her book is being lauded. She’s a foster mom, with a good heart, and this work she’s created has reached the hearts of a lot of good Americans, people like Stephen King and Oprah and all sorts of folks.
It was this tweet, coupled with relooking at some writing she’s done and her interviews, that’s led me to this place of frustration …
I don’t understand how anyone who truly understands the suffering of immigrants can ever think that the barbed wire that hurts and kills so many people trying to escape from war, from crime, from violence, is beautiful. It’s clear she’s never suffered any of this herself, and has a limit to her empathy.
There’s an ugliness to all of this, hidden between the lines here, and it’s exemplified in this piece she wrote for the New York times from 2018.
“But even when it’s necessary, removing children from their parents causes acute distress. I witnessed that suffering. It lived in my home.
My older daughter began having nightmares that “the people” would take her away from us and give her to another family. She was inconsolable. “If it could happen to them,” she asked with the cleareyed logic of a 7-year-old, “why can’t it happen to us?”
I tried telling her that it happens only to parents who don’t, or can’t, take care of their children. It happens only when parents aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do.
It turns out she knew something I didn’t.
I’ve tried not to read the headlines about migrant children being separated from their parents. The stories of frantic parents and sobbing children are painfully familiar. It is too easy to imagine a little girl shrieking in her new foster mother’s kitchen, writhing and kicking at the unfamiliar hands attempting to soothe her. I can see her falling into a fitful sleep in her hot-pink sneakers.”
A kind, caring mother, in 2018, decided to avoid understanding what was happening to children at the southern border until she was faced with it, and couldn’t turn away. And even then, it took her some period of time before she truly started to even believe the child under her care. And unconsciously … did you notice the sentence? When I read this two years ago, it jumped out at me …
“ … I witnessed that suffering. It lived in my home…”
… Consciously, she’s referring to the suffering as, “it.” But suffering isn’t a conscious thing. Suffering is a human emotion, held by a 7 year old girl, who on some level, she may consider an object. Suffering doesn’t live anywhere. A 7 year old girl did, at least in 2018.
This kind, caring mother, is profiting off of a story of suffering of migrant children, told to her by a traumatized child that she says brought suffering into her home, a suffering she describes as an It, as a monster. I find this troubling, and I imagine other people see it, even if some don’t.
And the media machine behind her is profiting from this same story.
Cummins and her book are now facing some PR backlash. And I can imagine an outcome, where the author and everyone behind her pretend, “We always intended to donate the profits from this work to help immigrants.” I doubt I’ll believe anyone if that moment comes.
But if that moment comes, it’s going to come as an afterthought in response to the PR nightmare emerging, as many people of color, and immigrants, and people fighting on the front lines for justice are realizing that their story has been fictionalized, marginalized, that the book about them dehumanizes them and treats them as an other, and gets so many details about their lives wrong, that it becomes torture porn for the people who buy the book. But at least a good outcome would emerge from it.
The people defending the author are focused on her rights as a creator, to tell any story she chooses. And I support that as well, people should tell whatever stories they choose. But if you choose to tell someone else’s story, to take it from them, to take the story of a child and turn it into your first NYT Byline, to fictionalize the story of people suffering for your first big hit book, to become friends with Oprah, then you should live with the consequences of that choice.
I think the best thing to do is to let people tell their own stories, but sometimes, people can’t. If you decide to speak on someone else’s behalf, I think the only right thing to do, when you tell someone else’s story, is to make sure that the people you tell it about are the ones who’ll benefit from it.
I wrote a stage show, that needs work, called ‘Cleveland of New York’ which is a fictionalization of a similar story, but told from a child’s perspective with the kind of ending that I imagine, and hope, people of all ages could understand. I would still like this story to be a success, because my hope is that 100% of the profits from it go to help the children in the story, children who I know mostly cannot tell their own stories in this moment in time. Maybe I made a mistake, and am making a mistake. Like I said, “… if you choose to tell someone else’s story … you should live with the consequences of that choice.” I’ll stick by that choice.
And just know that the people who’ve suffered that trauma, they only feel traumatized by it all. If you choose to display the torture of their life in explicit detail in your story, just know, that’s not a memory any person who suffered through will likely want to relive in fiction. Just know in that moment, if you make that choice, you’re not telling the story for them.
A writer I admire who’s worked as an immigration activist for years and is a celebrated journalist now, said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Maybe I should write my first book TRAUMA TRAUMA TRAUMA TRAUMA,” and make a million dollars. I understand her frustrations. I hope I do.
I just wish the kind-hearted Jeanine Cummins of the world would care enough to not profit from the suffering of the people they claim to care about. I don’t doubt that she’s a good mother, a good friend, a good person, and more. I just know that the lesson I draw from this is that even good people may unconsciously decide to profit on the suffering of other people, even in the 21st century.
Thanks for reading this piece.
If it earns any money from Medium, whether it’s a $1 or $10,000, any proceeds will be donated to help immigrants in need.
Here’s two organizations that could use your support in New York City.
The New Sanctuary Coalition advocates for immigrant rights and is on the front-line, led by immigrants to our country. You can donate to them here … https://www.newsanctuarynyc.org/onetimegift
The Safe Passage Project offers legal aid to children facing our immigration court system. In the United States, everyone involved in a criminal trial has the right to an attorney. However, despite what many people say, violations of immigration law are not criminal, they’re civil. This means that no one facing immigration court has the right to an attorney. The Safe Passage Project and organizations like it fill the space by representing children, who otherwise would have to stand alone against the U.S. government. You can donate to them here … https://www.safepassageproject.org/donate/
If you have an organization that needs support, please leave a comment!