I Open My Arms to the World

I’ve always been interested in genealogy.  When I was 15, I asked my father all the schools he had ever attended.  He humored me, thinking that in some way he’d always be around to tell me that information.  Twenty years later, the ambulance came for the last time.  I still have that list.

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My father, Donald Groves

When I was 23, I asked my father’s father about our forebears.  He was the most silent man I’ve ever run into, and by that time, he was bedridden. I had driven all the way out from West L.A. to Yucaipa, a 2-hour drive, and he wouldn’t talk.  Finally, after about an hour, he said something.

“There’s more than one way to kill a cat,” he said with a sly grin on his face.

I waited for enlightenment, and then he gave it to me.

“The best way, though, is to slit it lengthwise along the belly and press up from the backbone.”

He did finally let me in on one important tidbit: his grandfather’s name.

Left to right, Sally Groves, Roy Groves, Emily Groves

My father’s father, Roy Groves

“C.C. Brundage,” he said.

I wrote that down.

“You know what the C.C. stands for?”

“No, what?”

“Christopher Columbus.”

Grandpa Roy let out a weak grizzled laugh.  It’s hard to describe what it sounded like, although maybe this captures it: It sounded like lung damage.  He had smoked most of his life, and on top of that, had had a career working for decades at a paper mill, where paper fibers floated in the air at all times.  Even at age 18, he was working at a factory that manufactured strawboard, which was a kind of paper made from straw.  I’m sure those fibers were permanently embedded in his lungs, too.  He died at age 70.

But the toughest genealogical resource in my family has always been my mother.  It’s not that she doesn’t give me information, although she sometimes does it in a grudging way, as if elucidating the past is putting another nail in her coffin.  Her toughness expresses itself in different ways, but in this example, it’s that she has never filed a census form.

My mother at age 16

My mother at age 16

In my genealogical researches, census forms have been my most valuable resource.  Through that, I have established the names and birth dates of many relatives.  In the common U.S. Census form, they first list the head of household and his or her age, and then list the other occupants and their ages.  Often, it’s clear what their relationship is.  In that way, I established that my great-grandfather’s name was Charles (born 1869), my great-great-grandfather’s name was John (born 1836), and my great-great-great-grandfather’s name was John, as well (born 1792).  I’ve also established the names of sons and daughters that have branched off my direct line.

Census forms also provide other fascinating information, too.  Depending on the year, U.S. Census forms have asked questions such as:

  • Level of education attained
  • Employment
  • Disabilities
  • Occupation
  • Address
  • Race
  • Birth country of parents
  • Relation to head of household
  • How many slaves you own

I make no excuses for my mother.  She’s guilty as charged.  But who is ever going to prosecute her for it?

It was in the year 2000 that I first witnessed her dodging the census taker, but it was in 2010 that I became acutely aware of it.  Because she had had a couple of strokes, I began going to her house on a more regular basis.

“Did you lock the front gate?” she would ask when I entered the house.

“No.”

“Well go lock it.”

“Why?  I’m here to protect you.”

“The census lady is looking for me.”

“Why don’t you want to fill out the census?”

“It’s none of their business.”

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My mother now.

So I would lock the gate upon arriving at her house, and again upon leaving, shaking my head all the way.

This evasion went on for months and months.  Sometimes, I would ask her why she was so dead-set against filling out the census.

“I’m a very private person,” she would say.

“They don’t release the census to the general public,” I would say.

“It’s still none of their business.  Oh, you’re such an open person.  You’re always writing things on the Internet, giving away all of our personal business.  Why do you have to do that?”

“What is there to be afraid of?”

“Because it’s nobody else’s business!”

Strangely, very strangely, I have very different conversations with her about government surveillance.

“My new novel is about a woman who has a secret admirer in the NSA,” I said.  “He loves her and he hates her.  He’s spying on her all the time without government clearance.  It points up the dangers of having such an extensive surveillance apparatus here in the U.S.”

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“But we’re at war.”

“Mom, we’ve been at war for 12 years against the terrorists.  There’s no end in sight.  When is it going to stop?”

“Why do you have to get involved in politics?”

“So you’re afraid of the census lady but you’re not afraid of people who can listen to all your phone calls and read all your mail and don’t need a court order to do it.”

“Let’s not talk about this.”

I rarely show my blogs to Mom.  To most of them, she wouldn’t react well.  Mentally ill forebears, a great-uncle who shot himself in the chest at age 40, a brain-damaged great-aunt who babbled nonsense.

Why do they have to know our business?!

Because if you don’t tell the truth in your writing, dammit, you might as well be manufacturing sleeping pills.  Because it’s intimacy.  It’s charged.  Hell, I open my arms to the world.  I let them see my scars.  I let them judge me.  I let them sneer at me, because sneering is what they do, and this is what I do.  So sue me.

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You Didn’t Hear Anything

Writing a novel is truly a journey of discovery.  And in the writing of my most recent novel, I came to realize that I had something to say about the entire espionage apparatus in this country that I hadn’t heard talked about before.  I wrote it, then rewrote it, then rewrote it again about 80 times.  I vacillated between obscurity and obviousness, iconography and narrative, Carl Jung’s symbols and Hemingway’s iceberg theory.

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In the story, Cat and Dante are hiding from a man who works in government surveillance who is trying to kill her.  They have gone off the grid and taken up residence in the tunnels beneath an upstate New York university.

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Chapter 18

After a bad night’s sleep, Cat went to bed the next evening at 11.  A couple hours later, Cat felt Dante squeeze her foot three times to wake her up, as he sometimes did when she had something scheduled.  When she turned her head and looked, no one was there.

Above ground, all was quiet.  One campus policeman was watching television 1,000 yards away while another slept two rooms away in a lounge.  Finally, Cat took a walk through the tunnels to clear her head.  During the day, there were always little noises—clicks inside electrical boxes, the rush of water through pipes—but at night, it all went quiet.  Cat made herself a cup of chamomile, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, and walked blindly through the tunnels.  Holding her cup of tea, she savored the timeless quality of the night, thinking about nothing in particular except perhaps the hopeless pursuit of sleep, when she turned a corner that she had turned a thousand times before.  She stopped short and dropped her cup; it shattered on the concrete walkway.

Sitting next to the opening in the ancient brick wall was now a red chair.  It had never been there before.  After the cup shattered on the concrete, she realized that there was a small possibility that Dante had put it there, but somehow, she sensed that he hadn’t, and in fact, when she asked him the next morning, he said he had spent the night at his microbiologist girlfriend’s place.  It changed everything in the tunnel.  Cautiously, she approached it with little steps, glancing around to see if she was being watched.  Finally, she reached it and placed a hand on it.  It was a wooden straight-backed chair that looked like it had been painted over several times, the final red coat popping red in a way that made it seem like a dream chair.

Suddenly, Cat heard a quiet noise inside the brick enclosure, a place that should not be emitting any noise at all, and smelled a familiar odor.  It was a living odor, though, not something that was long dead.  Cautiously, she stepped up on the chair and reached herself up to peer inside.  She could see only shadows, and at first, nothing was moving.  There seemed to be places in the dark where someone could stand, although the rest of it was piled high with skulls and skeletal remains.  Then suddenly she saw movement.  The idea that someone might be inside there was inconceivable.

“Hello?” she said.

Suddenly, Cat heard a frightening noise in the other direction, like something tall and heavy falling to the ground, and yanked her head around in alarm.  She didn’t say anything, and something came into her head but it was a thought, nothing more: What’s that?

“It’s nothing.”

The sound of his voice shook her deeply and she nearly fell off the chair.  Cat hadn’t heard that voice since he had passed away eleven years earlier.

“What are you….?”

“You didn’t hear anything.”

“I did hear it.”

“You’re always making things up.”

Normally, Cat would be fleeing, but there was something impossible about it all that made her screw up her courage and tell herself that it wasn’t happening, that perhaps the conversation existed only inside her head, although she couldn’t for the life of her see how.  She knew she was awake.  She knew there was no one in the tomb.  Perhaps it was a trick, like hanging a spoon on your nose.  She heard the noise behind her again.

“Why are you running?” he said.  “If you’re running, you must be guilty.”

“My God, I don’t have a life anymore.  I have someone else’s.  Some girl who looks like me and talks like me but isn’t me.”

“You should have had my father.  He hit my cat in the head with a rake.  It crawled under the house and wailed all night till it died.  Would you rather I had done that to your cat?”

“God I feel like that cat.”

“Oh stop feeling sorry for yourself.  You’re not that important.”

There was a slight rattling of bones and skulls and she saw the silhouette moving to the right, the glow of a cigarette moving with it, and so realized that familiar smell, for in her mind, the smell of burning tobacco had always been inextricably tied to the idea of father.  In life, her father had had bags under his eyes, but they had derived more from overwork and smoking and bad thoughts than from genuine aging.  He was disappointed at what he hadn’t accomplished in his life but had buried the disappointment in the backyard.  It had taken a huge amount of digging.  His harangues often boiled down to digging.  He had beefs.  He had blamed immigrants and welfare mothers.  That was also digging.  He had lived with his wife in a vodka bottle.  That was some serious digging.  Everyone was his enemy.

“All I want is not to be chased anymore.”

The falling sound echoed again.  She turned around, trying to locate where the sound was coming from.  Was it above ground?  Was it part of the machinery in the physical plant?  Was it in her head?  She turned and faced him.

“Tell me what it is.”

“You don’t know?”

“No.”

He turned in profile, the bones clacking again, and she could feel his intensity like a plate that was too hot to touch.  A stepdaughter is like a gift that a stray dog leaves on your lawn.  She didn’t hear those words, exactly, but that was the feeling.

“It’s the sound of your body hitting the asphalt, dear, when that man who borrowed my gun shoots you dead.”

She was a patsy.  She dropped the rifle.  It wasn’t hers.  There was a man with a rifle on the grassy knoll, but that would be dismissed as mere conspiracy.  Nobody would ever know the truth.

To download a copy of What Happens to Us for only $3.99, click here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU.

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NSA Violates Rules Constantly

Do you think we can trust the NSA?  Apparently, they violate the rules dozens of times a day.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/nsa-broke-privacy-rules-thousands-of-times-per-year-audit-finds/2013/08/15/3310e554-05ca-11e3-a07f-49ddc7417125_story.html?hpid=z1

On July 4, I published a novel about abuse of government surveillance, What Happens to Us, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU, only $3.99 to download.

An Enlightening Podcast on Government Surveillance

On the Sunday political talk shows, government officials have been denying that it was collecting data on ordinary Americans, only that it was collecting harmless li’l ol’ metadata.  Now, we know that they were lying, because of an investigative article in The Guardian newspaper on Saturday: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/31/nsa-top-secret-program-online-data

I was so outraged by this violation of American law that I wrote a novel about it, What Happens to Us, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU.  Download for $3.99 onto your Kindle.

Here’s a podcast that gives some perspective on the subject, from NPR.  It’s a must-hear.

http://www.onthemedia.org/2013/aug/02/?utm_source=local&utm_media=treatment&utm_campaign=daMost&utm_content=damostviewed

They Lied to Us Just Last Week

For the past couple months, government officials have been appearing on the airwaves proclaiming that the NSA collects only metadata.  Oh, they’re saints!  They’re saviours!  They’re only protecting you!

Dianne Feinstein, Peter King, Michael Hayden, Lindsay Graham, John McCain, and many others have been telling us what a liar Edward Snowden is.  The government collects only metadata, they say.  And that’s not really data at all!  It’s just like the information on the outside of an envelope!  Chill out, dudes!

Now, it turns out that they collect everything, with no oversight, no FISA approval required. Outrageous.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/31/nsa-top-secret-program-online-data

And on top of that, they’re passing that information on to the Drug Enforcement Agency and other local law enforcement, for them to act upon.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2013/08/05/the-nsa-is-giving-your-phone-records-to-the-dea-and-the-dea-is-covering-it-up/

It’s blatantly unconstitutional, so when they bring the cases to court, they cover it up by cooking up a whole other scenario about how the information came to light.  In other words, they lie and cook up another story.

And other law-enforcement agencies are clamoring to get to that data.  If they get their way, the information from our tapped phones will be used to combat all crimes:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/04/us/other-agencies-clamor-for-data-nsa-compiles.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

Six years ago, I began writing a novel that is a demonstration of the worst that could happen under promiscuous surveillane.  It’s Edward Snowden’s worst nightmare.  Read  What Happens to Us at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU.  Download for only $3.99 on your Kindle or Nook.

An Onion within an Onion within an Onion

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/28/kim-philby-david-astor-observer

It was interesting to read this article today about Kim Philby.  I’m currently reading The Secret Life of Kim Philby, the biography of him that his Russian wife Rufina wrote.  In Rufina’s eyes, he was a celebrity who was forgiven by the British establishment for being a Soviet spy secreted into the British intelligence apparatus.  In this account, Philby was “pathetic.”

I know why I’m obsessed with spies.  Just as in the performance of magic, the layers of lies and truth are labyrinthine, like an onion within an onion within an onion, a kind of inception of the onion family.  They are endlessly fascinating to peel back.  Sometimes you cry at what you find.  Likewise with this story, which changes color and hue as it twists this way and that in the wind.

Getting Alcoholism, part 2

In writing my newly published novel, What Happens to Us, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU, I chose a protagonist who was a recovering alcoholic.  Not coming from an alcoholic family, I had to work hard to get alcoholism, so to speak.

But today, while reading a biography of the famous double-agent Kim Philby, I came upon a scene of such genuineness that you knew you were reading about something real.  That was what I was striving for in my own novel, so it riveted me.

It was a scene from 1971.  Philby got a call from Vitaly, a KGB friend who wanted to come over and visit.  When he got there, he pulled out an open bottle of Hungarian red wine and started drinking.  En route, he had spilled the wine all over his pullover sweater, and when he realized that, he pulled it off and gave it to Philby’s wife Rufina.

“Wash this,” he ordered.

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The Philbys weren’t in the mood for drinking, so it was just a drunk Vitaly and the exhausted Philbys, who had just returned from a months-long trip.

“It’s boring here!” Vitaly suddenly said.  “There isn’t even any music!”

Then he turned to Rufina.

“Make me some coffee,” he said.

Rufina did, but when it arrived, he pushed it away for the wine.  By this time, Vitaly had gotten to the point where he couldn’t stand up.  Rufina offered him sandwiches and coffee.  He reached for the coffee, but because it was cold, he pushed it away.

“Make me another cup,” he said.

Rufina did.  That one got cold, too.

“Make me another,” he said.

Finally, Philby made an announcement.

“We’re out of coffee.”

Philby tried to get Vitaly to leave, but as they tried to lift him up, wearing a wet pullover and pondering the weather outside, which was 20 below, he muttered a truly frightening thought.

“Maybe I’ll spend the night here.  I feel faint.”

The Philbys redoubled their efforts at exfiltrating him, but in the process, Philby reached into Vitaly’s coat pocket.  He found a melted bar of ice cream.  That ice cream, I feel, is the most telling detail of this amazing story.  (The Private Life of Kim Philby, pp. 134 – 136)

Snowden “Most Costly Leaker Ever”?! Puhleez.

Edward Snowden is “the mostly costly leaker of American secrets in the history of the republic,” according to former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden.

Really?!  Really?!  Then what do you call Aldrich Ames, who blew over 20 Western agents, the majority of whom were executed?  What do you call the Los Alamos spies Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold, David Greenglass, the Rosenbergs, the Cohens, and Ted Hall, who passed atomic secrets to the Soviets in the late 1940s, opening the Pandora’s Box of atomic proliferation?

Hayden and others in the spy-industrial complex have a vested interest in keeping secret the extent to which Americans are being spied upon.  Just this past week, they have done their best to keeping the money flowing.  http://www.politico.com/story/2013/07/justin-amash-nsa-amendment-94716.html  Because it really is all about money and power.

In my newly published novel, What Happens to Us, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5S, an NSA employee uses his omniscient information to spy on an ex-girlfriend, which I call Edward Snowden’s worst nightmare.  It’s frightening, but also, highly plausible.  Download it for only $3.99.

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Obsession Is Your Friend

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If you’ve never watched a movie 100 times, you should.  I did.

There is a way that one can become so thoroughly familiar with a great narrative that it seeps into your bones and becomes like another organ in your body.  You expropriate certain phrases.  It becomes part of your Bildung, your autonomic nervous system, your premise as a person.

My own particular obsession was Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the 6-hour BBC television movie, with Alec Guinness and a fabulous cast of other British luminaries.  The reason: The first time I watched it, I didn’t totally understand it.  It intrigued me, because it felt like it was comprehensible if I could just watch it again.  So I bought a copy and watched it again.  I learned a little more, but not everything by any means.  So I watched it several more times.

By the fifth time, I had the basic idea.  The problem was, LeCarre’s plotting was so airtight that it became richer the more questions you asked.  In addition, so much was implied rather than stated in this work of art.  It was a puzzle, but a supremely plausible and airtight puzzle.  It was like an onion, in that every layer that I peeled away yielded another layer.

How I got past the eighth viewing is an important question.  That’s the point at which it began slipping into obsession.  The reason: I was working hard.  Every breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I would watch a little bit more of the movie.  Obviously, I didn’t have a girlfriend, or for that matter, a social life.

Weeks passed.  Every viewing was reassuring, like a secret society that was accepting me in.  Months passed.  The plot became so labyrinthine that I felt I was becoming an expert at something.  I could answer trivia questions.  When did Jim Prideaux learn that he was betrayed?  Why did Toby Esterhaze change sides so easily?  Why did Bill Haydon have an affair with George Smiley’s wife?  I could answer all those questions and more.

When I moved on to the sequel, Smiley’s People, also a 6-hour BBC miniseries, I felt truly inducted.  These were my neighbors, my intimates, the voices on the other end of the phone.  Years passed, and I watched both videos countless times.  I bought the books and read them several times, as well, which gave me all the vast universe of detail.  I don’t know whether I watched the movies 50 or 100 times, but it was many.

Six years ago, I began writing a novel that had espionage elements, and that novel was informed by LeCarre’s work, as they say.  Attitudes, tones, shadings.  The realistic and mature attitude toward action still remains with me in this newly published novel, called What Happens to Us http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU.

In addition, this exhaustive approach to art has transferred to my own creative process.  There are certain passages in my new novel, for example, that I’ve rewritten over 100 times.  When you look at something that many times, you can pretty much rest assured that you’ve done everything to turn it into art.  No stone is left unturned.

After about ten years, I stopped watching those movies.  That was about ten years ago.  Recently, I picked them up again, watching the serialization on YouTube.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzYtb47vvf0  I found it strangely emotional.  When I began explaining plot points to my girlfriend, I found myself choking up.  Every plot point had tragedy behind it.  It was like talking about my grandmother’s life and understanding what decision led to what act which led to me.  It was like understanding the totality of life.  It was like living inside the Tree of Life.

Here’s a YouTube video about it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKM26bYkCbk

The NSA Responds to “What Happens to Us”

My novel, What Happens to Us, indicts the NSA for its wiretapping policies.  Over 4.9 million people have access to “confidential and secret” information gathered by the government, including nearly 500,000 who work for private contractors like Booz Allen, where Edward Snowden worked.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/10/nsa-leak-contractors_n_3418876.html

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That’s an awful lot of possibilities for misbehavior and misuse of that access.  In 2007, I was so appalled by that possibility that I wrote a novel tracing a hypothetical instance of misbehavior and the havoc that it might wreak.  It took the form of a thriller: Cat is being chased by a stranger whom she doesn’t even know.  It’s made much more frightening because this stranger seems to know her friends, where she might spend the night, and seems to locate her mysteriously whenever she turns on her cell phone.

Once I published the novel, it didn’t even take a week for the NSA to learn of its existence.  A Facebook friend forwarded information about my novel to a friend who works at the NSA.  Even though he hadn’t yet read the book, he expressed extreme skepticism.  He wrote that there is “no such thing as an ‘NSA operative,’ but that’s what you get when you combine the concept of CIA agents (‘operatives’) with the public’s view of the NSA as ‘one step even more secret than the CIA.’”

Of course, What Happens to Us never uses the term “operative.”  (I just searched the document.)  But never doubt the power of changing the subject, which is what the government so often does when it comes to surveillance.  After arguing that irrelevancy, he continues in that vein:

“There aren’t ‘NSA agents’, either. No such thing. However, I have yet to see ‘Enemy of the State’, and as I understand, Gene Hackman or someone else is an ‘NSA agent’. It’s pure fantasy.”

Then he takes on a subject on which he is unexpectedly right.

“It’s probably because they’ve been so successfully secret in general that writers have to make such stuff up. The public probably DOES “know” a bit more about the CIA, which is why there’ve been so many CIA characters and movies related to it.”

In fact, it’s true that there’s very little known about the Prism, Pinwale, and other NSA surveillance programs.  In all my research over a number of years, these are the things I learned about it.  It’s based in San Francisco on Comstock Street.  The telecommunication companies seem to be cooperating with it.  And IT workers seem to have incredibly broad access to it.  That’s pretty much all any of us knows.

So that’s the point.  If you want to write about a supersecret program but don’t have many facts, what do you do?  Ignore it?  If you’re a novelist, you make stuff up, as our critic so eloquently put it.  And after all, there is a reason that it’s called fiction.

The larger point of the novel, however, is that all employees everywhere sometimes step over the line.  It’s that when you’re collecting private information, you need oversight.  It’s that my antagonist Rafe Noyes, who hides his obsessions from nearly everyone, could easily exist.  And that’s what’s so frightening about this novel, and ultimately, the NSA.