You were never like a father to me. You were my mother’s brother, my uncle and gnk’ahayr (godfather) until you disowned me for marrying someone Jewish. Now, you’re just a bigot, christened by me in your final years for your worst deed.
Still, since I came screaming out of the womb, wet and red-faced―then dipped crying, shortly thereafter, by you into a holy tub―we’ve shared a common space of consciousness, like all families do. This space contains all the invisible bits that make us family: the neurosynaptic pathways etched by our genetic coding and passed down through the generations, for example.
The Common Space of Consciousness is a limitless room, nowhere and everywhere, like outer space, or like where Mork stood while reporting to his paternal alien master, Orson, at the end of each episode of the early 1980s sitcom Mork and Mindy. In it Mork, played by a svelte and baby-faced Robin Williams, played an alien from the planet Ork who comes to Earth to study humans. At the end of each episode, he astral-projects himself into the void to share the lessons he learned that week with Orson and the at-home television audience.
You would hate that reference. You would make a tsk sound using your tongue and upper palate to communicate your disapproval. Tsk. tsk. Tsk. It would confirm all of your worst assumptions: that I am an American. Nothing worse than having been formed from this nation’s ooze, shaped by the clay of its culture-lessness, a country without a history, a national character, Americans’ only bond a common obsession with money and commerce, thrust upon us by our overlords who wish us to numb us to life’s meaninglessness, to the ethnohistorical forces that control our lives, with mindless entertainment, with television sitcoms; a place where the individual reigns supreme, not the collective.
Me? I love American pop culture and have always loved it. I learned how to be a person in the world, in a family, through TV shows, movies, books and plays.
America’s greatest sin according to you: the way we attempt to understand our lives, our experiences, what happens to us and what we make happen, by applying individual psychology. I sometimes think about that time you took me to Circus of Books on Sunset Blvd. one evening. I was 11 years old. The sky was striped orange and purple when we entered through the glass doors. You told me to pick out whatever book I wanted. When I did, you slammed it down on a nearby shelf.
“Not this trash,” you said.
The book was Ordinary People, a novel by Judith Guest about a family trying to cope in the aftermath of a tragedy. I had recently watched the movie adaptation and was absolutely riveted by this story with a depressed teenager (played by a crush-worthy Timothy Hutton) at its center. The action revolves around a New England family’s repressed response to the trauma of losing their oldest son in a boating accident. Their other son Conrad survived the accident and is struggling. After a suicide attempt, he is sent to a therapist, played by a fast-talking, shout-y, relentlessly-supportive Judd HIrsch.
That scene when Therapist Judd Hirsch pushes Conrad to confront his own guilt over what happened! It was like porn to me, the forbidden fruit of excavating what is wrong, taking it out, looking at it, making it smaller.
“It isn’t fair,” says Conrad. “You just do one wrong thing…”
“Uh-huh,” says Therapist Judd Hirsh. “And what was the wrong thing that you did?”
Conrad is silent.
Therapist Judd won’t let him off the hook though and says, “You know.”
“You know,” he says again.
“I hung on. I stayed with the boat,” says a spent Conrad.
“And you can live with that can’t you?” says Judd.
But such confrontations are of no interest to you. Family dysfunction is NOT an important source of pain. It is the geopolitical, the historical that shapes us!
You studied. You worked hard to know more about the history that left you stateless―a wanderer with no place to belong―than anyone else and, therefore, never be subject to its whims again.
Your unarticulated rage found an object in me.
I was so shocked when it happened, but with time and distance I have come to see your rejection of me as inevitable, like a good plot construction where two characters are on a path that could only result in collision, like Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams's 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire, “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning.”
Our ideologies are so at war with each other that there isn’t room for both to exist in one reality. For one to win, the other must be destroyed.
Let’s invite the American audience in to see for themselves, shall we? Let’s go back―sitcom-style, the present picture dissolving via wavy lines while someone somewhere strums a harp. No longer am I middle-aged, sitting on my spreading rear at a desk, blinking at the cursor as it blinks back at me. I am a little girl in a mustard-colored turtleneck and miniature bell-bottomed jeans, hair parted in a crooked Z, tamed into two long golden-brown pigtails. I am standing next to your 1967 sky-blue Ferrari parked in the oil-stained driveway of the house that your mother, my medz mama (grandmother) insisted your father buy: It’s the coolest car I’ve ever seen, then and still.
No longer do you sit in some outdoor cafe in Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia, where now in your golden years you live, sipping strong sourj or maybe now a Perrier, your gray hair tousled, your Members’ Only-style jacket rumpled. It’s the 1980s, and you are sitting in the driver’s seat, about to take me on a joyride around the block in my medzmama’s East Hollywood neighborhood, past the hookers and the young men with zippered leather jackets and bleached, green-tipped mohawks before you head over to Moustache Cafe in West Hollywood. Your hair is chocolate brown and still shines. Your smile has more charm than menace.
It is decades before you “disown” me. (You never owned me―I was not even your Armenian-American daughter to patriarchally “own.”) You are my swinging single uncle who pursues pussy all over town, lures it with the revving of the Ferrari’s engine, purrrr, the top always down; the better for them to see your dark almond-shaped eyes, your full head of lustrous hair blowing in the wind.
You are not the marrying kind.
You live alone in a sad bachelor pad in Beverly Hills, decade after decade. I visit it only once when I am 10 years old. It is like no place I’ve been to before, a bachelor pad with spare furniture and piles and piles of books. Your nose is always in a book sniffing up history like powdery lines trying to find the answer to the question: why did all this history have to happen to me?
On one wall of your cramped apartment is a framed photo of a woman, headless and spread-eagle, the word “Beaver” printed across her naked, hairy privates, along with an image of an actual beaver. A hot flush rises to my temples as I look away.
You are a dentist, have become one to please your father. Or maybe it was your mother? Either way, it isn’t to please yourself. You wanted to study Philosophy. Why didn’t you just study philosophy? I want to say to you. You wanted to be an academic like your mentor and father-figure, after your own father died when you were a teenager.
You relish saying inappropriate and racist things during family and holiday dinners, your face red and sweaty, your fist wrapped tight around the stem of a wine glass as you twirl it, the viscous red liquid clinging to the glass as it sinks mournfully having missed its last chance at escape.
The Sevs and their music belong in the ghetto, you say with a cackle. Sev is the Armenian word for the color black. It’s so transparent. The Armenians, the Sevs, what difference does it make? In America, we are all The Other.
You identify with the most visibly marginalized in the U.S. and make jokes to distance yourself. It’s you who feel ghettoized.
My relatives laugh with you, uncomfortably, yes, but still they laugh, tsk’ing their tongues. You are the first born son so they give you wide latitude.
They are immigrants, my family.
So what? Says the teenager who still lives inside me, her arms crossed and eyes rolling. Other people emigrate to America and turn out fine. Why do you all have to be so broken?
They are refugees, adult me―who has a more nuanced view―explains to her.
Your mother, my medzmama, was a just a baby, just ”40 days old,” she used to say―40 days being an important number biblically, maybe to her mother who was religious―in 1920 when her family made it out of the Ottoman Empire alive, not slaughtered or starved to death, or made to march across the dessert with the Turkish gendarms free to rape, torture, kill, which is what happened to at least 1.5 million Armenians who were living on their ancestral lands until the Ottoman government, the Young Turks, decided they wanted them out. My medzmama’s parents had returned to their city, Aintab, after the war, in a burst of optimism, but left again when the French retreated, understanding with finality that the promise of safety had been an illusion, shiny and false.
They found a home in Palestine, under British mandate. She was matchmade with your father. They married, settled in the port city of Jaffa and started a family. He established himself as a successful businessman with a thriving shoe-making factory.
They were forced out when the region was declared the state of Israel.
I have no opinions or insights to share regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict other than a belief that there will be no end, cannot be―not now, when so many have lost their lives, lost their loved ones. The War’s hooks remain embedded deep in my family, even generations later, and all we lost was our future.
What does it mean to survive? If Oxygen is able to enter your being through external nasal openings or another aperture and then penetrate the super thin walls of your capillaries eventually being carried into your blood cells and up into your left ventricle but you disavow your sister’s daughter because you don’t like the religion of the person she married and therefore never get to meet her kids or have them in your life, does this mean the architects of a genocide perpetrated on your people 100 years ago failed or succeeded?
It is wrong to measure the success of a genocide by the number of people dead. Death is an ending. Survival is just the beginning.
And if there’s anything American Me knows it’s that trauma perpetuates the cycle of trauma. In the parlance of pop psychology: hurt people hurt people.
You certainly can’t have my story come to a happy end like some stupid American sitcom.
What are you going to do, have kids with him? That’s what you ask during our last conversation. This scene takes place in the Common Space of Consciousness, though I am on my cell phone in New York’s JFK airport waiting for a flight home from a work trip and you are in the ether, a bodiless voice in my ear. I have never called you before but decide to then, check it off my to-do list, confront you about what I had heard:
“Are you really going to cut ties with me because I’m marrying someone Jewish?” I asked.
You laugh uncomfortably, like it’s all a joke.
“I’m just a traditional kind of person,” you say.
Isn’t our having kids the very thing the campaign against us was designed to prevent?
When you sever ties with me, I am almost forty years old―both my parents are long gone.
You are supposed to be my godfather, my guardian. Instead you are the guard at the gate, keeping me out, out of family gatherings, out of the company of my last remaining grandparent or parent. I barely see my medzmama as she slowly slips from the center of our family into dementia and death. You live with her and you use your position to bar me―and my husband and children, her only great-grandchildren―from the door.
It’s only later that I remember that there are precedents―both on your father’s side.
I never met him, my grandfather. He died before I was born. He was an Armenian nationalist, a Dashnak, radicalized by a childhood spent begging in the streets, despised by the Ottoman leadership, scapegoated as the reason the empire was crumbling. He believed in an ethno-state.
His sister, your aunt, safely ensconced in her life in Fresno, California, disowned her eldest son because he married a Jewish woman. She never knew her grandson. You admired her, I think. This is what it means to hold fast to your ideals, you may have thought.
This is the exterminators’ jobs done for them. The genealogical line continues, but there’s a fissure, a break. No need now for a historical force to cut you off from the future, not when you can do the job very well yourself.
I remember the dinner plates that Teenaged Me discovered, in the back of a kitchen cabinet at my medzmama’s house. They were lovely and old, with a delicate blue-inked pattern etched around the rim. At the center of the alternating pattern: Are those…swastikas?
I walked down the hall and arrived in the dining room, the plate still in my hand, and asked my mom. They belonged to my grandfather, she said. They might have been a wedding present.
“Did he support the Nazis?” I asked, though I should have known better. Direct questions never yielded answers.
“No,” she said in her vague way. “I don’t know. It’s just a decoration.”
“Swastikas,” I reminded her.
“Well, I don’t think it always meant what it means,” my mom said.
If I’d had more information about him, or if direct questions ever led to answers, I might have continued and asked: “Was your dad a nazi sympathizer?”
“He believed in the purity of the race,” my mom might have answered.
“Of the Aryan race?”
“No, the Armenian race.”
“So, he thought Hitler had a point.”
Here’s a Mork-style lesson: You don’t survive by making allowances for things like love, for individual preference. You don’t survive by accommodating dissension. You survive by becoming unbreakable, by insisting on conformity and standing in formation against the enemy, a solid wall. Unity. There can only be binaries: us or them, black or white, good or evil, live or die.
When my medzmama dies, you continue to shut me out by attempting to keep me away from her funeral.
I attend. Her coffin is draped in an Armenian flag and a Palestinian flag―your arrangement, no doubt, though never once did I hear her identify herself as Palestinian. You write a biography of her life. It frames her entire life as a mad persecution by the Zionists. References to “ethnic cleansed” or genocide” appear five times, to Jews 4 times. The Holy Bible or Christianity or piety are mentioned often, as if she was a woman whose life revolved around the church.
Like the slideshow of photographs you make that plays on loop before and after the service, I am not in it.
You are choosing to end your relationship with me, I say at the end of our conversation, me at JFK airport―you, I don’t know where. I am giving you one final chance. Do you understand that―that that’s what you’re choosing?
You do. And, so, there is nothing left to say―only silence as I press “end” on my phone’s screen, deleting you from my address book and from the Common Space of Consciousness to which we both belong.
You would adore my son. He looks like you―same thick, dark hair growing forward and down, same almond-shaped eyes. He’s only six years old but already he enjoys provoking people, especially by doing the opposite of what everyone expects like at the live performance of the Nutcracker we took him to last year when he booed while everyone else clapped, the corners of his mouth turned down in performative disapproval.
What you don’t know―what nobody knows: there is no permanent exile. If you ever said: “Sorry,” I would forgive you in an instant.
I am untouched by these catastrophes. I never even met him, your broken father. You were made to fall in line, to erase yourself for the group to survive. I am the only enemy now.
I hung on. I stayed with the boat.
I can live with that.
 Spoken by an Armenian character in Gary Shteyngart’s novel Absurdistan