Seven years ago this month, much of New Orleans was under water. Hurricane Katrina remains the great before-and-after for that city and it is still making headlines. The latest big Katrina news: a lawsuit filed by homeowners against the Army Corps of Engineers and one of its contractors that is finally, after seven long years, getting its day in court. The suit asserts the Corps and the contractor were responsible for the levee failure that flooded thousands of homes.
I just finished Dave Eggers’ fine non-fiction book about what one Syrian-American family endured after Katrina. It’s called Zeitoun, named for the title character, a father and business owner who rescues and helps people in the days following Katrina, only to be imprisoned on a bogus burglary charge. I was going to recommend this book to you. Now I’m not so sure. Turns out Zeitoun is in jail again, this time charged with assaulting and then conspiring to kill his ex-wife. They divorced earlier this year. I couldn’t believe it when I read it: the hero, the family man, who endured wrongful imprisonment and tried so hard not to let it enrage or embitter him, in jail on a charge like this?
I felt so sad, stunned, angry. And conned. I know that wasn’t the intention of Zeitoun or Eggers (who is channeling book profits into a foundation to help rebuild New Orleans), but I feel that way just the same: like I believed one thing about a person, only to find out he was someone else.
Just as I felt conned reading about Lance Armstrong, who has become so adept at not quite admitting anything. Armstrong says he, quote, “won’t fight” the doping charges against him anymore, even thought it may cost him all of his bicycling titles and trophies. I’ve heard arguments on both sides of his story, but either way, I feel conned, either by him or by his accusers, and either way, I don’t like it, any more than I like knowing I was moved by the story of a man who may turn out to be the sort of man who would try to get someone to kill his ex-wife.
I also did not like how I felt about Bill Clinton when he lied about Monica Lewinsky.
But what I really like, least of all? –is knowing how awful it feels to lie. Most of us learn early we can’t live with any lie we ever tell for very long. Which is why I’m so stunned by people who can sustain large lies for lengthy periods of time. Why they are willing to risk the trust of—in Armstrong or Clinton’s case—the millions of people who believe in them. Didn’t they feel awful, doing that to people? Don’t they get how much human beings hate to feel conned?
Seven years ago in New Orleans, the outrage was not about a hurricane. It was about the levees: All New Orleans felt conned by the Corps. And it was about FEMA, and the insurance companies, and all the other con artists people had to deal with in the weeks, months, years following Katrina.
It will take some time for this new, sorry chapter in the story of Zeitoun to unfold. It will take time for Lance Armstrong to start over. Maybe he’ll be as resilient as Bill Clinton, whose finest post-presidential hour just might be his stirring Democratic Convention speech nominating Barack Obama to a second term.
Meanwhile, bicycle fans and followers of Zeitoun’s remarkable story will nurse the bruises that come from feeling conned. We’ll be warier. And that’s too bad. As with Clinton, once we get to forgiveness, that’ll feel better. But it will take some time.
Still a few spots available in my “Intro to Memoir Writing” class, which starts next Wednesday night at Seattle Central! Register here.
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Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.