Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Rachel, Rachel: Black Like She

Well, I've certainly been wasting more than enough time on the strange saga of Rachel Doležal,* that Jenny Stewart for the Post-Modern century.

It's the kind of story that, the more you know, the weirder, more unsettling, and, perhaps most of all sadder, it all gets.

Whatever we end up knowing about this curious woman - and certainly, after only a few days, anyone with a taste for the less reverent end of what passes these days for journalism certainly has the opportunity to know quite a bit - it's pretty clear that she is, as Shelley Winters so often said of her erstwhile roommate Norma Jeane, a Very Troubled Girl.

I've more or less decided, in fact, that she's the contemporary equivalent of that girl we likely all knew from our college dorm, the one who returned from a semester abroad with a vaguely posh London accent and an infuriating insistence that, when dining out at the local Bar & Grille, she be served malt vinegar with her "chips."  I bet you remember her, every now and then, most likely with a little shudder and the sincere hope that she never finds you on Facebook.

Of course, what's also clear is that she's Not a Well Woman.  Behind all that lying (and elaborate hair-ruse chicanery - think of the work that went and still goes into it all!), I'm guessing there's a pretty damaged person, one way or another.  The more we learn of her family, too, the more complicated it all gets.  While they appear to have been annoying god-botherers of a very high order, I'm still tending to sympathize a bit with her parents.  I feel like they've just been driven beyond the patience of their last nerve, in the way that one can only be by a particularly toxic immediate relative.  I'm as annoyed by Internet diagnosticians as anyone, but even so it's hard not to note the tell-tale signs of some kind of significant personality disorder in someone who is so consistently, for so many years, at the center of hullabaloo after ruckus after dust-up.

So far we know she sued her grad school, abruptly quit one job when they called her bluff after she insisted on more or less declaring herself executive director for life (much to her board's surprise, as she'd not applied for the job), was repeatedly found not to have been, despite her protestations, the victim of racially-motivated attacks, and both subject and object of multiple family disputes involving her parents, siblings, and (now ex-, possibly to his relief) husband.  And all the while she's dipped ever deeper into what looks very much like a not-particularly-well-mixed jar of Lena Horne's trademark Light Egyptian Max Factor Pancake.

Anyone who hasn't yet found themselves at Maximum Doležal can get a heaping helping straight from the dipper, as one of her students has posted a series of clips, totaling more than 45 minutes, from an interview she did with her onetime professor last year.  It's fascinating, in a predictably trainwrecky sort of way; she has the hallmark ingratiating ingenuousness of the truly disturbed, the coy, darting glances of the deeply dishonest, and, of course, hair that could star on its own in an off-Broadway revue.

I've long been fascinated, as I've noted previously, by fakes and imposters of all kinds - literary forgers, artistic mountebanks, and all manner of Internetische freaks and sensations.  This latest one will doubtless flame out and disappear as thoroughly as so many before her, her first claim to fame (such as it is), the racial imposture, only the tip of a much deeper, weirder, and, very likely more depressing iceberg of personal problems that may well shade into serious mental illness.  For the moment, though, albeit with a trace of shamefacedness, I'm on the wait for the latest development - and already on the lookout for the next big thing.  I'm thinking maybe a couple of men who discover only after they marry as a joke that they actually are gay, or possibly a very belated claimant to the Romanov gold.  Until then, we'll always have Rachel...

* I think it's important to include, as she often does, the diacritical - you just know she was the kind of gal who reveled in correcting people about the goddam diacritical.


  1. I've been fascinated by her too. She's a mess, but I can't find myself to hurl too many stones.

    Lord knows, I was once convinced I'd been born of royalty and somehow left off in the southern suburbs by cruel fate. But then I grew up.
    Ok, maybe I didn't.

    1. I'm with you. It's something about Mississippi, Louisiana, etc. where white people associate more closely with black culture. This is another level of that peculiar malady. A strong conviction of the, "I must be adopted because I'm actually black." In my own case I was convinced that I had to be the child of a Hollywood star...

  2. It gives the tabloids something to write about apart from ISIS and Game of Thrones, I guess. I'm just waiting for the expose that Jeb Bush is really an alien. Jx

  3. She's doing a fine job of reminding us that the 'One Drop' rule is alive and well when it comes to race (whatever that is.) That historically significant one drop of Negro blood is still a big issue.

    Contrary to what we might have wanted to believe, more than 50 years after passage of the last Civil Rights Act, it has been made clear in the past week that 'one drop of Negro blood' still can influence how people perceive others. And the 'One Drop Rule' does its work in places we, as the body politic, might not have suspected.

    Doležal does seem to have some issues. I hope she finds the peace she craves. Creative people often do not. She has a lot going on under that quite remarkable hair. Maybe too much for anyone to, um... tease out.

    I have read some, but surely not all, of the comparisons to Caitlyn Jenner. Those which I read have missed the point. When Ms. Jenner tells Diane Sawyer that she is 1) really a woman, and 2) is sexually attracted only to women, and 3) is not gay... therein lies the valid comparison. Jenner rejected a cultural identification that would seem to most of us starkly obvious. But not to her. HIV service providers have long noted that there are many men who have sex with men, but who do not identify as "Gay." Many of them. Ms. Jenner seems to be a woman who has sex with women, but does not identify as "Lesbian." And then there is her somewhat surprising identification as a Republican. The point being, it only has to make sense to the person holding the belief. (Virgin birth, anyone?) One's personal sense of self doesn't have to stand up to any outside person's subjective attempt at rational analysis. Let the person see the world as that person sees it and, more importantly, experiences it.

    I wish her well. And she can be anything she wants to be, as far as I am concerned. No one owns the copyright on modern culture. Let her step to the music she hears. First stone? No, not me.

    But maybe the Weisslers can send her out on a tour of the secondary markets in "Show Boat." Everybody can make some money.

  4. I have a very dear friend who, when we first met, began spinning a tale of family. There was a young mother, a deceased much older father, a twin brother who had died (kidney related, I believe), and 4 or 5 older sisters (all doctors and lawyers). I believe there was also a much older half-brother who was a priest in Ireland. I knew all their names and personalities way back 25 years ago.

    There were nieces and nephews, an Italian brother-in-law, Irish relations, a grand family home that the older siblings had once accidentally set fire to. And on and on and on. For years. Tidbits of his life dropped into casual conversation over many years of hanging out at our local bar of ill repute.

    There were some jaw dropping stories told with utter sincerity and me with no reason to doubt them. There were hilarious, convoluted stories. But all had the same cast. There was logic and consistency.

    If it was not quite Dickensian, it was approaching something by John Irving. We used to joke, back when they were all so real, that it would make a great miniseries.

    And one day I wanted to send him a card and looked up his address (in the phone book, long before the interwebs). I found the family name and mailed it off. He mentioned receiving it and told me that I had sent it to his uncle's house. He didn't offer his address. I got curious and drove past the address some days later. I saw his car parked in front of a modest garden apartment building. I let it be.

    Some time later, he bought a house. A few of us went over to help him paint. And there was a man there with a very familiar face. We were not introduced. One of our group finally asked if that was his father. It was! The much older and very deceased Irish father was suddenly many years younger and quite alive. And just like that we knew that years of family history had all been a tall tale of the highest order.

    There was never an explanation or apology. We soon met his perfectly lovely and ordinary mother, his lone sibling, and were introduced to the father. We met the actual grandparents, a few aunts, uncles and cousins. There were all as normal and certain as our own suburban NJ relatives. Lovely people but without a certain madcap flair which the storied family possessed.

    A few friends were outraged. I chalked it all up to insecurity. He was just 21 when we met. Perhaps he was trying a bit too hard to impress. I imagine he started down a road trying to be entertaining one night at a bar, not thinking that a friendship would blossom. I figure he talked himself to a point of no return so he ran with it over time.

    We're friends for 30 years now. The family of lore has been gone for about 25 years. The real family has been, well, real. The father has actually passed. Mom has moved in with my friend. We've said goodbye to all the grandparents. The sister has married. There is finally an actual nephew who is adored.

    Numerous friends have thought over the years that he should be confronted about the tales. They would suggest I was the guy to do it since we were closest. And I always said there was nothing to be gained but embarrassing him. It would be cruel. Whatever he felt was lacking or not enough with his family, was in the past.

    Goodness knows we all embellish for the sake of a story. I might have polished this one a bit here and there. His just took on a life of its own. I miss some of them. I had a real fondness for the twin nieces by the Italian ne'er do well brother-in-law. Lucia and Francesca. I sometimes wonder how they would've turned out if they'd actually existed.

    1. That is really something; it's a testament to your largeness of spirit that you've continued on with him unfazed. I doubt I could resist at least a "what were you thinking?

      Once or twice, in telling a family story, I've gotten a quizzical look in return; back when it was still possible, I would then do my best to ensure that that person had a chance to meet, say, my Mother, and show them, in the immortal words of Miss Anna Russell, "I'm not making this up, you know!"

  5. When I was in college I had a casual-friend I occasionally spent time with, sometimes in study group and sometimes socially. A couple of years after I moved north, I ran into her at a party and was surprised to be told, rather loudly, that she was unable to talk to anyone who hadn't been to Europe at least twice. She, of course, had been to Vienna and unfortunately picked up the MittelEuropaische "ne ne", but with an unmistakable MiddleAmerikanische accent that made her sound like an obnoxious equine. First lessons in self awareness.