Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Author Interview: Margaret Fuchs Singer

During the post-World War II era of McCarthyism, thousands of Americans were accused of being Communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and. The primary targets of such suspicions were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists.

Suspicions were often given credence despite the lack of evidence and the level of threat posed by a person's real or supposed leftist associations or beliefs was often greatly exaggerated. Many people suffered loss of employment, careers were ruined and some were imprisoned.

The historical period that came to be known as the McCarthy era began well before Joseph McCarthy's own involvement in it. Many factors contributed to McCarthyism, some of them extending back to the years of the first Red Scare (1917–20), inspired by Communism's emergence as a recognized political force.

Thanks in part to its success in organizinglabor unions and its early opposition to facism, the Communist Party of the United States increased its membership through the 1930s, reaching a peak of about 75,000 members in 1940–41.

While the United States was engaged in World War II and allied with the Soviet Union, the issue of anti-communism was largely muted. With the end of World War II, the Cold War began almost immediately and lasted until 1991.

Some blamed the rise of McCarthyism on liberal reforms, such as child labor laws and women’s suffrage, which were often called “Red plots.” This increased in the 1930s as conservatives saw the New Deal policies as socialist or Communist. They said the policies were evidence the government had been influenced by Community policy makers.

In 1940, the Alien Registration Act made it a criminal offense for anyone to “knowingly or willfully advocate … the desirability overthrowing the Government of the United States … or for anyone to organize any association which teaches, advises or encourages such an overthrow.”

As a result, hundreds were prosecuted between 1941 and 1957, including 11 leaders of the Communist party. All their defense attorneys were cited for contempt of courts and were also given prison sentences.

By 1957, 140 leaders and members of the Communist party had been charged, with 93 convicted. However, by that time, McCarthyism was weakening due to changing public sentiments.

In 1958, the Supreme Courts put a stop to the State Department’s ability to refuse passports based on an applicant’s communist beliefs or associations.

Yet, even though McCarthyism was dead, its legacy continued to live on in the families of those who suffered because of it. One such person was Margaret Fuchs Singer, whose father was accused of being a Communist sympathizer because of a former association with the party. In order to avoid prison, he was required to testify against those he knew were – or at one time were – also members of the party.

In “Legacy of a False Promise: A Daughter’s Reckoning,” Margaret tells the story of her life growing up around the trial and the effect it had on her father and her family.

Today, it is my privilege to introduce you to this fascinating story and to the woman who wrote it.

Tell us a little about yourself and your family outside of your writing.

Ann Arbor has been my home for more than 34 years. I moved here from Manhattan shortly after meeting my husband Michael in 1976. I find Ann Arbor a wonderful place to live. The educational, medical and cultural opportunities we enjoy are as good as any in the country and it’s possible to live a sane and balanced life here.

Michael and I have two terrific grown children, a daughter, a teacher and life coach who lives in Massachusetts and a son who works in marketing and lives in Chicago. In March, our daughter gave birth to a beautiful baby boy – our first grandchild. Michael and I are involved in the Jewish Community in Ann Arbor and consider ourselves very fortunate to have so many friends.

In 2000, I retired from my position as a supervisor at the Washtenaw Intermediate School District after a 35-year career in special education. I worked with wonderful people at WISD and am glad to have been involved in such important work.

My retirement gave me an opportunity to immerse myself in the creative activities that have always intrigued me. Aside from my writing, which includes Legacy, several published articles and an as-yet unpublished children’s story and book of autobiographical short shorts, I have established a photography and fabric art business, A Moment to Remember. My work has been exhibited in galleries and other venues in Ann Arbor and in Deer Isle, Maine, where we have a summer residence. The work includes art and portrait photography, quilted wall hangings, landscape collages and baby quilts.

Right now, I’m involved in marketing my book, an intriguing and time-consuming undertaking. After that, who knows? I’m thinking of writing a novel – maybe a spy thriller.

Why did you decide to write your book?

Before my father’s death in 1988, I could never have allowed myself to write about what happened to our family in 1955. Dad would not have tolerated my re-exposing the family by writing about our “troubles.”

The idea of writing did occur to me, in a major way, after reading Carl Bernstein’s memoir, Loyalties. Bernstein was also the child of Communists, brought up in D.C.

Moved to tears from page one, I resonated to the feelings he described in his story: confusion, shame, pride, curiosity.

My mother died in April of 1996. It was then the urge to write became an obsession. Soon after her death, I attended my first writing workshop and my memoir was launched; there was no turning back.

Michael was surprised when I read the first chapter to him. “Where did this come from?” he asked, taken aback by the intensity of feeling expressed. I knew his shock and interest augured well for the book. I was as surprised as he was by what I had written; it seemed to have come from some place I didn’t recognize as my own.

You did a lot of research. What were some of the roadblocks you ran into?

1. I waited many years for my mother’s and my father’s FBI files.
2. Some of the records (of HUAC hearings) were not accessible until 50 years had passed since the time the hearings took place.
3. KGB files out of the former Soviet Union were open to western historians for a few years in the early 1990s; then, they were closed again. There’s so much we still don’t know about Soviet espionage in our country.
4. Many of the people who could have answered my questions died before I was able to contact them.

How did writing this book change your life?

As my book reveals, I experienced a great deal of shame and grief connected with the events my family experienced during the 1950s.

On July 10, 1955, the story of my father’s HUAC testimony broke in the Washington Star. For the next two years, the secret of my parents’ former Communist membership became national news, causing us deep humiliation and paranoia. When it was all over and the crisis was behind us, the secret in its new form went underground.

For the next 40 years, we avoided talking about “the troubles” – until my parents died and my need to write, to rid myself of the family shame, became all-consuming.

I spent the next 12 years researching, writing and finally publishing my book.

Now, my secret is out; the truth has set me free.

What’s the best writing advice you ever received?

Read, read, read!
Take a writing class.
Join a writing group.

What advice would you give someone who is thinking about undertaking this sort of project?

Believe in yourself and your story and be willing to work hard to reach your goals.

Thank you, Margaret, for being here today. I truly learned a lot from reading your book and I know others will enjoy it, too.


Suko said...

Excellent interview, LuAnn. I enjoyed learning more about this author, who answered your questions in a clear and thoughtful manner.

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