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My Other Aunt, Susan Sontag, and Poverty Porn


“Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag” recently finished a short run in a basement theater deep in downtown New York.   Aside from the sly title, who could resist a play about a family of sharecroppers who are interviewed and photographed by two live-in reporters from the “Big City”? Also on offer: an ancient Mesopotamian sage, James Agee, Walker Evans,  Sontag, and rampant spoofing of Broadway musicals.  The whole farrago aims to expose the ethical pitfalls and philosophical limitations of so-called “poverty porn,” a baggy category of poignant images of abject conditions that capture attention without actually moving viewers to action.

A hog killing, staged, because family too poor to afford a pig.

A hog killing, staged, because family too poor to afford a pig.














imagesHere we might point out Emoya Estates, a tourist resort where rich folk can rent shanties and pretend to be poor.This stunningly original enterprise is run by a corporation which also has a luxury hotel, game reserve and spa, and perhaps the shanties’ authenticity is somewhat compromised by the presence in each unit of hot and cold running water, radiant heating, and wifi, with the option of using a “long-drop” outdoor toilet.  The cost of a night’s stay is close to the monthly income of the average local worker.

panoramic view of emoya estates

Panoramic view of Emoya Estates shanty town









In Berkeley, having written about a local program for the homeless (advocacy journalism rather than poverty porn, I hope) I was moved to volunteer. As part of our training, we had to live out of a suitcase and find, without cash, credit, or a phone, a place to spend the night; we had to beg for money on the street; we had to apply for food stamp benefits in the local office.  These were memorable exercises, whether or not they made me a more effective counsellor.

Santa Monica, California, like Berkeley, has a benign climate, a relatively tolerant community, and a sizeable population of street people. Living  in Santa Monica for a stretch, and trying to write about the two towns’ responses to issues with their homeless, I realized before long that finding parallels was not the same as finding solutions.

homeless in berkeley

Homeless in Berkeley




homeless in santa monica

Homeless in Ssnta Monica











On the streets of Santa Monica you hear languages and accents from all over, but especially from Eastern Europe, on every street corner.  This must have been true for decades before the Getty Foundation made any cultural (and/or economic) waves in this seaside community.


In Santa Monica, the Embassy hotel apartments, corporately renamed as the Palihouse

Somewhere between her stints in Sarajevo, Susan Sontag lived downstairs from us in Santa Monica, at the Embassy, a Moorish-Mediterranean apartment hotel that housed Getty fellows and visitors during the construction of the Brentwood acropolis.

Walking home with her one evening from the research center, temporarily in a bank building around the corner, I mentioned another denizen of the Embassy, an aged Czech director who had fled Prague in 1968. After decades on the fringes of Hollywood, he had just managed to get another movie produced and noticed.  It was set in Communist Czechoslovakia and featured a famous French actor, with an Italian name, as the director’s uncle. Michel Piccoli, it was.

The director hadn’t, beyond first blush, had much use for me and my Czech involvements, although he was happy enough to meet Sontag for a glass of wine at our apartment. (And a glass it was: we had just returned from a desert trek and had only one bottle of red in the Moorish fretwork cupboard.)

After Sontag departed, I couldn’t resist mentioning her remarkable resemblance to my aunt. He snorted.  “Nonsense:  she is a witch, and you. . . and your. . .aunt. . .”   Words failed him: he must have meant “sorceress”.

We all went to his movie, which had mixed reviews. As did “Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag”, which in the end I never got to see.

But Susan Sontag really did resemble my aunt Myra, my father’s older sister (not my aunt Kate, with the pistol).

For several wartime years, we lived in or near Myra’s household in San Francisco, in the upper Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, then solidly middle class. Aunt Myra imported bohemian friends from the art institute downtown, some of them European refugees. They hung around the house, drinking, smoking, talking, munching on pungent cheeses and kippered salmon.  I suppose that Myra considered her hospitality part of the war effort.   In any case, her friends were not forbears of the hippies in the Haight-Ashbury’s drug-lit New Age future.

Heinz was a painter, tall and pallid, all skin and bones and eyes bulging behind thick glasses, a half-Jewish refugee from Berlin.  His wife Hanne’s parents were Viennese Jews who had died in in Theresienstadt. The two had met in wartime  Shanghai, where they avoided starvation by mounting a nightclub act—Heinz accompanying Hanne, a sad-eyed waif who sang ballads with a hoarse Marlene Dietrich accent. In San Francisco Heinz soon found a job as an editorial cartoonist at the Chronicle.  Hanne clerked at a big department store while working for a degree in social work at Berkeley.

Sometimes, in Myra’s Belvedere Street living room, Heinz would bring out his guitar and play unlikely American melodies like “Erie Canal” and “Blue Tail Fly” while the rest of us sang chorus.

My aunt Myra had large, dark eyes, white-streaked dark hair, and a resonant, sardonic laugh.  I doubt that she knew much about Gertrude Stein, but she had a similar gift for presenting herself as wise and original, without much supporting evidence. Her provocative pronouncements tended to trail off into vague chortles.

In those years, children seemed oddly safer in cities, and Myra’s younger daughter, gentle Jenny, looked out for me when we played on the street.  On the other hand, Jenny’s sister, Rose, was beautiful and willful, and in high school took up with a boy from an Italian gangster family. When he was arrested, a photo appeared in the Chronicle of him with Rose, swathed in fur, on his arm.

All the cousins lined up every Saturday for the matinee at the Haight Theater—or the Castro. Movietone News showed flat gray pans of planes shooting off into the sky from aircraft carriers, and then cartoons, Flash Gordon, the much-despised Three Stooges, and finally, unsuitable noir features such as Sorry, Wrong Number. A real-life noir, starring cousin Rose, followed, decades after those Saturday matinees, and lovely Rose was excised from the family albums.

Aunt Myra didn’t come across the bay to visit us very often after we had settled in Berkeley.  Once I did take her on a walk around the campus, and when we came to Wheeler Hall, she said that she had gone there as a girl to take the college admissions exam.

“I got in.  Your father didn’t. . .” she said, trailing off with the wicked chuckle. She had gone to work for the telephone company until, said my father, snidely, she married a meal ticket.  There wasn’t always money then for smart girls wanting an education.

After my first trip to Europe, I wanted to tell her about paintings I had liked, and she said, “I may not have been to Stanford, but you pronounce it ‘Van Gokh’”. Somewhat later, she gave me a thick paperback about Paul Klee.  “It’s ‘Clay,’” she said. (In order to find corroborative photos of Aunt Myra’s resemblance, I would have to go deep into the closet where I found Aunt Kate’s pistol. Maybe later.)

Handsome as she was, Myra was not vain, kept her white-streaked hair rather short, and wore camp shirts and tired cardigans, even to our daughter’s (first) wedding.  I remember Susan S. arriving a bit late to a Getty lecture, sitting just in front of us, loosening her ponytail, and spreading her hair tenderly over her shoulders.  I remember that Mike Davis was lecturing, noting that the cost of one marble bathroom partition in the new Getty Center would feed a family of four in Watts for at least a year.

Viennese refugee Hanne, as a social worker in (I think) the county office in postwar Richmond, California, was repeatedly horrified by the facts and frauds of the largely black poor in her jurisdiction.  I wouldn’t have wanted her as my caseworker.

A young Harvard scholar suggests, based partly on a 1946 Minnesota study, where 36 students essentially starved themselves in order to see how best to restore famished postwar populations in Europe, that the poor make bad decisions because their “bandwidth” is impaired by the implicit pressures of poverty, of scarcity. This may not seem a revolutionary conclusion, but the resulting behavioral applications might be.  Starving people, the study suggested, lose mental as well as physical capacities.

Syrian children at a refugee camp near the Turkish border

The U.N. estimates that there are now three million Syrian refugees who have fled the civil war, and six and a half million internally displaced throughout Syria. The Islamic State often gains converts by simply providing bread to the inhabitants of towns it has captured, most recently in Palmyra, where the architectural sites appear to be spared. 



In Raqqa, a young man mourns the loss of six family members in one barrel bomb attack

 ‘The knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some sort of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist. It will always be a knowledge at bargain prices- a semblance of knowledge, a semblance of wisdom: as the act of taking pictures is a semblance of appropriation, a semblance of rape.” (Susan Sontag )

Perhaps, but photos could very well have been the only remainder of ancient Palmyra.


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