This week, the Atlantic published Alex Tizon’s complicated narrative about his family’s lifelong secret, the story of a woman he cared for deeply and knew only as Lola.
Lola, whose full name was Eudocia Tomas Pulido, was the family’s slave, given to Tizon’s mother as a “gift” in the Philippines.
She lived a long, at times cruel life of indentured servitude, moving to the United States with the family, raising Tizon and his siblings, and ultimately becoming a “hallowed figure” in the family.
“Our secret went to the core of who we were and, at least for us kids, who we wanted to be,” Tizon wrote. He was 11 before he clearly understood Pulido’s situation, and he would spend the rest of his life struggling with his family’s dark past. “My Family’s Slave,” an effort to come to terms with his guilt, is a captivating, wrenching narrative at once painful to read and impossible to put down.
And it was also the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist’s final piece, “the story Alex said he was born to write,” his wife said.
Tizon, 57, died “in his sleep,” the day before the magazine made the decision to publish the story on its June cover, “before we had a chance to tell him,” Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg wrote.
The piece drew wide praise, with readers commending Tizon’s honesty, and some saying it was among the most powerful magazine pieces published in recent memory. But it also spurred intense criticism from some readers who felt it humanized a “slave owner” and others who described Tizon as being “complicit in the systemic oppression of Filipino househelp.”
Pulido’s life, as Tizon described it, was lived in quiet loyalty and service. But it was a life, it turns out, that had been written about before, with key details left out.
Six years ago, the Seattle Times published Pulido’s obituary, portraying her as a local woman who seemed to have lived an extraordinary “life of devotion to family.”
Tizon, a former Seattle Times staff writer, suggested the obituary to the paper and provided details for it to the obituary’s writer. But at no point did he reveal the fact that the beloved woman was for generations his family’s slave.
Once the obituary’s writer read Tizon’s Atlantic piece, she was shocked. On Wednesday, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Kelleher penned a piece in the Seattle Times explaining her “horror” and “anger” at the truth behind Pulido’s relationship with Tizon and apologizing for “depriving Ms. Pulido of the truth of her life.”
“In retrospect, the obituary reads as a whitewash for a fundamental truth known only to Tizon and his family: Ms. Pulido was a slave,” wrote Kelleher. “Even typing those words makes me sick, as does knowing, as I do now, that I wrote about slavery as a love story.”
“Tizon lied to me, and through me, to our readers, depriving Ms. Pulido of the truth of her life, and the rest of us an important piece of our history,” Kelleher added. “And for that I am truly sorry.
Tizon’s revelations, and now, the Seattle Times’ controversial response to his piece, have spurred a discussion about the very battles Tizon struggled so much with himself — the rewriting of personal histories, and the pain that confronting them can create. It also prompted conversations about grief, and how people often cope with the deaths of loved ones in inexplicable ways.
With Tizon now gone and unable to explain himself, his wife spoke to the Seattle Times instead.
“Sometimes it takes people awhile to get to the truth about their lives,” his wife, Melissa Tizon, told the Times Wednesday. “So maybe Alex wasn’t quite there yet when he talked to Susan.”
Glenn Nelson, a former colleague of Tizon’s at the Seattle Times, gave a scathing response to Kelleher’s article, calling it “insensitive” and “self-serving.”
Tizon, he wrote, “had a choice. He could have remained silent. And his death would have ensured that the truth of Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s life never would have been accounted for.”
But he added, “our culture doesn’t really demand absolute truth when sizing up a life lived. We prefer that our loved ones be allowed to leave on a good note … true or not.”
Kelleher said it was not her intention to denigrate Tizon but to “correct the record,” she told The Washington Post Wednesday night. “How do you correct a story like that, that is just fundamentally wrong?”
She said she does not regret writing the initial obituary. She said she was drawn to Pulido’s story from the start, seeing qualities in her that she had seen in other women in her life, women who made immeasurable sacrifices for the people they loved.
She acknowledged that journalists must trust sources to accurately portray events and lives, particularly when writing obituaries. “You’re relying on a reliable narrator to tell you that story,” Kelleher said.
It would take Tizon years to feel prepared to tell the full story, in his own words. And that decision, some readers said, should not be judged. Admitting the truth took immense courage, Nelson wrote.
“He escaped having taken a terrible secret to his grave,” Nelson wrote in his Facebook post. “He may not have known where and how it would be told, but he knew during his lifetime that the truth would be revealed. And he likely knew he would be judged, harshly in many cases, but probably never as harshly as he judged himself.”
The backlash to Tizon’s story in turn opened up lengthy conversations among Filipinos on social media and in Filipino press. Many Filipinos defended the author, saying that while they don’t condone indentured servitude, Pulido’s life was a much too common scenario ingrained in Filipino culture and one that must be confronted and openly discussed.
The Filipino magazine Scout wrote that “a lot of the international outrage is coming from a place where they don’t fully understand the culture the story is set in.” The writer Romeo Moran added that this is an issue Filipinos must deal with themselves, and while what happened to Lola still happens now, a number of domestic workers “do it voluntarily, for important reasons.”
“Meanwhile, we’re mad at ourselves, and the article also sobered us up. If we’re moved, it’s because it’s something that’s still happening, and we’ve been ignoring or overlooking for one reason or another. And if it’s viral now, then it’s only because we’ve finally (hopefully) started taking a look at ourselves, if we’re at least treating our help as the human beings they are.”
A number of Filipinos on social media opened up about knowing relatives who lived similar lives as Pulido’s. One Filipino Twitter user said her mother served just as Pulido did and that “for women who couldn’t study, it was that or sex work.”
“You’ll find many Filipinos hesitating at passing judgment,” Twitter user Rin Chupeco said, adding that many feel conflicted, because they know what it feels like to be in the same position as the author, torn between wanting to call out their parents and “wanting to prevent shame.”
In an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition, Goldberg, the Atlantic editor, said Tizon’s story was complicated because he had to write about “two women who raised him, two women he loved. One was the slave of another.”
“He had to confront the true nature of his mother and the true nature of his father and this terrible and terrifying arrangement that they had acquiesced to — that they benefited from for decades.”
After the journalist died, his wife, Melissa, told Goldberg that Tizon had a theory: “Everyone has within them an epic story.”
“This was his epic story,” Melissa Tizon said.
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