I, Tania

Excerpts from the novel.

Summer, 2007 / No. 18
Art by Ian Phillips
Ian Phillips

The highest display of ostentatious wealth and avarice most socialists get to see is a lineup at the Olive Garden. Growing up a member of a media baron’s family provided me a view into a world only dreamed of in the frothiest, most paranoid nightmares.

One day, while I was playing with my cats (Pufnstuf and Tapestry, if you must know), I overheard a conversation in the next room between my father and the head of his publishing division.

“Sir, you’re going to love what marketing has come up with. As you know, the most popular paperbacks are the hospital romances and the soldier-of-fortune series. Combined, they’re sixty per cent of the market. Marketing thinks they can grab the other forty per cent by literally combining the two—”

“Keep talking,” my father replied.

“—into an atrocity-romance series. The gist would be: soldiers, mercenaries, national guardsman, etc., wreak havoc. Doctor A treats victims—passionately, altruistically. Nurse B falls in love with Doctor A, convinces him to enjoy life. We can mix it up, too. Sometimes it could be Stasi Agent A beats student leaders—passionately, altruistically—and then has to convince Nurse B that dissent must be crushed. And here’s the cost-saving measure: real historical atrocity settings that can cut editorial time in half. We’ll just rewrite newspaper reports from archives we already own. In thirty years they’ll call it synergy.”

“Real-life atrocities? Can you do that? ”

“Try me”

“Hmm, O.K., the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo.”

“In a city of ash,” the executive intoned as he pantomimed batting flames out, “her heart smouldered while his went out to a hundred thousand dead. Could she steal the flame of his passion? ”

After several non-committal hmms and clucks, my father threw out, “The Pinochet coup? ”

“She was a Marxist nurse who wanted a new world. He was a C.I.A. agent who wanted to overthrow her heart. Will Cupid get these two in his crosshairs? ”

“The Spanish Civil War.”

“She was a Catalonian communist republican with centrist leanings toward liberal democracy. He was a legitimist monarchist who wanted to break free of his ruffian Falangist friends. But in a country with six thousand dead priests, could they even find an altar? ”

“The Russian Civil War.”

“She was damaged goods. He was a doctor in a country of fifteen million dead, but poetry calmed his soul. It was a love caught in the fire of revolution and—”

“In a land of guns and ice, there is the great sound of battle and the greater silence of lovers. Blah blah blah. Cue ‘Lara’s Theme.’ Already done.”

I went to my room to practise bayonet moves with a pen, striking out the pig eyes of the David Cassidy poster above my bed. I would have much to teach my brothers and sisters when they came to rescue me several years later.

The kidnapping: late-night knock, door kicked in, rifle butt to Donald’s head.

Donald ducking, running yellow. Take his billfold. Blindfold. Over shoulder. Into car.

Reader, you were read that part of the story every night of your childhood, to warn you away from strangers bearing petitions and organic couscous. But what you need to know is how I went from captive to general. It was easy. I’m rich. A process as entrenched as firm handshakes, weekends, defenestrated millionaires, fairy tales.

In the back seat of the car, I asked, “Where are you taking me? ”

Without turning around, a man spoke with military cadence: “You have been taken prisoner by the Symbionese Liberation Army! We will use you to force your corporate-pig newspaper-baron liar father to feed every poor person in California! You will be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention and guarded by a police informant, five academics, and a former homecoming queen! You will be taken to 1827 Golden Gate Avenue, Apartment 6, with a bright and sunny lounge that looks out over the street! Our neighbour is Rhonda, a pottery instructor! She watches our cat when we’re gone! It is only five blocks away from F.B.I. headquarters! You are being driven there in a tan Chevrolet Impala! We will be taking the I-580 exit and turning left on the I-80 westbound, for twenty minutes!”

“How long will you keep me? ”

“I can’t tell you that! It’s classified!”

Into closet. You heard that my captors were Marxist brainwashers. The reality was closer to a conversation I overheard between three women talking outside the door.

“Gabi, Zoya, make sure she doesn’t leave this room until I come and get her.”

“Don’t leave the room even if you come and get her. Yes!”

“No, no. Until I come and get her.”

“Until you come and get her, we’re not to enter the room.”

“No, no, no. You stay in the room and make sure she doesn’t leave.”

“And you’ll come and get her.”


“So Zoya and I don’t need to do anything, apart from just stop her entering the room.”

“No, no. Leaving the room.”

“Right, we’ll stay here until you get back.”

“And, uh, make sure she doesn’t leave.”

“What? ”

“Make sure she doesn’t leave.”

“The prisoner? ”

“Yes, make sure she doesn’t leave.”

“Oh, yes, of course. I thought you meant Zoya. You know, it seemed weird, having to guard her when she’s a comrade and all.”

After I was let out of the closet (they came asking for my help with the reel-to-reel tape machine—it wasn’t plugged in), I saw how small and squalid the apartment was. On the wall, a large banner with the S.L.A.’s symbol. Insipid, but effective. My “captors” were no more than self-taught commies from suburbia—all buzzwords—tired fatigues. Simple characters.

They were in terrible shape, my bears, with much starchy porridge in those early days, and vile, dumb, damaged Teko screaming, “Eating pork is, like, for pigs,” as if it were a pleasant, smart, together thing to say. Taking over this unit would be easy.

One morning, while I dismantled a toaster (its wires are fantastic triggers for pipe bombs), Cinque came and asked, “What are you doing? ”

“Making a bomb.”

“A ba? ” raising a shocked hand to his mouth.

“No, not a ba, a bomb.”

Sitting down, he said, “We are not one cell of hundreds. They,” pointing to the slumped, passed-out soldiers of the people’s army, “said they had friends who could help out—nutritional charts, taxes, book deals, some new uniforms—but I don’t see them. I keep asking, ‘Where are these friends? ’ and I don’t see them.” He was an embarrassed parent.

We went to the living room to talk to the rest. “And who is the S.L.A.? ” I asked Cinque.

“Refuse, found in waterfront communes.”

“Shanghaied? ”

“Just lost, drunken men,” Cinque said, “who don’t know where they are and no longer care.”

There was a muffled exchange from the passed-out bodies.

“Where are we? ”

“I don’t care!”

Interested, I moved along and asked Cinque, “And these? ”

“These are lost, drunken women who don’t know who they are but do care. And these are women who know where they are and care, but don’t drink.”

Again, hungover croaks.

“I don’t know who I am.”

“And I don’t drink!”

Cinque crouched down to Yolanda. “Do you care? ”


Cinque looked up at me. “Put her on guard duty and give her a drink.”

“What do you drink? ” I asked her.

“I don’t care.”

Concerned, I asked, “How is their understanding of theory? ”

“These men,” Cinque said, “feel the pig emptiness of fascist America before they understand it.”

Inevitably came the murmurs.

“I feel pig emptiness.”

“I don’t understand fascist America.”

That night, Cinque made me second-in-command. We went to work on the announcement of my coming-out ball.

But first, like my comrades, a new name. It had to be chosen in honour of a woman who revolted before me, and, as the members of the heiress class who took up armed struggle is not as small a group as one would think, it wasn’t easy to narrow down.

With her elegant cigarette filters, Rothschild heiress Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter could be found in the early sixties gossiping at many a back-alley meeting of the Algerian National Liberation Front.

The Movimiento Comunal Salvadoreño only began in earnest after Francesca Hilton, resplendent in pearls and Yves Saint Laurent mosquito net, was spotted trudging through the jungle with Sandinistas.

The I.R.A. was a mess of tweed until Consuelo Vanderbilt introduced sharp black berets to their look.

Anne Morgan, daughter of J. P. Morgan, used her equestrian skills to teach Pancho Villa’s raiders better jumping techniques.

P.F.L.P. hijacker Leila Khaled was a hopeless unknown until Mellon heiress Cordelia Scaife May snuck several scintillating items about Khaled into the society columns.

Cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post was known to visit Fusako Shigenobu, the exiled leader of the Japanese Red Army, in Jordan.

And what was Sacco and Vanzetti’s untellable alibi for the robbery and murders they were falsely charged with? They were receiving guns from Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge, who at the time was separated from Marcellus Hartley Dodge, scion of the Remington Arms Company, but fully married to her nascent anarchism.

In the end, I chose the name Tania. It was also the name taken by Haydée Tamara Bunke Bider, who had spied her way inside all the mansions of Bolivian aristocracy. When she lost her cover, she joined the guerrillas.

Teko, Yolanda, and I found a motel in Anaheim, just outside of Los Angeles. The streets were an open pharmacy, strewn with broken beer bottles, methadone boxes, used condoms, used pregnancy tests, rubbing alcohol flasks, cotton swabs, diapers, Bengay tubes, hosiery, Wet-Naps. Scattered here and there were echinacea capsules, Visine, Visine Triple Action, disposable Bic razors, and several different lines of L’Oreal cosmetics.

We took our room, Teko kicking a stray Ace bandage out from underfoot. For three days we watched the news reports. Again. Again. Again. Yolanda was on the bed, in shock, struggling to come up with something witty to say about nearby Disneyland.

“Leave it to a pig to glorify…a duck? Pirates? Swiss mountains? No, that’s not right.”

“You know, Tania, Walt was a Leninist,” Teko said.

“I thought he was a Nazi pedophile.”

“You mean he only molested Nazis? ”

“No, Teko. I meant a Nazi, as well as a pedophile.”

“That’s just what they want you to think. Dig this. What’s outside our room? ”

“An infinitely expansive and vast public toilet? ”

“Anaheim, exactly. Nightclubs, strip joints, and second-generation hot-dog vendors. Why? Disney fucking land. No, no, follow this. It’s heavy. An ex-girlfriend of mine used to work at Disney Corporate. Walt spent all his time trying to create this utopia, and what happens? Parasites drawing the blood out of his vision. So what does Walt do? Disney fucking World! The world rebuilt without pain and suffering and ghettoes. What do you get when you make an acronym out of ‘Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow’? ”


“No, you gotta count the ‘O.’”

“Ohh-kay, I see. And—”

“And so Walt uses dummy corporations and fronts to buy twenty-seven-thousand acres of land in Florida. Once the property was his, he started a huge lobbying campaign, which continued after his death, just like Lenin. They got exemptions from state, county, and local authorities. So now there’s a buffer zone, just like Czechoslovakia, to work as a physical and political border to protect his vision.”


“Yes? ”

“I just don’t care.”

“You really hate me, don’t you, Tania? ”

“Oh no. I don’t like you very much though.”

“Tania? ”

“What do you want? ”

“You’re generous to a fault.”

“Not to yours.”

“You’re wonderful. There’s malevolence in you, Tania.”

“Now I’m getting self-conscious. It’s funny. I—”

“Malevolence that comes out of your eyes, in your voice, in the way you stand there, in the way you walk. You’re lit from within, Tania. You’ve got fires banked down in you, Molotovs and burning cop cars.”

“I don’t seem made of ice to you? ”

“No, you’re made out of flesh and blood. That’s the blank, unholy surprise of it. You’re the golden girl, Tania. Full of force and terror and tactics. You destroy—passionately, altruistically— but there’s more to life than that. Hey, you’ve got tears in your eyes.”

“Shut up, shut up. Oh, Teko. Keep talking, keep talking. Look at me with those stupid blue eyes. Talk, will you? ”

Teko and I made love while inconsolable Yolanda searched for a successful end to her aphorism.

“A deer? A cricket? Chipmunks? Dalmatians? An elephant? A marionette? Teacups? Dwarves? A pixie? ”

Brian Joseph Davis is the author of Portable Altamont (Coach House, 2005) and I, Tania (ECW, 2007). Last updated, Halloween, 2008.