Archive for the ‘Understanding Affliction/Suffering’ Category


Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 3 – Robert Alter

February 12, 2014
Blake follows the general outline of the story of Job in the Bible, but also incorporates into his designs many motifs representing his personal interpretation. At the beginning, Job and his family attend only to the letter, rather than the spirit, of God's laws. Job thereby falls under a false conception of God and into the hands of Satan. Job's sufferings are recorded in the first half of the series, culminating in his horrific vision of a devil-god in the eleventh design. Job's spiritual education and material restoration are pictured in the second half of the series. In the penultimate design, Job tells his story to his daughters; the entire family is restored to life in the final design. Some critics and biographers have interpreted the Job series as personal statements about Blake's own tribulations and the spiritual peace he found late in life.

Blake follows the general outline of the story of Job in the Bible, but also incorporates into his designs many motifs representing his personal interpretation. At the beginning, Job and his family attend only to the letter, rather than the spirit, of God’s laws. Job thereby falls under a false conception of God and into the hands of Satan. Job’s sufferings are recorded in the first half of the series, culminating in his horrific vision of a devil-god in the eleventh design. Job’s spiritual education and material restoration are pictured in the second half of the series. In the penultimate design, Job tells his story to his daughters; the entire family is restored to life in the final design. Some critics and biographers have interpreted the Job series as personal statements about Blake’s own tribulations and the spiritual peace he found late in life.

See Intro in first post.


How are the resources of poetry marshaled in the divine speech to give us an intimation of that omniscient perspective? Some preliminary remarks on the progression of the concluding poem may help indicate where it means to take us. The structure of the poem is expansive and associative (quite unlike the tight organization of Chapter 28), but it also reflects the sequential and focusing strategies of development that are generally characteristic of biblical poetry.

After the two brief opening lines in which God challenges Job (38:2-3), the poem leads us through the following movements: cosmogony (38:4-21), meteorology (38:22-38), zoology (38:39-39:30). This sequence is implicitly narrative: first God creates the world, then He sets in motion upon it an intricate interplay of snow and rain and lightning and winds, and in this setting He looks after the baffling variety of wild creatures that live on the earth.

God’s first discourse is followed at the beginning of Chapter 40 by a brief exchange between a reprimanding deity and a humbled Job) (40:1-5), and then the beginning of the second discourse, which again challenges Job to gird up his loins and see if he can really contend with God (40:6-13). (Scholarship has generally detected a scram-fling or duplication of texts in these thirteen verses, but I find that the various conjectural attempts to reassemble the text create more problems than they solve, while the lines as we have them do not substantially affect the larger structure of the poem.)

In the second discourse, we continue with the zoological interests that take up the last half of the first discourse. In accordance, however, with the impulse of heightening and focusing that informs so much of biblical poetry, the second discourse is not a rapid poetic catalogue of animals, like the last half of the first discourse, but instead an elaborate depiction of just two exotic beasts, the hippopotamus and the crocodile, who are rendered, moreover, in the heightened and hyperbolic terms of mythology as Behemoth and Leviathan.

These are the broad structural lines of the concluding poem, but in order to understand how it works so remarkably as a “revelation,” in both the ordinary and the theological sense of the term, it is important to see in detail how its language and imagery flow directly out of the poetic argument that has preceded. I shall quote in full the first two movements of cosmogony and meteorology, then refer without full citation to the naturalistic zoology before attending to the mythopoeic zoology at the end. Since the verse divisions here correspond precisely to the line division, I shall use the conventional verse numbers, starting with verse 2 of Chapter 38, where the poem proper begins.

2 Who is this who darkens counsel
in words without knowledge?
3 Gird your loins like a man,
that I may ask, and you can inform me.
4 Where were you when I founded earth?
Tell, if you know understanding.
5 Who fixed its measures, do you know,
or who stretched a line upon it?
6 In what were its sockets sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
7 when the morning stars sang together,
 and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
8 Who hedged the sea with double doors,
when it gushed forth from the womb,
9 when I made cloud its clothing,
and thick mist its swaddling bands?
10 I made breakers upon it My limit,
and set a bolt with double doors.
11 And I said, “Thus far come, no farther,
here halt the surge of your waves. “
12 Have you ever commanded the morning,
appointed the dawn to its place,
13 to seize the earth’s corner,
that the wicked be shaken from it?
14 It turns like sealing clay,
takes color like a garment,
15 and their light is withdrawn from the wicked,
and the upraised arm is broken.
16 Have you come into the springs of the sea,
in the bottommost deep walked about?
17 Have the gates of death been laid bare to you,
and the gates of death’s shadow have you seen?
18 Did you take in the breadth of the earth?
Tell, if you know it all.
19 Where is the way that light dwells,
and darkness, where is its place,
20 that you might take it to its home
and understand the paths to its house?
21 You know, for you were born then,
and the number of your days is great!
22 Have you come into the storehouse of snow,
the storehouse of hail have you seen,
23 which I keep for a time of strife,
for a day of battle and war?
24 By what way does the west wind2 fan out,
the east wind whip over the earth?
25 Who split a channel for the torrent,
and a way for the thunderstorm,
26 to rain on a land without man,
 wilderness bare of humankind,
27 to sate the desolate dunes
and make the grass sprout there?
28 Does the rain have a father,
or who begot the drops of dew?
29 From whose belly did the ice come forth,
to the frost of the heavens who gave birth?
30 Water congeals like stone,
and the face of the deep locks hard.
31 Can you tie the bands of the Pleiades,
or loose Orions reins?
32 Can you bring constellations out in their season,
lead the Great Bear and her cubs?
33 Do you know the laws of the heavens,
can you fix their rule on earth?
34 Can you lift your voice to the cloud,
that the water-spate cover you?
35 Can you send lightning-bolts on their way,
and they will say to you, `Here we are!”
36 Who placed in the hidden parts wisdom,
or who gave the mind understanding?
37 Who counted the skies in wisdom,
and the jars of the heavens who tilted,
38 when the dust melts to a mass,
and the clods cling fast together?

At the very beginning of the poetic argument, we entered the world) of Job’s inner torment through the great death-wish poem that takes up all of Chapter 3. These first thirty-seven lines of God’s response to Job constitute a brilliantly pointed reversal, in structure, image, and theme, of that initial poem of Job’s. Perhaps the best way to sense the special weight of the disputation over theodicy is to observe that it is cast in the form of a clash between two modes of poetry, one kind spoken by man and, however memorable, appropriate to the limitations of his creaturely condition, the other the kind of verse a poet of genius could persuasively imagine God speaking.

The poem of Chapter’ 3, as we had occasion to see in detail, advanced through a process of focusing in and in — or, to shift metaphors, a relentless drilling inward toward the unbearable core of Job’s suffering, which he imagined could be blotted out by extinction alone. The external world — dawn and sunlight and starry night — exists in these lines only to be canceled.

Job’s first poem is a powerful, evocative, authentic expression of mans essential, virtually ineluctable egotism: the anguished speaker has seen, so he feels, all too much, and he wants now to see nothing at all, to be enveloped in the blackness of the womb/tomb, enclosed by dark doors that will remain shut forever. In direct contrast to all this withdrawal inward and turning out of lights, God’s poem is a demonstration of the energizing power of panoramic vision. Instead of the death wish, it affirms from line to line the splendor and vastness of life, beginning with a cluster of arresting images of the world’s creation and going on to God’s sustaining of the world in the forces of nature and in the variety of the animal kingdom.

Instead of a constant focusing inward to ward darkness, this poem progresses through a grand sweeping movement that carries us over the length and breadth of the created world, from sea to sky to the unimaginable recesses where snow and winds are stored, to the lonely wastes and craggy heights where only the grass or the wildest of animals lives.

In Job’s initial poem, various elements of the larger world were introduced only as reflectors or rhetorical tokens of his suffering. When the world is seen here through God’s eyes, each item is evoked for its own sake, each existing thing living its own intrinsic and often strange beauty. In Chapter 3, Job wanted to reduce time to nothing and contract space to the small, dark compass of the locked womb. God’s poem by contrast moves through eons from creation to the inanimate forces of nature to the teeming life on earth and, spatially, in a series of metonymic [vocab: A figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated (such as "crown" for "royalty")] links, from the uninhabited wasteland (verse 26) to the mountain habitat of the lion and the gazelle (the end of Chapter 38 and the beginning of Chapter 39) and the steppes where the wild ass roams.


Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 2 – Robert Alter

February 11, 2014
Job Accepting Charity, William Blake, 1825.  William Blake (1757 – 1827) was an English poet, painter and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. His prophetic poetry has been said to form "what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language". His visual artistry led one contemporary art critic to proclaim him "far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced". In 2002, Blake was placed at number 38 in the BBC's poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. Although he lived in London his entire life (except for three years spent in Felpham), he produced a diverse and symbolically rich corpus, which embraced the imagination as "the body of God" or "human existence itself".

Job Accepting Charity, William Blake, 1825. William Blake (1757 – 1827) was an English poet, painter and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. His prophetic poetry has been said to form “what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language”. His visual artistry led one contemporary art critic to proclaim him “far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced”. In 2002, Blake was placed at number 38 in the BBC’s poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. Although he lived in London his entire life (except for three years spent in Felpham), he produced a diverse and symbolically rich corpus, which embraced the imagination as “the body of God” or “human existence itself”.

See Intro in previous post.


In Job’s complaint there are two extended anticipations of the Voice from the Whirlwind, 9:5-10 and 12:7-25. For the sake of economy I shall cite only the first, and shorter, of these two passages, with reference to the second. Job, in the midst of objecting that God is an impossible legal adversary because He is so overpowering, shifts his imagery upward from the arena of law to the cosmos:

Who uproots mountains and they know not,
overturns them in His wrath.
He makes earth shake in its setting,
and its pillars shudder.
He bids the sun not to rise,
and the stars He seals up tight.
He stretches the heavens alone,
and tramples the crests of the sea.
He makes the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the south wind’s chambers.
He performs great things without limit,

and wonders without number.

Job’s cosmic poetry, unlike that of the Friends, has a certain energy of vision, as though it proceeded from some immediate perception of the great things it reports. Most of the images he uses will reappear, more grandly, in God’s first discourse in Chapter 38.

There, too, God is the sole sovereign of the sun and the stars, the master of the very constellations and of the chambers of the wind mentioned here. There is, nevertheless, a decisive difference in emphasis between the two chapters, which leads me to infer that this and other passages in the poetic argument are in one respect patiently teaching us how to read God’s speech when it finally comes.

The Creator in Chapter 38 is distinguished by His ability to impose order. The Creator in Job’s poem is singled out first of all for His terrific, and perhaps arbitrary, power — tearing up mountains in His wrath, eclipsing the sun, and blotting out the stars. (The speaker, we should remember, is the same Job who had prayed for every glimmer of light to be swallowed by darkness.)

If both the present text and Chapter 38 allude indirectly to the Canaanite creation myth, in which the weather god conquers the primordial sea beast Yamm, what is stressed in Chapter 38 is God’s setting limits to the breakers of the of the sea, His bolting doors against the chaotic rush of the flood, while Job here gives us instead God the mighty combatant, treading on the back of the conquered sea. To be sure, there is also an element of celebration of the Creator in Job’s words, at least in the last two lines of the passage quoted, but his general perception of the master of the universe is is from the viewpoint of someone who has been devastated by His mastery.

This sense is made perfectly clear in the lines that introduce our passage (9:12-13), and the point is even more emphatic in the lines that follow it:

Look, He seizes — who can resist Him ?
Who can tell Him `What do You do?’
God will not relent His fury.
Beneath Him Rahab’s minions stoop


The analogous passage in Chapter 12 stresses still more boldly the arbitrary way in which God exercises His power.

Here, too, God, as in the revelation from the storm at the end, is imagined as the supreme, master of nature — a truth that, according to Job, we can learn from the very birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field (behemoth, a term that in a different acceptation will designate one of the featured attractions of the grand zoological show in the speech from the storm), And like the LORD Who will reveal Himself in the end to Job, God; here is imagined above all as the absolute sovereign of light and darkness: lays bare depths from darkness, / and brings out to light death’s shadow (12:22).

But this divine monarch as Job conceives Him show a singular inclination to capricious behavior, befuddling counselor, and judges, unmanning kings, humiliating nobles, using His prerogative over light and darkness to draw the leaders of nations into trackless wastes: they grope in darkness without light, / He makes them wander like drunken men (12:25). Job’s vision of God’s power over the world has an authority lacking in the parallel speeches of the Friends, but he sees it as power willfully misused, and that perception will require an answer by the Voice from the Whirlwind.

Somewhat surprisingly, the two extended anticipations of the concluding poem that show the greatest degree of consonance with it occur in the interpolated passages, the Elihu speech and the Hymn it Wisdom. This may seem less puzzling if we remember that in the ancient Near East a “book” remained for a long time a relatively open structure, so that later writers might seek to amplify or highlight the meaning of the original text by introducing materials that reinforced or extended certain of the original emphases.

In the case of Elihu, the immediate proximity to God’s speech is the most likely explanation of the high degree of consonance with it. That is, Elihu is an irascible presumptuous blowhard (images of inflation and evacuation cluster at the beginning of his discourse), and as such he is hardly someone to be in any way identified as God’s “spokesman.”

But as he approaches the end of his long harangue — as the poem ‘draws close, in other words, to the eruption of the Voice from the Whirlwind — he begins to weave into his abuse of Job images of God as the mighty sovereign of a vast creation beyond the ken of man. First he conjures up a vision of God Whose years are without number mustering the clouds and causing the rains to fall (36:26-33). Then, at the very end of his speech, in a clear structural bridge to the divine discourse that directly follows, Elihu asks Job whether he can really grasp God’s wondrous management of the natural world, invoking it as evidence of the moral perfection of the Divinity that man cannot fathom:

Hearken to this, O Job,
stand and take in the wonders of God.
Do you know when God directs them,
when His thunderhead’s lightning shines?
Do you know of the spread of cloud,
the wonders of the Perfect in Knowledge
When your garments feel warm
as the earth is becalmed from the south?
Will you pound out the skies with Him,
which are strong as a metal mirror?
Let us know what to say to Him!
We can lay out no case in our darkness.
Will it be told Him if I speak,
will a man say if he is devoured?
And now, they have not seen the light,
bright though it be in the skies,
as a wind passes, making them clear.
From the north gold comes;
over God — awesome glory.
Shaddai, whom we find not, is lofty in power,
in judgment and great justice — He will not oppress.
Therefore men do fear Him.
He does not regard the wise of heart.

Elihu’s cosmic poetry does not quite soar like that of the Voice from the Whirlwind (and this passage also involves several textual difficulties), and the second-rank poet responsible for his speeches never entirely escapes his weakness for boilerplate language. Even so, here the end it is something more than the rehearsal of formulas we saw in Eliphaz and Zophar.

The various items of his panorama of creation-the power over rain and thunder and the dazzling deployment of sunlight — will in a moment recur, more grandly, in God’s speech, and above all, the final emphasis on man’s inability to see the solar brilliance of the all-powerful God points toward the extraordinary exercise: of divine sight in which we are privileged to share through the poetry of God’s concluding speech.

The Hymn to Wisdom, Chapter 28, is in certain obvious ways cut from different cloth from the rest of the Book of Job. Lexically and stylistically, it sounds more like Proverbs than Job. Its celebration of divine Wisdom does not at all participate in the vehement argument on theodicy into which it is introduced. Structurally, the hymn is divided into three strophes of approximately equal length with the boundaries between them marked by a refrain; such explicit symmetry of form is servable elsewhere in the poetry of Job.

The imagery of precious that dominates the middle strophe has very few parallels else-in the book. But all these disparities may have troubled the audience a good deal less than they trouble us, with our notions of literary unity based on the reading of unitary texts produced by single who generally could be fully responsible for them from first draft to corrected page proofs. Whatever editor or ancient literary gremlin decided to insert this poem just after the completion of the rounds of debate with the Friends and before Job’s final Confession of Innocence (Chapters 29-31) chose the new material with a firm sense of could help tune up the proper attentiveness for God’s concluding speech.

That tuning up is a matter not just of emphasizing the vast scope of God’s Wisdom against man’s limited understanding but also of poetically defining a place where we can begin to imagine the unfathomable workings of the Creator. A whole world of sprawling expanses and inaccessible depths and heights is evoked in the poem — “A path that the vulture knows not, / nor the eye of the falcon beholds” (28:7), :unguessed realms of hidden recesses that only God can see or bring to light if He chooses.

The thematic stress on sight intimated at the end Elihu speeches is prominent here and made powerfully explicit in the concluding strophe. At the same time, specific details of the cosmic imagery that will begin the divine discourse are strategically anticipated (or, to think in the order of the editorial process rather than in the sequential order of the book, are strategically echoed):

And wisdom, from where does it come,
and where is the place of insight?
It is hidden from the eye of all living,
from the fowl of the heavens, concealed.
Perdition and Death have said,
“With our ears we heard its rumor.”
God grasps its way,
and He knows its place.

For He looks to the ends of the earth,
beneath all the heavens He sees,
to gauge the heft of the wind,
and to weigh water with a measure,
when He fixed a limit for rain,
and a way to the thunderhead,
Then He saw and recounted it,
set it firm and probed it, too.
And He said to man:
Look, fear of the Master, that is Wisdom,
and the shunning of evil is insight.
(Job 28:20-28)

The aphoristic concluding line is distinctly unlike the Voice from the Whirlwind not merely stylistically but also in the neatness of its sense of resolution. (Its formulaic pairing, however, of “wisdom” and “insight” is quite like the one God invokes in His initial challenge to Job.) In any case, the discrepancy in tone and attitude of the last line was no doubt far less important to whoever was responsible for the text of Job as we have it than the consonance of the hymn’s vision of God with the Voice from the Whirlwind — that is, a vision of God as the master of sight, searching out the unknowable ends of the earth.


Mother Teresa’s Spiritual “Darkness” – Ralph Martin

December 18, 2013


This is reblogged from Lay Witness Magazine. Ralph Martin is the author of The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints, simply one of the best.


Even though Mother Teresa’s experience of spiritual “darkness” has been known for several years, the full publication of her private letters in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light — The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta” drew worldwide media coverage [a few years ago].

TIME Magazine did a cover story on it, prominent articles appeared in The New York Times and other major publications, and numerous TV and radio interviews were conducted.

Some secularists chose to interpret her talk of darkness as a sign of hypocrisy and even accused her of not really believing in God. Only a very superficial and partial reading of these letters could have occasioned this interpretation. Some believers were disturbed and confused to hear of her prolonged experience of aridity or emptiness in her relationship with God. Some thought the letters were so disturbing it was a mistake to publish them.

This last concern is understandable, but unfounded. The letters in question are part of the official record compiled in the process of canonization and are generally made public. And by now we should realize that efforts to “edit” the life or writings of a saint (as the sisters of Thérèse of Lisieux tried to do in the case of their sister’s writings) only detract from the awesome witness to holiness to be found therein, albeit sometimes in unexpected and disturbing ways. I think we will see in the long run that the publication of these letters and the widespread media attention, even with its imperfections, will bear great fruit.

 An Unimaginable Depth of Holiness
Having read the entire book — which includes all of Mother Teresa’s available letters and the sensitive and expert commentary of Missionaries of Charity priest Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk — I am left awestruck at the depth of Mother Teresa’s holiness. Her faith and her heroic service were more profound than I ever imagined.

It is certainly true that while she received remarkable communications from the Lord and deep spiritual and sensible consolation at the beginning of her mission, for almost 50 years Mother Teresa was left almost totally bereft of such consolation. She carried out her mission with almost no affective experience of God’s love and presence.

She could see the fruit that her work was producing. She could see that when she spoke to her sisters and others that they came alive and grew in the experience of God’s love. But she herself, for the most part, felt only emptiness.

During the first 10 years of this “darkness,” Mother Teresa was deeply troubled by it and sought to understand what was happening by consulting a few trusted priests. She wondered if this prolonged darkness was a sign of her great sinfulness and imperfection. Some of the advice she received was helpful, but it wasn’t until she met Fr. Joseph Neuner, a Jesuit working in India, that she came to grasp some of the special meaning of her suffering.

A Different Kind of Dark Night
Fr. Neuner explained to her that this wasn’t the typical “dark night” as described by St. John of the Cross — that it wasn’t just for her own purification, but rather it was a special gift that God was giving her to participate in the sufferings of Christ, particularly in Jesus’ own sense of abandonment during His agony in the garden of Gethsemane before His Crucifixion. Mother Teresa was forever grateful to Fr. Neuner:

I can’t express in words the gratitude I owe you for your kindness to me. For the first time in these 11 years I have come to love the darkness. For I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth. You have taught me to accept it as a “spiritual side of ‘your work’” as you wrote. Today really I felt a deep joy; that Jesus can’t go anymore through the agony but that He wants to go through it in me. More than ever I surrender myself to Him. Yes, more than ever I will be at His disposal. (p. 241)

In fact, Mother Teresa had prayed for just such a participation in the agony of Christ years earlier. As a young woman, she had resolved “to drink the chalice to the last drop.” After the founding of the Missionaries of Charity, she again resolved “to drink only from His chalice of pain and to give Mother Church real saints” (p. 141).

The understanding Mother Teresa received from Fr. Neuner gave her a measure of peace and even joy. However, it didn’t take away the pain of not being able to experience the sensible and spiritual consolation of God’s love and favor. For Mother Teresa, this often seemed to be on the verge of unbearable.

In his 2003 Advent Meditations to the Holy Father and the papal household, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa summed up well the reasons God led Mother Teresa by this unusual path. The publication of the full text of the letters and the commentary of Fr. Kolodiejchuk confirms this interpretation.

The Formation of a Saint
The Lord knew that the remarkable mission Mother Teresa was undertaking would be greatly blessed, and that the whole world would come to admire it. Mother Teresa received the gift of acute “spiritual poverty,” therefore, as a protection against pride. The experience of her “nothingness” and “emptiness” was a gift that God gave to protect her from the adulation she would receive, including the reception of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

In addition, because of the specific nature of the mission God called her to, He gave Mother Teresa the gift of knowing in the depth of her being what it was like for those she was serving — those who had been abandoned by their families, rejected, unwanted, and left alone to die in the streets of Calcutta. She was able to feel deep compassion for these abandoned ones, in part because of her own experience of “darkness” and abandonment.

Finally, Mother Teresa was given to a remarkable degree the gift of being one with Jesus in His Passion, out of which flows so much redemptive power. A gift she had asked for on more than one occasion.

Yes, she experienced temptations to give up, to despair, even temptations to blasphemy and unbelief, but to be tempted is not to sin. Her heroic perseverance in the face of such interior suffering is truly awe-inspiring. What an example to us in our need to persevere no matter what the difficulties, no matter what we experience or don’t experience.

Identifying the Roots of Spiritual Aridity
On the other hand, there are dangers in misunderstanding Mother Teresa’s unusually sustained experience of darkness. It was because of her special vocation that this darkness accompanied her for so long. Hers was not one of the normal purifying “dark nights” that St. John of the Cross spoke of, either for beginners or for those more advanced in the spiritual life. Nor is every experience of aridity, emptiness, or darkness a purifying or redemptive “dark night.”

It is helpful to avail ourselves of the wisdom of our spiritual tradition to better understand this.

In brief, St. John of the Cross taught that there are three reasons why someone may experience deep aridity, emptiness, or darkness in their prayer or relationship with God.

One reason such aridity may be experienced is because of “lukewarmness” or infidelity in “doing our part” in sustaining our relationship with God. We may become careless about regular prayer and spiritual reading, we may not frequent the Eucharist and Sacrament of Reconciliation, we may fill our minds and hearts with worldly entertainment, we may not be diligent in rejecting temptation, or we may not develop relationships with others who desire to follow the Lord.

This carelessness and infidelity lessens our hunger for God and our desire to be with Him, producing lukewarmness and repugnance for things of the spirit. This is not a purifying darkness, but rather the result of laxity for which the only solution is to repent and to take up the spiritual practices that dispose us toward union with God.

A second reason why such aridity may be experienced is because of physical or emotional illness. The advice of the saints is to try to get better, pray for healing, go to the doctor, but keep on as best one can in living a fervent Christian life. And if one is not healed, this aridity is an invitation to join our suffering with the suffering of Jesus and to offer it as reparation for our own sins and as intercessory prayer for others.

A third reason why such darkness may be present is that we are ready to move to a deeper level of faith, hope, and love, and that God purposely removes the experience of his love, presence, or favor — but not their reality — in order to give us a chance to believe, hope, and love more deeply and purely. This is the true “dark night.” It may be quite intense and last for a long period of time, or it may happen intermittently, interspersed with times of sensible consolation. A true dark night is accompanied by deep and painful longing for God — a longing that was acutely present in Mother Teresa.

One sign of an authentic dark night is that, in our aridity, we don’t try to fill the emptiness with worldly or fleshly consolations. Instead, we remain faithful in seeking God even in the pain of His apparent absence. The authentic dark night isn’t an end in itself, but is intended to prepare us for an even greater union with and experience of God.


Down Syndrome 3: A Short History — Andrew Solomon

September 27, 2013
Never has the selection of a homecoming queen sent so many tears falling so freely. Kristin Pass, an 18-year-old senior with Down syndrome, became Aledo High School’s homecoming queen Friday to a joyous standing ovation and the flutter of a thousand tissues on a remarkable night for an amazing young woman.

Never has the selection of a homecoming queen sent so many tears falling so freely. Kristin Pass, an 18-year-old senior with Down syndrome, became Aledo High School’s homecoming queen Friday to a joyous standing ovation and the flutter of a thousand tissues on a remarkable night for an amazing young woman.

For most of recorded history, DS has not been compared to a holiday among windmills and tulips. The idea that “idiots” were amenable to amelioration originated with Jean Marc Gaspard Itard’s attempt to educate the  Wild Boy of Aveyron in the early nineteenth century. His theories were then developed by his pupil Edouard Seguin, director of the Hospice des Incurables in Paris, who structured a system for assessing the intellectually disabled and was the first to recognize the merits of early treatment. “If the idiot cannot be reached by the first lessons of infancy,” he wrote, “by what mysterious process will years open for him the golden doors of intelligence?” Seguin emigrated to the t ‘tined States in the middle of the nineteenth century and established institutions for the care and education of the disabled, whom he enabled to participate in civic life, often through manual labor.

Yet even as Seguin was bringing about such transformation, others argued that the cognitively disabled were not merely stupid, but evil and corrupt. The language of accusing rectitude is reminiscent of the Imaginationist argument that women who bore dwarfs did so because of their lascivious nature: deformity and disability were interpreted as evidence of failure. Samuel G. Howe’s 1848 Report Made to the Legislature of Massachusetts articulates this pre-eugenic dehumanizing vision: “This class of persons is always a burden upon the public. Persons of this class are idle and often mischievous, and are dead weights upon the material prosperity of the state. They are even worse than useless. Every such person is like a Upas tree that poisons the whole moral atmosphere about him.”

The first person to describe Down syndrome was John Langdon Down, in 1866. He referred to his subjects as Mongoloids or Mongoloid on the basis that their faces, with slightly slanted eyes, resembled those of people from Mongolia. Down proposed that human evolution had gone from black people to Asians to white people, and that white people born with Mongolism were actually a throwback to their primitive Asian antecedents — a position then considered rather progressive insofar as it acknowledged evolution.

By 1900, the jobs that had been done by Seguin’s trained individuals with mental retardation were being claimed by the great influx of immigrants, who did them more efficiently, and the institutions originally intended to educate the intellectually disabled were used to exclude them from an efficiency-oriented industrial society. Medical texts delineated how to classify someone an “idiot,” an” imbecile” a “moron”; eugenicists provided a spurious validation of the link between mental retardation and criminality, and laws favoring sterilization were instituted.

As late as 1924, a British scientist published material saying that these children actually were biological members of the Mongol race; that view was finally challenged in the 1930s by Lionel Penrose a British doctor who used blood tests to prove that white people with DS were genetically related to other white people and not to Asians.  Penrose also established that the greatest risk factor for DS was age, identifying thirty-five as the cutoff point at which risk escalated.

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in a 1927 Supreme Court decision, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The forced-sterilization law, applied to people with many disabilities and disadvantage but particularly focused on those with intellectual disabilities, was not repealed, for almost fifty years.

In 1958, a French geneticist, Jérôme Lejeune presented to the International Congress of Genetics his evidence that  the condition was the result of a triplication of the twenty chromosome, of which there should be only two copies; the scientific name for Down syndrome is trisomy 21.

The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson (inventor of the term identity crisis) at the urging of his friend Margaret Mead, had sent his newborn son to an institution within days of his birth in 1944 and kept his existence secret even from his other children, fearful that if anyone knew he had produced an “idiot” his reputation would be damaged. He had been told that his son would live no more than two years; in fact Neil lived two decades.

The view that a child with a disability was an unmitigated tragedy reached an apotheosis in Simon Olshansky’s oft-quoted description of parents’ “chronic sorrow.” His was not the only such voice. The psychoanalysts Albert Solnit and Mary Stark lobbied in 1961 for a new DS mother to have

“physical rest; an opportunity to review her thoughts and feelings about the wished-for child; a realistic interpretation and investment of the feared, unwanted child by doctors and nurses ; and an active role in planning for and caring for the newborn child as she is able. These are the measures through which the mother can overcome the trauma of giving birth to a retarded child.”

In 1966, the playwright Arthur Miller and his wife, the photographer Inge Morath, institutionalized their child with DS and told almost no one of his existence. In 1968, the ethicist Joseph Fletcher wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that there was

“no reason to feel guilty about putting a Down’s syndrome baby away, whether it’s `put away’ in the sense of hidden in a sanatorium or in a more responsible lethal sense. It is sad, yes. Dreadful. But it carries no guilt. True guilt arises only from an offense against a person and a Down’s is not a person.”

Willowbrook, that hell house of the 1960s and early 1970s, happened for a reason; parents who had been persuaded that their retarded children were not persons left them in repugnant conditions.

Yet even as prejudice against those with intellectual disabilities was escalating, a new movement to help the disabled was also unfolding. The argument that the disabled warranted benevolent treatment coincided with a larger post-Enlightenment shift in our conception of early education. Historically, this had been the province of mothers, and the notion that experts had something to add began only with the founding of the first kindergartens in early-nineteenth-century Germany.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Maria Montessori applied lessons she had learned from her work among the intellectually disadvantaged in Rome to typical children. Soon nursery schools began to crop up in Europe. In the United States, they burgeoned when the New Deal subsidized teaching jobs, then spread further as the Second World War effort called mothers into the workforce.

At the same time, attempts to curtail childhood mortality were also under way, directed especially at the poor. The new science of behaviorism rose up in opposition to eugenics and suggested that people are made, not born, and can be educated and shaped into anything. The emerging field of psychoanalysis was concurrently examining how early trauma could interfere with healthy development, and some of its adherents began to question whether the shortcomings of the poor and disabled might be the result of early deprivation rather than organic inadequacy.

In 1935 Social Security Act included a provision that the federal government would match state funds for treating the disabled. Investigators soon began to look at how a stimulating and enriching environment allowed poor children to transcend their apparent deficits. John Bolby, the father of attachment theory, demonstrated that good maternal care was crucial to the development of the healthy child, an insight so obvious today that it is hard to remember how radical it was a mere sixty years ago.

Eugenics was finally discredited when it devolved into the Holocaust. Meanwhile, the influx of handicapped veterans at the end of World War II softened social prejudice against disabled people in general. In 1946, the US Office of Education set up a Section for Exceptional Children, which led to better education programs for people with special needs, but those children remained segregated from the larger society.

In 1949, Ann Greenberg, the mother of a child Down syndrome, placed advertisements in the New York Post seeking other parents who shared her concerns. A year later, they founded the Association for Retarded Citizens, now known as the Arc, and still of the most prominent organizations in the field. Most parents thought of DS entirely in terms of nature: the child has a genetic anomaly nothing can be done about it. Greenberg was among the parental activists on the side of nurture: the child has a genetic anomaly and there is work to be done.

When John E Kennedy became president, he established a commission to study mental retardation and its possible prevention. Reintegration of the disabled into the larger society was spearheaded in part by his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, whose 1962 article in the Saturday Evening Post about their sister Rosemary emphasized that even families of prominence and intelligence can have retarded children. She observed with sadness the poor living conditions to which most people with mental retardation were consigned. Her vision of change meaningful form in the wake of the civil rights movement’s rethinkiing of social inequalities.

Black people had for so long been described as constitutionally inferior, and when they rose up against that characterization, they opened the door for other marginalized people to do the same. Head Start, founded in 1965, was dedicated to the people lived in poverty not because inherent deficits qualified them for nothing better, but because they had not received appropriate and constructive early stimulus. Head Start combined health, education, and social services and trained parents as active partners in the treatment of their children.

By the end of the 1960s, insights from Head Start were being applied to people with intellectual disabilities, and in particular to child it” Down syndrome. It became clear that people with DS showed a wide range of functioning, and that it was absurd to predict a newborn’s abilities simply from his diagnosis. It seemed to follow that writing such people off at birth was unfair, and that their capacities should be maximized both to give them a better life and to avoid later costs. Early intervention was better value for money than remediation.

In 1973, Congress passed over President Nixon’s veto, the Rehabilitation Act, which stated, “No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United State, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participant in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” Even with the budget cuts of the Reagan years, programs for disabled children remained in force; this population had become entrenched and drew broad public sympathy.

The cause reached a triumphal apogee with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, which extended the 1973 protections beyond the confines of federally funded programs. Parents, with support from disabled people themselves, had capitalized on changing ideas about humanity. They had validated lives long considered worthless. If racial minorities and the poor deserved support and respect, then so did people with Down syndrome and related conditions. If help to these other groups was best given early, then so, too, was aid to people with intellectual disabilities.

Early intervention (EI) is now a federal program for infants with any of a broad range of complaints — low birth weight, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism — and it has vastly raised levels of functioning in all these groups. EIservices provided before a child turns three may include physical therapy, occupational therapy, nutrition counseling, audiology and vision services, nursing support, speech-language therapy, and instruction on assistive technology, as well as support and training for parents who are having trouble coping.

It entails a strong focus on sensory stimulation of all kinds. Hospitals are required to tell parents about these services. EI is available to people at every socioeconomic level, sometimes through home visits and sometimes in special centers. These early services are also a form of parent training and may help families to feel optimistic about keeping their children at home. The quality of services for children with particular disabilities varies enormously from state to state; New York, for example, has especially good EI services for DS, and anecdotes tell of people moving to the state specifically to access them.

EI is the full expression of the nurture-over-nature argument — the ultimate triumph of psychoanalysis, civil rights, and empathy over eugenics, sterilization, and segregation. It grew out of a strange nexus of federal politics, parent activism, and psychology; it was a result of changing understandings of nondisabled children and new theories of general early education. It continues to evolve today, as many forms of engagement are grouped under that now-ubiquitous rubric.

Change in both treatment and acceptance of people with DS, however, continues to be driven by parents. By demanding that physicians treat their children’s physical ailments as respectfully as they would those of nondisabled children, they have brought about an astonishing increases in life expectancy for people so diagnosed.

If early intervention is ultimately a vague and ever-evolving umbrella term for a broad range of protocols, it has nonetheless been the organizing phrase for a radical rethinking of the lives of disabled people. Where science and biological cure have been stalled, the social model of disability has achieved wild triumph. Many specific techniques are invaluable in addressing particular needs, but the long and short of it is that disabled children, like non-disabled children, thrive on attention, engagement stimulation, and hope.


Down Syndrome 2 – Andrew Solomon

September 26, 2013
"The primary job of most parents is to make their kids think they can do anything; my primary job is to take him down. Reduced to a sentence, it's `You're not smart enough to do what you want to do.' Do you know how much I hate having to say that?"

“The primary job of most parents is to make their kids think they can do anything; my primary job is to take him down. Reduced to a sentence, it’s `You’re not smart enough to do what you want to do.’ Do you know how much I hate having to say that?”

People who bear children and others who raise children often say that being a parent is the definitive event of their lives, forever changing and shaping their destiny and sense of self. Far From the Tree, through interviews with over 300 families, explores the nature of the familial bond between parents and children whose identities render them different — both from the parental lineage, and from the culture at large. Chapters on autism, schizophrenia, deafness, dwarfism, disability, and prodigies detail how parents and families have coped with the fall-out of what Mr. Solomon calls “horizontal” identities.


Emily arranged for Jason to appear as a regular guest on Sesame Street, and he normalized tolerance for a new generation, playing with other children in a way that acknowledged but did not stigmatize his condition. She wrote a screenplay based on their experience and insisted that the producers cast children with Down syndrome,even though actors with DS had never before been on TV. Jason provided the voice for the character modeled on him. Jane Pauley did a special about Jason and a friend who also had Down syndrome and had received early intervention.

The two boys eventually wrote a book, Count Us In in which Jason described the obstetrician who told his parents that he would never learn to recognize them or talk. “Give a baby with a disability a chance to grow a full life, to experience a half-full glass instead of a half-empty glass,” he wrote. “Think of your abilities not your disability.” Jason became the first DS celebrity; his renown marked the emergence of Down syndrome as a horizontal identity. Thirty years later, Emily received a special award from the US Department of Health and Human Services for her work showing people with disabilities in mainstream media.

Emily had been told her child was subhuman. When this proved untrue, it was logical to question every traditional assumption about DS, and Jason broke records and stymied expectations. Yet while he could learn more than anyone else with Down syndrome had learned, he had limitations. Nuance eluded him. He could read better than he could understand what he was reading.

“I knew I couldn’t remove the chromosomes,” Emily said. “But I really thought that maybe nobody knew what these kids were capable of. No one had been able to do what he did. Then around the time he turned eight, the rest of the world caught up and went past, and I began to realize all the things he couldn’t do and would never be able to do. All the trained-seal shill was fantastic, but in the real world, the intelligence to count in many languages is not as important as social intelligence, and he didn’t have it. I had not made the Down syndrome go away.”

Jason would hug strangers and didn’t understand that they weren’t friends. He wanted to attend sleepaway camp, but after he’d been there a week, Emily got a call saying that the other kids didn’t like him didn’t like how he kept hugging everyone. Some parents had said that if Jason didn’t leave, they were going to pull their own kids. When he played soccer, he would forget or not understand which team he was on.

The typical kids who had been his friends began to snigger. He continued to play with toys for small children, and he watched cartoons beamed at kids half his age. It seemed that the miracle was unraveling he could be a TV star and a successful author, but he could not function in mundane settings. “It was an unbelievably horrible read readjustment for me,” Emily said. Jason, too, was in anguish. One night when Emily was tucking him into bed, he said, “I hate this face. Can you find a store where we can get me a new face, a normal face?” Another night he said, “I’m so sick and tired of this Down syndrome business. When is it going to go away?” Emily could only kiss him on the head and tell him to go to sleep.

Emily began to rework her lectures. She still wanted to encourage people not to institutionalize their children. She wanted to say that she loved her son and that he loved her. But she didn’t want to sugarcoat her message. It was at this time that she wrote “Welcome to Holland.” Bringing Jason up wasn’t the hell she had been told about when he was born but it was also not Italy. Jason had become famous for breaking the mold and it was hard to figure out whether to keep dragging him to greater heights or to let him stay where he was comfortable being – whether he’d have a happier life with more achievement or whether that achievement was only a vanity project.

As Jason reached adolescence, his classmates began having parties, but he wasn’t invited and spent Saturday nights at home, watching TV and moping. Emily called other parents of teenagers with Down syndrome asking, “Is your kid as lonely on Saturday night as mine is?” So when Jason was fourteen, the Kingsleys began to host a monthly party at their home, with food, soda, and dancing. “They felt so normal,” Emily said. “They loved it.” The parents would sit upstairs and talk about their shared experiences, so it was really two parties.

When I met Emily, the monthly parties had been going for fifteen years. She had bought a karaoke machine and the kids — many no longer really kids – were having a rollicking good time. “I always say to people, `Invest in inclusion, but keep one foot firmly planted in the Down syndrome community,” Emily said. “This is where your kid’s ultimate friendships are going to come from.”

Jason had been in a special-needs classroom, but nonetheless passed the exams requisite for a high school diploma. Emily located a post-high-school program in Amenia, New York, where young people with learning disabilities, most without other challenges, were taught money management, time management, cooking, and housekeeping in addition to clerical and other job-related skills. Jason’s credentials and test scores were way ahead of those of most of the other applicants. “The parents freaked out when they saw that Jason was applying to this school,” Emily said. “They thought it was going to turn into a `retard school.’

So I went to the school president. `What’s the criterion for entering this school? Is it the shape of your eyes? Is it how cute you are? If so, let’s go down the hall, and I’ll show you a few kids you ought to expel.” Only after Emily threatened a lawsuit was Jason finally admitted; he was later judged by the administration to be a “model student.”

Nonetheless, many things remain elusive. Jason wanted to drive. “It’s fun for boys and sexy for girls,” he said in Count Us In. “You can get girls if you drive.” He had announced that when he was old enough, he wanted a red Saab turbo convertible. Emily paused as she recounted this, deeply frustrated. “So how do you tell your kid that he’s never going to drive? I said, ‘Your reaction time is slower than other people’s.’”

I made it something physical. He’s no dope. He shouldn’t drive because he doesn’t have the judgment, but how to say so?”Jason lives in demographic. He is too bright for most others with Down syndrome; they can’t keep up with his verbal abilities, his puns, his games. But he is not bright enough for people without disabilities. “He has no peers,” Emily said with a mix of enormous pride and terrible regret.

Jason described a life for himself that included a family and a dog and a white picket fence; he has a sort-of girlfriend, who also has DS. Emily took him in for a vasectomy. Though many males with DS are infertile, some are not. “It only takes one sperm to do it,”

“We did not want to leave the responsibility of birth control to a girl whose capacity we were unclear of. If he wants to set up housekeeping with somebody and have a marriage, I’ll give him the wedding of the age. Being a good parent, though — I simply don’t see how he could do it.”

Charles’s dream was that his son would live independently, so he set Jason up in an apartment of his own. Jason found his first job at Barnes & Noble, tearing the covers off magazines destined for recycling. He found it excruciatingly boring and kept making up ways to amuse himself. When his supervisor insisted that this was not his job, he replied, “I’m an independent adult person and I make my own decisions” showing the very spirit that Charles and Emily had fostered, but applied in exactly the wrong context. He was fired soon thereafter. His next job was at the White Plains Public Library. He developed his own idiosyncratic way of shelving videos, and unsurprisingly, the library still wanted things done their way. Jason argued about it until they, too, had to let him go.

“He wants to open a store where he will tell people the inner messages of Disney movies,” Emily explained. “You wait in line, he says `Next!’ and you come up and say, `Please, Jason, would you explain the inner meaning of The Hunchback of Notre Dame?’ He would say, ‘The inner meaning is that it’s what’s inside people that counts, whether they’re a good person, and that’s more important than whether they beautiful. That’ll be fifty dollars, please. Next!’”

“You cannot explain to him that people already know this, that they don’t find it out at a store anyway. In some very, very basic ways, he’s clueless.” Emily threw up her hands. She told me mournfully, “The primary job of most parents is to make their kids think they can do anything; my primary job is to take him down. Reduced to a sentence, it’s `You’re not smart enough to do what you want to do.’ Do you know how much I hate having to say that?”

When Jason was twenty, his father was diagnosed with cancer, and three years later, he died. Jason became deeply depressed. Emily became depressed, too. Emily found Jason a therapist, then turned to Westchester Arc (the organization’s name was originally an acronym association for Retarded Citizens), where Charles had served as president of the board. She wanted to qualify for ResHab, or residential rehabilitation, in which support staff come to a person’s home and provide services and instruction in independent-living skills.

She was tossed around in the bureaucracy until she finally broke down in tears in front of a committee and said, “My kid is destroying himself. I can’t do all of this myself.” Jason was finally given a caseworker who came in twenty hours a week. “That was a great help,” Emily said, “but I started realizing that it wasn’t enough. I had to bite the bullet and acknowledge that as smart as he is, he needs more structure and supervision. He just is not eating healthy meals at a regular time each day, or getting himself up and to work on time.”

Emily decided that Jason needed to be in a group home. “It was a feeling of failure,” she said. “We had worked so hard to make him the t awn syndrome guy who didn’t need it. But I had to look at what was best for him, and not at some ideal we had built up for ourselves.”

When Emily put Jason on the waiting list for a local facility, she found that the wait was an impossible eight years. “Raising a kid like Jason,” she said, “the kid is the least of the challenges. Jason was there to put his arms around me when the bureaucracies had nearly killed me.” Services are seldom available to anyone who does not have the wherewithal to battle agencies. Doing so often requires education, time, and money — which is a painful irony given that these services are intended to benefit people who may be short on all three.

One day, Emily spotted a house for sale in Hartsdale, New York, and realized it would be a perfect group home. It had three bedrooms, enough for Jason and a companionable two friends; it was near the bank, and a near the main bus stop, and across the street from a supermarket, a bank and a pharmacy. Emily bought the house, then asked Arc to run it. The New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities now rents the house from Emily for the amount of her mortgage payment. Jason moved in with two of his best friends from the parties Emily had been throwing. The three receive Social Security disability checks that go straight to Arc, which spends the money to maintain and staff the house.

“They love one another,” Emily said. “They call themselves the Three Musketeers.” Jason has a job working for the local radio station, where he is happy. “I’m stepping back a little,” she said. “The ultimate job is to appreciate him for who he is — and who he is, is really terrific. Anything he’s accomplished, he’s accomplished because he really stuck to it. Nothing comes easy to him.” She paused. “He’s kept a lot of dignity in the face of that. I really, really admire him tremendously. I’m also sad for him, because he’s smart enough to know that almost everybody is accomplishing things that he’s not, smart enough to realize that his life is different.”

Even if a child never acquires the skills needed for independent living, he accumulates experience and history. “He says to me that he wants this particular video,” Emily said, “and I used to say to him,’ you are intelligent enough to watch something better than that.’ I used to think that if I kept pushing, he would have a better life in the world. But now I think, `Well, if that’s what he enjoys, who am I to interfere?’ So I don’t buy things like The Brave Little Toaster, but I don’t give him a hard time if he wants to buy it for himself. You can have tulips and windmills coming out your ears, but you don’t ever get to the Uffizi, and that’s it.”

A couple of years later, Jason was depressed again, and Emily reflected with concern on her original attempt to make Jason the, highest-functioning DS kid in history. She said, “With perfect hindsight would I have done it differently? His intelligence has enriched our relationship so much and I would never want to give that up, but I’ll admit that lower-functioning Down kids are happier, less obsessed with how unfair it is. They have an easier time in many ways, but is that better? He takes such pleasure in words, in using his mind.”

I went to a reading at Barnes & Noble that Jason and his friend did when their book was reissued. Jason answered the audience’s questions with fluency and poise. Emily was aglow and Jason was aglow, their pleasure in his intelligence a mutual delight. The parents of children DS who had come to hear him were aglow, too, with hope. During; the book signing, people approached Jason reverently. He and Emily were heroes, and Jason loved being a hero; I could understand his loneliness, but I could not miss his pride.

Once when I was at Emily’s house, she called Jason and offered to take him and his roommates to The Pirates of Penzance. After a pause, I heard her say wistfully, “Well, okay, I guess I’ll go on my own.” The cliché is that people with Down syndrome are incredibly sweet-natured, and they are, but they are unsubtle in their thinking, and Emily’s nuanced disappointment had not registered with Jason as it might with typical child of six or seven.

“He’s not very introspective,” she said. He doesn’t understand the origins even of his own feelings. So it’s pretty much impossible for him to be outrospective and guess what’s going inside of me.” A few years later she said, “Actually, in some ways he is the first kid with Down syndrome who is really introspective. It’s not a boon to have Down syndrome and be introspective, because what you see when you look inside yourself are inadequacies. That’s how deep he can look into himself.

Jason was talking the other day about what he might have done if he hadn’t had Down syndrome. I have never allowed myself that fantasy. It’s too dangerous for me.”


Down Syndrome 1 – Andrew Solomon

September 25, 2013
WHEN the 23-year-old actor Jason Kingsley was 10, he played a child who witnessed a murder in an episode of ''The Fall Guy,'' an ABC television series. It was a lead role, and on the first day of filming nobody really knew whether he could pull it off. Mr. Kingsley has Down syndrome, a condition that results when a child is born with three rather than the usual two copies of the 21st chromosome, which affects a person's physical and cognitive development. ''Jason stood in front of a truck he was supposed to crawl under,'' said his mother, Emily Kingsley, a writer for the PBS children's series ''Sesame Street.'' ''The crew, more than 40 of them, were frosty,'' she continued. ''They didn't like working with kids. The director said, 'O.K., Jason, Take 1,' and gave him a series of directions: 'Crawl under the truck, look at the left tire, look at the right tire, grab the envelope, lift your head to the camera.' '' Jason just stood there. Remembering things in sequence was a challenge. ''They tried again. 'Take 2,' the director said. Jason didn't move. 'What's wrong, Jason?'' asked the worried director, who had no understudy for the part. ''In a very loud voice Jason said, 'You forgot to say ''Action!' The director said, 'Action!' Jason did his scene to perfection, adding his own improvisation and endeared himself to the whole crew.''

WHEN the 23-year-old actor Jason Kingsley was 10, he played a child who witnessed a murder in an episode of ”The Fall Guy,” an ABC television series. It was a lead role, and on the first day of filming nobody really knew whether he could pull it off. Mr. Kingsley has Down syndrome, a condition that results when a child is born with three rather than the usual two copies of the 21st chromosome, which affects a person’s physical and cognitive development. ”Jason stood in front of a truck he was supposed to crawl under,” said his mother, Emily Kingsley, a writer for the PBS children’s series ”Sesame Street.” ”The crew, more than 40 of them, were frosty,” she continued. ”They didn’t like working with kids. The director said, ‘O.K., Jason, Take 1,’ and gave him a series of directions: ‘Crawl under the truck, look at the left tire, look at the right tire, grab the envelope, lift your head to the camera.’ ” Jason just stood there. Remembering things in sequence was a challenge. ”They tried again. ‘Take 2,’ the director said. Jason didn’t move. ‘What’s wrong, Jason?” asked the worried director, who had no understudy for the part. ”In a very loud voice Jason said, ‘You forgot to say ”Action!’ The director said, ‘Action!’ Jason did his scene to perfection, adding his own improvisation and endeared himself to the whole crew.”

“Far From the Tree,” Andrew Solomon’s recent book on parents, children and the search for identity is in some ways a response to William Dean Howells’s famous disparagement that “what the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.” This book seeks the nobility buried in Howells’s disparagement. It is predicated on an even more optimistic notion, which is that the happy endings of tragedies have a dignity beyond the happy endings of comedies, that they not only transcend the mawkishness to which Howells alludes, but also produce a contentment more cherished than one untempered by suffering. Sometimes, people end up thankful for what they mourned. You cannot achieve this state by seeking tragedy, but you can keep yourself open more to sorrow’s richness than to unmediated despair. Tragedies with happy endings may be sentimental tripe, or they may be the true meaning of love.


Anyone involved in any way with disability has come across “Welcome to Holland,” a modern fable written by Emily Perl Kingsley in 1987. In fact, any such person has come across it repeatedly: several hundred people have forwarded it to me since I started writing this book. Google shows more than five thousand postings of it, in connection with everything from leukemia to cranial abnormalities.

Dear Abby runs it every October. It is standard issue from doctors to parents of disabled newborns. It has been set to music as a folk song and as a cantata. It serves as a theme for conferences and has been published in one of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. People have even named disabled children after it: Holland Abigail, for example.

It is as iconic to disability as “How do I love thee?” is to romance. Many told me that it gave them the hope and strength to be good parents; others is that it was too rosy and setup false expectations; and yet others hat it didn’t adequately acknowledge the special joy of special-needs children. Here is the piece in its entirety:

I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability — to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this…. When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip — to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans. The Colosseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland.”

Holland?!?” you say. “What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.”

But there’s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is they haven’t taken you to a disgusting, filthy place full of pestilence, famine, and disease. It’s just a different place.

So you must go out and buy new guidebooks. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.

It’s just a different place. It’s slower paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around … and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills … and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy … and they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say, “Yes, that’s where I was suppose go. That’s what I had planned.”

And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away … because the loss of that dream is a very, very significant loss.

But ….. if you spend the rest of your life mourning the fact that didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things … about Holland.

Seven to eight million Americans have intellectual disabilities; One out of ten American families is directly affected by mental retardation. Down syndrome, the result of a triplication of the twenty-first chromosome, is the most common form of intellectual disability, occurring in about one of every eight hundred births in the United States, for a total American population of more than four hundred thousand people.

Far more such pregnancies are created; more than 40 percent fetuses with DS miscarry or are stillborn. In addition to mental retardation, Down syndrome may entail heart defects (occurring in about 40 percent of cases), loose joints, thyroid disorders, a malformed digestive tract, leukemia, early-onset Alzheimer’s symptoms (in at least a quarter of cases, a far higher proportion for those who live past sixty), celiac disease, shortness, obesity, hearing and vision problems, infertility, immune deficiencies, epilepsy, a small mouth, and a protruding tongue. Poor muscle tone affects the development of mobility, coordination and, because of low tone in the mouth, speech. None of these features, except for slowed mental development, occurs in all cases of DS. People with DS also show unusually low rates of most cancers and are not subject to hardening of the arteries.

People with DS have smaller brains with reductions in most areas and fewer neurons in the cortex. They also have reduced synaptic density, and delay of myelination, the developmental process through which nerves are sheathed. They are at increased risk for depression, psychosis, disruptive-behavior disorders, anxiety, and autism. Down syndrome appears to have existed in all human populations across the span of human history; it has been found in chimpanzees and gorillas, as well.

The original and most reliable form of prenatal testing for DS is amniocentesis. The physician uses a needle to withdraw an ounce or amniotic fluid, in which some fetal cells are adrift; these cells are then analyzed for various conditions. Some people wish to avoid amnio because it carries a risk of miscarriage and because it seems intrusive for the fetus. CVS can be performed earlier than amnio but carries a greater risk of miscarriage. The “triple screen,” done in the second trimester, tests the mother’s blood for proteins and hormones associated with DS. Introduced in 1988, it identifies about two-thirds to three-quarters of cases. A quadruple screening, which looks for another hormone brings this success rate up to four-fifths.

Ultrasound has been used to look for birth defects since the 1970s, and as imaging technologies and our ability to interpret the scans is more sophisticated, this is an increasingly reliable way to diagnose DS. Early in pregnancy, about the same time as CVS, an ultrasound test, nuchal translucency, measures the fluid behind the fetus’s neck which is increased in DS and other anomalies. Later in pregnancy, 3-D ultrasound can provide more precise information. New non-invasive blood tests may replace these techniques if they prove similarly accurate; one detects placental messenger RNA in the mother’s blood stream, and another measures bloodstream fragments of chromosome  21. No technique can establish the severity of prospective impairments, mental or physical.

At the time Emily Perl Kingsley and her husband, Charles, were expecting, they decided to forgo amniocentesis because the risk of injuring the fetus seemed too great. “And if I had had amnio,” Emily said, I would have terminated, and I would have missed out on what has not only the most difficult but also the most enriching experience of my life.

Jason Kingsley was born in 1974 in Westchester County, north of New York City. The doctor told Charles that such a child belonged in an institution and discouraged the Kingsleys from seeing the baby. He said that “this mongoloid” would never learn to speak, think, walk, or talk. Emily was kept tranquilized and given pills to stop lactation, on the assumption that she would not take the baby horne , “They said he’d never be able to distinguish us from other adult,” Emily recalled. “He would never be creative; he would never have an imagination. I was collecting a first edition of Lewis Carroll and putting aside all this Gilbert and Sullivan stuff that I love; I had boxes of things that I was going to do with this kid, all of it sophisticated and terrific. I turn on the television. All of a sudden, there’s nobody who looks like me. Everybody is so perfect! I had vanished. I cried for five days nonstop.”

This was soon after the expose of horrific conditions at Willowbrook, and Emily and Charles couldn’t bear the idea of institutionalization. But it was also a moment in the 1970s when nurture arguments held ascendancy; people sought to bring about their children’s remission from various grave conditions through insight and lavish kindness.

A social worker at the hospital where Jason was born mentioned that a new, experimental program called early intervention might help kids with DS to learn some basic skills. “We had to give it a try,” Emily sail “If it turned out to be heartbreaking and miserable, we could institutionalize him based on our own experience, not on hearsay.” So Emily and Charles brought Jason home, and when he was ten days old, they went to the Mental Retardation Institute.

“I stood in the parking lip with my ten-day-old baby in my arms, and I couldn’t make my feet walk through a door that had that name on it,” Emily recalled. “I paralyzed. Charles pulled up in his car, saw me there, grabbed me the elbow, and dragged me into the building.”

The doctor at the institute said almost the opposite of what they had been told in the birthing room: that they had to start with stimulation, of every kind, especially engagement of Jason’s senses, because no knew what might be possible for a child who received enough positive input. Charles and Emily ripped apart the elegant, pastel baby’s room they had created, painting it blinding red with stenciled green and purple flowers. Emily persuaded the local supermarket to give her the giant lacy snowflakes they had used as Christmas decorations, and those went up, too.

They hung things from the ceiling on springs, they were always moving and bobbing. “You could get nauseated just walking in there,” Emily said. They put in a radio and a record player so there was music all the time. They talked to Jason day and night. They moved his limbs through stretches and exercises to improve his muscle tone. For six months, Emily would cry herself to sleep, “I almost drowned him in the tears I shed over him,” she recalled. “I had this fantasy that I would develop a very fine tweezers and go in pick out every extra chromosome of every cell in his body.”

One day when he was four months old, Emily was saying, “See the flower?” for the eight hundredth time, and Jason reached out and pointed to the flower. “He could have been stretching,” she said. “But I experienced it as him saying, ‘Okay, Mom, I got it.’ It was a message to me: ‘I am not a lump of mashed potatoes. I am a person.’” Emily called Charles immediately. “He’s in there!” she cheered. The phase that followed was almost ecstatic.

Emily and Charles tried to come up with novel experiences for Jason almost daily. Emily sewed a quilt that had a different fabric every few inches — terry cloth, velvet, AstroTurf — so that every time Jason moved he would experience a new sensation. When he was six months old, they took a giant roasting pan and filled it with Jell-O, forty packages’ worth, and lowered him into it so he could writhe around and experience the strange texture, and eat some of it. They used brushes on the soles of his feet to make his toes curl up.

He learned better than Emily and Charles could have hoped. Though his speech had the blurred cadences typical of people with intellectual disability, he was able to communicate with it. Emily taught him the alphabet. He picked up numbers; he learned words in Spanish from watching Sesame Street, where Emily had been a writer since 1970.

Jason started reading at four, ahead of many typical peers, and one day put together alphabet blocks to spell a headline: “Son of Sam.” At six, he had a fourth-grade reading level and could do basic math. The Kingsleys started counseling families who had just had babies with Down’s.

“It became a passionate crusade, that other people shouldn’t be told that their kid had no potential. We would meet them in the first twenty-four hours and say, `You’re going to have to work harder. But don’t let anybody tell you that it’s impossible.” By the time Jason was seven, he could count to ten in twelve languages. He had learned Sign as well as English and soon could tell Bach from Mozart from Stravinsky.

Emily took Jason on the road; they addressed obstetricians, nurses, and psychologists, as well as parents of children with Down syndrome. The year Jason was seven, they gave 104 lectures. Emily felt that she had licked DS; she lived in triumph.


Death Is The Mother Of Beauty – Christian Wiman

September 17, 2013
God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. . . The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. . . The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I’ve always been struck — haunted, really — by Wallace Stevens’ phrase, in his great poem “Sunday Morning,” “Death is the mother of beauty.” [See yesterday's post, link above.] Like that Robert Bringhurst poem I quoted in a previous post, Stevens’ line was practically tattooed on my brain for years; it was a kind of credo by which I lived. Or, as “Postolka” makes clear, almost lived.

It’s the old carpe diem cry, Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, etc. etc. Except that Stevens, unlike Horace and Herrick, isn’t encouraging haste and excess in the face of time slipping from one’s grasp. “Sunday Morning,” right from its famous first lines, is all about slowness and deliberation, about savoring experience:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug, mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.

No, Stevens believed that a concentration on death concentrates life, that we cannot see life clearly except through the lens of death, but that once we have seen it with such clarity, we can savor it. This is what I believed, and how I tried to live — until one day I found myself looking through the actual lens of death.

The view, it turned out, was quite different. From the moment I learned I had cancer — on my thirty-ninth birthday, from a curt voice mail message — not only was the world not intensified, it was palpably attenuated. I can still feel how far away everything — the people walking on the street beyond the window, the books on the shelf, my wife smiling up at me in the moment before I told her — suddenly seemed. And long after the initial shock, I felt a maddening, muffled quality to the world around me — which, paradoxically, went hand in hand with the most acute, interior sensations of pain.

It seemed as if the numbness was not mine, but the world’s, as if some energy had drained out of things. At some point I realized that for all my literary talk of the piquancy and poignancy that mortality imparts to immediate experience, part of my enjoyment of life had always been an unconscious assumption of its continuity.

Not necessarily a continuity of reality itself — the moment does pass, of course — but a continuity in memory at least, and a future that the act of memory implies (there must be somewhere from which to remember). Life is short, we say, in one way or another, but in truth, because we cannot imagine our own death until it is thrust upon us, we live in a land where only other people die.

“Death is the mother of beauty” is a phrase that could only have been written by a man for whom death was an abstraction, a vaguely pleasant abstraction at that. Remove futurity from experience and you leach meaning from it just as surely as if you cut out a man’s past. “Memory is the basis of individual personality,” Miguel de Unamuno writes, “just as tradition is the basis of the collective personality of a people. We live in memory and by memory, and our spiritual life is at bottom simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope, the effort of our past to transform itself into our future.”

In other words, we need both the past and the future to make our actions and emotions and sensations mean anything in the present.

Strictly speaking, though, the past and the future do not exist. They are both, to a greater or lesser degree, creations of the imagination. Anyone who tells you that you can live only in time, then, is not quite speaking the truth, since if we do not live out of time imaginatively, we cannot live in it actually. And if we can live out of time in our daily lives — indeed, if apprehending and inhabiting our daily lives demands that we in some imaginative sense live out of time — then is it a stretch to imagine the fruition of existence as being altogether outside of time?


From A Window

Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving,

I saw a tree inside a tree
rise kaleidoscopically

as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.
I pressed my face as close

to the pane as I could get
to watch that fitful, fluent spirit

that seemed a single being undefined
or countless beings of one mind

haul its strange cohesion
beyond the limits of my vision

over the house heavenwards.
Of course I knew those leaves were birds.

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would

(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow

even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,

that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.

I wrote this poem a few months after getting my diagnosis. Nothing was planned or deliberate about it. I didn’t have the realization that an experience of reality can open into an experience of divinity and then go write a poem to illustrate my feelings. No, it was quite the reverse: I wrote the poem one day out of anguish, emptiness, grief — and it exploded into joy. I sought refuge in the half-conscious play of language and was rescued by a weave of meaning I never meant to make.

The poem taught me something, and one of the things it taught me was that if you do not “think” of God, in whatever way you find to do that, if God has no relation to your experience, if God is not in your experience, then experience is always an end in itself, and always, I think, a dead end.

Not only does experience open into nothing else, but that ulterior awareness, that spirit-cleansing whiff of the ultimate, never comes into the concrete details of existence either. You can certainly enjoy life like this; you can have a hell of a time. But I would argue that life remains merely something to be enjoyed, and that not only its true nature but also something within your true nature remains inert, unavailable, mute.


“From a Window” was one of a handful of poems I wrote after my diagnosis that gave me some sense of purchase and promise: the terrible vagueness of things was dispelled for a moment and I could see where I was standing, and could feel a way forward. (Feel a way forward: if someone had asked me at the time if I believed in an afterlife, I would have said no.

Yet my poems kept conjuring their eccentric heavens, kept prodding me toward new ways of understanding that verb “believe.”) It was puzzling, then, and troubling, to find myself as time went on writing poems that seemed to give up the gains I had made, seemed not simply devoid of divinity, but to relish that fact:

It is good to sit even a rotting body
in sunlight uncompromised
by God, or lack of God,

to see the bee beyond
all the plundered flowers
air-stagger toward you

and like a delicate helicopter
hover above your knee
until it finds you to be

not sweet but at least
not flinching, its hair-legs
on the hair of your leg

a coolness through you
like a soul of nerve.

Not only is there no God in this poem, the very possibility is pushed roughly to the side. And yet I felt some saving otherness everywhere in me and around me when I wrote it. There is no possibility of heaven in this poem; indeed there is an implicit contempt for the notion. And yet I felt — during that brief marriage of word and world that poetry is — projected into dimensions of existence I could never have imagined before writing the poem, or could only have imagined but never felt.

Can there be such a thing as an anti-devotional devotional poem? Hopkins and Herbert both thought that God circumscribed imagination, that faith required drawing certain lines inside of their own minds that they dared not cross, or if they crossed (for they certainly did), then they whipped themselves for it afterward. I understand the dilemma but disagree with the solution. If faith requires you to foreclose on an inspiration, surely it is not faith.


The question of exactly which art is seeking God, and seeking to be in the service of God, is more complicated than it might seem. There is something in all original art that will not be made subject to God, if we mean by being made “subject to God” a kind of voluntary censorship or willed refusal of the mind’s spontaneous and sometimes disturbing intrusions into, and extensions of, reality.

But that is not how that phrase ought to be understood. In fact we come closer to the truth of the artist’s relation to divinity if we think not of being made subject to God, but of being subjected to God — our individual subjectivity being lost and rediscovered within the reality of God. Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.

It follows that any notion of God that is static is — since it asserts singular knowledge of God and seeks to limit his being to that knowledge — blasphemous. “God’s truth is life,” as Patrick Kavanagh says, “even the grotesque shapes of its foulest fire.” One part of that truth, for even the most devout among us, is the void of godlessness — and sometimes, mysteriously, the joy of that void.


The same impulse that leads me to sing of God leads me to sing of godlessness.

God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. . . The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The gods are back, companions. Right now they have just entered this life; but the words that revoke them, whispered underneath the words that reveal them, have also appeared that we might suffer together.
René Char

Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.


Anthony Robbins

September 11, 2013

I would normally shy from self-help as a learning genre and seek answers in exploring the spiritual or in my connection with Jesus Christ through prayer. But I do have to acknowledge that Tony Robbins is an engaging speaker and will tell you things that will help you. “The defining factor [for success] is never resources; it’s resourcefulness.”

“Explore your web — the needs, the beliefs, the emotions that are controlling you … so there’s more of you to give … and so you can appreciate what’s driving other people. It’s the only way our world’s going to change.”


Buried Secrets 3 — Patrick Radden Keefe

July 25, 2013
“I’m totally open -- totally transparent,” Steinmetz told me when we sat down. “I never lie, as a principle.” He resents the idea that he is secretive, and believes that he simply protects his right to privacy. “I don’t consider myself a public person,” he said.

“I’m totally open — totally transparent,” Steinmetz told me when we sat down. “I never lie, as a principle.” He resents the idea that he is secretive, and believes that he simply protects his right to privacy. “I don’t consider myself a public person,” he said.


Guinea, in West Africa, is one of the world’s poorest countries. But the iron ore buried inside its Simandou range may be worth a hundred and forty billion dollars. How an Israeli billionaire wrested control of one of Africa’s biggest prizes is the topic of these three posts but even more, how capitalism and Christianity are to coexist in the world. There is no answer in the posts but the question is posed by the sheer blatancy of the story. This is reblogged from the New Yorker website where I read it first. It is a fascinating read. The last of three posts.


In September, 2011, Condé invited Steinmetz to Conakry, to clear the air. Steinmetz arrived at the palace, and they sat in Condé’s office, speaking in French. (Steinmetz is fluent.) “Why are you against us?” Steinmetz asked. “What have we done wrong?”

“I have no personal problem with you,” Condé replied. “But I have to defend the interests of Guinea.”

Steinmetz was not placated. Cramer told me that the company had to counter the allegations as forcefully as possible, because, for Steinmetz, “the perception of him being an honest person” was crucial. “In the diamond business, a handshake is more important than a contract,” Cramer explained.

B.S.G.R. expanded its campaign against Condé, and turned to a company called F.T.I., which is based in Palm Beach but has operations throughout the world. F.T.I. practices an aggressive form of public relations, seeking not only to suppress negative media coverage about a client but also to plant unfavorable stories about the client’s adversaries.

An F.T.I. spokesman blasted the Guinean government’s review process, calling it a “crude smear campaign.” The firm encouraged journalists to run negative stories about Condé; the President soon began to receive bad press about the delay in setting parliamentary elections and about several ostensibly dubious transactions made by people close to him, including his son, Alpha Mohamed Condé.

It is not hard to imagine that at least some of Condé’s associates have made side deals. “I practice the watch theory of politics,” a Western diplomat in Conakry told me. “When a minister is wearing a watch that costs more than my car, I start to worry.” During my interviews with officials in Conakry, I spotted more than one conspicuously expensive watch; in the Guinean fashion, the watches hung loose on the wrist, like bracelets.

Inside F.T.I., the decision to work on behalf of Steinmetz caused discord. In 2012, the company hired a new executive to oversee some of its accounts in Africa, and when he discovered that the firm represented Steinmetz and Dan Gertler — another Israeli diamond mogul, who has been involved in controversial deals in the Democratic Republic of Congo — the executive protested, then resigned. Mark Malloch-Brown, the former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, is now F.T.I.’s chairman for the Middle East and Europe. He grew concerned that the company’s reputation might be damaged by its association with Steinmetz, and earlier this year he terminated the relationship. The leadership at B.S.G.R. was incensed.

As the company’s troubles accumulated, Steinmetz and his colleagues began to direct their feelings of grievance at George Soros, who had financed Condé’s initial investigation and provided seed money to D.L.A. Piper. Soros also bankrolled Revenue Watch, the organization that had been assisting Nava Touré in revising Guinea’s mining code, and supported Global Witness, an anti-corruption watchdog group that had been looking into Steinmetz’s activities in Guinea.

B.S.G.R. executives became convinced that Malloch-Brown had terminated the F.T.I. contract at the behest of an old friend of his: Soros. Cramer showed me an internal document, titled “The Spider,” which depicted Soros and Condé at the center of a web of influence, and which identified Soros as “a hater of Israel.” The firm sent Soros an angry letter, saying, “We can no longer remain silent letting you ceaselessly maul our company and maliciously attempt wrecking the investment.”

Earlier this year, lawyers for Steinmetz sent a letter to Malloch-Brown, demanding that he acknowledge his “personal vendetta” against Steinmetz, sign a formal apology that they had scripted, and “clear” B.S.G.R. of any wrongdoing in Africa. When Malloch-Brown refused, B.S.G.R. sued him, along with F.T.I. The lawsuit claimed that Soros nurtured a “personal obsession” with Steinmetz; it also alleged that Soros had perpetuated a shocking rumor — that Steinmetz tried to have President Condé killed, by backing the mortar attack on his residence in 2011. (B.S.G.R. maintains that this rumor is entirely unfounded; the lawsuit was recently settled out of court, with no admission of wrongdoing by Malloch-Brown or F.T.I.)

When I asked Soros about Steinmetz, he insisted that he holds no grudge against him. A major philanthropist, Soros has long been committed to promoting transparency and curtailing corruption, and he funds numerous organizations in these fields. It is true that some of these groups have converged, lately, on the activities of Steinmetz. This may mean that Soros is obsessed with Steinmetz; or it may mean that Steinmetz is corrupt.

Soros told me that he had never met Steinmetz. When I asked Cramer about this, he said, “That’s a lie.” In 2005, the two men had attended a dinner at Davos, and spoke to each other. Presented with this account, Soros said that he has gone to many dinners at Davos over the years. If he did meet Steinmetz, he had no memory of it.

One day in April, Frédéric Cilins — the Frenchman who allegedly orchestrated the bribes in Guinea — flew to Jacksonville for an urgent rendezvous. Mamadie Touré met him at the airport. They sat in a bar-and-grill in the departures area, and she ordered a chicken-salad sandwich. Cilins was not as composed as he usually is; he suffers from high blood pressure, and as they spoke, in hushed tones, he was extremely anxious. He had come to Florida on a mission. He told Mamadie Touré that she must destroy the documents — and that he was willing to pay her to do it.

She informed him that it might already be too late: she had recently been approached by the F.B.I. “They’re going to give me a subpoena,” she said. A grand jury had been convened, and the authorities would expect her to testify and turn over “all the documents.”

“Everything must be destroyed!” Cilins said. It was “very, very urgent.”

Cilins did not realize that he had fallen into a trap. Touré was wearing a wire. She had indeed been approached by the authorities and, aware of her own legal predicament, had agreed to cooperate with the F.B.I. As she subsequently explained in an interview with Guinean authorities, Cilins and his colleagues had “one single concern,” which was “to get these documents back at any price.”

As federal agents observed from around the restaurant and the wire recorded every word, she asked Cilins what she should do if she was summoned before the grand jury. “Of course, you have to lie!” he said, according to a court filing that quotes the exchange. Cilins then suggested that she should deny that she had ever been married to General Conté.

Touré and Cilins had spoken on the phone before meeting in Jacksonville, and at one point she had asked him if the plan to buy her silence had been authorized by an individual who is identified in court documents only as “CC-1,” for “co-conspirator.” Two sources close to the investigation told me that CC-1 is Beny Steinmetz.

“Of course,” Cilins had replied. That call, too, was recorded by the F.B.I.

At the airport, Cilins said that he had seen CC-1 — Steinmetz — the previous week. “I went specially to see him,” he explained. He lowered his voice to a whisper and said he had assured Steinmetz that Touré would “never betray” him, and would “never give away any documents whatsoever.”

Steinmetz’s response, according to Cilins, was “That’s good. . . . But I want you to destroy these documents.”

Touré told Cilins that the documents were in a vault, and assured him that she would destroy them. But he wasn’t satisfied, explaining that he had been instructed to watch the papers burn.

If she agreed to this plan, Cilins told her, she would be paid a million dollars. He had brought along an attestation — a legal document, in French — for her to sign. (Cilins’s comfort with formal legal agreements appears to have extended even into the realm of the coverup.) “I have never signed a single contract with B.S.G.R.,” the attestation read. “I have never received any money from B.S.G.R.” The arrangement included a possible bonus, Cilins said. If she signed the attestation, destroyed the documents, and lied to the grand jury, and if B.S.G.R. succeeded in holding on to its asset at Simandou — “if they’re still part of the project” — she would receive five million dollars.

Before Cilins could leave Jacksonville, he was arrested. This put B.S.G.R. in an awkward position. The transcript of the airport conversation looked very much like confirmation of bribery. Mamadie Touré’s documents were now in the possession of the Department of Justice. The government of Guinea had also obtained a videotape, shot during the opening of B.S.G.R.’s office in Conakry, in 2006, that seemed to further illustrate Touré’s close relationship with the company. It shows Cilins sitting next to Asher Avidan, who is addressing a crowd of Guineans. Touré then makes an entrance, resplendent in a white headdress and flowing robes, and flanked by members of the Presidential guard — implicitly conferring, by virtue of her presence, the approval of her dying husband.

When news of the arrest in Jacksonville broke, Vale released a statement saying that it was “deeply concerned about these allegations,” and committed to working with the relevant authorities. By this time, it seems safe to assume, the Brazilian company may have developed some buyer’s remorse over its iron-ore project in Guinea. When I visited the Conakry office of V.B.G. — the joint venture of Vale and the Beny Steinmetz Group — it was operating with a skeleton staff, and the project was clearly on hold, though the executives there would say nothing for the record.

“The question for Vale is: What were you thinking?” a diplomat in Conakry told me. “Did you really think you would be able to start a fifty-year project exporting iron ore in the remotest part of Guinea on the basis of a clearly dubious deal?” Having paid only half a billion dollars to B.S.G.R. so far, Vale has refused, for the moment, to make any further payments on the two billion dollars it still owes.

In mid-June, I flew to Nice, on the French Riviera, and proceeded in a taxi to Cap d’Antibes, a resort town favored by billionaires. I had spent several months trying to meet with Steinmetz, without success. I had visited the B.S.G.R. offices in London, and been told when I arrived that Steinmetz would meet me in Paris. By the time I reached Paris, he had left on his private plane for Israel. I volunteered to fly to Israel, but was told that he wouldn’t necessarily meet with me when I got there. After weeks of negotiation, I finally managed to speak to him by telephone, and after a brief conversation — in which he announced, flatly, “I don’t give interviews” — he agreed to see me.

We met at a hotel that was perched above the Mediterranean. Steinmetz was staying on one of his yachts — an Italian model. A sleek white multistory vessel, it floated regally in the distance. As I entered the lobby, I brushed past a slim, deeply tanned man wearing a blue linen shirt that was unbuttoned halfway to his navel. It was Steinmetz.

“Thank you for making the trip,” he said when I introduced myself. He seized my hand with the formidable grip of someone who puts a lot of stock in a handshake. We left the hotel and made our way up a steep hill, toward a suite of offices. Steinmetz moved almost at a trot; I had to scramble to keep up.

“I’m totally open — totally transparent,” Steinmetz told me when we sat down. “I never lie, as a principle.” He resents the idea that he is secretive, and believes that he simply protects his right to privacy. “I don’t consider myself a public person,” he said.

We talked for nearly three hours, until Steinmetz grew hoarse. He said that he felt blindsided by the controversy over Simandou. People who think that it is inherently outlandish to make billions of dollars on an investment of a hundred and sixty million simply don’t understand that the natural-resources business is a game of chance. “It’s roulette,” Steinmetz said; if you work hard, and take risks, you sometimes “get lucky.” As a small company that was comfortable with risk, B.S.G.R. made investments that the major mining companies wouldn’t. His company lost money in Tanzania. It lost money in Zambia. But in Guinea it won.

Steinmetz argued that the deal with Vale was not an effort by B.S.G.R. to sell off its asset but, rather, a partnership of the sort that is often necessary with ambitious, resource-intensive mining projects. “How did we flip?” he asked. “Why is bringing a partner in a flip?”

In our telephone call, Steinmetz had described the saga of Simandou as “a very African story,” and when we met I asked him how his company has dealt with the pervasiveness of corruption in Africa. “Very strict instructions and guidelines to people on the ground,” he said, insisting that, even in jurisdictions that are notorious for graft, the company does not pay bribes. “We manage our business like the most transparent public company,” he said.

To hear Steinmetz tell it, the former leaders of Guinea were undeserving of the widespread censure they had received. General Conté was “more honest” than President Condé. Captain Dadis, the junta leader who presided over the stadium massacre, was “an honest guy” who simply “wanted the best for his country.”

President Condé was the real villain in this story, Steinmetz said. His loathing for Condé was so palpable that, whenever he mentioned him, the tendons in his neck stood out.

Steinmetz claimed that the accusations against him were the product of a concerted smear campaign, initiated by Condé and financed by George Soros. “According to the Jewish religion, if you say somebody is guilty of something without proof, this is a very bad thing to do,” Steinmetz said. And the documents that were discussed in Jacksonville did not prove anything, he said — they were forgeries.

After failing to meet Steinmetz in Paris, I had met Asher Avidan, the head of B.S.G.R.’s Guinea operations, for a drink. When I presented him with a photograph of a signature that appeared on one of the contracts, he had acknowledged that it was identical to his own but dismissed it as “a simple Photoshop.” In Cap d’Antibes, Steinmetz elaborated on this theme, claiming that Mamadie Touré’s documents were fake, and that long before the F.B.I. investigation began she had tried to blackmail B.S.G.R., using the fraudulent contracts as leverage. “We never paid her,” Steinmetz insisted. “We never promised her anything.”

He pulled out color photocopies of the documents, and pointed at sequential notations that had supposedly been made on each contract by the notary public in Conakry. These notations, he said, ran in descending rather than ascending order — proof that they were inauthentic. I told him that I could imagine a scenario in which the documents were forgeries, and conceded that Touré was not exactly an unimpeachable witness.

But the transcript of the Jacksonville conservation did not look good for Steinmetz, and I told him that there was another factor that inclined me to consider the documents real: if they were fake, why would Frédéric Cilins fly across the Atlantic and offer Touré five million dollars to destroy them? I posed the question to Steinmetz multiple times, in multiple ways, but he replied only that he would not “speculate” about Cilins while his case was before the courts.

I pressed the matter. “Cilins told Mamadie Touré, ‘I’ve spoken to Beny. He told me to do this.’ Did you?”

“I didn’t ask him to destroy these fake documents or any other documents,” Steinmetz said.

Was Cilins lying about Steinmetz’s directive, then? Or was he somehow mistaken?

Steinmetz, growing impatient, reiterated that he did not want to speculate about Cilins. He did want to talk, however, about Condé’s responsibility for the deaths of protesters in Guinea. “The guy has blood on his hands,” Steinmetz said.

“Captain Dadis had blood on his hands, too,” I observed. “And you invited him to your daughter’s wedding.”

Steinmetz stared at me for a second, then said, “I’m not going to argue or go into depth about the politics of Guinea.”

Even as we were meeting in France, the leaders of the Group of Eight had assembled in Northern Ireland. A major goal was to assess the rules governing how executives from wealthy nations conduct themselves when they venture into the developing world. Before the summit, Prime Minister David Cameron, of the U.K., published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal: “We must lift the veil of secrecy that too often lets corrupt corporations and officials in some countries run rings around the law. The G-8 must move toward a global common standard for resource-extracting companies to report all payments to governments, and in turn for governments to report those revenues.”

In developing this ambitious agenda, Cameron had been closely advised by Paul Collier. “This is Africa’s big opportunity,” Collier told me. “But it’s a nonrenewable opportunity.” If companies are allowed to acquire natural resources without full transparency, the result will be plunder — or, as Collier puts it, “a tragedy of awesome proportions.” At Cameron’s invitation, President Condé travelled to London before the meeting. “If we are to fight against exploitation and bring about transparency, we are going to need the help of the G-8,” Condé said, in a speech at Chatham House, the foreign-policy think tank. “Mining companies are mostly in the West.”

Steinmetz was appalled by the lionization of Guinea’s leader. The current government, he said, is a “sophisticated” version of a corrupt regime, because “they are pretending to be honest.” He repeated a claim that some of his colleagues had made — that Condé had stolen the 2010 election by promising to strip B.S.G.R. of its Simandou license and transfer the rights to his backers.

“He sold our assets to South African interests who provided him with financial support to manipulate the election,” he said. Even before Condé entered office, he had decided “that he was going to take Simandou from us.” In Steinmetz’s telling, Condé is like the title character in “Nostromo” — the “perfectly incorruptible” man who, through his own vanity and the spell of the mine, finally succumbs to corruption.

“We are the victims,” Steinmetz said. “We have done only good things for Guinea, and what we’re getting is spit in the face.” With that, he wished me well. Dusk was falling, and I descended the hill while Steinmetz headed back to his yacht for dinner.

Shortly after Frédéric Cilins was arrested in Florida, I went to Conakry and visited President Condé at the Dim Sum Palace. He wore a white suit with short sleeves — a common style in Guinea — and looked tired. The violent opposition rallies showed no sign of stopping, and it was not entirely clear that Condé would hold on to power long enough to fulfill his reform agenda. Having failed to hold parliamentary elections, he was also at risk of losing his credibility as a genuinely democratic leader.

Alexis Arieff, a Guinea expert at the Congressional Research Service, told me, “He came in with a real sense of having fought for the Presidency, and deserving a free hand in how he runs the country — ‘This is mine, I went to prison for this, I suffered for this.’ ” A European Union report recently blamed “Condé’s governing style” for the escalating tension in the country. Condé, for his part, felt that Steinmetz had played a role in the unrest; at Chatham House, he intimated that B.S.G.R. is funding the opposition movement. (Steinmetz told me that this was false.)

When I asked Condé if he felt vindicated when the U.S. Justice Department began investigating the Simandou deal, he refused to take the bait. It is ultimately up to him to decide — on the basis of counsel from the mining ministry — whether or not to strip B.S.G.R. and Vale of the Simandou license, and he did not want to say anything that might prejudice this process. Instead, he smiled and said, “The actions of the United States can help me advance in the struggle against corruption in Guinea.”

Cilins’s bail was set at fifteen million dollars, because of the danger that he might flee the U.S. In May, he pleaded not guilty to obstruction-of-justice charges, and it’s possible that he will decide to coöperate with authorities; in his court filings, he has not denied offering Mamadie Touré money to destroy the documents, or doing so at the behest of Steinmetz. B.S.G.R. continues to maintain that it never paid any money to Touré or signed any contracts with her. But Asher Avidan said something interesting in our conversation at the Paris bar. He repeated B.S.G.R.’s claim that Touré had not been married to General Conté when he signed over the rights to Simandou. “She was not his wife,” Avidan said. “Not even sleeping with him.” Then he added, “She is a lobbyist. Like a thousand others.”

It suddenly occurred to me why B.S.G.R. officials might be so committed to the notion that Touré had not been married to the old General. If she was not related to him, then she was merely another local influence peddler — a lobbyist. And it might be argued that, as a legal matter, paying a lobbyist is different from paying a bribe. If B.S.G.R. was ever forced to admit that it had paid Mamadie Touré, here, in embryo, was a defense.

Although the U.S. Justice Department will not comment on the case, Cilins is likely not the ultimate target of its investigation. When the grand jury in Manhattan began issuing subpoenas, earlier this year, it requested information not just on “the Simandou concession” but on Steinmetz himself. The F.B.I. recently dispatched two teams of investigators to Conakry.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Serious Fraud Office, in London, has also opened an investigation into B.S.G.R.’s activities. Because both Israel and France have been reluctant to extradite their citizens in the past, Steinmetz might never see trial in the U.S., even in the event that he was indicted. Still, Scott Horton told me, “Steinmetz’s future travel options may be limited.”

When we spoke in Cap d’Antibes, Steinmetz did not seem worried. “We have zero to hide,” he said.

Steven Fox, the investigator, told me that Steinmetz and his colleagues were “very improvisational,” adding, “They can think creatively and move fast in an uncertain situation. That’s what accounted for their success, in a lot of ways. But it will probably also account for their downfall.”

For the moment, the iron ore remains locked inside the Simandou Mountains, and the site is still cut off from the rest of Guinea. “Everyone wants Simandou,” Condé told me as we sat in the palace. “It became the obsession, literally, of everybody.”

He continued to talk, in his professorial way, but a note of bewilderment crept into his voice. “Looking at the iron ore, the grade is world-class. The quality is world-class. Yet, in so many years, we haven’t been able to benefit from any of these tremendous resources.” President Condé paused. Then he murmured something, almost to himself: “How can we be so rich and yet so poor?”


Buried Secrets 2 — Patrick Radden Keefe

July 24, 2013

By its nature, corruption is covert; payoffs are designed to be difficult to detect. The international financial system has evolved to accommodate a wide array of illicit activities, and shell companies and banking havens make it easy to camouflage transfers, payment orders, and copies of checks. Paul Collier argues that there are often three parties to a corrupt deal: the briber, the bribed, and the lawyers and financial facilitators who enable the secret transaction. The result, he says, is “a web of corporate opacity” that is spun largely by wealthy professionals in financial capitals like London and New York. A recent study found that the easiest country in which to establish an untraceable shell company is not a tropical banking haven but the United States.

By its nature, corruption is covert; payoffs are designed to be difficult to detect. The international financial system has evolved to accommodate a wide array of illicit activities, and shell companies and banking havens make it easy to camouflage transfers, payment orders, and copies of checks. Paul Collier argues that there are often three parties to a corrupt deal: the briber, the bribed, and the lawyers and financial facilitators who enable the secret transaction. The result, he says, is “a web of corporate opacity” that is spun largely by wealthy professionals in financial capitals like London and New York. A recent study found that the easiest country in which to establish an untraceable shell company is not a tropical banking haven but the United States.


Guinea, in West Africa, is one of the world’s poorest countries. But the iron ore buried inside its Simandou range may be worth a hundred and forty billion dollars. How an Israeli billionaire wrested control of one of Africa’s biggest prizes is the topic of these next three posts but even more, how capitalism and Christianity are to coexist in the world. There is no answer in the posts but the question is posed by the blatancy of the story. This is reblogged from the New Yorker website where I read it first. It is a fascinating read. The second of three posts.


George Soros suggested to the President of Guinea that he hire Scott Horton, an attorney at the U.S. law firm D.L.A. Piper; Horton has conducted dozens of corruption investigations around the world….

In the spring of 2011, Horton began to investigate the Simandou deal. For assistance, he turned to a man named Steven Fox, who runs a risk-assessment company, in New York, called Veracity Worldwide. When corporations want to do business in countries that suffer from political instability and corruption, Veracity can help them assess if such an investment would be prudent — and viable without breaking the law.

Fox is in his forties, with the bearing of a man who feels most comfortable in a suit. He speaks softly, enunciating each syllable. At a recent meeting at his office, in midtown Manhattan, he told me that until 2005 he had worked for the State Department, and had spent time as a foreign-service officer in Africa. According to Eamon Javers’s “Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy,” a 2011 book about the private-intelligence industry, Fox actually worked for the C.I.A. As we sat down to talk, I noted a bookshelf that was heavy on Le Carré and Furst.

When Guinean government officials began looking into the Simandou contract, Fox told me, they had no evidence of malfeasance. “They only heard the rumors on the street,” he said. Fox had met Steinmetz once, in London, and had found him quiet and unassuming, but his understanding was that Steinmetz enlisted employees to pave the way for him — “pointy-end-of-the-spear forward-reconnaissance people.” Fox decided that his first essential task was to identify Steinmetz’s man in Guinea.

He soon pinpointed a candidate: Frédéric Cilins, a tanned, gregarious Frenchman, with thinning hair, who lived on the Riviera, near Cannes, but spent a lot of time in Africa. He had served as a scout for B.S.G.R. in Guinea. When I asked Fox how he had learned of Cilins, his response was enigmatic: “We knew a circle of people who knew a circle of people.”

Fox said of Cilins, “He’s an operator — that’s the best way to describe him.” His role at B.S.G.R. was to accumulate relationships and identify relevant power structures. In that respect, Fox realized, Cilins was not so different from him: they both excelled at parachuting into foreign countries and figuring out what “makes them tick.” (Cilins declined to comment for this article.)

One day in the fall of 2011, Fox flew to Paris and met with Cilins. They had been introduced by a mutual acquaintance; as Cilins understood it, Fox was working on behalf of a client who wanted to know how B.S.G.R. had secured the Simandou deal. Fox told me that, unlike some corporate-espionage outfits (and spies), Veracity does not “pretext” — employ ruses to approach a potential source. Even so, he did not acknowledge that his client was the new government of Guinea.

Fox and Cilins met in a conference room, then went to a restaurant for lunch. Cilins was affable and surprisingly candid. While Fox took notes, Cilins explained that he first visited Guinea in 2005, after a B.S.G.R. executive in Johannesburg had informed him that the company wanted to “shoot for the moon” — a phrase that Cilins took to indicate Simandou. Cilins told Fox that he spent the next six months in Conakry, staying at the Novotel, a seaside property that is popular with mining executives. He became friendly with the staff in the business center, and persuaded them to hand him copies of all incoming and outgoing faxes. In this manner, he learned details about the Conté regime’s frustration with Rio Tinto.

Each time that Cilins flew from France to Guinea, he brought gifts — MP3 players, cell phones, perfumes — which he disbursed among his contacts. They came to think of him as “Father Christmas,” he told Fox. One minister informed him that the only person who mattered in the country was General Conté — and that the way to Conté was through his four wives. (Plural marriage is tolerated in Guinea, a predominantly Muslim country.)

After further inquiries, Cilins focused on the fourth and youngest wife, Mamadie Touré — a stout, almond-eyed woman who was still in her twenties. “She was young, and she was considered very beautiful,” Fox told me. “She’s not a rocket scientist, but she had a certain dynamism. Most important, she had the ear of the President.”

Cilins hired Touré’s brother to help promote the company’s interests in Guinea, then secured an introduction to her. Not long afterward, Cilins and several associates from the company obtained an audience with the President. At this meeting, Cilins told Fox, they gave General Conté a watch that was inlaid with Steinmetz diamonds. At another meeting, they presented the Minister of Mines with a model of a Formula 1 race car that was similarly encrusted with Steinmetz bling. Soon afterward, Touré’s brother was named the head of public relations for B.S.G.R.-Guinea.

Fox shrugged when asked why Cilins had confided in him. “There’s an element of arrogance,” he said. “Or of complete naïveté, of believing they did what they did and there was no big deal.” Cilins seemed proud of his work in Conakry. He told Fox that, in his view, the history of Guinea would henceforth be thought of as dividing into two periods — “before and after B.S.G.R.”

To Cilins, giving gifts may have seemed simply like the cost of doing business in places like Guinea. Many countries aggressively prosecute domestic corruption but are much more permissive when it comes to bribes paid abroad. Until fairly recently, French firms that gave bribes in order to secure business in foreign countries could declare them as deductible business expenses.

In recent years, however, international norms have begun changing. The U.S. Justice Department has dramatically increased its enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act; the U.K. has passed its own stringent Bribery Act; and the Organization for Economic Coöperation and Development has instituted a convention against bribery, and several dozen countries — including Israel — have signed it.

Major companies, like Siemens and K.B.R., have settled corruption investigations by paying hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. (Rio Tinto, too, has contended with corruption; in 2010, four representatives of the company were convicted of accepting bribes in China.) Many multinational corporations have responded to the increased vigilance about graft by establishing robust internal-compliance departments that monitor employee behavior. B.S.G.R. says that it conducts itself ethically wherever it operates, and a company representative pointed out to me that neither Steinmetz nor his organization has ever been implicated in bribery.

But B.S.G.R. does not have a compliance department, and it does not have a single employee whose chief responsibility is to monitor company behavior abroad.

Shortly after General Conté died, Mamadie Touré fled Guinea. Fox and his colleagues discovered that she was living in Jacksonville, Florida. The World Bank estimates that forty per cent of the private wealth in Africa is held outside the continent. In a recent civil-forfeiture proceeding against the son of the dictator of Equatorial Guinea, the Justice Department documented some of his possessions: a twelve-acre estate in Malibu, a Gulfstream jet, seven Rolls-Royces, eight Ferraris, and a white glove once worn by Michael Jackson. Jacksonville isn’t Malibu. But, when Fox and his team investigated, they discovered that Touré had purchased a McMansion on a canal there, along with a series of smaller properties in the vicinity.

When you disembark from a plane in Conakry, the corruption hits you almost as quickly as the heat. At the airport, a uniformed officer will stop you, raising no specific objections but making it clear, with his body, that your exit from the situation will be transactional. Out on the rubble-strewn streets, which are perfumed by the garbage that clogs the city’s open sewers, the military presence is less conspicuous than in the past — security-sector reform has been a priority for Condé — but at night insouciant young soldiers position themselves at intersections, holding submachine guns; they lean into passing cars and come away with cash.

In 1961, Frantz Fanon wrote of post-colonial West Africa, “Concessions are snatched up by foreigners; scandals are numerous, ministers grow rich, their wives doll themselves up, the members of parliament feather their nests and there is not a soul down to the simple policeman or the customs officer who does not join in the great procession of corruption.” This description no longer applies to the region as a whole — Ghana, for example, is a prospering democracy — but in Guinea little has changed.

One afternoon, I went to a whitewashed building in Conakry’s administrative quarter to meet Nava Touré, a former professor of engineering whom Condé had entrusted with running the technical committee on mines. Touré (no relation to Mamadie Touré, the General’s fourth wife) has a round face, a melodious voice, and a decorous, almost ethereal, manner. During the months that I spent reporting this story, Nava Touré was one of the few officials in the government about whom I never heard even a rumor of corruption. He had been charged with establishing a new mining code that would create a more equitable balance between the interests of the mining companies and the people of Guinea. In addition, he had been asked to review all existing mining contracts and recommend whether any of them should be renegotiated or rescinded. But when he turned his focus on Simandou he had no staff of trained inspectors, so he relied on D.L.A. Piper, the law firm, and Steven Fox, the investigator. “It was outsourced,” Touré told me.

Last October, he sent an incendiary letter to representatives of the joint venture between Vale and B.S.G.R., identifying “possible irregularities” in the Simandou concession. It called Frédéric Cilins “a secret proxy” for Steinmetz, raised suspicions about Cilins’s alliance with Mamadie Touré, and itemized gifts such as the diamond watch and the bejewelled model race car. The letter accused B.S.G.R. of planning all along to flip the rights to Simandou, in order “to extract immediate and substantial profits.”

Nava Touré’s accusations also implicated a man he knew: Mahmoud Thiam, who had served as the Minister of Mines under the junta that ruled Guinea after General Conté’s death. Touré had been one of Thiam’s advisers at the time. Thiam came to the job, in early 2009, with stellar credentials. After obtaining an economics degree from Cornell, he had worked as a banker at Merrill Lynch and U.B.S.

Thiam was handsome, very polished, and a champion of Beny Steinmetz. In 2010, in an interview on “Closing Bell with Maria Bartiromo,” on CNBC, Thiam praised the “very aggressive junior company, B.S.G.R., that came and developed that permit to the point where it made it attractive to a big player like Vale.” Simandou, Thiam said, would “catapult the country into the No. 3 iron-ore exporter in the world.” He had attended the lavish wedding of Steinmetz’s daughter in Israel, as a representative of the junta.

According to Nava Touré’s letter, Thiam not only took payoffs from B.S.G.R.; he effectively worked as the company’s paymaster, meeting a corporate jet at Conakry airport, unloading suitcases full of cash, and then distributing bribes to the junta’s leaders. Steven Fox, the American investigator, had discovered that while Thiam was minister he took to driving around Conakry in a Lamborghini. Before he left office, in 2011, he bought an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, for $1.5 million, and an estate in Dutchess County, for $3.75 million. He paid for both properties with cash.

Thiam currently lives in the U.S., running an investment-advisory firm. This spring, I visited him at his elegant office, on Madison Avenue. He denied any wrongdoing. The Manhattan apartment, he explained, was paid for with money that he had made in banking. And he had bought the country estate on behalf of a Mozambican friend who was looking to invest in the U.S. (Thiam refused to name the friend.) The Lamborghini was not a sports car but a four-wheel-drive vehicle. “You can’t serve as mining minister without being accused of corruption,” he told me. He regards the review of the B.S.G.R. contract as little more than a witch hunt, but added that he still maintains the highest respect for Nava Touré.

During our meeting in the whitewashed building, I asked Touré how it made him feel to learn of such allegations about former colleagues. He paused. “The feeling of shame,” he said at last. “Because, finally, what they have got personally — let’s say ten million U.S. dollars, twelve million U.S. dollars — what does that amount to? Compared with the lives of the whole country?” The lights in the room suddenly shut off, and the air-conditioner powered down. He didn’t seem to notice. “I don’t think that it is tolerable or acceptable from the investors,” he continued. “But I’m more shocked by the attitude and the behavior of the national decision-makers.”

When B.S.G.R. received Touré’s letter, it responded aggressively, dismissing the investigation as an effort by President Condé to expropriate its asset. The company insisted that it had never given a watch to General Conté; though the story about the miniature Formula 1 car was true, the model had a value of only a thousand dollars, and B.S.G.R. routinely gave such “gifts to companies around the world.” Frédéric Cilins had worked for the company, but “B.S.G.R. never told Mr. Cilins that it ‘asked for the moon.’ ” Cilins may have distributed gifts among his contacts in Conakry, but the company denied any knowledge of them. Oddly, B.S.G.R.’s written response insisted, more than once, that Mamadie Touré had not actually been the wife of General Conté.

B.S.G.R. faulted the Condé administration for failing to name the sources of the allegations, and noted that any payments made to public officials “would be easily identified by bank transfers, payment orders, copies of checks, etc.” Again and again, B.S.G.R. returned to “the absence of the smallest amount of supporting proof.”

But how do you prove corruption? By its nature, corruption is covert; payoffs are designed to be difficult to detect. The international financial system has evolved to accommodate a wide array of illicit activities, and shell companies and banking havens make it easy to camouflage transfers, payment orders, and copies of checks. Paul Collier argues that there are often three parties to a corrupt deal: the briber, the bribed, and the lawyers and financial facilitators who enable the secret transaction. The result, he says, is “a web of corporate opacity” that is spun largely by wealthy professionals in financial capitals like London and New York. A recent study found that the easiest country in which to establish an untraceable shell company is not a tropical banking haven but the United States.

In the spring of 2012, one of President Condé’s ministers took a trip to Paris. At the Hilton Arc de Triomphe, he was approached by a Gabonese businessman. According to an affidavit by the minister, the Gabonese man said that he had been in contact with Mamadie Touré, and that she had provided him with documents that would be interesting to President Condé. “Madame Touré was angry with Mr. Beny Steinmetz,” the Gabonese man said. She believed that “she had been taken advantage of.”

The minister was astonished by the documents. They appeared to be a series of legal contracts, complete with signatures and official seals, between officers of B.S.G.R. and Mamadie Touré. The documents contained the signature of Asher Avidan, the head of the company’s Guinea operations. Avidan was a former member of Israel’s internal security service, Shin Bet.

The contracts had been signed in Conakry in February, 2008 — five months before General Conté took the Simandou concession away from Rio Tinto, and ten months before the northern half of that concession was given to Beny Steinmetz. The agreements stipulated that Touré would be granted a five-per-cent stake in the northern “blocks” of Simandou, in addition to “two (2) million” dollars, which would be paid through a shell company. In exchange, she committed “to do all that is necessary” to help B.S.G.R. “obtain from the authorities the signature for the obtaining of said blocks.”

An American lawyer involved in the case told me, “I’ve been involved in corporate corruption work for thirty years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. A contract for bribery that’s actually signed by a senior executive? Corporate seals?” The Gabonese man intimated that the documents were potentially worth millions of dollars. He was not going to part with such a valuable commodity for free. He was associated with an investment company, Palladino, which had loaned the Condé government twenty-five million dollars to set up a mining project. Now, in return for the documents, the Gabonese man wanted his own stake in Simandou. (Palladino acknowledges that the Paris meeting took place, but denies that the Gabonese businessman made any such demands.)

President Condé refused to make a quid-pro-quo deal for the documents, but at least the Guinean government knew of their existence. If they were genuine, they could be that rare thing: proof of corruption.

When I asked Steven Fox, the investigator, why any company would sign such a contract, he suggested that Touré may have insisted upon it. “There’s a whole Francophone-African culture of these very legalistic documents that formalize certain arrangements,” he explained. And Touré would have been concerned about securing her position.

“Her sole value was that she was the wife of the President,” he said. When the contract was signed, the General’s health was in rapid decline, and “she knew that the minute he closed his eyes she would have absolutely nothing.” At first glance, it seemed odd that she had entrusted copies of the documents to the Gabonese man. But several people who have spoken to Touré suggested to me that she had grown to fear Steinmetz. The contracts — which, if exposed, could potentially imperil his position in Guinea — amounted to a form of insurance policy.

By this time, President Condé had come to fear for his safety as well. In 2011, he had narrowly survived an assassination attempt, in which soldiers bombarded his residence in Conakry with machine-gun fire and rockets. He pressed on with his efforts to reform Guinea, but his situation grew more precarious. His Treasury chief, whom Condé had charged with investigating embezzlement by government officials, was driving home from work one night when her car was cut off by another vehicle; she was shot and killed.

Bernard Kouchner said of Condé, “He is really isolated.” After the attack on his residence, Condé moved into the Presidential palace, a cavernous fortress, constructed by Chinese contractors, which one diplomat referred to as “the Dim Sum Palace.” Condé is married, but at night he often ate alone, occasionally watching a soccer game to distract him from his worries. He did not discuss the matter with me, but several people who have spoken with Condé about it told me that he believes that Steinmetz is eavesdropping on his communications. (B.S.G.R. denies this.)

Condé was also contending with an unstable capital. The violence that erupted after he delayed parliamentary elections did not abate. Rival factions fought one another in the street, and protesters threw rocks at police. In several instances, Condé’s security forces fired on protesters. More than two dozen people died. To some, it looked as if Condé might replicate the sad pattern of many post-colonial African leaders who have started as reformers and then drifted into tyranny. In September, 2011, Amnesty International declared that “President Alpha Condé is resorting to exactly the same brutal methods as his predecessors.”

Ehud Olmert told me that Steinmetz “is the last guy you want as an enemy.” B.S.G.R. — sensing, perhaps, that Condé was politically vulnerable — went on the attack, labeling his government a “discredited regime” that was trying to “illegally seize” the Simandou deposit. The company also pointed out that Rio Tinto had reacquired the rights to the southern half of Simandou, eventually paying the Condé government seven hundred million dollars to secure the deal.

But was this corruption at work? Rio Tinto’s payment was, in part, a reflection of a new mining code, which levied higher taxes on international companies exporting Guinean resources. The company also granted the government up to a thirty-five-per-cent stake in the mine. In this respect, the Condé administration was trying to bring mining into line with the more equitable deals made by the oil-and-gas industry. (Dag Cramer, the executive who oversees Steinmetz’s business interests, told me, “There’s a reason Arab families own half of London today. The bulk of the profits from oil are being extracted by the host countries. This hasn’t happened yet in mining.”)

The Rio Tinto deal was also transparent: the contract was published, in its entirety, on the Internet. “This is something that no other Guinean government would have done, at any point in the country’s history,” Patrick Heller, who works at Revenue Watch, told me. “It’s a huge sign of progress.” Moreover, the funds went not into numbered bank accounts but directly into the Guinean treasury.

Nevertheless, several B.S.G.R. employees suggested to me that the seven hundred million dollars amounted to a colossal bribe. They further speculated that Condé had “stolen” the election in 2010, by collaborating with wealthy South African backers to rig the results. In conversations with me, friends of Steinmetz’s likened Condé to Robert Mugabe and to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Both the Carter Center and the European Union, which monitored the election, found that, despite some procedural irregularities, Condé’s victory was “credible” and “fair.”)


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