Heroes Without Names

AMERICA

I

MY FRIEND GENE and I were walking one night last fall down a stretch of Commonwealth Ave. in Boston where several rapes and rape attempts had been committed since early summer. Visions of the next attack had started to tyrannize the imagination of the community. A woman I know from the neighborhood stopped spending evenings with Cambridge friends for fear of walking alone the 50 yards from the trolley to her house on the return trip. That memories of these assaults should linger in this neighborhood of mostly white-collar workers and students is understandable; in a neighborhood so transient that the entire population probably changes every couple of years, there are few reliable neighbors to call, few reassuringly recognizable faces to assuage the fears of violence.

In this neighborhood, Gene and I came upon two young men fighting, or rather, one drunk attacking and another man struggling to fend him off without hurting him. A young woman was pleading with the drunkard to stop, but we were too far away to hear her actual words. She dashed in front of him. When the other man tried to kick the drunkard away, he accidentally knocked the girl to the ground.

By this time, a friend of the man under attack had come running down the street to help out his buddy. The two of them--we were now close enough to hear--yelled at the drunk to pick up his girlfriend, who lay motionless on the sidewalk. The drunk half spat, half choked, "Nobody's gonna touch my girl and get away with it." He tried to kick the first man in the groin. By this time, we had reached the girl.

She was not bloody. Nothing seemed to be broken. She was shaking with sobs, afraid to look at the fight. Gene asked her if she was hurt and tried to lift her head. We could see, when her face was turned, that she could not have been more than 16 or 17. And she looked small for that age.

Her only obvious wound was a bloody lip. But when Gene lifted her, she collapsed in his arms. He said I should look for some cold water somewhere. The girl shivered and shrunk back. She cried and mumbled, "Don't take me to a doctor . . . no doctors . . . no doctors."

Gene tried to calm her, assuring her we wouldn't get a doctor if she wasn't hurt. "I'm not hurt! I'm not hurt! No doctors. No doctors."

A WOMAN who looked about 30 ran downstairs from a nearby apartment and over to us. Despite the early October chill, she had not bothered with a coat or sweater. She eased the girl out of Gene's arms, felt the girl's pulse and forehead. When we looked up, we saw that the two more sober men had subdued and were quieting down the drunk who was supposed to be the girl's boyfriend. I asked the woman, who was rocking the girl gently in her arms, if I could do anything to help. The girl started whining again, "No doctors ...," and this time, she pulled up the sleeve of her brown velour. She wanted no doctors to see her arm, dotted with pricks from who knows how many needles.

The woman said she would care for the girl, give her some food and a place to rest for the night. She told us that since our presence seemed to frighten the girl, we might as well leave. The three men were now standing and talking, two of them pinning the arms of the third behind his back. The overt violence was under control. The woman helped the girl to her apartment, and we left as she had asked.

As we walked to the apartment of another friend, Gene and I talked about two things: the fright and weakness in the girl's face, and the woman who helped. She came to help despite the loud noises of men fighting, in spite of the paranoia that infects neighborhoods where violence is a recent memory. She had ignored the usual stories about how helping addicts leaves you open for more trouble. She ignored the usual refuge of the uninvolved--the excuse of inconvenience. This woman had come out of her apartment to ease the suffering she did not cause, of a girl she did not know. We never found out her or the girl's name.

II

THE UNITED STATES is a country which feels itself badly in need of heroes. It is a country which needs the assurances heroes provide, assurances that obstacles can be surmounted, that suffering can be transcended, that the powerful can be challenged, that all is not astrology and the guru, Watergate and Standard Oil.

Newspapers know that making heroes sells copy. Three weeks ago, for example, you could not find a major newspaper or news magazine which did not show the morose portrait of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn staring ominously from its front page. We were presented with a hero--the all-American Russian: a patriot, a defender of the free press, an anti-communist, an international celebrity. But in three weeks, Solzhenitsyn has disappeared from the media. I would not be surprised if Gulag Archipelago gets bad reviews.

Solzhenitsyn, like all the recent heroes of the establishment press--Sam Ervin, Howard Baker, Lowell Weicker, and so on--is the wrong kind of hero to take hold of America. Those facets of his life which would upset a hero's image stand too close to the surface to be abstracted into a legend. For example, he lives as a millionaire in Switzerland. He calls for the revival of the Russian Orthodox church, a brutal arm of czarist oppression before 1917. He branded former Attorney General Ramsey Clark a "fluttering butterfly" for ignoring Russian dissidents, but visiting POW camps in Hanoi. Solzhenitsyn is among the most conservative of the Soviet dissidents, and in an age where people call for detente, his protests ring with Cold War echoes.

But worse, if Solzhenitsyn cannot be legendary, he cannot be one of the people either. His struggle is too far from our everyday lives. His example, if you are responsive to it, is one to respect from a distance, not one you can emulate.

It is a shame that the press tried to make Solzhenitsyn a hero. Just as it glossed over his politics, it trivialized his ordeal. It reduced patriotism and exile to clumsy propaganda. The suicide of his friend, Yelizaveta Voronyanskaya, who told the KGB where to find the author's manuscripts, became a spy movie stereotype in which the Russian Nasties smashed the Closet Capitalists. In short, by blowing Solzhenitsyn beyond proportion and then dropping him from sight, the press created a hero who cannot inspire us and obscured the human being who might otherwise have moved us.

THE PRESS DOES not understand that Americans need heroes and heroines involved in struggles with which we can identify, living lives that are a day-to-day example rather than sensational copy. We need heroes who pull things together in the community, who show how political struggles here and abroad are intertwined. We need people to make us, as activists, feel part of a common enterprise, not just as distant sympathizers.

The kind of hero we need is the woman Gene and I met in Boston, or tenant organizers in urban ghettoes or women picketing for equal pay and equal rights under law. A doctor in Roxbury would make a good hero. So would the people raising money for the Attica Brothers. Those who run half-way houses for men and women who otherwise would be in reformatories, prisons, or insane asylums are heroes. So are the Farah strikers and the California farm workers. All these people deal with suffering. All these people open possibilities for the future. They are heroes even if only on one cold night they defy the prevailing paranoia and help a suffering human being.

The press rarely covers this kind of hero, almost as rarely as it would cover the suffering of Solzhenitsyn if he happened to be a Vietnamese pamphleteer or a Chilean folksinger instead of an anti-communist Nobel Prize winner. Real heroes rarely get publicity or official recognition; their anonymity is part of their heroism.

The core problem is that Americans have been told by the press that our heroes are those who flatter us uncritically, who make us feel better by doing the work of liberation for us. They periodically awaken the sympathy which we use to cover for our inactivity. The press uses heroism to mean sensationalism, grandstanding. Real heroism lies in the courage of everyday life which some people find to rebuild this world despite the obstacles. Though no paper covered it, the heroism in the woman's response to the addict is the only cure to the fear in the younger girl's face.