Growing Up with Parents Who Dream of Utopia
JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
Said Sayrafiezadeh spent his youth in New York, where his mother and father were members of the Socialist Workers Party. Sayrafiezadeh writes about the hardships of growing up with utopian ideals in a memoir that appears in the current issue of the literary magazine Granta. Said Sayrafiezadeh is in our New York bureau.
Mr. SAID SAYRAFIEZADEH: Hi. Thanks for having me.
LUDDEN: Can I ask you to jump right into your story here and set the scene of your childhood for us? There's a great passage the bottom of Page 53.
Mr. SAYRAFIEZADEH: Sure. (Reading) `The difference between our family and other poor families was that my mother actively chose to be poor. She was highly literate and she had a college degree, but after my father left, she took the first secretarial job she could find and never looked for other employment again. My mother made no effort to disguise our impoverishment. It was a testament to how needed the revolution was and to how deserving we would be when it finally arrived.
She found ingenious ways to celebrate our poverty and announce it triumphantly to the world. In the wintertime, she would wrap her chapped fingers with masking tape, even though Band-Aids and hand lotion were well within her budget. When we were in a doctor's office, she would deftly fill her bag with magazines. In order to avoid paying fines on overdue library books, she would pull my hood tightly over my head and instruct me to simply place the books on the counter and walk right back outside. Later, she would brag to party members of how good an accomplice I was becoming. If I ever questioned such dishonesty, she would reply haughtily, "Any crime against society is a good crime."'
LUDDEN: In this story, you seem to resent this attitude of your mom's a bit, this active poverty as you call it.
Mr. SAYRAFIEZADEH: Absolutely, yeah. Part of it is that it's sort of been a long journey towards awareness of this. I mean, I grew up believing that the world was this very dark, dismal place and our condition that we lived in was capitalism's fault. And that wasn't the case; it was really my mother's psychology and my father's psychology that had put me through all of that.
LUDDEN: Hmm. Well, your memoir goes back and forth. A lot of it is when you were small, and then you kind of weave in this 30th birthday dinner you're having with your father.
Mr. SAYRAFIEZADEH: Right.
LUDDEN: And it's quite a stilted dinner because he really was not part of your life as a child, was he?
Mr. SAYRAFIEZADEH: Right. He left when I was nine months old and went off, as I describe in the piece--my mother telling me that, you know, the reason he left was to go off to fight for a socialist revolution, another thing that I believed...
LUDDEN: He went to Iran to help with the revolution there.
Mr. SAYRAFIEZADEH: Yeah. Well, there's a couple things going on. One is he left for Iran 10 years later. So the first thing was sort of just a general fighting for a revolution within the US, and then it was going to Iran. He actually arrived there after the revolution, ran for president of Iran, which--you have to sort of qualify it. There were quite a number of candidates--and actually ended up going to prison for several months because of that and was released and then came back to the United States about seven years later in the mid-'80s. And I think as I'm talking about it, I don't give him quite a lot of credit for his tasks.
LUDDEN: Well, I'm wondering as you were--you know, you started out believing it. At what point--I mean, was there something that happened or something someone said that made you start to question your parents?
Mr. SAYRAFIEZADEH: Yeah, it's such a--well, the quick answer is my psychotherapy that I've been in for nine years. You know, the thing is that throughout all of this conviction, there was always this nagging part of me that didn't quite buy it all. There's a sort of a nice anecdote. About four or five years ago, I was--my girlfriend at the time, who's now my wife, has just finished reading "1984," and--which is a book I've always loved--and made me...
LUDDEN: George Orwell.
Mr. SAYRAFIEZADEH: Yes--and was asking me questions about what would the world be like if there was a Communist revolution and, you know, sort of very basic questions, very genuine and innocent--you know, `Would I be able to buy beauty products under communism?' And I found myself sort of deflecting all of these questions and wanting to go to a really big picture of, you know, general equality. And at some point, I said, sort of offhandedly, `Wow, it sounds like I don't really know that much about this stuff,' expecting her to say, `No, no, no. You do. You do seem to know a lot.' But instead, she said, `Yeah, you actually don't seem to know a lot.'
LUDDEN: Which is something you actually discovered about your parents.
Mr. SAYRAFIEZADEH: About my father, yeah--well, and my mother, but, yeah, certainly my father, who really celebrates the amount of knowledge that he has. And it was a sobering discovery to realize that it's somewhat hollow.
LUDDEN: Did you see them as a type of fraud then?
Mr. SAYRAFIEZADEH: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And that--this is part of the tragedy, and I guess I can hopefully use it and make it somewhat comic. But realizing that the 18 years I lived with my mother, through the self-deprivation, they were not, in the end, really serious about making change; that it was more that we would just, you know, sort of be on this treadmill of being angry and protesting and what--here's a perfect example. They ran a presidential candidate in the 2004 election.
LUDDEN: The Socialist Workers Party.
Mr. SAYRAFIEZADEH: Yes. But I would qualify all this by saying that the presidential candidate was not a citizen of the United States, and the vice presidential candidate was under 35 years old. So that, you know, you do all of this work, this effort, `We're going to get on the ballot,' you know, it's a big ordeal and then to run people who, on paper, are not even eligible to be elected--and that's sort of the feeling of `Are you really serious about this thing?'
LUDDEN: Have you confronted your parents with your newfound skepticism?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SAYRAFIEZADEH: No, I have not. I'm not much in contact with either one of my parents. I'm not...
LUDDEN: Hmm. So they haven't read this story, your...
Mr. SAYRAFIEZADEH: Not that I know of. I can only imagine that it would be rather devastating for my father to realize that I don't see him as the hero that he has really worked to sort of promote.
LUDDEN: So can I ask how do you make a living?
Mr. SAYRAFIEZADEH: I work in the most non-Communist job. I work for Martha Stewart Living.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LUDDEN: Conspicuous consumption.
Mr. SAYRAFIEZADEH: She's actually changed me. I mean, it was part of, you know, working there, and I would see these nice things, and I wanted the nice things for myself. And it did come into conflict with what I had grown up with, was that nice things were irrelevant.
LUDDEN: Well, I hope you enjoy having nice things around now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SAYRAFIEZADEH: Thank you.
LUDDEN: Said Sayrafiezadeh. His memoir in the current issue of Granta is called "When Skateboards Will Be Free."
Thanks so much.
Mr. SAYRAFIEZADEH: Thank you, Jennifer.
LUDDEN: And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Debbie Elliott returns next weekend. I'm Jennifer Ludden.