Late last year Montemayor Press released a remarkable novel, Chicago: August 28, 1968, by Marilyn Levy. This book is on one level a kind of historical fiction, as it portrays events now almost fifty years past; at the same time, it portrays events that seem (and are) alarmingly contemporary. The demonstrations of summer 1968 protested social injustices that have yet to be rectified. Police misconduct in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland; Chicago; and many other cities and towns reveal how little progress this country has made since the Sixties. In this and in other ways, Chicago: August 28, 1968 is both a remarkable portrait of a past era and a disturbing sign that the past remains all too present.
Ed Myers, MP’s publisher, interviewed Marilyn Levy by e-mail to explore how and why she wrote her novel.
Ed Myers: Can you describe the genesis of your writing Chicago: August 28, 1968?
Marilyn Levy: I began thinking about this significant chapter of our history several years ago, when the Occupy Movement had sprung up and captured the attention of old lefties like me. It was the first time in many years that people from various backgrounds—people who, on the surface had little in common except their anger at the establishment—came together to protest the government, the banks, and the inequality in a country where one percent of the population have the money and consequently the power to decide how our country is run.
EM: Your novel includes multiple points-of-view, which I believe is one of its many strengths. What prompted you to write from these multiple points-of-view rather than from just one?
ML: I began with the first chapter in the book told from Becky’s point-of-view, but I soon realized that she couldn’t possibly understand or convey the various perspectives of people from different backgrounds. I could have utilized the third person throughout, but I wanted to make the stories immediate. I felt that there were times when a third-person narrator would put a distance between the reader and the character. The chapter titled “Harvey Bender,” for instance, is told from the perspective of a detached narrator, which seems appropriate for that character. But I wanted readers to feel what Sabina or Helen, for example, were feeling as they felt it.
EM: Chicago: August 28, 1968 has the feel of lived experience—especially in the scenes from Becky’s point-of-view. Were you present at the demonstrations in late August of 1968? If so, can you reflect on your experiences: what you saw, what you felt, and how these experiences affected you at that time and over the years since then?
ML: I have never forgotten the late sixties. Though I’ve been happier at times, I’ve never felt more totally alive or more committed to confronting the inequities in our country. I was a young faculty member at Roosevelt University in Chicago, a left-leaning city school that catered to a commuter population. Like Staughton Lynd, who appears in the book, most of us were against the war in Vietnam. I had two very young children at the time, and my husband and I went to various anti-war and civil rights rallies with them in tow, but on August 28, 1968, I was in Grant Park with a friend. Because I had to get back home for the kids, we left just before all hell broke out, but my husband’s secretary wasn’t as lucky. A Japanese photographer I’d met the summer before happened to be staying at our house at the time, and he called from a phone booth downtown, absolutely terrified. We were all afraid, incensed, but most of all we were unable to believe that the police would, without provocation, begin clubbing everyone in sight.
EM: Can you reflect on how you conjured the characters and events that differ significantly from who you were at that time and what you experienced personally?
ML: Although Becky isn’t me, even some of my friends confuse the two of us. One friend was surprised when I happened to mention one day that my mother had gone to college. She had assumed that I had grown up in a lower-middle-class, uneducated family, as Becky had. My husband and I did, however, live where Becky lives when we were first married, and I have to admit she does resemble me physically—though Suzanne Kaplan more closely resembles what I looked like and who I was at the time. I had the experience she has with a black male student, and it still haunts me. I failed him. Literally. He could have gone to Vietnam. He could have died. Did I do the right thing? I think that because of that experience, I now try to think more carefully about how my words and actions will affect other people. That said, the cop [Mike] was wholly conjured up in my imagination. I needed a counterpoint to the demonstrators, but I didn’t know any police at the time, so I thought about how a sensitive cop might experience the demonstration, and I let him control his own story. Most of the characters, however, are an amalgam of various people I’ve known over the years. And many of them contain bits and pieces of my own experiences that have had an impact on me. Even the male characters. Brad, for example, tells a story about riding his bike to the “wrong” side of town to visit a school friend and the fear and humiliation that engendered. I had a similar experience, and it’s remained with me all these years.
EM: Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland; Chicago; and a disturbing number of other American places make it clear that little has changed in some respects since late August of 1968. Police in many cities still behave toward Americans—especially black Americans—like an occupying army. The police attacks against Occupy Wall Street activities some years ago were similarly oppressive. Why has so little changed? What can Americans do to counter the trend of police oppression?
ML: Unfortunately, despite the fact that we elected a black president, the country seems to be moving backwards when it comes to civil rights. In the Seventies, when the Evanston, Illinois, school district voluntarily desegregated, the all-black school became a lab school. The best teachers from the district transferred to Martin Luther King Junior Lab School, and white students had to apply. Our children were bused into the all-black neighborhood, and the school became an instant success because of the incredible faculty and principal. Our children met and made friends with kids from every economic background, race, and religion. Though we had chosen to live in an area where the local school was 40% black, many of the other white students had never been exposed to blacks—except for household help. Recently, however, I read a long article in the Evanston Review written by a young woman who had gone to Lab. She said that the good will between whites and blacks that she had experienced no longer seemed credible, and things had reverted to the way they had been before the Seventies. I feel that the current economic disparity has contributed to the rise in tension between the races and certainly between the left and the one percent. The police, though ironically not from the “elite” one percent, seem to have taken their frustrations out on the wrong people during the height of the Occupy movement.
At the root of so much of the hatred and fear we’re experiencing now is the poor education that all but the middle- and upper-middle-classes receive. Our schools often leave much to be desired, and it is this lack of education that allows a candidate like Donald Trump to create the following he has. Because he caters to people’s fears, and because people often do not have the ability to deconstruct what he’s saying—and more importantly what he’s not saying—they hear “Muslim” and equate it with terrorist. They hear “Mexican” and equate it with drugs. They hear “black” and they equate it with crime. Police will stop oppressing those who stand up for freedom, those who are “the other,” when we stand together. I think this might happen if we pay teachers what other professionals earn so that the profession attracts top people to educate our children, who can then learn how to reason clearly. For me, education is the key to oppression.
EM: Robert Bennedetti commented that when he read your book, he wasn’t convinced initially by how you connect the Chicago police force’s actions to Nazi behavior against the Jews before and during World War II; but later he felt supportive of the connection you made. Do you feel there’s a risk in comparing the violence of the Chicago police to the Nazi’s truly genocidal actions? Or do you feel that’s a necessary comparison, given the “slippery slope” that institutional violence can create?
ML: Comparing the Chicago police force’s action to Nazi behavior was risky. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the police used tactics that the Nazis ultimately used in the concentration camps. But I think it’s important to recognize that mass hysteria often leads to unintended consequences. And a charismatic dictator can convince a fearful population that the police are there to protect them from “the other” regardless of whom those others may be. I’ve seen films of Hitler speaking in Vienna just after his troops marched into the city, and it’s terrifying. The people in this just-occupied town are cheering wildly, convinced that he’s there to save them. By repeating Abraham Ribicoff’s comparison of the police brutality in Chicago to Nazis, I hoped to shock the reader as I was shocked at the time and once again when I read it during my research. Feelings were so intense on all sides that Ribicoff and Mayor Daley both spoke without self-censoring. Later, when Helen mistakes the police for Nazis, it simply seemed appropriate. She’s rummaging through her past, not really in the present, so seeing the police beating the demonstrators would remind her of what she had witnessed.
As an aside: I’m wondering if it’s in the DNA of us Jews to fear police brutality so intensely because historically, we have felt the brunt of that brutality, just as blacks feel it today. Even though most American Jews have not experienced being beaten and maligned to that extent, the fear is there. It’s interesting that Ribicoff was a Jew, and, of course, Helen (from my imagination) was Jewish.
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About the Author: Marilyn Levy was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and has lived most of her life in the Chicago area and in Los Angeles. Trained initially as a teacher, Levy has also worked as a writer in the film industry; she has written and published eighteen books; and she maintains a private counseling practice in Santa Monica, California. Her novels have been recognized for excellence by the American Library Association Best Book List, the New York Public Library Best Book List, the Society of School Librarians International Best Book Award, and the Jewish Publication Society. Levy’s work as a film writer has included Bride of the Wind (2001, directed by Bruce Beresford), a biographical portrait of Alma Mahler, her artistic life, and her relationship as wife/muse of the great composer Gustav Mahler.