When I applied to college in 2001, my mother suggested we look into my father’s Native American heritage — a vague family tale — to see if I could register for a tribe to gain an advantage. I didn’t. The family legend was so distant the very idea felt embarrassing. But, in my early twenties, I did let the people around me know that I went to a public high school, that I came from a middle-class family, that my mother dropped out of school, and that I helped pay for my college education. My “public school,” though, was a Magnet consistently ranked among the top 10 public schools in the country. My father was a college professor who made double the US median income. My mother finished her BA in night school. And by “helped,” I meant I made $200 a week to defray my parents’ expenses for my meals.
Maybe this is part of why Julia Salazar’s much-reported embellishments of her own background didn’t torpedo her campaign for State Senate in Brooklyn. Even articles reporting on her win last night led with the controversy over how she’s described her backstory: The New York Post condemned her personal story — a big part of her appeal — as “wildly exaggerated.” Salazar has said she immigrated from Colombia when she was, in fact, born in Florida; asserted a “working-class background” that her brother strongly denied, offering photos of the family’s four-bedroom riverfront house; said she went to work at 14 to “make ends meet,” which her mother contradicted; implied her mother hadn’t gone to college when her mother got a degree when Salazar was 8 years old; asserted a very confused timeline about her conversion to Judaism; and claimed Jewish ancestry nobody could verify.
There’s no interpretation of Salazar’s claims about her life that can escape the conclusion that she presented a selectively edited and lightly fabricated account of her personal history, and Rolling Stone seemed baffled to have to report last night that “the constituents of District 18 were apparently untroubled” by that. But I wonder if the supporters — certainly the young, mostly white, recent college graduates who flooded her victory party — didn’t recognize, at least subconsciously, that this kind of thing is just way more common than we’d like to admit.
I’m older now, and I don’t flog my “middle-class” cred so much anymore. Yet let’s be real here: We have a culture that lionizes survivors of challenging childhoods, that gobbles up memoirs of poverty and suffering, and that makes having endured harrowing circumstances seem almost necessary to speak with any moral authority. I suspect so many of us have been embellishers, especially when we were young, in the stakes to abjure privilege, to claim uniqueness in the form of obstacles, to show our guts and thorny individualism in rising above ordinary roots.
In my freshman year of high school, my new best friend convinced the whole grade she had a fatal degenerative lung disease and that her parents beat her. Turned out the disease was made up, and she came to school early to sneak into the theater greenroom to apply costume-makeup bruises to her neck and arms. These were horrible things to lie about. But at the time, I didn’t even question why she would: It obviously lent her a nobility and a heroism far above all the rest of us boringly comfortable and well-provided-for suburban youngsters, an air of the overcomer, who is the aristocrat of our time.
Eight years before that, when I was 8 years old, I remember awakening in my childhood bed with a strange and sudden thought: How extraordinary it was to be born a privileged American in such a time, the utopian end of the 20th century after the end of the Cold War, when it seemed the worst we had to worry about — or so it seemed to a child — was whether the President of the United States had or hadn’t received a blow job. And I remember the feeling that accompanied that waking thought: a feeling of extreme anxiety.
It isn’t a coincidence, I think, that I got sick that year, the same year I began to have an apprehension of my privilege. I was born with an esophageal malformation that was successfully corrected with surgery at birth, but I began to tell the other kids at school that I had been born without an esophagus, or that it was made out of plastic. The fantasy became real: I began to have torso pain; I was hospitalized when I struggled to eat.
This might not resonate with everybody, but friends to whom I mentioned my story — from different backgrounds — found it familiar. Pain, physical and emotional, was rampant in my relatively affluent suburban school system. My classmates cut themselves, told strangely horrific tales of the darkness at the heart of their family lives. At Yale, where I went to college, the central focus of gossip for the first month of freshman year was who was and wasn’t a “legacy” — in other words, who had preferential treatment in admissions thanks to parents being alumni and who had made it there on their own. The odor that surrounded the “legacies” was so rank I have no doubt some “legacies” felt pressed to lie.
A sociologist named Bernhard Giesen wrote a fascinating study on how the claim to victimhood can become heroic. “There is no doubt that human suffering, misery and evil exist even in ... so-called advanced societies,” he reflected, “but it is increasingly difficult to attribute responsibilities to a clearly demarcated individual or group.” The more complex and interconnected a society becomes, the harder it is to figure out whether you, personally, stand on the side of good or on the side of evil. So many of us are embedded in complex mechanisms of cause and effect that implicate us — if indirectly — in systems we know are asymmetrical or even wrong. Our lifestyles contribute to climate change and economic inequality. A milieu in which many ordinary people are forced to contemplate that they might be “perpetrators” of wrong, Giesen wrote, “fosters a shifting of attention from the responsibility of perpetrators to the innocence of victims.”
I have friends who call themselves Latin American or Palestinian — not of heritage, but fully — who never left the Upper East Side as children. I have friends who bald-facedly claim that they’re “middle-class” when they have million-dollar trust funds or that they “support themselves” when they live in multi-bedroom urban apartments bought by their parents and remain on their family’s cellphone plans. I’ve described my paternal grandfather as a man who “grilled armadillo roadkill” to suggest he was a Southern hick, and it’s true he liked armadillo and at least occasionally foraged killed ones — but he was also the head of the archaeology department at the University of Florida. I’ve told people my maternal grandmother is an illegal immigrant who came to America illegally, alone on a boat from Poland, like an orphan Fievel the Mouse, conjuring hardscrabble images of tenement life, not mentioning that she married into a wealthy family.
“I tell people I was raised by a poor single mother, which is true,” a friend of mine said to me the other day. “But I leave out that my father was very involved as a parent and I lived with him some years, too. And while my mom was poor, she had gone to a good college, and her mother also went to college. But I leave that out. Sounds less cool.”
This is a sad state of affairs, for a few reasons. First, why can’t a person object to a system that advantaged them? Someone can be outraged by poverty and not be poor. In fact, history shows that efforts to reverse social wrongs are often most successful when even those who are not personally affected are disturbed by them.
And it strips us of the capacity to acknowledge that even advantage, in an unequal world, can harm a person. I think my suburban classmates really did feel pain. It was the pain of also being caught up in a visibly unequal and brutally success-oriented world, of being told to strive for roles and lives that they knew, in their child’s hearts, were lonely and disconnected, punishingly individualist and heartbreaking. It didn’t do anybody any favors to insist, societally, that people had to make this discomfort tangible in the form of oppressed ancestry, family hardship, or visible physical suffering. If anything, copping to the very different sorts of disturbances that trouble the relatively advantaged might yield more solidarity, through the recognition that America tends to warp everybody in different ways.
But finally, it cruelly disadvantages even further the real immigrants from Colombia, and the real kids whose grandfathers had to eat roadkill or who were raised by a single mom without a wealthier dad in the background. It forces them to climb down to unholier depths in the performance of their disadvantage. A young friend of mine here in South Africa, who is truly poor, told me she had recently realized there seemed to be only one way to the PhD she hoped to acquire at an American university: “To write essays in our applications about how poor we are, how devastating our circumstances are.” They had to be more devastating than anything an American could possibly conjure up.
Whether Salazar wins or loses in November, I hope we take a lesson from her — and not just not to lie by saying we immigrated as children from forlorn foreign nations. I hope we take the lesson that while Salazar might be an outlier, she’s on a spectrum many of us are on. If we dislike her now, we made her, and we might be closer to her than we’d like to admit.
Eve Fairbanks is a writer at work on a book about post-apartheid South Africa.