Susan Griffin’s “Our Secret” is an essay in which she carefully constructs and describes history, particularly World War II, through the lives of several different people. Taken from her book A chorus of Stones, her concepts may at first be difficult to grasp; however David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky say that,
“Griffin writes about the past – how we can know it, what its
relation to the present, why we should care. In the way she
writes, she is also making an argument about how we can
know and understand the past…”(pg. 844)
Griffin strikes all of these aspects in her essay. What is most compelling about the essay, however, is the way Griffin incorporated personal, family, and world history into a chilling story of narrative and autobiography, without ever losing the factual evidence the story provided. The chapter reads like an entire novel, which helps the audience to understand the concepts with a clear and complete view of her history, not needing to read any other part of the book. Two other authors, Richard Rodriguez, and Ralph Ellison, who write about their experiences in life can possibly be better understood as historical texts when viewed through the eyes of Griffin. Rodriguez explores his own educational history in his essay “The Achievement of Desire” and Ralph Ellison depicts his own journeys and personal growth in his essay, “An Extravagance of Laughter”. Both essays, which when seen through Susan Griffin’s perspective, can be reopened and examined from a different historical view, perhaps allowing them to be understood with a more lucid view of history and what it is really about.
What is history? Many believe that history is what is read in textbooks, or what is seen on the news. If Susan Griffin were asked that question, she would probably argue that history is much more than that. It is about the minds and souls of the people who went through the historical event, not simply what happened. In her essay, Griffin incorporates stories of people from totally different backgrounds, and upbringings, including herself, all to describe their account of one time period. Each person’s history is somehow connected with the next person’s, and each story contributes equally to the larger view of history.
Griffin inputs three types of histories in her text; personal, family and world history. In her personal history, she describes her life, and her childhood, which intertwines with her family history. However, she not only talks about her histories, she talks about the histories of the other characters in the essay to bring across the larger world history. One of the technique’s that Griffin uses to help the audience understand her concepts, is explaining two other story lines while telling her main story.The first one is a description of a cell. Throughout the essay, italicized sentences explaining the intricacies of a cell are placed seemingly randomly between passages. The description begins with a nucleus, and as the story progresses, so does the nucleus. Griffin tells what happens to the nucleus, and how the inner-workings of the nucleus develops into a cell, which gives rise to many cells, which will eventually become an embryo. He other story line, also italicized sentences, goes through the making and beginning of missiles. Later in the essay, Griffin explains how the one missile develops into a bigger and more effective missile.
These separate story lines are placed within the story to explain that everyone has a background, and a past. The background and past are factors in developing the present and future; and certain characters in the story had a tendency to try to forget their past, not realizing that there is no escape from it.
Griffin illustrates this technique most vividly with Heinrich Himmler, a prominent Nazi figure during WWII. In great detail, she describes Himmler’s childhood, and the harshness of his father. As Griffin traces Himmler’s life, it is evident that there is always a marker, or base from his childhood and father, approaching the conclusion that a childhood can affect the decisions made later in life. At no time does she condone any of his actions; Griffin merely does this to help provide an understanding of how such behavior develops. The art of this technique being effective, however, is that Griffin interconnects all three stories so that the audience can grasp her concepts, and possibly incorporate those histories as well.
In reading Susan Griffin, doors may be opened up to understand other authors and texts, with regard to it being a historical text. Richard Rodriguez is one author that already goes through history, but from an educational standpoint. He discusses his childhood, and how coming from a working-class family influenced his process of learning. In his essay, he examines quite a bit of his family history, and his personal history as well. In speaking of his family history, Rodriguez traces back to his parents in Mexico, and their move to America, and the struggle to keep their standards of living in America. He also explains what is was like growing p in a Mexican-American household. Incorporated with his family history, his personal history has a lot to do with his family as well. Rodriguez began to not like his background and roots at an early age. In many ways, he wanted to discard the Mexican persona and develop and keep an American one. Griffin talks about this subject in “Our Secret”. Griffin could be considering what could happen when Rodriguez tries to shed being Mexican,
“ At a certain age we begin to define
ourselves, to choose an image of who
we are. I am this and not that, we say,
attempting thus to erase whatever is
within us that does not fit our idea of who
Rodriguez hides himself behind an image of what he thinks he should be, but not who he really is. He even has a central theme of a “scholarship boy”, a concept which he did not surmise. One aspect of his essay, perhaps not seen before, is the combining of his family and personal history into his world history. Both his family and personal history are already interlocked with world history with his family’s migration to America, ironically around the same time that Susan Griffin talks about. And while the war was not in the America’s, they must have had to endure racism, and hardships in coming to the United States.
Another author that can be looked at through Griffin’s eyes in a historical perspective is Ralph Ellison’s “Extravagance of Laughter”. What is interesting about looking at these two essays is that not only the histories, but a lot of the major themes as well are in both essays. Ellison has a vast personal history, and surrounding that is world history, however there is not a lot of evidence of family history. His personal history begins with his journey from the South to the North in the early nineteenth century. He talks of accounts of racism he encountered in both places, which falls into the larger picture of world history. His remembrances of those racist happenings were occurring throughout the country at that time. Ellison incorporates so much personal history with world history that it becomes difficult to distinguish which is personal history, and which is world history.
One of the themes that stay current throughout both essays, however, is constant effort to hide the truth. Ellison had a difficult time admitting and realizing his true place in society. He wore “masks” to cover how he really felt, to accommodate whatever situation he was in. When Griffin talks about places in the family, she speaks of masks as well. She said,
I think of it now as a mask, not an animated
mask that expresses the essence of the inner
truth, but a mask that falls like dead weight
over the human face, making flesh a stationary
Both Ellison and Griffin felt trapped in this mask, and it took only self-revelation in both authors to free themselves of that mask. The revelation hit Ellison during a play and Griffin after learning about her family..
All three authors of these essays are in a sense, historians. They wrote about events that are in history, which makes the essays about history. However, these are all great works, and are being used to help explore the ways of writing history. Thus, in the context of which they are being used, they are all history. Themes about finding the truth within the self are current throughout works, and different types of histories are explored; making these text much more than just about history; they have become history. Ralph Ellison once said,
“The way one expresses both the agony of life
and the possibility of conquering it through is the
sheer toughness of the spirit. They fall short of
tragedy only in that they provide no solution, offer
no scapegoat but the self…” (pg.143)
Each author demonstrates the toughness of the spirit, and provide no solution, as history never does. It is up to the individual to decide whether history will repeat itself, or whether or not a scapegoat will be found. However, Griffin, Rodriguez, and Ellison all did their part in providing possible solutions.…for history.
A Chorus of Stones.