Skip to main content

Surviving the Middle Ages

Writer James Atlas' new book is a collection of essays called My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor's Tale. James Atlas is the founding editor of the Lipper/Viking Penguin Lives Series. He writes for The New Yorker. He was also an editor at The New York Times Magazine. His work has appeared in many publications, including The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, and Vanity Fair. He is the author of Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet, which was nominated for the National Book Award.


Other segments from the episode on March 23, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 23, 2005: Interview with James Atlas; Interview with Reza Aslan; Review of Mary Gauthier's new album, "Mercy Now."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: James Atlas discusses his work as a biographer and his
own memoir, "My Life in the Middle Ages"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is writer James Atlas. After having written biographies of the
novelist Saul Bellow and the poet Delmore Schwartz, after having edited the
biographies in the "Penguin Lives" series, then starting a new series of
books, "Eminent Lives," Atlas has written a memoir about being middle-aged.
He writes, `The greatest challenge of middle age is to accept one's
limitations. It's not easy.' The table of contents will give you a sense of
what he talks about in the book: "Time," "Home," "Money," "Failure,"
"Shrinks," "The Body," "Books," "God," "25th Anniversary," "Death."

The book opens with something many people face in middle age, the death of
parents. The first chapter begins with the dreaded phone call: Dad's in the
hospital. His parents had been living in an assisted living facility when his
father was diagnosed with a brain abscess which was followed by heart problems.
James Atlas was 52; his father was 87. After a period of hospitalization,
Atlas' father was moved to a floor devoted to nursing care at his assisted
living facility. This reading takes place in his father's room just after he
died. Atlas is talking with his father's nurse.

Mr. JAMES ATLAS (Author, "My Life in the Middle Ages"): (Reading) She gave me
the name of a local funeral home. I was uncomfortable making the call while
the row of patients--Residents? Inmates?--sat in their wheelchairs silently
observing me, drooling, their heads lolling to the side, their arms crossed in
their laps. I couldn't make this call in front of them. I told the nurse
about my qualms, and she led me to a phone in her office. When I was done
making the arrangements, I went back to his room. He lay there, no longer he,
but a corpse now. The departure of my father's life from his body was at once
a great mystery and the most ordinary thing in the world. I'd never been in
the presence of a dead body before. I marveled at the radical fact of
absence, the finality of it all. Not a word, no directive, no sign would ever
issue from him again.

I lounged in a chair, my leg over the arm, at ease. Then my sister-in-law
came in with my mother. She stood over him and tried to take it in. `I'm not
ready to let you go, Barney,' she said, talking to him in the same intimate,
bantering voice I'd been hearing all summer. `We had a good time, didn't we,
darling? We laughed and laughed and had a good time. But I didn't want you
to go yet. I didn't want you to go.' She kissed his head and turned to me, a
confused look on her face. `How did I let him get away?' she said. She went
over to the window and looked out at the green lawn, the green shrubs visible
at eye level through the basement window. `Dear, I know this sounds strange,'
she said in a half-whisper, `but I feel like he's still breathing.' On the
bureau was a can of Gillette shaving cream that I bought the day before at
Walgreens. I was planning to give him a shave, but it was too late for that
now. I would take it home and use it myself.

GROSS: That's James Atlas reading from his new memoir "My Life in the Middle

Your book is about getting older and about your own mortality, and of course,
it starts with the death of your father. Writers are usually very
self-conscious people who are always standing back and observing everything,
even standing back and observing themselves. When your father died, did you
feel what you expected to feel or what you thought you ought to feel?

Mr. ATLAS: No. It was a very liberating experience, because I felt that his
death--I know this sounds strange--but that it worked out right, that I spent
a few months with him, that we said our goodbyes. It felt like a passage that
had taken its course and been done right.

GROSS: You say that for your father, one of the most important aspects of
parenting was to make the children feel, the child feel no obligation whatever
to the parents and that your father's parents had oppressed and crowded him,
but he would set his children free whether they wanted to be free or not.
What obligations did you feel to your parents as they got older and had more
trouble taking care of themselves?

Mr. ATLAS: It's a very complicated thing, because one does feel this
obligation, and it's part of one's own life. You have to take care of them.
You have to be sure that they have enough money, that they're in the adequate
place for themselves, that they're not alone, that they're not neglected. And
yet, at the same time, if I may say so, there's this resentment. It's as if
you want to lead your own life and get on with it, and then I recall that they
felt that way about their own parents. I had an argument with my mother the
other day and made her burst into tears. And then she said to me a few days
later, she said, `I felt so bad because it reminded me of the way I used to
yell at my own mother.' So instead of getting angry at me, she felt guilty
and recalled the entire experience of what she had gone through. And now I
feel I'm sure it's the experience that my children will go through with me.

GROSS: My guest is James Atlas, and he's written a new memoir which is called
"My Life in the Middle Ages."

Let's talk a little bit about how you're dealing with being in what you
describe as late middle age or approaching late middle age. How does being in
your 50s compare to how it looked to you when you were a young man?

Mr. ATLAS: Well, it's very strange. As I said to my son this morning when I
explained that I really liked cross-country skiing, even though it was boring
to him, I said, `Look, I'm 55,' and when I said it, I thought, isn't that
strange? And yet there's a kind of elasticity now to middle age, late middle
age. People say to me when they read my book, `Well, what's old age?' And if
they're 60, I said, `Well, you're in late middle age.' And if they're 70, I
say, `Well, you're in rather late, late middle age.' And no one is old
anymore. It's wonderful. We've banished old age, so don't worry about it.

GROSS: But how does it feel to be in your 50s compared to how it looked to
you when you were young?

Mr. ATLAS: It feels in a way like an act of completion. When you're young,
you're so `I,' you're so confused and so uncertain of my identity and my
future. And now I feel a certain confidence that I never had before, a
certain at-homeness, a certain comfort in the world. And even though I have
much ahead of me, I hope, I've made my peace with certain things, and I find
that very reassuring. On the one hand, you feel the imminent approach of
mortality. On the other hand, you look back and can judge and assess what you
have accomplished, and even if it's not quite what you aspired to accomplish,
it's enough. And so there's this feeling of serenity that I certainly didn't
have when I was young.

GROSS: What are some of the things you've made your peace with?

Mr. ATLAS: Oh, I've made my peace with a lot of things. I've had and hope to
continue to have a good writing career, but I didn't turn out to be a famous
novelist, and that's OK. I'm lucky I got to make a living as a writer. And
barring some surprise, I'm not going to be rich, and that's OK, except for my
alarming credit card bills. And I am not going to grow anymore. I will
remain just under 5'6", and that's the end of that. So it's...

GROSS: I have no words for encouragement on that one.

Mr. ATLAS: So I gather, from what I know of you. But that's OK, too, right,

GROSS: Right. Right. You know...

Mr. ATLAS: We're still OK.

GROSS: You write a little bit about your body and how it's changing, and you
say, `I'm intermittently aware of my body, conscious that it's beginning to
break down. Mom is conscious of her body all the time. Nothing will relieve
her dizziness. The doctors have tried everything.' I know what you mean when
you say, `I'm aware of my body.' You know, anytime you have a symptom, your
body's kind of speaking to you and you'd prefer it be quiet. But...

Mr. ATLAS: Yes, I really don't want to hear about it.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. ATLAS: And my wife and I made this vow never to talk about our ailments.
I have friends who are still--not still. I have friends who are beginning to
talk about their arthritis and their digestive issues, and I think, `This is
just incredible. I'll never do this.' And yet sometimes when I feel mildly
arthritic myself, I have to contain myself from talking about what seems to me
an incredibly interesting issue, namely that I have arthritis...

GROSS: (Laughs) Well...

Mr. ATLAS: ...which I don't actually have. It's impending. I'm preparing
for arthritis. I'm actually in great shape.

GROSS: My guest is writer, editor and publisher James Atlas. His new memoir
is called "My Life in the Middle Ages." We'll talk more after a break. This

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is writer, editor and publisher James Atlas. He's written a
new memoir about being middle-aged called "My Life in the Middle Ages." He
was the founding editor of "Penguin Lives," a series of short biographies by
well-known writers. Now he has his own publishing company, Atlas Books, and
has started a new biographical series called "Eminent Lives."

You've published a lot of biographies. You've written two biographies,
Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow. In 1996, you wrote a really interesting and
pretty now famous piece on the memoir, on the growing popularity of the memoir
as a form. And one of the questions you addressed in the piece is, why have
so many memoirs focused on dysfunction? And you talked about how Joyce Carol
Oates had come up with the word `pathography' to describe biographies that
dwell on the sordid excess of their subjects, and you came up with the term
autopathography, about...

Mr. ATLAS: I did? Oh, that's not bad.

GROSS: Wasn't that yours? Yeah.

Mr. ATLAS: Yes, I'll claim it.

GROSS: I assumed that was yours.

Mr. ATLAS: Yeah, sure.

GROSS: It's a great term, and you came up with that for memoirs that dwell on
the sordid excesses of oneself.

Mr. ATLAS: Right. Well...

GROSS: So...

Mr. ATLAS: ...we could all write that book.

GROSS: Yes. So why do you think that--what does it say to you that so many
memoirs over the years have focused on dysfunction?

Mr. ATLAS: I really hope mine doesn't, but there's a kind of prurience, I
think, to it. There's a sense of, `Well, perhaps there but for the grace of
God,' if you're lucky, or there's the sense of association with the subject.
You know this autobiography by Augusten Burroughs that's been on the
best-seller list forever, "Running With Scissors"--I think that's an
incredible book, because it shows that you can survive. And when I talk about
"A Survivor's Tale," I'm being slightly ironic, but when you read some of
these books, especially the good ones, you just marvel at the fact that these
people did survive. You really want to know the truth about other people's
lives. And I happen to feel that fiction doesn't do that now, that it's
really the realm of non-fiction that gives you this information, gives you the
sense of identification and the sense that other people suffer the way you do
or suffer more than you do.

GROSS: Do you think, too, that the whole sense of what is private and what
shouldn't be discussed has changed, so things that you couldn't possibly
address before, having to do with maybe sexual dysfunction or even things like
lying, are kind of fair game for discussion in print? And so, like, they were
pioneers who first kind of settled that territory and then, like, everybody
else moved in, too.

Mr. ATLAS: Yeah, they certainly did. They were the pioneers. And I hope I
haven't followed them. I hope I've stayed on the Eastern seaboard, because I
didn't want to write a book that was that kind of revelation. I know this is
virtually impossible, but I wanted to write the truth and at the same time
maintain my privacy. I really--my children read an earlier chapter of my book
that I threw out because my daughter, who's very keen about literature, said,
`Dad, this didn't really happen this way. You're making this up.' And I
decided that I didn't want to write it that way. I think you can write
directly, I think you can write honestly, I think you can write the truth
without this kind of excessive self-revelation. And it's hard to do. It's a
very fine line, but I'm not really interested in parading my neuroses about.
Even in the chapter of my book called "Shrinks," which goes on and on, I don't
really say what the problems are that I was talking about.

GROSS: How did you decide where to draw the line about what you wanted to
talk about in your memoir and the revelations that were really too personal to
put in?

Mr. ATLAS: Oh, it's hard to talk about because I didn't put them in. But...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. ATLAS: ...I think there are lots of private issues that--I don't know.
When I start writing and I don't feel comfortable and I don't feel at ease
with the material, that's when I know I've gone over the line. And it's
something that you learn after a while as a writer. You have to find your
so-called comfort zone, and for some people, that's just saying it all, and
they have a nothing-to-lose attitude about it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer, editor, publisher James
Atlas. His new book is called "My Life in the Middle Ages," and it's about
growing middle-aged.

You write a little bit about being in therapy in your memoir and, you know,
you had a lot of talk therapy, Freudian therapy. Without getting into what
you were in therapy for, what your therapy sessions were like, I'm wondering
if they were useful for you as a literary critic, because so much of therapy
is trying to get to the bottom of character, which is part of the work of a
writer or a literary critic...

Mr. ATLAS: I think what happens...

GROSS: ...or a biographer.

Mr. ATLAS: Yeah. I think what happens in therapy is that you come up with
what they call a narrative. You tell yourself a story about why you ended up
the way you are and what were the formative influences and events that created
the self you're now carrying around with you. And then it turns out to be
just a story, and as I got older, I began to realize that this narrative was
fiction in a way, useful fiction, but I learned how to tell a story, even if
it wasn't the way things really were, and I became more and more interested in
telling a story of the way things were. And that's how I ended up writing
this book.

GROSS: And what was the difference between the story that you learned to tell
about yourself through therapy and the story that you tell in your memoir?

Mr. ATLAS: The first one wasn't true, and the second one is true, but it was
very entertaining to make up these stories. No, actually I'm rather quite
militantly anti-therapy, and I think that we do create these stories and they
become fiction. They become myths, but we hide behind them.

GROSS: So, you know, you said you distrust therapy. Did you find, like, the
narrative you came up with in therapy was too explanatory too, about cause and
effect? `Someone did this to me. Therefore, I did that. This happened to me
in school. Therefore, I did this.' Was that the problem?

Mr. ATLAS: Yeah, well, you know, I feel that I now have changed my mind
entirely, and I really feel that biology is destiny and that when you look at
anyone, including yourself, you can diagnose them. You can see whether they
have depression or whether they have mood volatility, and these are just
inherited traits. I really don't believe in the narrative any longer. I
believe that we are the way we are because it's our biological fate. That's
what I really feel. There's very little narrative. Maybe certain things
happened, certain traumas that shaped you, but you really are who you are.

GROSS: So this might be too personal, but do you take any
psychopharmaceutical drugs because--I mean, you believe in, like, the biology
of mood. Do you tamper with the mood?

Mr. ATLAS: Yeah. Well, I'm not going to give you my whole pharmacological

GROSS: Right.

Mr. ATLAS: But since it's in the book, obviously, like millions of others, I
have dabbled in psychopharm and found it very helpful. And I don't think it's
a mechanical issue; take three of these and four of those and you'll be fine.
But I do think that there are profound transformations that occur. I'm sure
that you're familiar with Peter Kramer's book "Listening to Prozac." That
book is really my bible now, because it tells you what I've just said. It is
a book that's not deterministic entirely but that really explains the profound
transformations of character that occur when we take certain drugs.

GROSS: One more thing. You are planning to write a history of biography as a
form, and so you're reading a lot of, like, ancient biographies as well as
contemporary ones. And at the same time, you're working on a memoir that
would be a follow-up to the memoir about middle age that you just published.
So do you think that all these, like, ancient biographies that you're reading
will affect at all your second memoir?

Mr. ATLAS: I feel it's such an interesting experience to read these books and
follow the development of the self from ancient biography through medieval
lives of the saints and then to the gradual emergence of identity as we know
it. And when I read Dr. Johnson's "Lives of the Poets" or a book I was
reading the other day by Daniel Defoe, a biography of a famous London criminal
of the 18th century, I find that I now can understand myself as part of a
continuum. It gives me a certain humility that my work simply reflects the
voice of my time and the way we define ourselves, the way we define the self.
So in a way, it sort of gets me off the hook. You see what I mean? That I
can write the way I want to write, and it will fall into this history of
biography. That's very comforting.

GROSS: You mean that you don't have to worry about, you know, it being
lasting or permanent or, you know, that you could just write in your voice of
the moment and feel that that will have a justifiable place in the world?

Mr. ATLAS: Yeah. I guess I feel the most important thing--you know, when you
talk about the take-away, what's the take-away from your book--I don't mean to
sound negative, because I'm not negative, but you learn the transience of all
things, and that is the toughest lesson of all. And once you can cope with
that, then you can write what you wish. You can express yourself in a way
that is conscious at every moment of that transience yet refuses to yield to

GROSS: James Atlas, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. ATLAS: Oh, it's been a real pleasure.

GROSS: James Atlas' new memoir is called "My Life in the Middle Ages." I'm
Terry Gross. and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: Coming up, Reza Aslan, author of "No God But God: The Origins,
Evolution and Future of Islam." He describes the book as an argument for
reform. Also rock critic Ken Tucker reviews "Mercy Now," the new album from
singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Reza Aslan discusses his book, "No God but God: The
Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Reza Aslan counts himself among the Muslims who want to reconcile
their religious values with the realities of the modern world, as opposed to
those who react to modernism and reform by reverting, sometimes fanatically,
to the, quote, "fundamentals" of their faith. Aslan has written a new book
called "No God but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam." He's
taught Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Iowa, where he
also received an MFA in fiction from the Writers' Workshop. He's studied
religion at Santa Clara University, Harvard and the University of
California-Santa Barbara. He was born in Iran and fled the country as a child
with his parents shortly after the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power.

Many Americans consider Islam to be distant from Judaism and Christianity, but
Aslan writes about how interconnected the three religions are.

Mr. REZA ASLAN (Author, "No God but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of
Islam"): Judaism, Christianity and Islam share a single sacred history. They
are--I call them branches of the same Abrahamic tree. And Islam is firmly
rooted in the values and myths and traditions of the Bible. In fact, almost
every single biblical prophet is mentioned in the Koran, including Jesus.
Most of, sort of, the basic outline of the Gospel narrative is recounted in
the Koran. And Muhammad himself--this is something that I think is really
interesting--never claimed to be preaching a new religion. On the contrary,
I mean, he very clearly considered his prophetic mission to be to bring the
God of the Jews and the Christians to the Arab people. There's a verse in the
Koran that says, `God has established for the Arabs the same religion that he
enjoined on Noah and on Abraham and on Moses and on Jesus.' So this is a
continuation, as far as Muhammad was concerned, of that biblical prophetic

GROSS: Did he consider the Jews and the Christians to have the same God?

Mr. ASLAN: Absolutely. I mean, there's no question about that whatsoever.
He considered his mission to be to bring the God of the Jews and the
Christians to the pagan Arab tribes of his community. In fact, the Jews and
the Christians, throughout the Koran, are considered people of the book. And
the Koran was specifically meant to bring a version of that book, an
interpretation of that book to the Arab people, who did not have anything like
that, who did not have anything resembling a revealed religion.

GROSS: A lot of Westerners think of Islam as a culture that keeps women
subservient and shrouded in a veil. You write that Muhammad gave rights and
privileges to women that they never had before. What were some of those

Mr. ASLAN: Muhammad was, more than anything else, a social reformer. He
called for radical social and financial and even political reform in the Mecca
that he grew up in and that he preached in. His community, the community that
he established eventually, that became sort of the foundation of the Muslim
community--that community gave certain egalitarian rights to all members, not
just women, but also to orphans and widows and the poor and slaves, who were
all freed, the dispossessed. It was an egalitarian community.

And with regard to women especially, I mean, Muhammad gave women the right to
both inherit the property of their husbands, to keep their dowries as their
own personal property throughout their marriage. He forbade a husband to
touch his wife's dowry. He both limited how many wives a man could marry; in
pre-Islamic Arabia, a man could marry as many wives as he wanted to. Wives
were considered property. And he also gave women the right to divorce their
husbands. Now perhaps in our modern sensibilities these seem like very small
things, but that fact is that they were absolutely revolutionary at the time.
And they caused an enormous amount of social disruption. And, you know, as I
say in the book, that's primarily why not long after Muhammad's death, most of
these egalitarian reforms were gradually reversed.

GROSS: Yeah. So why is it that it is Islam now that is the culture in which
women are behind the veil? And why is it that so many Muslim leaders turn to
their faith to explain and justify that?

Mr. ASLAN: Right. Well, I think, first of all, I need to say that the Koran,
like all holy scriptures, was deeply affected by the cultural norms of the
society in which it was revealed. I mean, this was a society that did not
consider women to be equal members of the tribe. And so as a result, there
are numerous verses in the Koran that, along with the Jewish and Christian
scriptures, clearly reflect the subordinate position that women had in the
male-dominated societies of the ancient world. However, a lot of what we now
sort of see as these emblems of Islamic subjugation of women, and the veil in
particular, are more the result of cultural and local practices.

I'll give you a perfect example. The veil, I think, is a great example. I
think it would come as a surprise for a lot of people to learn that nowhere in
the whole of the Koran is the veil in any way enjoined on women, except for
the wives of Muhammad himself. The veil was a cultural practice that Muslims
borrowed from the upper-class women in Syria and Iran. And it was a way of
sort of separating those women within the Muslim community who were separate,
who were distinct, from the rest of the women. And it's precisely for this
reason that during Muhammad's lifetime no other woman in the Muslim community,
except for Muhammad's wives, took on the veil. It was only after Muhammad's
death that women started to voluntarily adopt wearing the veil as a means of
emulating the prophet's wives.

GROSS: Making it sound that--like a lot of women first took on the veil
because it's what the celebrities did, you know, like the wives of Muhammad.

Mr. ASLAN: Well, that's absolute tru...

GROSS: Do you know what I mean? It was like it was a status symbol.

Mr. ASLAN: Absolutely. I mean, we have to remember that at this day and age,
only a woman who didn't have to work in the fields could remain veiled and
secluded from the rest of the community. And so it was absolutely a sign of
social status and a sign of the inviability. And, you know, it came to be
seen as a distinctive emblem.

I get asked this question about the veil a lot, and I can sit here and tell
you what the correct interpretation of the Koran is and what the Koran
actually says about the veil and what the historical practice of the veil was
and what the meaning of the veil was. But the problem is that I'm speaking
from a position of a man who's never worn the veil. This is what I think is
so important about this discussion--is that it is up to Muslim women to decide
for themselves whether they want to wear the veil or not. It is not up to
Muslim men to decide, it is not up to scholars like myself to decide, and it
is not up to governments to decide. This is a choice that women must be
allowed to make themselves.

GROSS: I understand what you mean. I would just ask you this: What about
the fact that there are some women, who live in remote places, who are only
told that they should wear the veil...

Mr. ASLAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...that it's a part of their faith that they wear the veil? They
don't know that there are other options. They've never heard another
interpretation of it. So, you know, if you only hear one thing and that one
thing mandates the veil and tells you that it's a good thing for whatever
reasons, then it would be more difficult for you to either come up with
another interpretation or feel justified in believing it.

Mr. ASLAN: You're absolutely right. And, of course, the key to freedom, the
key to liberty is always education. It's always knowledge. And that's what
my hope is with this book. And I think that there are a number of people like
myself throughout the Muslim world who are desperately struggling to provide
an ideological counterargument, an ideological counterweight to these
traditionalists'--one can say fundamentalist--viewpoints that permeate
throughout the Muslim world.

GROSS: My guest is Reza Aslan, author of the new book "No God but God."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Reza Aslan, author of the new book "No God but God: The
Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam."

You were born in Iran and lived there for the first seven years of your life.
How religious was your home? Like, what was your parents' approach in
bringing you up in an Islamic home?

Mr. ASLAN: You know, Iranians are no different than peoples of most
countries. You know, if you're born in Iran, you're pretty much a Muslim,
just like a great number of Americans just sort of naturally call themselves
Christian. It's not any more or less religious. In fact, I would argue that
it's less religious than the United States. So I grew up in your basic
average Muslim family. You know, we went to mosque occasionally, and, you
know, we celebrated the Muslim holidays, and we celebrated the Iranian
national holidays.

My mom was a spiritual person. My father is--well, I could most politely
refer to him as anti-religious. He is someone who really sees and--has an
enormous amount of bitterness, as a great many Iranians in the United States
do, over what has happened to Iran and the clerical control that has really
stifled the freedom and the independence and the reform that was taking place
in Iran. He really blames Islam for that rather than the clerics themselves,
and I think a lot of people agree with him.

GROSS: What were your parents--you were very young, so what were your parents
expectations when the shah was overthrown and Khomeini came to power?

Mr. ASLAN: Well, I think most everyone in Iran thought that this was going to
be a wonderful thing. Only after the shah left and only after the revolution
sort of was completed, came to fruition, did Iran then become the Islamic
republic that it is now. But for most of us, I mean, this was an opportunity
to get those freedoms and those liberties that we were fighting for in the
first place, that we were promised throughout the revolution in the first
place. And there's been an enormous amount of disappointment by the very same
people who led this revolution, who are now feeling as though their original
intentions had been betrayed.

GROSS: So what was the turning point for your parents at which they realized
this wasn't going to be a democratizing revolution, that one form of tyranny,
the shah, was going to be replaced with another form of tyranny, the

Mr. ASLAN: It was the creation of the constitution. When the constitution
was drafted and it became very clear that this constitution was going to lead
the way towards the clerical domination of the country, that's when my father
realized, `It's time to leave.' And we got out of Iran at the last minute,
right before the country closed.

GROSS: How did your parents explain to you that you were going to flee the

Mr. ASLAN: Well, as far as I remember it, they just woke me up one morning
and said, `Get your stuff.' That's really how I remember it. It was a
spur-of-the-moment decision. I think we were in a rush to get out before the
borders were sealed. And we just sort of got on the first flight out. We
left most of our possessions behind and ended up, as so many Iranians did, in
London and then, from London, came to the United States.

GROSS: When your parents said `Get your stuff,' what did you take?

Mr. ASLAN: Well, I mean, we were each allowed one suitcase, but then by the
time we got to the airport and we saw the millions and millions of other
people trying to get out and the absolute chaos that was taking place at
customs, we knew that, you know, it would be a miracle even if we could take
that one suitcase along. In fact, most of our valuables had to be left behind
with the customs agents, who basically opened our suitcase and found the
things that they wanted and said, `You can't take this,' and pocketed it

GROSS: You describe in your book that your mother at the airport hollered at
you, `Hold on to your sister.' And, I mean, she was afraid, in this crush of
people, that if you let go of your sister, you might not all make it together,
you might not get on...

Mr. ASLAN: That's right.

GROSS: ...the plane together. What a really frightening thing for a
seven-year-old to have to deal with. What was that moment like for you when
you realized you had to hold on tight?

Mr. ASLAN: It was like a dream. The entire thing was really like a dream. I
mean, I just remember grasping onto my sister and kicking at the people in
front of me and knocking people to the ground, as a seven-year-old boy
dragging his four-year-old sister behind him, making sure that I never lost
sight of my mother. But I really did feel--I really did have the sense that
if something happened, if I let go of my sister or if I lost sight of my
mother, that that would be the end of it, that we would be separated forever.

GROSS: So you went first to London. And then how soon after that did you
move to the US?

Mr. ASLAN: Quite soon after that. About a few months afterwards we moved to
the US. We moved to Oklahoma, which is the only place my father had ever been
in the United States. I think it's what he thought the United States was. We
went to Enid, Oklahoma, and my father...

GROSS: That seems like a very improbable place.

Mr. ASLAN: It is. As you can imagine, the first time I'd ever seen snow--I
was really confused. And during that first year, you know, we really didn't
have anything with us, so we had to live in a one-room motel. And, of course,
my father told the management that he had no kids. So my sister and I were
never allowed to actually leave the hotel during the daylight hours. So we
just sat in the hotel and watched TV for, you know, 24 hours a day for about a
year. And at the end of the year both of us were absolutely fluent in
English, so it ended up working OK.

GROSS: Well, you know, your parents basically had to flee Iran because of the
tyranny there. So successful--the family gets out in one piece, all intact.
And what luck. You move to Oklahoma, and now you're not allowed to leave the
motel room, and no one's allowed to know that you're there. So basically
you're a prisoner in a cheap hotel room.

Mr. ASLAN: Right.

GROSS: And it's not exactly fleeing to freedom for you during that first

Mr. ASLAN: No, it's not. And it was an incredibly difficult time for my
family and caused an enormous amount of tension. You know, for a
seven-year-old and a four-year-old, you figure out a way to have your own fun.
And, quite frankly, seeing television for the--like this. I mean, certainly,
we had TV in Iran, but not 24 hours and not 30 channels and not "CHiPs" and
"Sesame Street." And, you know, for a while, I mean, this is how I learned
about--not just how to speak English, but about American culture--is watching,
you know, Ponch and Jon riding down the LA freeways and blowing up cars for no
reason. I thought--for a long time, I thought cars just all the time flipped
over as they were driving around the freeways. I thought that was a perfectly
normal thing for them to do in America.

GROSS: What kind of work did your parents do in Iran?

Mr. ASLAN: Well, they really didn't work. You know, I sometimes like to say
that it's the people like my parents that the revolution was originally
intended against. My father comes from a very large, landed aristocracy, a
landed, old, tribal family. And my mother is the child of entertainers. My
grandfather, Jahung Gir(ph), and my grandmother, Giti(ph), were both quite
famous stage and television actors in Iran. So my mom came from this liberal,
modern Iranian--sort of the new Iran. And my father came from the ancient,
tribal, old Ira. So it was really a clash of civilizations right there that
gave birth to me.

GROSS: The United States and Europe has been trying to figure out what its
policy should be now toward Iran and Iran's move toward being a nuclear power.
So can you talk a little bit about watching that play out?

Mr. ASLAN: Right. Well, I've been writing and lecturing and teaching about
the US taking a far more active role in engaging Iran in the nuclear
diplomacy, the way that the Europeans have for--I don't know how long now--for
years. And I'm really glad that the Bush administration has finally decided
to do so--to take a more active part in negotiations. I mean, the fact is
that we cannot allow this particular regime in Iran to become a nuclear
weapons regime. I think that there's very little indication that they would
do so, but, you know, it's really hard to trust what this regime says, whether
they truly want to have these nuclear weapons and whether it's just for
civilian purposes, as they say.

But I think it's important that the world body recognizes that Iran is not a
hermit kingdom, like North Korea. It is not an oppressive theocracy, like
Saudi Arabia is. It is quite an open society. And it is a society that can
be engaged in negotiation, it is a society that can be engaged in dialogue.
And it's a society that has the vast majority of its population who
desperately wants the country to be opened--to be more open to the West
economically, socially. And the only way to do so is through negotiations,
not through sanctions and certainly not through isolations. That hasn't

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. ASLAN: It was absolutely my pleasure.

GROSS: Reza Aslan is the author of "No God but God: The Origins, Evolution
and Future of Islam."

Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews a new CD by singer and songwriter
Mary Gauthier. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Mary Gauthier's new CD, "Mercy Now"

Mary Gauthier is from Louisiana and writes country-influenced autobiographical
songs that she usually performs in concerts accompanied by just her own
guitar. Her new album, "Mercy Now," finds her working with Austin, Texas,
based producer-performer Gurf Murlix. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(Soundbite of "Mercy Now")

Ms. MARY GAUTHIER: (Singing) My father could use a little mercy now. The
fruits of his labor fall and rot slowly on the ground. His work is almost

KEN TUCKER reporting:

That's the title song from Mary Gauthier's new album. And if you read any
interviews with her, you'll quickly discover that the father she's singing
about in that composition is her adoptive father, now stricken with
Alzheimer's. As always with material taken from real life, the question is
how to transmute private pain into art without exploiting the lives you claim
to be bestowing mercy upon.

Gauthier cuts closer to the bone than most, yet she also manages to avoid the
pity or self-absorption that such a style encourages. The most emblematic of
the confessions that characterizes her work is an already widely admired song
called "I Drink."

(Soundbite of "I Drink")

Ms. GAUTHIER: (Singing) He'd get home at 5:30, fix his drink, sit down in his
chair, pick a fight with Mama, complain about us kids getting in his hair. At
night he'd sit alone and smoke. I'd see his frown behind his lighter's flame.
Now that same frown's in my mirror. I got my daddy's blood inside my veins.
Fish swim. Birds fly. Daddies yell. Mamas cry. Old men sit and think. I

TUCKER: While Gauthier had said that she was picturing a man in a room
thinking those thoughts when she wrote "I Drink," she's also made no bones
about the fact that she's a recovering alcoholic. What's most striking about
the song is the utter simplicity of the chorus, with its seven lines of two-
and three-syllable words. When you hear her Southern twang make something
tart and matter of fact out of the words `I drink,' you know it's something
else, a number of things: a confession, a memory, a regret, a boast, an
endless source of wonderment, pain and pleasure all crammed into the blunt
declaration `I drink.'

Elsewhere, Gauthier could use more bluntness.

(Soundbite of "Wheel Inside the Wheel")

Ms. GAUTHIER: (Singing) The parade of souls is marching across the sky.
They're heat and they're light bathed in blue as they march by. The all-stars
play "When The Saints Go Marching In." A second line forms, and they wave
white hankies in the wind. Satchmo takes a solo. He flashes his
million-dollar smile. Marie LeVeau...

TUCKER: Sometimes Mary Gauthier goes in the opposite direction of "I Drink's"
minimalism, overdecorating a song like that one, "Wheel Inside the Wheel,"
cramming too many too-colorful images into her lines. The stuff about Satchmo
smiling and Marie LeVeau prancing with Oscar Wilde is show-offy stuff that's
redeemed only by the more artful chorus about the efficacy of the soul.

But no matter which mode she's in, Gauthier's music is helped enormously by
producer Gurf Murlix, whose own astringent albums I reviewed here in the

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. GAUTHIER: (Singing) It's a cheap hotel. The heat pipes hiss. The
bathroom's down the hall, and it smells like piss. It's another night in
another town, and I'm another blues traveler headed down. Falling out of love
is a dangerous thing, with its slippery slopes and its weighted wings, with
its birds of prey circling overhead casting vulture shadows on barren beds.
Let me out.

TUCKER: Gurf Murlix knows that music like this can benefit enormously from a
rhythm section, bass and drums that move pokey guitar lines along briskly, and
backup vocals that emphasize the catchiness of a chorus. Too often
singer-songwriters in Gauthier's style reject these touches as commercial.
Lucinda Williams' entire career is one long battle with such decisions, for
example. But Gauthier's album sounds all the better for her giving herself
over to Murlix's musical suggestions.

It would be facile to say that she, unlike Lucinda, has learned that a certain
amount of humility, of giving up control, is one way to regain complete
control. So instead I'll say that Mary Gauthier's "Mercy Now" offers an
admiral model for singer-songwriter music, doling out autobiography while
dispensing with ego, using the music to enrich, not exploit, a life.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is film critic for New York Magazine. He reviewed "Mercy
Now" by Mary Gauthier.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue