Credence in Search of His Story (FBCoG #3)

Third blog post about Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald.  The first two posts:  “Closer Than Brothers” and “Your brother seeks to destroy you.”

Who is Credence Barebone?

He’s not Credence Barebone. That name was given to him by the Puritanical adoptive mother he killed.  He had a story before he had that name.

He’s not Corvus Lestrange, according to Leta.

Grindelwald says that the name “Aurelius Dumbledore” is his birthright, but we don’t know what that means, exactly.

What we know is that the need to know his own origins, his own identity, is more urgent for Credence than life itself.  When faced with Yusuf Kama, his would-be killer, he utters the heartbreaking line:  “I’m tired of living with no name and no history.  Just tell me my story — then you can end it.”

As Grindelwald “restores” the name “Aurelius Dumbledore” to Credence, he takes a baby bird from Credence and it becomes a phoenix, a bit of stagecraft suggesting that Credence, like a phoenix, has just died and been reborn.  In Potterverse, death is irreversible.  The dead cannot come back to life, with one exception:  the phoenix.

Credence appeared to be killed when the Aurors attacked him at the end of the first Fantastic Beasts movie, but to Newt’s surprise, he survived and made his way to Paris.  According to J.K. Rowling, “You can’t kill an Obscurial when they’re in Obscurus form.”

What if, instead of being none of those identities, the Obscurial we know as Credence is all of them, en route to his final form as a phoenix?

A Corvus Lestrange crossed the water and may have drowned, although Yusuf Kama says to Credence, “The ship had gone down at sea… But you survived, didn’t you?  Somehow, someone had pulled you from the water!”

Did one baby get switched with another?  Were there two babies?  Was there a shared fate?  Whatever those details, what we know so far adds up to the timeline of one individual life:

  1. Before conception until infancy:  a white European baby named Corvus Lestrange was sent across the water to escape an assassin
  2. From adoption until young adulthood:  a white American boy named Credence Barebone, an Obscurial, killed his Puritanical adoptive mother, survived Auror execution and returned across the water to Paris
  3. At young adulthood:  Grindelwald lured that person to Austria and told him his identity is Aurelius Dumbledore

Both times this person crossed the water, there was a death followed by a new identity.  Kama said to Credence, “Someone had pulled you from the water!”  Perhaps Kama’s conclusion was incorrect.  But what if Credence’s connection to phoenixes means that each time he crosses the water, he dies, is pulled from the water by a phoenix, and is reborn into a different identity?

A repeated image in this movie is an effect that Newt sees in Tina’s eyes:  “like fire in water, dark water.”  Perhaps this has nothing to do with this Obscurial, but that wording would also describe the image of a phoenix rescuing a baby who was about to drown.

What if Credence will have a different story for each of the five films in this series, tied to the film’s location?  What if this character’s identity is, for each location, a story that this place does not want?

The first film, taking place in New York, brings up the ugly U.S. history of Puritan witch hunts, segregation, corporal punishment, and worst of all, casual capital punishment.  

The second film, taking place in Paris, gives us a story of French colonial exploitation of Senegal, the sexual violence and racism against women endemic to colonialism, and some of the real-life consequences.  In response to the crimes of his mother’s assailant, Yusuf Kama’s entire life was sworn to being “the avenger of my family’s ruin.”  Grindelwald described Leta Lestrange, offspring of coercion, as “despised entirely amongst wizards…unloved, mistreated.”  Corvus Lestrange, treasured white son of the man who ruined the Kama family, has his life course determined by the repercussions of his father’s crimes.

Perhaps for the third film, Credence will cross the water once again, and the story he lives out for the duration of the film will be tied to a story of that place.  Perhaps it will be another story of a person of no name or history, a “freak” who is vulnerable enough for Grindelwald to attempt to exploit by telling him, as he tells Leta, “Time to come home.”  After all, as Skender the circusmaster tells Tina, “All my freaks think they can go home.”  Even if, perhaps, there is no home other than their uncomfortable place of origin, the drive to find something to claim cannot be suppressed.

The one thing that mattered most to Harry Potter was his own story.  His parents might have been dead, but their story belonged to him.  Voldemort mistakenly thought that nothing motivated Harry more than the “saving-people-thing” impulse that Voldemort created in him through traumatic violence.  What Snape, Dumbledore, Hagrid, Hermione, and Petunia Dursley knew, though, was that Harry’s greatest drive was to have his story restored to him.  Nothing enraged Harry more than Vernon Dursley keeping his Hogwarts letters from him, Dobby preventing Harry from getting his mail, or Dumbledore keeping the whole truth from him.  Voldemort drew Harry to him by threatening to hurt Harry’s loved ones, but Snape drew Harry to him by leaving Harry half of a letter and photo to find, awakening Harry’s hunger to find the rest of the story, knowing Harry would not rest until he did.

Several differences between the Harry Potter stories and Fantastic Beasts mark one as a series for children, one for adults.  In Harry’s case, whenever he went searching for his story, he found something, a solid and even wealthy family background full of love.  We don’t know yet if Credence will even find much of a story for himself.  So far, it seems that whatever story he does find will be less stable, less nourishing, than what Harry found of his family background.  Rarely, if ever, did the leads that Harry followed regarding his family stories result in dead ends or decoys.  We have already seen dead ends and decoys in Fantastic Beasts for both Leta and Credence.  Most grimly of all, we have seen Grindelwald exploiting, for his own ends, this sacred human hunger for the birthright of one’s own story.

Grindelwald tells his followers about Credence:  “He’s desperate for family. He’s desperate for love. He’s the key to our victory. […]  The path has been laid, and he is following it.  The trail that will lead him to me, and the strange and glorious truth of who he is.”

It works, of course.  Even after Credence knows how Grindelwald treated him in New York, after Nagini warns him that Grindelwald’s people kill people like them for sport, Credence crosses the fire to go to Grindelwald, telling Nagini, “He knows who I am.”  It’s a potent lure for someone who values learning his own story over life itself.

Next blog post to come:  Patriarchy, racism, and vengeance.




“Closer Than Brothers”: What Does It Mean? A thumbs-up Crimes of Grindelwald post (FBCOG #1)

Spoiler alert!  If you haven’t yet seen Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald, be warned that the following blog post contains spoilers.

When a hostile Ministry official accuses Dumbledore of once being “as close as brothers” with Grindelwald, Dumbledore corrects him:

“We were closer than brothers.”

What did that mean?

Possibly over 99% of the theater audience had the first thought:  GAY.  Yes, that was definitely a central part of the picture, and cannot and should not be diminished.

But for me, there are further implications that continue beyond the genders of the characters in this pairing.  I think they hint at answers to several of Dumbledore’s secrets from the Harry Potter series:

  • Why did Dumbledore always seem to despise himself beyond what seemed reasonable?  After all, it was Grindelwald who started the fight that killed Ariana, not Dumbledore.
  • Why did Dumbledore dread “beyond all things the knowledge that it had been I who brought about her death, not merely through my arrogance and stupidity, but that I actually struck the blow that snuffed out her life”?  After all, it would have been an accident, right?  A spell that was not intended to harm Ariana but hit her in the confusion?
  • When Dumbledore relived his worst memory by drinking the potion in the cave, why was this wizard, “a shade more skillful” than Grindelwald, reduced to begging, “Don’t hurt them, don’t hurt them, please, please, it’s my fault, hurt me instead…” instead of working his magic to counter the attack?
  • How does this storyline relate to the “gleam of something like triumph in Dumbledore’s eyes” when he learned that Voldemort had taken Harry’s blood?

Guilt:  Albus didn’t love Ariana enough

When Leta Lestrange asked Albus if he loved Ariana, he answered, “Not as well as I should have done.”  

Albus and Gellert mingled their blood in a ritual that bonded them “closer than brothers.”  From then on, each of them would have contained some of the other’s magic in their blood, and they would be closer to each other than to their own siblings.  The mingled blood, as encapsulated in the blood vial, would have represented a new thing:  magic greater than the sum of its already great parts, a union that would have made these two geniuses, working together, close to invincible.

As Newt asked, and Dumbledore confirmed:  “It’s a blood pact, isn’t it?  You swore not to fight each other.”

During the fight that killed Ariana, we do not see Albus and Gellert attacking each other.  We don’t even see anyone attacking Ariana.  The only confirmed, targeted aggression we see is what Aberforth tells Harry, Ron, and Hermione:  “I had the Cruciatus Curse used on me by my brother’s best friend – and Albus was trying to stop him, and then all three of us were dueling, and the flashing lights and the bangs set her off, she couldn’t stand it – “

If Albus had taken a blood oath not to fight Gellert, and the oath made them “closer than brothers,” and it involved the mingling of their blood and therefore, according to the rules of J.K. Rowling’s universe, some of their magic – then Albus’s magic would have allied itself with Grindelwald against anyone else in the world, including his own siblings.

If Albus had cast magic to try to defend Aberforth from a Cruciatus Curse, it would not have worked against Grindelwald’s intentions.

His magic might even have rebounded and simply lent force to Grindelwald’s attacks against other people.

The blood pact meant that when Gellert tortured Aberforth with an Unforgivable, the formerly near-omnipotent Albus was reduced to helplessness and begging.  All of them knew that through this blood oath with the silver-tongued manipulator that Aberforth had warned him about, Albus had relinquished his power to stand in Gellert’s way, even against his own interests.  Voluntarily.

No wonder Aberforth broke Albus’s nose at the funeral.

No wonder Albus didn’t want to know if Ariana died of a spell that Albus intended as a defense of her, in his first experience of what happens to your formerly effective magic when you try to cast defensive spells against your blood oath partner’s intentions.

This is what Albus meant when he told Leta that he had not loved Ariana enough.  He allied his greatest magical loyalty with Grindelwald instead of with his siblings, and it killed her.

The memory of his helplessness to protect his siblings from torture and death, how utterly gullible and culpable he had been, how clearly Aberforth had seen the risks from the beginning, how much irreversible damage Albus’s family suffered because of a fatal romantic error he made in his youth:  that would explain the depth of self-loathing that we see, in glimpses, from the elderly Albus who mentored Harry Potter.

How this connects to Harry Potter

The moment Dumbledore heard that Voldemort had taken Harry’s blood, he got the “fleeting instant” of a gleam like triumph in his eyes, even if the “next second […], he looked as old and weary as Harry had ever seen him.”

The Dumbledore of King’s Cross explained to Harry, “He took your blood believing it would strengthen him.”  The mingling of the blood – one-sided, in the case of Voldemort and Harry, but mutual and voluntary with Albus and Gellert – was intended to supplement and strengthen a person’s native magic with another person’s complementary magic.  From the effects of the blood oath that Albus had taken, he knew firsthand that attacks against the blood-pact partner cannot be effective, since the bond’s power overrides the power of the hostile intention.  He knew that a Killing Curse from Voldemort toward Harry would be no more effective than his own countercurses had been against Grindelwald torturing Aberforth.  That if Voldemort persisted in attacking Harry, his one-sided blood-pact partner, Voldemort’s own spells might even rebound, since his magic was bound to this person who was now “closer than a brother” and might do anything necessary to protect this partner’s life.

This is why Dumbledore told Snape that it was “essential” that Voldemort be the one to kill Harry.  Anyone else’s murder attempt against Harry could have worked, but a Killing Curse from a blood-pact partner would behave differently.  It wouldn’t spare Harry any pain, but Dumbledore knew how Voldemort had just compromised his own power against Harry.

What Albus and Gellert wanted out of the pact

Here, I am speculating, based on the incomplete clues we have so far.

Before 2016, based on Deathly Hallows, I thought Grindelwald wanted to join forces with Dumbledore because it would be good to have a partner who was devoted to him and appeared eager to dedicate his powers to furthering Grindelwald’s cause.  I thought the proposal to bring Ariana along was something Grindelwald said to keep Albus from leaving the campaign.

In 2016, based on the first Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film, I changed my mind.  What we learned about Obscurials, and Grindelwald’s driving desire to control and exploit an Obscurus, made me think that Ariana had been turned into an Obscurial when she was forced by trauma to suppress her own magic.  This angle made Albus look even more foolish.  How cold and frightening Gellert must have been as a teen if he exploited Albus’s attraction to feign a meeting of minds while secretly keeping Albus close only to gain access to his Obscurial sister.  If this was Gellert’s impetus and he was the one to persuade Albus to swear that they would not fight each other, it would be chilling indeed to think that Gellert contrived the blood pact so he would be able to control Ariana while neutralizing Albus’s ability to stop him.

But now in 2018, based on new information from Crimes of Grindelwald, I have changed my mind again.  As Susan Şipal highlighted in her brilliant video review of the film, Albus told Newt, “An Obscurus grows in the absence of love.”  Whatever Ariana’s struggles, we know she did not lack for love.  Ariana’s father’s misguided and disastrous vigilante vengeance, her mother’s round-the-clock care, and Aberforth’s tenderness all evidenced a degree of love that is different from the conditions required for an Obscurus to grow, assuming Albus was correct.

So perhaps Ariana did not have an Obscurus.  Perhaps Gellert mistakenly thought she did.  Or perhaps his aim in mingling powers with Albus had nothing to do with such a premise.

Perhaps both boys were invested in creating something separate and greater:  the combined power of the two of them acting together, each of them having taken the other’s blood believing it would strengthen them and give each qualities that neither had had before, as Voldemort believed when he reconstituted his body with Harry’s blood.  This heightened sum of their powers, a third entity separate from the two of them, is magically stored in the vial containing their mingled blood.

I believe that their blood pact worked.  I believe the boys were right to think that their magical union would prove ecstatic and give both of them powers they had never had before, and that as long as the two of them worked together, they would be so strong as to be nearly invincible.

I don’t know if Gellert wanted this for himself as much as Albus wanted it, or if Gellert used his manipulative powers to divine that Albus craved the ecstasy of greater magical power above all things and Albus would say yes to anything that would grant it.

I thought at first that Gellert was not invested in the magical power as much as Albus and intended from the start to entrap him.  But after watching Susan Şipal’s video, which I highly recommend (although I will not spoil it here), I see that Gellert stood to risk just as much with the blood oath as Albus did, and may have been just as unable to foresee the consequences.

Do I find it comforting to think that teen Gellert rushed into that brash blood oath just as unwisely as Albus did, rather than plotting it coldly to disempower Albus against him and bind Albus’s magic to him?  I do, yes; it frightens me to think of a teenager being brilliant enough in his evil to be that cold.  It frightens me more to think that anyone, genius or not, could be so compelled by a charismatic liar that they would suppress whatever warning signs they noticed about him, then have to live with the consequences of inviting that person close enough to cause irreversible harm to their family.

In that reading of Albus’s desire for Gellert and subsequent remorse, I am reminded again of one of Rowling’s recurring themes:  that bad romantic choices made in youth, even in partial innocence, at an age when a person cannot understand the full implications of the harm they will cause, can still create lifelong consequences.

Middle-aged Albus looks in the Mirror of Erised and still sees the blood oath.  The magic had worked, after all.  Could anything equal the rush of power that came of mingling magic with a fellow genius, so equal, so attractive, so intense?  It seems to me that the Albus of 1927 has never found anything compelling enough to provide a counterweight to the pull of that ecstasy, and that he knows perfectly well that if he were to betray his conscience and rejoin with Gellert, they would raise that ecstasy again, perhaps even more intensely with the powers they have gained with age.  Can he resist that craving?  Is his only safe choice to keep himself well away from Grindelwald, and try to deploy workarounds and safeguards to help himself resist?

It is a blessing that Dumbledore has Newt Scamander on his side.  It is no wonder that Dumbledore admires the qualities in Newt that make him incorruptible by the likes of Grindelwald.  Their partnership is not the heady, heedless ecstasy of the union between Albus and Gellert.  It is deliberate.  Conscious.  The dynamic between Albus and Newt is priceless when Newt holds up the blood vial, as if to say, Would you care to explain? and Albus looks at him with equal parts of shame, gratitude, and relief at being seen.  As Dumbledore told Leta Lestrange, “Confession is a relief, I’m told.  A great weight lifted.”  In Newt Scamander, Dumbledore has an ally who knows his great flaw and still consents to work with him.

I cannot wait for the rest of this series.

Stay tuned for more posts to come this week about Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald, including speculation about the identity of Credence Barebone.

Lethal White: Worth the read

Remember the Opening Ceremonies for the 2012 London Summer Olympics?  They were a feast for any fan of British culture, combining the real Queen of England with James Bond, the real NHS with greats of British music and theater such as Paul McCartney and Kenneth Branagh, and a bedtime story read aloud by J.K. Rowling.  This was a brilliant strategy for a display of national pride from a kingdom that has seen the decline of its infamously bloody empire, but whose arts remain world class.

The events of Lethal White take place during those Olympics, creating a pleasant double effect of a fictional world, written by Robert Galbraith, operating within the timeframes of a real world that includes authorial alter ego J.K. Rowling.  Galbraith/Rowling revealed the title a year ago; I wondered, idly, if the central crimes of the book would have something to do with drugs, perhaps.  Turns out that they don’t, and “lethal white” means something different.  Does “lethal white” also refer to the United Kingdom’s brutal, race-inflected imperialist history?  A little bit, yes, in a background but ever-present sort of way.

Speaking of race, Rowling demonstrates, once again, noticeable but limited progress in her writing of people of color.  Characters who are people of color read as more natural and fleshed out than in her earlier work, but she still includes a few instances of tokenism, specifying race for people of color and more personal traits for white characters.  She has also made noticeable but incomplete improvement in the anti-fat bias that was arguably the most disturbing element of her Harry Potter writing.  There are still instances of an anti-fat authorial gaze, but it’s far less severe than the bullying tone she used to sustain.  A sensitivity beta could be a big help.

For me, the strengths of this book far override any shortcomings.  One passage in particular is worth the price of the book for me.  It takes place in Chapter 55, pages 488-9, and I read it with eyes wide, heart rate elevated, like the most gripping of suspense scenes — but it is completely domestic, not part of her thriller writing.  It calls back to some of Rowling’s most intense writing about Harry Potter struggling with PTSD flashbacks or fighting Legilimency or the Imperius Curse, and it is related to her personal history of fighting back against sexist domestic conflict, as well.

She knew she was on the edge of a panic attack, but she held on, and every second she did not dissolve was giving her strength, and she stood her ground.

The mindful way that Robin Ellacott asserts herself reminded me of Jane Eyre’s most ringing declarations to Mr. Rochester, and indeed, there’s a reference to Jane Eyre in the very next chapter.

In addition to such step-by-step tutorials for feats of inner strength, several other J.K. Rowling specialties make their welcome reappearances.  As usual, she builds cliffhangers into her dialogue when characters on the verge of revealing secrets are suddenly, maddeningly interrupted.  Delicious.  She exposes the horribleness of everyday people, our petty satisfaction in malice, and especially our hypocrisy; it’s especially funny when she reveals that the most unforgivable insult among some protesters is “middle-class.”  But many of her most repellent characters are complex creatures who elicit sympathy as well as revulsion.

And then, first and last, there is the writing.  The playfulness:

So plosive was the ‘p’ of ‘protest’ that a small piece of potato flew out of his mouth across the table.

The manipulation of imagery, deft and haunting:

The shadow stems of the roses closest to the window stretched like bars across the carpet. The Brahms symphony crashed stormily on in the background.

And finally, on page 505, this stunner:

...recognized in Billy’s imploring expression a last plea to the adult world, to do what grown-ups were meant to do, and impose order on chaos, substitute sanity for brutality.

This comes close to perfection as an expression of one of Rowling’s central themes.  All of her stories chronicle this plea, and the horror if it cannot be answered.  Dumbledore always answered it; this is why so many people loved him and were bereft when he died.  Infant Tom Riddle never got an answer; the resulting horror made him a monster.  Adult Harry Potter came through for his son when Albus Severus made this plea.  Credence begged of Grindelwald, “Help me,” and reverted to chaos and brutality when he was rebuffed.  The job of adults is to answer this plea.  Reading how Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott detect order out of chaos feels both satisfying and soothing.

Watching Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway

My 14-year-old child and I were fortunate enough to get tickets to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway on Wednesday, August 15, 2018.  Several members of the original London cast performed, including Anthony Boyle’s career-making turn as Scorpius Malfoy and Noma Dumezweni as the first, but not the last, black Hermione.

The cast’s chemistry and timing were exceptional.  Many viewers have reported preferring the experience of watching the stage play over reading the script, since the story is made to be shown onstage rather than read and imagined.  I agreed with this take in several instances:  Ron, who comes off as a buffoon on the page, was more grounded onstage.  The tenderness between Ron and Hermione was more evident.  I could see some chemistry between Scorpius and Rose, whereas on the page, it feels flat to me.  Hermione’s towering ill temper as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is a home run.

The visuals are stunning.  The dementors are beautiful, even if frightening.  The classic gold and black glow of Dumbledore’s portrait evokes just the right majesty.  And if any costume makers feel like making me a version of Hermione’s costume with that lustrous purple pleated skirt, I’m all for it.

I may be remembering this wrong, but I think when I saw the play in London last August, Scorpius and Albus faced away from the audience when catching their first glimpse of Hogwarts from the forest, so that we shared their perspective.  On Wednesday, I found it striking when Scorpius and Albus faced forward while struck speechless by Hogwarts, unable to deny its beauty even though they had both suffered there.  They looked into the audience and marveled.  We were Hogwarts.  They were looking at us.  All of us watching them, rapt:  we were the magic.  That gave me chills.

My favorite revelation was watching Scorpius, Albus, and Delphi turn themselves into Harry, Ron, and Hermione for the scene with the bookcase.  It had been a thrilling scene to read in the script, but watching it onstage confronted me powerfully with just how badly Albus must have wanted to know how it felt to be his father.  Nothing in Albus’s life has the glamour or daring of the tales of his father’s adolescence, and he and Scorpius think of themselves as losers who mess things up.  But if they pretend to be Harry and friends, they can magic themselves into different people who are accustomed to nonstop adventures and quests.  There’s so much longing in their Polyjuice transformation.

Is it worth the trouble and expense to see Cursed Child?  If you’re a Harry Potter fan, yes.  Even if you hate the script or the plot.  The magic works.  You’ll feel it.

The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore by Irvin Khaytman

The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore

by Irvin Khaytman

Story Spring Publishing, July 31, 2018


If you could know more about one character’s story from the Harry Potter series, who would it be?

By the time Harry Potter was old enough to have questions about Albus Dumbledore as a person, it was too late for him to ask. Dumbledore was dead, in large part due to a fatal injury he sustained during his final grand endeavor: hunting and destroying Voldemort’s Horcruxes.

Readers who grew up with the series, the “Harry Potter generation,” shared Harry’s love and frustration with this greatest of characters. For most of the series, his wisdom and goodness inspired enormous loyalty. Then, in Deathly Hallows, readers met more troubling aspects of Dumbledore: his ruthless scheming, which J.K. Rowling called “Machiavellian,” and his shameful Dark Magic past.

Millennial author Irvin Khaytman grapples with the process of reconciling the benevolent headmaster with the strategist who orchestrated Harry’s death. Through a close reading of the original seven-book series, Khaytman reconstructs the story from Dumbledore’s perspective. What did he know about the Horcruxes, and when? What was he doing, beyond Harry’s view?

Even after the close of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling continues to tell us more stories about Dumbledore. We heard from his portrait in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. We’re about to get the second installment of the five-film Fantastic Beasts series, featuring Dumbledore in middle age as he approached his life-defining showdown with Grindelwald. Khaytman’s deep dive into old-age Dumbledore, especially his guesses and errors, is an invaluable guide to the kinds of revelations we can expect.

Through most of the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore seemed pure in his goodness, leagues beyond the dirtied soul of former Death Eater Severus Snape. By the end of Deathly Hallows, though, we learned that Dumbledore’s worst qualities led to a loved one’s death as surely as Snape’s worst qualities led to Lily’s. Snape lived only one year after he experienced true and full remorse for Lily’s death. What kind of person might he have become if he had lived for decades longer, devoting himself to fighting the evil he once enabled?

Khaytman’s insights will be valuable to any Harry Potter fan, but especially the millennials who came of age with the series, as he did.

The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore by Irvin Khaytman is published by Story Spring Publishing, who are also the publishers of Snape: A Definitive Reading.  Reserve your signed copy at Books of Wonder or order in paperback or electronic format from Amazon. If you’re in New York City on July 31, 2018 at 6 PM, swing by the downtown branch of Books of Wonder for the release party!

Philadelphia tour stop: Sons of an Illustrious Father

Even by the standards of this crap presidency, mid-June 2018 has been a rough time for news.  As a Korean American, that vulgar “summit” between two dictators was impossible to block out of my mind on June 12; its poison seeped through everything.  As a sentient being, it is impossible to block out what the U.S. government is doing to families with children at the border.  While my friends marched in protest, I went ahead with a planned birthday party, wondering vaguely if it was right to do so, if anything would be served by canceling it on the 14-year-old and her teen guests.

I didn’t go to the protest; I didn’t cancel.  I got my kid a guitar, the one thing she’s been asking for, humbly, for months.  We were lucky:  the salesperson at the guitar shop was a woman, a bassist, who knew to share in my kid’s excitement.  There were other women there, too, murmuring reminiscently, “First guitar,” beaming at my daughter.  Everything feels more political than ever right now.  She played the guitar all the way home and into the night, until the 10-year-old begged her to stop so we could all sleep.  That was wonderful.

On June 13, I went to see Sons of an Illustrious Father play at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia.  That, too, was wonderful.  The concert reached through all the despair and left me peaceful for a full day afterward, glowing in equal parts because of the band’s political fervor and their virtuosity.  If you have a competence kink, it’s worth it to see this band just for the moments that they rotate instruments, literally playing musical chairs, switching off lead vocal duties and guitar and keyboards and drums because goddammit, if anything is going to save us it’s making sure that we all take turns listening to each other and speaking up so we know how to do things together.

Look at the cover art for their new album, Deus Sex Machina:  Or, Moving Slowly Beyond Nikola Tesla.  When the band held a Reddit AMA on June 5, I asked them about how they made the cover art and if they could tell us about some of the images they included, especially the vertical image going up the center.

SonsOAIF:  “It’s a collage we made out of various books acquired Powell’s in Portland, a mix of pulpy sci-fi covers, books of sacred geometry, old medical texts, and the Joy of Sex amongst others. The central image is something from a text called Rivers and Streams that traces lineages of belief.”

deus sex machina

Lineages of belief.  This band is a treasure.

The cover art tugged at me because twenty years ago, before I babyproofed by putting away the sharps and the machine and the iron, I used to be a quilter.  From quilting, I recognized the sacred geometry and the trunk of life.  (Scroll down to the bottom of this post to see a quilt block program my then-boyfriend wrote for me in 1994 and a Tree of Life quilt I made for a friend.)  Most of all, I recognized the collage aesthetic, which reminded me of feminist story quilts like the ones by Faith Ringgold (see Tar Beach 2, below).

tar beach 2 faith ringgold

The AMA also gave me a chance to ask about the heavy chord that strikes 12 times, then 5 times, then once in “When Things Fall Apart,” which I wrote about a month ago.  What does it mean?  The oracle replied!

SonsOAIF:  “We think of it as transition via sorcery”

It takes a lot of repeated labor to effect change, yes?  Keep at it.  As many times as it takes to break through.

But the concert.  How did the concert go?

The first big “yessss!” came right at the start, when Josh Aubin kicked off with “Post-Future,” the one song of the evening from Revol.  Brilliant.  That song foretold our current breakdown:  “But if the lights go out, how can we go on?”  Nine months after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is still without full power, with thousands dead, by malicious design.  In Revol, there were hard-fought notes of hope; starting the Deus Sex Machina concert with “Post-Future” served to announce that hope isn’t on the playlist for the band this year.  It’s time for other things.

“U.S.Gay” came next, Lilah Larson on vocals.  Live, the song feels more intimate.  The heaviness of the chords reverberated in my chest cavity so strongly that I stopped watching the band and looked around, instead, at my fellow concertgoers, so many of them visibly queer-presenting, all feeling the same music at the same time.

The vibrations from “Extraordinary Rendition” felt different; they came up through the soles of my feet.  Ezra Miller was singing, but from where I was standing, I couldn’t see him at all.  I could see Larson singing harmony, one of my favorite parts of this masterpiece song, and Aubin on keyboards, which I didn’t watch enough at a previous concert, and the rapt faces of some of the young men in the audience.

Aubin again, singing lead on a song I also heard in Brooklyn in March, with a refrain of “desolation.”

Back to Miller on lead with another song I didn’t recognize, drums and then keyboard leading into screamy vocals.  Aubin and Larson seemed to be looking at him and laughing fondly as this song started.

“When Things Fall Apart” started up and two young women audibly gasped, eyes fixed on Larson, and held each other.  The whole audience seemed to go still at that moment, actually.  At some points, Larson seemed to be singing this to and with Miller; they faced each other when counting out the chords for the “transition via sorcery,” and Larson couldn’t help smiling, I saw.  That feeling of making things with a friend you adore, making eye contact:  how can you not smile?

The band moved to stand together, Larson on bass, for a cover of Nirvana’s “All Apologies.”  You should have seen Ezra Miller’s grin on the line “Everyone is gay.”  He seemed to divine, correctly, that this audience would grin along.  He reached for the hand of a handsome middle-aged gentleman in the audience, held his gaze with heat, and deliberately kissed the back of the man’s hand.  It was an arresting performance and instantly conjured a vivid story of the chemistry that could exist between these two people.  What gorgeous sorcery.

Josh Aubin was a revelation for “E.G.,” speeding up into guitar-god mode, Larson on drums, Miller on keyboard.  Miller also improvised a brief dance with some glass beads hanging by the stage, which apparently looked like they were hoping to be part of the performance.

“Crystal Tomes.”  I’ve never heard Lilah Larson holler like this while singing.  Good backup.  I love Aubin’s guitar playing on this.  I think Miller was crying.  If you can make out the lyrics to this song, or get your hands on the lyric book to this album that Larson designed, you will understand why.  It’s too late for hope.  It’s not over, but it’s too late.  Why would we make so much brokenness of a world as beautiful as this one?  Why did we?

And yeah we are past the point now of the dawn I fear the day has broken

I’m so glad to be here with you still now my darling/ With the breaking of this world like a heart/ So it can grow

So it can grow.  All the grimness we’ve seen in the past couple of years and hearts will still grow, people will still forgive, if it’s in our nature, even if we’re broken, even if we’d like to stop, even if it would be better to stop.  If we can’t stop loving, we should grieve.  Grief will help ground us more than hope right now.  The band’s merchandise table featured temporary tattoos drawn by Larson, including one that was too raw for me to accept on first or second sight, a skull and a tombstone to mark the passing of the world as we knew it.  I didn’t want to give up the hope model; I didn’t want to look around me with clear eyes.  I should make myself look again at this art when I see the band perform in Los Angeles on June 23.  I don’t have to buy it.  I can just look.

Ohhh, now I am imagining an entire tarot deck drawn by this band, a post-prophetic deck for a loving, post-apocalyptic, queer, antipatriarchal world.

Not all of the band’s merchandise is available at this Hello Merch link — perhaps later — but you can order the lyric book for all the songs before Deus Ex Machina.

They closed the show with a cover of David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans,” Larson still on drums, Miller on keyboards, Aubin on guitar.  Miller’s defenses were gone, his anguish manifesting in explosive twitches as he sang.

Encore.  “Very Few Dancers.”  No more after that; it was impressive enough that they had the energy even for one encore.

After the show, I was glad to be able to find Rubee and thank him for being a protector.  What a thing to do in the world right now.  Thank you for the hug, Rubee.  Thank you to the artists for coming to my hometown of Philadelphia to sing for us.

They had been in Philadelphia a few weeks earlier, too, actually, to sing and talk politics on the June 1, 2018 episode of Jon Lovett’s touring podcast, Lovett or Leave It.  To my astonishment, they appeared alongside Larry Krasner, the beloved Philadelphia district attorney who earned my loyalty forever, in the early 1990s, for defending my dearest friends pro bono when the police beat several members of ACT UP during a peaceful, lawful protest.  He donated hours and hours of labor to us, and to so many others — he certainly won Philadelphians’ votes the hard way, one at a time!

I’m still making my way through the Deus Sex Machina lyric book, songs interspersed with collage art.  The lyrics to “Unarmed” stun me.  I found the song affecting enough when I listened the first few times, but together with the lyrics now, it overwhelms me with its beauty.

Grimoire.  That’s what this lyric book feels like to me.  I love this material evidence of what it’s like to live a complete artist life, singing and dancing and writing and making images.  I want to make quilts again.  The girls are old enough now that I can bring out the needles and blades and irons.

I’ll be able to catch the last concert on this tour, the June 23 stop in Los Angeles.  I wonder how different the band will look then.  Exhausted, no doubt, but also, I hope, accomplished.

I glowed for a full day after the Philadelphia concert.  They looked happy, performing.  They looked happy.

Here is the output of the quilt block program that my then-boyfriend wrote for me in 1994.

higher order perl quilt blocks

Here’s the quilt I gave him as a wedding gift in 1997.

wedding quilt 1

And a Tree of Life quilt I made for a friend.  The Deus Sex Machina cover art reminded me of it because of the similarity to the trunk structure.

tree of life quilt


“When Things Fall Apart,” and Sons of an Illustrious Father in concert

March:  I saw Sons of an Illustrious Father perform.   May:  The video to “When Things Fall Apart” premiered.  June 1:  They’ll release their new album, Deus Sex Machina: Or, Moving Slowly Beyond Nikola Tesla.

But that’s the reverse order of how those things came into being.  Last year, while I was making a practice of listening to their album Revol to help stay (more or less) functional, the musicians themselves had long moved on.  They were finalizing the nine “post-future” songs for Deus Sex Machina.  It reminds me of that childhood feeling of being told that the starlight we see is from eons ago and not the star in its present form, if it still exists at all.

Many of the images coming from the band have that quality of double consciousness about them, an awareness of a different time or mindset, overlaid with the present.

The title of “When Things Fall Apart” is from a collection of talks by Pema Chödrön, subtitled “Heart Advice for Difficult Times.”  Yes, please, I will absolutely take book recs from this band.  Like “U.S.Gay,” “Extraordinary Rendition,” and “E.G.,” this song feels shaken.  What do we do after devastation?  How do we recollect ourselves when dissociation threatens?


Some of my game rules for listening to SOAIF songs remain the same for 2018.  It looks like this is going to be another nine-patch of an album, so I have fingers crossed that each band member will sing lead on three songs apiece; so far, this spring’s three new releases have each featured a different lead.  But the process for this album has changed a bit; in interview with Northern Transmissions, they said that some songs have parts written by different people, sometimes they’ll conceive of parts for each other, or one songwriter will bring “stems” of songs (Josh Aubin’s lovely term) to work on together.  Apparently, the band uses more electronic music on this album, which they’ve said in the past has been a Josh Aubin strength, so I’ll be listening for his influence there.  This is part of the fun of it for me, seeing if I notice how each mind contributed to the music and how those ideas played together.

“When Things Fall Apart” makes a simple impression, but there’s more going on than I heard at first.  The opening is folksy, synthesizer with an 80s lilt to it and some chime-like keyboard flourishes — maybe that’s where Aubin is in this song, since he has sometimes brought lighthearted sound even to songs with moody topics.  Lilah Larson sings gently, with compassion — I think the words are “For whose sake do you forsake yourself?”  That’s a mildly risky element of this game, trying to distinguish this band’s lyrics, because I will certainly be reading into them and I don’t want to hear wrong, and the recent release of their lyric book confirms that these writers do like to elide words into soundalike words.  (No, it wasn’t just you.  The lyrics — and this is one of the greatest joys of this band — were not obvious.  And as it turns out, having them spelled out in print does not demystify them.)

The comfort of the first verse is disrupted by a strident chord that repeats… and repeats… and repeats… and repeats… and repeats.  When is this going to end?  Is it a malfunction?  An alarm?  It’s a bell tolling, or maybe someone’s time is up, because it strikes twelve times in all before giving way to a mournful tempo change.  The words to the chorus are, I think, “Fall apart… into place.  Fall apart, into grace.”  The shift in meaning from a single substitution might be Lilah Larson’s songwriting; she’s done that before.

The second verse returns to contemplation.  This time, when the chord disrupts it again, there’s a familiarity to these shock waves.  It feels less strident, five repetitions rather than 12 before the chorus falls apart.  The song climbs out of this second chorus with — is this what musicians call a bridge? — a progression of rising notes and the line, “All you fear is fear, a fear which disappears as you draw near.”  Is this where Ezra Miller comes into this song?  This image of approaching the source of fear is a reworking of his image, from the Revol song “Armageddon,” of bracing the self for inevitable attack.  The sense of transformation, of cresting the summit, the wordplay and syntax play seem like his thinking, too.

The third time that heavy chord enters the song, we hear it only once, and the song falls instantly into the chorus — we know how to do this now.  It sounds like the words are slightly different this time:  “Fall apart… into space.”  An added reverb effect, if that’s what it’s called (never have I wished so much that I knew how to write about music), and a more relaxed tempo, end the song with a floaty feel.  Like weightlessness and release.

The video to the song has more of a narrative plot than we’ve seen from this band before.  The romance is only part of it, but we have to talk about the romance.  In a few intimate scenes between Lilah Larson and dancer Bobbi Jene Smith, we get what feels like an entire love story before the lyrics even start.  Their expressions driving into the story are among the purest depictions of romantic joy I’ve ever seen.  The cabin in the woods in the deciduous winter, the acoustic guitar, the thunderstruck moment of falling in love, the consummation, the support — this feels like something.  It takes me a while to admit to exactly what, because it’s such a big deal.  It feels like a lesbian fairy tale.  Something known deep in the culture, in the blood, like Disney princesses or being walked down the aisle or riding into the sunset:  a story, an image, that is iconic of collective longings.  There aren’t so many images of these for two women.  The tableau of one woman adoring another playing music, the retreat-like privacy:  yes, that’s one way it would look.

In 1986, every lesbian I knew made pilgrimages to the city to watch Desert Hearts in the theater, as many times as budget would allow.  That movie changed everything; for depictions of women together, by and for women, there was a “before” Desert Hearts and an “after.”  The sex scenes were enough.  They weren’t fade to black; they were included.  The love story in the video for “When Things Fall Apart” is included, too, in a way that reminded me of Desert Hearts.  I haven’t seen this version of a trust fall before:  a falling toward, a falling together.  A mutually agreed-upon act of trust that turns, with grace, into support:  two more instances of this band’s wordplay.

I wanted to write about “Extraordinary Rendition,” “When Things Fall Apart,” and about the March 28 concert I saw, before the June 1 album release pushed those thoughts out of my head.  It takes me a long time to hear a song.  I wasn’t quick enough; the song “E.G.” was released before I got to two of those three things.  The art is coming faster than I can eat it.  Bounty.

So I’d better write about that concert while I still have some memory of it.  (Photo below by PangaeaStarseed.  Used with permission.)


C’Mon Everybody, Brooklyn, March 28, 2018. Many thanks to PangaeaStarseed for permission to use their photo.


I was nervous that day, March 28, traveling toward Brooklyn.  Live performance:  we’d all be experiencing the music together, ideas traveling from some humans to others through sound and movement, with no time lag.  Two music-loving friends came with me:  Chelsea, a writer, who opened her Brooklyn home to me, and Jen, a teacher (coming from the Bronx!  On a school night!), who had been with me last year when I asked Lilah Larson to sign my copy of her solo album, Pentimento.

Pentimento is a good word for those images of time lapse or double consciousness I’ve been noticing from the band.  I work with words rather than visual art, so I’m more familiar with palimpsests.  Larson’s solo album might be the only time I’ve encountered the word pentimento other than reading the book of that title by Lillian Hellman, long ago.

I looked up what Hellman said about pentimento in 1973.

Old paint on a canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter “repented,” changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again. That is all I mean about the people in this book. The paint has aged and I wanted to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now.

While I was looking up Lillian Hellman, I found a photo of William Styron, who moved to Brooklyn in his twenties and wrote about it so indelibly in Sophie’s Choice.  And this photo made me understand something about the Janus-faced cover image of Lilah Larson’s Pentimento.



It felt intrusive, seeing such a personal thing through a few clicks on Google; I have the urge to apologize.  On the other hand, it’s a cover image of a solo music album, a piece of lifework.  A finished lifework is not the occasion to pretend that things aren’t personal, that influences don’t shape us, that we haven’t put everything we have into this public offering.

I think it was right to feel both honored and nervous to be present at a live performance.  It is possible, of course, for performers to protect themselves by pretending they don’t care terribly when putting themselves before audiences, but I don’t get the impression that Sons of an Illustrious Father spend much time on that kind of self-deception.

They opened big with “U.S.Gay” and “Extraordinary Rendition” right into “Conquest,” three songs that drive hard and don’t relent.  I didn’t know if I could possibly love “Extraordinary Rendition” as much as my favorite songs from Revol, but seeing it live confirmed it.  Miller and Larson kept eye contact while raising a ruckus together and then harmonized like two cellos, voices rich like the feel of bowstrings reverberating against wire and wood.  There was affection and playfulness throughout the live concert that we can’t get from a recording:  Larson bunting Aubin with her head like a cat or playing peekaboo with Miller over their instruments, Miller reaching out to hold Aubin while singing together.

After that, they took a breath for their à cappella cover of Prince’s “I Would Die 4U,” holding each other tightly.  This was the absolute highlight of the concert and it was not anything like how it looks on recordings.  Live, it was intense, straining, overwhelming — a public performance of the private gratitude the musicians feel to be able to make art together.  Maybe the closest way to describe how it felt is ceremonial prayer.

I can’t tell you much about the new music they performed; it takes me a long time to get to know songs, and I think their songs have taken a leap in ambition, as well.  I got to see Josh Aubin belting out lead, the precision of Lilah Larson’s guitar playing, Ezra Miller pounding the shit out of some drums, shattered bits of drumsticks flying.  I had wanted to see them rotate duties on instruments, a powerful part of their magic:  Put yourself in another’s place.  When they switched instruments, it just looked so matter-of-fact.  Competent.  I couldn’t take it all in.  I wanted to watch Larson on drums so much that I forgot to watch Miller sing and play keyboard; I completely forgot how I’ve always wanted to watch Aubin’s hands on keyboard for “Very Few Dancers,” too busy watching the singing.

It was a good audience to be part of, excited and respectful in the intimate venue.  Whenever Ezra Miller changed places onstage, we could see Rubee moving to keep him covered, just in case.  My friend Chelsea noted how that made her feel safer for everybody.  You’ve probably glimpsed Rubee if you’ve seen photos of Miller from public appearances.  At one point, Rubee accidentally bumped me — I was wedged against a counter and couldn’t get out of the way — and very sweetly offered to buy me a drink by way of apology.  He laughed when I had to take out an earplug to hear what he was saying, and showed me his own ear protection.  These guys are loud.  More than once, I saw them get goofy grins together when they made extra big crashy sounds.

Rubee asked if I had traveled just to see the show, and I got to tell him how the band’s music has been getting me through this administration.  At that, his whole demeanor changed, and for one moment, he exhaled with so much fatigue and pain, and shook his head.  Yeah.

Then there was the moment my wishes came true.  Lilah Larson, with a very gently teasing smile, announced the book of lyrics from We Are Dead and Reborn, One Body, Sons, and Revol, to help out “if you can’t understand what Ezra’s saying.”

“I always think I’m being perfectly clear,” he protested.

“We understand you,” she assured him, to which he replied “thank you” with slightly wounded dignity.

I haven’t sat down and fully communed with this precious artifact yet; it’s almost too concentrated and requires dilution.  Sometimes fans leave messages asking for official lyrics, pleading that they are not native English speakers.  Being a native English speaker won’t necessarily help you here, heh.  Look at this line from “ppm,” for example.  I am certain I would never have deciphered it correctly, and the idiosyncratic capitalization is a bit of meaning that I couldn’t sense from hearing it.  No wonder I couldn’t make it out.

And yea though we’ve walked

On Gaia’s Pristine and Deadly Crown

For all our talk

Our synthetic boots still defile her gown

Printing the lyrics doesn’t lessen their mystery.  They’re as ecstatic and cerebral as I could have wanted, featuring extended political metaphors and melded words that create doubled meanings.  I’ve seen speculation that Miller doesn’t always know what he’s singing; I remember thinking, oh, maybe we don’t, but it looks to me like he always knows.

There was a point when the sight of Ezra Miller drumming was too bright and I had to look away.  It was the combination of the almost-uncontainable energy, the mastery involved in channeling it, the capacity of drumming as a medium to accept every bit of that energy and convey it into art, and the utter lack of filter on the artist’s face.  There was no pretense, no ironic distance.  There was only acknowledgment that this is it, this now is everything; we want to be our best and realest selves and we can only hope that is enough.  And I choked up because that energy looked exactly like how a loved one looked at that age, more than 20 years ago, and I never expected a reminder so vivid and shocking.  He looks different now, my loved one, and I love the current incarnation more, and it amuses me to add, just in case anyone was wondering, that this person is very, very much not a movie star or anything of the sort.  But even when we don’t miss the long-ago versions of our dearest ones, it’s a jolt to the heart when we get the gift of a glimpse.  More often, I think, we get this kind of jolt when a small child goes running by who looks and sounds just like a loved one used to, at that age.  I wasn’t prepared for it to happen here, and with such immediacy.  Time lapse.  Magic.  Pentimento.

The concert ended too soon.  The band re-emerged, looking beautifully spent and without reserves, and Lilah Larson said modestly into the mic, “We’re not used to doing encores.”  They had a brief conference; she muttered, “This will be fine,” which made me laugh; they fulfilled my wish, and probably many others’ wishes, by doing “Very Few Dancers” and “Opposite of Love.”

It was done.  Chelsea steered me to her home, pushing my floating self gently before her, beaming serenely at me and making sure I was hydrated.  She says she’s going to the band’s next Brooklyn show, which makes me happy.  I will go to their Philadelphia show next month, if I can, and even though there will be so much more I’ll want to take in about the new songs, I hope I remember this time to look at Josh Aubin’s hands on the keyboard.

I loved the show, artists.  I thought I’d write you a thank-you note for the sustenance and the fun.