movies

A review of The Way I Spent the End of the World…

This week, I watched three Romanian films. All three were in Romanian, and all three were made around 2006 or thereabouts. Why was I watching Romanian films? Simple… because they’re interesting, and surprisingly entertaining, even if I do have to read the subtitles. I also find Romania’s recent history fascinating.

A few years ago, after I saw a couple of Romanian films and mentioned them online, my Italian friend, Vittorio (whom I never talk to anymore because he got disgusted by Facebook), recommended that I see The Way I Spent the End of the World. This film, made in 2006 and directed by Romanian Cătălin Mitulescu, is about the love between two siblings, Eva and Lilu Mattei, born ten years apart. The story is set in a village near Bucharest in 1989, just before the Romanian Revolution, when former dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena, were run out of power and publicly executed.

A trailer for The Way I Spent the End of the World.

Eva (Dorotheea Petre) is 17 years old and, at the beginning of the film, is a student at a high level school– probably akin to a Gymnasium in Germany. One day, her boyfriend gets a fake note from the principal sent to her so he can steal a few minutes with her outside of class. The two of them are typical hormonally charged teenagers, horsing around in the school’s hallways, when they accidentally knock over a bust of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s head. It shatters, causing them to fear for their lives. It wasn’t unusual or strange for them to be so frightened. At that time in Romania, people were terrified of Ceaușescu’s secret and brutal police force, the Securitate.

Naturally, Eva gets in trouble and winds up being expelled from her hoity toity school– voted out, no less, by her classmates, who probably just wanted to avoid getting into trouble themselves. She gets sent to a technical school, where she meets a rebellious young man named Andrei (Cristian Vararu), the son of a dissident. Eva hooks up with Andrei and the two decide they want to cross the Danube into Yugoslavia and escape to Italy.

Meanwhile, Eva’s seven year old brother, Lalalilu “Lilu” Matei (Timotei Duma) has already figured out that Ceaușescu is bad news. He loves his sister, Eva, who is more motherly to him than their actual mother is. In a sweet scene at the beginning of the film, Lilu has a loose tooth the family is trying to help him lose. Lilu says he’ll never open his mouth again and Eva tempts him with delicious cherry jam. With much coaxing and sweet talk, she manages to yank the loose tooth. This scene always sticks with me, because it sets up just how close the siblings are, even though they are ten years apart in age.

Lilu has a lot of friends and they all talk amongst themselves about their leader. They whisper about what happens to dissidents, such as Andrei’s father, who is punished for speaking out against Ceaușescu. Moreover, Lilu is convinced that Ceaușescu is the main reason his beloved sister, Eva, wants to defect from Romania. So Lilu and his friends hatch a plan to kill the leader. Lilu tricks his way into a children’s choir scheduled to sing for Ceaușescu as he addresses the nation on what would turn out to be his very last day terrorizing Romania.

My thoughts

I have watched this film several times, having invested in my own copy a few years ago. I find it fascinating on so many levels. First off, there’s the fact that Eva and I were both 17 years old in 1989. I grew up hearing about the Eastern Bloc nations, the Soviet Union, and how terrifying communism and socialism supposedly are. In 1989, it was never in my dreams that I would one day live in the former Soviet Union for a couple of years and then, after that, move to Germany and visit so many nations that were once closed to Americans. I have not been to Romania yet. Bill went in 2008, when we lived in Germany the first time. I have visited Bulgaria, though– back in 1996, when it was still pretty recently open to westerners. Those experiences in the 90s really blew my mind and have made me want to know more about what it was like before the fall of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain.

Secondly, I love watching the chemistry between Eva and Lilu. I am much younger than my three siblings are. When I was a child, they seemed more like my aunts than my sisters. When I lived in Armenia, I briefly lived with a young woman who was my age and was raising her nine year old brother, since their parents had died. I only lived there for two months, but I remember how she took care of him. I don’t think she was as affectionate to her brother as Eva and Lilu were… and Eva and Lilu still had their parents. But it’s clear that Eva takes care of her brother as if he was her child. The actors portraying these two characters did a remarkable job of connecting and being convincing– so much so, that I didn’t even really need subtitles to understand it.

Thirdly, I like the music in this film, along with the imagery. In one scene, when Eva is at her new “reform”/technical school, she’s asked if she can sing. She starts singing a lovely folk song. The song leader stops her and says, “That’s pretty, but it won’t do. Do you know anything else?” She answers that she only knows similar songs– she was not taught the pro-Romanian nationalist songs the song leader is looking to perform for Ceaușescu. It’s at that point, that everyone realizes that Eva had been a student at a much better school before she was sent to “tech” school, and it causes the other characters to wonder about her. Why is she going to an inferior school, where she will be forced to sing boring nationalist songs rather than the complex, beautiful folk songs she was taught at a school with a much better reputation? I thought that scene lent an interesting layer to the story. Eva doesn’t belong– she’s at the lower school because she’s being punished for having a “bad attitude”, not because she’s got a poor intellect or no talent. It’s like an unspoken warning to the others to behave.

And finally, I really liked the way the Romanian people were portrayed in the Mateis’ neighborhood. There was a time when neighbors knew each other and mingled. We don’t see that so much today, especially in the United States. I’ve seen it a bit more in Germany, although even here, people are kind of distant and keep to themselves. Before COVID-19, our village had a biweekly wine stand, where we’d all gather in the “Dorfplatz” and drink wine. Although Bill and I are far from German speakers, that wine stand provided a chance for us to mingle with others in our neighborhood. Wine is a good social lubricant, when consumed in moderation. There’s a nice scene in The Way I Spent the End of the World where all the neighbors are eating and dancing, drinking plum brandy, and bonding. It kind of warmed my heart, especially after our year of “social distancing”.

Scenes from Ceaușescu’s last speech are included in The Way I Spent the End of the World. It’s cool to see how Mateis and their neighbors react as the dictator is taken down. It’s beautiful!

This film ends on a triumphant note, too… as Lilu and his friends are preparing to carry out their “diabolical” plan to execute Ceaușescu so Eva won’t have to leave home… and the public takes care of the deed for him. Later, we see Eva dressed in a Holland America Line cruise uniform as she reads a letter from her beloved brother. She’s earning money to send home to her family– quite a realistic ending, as I have encountered a number of eastern European nationals on my cruises and from reading the excellent book series Cruise Confidential by Brian David Bruns, an American who worked for Carnival cruises as a waiter, then an art dealer. At the time he wrote his first book, he had the distinction of being the only American to actually complete a contract waiting tables in the cruiseline’s history. And he also dated a Romanian waitress named Bianca. I have reviewed several of his books and referenced one of them in this post. Maybe some of us wish Eva had stayed in Romania with her brother, but she looks happy and somewhat regal in her uniform… and she has escaped to see the world, something that would have been unfathomable during Ceaușescu’s regime. She would have been expected to bear babies for the state, instead.

I do think it’s helpful to have some understanding of Romania’s recent history– particularly as it pertains to Ceaușescu’s era. Younger people who weren’t around during the Iron Curtain times might not appreciate this movie as much, because they will be less able to understand the context. Also, because it’s in Romanian, you have to pay attention to the subtitles to get what’s happening, unless, of course, you know the language. I suspect that Europeans would enjoy this more than Americans would, because a lot of Americans have no concept of life outside of the United States. However, as an American, I will happily state that I love this movie, and I think it’s worth the effort to watch it, if you’re willing to try to understand it. At the very least, it might encourage younger folks to learn about why charismatic wannabe dictators, like Donald Trump, are so dangerous.

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movies

I watched 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days again yesterday… it reminded me of why legalized abortion is important.

Yesterday’s reposts made me want to watch a Romanian movie I’ve seen a couple of times already. I have discovered that Romania has put out some truly excellent films, even though I have to watch them with subtitles. But I’ve seen several now, and have even purchased a few for my library. The first time I had ever seen the film I saw yesterday, entitled 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, it was a random Netflix DVD I rented some years ago. The first time I saw it, I was astonished by the movie, which was made in 2007.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is set in an unnamed university town in Romania during the year 1987. Communism is still alive and well in Eastern Europe. Nicolae Ceaușescu is the president of the country, and rules it with an iron fist. In 1987 era Romania, Ceaușescu has forbidden abortions in almost every case. Contraception is also forbidden, and women are forced to visit gynecologists regularly to check for pregnancies. Viewers hear that rule referred to as Otilia talks about when she had her last period. However, even though abortion is punishable by years in a prison cell, women still access it by way of enlisting the services of illegal abortionists. Otherwise, they may find themselves raising children they can’t afford. In the 1990s, Romania was notorious for the number of babies it had in orphanages. Many of those babies grew up to be unable to assimilate in society because they were never properly socialized or cared for when they were infants. And some were born with diseases like AIDS. Women in Ceausescu’s era were expected to have children– at times, up to four or five of them– so that Ceausescu’s regime would always be supplied with fresh souls. It didn’t matter that there wasn’t enough available to support all of those babies being born into his regime.

A trailer for Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days…

Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) are roommates at the university in the unnamed Romanian town. They share a drab dormitory room on a co-ed hall. Gabita is pregnant. She’s shy, and seems to need looking after by Otilia, who seems to be more of a motherly type. Otilia takes care of her roommate, buying her soap and cigarettes from the campus shop, and bringing milk powder to a friend who has found kittens in the dorm’s boiler room. She’d like to take one, but Gabita is allergic to cats.

Gabita complains about a toothache, while Otilia tells her she’ll survive until after Saturday, when they’ve done the deed. The abortionist, a man named Viorel Bede (Vlad Ivanov) has given explicit instructions to Gabita on booking a room at one of two hotels in town. He has also told her what to bring with her. However, Gabita fails to get a room in the right hotel. Otilia ends up booking a much more expensive room at a different hotel. She deals with the unfriendly receptionist at Bede’s preferred hotel, who tells her the rooms are completely booked. Otilia also meets Bede, in Gabita’s stead, which makes him very nervous as he explains that if the authorities ever find out what they are doing, all three of them will go to prison.

At the hotel– the one Bede didn’t prefer– they’ve all left their identification with the front desk. They are told to leave the room key when they go out. The decor is strictly 1987, complete with primitive looking rotary dial phones. I had one in my first Armenian apartment that looked just like the one used in this film. Bede examines Gabita, realizing that she’s much further along in her pregnancy than she had told him. He explains that he will have to do a different procedure that will cost more. Since the women don’t have enough money to pay Bede, he says both women must have sex with him to make up the difference. When they balk at that idea, Bede reminds them that he’s not the one who needs help.

Otilia goes first, and we see her come into the bathroom afterwards, naked from the waist down as she climbs into the bathtub, looking wan and sick as she hoses herself off. Gabita has neglected to bring the plastic sheet Bede told her to bring, so she must cut a plastic bag and use it to protect the bed as Bede performs the abortion. After he’s finished, Bede gives Gabita instructions. He tells her to be very careful of infection, and if one should develop and she needs to see a doctor, not to deny having been pregnant. Lying about the pregnancy is a surefire way to land in prison, while claiming she didn’t know may result in the authorities looking the other way.

While Gabita waits, lying perfectly still and waiting for the fetus to die, Otilia visits her boyfriend and his family, who are having a party. Otilia is not in a good mood and doesn’t want to visit her boyfriend or hang out with his family. She’s just been through something horrific. But she can’t tell him about it. After staying just long enough to be polite, Otilia leaves. Her boyfriend is confused and upset when Otilia goes, but Otilia must get back to her friend. She’s a motherly sort, and concerned that Gabita needs her.

When Otilia arrives at the hotel, Gabita is covered up, sound asleep in bed. Otilia wakes her and Gabita says she got “rid” of it. Otilia finds the tiny, bloody, fetus lying on the bathroom floor. I will warn that this is not an easy scene to watch, and it lasts about fifteen seconds. Otilia is horrified by the sight of the dead fetus, but Gabita just seems relieved that the abortion is over. Gabita still asks her friend to bury the fetus for her, and Otilia obliges. She comes back to find Gabita in the restaurant, “starving”. There’s a wedding going on, so the food in the restaurant is what was being served at the wedding. Otilia is completely sickened by what she and her friend have been through… and Gabita, who had been the one to have the abortion, just seems numb.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is an interesting film for so many reasons. First off, it’s set in a time that wasn’t that long ago, but seems like it was ages ago. I was fifteen years old in 1987, and at that time, it seemed like communism would go on forever. Ceausescu was still very much in charge of Romania, and the threat of prison for abortion was very real. No one could know that in just two years, the Ceausescu regime would suddenly fall with the bang of the guns used to execute both Ceausescu and his wife, Elena.

Although this film is set in 1987, it’s still a useful subject for the present time. Today, in 2021, there are still people trying to stop women from having abortions. Governor Greg Abbott, of Texas, just signed a “heartbeat law”, which bans abortion for any woman who is more than six weeks along in her pregnancy. I find it interesting that a man who presides over a state that is very proud of its record on executing people on death row is claiming that Texas is a “pro-life” state. I also find it interesting that when a fetus is in utero, a heartbeat is a signal of life, whereas in people who have been born already, it takes brainwaves to prove life. But I digress. Texas’s new law allows private citizens to sue abortion providers who offer services to anyone more than six weeks pregnant, in which the fetus has a detectable heartbeat. The person suing would not have to have a connection to the person who had an abortion to sue.

There was a time in the United States when women who wanted to have an abortion had to sneak around and find someone like Bede to do the job. There’s no telling how many of those women were also coerced into providing sexual favors, too. I think about all of the heartbreaking situations a pregnant person might find themselves in that would make them want to seek to terminate a pregnancy. I think of how many of those situations are simply no one else’s business at all… actually, I would say that 100% of those situations are no one else’s business. But we still have so many politicians– many of them men, who will never have to deal with the consequences of an unintended pregnancy– trying to push these laws that will victimize women and endanger their health. And so many of these same politicians don’t want to do a damned thing for those babies, once they’ve been born.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is not an easy film to watch. It’s entirely in Romanian, so you have to pay attention to the film if you don’t know the language. The setting is bleak; there is no musical score; and the subject matter is depressing. However, I think it’s a very powerful film. Regardless of what I think of abortion on a personal level, I believe that people who want them will be determined to get them. They will put themselves at great risk and contribute to criminal behavior. And the babies born that survive botched abortion attempts may end up being a burden to society. Perhaps most importantly, the women who have money will still be able to have safe, legal abortions and will access them. Poor women– the one’s least able to support raising a child– will be the ones who suffer the most under this legislation. They will be the ones who might find themselves in the hellish situation Otilia and Gabita were in, as a man who provides abortions demands sexual favors from them before he does the procedure in less than hygienic and safe surroundings.

A link to the full movie.

I would recommend 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days to anyone who is interested in Romanian cinema. But I would also recommend it to those who need a reminder of why it’s best to let pregnant people make decisions for themselves, whether or not they wish to continue gestating fetuses. But if you do choose to watch this film, be prepared for the heavy emotional message. It’s definitely not a cheerful film, despite its powerful and necessary message. In any case, this story is one that reminds me of why I will always be in favor of contraceptives and legalized abortion.

Incidentally, since abortion and contraception have become legal in Romania, the number of women seeking abortions has gone down exponentially.

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book reviews

Repost: My review of Under A Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania

And finally, one more reposted book review. This one was originally posted on Epinions.com in 2013; then it appeared on my old blog. It appears as it did on May 31, 2015, which is when I last reposted it.

I recently downloaded several books written by people who lived through post World War II communist regimes. Last week, I reviewed a book about a woman who saw firsthand when her homeland, Latvia, was overtaken by the Soviet Union. Today, I’m going to review Under a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania (2010), a book by Haya Leah Molnar, a Romanian Jewish woman who saw Romania turn communist after World War II. I decided to download this book because it got very good ratings on Amazon.com and I love a good true story.

Eva’s story

Haya Leah Molnar explains that she grew up the much beloved only child of Romanian Jewish parents, who called her Eva Zimmermann. She lived with her parents, grandparents, and an aunt and uncle, all of whom had escaped the Holocaust. Her family was very anti-communist, but were unable to leave Romania due to the travel restrictions imposed by the government.

Though Eva’s family is Jewish, they hadn’t shared the faith with her and she didn’t know she was Jewish. At the tender age of seven, Eva finds out about her religion, but doesn’t understand what it means. Though her family loves her very much, they don’t help her understand Judaism. Her father makes some vague references to his experiences during World War II, but Eva remains confused about what makes her different.

As Eva grows older, she joins the Young Pioneers, a group for all youngsters that teaches them how to be good communists. A non-Jewish couple is moved into her family’s home, which makes it difficult for them to speak freely with each other. Eva’s father, a photographer, doesn’t feel free to practice his craft. In 1958, Eva learns that her whole family has applied to immigrate to Israel, which they consider their true “home”. Eva and her family endure interviews with government officials, give up all their worldly possessions, and must travel a less desirable route to Israel.

My thoughts

I was surprised to find out this very well-written and complex book is marketed to young readers. It’s an easy enough book to read and understand; in fact, it reminds me a little of The Diary of Anne Frank. But it just doesn’t strike me as adolescent literature. I’m 40 years old and I found it very relevant and interesting reading, certainly appropriate for adults to read and enjoy.

Parts of this book are funny and charming, while other parts are sobering. One part is gruesome, as Eva relates the story of how two Nazi officers her mother’s family had been forced to house had saved them from being killed at a slaughterhouse. Reading that account was alternately fascinating and horrifying, as it also cast a rare positive light on Nazis. It was interesting to read that bit about Romanians during the Holocaust, since I had read a lot about Jews in other parts of Europe during World War II.

Eva mentions the Securitate, Romania’s secret police force that terrorized Romanian citizens during the Ceausescu regime. But she never mentions Ceausescu or really explains what the Securitate is, other than to infer that they kept everyone in line. I would think that young people who know nothing about World War II or communism would benefit from discussion about what it was and how people lived.

One thing I didn’t like about this book was the rather abrupt ending. Toward the end of the book, Eva explains how she and her parents took a train into Bulgaria and her father realized he had left his camera behind. He needed the camera to make a living, so he went back to get it. Eva and her mother ended up waiting for her father to return; then they took a ship from Istanbul to Israel. That part of the book seems a bit rushed and I was surprised and disappointed when suddenly, the book was ending. I would have liked another chapter or two about how Eva and her family settled in Israel.

Overall

This is a great book for adolescents and adults. I would highly recommend it to those who are interested in memoirs about life during the communist era in Romania. I would caution parents about that one gruesome passage about the slaughterhouse, though it wasn’t as graphic as it could have been.

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memories, music, nostalgia, YouTube

The Red Scare!

Yesterday’s post about public TV caused me to fall down a very interesting rabbit hole on YouTube. Anyone who follows this blog for any length of time is likely to come to the conclusion that I have way too much time on my hands, most days. And when I get bored, I go hunting for things to alleviate my boredom. I had wanted to add a certain video showing a Soviet children’s show on yesterday’s post. I couldn’t find it, but I did find this video, which I also shared in yesterday’s post…

Someone in 1981 was REALLY scared of the Soviets taking over our capitalistic society… That still photo is Toni Ann Gisondi, who played Molly in the 1982 movie, Annie.

I didn’t really write about what’s in this video when I posted it yesterday. That’s because I discovered it at the end of my post and had already written a lot… and the former Soviet Union wasn’t really the point of yesterday’s writings, anyway. In this video, an elderly teacher, obviously stricken and terrified, tells her class that all current teachers will be forced to give up their classes. A little boy named Johnny tells the teacher not to panic as she explains why she’s so scared.

At 9:00am, right on the dot, a tall, attractive woman with reddish brown hair, blue eyes, and a vague British accent appears at the door. She wears what looks like a Soviet inspired uniform, enters the room, and tells the children that she’s their new teacher as she firmly kicks out the old lady who had originally been teaching the kids. She knows all of the students’ names, shocking them. Then she shocks me by poorly trying to sing “Children of the World”, a positively cringeworthy song by the Bee Gees. Talk about a Red Scare!

The young teacher has a kind and friendly demeanor, but it’s clear that beneath that calm, gentle facade lurks a woman who could probably kill the children if provoked. Or, at least have them sent to a gulag or something. They are impressed by her, but also a bit scared. The teacher very carefully leads the children to her lessons, gradually and insidiously teaching them not to blindly honor American values. But little Johnny, the same one who told the old teacher not to panic, is going to be a troublemaker. The teacher takes down the American flag, then tells everyone they’re going to cut the flag, so everyone can have a piece of it. Johnny looks like he’s going to wet his pants.

A little girl named Leslie (who played Nadia Comaneci in the movie, Nadia), cuts the first piece of the flag because it’s her birthday. More pieces are cut so that everyone can have a piece, just like it was a birthday cake. The kids all disrespect the flag, all very innocently, as the sound effects get more ominous. When a child asks why their first teacher was crying, the new Soviet model says she was just “tired” and needs a long rest. And she says teachers should be young… like she is– only 23 years old. The old bat will be sent away where she will be nice and “safe”.

Then Johnny, the truth teller, demands to know where his dad is. The teacher says Johnny’s dad is “going to school”, becomes sometimes grown ups have to go to school, too. The teacher explains that Johnny’s dad had “wrong thoughts” and needs to be re-educated. And Johnny can visit him, once he has a vacation. Dads who are in school get vacation just like kids in school, do. Oh dear. The teacher tells Johnny that his dad had some thoughts that were “old fashioned” and needed to be corrected. I see where this is going. Leftists are BAD, and not to be trusted. Then the other kids start wondering if their parents should go back to school, too.

Sinister! The Red Scare was alive and well in 1981– for different reasons, as it turned out. That was also the year I learned about puberty.

Then the teacher tells the kids that they’ll all be staying together, from now on, in a nice state supported home where they will be taught the right things. They can stay up and have a good time, eat candy, and tell stories, like a slumber party that never ends as the state slowly reforms their thinking to the “right” way… which of course, is the “left” way. Then someone brings up prayer, and the teacher implies that God isn’t real because He doesn’t answer their prayers for candy. So the teacher tells the kids to pray to “our leader”. While their eyes are squeezed shut, the teacher dumps out a bag of Hershey’s Kisses.

But that pesky troublemaker, Johnny sees what the teacher did, as his duped classmates say they’re going to pray to “our leader” every time. Johnny busts the teacher for her trickery. So the teacher says that it doesn’t matter who the children pray to… only humans can give you what you want, but praying is a waste of time… By the end of the film, Johnny is starting to see things the “right” way… which again, of course, is the “left” way. Wow. I had forgotten how different things were in the early 80s. Then, at the end, a narrator explains how easy it is to fall into the trap of giving up freedom.

I was a bit fascinated by the video, so I went looking for more. And since I was somehow under the impression that April Lerman was in the above video, I searched for her on YouTube. I thought maybe I’d finally find that godawful After School Special, “Little Miss Perfect”. No such luck. But I did find this weird Disney film about a boy growing up in Leningrad. I suppose the Disney movie was intended to make us less afraid of a “red scare”.

The kid’s accent is annoying as all get out. Otherwise, it was an interesting little video about a regime that would collapse in just a few years.

And sure enough, this morning I found that video I had been looking for yesterday that made me fall down the rabbit hole in the first place. One thing I loved about living in the former Soviet Union was how many very musically and artistically talented people are there. I meant to include the below video yesterday, but never managed to find it.

The Trololo guy, Eduard Khil, is in this video. I taught school in Armenia and my pupils didn’t have uniforms like the kids in this video or the one above it. However, they did wear black and white on the first day of school, which I think was the custom during the Soviet years. They don’t seem too scary, even if they are “commies”!
The “Trololo” guy, Eduard Khil… apparently, he did this in 1976 because the lyrics to the song were about a cowboy who was riding his stallion to his farm, excited about going home. Another legend has it that Khil had an argument with the songwriter that music is more important than lyrics and decided to sing a vocalise to make his point. Khil died in 2012, so he’s not scary, either!

My search for April Lerman’s turn in “Little Miss Perfect” led to yet another weird find. As I mentioned yesterday, Toni Ann Gisondi, who was in the video about “brainwashing children”, was in the 1982 movie, Annie. April Lerman was also in that film. She played Kate. April Lerman was also in another special film… one about puberty. Annie is about an orphan who has red hair and wears a red dress… and so it’s only fitting that she should be teaching us about the true red scare of every girl’s adolescence– the dreaded first period, otherwise known as menarche!

April Lerman, who now uses the name April Haney. She led me down quite a rabbit hole.

I’ve written about this topic a few times, but because I enjoy shocking people and being gross, I’m going to write about it again. Back in 1981, I was in the fourth grade. That was the year we all learned about puberty. I went to Botetourt Elementary School in Gloucester, Virginia for third and fourth grades, so things were pretty redneck. Strangely enough, neither my mom nor my sisters ever talked to me about menstruation. I used to see my mom’s feminine hygiene supplies in her little special wooden chest kept next to the toilet. I would steal them to make blankets for my model horses or Barbie dolls. Back in those days, the pads were super thick, like miniature mattresses. I didn’t know what they were for, but they made for good Barbie doll pillows and such.

Then, that fateful day in the early 80s, all us girls were ushered into “The Pit” (which no longer exists) and we all watched a film from the 1970s about periods. And it was literally a film, as in it was shown on a projector, not a VCR or DVD player… or even a Laser Disc. I don’t remember much more about the film, other than a scene where they showed a woman in a bathing cap diving into a pool. That was about the time in the movie where they discussed whether or not a woman can go swimming when she’s ragging. After the movie, a teacher, who later became a principal, talked to us about what it was to be a woman… or maybe she didn’t do it that year (fourth grade), but I do remember her doing it another year. Maybe it was when I was in the seventh grade. I do clearly remember her talking to us about womanhood, with her deep southern accent.

After the movie, we were all given the Personal Products pitch– that was the company who made the film, the accompanying booklet, and, if you sent in for it, a box of assorted maxi pads and tampons. I didn’t need any of that stuff until New Year’s Eve 1985, when I was 13.5 years old, almost to the dot. And I didn’t have my second period until July of 1986, when I was 14. I skipped six whole months. After that, I was like clockwork until very recently. Now that I’m pushing 49, my periods are becoming weird and irregular. I suspect I’ll be done with the whole nasty business very soon, and thank God for that.

I suppose the next incarnation of “Growing Up and Liking It” came about in 1984. The musical, Annie, was still running on Broadway, probably thanks to the 1982 film. So, some bright person at Personal Products decided to get a bunch of actresses who had starred in different productions of Annie to do a video about puberty for girls of the 80s. I found that video yesterday, because April Lerman was in it. But now it occurs to me how odd it is to do a menstruation video starring kids from Annie— red hair, red dress, no mom to teach her (just like in that brainwashing video), and blood gushing from between one’s legs. Growing up is a delight!

My face was probably like the still video shot above.

The video begins with seventeen year old Shelley Bruce, who had played Annie on Broadway, introducing everyone to the motley cast of girls who had been in other Annie productions. The girls were of varying ages and statuses of development. Some were new menstruators, while others were still waiting… and they all sat around a chatted about their menses as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Interspersed within their chat sessions is the soothing voice of a matronly looking woman who looks like Anne Murray. She explains everything in calm, motherly tones, assuring us that all girls eventually turn into women and get to endure the monthly mess.

Someone in the comment section wrote the brilliant line… “The blood’ll come out… tomorrow…” which caused me to cackle uproariously. I sang it to Bill this morning, and he added, “bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there’ll be blood.” And then it occurred to me that my own period hasn’t yet shown up this month and was really light and late last month. My… how quickly 40 years goes by!

Well… I suppose these young ladies all got paid for this. And I have to admit, I kind of enjoyed watching them dance. One of the girls, Sarah Navin, apparently died in 2005. I’m not sure why, but her obituary mentions donating to Susan G. Komen, so maybe she had breast cancer at a very young age. How sad!

It’s funny listening to Shelley, who comes off as a real “pal”, except it’s obvious they aren’t friends and barely know each other. And now they’re going to sit around and talk about their monthlies– girls who starred in a musical about a girl with red hair who has no mom with whom to discuss these things– at least not until she gets adopted by Daddy Warbucks and his secretary, Grace Farrell. The girls all have New York accents, and some look a little more comfortable on camera than others. Poor Shelley, though. To go from being Annie on Broadway to teaching girls about their periods! A buck’s a buck, I guess.

Here are two Annies… Shelley Bruce played Annie after Andrea McArdle, who was probably the most famous Broadway Annie. She doesn’t look like she did in 1984!

And just because I’m still in the rabbit hole, here’s another gem about people who’ve played Annie. But most of them haven’t talked to young girls about menstruation… It now seems odd that a bunch of kids in a show about orphans, again, meaning they don’t have moms to talk to them about this stuff, would be tasked with making this video. But I guess they were at the right age. Besides, having a mom around doesn’t necessarily mean she’s going to tell you about puberty. My mom was at home all the time when I was growing up and I don’t remember her ever talking to me about periods, except to tell me when I leaked and remind me to make sure I wrapped up my pads properly so my dad wouldn’t be offended.

My goodness… I never liked Annie’s stereotypical curly hair. It was a little Mrs. Roper, wasn’t it? The last Annie, who was in the menstruation video was not in this performance. Sarah Jessica Parker is in this! And we all know where she is, now!

Well… I suppose it’s time to come out of the YouTube rabbit hole and walk the dogs. May your day be without any visits from Aunt Flow or young Red Scare teachers who kick out your kindly instructors and want to get you to think the “right” way… which of course, is the “left” way… As for me, perhaps the blood’ll come out, tomorrow.

Edited to add… you must listen to Andrea McArdle do an impression of Carol Channing! Hysterical!

I’m glad I watched it just for Andrea’s impression.
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book reviews, family

Reviewing In My Mother’s House by Kim Chernin…

I just took a lovely nap. It commenced after I finished reading Kim Chernin’s book, In My Mother’s House. Kim Chernin, born Elaine Kusnitz, died recently, which is probably how this book came on my radar. She was 80 years old. She was a lesbian, a feminist, a much regarded author with a doctorate, and the daughter of a famously communist mother, Rose Chernin. She was survived by her daughter, Larissa, who was her only child, born in 1963 while Kim was studying at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Married and divorced twice, Kim took her mother’s surname after the second divorce, as did her daughter. She is also survived by her wife, Renate Stendhal.

Kim Chernin died in December of COVID-19. Her only sister, Nina, had died when Kim was four years old. Kim owed her life to Nina, because when her mother got pregnant with her, she reportedly told Nina, then an adolescent, that she wasn’t sure she should have the baby. At the time of her pregnancy, Kim’s famous mother, Rose, was thirty-nine years old and very busy with her career as a left-wing activist. Nina reportedly promised their mother that if she would have the baby, Nina would take care of it. Sure enough, Kim was born in May 1940, and Nina took care of her. Of course, no one knew at the time that Nina would get very sick with Hodgkins lymphoma, which would kill her in 1944.

At the beginning of her book, In My Mother’s House, Rose is visiting Kim and Larissa, who was a young girl at the time. She’s asked her daughter to write a book about her life as a labor organizer and Communist Party. Kim Chernin, who was nationally known as an expert on body dysmorphia and eating disorders, agreed. It took her seven years to finish the book, which was originally published in 1983. The result is a multi-faceted book about one woman’s unusual and riveting history between two super powers, Russia and the United States. Rose told Kim about her life– quite a lot of which had already been lived before Kim was born.

Rose Chernin and Paul Kusnitz, Kim’s parents, were Russian Jews. They were born at the beginning of the twentieth century. When Rose was about thirteen, her mother moved her and her sisters from Russia to Waterbury, Connecticut. Rose became politically active as a young woman, dedicated to the idea of communism. She joined the Communist Party in 1932, three years after officially becoming a United States citizen. That year, the family moved to Moscow for a couple of years before returning to the United States. Kim’s father was an engineer educated at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, so he helped develop the Moscow Metro (subway) system. The family returned to the United States in 1934, six years before Kim was born.

In the ensuing years, Rose Chernin was very active in promoting communism in the United States. Kim Chernin grew up hearing about the wonders of the Soviet Union, which her mother promoted as a more humane society. Kim read works by Marx and Lenin from a very young age.

In 1951, Rose Chernin was arrested for conspiracy to overthrow the government under the Smith Act of 1940. The Smith Act of 1940 set criminal penalties for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government by force or violence, and required all non-citizen adult residents to register with the federal government. Rose spent a year in jail, in part because her bail was set at $100,000, which she could never hope to raise. The Immigration and Naturalization Service tried to deport Rose, but were unsuccessful because of a 1957 ruling that the Smith Act was unconstitutional.

I was initially drawn into the story about four generations of women in Kim Chernin’s family because of the richness in which the story was written. Kim was a very intelligent and expressive writer, and I got the sense that she and her mother had a complicated yet loving relationship. Kim grew up attending communist rallies with her mother, who was very much a supporter of worker’s rights and tenant advocacy and an opponent of racism. Naturally, Rose’s ideas ran contrary to the ideas promoted by the U.S. government. But there was a time when Russia and the United States were allies, as both powers fought against Hitler’s regime.

Kim also went to Yiddish school, although she rebelled against the teachings there. And yet, in reading her book about her mother, I can tell that the experience in Yiddish school left its mark on her as she weaves her mother’s voice in to story. Kim had a complicated relationship with her mother, and they are said to have fought “bitterly”. However, Kim also clearly adored her, and that loving quality is liberally injected In My Mother’s House. Rose Chernin lived a very long and productive life. She died in 1995 of Alzheimer’s Disease. She had just turned 94.

I’m glad I read this book. I promise, it’s not the book that sent me into afternoon slumber. Rather, I think it was because Arran woke me up at 4:30am and I couldn’t get back to sleep. I have always found the Soviet Union and Russian history very interesting. I also find Kim Chernin interesting because of her work as a feminist and expertise in the subject of eating disorders. Her trilogy about eating disorders, Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of SlendernessThe Hungry Self: Women, Eating and Identity, and Reinventing Eve: Modern Woman in Search of Herself, put her on the map as a writer. However, In My Mother’s House, is a loving and fascinating tribute to her mother, who was quite an amazing woman. It also offers a glimpse at Kim’s grandmother, a woman who never could adapt to life in the United States and was later sent to an institution, where she wrote beautiful letters.

Kim Chernin managed to impart her mother’s wisdom as she wrote in Rose Chernin’s voice, “You want to fly? Grow wings. You don’t like the way things are? Tell a story.” Words to live by… although I’m not sure I’m as good at following Rose’s advice as Kim was. May she rest in peace.

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