book reviews, true crime

Home again, and reviewing Rimaru – Butcher of Bucharest: A Serial Killer in Communist Romania…

We’re baaaaack. We had a pretty easy flight from Copenhagen this morning, and now we’re unpacked and doing laundry. Bill has just come home from a run to the commissary for some fresh food, and in a little while, he’ll go pick up Noyzi. Meanwhile, I have a shit ton of travel blogging to do. Not that many people read my travel blogs, but I do like to write them so I can preserve our adventures.

Before I get started with writing the tale of our epic Nordic trip, I would like to review a book I just finished reading a day or so ago. I don’t know how interesting my review of Rimaru – Butcher of Bucharest: A Serial Killer in Communist Romania will be to most of my regular readers. Nevertheless, I do like to review any book I read. Sometimes people’s interests surprise me.

So, how did I come to read a book about a serial killer in communist Romania? I read it because one of the authors is Stejarel Olaru, who is also a co-author of another book I recently read and reviewed titled Nadia Comaneci ad the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape. I find communist Romania’s history fascinating, plus I enjoy following women’s gymnastics. While I don’t remember thinking Stejarel Olaru’s co-authored book about Nadia Comaneci was that amazing, I was intrigued enough by it to read another book Olaru had a hand in writing. The other author of Rimaru – Butcher of Bucharest: A Serial Killer in Communist Romania is Mike Phillips, while Ramona Mitrica served as the editor. I suspect I also decided to download and read about Rimaru, because the Kindle version of this book is really inexpensive. At this writing, it’s priced at less than $4, and can be read for free by those who have Kindle Unlimited. A paperback version will run about $23.

The grisly story of Ion Rimaru… Romanian rapist and murderer.

It seems like every society has its share of deviants within it. Communist era Romania was no different, even in Ceausescu’s era, with its police force and Securitate. Ion Rimaru was something of a loser. He was studying veterinary medicine in Bucharest, living in a dormitory, and, from the time of his adolescence, suffering from an insatiable appetite for sexual intercourse. Rimaru was a terrible student, and barely showed up for his classes. He had to repeat both his second and third years of veterinary school. He wasn’t well liked or regarded, and a lot of people thought of him as a loser. And yet, the people who looked down on Rimaru for being so mediocre didn’t know that he was the Butcher or the Vampire of Bucharest.

From May 1970 until May 1971, Rimaru stalked and sexually assaulted 23 women. Although his prime motivation seemed to be sexual gratification, Rimaru murdered several of his victims and attempted to murder six more. His assaults often involved blunt force trauma to the head. In four cases, he engaged in bestiality, sadism, and torture. In a few other cases, he committed theft. All the while, he was living right under the noses of the people of Bucharest, continuing his reign of terror for a year before he was finally apprehended, tried, and sentenced to death by a firing squad. Authorities made over 2500 arrests and asked over 8000 people for their identification before they finally got the right man.

Stefjarel Olaru and Mike Phillips have pieced together Ion Rimaru’s story, using actual witness and victim statements. Some of the stories are pretty horrifying, as there seemed to be no limit to the depths of Rimaru’s depravity and insatiable appetite for victims. Sometimes, he had sex with women who were willing, but when they said no to him, he usually responded by just hitting them in their heads with a heavy pipe and taking what he wanted. Then, he’d usually leave them for dead, sometimes helping himself to their money or valuables. Rimaru gave his mother a pair of earrings he stole from one victim.

Romania, like most other civilized nations of the world, has done away with capital punishment. But, back in the early 70s, some criminals were sentenced to death. In Rimaru’s case, the day he paid the ultimate price for his crimes was October 23, 1971. He had just turned 25 years old less than two weeks prior to meeting the firing squad. Rimaru was a coward when he was told he was going to be executed. He begged to live, tried to throw his father under the bus, and on the day the sentence was carried out, he dodged and moved around, making it harder for the marksmen to shoot him. They ended up shooting him in the backside, which still did the trick.

I appreciated the details Phillips and Olaru gave about how Romania used to do capital punishments. Before Rimaru’s date with the firing squad, it was customary for condemned inmates to be put barefoot in a chilly, windowless, black room, where there was cold water on the floor. The inmates typically would get so hopeless and depressed in that room that they actually looked forward to being executed and resigned themselves to their fates. Rimaru was spared the black room.

My thoughts…

Some people who read this book found it very engrossing and hard to put down. I struggled to finish it. Rimaru’s case is very interesting and the authors put together a coherent story about what happened. However, they often use very dull statements from witnesses and victims that can be tough going to get through. Their writing style is very matter-of-fact and kind of dry, almost academic. I did notice that the authors usually styled names like they were styled in the communist era, with the last name first. That sort of lent an air of authenticity.

I do think Rimaru – Butcher of Bucharest is well worth reading if you are interested in Romanian true crime or communism. The authors have explained how things were done in the communist era, when the secret police were still terrorizing Romanians. They were so feared, and yet it took them so long to figure out who was raping and killing women in Bucharest for an entire year. It must have been terrifying for women living there at that time. I lived in Fredericksburg, Virginia when the Beltway Snipers were on the loose in 2002 or so. That was scary enough. I’m sure it was much worse in 70s era Romania.

Anyway… I don’t usually support the death penalty, but I don’t think I can muster up much sympathy for Ion Rimaru. He was probably one of those folks who just needs killing, for the safety and wellbeing of everyone else. I think I’d give this book 3.5 stars out of 5, and my recommendation.

Now, I think I’ll start gathering my thoughts on cheerier matters, as I prepare to write about our great big trip up north. Ciao!

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book reviews, celebrities, narcissists, politics, sports

Reviewing Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape…

A couple of years ago, I became aware of a new book about legendary Romanian women’s gymnastics champion, Nadia Comaneci. The book, titled Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape, was written by Romanian author, Stejarel Olaru, and published in 2021. For a long time, it was only available in Romanian. I was very eager to read this book, because not only am I fascinated with old school women’s gymnastics, but I’m also intrigued by Cold War politics, particularly in Romania.

Although I haven’t yet visited Romania, I have read several books about the Ceaușescu era, and watched some really interesting films about Romania before the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc states. So, the prospect of reading about Nadia’s experiences in Romania after she became a national treasure was very exciting for me. I was very pleased to see that the book was going to be translated into English (and other languages).

I just finished the Kindle English translated edition of Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape. Stejarel Olaru’s book was translated by Alistair Ian Blyth and made available in the US Amazon store this month. I had originally pre-ordered a print edition; that’s how much I wanted to read this book. I canceled that order when I realized I could get the Kindle edition sooner. As of just a little while ago, I have finished reading after a couple of weeks of effort. I’m glad to be finished with the book, which was very interesting, although less exciting than I had expected it to be.

I want to be very clear. This is NOT a book about Nadia’s life story. Elements of her life story and some information about her family are in the book, of course, as it’s not possible to deliver this story without those elements. But it’s important to note that this book is ultimately about the high price Nadia Comaneci paid when she made history at the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montreal. Those who read this book should also come with some knowledge of who Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were, and what their regime was like. Remember that until the former Romanian president and his wife were executed by firing squad on Christmas Day in 1989, Romania’s government was an oppressive totalitarian regime.

One month before the Ceaușescus were executed, Nadia Comaneci defected with several other Romanians. She did so out of desperation. She couldn’t take life as it existed under Ceaușescu and his Securitate (Secret Police) anymore. But Nadia was a “national treasure”, and as such, she was highly valued by the Romanian dictator’s regime. Nadia worked very hard to be able to achieve Olympic greatness, but after she reached that pinnacle, she was rewarded with constant surveillance at home… phone taps, interrogations, and constant pressure to maintain her physical prowess in a sport where it’s common to retire while still very young, especially at the elite level.

Olaru’s book begins in November 1989, when Nadia undertook her daring escape to Hungary with a group of more average citizens. The group fled across fields during a frigid night. The Romanian border guards missed them, but they were picked up by the Hungarians, who were shocked to find the famous gymnast among those who were fleeing. The Hungarians were going to let Nadia go, and send the rest of the party back to Romania. Nadia, being a team player, spoke up and said that she wouldn’t be going without the rest of the group.

Nadia in 1990, just after she left Romania. If she’d waited a month, she wouldn’t have had to defect.

Very soon after her illegal border crossing, Nadia was on her way to New York City. She lost a lot when she defected; the man she left with was a married man who abused her. A lot of Americans had a negative impression of her in the weeks after she defected. I remember reading a 1990 era Life Magazine article that really made Nadia out to be kind of lowbrow, implying that she was bulimic and a bit of a skank. The reality was, the man was basically holding her prisoner, beating her, and exploiting her for money.

Upon arrival in the United States, Nadia Comaneci requested and was granted political asylum. I remember watching Nadia in the news, as this was going on during my senior year of high school. I barely knew who she was, because I was only four years old when she won gold in Montreal, and lived in England at the time. I didn’t follow gymnastics until I was about 15 or 16 years old. Still, I remember very clearly the story in the news, and was fascinated by it, because although I wasn’t a gymnastics fan in Nadia’s day, I did grow up during the height of the Cold War.

I never dreamed, when I was a kid, that one day, that whole system would disintegrate within a couple of years. If there’s anything to learn from that era in history, it’s that things can change very quickly, forever altering or even ending people’s lives. That’s one reason why I get so worried about Trump and his admirers. History has shown us that things can change in a “New York Minute”, as Don Henley sang back in 1989.

Olaru’s book also offers a very negative and damning look at Bela and Marta Karolyi’s years as Romanian team coaches. As bad as some of the revelations have been from American gymnasts who have trained with them, they are even worse in this book, as Olaru writes about how the gymnasts were literally starved and sometimes physically beaten when they didn’t perform well. Securitate notes provided by alleged informants, such as Geza Pozsar, the choreographer who worked with the Karolyis, indicate that the gymnasts often wept because they were so hungry. As Nadia grew older, she and Bela had difficulties, because she was no longer as compliant as she had been. He could no longer “spank her bottom” when he wanted to, especially after she became famous.

I’ve watched Bela Karolyi for years when I’ve viewed women’s gymnastics on television. His public persona is that of a big bear, with lots of energy and enthusiasm. But, based on this book, and several others I’ve read by people who have trained with him and his wife, Marta, he is clearly an abusive coach on many levels. So far, I have not seen evidence that he sexually abused his gymnasts– thank God– but I have seen ample evidence that he was verbally, mentally, emotionally, and physically abusive to them. However, even the best gymnasts, like Nadia, got that treatment. At least he was somewhat “fair”, I guess.

When Bela and Marta Karolyi defected from Romania in 1981, the Securitate became even more intensive in their efforts to control Nadia Comaneci and protect their national treasure. Although she lived a relatively upscale life by Cold War Romanian standards, the reality was, she was more in a cage than her fellow Romanian citizens were. And the “lavish” privileges she enjoyed weren’t all that great. She did have a car and a seven room villa, for instance, but the villa was poorly insulated. Consequently, she slept in the kitchen so she could stay warm. And she didn’t necessarily have to stand in line to get food, like rank and file Romanians did, but the fact that she didn’t have to do that doesn’t exactly make for a luxurious lifestyle, as Romanian officials tried to indicate.

In many weird ways, reading about how Nadia and her family members were policed reminded me of reading about people trapped in cults or abusive relationships. The Securitate didn’t want Nadia to abandon Romania, so they were constantly looking and listening for indications of potential plans to leave. And they did things like tell her she couldn’t survive outside of Romania. They didn’t seem to realize that Nadia had already proven her incredible strength and resilience, not just in 1976, but in the years following that triumph, after she grew several inches and gained twenty pounds. For awhile, she was looking as washed up as John Travolta did throughout the late 80s. But, just like Travolta, Nadia Comaneci made a great comeback for the 1980 Moscow Games and came home with more medals. I don’t know why the Securitate didn’t see that she was capable of doing that again in 1989; she was only 28 years old when she left.

As I read this book and got some insight into Nadia Comaneci’s plight after her 1976 Olympic glory, it occurred to me why Nadia was known for never smiling. Based on Olaru’s accounts, backed up with actual notes from the Securitate, phone taps, interviews, and interrogations, it sounds to me like Nadia Comaneci’s life was a living hell. When she was being trained by Bela Karolyi, who has his own version of this story famously depicted in a movie about Nadia, she was evidently enduring a nightmare that we could never fathom. No wonder Nadia was willing to risk it all and leave for the West, once she retired from gymnastics.

Today, Nadia Comaneci is married to fellow Olympic gold medalist, Bart Conner, who won his medals in Los Angeles, back in 1984. They run their own gym in Oklahoma, and share a son named Dylan Paul Conner, who was born when Nadia was 44 years old. She still physically looks amazing, but I notice she smiles a lot more these days.

Overall, I think Nadia and the Secret Police is an excellent read for students of Cold War history, especially if they are interested in the Ceaușescu era and/or Romania. I will warn that this book is translated, and sometimes the translation gets a little mucked up. There were times, for instance, that the translator wrote names as they would be written in the Eastern Bloc or Soviet Union, with the last name first. Other times, he writes them as if they were in a western country. At times, the writing is also a little dry and formal, and there are some typos. I was surprised by the abrupt ending of this book, although I appreciated the many footnotes, notations, and photos.

Again, I cannot reiterate this enough. This book isn’t really for people who idolize Nadia or gymnastics and are looking for a life story. This is a book about history and politics. Nadia Comaneci just happens to be the subject, because she’s probably still the most famous Romanian in modern times. The focus is less on gymnastics, and more on world politics and intrigue. Yes, it’s useful for diehard Comaneci fans to read, but the focus is more on the oppressive government regime and less on Nadia Comaneci’s gymnastics prowess. I’m glad I read it. And I’m glad I’ve finished it, so I can move on to the next book.

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law, Police, slut shamers

Woman takes pill on live television to de-stigmatize abortion…

Things continue to get weirder and weirder in the United States. A few months ago, Texas lawmakers passed a draconian bill that practically bans all abortions after six weeks’ gestation. Others states have jumped on the anti-abortion bandwagon, doing their best to outlaw what many women consider an important and fundamental right to have dominion over their own bodies. And yet, 49 years after Roe v. Wade allowed pregnant women to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction, some people are still trying so very hard to rescind that right.

I have never made it a secret that I am pro-choice. I’m grateful that I’ve never been in a situation in which I’ve needed to consider having an abortion. At this point in my life, my need to be concerned about abortion on a personal level is pretty much over. I won’t ever be pregnant. I doubt I would have chosen to have an abortion, but I can’t say for certain that I wouldn’t have. I know women who are wonderful, loving mothers who have made that choice. I don’t think any less of them for choosing abortion. It’s none of my business. And as someone who has often felt unwanted and unwelcome, I might even say that given a choice, I might have even preferred it if my mom had made that decision when she was pregnant with me. I do know for a fact that I wouldn’t have been any the wiser. I simply would not have existed.

This morning over breakfast, Bill and I were talking about a news story that made national headlines yesterday— it was about a woman who took an abortion pill as she was debating abortion on Fox News. I suddenly realized that not only am I “pro-choice”… I could say that I’m actually rabidly pro-choice. I feel like it’s a personal decision that should always and only be made by the one “already born” person who will be directly affected by the pregnancy in question.

Pro-choice activist, Jex Blackmore, stuns when she takes a mail order abortion pill during a debate.

Detroit area pro-choice activist and former Satanic Temple spokesperson, Jex Blackmore, was squaring off with pro-life activist and attorney, Rebecca Kiessling, on Fox News 2’s segment, Let it Rip, when she took the little white pill that she said would “end a pregnancy.” Blackmore said, as she was arguing for the safety of mail order abortion pills, “I want to show you how easy it is, how safe it is, by taking it myself.” She held up the small white pill– mifepristone– which, when combined with a second pill– misoprostol– is used to end pregnancies before ten weeks’ gestation.

Blackmore stammered a little bit as she explained the pill to the host of the show, Charlie Langton, telling him that the pill is very safe and allows people to end their pregnancies in private. Then, Blackmore casually took the pill on live television, swallowing it with water.

Langton looked shocked and bewildered as he asked, “You’re not pregnant, are you?”

To that, Blackmore said, “I would say that this is going to end a pregnancy. This would be my third abortion.”

Take that, Rebecca.

The camera then panned to lawyer and pro-life activist, Rebecca Kiessling, whose eyebrows raised and face registered shock and disgust. Then, Rebecca started talking… her part of the video is not very clear, like she didn’t have a good Internet connection. It’s funny to me that Kiessling’s part of the debate was muddled, while Jex Blackmore’s part came through clear as a bell. It’s almost as if there was a divine intervention. Then, at the end of the debate on Fox News, Blackmore shared a Web site where viewers can access the abortion pills, which were recently and permanently approved for mail order by the Food and Drug Administration.

Blackmore later said that she decided to take the pill on television to help de-stigmatize abortion. Frankly, given that this was her third abortion, it’s clear that she doesn’t want to be a mother right now. I think that forcing someone like Blackmore to give birth would be ill advised. She is very nonchalant about taking the pill on television, which tells me that if she got pregnant, and was forced to remain pregnant, she would likely be just as cavalier about safeguarding the health of the developing fetus. And what would pro-lifers choose to do about that? Is it humane to a developing fetus to force it to grow in the womb of an unwilling person? Especially since the personal choices pregnant people make have a direct and potentially disastrous effect on the development of the fetus?

We can’t even offer affordable and accessible healthcare to people who have already been born. How can we force people like Jex Blackmore to take care of themselves in support of a developing baby? The answer is, we can’t… at least not without depriving them of their civil rights. I truly hope the United States doesn’t go down that dark, dystopian, Handmaid’s Tale road. What would stop Jex Blackmore from doing things that would harm the developing fetus? And do we really want to live in a country where people who are pregnant have different civil rights than everybody else does?

I’ll be honest. It does disturb me a little bit to hear that this was Blackmore’s third abortion. Personally, I would be trying not to get pregnant in the first place. Obviously, she doesn’t see pregnancy the way I might see it. Given that she is so relaxed about the process of taking the abortion pill, I think it’s best that she doesn’t gestate against her will. I also want to make it very clear that I’m not judging her, either. I don’t know anything about her or what her life is like. This absolutely should be her choice, and it should not be anyone else’s business. When I look at the outrage and disgust on Rebecca Kiessling’s face as another woman makes a personal choice with which she disagrees, I wonder if she even cares about Jex Blackmore as a person, rather than just a vessel for a developing fetus. Below is a screenshot of Kiessling’s public Facebook post:

Except it wasn’t yet a “baby”, Rebecca. At under ten weeks gestation, it was still an embryo… and it was not at a stage where it looked like a baby. And given your clear distaste for Jex’s “satanic” proclivities, why would you want to force her to bring a baby into the world? You obviously find her disgusting.

Let’s be real. The “abortion pill” is a hell of a lot safer than a coat hanger is in ending pregnancies. If people are really “pro-life”, they should absolutely care about the health, safety, and well-being of already born people ahead of potentially born people. And they should consider the potential consequences of trying to force someone who doesn’t want to be pregnant to gestate that fetus that they pretend to care so much about. I think it’s much more humane for everyone involved to allow safe and early pregnancy terminations, than deny abortions to those who want them and will stop at nothing to get them.

I care more about people who have already been born and are living outside of the womb. Of course, I would prefer it if people who don’t want to get pregnant could just avoid getting pregnant. But that’s not always possible. Sometimes people get pregnant against their wills. Sometimes people want to be pregnant, but need to have an abortion for medical reasons. Sometimes the developing fetus has a condition that would make being born cruel. There are so many life situations that people find themselves in that would make them consider terminating a pregnancy. None of those situations are my business, since I am not directly affected by them. I don’t think it’s right to judge people for making such a personal decision.

So, while I don’t think I’m like Jex Blackmore, and I don’t think I would make the choices she’s made, I stand for her to be able to safely end her pregnancies if she chooses. And while taking the “abortion” pill on live television may seem callous and cavalier to many people, when it comes right down to it, all she did was take a pill. She might as well have been taking aspirin. It’s a non-issue. I’d much rather see her do that, than throw herself down a flight of stairs, or see some back alley butcher, or have someone punch her in the stomach a few times… or use a coat hanger.

I do think it’s interesting, though, that so many people who are against abortion are Republicans. Do they not realize that Romania, a notoriously communist country banned abortions during the Ceausescu era? The end result of that campaign was a lot of sick babies, horribly neglected in orphanages, tragically some of whom could not bond with other people because they were not properly cared for when they were infants. The babies grew up to be adults who, if they were lucky, simply couldn’t love others. If they weren’t lucky, they ended up criminals. It also resulted in very high maternal mortality rates, and people facing prison sentences if they dared to even try to get an abortion or aided and abetted in someone getting one.

So many Republicans are totally against paying for social welfare safety nets. Do they not realize that forcing people to give birth will contribute to poverty? Would they really like to see more people needing government assistance? Or are they thinking that a woman who is poor should be forced to give up her baby to a more affluent, cisgender adoptive couple, again, a la Handmaid’s Tale? Who gets to decide that for them? I thought Republicans were for smaller government and more personal freedom. Apparently they don’t necessarily like less government interference if the person wanting freedom is a woman in her childbearing years.

Also… what should we do with pregnant people who either can’t or refuse to properly take care of themselves? Arrest them and put them in jail? Have Republicans considered how jail and prison affect the health and welfare of pregnant women and their developing fetuses? For those who wonder what it’s like to be pregnant while locked up– in the South, no less– have a look at Jessica Kent’s video below.

Prison is not a safe place to be pregnant.

Or this shorter video about a woman in Minnesota who had to give birth while incarcerated…

Jeez… this is so sad. But at least she got out of jail sixteen days later.

Granted, these two women were not incarcerated because they were wanting abortions. But if we criminalize abortion, their stories could become a lot more common.

So… count me among those who is in favor of the abortion pill, and allowing people to make these choices safely and uninhibited by “big brother” governments run by anti-women politicians. And while I might not necessarily agree with someone’s choice to have an abortion, I also realize that it should be the pregnant individual’s decision alone, since it’s their body, and they will be the one who is most affected by the choice they make. I think Jex Blackmore showed tremendous chutzpah, taking that pill on live television… especially given that it was Fox News. And the savage part of me delights in watching Rebecca Kiessling figuratively clutching her pearls over that decision, as she asks people to “pray”. Obviously, her opinions are mostly formed by religion, which is yet another thing that not everyone embraces. And thank God for that. 😉

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book reviews, sports

A review of Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics by Bela Karolyi and his ghostwriter, Nancy Ann Richardson…

The women’s gymnastics competition is over at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. For the first time in many years, the last name “Karolyi” was not part of the Olympic action. Although I have never been the slightest bit gymnastically inclined myself, I’ve watched the sport since the late 1980s. In those days, Bela and Marta Karolyi were super hot gymnastics coaches who were known for guiding athletes like Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton to global stardom. By 1991, the Karolyis had added the teenaged phenom, Kim Zmeskal, to their stable of amazing gymnasts. At the time, it truly seemed the Karolyis could do no wrong, even if behind closed doors, things were not as they seemed.

I just finished reading the book Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics. This book, published May 31, 1994, was probably mostly written by ghost author Nancy Ann Richardson, but it’s Bela Karolyi’s life story, such as it was at that time. In the 90s, most of us either didn’t know or turned a blind eye to the abuses suffered by women gymnasts, particularly at the elite level. The Karolyis, while controversial, were also very charismatic people. It made sense that Bela would share his story with the masses. As it’s written in this book, the whitewashed version of Bela Karolyi’s tale is the stuff of which American dreams are made. It would take many years before more of the truth about the Karolyis started to leak out, and their motives and methods were questioned.

I picked up a used copy of this book a few months ago. At the time, I also purchased Kerri Strug’s book, Landing on My Feet: A Diary of Dreams. Both Bela’s and Kerri’s books are out of print, so I had to wait for physical copies of them to reach me. Kerri Strug was one of Bela’s gymnasts, and she’s best known for sticking her second vault at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when she was badly hurt. In the wake of Simone Biles’ controversial decision to withdraw from most of the Olympic events in Tokyo, there’s been a renewed interest in Kerri’s famous Olympic story. Consequently, I’ve noticed a lot of people hitting my review of Kerri Strug’s book, which I wrote in April of this year.

Kerri’s book got to me much faster than Bela’s did, and as I recall, I managed to read it within a day or so. It was an overwhelmingly positive book, even the parts about disgraced former physician, Larry Nassar, who was there to help Kerri after Bela carried her off the floor following her historic vault. I think I actually meant to read Bela’s book first, and threw Kerri’s into my Amazon cart as an afterthought, not realizing that Kerri Strug would be remembered at this year’s Olympic Games. But as it turned out, Bela’s book would prove to be less interesting and relevant than Kerri’s book is, especially in 2021. Kerri Strug is now relevant, while Bela Karolyi no longer is.

Feel No Fear begins with a story about the 1979 Gymnastics World Championships, which were held in Forth Worth, Texas. At the time, Bela Karolyi, and his wife, Marta, were the women’s gymnastics coaches in Romania. They had brought a young team of gymnasts with them to Texas, along with Nadia Comaneci, who had recently gotten back into shape after having been “kidnapped” from Karolyi’s tutelage and “trained” by less oppressive coaches in Bucharest.

Nadia had injured her wrist, and Bela had dressed the minor wound the night before, but a Romanian official– Bela’s nemesis– had spirited Nadia away to a local hospital. There, doctors had supposedly done a surgical procedure on the injury, numbing and heavily bandaging it, and effectively rendering Nadia useless to the team. Bela was, of course, livid, but at the time, he was subject to the whims of government flunkies who did the bidding of Romania’s dictatorial president at the time, Nicolae Ceausescu. The Fort Worth story isn’t resolved until later in the book; it serves as a hook to get people invested in Bela’s story.

After setting up the scene, Karolyi’s life story starts at the beginning. Bela Karolyi was born September 13, 1942, in what was then Kolozsvár, Hungary, but is now Cluj-Napoca, Romania. He was the second child of an engineer father and his mild mannered wife, and younger brother to his older sister. Karolyi mentions that his paternal grandfather was a very gregarious Hungarian man who liked parties and pretty women. His grandmother was a very stern German woman. Karolyi, who thinks he’s a bit like his grandfather, explains that his grandparents split up, and he was denied much of a relationship with his grandfather. Bela laments that he never really got to know the man, especially since his father was more like his strict and apparently humorless and demanding German grandmother.

Bela Karolyi’s father wanted him to follow in his footsteps as an engineer. But Bela was more interested in sports. Bela’s interest in sports and lack of affinity for the sciences caused friction in his home. When Bela decided to study physical education instead of science, his father threw him out of the family home. Bela Karolyi had to live by his muscles and wits to get through university. He pursued sports with a passion– hammer throwing, handball, track, and boxing, specifically. He had to take a gymnastics class as part of his studies and apparently hated it, at first. But then he met Marta Erőss, who was also an ethnic Hungarian. Marta had been a gymnast in high school, and was also studying physical education. The two were a love match, and they got married in 1963.

The story/legend continues, much as I’ve seen it depicted in movies like Nadia

I watched this movie on TV years ago. It was made in 1984. Kerri Strug wrote in her book that she watched it many times. Nadia herself once said that this movie was “pure fiction”, but Bela Karolyi’s book indicates that this movie is pretty accurate. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Karolyi explains that he found the Romanian regime oppressive. He was constantly at odds with government officials, who wouldn’t let him run his program without interference. In 1981, having been forced to lead a team of Romanian gymnasts, including Nadia Comaneci, on a U.S. tour, Bela and Marta Karolyi, along with the team’s choreographer, Geza Poszar, decided to defect. They lost their minders in the busy streets of New York City. At the time, the Karolyis didn’t speak English, and they only had one of Marta’s aunts to help them assimilate. Their young daughter, Andrea, was still in Romania, and they weren’t sure if they’d ever be able to get her out of there. They had no home and no money. Still, through apparent grit and determination, the Karolyis were able to claw their way into the U.S. gymnastics scene, and they went on to create a “powerhouse” of women gymnasts.

Karolyi writes a bit about some of his more famous American clients, to include Dianne Durham, one of the first Black elite gymnasts. Durham recently died, and her first name is repeatedly misspelled “Diane” in the book. He includes comments about Mary Lou Retton, Kristie Phillips, and her mother, Phoebe Mills, Chelle Stack, Brandy Johnson, Rhonda Faehn, and Kim Zmeskal. I found this part of the book interesting, although I also thought some of his more candid comments, particularly the negative ones, were kind of telling. I remember reading an unofficial manuscript Chelle Stack’s mother wrote about working with Bela. It seems there wasn’t much love lost there.

Throughout the book, Bela Karolyi comes off as passionate, dedicated, and even kind. He includes several well known stories about how he achieved the American Dream. Some of the stories are kind of funny, like, for instance, his tale about how, when he was learning English, he thought the term “son of a bitch” was a compliment. Karolyi is supposedly an animal lover who loves dogs, and thought it was a good thing to be called a “child of a dog”. He writes that he’d actually wanted to be a veterinarian, but lacked the political and social contacts in Romania to achieve that dream. Physical education was actually Karolyi’s second choice of a career.

This generous, humorous, and gregarious side of Karolyi’s was also the public persona most people saw, especially when he was on television. However, in the wake of the gymnastics scandal of a few years ago, we found out that this was mostly a facade. Gymnasts like Dominique Moceanu have spoken out about Karolyi’s methods, which were said to be abusive and even sadistic. In fact, just this year, there was a book published in Romania called Nadia and the Securitate, which includes information about Bela and Marta Karolyi. It was written by Romanian historian, Stefjarel Olaru, and based on interviews with Romanian gymnasts and records kept by the Securitate (Romania’s secret police during Ceausescu’s reign). The gymnasts reported that the Karolyis beat and starved them, and in fact, Comaneci supposedly attempted suicide by drinking bleach when she was fifteen years old. She reportedly was happy to be hospitalized for two days, because it meant she didn’t have to go to the gym.

I remember reading this article. It made Nadia sound like a bulimic tramp.

I remember in March 1990, an issue of Life Magazine came out. Nadia was on the cover, as she had recently defected from Romania, just weeks before the Ceausescu regime fell. I recall reading that article in the library at Longwood College (now university), shocked by the negative way Nadia was portrayed. She reportedly had bulimia and was “narcissistic”, although it later came out that the much older man who had helped her escape Romania was actually holding her captive. Nadia revamped her image and is now married to fellow Olympic gold medalist gymnast, Bart Conner. But I clearly remember that in the early 90s, Nadia was depicted as some kind of “euro trash”, while her former coach was supposedly the greatest gymnastics coach ever. I guess it just goes to show that you can’t always trust what you read.

I think Feel No Fear is basically well-written. The ghostwriter did a good job making the story sound like it came directly from Bela Karolyi. There are two photo sections, which include old photos of Karolyi and his family. Those photos might have even been worth the price of the book. However, I think this book is largely whitewashed PR, which depicts Karolyi in an undeserved flattering light. I notice that Karolyi is quick to take credit for successes and just as quick to deflect blame when things go wrong. There’s no question in my mind that many of Bela’s methods were extremely abusive, even if the Karolyis did produce some champions. I wonder if the fleeting fame of a gold medal is worth a lifetime of psychological and physical trauma. I suppose I’d have to ask Karolyi’s former gymnasts about that. Karolyi himself is reportedly now suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.

I did find Feel No Fear to be intriguing reading, although perhaps not in the way Karolyi had intended it to be. It’s especially interesting to read about Karolyi’s methods in the wake of Simone Biles’ decision to look after her own mental health and well-being, over taking one for the team. Biles was one of Larry Nassar’s many victims, and she has suffered incredible stress. Not only was she under tremendous pressure to perform perfectly at the Olympics this year, but she’s also had to contend with her brother’s serious legal issues, which only now seem to be rectifying.

I think if Bela or Marta Karolyi had been coaching this year’s gymnastics team, Biles would have been under intense pressure to perform, even if it meant seriously injuring or killing herself. As the world witnessed back in 1996, Bela Karolyi had no problem spurring his gymnasts on to fame, even when they were seriously hurt, as Kerri Strug was. Yes, Kerri stuck her vault, but at what price? And isn’t she very lucky that she didn’t permanently injure or kill herself on live TV?

I don’t think Feel No Fear is widely available anymore. I do think it’s worth reading, if only for historical purposes, and if only to demonstrate how much bullshit the U.S. gymnastics machine has been peddling for so many years. Joan Ryan’s 1995 book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, is the first one I remember reading that shined a light on just how abusive the sports of women’s gymnastics and women’s figure skating can be. It’s taken over 25 years for people to realize how right Joan Ryan was, especially in light of Larry Nassar’s abuses. Remember, Nassar was regarded as a “nice guy”. Gymnasts trusted him because he was “kind” and gave them food and comfort, while coaches like the Karolyis (and others) would scream, throw things, starve them, and even beat them to get results. That trust set them up for even more egregious abuse.

The Karolyis defend themselves.

I, for one, am glad to see this sport evolving, and people like Simone Biles, who is unquestionably extremely athletically gifted, showing everyone that there’s more to life than winning… and more to gymnastics than competing at all costs. I hope she’s able to continue to usher an end to the abusive era in which Bela and Marta Karolyi encouraged and participated. I admire the Karolyis for their ability to get out of Romania and succeed in the United States, but I do not appreciate the unethical manner in which they achieved those dreams– by abusing impressionable and ambitious young women (and their parents) who simply wanted to win at all costs.

As for Feel No Fear, I think it’s a well-polished and whitewashed version of the Karolyi legend. It’s an enjoyable enough read, if you don’t know anything about gymnastics or the truth regarding the Karolyis. But I think anyone who knows anything about elite gymnastics during the Karolyi era is going to see this story for what it really is… well-formed and highly polished bullshit.

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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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