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. In those days, it 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. And so, it made sense that Bela would share his story to 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 with, 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 the 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. He was born in Romania on September 13, 1942, the second child of an engineer father and his mild mannered wife. He also had an 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, who had been a gymnast in high school, and was also studying physical education. The two were a love match, and they got married.

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 aftermath 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 insane 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, she stuck her vault, but at what price? And isn’t she very lucky that she didn’t tragically 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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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: Nadia Comaneci’s Letters to a Young Gymnast…

Here’s another reposted book review, this time about women’s gymnastics. It was originally posted August 22, 2016, and appears here as/is.

I was only four years old in 1976, when Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci became the first female gymnast to earn perfect 10s on her Olympic routines.  I grew up loving horses, not gymnastics.  I have absolutely no talent for gymnastics.  I’m not very coordinated and could never so much as turn a cartwheel.  I didn’t start watching the sport until 1988, when I was 16 years old and started noticing American athletes like Phoebe Mills and Kristie Phillips, both of whom are my age.

Nevertheless, I heard a lot about Nadia Comaneci when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s.  I grew up during a time when a number of European countries were Communist and closed off from the rest of the world.  I was always fascinated by what was behind the Iron Curtain.  I even lived in the former Soviet Union for a couple of years right after it fell apart.  As I started to become interested in watching gymnastics, I also became interested in Romania, which has been a source of so many great gymnasts since Nadia’s day.  Thanks to YouTube, I have been able to watch Nadia as a gymnast in her prime.  Even today, forty years after her victory in Montreal, I still think she is one of the most beautiful athletes I’ve ever seen.

Bear in mind that the floor she’s tumbling on is not nearly as springy as today’s floors.

Maybe it was the Rio Olympics that made me finally decide to read Nadia’s 2003 book, Letters to a Young Gymnast.  I’ve had it downloaded for awhile, though.  I finished it last night and I have to say, Nadia’s story is really fascinating.  The book is written as if she’s corresponding with a young person who has written her letters.  She refers to her unknown correspondent as “Friend” and makes it sound like they have been corresponding for awhile.  She writes about what it was like to train with Bela and Marta Karolyi when they were young coaches in Romania.  She explains things that a lot of young people of today would not understand because they are not growing up in a time when so much of Europe was cut off from the Western world.

For me, reading about Nadia’s experiences living in Romania under Ceausescu are fascinating.  I have done quite a lot of reading about Romania in the 1980s.  I’ve even seen some Romanian films; there are some surprisingly interesting movies coming from Romania, a country I haven’t yet visited but have always found intriguing.  Like a lot of Americans, I had seen the dramatized 1984 movie about Nadia’s life called Nadia.  Based on Nadia’s book, the movie did get a lot of the basic stories right, though some of what was presented as factual in the movie was not quite correct.  Nadia tells her story from her perspective, which for me, was very illuminating.

Nadia post defection.

I liked that Nadia addresses the way the Karolyis have been criticized by Americans for being too strict and abusive toward their athletes.  Nadia explains that she never saw the Karolyis as abusive.  She lived in a country where people had little food because their dictatorial leader was exporting everything that was produced in Romania.  Because she was an athlete, Nadia and her teammates ate very well.  They were taken care of much better than most of their countrymen.  It wasn’t until she was a young woman in her 20s that Nadia began to experience what life was like for ordinary Romanians.  In fact, in her case, it was somewhat worse because her coaches defected.  For several years after the Karolyis left Romania, Nadia was under constant scrutiny by the Securitate (Romanian secret police during Ceausescu’s era).

When it became clear that Nadia’s gymnastics career was “over”, she was treated more like everyone else.  When she turned twenty-five, a large chunk of her meager pay was withheld by the government because she was childless.  Imagine that.  She was being paid about $100 a month and a lot of that money she never saw, all because she had not produced any babies for the state.  Nadia writes that during Ceausescu’s era, women were ordered to have children.  Fetuses were considered state property.  Most women under age forty-five were escorted to doctors every three months to see if they were pregnant.  Nadia writes that she never had to go, but other women did.  More babies were born, but there wasn’t enough food for them and their mothers were not getting proper care during their pregnancies.  Nadia even references an excellent book about Romania during the Ceausescu regime, Red Horizons by Ion Pacepa.  I read that book myself several years ago and would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about what life under Nicolai and Elena Ceausescu was like.

I remember back in 1990, I read an article in Life Magazine about Nadia’s daring defection from Romania.  She and a group of other Romanians decided to flee the country in late November 1989.  I was then a senior in high school.  No one in that group had any idea that there would be a revolution within just a few weeks and the terrible Ceausescu regime would dramatically fall apart.  Nadia writes that she was going crazy in Romania, working a boring desk job with barely enough money to eat and heat her home.  She wanted something more and knew she was unlikely to get it in 80s era Romania.  So she decided to leave.

I distinctly remember reading the article in Life, which was entitled something along the lines of “Fall From Grace”.  It basically portrayed Nadia as a cold hearted slut.  The author wrote about how Nadia was dressed, with too much makeup and short skirts.  I remember the writer’s insinuation that Nadia was bulimic.  She wrote about how Nadia ate from her companion’s plate and then disappeared into the bathroom, coming back smelling “sickly sweet”.  Here’s a link to an old article from People magazine that depicts her in much the same negative way.  And it seems that Nadia’s story has also been “told” by actress Katie Holmes, who may have some things in common with the gymnast.

Nadia explains that during that time immediately after she defected, she barely knew any English and had dressed the way people in Europe were dressing at the time.  She was ignorant about the local mores and did and said things to make her look unappealing to the American public.  I think part of her problem was the fact that she had little experience dealing with Westerners and didn’t know much English.  Part of the problem comes from the fact that she is apparently very introverted and doesn’t show emotion to others.  She initially came across as cold and unfeeling, which doesn’t appeal to a lot of Americans (even though she notes that Americans are generally a lot less physically affectionate than Romanians are).  I think that many Americans didn’t know what to make of Nadia back in 1990… and poor Nadia was dealing with some pretty significant culture shock.  Aside from that, her country was in chaos.  She’d risked her life escaping Romania, not knowing that had she waited a few weeks, she probably could have left with less drama.  But then, maybe if she’d done that, her story would have ended differently.

Nadia Comaneci has been married to fellow gymnast and Olympian Bart Conner for over twenty years.  I always thought they made an interesting couple.  Bart Conner is very friendly and extroverted.  He’s been a gymnastics commentator and always comes across as super people oriented.  Nadia, on the other hand, seems much more reserved and mysterious.  I enjoyed reading Nadia’s perspectives on how her relationship with Bart Conner bloomed into marriage.  They now live in Norman, Oklahoma and run a gymnastics school.  They have a son.  Nadia is a naturalized American, but she has kept her Romanian citizenship.  She loves Romania and, apparently, Romania loves her right back.

Anyway… I did very much enjoy Letters to a Young Gymnast.  Perhaps this book is even more interesting to those of us who remember when Communism was a reality in many more countries than it is today.  I would definitely recommend this book, not just to young readers, but to middle aged people like me.

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book reviews

Repost: Red Horizons, a book about the fall of the Ceausescus…

This as/is book review of Red Horizons was first written for Epinions.com on October 3, 2010. It was reposted on my original blog on June 16, 2014. It goes well with Ken Alibek’s book, Biohazard, which I also reposted today.

Comments from 2014

I’m reposting this review of Ion Mihai Pacepa’s Red Horizons because I found it as interesting as I did Ken Alibek’s Biohazard.  Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were the extremely corrupt leaders of Romania until they were publicly executed on Christmas Day in 1989.  Of course, in Romania, it might not have been Christmas.  Maybe they celebrate on a different day…  I might be persuaded to look it up if I weren’t feeling so icky today.  Anyway, if you like reading about kooky, paranoid, and tyrannical leaders, you might find General Pacepa’s book as much of a page turner as I did.  I love reading about former Communist nations.

Review from 2010

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of books about totalitarian regimes. A few months ago, I was on a North Korea kick, but soon found my attention turning to Europe. Somehow, I was alerted to Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa’s fascinating 1987 book, Red Horizons: The True Story of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescus’ Crimes, Lifestyle, and Corruption. I ordered the 1990 reprint of this book in July and just now got around to reading it. Now that I’m finished with it, I’m left feeling somewhat stunned. It’s not so much that I’m surprised by the level of corruption and crimes committed by the Ceausescus. It’s more that General Pacepa has provided such a detailed, fascinating, and ultimately revealing image of the dictator and his wife and the tragedies they committed against their country and its people.

Who is Lt. General Ion Mihai Pacepa?

Ion Mihai Pacepa was born October 28, 1928 in Bucharest, Romania. Currently 81 years old, his father once worked in General Motors’ Bucharest factory and, through his work, developed a great love for America. According to Red Horizons, Pacepa grew up instilled with respect for the United States, yet he ended up becoming one of the highest ranking members of the Securitate, the secret service of Communist era Romania. At the time of his defection to the United States on July 28, 1978, Pacepa was a two-star Romanian general who held both the rank of advisor to former President Nicolae Ceausescu, acting chief of Romania’s foreign intelligence service, and state secretary of Romania’s Ministry of the Interior.

What qualifies Pacepa to write this expose of Communist era Romania?

Because Pacepa held so many roles in Ceausescu’s regime, he was in a rare position to observe the president and his wife, Elena. And in his book, Red Horizons, Pacepa doesn’t hold back. In captivating prose, Pacepa vividly describes what it was like to be Nicolae Ceausescu’s right hand man. He also offers an unflattering look at Elena Ceausescu, a selfish, contemptible, disdainful woman who fancied herself a scientist, but never quite delivered the goods to be a legitimate scholar.

What’s in the book…

With the literary grace of a novelist, Pacepa writes a lot about the Ceausescus’ oppressive leadership style, but he also reveals a lot about their limitations as people. The mighty former president, who demanded absolute loyalty from his people and had absolutely no qualms about executing anyone who dared to speak out about him (even if they were living abroad), was an unusually short man who stuttered whenever he got upset or nervous. He was so crippled with paranoia that whenever he traveled, he brought an entourage of staff and trunks of linens, towels, dishes, and food with him. He never ate any food that wasn’t prepared and seved by his own trusted personal chef and waiter.  Even when he stayed at fancy hotels in Washington, DC or New York, Ceausescu never relied on the services of hotel employees.  It was too risky.

Ceausescu’s clothes were made by a special Romanian staff. He wore a set of clothes exactly once, then had the whole set burned.  Every year, he wore and then destroyed 365 sets of clothes and shoes.   Elena occasionally cheated with the clothing rule; occasionally, she found clothes in Paris or London that she liked and would wear repeatedly.  These measures were taken in an effort to avoid being poisoned by anyone who would, quite understandably, want to see him dead.

Pacepa writes about how much the Ceausescus especially hated Jews and Hungarians and worked especially hard to see that they were especially oppressed in Romanian society.  His hatred for Jews extended to every Jew, according to Pacepa, who writes an almost comical account of a meeting Ceausescu had in New York City with former Mayor Ed Koch.  I won’t spoil the story by revealing it in this review; suffice it to say that by Pacepa’s account, if hard feelings could kill, Koch would have been a dead man.  In fact, any Romanian who threatened or angered Ceausescu was liable to end up the victim of an “unfortunate accident” or a severe beating, even if they no longer lived in Romania.  By Pacepa’s account in Red Horizons, it was not at all hard to make Ceausescu angry.

While the Romanian people suffered long lines for basic necessities, had one black and white television for every fifty houses, and were at one time legally required to have at least four children, the Ceausescus were demanding Rolls Royces, expensive jewelry, private jets and yachts, and even their own private hospital.  The Ceausescus were relentless in their attempts to suppress any dissent whatsoever within Romania.  At one point, typewriters were outlawed and anyone who had a typewriter had to register it.  Every citizen, even children, had to submit handwriting samples to the secret police.  And forget about privacy.  While the Ceausescus shamelessly bugged the homes of private citizens, even going so far as to listen in on one hapless couple’s late morning lovemaking session, Nicolae Ceausescu was famously paranoid about his own homes and offices being bugged and zealously guarded his privacy. The Ceausescus demanded accountability from every citizen, yet until they were tried for their crimes against Romania, refused to ever be held accountable themselves.

Pacepa’s account of all of this is written in shades of several different emotions.  He alternately writes with airs of disbelief, anger, sarcasm, derision, and even humor.  I don’t know if General Pacepa had any help from a ghostwriter. None are credited in my edition of this book. He writes as though he spent his whole life in America, with astonishing fluency. And while it’s impossible to know how much influence, if any at all, the Central Intelligence Agency had in the making of this book, I think this book will be very revealing to the average American reader, many of whom likely know next to nothing about the Ceausescus.

Pacepa includes a brief photo section. Pictures are in black and white and a few are a bit grainy. They’re still fascinating to look at. In the 1990 edition, there’s also a new preface as well as a transcript of the closed court hearings of the Ceausescus’ trial.

One possible drawback…

Although Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were executed on December 25, 1989, this book doesn’t really have much information about that event. In fact, since Pacepa defected in 1978, there’s not much information about the society beyond that time. From what I understand, the 1980s are when things really went south in Romanian society. Those who want to know about that portion of Romanian history will need to consult a different source.

On the other hand, the day after the Ceausescus were executed, Truth, the Romanian daily newspaper, began printing excerpts from Red Horizons for all Romanians to read. I can only imagine how the Romanian people must have felt to have this sudden truth illuminated for them after so many years of oppression.  This is one book in which the truth may well be stranger and scarier than fiction.

Overall

I found Red Horizons enormously interesting reading. After finishing the book this morning, I found myself wanting to learn more about this particular chapter in history and read more of Pacepa’s writing. Fortunately, over the years, he has contributed a number of articles to The Wall Street JournalNational Review Online, and The Washington Times.

The very last speech.

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