Pandora’s Inspiration


Courtesy of “The Time Is Now,” I gave the veterans’ writing group the following prompt:

In the story of “Pandora’s Box” in Greek mythology Pandora, the first human woman created by the gods, opens the lid of a container, allowing all the evils stored inside to escape into the world. In contemporary colloquial usage, to “open a Pandora’s box” refers to an action that seems small or harmless but ultimately proves to have disastrous consequences. Write an essay that starts with a seemingly innocent action, which then unexpectedly unleashes a dramatic chain of events.

Russell Library asked if I would conduct a three-week writing program for veterans in connection with the One Book series based on Unbroken. Laura Hillenbrand’s riveting book recounts the story of Louis Zamperini – budding felon, then track star who competed in the 1936 Olympics and stole a Nazi flag from under the noses of the SS. He became a bombadier in World War II and spent more than a month floating in the Pacific only to be captured by the Japanese where he became the victim of a sadistic guard.

I said yes and met with Christy Billings, the representative from the library assigned to develop programs for “We Were There: Writing Your Military Experiences.”

We framed out the sessions with writing prompts based on Unbroken. We had a small turnout the first couple of weeks, but those who showed up wanted more – so Christy arranged for us to keep going.

That was four years ago. I’ve written about our journey before but not in this context. Here are the Pandora events. Some are dramatic. Not one is disastrous.

  • A growing admiration and respect for a group of men who have broadened my horizons and focused my views of the world.
  • Making a friend of Christy, whose insights and organizational skills continue to inspire me.
  • Meeting brilliant writers. These include the poet Nancy Meneely, author of Letter From Italy. The oratorio has been nominated for an Emmy.  Janet Barrett spoke to us and did a presentation for the library about They Called Her Reckless: A True Story of War, Love and One Extraordinary Horse. Her story led me to a magical addition to my tea collection because Reckless came from Jeju Island, the only place in Korea that grows tea. Making a personal contact with Jan Willis, whose writings have awed me for years.
  • Reading material I would never have encountered, most especially Until Tuesday about how this rebellious golden retriever with a very human expression led Capt. Luis Carlos Monalván back from a death spiral.
  • Extending our reach to the opposite side of the globe with Aussie Bob, our writing partner from the Land Down Under.
  • Meeting an energetic, creative, and inspired group of people at the Connecticut Library Association where Christy and I presented a workshop on the writing program.
  • Making contact with a growing community of veterans finding redemption through writing. Stay tuned for more on this topic.

Most of all, I take joy in the challenges that allow me to share this enterprise with the world.

What I’m Watching Now


Marina Warner mentioned several movies in Once Upon a Time, mostly dissing Disney for the final pasteurization of Perrault and the Grimms. She mentioned one that sparked my interest. Blancanieves harks back to the days of the evil stepmother as pure tormentor. Happily ever after fails here.

Warner compares the film to Pan’s Labyrinth, another with a Spanish setting. That one is a magical and brutal tale of a girl who encounters hideous and loving monsters as she tries to escape her beautiful and monstrous mother and new stepfather. The latter is a minion of Francisco Franco and brings that jackbooted mentality – and enforcers – with him.

Blancanieves (Snow White) has the magical charm that only a silent black-and-white film can offer. With the occasional screenshot of dialogue, we are transported to Castille, in the bullring, in the years when women still wore lace mantillas and fanned themselves with gorgeous pieces of ivory. What keeps the film going in the early frames is Teresa Soria Ruano who plays this Snow White, Enfemera, as a young girl. Her pet rooster makes a stellar cameo, too.

Her father, the paralyzed bullfighter played by Daniel Giménez Cacho, evokes the locked-in stroke victim Jean-Dominique Bauby from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. His performance is at once sensitive, passionate, and full of pain.

As for the stepmother, watch Maribel Verdú and you’ll be enraptured and repelled, too.

Blancanieves is proof that “once upon a time” can take a new (old) turn in the twenty-first century.

What I’m Reading Now

The rest of the lecture may be posted at some point, but so much has happened since that I want to catch up, so here’s a quick summary:

The end of “An African American Family in Connecticut” discussed my mother’s relationship to her educated, risk-taking, upwardly mobile family and examined how she mined pretty much all of them  for her fiction. I ended with a discussion of the work we’re doing on the documentary and urged people to contribute – photos, home movies, letters, memories – and funding.

Since then I’ve been reading, reading, reading.


This is another in the series. I think I learned about Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale from a review in The New Yorker. Connecticut’s interlibrary loan program has fallen into the black hole of public-private battle, so it took more than a month for it to arrive. I could have crawled to the sending library quicker. Anyway, it arrived.

Marina Warner has provided an overview of the changing attitudes toward people, especially women and children, as shown in the prism of those tales that begin “once upon a time.” She opens the metaphor with a map of two giant landmarks – works collected by Charles Perrault published in 1697 and the Grimms’ tales published between 1812 and 1857.

With chapters titled “Potato Soup: True Stories/Real Life” and “In the Dock: Don’t Bet on the Prince,” she walks through variations on the tales, offers interpretations on their underlying messages and their uses in contemporary society.

It is startling to learn that the model for Bluebeard was a man named Gilles de Rais, a commander in the army of Jeanne d’Arc. The real murderer hacks to death any number of children,  In the fairy tale versions, he kills young women. The Grimms have one of them outwit him, a deviation from the male a savior. Warner asserts that in the nineteenth century version, the tale of Bluebeard warns of the dangers to a bride  leaving the safety of her home for the unknown territory of her husband’s world, and it advocates for the necessity for having women (girls) participate in the decision about their marriage.

“Happily Ever After” comes under assault as does the formulation that Wilhelm Grimm propounded – that boys and men provide the solution, the action, while women and girls remain passive. Warner uses the example of Rapunzel. In the earlier version, the locked-away Rapunzel asks the witch why her clothes are getting so tight. The witch cuts off her hair and throws her out of the tower, realizing that a man has found his way “in.” The Grimm version has Rapunzel asking why the witch is so much heavier than the king’s son, “who only takes a moment to reach me.” No teen pregnancy here.

The most valuable contribution of Once Upon a Time lies in the historical context. “History shows us that the modern nation-state develops long after a national culture and its language.” (p. 56) She uses the example of Italy where the tales antedated the country by decades. She asserts that the Grimm brothers lived and worked in a place of turmoil and that the tales solidified the sense of nationhood. “One response to humiliation is to assert cultural riches and distinctiveness, even pre-eminence.” The brothers were “… part of the swelling movement to retrieve a record of the German spirit, through an encyclopaedic [Oxford University Press spelling] account of the German language, myths, history, customs, beliefs, and knowledge.”

It’s too bad the short history doesn’t extend beyond Western Europe with glancing looks at The Arabian Nights. Warner glides over Africa, the Caribbean, “Australasia,” and India in a single sentence.

On the whole, Once Upon a Time spins many superb tales with penetrating interpretations of the meanings underlying these stories — which aren’t necessarily meant for children.


One result of all this close contact with members of the white elite was that the James girls developed exquisite manners and refined tastes. Bertha collected antique furniture, china, and sterling flatware. The rugs on her floors were Oriental. Despite a frequent lack of funds, she was always impeccably dressed.

Bertha James Lane
Bertha James Lane

Mother described her in The Narrows in the character of Abbie Crunch.

The plain black wool coat had been brushed before she left the house as had the plain black felt hat – a hat chosen because it would never really go out of style and yet it never attracted attention. She wore it straight on her head, pulled down, but not so far down that it covered her hair – white silky hair. Fond of her hair. Two or three tendrils always managed to escape from the hairpins. … she reached up and patted the back of her head, still neat, as far as she could tell with gloves on.

Helen and Harriet both confronted the rougher side of life from members of their own race and were ill prepared to deal with it.

Helen shunned certain people as she wrote to Bertha from Hawaii. “On the car … were two colored men dressed to kill, patent leather shoes, fancy socks, etc. One of them, of a very, very dark complexion, was dressed in white according to custom here. He even had on a white silk shirt. This being so airy in its nature, fanned in the breeze, displayed a vast expanse of ebony, for he had no undershirt on.” She ended with “I often wish that there were some nice colored people here to know. I get lonesome for them.”

She also criticized the Gullah people of St. Helena, particularly in their methods of worship. These included the “shout,” or ring shout. Residents gathered on Saturday evenings in prayer houses that dotted the island. With hands clapping and feet stomping, they sang spirituals. The shouters – men, women and children – circled the crowd until many achieved a trance state. The singing and shouting continued until dawn. Helen found the practice barbaric and cited it in a report as an example of the urgent need for the civilizing influence of the Penn School.

Harriet Georgene James
Harriet Georgene James

Harriet suffered from culture shock at Hampton. She was unprepared for the rough speech and behavior she encountered. She complained to Bertha, “It seems to me that I can never adapt myself to the slang that so many of these girls use. I often tell them of it & how it sounds but my breath is wasted.”

Physical confrontations caused greater anxiety. “A queer thing happened the other night. The girls here thought nothing about it but I should have been scared,” she wrote. One girl accused another of scorching her shirtwaist in the laundry. The second girl denied the charge “and then made herself sick by crying about it.” The others rallied to this second girl’s defense and followed the accuser from classroom to dorm, pulling her hair and sticking their fingers in her face. They threatened but did not seriously hurt her, Harriet said. “This was to me a good illustration of the mobs which these hot-headed southerners can form almost instantaneously and just how treacherous they are at times.”

Harriet confided her fear of the hot-headed southerners to a friend, who shared her feelings. “[Helen Virginia] is often afraid of them & always has to bridle her tongue in conversing with them.” These two young women did not understand people who lacked the verbal skills and sophistication to settle their differences without the use of force.

Noblesse Oblige

A final factor likely contributed the most to our success. I have ambivalent feelings about it. Willis the patriarch at one point wrote to Bertha, “I think there is a deal of trouth in it as Fredrick Douglass says the best place for the negro is as near the white man as he can get.”

Willis certainly followed his own advice, as he became coachman to Connecticut Governor Marshall Jewell, who wrote this letter of recommendation in 1873.

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“To whom it may concern, The brave Sam James has worked for me for six years and is as good a man as I ever saw. Honest, reliable, faithfull [sic], a first rate driver and groom. Always on hand when wanted & what I value about as human as any thing always good natured. Marshall Jewell.”
Bertha and Helen benefited from the United Workers and Women’s Exchange in Hartford. The patrician ladies who ran the organization sought to improve the lives of factory workers and other poor girls and young women. They ran a sort of early Girls Club with a library and classes in first-aid, dressmaking, painting, drawing, and elocution. Girls as young as nine found a rest from the drudgery and dirt of the factory floor, or the kitchens and parlors of private homes. The exchange portion of the organization allowed women to bring in handiwork to sell on consignment.

It was in that context that Bertha wrote to ALJ when she was at pharmacy school, “is there anything that can beat white[?]” She underlined the white.

The philanthropist Emily Malbone Morgan was a chief benefactor. She met the James girls through the United Workers. It was she who introduced the family to Saybrook when Anna Houston James and her daughters went to stay at Heartsease, an old colonial on the North Cove where the workers were able to go for a brief rest in the summer.

She gave Helen and Harriet financial assistance while they attended Hampton. She also employed them in her summer homes so they could repay some of the money. She supplied the girls with clothing and helped ALJ pay her tuition at pharmacy school.

The Elms, Brooklyn, Connecticut
The Elms, Brooklyn, Connecticut

Helen stayed at Putnam Elms, another of Miss Morgan’s homes, located in Brooklyn, Connecticut. It had been the family homestead. “Miss Morgan wrote me a bit of the history of this house,” Helen wrote to Bertha. “Her great-grand father, Godfrey Malbone was the largest slave holder in the state. In this house are spinning wheels on which the slaves spun flax for their own garments, and in the church belonging to the estate, a gallery where they sat. In this family, states Miss Morgan, they were well treated, finally freed and are buried in the family plot with a stone to mark the spot.” I have yet to decide whether Helen bought into the “happy slave” narrative or wrote with irony.

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Helen later married at The Elms, and the register is part of the collection at the house.

Academic Rarities

Bertha Ernestine James
Bertha Ernestine James

Another factor that helped us triumph was an emphasis on education. I don’t know the source of this drive, but I believe it may have come from Anna Houston. Unlike many slaves, including her husband, she learned to read and write as a child. Her letters contained virtually no spelling or grammatical errors, and she expressed herself with absolute clarity. She also did everything she could to see to it that her children were educated. All but one completed high school, a significant feat at the end of the nineteenth century for anyone, black or white, male or female. She wrote Bertha a letter of just eleven lines in which she repeated “be sure and get home for school” or variations on those words three times.

Bertha did come home but dropped out to work in a factory so she could help support the family. She, by the way, took risks of her own when she opened three businesses – hairdressing, chiropody, and lace and linen making – that she operated as she raised her family. Bertha also saw to it that her own daughters were educated.

Helen Lou Evelyn James
Helen Lou Evelyn James


Bertha’s younger sister, Helen, epitomizes the family’s quest for knowledge. My mentor and dear friend Puffin D’Oench said when she was reading the manuscript for Can Anything Beat White? that she loved Helen’s “dogged pursuit” of education. Dogged it was.

After graduating from Hampton, Helen went to work in Hawaii so she could save money to attend college. She thought she had a chance at Columbia or the University of California at Berkeley. Her savings were insufficient, so she went to teach at the Penn School on St. Helena, South Carolina, where she saved enough to attend Atlanta University. There she studied with W.E.B. Du Bois, but she never graduated because of lack of funds. She continued to study while she was teaching at what is now Florida A.&M. I should note that her father never contributed a dime toward her schooling.

Of course the benefits of education are obvious. We acquired skills that we used to help other members of the family. I believe it gave us the imagination and flexibility to navigate in a world that would otherwise have denied us a place.

The Biggest Risk Taker

Anna Louise James
Anna Louise James

In my view, the biggest risk taker in the family was Anna and Willis’s youngest daughter. Anna Houston died of tuberculosis when Anna Louise James was eight. The little girl escaped her father’s house following his third marriage. She went to live with Bertha and Peter. Upon finishing high school, she enrolled in Brooklyn College of Pharmacy. She was not only the sole black person, she was also the only female. She graduated and returned to Connecticut where she received a pharmacy license from the state, the first African American woman to do so. She may also be the first woman, but the records are incomplete so there is no way to tell.

[I wore that necklace when I made the speech. I consider it my good luck talisman.]

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ALJ opened her own drugstore in Hartford. Soon, though, she returned to Saybrook and took over Lane’s Pharmacy. James’ Pharmacy became and remained a Shoreline institution for more than forty years. And she became and remained a beloved member of the community, revered by pretty much everyone.

The Risk Takers

Peter C. Lane
Peter C. Lane

Then there’s the Lane family. They settled in Hartford beginning in the late 1860s. My grandfather, Peter C. Lane, was the first African American to obtain a druggist’s license from the state of Connecticut. He took a major risk when he moved to the lily-white town of Saybrook in 1900 and opened Lane’s Pharmacy.

Soon a man named Porky sent a message. Porky’s messenger was a man named John, “a small man – red of face – smelling of whiskey.”

Porky told Peter … that “they” were going to run him out of town. He grabbed the “messenger” by the collar – said, “You tell Porky – that I leave here at exactly 9 p.m. I walk north on Pennywise Lane. I walk west on the Boston Post Road – same hour, same route every night – tell him to try jumping me some night – tell him to try – he’ll never walk again – none of ’em will – I come from Madagascar. … We’re killers, we slit throats, we strangle people with our bare hands.” He opened the door of the drugstore and took the little man by the seat of his pants and the scruff of his neck and tossed him out on the gravelled path.

Mother recounted that story with minor variations each time she wanted to illustrate how Saybrook’s residents had reacted to the arrival of a black pharmacist. At one point, she added a note in her journal, “Did I make up that story – about tell him I’m from Madagascar.” As far as I know she never decided. But one indication that it came from her is that my grandfather didn’t live north and west of the pharmacy until twenty years later. When he first came to Saybrook he rented a room in a house east of the store and then moved with my grandmother into an apartment upstairs.

One thing that Mother didn’t fabricate was the racist teacher she and her sister and her cousin encountered. Peter Lane wrote to The Crisis saying that his daughters and his niece had had no problems in school until about 1921. They had perfect attendance for three years in a row and “are not saucy or impudent to their teachers.” The eighth-grade teacher “told them before the whole class that they could ‘go to Glory to get a lesson.’ ” The teacher also said at the beginning of the school term that they would not be promoted and sent home a note saying that she could not teach them. “She was mean to them in every way that she could be and has exercised prejudice at every turn. If they would ask her to help them in any work she always refused. She would not even correct any of their work for a week and sometimes not at all.”

My grandfather went on to complain that there were girls entering high school much less well prepared than his daughters and his niece. When he spoke to the school administrator, his complaints were ignored. He was especially concerned at the “extra heavy expense” of putting a girl of fifteen or sixteen through eighth grade a second time. At that point, he said, the school would want them to quit. “I am a laboring man and have got to have some one to help me to get my girls through this school.” He ended his letter saying that he had been advised to consult the NAACP. I don’t know whether the organization intervened or whether he ever received an answer to his letter, but the girls finished high school on schedule.

Mother used this confrontation in her novel The Narrows. The young Link encounters a teacher who puts obstacles in his way. Once the problem becomes clear, the Black Nationalist and numbers king Bill Hod has a conversation that puts an end to her behavior.

The Best Survivor

Willis H. James, aka L.J. St. Clair
Willis H. James, aka L.J. St. Clair

The most capable survivor of the family was Willis H. James, oldest son of Anna and Willis. While he was in the military, he nursed smallpox patients without becoming ill. He overcame fever and starvation as he fought guerilla-style in the jungles during the Philippine American War. He rode the rails up and down the East Coast and out to Chicago, and he encountered the Jim Crow South at its worst. I’ll let him speak for himself. Bertha and Peter are his sister, Bertha James Lane, and her husband, Peter C. Lane, my grandparents. Louise is the youngest James daughter.

Jessup, Ga. Nov. 1, 1905

My Dear Sister: —

I would not write you but I am in a terrible fix here I got into after leaveing Savannah, Ga.

While going through this place I shot a white man for bothering me, and tried to get away but they put the blood hounds on my track and they caught me in a swamp, and tried to lynch me, but the sherriff held them from me, and got me to the jail where I am at present but the jail is guarded with white men who have guns and try to get at me. I get tried Monday morning and the sherriff is afraid they will get me when I am taken to trial and he told me if I had any folks I had better write to them at once and try and raise $35.00 before my trial to pay his guards and he would spirit me away in the night over into Florida.

Now Bertha for dear Mother’s sake dont let me stay here to be killed by these white folks when a little of nothing will save me. … Tell Pete if he can help me now as my God knows I need help I will pay it back to him dollar for dollar before spring gets here, for when I am caught I only have $1.20.

Now Bertha I depend more on you and Pete than any of the rest of the family, and if you have not got the money wire to father or Mr. Lane in Hartford and see if they can help you get it, and sister do not trust the mail to send it, but rush it at once by wire, for a letter would take to long to get here to me. Now for the love of God dont delay or it is liable to be to late to help me. get it here before Monday morning, and I will never never forget you for your kindness. Kiss Louise for me. If I never see you again may God Bless you and protect you. Good Bye form your dear brother Will. James.

Address. L.J. St. Clair County Jail Gessup Ga. % the sherriff

Ann Petry was obviously not the first person in the family who could inspire her readers. I should note that “little of nothing” $35 is now almost $1,000.