Empathic Tourism: The Atlantic Peddles Alex Tizon’s “My Family’s Slave” as an “Epic Story”

by Andrew Kim
1 June 2017

For its June cover story, The Atlantic published a posthumous piece by the Filipino-American journalist Alex Tizon (who died unexpectedly in March) titled “My Family’s Slave.” Tizon’s article highlights the circumstances of Eudocia Tomas Pulido (“Lola”), who was the Tizon family’s household slave for over sixty years. At the age of 12, she became a possession of Alex Tizon’s mother in the Philippines and was brought to the United States when the Tizons emigrated there. During Alex Tizon’s childhood, he and his siblings witnessed Eudocia’s daily subjugation to brutal and callous treatment by their parents. Her domestic labor was unpaid and unending. She did not have her own private room. Estranged from her family in the Philippines, she was forbidden from visiting them, even when she heard that her parents had died.

Reactions to Tizon’s piece were gurgling, effusive, and sentimental. Tearful readers enthused on Twitter over the account’s “moving” complexity and painful subject matter. Jeffrey Goldberg, senior editor of The Atlantic, advertised it as one of the best pieces published in The Atlantic in recent years. As the author vaguely considers his own complicity with and perpetuation of slave ownership in the article – at the same time that he eulogizes Eudocia’s death and grieves over the life his family had robbed – readers have responded with resounding sympathy. This particular wave of reader response is disturbing. The sympathy glances off “Lola” herself, rather reflecting empathy and sensitivity back onto the self-image of the reader and the writer. Instead of reacting in anger or horror at Eudocia’s lifetime of suffering, the sentimental reader identifies with Alex Tizon’s regret and loss. This borrowed identification appropriates the emotions of the owner while cathartically absolving the writer and reader of guilt.

Words like “complexity,” “nuance,” and “beauty” underscore the pleasure of the reader and are meant to identify the reader with the slaveowner over the slave.  This kind of language not only apologizes for the ethical failures of the Tizon family, but it cripples readers’ capacity to recognize and denounce oppression.  The Atlantic’s presentation of the article primes the reader to approach the slave narrative as a “story” (an “epic story,” in the editor’s note) of the distant Other, which can be aggrandized and appropriated into a form of empathic tourism. On the cover of the June issue, Eudocia cuts the figure of an ennobled slave, rewarded for her endurance and devotion through the pensive eulogy of her benevolent owner. She is also optically coded as a foreigner, especially in the online publication, where her younger self is framed in a black-and-white photograph, “My Family’s Slave” headlined underneath it as if to further disassociate her from “the land of the free.” The fact that the Tizon patriarch and matriarch are non-white immigrants sketches a penumbra of otherness around the slave narrative that seems to remove her slavery from American history and American implication. The use of the word “slave” in this context works perversely, evoking titillation in the face of some imagined foreign-influenced barbarism at the same time that it evokes self-congratulatory abolitionist sentiments.

Tizon’s attempts at a confessional just further reinforce the family’s history of secrecy, silence, and enclosure. Eudocia’s slavery was kept a secret for the entirety of her American existence, and in her obituary, released in 2011, she is described as a beloved grandmother-like figure devoted to her family; her subordinated status is erased. Tizon’s confessional in The Atlantic domesticates and personalizes her life in a way that implicitly tries to redeem aspects of the master-slave relationship, but it also keeps America on the “outside” – outside the household walls, out “there” where liberation truly resides while the backward and foreign-born Filipino immigrants keep Eudocia under lock and key. Tizon tries to teach Eudocia how to drive, imagining that “she could drive away anywhere,” as if she had any place in America to go. In reality, the Tizon’s emigration to America was the ultimate nail in the coffin for Eudocia’s liberty – the most disastrous thing to have happened to her. The realities of America advanced and retrenched her slavery because it kept the Tizon family in the dirt for so long.

Alex Tizon’s account of Eudocia’s long-term subjugation sufficiently damns him and the other members of his family. (The whitewashing of her life in her obituary is a case in point.) It is therefore wrongheaded, even if well-intentioned, to cast Alex Tizon’s disturbing confessional in terms of journalistic mastery and emotional sensitivity. But it is also wrong to keep the blame solely within the Tizon family and ignore what it means for this story to be told to an American audience. When Goldberg in the editor’s note deems the piece an “enthralling and vexing story of [Tizon’s] immigrant family and its terrible secret,” he is marketing Eudocia’s suffering as an experience in empathic tourism. When he extols the piece as the latest in a long tradition of abolitionist journalism published in The Atlantic, he is demonstrating the self-congratulatory liberal tendency to obscure the realities of the oppressed with the rhetoric of “universal freedom.” The sentimental American reader of Tizon’s piece, by focusing attention on familial “love” and the author’s ruminative regret over the injustices that kept Eudocia in a life of coerced servitude, redeems histories of oppression by rewarding their capacity to be experienced as private pleasure instead of public outrage.

Andrew Kim is pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

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