Column: Book Fare

Singer's “Legacy of a False Promise" – a memoir that matters

Cover for Margaret Fuchs Singer's memoir.

When a member of my book group recommended Margaret Fuchs Singer’s recently published “Legacy of a False Promise: A Daughter’s Reckoning,” I assumed the longtime Ann Arbor resident’s contribution to the literature of America’s red-diaper babies would be another account of growing up with a parent who joined the Communist Party in the 1930s, became disillusioned but still refused to inform on former comrades – and suffered for it.

I got it wrong.

Singer’s father, Herbert Fuchs, cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee. He informed. He named names. He told the whole truth – about a profound commitment and a profound mistake – and suffered for it.

His family, of course, suffered for it, too.

Singer’s story opens on a June evening in 1955, when she was 13 and her father, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C., reveals to his son and daughter that their parents had been members of the Communist Party – and that he expected to be subpoenaed soon by HUAC.

The news stuns her:

“… My father might as well have told us that he and my mother were convicted felons. Or terminally ill. … What I had learned about Communism I had learned from the media, which reflected our government’s conviction that Communists were the ultimate enemy of the American people, an evil threat to the free world, a force determined to infiltrate our cities and take over the minds and lives of innocent Americans, just like me.”

Committed Communists

Singer’s parents were labor lawyers in New York City who saw in the Communist Party in the 1930s an organization committed, in Fuchs’ words, to “social reform, opposition to fascism, fighting against unemployment and bigotry.” And like many other well-educated, left-wing intellectuals, they were drawn to Washington by the possibilities of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Frances and Herbert found jobs in the federal government: she with the Bureau of Labor Statistics and, later, the War Production Board; he went from a Senate staff position to the National Labor Relations Board, where he led a secret unit of employees who were party members. Singer’s parents joined another party group in Denver after Fuchs relocated there to work at the National War Labor Board. But by the end of the war he had grown disillusioned with the CPUSA and, after returning with his family to Washington, left the party in 1946.

Nine years after that, Fuchs was subpoenaed by HUAC. Using her father’s journals, Singer lays bare his anguish and examines the complex factors that went into his decision to cooperate. And she shares the overwhelming anxiety, loneliness and shame that consumed her as her father’s past became not only front-page news but the talk, albeit hushed, of the neighborhood. Decades later, Singer learned of the “neighbor-to-neighbor calls cautioning the parents of our friends not to let their sons and daughters associate any longer with ‘those Fuchs children.’”

Her father’s troubles added to the sense of being an outsider in a community, Singer writes, “where my parents’ liberal views stood out as strange, where houses a block from ours were closed to Jews, and where jeering boys called me ‘Jew girl’ as I walked home from school.”

Cause Célèbre

The hard left shunned Fuchs. From the crank right came nasty, anonymous phone calls to the family home. And American University fired him – mere days after a memo from AU President Hurst R. Anderson proclaimed that it “would be beneath the dignity of the institution” to do anything but support an “intelligent, loyal and devoted teacher” who made “a serious mistake in his past, which he has recognized and declared.”

Fuchs’ dismissal and AU’s refusal to reconsider became a cause célèbre among anti-Communist mainstream liberals. The Association of American Law Schools and the American Association of University Professors recommended AU’s censure. Even William F. Buckley’s brand new National Review chimed in, criticizing the persecution of a witness who had assisted with what the magazine saw, of course, as vital work by HUAC.

“Every time you turn,” Singer said, in an interview, of the dizzying complexity of the affair, “there’s another way of looking at it.”

With assistance from HUAC Chairman Francis Walter, Fuchs eventually found work on the staff of then-House Judiciary Chairman Emanuel Celler, where he remained until his retirement. In the intervening years, Singer’s parents rebuilt a life that included meaningful work and friendships as well as travel and other comforts of middle-class American life.

“It ended, and we just closed it off,” she said.

But the emotional fallout remained. Singer writes that the anxiety present in her household even before her parents’ past became known stayed with her, leaving her with a “crippling, amorphous fear that affected my personal and professional life.”

And “the shame that they were Communists … and then shame that they named names…,” she said, “it lasted our whole life.”

‘Resolving the Trauma’

“I was not destined to write,” Singer said. In high school, she tried to put her family’s experience into words for a class project and “bombed utterly. Couldn’t get any of the feeling, any of the emotion.”

Author Margaret Fuchs Singer, next to a display that includes her memoir at the downtown Borders store on East Liberty. As of Thursday, the store had sold 45 copies of the book. (Photo by The Chronicle)

Author Margaret Fuchs Singer, next to a display that includes her memoir at the downtown Borders store on East Liberty. As of Thursday, the store had sold 45 copies of the book, “Legacy of a False Promise: A Daughter’s Reckoning." She'll be holding a reading there on Feb. 9. (Photo by The Chronicle)

It would be decades before the possibility resurfaced. “It was at the point at which my parents died,” she said, “and I started to read.” She started with “Loyalties: A Son’s Memoir,” by red-diaper baby Carl Bernstein, “and then the need to write just really overwhelmed me.”

What resulted is what Singer calls “a memoir informed by research” whose principal aims were “resolving the trauma” and laying out the full story for the next generation.

“I really had a need to tell my children and my two nieces as best I could, as truthfully as I could, what happened,” she said. “Because I really didn’t think anybody else was going to dig up all that stuff.”

It took guts to write this book. Singer not only returned to a painful youth in order to bare “the family secret,” but in her reading and the study of her parents’ papers discovered and investigated another, darker possibility: could her mother – perhaps knowingly – have spied for the Soviet Union?

“The fact is, the American Communist Party was a group of very enthusiastic people who had goals that were as good as they could be,” Singer said. “They worked very, very hard for their country, they weren’t disloyal, they thought that the Soviet Union represented a hope for the future of working people, racial relations, anti-fascism.

“At the same time, I am now convinced, without any question, the Soviet Union had as a goal to get help in the U.S. getting information.” The CPUSA, she says, was “the obvious” tool to get that job done.

Singer believes her mother would have understood the motives behind “Legacy of a False Promise.”

“The family secret really wasn’t doing me any good,” she said. “And I don’t subscribe to keeping family secrets when you don’t have to. I actually experienced freeing myself of the shame by writing the book. And she would have approved of that.”

Of her father’s approval, she is less certain.

Early in the book she recalls his warning: “’I don’t know what will happen, and I must ask you not to discuss this with anyone.’” For decades the words and the fear remained with her. Her father was a private person, Singer said, and “a man who was basically a very decent human being: ethical, conscientious, hardworking, very bright, who was human. And in some ways his greatest strengths were also his flaws; it’s a tragic story.

“But I think it comes across as a portrayal of a man who is really a good man. That’s what I think. Without actually being self-serving about it, without making excuses. If I did that, then I think that that’s a good thing.”

More From an Interview With Margaret Singer

A recent show of support: On Jan. 19 at Nicola’s Books, a big turnout – at least 50, Singer believes – of friends, family, colleagues and others bearing congratulations left her “geeked.”

Her long-term support system: Singer and fellow authors Susan Morales (two as-yet unpublished novels, “Mornings One Winter” and “A Barroom View of Love”) and Brenda Meisels (the self-published “Family at Booknook”) have met every two weeks for the past 10 years to share feedback on manuscripts-in-progress. “It is so gratifying,” she said, to have “no doubt about their being in your camp and respecting you and your ability to write.”

The meaning of tenacity: Singer says she wrote about 90 query letters in her effort to find an agent and a publisher for “Legacy of a False Promise.” She realized early on that a university press would be the best option, and working with the editors at The University of Alabama Press turned out to be an “absolutely fabulous experience.”

A legacy of McCarthyism at the University of Michigan: The UM Senate’s annual Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom. In 1954, UM suspended three members of the faculty (it later reinstated one of them) for refusing to testify in front of a group from HUAC who were visiting the campus. The senate established the lecture, named in honor of the targeted faculty, in 1990 and passed a resolution criticizing “the failure of the university community to protect the values of intellectual freedom.”

A “fellow traveler”: Journalist Kati Marton took a literary journey similar to Singer’s. “Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America” (Simon & Schuster, 2009) is Marton’s examination of the lives her journalist parents in Communist Hungary and the consequences of their choices for their two daughters. Singer said she drew up her courage and sent Marton an e-mail “listing the ways I related to the book; I felt a kinship to her.” Marton replied moments later: “I’m going out now to get your book,” she wrote; “thank you for your kind words about mine.”

Margaret Fuchs Singer will read from “Legacy of a False Promise: A Daughter’s Reckoning” on Tuesday, Feb. 9, at 7 p.m. at Borders Books, 612 E. Liberty St. in Ann Arbor.

About the writer: Domenica Trevor is a voracious reader who lives in Ann Arbor.

One Comment

  1. By Nancy Brickman
    February 4, 2010 at 12:59 pm | permalink

    A very accurate and informative article on this important book, and a great picture of my friend Peggy Singer! Thank you for covering the publication of this book as both an Ann Arbor event and a contribution to the history of the McCarthy era. Thoughtful pieces like this one in the Chronicle are very much appreciated, especially since the demise of our local paper.