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The Oswald Family

The Warren Report appears, as if it were the last chorus of a tragedy by Euripides: “Many things the gods achieve beyond our judgement. What we thought is not confirmed, what we thought not, god contrives. And so it happens in this story.” In the fading light, the Report sums up: “Out of these and many other factors which may have molded the character of Lee Harvey Oswald there emerged a man capable of assassinating President Kennedy.”

From the shades of their anxious, detested obscurity, the calamity brought forth to view some of the most disquieting people we have ever encountered. We are given lives and desires we would not willingly have confronted, and we have seen a sort of nakedness we were not eager to acknowledge.

Oswald: There is about him a special invisibility, a peculiar opacity. Those few persons who remain in doubt about his guilt are perhaps reinforced by the impenetrability of this disturbing figure. He does not seem equal in mania or in tenacity of Idea to the catastrophic deed. He had made the most dramatic and awful efforts at self-definition but even so he remains buried, unyielding. He is pale, rancorous, with a special sullen yearning whose dimensions are impossible to measure. Odd words occur to those who remember him: he is all smirks and mutterings, silences and unsociable shrugs. We see him nearly always in some mood of strained, self-conscious chagrin. Not laughter or joking; only sulky refusals or arguments.

Oswald is a ghostly anachronism in a cast of characters completely caught up in the lusts of the 1960s. How hard it is to believe he was born in 1939, that he had just barely turned twenty-four when he died. Most of all he is a Depression figure; unemployment, despair, scarcity follow him about. The tone of his aspirations, the very notes of his formulations ring out dimly from another decade. He says he thinks of his mother and brother only as “workers.” The boom, the Eisenhower era, do not seem to have touched him. The arguments of the Thirties interest him much more deeply than Civil Rights, that great cause of his generation. He is hostile to society, but the beatnik “revolt,” centering as it does on personal relations, has nothing to say to him. His sensibility is metallic, he walks about, borne down by the iron of his backward-looking temperament. He arises as if from a troubled sleep of a decade or two. He lived in Texas, an open highway, and could not drive a car. Only his interest in Cuba connects him with the present, and even there, as always, we find obfuscation, peculiarity, invisibility.

In many ways, Oswald’s early years are the most easily understood because they come to us through our seers who foretell the future and interpret the past: the social workers and psychiatrists. Oswald with their help takes shape; he is like many another whose biography we read in the daily press. He is fatherless, underprivileged, neglected. His circumstances were bleak, especially during the New York period when he and his mother seemed to have been friendless, isolated, and confused. The seers are quick to put the blame on the mother. She is self-concerned, neglectful.

Oswald’s hopes for himself are intellectual rather than practical. He is not concerned with acquiring skills or a trade but rather with an effort to solve his problems by ideas. The striking aspect of this is Oswald’s paralysis with words. The “Historic Diary” published in Life magazine is just barely on the border of literacy. Books are taken out from libraries, but there is every evidence that Oswald was incapable of systematic, careful reading, about Communism or anything else. When he applied for admission to the Albert Schweitzer School in Switzerland he gave as his favorite authors, Jack London, Charles Darwin, and Norman Vincent Peale. The incongruity of the list points to his ignorance of all three. Yet it is pretension, the projection of his ambitions and hopes in ideological terms that stay in one’s mind as a puzzle. He seems a good deal like those lumpen intellectuals of the early Thirties in Germany and Austria, empty, ignorant, rootless men, without any gifts or skills but still with a certain conceit that made them want to make from the negative of their personalities some sort of programmatic certainty. There is nothing in Oswald’s letters or in his papers that shows any comprehension of radical polemics. His interest in Communism and the Soviet Union is of the sketchiest kind. “I am a Marxist, but not a Leninist-Marxist,” he says, whatever that may mean. His pathetic “Historic Diary” is completely free of generalizing power or political observation. He seems to know nothing about Russia; his discomforts there are not intellectual or moral but mundane, day to day.

Just as he listed Darwin and Norman Vincent Peale, so he holds up in his fascinating photograph—that profoundly interesting self-portrait he has left to posterity—two guns and two newspapers, the Communist Daily Worker and the Trotskyist Militant. There he stands in the midst of his iconography, his composition of himself surrounded by his weapons and his emblems of Idea.

Along with his ignorance, his failure with words, Oswald does not seem to have had any general capabilities. His tragic achievements—including the sure marksmanship that killed President Kennedy—can be explained only as accidental, statistical. He was fired from his job in a photographic shop, but he had learned just enough to forge, by tricks of photography, a Selective Service card for his alias, A. Hidell.

So far as we can tell, it was not so much laziness that made Oswald such a poor worker as a lack of capability and no doubt the same impatience and shallowness that appear in his intellectual efforts. His nature is secretive, but if the Report is telling us all it knows his secretiveness is more disabling than efficient. (In so far as any detective-story aspects of the case still remain after the Warren Report, the most mysterious questions about Oswald’s activities are the visit to Mexico, his letter to the Soviet Embassy in Washington, and the awful choice of President Kennedy as his victim.) He made the extreme commitment when he asked for Soviet citizenship, but he could not carry this to completion. Even his most daring decision, before he began to shoot, could not give form to his formlessness. He tried Russia for a while and then changed his mind.

Oswald seemed to feel his defection could be erased, when it suited him, washed off with a sponge. No doubt he felt this because he had been so little changed by it. Indeed he was soon back where he had started. In a letter to Governor Connolly he gives a startling indication of the way his mind worked. The letter was written from Russia, protesting the change of his Marine discharge from honorable to dishonorable. He speaks of himself and his situation as though they belonged to someone else. He calls himself “a case,” and then makes the impenetrable suggestion: “this person [himself] had gone to the Soviet Union to reside for a short time (much in the same way E. Hemingway resided in Paris.)” In some sense Oswald, even after he returned, wanted to be “this person” who had been to the Soviet Union. But of course he stopped short of Soviet citizenship and even residence and came back home with nothing accomplished except that a Russian girl had married him.

We are told that he was arrogant, but he could make little use of this because in the end there was always the problem of his great ignorance. His arrogance was only a part of his striking puritanism. The positives he might have built upon were really negatives: he did not care, apparently, for luxury or possessions and his indifference to these is another way in which he was out of touch with the 1960s. He spent a good deal of his slim earnings paying back the State Department and a loan from his brother. These were genuine acts of sacrifice and planning, a little unexpected in a drifter like Oswald and again more like the poor man of the Thirties than the giddy installment buyer of today. No matter, from what angle we view him, Oswald remains narrow and shrunken. And we are not surprised when, upon the release of the Report, sex makes an entrance into his drama. We are told he was a poor performer there, too.

Above all, Oswald was a pre-television spirit. Perhaps only a person somehow immunized to TV by the iron of his nature could actually kill Kennedy. The President and his wife were magical beings, spectacularly favored, and engraved like a tattoo on a national psyche because of their position and their natural pre-eminence as television personalities. By assassinating President Kennedy, the embodiment of the 1960s at its most attractive, Oswald suddenly cast light upon the Sixties at its most distressing. Out of the darkness there appeared Marina Oswald, a revelation we can hardly interpret. But who can doubt the coming Americanization of Russia after he has studied this young girl from Minsk? History, or events, exposed her to us in a series of frames: first, shabby, reserved, a proletarian with a tooth missing in front; in the end, on the day the Report was made public, a “famous” person, with eyelids darkened over in “Cleopatra” fashion, hair teased high, the gap in the smile filled, a people’s capitalist, a success. From the nettle danger, Marina had deftly plucked the flower, safety. Adaptability so accomplished is perhaps singular. She is like some convert, freshly lifted up; she knows us better than we know ourselves. Marina seems to have been born for her new life, even born for the American Southwest. But what an unpropitious coupling with Oswald—the boring, disintegrating zealot. This young woman, as current as today’s weather, must have been fortified in her decision by the whisperings of destiny. She herself gave voice to the whisperings when she said somewhere that she would not have married Oswald if he hadn’t been an American. In him, she seems to have seen her chance to live in fact what she was in spirit. And no sooner was she in America than she apparently began to feel about Oswald much as those contemporaries of his in high school had felt—a complete distaste for the “loner,” the turtle-like Oswald who didn’t “mix,” and who “kept to himself.” And Marina, modern girl, demanded her right to sexual satisfaction we are told; it was what she had expected, like a washing machine.

Marina Oswald has not only shown a readiness to tell the truth about her husband, but a talent for the exploitation of sub-plots. Hardly a week passes without some bit in the tabloids. She busies herself and divides with her helpers the profits of recollection. One of the most interesting actions of Marina’s—equal to Oswald’s sudden inspiration of his likeness to Hemingway—was her invitation to a television crew to cover the baptism of her daughter, Rachel. Father, what shall I do to be saved? Get yourself on TV, my child, and all will come. The television baptism is one of those instinctive transcendental unions with the over-soul. But, indeed, what other course was left? Rejection, indigence, a bleak, Russian, lower-depths suffering would otherwise have been the lot of the Soviet wife of a presidential assassin. Marina salivates when the bells ring; the country feels reassured. Her story must mean something. How to decipher the code? A news account carries her further: a collaborating writer resigned from her employ saying, “I quit because Marina has come to believe she is as important as the President of the United States.”

Oswald’s mother comes to us in the most desolating light. One can only pity her. About her, too, there is the hint of Queen for a Day, the hand waving outside the studio in the early morning, the testimonial to percentages gained by judicious purchase; but if her son is somehow pre-television, she is, for all her readiness, a television failure and comes off as a villain. The psychiatric chorus had damned her in any case: aggressive, self-centered, neglectful, ineffectual. “We warn you, Ciytemnestra, Orestes will return from exile. You will die by the hand of your son.”

Mrs. Oswald tends to mount a defense at just the moment a prudent person would withdraw or acquiesce. She defended her son against the doctors and social workers and she refused “treatment.” Now, after his “conviction” as the assassin of President Kennedy she, previously neglectful as we have been told, stands almost alone in her insistence upon his innocence. But she sees her son, not as a young man like others and likewise free of guilt, but as a counter-intelligence agent, an historical personage—by which she means, no doubt, a “celebrity.” Her son has jumped out of the mass of the looking into the company of the looked at. And call her as they will The Terrible Mother, the catastrophe, still she too has her story, the Marguerite Oswald story. She has the great disposition to “appear,” so common in this case. She realized that it was her turn now to rise up from the studio audience.

Jack Ruby and his sister, Eva, held a sort of instant wake as they sat sobbing before the television set at the time of President Kennedy’s death. In his book, Dallas Justice, Melvin Belli tells us that Ruby, turning away from his usual struggle to diet, rushed out and bought ten dollars worth of kosher delicatessen food. “We cried but we ate,” he said. Ruby, like Oswald, had had a miserable youth, observed and recorded by the angels of the state. He had been in foster homes, and was the damaged son of damaged parents. But he is the opposite of Oswald. Ruby cannot keep out of the way. He is hyperactive, chaotic, talkative. He spends and he owes; he is stingy here and prodigal there; he is sentimental and sadistic. In a rage he nearly beats to death a troublesome visitor to his nightclub, but he cries easily. He seems to be held together by bravado and there are no brakes on his feelings. One doctor spoke of Ruby as “in love” with Kennedy. The ravening lust for publicity would make Ruby “love” those to whom publicity was an unavoidable result of function and position. And his identification is nearly complete. He is drawn by the magnet of his hunger. There is the “Commie rat,” Oswald, and here is the ferocious patriot, Ruby. The confrontation is too lucky for Ruby to resist. In truth he did it, as he humbly said, “for Jackie and the children,” and what folly it was for Belli to ignore this truth in favor of electro-encephelograms, fugue states, blackouts and the “psycho-motor pool” as the prosecution called his experts. With an appalling trust, Ruby actually believed in cops and famous people, in news reporters and network men. With all his ardor, he rushed in to fill the hole and murdered Oswald. Doing away with the Commie rat was his tribute to the cops, the reporters, the TV gods, and the beloved Kennedys. Even after he was given a death sentence he could think of himself only as a celebrated person, a figure in a wax museum. “Burn my clothes,” he begged his lawyer, fearful lest they be put upon his eternal waxen image.

The Warren Report tells a sordid story of greeds too fierce to measure. The greatly favored and the greatly crippled suffer out their destinies. You feel they have been together on the stage for a long time. It was only that the light had not shone in the dingy corners before. There these impatient people, longing for immortality, were waiting to tell us something.

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