This week PEN Atlas hears from Carmen Bugan, daughter of Romanian dissident Ion Bugan, on the discovery of previously classified files about her family that were kept by secret police during the 1980s in Romania. A fascinating and moving account about dissidence, family and identity.
Sometime after the Romanian Revolution of 1989 the new government opened the files kept by the secret police (Securitate) and made them available to families who were the subject of such files. What you actually get is the cleaned up – readable, publicly digestible, indeed, publishable – version of the dossiers, not the whole of them. But still this is enough to make you reconsider your personal identity and sense of your own family and friends. I wrote to the Consiliul National Pentru Studierea Arhivelor Securitatii (CNSAS) asking for my own files and instead, thanks to a lot of bureaucratic confusion, in July 2010 I received access to my father’s. My mother asked for hers and in September 2012 she received them, almost exactly twice as many as my father’s. At the time of preparing this essay for publication we received news that CNSAS found three more dossiers (eight more volumes) on my father; I have set up an appointment to consult them this autumn.To my surprise, all of the details of my own adolescence, complete with love notes I wrote to boys thinking only they would read them, have been faithfully recorded in my mother’s archives. My yearly letter to my father in prison, his postcards to us, and the conversations my father had with the men in his cell, are all recorded, sometimes paraphrased, as are the transcripts of our dreams that we used to share with each other in the mornings. There are notes with further instructions for monitoring us written on the side of the pages as well as glosses about our state of mind or feelings when we made certain remarks that they interpreted from our tone of voice, as well as transcripts of all of our telephone conversations. To top it off, there are also records of when we couldn’t be recorded because there were regular power cuts affecting the village.Now, of course, as my father correctly states, I don’t need to read the files of the Securitate to find out who he is, by now I know who he is. But in light of having begun to read through these documents I am beginning to disagree. I am now developing a notion of his ‘archival identity’ and while this is happening, I am also going through a revolution of my own sense of identity as a member of a family with ‘archival past’. I am beginning to make space in my own sense of identity for an ‘official’ version of myself, in other words, for a diary of my adolescence written by someone else.For one thing, in these files I meet my young father – some nine years before he married my mother and she gave birth to me. It’s strange to have a ‘documented’ narrative of your young parent, indeed even younger than you are when you are reading about it. It’s like reading a story about someone else entirely. I meet the man who survived horrendous prison interrogations and torture, even though the torture is not explicitly mentioned in these files: only the periods of solitary confinement are documented with dates and places. You find out about the beatings by reading between the lines. In my own experience my father is the man who told me to eat my tomato salad and dress well to avoid getting a cold. He taught me to change light bulbs, car tires, build shelves, and made me cry every time he won at chess. In these files he is the man who attempted to hijack an aeroplane to escape from Romania following his public expression of anticommunist sentiments, the man who hiked all the way to cross the Iron Curtain with a backpack filled with lemons, chocolate, cognac and antibiotics, and slept in haystacks and coal piles to hide from armed police, the man who always did everything to ‘take the chain from around my neck’, as he still says. So it’s a bit like having two different men for one father.How did he manage to survive it all? Today he is a man for whom there exists the ‘official narrative’ of his life as a dangerous political ‘criminal’, as well as his own personal identity as someone who sacrificed his best years for the benefit of everyone else. Yet at the same time he is a man who still struggles with his own identity, that of an old immigrant planting his tomatoes in a garden far from his birthplace, forgotten by everyone.In September 2012 I took my little children, husband, and mother-in-law to the United States for a publicity tour of Burying the Typewriter, my memoir about growing up in Romania, and to see my family in Michigan. As we walked through the door to my parents’ house one night, my mother was bent over a stack of folders containing no fewer than 3000 pages of informative material on her and on us, then children. Think of all of the things that we said for the microphones, precisely because we knew they were there! And think of all the things we said because we could no longer hold them inside ourselves however hard we tried. After one of the prison visits at Aiud, we went to visit my mother’s brother at the Black Sea for ten days. The files contain the transcripts of all of the conversations we had at my uncle’s house, including details such as the money he gave to us and the one kilogram of coffee, without the knowledge of his wife, since money was tight for him too! It turns out that not only our house was bugged, but also his house, all the way across Romania, as were the houses of all of our friends, where we went to talk ‘freely’. We stood around the living-room chair where my mother piled all of those files, facing the hard evidence of what it meant to be the wife and the children of a political dissident in Romania in the 1980s.I am reading strange things about myself in my mother’s secret files. It turns out that I also had a dossier, I was followed and monitored closely. One of the pages in my file says that ‘certain international organisations and radio entities solicit freeing of Ion Bugan from prison’ and that the only people who could give these outsiders information about my father’s situation would be my mother and me. So I am reading about the food I ate in 1985, the boy I kissed in the park in 1987 and about his parents going to my mother at work to raise hell about me getting their son in trouble by my association with him. There is my letter in which I reproach him for his parents’ harassment of my mother. I was a feisty teenager and certainly one who was not easily intimidated: how did I manage to put that face on? But the ultimate figure of ‘Carmen’ that emerges from these files is of ‘a woman with troubles’ someone who tries to articulate some kind of personal independence out of the mess created by the Securitate, resulting in a string of fights with everyone about everything.This literature written by the secret police is exacting, detailed, and also, in significant ways, a lie. What is true is that we were normal people caught in the destiny of my father’s dissent and we were isolated, intimidated, hungry, and ultimately very tired. It is not true that we constituted a danger for the people of Romania. We behaved the way the secret police dictated to us: my mother was forced to divorce my father, she had to ‘disagree’ with his politics of opposition, and I applied to be a member of the young communists league, only to be publically shamed because I was ‘unfit’ for membership. The language of the files, including notes and instructions for further monitoring of our family, highlighted paragraphs, and paragraphs blotted out in black ink constitute the language of the oppressor. The details that the oppressor selected to report, the particular gaps he selected to keep in our conversations, the specific meaning he wanted to give to what we were saying for their purposes of finding reasons to further intimidate and observe us aggregate into a specialized language that needs to be properly accounted for.And then
there is the language of the oppressed – of us – oscillating between showing solidarity (in conversations we had when we thought we were out of the range of microphones) and condemnation of my father’s dissidence (in the house) and his heroic act which he committed at our expense. For me, reading these files and understanding them requires a supreme act of imagination: in one file, just three pages long, they say that the dialogue transcribed is ‘based on listening to ten audio cassettes’. This means that someone more or less wrote the dialogue pretending it was our own words. No wonder that, in these files, I address my parents with the informal tu and my parents use technical secret police language, words such as filaj (to follow very closely) which they certainly didn’t know! That is to say, our language is a mixture of ours and theirs so my fight now is to rescue our own words from the files with the help of memory. Even our speech had been stained by the way we were objectified.Some 20 years after our exile, having received ‘official’ evidence that what we experienced as a family was in fact far worse than we ourselves understood at the time, I feel betrayed once again. I am reading a three-line transcript where they recorded: ‘At 1:32am someone is trying to open the door to the room equipped with listening devices. The door doesn’t open, after which we record footsteps of someone going away and the insistent barking of the dog, as if to a person who is a stranger to the house.’ The transcript refers to the fact that the secret police were coming into our house at night in order to change their audio/video tapes. I wrote about it in my memoir Burying the Typewriter but there is something quite heartbreaking about reading the Securitate’s self-recording, whilst recording us.For some, a sense of personal identity is a matter of evolution: you wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and know who you are. Experience, family, friends, and the society in which you live shape you but in a manner which is cumulative – you build on who you know you are. For me, as I read through an ‘official’ version of my parents’ identities, my own sense of self is changed again, into what exactly, it is too early to know. For 23 years now I have been working on overcoming the sense that we were victims of totalitarianism. I have tried to blend into western society, living a life with all the normal joys and anxieties: I told myself I must start anew and succeed in a free world, am I not so very lucky I can do this? Think of all of those who died next to my father in the forced labour camps and think of all of those who died in the prisons where he sacrificed 12 years of his life. At least we could start all over again, like all the other immigrants; we could buy into the American dream. But now I read about myself as a two-year old child whom, according to an ‘informative note’, my father loves very much. Just what ghosts of beatings in a prison courtyard in the dead of winter were haunting him as he was making the colourful lights to place above my pram so I can enjoy a little bit of beauty? Here is a medical report file that says ‘the x-ray shows a fractured rib’ and below, ‘application of hammer to fingers.’ The past is the same and is not the same after reading this.The Romanian poet Lucian Blaga said that literature is the tears of those who could not cry—and that is what I am after here, an acknowledgment of suffering, of feeling that somehow does not seem to fit into all of this mess. This is the transformative quality that my writing will need to impose upon the reality of these files. That we woke up at 5 every morning, that my mother came from work everyday exactly at 15:40, me at 18:20, and that we went to bed after eating our sour soup and polenta from the day before at 22hrs is a record of our flesh and blood struggle to live. During the last spring that we lived in Romania, after we had applied for passports, we were recorded turning over the soil of our garden and planting vegetables. I am moved by how much we still wanted our garden to blossom and bloom back then, to produce a harvest that we didn’t hope to, and did not in the end, eat. For better or for worse, this biography of my family written by the secret police is testimony to the fact that we existed then – we are a record of hope and dissent that was thought not to exist in my native country at that time.
About the author
Carmen Bugan was born in Romania in 1970 and emigrated to the US with her family in 1989 as political dissidents. She has a doctorate in English literature from Balliol College, Oxford. Her publications include two collections of poems, The House of Straw (due out shortly from Shearsman) and Crossing the Carpathians (Oxford Poets/Carcanet), a critical study on Seamus Heaney and East European Poetry in Translation: Poetics of Exile (Legenda, Oxford /Maney Publishing), and the internationally acclaimed memoir Burying the Typewriter: Childhood Under the Eye of the Secret Police (Picador, UK; Graywolf, USA, 2012). The American edition of this book has won the Bread Loaf Conference Bakeless Prize for Nonfiction and the English edition was BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and shortlisted for the George Orwell Prize for Political Writing. Carmen Bugan was a Creative Arts Fellow in Literature at Wolfson College, Oxford and a Fellow at the Hawthornden International Retreat for Writers in Scotland. She is currently researching the secret files that the Romanian Secret Police had kept on her and her family and is writing a book about having lived on both sides of the Iron Curtain. She is also working with the BBC on a documentary about her family. Bugan lives in France with her husband and children.
Burying the Typewriter: Childhood Under the Eye of the Secret Police Carmen Bugan will be talking during Le livre sur les quais, a literary festival in Morges in Switzerland, on the 7th and 8th of September.