In Telling Lola's Story, A Journalist Reveals A Family Secret

May 16, 2017
Originally published on May 22, 2017 2:48 pm

Journalist Alex Tizon carried a secret his whole life.

"She lived with my family for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings, and cooked and cleaned from dawn to dark — always without pay," Tizon writes in an upcoming cover story in The Atlantic. "I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized she was my family's slave."

Lola was a domestic servant who had been with Tizon's family going back a whole generation. His family brought her with them when they immigrated to the U.S. in 1964 from the Philippines. From the outside she looked like part of the family. The reality was that Lola was forced to sleep in hallways or storage spaces. She was not allowed to go back to the Philippines to see her family, and she was isolated from the world. She worked from dawn until dark, and she took verbal abuse from both parents.

Tizon struggled with this dark part of his family's past his entire life and was finally able to put Lola's experience into his own words. But the author died unexpectedly of natural causes at the age of 57 on March 23.

Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg tells NPR's Rachel Martin that Lola came to live with the Tizons after Alex's grandfather gave her to Alex's mother as a gift.

"This is all back in the Philippines. Lola came with them to America, stayed with them as in essence the family slave and then Alex essentially — and I use this word advisedly — but Alex inherited her from his dying mother," Goldberg says.


Interview Highlights

On Lola's relationship with the Tizons

One of the interesting things here to me is that she wasn't a captive, per se — she wasn't in chains, she wasn't locked away. She could have [left], but she couldn't have, and that's sort of the point of the story. From a very early age, she worked for this family without pay, she lived with this family. When the family moved to America, it was only natural that she would go with them — but she was a slave until the day she died.

On Lola's feelings toward the Tizons

I think Lola loved the family — certainly loved the children of the family. The feelings toward the parents are probably more complicated. I think Alex and his siblings were overwhelmed by some combination of love, guilt — a very, very complicated emotional package here.

On the reach of Lola's story in Tizon's family

One of the reasons it's so hard to get this story out was he had to confront the true nature of his mother and the true nature of his father and this terrible and terrifying arrangement that they had acquiesced to — that they benefited from for decades. And so imagine you're the writer and you want to tell this story of the woman who essentially raised you and you realize that in telling this story, you're telling another story about his mother and her acute moral failings.

Morning Edition editor Jacob Conrad and Web producer Heidi Glenn contributed to this story.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Alex Tizon carried a secret his entire life. It's one he wrote about in a new cover story in The Atlantic called "Lola's Story." Tizon wrote, quote, "She lived with my family for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings and cooked and cleaned from dawn to dark, always without pay. I was 11," he writes, "a typical American kid, before I realized she was my family's slave."

Lola was a domestic servant who had been with Alex's family going back to his mother's childhood. She came with the Tizons when they moved to the U.S. in 1964 from the Philippines. From the outside, she looked like part of the family, the beloved domestic worker. But Lola was often forced to sleep in hallways or storage spaces. She was forbidden return visits to the Philippines to see her family, her entire world reduced to a single household.

Alex Tizon struggled with this dark part of his family's past his whole life and was only able to put Lola's experience into his own words earlier this year. A few weeks ago, while in the late stages of editing this story, Tizon passed away unexpectedly of natural causes at the age of 57. I spoke with The Atlantic's editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg.

So tell us, how did this woman, Lola, come to live with Alex's family?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Alex's grandfather essentially came to own Lola, gave Lola as a gift to Alex's mother. This is all back in the Philippines. And Lola came with them to America, stayed with them as, in essence, the family slave. And then Alex essentially - and I use this word advisedly - but Alex inherited her from his dying mother.

MARTIN: People will hear that word slave and project a lot onto that. I mean, it's such an inflammatory word.

GOLDBERG: Sure.

MARTIN: What was her work, and what was enslaving about her existence?

GOLDBERG: Well, the interesting thing here - one of the interesting things to me - is that she wasn't a captive, per se - wasn't in chains. She wasn't locked away.

MARTIN: She could have left of her own volition.

GOLDBERG: She could have, but she couldn't have. And that's sort of the point of this story, is that from a very early age, she worked for this family without pay. She lived with this family. When the family moved to America, it was only natural that she would go with them. But she was a slave until the day she died.

MARTIN: Did Alex's family - he has siblings, his mother. Did they love Lola and was it reciprocated?

GOLDBERG: I think Lola loved the family, certainly loved the children of the family. The feelings toward the parents are probably more complicated, as you'll see in the piece. I think Alex and his siblings were overwhelmed by some combination of love, guilt, a very, very complicated emotional package here.

MARTIN: I mean, you mentioned that she never got a salary. But more than - than that, which is significant in and of itself, she was emotionally abused. I mean, she worked from dawn to dark. She didn't often have a bedroom of her own. Alex describes her sleeping on piles of laundry. She took verbal abuse from both parents.

GOLDBERG: Right. Right.

MARTIN: This was not an easy life, and she felt like she - she didn't really have any choices. She couldn't...

GOLDBERG: No.

MARTIN: ...Exactly walk out.

GOLDBERG: You know - and I've tried to put myself in the shoes of Alex as a writer. One of the reasons it's so hard to get the story out - because he had to confront the true nature of his mother, and the true nature of his father, and this terrible and terrifying arrangement that they had acquiesced to - that they benefited from - for decades. And so imagine you're the writer, and you want to tell this story of the woman who essentially raised you. And you realize that in telling this story, you're telling another story about his mother and her acute moral failings, intellectual failings.

MARTIN: He writes in the piece that, at one point, he just has to separate his relationships. At one point, after his mother has died, he actually takes Lola into his own household...

GOLDBERG: Right.

MARTIN: ...And, quote, unquote, "frees" her, just tells her, just live your life. You don't have to clean.

GOLDBERG: Right.

MARTIN: You don't have to take care of us, just be a part of our family. But when he looks at Lola, he also has to kind of compartmentalize and - and not think about what his mother has done to her.

GOLDBERG: Right. Here are two women who raised him, two women he loved. One was the slave of another. That's complicated.

MARTIN: What were the conversations like when deciding whether or not to put this on the cover of the magazine?

GOLDBERG: Well, he's a beautiful writer, first of all. And his wife, Melissa, told me, after he died - she told me that he had a theory of journalism, which is that everyone has within them an epic story. The most normal person, average person, on the street has something within him or her that truly is epic. And this was his epic story.

MARTIN: Editor-in-chief of The Atlantic Magazine, Jeffrey Goldberg. Jeffrey, thanks so much for sharing this.

GOLDBERG: Thank you.

MARTIN: "Lola's Story" by the late Alex Tizon is in the June issue of The Atlantic. It's out today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.