Harriet's Secret…or Harriet's Revenge?

Last Friday evening my wife and I got to do something that doesn’t happen very often around here: go to a movie première, in this case that of the documentary Harriet’s Secret.

The film is produced and narrated by Dean Arnold, who is a well-known figure in this community.  As the trailer conveys, it’s an intriguing story.  For me personally, it’s especially intriguing for three reasons.

The first is that both Dean and myself had to answer the same question: what do you do when you rummage through your own family stuff and realise that you’ve got an interesting story on your hands?  The answer is simple: you do a lot more research and then figure out a medium to convey that to the public.  In his case, the film is the result of the research.  In my case, I took to the internet here and here to get the job done.  Which to choose–or select another path, such as a book–depends upon many things, but they boil down to the resources you start with and where you want to go: the nature and abundance (or lack) of records, access to financing and other resources, and your long-term goals.  In my case, part of the reason I went to the internet with the material, say, surrounding the family business was to intertwine the history with keeping the product line alive, something which has worked out very well.

The second is that, in watching the film, I think it’s pretty certain that his family and mine crossed paths along the way.  Harriet Thompson, the central character, was from Chicago, and until my great-grandfather moved to Washington just after the turn of the last century it was the centre of the family’s business and residence.  Chicago between the Civil War and World War I was the planet’s premier “new city,” at one point the fifth largest city in the world.  Only Berlin rivalled it.  Given its subsequent history, and the tendency of the media centres of New York and Los Angeles to talk about themselves endlessly, that’s easy to forget, but it shouldn’t be.  And of course some of my family made it out to Los Angeles as well.

The last point relates more to the present: what do you do when you find out (or know going in) that the values of the family members are substantially different from yours? That’s a problem that both Dean (a well-known Orthodox Christian activist) and I had, although it played out differently.  Harriet’s husband Percy was a full-blown radical, especially after they moved to California, with friends such as Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, and Clarence Darrow.  With mine it was different: as I explained a long time ago, my people were practical people with little time for idealism.

The answer to that is simple: you tell it like it is, or was.  It’s tempting to excessively editorialise, but it’s best to avoid it.  There is one thing that Dean and I both end up doing on a personal level: putting paid to the idea that this country was a seamless Christian country until the 1960’s showed up.  That puts the “culture war” in a new context, one which is badly needed these days.

But yet…there is one interesting twist to both stories.  Dean does a more thorough job of documenting it than I do, but without doing a big spoiler I came away with the idea that twentieth-century modernity was more fun for the men than the women who had to live with them.  For Harriet it was a special agony with the radical version of the “girl next door” but while Chet was making aviation history my grandmother found herself stuck in neutral.  The term “martyr” has been applied to both; that kind of thing, as much as the usual religious meme beloved of the left, may have fuelled the feminist kick-back of the 1960’s and beyond.

That kick-back may also have driven those who came after to seriously re-consider (or consider) Christianity, with its higher idea of monogamy and (for Evangelicals at least) endless marriage seminars.  Many on the left will laugh at this, but it’s time for people who just moved to the city (literally or conceptually) to stop dominating the agenda.  History is a more complicated than the simplistic memes of either side.  Perhaps the dutiful “martyrs” not only get their due recognition, but in the end they get even too.

One Reply to “Harriet's Secret…or Harriet's Revenge?”

  1. So glad to see that my project also struck a chord with your own journey of processing your ancestral past, as well as looking to find a way to tell best tell the story.

    Not only was Harriet from Chicago, she met Percy on the train leaving Chicago, because Percy had come up for the summer to enjoy the 1893 World’s Fair in that great city. Percy’s grandfather (my 3rd great) invented the Pullman Sleeping Car, and the Pullman Company (also Chicago based) had a major exhibit at the fair that year.

    There’s nothing new under the sun, and that’s obvious by reading all the various sexual perversions outlawed in the Old Testament. However, Americans have some sort of notion that Americans did not know anything about immorality until the hippies arrived in the Sixties. I do they think they were a little more discrete.

    Glad you could make it to the show. We’ll see what kind of traction it gets with the festivals.


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