MY MYSTERIOUS MOTHER: BEAUTY QUEEN, REBEL LEADER, NATIONAL ICON
CHARMAINE CRAIG ON THE AMAZING LIFE AND TIMES OF LOUISA BENSON CRAIG
I do not speak Burmese, yet I understand from my late mother that pon is one of those Burmese words that are impossible to translate. “Power. Wisdom. Karma. Insight,” she once explained to me cryptically. “When your pon is elevated, you think on an elevated plane—very little about yourself, and always about others.” She hesitated. “Pon can also mean memory. You were born with too much of this type.”
This was nearly 15 years ago, when I had begun interviewing her in preparation to write a novel based on her experiences in Burma, the country of her birth, renamed Myanmar in 1989. I pressed her—I always had to press my mother, gently, to elaborate on a past that she seemed unwilling to revisit—and asked what she meant by my having been born with too much memory.
“You were just about one year old,” she said. “Not out of diapers, yet talking. You convinced me that you had once been my mother.” With a shift of her gaze, she seemed to push away the thought, just as she had apparently tried to push away my pon with a ritual aimed at making me forget my past life. The ritual had been simple, she said: feeding me rice from the lid of a pot under a stairwell when I was a baby. Was this dulling of my memory the reason that I was called so strongly to untangle the truth from the legend of her life?
Disparate details of that life had been sketched for me by Burmese expatriates living in places from Bakersfield to Paris—details emphasizing my mother’s iconic status as both a beauty queen and a revolutionary. More than once I heard, “When she wore slacks, we wore slacks,” or, “Because she had curls, we wore our hair curly.” My American father often reminded me that the Burmese government had placed a price on her head—a thrilling and terrifying tidbit, as it underscored my mother’s importance in her homeland and the fact that, if she were to return, she could forever be taken away. When I was an undergraduate, a photography professor, having recently returned from a shoot in Asia, indirectly accused me of lying about my mother’s whereabouts. I claimed she had been a longtime resident of Los Angeles; he looked me in the eye and told me to stop the charade—“She’s been spotted riding a white horse through the jungle, protecting her people,” I remember him saying.
Even as a very young child, I’d been aware that, somewhere out there, a nation of citizens regarded my mother as something of a queen, and I’d felt heartbroken when strangers in our California home assumed she was my nanny or our family maid. Yet my mother wasn’t proud of her status among the Burmese. Her disregard for image and popularity became a lesson in self-respect, one that eventually encouraged me to walk away from a burgeoning career in film and television in the 90s, when I was most often sent out on calls to play “exotic” types and aliens from outer space. Writing afforded me dignity—a dignity I felt I could endow my mother with in prose, if only I could get beyond her reticence, her humility, and her desire to keep my pon low and my memory of the past shadowy.
Known by her maiden name, Louisa Benson, my mother was not Burman, the majority race in Myanmar. Her father was Sephardic, and her mother was of the Karen ethnic nationality, one of Burma’s indigenous and chronically oppressed peoples.
She was born on the eve of Burma’s involvement in the Second World War, when the Japanese invaded, led by a band of Burmans wanting to oust the British. Her father led the family out of Rangoon on a nightmarish 900-mile trek to northern Burma. Strewn everywhere along the mountain roads was evidence of the massacre of minorities: corpses missing an arm, legs, a head, a breast, genitals—always the genitals—mutilated, chopped off, impaled, abdomens ripped open and disemboweled. And the screams. The screams and groans of the not yet dead whom no one dared to help.
Eventually, my grandfather was captured and tortured—terribly—yet he survived; they all survived. The family even went on to flourish in the post-war years, as my grandfather established an empire of trucks, ice factories, and bottling plants that would make him one of the wealthiest men in Burma. Their living room housed a beloved concert-grand Steinway, the mango tree-lined path to their portico welcomed a daily parade of vendors, and their home, like my grandfather’s businesses, was staffed with Karens—an increasingly downtrodden people to whom he now gave himself out of gratitude for their protection of him throughout the war. In 1946, he financed a Karen goodwill mission to England to plead the Karen case to the British government. When that had no effect, he joined other Karens in peacefully appealing to the government for equal rights for all of Burma’s peoples. But the Burman-dominated government proved to have another agenda.
In early 1949, civil war erupted. One night, at the age of seven, my mother was secretly sipping crème de menthe out of a little liquor glass before one of her parents’ parties—she remembered how the servants had powdered and polished the floor until it shone like a mirror, how the guests streamed into the house, and how a family friend, wearing a cravat, swooped her up and twirled her around to the strains of Nat King Cole—and the next night shots were being fired across their estate. It was the beginning of a second season of violence, loss, and exile: my grandfather would be tortured and imprisoned for years; my grandmother would disappear for months at a time, searching for ways to support her refugee family. Upon the fatherless family’s return to Rangoon in 1951, blood covered their looted villa’s walls and bullets fell from the trees whenever it rained.
My mother’s foray into the world of beauty pageants at age ten was a direct response to her father’s imprisonment. The plan, hatched by her mother, was to captivate the wife of the district commissioner. So taken was the woman with the tender pleas of this “doll-like” girl in Burmese court clothes that my grandfather was released at once—though soon he was put under house arrest.
Ironically, as her family’s freedom and financial assets were stripped away, my mother’s fame skyrocketed. Her particular combination of artlessness and “exotic” Jewish-Karen beauty—black curly mane, dewy wide-set eyes, and Sophia Loren-like curvaceousness—became a phenomenon of national pride. When she was 15, she won her first Miss Burma title; at 17, she won her second. But she was a reluctant beauty queen. “I had to be taught how to walk in heels, how to pose. It was a nuisance,” she told me. “I’d much rather have been out playing soccer in the mud, or climbing trees.” In order to fund her brother’s American education, she at last agreed to star in a Burmese film, which catapulted her into the kind of fame that can be crippling for one who values unselfconsciousness. Nevertheless, after a stint studying in America (where she met and briefly dated my awestruck father), she starred in another film: she had her family’s welfare to consider, and she learned to tune out her celebrity.
Still, fame defined her life; she was courted by the country’s political heads of power, including Katie Ne Win, wife of General Ne Win—Burma’s Prime Mister and the military leader responsible for my grandfather’s imprisonment and decades of atrocities committed against the country’s peoples. Katie Ne Win was a socialite who enjoyed having an entourage of young stars around her, and she used her power to force my mother to attend her extravagant parties. My mother’s proximity to the Ne Wins caught her in a round of political mud-slinging: Accused of being Ne Win’s lover, she escaped to Hong Kong, where she was rumored to be having an abortion. Hospitalized later for an emergency appendectomy, she was said to be recovering from a stabbing by Katie.
Brigadier “Brig” General Lin Htin was a Karen 16 years my mother’s senior and one of Burma’s most notorious rebels. He had a bullet lodged in his skull, illegitimate children scattered across the country, and the distinction of having been reported slain countless times. When he asked my mother to marry him in 1964, he was in Rangoon pursuing peace negotiations for the Karen—negotiations that would soon irreversibly break down. The marriage was a sensation, and before long the spies following them numbered in the tens and twenties. My mother and Brig were forced underground, to the jungle war zone. “I would open my eyes at night,” she told me, “and see Brig beside me, looking up at the ceiling, strategizing.”
A year into their marriage, Brig and my mother lost their only child, an infant boy; and then Brig, too, disappeared. Before leaving her in the jungle to attempt another round of peace negotiations, he paused, as if prescient, and cautioned her never to believe rumors that he had been killed. He would someday resurface, he promised. When he didn’t return, she received communication from Rangoon authorities declaring him dead and urging her to return to the city to be reunited with her family. But her father-in-law radioed her conflicting information: “Do not come back. They will chop you into one thousand pieces.”
The next year marked the period she would later be most unwilling to speak about. Yet, as I learned in the weeks after her death—when one of her remaining sisters sent me 26 pages of reflections my mother had penned as many years earlier—it was a period about which she had been willing, haltingly, to write. In these reflections she elliptically describes how, after Brig’s disappearance, she donned military garb, cut off her long curly hair, and led his brigade toward a mountain range where another faction of the Karen Army was stationed, one resistant to the peace talks Brig had pursued. “Brig’s men looked to me as a leader who would negotiate for them so that they would not get swallowed up.” She dispatched neutral villagers to the rival Karen brigade headquarters, requesting safe passage, and was permitted to advance with one bodyguard. The two of them had to cross the Salween River to reach the rival brigade’s headquarters, and when they arrived, she was presented with traditional Karen women’s clothing. “But I politely refused,” she writes. “Dressed like a woman I would be at a distinct disadvantage in our negotiations.”
Her written account stops short with this, though I know from what she and others have told me that my mother successfully convinced this general to reconcile and pursue a shared agenda of pan-ethnic peace—an act of huge significance at that critical juncture, when the government was reigniting its ruthless program of dividing and subduing ethnic minority groups. Still, the details of what she went through in the year that followed—when she lived as a soldier on the Thailand-Burma border and acted as a liaison to other ethnic leaders—remain cloaked in mystery for me, as do her reasons for parting from her people in 1967 and marrying my father, who, after eight years of unuttered love for her, had connected with her family (now mostly in America), at last confessed himself to her in a letter, rendezvoused with her in Bangkok, and arranged for her to enter the US as his wife.
“When you do something, you have to think about yourself and others,” my mother often stressed to me. “If you think only of yourself, you’re no better than a cow.” For a time after my birth, she was drawn into the cocoon of parenting. Yet all along Burma called, and with the Burmese military crackdown in 1988, she reemerged as a leader in the Burmese pro-democracy and human rights movements, advocating passionately for inter-ethnic dialogue and protections for children and the displaced, and eventually facilitating the resettlement of what would be over 50,000 refugees to this country.
Not long after I abandoned my first version of the novel based on her life, my mother died, in February 2010. A few days later, I ventured to a modest yellow house serving as a Burmese Buddhist monastery in Baldwin Park, Los Angeles, where I had been invited to a ceremony in her honor. I had never visited the monastery before, but I knew it was a place where my mother—though not Buddhist—had both given and received consolation, a place inhabited by the monk she affectionately called “Pon Pon,” whom she had met while pursuing an internationally ground-breaking lawsuit on behalf of unnamed plaintiffs in Burma (the corporation Unocal had turned a blind eye to the displacement, forced labor, murder, rape or torture of tens of thousands of villagers by the country’s military during the construction of a gas pipeline).
Memory was not yet for me a powerful antidote to loss, as it would become later, when I would write the final version of the novel that will be published this May. As the monks at the monastery, including Pon Pon, recited rounds of discordant prayers, I searched for signs of my mother’s spirit everywhere: in the reflective glass of a cupboard that shelved sacred objects, in the white picture of day through the open window, in the face of the Buddha over the altar, in Pon Pon’s surprisingly innocent eyes.
Following the ceremony, Pon Pon and I sat alone near the altar and he pointed to one of the folding chairs lining the walls. “She sat there,” he said, and then, pointing elsewhere, “and she sat there. And, another time, there. Tell me, do you think she is here with us?”
“What do you think?” I ventured.
“I asked you first,” he countered. “When I heard that you would be coming, I told myself she would come with you, that maybe she would come here.” His uncertain eyes moved from mine back to the edges of the sanctuary. “I cannot believe she is dead. I don’t believe it.”
For a span, we sat in silence, wondering, I think, about evidence and faith, disappointment and disbelief.
“You know,” he continued finally. “She was my friend. And when I speak about my friend, I want to cry. She had a beautiful mind. And she was part of our hope.”
The child in me still yearned for her world to begin and end with mine, though I knew—had always known—that she was Burma’s.