Alex Tizon was not just an extraordinary storyteller with a Pulitzer to his name. He was, by all accounts—through the life he lived and the stories he told—a truth-teller about forgotten people.
I know that’s a controversial statement in light of all the backlash he has received for his story, “My Family’s Slave,” which he wrote for The Atlantic and was published two months after he died. It’s a story that has shaken social media and erupted in worldwide discussions about such topics as race, injustice, discrimination and feudalism, depending on the lens through which you choose to view this story.
I choose to look at it simply through the lens of the writer himself, a gifted storyteller who, in the words of his wife, Melissa, struggled to come to terms with and write this story over the last four to five years of his life.
Lola had been with the Tizon family for 56 years when she passed away in 2011. Alex was 57 years old when he died this March. She had been there all his life; it was her eyes, looking at him, that was his very first memory.
Later in the story he writes, “Hers was the first face I saw in the morning and the last one I saw at night. As a baby I uttered Lola’s name long before I learned to say ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad.’”
He probably loved her more than he ever did his biological mother.
Thus, when I say that Alex Tizon was a truth-teller, I say it within the context of truth-telling in families—a concept I learned from my dear friend and one of my mentors, Dr. Honey Carandang.
The truth-teller is the child in the family who, from an early age, absorbs it all. He is the one who has the most sensitivity to the injustices taking place.
Tizon writes, “So many nights, on my way to the bathroom, I’d spot her sleeping in a corner, slumped against a mound of laundry, her fingers clutching a garment she was in the middle of folding.” Such powerful images were stuck in the psyche of a child yet to find his voice and his courage.
But tell it he eventually does, and so bravely and powerfully, digging deep into himself, unlocking the skeletons in the family closet and setting them free. How many of us are brave enough to do that?
Mental health issues
Tizon also tells a story that has mental health issues written between the lines of his family history. His grandfather had several mistresses, and by his grandson’s own telling, was suffering from some form of mental illness that culminated in suicide—but “Mom almost never talked about it.”
His own mother, who did not get to experience the love of a real mother and who was often left by her emotionally unavailable father, would grow up with serious emotional issues of her own, evidenced by her maltreatment of the only woman who showed her true love from a very early age.
Later on, we learn that the man she marries is just as wounded and troubled as her own father. A womanizer and gambler, he abandons his wife and children after 25 years of marriage, leaving no support whatsoever.
The legacy of tragedy and grief runs thick in the telling of this family’s story. Tizon’s grandmother had died in childbirth, and it was after a series of “utusans” had raised his mother that Lola came into her life, mothering and raising her and her children over the next 56 years.
He began to stand up for her when he was 13 years old, when he saw his father yell at her and punch her. But what power do you have at the age of 13? Recalling all the years that Lola took great care of him, never complaining or losing patience, he sums up his intense pain at 13 in one powerful sentence: “To now hear her wailing made me crazy.”
Tizon’s relationship with his mother would deteriorate and result in several blow-ups and hurtful words exchanged that he perhaps carried in his heart. “Her voice was so guttural and pained that thinking of it even now, so many years later, feels like a punch to the stomach,” he writes.
All throughout the story, one can feel the love and intense grief that Tizon felt for Lola’s passing and all the suffering she had to bear. In July 2016, Tizon finally took the long journey to Tarlac to bring her ashes home, five years after she died.
“More than the shame I felt for the way my family had treated Lola, more than my anxiety about how her relatives in Mayantoc would treat me, I felt the terrible heaviness of losing her, as if she had died only the day before.”
Eight months later, in March this year, shortly after completing his story about Lola for The Atlantic, he died in his sleep.
In writing his final piece, the epic story of his life, Alex liberated his family from the bondage of their family secret. He shows us what courage looks like—that it’s never too late, and how it takes just one one truth-teller, with an extraordinary gift of words, to break the shackles and set others free.