Like many people, I viewed the movie Dr. Zhivago with fascination and became an instant fan. I loved the story so much as a fourteen year old, I prefered to remain in our Volkswagen campervan reading Boris Pasternak‘s book, rather than visit the palace of Versailles.
I’ve never been back to visit King Louis XIV’s palatial home outside Paris, but I’ve seen Dr. Zhivago countless times.
Fourteen is a good age to find a passion, and from Pasternak’s book, I went on a quest over the following four years reading Russian history–particularly the Romanov version. It was only a matter of time before I found, and fell in love with, Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra.
In the dizzy days of late adolescence when life awaits and true romance only beckons, I read about the jewels, furs, snow and the dramatically lost lives of displaced Russian royalty at every opportunity. I envied Robert K. Massie’s finding the aging memoirs of Russians counts and princesses in the New York Public Library and slitting the pages with a pen knife he carried in his briefcase.
While Massie had no patience for the possible mysterious escape of youngest Romanov daughter Anastasia, the idea fired my imagination. I wrote a prize-wining short story based on the tale my senior year of high school. (DNA testing has since proved Anastasia did not escape and the woman, Anna Anderson, who claimed to be her for so many years was, indeed, a Polish factory worker.)
During my sophomore year of college, I wrote a book review for the UCLA Daily Bruin about the memoir Journey by Robert K. and Suzanne Massie. This book told of the backstory to their original personal interest in Russian history: their son’s hemophillia.
Bob, the son, was my age and I read the gripping tale with fascination. I even made my mother read it because I wanted her to see the life the Massies gave their brilliant son and his sisters: a life full of interesting people, education, and four years in Paris.
Mom recognized my yearning for an educated, international life, and merely commented, “We’re not that kind of people.”
Now as I look back, I wonder if desperate parents dealing with a suffering bleeding son rang a little too close to home for her.
Inspired by the Massie family’s difficulties, I became a blood donor. I’ve given enough pints of blood over the last 38 years that I have tracks on my arms and scarred veins.
In June, 1978 I watched the Harvard graduation on PBS where Alexander Solzhenitsyn had quite a few pointed things to say. I loved hearing the muttering Russian language and certainly appreciated the Nobel Laureate’s point of view.
I continued reading in the Russian-translated canon after I became an adult–working my way through Nabokov (I hated Lolita) and adoring Olga Ilyin’s White Road (which I wrote about here).
The week after I came home from the hospital with my first child, I got a copy of Robert K. Massie’s next volume: Peter the Great. Engrossed in the book, I nursed my newborn for hours, hardly wanting to break away from the absorbing story.
It remains one of the finest biographies I’ve ever read. I wrote Massie a fan letter, in response to which he sent me a postcard.
Suzanne Massie, meanwhile, become a russophile herself and was well-known for her talks, insights and books about Russian. I’ve got a copy of her beautiful, Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia on my bookshelf. In it, I read a history of the Romanov influence on Russia through the lens of art, music, poetry and literature.
Shortly thereafter, my mother and I revisited Journey. Two of my maternal cousins and I were pregnant when we learned my maternal uncle’s mysterious life-long “bleeding” problem was a form of hemophilia. We became well-versed on the subject when I gave birth to a third son. Fortunately, none of my children inherited hemophillia.
But I thought of the Massie’s son through the years and in 1999, looked him up on the Internet. What had become of such a promising man, particularly in the age of HIV? Hemophiliacs were affected in a disproportionate way to the rest of society.
Bob Massie not only was alive, but he had become a medical curiosity. As one of the few people in the history of HIV research to have developed an immunity to the disease, Massie the son was the focus of a program on PBS’ Nova. (The transcript can be read here.) His story is one of amazing courage, fantastic educational opportunities, important international work, and his ministry as an Episcopal priest.
He’s also a fine writer like his parents and last night I finished reading Bob Massie’s A Song in the Night: A Memoir of Resillience. The opening chapters remember a childhood of suffering and hoping for a brighter future. The middle discussed his fascination with a foreign country: South Africa, and the difference he made in helping people understand apartheid. He took his magnificent gifts, overcame enormous odds by the grace of God, and made his personal knowledge of suffering serve a good purpose for the lives of others.
I’m grateful for the insight Bob Massie gave me through his book and that reminded me of the enormous debt I owe his parents. The family has enriched my intellect, inspired blood donations, served as an example of how to raise my own bright children, and given me many hours of enjoyment.
The works of Robert K. Massie, Suzanne Massie and Bob Massie, changed my life.
Did anything grip your imagination as a teenager and carry you into a different place, time and culture? Click to Tweet