The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood is one of the most positive but emotionally destabilizing and unusual personal memoirs I have read in many years.
It tells the coming of age story of New York Times diplomatic correspondent Helene Cooper who started life as the privileged child of Liberian political aristocracy. Her DNA antecedents founded Liberia — both Elijah Johnson and Randolph Cooper — nationless Africans born in and living in America who were returned to establish a new colony on the African continent as an alternative to slavery.
I read Cooper’s book in January 2008, many months before its scheduled September release date, and I’ve been struggling with the issues it raised ever since.
I told her I wanted to write a review right away — and was told I’d pay a heavy price if I did. (She wanted me to wait — so wait I have had to do.) The book was supposed to be out earlier in the summer, but got selected as Starbuck’s September book of the month, which held up its release — despite the fact that a serialized section of the book was already in the publication schedule and ran as a front cover story of the New York Times Magazine in April. I mentioned the book only in passing in a blog post about Cooper’s sister, Marlene Cooper Vasilic, who had won a fishing contest in DC for her catch of a monstrous sized carp.
I’ve now gone from being one of the first who could have reviewed the book — to one of the last now that incredible reviews have run in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and just about everywhere else.
But it doesn’t matter. My own connection to this book is different than those who have offered praise for Helene Cooper’s storytelling skills and her striking candor about a childhood world lost due to revolution and change in Liberia. I think that those have celebrated Helene Cooper’s story have done the right thing — but the book dug into me more deeply than I expected.
When I read Sugar Beach — which I know she wrote and rewrote, and then rewrote, and rewrote again — I felt some sense of the personal pain she went through as she tore her own soul apart to become the person she has today. This is her story, but in some sense, it’s the story of many who have become successful and are proud and ashamed at the same time. I feel that way about myself some times as I didn’t come from a life of privilege but wanted to believe that I did. My world was ripped apart when my father died on my first day of college — and I’ve been creating, ripping apart, and recreating myself and who I was ever since.
Helene Cooper’s childhood was best punctuated by the memories of her sisters — one related by blood, Marlene, and the other adopted, Eunice — in a 22 room house at Sugar Beach outside of Monrovia, Liberia.
Cooper’s family was crowded with big personalities. Her uncle was foreign minister and was executed during the downfall of the Liberian government. Just about everyone in the government was a relative, or associated with relatives of her clan. Helene and her sisters watched her uncle and other relatives and friends die at the hand of executioners on television.
Her family connections on her father’s and mother’s side of the family were the equivalent of a hybrid of the Rockefellers and Jeffersons with a mix of the Andrew Jackson clan. This selection which references the “Cooper compound” gives one a flavor of where her family sat in Liberia’s pecking order. Helene and her sister, Marlene, were spoiled children — privileged would be an understatement given the less than miserable circumstances that so many others in Liberia suffered through each day. Eunice was adopted to be a playmate of Helene and Marlene — and had her own family elsewhere — but was taken in by the Cooper household as a real member of the family, a custom of sorts that Cooper’s parents upgraded by making sure that their many servants never treated Eunice any different than the other two.
Then one day, the President of Liberia — a man who had grown distant from the on the ground realities of those living in his country — tried to raise the tax on rice. While many other factors interceded that helped a relatively stable nation disintegrate into run amok anarchy, the spark was this increase in the burden that those with the least in Liberian society had to pay. Ethnic and tribal divisions were already tense — as they had been for decades. It didn’t take much to finally get revolution to ignite. Such surcharges on basic foodstuffs have been significant destablizers in Kenya, Congo, Tanzania, and elsewhere.
But many died in the revolution that ensued. And social norms and habits — at least those generated from the dominance of many by a privileged sect at the top — came undone.
Helene Cooper tells the story of how her mother protected Eunice, Marlene and Helene from a marauding gang of US military-trained thugs loyal to Samuel Doe in the overthrow of the rice-tax raising democratically elected and subsequently assassinated President William Tolbert. The Cooper children were eyed by the renegade Liberian military at their home at Sugar Beach — and Helene’s mother negotiated with the soldiers to allow them to gang rape her while the children waited upstairs. Eunice, the adopted sister and daughter who had come from the roughest of life circumstances into privilege, calmed the other two and kept them from racing to their mother’s aid.
Eunice and the Cooper family were separated when their mother and father — divorced but friendly — and the two daughters got visas to the United States. Eunice was left behind. Family members were executed or had everything, all of their possessions, stripped from them. The heirs of those who had established Liberia as a colony of Americanized Africans returning to their ancestral continent were decimated and run out of the country.
But the high drama of this story is not what moved me — though I found myself embarrassingly ignorant about basic African history and the history of African-Americans here in the United States.
What got me was how Helene Cooper who is a top tier journalist in the United States survived the assault on her life and basic identity — and then remade herself. The last part of her book talks about growing up in the South in an average home where she was no longer the spoiled child whose family had implied ownership of the same church pews for hundreds of years. Cooper never became ordinary — nor did her sister’s — but she did somehow manage to navigate past the luxury of “things” and became a junky for the world of words and ideas.
I didn’t grow up in a world torn apart by macro forces of the category 5 storms that ripped up Liberia’s government and social structure — but I was a product of a complicated homelife where I was constantly rebelling against the socialized blandness of military base culture in which my father and mother barely survived and which I found myself constantly gasping for air. The moment I escaped from my own young life circumstances, my dad died at the age of 39. And I feel that I’ve been cursed and blessed by the experiences I had before — and somewhat of an occasional chameleon — unable to be what I was when I grew up and given different options of who I wanted to become later.
Helene Cooper’s story tore into me because her story was one of a brilliant writer and thinker — now with America’s top newspaper — a privileged and emotionally crippled child who became something great. But sadly, millions of decent people — decent either as kids of prominent people or decent as ordinary folks just trying to get ahead in the communities in which they live don’t necessarily become the success story that Helene Cooper became.
But still her book honors them and speaks to those folks who have their lives torn up. It offers hope.
This summer, after many years of not seeing each other or being united, Helene and Marlene Cooper made arrangements for their lost sister, Eunice, to come back to the United States for a visit. Helene had found Eunice when she went back to Liberia after the fall of Charles Taylor and the installation of a new democratic government. Helene Cooper was honored as one of Liberia’s most successful exports and had lunch with a number of other accomplished women with Liberia’s new president.
But she found Eunice and this summer brought her to Alexandria, Virginia where I sat with Eunice and coaxed a number of the old stories out of this adopted Cooper sister and out of Helene’s mother who is still a feisty and tough negotiator of life’s big things and its nooks and crannies. I have tremendous respect for Helene Cooper’s mother and sister Eunice — as well as for Marlene and Helene Cooper for keeping family together despite the best effort of enormous forces to obliterate what they have with each other.
The Coopers have shared the kind of story that sells books and about which a movie will no doubt one day be made. Their lives were crushed and perforated by a change of course in Liberia’s history — but reading this book, for so many reasons — the way Cooper wrote it in such an alarmingly basic way — in the language and filter of of a young, naive girl — where you sense her shock at a grittier life and feel her become aware, finally, after so many years. Helene Cooper’s narrative is one that people all over America and the world could also call their own. . people everywhere who have to somehow cope with life-shocks the size of tsunamis.
I loved this book — and it moves me to the edge of choking up when I delve into it. I’ve read it twice now, and had a hard time writing this review. . .though I think my friend Helene Cooper has been waiting. It’s deep — and everyone should read it.
Helene’s mother used to call her “sea crab” when she was annoying, naughty, out of line — it’s almost a compliment. We need to be able to be something else on occasion to get beyond who we once were — whether born high or born well but less materially endowed.
But to cap it off, I felt I had accomplished something when I got Helene’s mother, Mrs. Cooper, to call me “sea crab.” It may sound silly, but that gesture sort of leveled things out and helped me feel the power Helene’s mother had to wrestle down life’s dramas.
— Steve Clemons