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1/11/2007

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PEOPLE WHO DIED
Our tribute to some of the lesser-known lights extinguished in 2006

 

To be remembered: Once you get past the can’t-take-it-with-you trappings of life, it’s what everyone wants most in the end. That’s why, five years ago, we started taking time out when the days are at their shortest to pay tribute to those dearly and recently departed whose lives made a larger difference, whether most of us realize it or not.

After all, there was no shortage of tube time when Ed Bradley or Steve Irwin passed, no eloquence or tears spared when Coretta Scott King ended her long fight. Music nerds made up memorial mix discs for Syd Barrett, Wilson Pickett and (we hope) Buck Owens, and surely there were a few Robert Altman or Shelley Winters film festivals on couches around the country. (Maybe even an Aaron Spelling marathon or two.) Readers on both ends of the literary axis probably observed a moment of silence for Naguib Mahfouz and Mickey Spillane; on the other hand, we’re guessing thousands, maybe millions, spit when they heard about Slobodan Milosevic or Augusto Pinochet.

But there are plenty of minor notables who breathed their last in 2006 whose influence will continue to be felt for years, maybe decades, to come, who didn’t get quite the same kind of send-off.

We couldn’t get to them all (here’s looking at you, Bernard Loomis, Betty Berzon and Rudi Stern), but we found the following folks well worth remembering.

Bloodchild

Octavia Butler

As a 6-foot-tall African-American woman, speculative-fiction writer Octavia Butler always stood out in a roomful of her mostly white and male peers. But the analogy goes deeper. Butler’s works made her stand out more than her appearance ever could.

Butler was born in Southern California in 1947, the daughter of a shoeshine man and a maid. Butler’s father died when she was an infant, and she grew up in a strict Baptist household run by her mother and grandmother. By age 10, she started writing short stories. At 12, after watching a science-fiction B-movie called Devil Girl From Mars, Butler experienced a life-altering epiphany when she realized that she could tell a better story than that. Eventually, that story would evolve into her first published novel, Patternmaster, which hit bookstore shelves in 1976. In the intervening years, Butler received an associate’s degree from Pasadena City College, but her work with both the Open Door Workshop of the Writers Guild of America and the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop would prove to be more influential than her formal education.

It was her next book, Kindred, that would make her career, despite the fact that the manuscript spent years being rejected by publishers. Kindred, eventually published in 1979, bent the traditional slave narrative into a dark time-travel tale wherein Butler’s main character, an African-American woman from the mid-1970s, is transported to a plantation in antebellum Maryland. In Kindred, Butler explores the themes that would come to define her work — racism, oppression and slavery.

“What she really conveyed in her writing was the deep pain she felt about the injustices around her,” Tananarive Due, a writer and friend of Butler’s, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shortly after Butler’s death. “All of it was a metaphor for war, poverty, power struggles and discrimination. All of that hurt her very deeply, but her gift was that she could use words for the pain and make the world better.”

Butler continued exploring those themes in the Patternist series of novels, her Xenogenesis trilogy, and her Earthseed books. By the early 1990s, Butler’s writing had escaped the narrow confines of the science-fiction field. In 1995, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded her a coveted “genius” grant; Butler also won two Nebula and two Hugo Awards.

But in 1999, she moved from Southern California to Seattle and settled into a self-described hermetic lifestyle, based on her love of anonymity and her extreme shyness. The move also marked seven years of publishing silence; she acknowledged that she was suffering from writer’s block. Quiet did not mean silent, however. Her energies were rechanneled into teaching, most notably at the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and into the advisory board for the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame.

In 2005, what would become Butler’s last novel was published. Fledgling, a vampire novel set against a science-fiction background, seemed to indicate that Butler’s block had broken and that there were more novels on their way. But on Feb. 24, at age 58, Butler died as a result of head injuries sustained when she fell on a sidewalk outside her home. Butler’s legacy, however, lives on, and not just in her published works. The Carl Brandon Society, which is devoted to increasing the visibility of genre writers of color, has established a scholarship in her name that will annually fund writers at the Clarion Workshop. While the woman herself may be gone, her memory still hovers head and shoulders above her peers.

— Adrienne Martini

Let’s Build a Car

Nikki Sudden

Unlike many of the retro-renovated British post-punk bands that have recently shown up in record stores in the form of reissues and compilations, the Swell Maps were never “cool.” The Maps made one-riff wonders as awkward as teenage zits and as charmingly catchy as a soused singalong of cracking pubescent voices, and any time some modern American indie-rock band decides a single, shaky, fuzzy chord is enough to get through a whole song, you might think that band’s getting it from Pavement, but it’s kinda getting it from the Maps. (And maybe the Fall, but we’ll hold off on that story until Mark E. Smith kicks it.)

Nikki Sudden was born Nicholas Godfrey in 1956 in a small town called Solihull just outside of Birmingham, England. Three years later, his little brother Kevin came along. Perhaps in a fit of glam-era frustration, the teenage brothers recast themselves as Nikki Sudden and Epic Soundtracks, two Ziggy Stardusts trapped in a well-plotted maze of safe European homes. The primordial duo version of the Swell Maps came together in the early ’70s, as the band papered its bedroom walls with bizarro pop icons as disparate as Marc Bolan, Syd Barrett and Faust. Punk rock made the brothers realize that time was a-wastin’, finally forming a full group with friends Richard Earl, David Barrington, John Cockrill and Jowe Head. But even when the Maps began putting out vinyl, their songs still felt like the work of biological fate that had conspired to make a couple of guys spend too much time together goofing off and listening to records.

You can hear that whimsy and playfulness in every minute of the Swell Maps’ music, from the short, buzzing punk thud of the band’s classic single “Read About Seymour” or the amateurishly charming, strangely eerie ambient interludes on the band’s later albums. The Maps’ bass parts were like the Peter Gunn theme hacked down to two lumpy notes (or maybe one, if they had somewhere else to be that day).

“Let’s Build a Car” opens with a killer snot-rock guitar riff only to finish up a few minutes later with an out-of-nowhere clangorous piano solo. This was an idea so good they decided to keep doing it, the kind of mother-of-invention minimalism that makes so much of their work avant-garde in a way that goes beyond the stuff they jacked from actual avant-garde bands.

The Maps only released two real albums; the classic, rockin’ A Trip to Marineville and the darker and slightly less inviting but more beguiling Jane From Occupied Europe, breaking up just before they were about to take it to the U.S. That the records made it across the Atlantic was perhaps enough.

Aside from Pavement, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth is a fan, and for better or worse, you can hear the Maps’ not-really-ineptitude in many bands tagged “twee” (though usually those bands were actually, you know, inept). Sudden formed the Jacobites with Dave Kusworth in 1984, playing up the ’60s rock side of his musical affections and collaborating with many famous rockers, most of whom weren’t fit to change the strings on his guitar (which he probably never bothered changing anyway). Though the Maps will probably always figure the largest in Sudden’s legacy, he recorded well over 20 albums both solo and with the Jacobites, a body of work that easily dwarfs the handful of Maps records.

In 1997, at the age of 38, Epic Soundtracks died of what many believed to be a drug overdose or a suicide, though the actual cause of death is still unknown. Sudden died on March 26, and the official cause of death is also unknown. Sudden’s death was a shock, as he seemed to be in generally good spirits and good health. He had just recorded a solo album, released posthumously a few months back, and was in New York when he died, still playing shows. And while the Maps were always too snotty and bratty to get maudlin about, there’s something perfectly fitting, if undeniably sad, about the two finally being reunited.

Jess Harvell

Chairman of the board

Fausto Vitello

On the Thrasher magazine website, there is an area where readers are invited to submit remembrances of and memorials to the magazine’s founder, Fausto Vitello. Some recall skating with the street-skating scene icon (called by some “the Don” of the skate world) in the mid-1970s and early ’80s. Others pay homage in skate-speak: “You chopped mad game.” “Built to Grind, I’d rather fight than switch, Fucking Hot! Thank you Fausto.” “Skate and destroy lives on forever, no matter what. RIP Fausto Vitello.”

High praise for a magazine publisher. But to those in the skating world, Vitello, who died of a heart attack April 22, was more than just a guy who put out an independent publication full of edgy attitude. He was the man widely credited with not only reviving the sport of skateboarding as its popularity was declining in the 1980s, but also with being the driving force behind the popularity of the street scene that took skateboarding out of skate parks and empty swimming pools and onto the curbs, steps and railings of public parks, monuments and buildings.

Born in Argentina in 1946, Vitello moved to the United States when he was 9 and went on to live a life that personified the mythical American dream. He grew up in San Francisco and learned English by listening to Giants games on the radio. His father died when Vitello was 24, so he had to step up and become his family’s caretaker. He attended classes at a state university while juggling a variety of jobs — florist, bartender, Harley-Davidson mechanic, bicycle shop manager. He graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in Spanish in 1971, and he became a small-time player in skateboarding through the mid-1970s.

A drought in California in the summer of ’76 saw skaters bringing their boards to empty swimming pools and developing an aggressive vertical style, which was soon imitated in skate parks that mushroomed across the nation. Vitello and a partner founded Independent Trucks, which redesigned the “truck” mechanism that acts as the axle for a skateboard. But by the time the company was founded, skateboarding was already losing its popularity; municipalities, concerned about the liabilities the new wave of skateboarding brought with it, razed their skate parks.

When everyone else was getting out of skating, Vitello had just started buying in. “He loved sports,” his son Tony Vitello wrote in a farewell letter to his father published in Thrasher. “But skateboarding loved him. No rules, no uniforms, no censorship.”

In 1981, he founded the trendsetting publication that helped teach kids across the nation that they didn’t need skate parks and public approval to rock their sport. With the birth of Thrasher, which started out as 11-inch by 14-inch black-and-white newsprint publication that touted a punk rock, DIY, don’t-give-a-fuck attitude, Vitello ushered in the era of skating in the streets. Public monuments, civic buildings, parking lots and curbs were all fair game, and suddenly kids styling Vans and thrift-store clothing were doing ollies and kick flips all over town.

The magazine encouraged kids to view skating as a lifestyle more than just a pastime — it celebrated daring new moves, encouraged its readers to embrace rebelliousness (the magazine’s mantra is “skate and destroy”), and didn’t frown on a bit of recreational drinking or drug use, much to the chagrin of many a parent.

Thrasher is still published and enjoys a circulation of 175,000, while skateboarding is now in its fourth generation. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry, and some of its top practitioners have burst out of the underground scene to achieve full-on multiplatform celebrity status (Tony Hawk, Bam Margera). Love him or hate him, none of that was likely to have happened without the Don.

So next time you’re driving down the street and you see a bunch of street urchins riding handrails and hopping curbs with their skateboards, you can quietly thank (or curse) Fausto Vitello.

— Erin Sullivan

Mr. Right

Tyron Garner

Tyron Garner never intended to be an activist. He had never been to a gay-rights event or marched in a pride parade. But in 1998, Garner was arrested for having consensual sex with another man in that man’s home and became one of the two defendants in the Supreme Court case that struck down anti-sodomy laws across the country, finally decriminalizing homosexual sex.

Garner was born in Houston’s South Park neighborhood, the youngest of 10 children. He did well in school and liked photography. He worked various jobs, including being a cook, but was unemployed in September 1998 when helping a friend move changed his life.

Garner and John Lawrence, a medical technologist, met through Garner’s boyfriend, Robert Eubanks. Garner and Eubanks spent the day helping Lawrence carry furniture into his new apartment. Later that night, Garner and Eubanks had a fight and Eubanks left Lawrence’s apartment in a huff. Garner stayed behind, and Eubanks called the police; he told them that a “black male was going crazy in the apartment and he was armed with a gun.” When the police arrived, they found no armed man; instead, they found Garner and Lawrence having sex.

Garner and Lawrence were arrested under the 1973 Texas Homosexual Conduct Law, which made engaging in “deviate sexual intercourse” — defined as any contact between a person’s genitals and the mouth or anus of another person — with a member of the same sex a misdemeanor. Both men spent the night in jail and planned to plead not guilty when they were approached by the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, which offered to represent them for free if they would plead no contest, allowing for a challenge to the anti-sodomy law. The arrest represented a break for gay-rights advocates: Anti-sodomy laws were notoriously difficult to challenge because they were so infrequently enforced.

Garner and Lawrence agreed to fight the law, but not without hesitation. Garner, who was often described as shy, was particularly reluctant. “I didn’t think we’d win,” he told the Houston Chronicle in 2004, in one of the few interviews he did. “I didn’t enjoy being outed with my mug shot on TV. It was degrading to me.”

Garner and Lawrence’s arrests were upheld repeatedly as the case made its way through the Texas court system. Finally, in March 2003, the case made its way to the Supreme Court, but it was far from a slam dunk. In the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick case, the court had affirmed Georgia’s anti-sodomy law, ruling that homosexuals do not have “a fundamental right … to engage in acts of consensual sodomy.”

In June 2003, five years after Garner and Lawrence were arrested, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor 6-3, striking down not just Texas’ anti-sodomy laws but similar laws in 13 other states as well. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, stating that “when homosexual conduct is made criminal by the law of the State, that declaration in and of itself is an invitation to subject homosexual persons to discrimination both in the public and in the private spheres. … The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime.”

While gay-rights advocates cheered, Garner went back to his normal life. He ran a barbecue truck and liked to go dancing, until he became sick with meningitis in January 2006. He eventually lost the use of his legs and had to be cared for by his brother. He died Sept. 11 in Houston, at just 39 years old.

In a statement following Garner’s death, H. Alexander Robinson, the executive director and CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, said of Garner that “like so many, Tyron was an ordinary person whose extraordinary act of courage made this nation a better, safer and more just place for all of us to live.”

Garner himself was more self-effacing. “I don’t really want to be a hero,” he told the Houston Chronicle. “But I want to tell other gay people, ‘Be who you are, and don’t be afraid.’”

— Anna Ditkoff

Nouvelle Aventures

Gyorgy Ligeti

When the New England Conservatory trumpeted Gyorgy Ligeti as “the world’s greatest living composer” in 1993, he demurred. According to The Boston Globe, he responded, “Just call me the second-greatest. Then they will ask me who the greatest is, and I will answer, ‘All my colleagues.’”

It’s uncertain which of his colleagues will inherit Ligeti’s mantle in the wake of his June 12 death, but, his modesty notwithstanding, it’s nearly inarguable that they all remained a distant second while he still drew breath. American minimalists such as Philip Glass or Steve Reich may have more marquee value, but no other composer of the late 20th century followed as many divergent paths with as much consistent artistic success.

Ligeti’s early life and career followed a pattern common to many of the titans of mid-20th century music. He was Eastern European (born in Transylvania in 1923), Jewish, and his life was upended by World War II (he was pressed into forced labor and lost his brother and father to Nazi concentration camps). Transylvania was part of Hungary as the Iron Curtain descended, and Ligeti began his musical studies trying to write uncontroversial pieces that pleased the ruling Communists while sitting on more forward-looking compositions, ignorant of the exploding musical avant garde of Western Europe and the United States. During the violent Soviet crackdown on Hungary in November 1956, Ligeti heard Karlheinz Stockhausen’s pioneering electronic work Gesang der Junglinge on the radio; by the beginning of 1957, he had escaped Hungary with his psychiatrist wife, Vera, and become a guest of Stockhausen at West German Radio’s electronic-music studio.

Once freed, Ligeti’s creativity never stopped expanding. After a brief dalliance with Stockhausen-style electronics, Ligeti blazed his own trail. Orchestral works such as Apparitions (1959) and Atmospheres (1961) ditched traditional melody, harmony and development for a complex, otherworldly sound not so distant from the electronics he had just discarded; the composer referred to the dense chromatic fog of notes that gave these pieces their substance as “micropolyphony.” For Aventures (1962) and Nouvelle Aventures (1965), he wrote outlandish vocal parts that were wordless — the lines were written out phonetically — but wildly expressive. He was unafraid to stretch the limits of traditional practice (he wrote pieces for the mechanical barrel organ and for massed metronomes), but he excelled at bending traditional forms to his uncompromising vision.

Between his less easily categorizable work, he wrote concertos, string quartets and a Requiem (1965). It is largely thanks to Ligeti’s scarifying take on the traditional memorial mass that millions of people otherwise oblivious to modern composition have heard some, even if they never knew it. While editing his 1968 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick used snippets of various classical compositions, including several Ligeti pieces, as placeholders for soundtrack cues. Kubrick eventually ditched the film’s commissioned score and released it with the placeholders more or less intact — in Ligeti’s case, without his knowledge or permission. To this day, when filmgoers tremble before the film’s mysterious monolith, they do it with the ululating Kyrie from Ligeti’s Requiem creeping up their spines.

Listening to the Requiem remains an unsettling experience: The raw passions and eerie sonorities — from guttural murmuring to soprano keening —reshape the venerable liturgy for genocidal, nuclear-age horrors, but the composer’s command of dynamics and musical drama keep the piece under steely control. On the surface, a Ligeti piece like his String Quartet No. 2 (1968) might sound like another ink-splatter-on-staff-paper post-serialist piece, but close attention reveals a series of inventive attacks on the limits of what 16 individual strings split among four players can express with sound. You can’t hum it, but you’ll want to hear it again.

Ligeti’s prolific work throughout the 1960s and into the ’70s culminated in Le Grand Macabre, the composer’s profane and grimly humorous surrealist opera, scored in part for car horns and doorbells. But the late ’70s and early ’80s found Ligeti suffering with the first of the health problems that would plague the final decades of his life. Where a long senescent spiral would seem par for the course, Ligeti hatched three books of études for piano. Composed over more than 15 years, the études explored the piano in ways that still delight conservatory students.

The études, together with an ambitious recording program by the Sony and Teldec labels to record and release all his music on CD, kept Ligeti’s name and work alive for the dawning of the 21st century. The composer’s health continued to falter, however, and he died of undisclosed causes at age 83 in his adopted hometown of Vienna.

— Lee Gardner

Force of Nature

Oriana Fallaci

Italian writer and journalist Oriana Fallaci finally lost her more-than-a-decade-long battle with breast cancer Sept. 15 in her native Florence, and the 77-year-old woman left the world as combatively as she lived in it. The 1960s and ’70s war correspondent, feral interviewer and lifelong adversary of tyranny had, since Sept. 11, become one of the more unlikely allies of xenophobic reactionaries in both Europe and America. She broke almost a decade of relative silence with a trio of books propelled by her characteristically impassioned and personal writing that raged against what she felt was the West’s entirely too politically correct dealings with Islam’s cultural invasion, which she argued had already turned European cities into “Eurabia.” Her passionate, colloquial arguments were so volatile that even Christopher Hitchens called her books out in The Atlantic as “a sort of primer in how not to write about Islam.”

Fallaci’s incendiary anti-“radical Islamofascist” remarks wouldn’t feel so bracing had she not spent her entire life openly defying the sort of group-think espoused by ideologues of both the right and the left, who revere and chastise her in equal measure now. Born in 1929 to a working-class family, her anti-Fascist father recruited his daughter into the resistance at an early age, and by 16 the young woman was a crime reporter. The newspaper gig started out as a way to pay for university, but writing soon became Fallaci’s defining impulse.

By the mid-1950s Fallaci established herself as a noted Italian correspondent and published her first book — The Seven Sins of Hollywood — in 1958. Over the next three decades she repeatedly proved herself one of her generation’s most fearless journalists during an era in which the world offered much to fear. She reported from war zones: Hungary in ’56, seven years in both North and South Vietnam, and the Latin American revolutions of the ’70s in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Peru. She was shot during the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico City, in which police and military forces fired upon unarmed students and demonstrators, killing an estimated 200-300 people 10 days before the Olympics. She also covered the Lebanese civil war and the first Gulf War.

In America she is best known for her candid boxing-match interviews with political and cultural power brokers, chiefly a 1972 interview with then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who she got to admit that sometimes “I see myself a cowboy leading the caravan alone astride his horse, a Wild West tale if you like.” He later said it was the most ”disastrous conversation” he had ever had.

Such was her professional acumen. She extensively prepped for these interviews, which were conducted for hours on end with her tape recorder rolling the whole time. She eventually unleashed her relentless, incisive mind upon Yasir Arafat, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, H. Rap Brown, Pakistan President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Fidel Castro, India Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, South Vietnam Premier Nguyen Cao Ky, Golda Meir, Haile Selassie, the Shah of Iran, Ariel Sharon, Muammar Qaddafi, Lech Walesa and Deng Xiaoping. She interviewed Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, infamously wearing makeup under a chador she eventually discarded mid-interview.

These are the journalistic adventures you expect from some renegade Hemingway figure, not from, by all counts, a petite, chain-smoking and lovely woman. But Fallaci never let anybody’s assumption of gender roles interfere with her life’s work. The 1966 photo of Fallaci that accompanied The New York Times’ Sept. 16 obituary reveals a petite woman benignly indifferent to her unfussy, Jeanne Moreau-like beauty. Although her disarmingly candid interviews eventually became her hallmark, early on you know the men she confronted never saw this antithesis of a vapid woman coming.

And “they” still don’t. Alternately near canonized by libertarian-leaning periodicals, thinkers, bloggers and, surprisingly, the pope for her Islam screeds — a bizarre turn of events that undoubtedly tickled the atheist Fallaci in her last years — and severely castigated by liberals (on whose side they would claim she fought for most of her life), even in death Fallaci remains a personality either worshipped or abhorred. She never married, never had children and lived unburdened by stuff, creating her ideal writing environment in her adopted Manhattan before returning to Italy in her final days. That she lived her life as the ballsiest human in any room she was in is without doubt.

Bret McCabe

No Nice Girl

Ellen Willis

Ellen Willis wanted you to feel good. She wanted you to come, just as she wanted you to challenge authority, to listen to good music, to stand up for your rights and to question the very grounds on which your beliefs were based.

Willis, who died Nov. 9 in her home in Queens, N.Y., after a yearlong battle with lung cancer (she didn’t smoke) at 64, was never afraid to be first, to get things started, to stir the pot.

Willis was born in New York, the daughter of a police officer. She went to Barnard College, got a degree in English and then studied comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley. All fine accomplishments, especially for a woman in the late 1950s and early ’60s. But Willis initially gained notoriety when she became the first pop-music critic for The New Yorker, in 1968, when she was just 26.

She was a woman in a field completely dominated by men (even more than it is now), but she had no trouble commanding respect. In a New York Observer interview shortly after her death, Richard Goldstein, a former editor for The Village Voice, for which Willis also worked, said, “Ellen didn’t have any signature of being a woman writer, but certainly her way of looking at the music was different in that she had a tremendous respect for pleasure and desire.”

Not only that, he added, “Willis brought an intellectual rigor to her music criticism that didn’t come from a vulnerability to the rock mystique that a number of male critics had.” As Willis’ daughter, Nona Willis-Aronowitz, wrote in a tribute to her mother on Salon.com, she believed that “pop culture, politics and national identity were all inextricable.” As a result her writing was academic, philosophical and conversational.

Willis wrote for numerous publications, including Rolling Stone and The Nation; contributed to several anthologies on topics ranging from the sexual revolution to globalization; and collected her essays into three books. While many readers know her predominantly for her music criticism, she spent most of career writing about politics and feminism and is considered by some the godmother of pro-sex feminism. She believed that the instinct toward sexual satisfaction was intrinsic to human nature as self-preservation. She fought anti-porn activists whether from the socially conservative right or from inside the women’s movement itself. She was also a staunch supporter of reproductive rights. As part of her efforts to make abortion legal, she founded radical feminist group the Redstockings in 1969; realizing that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision wasn’t the end of the abortion-rights struggle, she co-created a street theater troupe called No More Nice Girls in the ’80s.

Most of all, Willis believed in and advocated for individual freedom. In the intro to a collection of her essays also called No More Nice Girls, Willis wrote that “the meaning of life lies in our capacity to experience and enjoy it fully; that freedom and eros are fundamentally intertwined; and that a genuine sense of responsibility to other human beings flows from the desire for connection, not subordination to family, Caesar, or God.”

— Anna Ditkoff

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