When obituaries lie

Alex Tizon is dead now and can’t defend himself after The Atlantic published his final story this week, detailing the life of his family’s slave.

Tizon, who died in March, did not defend, excuse, or apologize for his or his family’s history and perhaps it’s because he wanted to leave that to the reader, or perhaps he saw his effort as the beginning of a conversation about slavery and his family’s role in perpetuating it.

We’ll never know.

Eudocia Tomas Pulido, their slave, won’t either. She’s dead, too.

Susan Kelleher, at the Seattle Times (Tizon once worked there), was assigned to write her obituary six years ago and she, too, got a look at Tizon’s essay in The Atlantic.

She is not pleased, writing today that she read it with horror and increasing anger because what she ended up writing was a “whitewash for a fundamental truth,” she says.

Tizon and I talked for at least 90 minutes as I collected details for the story. He told me how Ms. Pulido was “asked” to care for a young girl whose mother had died. How a relative requested that she “always look after the girl.” How she followed that girl into adulthood and took care of her children, and the children’s children. She shopped, she ran off troublesome boyfriends, and, having had no romance of her own, was obsessed with the royal wedding of Princess Diana.

In the more honest account Tizon wrote in The Atlantic, he admits that she was, in fact, a slave in their home. In Tizon’s written account, Ms. Pulido wasn’t “asked” to care for his mother. She was “given” to her. And everything that happened to Ms. Pulido from that day forward is tied to that act of inhumanity.

No matter how much Ms. Pulido loved or was loved by Tizon and his family, she was not free. Tizon had an opportunity to tell that story when she died, to honor her more deeply than the saccharine sentiments he shared in our pages. And I now have an opportunity to examine my own lack of knowledge that allowed historical questions about slavery in the Philippines to go unasked.

Tizon was a valued colleague at The Times, and a friend to many. He was revered as a writer and a truth teller.

It is not my intention to denigrate him, only to apologize for being complicit in further injuring Ms. Pulido by providing cover for what was ultimately a life denied.

“Obituaries depend on the fundamental honesty who survive to tell the story,” Kelleher writes.

“Sometimes it takes people awhile to get to the truth about their lives,” Tizon’s wife, Melissa, said Wednesday. “So maybe Alex wasn’t quite there yet when he talked to Susan.”

“Tizon lied to me, and through me, to our readers, depriving Ms. Pulido of the truth of her life, and the rest of us an important piece of our history,” Kelleher concluded.