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Their Eyes Were Watching Her

Gloria Naylor Meets the Thought Police In Her Fictionalized Memoir

Mel Guapo

By Makkada B. Selah | Posted 10/25/2006

Decades from now, Gloria Naylor's 1996--published earlier this year by Third World Press--may be considered a groundbreaking testament on the advent of the New World Order. The National Book Award winner writes in the first line of her book, "I didn't want to tell this story." Her self-described "fictionalized-memoir" claims that in 1996 she was targeted by the National Security Agency for surveillance and thought control. It sounds pretty outlandish, and the title's Orwellian nod isn't subtle, but in this age of privacy erosion and the NSA's recently unveiled warrantless surveillance program 1996 is timely. It proposes that it's quite easy for the average law-abiding citizen to become the target of an NSA investigation for reasons not directly related to national security.

"The Naylor woman"--as the memoirist is referred to by the fictional NSA officials in the text--is vacationing at her beachfront home on St. Helena, one of the Gullah islands off the coast of South Carolina, when she gets into a spat with her neighbor Eunice Simon. Simon is a woman of many cats, which keep defecating on Naylor's property. All attempts to reason with Simon are unsuccessful. Other neighbors suggest she install a fence, but, Naylor writes, "I stubbornly rejected their advice. It was my land and my garden. Why should I be the one to make concessions?"

In addition to the cat problem, Naylor has tree rats in her attic. An exterminator sets poisonous bait in the attic but says it would be more effective to place it underneath the house as well--provided she doesn't have any pets. She tells him she doesn't, but one day one of Simon's cats eats it.

Presumably, fiction enters the memoir at this point. According to Naylor, her neighbor is the sister of the assistant deputy director of the NSA, Dick Simon. She supposes that her neighbor called her brother and told some lies about her to trigger her surveillance in retaliation for the death of her beloved cat--Orwell. Eunice, who is Jewish, also tells her brother that Naylor is an anti-Semite because she was quoted in the local paper as having "cried at the Million Man March." In addition, Eunice tells the sheriff that she suspects Naylor is dealing drugs.

Naylor switches to an omniscient third-person to capture the thoughts of Dick Simon and the sheriff, who muses, "She's a writer. She's black. And she wears dreadlocks. Some kind of radical, that was for sure, but not necessarily dealing. Then again, how could she afford a place like that on that end of the island without some major help? You didn't pay for a place like that on welfare checks. "

The problem--here and elsewhere--with Naylor re-creating the thoughts of those she believes invaded her privacy is her sarcasm, such as the above reference to welfare checks. While it's believable that racism does make somebody a target, very few people, black or otherwise, have endured the break-ins, noise disruptions, tagging, tapping, and electromagnetic mind tampering that Naylor says she experienced.

Presuming to read her watchers' minds makes it harder to believe her story--and it does feel like Naylor wants us to believe her. But these fictional passages are filled with hyperbolic language, what Naylor presumes her adversaries were thinking--and it comes off simply as the real-life Naylor putting words into people's heads and mouths. Instead of true fiction, what you get are machinations and puppeteering.

And Naylor is not a political threat--her books of fiction, save this one, aren't radical. If we believe Naylor's interpretation, we are forced to believe that the second highest ranking official in the NSA would waste thousands of dollars spying on someone whose only crime was killing his sister's cat--and maybe being anti-Semitic, if saying you liked the Million Man March tags you as that. Stranger things have happened, but if Naylor's objective was to alert us to the abuses of the NSA, a lopsided-fiction approach, while perhaps safer legally, only clouds the issue.

The most successful parts of the book are the straight memoir sections because, ultimately, the fictional spying motives and objectives don't make sense. At first it feels like the Simons' objective is to scare Naylor off St. Helena, but the harassment intensifies when she returns to New York. Naylor describes an experience of "electromagnetic thought tampering" through the use of classified brainwashing equipment, which she says is pointed at her from a neighbor's home. Supposedly, the NSA and military have used such equipment for many years and call it "zapping." She writes:

I remember watching Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" for the fifteenth time when the first thought came to me: I am a bitch. It seemed to have just floated up from the bottom of my mind. It had nothing to do with what I was thinking because at that moment I wasn't thinking anything at all. I had been watching a particularly gory battle scene. I am the worst bitch in the world. I want to kill myself. Where was this stuff coming from? I frowned and rubbed my forehead. Why was I thinking these things? This wasn't me. A thought came that hit me to the heart, I hate Jews.

This thought tampering continues for months until Naylor goes to a psychiatrist, who thinks she has schizophrenia. Frustrated that no one believes her she finds a community of people on the internet who call themselves T.I.s--targeted individuals. They claim to have been subjected to electromagnetic mental torture and 24-hour surveillance, too. While their numbers are few--500 or so documented cases--their stories are astonishingly similar. Some people--on web sites such as,, and say, like Naylor, that they got "turned in" for this form of harassment and privacy invasion because of a personal vendetta with an influential person, or because of some sort of political activism or whistle-blowing. Others say the targeting is random but that the surveillance process, in most cases, extends the T.I.'s entire life. Many people believe it a form of experimentation. While few of the T.I.s claim that the government itself is behind their surveillance, most of them say governmental agencies are complicit and help the stalkers gain access to classified weapons. There's even a lawsuit pending, filed against the NSA in 1991 by a former employee named John St. Clair Akwei, who says the V2K or "voice to skull" technology was used on him, and he cites the NSA's "covert operations to monitor individuals."

The book ends, and Naylor says nothing about whether or not the surveillance stopped, or when it stopped, though in a recent interview posted online, she says she hasn't had an attack for about a year. In the final scene, she has retreated to a public library to write her memoir where the thought police can't read or interfere with her mind. She begins with the words: "I didn't want to tell this story."

1996 is not, in any sense of the word, a "good read"--not just because of its troubling subject matter, but also because of the understandably awkward and speculative manner in which it is presented. It is a haunting book, though, one that stays with you: You don't want to believe it. In the end, no hard conclusions can be made, but there are too many things we do not know to discredit 1996 completely. At the very least it's a book of this era, and the implications that it raises are only now being mined.

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