The Nazis Next Door
How I Discovered That White Nationalism Is Alive And Well In The Suburbs
When I was in middle school, I made pocket money by babysitting for the two boys who lived across the street.
Their mother, Carina (not her real name), was petite and elvin, with a wasp waist, platinum blonde hair, and a plunging streak of cleavage no shirt could contain. Part Stevie Nicks, part Marilyn Monroe: a grown-up manic pixie dream girl. She wore silky palazzo pants in neutral shades, and flitted barefoot around her patio, never without a Zima in hand.
Her husband, Jeff, was so handsome it made me uncomfortable. He had a cool-guy goatee (this was 1994) and longish salt-and-pepper hair. No Dad bod; a former college soccer player, Jeff stayed in shape by lifting weights in the garage, where he also smoked pot. His job was nebulous. Sales? Engineering? Sometimes he was “away on business.” Sometimes he had “client dinners.” All anyone in the neighborhood knew was that he could afford a lifestyle that included frequent international travel and didn’t require his wife to work outside the home.
Other families’ living rooms in our nondescript suburban subdivision sported bargain-basement sectionals in shades of beige and burgundy, but Carina’s house was all white. White walls, white hardcover books on Renaissance sculpture and jazz, white statuette of a headless Nike on her white mantel. At Christmas, an artificial tree; white needles, white crystal ornaments, gifts swaddled in white paper.
While my mother bought exclusively skim milk, Carina’s fridge was stocked with whole. When I’d babysit, I drank glass after glass, reveling in the naughty creaminess of milk in its purest, whitest form.
Seventh grade. Saturday night. Carina and her husband out to dinner, the boys sleeping peacefully upstairs, though the little one hadn’t gone willingly. The house had a tendency to feel creepy at night. Alabaster walls, somber hardwood, the ceramic replicas of Roman statues throwing winged shadows into sharp relief.
When I’d had my fill of Lifetime network’s soft core murder porn, I wandered into the sitting room: eggshell linen sofa, sagging candles in the fireplace. I ran my hands along the book collection, tilting my head to read the spines.
World War II: A New Perspective.
Rise & Fall of the Third Reich, a History of Nazi Germany.
Huh. A couple of real history buffs.
I pulled what I thought was a family photo album from the shelf, expecting drugstore prints of poorly-lit disposable camera photos.
Instead, I found stamps: page upon cellophane-slicked page of collectors’ stamps, World War II-era, mint condition, featuring a serious, mustachioed face in profile, printed in faded reds, greens, and sepias, a thousand times over.
Earlier that year–provided we brought the permission slip signed by a parent or guardian–we were allowed to watch Schindler’s List one afternoon at school. Everyone had sobbed.
Our textbooks positioned the Holocaust as a brief, dark moment within the larger context of a complex international conflict. I understood that it was an unimaginable tragedy, but my teachers seemed to think it wasn’t to be dwelled upon. I was alarmed when quick mental math confirmed that my grandparents had been alive to witness it; in fact, my grandfather was a World War II Navy veteran. Why had they never mentioned it? Why did no one I know ever use the word “Holocaust?” Why wasn’t it the only thing anyone talked about, ever?
The sound of a key turning in the lock sent my heartbeat pounding into my ears. Carina and her husband were back from wherever it was they spent their Saturday nights. I felt a strong urge to project a casualness about the way I was standing there, flipping through their Hitler stamp collection. Nothing to see here, folks, just your friendly neighborhood babysitter perusing a deeply unsettling book of Nazi memorabilia.
“How were the boys?” Carina asked, slurring a little.
“Perfect angels. Went right to bed.”
Carina’s gaze swept over me and alighted on the stamps. She moved closer, hovering over my shoulder, and said, “Pretty cool, huh?” Casual conversation, redolent of Pinot Grigio.
I looked down at the floor, at my white toes peeking out of beige Birkenstocks on the ivory carpet.
“I guess it’s just…it’s weird that Hitler did so many horrible things and they still put his picture on so many stamps,” I said.
I should tell you that I’m an insufferable people-pleaser. Textbook oldest child. Was taught to respond to any question from a woman five or more years my senior with “Yes, ma’am.” I felt like I’d broken a rule I hadn’t known existed.
“Well,” Carina said, draping an arm lightly around my shoulder, “if you really think about some of the things he said, they make a lot of sense.”
A gash in the silence: “I’ve got your check!” Jeff, from the kitchen, with my exit cue. A permission slip to end the conversation, to go to sleep in my bed knowing that I’d always be safe from persecution because I happened to be born Christian and white, blue-eyed and free.
A year later, I auditioned for the school choir. My favorite song was “You Oughta Know,” but I chose the decidedly less ragey “Amazing Grace” as my audition piece.
A middling vocal talent at best, I was nervous and needed a dry run. Within the hour, I was standing on Carina’s back patio, delivering perhaps the world’s most beloved hymn without accompaniment. I don’t remember a single minute of it, but I remember it being over. I awaited disappointment, mockery, evisceration.
Carina closed her eyes, shook her head slowly, as if in disbelief, her hands clasped under her chin. “That was so incredibly beautiful,” she said. “They’d be crazy not to pick you.”
The day of the audition, I arrived home from school to find a bouquet of flowers in a vase on the kitchen counter. The card: a songbird, flying free of its cage. Inside: “I knew you could do it. I’m so proud of you. Xoxo Carina.”
Carina and Jeff moved to Florida. Jeff is involved in a long-term, long-distance extramarital affair, and Carina knows but doesn’t seem to care. I haven’t seen them in two decades, but I’ve watched the white nationalist movement gather steam in every corner of the nation. I saw a young woman’s life cut short in Charlottesville as disgruntled young men chanted: “Jews will not replace us.” I watched the President of the United States of America declare there were “very fine people” amongst the fascist, tiki-torch-bearing hordes. I’ve watched white suburban housewives just like Carina go down YouTube rabbitholes and emerge believing an antisemitic conspiracy theory that a powerful global cabal of pedophiles are harvesting baby blood.
In a little more than a week, election day will have come and gone, and we may or may not know if we will endure four more years of the Trump administration’s racist policies and white-nationalist dog whistles.
Writing this piece, I called my mother and peppered her with questions about Carina, with whom she still occasionally speaks. She told me that Carina doesn’t use the internet–not even email–because she believes the government is tracking our online machinations.
Carina and Jeff will be heading to the polls in a swing state. I have a pretty good idea who they’ll be voting for.