This is another unconventional essay, and, though we will be reading some more traditionally organized essays, you should know by now that I'm interested in essays that challenge your ways of thinking rather than merely confirm them. It will take patience to get through Griffin's essay--the longest one you'll read this term--but stick with it. Again, don't expect to understand everything on a first reading; learn to be content with understanding some things. Read the "Questions for a Second Reading" segment that follows the text, and, though many of you won't have time, do a second reading if you can. The essay will be much clearer.
Griffin's essay is built around two metaphors; they appear in the italicized portions of the text. In the first, she's tracking the functions of the cell, as if she were giving brief lectures on microbiology, and in the second, she's tracking the development of the guided missile. These metaphors serve to function as what represents the best and worst about humanity. Griffin would argue that the human cell--which is both affected by and affects its surrounding environment--is how we are as whole humans, affecting and affected by our surrounding environment in ways we can't measure. We are at our worst as humans when we're like guided missiles--cut off from human history (Berger again) and the consequences of our actions, and, when deployed in that spirit, capable only of destruction.
Using these metaphors as foreground, Griffin tells many, many stories in this passage. She writes about her mother, her father, her grandfather, her mother, her sister, and friends and neighbors and people she's encountered in her life. She also writes about more public figures: Kathe Kollwitz (the great German pencil artist), Wernher von Braun (the great and original German and later American rocket scientist), and finally Heinrich Himmler, the architect, in many ways, of the Nazis "final solution" and the extermination of six million Jews during World War II.
What will often confuse you is that these stories are not always told linearly, or in chronological order. They appear sometimes without plan, introduction, or explanation. Clearly, Griffin is much more interested in the impact of her work as a whole than in the sum of its parts.
But pay close attention to her description of Himmler, the central figure in this effort. She carefully researches and reports German child rearing practices that may have shaped parenting in the years before the Nazis came to power; she carefully describes Himmler's father, and his impact on Himmler. (Pay close attention to the theme of "secrets" in the article.) She discusses his sense of hopelessness after World War I, and how he's gradually drawn to Hitler. And she discusses in fairly graphic detail his response to the death chambers he constructs.
Be alert to how Griffin tries to attach her own family history to Himmler's, if not directly, then indirectly. Look at how the many lives in the article intersect, often in unexpected ways. Late in the article, you'll meet Leo, a Russian immigrant employed by the U.S. army as a torturer during the Korean War. How is he like Himmler, and what allows him to be redeemed?
And focus on the following quotation as a kind of theme for this essay, even though it comes from an excerpt not included in your text. As you encounter new people as you read Griffin, consider how this quotation might be thematically relevant:
"Who are we? The answer is not easy. There are so many strands to the story, and one must trace every strand. I begin to suspect each thread goes out infinitely and touches everything, everyone....Were you to trace any life, and study even the minute consequences, the effects, for instances, of a three-minute walk over a patch of grass, of words said casually to a stranger who happens to sit nearby in a public place, the range of that life would extend way beyond the territory we imagine it to inhabit."