Her dependency was corrosive. Their first revolution job was in El Salvador, at an orphanage filled with children whose parents had been murdered by the military police. They had to sleep apart, and she spent her first night vomiting. "I was traumatized by that," she says. Then the leader of the orphanage, who had taken a shine to George, told Unferth she had to start wearing a bra. She refused, so the couple was forced to leave.
"I had started reading the Bible before we left [the States], but I felt like such an equal in American society," Unferth says. "In Central America, I did not. I would come across these passages, and it just felt like the Bible was justifying this kind of behavior, and it was infuriating. I got angrier and angrier about that, and I was blaming George for it."
As their adventure progressed, Unferth not only became increasingly disillusioned about her newfound religion and her relationship, but about everything else, including the cause. "When we first started on the trip, I was very earnest about the possibility of us being able to help," she says. "I was very earnest about what the people of these countries were incapable of doing. As the trip went on, I got more skeptical and certainly more self-deprecating."
That skepticism feels unique to the times. "The people who were involved in all the 60s movements didn't really accomplish all that much," Unferth explains. "Our generation, we had a bad attitude. We inherited the social-justice gene, but we felt sort of hopeless about it. That was a celebrated mode: the idea of everything being sort of hopeless." Reading Revolution, one also detects a bruised optimism.
Take their arrival in Nicaragua. After a brief and unnerving period in the military dictatorship of El Salvador, the couple encounters hundreds of international activists there to help the Sandinistas. "Nicaragua was more like a cheerful Communist kazoo concert," Unferth writes. Rather than rejoice in the fact that so many are there to support the cause, she chafes when a troupe of Canadian jugglers arrives on the scene:
Imagine. We were walking across their war, juggling.
We were bringing guitars, plays adapted from Gogol, elephants wearing tasseled hats. I saw it myself and even then I found it a bit odd. The Nicaraguans wanted land, literacy, a decent doctor. We wanted a nice sing-a-long and a ballet. We weren't a revolution. We were an armed circus.
When Unferth came home, she and George split and she stopped being a Christian. Soon after, she became a "raging feminist," at which point she adopted Olin, her mother's maiden name. A few years after that, she fell in love with a writer, started writing herself, and got an MFA.
She returned to Chicago and tried to start her career. On her adjunct's salary, she could only afford apartments in lousy neighborhoods. In the worst of these, she kept a mattress in each room so she could sleep wherever was the most quiet.
"It was so loud it was like living in a stadium," she says. "My car got smashed and broken into so many times. The phone kept going out. The mail would come twice a week, or it would show up on Sunday. The neighborhood was bad — a guy grabbed me on the street . . . it was an awful experience. I was trying to become a writer, I was trying so hard to get published, and I wasn't getting published. It was a really hard time."