Before he died in March, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Tizon penned an incredible story for The Atlantic detailing his family’s secret slave in America.
The publication’s June cover story describes the complicated life of Lola Pulido, a domestic servant who immigrated from the Philippines with Tizon’s family in 1964.
She lived with and served the family for decades (when Tizon inherited her from his parents in 2001, he insisted on paying her $200 a week and offered to take her back to the country she left) — until she died in 2011.
Tizon’s shocking story describes her inhuman, abusive treatment while serving his parents in America.
“She lived with my family for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings, and cooked and cleaned from dawn to dark — always without pay,” Tizon writes. “I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized she was my family’s slave.
He continues: “No other word but slave encompassed the life she lived. Her days began before everyone else woke and ended after we went to bed. She prepared three meals a day, cleaned the house, waited on my parents, and took care of my four siblings and me. My parents never paid her, and they scolded her constantly. She wasn’t kept in leg irons, but she might as well have been. So many nights, on my way to the bathroom, I’d spot her sleeping in a corner, slumped against a mound of laundry, her fingers clutching a garment she was in the middle of folding.”
The author passed away suddenly at the age of 57 from natural causes before The Atlantic could publish his emotional story — but his family gave the publication permission to run it posthumously.
“He started writing the story five, six years ago,” Tizon’s wife, Melissa Tizon, tells PEOPLE. “He tried over and over again to start, but he couldn’t get it. It was a very difficult piece for him to write, Lola had always been a huge part of his life and an important part of his life, but he had to tell the story in the right way.”
Melissa admits it was “painful” reading her husband’s story — for many reasons.
“I cried,” she says. “I cried through the whole thing, I didn’t think I was going to read the whole thing at once, but [when he was still alive] he handed me a copy and I couldn’t stop reading it and I cried during the whole thing because I learned a lot about Lola that I did not know. It was painful and I was horrified that Lola had gone through what she had gone through in her life.
“It made me miss her so much, and wish I could go back and spend more time with her and love her and appreciate her.”
The grieving widow — who has one biological daughter and one step-daughter with her late husband — says she wasn’t aware of the extent of the abuse Lola endured early on in her life.
“[Alex’s family] never used the word ‘slave,’ ” she says. “That word was never, ever in the [family] vocabulary until Alex started writing this piece last year.”
Melissa, who is also Filipino, says having relatives acting as household helpers is not uncommon in the culture — and she assumed that’s what Lola was to the Tizon family.
“When I first met Lola I thought, ‘Oh, here’s another family member living with them,’ and I came to realize she had a role, she was a domestic helper really and she served Alex’s mom and I knew bits and pieces, but I didn’t really understand it all and I had no idea how mean and abusive his parents were to her,” she says. “I had no idea that Alex grew up witnessing that and his brother and sisters witnessed that and how painful it was for them to grow up with.
“I didn’t know that. That’s what I found out reading the story. It made me realize how much he had gone through.”
In the story, Tizon admits feeling ashamed of his family’s treatment of Lola.
Tizon writes: “Admitting the truth would have meant exposing us all. We spent our first decade in the country learning the ways of the new land and trying to fit in. Having a slave did not fit. Having a slave gave me grave doubts about what kind of people we were, what kind of place we came from. Whether we deserved to be accepted. I was ashamed of it all, including my complicity.”
After the death of Tizon’s mother, Lola moved in with him and Melissa. He paid her $200 a week, most of which she sent home to family members. And on her 83rd birthday, Tizon paid for her to return to the Philippines.
Tizon writes: “Her house was gone. Her parents and most of her siblings were gone. Childhood friends, the ones still alive, were like strangers. It was nice to see them, but … everything was not the same. She’d still like to spend her last years here, she said, but she wasn’t ready yet. ‘You’re ready to go back to your garden,’ I said. ‘Yes. Let’s go home.’ ”
Melissa says her late husband and his four siblings offered time and time again to take her back to the Philippines.
“They tried so hard when they were old enough to help her get out of the situation she was in with their parents,” says Melissa. “They gave her ways to move in with them or help her get back to the Philippines, but at that stage in life she had so much devotion to Alex’s mom, that she always wanted to stay and it wasn’t until Alex’s mom died in 1999, that she was finally free. And when we gave her options again saying ‘You can live with any of the siblings or go back to Philippines, we’ll take care of you.’ She finally felt like she could take one of those options, so chose to live with Alex and I.”
Over the years, Lola became the glue that held Tizon’s “dramatic” family’s together.
“She was the matriarch,” explains Melissa. “It doesn’t forgive the horrible situation before, but in the last part of her life we tried to make the best out of it for her. We took her to the Philippines a few times during the last 12 years of her life to see if she wanted to move back there, but she always wanted to come home because she missed everybody here.”
When Lola died in 2011, Tizon, a former Seattle Times reporter, asked the paper to write an obituary. At the time, the reporter, Susan Kelleher, conducted an extensive interview with Tizon, but claims he omitted the fact that she was a slave.
In a story published by the paper Wednesday, that same reporter said Tizon lied to her.
“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,” writes Kelleher. “And for that I am truly sorry.”
But Melissa says her late husband did not mean to mislead Kelleher.
“He wasn’t trying to trick anybody or try to make the obit writer complicit in a situation — that’s not him,” she says. “He’s not even alive to defend himself, but at that time he hadn’t come to grips with what Lola’s role was in the family and with the obit we wanted to honor this wonderful woman. Alex wouldn’t have intentionally misled the reporter who wrote the obit, he wouldn’t’ do that but he himself did not understand the truth of the situation.
“And he was such an excellent reporter he covered all his bases, that I wouldn’t be surprised if he was still alive if he had gone back to that reporter and said, ‘Hey I’ve had personal revelations, this is coming out just to let you know.’ ”
Seattle Times executive editor Don Shelton tells PEOPLE in a statement: “This has been a challenging moment for our newsroom, especially in light of our longstanding relationship with Alex. When our editors and reporters read his piece in The Atlantic, we knew we needed to correct the reporting we had done in 2011 at the time of Ms. Pulido’s death. Susan Kelleher’s story does that, while capturing some of the pain and conflict we all feel.”
Melissa says her family has received some backlash online for “romanticizing” slavery since The Atlantic story made headlines.
“People say we romanticize the slave and slave owner relationship,” she explains. “But the best way I could describe Lola’s relationship with the family is like the dynamic of the family in that movie The Help.”
And she says her late husband wouldn’t “shy” away from the criticism either.
“He would say, ‘Yes, you are right. What happened to her was really horrific and that’s what I tried to explain in my piece.’ He always believed everyone had an epic story and Lola factored so much into his life that he felt compelled to write it and possibly to raise awareness for others in a similar situation,” Melissa says.
“He was never afraid to confront the things he was ashamed about or the demons. He would just dive right in and tackle it and he would want people to not be afraid to be honest with themselves, too.”