by Pat Holt
Friday, October 24, 2003
LOSING CAROLYN HEILBRUN
I don't know who I'm madder at, The New York Times for its insipid and irresponsible obituary of respected scholar Carolyn Heilbrun, or Heilbrun herself for taking her own life.
Or maybe it's what might be called the "new fashionability" of suicidal authors, discussed with relish last Sunday by Charles McGrath of the Times, that's got my goat. Writing about the movie "Sylvia," McGrath had the audacity to compare the "dignity" of Virginia Woolf's suicide with the "senseless and unnecessary, even selfish" nature of Sylvia Plath's suicide.
Honestly! Calling suicide "senseless" simply means McGrath himself can't make sense of it. I don't get it either (and I don't want to!) about Heilbrun, but more about that in a minute. It's the judgmentalism that both Times obit writer Robert McFadden and NYT Book Review editor McGrath insinuate into these articles that I feel is the greater crime.
(It's very much like the comment of Jeffrey Hart of the New Criterion, who blamed feminism, in his review of Heilbrun's book, for her discussion of suicide as a legitimate final step: "[Heilbrun's] emotions have been so wrenched out of shape by feminist dogma that she cannot present to the readers of her books a recognizable shared world." Those man-hating feminists! Give 'em the vote and look where they take it...)
McGrath refers to Plath callously "gass[ing] herself in a London flat in the winter of 1963, while her two small children slept in the room next door," as though this explains how "selfish" she had become. But possibly McGrath didn't finish Diane Middlebrook's recent book about Plath and husband Ted Hughes - called, appropriately enough, "Her Husband" - although he refers to the book in the Sunday piece.
Middlebrook's rendering, which reveals the inevitability of Plath's downward spiral ever since her attempt at suicide and electroshock treatments long before she met Ted Hughes, offers one of the most tender, bittersweet scenes of a self-destructive and doomed mother's last moments with her children that one could imagine.
With her mind "disintegrating" and "everything blown & bubbled & warped & split," Plath "poured cups of milk and arranged helpings of bread, then carried the food up a flight of stairs to her children's room. She set it within reach of their beds, and pulled their window wide open. Then she closed the door to their room and sealed it all around with masking tape. On a torn piece of shelf paper, she printed a note giving the telephone number of their doctor ... " All this before going downstairs to the kitchen, where she would "fold a little cloth and place it under her cheek (in the oven), for comfort while she drew her last breaths. Depression killed Sylvia Plath."
Middlebrook makes that last statement to assure us that Ted Hughes didn't drive Sylvia Plath to suicide - her own demons did her in, and they had been attacking her mercilessly all her life. Still, that compulsion to get the job of suicide done without endangering her children or making a big fuss about it seems to reflect as much "melancholy dignity" as Virginia Woolf's "stroll" (really, how dare he?) into the river after weighing herself down with a heavy stone.
But it's the difference between the suicide of these two writers and that of Carolyn Heilbrun that I find so heartwrenching. Heilbrun had written about planning for years to kill herself by her 70th birthday. "Quit while you're ahead, was, and is, my motto," she stated in "The Last Gift of Time" (1997). "Having supposed the sixties would be downhill all the way, I had long held a determination to commit suicide at seventy."
All the obituaries mentioned this after Heilbrun did, at 77, overdose on pills and even affix a plastic bag over her head so that she would be found dead, also without muss or fuss, by a friend.
But few obits discussed the fact that Heilbrun had considered suicide one of many options, that she had discovered "life was good" at age 70 and that as she aged, she wrote, "I entered upon a life unimagined previously, of happiness impossible to youth or to the years of being constantly needed both at home and at work. I entered into a period of freedom, and only past 60 learned in what freedom consists: to live without a constant, unnoticed stream of anger and resentment, without the daily contemplation of power always in the hands of the least worthy, the least imaginative, the least generous."
This idea of having lived with so much "anger and resentment" while settling into what many would consider a prestigious and comfortable job in academia, especially the previous male bastion of Columbia University, where she had "made it" as the only female for some time, was a huge revelation, I felt.
Heilbrun had, even before joining the faculty at Columbia, begun investigating the role of women in literature through her own distinctive lens as far back as 1957 with her "first notable essay" (NYT) for Shakespeare Quarterly on "The Character of Hamlet's Mother." There Heilbrun, according to McFadden, "portrayed Gertrude as clever, not shallow, lucid rather than silly: ideas that were forerunners of feminism at that time."
This is the same Heilbrun who concealed her identity as the pseudonymous mystery writer Amanda Cross, whose blistering indictments of academic life, woven into each Ivy League murder, at a stuffy male-dominated university like Columbia might have jeopardized her tenure. This, granted in 1972, allowed Heilbrun to "come out" as the creator of the fictional Kate Fansler, a professor of literature with a feminist sensibility very much like her own.
Soon Heilbrun, never a joiner, became known as the proven academic who was weighing in with feminist scholarship by writing now-classic scholarly works such as "Toward a Recognition of Androgyny," "Reinventing Womanhood," "Writing a Woman's Life" and other works she mixed in with more literary volumes ("Christopher Isherwood," "The Garnet Family") and memoirs.
All this is important to demonstrate how Heilbrun had become a huge literary force in her own right. But none of it helps to set the record straight about Heilbrun as a person of irrepressible humor and irreverence. Let me digress a moment to describe an onstage conversation between Heilbrun and myself at City Arts & Lectures in San Francisco after the publication of "The Last Gift of Time," when Carolyn acknowledged that she was "thriving" at 71.
Asked about her earlier plans to choose the suicide route when she reached 70, Heilbrun responded quite cheerfully that as long as "new pleasures and liberations" kept opening up in her life, she was not about to end it.
Could she give us an example of such "new pleasures"? Well, she said, with a twinkle in her eye, only recently had she discovered that personal computers were bringing freedoms she could never have predicted into the lives of elderly persons like herself. For anyone venturing onto the Internet, "worlds of discovery" were out there for the exploring, and one didn't have to move one arthritic leg in front of the other to find them.
When I asked if she could describe one of those discoveries, thinking she would mention a Shakespeare website or an online discussion of the classics, Heilbrun answered that she had "become addicted to computer solitaire," and smiled broadly as the audience burst out laughing. I noticed that half the crowd was nodding, as I was (who wasn't addicted to the damn game in those days - or, um, these days).
I remembered that moment when news of Carolyn's suicide hit the news, because *of course* when a person commits suicide, it's easy to forget such things as a sense of humor or a life of principle, both of which distinguished Carolyn Heilbrun throughout her tumultuous 33-year career as a professor specializing in British modern literature at Columbia.
And here is where one must say, Shame on you, New York Times, "newspaper of record," for sanitizing the Heilbrun obituary. Not only was Carolyn Heilbrun the first woman to be given tenure at Columbia (omitted by the Times), she didn't just "retire" after three decades there, she resigned in protest (also omitted by the Times) over sexual discrimination - not against her but against one of her students.
So let's set this record straight, too, since we'll never hear from Heilbrun again, and go back to highly controversial walkout in 1991, after spending her entire academic life at Columbia.
"There were two reasons," she said in an interview with me in 1995 - http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/1995/10/15/RV32262.DTL "I had been attracting graduate students because they knew I was a feminist or at least a modernist person interested in gender. Then they would get to Columbia and find no second person behind me to support them. Eventually it all came to a head when (male colleagues) refused to promote this really dazzlingly qualified young woman. I had to go. They were so angry at me for leaving, they wouldn't let some of my students into the Ph.D. program, and that's when I decided to go public. It was all very political. If I tried to tell people what really went on, I'd sound like a madwoman."
Had it always been that bad? Heilbrun nodded as if that were the least of it. Columbia, she explained, was notorious for teaching the great works, none of whose authors were women. Jane Austen was "allowed" in, she said. For years a department head pronounced Virginia Woolf to be "just awful."
No wonder for Heilbrun, the emergence of feminism was considered "a gift or miracle," despite confusion and outrage at Columbia. "Kate Millett's 'Sexual Politics' came out of Columbia," she pointed out. "At the time, some male professors thought, 'OK, we'll let the kid do it,' but people like Irving Howe blasted it, saying any department that would let this through as a dissertation should be dismantled. I thought it was wonderful.
"Even now, decades later, it still upsets, in modern British literature, which I teach, to suggest that a major influence on Lawrence or Conrad and Joyce and Eliot was the fear of women. And you see that fear even now. The major man in my field wrote an essay on 'The Color Purple' in which he said it was a horrible book because the two male characters end up unmanned."
It was perhaps that very iconoclast nature that brought Heilbrun to accept a challenge others in her position might have fled - that was, in the mid-1990s, to write a biography of feminist leader Gloria Steinem. (I reviewed it at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/1995/09/24/RV65259.DTL )
The need for a biography when Steinem was still only 61 might have seemed premature, but Steinem, hardly without enemies, had learned that less-than-honorable writers were considering something of a hatchet job, so she had been seeking a biographer with impeccable credentials to write an authorized version.
Of course, Heilbrun, who hated to travel, threw a wrench in the works right off the bat by refusing to accompany Steinem on her many trips (which people like me thought would have been the best part). Nevertheless, Heilbrun's tough-mined approach to her subject made for delicious reading about the "walking contradiction" that is Gloria Steinem -- the feminist in a miniskirt, the women's rights crusader who looks a little anorexic (not Heilbrun's word), the loner who's always in the spotlight, the compassionate listener who seems "accessible to no one," the natural speaker who's still paralyzed by audiences, and the leader who harbors an "innate reluctance to offend anyone" but has, at some time in her life, offended everyone.
What I loved about Heilbrun's "The Life of Gloria Steinem" was her ability to cut through usual rhetoric of an authorized biography and say what she felt to had be said, for example that Steinem's mother "was, to put it bluntly, crazy." (Of course, she also allowed that if any of her male colleagues at Columbia had heard about the book, "they'd just say it was one nut writing about another.")
A great teacher, Heilbrun also calls upon readers to look how history has neglected a treasure trove of information simply by turning its attention away from women:
"It is possible that a study of only daughters raised as members of the adult world, or of oldest daughters in large families where the mother was overworked -- famous examples might be Margaret Sanger, Agnes Smedley, Susan B. Anthony -- would reveal a life not dissimilar to the one Steinem eventually led. That is not to say that there was no price to pay for such a childhood; there is always a price."
Heilbrun also doesn't hesitate to offer her own critical appraisal of Steinem, remarking for example that "there is something grating ... about Steinem's brilliant use of the benefits of a privileged life and her apparent scorn of it."
But perhaps Heilbrun's most scathing criticism is reserved for the American press. "The way the media treats women is horrible," she said in the interview. Steinem, she noted, was attacked for being "a manizer," "baby killer," "whore," "oversexed, frustrated spinster" and the "Ivan Boesky of Nookie" (remember him?), plus a celebrity who refused to enter into "catfights" with other women leaders such as the relentlessly bitter Betty Friedan.
Worst of it all, Heilbrun felt, Steinem was maligned "for never marrying, never having children and for being so avidly heterosexual." In the interview, Heilbrun, who with her husband raised three children during the '60s in a "still-happy" two-career household," then entertained this tantalizing prospect: "One day I'd like to write about the pressures toward sanctification of motherhood in this country - the illusion that women choose to have children and that only the biological or adoptive mother should take care of the child 24 hours a day. It's a form of insanity."
So you see. The thought that the great Carolyn Heilbrun cut her own life short before she could devote a full investigation to this idea is to me as tragic as the loss of Heilbrun the memoirist, the elderly curmudgeon. Of course her suicide is "senseless" to us! We're still living, for pete's sake. How can we make sense of a great thinker who was not sick, not depressed (according to her son) and who had written long before of her decision to ""choose to live, each day for now."
What might have brought her to think that her "for now" was over? One event comes to mind. A few days before her death, Heilbrun attended publisher William Morrow's launch party for her son Robert's first novel, an exquisite mystery called "Offer of Proof." Robert, a NY legal aid lawyer, writes about his protagonist, public defender Arch Gold, and the trial of a lifetime with such authentic detail and biting humor that one feels we've been crawling through the gritty underside of the New York City legal system for years.
Perhaps Carolyn Heilbrun, witnessing Robert's early critical success - starred reviews everywhere - thought the baton had been passed, that life had truly "concluded" for her, as Robert told the Times. Carolyn "wanted to control her destiny," he said, and indeed her no-nonsense suicide note - "The Journey's over. Love to all. Carolyn" - would seem to confirm she made a decision that was hardly "senseless" to her.
The only note of humor that remains - and one that Carolyn would have enjoyed heartily - is the way the New York Post explained to its readers why Carolyn Heilbrun was important: "Heilbrun, 77," the paper reported, "lived in the exclusive Kenilworth apartment building at 151 Central Park West, where Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones live." Goodbye, Carolyn! Here's hoping your neighbors - you know, like God - are just as famous!
A MIDDLE SCHOOL CLASS'S ANSWER TO "UNDER GOD"
What a delight to hear from the Margaret Strang Middle School in Yorktown Heights, NY, that a question American courts and legislatures have puzzled over for years has finally been solved.
Asked to defend or reject the term "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, the 8th-grade Social Studies class decided to reject it, and suggested the following substitution:
It's succinct, lyrical and accurate. Who could quibble? Thanks to Chris Mankovich for the item.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I enjoyed your list of ten manuscript errors, and I think your slightly school-marmish tone is appropriate to the topic and medium. But, alas, when one sets herself up at an arbiter, she ought really to make sure her own skirts are spotless.
What would you think of an author who used a sentence like this one: "In dialogue, empty adverbs may sound appropriate, even authentic, but that's because they've creeped into American conversation in a trendy way."
They've *creeped* into American conversation? Not, They've *crept*? Oh, please!
Further, in your list of "ness" words to use very sparingly if at all, I find "courageousness." Just between thee and me, dear friend, I doubt greatly that there is such a word. Why not just courage?
And, oh lordy, "If used to often . . . " What's that about? Has "often" become a verb? Maybe, but I doubt it. Wanna buy a vowel?
Holt responds: Well, "crept" has never been creepy enough for me, but you're right, I don't condone coined words for the sake of effect, which is to say, ack! you got me. (I always love it in football when they say, "he dived for the ball." It just sounds better than "dove.") I have seen "courageousness" used rather than "courage," but pardon the typo on the word "to" - it should have read, "If used too often..." But no excuses! If I insist that authors clean up their manuscripts, I gotta do it, to...
Dear Holt Uncensored,
With regard to crutch words, I read a book of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates a while back that included a reference to "soiled white pants" in every story.
I had to wonder whether it was the payoff to a bet, or a little game involving putting something past her editors, or a genuine tic. I'd bet on choice number two, myself.
Can't remember the name of the collection, but it was at least 10 years ago and maybe more.
Holt responds: I can see Joyce Carol Oates having a little fun with her editors, but what an image - "soiled white pants"! And to think nobody caught it!
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Loved your "10 Mistakes" piece. Maybe you could do one on words that should be excised from the vocabulary of novelists and writers of magazine articles forever. My two candidates would be "loopy" and "strappy" - "strappy" as in "strappy little sandal." Now that I've mentioned it, you'll see it everywhere!
Holt responds: Your note reminds me of that hilarious scene in "I Love Lucy" when the Ricardos decide to improve their English. They hire a very snooty tutor (played by Hans Conreid, of course), who begins the first lesson, "Now, Mrs. Ricardo: There are two words in the English language you should never use. One is lousy and the other is swell." Lucy nods and says, "Okay, what are they?"
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Just wanted to comment that one of my favorite generic descriptions is "chiseled features."
Holt responds: Perhaps I said this (to be elaborated in upcoming "Tips and Tricks"), but the most difficult subjects to describe, I find, are faces and the weather. The "strong jaw," "deep, dark eyes" and "expressive eyebrows" are almost as ubiquitous as "chiseled features."
Dear Holt Uncensored,
One thing that leads to Repeats (Mistake #1) is writing on a computer and not going back to read your chapter in hard copy. When you see only one screen at a time, you don't realize that you've used a word or phrase on the screen above.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I appreciated reading your top 10 mistakes list. These are primarily line edit/ copy edit problems, and as you make clear, it is possible for a novel to get published even when it has one or several of these errors - and even if they are irritating.
What about a list for both new and published writers of problems that sink a novel? In my own experience, the biggest problem is that many writers (even some who have gotten published) don't understand what a novel is. I mean this in the sense that a sonnet is a 14-line poem with alternating rhymes, and a couplet or a screenplay cannot be 500 pages long.
To switch metaphors: Writers can get busy doing the kind of interior decorating you are suggesting without making sure they have a solid foundation, walls, electricity and plumbing in the structure. And what they need most from outside editors is help with premise, plot, character arc, building and maintaining dramatic tension, chapter organization and other structural elements.
Of these, the most problematic is often "premise" because beginning novelists seem to not understand that a work of fiction must be about something - and this premise will then influence the way every single scene is developed, in the same way that "country cottage" or "skyscraper" or "temple" would influence every aspect of architectural design.
Also, many things in a novel can be revised, but the wrong point of view requires starting over because, of course, the entire story is different when told by a different character. A manuscript can be beautifully line edited and still need to be almost completely rewritten.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I was delighted to see your absolutely right-on list of writerly mistakes, and was particularly struck by the first one: "Repeats" -- or Favorite Word Syndrome.
Many writers have this problem, but maybe a lot of them haven't realized that it can be diagnosed and cured with the simple use of their computer's "find and replace" capabilities. I have a little problem with the word "little," for example, and have learned to fine-comb my manuscripts in search of it so I can yank it out. I routinely check that and a few other words I suspect myself of over-using, and am sometimes appalled by how often I've gone on automatic pilot and succumbed to FWS instead of coming up with a good alternative.
Computers are a pain in some ways, but that particular function has saved me from horror -- horror that no one may ever notice or care about (cf. your comments on "Three Junes") but me. But I do care, as all writers should, and in nine published novels I've found that anything that helps me clean up my prose is a blessing.
Kitty Burns Florey
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I read your column all the time and have a No. 11 for mistakes made by writers. I read/write mysteries and am amazed at how many authors give characters names beginning with the same letter, especially the letter "J."
Often I will find major characters named Jane, James, Jack, Joy, Joyce in the same book; frequently on the same page. Sometimes their last names begin with the same letter; not J. I'm a fast reader and have to stop and decipher all the time.
For example, here are hree examples of mystery writers who give too many characters names beginning with the same letter, making it hard sometimes to follow the plot.
"Jimmy Bench-Press" by Charlie Stella (has 12 "J" names), Carroll & Graf - 2002
All on pages 85 and 86:
"The Attorney" by Steve Martini (has 12 "J" names), G.P. Putnam's Sons 2000
"The Last Dance" by Ed McBain - (has 17 "C" names) Simon & Schuster 2000
All on facing pages 98, 99:
Why do writers do that?
Dear Holt Uncensored,
What a curious admixture of pedantry and permissiveness! You place The Chicago Manual of Style on a well-deserved pedestal while offering up as an example (#3, Paragraph 9) a use of the word "hopefully" in a meaning still unacceptable to a majority of experts on grammar and usage. Since that usage aggravates my dentist by causing me to grind the teeth he so zealously guards, hopefully you will actually stop really permitting it.
Holt responds: Oh dear, is this the usage of "Hopefully" you mean?
"Another problem with empty adverbs: You can't just stick them at the beginning of a sentence to introduce a general idea or wishful thinking, as in 'Hopefully, the clock will run out.' Adverbs have to modify a verb or other adverb, and in this sentence, 'run out' ain't it."
Perhaps I didn't make it clear, but my intention was to say, as you do, that "hopefully" used in this way is NOT acceptable. So to me, "hopefully" was nailed as a culprit, but if I used it mistakenly and am not seeing it, let me know.
Mark Follstad replies: Pat, I'm sorry if I misread your intent, but I took your comment to mean that the problem was one of position, not of usage. Not to carp, but I also thought that adverbs modified adjectives as well as verbs and other adverbs. You're welcome to chalk it all up to a Methuselah-like grammatical rear-guard who spent far too much time in Latin classes and in English classes, far too long ago.
Holt responds: Actually (tee-hee), you're right. I see my mistake. I took a shortcut and buzzed up the tone a little too much, so of course "sticklers" like you would see right through it. I'm glad you did so I can correct it . Did you know the entire nation of France was once divided in three parts? Tiny joke. Hello to dentist.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I am always on the alert for ways to write better. I like your list of mistakes to avoid, but noticed that you used "however." My main oracle, Jacques Barzun, says to, er, avoid it. What do you think?
Holt responds: Gee, this never occurred to me. I use "however" sparingly because it slows the pace and sounds unnecessarily formal. If you remember what the great Jacques Barzun said about it, let me know.
Daniel Bonner replies:
In "Simple and Direct," J. B. says, "For my part, however is a forbidden word, the sign of a weakness in thought. I use it once in a great while, when I cannot get rid of neighboring but's and do not want to add one more."
He later says he doesn't mean the adverbial however, as in "However much you take." He cites John Jay Chapman as an authority for radically reducing reliance on "however." By the way, Robert Graves would regard the words "radically reducing reliance" as an offense against good style ("The Reader Over Your Shoulder," original edition). He calls this "jingle."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
As a novice writer, I appreciated the published novel and magazine examples in your "10 Mistakes" newsletter. The question of where to put a comma or how to use a verb can be found in many books. But the authors often neglect the opportunity to give a solid grammar lesson by using published novels to make a point. Thanks for taking time to give us beginners inside information in the editing process.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
"If used to often, this crutch also bogs down sentence after sentence." Oh, Pat!
Holt responds: Is the "Oh, Pat!" referring to the typo "to," which should have been "too"? Or is it the whole sentence, which now that I look at it is an embarrassing mixed metaphor (crutch and bog)?
Sean Riley responds: Both, I'm afraid! (Otherwise, I enjoyed the article a great deal.)
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I thought you might be interested in this story published in OP magazine's Sept.-Oct. 2003 issue:
The New York Times story mentioned at the top of the Web page is at http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/13/technology/13ecom.html
Holt responds: This is a great round-up story that brings readers up to date on the emergence of the USA Patriot Act just six weeks after 9/11 - all 342 pages of it! Gosh, that was fast, and I'm not implying (nor does the author) any conspiracy or anything. It just seems that all the language for dismantling civil rights for the sake of national security was on the tip o' the tongue of our leaders! Various booksellers' reaction to Section 215, the part of the Patriot Act that allows FBI agents to demand records of bookstore customers and library patrons - and gag booksellers and librarians from telling anybody about it in the process - are downright inspiing, as are comments by Chris Finan of American Booksellers for Free Expression and Bernie Sanders, the Vermont congressman whose Freedom to Read Protection Act (HR 1157) may yet help to gut the dang 215 of its worst abuses.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding how one gets on the New York Times bestseller list, I have been told that the list ranks *wholesale* book sales to book stores, not retail sales to consumers. There is no way, it seems to me, that a book just released on Day 1 can reach #1 that day unless they are only counting the sales already made to the book stores. And nobody ever talks about the returns or slashed prices of those books on the remainder table.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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