Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Disappearing Acts is a narrative that works to undermine popular romance’s promise that two people in love can overcome the social conditions that might impede their happiness. When Zora meets Franklin, she quickly relinquishes her recent resolution to maintain her equanimity when faced with sexual desire. Franklin assumes the position of power. Zora, despite her steady job, artistic talent, education, and middle-class family ties, has less power to determine the outcome of the relationship than Franklin, who has none of these advantages. It becomes Zora’s responsibility not only inobtrusively to support him financially but also to support his fragile sense of well-being.

Her autonomy is threatened further by two unwanted pregnancies. She aborts the first without consulting Franklin, who is then furious for what he considers her duplicity. She tells him immediately about the second pregnancy. He wants the baby and promises to divorce his wife before the baby is born. Zora must now prepare for the child, support the household, and sympathize with Franklin about his current unemployment and tortured past. Although she continues to grant him authority, he can only respond with irritated resentment of her abilities, which continually threaten his tenuous sense of control.

Their son’s birth does nothing to bring the couple under the protective umbrella of a nuclear family. Franklin is jealous of the infant. To assume the role of...

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Disappearing Acts Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

McMillan’s disturbingly realistic novel responds to an ideology that calls for the reinstatement and continuation of the conventional nuclear family. McMillan resists being written by the discourse of traditional patriarchal domesticity. In her novels Mama (1987), Disappearing Acts, and Waiting to Exhale (1992), this hegemonic discourse is reconfigured. McMillan’s polemical fiction aims to demonstrate that the myth of the perfect family is a damaging one. As such false models deny race, ethnic, and class diversity, they encourage a common sense of guilt, betrayal, and rage, since most people cannot live up to the myth’s ideological values. In a significant feminist gesture, McMillan creates contemporary families that allocate to men a different space from the patriarchal center they have come to expect.

In an interview in the Boston Globe, McMillan explains that women are reading her novels “because they identify—because they want to say, ‘I was there, I’m not there anymore,’ or ‘I’m still there.’ They kiss me, they hug me, they cry, they say thank you. They thank me because they are finally reading about what’s happening to them now.” McMillan is narrating culture in action, mimetically depicting women struggling to create families that do not follow dominant ideological conventions. Her characters are unique black women situated in specific histories, cultures, and classes who are partially dominated by and liberated from the domestic conventions of their time and place. Her novels allow women to take seriously new options for family arrangements and accommodate women who choose to create families without husbands.

In much fiction by and about women, the family remains dominant, and plots move to resolve or efface conflict and impose artificial unity. McMillan’s narratives disrupt such plots, even though residual elements of the traditional family remain. Her vision offers a rigorous interrogation of the formulaic and oversimplified stability of the patriarchal family and its ideology. Instead McMillan creates narrative spaces where families are in crisis, where conflict and discord are not resolved, where instability is the given, where the fissures of contemporary existence are not denied.

Disappearing Acts Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Heininge, Kathy. “Terry McMillan.” In American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies. Supplement 13, edited by Jay Parini. New York: Scribner’s, 2003. Overview of McMillan’s life, career, and contributions to literary history.

McMillan, Terry. “Terry McMillan Exhales and Inhales in a Revealing Interview.” Interview by Laura B. Randolph. Ebony 48 (May, 1993): 23-27. Discussion with McMillan in the wake of the enormous success of Waiting to Exhale. Provides an interesting comparison with the Publishers Weekly interview below.

McMillan, Terry. “Terry McMillan: The Novelist Explores African American Life from the Point of View of a New Generation.” Interview by Wendy Smith. Publishers Weekly 239 (May 11, 1992): 50-51. McMillan discusses Mama, Disappearing Acts, Waiting to Exhale, and her publisher’s plans for promoting the latter book.

Max, Daniel. “McMillan’s Millions.” The New York Times Magazine, August 9, 1992, 20. Asserts that McMillan’s success disproves the publishing industry’s assumption that African Americans do not buy books.

Richards, Paulette. Terry McMillan: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Book-length study of McMillan’s works, treating them as objects of serious study and cultural importance.

Tate, Claudia, ed. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983. Interviews in which African American women writers discuss both the content and the style of their writing and reflect on their influences. To understand choices made by a newer writer such as McMillan, it is helpful to compare her narrative technique, characterization, and themes to those employed by her peers.