An Accidental Autobiography
The facts about Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s life that one can glean from An Accidental Autobiography are these: She grew up in Brooklyn during the 1930’s and 1940’s; her father, a printer, was an Italian immigrant; her mother, a second- generation Italian, became a zealous Jehovah’s Witness when Barbara was nine. Barbara became her mother’s acolyte on Sunday door-to-door visits and served for three years as a housekeeper in the Jehovah’s Witness headquarters and residence after she graduated from high school. Escaping her servitude, she moved to the East Village, had a love affair with an African American jazz musician (whose name she omits, referring to him throughout as Jazzman), and married a Mr. Harrison (Dale Harrison, an official with CARE, according to another source) with whom she had two children, Anna and Joshua. During her marriage, she lived in Libya and India; after her divorce, she became a freelance writer and passionate traveler. She has suffered throughout her adult life from panic attacks (a result of the childhood trauma of being caught between a sometimes abusive father and a disapproving mother) and in her later life from recurring lung infections: She is obsessed with the act of breathing.
It is with “Breathing Lessons,” that Harrison begins her collection of memories, a collection she has organized alphabetically, rather than chronologically for, as she states in the “Introduction”:
A linear biography would falsify, because it would cast things in a mold and present me with the temptation to find formal patterns where none exist. . . . I have no wish to be imprisoned in a frame of my own creation.
The path of memory is circular and coherent:
like a jazz symphony. Harrison’s autobiography plays in a series of melodies, reprises, and riffs, allowing her to contemplate experiences from various angles, with different interpretations. Often she turns to a solo voice from outside to add color and depth to the mix.
Harrison revels in the sensual delights of life—not only sex and food but also the vistas and aromas of faraway places and New York streets, the color and texture of fabric scraps to be made into a collage, beautiful objects that she must possess, and the “soft and clear, cadenced and authoritative voice” of Red Barber’s broadcasts that filled her childhood summer afternoons.
In the chapter entitled “Home Economics,” she explores the contradictions of domesticity: the drudgery of housekeeping against the joy of serving her children “orichietti with porcini sauteed in truffle oil and sweet butter.” Harrison’s childhood and adolescence were filled with household tasks; while her mother was out preaching for the Witnesses, young Barbara was home washing dishes and ironing. At nineteen she moved into Bethel, the residence hall of the Witnesses and spent her days changing beds and scrubbing floors in the mansion built by Henry Ward Beecher. Her reflections on home economics are augmented with material from books on domestic science by the Beecher sisters and the nutritional philosophies of Adele Davis and Dr. Carlton Fredericks, with whom her mother was infatuated. Similarly in the chapter, “Food, Flesh and Fashion,” Harrison at once delights in the pleasures of the body and bemoans its vulnerability to pain and deterioration—and fat.
The chapter begins with an examination of the fluctuating perceptions of the perfect female form according to fashionable dictates, moves on to a consideration of Anthelme Brillat- Savarin’s nineteenth century The Physiology of Taste; an appreciation of the Italian contentment with food that makes each meal, not a test but a festa; an exploration into the cults of fasting, citing the work of medievalist Caroline Bynum, and concludes with her own dreams of having it all:
I want everything—candlelight and music, soft fabric and strong hands caressing me, perfume and wine, love, sex, food, joy, the dance of the blood, and the...
(The entire section is 1,819 words.)