Barbara Grizzuti Harrison Essay - Critical Essays

Harrison, Barbara Grizzuti


Barbara Grizzuti Harrison 1934-

American journalist, essayist, memoirist, travel writer, short story writer, and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Harrison's career through 1996.

Harrison is known for her highly personal essays and memoirs that reflect on her travels and life experiences. Critics commend her utilization of hard-edged journalism and autobiography to explore such diverse topics as sexism in schools, Italian culture, the writings of contemporary authors, and complex theological issues.

Biographical Information

Harrison was born in Brooklyn, New York, on September 14, 1934. At the age of nine, her mother became a Jehovah's Witness and, as a result, Harrison was immersed in the teachings of this religion. Jehovah's Witness members adhere to a set of strict rules and a fundamentalist ideology. Moreover, they believe in a “New Eden” that will welcome only Witness members after the world ends at Armageddon. Harrison's experiences during these years have become recurring thematic concerns in her writing. For three years, Harrison lived and worked in the giant Watchtower Bible and Tract Society headquarters in Brooklyn Heights. In 1956, she split from the group and lived in various places such as Greenwich Village, India, and Latin America. Her extensive travels in Italy inspired Italian Days (1989) and The Islands of Italy (1991). She has also written articles and conducted interviews for several periodicals, including Esquire, Harper's, The Nation, and New York Times Book Review. She currently lives in New York City and continues to write journalism and fiction.

Major Works

Harrison's first publication, Unlearning the Lie (1969) examined the widespread impact of sexism in schools; the idea originated from an article about an experiment at her child's school in Brooklyn. Her next work, Visions of Glory (1978) is a history of the Jehovah's Witnesses, which Harrison had been closely associated with for eleven years. Despite her personal involvement with the group, the book is generally perceived as a fairly objective account of their past. Her essay collection Off Center was published in 1980. The collection touches on a wide array of topics that deal with Harrison's strong and oftentimes controversial opinions. Foreign Bodies (1984), a novel, chronicles a woman's obsessive love and its consequences. Considered more than a travelogue, Italian Days combines personal recollections, travel essays, and quotations from various writers to tell the story of Harrison's journeys around Italy. The Astonishing World (1992) is a collection of essays, interviews, and short stories that reflect on Harrison's diverse experiences and interests. Viewed as a confessional memoir, An Accidental Autobiography (1996) explores Harrison's life and the sociopolitical concerns of her time, such as religion, sexism, and family. Eschewing a strictly chronological structure, Harrison instead employs a more impressionistic narrative, relating anecdotes from different periods of her life.

Critical Reception

Harrison is generally considered to be a perceptive, humorous author and is best known for her autobiographical essays. Commentators have praised her objectivity, even when dealing with such personal subjects as her difficult childhood and her time as a Jehovah's Witness. Her exploration of complicated religious and theological topics in Visions of Glory has garnered considerable critical appreciation. Reviewers have also applauded her honest and courageous treatment of topical issues, including feminism and sexism in schools. Harrison has established a reputation as a thoughtful interviewer and writer, unafraid to explore personal, literary or social complexities.

Principal Works

Unlearning the Lie: Sexism in School (nonfiction) 1969

Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah's Witnesses (nonfiction) 1978

Off Center: Essays (essays) 1980

Foreign Bodies (novel) 1984

Italian Days (travel essays) 1989

The Islands of Italy: Sicily, Sardinia, and the Aeolian Islands (travel essays) 1991

The Astonishing World: Essays (essays) 1992

An Accidental Autobiography (memoir) 1996


Susan Jacoby (review date 9 September 1973)

SOURCE: “What Did You Learn in School Today?” in Washington Post Book World, September 9, 1973, p. 4.

[In the following mixed assessment of Unlearning the Lie, Jacoby considers Harrison's reportage incomplete, asserting that “she may have been too close to the situation to realize that she had left so many unanswered questions.”]

It is a truism among educators that girls do better than boys in the early years of school because they are “verbally oriented” and therefore have an easier time learning to read. At some point, usually in early adolescence, the boys begin to catch up, and by the end of formal education, the position of the sexes in academic achievement has been reversed. One of my favorite college professors attested to this syndrome when he told me: “My girl students are more diligent, but the most brilliant ones are usually boys.”

Whether the professor was a male chauvinist pig is beside the point—he was accurately describing the typical result, circa 1965, of coeducational schooling in the United States. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison [in her Unlearning the Lie: Sexism in School] attempts to examine the ways in which schools stereotype girls and boys, and the process by which concerned parents can cajole or coerce changes in the classroom. Fortunately, Harrison chose to confine her study to one school she knew well instead of drowning her case in generalities. Her own children attend the Woodward School, a private, progressive, racially integrated and highly respected institution in Brooklyn. If children are channeled into restrictive sex roles at a school like Woodward—where individualism is rampant and revered—it is easy to imagine how automatic sex stereotyping is in ordinary public schools.

Not surprisingly, Harrison is at her best when describing specific incidents at Woodward that would never come to the attention of an...

(The entire section is 808 words.)

Florence Howe (review date Autumn 1973)

SOURCE: “Eight New Feminist Books,” in American Scholar, Vol. 42, No. 4, Autumn, 1973, pp. 676–84.

[In the following excerpt, Howe offers a positive assessment of Unlearning the Lie.]

If Frazier and Sadker's tone is too sanguine [in Sexism in School and Society] a useful antidote and complementary account is Barbara Grizzuti Harrison's Unlearning the Lie. Harrison, a writer and the parent of two children who attend the Woodward School in Brooklyn, makes palpable both her own reluctant conversion to feminism and the school's two-year process of beginning change. Indeed, it took two years of parental pressure on a “free,” private elementary...

(The entire section is 317 words.)

Abigail McCarthy (review date 24 September 1978)

SOURCE: “Door-to-Door,” in Washington Post Book World, September 24, 1978, p. E5.

[In the following review, McCarthy provides a mixed review of Visions of Glory.]

Just after I had read this book, Visions of Glory while I was sitting one evening with friends watching the sunset over Nantucket Sound, a young man carrying a brief case appeared in our midst. He was a Jehovah's Witness.

It was a curious coincidence. He seemed quite literally to have sprung from nowhere. One moment we were laughing and talking among ourselves; the next minute he was there demanding to be heard. He was to me the very embodiment of the Witnesses with whom Barbara...

(The entire section is 914 words.)

Catharine R. Stimpson (review date October 1978)

SOURCE: “False Comforters,” in Ms., Vol. 7, No. 4, October, 1978, pp. 43–5.

[In the following laudatory assessment of Visions of Glory, Stimpson asserts that the study is “more than a modern confession; more than a lucid, often brilliant, first-person account of doubt and belief.”]

Visions of Glory is a brave, enormous, painful book. As she exorcises the past, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison asks, “What does it mean to believe in God?,” a question that embarrasses many, but enthralls some.

When she was nine, Barbara Grizzuti and her mother became converts to the Jehovah's Witnesses. An ardent member of that “fundamentalist,...

(The entire section is 1169 words.)

Jack Miles (review date 22 December 1978)

SOURCE: “Witnesses and Catholics,” in Commonweal, Vol. CV, No. 25, December 22, 1978, pp. 818–19.

[In the following review, Miles contends that although Harrison was extremely harsh in her portrayal of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Visions of Glory, she never condescends to them.]

How can people live like that?” the bluestocking asks of the slum. “How can people think like that?” the religious bluestocking, believing or unbelieving, asks of a group like Jehovah's Witnesses. They refuse blood transfusions. They insult the flag. They decry the Vatican as the fountain of evil. They resist the draft without condemning the war. Most of all,...

(The entire section is 1630 words.)

Lisa Gubernick (review date 6 January 1979)

SOURCE: “How I Got Over,” in Nation, Vol. 228, No. 1, January 6, 1979, pp. 22, 24.

[In the following positive assessment of Visions of Glory, Gubernick calls the work “both scholarly and theologically impressive.”]

The subtitle of Visions of Glory is “A History and a Memory of Jehovah's Witnesses.” The thorough history—both scholarly and theologically impressive—has a personal edge: Harrison spent twelve years (ages 9 to 21) as a Witness. Her memories do not make her history suspect; instead, the autobiographical fragments give the book balance and weight. Through them she can convey what this peculiar theology feels like, and we...

(The entire section is 1059 words.)

Frederick V. Mills, Sr. (review date 28 February 1979)

SOURCE: “Insider's View,” in Christian Century, Vol. XCVI, No. 7, February 28, 1979, p. 224.

[In the following review of Visions of Glory, Mills lauds Harrison's study as both perceptive and insightful.]

Jehovah's Witnesses are believers in a fundamentalist, apocalyptic, prophetic religion; they have been proclaiming, since the 1930s, that “millions of our living will never die.” To the extent that they are known—their notoriety arises from their refusal to receive blood transfusions, salute the flag, or serve in the army of any country, as well as from their aggressive proselytizing—they are perceived as rather drab, somewhat eccentric people and...

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Anne Tyler (review date 7 June 1980)

SOURCE: A review of Off Center, in New Republic, Vol. 23, June 7, 1980, pp. 31–2.

[In the following favorable assessment of Off Center, Tyler describes Harrison as “funny, intelligent, refreshingly candid, and very nearly impossible to fool—a woman with her eyes open, every minute.”]

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison was once expelled from an est session after 24 hours of training. It's significant that she was expelled for failing to close her eyes—for flatly refusing to lie on the floor with her eyes shut and give herself over to her fantasies. “I can't,” she said, and out she went, stepping over writhing bodies all the way to the door.


(The entire section is 1234 words.)

Brina Caplan (review date 14 June 1980)

SOURCE: “Only Reconnect,” in Nation, Vol. 230, No. 23, June 14, 1980, pp. 727–28, 730.

[In the following positive review, Caplan considers the diverse range of essays in Off Center.]

“There are only two things in this world,” according to Werner Erhard, founder of the est therapy franchise, “semantics and nothing.” Such careless nihilism, according to Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, dangerously impoverishes the reality we have to share with Erhard, with one another and with our own consciences. In Off Center, a collection of essays written over the course of the 1970s, Harrison looks at Joan Didion's despairing fiction and Adrienne Rich's militant...

(The entire section is 1483 words.)

Adrienne George (review date 2 August 1980)

SOURCE: A review of Off Center, in America, Vol. 143, No. 3, August 2, 1980, p. 58.

[In the following review, George commends Harrison’s honesty, humor, and insight as evinced in the essays that comprise Off Center.]

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison is more than a fine essayist and critic; she is a truth-teller of the first order. In Off Center, her collection of 20 essays and reviews, Harrison confronts a wide range of subjects, from race riots at her old high school to her youth as a Jehovah’s Witness, from the moral ambivalence of abortion to the mindless psycho-babble of est and the dangerous popularity of cults like the Moonies. It is a mark of her fair...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

D. Keith Mano (review date 19 September 1980)

SOURCE: “On Target,” in National Review, September 19, 1980, p. 1151.

[In the following favorable assessment of Off Center, Mano examines Harrison’s major thematic concerns and narrative style.]

Ignore the absurd title: Barbara Grizzuti Harrison has a centripetal drive: things suck down to the middle here. Yet she is no ambivalent observer: not a U Thant of the soul, laying out fact like Congoleum tile. BGH writes with metered passion: and with the axis pain that a spinal tap has. She degausses her material: neutralizing both positive and negative charge. Splendid work done at risk: that steeple-high risk you associate with lightning rods. She can detect...

(The entire section is 832 words.)

Gerard Reedy (review date 10 August 1984)

SOURCE: “No Ends to Obsession,” in Commonweal, Vol. CXI, No. 14, August 10, 1984, pp. 441–42.

[In the following negative review of Foreign Bodies, Reedy contends that Harrison “puts forward a wealth of interesting material, but describes the work as “a deeply unfinished novel.”]

Foreign Bodies, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s fourth book and first novel, explores two major sequences in the life of Angela, its principal character and narrator. The first is her late adolescence and early adulthood. Here Angela begins to see the limitations of her mother and falls in love with David Larrimar, her forty-year-old English teacher, who takes her in...

(The entire section is 1047 words.)

Abigail McCarthy (review date 12 July 1992)

SOURCE: “Testing the Current,” in Washington Post Book World, No. 220, July 12, 1992, p. 9.

[In the following mixed review of The Astonishing World, McCarthy views the collection as an uneven yet provocative work.]

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison points out in her introduction to The Astonishing World that she has mixed fiction into this collection of interviews, journalistic reports, recollections and travel essays. In her case, she explains, the categories overlap. This does not mean, she adds, that she ever plays fast and loose with facts. “I mean only that the slightest nuance has the power to modify the most obdurate fact, and writers deal in nuance....

(The entire section is 945 words.)

John F. Baker (essay date 27 July 1992)

SOURCE: “PW Interviews: Barbara Grizzuti Harrison,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 239, No. 34, July 27, 1992, pp. 44–5.

[In the following interview, Harrison discusses her own interview technique, her experience with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and writers whom she admires.]

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison sits in her compact, 25th-floor Park Avenue apartment, which affords dizzying vistas of sun, sky and East River, and brews coffee for her guest. It is important that it come out right—everything she does with food has to come out right—and when the potful has finished bubbling and she has taken an exploratory sip, she is doubtful. “This isn’t”—she is...

(The entire section is 2225 words.)

John F. Baker (review date 16 February 1993)

SOURCE: “World Beat,” in Village Voice, Vol. 38, No. 7, February 16, 1993, p. 65.

[In the following mixed assessment of The Astonishing World, Baker maintains that the collection reflects “a thoroughly savvy contemporary woman with a gift for informed enthusiasm and occasional necessary malice.”]

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, one of the best essayists around, first came to wide attention with Italian Days three years ago. Though she had been writing frequently, and increasingly well, for a dozen years before that, the luminous prose and freshness of vision in her Italian book seemed to take everyone by surprise. No surprise this time, however, to...

(The entire section is 700 words.)

Maria Laurino (review date 24 June 1996)

SOURCE: “Wayward Witness,” in Nation, Vol. 262, No. 25, June 24, 1996, pp. 33–4.

[In the following review, Laurino considers the role of memory in An Accidental Autobiography.]

When Barbara Grizzuti Harrison guided readers along the terrain of her mother country in Italian Days, describing with equal agility luminous works of Renaissance art and the palette of colors in an antipasto, she provided a clue to the way she collects, catalogues and tells a story. Recalling how a stroll with her daughter in Rome reminded her of a scene from Little Women—the first book she read after her daughter was born—Harrison explained, “This is how memory works;...

(The entire section is 1003 words.)

Judith Dunford (review date 30 June 1996)

SOURCE: “No Accident,” in Chicago Tribune Books, June 30, 1996, p. 2.

[In the following positive review, Dunford explores stylistic aspects of An Accidental Autobiography.]

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison supplies her own metaphor for An Accidental Autobiography—a collage she has made up from a tangle of silk swatches:

“… floral and geometric, reminiscent of Klimt, reminiscent of Morris, reminiscent of Braque … marbled, watered, paisley; silk postcards of … pheasants and peacocks and fans and lions and pagodas and lilies. …”

The unmistakable Harrison thumbprint. The most...

(The entire section is 1380 words.)

Susan Isaacs (review date 7 July 1996)

SOURCE: “A Tell-All That Sees All,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 7, 1996, p. 6.

[In the following review, Isaacs provides a favorable assessment of Harrison’s An Accidental Autobiography.]

Watch out for the kid with the pen.

We are now in the age of very personal memoir. What began as shocking revelations of abuse, lunacy or coldheartedness by children of public personalities—Gary Crosby’s Going My Own Way and Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest—has become a form favored by the literary offspring of more private parents. In The Duke of Deception and This Boy’s Life, Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff,...

(The entire section is 1178 words.)

Emil Antonucci (review date 13 September 1996)

SOURCE: A review of An Accidental Autobiography, in Commonweal, Vol. 123, No. 15, September 13, 1996, pp. 31–2.

[In the following review, Antonucci urges the reader not to be alienated by the sensational, confessional aspects of An Accidental Autobiography.]

The events of Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s life are the stuff of a good half-dozen novels. An intense childhood in a troubled Italian family in Brooklyn (a mother who demeans her and a father who tries to kill her); a long, bleak servitude in the Jehovah Witnesses from the age of nine to nineteen till her escape to the East Village to make a life of her own; first love with a black musician, the painful...

(The entire section is 861 words.)

Elizabeth Stone (review date November 1996)

SOURCE: “Performing Artist,” in Women’s Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 2, November, 1996, pp. 20–22.

[In the following laudatory review, Stone examines the organizing principles of An Accidental Autobiography.]

Most autobiographies are narratives, getting you from here to there in the author’s life. As such, they are implied explanations of how it all came to pass. An Accidental Autobiography gives no such account of Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s sixty years of being alive. “A linear autobiography would falsify because it would cast things in a mold and present me with the temptation to find formal patterns where none exist,” she writes in the...

(The entire section is 1737 words.)

Further Reading


Craft, Robert. “Days of Wine and Pasta.” Washington Post Book World 19, No. 36 (3 September 1989): 6.

In the following essay, Craft recommends Harrison’s Italian Days, predicting that the book “will be the companion of visitors there for years to come.”

Grumbach, Doris. “Fine Print.” New Republic 169, No. 15 (13 October 1973): 31.

Calls Unlearning the Lie “instructive, heartening reading.”

Johnson, Alexandra. “A Seasoned Traveler Finds a World Made of Pain of Delight.” Chicago Tribune Books (26 July 1992): 5-6.

In this...

(The entire section is 245 words.)