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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 “outsider” visiting a school:
A primary school teacher describes herself as “an old-line feminist from way back” at a PTA meeting but observes that first- and second-grade girls are not interested in rockets. “Well, they're interested when you get them alone,” she acknowledges, “but they're reluctant to discuss their interest in front of boys.”
On a class field trip to an ice-skating rink, a sixth-grade boy deliberately pushes a girl down on the ice; she calls him a four-letter word. Later, a hot-dog vendor who witnessed the incident refuses to serve the girl because “ladies don't talk like that.” The girl complains to the school principal, who tells her she must have a “decent respect for the opinions of others.” The boy's physical provocation is completely forgotten.
Seventh-grade English students are asked to write a composition about the life of any fictitious person. A girl writes about a woman who, after college, marries and has three children. Her last child is born when she is 28; nothing else happens to the character until she dies at age 70.
As Harrison points out, it is quite wrong to dismiss such incidents as trivia. Schools are the first and often the only institutions outside the family where boys and girls are exposed to each other on a sustained basis. Relationships with members of the opposite sex play an enormous role in school life, from the first childish crushed through serious teenage dating. School is one of the most logical places to break the cycle which produces boys and girls who, by their early teens, already have a distorted view of the requirements for asserting one's sexual identity.
The parents, teachers and children at Woodward seem to have made real progress toward breaking the cycle of sexism, but Harrison never explains exactly how the transformation was accomplished. Most of the book deals with consciousness-raising and squabbling among the mothers—who in 1970 formed a “Sex-roles Committee” to discuss the problems—before they were able to approach the school staff effectively.
Harrison should not be faulted for devoting so much space to the soul-searching of the Woodward women. Changes in schools—whether in cafeteria menus or curriculum—always involve a considerable amount of consciousness-raising and quarrelling.
My real disappointment with Harrison's book is that it ends too soon. There is a description of an audio-visual presentation to the staff and parents by the Sex-roles Committee, followed by interviews with teachers about the changes they felt had occurred since 1970. But Harrison never actually takes us into the classrooms to see these changes in action.
It is difficult to understand why Harrison failed to finish the excellent reporting job she began in this book; she may have been too close to the situation to realize that she had left so many unanswered questions. In her closing paragraph, she writes that “true revolutionaries are like God—they create the world in their own image.” Something quite different is expected of a journalist. He or she must be able to describe exactly what was created and how it was done.
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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 (kindergarten through eighth grade) school to gain the cooperation of the staff, if not the agreement of all the parents. In this process, a few teachers and most significantly the director—strong women who had “made it” and who were not easily convinced of the need for change—played key roles. The instrument of change, however, was neither a book nor an individual, but one of those amorphous, leaderless consciousness-raising groups and the information they produced about the experience and history of women in school and society. The “Sex-role Committee,” as the group of white female parents was called, found itself in an adversary position, not only in relation to the school's staff and to male parents, but, since the school is interracial, to black female parents who made up a parallel Black Studies Committee. A confrontation between black and white women, honestly portrayed as the book's and the movement's climax, culminates in a marathon multimedia presentation of collectively researched and written papers about the lives of black and white women to an audience of staff and other parents.
One great virtue of Harrison's book is that it documents a process of changing an institution, however small. We have too few such histories, too few lessons from the efforts of feminists to achieve at least change, if not power.
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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 Harrison lived and worked for 12 years and whom she describes in this “history and memory”: painfully neat in appearance, persistent in the face of our host's irritation, and faintly censorious of our apparent ease and enjoyment of the present moment.
The Witnesses, she notes in her introduction, are known to the public for their aggressive proselytizing and are generally perceived as drab and eccentric people. For the most part they are drawn from the deprived in our society. Entering into the sect, they gain certainty, a community, formulae for behavior which will gain them acceptance, and a belief which gives them a sense of superiority over those who are, in the eyes of the rest of the world, more fortunate. But the end of this world is coming; a new and perfect earth will be formed; only the elect will inhabit it.
“There is a kind of ruthless glee in the way Jehovah's Witnesses point to earthquakes, race riots, heroin addiction … as proof of the nearness of Armageddon,” Harrison writes, and, near the end of the book, tells of two young men with whom she shared an office running from window to window at the approach of a big storm, and crying, “Wouldn't it be wonderful if it was Armageddon?” Sure of their own survival, they could rejoice at impending doom, and I could see our uninvited visitor doing just that. Yet I also wondered just what it was about life in the pleasant little resort town that had led him to join the Witnesses.
This latter reaction of mine is the measure of the success of Harrison's study and reflection on her own life as a Witness. In seeking to come to terms with her own experience she has given a great deal of thought to what she feels little thought has been given—“the comment their existence makes on the larger society.” No one can read this book—in which she has earnestly examined her own and her mother's conversion by a Witness when she was a child of nine, her subsequent life with them, and her difficult breaking away and its aftermath—without wanting also to understand as she seeks to understand. The task she assigned herself in writing this book went far beyond her own experience:
To examine one prophetic, apocalyptic cult is to explore the existential experience to which human society is bound at any given moment … Jehovah's Witnesses may be regarded as people seeking religious renewal and liberation in order to heal deep personal psychic wounds—people who contain and channel their craziness in a ‘crazy’ religion, but the form their religion takes may also be seen as a response to social and cultural realities. To look closely at the psychology of a single all-consuming religion is necessarily to examine human nature, while to understand its ideology and to trace its historical genesis and development is to gain insight into the contradictions, necessities, and turmoil of the society and culture that gave it life.
It is a large order. In her effort Harrison has evidently added to the rather scant sociological and theological literature on the Witnesses by extensive interviewing of, and correspondence with, former Witnesses like herself. In consequence, it seems to me, the book as a study is strongest in the light it shows on the alienated segments of society from which most Witnesses come, as well as on the psychology of those who live their life. Moreover, she makes apparent the intellectual and emotional costs of both conforming and breaking away. Her weakest area, however, is in comparative religion.
There is fascinating information about the self-contained world the Witnesses have made: from the farms and printing plants worked by volunteer labor to the yacht in New York harbor, from the monastery-like dormitory rooms of headquarters workers to the penthouse apartments of the leaders. There is also a very useful chapter reviewing the court cases by which the Witnesses, with the defense of their own rights to proselytize or to refuse military service, strengthened the civil liberties of us all.
There are, it must be finally noted, two books here under one title. Inter-twined in the research and reflection is the passionate personal testament of Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, a testament imperfectly rendered because it is at times rendered only in allusion and by indirection. This is understandable because her experiences since she left the Witnesses have been various and intense, her new allegiances many—to lovers, friends, children, to feminism, the peace movement—and her conversion to Catholicism so surprising and so recent. (It occurred when she was midway through this book.) It is to be hoped that she will gather all this into a new book and that the style which seems to be evolving throughout this book will then be sure and wholly her own.
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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, apocalyptic, prophetic” religion, she “preached sweet doom” from door to door. After high school, she lived for several years at the Witnesses' central headquarters in Brooklyn. Yet fervor and faith were insufficient. Passionate, intelligent, she could not suppress her curiosity, her doubts, and her rebellion against a Jehovah who would condemn decent, lovable people, who were not Witnesses, to eternal death. In 1956, at 21, close to a nervous breakdown, she left, or, to use the sectarian idiom, she “disfellowshipped” herself.
Reborn into the secular world, she lived in Greenwich Village, in India, and in Latin America. She had affairs, the first with a black jazz musician, that symbol of street wisdom and freedom in the 1950s. She married; had two well-loved children; got a divorce; began to write. She became a reasonably free woman, that symbol for the 1970s. Then, while working on this book about a dogmatic, totalitarian Protestant movement, she discovered the Roman Catholicism into which she had been baptized as a baby. She found a religion that satisfied her thirst for magnificence; for celebration; for a surrender to grand forces that would enhance, not destroy, the self. She could reconcile “love of God with love of the world.”
Harrison speaks ruefully of the skepticism of friends about her new commitment. Though far, far too skimpily, she admits that “to be a Catholic and a feminist and a leftist sometimes appears to be a fantastic juggling act.” But such responses seem trivial to her in comparison to the sense of well-being that her grasp of the sacred brought and brings—a combination of ecstasy and health that devotees of several religions have described.
To grow in this way, Harrison had to break with her mother, whom she had confused with Jehovah Himself. She was reunited emotionally with her father who had not been allowed to share a bedroom with his wife after she became a Witness. As an adult, then, Harrison both abandoned some of her childhood and reclaimed other parts of it that the Witnesses had taken away from her. Part of the poignancy of her autobiographical passages is that she was such a very young zealot; that one of Jehovah's special souls was a psychologically and morally battered child.
Visions of Glory is more than a modern confession; more than a lucid, often brilliant, first-person account of doubt and belief. Harrison also analyzes an extraordinary group that we must understand if we want to grasp the complexities of certain conservatives. Today, there are only about as many Witnesses as there are Albanians. However, because of their persistent proselytizing, their organizational skills, their money, and their clarity of purpose, the Witnesses seem larger than their numbers might suggest. They are a comparatively new sect, founded in the late 19th century by a manipulative, messianic haberdasher from Pittsburgh, Charles Taze Russell. He began the Witnesses' habit of fixing a firm date for the end of the world. Necessarily, the date had to shift as history messily defied those who believed they could control and survive time.
Harrison's attitude toward Russell signals her attitude toward the Witnesses in general. She sometimes laughs at their freakishness, the comedy of the loon and buffoon. She loathes their isolation; smugness; hypocrisy; repression; flagellation that consists of guilt and shame; bigotry; and bland acceptance of secular injustice. She writes: They move in our midst like disdainful strangers, waiting for Jehovah—a hard and irritable judge. … They spit out the world as if it tasted of ashes; they reject the large idea of a mystical union with God, a communion of brothers and saints. Their God is querulous and small; their religion nourishes damaged deserters from the world, offering them a brittle certainty. When she can, she respects their contribution to the civil liberties of freedom of speech, of the press, and of the separation of church and state; their capacity for labor, courage, and discipline; and their desire for God, no matter how aridly expressed.
Much of the strength of Visions of Glory is Harrison's willingness to struggle with her feelings about the Witnesses and to be as fair as possible. An honorable historian, she rejects rigid interpretations, diatribes, and oversimplifications, errors of the Witnesses themselves.
As a result, her sense of Witness psychology seems plausible. To “victims, to the marginal, the exploited, the disenfranchised,” the religion offers an orderly, highly regulated community within which they can feel superior to the world outside. The Witnesses sanction some aggression; glamorize persecution; endorse a sacred text; outline a cosmology; and promise a comfortable immortality. Its appeal is such that blacks will dismiss its racism, women its sexism. Harrison says sympathetically: For disaffected women whose experience has taught them that all human relationships are threateningly volatile, capricious, and unreliable, the Witnesses provide an answer. Relate to God. God is a safe lover, a constant lover, a consuming lover. … Explicitly antifeminist, the Witnesses nevertheless provide a vehicle for downtrodden women—their religion allows their voices, drowned by the voices of the menacing world, to emerge.
Harrison reminds us that an unfair world generates escapes that are, in turn, distorted and distorting, limited and limiting. As if seeking to preserve their present life, Witnesses refuse to assault the social and political causes of the pain that is to them one more proof of their belief in an impending end of all evil. They apparently prefer compensation to change.
Despite the richness of its insights, despite its massiveness and (sometimes repetitive) detail, Visions of Glory often seems disturbingly unfinished. One chapter, about Witnesses in other countries, reads as if Harrison's facts had overwhelmed her and it was all she could do to get them down with some cogency. I wonder, too, if she had trouble integrating the public history of the Witnesses with her private history of having been one. Even after her obsessive self-examination, Harrison's past still partly baffles her. Her motives and actions as she longed, not only for “equality to cherish” but for “a God to adore,” have an enigmatic residue. This may be less a failure of style and of psychological acumen than a comment on the difficulties of the task she has set herself: to know believers. As she says: “the leap into belief (or into fancy) is still unsusceptible of analysis, still mysterious.” Perhaps our language, no matter how competently or poetically we use it, must ultimately profane and fail to reveal the sacred—if it exists.
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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, they believe in Armageddon, the imminent and violent End of the World. How can people think like that?
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, feature writer for Esquire, Ms., Saturday Review, New Republic, and others knows how they can. She was one of them for eleven years, from 1944 to 1955, converted at the age of nine with her mother, who is a Witness to this day. Visions of Glory presents the Witnesses' history as a series of digressions from a memoir of the author's conversion to “The Truth,” as Witnesses call their faith, through her apostasy, and on, nearly twenty years later, to her conversion to Roman Catholicism. Both the memoir and the history are full of color, confusion, and pain: wonderful material for a novel, you might say, but to novelize this kind of material is so often to eviscerate it. One thinks of Robert Coover's The Origin of The Brunists, which is set in the same coal-mining country where Charles Taze Russell founded Jehovah's Witnesses in the 1870s. That novel, despite its lip-smacking relish for human and religious grotesquerie, finally rings false. One hears, as it were, the bluestocking mother's rakehell son telling tales of vulgar belief to shock her but telling them for no reason other than that. Harrison, though extremely harsh in her criticism of the Witnesses, never condescends to them. Her book is an investigation, not an entertainment.
The Jehovah's Witnesses are of greater public interest to Americans than any other religious group of comparable size, for one good reason: in their notorious resistance to the draft and to the pledge of allegiance,
they won 150 State Supreme Court cases and more than 30 precedent-setting Supreme Court cases, forcing the Court to broaden the meaning of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. It is impossible to speak of the history of civil liberties in this country without speaking of them. Whatever their motives, we are very much in their debt.
Harrison tells this story and kindred ones in chapters entitled “Accumulating Wealth While the World Refuses to Die,” “Catholics, Mob Violence, Civil Liberties, and the Draft,” and “The Heroic Opportunity and Adventure: Jehovah's Witnesses Overseas.” We see the Witnesses in American prisons, Nazi camps, in new kinds of trouble in Africa; marching from door to door; rallying in Yankee Stadium. There is much to see and hear, Still, for this reader, it as the author's religious story that kept her book going; and as her personal journey has led to Catholicism, so perhaps the meaning of the Witnesses as a group may be found in their opposition to Catholicism. This is scarcely to distort them: they see themselves in rather these terms.
And seeing themselves so, they do see something scandalously true about the Roman church. Let the phrase Roma Aeterna stand for this scandal. Eternal? Does either Scripture or tradition encourage the Christian to regard physical reality itself, much less any single city, as eternal? “For us,” St. Paul wrote, “our homeland is in heaven, and from heaven comes the Savior we await.” The Jehovah's Witnesses seize on texts like this one (Philippians 3:20) as proof that this world is not eternal but temporary and indeed soon to pass away. To this difference in practical eschatology, there corresponds a strongly marked difference in religious mood. Rome reckons in centuries, as the saying goes. Brooklyn, where Bethel, the Witnesses headquarters is located, reckons in instants. The mood of Rome is grave, shrewd, unhurried, unenthusiastic, undiscouraged, unsurprised, undeterred, unexcited. The mood of Brooklyn, by contrast, is one of extreme excitement—in a word, of suspense—and of the fellowship that only shared suspense can create. Hear Paul again:
Brothers, I will tell you something that has been secret: that we are not all going to die, but we shall all be changed. This will be instantaneous, in the twinkling of an eye, when the last trumpet sounds. It will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible. And when this corruptible nature has put on incorruptibility, this mortal nature immortality, then will the words of Scripture come true: Death is swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?
In a memorable moment in Visions of Glory, two young Watchtower workers cheer together for Armageddon:
… a sudden black storm blew up, and two of the men with whom I shared proofreading tasks raced to plateglass windows and said, “Oh boy! Maybe it's Armageddon. Wouldn't it be wonderful if it was Armageddon? Do you think it's Armageddon? Wow!” I laughed and laughed and laughed, because they sounded so much more like Batman and Robin anticipating a caper with the Joker than like decently awed men awaiting God's final judgment.
We may smile too. But even granting that there is a difference between the excitement in the Watchtower office and the excitement of 1 Corinthians 15, we may recognize a larger difference between those two taken together and the holy serenity of Roma Aeterna.
The deeper question is, How did Rome get that way? And the answer to that question is part of the answer to the question, Why did Barbara Grizzuti Harrison become a Catholic?
Rome got that way in a reaction, perhaps an over-reaction, to early Christian predictions that never came to pass. The Brooklyn of the Jehovah's Witnesses is now in the same predicament. By one reckoning, the Jehovah's Witnesses have incorrectly predicted the End of the World seventeen times. A bad joke? The ultimate refutation? Perhaps, but then what kind of joke was it when Paul's predictions did not come true? No kind of joke, obviously, and just as obviously, some kind of refutation. Still, men and women who had once learned to look at the world as if it would soon end could never see it again in quite the old way. Primitive Christianity became early Catholicism because Paganism, whatever its sober beauty, was simply no longer an option. The apocalyptic form of the Christian faith, though not undertaken as an imaginative exercise, had had this permanent an impact upon the imagination of the Greco-Roman world.
What other explanation can there be for the survival of Christianity in the face of so massive a refutation by events? The primitive Christians did not cut much better a figure in their day than the Jehovah's Witnesses do in ours. Even the bizarre numerical speculations of Charles Taze Russell had their parallels—in fact, their antecedents—in the Book of Revelation. If then the Jehovah's Witnesses ought to break up their act (“We regret that due to circumstances beyond our control, the Armageddon previously scheduled for this hour will not be seen”), then so ought the early church to have done. And if it did not, we must ask after the reason. What was it that kept the early church alive to make the transition to early Catholicism?
I say it was the overwhelming power of the central Jewish and Christian intuition, the intuition which most sharply distinguished those groups from classical paganism and today distinguishes them again from eastern religion; the intuition, namely, that things need not be as they are. That there need be no bowing to necessity because there exists no necessity to which to bow. God exists, but God is freedom itself. For him, the laws of nature are no less subject to abrogation than are the conventions of society. The theophany that concludes the Book of Job, whatever else it may say, does not say that Yahweh and Job are, finally, fellow-prisoners. The theophany on Calvary is backlit by the resurrection. Its message is not: “This is it,” but rather, “This—however temporarily inevitable—is not it.” And “This is not it” seems to me to have been the intuition that remained alive in Barbara Grizzuti Harrison during the twenty years that lay between her apostasy from Jehovah's Witnesses and her conversion to Roman Catholicism.
The challenge that faced her was like the one that brought early Catholicism into existence; namely, how to give new expression to a religious intuition larger than the forms that had first carried it. Jehovah's Witnesses, as Harrison tells it, divide mankind, as early Christianity did, into “sheep” and “goats” and allow their preoccupation with this distinction to distort their simplest emotions. She tells of a fatal heart attack at a Witnesses meeting, in which the Witnesses' sole preoccupation was with what the police rescue squad would think of their comportment. Self-righteousness stood between them and their own grief and love. When she broke with them, with their apocalyptic dream, their vision of glory, she found herself liberated into grief and love, physical and spiritual.
And yet as she doubles back now to question her years with the Witnesses' dream, so the Catholic church might well double back to question itself about the time when not just a few Christians but every Christian believed that the world was about to end. For had there been no such time and no germ of truth in such a mistake, then there would be, today, no Catholic church, just as, if there had been no germ of truth concealed in Barbara Grizzuti Harrison's years as a Jehovah's Witness, she would not have written this book.
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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 sense everywhere the fallout from a youth derailed by proselytizing, spiritual arrogance and an astonishing ignorance of “the world.” (The Witnesses only concern themselves with the “New World” which will replace this one after a bloody Armageddon.) Indeed, the tremendous success of the Witnesses—there are at present more than two million followers—would be scarcely credible without Harrison's personal testimony, for the origins of the sect and its makeshift theology seem on the face of things banal and uninviting.
Jehovah's Witnesses were founded in 1873 by Charles Taze Russell, an erstwhile shirt manufacturer who wrote and published, at his own expense, a booklet prophesying the coming of Judgment Day and the New World. He dated Armageddon for 1914. When the date came and went. Russell's followers excused it as a miscalculation and changed the date to 1945. More revisions followed—impressive in itself since apocalyptic sects usually wither after two or three such misses. But the sect flourishes and neither history nor theology will account for its staying power—for its appeal to women although its doctrine is explicitly anti-feminist, to blacks although it is racist, to the marginal although in both style and substance it is cloyingly middle American. Yet these are the groups which fill the ranks of Witnesses, and only the personal notes Harrison has woven into her history can explain why so many of them stay there.
Harrison, along with her mother, was baptized a Witness at 9. Coincidentally with her conversion she had her first period. Her religious awakening and her coming of age dovetailed nicely in sexual guilt. For the Witnesses the menarche represents not emergent womanhood but proof that the young woman has inherited “the curse placed upon the seductress Eve.” Sexual guilt cut a wide swath through both Harrison's adolescence and her mother's marriage. Women in the Witnesses atone for the sins of their nature by being submissive wives and zealous proselytizers. They are rewarded by what the author calls the “lure of certainty”: they are certain of their social role, certain they can control their sexuality and certain they will live in the New Eden.
The promise of the New Eden, foolish as it may sound to the outsider, offers a sense of importance to the Witnesses which compensates for much in their daily lives. It accounts also for the special arrogance of Witnesses who “know” they will survive Armageddon, and it explains their cruel dispassion toward suffering in this world as they wait for the rest of us to be swept away in a howling blood bath. Harrison is particularly good at describing the ways in which one's sense of specialness alternates with a less comforting sense of isolation from the world. The tension between the two is best resolved in martyrdom, and Witnesses understandably look back on the days of their early persecutions with nostalgia—dramatic moments in lives devoted to a colorless creed.
The various refusals still practiced by members of the sect—refusal to serve in the armed forces, refusal to take blood transfusions, refusal to salute the flag, continue to provide a trickle of much needed drama, but the Witnesses long ago went to court and won the civil liberties which keep serious persecution at bay. For that we should be grateful to them, and Harrison does justice to their achievements in the courts and to the astonishing heroism of the Witnesses who went to Hitler's camps rather than serve in his army.
As martyrdom and persecution fade, the faithful are left with their belief in the perfect fellowship of Witnesses as the sustaining force in everyday life. A community in which men and women care for one another is thought by the Witnesses not to exist outside their fellowship, and indeed observers of their annual gatherings are struck by the warmth and good will among the members. The pull of this overly idealized community, much tainted in reality, is what keeps many a doubting Witness from rejoining the “fallen world.” The arrogance and near pathological naivete about the world which are evident here are, and this is the virtue of this book, set off nicely by a very moving autobiographical episode where the author belatedly discovers the spontaneous goodness of the fallen world; she is a high school student in the patriotic 1950s and her English teacher chooses to sit and hold her hand in assembly while the rest of the student body rises to pledge allegiance to the flag—a small gesture which speaks volumes, and one which plants seeds of doubt. Nevertheless, it was seven more years before the author left the sect. During her last three years she lived in its Brooklyn Heights headquarters and worked on Watchtower and Awake.
Harrison's rescue of herself from the Witnesses is an intricate and heroic story; her inability to rescue her childhood is a tragic one. In one of the book's best passages she describes the precious fragments she has salvaged from her pre-conversion days. They are all she has left of youth's spontaneous discovery of the world:
I rehearse, I jealously preserve preconversion memories; they flash before my mind like magical slides. I treasure a series of intense, isolated moments. I hoard happy images that are pure, unsullied by the value assigned them by others. Afterward, there was nothing in the world which I was permitted to give my own meaning.
These fragments are not enough to unwrap the mystery of her conversion. There is much evidence, some Freudian, some sociological, some spiritual, all plausible, but somehow it never adds up to a complete account of the child she was and the fanatic she became. There is something compelling and authentic about this open-ended explanation. Joyce's Bloom, thinking about his own youth, perhaps said it best: “Me. And me now.”
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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 dismissed as irrelevant. But this book Visions of Glory provides both an “inside” and an “outside” story written by one who for 12 years was a Witness and for three of those years served on the Watchtower Society's headquarters staff.
By using historical and psychological analysis, Barbara Harrison describes the religion as a closed system that relished disaster; rejoiced in the evil of human nature: lusted for certitude; ordered its members to disdain the painful present in exchange for a glorious future; and corrupted ritual, ethics and doctrine into ritualism, legalism and dogmatism. To look closely at the psychology of a single all-consuming religion, the author contends, is necessarily to examine human nature, while to understand its ideology, to trace its historical genesis and development, is to gain insight into the contradictions, necessities and turmoil of the society and culture that gave it life.
The Witnesses' impact on the author was to produce a dream existence of fear, hallucination within a closed system, and the belief that “I had the truth.” That the Witnesses were racist and sexist further complicated her existence. Because God will accomplish all things without the collaboration of humanity, Witnesses do not strive to achieve the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. They have never been able to reconcile love of God with love of the world. Until the time of her departure from the Watchtower Society, the author's life was increasingly a crazy-quilt of conflicting desires. In retrospect she now sees the Jehovah's Witnesses as a microcosm of humankind trying desperately, often pitifully, to find possibility, hope and grace in a moral wilderness.
Barbara Harrison's progress from dedicated Witness to orthodox believer is told perceptively and frankly. The multidisciplinary approach enhances this work, and the quotations from first-hand participants enliven the narrative. Whether or not one accepts the assertion that the Jehovah's Witnesses are a microcosm of humankind, the reader will gain valuable insights into the people and country that gave birth to this religion.
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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.
In Off Center, a collection of 21 essays (some previously published in this magazine), she directs her level gaze toward such diverse subjects as Roseland, Billy Graham, the Godfather movies, and her own hypochondria. She is funny, intelligent, refreshingly candid, and very nearly impossible to fool—a woman with her eyes open, every minute. On the feminist politics in Adrienne Rich's Lies, Secrets and Silence: “My reading of Ms. Rich's book does not even tell me whether I may assume there are any qualitative differences between my son—poised on the brink of adulthood, scared, brave, kind, uncertain—and Idi Amin.” On Werner Erhard: “a forty-one-year-old Gucci-Pucci-Bally California-style guru who ‘got it’ while driving along the California freeway, and promptly packaged ‘it,’ and is, as a consequence, awfully rich.” And on children: “Even to watch television with a child who is not yet jaded is to convince one that, while pessimism of the intellect may be here to stay, optimism of the spirit is still—gloriously—possible.”
She has a particular gift for recognizing and admitting the ambiguities of normal life—surely not easy, when you're writing essays. How tempting it must be to declare one's subject all black, or all white! But no, here she is on abortion: “Is it really so awful to admit to confusion and unhappiness over the issue of abortion? … The most painful moral struggles are not those between the good and the evil, but between the good and the lesser good.”
In “The Helanders and the Moonies: A Family Story,” she interviews a young girl who joined the Moonies and was twice kidnapped (or “rescued,” depending on your viewpoint) by her family and twice deprogrammed, only to rejoin the Moonies both times. She talks with the daughter at the Unification Church's World Mission Center; then she visits the parents in their cluttered, comfortable house. (“What did she have for lunch?” the mother asks, heartbreakingly. “Did she talk about us?”) There are no slick conclusions in this article; the writer sides neither with the parents nor with the daughter. Or rather, she sides with both, understanding the daughter's outrage as well as the parents' pain. “I am entirely convinced,” she says, “of the passionate sincerity of Carolyn and Elton Helander, and of their devotion to their daughter, and of the selflessness of their attempts to rescue her. But they did not entirely persuade me of the appropriateness of deprogramming … nor did they entirely succeed in convincing me that all of Wendy's charges were inaccurate.”
Here, as in most of the other essays, the reader has a sense of parting the jungle fronds alongside the writer, breaking a new path through the underbrush, hoping to come to some understanding. It's reassuring: we trust her good intentions. Watch her, for instance, interviewing Jane Fonda, alternately experiencing open admiration and edgy dislike. “There is both more and less to her than meets the eye,” she decides—not giving up, really, but sharing with us her honest bewilderment, leading us moment by moment through the hot and cold of a day with Jane Fonda.
There were times in Off Center when I wanted to say “Yes!” out loud—to her thoughts on the value of work, for instance, or to her feelings about her child (in an essay whose title is a little essay all by itself: “‘Write the Truth,’ My Son Said. ‘Write About Me.’”). There were other times when I vehemently disagreed; her step-by-step style of exploration allows us that. I can't, for example, share her pleasure in Dick Cavett's skittery chatter, and I find it hard to believe that J. D. Salinger's plots rely upon adoring, innocent young women as foils. And if Jane Fonda speaks “flatly, and without emotion” of her mother's suicide, why should that necessarily mean that she's “sanitized” her tragedy? More likely, she's just tired of journalists asking her to spill her private sorrows.
My most serious disagreement was with “Joan Didion: Only Disconnect,” which first appeared in the Nation as “The Courage of Her Afflictions.” The problem is not that the piece is negative (although I do admire Joan Didion's non-fiction), but that it's an all-out attack. In a business such as reviewing, where the writer/reviewer teeters eternally on the brink of conflict-of-interest, it might be best to decline comment on a fellow-writer one so passionately disapproves of. What's especially ironic is Barbara Harrison's central criticism: that Joan Didion spotlights her own sensibility in describing any event. It's true, of course, but that's what lends a Didion essay its distinctive color. You may find her sensibility amusing or irritating; either way, it sets her work aside from the average newspaper article—just as (and here's the real irony) Barbara Harrison's sensibility sets her work aside.
Granted, the Harrison sensibility is more … well, sensible; but it's equally a defining element, a unique sort of lens upon the world. Look at the way she catches the hairline shifts of mood that give an interview its tension—the fact, for instance, that the Moonie disciple is working hard to please her, and also perhaps to manipulate her; or that Jane Fonda grows chillier after a Fonda child misbehaves in Barbara Harrison's presence. And what would the following description of her est experience amount to, without her special combination of humor, perception, and kitchen-sink matter-of-factness?
During the process, I play these (unauthorized) games: I imagine a passage of Job written in est-eze (item: despair) and I understand that the reduction of all human emotions to single-word ‘items’ makes art—and emotion itself—impossible. … I think of people I would like to have sitting around me: novelist Muriel Spark, for her iconoclastic intelligence, her irony, her absolute faith in an absolute God; Ralph Nader and a whole bunch of his Raiders; my Marxist friend Sol Yurick (part of what is going on in this room is a denial of cause and effect, which is a denial of history); a Jesuit; Woody Allen; and anybody at all who will make a convincing case for human reciprocity—who will convince people that people do hurt one another, help one another, drive one another crazy, and make one another happy. … I try to imagine what would happen if anyone introduced the following things into this room: somebody with a gun. A Beethoven quartet. Somebody having a coronary. A crying baby. (Reality, I think, would rip their game wide open.)
In a culture where closing your eyes is considered a step toward discovery, where women proudly report their assertiveness in saying “no” to a sick neighbor, and where students endangered by a race riot call Channel 5 TV before they call the police, there's an urgent need for Barbara Grizzuti Harrison's sharp, unblinking vision. We are lucky to have her.
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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 prose, interviews Jane Fonda and Dick Cavett, reviews her own participation in a women's consciousness-raising group and examines other contemporary cultural practices, including est. Nowhere does she find “only two things”; yet sometimes, as in the case of Erhard's dictum, she finds self-indulgence and oversimplification, two things used too often as justification for each other. If Erhard's world is one of verbal structures, a world that thinking makes so, Harrison's is one of interconnected and competing values—personal, moral, familial, political—a world that must be thought about.
“I grew up,” Harrison tells us, “in Bensonhurst among people who, if they had little else, had the courage of their contradictions. I grew up trying to sort truth from fiction (which was almost always more picturesque and more compelling than truth) among proud, stubborn Italian-Americans.” As an adult, she finds herself sorting out less innocent confusions: personal, literary or social complexities that courage alone cannot resolve. For example, in the autumn of 1974 she returns to her old neighborhood in Brooklyn, where, under the pressure of racial fears, the ambivalences of character that she observed as a child have begun a harsh fragmentation:
I found myself once again in that familiar territory where cynicism and sanguinity, pragmatism and rococo fantasies fight for psychic space in the complex personalities of insular, ghettoized Italian-Americans who, like my grandfather, defend the very contradictions that confound them, and who, like him, seldom manage to coordinate their emotional/political reflexes. There was one added ingredient in the familiar volatile brew; it pervades the working- and lower-middle-class community of Bensonhurst as it pervades New Utrecht High School: that ingredient is despair.
In pursuing the causes of interracial violence at New Utrecht High School, Harrison finds that the victimizers, “tribal and defiant,” are also victims. She discloses the helplessness, the rage and the baffled good will of a community that has been betrayed from within as well as from without: “What is no longer certain is that anyone in Bensonhurst believes, anymore, in the American Dream.”
Indeed, several of Harrison's best essays investigate areas where certainty gives way; where, in effect, culture lapses. Some of these areas, like Bensonhurst, are geographic. Others, like old age, a state she examines in a review of Ronald Blythe's book, The View in Winter, are psychological or personal; still others are literary. In every case, Harrison is concerned with the ways individuals have preserved their civility despite pervasive fear or invasive disorder. Thus, she celebrates the difficult life of Louise Bogan (“Her sanity and her dignity inform”) and rejects the recently published essays of Adrienne Rich (“It's an unhappy fact of life and prose that ideology tends to coarsen, and sometimes to fossilize, the moral imagination”). Ideological earnestness, Harrison reminds us, produces cultural boulders—not art.
And although Harrison herself is never solemn about anything, she is serious about literature, which she believes can reconnect private lives with public concerns. Consequently, as a critic of culture, she warns against varieties of disconnection, including Joan Didion's reckless abandonment of meaning:
“What is, is,” Werner Erhard tells his fans. “All connections,” Didion tells her fans, are “equally meaningful and equally senseless.” … Part of Didion's appeal, I am convinced, lies in her refusal to forge connections (notably between the personal and the political or between the personal and the transcendental). In spite of the sense of dread that suffuses her work, it contains this implied message of (false) comfort: if Didion—who is so awfully smart—doesn't trouble to make connections, why should we? “What is, is.”
Harrison reinforces her argument with a convincing analysis of Didion's prose style. When she splits that bright apple, it reveals an ashy core: the lovely sounds, the artful rhetoric, the brilliant images are, at best, hollow and, at worst, inimical to sense: “If,” she explains,
I put Al Capone and sweet williams in the same sentence, I can be fairly sure that a certain number of readers will be jolted by the juxtaposition—their eyes will cross, and they will assume that they are in the presence of genius. They will be wrong, of course, because unless I use this technique to draw them into meaning, I will have cheated them: a magician can pull a rabbit out of a hat and get away with it; a writer's job is to tell us what the rabbit was doing in the hat in the first place.
Harrison admits outright that Didion is a wizard of technique, but of a technique that services itself. And, she suggests, while self-abuse is a personal matter, Didion's repudiation of meaning has political consequences:
To complain (“I am so tired of remembering things”) of remembering is to express a wish to be dead, to return to some pre-Edenic state in which good and evil, right and wrong, do not exist. It is a wish to erase, not only one's personal painful past but our collective past—which, in turn, is an invitation to believe that we cannot, individually or collectively, affect the present or the future.
Of course, a psychological critic would not rest here; she would proceed by tracing out the odd mental wiring that allows Didion to short-circuit cause and effect. Harrison is not a psychological critic, however. Nor is she an academic critic, whose essays compound predictably until they yield a systematic analysis of culture—the revisions of a Marxist, say, or the structures of a structuralist. And, plainly enough, she is not a dispassionate critic. (Add to her condemnation of Didion the sentence beginning her review of Bernard Lefkowitz's Breaktime: “This is a book about people who have chosen, for a variety of reasons—chief among which is self-indulgence masquerading as idealism—not to work, written by a reporter whose intelligence is sponge-like rather than analytical.”) Instead Harrison is herself at work in the tradition of tough-minded journalists like Walter Lippmann, whose personal decency helps us to discover our own.
This style of criticism is particularly valuable in a culture that encourages us to see “only two things,” self and world, and thus to misperceive the boundaries of both. At its best, Harrison's method multiplies what we see by restoring moral complexity to overtalked, underthought issues such as abortion (which “right-on slogans,” she emphasizes, will not resolve) and by dividing raw self-interest from concealing layers of political, esthetic or religious principle. Unerringly, Harrison spots mink linings beneath the hair shirts of the righteous. If Werner Erhard, Billy Graham and Joan Didion, whose cultural influence is far-ranging, receive the harshest treatment, Harrison's judgments of anonymous, local martyrs are no less acute. She recounts, for example, the maneuver of a member of her women’s consciousness-raising group:
“All my life,” one woman said, “I’ve served people and now … I don’t want to serve you coffee or wine when you come to my house because I find it oppressive to serve people. But if you serve food at your houses, I’ll feel guilty. So you’ll have to stop serving anything so I won’t feel guilty.” That’s what the woman said and she stood us on our heads.
Whenever selfishness and arrogance create such paradoxical requests, Harrison easily detects them, and just as easily translates them into their components.
Unfortunately, because Off Center is a miscellany of essays written for a variety of audiences (Viva's as well as The New York Times Book Review's; McCall’s as well as The Nation's, it includes essays of unequal weight. And the Dick Cavett interview has almost negative gravity: “Is God something you think about?” she inquires, and his answer provides a glib, empty page. Surely, both question and answer demonstrate the Andy Warhol Effect, which makes worthy of our attention the opinions of anyone famous for fifteen minutes. Probably God has to care what Cavett thinks of Him. But does Harrison? Must we? Even here, though, Off Center supplies its own standard of comparison; a companion interview with Jane Fonda skillfully anatomizes Fonda’s influential but “soft-at-the-core, open-to-interpretation populist politics.”
Next time, one hopes, Harrison’s editors will choose more deliberately from among the articles which further the work she has begun here:
The most interesting problem for people of my age—people who grew up in the fifties—remains how to unite the personal and the political.
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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 dealing that, although these essays originally appeared in periodicals as diverse as The Village Voice and The New Republic, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Ms., Mrs. Harrison never changes her critical voice to suit her forum. She is always intellectually rigorous, honest and outspoken.
Harrison reserves her harshest criticism for those who have failed to integrate the personal and political halves of their lives. A political activist herself, she blames the Jehovah’s Witnesses for their refusal to take any interest in charity or good works. For them, war, famine and drug addiction are not evils to be remedied, but only welcome evidence that the Apocalypse is at hand. Popular novelist and critic Joan Didion, a “neurasthenic Cher,” is guilty of an all-too-fashionable nihilism and egotism. When she claims to be reporting on a convicted husband-killer, says Harrison, “Didion was reporting on Didion’s sensibility.” Billy Graham in 1946, “moving perkily through devastated Europe in sherbet-colored suits,” becomes an uncritical “religious court jester” to Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon; his morally myopic views on civil rights, Vietnam and Watergate prove that he has never felt “that flash point of disinterested moral indignation that is the fiercest form of Christian love.”
As serious as these essays are, they are well leavened by Harrison’s direct sense of humor. She describes Joan Didion’s oft-praised style, for instance, as a series of verbal tricks, including padding the text with meaningless recitals of fruits, vegetables and flowers. These litanies may sound evocative but, adds Harrison deftly, “we are never sure of what; anyone can learn to do it: read a Burpee catalogue.” Nor does Harrison hesitate to turn her keen wit against herself. In her reminiscence of the 1950’s, she admits to having been swept up by “the romance of the lonely struggle” as perceived by Salinger and Camus. “Both seemed to be living on the dangerous edge of the world. … And we said Whoopee! We’ll go live there, too.”
Whether Harrison is writing about feminist consciousness-raising, old age or the detective novels of Dorothy Sayers, she always puts her subject before herself. By providing only enough personal background to help the reader judge her opinions, she neatly avoids the autobiographical excess that has swamped many another essayist in mere introspection. By the end of Off Center, the reader knowns both Harrison’s opinions and the mind that gave rise to them. One may dispute her politics, but one cannot deny either her integrity or her talent. A book to be read and reread, Off Center is always on point.
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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 fracture point: a midline where human issues, from stress fatigue, craze on their surface, then fall apart. Where society, in isolation, will start talking to itself: and no one can be sure which half of our schizoid I is just personable impostor: which voice, fed enough Thorazine, will take over the microphone and say hello. Not one of these twenty magazine pieces has been written in a fast groove: they long-play out: and their sound reproduction is high tech stuff.
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison: you can hear the broad equipoise in her name. Rough syllable: suave syllable. Her Italian Brooklyn bloodline and the married (divorced) persona that sounds like—probably was for some time—a kind of pseudonym. Off Center has unapologetic first-person writing: and that numero uno is resplendently eccentric. Brought up by her mother as—can you believe?—a fierce Jehovah’s Witness: manic fundamentalism there that would have made the Monkey Trial prosecution seem more permissive than Sandstone. (It cheated her of college [over-prideful]; for some time she thought cuticle picking was masturbation and took cold showers to cure the habit.) Now a Catholic and devout hypochondriac. A feminist and someone who is petrified of the down escalator. Who, by admission, smokes and eats too much: but has no haze or cellulite on her prose style. BGH, in spite of all, likes BGH: even her wacky side. She can listen to the other inmates: humor them and give them playing time. This is no ideologue: after you’ve witnessed for Jehovah, the other sects, religious or political, are just scratch and sniff. Off Center is a tribute, one of many, to childhood repression: it may not help you get downstairs, but it can—when overcome without bitterness—open and wonderfully sensitize the mind.
Feminist Harrison will write: “I do not wish to be told [by another feminist] that Matisse. Michelangelo, Donne, Yeats, et al, do not belong to me because I’m a woman.” She can fear EST, Hare Krishna, or Mooniedom and yet say, “We ought … to recognize that longing for the transcendental is a reality of the human condition … We have to stop being embarrassed by religion before we can begin to come to grips with the cults.” Liberal Harrison will report on racially taut New Utrecht High School and confess re “bigots hot with bloodlust” that “I felt pity for them … it is harder still to write it—I felt protective of them.” Harrison does that: makes it hard for herself. And for those who read her.
Harder yet on abortion: BGH writes as woman, mother, Catholic, feminist, person: as, in fact, a sort of mini-consensus. Her essay is the best I have read on that peculiar institution: all axes are ground until they blunt. I hold an opinion: you hold an opinion: BGH has both—and she feels protective of us. If you can’t afford Off Center, find a quiet side aisle in your bookstore and thumb to page 73. The reading will take ten minutes: but it will calm your rage—whichever rage you prefer.
And BGH is always engrossing: on Didion, on Cavett, on Roseland, on Billy Graham: there isn’t a single long portage in this three-hundred-page freshwater ride. I tease with one marvelous instant. Jane Fonda to BGH: “‘Troy [a four-year-old Fonda child] understands that junk food is a political issue …’ Later in the day Troy will whine and kick her in the shins and punch her in the stomach and demand, ‘Where’s my candy, dummy? Where’s my candy, dummy, dummy?’” America answering Jane Fonda: conclusively. Oh, I laughed: and I was, forgive me, in Troy’s shoe-tip; in his little counter-revolutionary fist.
True, she has no program: and right now, like the other IBM models, you probably want a program. Realize, though, that it will take some extraordinary courage to trust in good sense, in lucid prose—even when writing for Ms. or New Republic—and just invade the problem. BGH has opinions: she has all of them. And so do you: when night time has run too long and certainty wavers a bit before the unyoking again of sunlight. I am told by blurb text that Barbara Grizzuti Harrison is working on her first novel now. Off Center has a novelist’s great, clear sensibility. The lady is equipped. I anticipate her event.
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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 hand and liberates her from the narrow background of her family. David is also a homosexual; he loves Angela yet cannot give her the active sexual life for which the novel as a whole indicates her predilection. When Angela marries another man, David commits suicide; as a result of his death, as a tribute to his “clarity,” Angela decides to become a writer.
The second sequence of time explored, the major time frame of the book, takes Angela from about age thirty-eight to age forty-three. She has been divorced for eight years, is a successful writer, and lives in Brooklyn with her precocious daughter, Lucy, whose description resembles that of the author’s own daughter in a 1980 collection of essays, Off Center. Angela’s mother dies, and, at the book’s end, her father is near death. An obsessional love dominates this time of her life, the main topic of the novel. The object of her love is Devi, a handsome painter from India, and, like David Larrimar, a homosexual. Angela also tells us about other sexual affairs she has during this time, in lieu of physical response from Devi.
A critic may someday write a study of novels of obsessional love; one of the constants would surely be the unworthiness as here, of the object of the obsession. For Devi is generally a nasty piece of work: self-indulgent, careless of Angela’s feelings, and cruel. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison lets Angela reveal few moral qualities which make him lovable. May a reader psychoanalyze obsessed characters like Angela? What is the secret of her past that makes her fall in love with homosexual men who have, moreover, the consonants d and v in their first names? Foreign Bodies and the genre of obsessional literature do not answer such questions. In such fiction, the obsession, endlessly talked about, never explained, is all. We are to share Angela’s pain, but not get annoyed that she does nothing about it. Dump him, we shout. I can’t, I can’t, she responds. The obsession is a given, corresponding in some coded way to an authorial presence, and chosen to disguise rather than to make clear—for audience and perhaps author herself.
Angela has philosophical and theological ambitions. Devi accuses her of talking and writing too much, of over-articulating lived experience; for him, her words dissect experience only to kill it. “Does everything have to mean something?” he asks her. Oddly enough, a desire to define and make clear is the last fault of which the reader wishes to accuse Angela. She piles up mots in waves of self-congratulation, even as she tells us she is in pain. She has great difficulty defining anything, and revels in giving opposite views between which she can’t decide. The discrepancy between Devi’s accusation and Angela’s practice involves an irony of which one wishes a firmer affirmation by the author.
Foreign Bodies enunciates a curious theology of the flesh. Angela’s confessor encourages her to speculate on her sexual journey rather than to end it, as she once wishes he would. As her name suggests, she has problems integrating flesh with spirit. Devi accentuates these, since his spiritual and moral attributes are minimal. Angela responds by trying to imbue his flesh with theological value. “Devi’s beauty is like a character trait,” she writes, “Devi’s beauty amounts to a kind of goodness.” She also speculates that his beauty is a kind of analogy, for her, of the Incarnation of the Word. Such opinions, which Angela recognizes as idolatrous, together with many other animadversions along this line, advance a theory of salvation in a flesh that lacks or is counter to spirit. I found this heterodox stuff interesting; however, even if one could seriously entertain the theory, Angela’s emotional preoccupations prevent her from a discursive treatment sufficient to encourage a good argument.
Readers of the essays in Off Center will recognize Harrisonian motifs and attitudes here. A special blend of recollection, sympathy, and irony makes the essays very readable. While Foreign Bodies does not glut us with irony, Angela does have some witty remarks about the New York art world, on the fringes of which Devi lives. The feminist theme is played in several chords, from the high seriousness and beauty of Lucy’s coming of age to sympathy for, and at times satire of, Eileen, Angela’s friend, who goes through multiple transformations in a short period. Also, Angela’s peculiar combination of freedom from convention and servitude to Devi may well involve sensitivity to a feminist motif that remains unavailable to the obtuse male reviewer.
Foreign Bodies puts forward a wealth of interesting material, but it is, I think, a deeply unfinished novel. Although much happens to Angela between the ages of thirty-eight and forty-three, she doesn’t change. Any of us might contemplate the frightening possibility that in a given five-year period of our lives we can’t perceive progression. Novels usually treat human experience more generously and give us a sense of order, of pattern if not of progress, of wisdom if not of joy. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison either cannot or will not order Angela’s life. Angela leaves Devi at the very end of the novel, resolving not to repeat her experience. Earlier, however, she has told us of an experience “years later” in which she relives Devi in another, finally learning how she had “hurt” him. There is no end to the affair: Angela has not been able to forgive Devi or herself for it, and the author has been unwilling to invent a fictional form to give the experience a satisfactory beginning, middle, and end.
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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. In fiction, almost nothing I say is the literal truth; in non-fiction, everything I say is the truth as I perceive it—and it comes out, as far as I can see, pretty much the same …”
That could also mean that this prolific and celebrated writer has never really come to terms with fiction and its function of achieving distance and imposing order on experience. Her single and highly autobiographical novel, Foreign Bodies (1984), is perhaps her one disappointing book. She has won an O. Henry award for short fiction, but her strength lies in discursive nonfiction which is marked with amazing vitality, honesty, arresting visual imagery, sympathy and irony. It engages the reader from the first sentence, whatever the subject.
The interview becomes in Harrison’s hands what she says all her essays are—“a process of discovery.” She seems to have the gift of instant intimacy. Her method of interviewing, which she says is simply talking with people, and the basic empathy with which she approaches her subjects result in portraits of striking wholeness. Reading her interview with Mario Cuomo, the reader has a sense of coming to an understanding of that complex man, as far as he can be understood.
“It surprises me,” she writes, “to be describing an elected official in this way. I am not alone in finding it impossible to be in Mario Cuomo’s company without actively desiring his approval; he inspires a desire to know him and to be known by him—which may be one of the reasons members of the press act personally aggrieved when the governor is less than forthcoming. ‘The single best rule for the intelligent conduct of life and society is love,’ he once wrote; and the conviction that this politician actually believes and lives by this dictum is irresistible—you can’t help wanting a piece of it.”
She finds Cuomo “a dance of contradictions: sentimental and nostalgic, analytical and sardonic … prudent in action, judicious but also combative … A very private public man, he is contemplative and meditative.” The reader is warmed by her conviction that in Cuomo a man of integrity and intelligence graces public life.
On the other hand Harrison’s interview with Gore Vidal leaves the reader chilled. She meets him in his penthouse in Rome. “The air, so cold, is thick with sadness … It is difficult for me to understand—unless the answer resides in his temperament—exactly why he seems to be stricken with a terminal inability to entertain joy, or to praise.”
The strongest essays in the collection are “Women and Blacks and Bensonhurst” and “Horror at Island Pond.” The first, a disquisition on the racial slaying of Yusuf Hawkins in the neighborhood where Barbara Grizzuti Harrison grew up, draws heavily on her own adolescent experience and evokes the feeling of Bensonhurst, and the feeling the neighborhood today engenders, with understanding. “Bensonhurst was territorial when I grew up. It is more territorial now. It is more defended, and more frightened.”
She writes about it with an admirable, aching truthfulness. She is no longer at home in Bensonhurst, she tells us. Family warmth and tribal feeling have been perverted by fear and alienation but “the duty of ‘the blood’ to ‘the blood’ is silence.”
“I am different from the murderers of Yusuf Hawkins; but perhaps not so different from the people who have spun a net of protection, a net of silence, around them. All the time I have been writing this, I have fought the inclination to do the same. I have fought my will to silence.”
“Horror at Island Pond,” a historical report on a contemporary cult, justifies Harrison’s defense of the personal in journalism. “Had I not myself been raised in a sect, as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I would have written that story very differently (perhaps with less horror for the lost lives of the children of the cult). The facts are objective; the writer can’t be—to rejoice in objectivity is to rejoice in divesting one’s self of self; to lay claim to objectivity is to lie.”
Harrison came late to travel essays but loves to write them because, like Italo Calvino, whom she quotes, “arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had.” Her Italian Days has become a travel classic. In this volume there are essays on the Tuscan hill towns, and on Morocco, Dubrovnik and Bucharest—all demonstrating her gift for exuberant detail and reflective insight.
The Astonishing World, like all collections of previously published work, is uneven. And it is noticeable that like all prolific writers, the author resorts often to some well-worn devices: juxtaposition—for example, the happy Italian ambiance of the neighborhood in contrast to the melancholy atmosphere of Vidal’s home—and the apparent non sequitur meant to be telling and an underlining of what has gone before. But, all in all, The Astonishing World is a rich potpourri of the beautiful, the thoughtful and the provocative.
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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 chagrined—“quite what it should be, is it?” There is a splendid solution at hand, however: a bottle of Sambuca is produced, and the coffee suddenly becomes infinitely palatable. As the interview progresses the pot is drained and the level in the bottle lowers appreciably.
Harrison is an enormously charming woman, vital, frank and funny, who even without the aid of spiked coffee can make anyone feel at home, and on intimate terms, with dazzling speed. She has an earthiness that reminds one of the Italian actress Anna Magnani, though without that lady’s almost manic intensity. The occasion for PW's visit is Ticknor & Fields’s imminent publication of The Astonishing World, a book of essays, interviews, occasional pieces and short stories …, and so it is natural that talk turn first to the art of the interview.
Harrison is an ace interviewer, and two of the pieces in her new book—on Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, and on world-weary man-about-literature-and-politics Gore Vidal—are shining examples of her craft. The talk with Cuomo is an almost nonstop monologue in which the Hamlet of Democratic politics shows his wide-ranging interests, profound human sympathies and remarkable introspection (“He was the only person I ever taped who taped me back”); the one with Vidal is a skillful sketch of a bitter expatriate (“I caught him in a very grey mood, I think,” says Harrison) whose views, spoken almost by rote, seem drained of any sense of human contact.
What is her secret to bringing her interviewees back alive? “I have a passionate interest in my subjects,” she says. “It’s not an assumed interest. When I’m with a person, they are the whole focus of my attention—I think of nothing else. When I was a proselytizer for Jehovah’s Witnesses, as I was when I was a kid, I felt an enormous responsibility toward the people I was talking to. I felt it was a matter of their survival that I pay very close attention, and I guess that extreme concentration became a habit.”
If the talk with Vidal turned out to be a downer, the effect of most of the pieces in the book—like that of Italian Days, Harrison’s much-praised travel memoir—is strongly life-enhancing. Harrison’s lyrical prose superbly conveys the textures, shapes and colors of landscapes, food, even personalities. It is the language of a happy woman who is attempting to convey that happiness to others. “I had a reprieve from that dead-end religion,” she declares, “so all life seems beautiful after that.” As for any current religious belief, her daughter Anna, she says, is doing a book for Bantam on the lives of the saints, “and she’s finding that the differences between the Hindu and Catholic traditions are not as great as one thinks—so maybe I can find a psychic space I can fit comfortably in.” Meanwhile, she laughs, “if God doesn’t exist, why isn’t everything dark brown?”
Her extraordinary experience with the Jehovah’s Witnesses began when she was a child, and her life among them was the subject of her 1978 book Visions of Glory: A History and Memoir of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Her mother had converted to the sect, and Harrison joined her when she was nine years old; she went at age 19 to live at the Witnesses’ Brooklyn headquarters and proselytized actively for several years, as members do, before she eventually pried herself loose. She shows a picture of her mother as a lovely 19-year-old bride, and recollects with a shudder how she fell under the sway of that oppressive sect: “She was a beautiful, docile girl who needed a cause about as much as Los Angeles needed a riot.” Harrison’s father was a printer, a simple man who couldn’t cope with what had happened to his young wife. “He railed, raged, cried, but did nothing really to help us.” Still, although it seems an incredible life to hear her tell it, “it was less unhappy than the facts would lead you to believe.”
The catalyst that transformed her was, as so often in the case of a young would-be writer, a caring English teacher. Harrison was 15 when she studied with David Zieger, “and he changed my life. I had always been told in school I was smart. He told me I was valuable.” Knowing that he believed in her abilities, she feels, helped her keep her will to write alive through the years with the Witnesses. Zieger also encouraged her to think of herself as a writer, though he died, tragically early, before she became one.
Harrison worked for a time as a secretary, then married Dale Harrison, an official with CARE, the world relief organization, which led to some years of peripatetic life, including spells in Libya (where their son Joshua was born) and Bombay (birthplace of Anna). She plans to return to India for a six-week visit later this summer—and, yes, the trip might spur a new book.
It was not until she and Dale Harrison were divorced in 1968, after eight years of marriage, that she truly began her writing career. Her first book, which grew out of an article for the New Republic, was about an experiment at Anna’s Brooklyn school, in which the curriculum was adjusted to meet feminist demands. Gilbert Harrison [no relation], who then owned both the New Republic and the Live-right publishing house, asked her to expand it into a book, which was published in 1969 as Unlearning the Lie: Sexism in School.
“Harrison called me up and asked me how much it would cost me to live for six months and write it, and that would be my advance,” she recalls. “So I sat down and added it all up, food, rent, even cigarettes, and it came to ＄4000, so that’s what I got.” She wishes now she had asked for more, “because it was really hard times then. I was on my own, and both my kids were in private school. At one point I found I was eligible to get food stamps, so I got some, though I never actually used them.”
To avoid such further drastic underselling of herself, Harrison acquired an agent with whom she has been happily ensconced ever since: Georges Borchardt, who represents a remarkable list of highly regarded women writers.
Next, having decided to write about her traumatic years as a Jehovah’s Witness, she found “a good editor who helped me sort out my thoughts” in Alice Mayhew of Simon & Schuster. Visions of Glory was published in 1978. “Unfortunately, it came out during a newspaper strike, but it still did okay. I’ve often been interested in going back to the Witnesses after all this time, and taking another look, though I believe it’s changed a lot. But then so have I!”
Meanwhile Harrison was writing assiduously—profiles, essays, travel pieces. “For a long time I wrote on whatever anyone wanted me to do. I don’t have to do that anymore. Sometimes I pitch something—I wanted to do Cuomo, for instance—and sometimes I’m approached.” Her next book, 1980’s Off Center (Dial), was a collection of her magazine pieces, particularly memorable for a deadly take on Joan Didion.
Then came an episode that still saddens Harrison: her major flirtation with fiction and, apart from a few comparatively brief short stories, her only published fictional outing to date. Joyce Johnson, then an editor at Dial, had suggested a novel, and Harrison was eager to comply. The result was Foreign Bodies, but when she delivered the book—at a difficult time for his author, for her father had just died—Johnson didn’t like it. “She said, ‘Bury this book.’” Doubleday took it over and published it in 1984, but the novel was not well received, by critics or the public. “Maybe half a dozen people in the whole country liked it,” says Harrison gloomily. Does she see now what their problem with it was? “I’ve been afraid to go back to it—my poor little deformed child!”
But a brighter time was coming. Encouraged by her love for the country, her Italian heritage, the notion of visiting some distant relatives, and at least a nodding acquaintance with the language, Harrison went off for an extended stay in Italy. She spent time in Milan, Rome, Naples and the Tuscan countryside. The result was Italian Days (1989), which was rapturously received by the critics, sold strongly, went into an elegant trade paperback and changed the author’s life. “That’s the reason I can afford to be here,” she says, waving at the expansive Manhattan view.
But even that book did not proceed automatically to publication. Harrison had been writing it for Doubleday, but when, in a spell at the Yaddo artists’ colony, she mentioned her troubles at the house to a sympathetic group of authors, Susan Cheever suggested taking the book to editor John Herman, then at Grove Weidenfeld, and that’s where it went; she remains under contract to him now at Houghton Mifflin. There was a deliciously literary/spooky footnote to that Yaddo episode. Harrison found she was lodging in rooms that had often been occupied by John Cheever during his frequent sojourns there; and one night as she worked she became uneasily aware of a shuffling sound in the room, accompanied by the smell of pipe smoke. When she mentioned the odd incident at breakfast the next day, Cheever’s daughter was calmly dismissive: “It was obviously Father; he probably didn’t like what you were writing. Just tell him to go away!”
Harrison acquired her style, which is colorful, extremely personal and often surprisingly tough-minded, quite mysteriously: “I don’t know how I learned to write, but it was terribly important to me. Language was both my way out of my difficult life, and my way in—to myself.” She welcomes the chance writing gives her to live inside her imagination, and tells of a friend who complained of memory gaps. “I tell her to fill them in by making it all up.”
Authors she particularly admires may be a clue to her approach to writing. One is Muriel Spark, whom Harrison adores because she’s serious and witty and stylish all at once. “I’d love to meet her but I would be afraid she might disapprove, find me too … emotional.” Another idol she actually met: the English author Ronald Blythe, known here for Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village and The View from Winter, a book of interviews with very elderly people. “He’s a wonderful writer, who writes so slowly but distills the essence of meaning so perfectly.” When she visited him in England, at his little house deep in the Suffolk countryside, he told her: “We haven’t much to offer, I’m afraid—only the mulberry tree Milton’s tutor sat under.” Which strikes her as about the most perfectly inflected apology anyone could make.
As will surprise no one who knows her prose, Harrison reads a lot of poetry—in fact takes a book of poetry wherever she goes—“and I always find something that pertains. The best writing, for me, is a combination of poetry and precision.”
A few days before our encounter. Harrison had written a “Hers” column for the New York Times Magazine about the joys of running away, finding her own apartment and leaving her (now grown) children behind to fend for themselves. That they do: Joshua is a now a painter (several of his pictures adorn the apartment though he makes his living as a craftsman in stucco decoration), and Anna is a medieval history scholar.
The phone rings often as we talk, but Harrison ignores it, trusting a silent answering machine. Toward the end, though, she confides: “I’m off interviewing Spike Lee this afternoon. Maybe if I answer the phone it will be someone saying he can’t make it, then I can spend the afternoon in the pool.”
One of the things she didn’t reveal about her new life in the Times column is that her apartment is a couple of floors below a rooftop pool, which is the joy of her existence. “I’m a complete virtuoso in the water,” she boasts. “I can stand up in it without moving, take up the lotus position, lie in it and read a book … once I actually fell asleep. Oh, if only I could spend the afternoon in the pool!”
That thwarted longing aside, it seems her love for life has been extensively reciprocated. “I feel mostly lucky,” Harrison says, gleaming. “That’s the one word for my life now.”
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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 find that her new collection [The Astonishing World]—essays, profiles, a few slender short stories—continues to reflect a thoroughly savvy contemporary woman with a gift for informed enthusiasm and occasional necessary malice.
The first bubbles to the surface of an extraordinary interview she conducted over several days with Mario Cuomo (and which appeared in rather different form in the July Playboy). Some kind of magnetic transference apparently took place between them—a shared Italianness, perhaps, a sexual spark—for Harrison records the governor as admirers would like to imagine him but usually find themselves unable to do, confronted with his often depressing political persona: lively, witty, deeply thoughtful, and, yes, probably too self-conscious, even self-absorbed, for the White House. Hatred glares from her chilling picture of a rigid religious sect in Vermont, admittedly fueled by Harrison’s own weird upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness. Gore Vidal, his acidulous tones, delighted catty outbursts, and recital of long-nurtured slights perfectly caught, outrages her more for his lack of charity than for his well-rehearsed political views. For her, his sin is his immunity to Italian sunlight. The once celebrated Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci is the center of a struggle by Harrison to come to terms with the shallow, selfish adult the ethereal teenager has become, to find in her some redeeming feature beyond the excuse of her appalling homeland. She fails, and is sad, and because of her empathy the reader is sad too.
There are a few self-indulgent failures. The three brief stories seem mere shadows of her more vibrant nonfiction, and a piece about her brother and a reminiscence of Bensonhurst probably mean more to her than to a reader. But the pleasures far outweigh them: a captivating travelogue on the Tuscan hill towns, where it seems impossible that she could find anything fresh to say, but she does; an evocative and powerfully feminist view of Morocco, a country compounded of scintillating sights and scents and blunt insults to womanhood. She is in Dubrovnik as Yugoslavia begins to disintegrate, visits a new shrine there with a bunch of earnest American pilgrims, wary and observant and, you feel, longing to be convinced that Mary has been seen, but too honest to be persuaded. And that is the crux of Harrison’s appeal. She is infinitely receptive, attentive, to the world and the people in it, yet never credulous or foolish. She is that rare writer who can celebrate with intelligence and without embarrassment, whose enthusiasms and skepticisms one learns to trust because of the plainly observed emotional honesty of her responses, her determination to be fair (and there is nothing in this collection as deliciously unfair as her takeoff on Joan Didion in Off Center).
It’s only fair, reviewing a writer whose prose gives such pleasure, to give a sample. So here are a few lines from a brief essay on prayer, written for Commonweal, which help to show why writers as various as Phillip Lopate, Judith Rossner, and Hilma Wolitzer have chosen to blurb Harrison’s latest book: “When I look at a painting I love (that of St. Paul by Caravaggio, for example); or a building I love (Brunelleschi’s Santo Spirito, for example); or a cityscape that hammers at and enlarges my heart; or the familiar world transformed by snow; or, in particular, when, sheathed in shining water, buoyed, weightless, amazed, relaxed, I swim, waves of joy spread all over me and find expression in multiple silent thank yous, which I hope God interprets as prayer, for that is surely what they are. (Sometimes I fall asleep floating.)”
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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; it curls, it is baroque.”
Sinuous curves of memory weave their way through An Accidental Autobiography. Using food, housekeeping, collecting, traveling and men as starting points for her reflections, she retraces her childhood in the Italian-American community in Bensonhurst and the harrowing years from age 9 to 22 when she served as a Jehovah’s Witness. Harrison explains the nature of this journey: “Memory is no more linear than it is hierarchical. … I have been conscious of only one imperative, not to corrupt the way my thoughts came to me by seeking to impose upon them a pattern.”
To explore memory we must accept that the sharp sting of pain can stifle moments of great joy; that pain, if one allows it, squeezes out breath and deflates the spirit. Harrison struggles to escape the past and its pain. She describes in frightening detail a lung attack she has suffered three times in her life; she explains what it’s like to function with 25 to 50 percent of lung capacity: “I’m a walking memento mori. I remind people that someday they too will cease to breathe.” Later she tells us that her recurrent struggle may be related to the fact that her father once attempted to kill her as a child.
Food shopping with her daughter at Balducci’s during the acute stage of her illness, she carries a portable oxygen cylinder with plastic tubes plugged in her nose. As Harrison describes it, a woman working in the store cries at the sight of her, a mother comments that she’s not fit for children to see, yet Harrison has enough aplomb to include the price of cherries (“＄9 a pound!”). Knowing as she does that “there is no remedy for death,” she tells us, “My son wants pasta with fresh tuna for Thanksgiving dinner.” She adopts the Mediterranean attitude she so admired in Italian Days. The darkness of reality need not diminish a piquant taste for life.
Harrison’s suffocating years as a Jehovah’s Witness were the subject of her Visions of Glory (1978). Now she revisits the brutal result of a seemingly casual event: “My father, who seemed unable to understand that every act had consequences, had bought a Watchtower magazine on a street corner from one Mario Brigande, a random act that changed our lives forever.”
After this Watchtower pilgrim conducted a Bible session at their home, Harrison’s mother enthusiastically embraced the Jehovah’s Witnesses and forced her daughter to abandon the mystical Southern Italian religion into which she was born for a purse-lipped doctrine that routinely proclaimed the end of the world. Using the subject of housekeeping as a launching point, Harrison (who cleaned seventeen rooms and made thirty-four beds daily in the name of Jehovah at a Watchtower residence) attempts to understand women’s place within the apocalyptic vision of this religion; the Witnesses’ misogynistic roots are shown in lengthy quotations from the divorce proceedings of its founder, Charles Taze Russell. Harrison also suggests that the severe Protestant ethos that influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe, who found glory in housekeeping and entreated women to serve as the family’s “chief minister” and accept a mission of “self-denial,” inspired the Witnesses. (The Jehovah’s Witnesses resided in the mansion formerly owned by Stowe’s brother, Henry Ward Beecher, a Brooklyn pastor.)
“What do women want?” Harrison asks. “They want to breathe.” Perhaps in Bensonhurst in the forties, when women were denied any chance for independence, Harrison’s mother, whose puritanical posture belied her love of parading around the house naked late at night, found romance and freedom in the prospect of knowing the Truth, believing in her own Jehovah and convincing others of the path to salvation. Her mother became both victim and beneficiary of the Witness-sanctioned role of martyr.
But one must be patient. The chapters are not sharply focused; Harrison prefers the circuitous route of memory, delighting in the serendipity of a journey told in lyrical prose. Her storytelling is like meandering through an open-air bazaar, observing, questioning, wandering from table to table until the perfect item—or the gem of an observation—appears. On her lust for collecting, she writes, “I understood that to enter the labyrinth of things is to suspend disbelief in the world’s goodness; when the world is alive with things that layers and layers of experience have gathered around, sadness and bounty may coexist.”
And on the love and loss she felt for her late teacher Arnold Horowitz: “With grace, pain is transmuted into the gold of wisdom and compassion and the lesser coin of muted sadness and resignation; but something leaden of it remains, to become the kernel around which more pain accretes (a black pearl): one pain becomes every other pain … unless one strips away, one by one, the layers of pain to get to the heart of the pain—and this causes more pain, pain so intense as to feel like evisceration.”
While Harrison boldly experiments with the fragile connective tissues linking us to the past, we also long for the hierarchy and order writers usually impose. Though she warns us she may repeat herself, it is not clear why she chose to tell some anecdotes twice. But her highly personal approach creates a feeling of warm familiarity between reader and writer: I found myself telling stories from this book, momentarily believing they had happened to a friend.
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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 tactile, most sensuous of writers, she has always luxuriated in texture, color, scent, silkiness. No books are better candidates than hers for the title “My Five Senses and Sensibility.”
For Harrison to single out any one book as her autobiography seems gratuitous. No current writer has ever extended a more open invitation to read her work by the light of her childhood. In every one you feel the author’s self, always aware of the act of writing, always peering over her shoulder. As she has told us before, she was born in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, an unrelentingly parochial ethnic neighborhood where a smart Italian kid like Harrison was a freak. Only the Jews were supposed to be smart. When she was 9, her mother became a Jehovah’s Witness; it fell on the family like a ton of sour washcloths. The end of delight, which was now only to be found in Witness godliness. Reading about the hold of the Witnesses on her life (instead of going to college, Harrison lived in one of their communal houses, cleaning and making beds), it is crystal clear why she might want to spend the rest of her life reveling in the gifts of the senses. She was gasping for air.
An Accidental Autobiography is as much like jumble-shop browsing as it is like a collage. Harrison hasn’t called it “accidental” for nothing. It is arranged—charmingly—by topics, not in the usual straight, sequential line impossible to imagine for a writer like this. Harrison then puts the topics in alphabetical order. And why not, she says—you have to impose some sort of discipline on the floating associations of memory, and the alphabet is as useful as any other. So, not exactly from “A” to “Z,” here are the familiar Harrison preoccupations: places, meals, love, her childhood.
You don’t have to dig very far to get at the treasures. To my mind the first chapter, “Breathing,” is a small tour de force. Harrison was born in 1934, which makes her 60ish, just the age when people start suspecting their bodies of joining the enemy camp. By her own admission she has gotten fat. (Bless her, she doesn’t mince words. She is not “generous-sized,” “ample” or anything else.) Her beloved sojourns in the more polluted, picturesque parts of the Third World have wreaked some terrible havoc in her lungs. She needs a wheel-chair, she needs an oxygen supply. Now her gasping for air has become literal, explicit. She feels she has become a freak all over again. Out of this comes “Breathing,” which is—simply—beautiful. Funny, somber, gorgeously written, self-conscious in the sassiest, most crackling way, it is Harrison at her magnetic best. A reverie on death and illness, on getting old. On the pleasures of food and the perils of fat. On recognizing yourself inside the body’s cage. Even on the Fat Police of our time, the ounce-of-flesh Cotton Mathers who look upon every bite as the kind of moral failure all too familiar to Harrison from her severe childhood.
Like many another generous-hearted woman, Harrison falls easily into defining herself by the men she has loved. Or has detested, as in the case of her former husband whom she punishes (after all these years!) with the chilly sobriquet of “Mr. Harrison,” no more. How she satisfied her own, and everybody else’s, fantasy of young married love in the Beaver Cleaverish’ 50s is sharp and exact, monumentally angry. It may remind people of Sylvia Plath’s falsely cheery domestic letters to her mother just before she finally dropped the mask.
But the men she loves get full honor. Her high school English teacher for one. Here Harrison does something difficult, psychologically right on the mark. She recreates the slightly creepy quality of a middle-age bachelor, still living with his mother ready and willing for an inappropriate romance with his teenage student. At the same time she makes him as alluring as he must have been? seemed?—the intellectual older man who enriched her mind and put color back in her life.
Then there is her great love, a black, married jazz musician—she calls him “Jazzman”—who comes and goes. Here, too, Harrison is able to juggle his real, overpowering appeal with his role in her life as prolonged adolescent rebellion. After breaking up with him forever but never getting him out of her mind, she sees him as her bright angel of redemption when he reappears 35 years and many liaisons later, a little battered and broken by life. He can still rejoice in her body with its added flesh around the thighs, she in his with its paunch. Until they break up again. People don’t really change.
When I was 8, I fell insanely in love with Tarzan; when I was 38, the same thing happened with Leonard Woolf (long dead by then). So I am thrilled to find a soulmate in Harrison. She loves Lorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey for his grace and containment, for the easy respect he shows for intellectual women. She loves Red Barber, the iconic baseball announcer (for the Brooklyn Dodgers, her home team), as a truly virtuous man. She loves to pieces Frederico II (1194–1250), Holy Roman emperor, literary master, intellectual, conniver, enemy of popes, and like most love-sick women, she natters on about him just a little too long.
Nobody writes more swooning prose than Harrison’s, nobody is better at evoking the feel and smell of a place, or at creating the illusion that her heart is beating in yours:
“Every time I tell myself I want never again to be in Bombay, I have only to think of Warden Road and the smells of spices and flesh and fish and mangoes and yellowing paperbacks and milky tea and attar of roses and boiling ghee and fresh-washed khadi cloth and the filth and brine of the creative sea that laps the greasy stones of the seawall … even the mold, which smells like the bloom of a venomous plant. …”
There is so much to savor, to admire, that when she misses the mark it comes as a personal affront. You instantly become the Town Scold (“It’s for your own good, dear!”).
There may be a little too much nervous insistence on her intelligence and sexual appeal; well, you can forgive her—it’s like looking at old photographs and saying: “I was young once, smart too! Just look at this!” It’s when Harrison goes tone deaf that you really get bothered, when she no longer seems generous, free and pictorial but simply undisciplined. Or writing self-parody: “I am watching lean dark boys lounging in the port shadows of Anzio; yellow hummingbirds sip nectar from a purple jacaranda tree; an old lady under an avocado tree talks about her mother (dead), Plague Inspector for the port of Bombay a century ago. As long as consciousness exists, memory and its nuances exist (happiness exists); I cross over the threshold.” More often than you want to see, she veers close to Robert James Waller country—pumped-up, pseudo-profound mumbo jumbo.
There are other stylistic quirks than prickle like a splinter in your thumb. The freestanding ZOWIE! one-sentence paragraphs like “I hate masks,” “Heaven is the hell where Frederico is,” “It terrifies and saddens me how much I used to lie,” and the like. Far too many parentheses, as thick as weeds on every page, more (asides) than in Hamlet.
Still—and how she drives you back to the reviewer’s “still …”—you will want to share this book with your friends. Intelligent, funny, full of the wonders of the world, high on the Richter scale of nuance, some of the writing nearly as good as it gets. Maybe that’s enough.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1178
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, respectively, delineated the pain of their parents’ disastrous marriage. In The Shadow Man, novelist Mary Gordon exposed everything from her (formerly Jewish) father’s malignant anti-Semitism to the repulsive and provocative wet kisses she received from his toothless mouth.
Now it is journalist-travel writer-novelist Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s turn to look back and tell all. An Accidental Autobiography, it should be noted, is painted on a much broader canvas than the works cited above. An impressionistic series of essays rather than a formal, chronological account, the book covers the author’s entire life, not just her beginnings. Still, stylistically and emotionally, it begins and ends with her parents.
There is nothing in Harrison’s Brooklyn childhood that can be romanticized. In the family’s kitchen, “roaches flew out of the oven when the stove was lit on those rare occasions a roast was deemed a necessity.” Her mother, a volatile, deeply disturbed woman, was a convert to Jehovah’s Witnesses who brought 10-year-old Barbara into the faith, forcing the girl to accompany her to meetings and on proselytizing missions, that is, forcing her to forsake her childhood. The mother’s motives in enlisting Barbara appear to be less out of fear for her daughter’s soul than out of a desire to fire yet another shot in the vicious, unending battle that was the Grizzutis’ marriage.
The author became both a foot soldier and victim of the war between her parents: “Tell your father,’ [her mother] said, ‘that I can’t sleep with him. Tell him I have a cold.’ I was 10 years old. I have forgotten to say how seductive she was. And how icy and how sorrowing. I told him. He beat me. She never—till death 70 years later did them part—slept with him again, or knew his flesh.” And what was her father’s role in this conflict? He was anything but the girl’s ally. He sexually abused her. He tried, once, to kill her.
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison endured not just by her wits (which are considerable, as readers of her earlier works will attest) but by her passion. Her writing is marked by exquisite, sensuous imagery, by fierce judgments and witty epigrams: “I read Sartre in my late teens and made the mistake of taking him seriously.” She also possessed the survivor’s gift of moving beyond the horror of her own household and finding people who saw beauty and worth in her, and who insisted she see it as well.
The first of these heroes was her high school English teacher, Arnold Horowitz, depressed, agoraphobic, diabetic, 25 years her senior, with whom, at age 15, she began an affair of the heart. He introduced her to Shakespeare and Beethoven; they read poetry to each other. “At every school assembly, he came and held my hand. Everyone else stood to salute the flag. He and I did not. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not allowed to and he, with great courage and risk to his own safety … was determined not to have me feel like a freak.”
Part of Harrison’s talent, however, is her ability not just to see all, but to tell all. Thus, she cannot leave the reader with a sentimental, movie-of-the-week freeze-frame shot of Dewy Maiden and Mentor, hand in hand. She adds: “It may be more accurate to say: If I were to be a freak, he wanted me to be his freak.”
She found other—better—heroes as well. Listening to Red Barber, the graceful, gentlemanly sportscaster who offered the play-by-play commentary for all the Brooklyn Dodger games, lifted her spirit out of those dark, joyless rooms that were her family’s home and carried it into the sunny heartland of America. “Held by the magic of that voice, one suspended disbelief in happiness—even now, I can delude myself into believing that summers have never been so benevolent, so bright, so merrily green and happily rowdy as they were then.” Later, she fell in love, too, with Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy L. Sayers’ fictional detective, a nobleman both by birth and bent.
Her first real lover was not so fine: a horn player she refers to as Jazzman. She met him shortly after leaving her bleak, dead-end job as a housekeeper in the Brooklyn headquarters of the Witnesses and taking up the full beatnik life in the East Village. Harrison is less successful here in evoking this part of her life, perhaps because despite the seeming sophistication of the relationship—Jazzman was black, and married—the two of them seem more like stormy teenagers than adults. The elegance vanishes from her prose; it is not so much lyrical and passionate as simply adolescent: overheated, overlong.
Jazzman—who came back into her life in middle age—lies to her repeatedly. She, in turn, gets back at him by calling his wife: “‘Hello Mrs. Jazzman,’ I said, ‘did your husband tell you I was going to call?’ ‘Who’s this?’ ‘I’m about to tell you.’ And I did.” (While the author can forgive Jazzman at least some of his trespasses, she is less generous to her former husband, to whom she refers icily as “Mr. Harrison.”)
Harrison’s genius is excess. No matter what she describes—food, sex, travel, her own obesity and chronic respiratory illness—she renders it in glorious language. Too often, though, An Accidental Autobiography becomes mere lists, gorgeous words strung together: “Every time I tell myself I never again want to be in Bombay, I have only to think of … the smells of spices and flesh and fish and mangoes and yellowing paper-backs and milky tea and attar of roses and boiling ghee.”
But at her best, her language is in service to her art; her observations are stunning in their voluptuousness and precision: “I remember the way my throat ached from the trickling sweetness of the cherries I bought on the Piazza Sonino in Rome; and I remember the joy with which a Venetian woman, stealing days in Sicily with her married lover, drank orzato, an almond drink, ‘like liquid pearls,’ she sighed, her words interwoven with the suspiration of the sea.”
There are two miracles in this memoir. First, the miracle of mere survival, that Barbara Grizzuti Harrison emerged from her nightmare of a childhood to become a writer, a mother, a lover, a friend. And second, that after all the ugliness, she is still able to see so much beauty.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 861
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 end of that affair (and its surprising reprise thirty-two years later); an unhappy marriage in exotic places that ends in divorce. With two adored small children she makes an independent life for herself and finds success as an esteemed writer. She suffers physical and psychological ailments that would undo most of us. Yet she prevails, traveling the world, interviewing celebrities, writing well-received books, and even living in a Park Avenue high-rise with a pool on the roof. It is the great myth come true: poor Brooklyn ethnic artist invades and conquers Manhattan (see John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever).
But don’t be put off by the apparent sensational confessional aspects of [An Accidental Autobiography]. The value of this memoir is in its artistic form. The true presence of the author is not in the record of events described, but in her language, her voice.
The story of a life is a desperate invention formed from the whirlpool of recollection and imagination. Though our lives are lived in the linear chronology of years, our experience of life is a palimpsest, an enormous collage whose pieces keep shifting as memory shapes them. There is a kind of law of indeterminacy in life, as in physics. Each time we think about our past, we change it. The author’s unique achievement in this book is not simply in its presentation of events but in finding just the right structure for telling her storied life. She has created a house of many levels and interconnecting rooms through which both the reader and the author wander. Each room provides a different view of what we see and feel, yet all views are true. The house is chock full of a vast treasure trove, like Citizen Kane’s castle, but all the crates are open and in full view.
Who we are is a question that may have no answer, but our thirst for an answer is what reading is all about. We try to enter another mind, another life, and compare it with our own. To see, feel, taste, or smell another world is a way of defining our own sense of ourselves. Only books provide this kind of detail. Music, painting, or film can move us deeply, but don’t provide the specificity of emotion and concreteness of lived life writing does.
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s book is rich, large, varied, and passionate, but not, I think, immoderate or excessive, as some reviewers have said. She is only exhaustive in her desire and pursuit of the whole of her being.
And yet, despite the full frontal revelations and the moral bungee jumping—sometimes hair-raising but enormously satisfying in its spring back from the depths of life to the heights of art—something or someone is hiding behind the dense, baroque foliage of Harrison’s prose. There may be at work here (my Sicilian genes are kicking in) the deep Italian suspicion of too full a personal revelation that might deliver us into the hands of our friends as well as our enemies; the genius for “faccia figura,” of presenting a fine image to the world. Of course in our world, that fine image is not some superficial social ideal, but an apparent fearless honesty.
The most intriguing absence in the book is any discussion of what must have been a singular transformation in Harrison’s life: her conversion to Catholicism. She alludes to it throughout the book but never gives us an account. Is this simply because the experience is still too unformulated to speak of, or is this reserve a canny author whetting our appetite for a new book in the wings? I hope the latter. Catholics could use sensual, passionate statement of belief right now.
In the introduction to her book Grizzuti Harrison says, “I have been conscious of only one imperative, not to currupt the way my thoughts came to me by seeking to impose on them a pattern.” She has been remarkably faithful to this imperative throughout a complex book. There are moments when the flights of prose may land with a thump, and there are many moments when you simply want to know more and are not given any help. But I think even these apparent flaws work. That’s the beauty of the right form; it makes everything work for you.
Blake tells us that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, and here that path brings us to a new, shining penthouse of art.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1737
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 Introduction. If she created a pattern, she might imprison herself in it, she says, robbing her own memory of its diverse versions of her own experience, all of which are true.
How then to organize? “Memories gather around puzzles, passions and possessions,” she says. With these three Ps as hubs, she goes where her thoughts chance to lead her—hence the book’s “accidental” character. As such, this autobiography is not “about” her life; it is a performance of her distinctive style, intelligence and sensibility, a stylized free association—of memories and thoughts—focused on what compels her.
For this venture, six years in the making, Harrison first identified her perpetual itches, then organized them alphabetically, leaving “room to play and freedom to improvise.” Those already familiar with her previous seven books and many articles—she is a contributing editor to Harper’s and has often been published in Ms. and The New York Times Magazine—will find that most of her customary itches remain.
She continues to write of her Brooklyn childhood experience as a Jehovah’s Witness, first documented in Visions of Glory. Her concern with spiritual matters remains, though her explicit focus on the Roman Catholic church, with which she has had an intense and sometimes argumentative relationship (she long ago announced herself as a pro-choice Catholic) seems less prominent. Traveling, the subject of Italian Days and The Islands of Italy, still fascinates her, and food does, too. (I’ve never forgotten her New York Times Magazine profile of Jean Nideitch, the founder of Weight Watchers: over lunch, Harrison eyed Nideitch’s rabbity salad, comparing it with her own choice, which was something like a double bacon cheeseburger.) As to vision and style, as always, Harrison is idiosyncratic, excessive, intelligent and as impatient as she has always been, suffering fools badly.
Additional memory hubs in An Accidental Autobiography include “Food, Flesh and Fashion”; “Loot and Lists and Lust (and Things)”; “Scars and Distinguishing Marks,” each chapter incorporating lengthy quotations from authors who tickle her fancy, give her something to react to and send her off in a fresh direction, so she doesn’t wind up moebius-stripping herself. The longest chapter—“Men and God(s)”—is an exploration of five beloved men in Harrison’s life: Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy Sayers’ urbane English detective hero; Red Barber, a radio announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the “voice of goodness” in her childhood who “brought the gold of summer into an attic apartment in the bowels of Brooklyn”; Arnold Horowitz, her English teacher at New Utrecht High School and her first great passion (“He chose me. He marked me.”); Jazzman, a black musician who was her first lover as a young woman, and with whom she recently reconnected, only to part again; and thirteenth-century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick the Second—“hideously flawed as he was magnificent”—whom she adores and whose character as she describes it (intellectually curious, passionate, God-loving, iconoclastic) seems to have some overlap with her own.
Look anywhere to see that the organizing principle is psychic hypertext. The thought of Peter Wimsey reminds her of the used bookstore in Bombay where she found her first Sayers novel, and that leads her to catalogue the smells of Bombay, then to the spread of odors in a ground-floor flat outside Bombay where she and her husband lived, which brings to mind the night she triggered his contempt by serving veal to his Indian colleagues, which prompts a mention of how she was a city kid whose knowledge of animals was based on Heidi and the Prospect Park Zoo.
This format has its risks, but it allows Harrison to display her distinctive talents, including the vast and remarkable spread of her interests. With her wide-angled gaze, improbable pairs show up on these pages: Rodeo Drive and Caravaggio, Jeffrey Dahmer and Arnold Bennett, God’s grace and Campbell’s tomato soup.
Her memory, meanwhile, is practically prehensile:
At Swaine & Adeney, Her Majesty’s whip and leather makers, the Queen Mother’s umbrella makers (185 Piccadilly), “Listen, madam, hear it rustle, listen, hear it rustle,” Mr. Johnson says. Sibilant and reverent, Mr. Johnson of Swaine & Adeney opens and closes a black silk taffeta umbrella, hand stitched, with a rosewood handle (£500); he caresses umbrellas with ostrich handles and umbrellas with pig-skin handles, umbrellas with crocodile handles and snakeskin handles, umbrellas of Malacca, birch, and ash …
And that’s not the half of it.
Occasionally, I wish she had had an editor who could convince her to shave a phrase here, amputate a paragraph there, in the interest of modulation and emphasis. The centrifugal force of her mind flings off so many jewels so far and so fast that they’re gone before they’re seen. On collecting, she writes:
We hunt for things and experiences, for states of grace, satiety, security, self-definition, immortality … out of love and lovingly, and for motives of snobbery … with graceful intuition, perception and integrity, and with an urge to cherish and preserve … out of avarice, greed, lust, hunger, fear, boredom, restlessness, … out of a simple sense of entitlement …
—and more. One could slow oneself down to savor and consider, but caught up in the thrill of her muchness and pacing, one just doesn’t. Well, as she points out, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Harrison is a woman of intense appetites, after all, and she writes for herself perhaps even more than she writes for others. “Did you think for a moment one wrote only for other people?” she asks in one of her few direct addresses to the reader. Given her method, there are lacunae (not much about making her way as a writer, or charting the stages between being poor enough to shoplift belts and rich enough to buy gold necklaces), and also frequent returns to her psychic hotspots—especially Arnold Horowitz, India, her children Josh and Anna, Jazzman and (even after twenty-odd years) “Mr. Harrison,” her ex-husband. However, by the end—and this is part of her charm—you feel you know her, precisely the way you feel you know an old friend: preoccupations, repeated ruminations, likely areas of wisdom, hobbyhorses and all.
Harrison’s stylistic extravagance also contributes to the appearance of complete openness. Without any discernible hesitation, she tells you how fat she is, how great she is in bed (“I love my body when I’m having sex, nice body, so obedient, so capable. … I rise, like yeast … so beautifully able to give and to take”), how her father tried to kill her and molest her, how she’s suffered from panic attacks, how her lover didn’t want to go down on her because he was afraid he’d smother. She is willing to reveal the painfully humiliating. When her affair with Jazzman ended (for the second time) she called his wife and then called him every day for six months. Once, after repeatedly hanging up without speaking, she identified herself to him. “‘Do you want to talk to me?’ ‘No,’ he said, his voice clotted with loathing.”
But of course the notion of complete candor is an illusion, and Harrison is candid enough to say so. After alluding twice to her father’s long-ago attempt to kill her—he was drunk, he put a twisted towel around her neck—she says how hard it is to say right.
[My doctor says] it isn’t a joke. And it isn’t an anecdote either, though I’ve done my best to turn it into one, sanitizing it, ordering and neutralizing it, skimming over it lightly in flat, uninflected sentences, denying the present pain, the leaching fear. (Did you ever doubt there was a censoring wily writerly presence behind the words you read?)
And then: “I don’t know how to tell myself this story honestly.”
Speaking of honesty, it is the reader’s right to know that Harrison, while not a friend of mine, is someone I’ve known professionally for years. Having said that, I also want to say that it raises the question of the relationship between writer and reader in matters of self-disclosure. I’m fascinated (truly) by how much more open she is with me as the reader-stranger than she is with me in what passes for our “real” life. After reading this autobiography I find myself in the odd position of knowing things about Harrison that she chose not to tell me face to face. When I last happened to speak to her, she mentioned she was in the throes of doctor’s appointments. She didn’t say more (and of course I didn’t ask), but she opens the book with a story about her latest treatment for her chronic lung problems, the dates matching those of our last conversation. At the time, in the pulmonary clinic, she says, she hid her anxiety “behind a facade of cheerfulness and careless optimism.” If she succeeded in fooling anyone, it was not what she would prefer, for as she says elsewhere, “all that one [really] wants [is] to be seen; what one does not want is to be invented.”
To reconcile what appears to be a paradox, I would say that one is most willing to be seen when one is to some degree both protected and in control of one’s self-presentation. What better medium for this than print? The most magical part of writing is that it is one of the few performing arts where composite—redo, blend, deletion, rearrangement—is a given, allowing the writer infinite opportunity to display the totality of her fandango. Undoubtedly Barbara Grizzuti Harrison revels in the opulence of her options, and many readers will in turn delight in the dancer and her arresting and brilliant dance.