The Dynamics of Familial Distance

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‘‘Desire,’’ wrote Longinus, a philosopher in ancient Greece, ‘‘is full of endless distances.’’ In My Brother, Kincaid makes a related but highly personal point: ‘‘I am so vulnerable to my family’s needs and influence that from time to time I remove myself from them. I do not write to them. I do not pay visits to them. I do not lie, I do not deny, I only remove myself.’’ My Brother is Kincaid’s account of both the strong desire she feels for her family when separated from them and of the time she spends back in their orbit. From the safe distance of her new life as a successful American writer, she can plumb the depths of who her brother Devon is and what she herself might have become had she not left Antigua at the age of sixteen. In an interview in People Weekly, Kincaid says she wanted to write My Brother because ‘‘I just knew instinctively that my brother’s life was parallel to mine. We were both dreamers, both lived in our heads. I thought, ‘This could be me.’’’

One reason why Kincaid’s writing has been described as economical is that she takes a single idea—distance is just one example—and lets it gather meaning until it comes to represent many important and complex truths. The distance Kincaid has personally travelled is evident in many ways, and Kincaid explores all of them, including geographical and cultural distance. Seeing the hospital where Devon is being treated, she is appalled. At Holberton Hospital, the furniture is dirty, the dusty ceiling fans present a danger to patients who have trouble breathing, and even something as ordinary as aspirin is sometimes impossible to come by. As an American, Kincaid is easily able to procure the AIDS medicine AZT for her brother, and the hospital staff is amazed when Devon begins to gain weight and recover his strength.

Physical distance is the most concrete type of distance in this memoir, but emotional distance is what’s central to Kincaid’s project. The gravity of Devon’s illness collapses some of the longstanding emotional barriers in Kincaid’s family. Kincaid once again returns to Antigua, allowing herself to be affected by the tragedy of one of her family members. Kincaid’s mother excels at caring for her adult son, going so far as to sleep in the same bed with him. Yet most members of this family have also taken drastic steps to distance themselves. When Devon was a drug addict, he stole valuable tools from his oldest brother, Joe, and then sold them; to protect his property, Joe ran a live wire around his bedroom with enough current that it electrocuted a puppy. This dangerously charged wire represents the power of Joe’s desire to keep Devon out of his life.

Yet the children reserve their most ingenious distancing maneuvers for their mother. One form of rebuke is refusing to eat the food she’s prepared. When Devon rejects her cooking, Kincaid considers his action ‘‘part of a separation he wished to make between himself and his family.’’ For Kincaid even distancing herself from her mother represents a sort of twisted intimacy, because the habit of refusing her mother’s food began when she was a young child: ‘‘not eating food my mother cooked for me as a sign of distancing myself from her was a form of behavior I had used a long time ago, when I felt most close to and dependent on her.’’

In this family, quarrelling is perfectly natural. At any given time, one family member is generally not speaking to another. Like communication, silence has its...

(This entire section contains 1777 words.)

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own code of conduct: ‘‘(and this not speaking to each other has a life of its own, it is like a strange organism, the rules by which it survives no one can yet decipher; my mother and I never know when we will stop speaking to each other and we never know when we will begin again).’’ By downplaying these silences, placing the explanation of them within parentheses as if such silences are so commonplace they need no elaboration, Kincaid paradoxically heightens their significance. Only a member of a deeply troubled family would deem withholding speech unremarkable.

For the members of Kincaid’s family, emotional distancing is a form of self-protection. On the morning when Kincaid learns of Devon’s death, she chats with the other mothers at the bus stop, and she discovers she can enjoy herself by not acknowledging her brother has died. At another key moment, when Kincaid is visiting Devon two months before his death, she writes,

‘‘I was thinking of my past and how it frightened me to think that I might have continued to live in a certain way, though, I am convinced, not for very long. I would have died at about his age, thirty-three years, or I would have gone insane. And when I was looking at him through the louvered windows, I began to distance myself from him, I began to feel angry at him, I began to feel I didn’t like being so tied up with his life, the waning of it, the suffering in it. I began to feel it would be so nice if he would just decide to die right away.’’

When truth becomes too uncomfortable, Kincaid finds refuge in anger and emotional distance.

Distance, Kincaid believes, was necessary for her to fulfill herself. She writes, ‘‘I could not have become a writer while living among the people I knew best, I could not have become myself while living among the people I knew best.’’ Similarly, Kincaid views Devon’s decision to become a Rastafarian as a distancing maneuver, one she applauds. ‘‘The impulse was a good one, if only he could have seen his way to simply moving away from [our mother] to another planet, though perhaps even that might not have been far enough away.’’ Kincaid’s outlook on death is naturally shaped by her own longing for separation, since death is the ultimate distance between individuals. Although she mourns her brother, she’s displeased by the minister’s suggestion in his funeral sermon that the family will be reunited at some later date: ‘‘I did not want to be with any of these people again in another world.’’

One of Kincaid’s most intriguing strategies for creating and enforcing distances is her writing style. Diction is the most noticeable sign of the chasm that now separates Kincaid from her brother.

I had lived away from my home for so long that I no longer understood readily the kind of English he spoke and always had to have him repeat himself to me; and I no longer spoke the kind of English he spoke, and when I said anything to him, he would look at me and sometimes just laugh at me outright. You talk funny, he said.’’

How each sibling speaks is a sign of who he or she has become, but Kincaid consciously magnifies the gulf in the way she chooses to describe the problem. The semicolon in that long first sentence indicates the barrier between two linguistic worlds. In the first half of the sentence, Kincaid is a famous writer speaking as Americans do; in the second half, she’s a person whose speech is outlandish to her own brother. Each separate truth exists on its own side of a grammatical divide.

Kincaid’s repetitions are another stylistic decision that reinforces the emotional distancing underway. By repeating herself, Kincaid both emphasizes her various messages and then desensitizes the reader to the painful meaning of her words. Hearing that someone’s brother has died carries an emotional charge. But when the fact of that death is repeated several times in close succession, the reader becomes deadened to the impact of that sorrow, and the emotions become more remote. Thus, when Kincaid writes, ‘‘And my brother died, for he kept dying; each time I remembered that he had died it was as if he had just at that moment died, and the whole experience of it would begin again; my brother had died and I didn’t love him,’’ the death itself ceases to shock, but the emotional distance of the speaker and her lack of love for her brother are now what capture the reader’s attention.

Distance may be a necessity, but throughout, Kincaid wishes her life could have been otherwise, that she had loved her brother and that her mother wasn’t someone she needed to escape. In Interview magazine, Kincaid says that she would have preferred a less remarkable mother than the force of nature who, in fact, raised her: ‘‘An ordinary mother would have served me better, one that didn’t require great distance to escape from.’’ Distance has saved Kincaid from Devon’s fate, but she also realizes that emotional distance comes at a high price because it is the pain of closeness that makes life meaningful. On the morning Kincaid learns that Devon has died, she begins to wish ‘‘that this, my brother dying, had not happened, that I had never become involved with the people I am from again, and that I only wanted to be happy and happy and happy again, with all the emptiness and meaninglessness that such a state would entail.’’ Her three repetitions of ‘‘happy’’ make the state seem vapid, frivolous, undesirable.

Perhaps the most wrenching sign of familial distance is conveyed by the way these individuals address one another. Kincaid explains that Devon and Dalma call their mother ‘‘Mrs. Drew,’’ and at many times in the memoir, Kincaid is equally unwilling to claim kinship with her. She writes, ‘‘He stole from his mother (our mother, she was my own mother, too, but I was only in the process of placing another distance between us, I was not in the process of saying I know nothing of her, as I am doing now).’’ The language is convoluted because the emotions are snarled, impossible to make simple and smooth again. For a writer who never lets any judgment pass unquestioned, one who always denotes relationships with hairsplitting accuracy (her mother is Mrs. Drew or the mother of her brothers), Kincaid has chosen the most poignant of all possible titles for her memoir. In the intimacy of writing this book, Kincaid has claimed Devon as her own again. By naming Devon’s relationship to her with the utmost directness, the two words ‘‘my brother’’ become the sweetest of all possible endearments.

Source: Elizabeth Judd, Critical Essay on My Brother, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Family Tragedy

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Toward the end of My Brother, Jamaica Kincaid says that she ‘‘became a writer out of desperation.’’ She elaborates in this way: ‘‘when I first heard my brother was dying I was familiar with the act of saving myself: I would write about him. I would write about his dying.’’ Like much of Kincaid’s memoir, this statement is ironic because My Brother is not really, and certainly not only, about Kincaid’s brother’s sickness and death. As many critics have observed, it does not move in a straight line through Devon’s illness and eventual death in order to give us an honest and straightforward account of the horrors of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in a developing country or anywhere else. Instead, Kincaid uses her brother Devon’s illness with AIDS and his eventual death as the axis for meditations on a whole series of complex themes about the self in relation to itself, others, and the world. This method—which produces a ‘‘sustained meditation on the grinding wheel of family,’’ as American writer Anna Quindlen says—has been underappreciated by too many critics. Diane Hartman, in a review of My Brother for The Denver Post, says that Kincaid

has a way of writing—described by one critic as ‘‘the circularity of her thought patterns’’—that can be infuriating. She repeats facts over and over, not adding a different perspective or subtle shade of meaning, but just the same facts. This may remind someone of Gertrude Stein; I found it condescending.

Yet it is this very ‘‘way of writing’’—the way Kincaid allows ‘‘the circularity of her thought patterns’’ to dictate structure and theme—that makes My Brother an interesting and memorable book. As Quindlen says, ‘‘this is what the mind does when it remembers. This is not real life, but real life recollected.’’ My Brother ultimately explores one person’s reactions to a family tragedy in order to reveal the way the self is often split between love and hate, obligation and self-preservation, and action and inaction. Kincaid manages to weave these paradoxes into the story of her brother’s illness and death by being true to the nature of memory. That is, My Brother mimics the way memory actually works, moving in time and place in an effort to uncover the astonishing self at work within the most unpleasant of circumstances.

The basic narrative of the memoir does follow a straight and even predictable line: the author finds out her brother has AIDS, goes to visit him in Antigua, and sends AZT from the United States, which she buys with her own money. Although the AZT helps for a while, allowing Devon to convince himself he isn’t sick at all and to have unprotected sex with women on the island, eventually Devon does die, and the author returns to Antigua for his funeral. Kincaid narrates the details of these main events masterfully, giving us specific images to authenticate the experience and reveal how her brother’s life ‘‘was like the bud that sets but, instead of opening into a flower, turns brown and falls off at your feet.’’ She says:

His lips were scarlet red, as if layers and layers of skin had been removed and only one last layer remained, holding in place the dangerous fluid that was his blood. His face was sharp like a carving, like an image embossed on an emblem, a face full of deep suffering, beyond regrets or pleadings for a second chance.

These details of Devon’s illness as well as images of Devon after he has died (when his ‘‘eyes had been sewn shut,’’ and he looked ‘‘like an advertisement for the dead’’) work as the book’s main plot device, tying the memoir into one coherent piece. Because they are so graphic and horrible, however, they are difficult images to sustain for a long period of time. Thus Kincaid’s digressions, or her sometimes-startling leaps in time, place, and theme, work to relieve us of the graphic nature of the situation she’s describing: they move us from the dying or dead body, from images of ‘‘penises that looked like lady fingers left in the oven too long and with a bite taken out . . . and. . . . labias covered with thick blue crusts’’ to images of the living, of living people struggling to understand and know the self and the world. Toward the end of the book, Kincaid says:

I am remembering the life of my brother, I am remembering my own life, or at least a part of my own life, for my own life is still ongoing, I hope, and each moment of its present shapes its past and each moment of its present will shape its future and even so influence the way I see its future; and the knowledge of all this leaves me with the feeling: And what now, and so, yes, what now. What now!The sense of wonder expressed in this passage works to counter the images of death and dying in Kincaid’s memoir. Kincaid’s digressions—made up of memories and observations written in her famously meandering sentences, repetitions, and interruptions—help her produce a tone that is oddly evasive and hesitant, revealing that the crisis (and interest) of a tragedy is not often the tragedy itself, but the make-up of selves that live before and after and within it—the mix of personalities that witness (and may even cause) the self-destruction of some people.

The first sentence in the book sets us up for the story of sickness and dying, but that expectation is frustrated very quickly. ‘‘When I saw my little brother again after a very long time, he was lying in a bed in the Holberton Hospital, in the Gweneth O’Reilly ward, and he was said to be dying of AIDS,’’ Kincaid begins. But she digresses in the very next sentence, moving backwards in time to tell us about how ‘‘the routine of [the family’s] life was upset’’ by Devon’s birth. We learn that Devon, unlike Kincaid and her other brothers, was born at home, and that an army of red ants attacked him while he lay beside his mother in bed on his second day of life. This one incident reveals that Hartman is mistaken to suggest that Kincaid ‘‘repeats facts over and over, not adding a different perspective or subtle shade of meaning,’’ since Kincaid does return to the story of the ants later in the book, telling us how her mother burned the tree that gave the ants a path through the window to the bed. Kincaid then ties this story to the memory of her mother burning her books, creating a motif of fire that works, to make the book a coherent whole.

After she narrates the day Devon is born, Kincaid moves backward in time to narrate events and meditate on them: the reader finds out that she and her mother ‘‘were in a period of not speaking to each other’’ when the telephone call from her mother’s friend comes, and the reader witnesses Kincaid’s meditation on a series of questions about how Devon got AIDS in the first place. These details and questions deepen the tension already established by the book’s main narrative premise, suspending specific information about Devon and his sickness while we learn about the speaker and her family, specifically their long struggle to separate themselves from their mother’s ‘‘spectacular’’ and ‘‘unequaled’’ love.

These details are interesting because they are oddly universal. They reveal the contradictions at work in the self and in the family, and, since they produce a conversational and informal tone appropriate to a meditation that can ultimately ask more questions than it can answer, they do serve the book’s ultimate aim. Kincaid suggests toward the beginning of the book that she realized when she first came to see Devon that she loved him. She says:‘‘it surprised me that I loved him; I could see that what I was feeling, love for him, and it surprised me because I did not know him.’’ Then, still in the book’s first section, she says:

when I was no longer in his presence, I did not think I loved him. Whatever made me talk about him, whatever made me think of him, was not love, just something else, but not love; love being the thing I felt for my family, the one I have now, but not for him, or the people I am from, not love, but a powerful feeling all the same, only not love.

The apparent contradiction between these statements reveals that it is possible to love and ‘‘notlove’’ at the same time; it reveals that it is not only possible, but perfectly human, to be a ‘‘combustion of feelings.’’ Other similar paradoxes infuse My Brother, deepening its complexity and appeal. Kincaid tells us that her mother ‘‘loves her children. . . . in her way’’ and, later in the book, she says: ‘‘I felt I hated my mother, and even worse, I felt she hated me, too.’’ During the passage in which she remembers the day she was supposed to take care of Devon and failed to change his diaper because she was too busy reading, she even says that ‘‘when my mother saw [Devon’s] unchanged diaper . . . she wanted me dead.’’

Kincaid also tells us that sometimes she is ‘‘so vulnerable to [her] family’s needs and influence that she. . . . removes [herself] from them.’’ Still, she visits Antigua many times, buys AZT and a cof- fin, and becomes so obsessed with the idea of Devon dying that she ‘‘felt she was falling into a deep hole.’’ The contradiction expressed between Kincaid’s actions and her words shows us how easy it is to act against our own feelings, especially when we’re faced with another’s suffering. Kincaid reveals the reasons she feels she must remove herself from her family (in an alternative act of self-preservation) when she tells us what happened after her mother came for a visit to Vermont:

. . . after my mother left, I was sick for three months. I had something near to a nervous breakdown, I suffered from anxiety and had to take medicine to treat it; I got the chicken pox, which is a disease of childhood and a disease I had already when I was a child. Not long after she left, I had to see a psychiatrist.

Kincaid’s repetitions also serve an important purpose. One of the oddest repetitions in My Brother is the idea that Devon’s father (Mr. Drew) is not Kincaid’s own father. She tells us, often parenthetically, that this is the case, sometimes rephrasing, sometimes using the exact same phrase. This repetition works as a kind of refrain in the book, revealing how important it is for Kincaid to separate herself from the family she was born into. Toward the end of the book, she says that she won’t forget Devon ‘‘because his life is the one I did not have, the life that, for reasons I hope shall never be too clear to me, I avoided or escaped.’’ Kincaid’s repetition about Mr. Drew not being her father has prepared us for this statement, which might otherwise seem to lack compassion. This statement also underscores the fact that the central theme of Kincaid’s memoir is not Kincaid’s brother or his sickness and death, but Kincaid herself—her realizations about herself and her family that Devon’s sickness and death have brought forth.

In his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate reminds us that ‘‘the personal essayist looks back at the choices that were made, the roads not taken, the limiting familial and historic circumstances, and what might be called the catastrophe of personality’’ in order to arrive at realizations that are, amazingly enough, ‘‘appetizing and even amusing to the reader.’’ By ‘‘catastrophe,’’ Lopate doesn’t mean that the essayist must necessarily meditate on the way a self might fail and falter in the world, though this might be (and has been) a fertile topic for our most notable practitioners. Lopate means rather that personal essayists must investigate their own reactions to the world and to themselves as honestly as possible in order to arrive at a full picture of what it means to be human. Kincaid’s digressions, interruptions, and repetitions serve the book’s purpose because they combine to produce an apt vehicle for the expression of the ‘‘catastrophe of personality’’ that led Devon Drew to his death and, conversely, his sister to an articulation of the complex feelings at work in people who struggle to understand who they have become.

Source: Adrian Blevins, Critical Essay on My Brother, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

The Authenticity of the Voice

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To read Jamaica Kincaid’s memoir, My Brother, is to re-experience her unforgettable narrative voice, revisiting Antigua over the three years that Devon is dying of AIDS, and re-characterizing the island, her mother and the child/adolescent self chronicled in her earlier books. The lucid, assertive, deceptively simple voice takes its time in fleshing out the figures of the memoir, both in their present and in the past, circling around Devon and the multiple meanings of his life, illness and death. The narrative loops between the United States and Antigua, contrasting Kincaid’s ‘‘now privileged North American way’’ with the lives of her brothers and mother. It recalls both the double setting of Lucy and the triple denunciation in A Small Place of tourist complacency, imperialist oppression and government corruption.

But Kincaid’s voice is less angry here, and more reflective. Indeed, she explicitly distances herself from A Small Place, ‘‘a . . . book in which I did nothing but cast blame and make denunciations.’’ There is still rage, however, against conditions in Antigua, where she finds her youngest brother in hospital, dying of opportunistic infections because there is no AZT. But this is a reality that can be altered by individual, middle-class agency: Kincaid buys Devon three more years of life with AZT from the States. And although she is unable to change his living conditions either in the hospital, which isolates AIDS patients in a small, dirty room, or at home when he returns to live with their mother, she finds cause for hope as soon as she meets Dr. Prince Ramsey, the leader of the fight against AIDS on the island. Kincaid is astonished to find such a doctor in Antigua: ‘‘He was kind, he was loving toward people who needed him, people who were less powerful than he; he was respectful. . . . He is a very loving man and the other reason I have for saying this is I saw that wherever he went, people, ordinary people, would go out of their way to greet him and ask him how he was, but not because they really wanted to know: it was just to hear his voice.’’ Kincaid knows how people respond to love. It is the gap between this knowledge and her feelings about her mother that makes much of her writing so poignant.

From the beginning of this book it is clear that this relationship remains at least as troubled as that represented in Lucy; Kincaid’s life has been punctuated by long periods of not speaking to her mother. But her mother cares untiringly for Devon while he is sick:

My mother loves her children, I want to say, in her way! . . . It has never occurred to her that her way of loving us might have served her better than it served us. And why should it? Perhaps all love is selfserving. I do not know, I do not know . . . All the same, her love, if we are dying, or if we are in jail, is so wonderful, a great fortune, and we are lucky to have it. My brother was dying; he needed her just then.

The pain in the repeated ‘‘I do not know’’ reflects Kincaid’s continuous state of conflict about her mother; for a moment she doubts her judgment of her mother’s love and also of her own love for others. She acknowledges, too, that her mother’s bitter cruelty dates only from the family’s descent into poverty when Kincaid was about 13 years old, but she cannot forgive her for burning her books in a rage, taking her out of school to look after her brothers and sending her away alone to earn money for the family. The depth of her distrust is shown by her refusal, along with two of her three brothers, to eat any food her mother cooks. Kincaid knows that ‘‘the powerful sense my mother has of herself’’ is a danger for any thing or person who gets in her path; she is finally convinced that ‘‘my mother hates her children.’’

When Lucy was published in 1990 I was struck by the number of reviewers who were puzzled or offended by Lucy’s unremitting anger, directed at both her mother and her privileged but well-meaning white employer. I have never been able to withstand the relentless analytical clarity of Kincaid’s narrative voice. Whatever her narrators tell me about their feelings, however unpleasant or extreme they may be, I accept, as long as I’m reading, as ‘‘true.’’ (It doesn’t matter whether Kincaid’s mother really hates her children; what matters is Kincaid’s experience.) So, because the narrative persuaded me to focus on her response to her brother rather than on my own experience and knowledge of AIDS, I believed as I read three-quarters of My Brother that Devon was a heterosexual drug user who did not inject drugs. After he is dead, Kincaid learns that he was in fact bisexual, but Antiguan homophobia is such that Devon has encouraged his sister’s supposition that ‘‘he got the virus through . . . heterosexual sex.’’ He boasts that he is sexually irresistible to women and constantly speaks of his desire for them.

Devon is a man who talks a lot when he is well enough to do so; he seems to be compulsively sociable. Kincaid, back in Vermont, imagines him ‘‘sitting on my mother’s little front porch’’:

Whenever anyone passed by, he would have to call out to them a greeting regardless of whether they were familiar to him or not. He would not be able to bear the emptiness of silence . . . He was not meant to be silent. He was a brilliant boy, he was a brilliant man. Locked up inside him was someone who would have spoken to the world in an important way. I believe this . . . But he was not even remotely aware of such a person inside him.

Kincaid also sees him as a man who stole and lied and ‘‘did unspeakable things . . . he was unable to speak openly about. He could never say that anything in front of him was his own, or that anything in front of him came to him in a way that he did not find humiliating.’’ But, her heterosexual privilege blinds her to what is really unspeakable— to her, at any rate—in his life.

When Devon dies, Kincaid is in the middle of her book tour for The Autobiography of My Mother; she takes it up again after the funeral. At a reading in a Chicago bookstore she sees a woman she recognizes; they had met once in Antigua three years earlier at an AIDS support group organized by Dr. Ramsey. This white ‘‘lesbian woman’’—the redundancy of ‘‘woman’’ concisely conveys how strange lesbianism is to Kincaid—knows that Devon is dead. She tells Kincaid how, saddened by ‘‘the scorn and derision heaped on the homosexual man,’’ she had opened up her home on Sundays and ‘‘made it known that . . . men who loved other men could come to her house in the afternoon and enjoy each other’s company.’’ The reader is left wondering about this gay Antiguan subculture, wanting to know more about these meetings and what they meant to Devon. The gaps in Kincaid’s knowledge of her brother are finally exposed. Reading as a ‘‘lesbian woman,’’ I am momentarily estranged from this unreliable narrator.

But this estrangement may be the crux of the memoir, emphasizing the unknowability of those whom we love as of those whom we have made Other. After the lesbian’s revelation, Kincaid feels a new empathy with her brother:

Who he really was—not a single sense of identity but all the complexities of who he was—he could not express fully: his fear of being laughed at, his fear of meeting with the scorn of the people he knew best were overwhelming and he could not live with all of it openly. His homosexuality is one thing, and my becoming a writer is another altogether, but this truth is not lost to me: I could not have become a writer while living among the people I knew best, I could not have become myself while living among the people I knew best . . . in his life there had been no flowering.

This identification with Devon escapes being an appropriation because Kincaid’s resolute sense of self is vital to the authenticity of the voice—her brother’s or her own—that she is right to value so highly. At Devon’s funeral, distanced by the unreality of his body after the ministrations of the undertakers, she mourns what she knows to be loss: ‘‘his farawayness so complete, so final, he shall never speak again; he shall never speak again in the everyday way that I speak of speech.’’ My Brother is a memoir of a voice.

Source: Gay Wachman, ‘‘Dying in Antigua,’’ in The Nation, Vol. 265, No. 14, November 3, 1997, pp. 43–44.


Critical Overview