SOURCE: Brown, Rosellen, and Karla Hammond. “An Interview with Rosellen Brown.” Chicago Review 33, no. 3 (winter 1983): 117-25.
[In the following interview, Brown shares her views on the politics of feminism and discusses her poems in Cora Fry.]
[Hammond]: From an essay that Erica Jong wrote on Some Deaths in the Delta, I understand that you both knew each other at Barnard. Jong speaks of how you both met in Robert Packs' office “clutching manuscripts of sonnets, sestinas, and Popian couplets—(at that time, there were thought to be such things as cooked and raw poetry—and we were both cooking with a vengeance)” (Barnard Alumni Magazine, Winter 1971). What is “cooked” vs. “raw” poetry? Was most of your formal instruction in poetry traditional?
[Brown]: Philip Rahv wrote an essay discussing these types of poetry. “Cooked” meant highly refined poetry forced into form. (This was in the fifties and early sixties.) “Raw” meant what was at that time the poetry of the Beats; experience that had not been analyzed, formalized, or stylized. In 1956-1960 when I was in college everyone was writing very formal poetry, mostly in iambic pentameter. Sometimes it rhymed. Seven Types of Ambiguity was a very important book at the time. I remember I was trying desperately to be wise and feel that I understood something about the world, so it was satisfying to be able to put what I thought I understood into a form that resounded while introducing just enough ambiguity to feel bottomlessly complex. It was all to the good if the last line of your poem could be read two, possibly three ways. Or there would be a pivotal word—both a noun and a verb. What did it mean? There was just enough irony, yet it was tightly controlled as, again, were we ourselves in the late fifties. Personally, I favored the semi-color—endless contingency! A presidential poll when I was a freshman gave Barnard to Eisenhower. In some ways it was easier to learn the necessary lessons about writing poetry than it may be today. I've learned the value of a single right word, for example—knowing that I was not allowed an extra beat because I'd no longer have an iamb to spare! It involved re-writing and re-writing and re-writing until I found exactly the proper two syllable word with the beat on the second syllable. Writing in free verse and playing without the net (the old tennis cliché) seems to me to be much more difficult for learning control. While I don't often write in given forms now, because I don't necessarily want that particular kind of freedom in constraint, it taught me a good deal that has been useful since.
What about in your own teaching? Do you teach traditional forms?
Yes, occasionally. I usually move in the direction that seems natural for the student unless what he or she is doing seems absolutely disastrous for the poem at hand. I'm not particularly eager to foist terzarima on anyone, but it does seem a pity to have foreclosed on so many ingenious and useful structures that could lend complexity and an added dimension to a poem.
You've been quoted as having said, that you're interested in addressing audiences of what might be ordinary people; do you envision a particular audience? Working class? Urban? Rural New Englanders? Mississippi Delta? Blacks? Or is this too limiting?
It's a floating one. I'm not envisioning a particular audience. I envy people like Alice Walker who speaks of writing back to the audience out of which she grew. She's very fortunate that she...
(This entire section contains 3817 words.)
knows who her readers are. I don't. On one hand, I'm a “literary” writer in that my work isn't always easily accessible. It's not difficult, but it's carefully wrought, with little overt action and conventional audiences don't always like that. I know I'm not going to reach many people because my work is either too austere, in its refusal to force conclusions, or because it's too introspective and not active enough. On the other hand, I'm not particularly interested in writing only for my peers who are other writers, or college graduates, or whatever. Intellectuals can speak for themselves, orThe New York Review of Books can; ordinary people often don't. I wish Cora Fry, for example, had been made available to a more disparate audience, say the Redbook reader. Many different people, from inner-city college students to rural library groups, have read and understood those poems. I'm often asked to come and talk about them with such groups of non-poetry readers. But I wish the book had been advertised in such a way that it had been brought to the attention of more of them.
One reviewer has said of Cora Fry, “Not one of the poems will stand alone, so this becomes a kind of transitionless fiction, diminished by the chopping-up.” This criticism doesn't seem to recognize what your purpose was in creating a fragmentary sequence where content mirrored or paralleled form.
They are tiny poems. They are not meant to stand alone. Why that has to be a criticism of them, I can't imagine. Every year there are hundreds of books published presenting lyrics that stand one by one by one alone. This was not intended to be that kind of book, but apparently the alternative is seen as “a transitionless fiction.” It's the very point of the book to take a woman's experience and see how it is kaleidoscopic, how every tiny piece of her life can be set against another and made to create the illusion of the whole life. The greatest pleasure of writing a book-length narrative like this and what makes it so difficult for me now to write individual poems (although I still love to be seized by one I've read and flung around the room) is those repetitions. References and allusions to other poems, whether they're intuitive or conscious—they were both in this book—are so easy and pleasurable to make because you have so many choices. Now I look at a single poem and there isn't time enough for me to establish this cyclical pattern. I haven't been able to reduce the scale again.
Did you ever envision writing Cora Fry as a novel?
No, but it exists almost entirely in relation to the novel that came before it, The Autobiography of My Mother. That fascinates me in retrospect. The Autobiography of My Mother took a long time. It was a very closely argued agon between mother and daughter. Very grey on the page, especially as Doubleday printed it. So I saw Cora Fry as a respite from all that exaggeratedly rational thought. I saw it as white space which translated itself for me as silence—laconic little utterances. I saw those tiny two and four line poems on the page before I saw anything else, even though I hadn't written them yet. And that meant, finally, that I thought I could write about a New England character that way—a woman. I saw this as a chance to use that silence as an active part of the book. I saw all that snow literally as white space with a little bit of black print across it like bird markings. It was snow in the middle of the page. That's where Cora Fry came from. I didn't think of it as a novel because I wanted so much to be quiet. You can't write a novel in so few words. I chose syllabics as a form partly because that meant that I would have to ration my words. They would be very dear, they would be very costly. Every time I wanted an adjective I would have to beg for it in my syllabic line. I sat out in my backyard counting on my fingers to get the lines to scan or count right. The idea of writing a novel would have gone counter to this very ascetic paring-down process.
Do you see fiction as cyclical as opposed to linear? In reference to The Autobiography of My Mother you've said that you visualized “a kind of Moebius strip” turning around on itself. In reference to Tender Mercies, you spoke of “the kind of circle” you wanted to make.
The kind of fiction that I like has those elements of the poem, it doesn't simply rush on to tell its story. I wish that I could open out the structure of my diction so that everything did not begin from a center of consciousness. I'm in real conflict about this. If you look at my fiction, almost all of it is static. I've spoken of the idea of “centripetal force”: that there is a person standing in the center and events, memories, and so on, move around that center; but it doesn't really go anywhere. This is the essence of a poem and it's a bad habit for a novel writer to develop if that novelist is to ever produce a story in which anything external happens. Apparently I'm much more interested in the reflective powers of the person who stands at the center of the book. As a novelist I don't believe that things happen so much as that what little happens is considered, revised, fit into a structure and, thereby, understood. I suppose it's about time I came to terms with the kind of consciousness I'm stuck with. For the convenience of my interest in writing novels and perhaps selling a few. I wish I could actually start an action here and watch the years go by and terminate it there. When my narratives are being especially intransigent, I find myself thinking it's a limitation of ego—in the sense that you can affect the world; make anything happen. It's a question of activity vs. passivity. I don't seem to be able to do that. In some ways I'm much more comfortable with the short story because it doesn't really have to go anywhere. But I like the breadth of the canvas available to you when you're painting a novel.
Joyce Carol Oates describes a story of mine (“Wedding Week”) as aspiring to the condition of poetry … well, I wish that I could write a novel that achieved that, but it's damn difficult to do that for two hundred pages and hold your reader's attention.
In your review of Mina Schneider's The Woman Who Lived in a Prologue, you speak of the main character as seeing herself as “daughter-of; wife of; mother of; mother-in-law of; mother-in-lieu of; mother-in-loss of; grandmother of; widow of … ; mistress of; love of.” Isn't the fundamental crisis or dilemma, as well as paradoxical strength, of contemporary female protagonists—more so than males—to define themselves in relationship to someone else? To make those necessary connections you speak of?
Yes. Look at the novel that I wrote at twelve or thirteen. I didn't write as Mickey Mantle, but as the young girl who loved the character just like him. It's not so much a problem or dilemma of contemporary female protagonists, that they define themselves in relation to someone else, as it is perhaps the problem of females. If the protagonists do this, it's because they're reflecting real life, which is not ideal. That may be the question that you're really asking. It's, as you say, the paradoxical strength as well as the problem.
You've alluded to the reverse discrimination “that instead of being excluded as a woman, you've been included because you're a woman.” Have you found in reviewing that you've been asked to review women's work more often than men's?
Absolutely. However, I'm often more comfortable with women's work than I am with men's. I'm also quite happy to review men's novels and poetry. But while it's continuously insulting and limiting to be asked only to review work by women, I understand it. So I get angry, but only theoretically. Some of my work has been reviewed by men and I've been pleased by it. But often I've found an absolute lack of comprehension on their part. And if that's what I might do to men's work I'm reviewing, I'm just as happy not to bother looking at work that wouldn't interest me. It happens that there are some men whose work I love and I would be delighted to write about it. Many magazines which publish reviews have asked women to review women's work because they're afraid of incurring the anger of women readers and writers if they give the book to a man who doesn't like it. They're liable to be accused of some kind of prejudice.
What in your own experience has helped you develop a feminist consciousness?
I don't know that I'd call my consciousness feminist, although I wouldn't call it anti-feminist. It isn't any kind of “ist.” I'm as sympathetic with feminist questions and problems as anyone could be. I am, after all, a female. But I've tried very, very hard, both in my early writing in Mississippi and in my later writing from the point of view of women, not to be polemical. Hearing the words “feminist consciousness,” I think of something much more self-conscious than my writing. So it has nothing to do with being antagonistic to feminist issues, but rather antagonistic to the idea that your writing is reducible to labels, to programs, and to didactic statements. I am very eager for my work to be useful to women and to men—useful in the way that any writing may be useful: passionate or delicate, analytic or evocative. While I'm delighted to be included among feminist writers, if that suits someone else's purposes, it doesn't suit mine particularly.
When Annie Dillard, Jayne Anne Phillips and I were out in Washington State a few years ago (Annie was teaching there and we were all on a panel together), one of the questions asked us concerned “the proper subject for women to be writing about.” All three of us, independent of the others, stood up on our hind legs and said “What do you mean subjects that are proper for women to write about? Can you name a subject that isn't proper for women to write about?” We were very hard pressed to name any; as far as we were concerned, any writing done by a woman that is good writing is useful to women. If anything, such strictures are sexist in their assumptions. Well, we were assailed by the audience who felt that we were counter-revolutionary, that we were retrograde in our politics. We just didn't see it as a particularly political issue. Clearly, political purposes are advanced by asking the question, but I'm not interested in putting people into enemy camps. It's infinitely too complicated for that.
Also, from having read my Ploughshares article (and seen the issue I edited), you know that I'm very interested in people writing from the point of view of a different sex, of anyone writing in anyone else's voice(s) as I do frequently. Humanly you want to exercise your ability to empathize with other people. That doesn't mean that you will write well as an Indian or as a Puerto Rican, as anyone you're not. It doesn't mean that you will necessarily write well as a man, or feel the need to. But it's important not to see this as an issue of colonialism, or imperialism, in taking over, usurping the voice of someone else. Every time you attempt another voice, to get outside yourself, you're making a peaceful gesture, trying to understand what it's like to be inside someone else's skin. That's what you do in your personal life. At all times you're called upon to question and try to feel what someone else is feeling. As a writer that seems to me the greatest challenge. For the same reason, I'm not particularly interested in writing about myself, untransformed.
In an essay “Poems by Women”, Denise Levertov wrote: “both men and women have to resist polarisation and become more human, develop a sensibility more androgynous.” She argues that “androgynous humanity” is the transcendence of gender (not its reduction to neutrality) which is characteristic of the creative mind.”
I absolutely agree with Denise Levertov. In my introduction to the Ploughshares issue essentially I've talked about the “androgynous sensibility.” Transcending gender is like transcending anything else. Getting out of yourself is the most difficult part. And this is the obverse of what I just said about wanting to write like myself whatever that might be. It also means that getting outside of myself to write convincingly about other people is the most problematic part. It's not only a transcendence of gender, it might involve writing like a quadraplegic (like Laura Courser in Tender Mercies) or writing about Gerda Stein (a seventy-two year old woman born in Alsace-Lorraine in The Autobiography of My Mother). That was difficult to do. Do you mean that gender is limiting because androgyny implies that vague male/female undefined characteristic?
Well, I don't want to write as if I had no gender. When I write as a man that's a kind of acknowledged ventriloquial act. If I choose to write in the third person I don't necessarily want that to be sexless. Many factors are characteristic of me: I was born in a particular place, at a particular time, of particular parents. I have my specific, say, religious identity. I live in a part of the country (New England) that determines a particular point of view. All of these factors are very specific and not vague. Androgyny implies that you want to fuzzy up the edges. I don't find it insulting. I just find it inexact terminology.
How do you respond to this statement by Marilyn French? “Most of the women I know synthesize what I would call masculine and feminine virtues, which is what I'm for. But the men have not kept pace with us. And therefore, most of the women I know are alone.”
She's right that many men have not managed to synthesize masculine and feminine virtues. Many women haven't either for that matter. I understand what she's saying about most of the women she knows being alone. Most of the women I know, however, are not alone and some of them are not experiencing any great pain. I don't intend this to sound like a harsh statement, i.e. “Well, you have your experience and I have mine.” But it is the fact that although I know women sympathetic with French's books, because they're descriptive of their experiences, I know almost as many women who have difficulty reading her work because they've felt alienated from her characters' luridly dreadful experiences.
There's something so self-righteous about the idea that men have not kept pace with us! There should be another way to say that, except that French is so angry that she can't find it. I'm trying to think of a way to word this that won't sound vindictive. Keeping pace implies that we're the race of the future. I know that a lot of women in fact think that but for me such a competitive stance is defensive and bound to prevent true equality. It reminds me of some of the self-aggrandizing that went on among some Blacks during the “Black Power” days: the idea that there is a master race (in this case, sex); only it's the under-race finally ascendant.
Many of the women I know wish that the men they knew had more feminine attributes—sensitivity, the ability to empathize or be intuitive, etc. I don't know that the women I know have a great many masculine virtues. What are those?—strength …
Self-reliance, independence. Perhaps the true feminists can look back at generations of women who've possessed all of those qualities. For example, my grandmother brought her family to the United States from Russia … I can sound very self-righteous about this … and did it all by herself. My grandfather did nothing to hold his family together. He couldn't hold a job, didn't have the strength or tolerance she had. I suppose that you could call those masculine virtues if you wanted to. My grandfather sounds as if he had plenty of feminine virtues.
In reviewing Marilyn French's The Bleeding Heart, what did you mean in saying “Miss French has the soul of a polemicist nobly and earnestly gotten up in novelist's clothing”? How can one best maintain that delicate balance between a commitment to political truth-seeking and esthetic truth-seeking? Why in a more “complex” novel than Miss French's would they not be separate? Given French's novel, should we conclude that relationships between men and women are ultimately political?
Should we conclude that relationships between men and women are ultimately political? We should also conclude that all of our relationships viewed from a certain angle or vantage point are political: with our landlords, our mayors, our families, etc. Are you addressing the wielding of power? Is that what political means? I suppose that it's true. I don't find that my relationships with men are political in such an oppressive way to me that I'd choose to be alone although politics can work to your detriment as well as to your advantage. I come out sounding rather unsympathetic. It's not that the problems in French's novel don't engage me or that they're not terribly real. It is her rather self-satisfied and complacently angry tone that troubles me. It eliminates a great many relationships of those close to me—even leaving aside my own. A great many people I know manage to live, without being deluded, quite happily with men. How in the world am I to account for those if I believe that these political relationships are so oppressive to all women!—that if only we knew what was happening to us, we'd all choose in the end to be alone?
I don't know. Would you agree with French that all of Christian art is ideological? That art of any age conforms to the political and sociological realities of that time?
Ideology is in the mind of the beholder, in the eye of the beholder. It's true that we have all had to learn a good many lessons about the ideology in books, poems, and works of art that we thought had no such ideological or political implications. Yes, the art of any age conforms to the political and sociological realities of its time, but it also transcends them at its best moments. The fact that one can read Anna Karenina,War and Peace, Shakespeare, Chaucer, or the Bible and find many moments with which one can identify and feel still hold true, means that the political and sociological realities of that time aren't all that were operative for great artists who had an ability to see beyond them and to make statements that have perennially been true.
Rosellen Brown 1939-
American novelist, poet, short story writer, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Brown's career through 2000. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 32.
A highly respected and best-selling author of poetry and prose, Brown produces works dense with metaphor and imagery. In her poetry she experiments with form, linking poems in a way that suggests the scope of a novel, while her fiction incorporates many poetic elements. In both her poetry and fiction Brown draws on her experiences of living in the South during the Civil Rights movement—particularly in Some Deaths in the Delta and Other Poems (1970) and Civil Wars (1984)—though her primary focus remains on family relations, self-preservation versus family loyalty, and personal standing within the community.
Brown was born in Philadelphia on May 12, 1939. Her father was a salesman, and Brown's family moved several times during her youth. Because of the family's frequent relocation, Brown felt alienated at school and often used her free time to write. In high school Brown devoted herself to journalism, and her work earned her a scholarship to Barnard College in New York City. After completing her B.A. in 1960, she attended Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she earned an M.A. in 1962. She married Marvin Hoffman in 1963. Upon receiving a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in 1965, Brown and her husband moved to Mississippi, where Brown taught at Tougaloo College, an African American university, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. Her time spent in Mississippi influenced Brown's first collection of poetry, Some Deaths in the Delta and Other Poems, as well as her later literary endeavors. She lived for three years in Brooklyn, New York—which is the setting of her second work, Street Games: A Neighborhood (1974)—and then moved to New Hampshire, the setting for her poetry collection Cora Fry (1977). Brown has received various awards and grants, including a Howard Foundation grant, two National Endowment for the Humanities creative writing grants, a Radcliffe Institute fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship, an Ingram-Merrill grant, a Bunting Institute fellowship, a Best First Novel award from the Great Lakes College Association for her first novel, The Autobiography of My Mother (1976), and a Janet Kafka award for Civil Wars. She was also co-named Woman of the Year in 1984 by Ms. Magazine, and her novel Before and After (1992) was a New York Times best-seller. In addition to teaching at Tougaloo College, she has held positions at Goddard College, Boston University, University of Houston, Northwestern University, and the School of Art Institute of Chicago.
Brown's experiences in the South during the Civil Rights movement figure prominently in her first book, Some Deaths in the Delta. The poems compare the degrees of racism and deprivation in the South to those in the urban North. In Street Games, a collection of linked short stories, Brown delves deeper into the relations between people of different races and beliefs. The characters in Street Games are occupants of houses on a fictional, multicultural street in Brooklyn, and each story highlights the characters's inner, social, and economic struggles. In Brown's first two novels, The Autobiography of My Mother and Tender Mercies (1978), she focuses on familial relationships and employs two narrative voices to portray the protagonists' dual perspectives. The Autobiography of My Mother explores the antagonistic relationship between a mother and her daughter, with alternate chapters narrated by each woman. Tender Mercies centers on a family's struggle to adjust after the wife is paralyzed in an accident caused by her husband. The novel is written in two distinct styles—the husband's story is narrated in straight prose, while the wife's perspective is rendered in an imagistic, stream-of-consciousness narrative, consisting largely of dreams and memories that resemble prose poems. Brown again fuses fiction and poetry in Cora Fry, a cycle of poems that relates the story of a New England housewife who is frustrated in her marriage but ultimately decides not to leave her husband. Cora Fry's Pillow Book (1994) includes the original Cora Fry and continues her story in a series of poetic verses. In Civil Wars Brown returns to the southern location of Some Deaths in the Delta. The protagonists—Jessie and Teddy—are an unhappily married couple who were civil rights activists during the 1960s and still cling to the ideologies they held at the time, although many of their beliefs are outdated and unwanted. For example, they are the only white family in their neighborhood; in the 1960s this was considered a political statement, but in the 1980s they are simply an awkward and unwelcome presence. Teddy, the husband, feels disaffected by the low-key opportunities available in the modern Civil Rights movement, confessing that he preferred the heroic, high-profile actions that typified the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. The couple's niece and nephew are orphaned in an automobile accident and move in with Jessie and Teddy. The niece and nephew are racists and are appalled at being forced to live within an African American community. The novel examines the moral complexities inherent in family situations and the differences between family bonds and community ties. Brown further explores these connections in her fourth novel, Before and After, which centers on a family that is thrown into upheaval after the teenage son, Jacob, murders his girlfriend. The novel focuses the effect of the murder within Jacob's family, rather than the murder itself. Each family member is affected differently and the main thrust of the narrative is an investigation of their individual attempts to come to terms with the murder and the murderer, their small-town community, and their preconceived notions of identity and normalcy. Half a Heart (2000) blends many of the themes of Brown's earlier works—racial issues, the Civil Rights movement, mother-daughter relationships—with the two-voice narrative style that Brown uses in Some Deaths in the Delta and Tender Mercies. In Half a Heart the protagonists are Miriam, an upper-class white Jewish suburbanite, and Ronnee, her abandoned child from an affair with an African American professor during the Civil Rights era. Miriam seeks out Ronnee and the two begin to develop a relationship fraught with hidden purposes and emotional wounds. The recurring themes of personal agendas conflicting with the family structure and the sacrifices people make in the name of family loyalty are analyzed differently, depending on which narrative voice is speaking.
Reviewers have attributed Brown's lyrical prose and precise, worded narration to her poetic roots. While the majority of commentators have applauded her skillful narrative style and her eye for descriptive details, some have found it difficult to empathize with her characters and have deemed her depictions somewhat superficial. Critics have also expressed divided opinions about the often fragmentary details sometimes found in Brown's novels. Some reviewers have asserted that such stray details and background information further develop her characters, whereas others have suggested that they lure the reader away from the main plot and leave too many questions unanswered. Overall, commentators have lauded Brown's talent for realistically and compellingly depicting families under stress and have been intrigued by her dissection of the family unit to examine the difficulties of retaining individuality and, at the same time, family loyalty.
SOURCE: Glastonbury, Marion. “Fighting Words.” New Statesman 108, no. 2788 (24 August 1984): 22-3.
[In the following excerpt, Glastonbury provides an overwhelmingly positive assessment of Civil Wars.]
The British edition of Civil Wars, Rosellen Brown's third novel, has arrived peppered with transatlantic hyperbole. According to the blurb, it took five years to complete. (Coming from a publisher, is this a boast or a lament?) The cover proclaims its contents ‘skilful … passionate … fascinating … consistently absorbing … absolutely gripping … intricacies of perception … justness of language … a brave and fine work’. Can Vogue, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times and Ms Magazine all be right?
Yes, surprisingly, they can. There's enough here to exhaust anyone's supply of superlatives. Also enough to raise a wry smile at the honour accorded to the author by the media to whom her implicit challenge is in part addressed.
Teddy and Jessie Carll met as activists in the Civil Rights movement: he a local boy of redneck stock, a late convert to the godless principles of racial decency; she Jewish, raised in New York, a radical from the cradle. Fifteen years on, having survived assaults, imprisonment, hunger strikes and blacklisting, they still live in Jackson, Mississippi, in a nominally integrated neighbourhood where they and their children suffer harassment which he regards as random misfortune and she as racially motivated. The Klan is recruiting nearby and the stresses of ‘Plywood Barracks’ are compounded by the arrival of Teddy's orphaned niece and nephew, bearing the scars of bereavement and bigotry and horrified at finding themselves in a ‘nigger dump’.
The workings of ideology within individual lives; the imprinting of the young with prejudice that encompasses the gorge and the gut; the emotional cost of opposition and the moral price of surrender; the susceptibility of eloquent idealists to flattery and manipulation by corrupt professionals; the frustration of attempts at local government reform amid the age-old poverty and squalor of the deep South: all these are explored in an imaginative tour de force which is historically illuminating and yet carries no trace of documentary ‘faction’. Every gesture, every argument, every demonstration rings true. Tenderness and integrity are represented without sentimentality. It will be interesting to see whether the forthcoming film version emphasises the nature and significance of the political struggle or the personal shapes and sizes of the ex-combatants' defeat.
The momentous themes of the novel are pursued by mundane, unemphatic means. Playground fights, car journeys to visit relations, games, birthday parties, all the marginalia of domestic architecture, food, clothes, cleaning: these details which women commonly observe and which, in other fictional contexts, may appear trivial, are worth savouring here. The graceful energy of Brown's prose is such that the impulse to read fast, to get ahead with the action and catch up with the flashbacks, conflicts with the simultaneous desire to ponder each rewarding sentence.
Some Deaths in the Delta and Other Poems (poetry) 1970
Street Games: A Neighborhood (short stories) 1974
The Autobiography of My Mother (novel) 1976
Cora Fry (poetry) 1977
Tender Mercies (novel) 1978
Civil Wars (novel) 1984
Before and After (novel) 1992
A Rosellen Brown Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose (poetry, essays, and short stories) 1992
Cora Fry's Pillow Book (poetry) 1994
Half a Heart (novel) 2000
SOURCE: Walzer, Judith B. “After the Movement.” Dissent 32 (spring 1985): 244-46.
[In the following review, Walzer applauds Civil Wars's highlighting of disaffected civil rights “warriors” in modern, more complacent times. Walzer believes that Brown effectively chronicles their struggles and praises Brown for her attention to detail.]
In Civil Wars, Rosellen Brown has created a remarkable personal view of the long-term effect of the 1960s civil rights movement on two of its participants. Teddy Carll, a native Mississippian, and Jessie Singer, a “red-diaper baby” from New York, meet and marry in the movement. They settle in Mississippi, to live their lives, to work, raise children, and try to “keep the faith.”
This is not a favored or common subject in recent fiction. American politics, difficult in any case for novelists to get a handle on, has seemed especially elusive in its more radical forms. Even the civil rights movement, so full of public images of fellowship and actual accomplishment, has not yet provided us with art reflecting that political experience. There have been novels by both blacks and whites about the South and the social conditions that provided the grounds for the movement, but except for Alice Walker's attempts at mythmaking in Meridian, the movement has not been expressed through the imagination of writers who lived through it.
Did disillusion set in too quickly, once the first milestones of progress had been passed? Was the reality that young activists faced later on too complex and difficult for them to handle in life and in art? Certainly, the movement changed the face of America. But then for black Americans—as for all of us—it didn't change it nearly enough, leaving a society still fractured by racial inequality. Laws changed, as did political organizations, and blacks began to determine their own political course. But the movement as a movement did not sustain itself, and the dream of an integrated America in which all would be equal disappeared as a unifying political goal. The movement's elite troops retreated or disbanded, not knowing where or how to start new battles.
Rosellen Brown's novel tries to assess this retreat and its consequences (with some over-the-shoulder glances at the movement itself) and to confront what happens to political activists when the dust settles. Her task, as she has charted it for herself, is an unenviable one, for the downward progression—from heightened consciousness and moral excitement to the routines of daily life—is inevitable and might be dampening. How can one, after all, be expected to struggle to become an adult and construct a life, with only a past to imitate and nothing but disappointments in the present? The Carlls mean to hold fast to their political faith and experience, deciding to stay in Mississippi and live in a newly integrated neighborhood. But over the ensuing 15 years, the neighborhood becomes all black except for themselves, and their erstwhile comrades in integration make it abundantly clear that they are not wanted: “heavy breathers” call in the night, someone puts skewers in their son's bicycle tires and sugar in their gas tank. The neighbors want the house for “one of their own.”
The different ways in which Teddy and Jessie respond to the reality of the 1980s defines them as characters and shapes the central conflict of the novel. Teddy yearns for the political past, the ideas and the passion that swept him into action. A former hero, he cannot tolerate the indistinctness of the present. Jessie, on the other hand, is rooted in her present life, committed to its responsibilities and limits. She cannot yearn for a past when the present demands her attention, and she views with skepticism the possibilities for a radical politics of the kind they once knew.
The struggle between their views—between heroic ideals and dreams on one side and events of ordinary existence on the other—provides the substance of the novel. From the start Brown chooses sides so that the battle is not an equal one. The action of the novel appears through Jessie's acute and painful perceptions of the present and unsparing analysis of that heroic past from which Teddy cannot extricate himself.
The conflict between the Carlls—albeit a clear difference of political opinion—replicates a familiar construction of the “division of labor” in such conflicts: men are linked to abstraction and action, women to ordinary realities and the demands of personal life. To have set the argument of the novel in this mold was a risk. We might be tempted to dismiss the conflict as merely a domestic banality. The risk of losing Teddy as a character is greater still, for Brown does not flinch from his faults nor the way in which his illusions about political life determine his reluctance to face the world as it is. But Brown succeeds, I think, because of her powerful grasp of these lives and her imaginative reconstruction of the political wilderness in which they wander.
Into this “civil” (yet uncivil) war comes a family crisis as well as some political and natural disasters. The family crisis is precipitated by a tragic accident: Teddy's sister and brother-in-law die in an automobile crash and their two children (Helen 13, O'Neill 8) become the Carlls' responsibility as “next of kin.” The children's mother was at best a conventional Southern conservative totally opposed to Teddy's political beliefs and involvements. Their father, as revealed through his daughter's memories, was a fanatical racist and a brutally destructive man.
The daughter's memories and reflections on the strange world she has entered (as she is nearing a breakdown and a suicide attempt) are interpolated in the text of the novel as her diary. Brown again takes risks here—this time artistic and psychological ones—not only with the interior monologue of the diary itself, its repetitiveness and desperate confusions, but with her effort to reproduce the texture of early adolescence and its capacity for extremes of self-dramatization. Again, I think the risk pays off. She is able to be particularly attentive, as Jessie herself is, to the children in the novel and captures their perspectives.
Characteristically, Jessie deals with these two children, trying to make them part of the family (the Carlls have two children of their own), trying to understand—though not always effectively—the reality of their loss. Teddy tries to escape into sporadic, futile, and sometimes dangerous political activities and into nostalgic self-indulgence, thereby widening the rift in the family. When Helen is lost in the natural disaster of the story (a spring flood that nearly drowns the new, white suburb into which they've finally moved), her diary is found. After Teddy reads it, he responds:
Do you know what Helen's always made me want to do? … I want to pinch her arm when she's sitting there picking at her food the way she does. That's a diabolical thing to say but I want to pinch her till she screams. She's one of those empty Southern girls I grew up with … she's voiceless like a little cutout doll or something, and all I can think to do is hit her or pull her hair or make her react somehow. …
Jessie recoils from Teddy's view of Helen and his focus on himself. “She's a child and you're not a child,” she snaps, “You're responsible for your thoughts and actions in a way she just isn't prepared to be.” From his perspective, Jessie's view is finally too hard on him and too determined to do right in each small instance. In the final scene of the novel, after they find Helen and the family is ostensibly reunited, Jessie thinks of her own feelings: “Damn. She was going to bring them all pain.” It is clear that all that has been broken in understanding and sympathy between the Carlls is unlikely to be mended.
In its way the novel is a difficult one, but not because of anything it tries to say. It is simply the kind of fiction that relies on the cumulative weight and effect of ordinary detail, meticulously observed, with great psychological precision. Brown is painstaking with the subject and fearless, even ruthlessly so, with the conflict between her two main characters. What the novel does not offer us—granted Jessie's critical view of Teddy's politics—is any direct sense of what a more authentic politics might be like and where, in this case, the civil rights movement might have gone in the '70s. There are some hints. In an argument about black activism with a friend (a black woman lawyer who continues the struggle in her daily job), Teddy is accused of not being able to adapt to the long struggle, the beginning: “Of something you can't deal with, Teddy love. Of a long quiet time and unflamboyant action and behind-the-scenes tinkering, and that isn't visible enough for you.” Similarly, as Jessie reflects on her own on the question of public and private life, she thinks:
It was time that did it all, they floated in it, in its solution, and everything disintegrated slowly as if it were water. There was public time—at a sufficient distance it was called history—and there was private time that beat like a small hot heart inside the body of that history. All those fluttering, failing hearts, trying only to sustain one body at a time. You couldn't escape the public part, you were in it and it in you—like DDT in an apple, maybe, part of each cell as it grew. … But you could escape the private, apparently: Teddy could by vanishing. …
The reader hopes there is a connection between these views—that it is possible to undertake the long-term struggle, that “long quiet time and unflamboyant action,” even as one realizes the tensions between the public and the private parts of history. But what the solution to the problem is—the problem of reconciling political struggles with the intensity of personal life and its perspective on history—is not part of the story that Brown has written. We only know that the solution, in her terms, has to be reached without denying the ties that bind us to the real world and our perceptions of it. It must be reached through a more complete sense of responsibility to who we are and what we see, rather than by turning away from those basic facts of life to a series of abstractions and artifices.
Brown's view is implicitly antiromantic, and in some sense anti-ideological, but not of necessity inimical to politics. It is the politics of revolutionary gestures, inappropriate and outworn, that Brown is radically critical of. If this critical view is sometimes disturbing, it is also convincing. It points toward realism and authenticity as the indispensable core of any movement for social change.
SOURCE: Simon, Linda. Review of Civil Wars, by Rosellen Brown. Prairie Schooner 59, no. 2 (summer 1985): 113-15.
[In the following review, Simon compliments Brown's adeptness with description and characterization in Civil Wars, but argues that the subplots occasionally clash with the main story line.]
When we meet him in the late 1970s [in Civil Wars], Teddy Carll is a has-been: he was once a charismatic civil rights activist, a leader, a daring strategist, a man engaged in an urgent struggle. Now he is a travelling salesman for an educational book company, husband to his former comrade Jessie (they spent their honeymoon in jail), father of two; and he is itching for a fight. Teddy left his heart and soul in the sixties. He longs to be at the barricades, but there are none—not on his route to small colleges throughout Mississippi, not in the crumbling neighborhood where the Carlls are the only white family in what was once a pioneering example of integration. He nearly died in a civil rights struggle, after rednecks forced his car off a road, came so close to death that he was not so much healed as resurrected; and so it was in the sixties that he felt acutely alive. Now, a decade or more later, his spirit is dying.
Teddy, as a type, presents an interesting problem. “That is one man,” one of Jessie's friends tells her, “that got a hard-on for the truth if I ever saw one. I always thought he could make a hellfire preacher that could raise the dead and get 'em to apologize for the sins that killed 'em.” In contrasting him with Jessie, who recognizes that the movement, as they knew it, has ended, and who wants to concentrate on new realities—her children, her future—Rosellen Brown continues the probing that she began in The Autobiography of My Mother: questioning the effectiveness of political engagement, questioning the motivations of those more interested in humanity in general than in the few particular specimens who live with them. But Teddy, as a character in this novel, emerges as little more than a cipher, a spokesman for sixties ideology, an enlightened white southerner, a foil for his wife. He remains elusive throughout, a composite portrait of leftover radicals.
Civil Wars is Jessie's story. Her father was a communist who had been forced to leave his wife and daughter in the 1950s and go underground. When he returned, he found that his wife had become a thriving bourgeoise matron and that the issues he had confronted in the thirties were no longer drawing a crowd. Jessie, a socially conscious New York Jew, took up his fight, joining black literacy and voting projects, where she met the irresistible Teddy Carll. Married and a mother, she teaches third grade at an alternative school in Mississippi, and watches as her husband grows increasingly remote and disaffected. She wants to move—to leave her former life as it is reflected in their seedy house—but Teddy refuses; he sees their presence in the neighborhood as his last protest for what he believes.
The novel centers on a crisis: Teddy's bigoted sister and her husband are killed in an automobile crash. Their will names the Carlls as guardians of their two children—Helen, thirteen, and O'Neill, a feisty eight year old. The children are transplanted from their sumptuous Birmingham home to the Carll's shabby residence in Jackson. They bring with them boxes of possessions and their own solid set of values. This crisis, contrived as it may seem, forces Jessie to confront her own values, and, at the same time, to see Teddy for what he really is. Jessie perseveres in trying to integrate Helen and O'Neill into her family; Teddy deserts the family for a civil rights issue in the tiny village of Mourning Dove.
Brown's long narrative at times is wider than deep, as she weaves sub-plots that expand but don't intensify the theme. Jessie's father, suffering from terminal frustration, conceives of a ludicrous “separation” from the wife whose values he rejects. The dead couple, Roger and Alexis Tyson, were, it seems, near divorce. Roger was having an affair with a neighbor. He beat his wife, abused his children. This information comes to us, mid-book, from a letter Jessie receives (unexpectedly, and awkwardly for the narrative) from a do-gooder, and finally from Helen's on-going diary, adolescent revelations about her troubled past and struggle to make sense of her new life. But Jessie's father and the Tysons are so superficially wrought, and their tales so summarily aborted, that they do not help us to understand Jessie, Teddy, or their relationship. Jessie's passivity, her patience, her long-suffering support of her husband would be better comprehended if Teddy were allowed more room. But he is crowded out by insistent children, friends, and minor characters. We don't really know him, this man so full of compassion for the downtrodden and so contemptuous of his suffering niece; so quick to strike out against injustice, so thoughtless toward his wife. Jessie reacts slowly, as if wading through water. Perhaps she is, emotionally, and the flood that ends the book becomes a catharsis and catalyst, finally freeing her to act in controlling her life.
Rosellen Brown is a sensitive and often masterful writer. She can portray a character by the inflection of a phrase or the description of a hand, a foot, the pressure of a light touch. Her portraits of Andréa, a savvy black lawyer; of Lurene, the Tyson's stolid maid (“Her feet, out of those shoes, spread like fungi, Chinese black mushrooms, or—what were they?—the ears, splotch shaped, flattening in every direction to be free”); of Varona, the mayor of a decaying town; of the demanding, aristocratic matriarch Dorothea Carll—all these are immaculate and palpable. (Brown creates characters best when she creates them lovingly, and she clearly doesn't love the unfortunate Teddy Carll.) And the issues here are important: where does one go from the intensity of life and death struggles? How, as they used to say, does one stay part of the solution, so as not to become part of the problem? Despite some shortcomings, Civil Wars is a passionate testimony of our recent history, and a strong and memorable book.
Brown, Rosellen, and Judith Pierce Rosenberg. “PW Interviews: Rosellen Brown.” Publishers Weekly 239, no. 39 (31 August 1992): 54-5.
Brown discusses her life and writing career.
Lee, Don. “About Rosellen Brown.” Ploughshares 20, nos. 2-3 (fall 1994): 235-40.
Lee presents a biography of Brown and includes a brief synopsis of her major works.
Allen, Bruce. “Tense Novel of Residual Idealism, Racism.” Christian Science Monitor 77, no. 185 (15 August 1985): 22.
Allen offers a positive assessment of Civil Wars.
Brown, Rosellen, and Melissa Walker. “An Interview with Rosellen Brown.” Contemporary Literature 27, no. 2 (summer 1986): 144-59.
Brown discusses the profession of writing and answers questions about her novel Civil Wars.
D'Erasmo, Stacey. “Home Fires.” Nation 255, no. 9 (28 September 1992): 333-35.
D'Erasmo assesses the strengths and weaknesses of Street Games, A Rosellen Brown Reader, and Before and After.
Dunford, Judith. “Realms of Wrong and Right.” Chicago Tribune Books (6 September 1992): 1, 6.
Dunford commends Brown's eye for detail and narrative abilities in Before and After.
Fried, Kerry. “Criminal Elements.” New York Review of Books 40, no. 3 (14 January 1993): 36-7.
Fried offer a mixed assessment of Before and After.
Additional coverage of Brown's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 10; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 14, 44, 98; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 32; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; and Literature Resource Center.
SOURCE: Wolk, Merla. “Uncivil Wars: The Reproduction of Mother-Daughter Conflict and Rosellen Brown's Autobiography of My Mother.” American Imago 45, no. 2 (summer 1988): 163-85.
[In the following essay, Wolk examines the emotional and behavioral dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship in Brown's The Autobiography of My Mother, using Nancy Chodorow's study The Reproduction of Mothering as a reference guide.]
The studies of recent feminist psychoanalytic theorists and the fiction of contemporary female writers reveal a common interest in mother-daughter relationships, each demonstrating in its own fashion the centrality of that relationship to the development of female identity. To examine the novels in light of the theory (or vice versa) is to gain greater appreciation of the dynamics of mother-daughter conflict. The most extensive theoretical work on this subject is that of Nancy Chodorow who, in The Reproduction of Mothering, explores the effects of the mother-daughter dyad on female development, seeing its strengths in the fostering of an empathic feminine nature and ascribing its inevitable conflicts to matters of identification and boundary confusion.1 Chodorow argues that females commonly experience difficulty negotiating the requisite developmental tasks of separation and individuation (pp. 95-104). Because a girl “does not give up the preoedipal relationship [with the mother] completely, but rather builds whatever happens later upon the preoedipal base” (p. 115), an intense interaction between mother and daughter results, one that can interfere with the child's psychic maturation. Chodorow finds that females are more apt than males to establish strong attachments, but they are also more apt to suffer threats to their essential sense of separateness and remain persons in whose psychic lives the mother is the dominant figure.
In light of Chodorow's findings concerning the centrality of the mother-daughter relationship to the establishment of female identity, it is not surprising to note the frequency with which this relationship becomes a pivotal issue in fiction by women. This occurrence is especially common in first novels where, it can be argued, as in the first analytic session, concerns of the greatest psychic urgency dominate. Joan Chase's During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, Susannah Moore's My Old Sweetheart, Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, Janet Kaufman's Collaborators, and Rosellen Brown's Autobiography of My Mother are just a few of the outstanding current texts that examine the mother-daughter dynamic.
I propose to analyze Rosellen Brown's treatment of this dynamic framed through my reading of Chodorow, and by this means to suggest that Brown's extreme example of mother-daughter interaction can serve as a model of the separation conflicts that inform the common struggles of mothers and daughters in our culture, which may differ in degree but not kind. In Autobiography of My Mother, Brown dramatizes the underside of Chodorow's theories: the novelist's comment that “bad mothers make bad daughters make bad mothers” represents a negative version of Chodorow's theory of the reproduction of women's mothering.2 Chodorow's thesis is that “women, as mothers, produce daughters with mothering capacities and the desire to mother,” (p. 7) Brown's, that women who are unfit or unready to mother also reproduce themselves cyclically. As my discussion will show, the novel places the responsibility for one generation's maternal failure upon the last, ad infinitum. The mothers Brown depicts cannot fail to fail their children because the demands of the small, dependent child and the requirements of the mother are unavoidably at odds. Caught up with ambition, with sex, with their own unmet needs, these women are emotionally and psychically unable to consider the needs of the vulnerable child. As Chodorow indicates, even in the best of mother-daughter relationships, the daughter's attempt to create a self, independent from and competitive with the mother, is a source of tension; in disturbed families, such as the one Brown characterizes, efforts to separate intensify and rule the relationship.
Accordingly, I will argue that conflicts over separation rule Brown's novel, serving as the common denominator underlying all of the text's concerns. I will demonstrate that these conflicts orchestrate the terrible struggle between Gerda Stein, the hard-working, goal-oriented, civil rights lawyer and withholding mother who is most comfortable at a distance from everything but ideas, and her daughter, Renata, the quintessential flower child, who uses every strategy to remain attached. Next I will examine the network of imagery that locates this struggle psychically in the preoedipal world of mother and child where infant rage and fear of the phallic mother, on one hand, and maternal panic and frustration, on the other, shape action and response. I will then discuss Brown's treatment of the social and political scene, demonstrating that the acting out of separation conflicts is not confined to the relations between mother and child but influences social and political gestures in the larger world as well.3 Finally, I will argue that Brown's depiction of her characters' dilemmas carries the additional symbolic burden of suggesting the implications of these conflicts for the writer of fiction.
Brown draws an essentially female domain in which men function peripherally, serving merely to father children; they then disappear, are dispensed with, or ignored. Gerda's conclusion, that “one did not need a father or husband” (p. 104), describes the prevailing circumstances. Refuting the stereotype of female softness, this matriarchal world is harsh and sharp-edged, located appropriately in that harshest of cities—Manhattan in the 1970's. Brown tells the story of three generations of females. Gerda Stein, the grandmother, is a heroic, almost mythic figure to the public. A brilliant and logical defender of human rights, she places her faith in the exercise of will and in the necessity of control; her daughter calls her “the rationalist of the century” (p. 21). For Gerda, the unpardonable sin is to make the same mistake twice. Challenging her every belief is her daughter who has made a “profession of being unacceptable” (p. 269). Renata is as governed by feeling as her mother is by thought. A “spectacular weeper; incontinent of sorrow,” (p. 106) her feeling finds its customary form in self-pity. She claims as her own all the territory her mother has renounced: confusion, irresponsibility, indolence, failure, sensuality. Caught between the warring Gerda and Renata is Renata's small daughter, Tippy, whose tragic death symbolically underscores the fatal consequences of mother-daughter conflict. The irreconcilable differences between the older mother and daughter are suggested in the alternating first person narratives in which each judges the other without a hint of affection. These separate, competing versions of events only partly convey, however, the failure in this relationship; equally telling is Renata's inability to separate from her mother, a condition signaled in the title's suggestion that the story of her mother's life is the story of her own.
Despite the appearance of a relationship that is emotionally, philosophically, and for a period of eight years, geographically, distant, Gerda and Renata are locked into a symbiotic strangle hold. The diametrical extremes of their values and interests indicate not the daughter's indifference to her mother, but rather an obsession with her parent that takes the form of an all-encompassing disdain. As this discussion shall demonstrate, Renata exhibits an excessive emotional involvement with her mother characterized by choices of action that are first and foremost oppositional. This need to establish an identity in the negative image of her mother's reveals a dependency every bit as inhibiting to the creation of a separate self as a specific modeling might. Paradoxically, then, Renata's “negative identification”4 recapitulates her infant experience in which her model of mother-daughter connection was mother-daughter alienation. Her actions, reproducing the dynamic of her infancy, are consistent with a psychic strategy that allows a child to feel as if she is severing the close bond between herself and her mother while preserving it. Gerda's rejection of her daughter perversely ties her unsatisfied child to her.
That Renata at twenty-nine is long past the chronological age at which such strategies are most commonly used is an indication of her psychological immaturity. Renata's obsession with her mother leaves her little time for anything of her own, least of all to be a “good enough” mother to her daughter, Tippy. Because Renata's relationship with her own mother has been so unsatisfactory, she is stuck in her childhood, unable to be a mother because she is still too much the daughter. Gerda recognizes the preoedipal nature of the relationship, remarking: “It is unnatural for a young woman like you to care so much what your mother thinks. It is worse if you ask me, than giving over your autonomy to a man, it is more immature” (p. 249). A consequence of Renata's obsession is an arrested symbiosis in which mother and daughter are “sharing a life,” a double tenancy that leaves Renata the loser, her life empty. In language that images symbiosis, Gerda reflects: “I had not known we were to share but one life between us, so that the fuller mine is, the more empty hers” (pp. 166-67).
Brown's is essentially a deterministic vision, a point of view echoed by Gerda, who asserts: “there are no accidents” (p. 225). Thus, the details of the novel offer the cause and effect of the characters' lives and of their way of relating to the world. An exile from Europe as a young girl, Gerda's personality is shaped by the battle for survival in an anti-semitic environment. Gerda, who becomes an insufficient mother, is herself insufficiently mothered. Her father is a weak man who cannot protect his family, leaving the responsibility to her “joyless” mother. Her brief marriage to an actor, an experience that convinces her of her hatred of being controlled by the body, brings her the unwelcome Renata. Ideas are what excite Gerda's passion, fostering a devotion to principle and to the abstract. Ever the adversary, Gerda insures her distance from everyone through the alienating effects of her biting tongue. Only her work receives her total commitment. Brown suggests the totality of Gerda's preoccupation with her work by using images that indicate it satisfies all appetites, supplanting eating and sex: her “dining room table sunk under papers, never used to eat on” (p. 62) and her “office door,” analogized to the “bedroom door,” shutting out her daughter “knocking for admission” (p. 110).
In contrast to the barriers Gerda constructs between herself and others, Renata wants only to merge, particularly with men. Her history records one sexual relationship after another, often with total strangers. Promiscuity can represent an attempt to find the lost oneness with the mother in sex.5 In Renata's instance, her choice of the lover who is a stranger replicates “intimacy” with the mother who was a stranger.
Renata's difficulties resolving separation issues find representation in her frequent failure to distinguish between self and other. She breaks one of the essential tenets of her mother's faith when she identifies so strongly with the suffering of their housekeeper, Catalina, who has lost her son, Alejandro, through the incompetence and indifference of the nurses and doctors treating him for a simple appendectomy, that she seems more distraught than Catalina herself. “One must never confuse one's own outsider's sorrow with that of the protagonist,” (p. 108) Gerda cautions her daughter when she refuses to take on Catalina's case because she sees no way of winning it. This exchange between Renata and her mother is paradigmatic of the power plays in this mother-child dynamic. Renata's fury at Alejandro's death seems to derive from her identification with one who suffered the neglect of symbolic stand-ins for the mother. Gerda's refusal of her daughter's request to redress the grievances of the dead child, though supported by reason, seems unnecessarily spiteful, perversely frustrating the already inflamed Renata. Gerda's gesture ties the symbiotic knot even tighter as it inevitably inspires the daughter's rage.6
When the unfulfilled needs of childhood control adult life, serious regression occurs. Renata sees her adult self as a child, with “baby-blond hair … and no character lines on [her] face” (p. 21). Beyond adolescence, she clings to adolescent behavior, willing to sacrifice her own best interests to her rebellion against her mother. She repeatedly fails in college, substituting sex for study. When she abruptly leaves home, disappearing from her mother's life for eight years, her report card of E's and F's serves as the sole parting note to her mother. That Renata's self-destructiveness is tied up with her mother is evident in her refusal to pursue an interest in the only subject in college to which she is naturally drawn, botany, because she fears becoming a botanist might turn her into a severe, academic type, perhaps her “own mother” (p. 195). Instead, she conducts one meaningless affair after another: Tippy is the product of one of them. On her equally abrupt return to her mother, she envisions a reconciliation that she frames in terms of a child's longing: to “wake up in [her] mother's bed” and find a mother who would rearrange her life to make up for what they had “missed when [she] was little” (p. 33). From that time, at the start of the novel, when Renata returns to her mother's home, until novel's end, when Gerda decides to try to fight for custody of Tippy, Renata slowly regresses, acting out a version of a return to the womb. She barely leaves the house, frequently does not get out of bed, and goes through long periods in which she refuses to speak to her mother.
The strategy of silence which Renata finally chooses as a weapon against her mother is not one she characterizes as regressive, claiming instead that the refusal to speak makes her feel like an “aggressor” (p. 219). Her strategy develops out of a frustrated attempt to compete with the powerful mother figure. Competition between mother and daughter is a potent subject in this novel as it is generally because it is an inevitable element of the separation process. Psychoanalytically, competition is commonly discussed in terms of oedipal rivalry, but the issue has unmistakable significance for mothers and daughters without the presence of the male, as Brown's novel confirms. Thus, a brief digression is necessary to define terms and provide context.7
Becoming one's own self is an achievement a daughter wrests out of the dual experience of continuity with the mother and of difference from her (Chodorow, p. 67). The proportions of each are relative to individual experience. The easier it is for the daughter to establish an individual sense of self, the more that the self can tolerate continuity with the mother. The harder the process, the more that difference must be emphasized. In the establishment of difference competition becomes an issue. It inheres in the standards applied to evaluate that difference and in the wish to best the mother. Competition first appears at the juncture of symbiosis and separation, since competition can only exist when two people are at least minimally aware of their separateness.8 What make this such an emotionally loaded issue for the daughter is that competition with the mother is symbolically aggression against the life source, a prospect experienced as potentially self-destructive. Further, competition between mother and daughter is inescapably an unequal match since the mother always has the psychic advantage of having been the omnipotent caretaker of the helpless infant.9 Yet despite the difficulties, the daughter must compete with the mother, at least in some measure, in order to shape a self. This situation initiates contests that exist just for the sake of contest itself, or tugs-of-war over whose version of the child's life shall prevail—the mother's or the daughter's.10 The daughter's dilemma is that she can avoid competition with the mother only if she mirrors her faithfully, but then there is no separation and no autonomy.11 Or she can highlight her differences with her mother, but then she risks antagonizing her, inciting her mother's competitive instincts. The mother's dilemma is that if she encourages compliance, she bolsters her own ego at the expense of her daughter's. If she sponsors difference, she threatens her own carefully constructed sense of self, a threat that carries intimations of her own death. These issues inform the see-saw struggle of Gerda and Renata.
Winning the mother's approval without duplicating her is the issue raised in a crucial scene in Autobiography. Gerda and Renata are guests on a television show called “Confrontations,” the topic of this particular broadcast, the relations between famous parents and their children. Three pairs of guests are interviewed: a father and son who are biologists working together; a mother and daughter, both dancers; and Gerda and Renata. The first two pairs claim to have achieved ideal relationships. Father and son, mother and daughter testify that common goals assure great mutual satisfaction. Renata is skeptical. The young biologist is asked what Renata terms “the question that could justify a suicide”: “how do you manage not to feel—competitive—with your father?” (p. 218). Renata disregards the son's platitudes about the rewards of seeking higher truth together and notes instead a physical manifestation of disturbance, his “incessant blink.” Similarly, Renata looks for the subtext in the young dancer's reply, finding a sign of immaturity evident in her “junior high voice” (p. 217). When the television host of this live program turns to Renata, she eschews the “banalities” of the others, remaining silent, at first without obvious conscious intention, and then with delight at the discomfort she is causing. Humiliated, Gerda tells Renata that her choice of such tactics will make her forever a “victim,” (p. 218) but Renata feels “elated,” a “survivor” (p. 219) with a “fine shelter to go to” (p. 218). They are both right, and the contradiction outlines the dilemma.
Renata's silence, a strategy continued after the television program, gives her a sense of power she has not experienced before. Hitherto the continual loser in the competition with her mother, her frustration leads her to this pathetic ploy of declaring separation by breaking the connections of language.12 She achieves, however, no real gain. Positions simply reverse. Instead of the necessary separation, Renata finds another form of attachment, again reinforcing bonds by negative action. Renata's silence puts her in the role of the withholding mother and creates in her mother feelings of helplessness. The silence infantilizes Gerda. Like an abandoned child, she feels “erased,” “obliterated,” an “empty panic,” and recognizes in these feelings intimations of “death” (p. 223). And, like a child, she bids for attention, cutting herself with a knife and demanding Renata's care. Reduced to overwhelming feelings of self-pity, she realizes she has become “like [her] daughter” (p. 223). Early in the novel, Renata tells her mother the story of a friend's baby who had been given no name “and must be named anew by everyone who ‘relates’ to her” (p. 42). Caustically, Gerda wonders if “no one ‘relates’ does she then cease to exist” (p. 43). Later, when Renata stops “relating” to her mother, Gerda questions, not with sarcasm this time, but with desperation: “Why must she answer me to make me feel I am truly here?” (p. 224). Brown draws this struggle between an adult mother and daughter by emphasizing its infantile elements. But this is an infant's war fought with adult weapons, and Gerda swears that Renata “shall regret such a victory” (p. 221).
The ultimate competitive battle in this novel is fought over who will mother Tippy. Gerda, convinced that Renata's actions are pathological, decides to sue for custody of her grandchild. That the competitive struggle natural to mother and daughter, exploded here to unnatural proportions in the face of unresolved conflict, climaxes over who should mother, strikes a note of symbolic perversity. Yet in choosing this ground for battle, Brown can underscore the paradoxical complexities of mother-daughter relations: in the attempt to mother Tippy, Gerda seeks both remedy for her maternal failure and a continuation of it. Gerda, in loving Tippy, can by demonstrating her capacity for nurturance mitigate in her own mind at least her responsibility for failing Renata, but, in loving Tippy, she exacerbates the struggle with Renata who now feels excluded from the intimacy between her mother and her daughter. Through the symbolism of Tippy's death, Brown makes it clear that an internecine war between mother and daughter inescapably victimizes the next generation.
As if to demonstrate that the particular interaction between Renata and Gerda is not singular in its antagonism, Brown makes the implied setting of her novel a preoedipal world where all of the conflicts can be seen to derive from the early transaction between mother and child. Each relationship in the novel operates on some level as a parent-child dyad. In addition to the literal mother-child relationships—Gerda/Renata, Renata/Tippy, Catalina and her several children—Gerda and Renata function as mother or child in relation to many others: Gerda is “grandma” (p. 14) to her client, “mother superior” (p. 227) to her junior law partner. Renata's lovers are unusually “boyish” (p. 227) or act like a “kind father” (71). Even Gerda's erstwhile husband sees his wife as his mother, the “Gertrude” (p. 186) to his Hamlet. His farewell gesture to his wife, in the hospital after Renata's birth, exacts Gerda's horror: “seeing [Gerda's] nightgown wet with huge blooming flowers of milk he … put his pink soft mouth to [her] dark and swollen nipple” (p. 184) and nurses.
In this context the violent emotions with which Brown infuses both imagery and event have special significance. Chodorow and others posit a theory of the infant's rage towards the mother, arguing that it is an inescapable element in a situation in which the child feels helpless and the mother is perceived as omnipotent.13 Equally inevitable, the mother feels threatened by the burden imposed by her ever-demanding infant in the face of her own competing demands for self-gratification. What is “reproduced” in Chodorow's terms is a cycle of rage that is the underside of the harmony of symbiosis. Though this fantasied cycle of aggression is common to infant-mother relations regardless of the gender of the child, the heightened ambivalence of the attachment between mother and daughter intensifies and complicates the aggressive cycle. (Chodorow, 92-104)
Brown's characterization of the mother-daughter dynamic demonstrates her recognition of the anger that colors even its earliest exchange. In each stage of the relationship she dramatizes, fear and rage are the dominant feelings, while power plays and bitter competition the predictable results. Imagined bodily assault inaugurates the interaction between the mother and her daughter in Brown's novel. Renata remembers a “punishment begun in labor” (p. 21) that threatened to “smash [her] to smithereens” (p. 22). She recalls giving birth as “pain,” and “all that blood between my legs from a would that would never close” (p. 27).14 Caring for small child is imaged as a battle: the mother impatient and irritable, the child fierce, each demanding to be gratified.15 Brown uses the feisty Tippy to exemplify the small child's anger, depicting the terrible “fury” (p. 252) that surfaces when she kicks and then kisses—a kiss that is “hard” (p. 252) with teeth in it. She casts Gerda as the “big mother” (p. 209), a term evocative of the omnipotent mother of symbiosis. Making Gerda especially threatening is the degree of power Brown invests in her imagistically. She describes Gerda as the phallic mother, containing both male and female—that “ballsy lady” (p. 34) who resembles the leader Golda Meir: Renata imagines she has her own kind of “superior prick” (p. 211). Chodorow's remark that many psychoanalytic theorists refer to the preoedipal mother as a phallic mother as a “way of talking about power” (p. 122) corresponds to the implications of the figure in this text.
In several instances in the novel, the phallic imagery connects Gerda's terrifying maternal power to that of the orally incorporating mother of symbiotic fantasy. In one particularly graphic scene, Gerda breaches her carefully constructed distance between self and other. For all her disdain of her daughter's modus operandi, it is a breach of which she is most proud. This event occurs when she is down South, active in the civil rights movement of the sixties. A young black boy whose amiability has recommended him as the one to desegregate a highschool is hit by a car and beaten the day before he is to try to break that barrier. When the white doctor, responding with calculated slowness to an emergency call, arrives, Rosie Jo has bled to death. But, significantly, it is the doctor's indifference to the feelings of the bereaved mother that outrages Gerda to the point that, forgetting her own dictum against becoming “overidentified” with the real sufferer, she bites the doctor's throat, tasting “real flesh” (p. 117) in her mouth. Here her oral fury results in a kind of castration: the part of the neck that she bites is “the Adam's apple,” that uniquely male feature of “tender and private flesh … always hidden like the scrotum” (p. 117).
The scene images the big mother as potential castrator, a suggestion that has a central place in the fantasies operating in Autobiography. Gerda's attack on the doctor is not the only instance in which Brown suggests the mother's capacity for castration. Gerda's brother Addie is maimed for life, his sexual organs rendered “the most useless part of himself” (p. 103) in a fight with an anti-semite who taunts him with the accusation that “Yid mothers circumcise their babies with their teeth” (p. 99). What is the significance, we must ask, of the fantasy of the castrating mother in a novel in which the principal concern is the mother's relationship to her daughter and the daughter's inability to separate? The answer forces us to consider the familiar controversy between the feminists and the Freudians about the issue of female castration.
The Freudian formulation suggests that if the mutilation of castration could happen to one who has a penis, one can conclude syllogistically that the mother has already castrated the girl. And, in fact, the net effect of the image patterns in the novel confirms the existence of this fantasy of the mother's oral castration of her female child, and concomitantly, the favored status of the male child. Feminists have hotly contested the credibility of Freud's and many of his followers' theories of female castration, especially the unsubtle corollaries of female inferiority and penis envy, but these ideas have undeniable metaphoric validity in a patriarchal society in which, in Rosellen Brown's words, females are “valued at half price” (p. 92). Chodorow, emphasizing the symbolic significance of penis envy in our culture (p. 123), provides an alternative reading of its implications. She theorizes that penis envy has a useful function for females who must deal with the difficult separation process common to the mother-daughter dyad. Given the great ease with which the male child separates from the mother, she argues, females, in recognizing the penis as the symbol of difference from the mother, covet that which might facilitate separation (p. 123).16
Thus the fantasy of castration as it operates in Brown's novel becomes an objective correlative for the female child's impotence to separate from the powerful mother and thus to achieve a complete, inviolate sense of self. Accordingly, as I have noted, the daughter's powerlessness to become her own person is an issue central to Autobiography. And, underscoring Chodorow's comments about the psychically salutary effects of having a penis, the imagined value of being male has a place in this text. The impotent Renata, enervated to a point where she barely functions, immobilized by self-destructive tendencies, has, says her mother, “spent a lifetime despising some imaginary brother whom I have loved more” (p. 158). Renata, in turn, realizes that her helplessness has serious ramifications for Tippy. Lamenting the limitations of gender she worries she is making Tippy into a “fucking little nurse … when she needs to be a soldier to get through” (p. 212).17
The daughter's frustration at her impotence culminates in a scene of revenge set in a women's prison where Gerda has gone to listen to the complaints of the women inmates responsible for a riot. The scene suggests imagistically a confrontation between mother and daughter regarding failure to respect the integrity of individual boundaries symbolized in the fantasy of castration. The female inmates' “one true grievance … one true grief” is the violation of their bodies in a routine search for weapons that includes a degrading vaginal search. When Gerda comes to talk to them, the riot has been subdued, but a liberal warden wants to give them the opportunity to air their grievances and perhaps obtain some concessions. Brown presents the scene as if it were, in fact, a match of unequal strength as in the case of parent and child. The police guarding the rebellious inmates are relaxed, unthreatened. The warden perceives the inmates as “little children … testing … limits all the time” (p. 48). Gerda meets these angry, powerless women in a room free of all prison authorities. At first they tell her of their minor complaints. Gerda notes that “the true rage is not to be approached, and so the symptoms dribble out” (p. 51). Then, suddenly, they attack her, lay her down—Gerda wonders “am I to be raped or murdered” (p. 53)—and one of them reenacts on Gerda the hated search to which they have been subject. Brown presents Gerda's experience in terms that suggest a retaliatory castration. Gerda feels the “pain of flesh tearing, collapsing inward,” and she sees the wrist of one of these women like “a tree limb protruding” from her (p. 53). The women want from her a “shared anger” (p. 55), but Gerda tells them that she must remain impersonal, like a “surgeon” (p. 56), an image that connects her to the castrator. Gerda exhibits the control she thinks is required of her, trying to ignore the grinding in her stomach, a result of her attack. She imagines this grinding, in language that suggests a child's involvement in the abuse, to feel like “baby teeth” (p. 56) working away at her.
In life and in the imaginary life of this novel, the cycle of often unconscious rage, played out in the personal communication between mother and child, also finds expression in the social scene they both inhabit. Brown creates a social context as violent and disruptive as the familial relations. As in her third novel, Civil Wars, she demonstrates a correspondence between individual and societal concerns, using family discord as a model for social unrest. Anger and aggression infuse both arenas. Furthermore, the styles of relatedness found in the mother who builds barriers and the daughter who wants to break them down have their counterparts in responses to political and social issues. Part of Gerda's and Renata's generational conflict positions them on opposite sides of a philosophical clash that has its roots in separation concerns.
Carol Gilligan, in her illuminating study of the impact of matters relating to separation on the development of ethical systems, argues that concerns for justice, “the capacity for autonomous thinking, clear decision-making, and responsible action” reflect a strong need for separation.18 These qualities describe the political philosophy of Gerda Stein. Gerda posits great faith in the character-building effects of hard work and independence. In an impassioned argument with her social worker friend, Anna-Joyce, she stoutly defends her approach to social action: she believes in “absolute objectivity” (p. 161) and “respect[s] consistency and a passionate rigor” (p. 149). Anna-Joyce finds Gerda a “stern moralist” and, in her capacity as an interim judge in children's court, one whose strict principles make her “less than humane” (p. 160). Through her frequent mention of Gerda's great reputation as a fighter for justice, Brown suggests that positive value can inhere in such an approach. But the examples of Gerda's work that Brown chooses to dramatize are those that reveal the limitations of Gerda's style. Gerda is apt to make too stringent a separation between the observer and the sufferer and to divorce ideas from their human consequences.
For example, her aid to her client, the unfortunate Tavistock, demonstrates a triumph of principle over person. He is a seriously ill mental patient, whose right to live away from the mental hospital that is his only hope for protection from his suicidal instincts Gerda champions successfully. In focusing only on the abstract issue involved and ignoring the personal considerations even though she is wise enough to recognize them, Gerda evinces the effects of a strict observance of the demands of separation. That Gerda's interaction with Tavistock has a connection to her commerce with her daughter is evident in his claim of kinship, he calls her “grandma” (p. 14), and in a correspondance between his and Renata's relations to this mother figure. Gerda takes Tavistock to the dilapidated hotel which her defense of his civil rights has made his home. When, nervous and queasy, he throws up the contents of his stomach “full of mashed potatoes thrashed about by a beaker of Thorazine … over the [stair] landing, he does not yet know where the bathroom is,” (14) she turns from him and flees. Less than twenty pages later, Renata, waiting in her mother's outer office to see her mother for the first time after her long absence, also nervous and queasy, wants to go “kneel beside the toilet and evacuate the contents of [her] entire life” (32). An officious secretary informs her that the “washroom is reserved for employees and invited guests,” so she runs and crouches in “the gray stone fire stairwell” (32). These analogous scenes suggest that despite a theoretical belief in the “defense of the indefensible” (p. 39), Gerda's political stance correlates with her mothering style; she is at once well-intentioned and the withholding mother who turns her back on her child's retching.
Conversely, Renata embodies the politics of merger. She shares with her generation a longing for a universal oneness, an idea that carries psychic intimations of a desire to return to the womb. Her promiscuity, as I noted earlier, coupled with her experience with drugs are signs of dependency, symptoms also endemic amongst her peers. During her long absence from her mother she lived most often in a communal setting, a domestic arrangement that eschews privacy, implying a relaxed attitude towards boundaries between self and other. The function in the text of the character of Anna-Joyce is to indicate that Renata's style is not just confined to her generation and to further show the connection between neurotic style and social policy. Anna-Joyce, whom Gerda accuses of thinking of herself as “the world's only mother” (p. 160), is a “do-gooder,” involved in other's lives. Anna-Joyce takes those “children” who use her services as a social worker into her home, superficially bandaging their psychic wounds while overlooking justifiable causes for concern. Her permissiveness is evident in her refusal to judge them adversely for their anti-social behavior or to hold them accountable for their mistakes. The story she tells about a boy from a good family who has gotten into serious trouble with the authorities because of drugs typifies her approach. In Gerda's words, Anna-Joyce “goes on about the lovely boy who is not rebellious and his suffering father who is not to blame. To hear her tell it the two of them are barely involved, it is two others who are in trouble” (p. 155).
Brown's discussion of social issues here has not the complexity of her method in Civil Wars. She is merely suggestive, her focus elsewhere. Principally, she contrasts the ideological sloppiness of Renata's and Anna-Joyce's political style and the abstract coldness of Gerda's, and indicates in her depiction of a brutal social scene that the collision of two such extreme opposing interests creates the same kind of havoc in society that it has in the family.
Her attention to the implications of separation conflicts for the writer of fiction is similarly sketchy, though like her consideration of social consequences, intellectually provocative. She introduces the issue through her title, Autobiography of My Mother, with its evocation of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein; the conceit in both instances turns on a logical impossibility, the writing of an autobiography about someone other than oneself. Brown further insures that we connect her work with Stein's when she names her protagonist Gerda Stein. But what are we to make of that connection?
Some answers can be found by examining the separation issues located in the fictional strategy of adopting another's voice, style, and point of view. Gertrude Stein wrote what was in reality her own autobiography under a title that bore the name of her intimate companion. Inherent in this subterfuge are serious questions about identity and the boundaries between subject and object. James R. Mellow, a Stein biographer, indicates that issues of personal identity, particularly Stein's identity as a writer and as an American, were of prime importance to her in the years before writing the autobiography, and that, convinced that personal identity was “irrevocably fixed in one's daily life,” she conceived of this work about her literary life as a “monument to her daily life with Alice.”19 This subterfuge also raises questions about the psychological intricacies of “sharing a life” and about competition—here inherent in the matter of who was most capable of writing the story of their lives; in a sense, Stein's sport, instead of constituting a tribute to Toklas, renders her superfluous.
These issues, as this discussion has noted, are central to those that inform the mother-daughter dynamic Brown examines. A lesbian relationship, such as the acknowledged one between Stein and Toklas, develops psychically from the mother-daughter dyad and thus expectedly would have many of the same concerns as that primal relationship. The location of personal identity in the stuff of daily life is clearly a conviction Brown shares with Stein. Brown's title, reinforced by its association with Stein's, points to their common interest in issues of boundary encroachment and the confusion of identity. And, like Stein's, Brown's examination alludes to issues of competition. A recognition of these shared concerns invites the following conclusion: that in the borrowing of Stein's title, Brown implies that for her the issues of boundary encroachment are not only applicable to the world of mothers and daughters—the subject of her book—but to the experience of being a writer—the subject of Stein's.
The symbolic connection between writing and mothering is a familiar one. Authors give birth to their texts and characters and are thus involved in the process of creation. Psychically, writers' experiences are similar to mothers'; just as mothers inevitably initiate boundary conflicts in their interaction with their children, writers' imaginatively breach boundaries in the creation of character, taking characteristics from people they know and shaping the substance of others' lives to create their fictions. Without fictional disguise, Stein plays with these ideas when she adopts the narrative voice of her friend, imitating her syntax and cadence, merging hers and Toklas's point of view.
Brown's strategy, however, is not so clear. The ambiguity of Brown's title leads the reader to question where the author places herself in relation to her characters: whom does Brown want us to identify as the daughter involved in writing the story of her mother's life? Any precise connection between implied author and character has been intentionally obscured by the existence of two first person narrators who are both daughters and both mothers. In fact, the obfuscation indicates that Brown wants to have it both ways. On one hand, the wording of the title suggests that the implied author of this fiction is the daughter of Gerda Stein: on the other, the author seems identified with Gerda, herself, who is the only daughter in this novel with an expressed interest, albeit a fleeting one, in being a writer (p. 93) and who bears the name of a famous author of a so-called autobiography of an intimate. If the implied author is both mother and daughter, then, it is, from a psychoanalytic perspective, legitimate to surmise that Rosellen Brown sees herself in this double identification.20 I shall argue that this identification allows Brown through the act of writing to console the mother in her by imaginatively breaching boundaries, repairing separation loss, and to reward the daughter in her, turning tables on the mother by writing her story in her voice, a highly competitive act that signifies the daughter's self-assertion. Proof for my contentions can be found in the story of Catalina, Gerda's housekeeper, and her successful adaption to the loss of her child.21
The last scene of the novel takes place at a state park where Gerda, Renata, and Tippy have gone for a day's outing. It is there that Gerda intends to tell Renata of her intention to sue for custody of her granddaughter. Before she can tell her, Tippy falls to her death. After Tippy dies, Renata looks at Gerda overcome with grief and thinks that there is something her mother “needs to know” (p. 275); it is the story she has been trying to tell her all day about Catalina and her son, Alejandro:
Catalina Huerta is saved without [Gerda's] help. Is seeing visions … Alejandro is coming to her regularly. His side is healed, he is happy and full of practical advice. She had been skeptical, what could she do with a vision but give it a very hard time, but now there is no doubt, he brought her the winning number last Friday—three hundred and fifty bucks with a guarantee from heaven.
Brown intimates here that the visionary process, a process akin to the experience of the writer of fiction, is capable of reconciling mother and child, and of providing comfort for the sufferance of separation loss—death constituting the ultimate separation. It heals wounds (his side is healed), and it offers opportunities for success (“the winning number”). For Renata, this resolution has the added appeal that it is a triumph achieved “without her [mother's] help.”22
Brown's ending suggests that relief from the disturbing cycle of mother-daughter conflict is available to the women of creative imagination through sublimation, identification, and fantasy, a suggestion indicating that for the author at least this novel ends on a note of hope. But Tippy's shocking death seems to militate against such a reading for its characters. Despite the virulence of the Gerda-Renata relationship, the child's death seems an unnecessarily harsh consequence, and the reader is left wondering just why she has to die.23 In part, her death symbolizes the failure of both mother and grandmother to take real responsibility for the child. As three generations descend the path by the waterfall, neither adult thinks, until it is too late, of taking the child's hand. At the same time, the significance of the death is tied to other issues in the text. Throughout the novel, Renata has had one persistent wish: to break the barriers of her mother's reserve and make her cry. Surprisingly, Gerda, so different from her daughter, expresses a similar wish. In language that reveals her separation conflicts with her own mother, she imagines that her mother's tears would “have freed her, told [her] it was all right, that she could at least mourn for herself, [Gerda] would not have to do it for her” (p. 102). Gerda never sees her mother cry, but Tippy's death perversely fulfills Renata's wish. The novel ends as Gerda begins to cry. Fundamental to the idea that the mother's tears free the daughter from having to do her mother's mourning for her is the intense attachment between mother and daughter on which Chodorow builds her theories and Brown her drama. Implicit in it are these extensions: if the daughter doesn't have to mourn for her mother, neither will she have to satisfy her life's dreams, nor validate her feelings, nor act out her fantasies, nor repair her deficiencies, nor die for her as does Tippy who goes to her death wearing her mother's scarf, emblematic, as Renata notes, of “Tippy turning Renata” (p. 272).
If the mother who withholds her tears holds her child, then Gerda's tears can be read as a sign of permission granted to Renata's frustrated independence. In this reading the child's death would be the catalyst, facilitating separation with psychically appropriate violence.24 That Tippy dies in the service of this bid for separation receives corroboration from the fact that she is the object who supplies the most visible and most cherished connection between Renata and Gerda and from the image of “Tippy turning Renata,” a symbolic rendering of the reproductive cycle of mother-daughter connection, which directly precedes the child's death.
We are left at the end of this novel with what appear to be contradictory principles: the hope implicit in Gerda's freeing tears and the violence of Tippy's terrible death. But if we think of these two images in terms of the separation conflicts they represent, we can understand that rather than contradicting the hope, the death perversely enables it. In the unconscious life of the daughter the triumph of emergence into selfhood can only be accomplished amidst pain. Loss ineluctably accompanies gain. And even with this admixture, the most that can be achieved is a success only partial and provisional. Words such as triumph and success have no apparent place in the chaotic ending of this novel, yet Renata, strangely “calm” (p. 274) after Tippy's death and her mother's collapse, finds “something satisfying about it” (p. 274). This remarkable first novel concludes with the same ambivalence that characterizes the attachment between mother and daughter, its subject.
Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978). Further references will be from this edition and cited in the text. Other theorists are noted in the course of this study.
Rosellen Brown, Autobiography of My Mother (New York: Ballantyne Books, 1976), p. 210. Further references will be from this edition and will be cited in the text.
Brown gives dramatic shape to the theoretical position Carol Gilligan argues in In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Woman's Development (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1983), pp. 1-63. See p. 52 of this article for further discussion of Gilligan's ideas.
The term is Helene Deutsch's. See Chodorow, p. 137.
Michael Balint argues that people look to adult sexual relationships as substitutions for the early intimacy between mother and child. See Chodorow, p. 79. Brown recognizes this substitution when she remarks that Tippy has “a grandmother, in the absence of a father” (p. 2).
Chodorow discusses pseudo-symbiosis, a condition in which the child's wish to remerge with the mother is primarily a defense against her own aggression. (p. 102).
I find support for my conclusions about competition between mother and daughter from Nancy Chodorow's discussion of the powerful influence of the preoedipal mother-daughter attachment on the daughter's development and the attendant conflicts, and from Carol Gilligan's discussion of the difficulties women have with competition in adult life. In a Different Voice, pp. 24-63.
Melanie Klein, “Envy and Gratitude,” in Envy and Gratitude & Other Work: 1946-63 (New York: Delta, 1975), pp. 176-235, p. 176. Klein writes of the infant's early aggressive rage towards the mother, characteristic of the symbiotic period, which she calls envy. Competition derives from envy.
Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur (New York: Harper Colophon. 1977). Dinnerstein discusses early mother-child relationships, the infant's helplessness before the omnipotent mother, and the consequences for the society in which that powerful figure is almost always a woman.
Brown's title suggests this struggle for control of the life story. Whose life is it anyway!
Jane Flax, “The Conflict Between Nurturance and Autonomy in Mother-Daughter Relationships and Within Feminism,” Feminist Studies 2 (1979): 171-89.
Jane Gallup argues that language provides distinction not connectedness. The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), p. 115. In fact, it provides both. The acquisition of language is a move toward separateness, but it can act as a transitional object providing both connection and distinction. Renata's obstinate cessation of language like much of her other behavior preserves connection in the guise of building barriers between self and other.
Chodorow, pp. 92-104, Klein, p. 176, and Dinnerstein, pp. 66-67.
The image suggests castration, a subject which I discuss on the next few pages.
The mother, herself the victim of insufficient mothering, competes with her baby for gratification.
Chodorow summarizes the implications of penis envy. I note those points most relevant for this discussion:“Girls, for many overdetermined reasons, do develop penis envy and may repress knowledge of their vagina because they cannot otherwise win their heterosexual mother; because the penis symbolizes independence from the (internalized) powerful mother …” (pp. 164-65)
This remark correlates with Chodorow's theories about the perpetuation of the mothering cycle.
Gilligan in In a Different Voice indicates that the qualities that characterize Gerda are typically male, though not exclusively so. The categories are not rigid, but should be imagined on a continuum.
James R. Mellow, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Co. (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974), p. 352.
Susan Rubin Suleiman, in “Writing and Motherhood,” in The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation, ed. Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, Madelon Sprengnether (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 352-77, 376, refers briefly to Autobiography of My Mother and addresses this question of Brown's identification with her characters. One of her points, though designed to argue another issue, is compatible with my argument. She says that Brown is both “structurally … a stand-in for Gertrude Stein—authors both … [and yet] one must consider the [fictional] Gerda/Gertrude to be Rosellen Brown's mother.”
Catalina is the idealized mother and daughter figure in the novel. She is at once a loving daughter who establishes continuity with her mother, a nurturant mother, and her own person.
Alejandro's maleness sidesteps the issue of the mother's ability to find reconciliation and consolation for the loss of a female child. Renata's belief in the salutary effects of the visionary process after Tippy's death, however, would seem to suggest that Brown does see this reconciliation with a girl as a possibility.
Suleiman in her discussion of writing and motherhood uses Brown's novel as an example for her contention that the writer who is a mother has “a fantasy of writing as aggression against her child” (p. 374). She suggests that Tippy's death is “a gesture of self-punishment by the writing mother” (pp. 275-76).
D. W. Winnicott discusses the achievement of adult status, arguing that it must be accompanied by the imagined “death of someone.” Playing and Reality (Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1971), p. 170. His comments that the death can be “managed by play and by displacements” supply support for my suspicion that concealed in Tippy's death is the wish for the death of the mother. Evidence exists for this interpretation. The prologue and epilogue of the novel are told from Renata's point of view, which would make Gerda's the wished for death. The language that Gerda uses as a metaphor for separation—the tears that “mourn” for the mother, implies—according to her own definition—that when Gerda cries at the end of the novel, she is in mourning for herself. Her imagined death would be the prerequisite for Renata's growth according to Winnicott's theories. This reading supports my contention that Tippy's death serves the process of separation.
SOURCE: Bader, Eleanor J. “Boerum Hill Blues.” Belles Lettres 8, no. 2 (winter 1992): 29.
[In the following review, Bader praises the creation and blending of the characters who occupy George Street, a fictional neighborhood in Street Games.]
George Street, the scene of Rosellen Brown's 14 interrelated short stories, is fictional, but Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, the neighborhood she writes about in Street Games, is not. Like many changing neighborhoods, Boerum Hill was once peopled with newly arrived Puerto Ricans and American-born New Yorkers. Then, in the early to mid-1970s, the professionals who would later be called Yuppies discovered the area's rundown brownstones and proximity to Wall Street. Describing themselves as “urban homesteaders,” they bought property and began renovations. As oak front doors replaced metal ones, and as gas lamps lit up previously dark streets, the neighborhood took on a new and uncomfortable tension.
Whites talked about wanting to live in multiracial harmony, rents skyrocketed, long-time residents were evicted, and police questioning of kids hanging out on street corners developed a menacing edge. On the local commercial strip, antique stores displayed refinished oak furniture and restaurants began to cater to health-conscious gourmets.
These tensions are perfectly drawn in Brown's Street Games. Speaking for virtually every constituency in the neighborhood, she tells many convincing tales. In “I Am Luis Beech-Nut,” she is a 36-year-old Puerto Rican store owner whose oldest child is 17. Working 7 days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day, Luis's resentment of folks he thinks have it easy is palpable. In “The Only Way to Make It in New York,” she is a white woman, a gentrifier who interrupts a burglary in progress. The thief, drinking beer, advises: “Hey, try to relax a little, you'll make it better. … Take it easy. I ain't no earthquake. I ain't a member of apocalypse. I live in Red Hook, I'm a little hard up, ok?”
Brown depicts dozens of other personae: a Puerto Rican child; the white mother of a wildly hyperactive son who struggles to understand how her boy, born with “impeccable WASP” credentials, “healthy, nursed and coddled, vitamin-enriched, born on Blue Cross, swaddled in his grandparent's gifts from Lord & Taylor,” can be so impossible to control. She introduces us to Migdalia Colon, a widow and mother, who expresses poignant rage at the death of her drug-addicted husband. Brown also presents June Elizabeth Olsen, the recently deceased former director of the local community center, a woman who worked tirelessly with area youth, a leader and peacemaker who sided with the oppressed but eschewed guilt and moralism as organizing tactics.
One of the most moving stories presents Sid R., a white, heart-of-gold city worker who has devoted his life to the civil rights struggle. After he is robbed, his possessions trampled and destroyed, his rage is so perfectly presented that we can see him, head in hands, and feel his sense of betrayal. “I sound like … the bozos with the lip who say Lock Them up, They forage our lawns, They feed on our daughters,” he says. Yet, despite his justifiable anger and hurt, we feel that he will move on, continuing the work he knows is necessary.
Equally engrossing is “Turf,” the story of Ralphie, a former gang member who has made good—gone to college, then on to an executive position at IBM. Returning to the neighborhood as a brownstone owner, he must face his newfound class privilege: Will he or will he not evict Mrs. Cuevas and her seven children? “Why was he supposed to feel guilty—because he had just narrowly escaped himself? Escape is escape.” Still, echoes of his youth continue to resonate, and fear of what he has become, or could become, grabs him by the lapels of his designer jacket.
Brown has captured a chorus of voices with amazing accuracy. In doing so, she makes Boerum Hill come intensely and richly alive. Without caricature, she opens many doors on George Street and allows us to see everything from unwashed linen to refinished tile fireplaces. It is an enticing, exhilarating journey.
SOURCE: St. Andrews, Bonnie. “Bridging Our Separation.” Belles Lettres 8, no. 2 (winter 1992): 30.
[In the following review, St. Andrews applauds the selection of short stories, essays, and poems that comprise A Rosellen Brown Reader.]
Only a few volumes dedicated to the works of individual artists currently exist in the prestigious Breadloaf Contemporary Series. The newest [A Rosellen Brown Reader]—Rosellen Brown's selection of 12 short stories, several essays including “The Jewish Writer as Endangered Species” and “On Not Writing a Novel,” a lively interview with Tom LeClair, and a judicious selection of her poetry—sets another jewel in the diadem. The collection confirms Brown's literary commitment “to speak more perfectly than I really can, to a listener more perfect than any I know.”
These celebrated stories and poems, placed alongside some provocative essays, underscore her long-term complicity with that dream reader and perfect listener. The selected writing also suggests not only Brown's ability within various genres but also her enviable position in contemporary letters. In central themes, as in the sheer range of her talents, she may well be compared with the incomparable North American writer, Margaret Atwood, although Brown herself cites a kinship with Alice Munro. Like both these writers, Brown seems to be an honest and intrepid explorer of the strange landscape of our interior world.
Adult characters, often projecting a forbidding sense of emotional and intellectual isolation, seem trapped in “the amber of … choice.” Catastrophe crashes in from every side, and help is hard to give and harder to take. These postmodern characters sometimes seem powerless to do much more than react to a world not only formed but difficult to reform.
Yet Brown's work has always identified with complex ideas of reformation, of rebuilding after a house has crumbled or a life has shattered. A child of the 1960s, she comprehends that modern heroism is anything but self-assured. Do-gooders are themselves not quite at home in contemporary life and second-guess themselves while doggedly serving a whole world of disenfranchised, displaced survivors. In Brown's “The International Language,” new Vietnamese immigrants have escaped one world's overt dangers only to arrive at a new shore where they must confront “weapons and hunger … too subtle to be seen at first glance.”
Yet no imposed condition, no external distinction of class or tribe or gender used to separate human beings, weakens Brown's mantra of assertion that we are one and all joined heart to mind. Even Nature sometimes finds a way to soothe our loneliness and bridge our separation: In “A Wry Music,” a simple bee has redemptive powers and “may forgive the worst in us / may stop to drink honey / from a murderer's ear.”
Perhaps her poem “The Famous Writers School Opens Its Arms in the Next Best Thing to Welcome” establishes the controlling metaphor for this collection, where each individual character seems to be the place “where all the accidents happen.” Brown has the creative deference to follow her characters as well as lead them, admitting to “discovering as I go just what it is that I am traveling toward.” Her arrival at some established destination remains in question, but the writing Brown assembles here encourages more and more readers to journey along with her.
SOURCE: Johnston, Darcie Conner. “A Crack Across Their Lives.” Belles Lettres 8, no. 2 (winter 1992): 31, 39.
[In the following review, Johnston praises the subject matter and execution of storyline in Before and After.]
Like a renegade comet, near-shattering violence careens into the lives of the ordinary people who populate the novels of Rosellen Brown, slamming them off course and in directions they never imagined. In Tender Mercies (1978), for example, a swimming accident destroys the vigor of a young woman who will be paralyzed for life, and Civil Wars (1984) portrays two children forced to cope with the death of their parents. “Many people have a kind of crack across their lives,” Brown explains—some tragedy that divides their existence into the before and the after. Before and After, Brown's fourth and latest novel, opens with the riveting discovery of a teenage girl beaten to death along a snowy stretch of New Hampshire road. This crisply written tale is not about what leads to the murder, though, or about the consequences for those close to the victim. Rather, it probes the aftermath of the family of the 17-year-old boy who killed her.
A brief glimpse at the Reiser family's “before” shows a contented foursome that breaks (or perhaps merely reverses) a few role stereotypes but otherwise falls within the mainstream of the American middle class: mother Carolyn, a pediatrician in private practice; sculptor, househusband, and father Ben; Jacob; and Judith, five years younger than her brother. But on that January day when Martha Taverner dies—“the seam between before and after,” in Ben's words—the luxury of un-self-conscious contentment vanishes forever.
Aside from the horror of Jacob's act, Carolyn and Ben must grapple with a surreal, vertigo-like version of every parent's inevitable realization that they no longer know their child—if they ever did. “The boy she'd held against her, had scooped up off the ground and balanced on her hip, had carried in his sleep, was gone away,” and in his place was a grown cat who “scented his fur with after-shave, deodorant, and mousse to disguise the smell his mother might claim as hers. A cat who did what he wanted to. A Tom.” Indeed, Brown doesn't allow anyone access to Jacob's thoughts or motives—to the truth, even, of the event—for Jacob's mind is immaterial to the work at hand. What matters here are the struggles of mother, father, and sister—victims robbed of their ordinariness and innocence, ostracized by the small New England community, and pitted against all they have left—each other—by their individual moral codes. The murder is, in Brown's characterization of her plot, a “bold and efficient way to force people to declare themselves morally to themselves and to each other.”
Ben's focus is narrow, tribal. When he finds damning evidence in Jacob's car, he gets rid of it, and continues to defy the system throughout the ordeal—never questioning his parental prerogative to protect his son, regardless of the nature of the crime, the effects on anyone else, or the larger rules of civilized society. Carolyn, on the other hand, looks beyond her immediate sphere; she considers the family of the dead girl and if not the salvation of Jacob's freedom, the salvation of his soul. For some time, though, she flounders between her conscience and her devotion to family bonds, angry and alienated from Ben but numbed to inaction lest she ruin whatever fragile structure still remains of the Reisers. Powerless, Judith despises her father's flagrant disregard for the truth and is terrified by her mother's ambivalence. Brown herself, however, makes no moral judgments of the characters. Even Ben, whose values seem at turns childish, anarchical, or simply repugnant, is redeemed in part by a rabbi who writes, “You should know your impulse is a natural one that is sanctified by thousands of years of spiritual decency.”
Ultimately the questions Which parent is doing the right thing? and even Which parent loves the child more? give way to Which parent is actually protecting the child? “Sometimes I wasn't even sure if what he did was the best thing for Jacob,” says wise Judith of her father. “I would have said, No lies for me, thank you, and let them punish me in return for feeling clean and honest.” She concludes, “I thought he loved Jacob too much and everyone else—everyone and Truth with a capital T—too little.”
Brown's idea to show the family of the criminal as inadvertent victims is perhaps as “bold” as the crime itself. In a culture where nurture is considered at least as influential in a child's development as nature—if not more so—we view the mother and father with suspicion, assuming they did Something that predisposed their offspring to evil. Isn't it a little disquieting to think that parents have no control over their children's outcome, for if blame can't be fixed, can we fix the problem? This is a brave foray on Brown's part—and a reasonably successful one. Carolyn, Judith, and even Ben arouse sympathy; these are normal, and, yes, blameless people, yet one can see how a Jacob—himself not an unsympathetic character—might (but wouldn't necessarily) form in their midst. Can parents ever know their child? No, says Brown, but if forced to take a hard look, they may get to know themselves far deeper than they ever dreamed.
SOURCE: Brown, Rosellen, and Carla Seaquist. “Belles Lettres Interview: Rosellen Brown.” Belles Lettres 8, no. 2 (winter 1992): 34-9.
[In the following interview, Brown discusses the thematic focus of and reasons behind her writing Before and After.]
“Before I answer your challenging questions,” writes Ms. Brown, “I need to try to explain a little my understanding of what I as a novelist am attempting to do. Many of your questions assume a prescriptive attitude on my part, an attitude of approval for the responses of my characters or for the outcomes of their actions. I, on the other hand, feel that my responsibility is to present a set of characters who act and respond realistically—whether I “approve” of what they do or say or think is quite beside the point. I know it's not quite the same because an actor doesn't originate the lines he or she says and thus bears no moral responsibility for them, but nonetheless I feel my role isn't that different from an actor's—I feel myself the vehicle, in a sense, for what I see as the plausible thoughts and actions of my characters, not their advocate. I'm not trying to shrug off responsibility; but I'm intent on representing people in all their complexity: their contradictions, their terrible secret thoughts and second thoughts, their confused hopes and foiled dreams. Their small heroisms, too; the valiant way they try their best by their own lights to do well by each other, themselves, the world. To try to represent only behavior of which I “approve” is a little like a psychiatrist telling a patient to feel free to say anything but at the same time be sure not to offend. …
It is important to understand this nonjudgmental approach I try for. I have never recommended that anyone imitate the way my characters walk through the world, any more than I think Chekhov (dare I invoke him in the same sentence with myself?) would suggest, say, that men ought to philander like the terrified, helpless, doomed suitor who falls in love with the lady with the lap dog.
I don't tend to try to create heroes and heroines. They are just people, and they do what they think they must do. I'd like my readers to try their own values alongside my characters' and think about how they might act in similar circumstances, and even perhaps judge them harshly, but I don't want to be responsible for, say, “exonerating” anyone for bad behavior or laying crowns of laurel on the heads of the virtuous. Those are the judgments we make from outside, from an objective distance, and we don't need writers to show us people's outsides; we can see those for ourselves. For me, the reason I write and read fiction is to feel what it is like to be someone else.”
[Seaquist]: The epigraph to Before and After is from Pascal: “When one does not love too much one does not love enough.” What does that mean to you? Could it be seen as a defense of unconditional love by any means?
[Brown]: The epigraph seems to me an infinitely interpretable Rorschach test, or better, a Moebius strip that turns in many directions even while you look at it. It invites speculation, contradiction, outrage. An epigraph is not necessarily a one-to-one representation of what an author thinks or believes. It is meant to be a clue to the mysteries of emotion that follow, possibly an incitement to the reader to take care where she or he walks. It suggests the shape of the territory, the color of the sky that will hang over the whole. It is not a needlepoint motto to hang on the kitchen wall.
Your focus is on the family of the perpetrator, a relatively novel focus in fiction. A drawback of that focus is that we never hear from the victim or her family, nor are they invoked in any depth by the Reisers themselves, who, agonizing over Jacob, don't direct much of that agony outward. You opted against the Taverners' voice because it would be “predictable,” but Martha's view certainly would not be predictable. The most powerful element in Joyce Carol Oates's Black Water is the voice of the drowning woman. Did you consider including Martha's voice?
First, quite simply, you can't do everything in one book. Perhaps a more ambitious novelist could, but the scale of this book always seemed to me small, intimate, even while I hoped I could suggest some of the consequences of, say, class differences or legal fictions. I wanted to keep my focus narrowly on the least likely and perhaps least predictable players in this drama. What could Martha have given us? Plenty, of course, but very different sorts of things than the astonished, injured innocence—deserved or not—of the victimizer's family. Furthermore, there are some things that seem easier, some that seem harder—I mean harder as in hard-as-a-rock, I mean easier as in softer, more yielding—than others. In this book, Martha would have said the expected things, the victim's terrible words, just as, in Tender Mercies, the quadriplegic Laura would have been a sentimental reporter of her own atrocious situation: How could she not have been? Someone else has to try to cope with it, someone less predictably embittered—not the robbed but the robber.
For the Reisers, especially the father, Ben, love is not only blind but blinding. They “see” neither the dead girl nor Jacob's volcanic anger (it wasn't a freak blow that killed her; he bludgeoned her to death). What if there had been an eyewitness with a video camera: Would that bring the Reisers to a recognition? Force Ben to connect Jacob's anger with his own?
Carolyn's having seen Martha's body still warm, as it were, may play a part in her harsher judgment of her son and his actions, or at least in her more profound sympathy with the girl and her parents. Nonetheless: there are no witnesses with video cameras in our worst moments; not usually. So Ben is left to reconstruct what he needs to believe, just as Jacob, in reporting that if he hadn't “happened” to land his blow Martha would have been alive in school the next day, either lies to protect himself or denies, sincerely, a reality too difficult to accept. What would the objective report of a video camera—an unlikely assurer of “the truth”—have given us? The only “reality” the Reisers have to deal with is the one they can and must create for themselves (which, of course, is why Jacob never has his own sections while everyone else does). Each envisions a different scene, “connects” differently with the moment and the significance of Martha's death, although it could be argued that even if they all saw the same scene, they might still come to the same conviction of what they have to do. We will never know exactly what happened out there in the snow any more than they do—why should we?
Judith is the novel's strongest moral voice, a voice dismissed, however, because of her youth. Judith is repelled by her father's falsifying of Jacob's defense, and she confronts her mother with the key question her parents should but don't raise: “What if I was the one who somebody killed?” We can conjecture how in this family Jacob lost his moral bearings, but how did Judith gain hers? What does it mean that the moral voice is given to a 12-year-old? Does Jacob feel more remorse than he shows?
Judith's voice is dismissed, at least temporarily, because her youth will not even entertain the finer inflections that age reluctantly discerns; she is absolute in her judgments in a world that conducts itself by relative—some might say merciful—rule. Her mother, however, though she tries that argument for a while, does not ultimately dismiss her; she does exactly what Judith hopes she will do, she repudiates such relativism. Or, we might say, she introduces a different kind of relativism: The harder Ben pulls on the rope that ties her to Jacob, the harder she feels the pull of the Taverners' love for their daughter. There is no monolithic family here that has caused Jacob to lose his moral bearings. Please don't forget that these parents painfully divide over their responsibility. That it's hard for Carolyn to do this shouldn't be surprising: She loves her son and she wants to protect him, until that protection finally seems too selfish and insular to be borne. As for Jacob, I suspect he does feel more remorse than he shows; I don't think it's easy for a boy who's done something as awful as this to melt safely; I think he has learned a kind of control that's self-punishing and brutally silent. When Ben asks him how he likes the lie they've told the lawyer, Jacob tells his father, or tries to, that the lie is “your story.” When Ben denounces Carolyn for “selling out” to the grand jury, Jacob understands and does not blame her. The hung jury is not necessarily a favor to him. Otherwise, why would he be—essentially—unmanned at the end, reduced, far from the boy he had been, and possibly never to become it, forever?
With the parents in Before and After, you diverge from a standard stereotype: It's the father who's the protective parent and the mother who's the truth-seeker. How did you decide on this dichotomy?
With much difficulty. This is going to simplify things immensely, because your impulses as a writer are always very overdetermined, but I wanted to cut across stereotypes. I think the assumption tends to be, and I don't agree with it, that it's the mother who will put her arms around this boy and protect him come hell or high water, and it's the father who might be the one who says, as a father I spoke to recently said, “Well, if he's guilty, he goes to jail. Is there a question?” And I said, “Well, there seemed to be questions from many people who read the book.” In reality, the responses have been split, not at all along gender lines. I wanted to represent a nurturant father, a man who not only stays home and cooks but someone who is impulsive, which causes him problems. He's not a paragon. And I don't think Carolyn is not nurturant. She's a doctor and she's given her life over to the protection of children. She is not isolated in herself the way the artist might be.
And the end Carolyn wrangles this thing through and decides finally that she owes something to the murdered girl, her parents, this sense of law, but that's too abstract. Mostly, she says to Ben, “The more you tell me you love your son, the tighter that string pulls in the other direction, and I know that they love their daughter too. And somebody has to represent her in the world.” That's justice, but I wouldn't call it that, it sounds like it has a capital J. It really means feeling for something outside your own family. I didn't think this book was political when I wrote it, but it's been borne in on me that when you ask the questions—“Do you just protect your own no matter what? Or are there other people in the world who are owed protection, repentance, reparations?”—then it becomes political, even though it's extraordinarily intimate. At a staged reading [the novel was begun as a play], a director said (I thought quite obtusely), “Well, you know, this should've taken place in the station house, what's it doing in the kitchen?” This book starts in the house, not in the station house. There isn't a trial scene in this book. I'm not interested in that kind of event. I'm interested in aftermaths of events, and I'm interested in what events feel like, maybe, but I'm not interested in the events themselves. For that you have to go to an action novelist, and that's not the way I see myself.
As Jacob's protector, Ben argues a philosophy inherited from his own father: “Out there in the enemy world, it was the most basic point of pride … to be my shield and my defender”; it was at home that the child was dealt with. In the novel, Ben's philosophy “wins”: His strategy results in a hung jury permitting Jacob to go free, although, home again, Jacob and his anger are not dealt with. Couldn't this philosophy, which makes the family the final moral arbiter beyond law or state, also exonerate the actions of, say, a KKK family?
Ben's philosophy “wins,” in the technical sense: Jacob is not convicted. What happens to him, however, is not that simple. Why assume the author of the book is plumping for this outcome, applauding Ben's clever strategy, his good lawyer, his manipulation of that which can be manipulated to save his son's life? Then again, why not assume it? Better yet, why not see these as plausible alternatives that grow out of different interpretations of the facts? Ben does not see Jacob as—to use Judith's word—as “pathological,” nor have he and Carolyn seen much behavior that looks particularly “sick.” (A few readers have asked why he wasn't in therapy, why they weren't braced for the worst.) But they haven't been privy to much suspicious behavior. Judith has had most of that evidence, and she's a child who doesn't know what to do with it; she loves him—he can be a very good brother. Jacob doesn't, in truth, look much more dangerous than many teenage boys. Nor does his anger seem that unusual, especially when it's elicited by a dressing-down by his father at three in the morning. As for the murder itself: In many of my books, character and circumstance meet and the outcome is catastrophe. But that doesn't mean that things must happen as they do: I don't believe that Jacob, who murders, is “a murderer.” I'm not sure I could have written about a boy who goes out one day expecting to kill someone, who plans, who expects, who hopes to kill. What happens when he's pushed hard in a tender place, “the terrible means at hand,” (Ben's words) is much more like our own daily lives: We are not so much criminal as we are vulnerable, and, after the fact, frightened and sometimes dangerously foolish. There's an important difference.
One of the things I wanted to be clear about is this: Parents' responsibility for their children's characters, personalities, and actions is much more complex than we tend to admit after a terrible deed is done. Even Carolyn exonerates Ben from blame: He has tried in good faith to deal with his anger, he has been in therapy, he has attempted to control it and failed, as many of us similarly fail to be exemplary parents, spouses, individuals. But “children taste what their parents swallow,” she says sadly, and that's about all that can be said on the subject of what a hapless parent is to do who hasn't beaten his own neuroses. It is too easy to convict after the fact, and much too harsh to blame a child's imperfections on his parents' imperfections, which perhaps go back to their parents' imperfections, and on and on. Children are so sensitive they can pick up a whiff of every tension, every conflict, and what causes more tension than the suppression “for the sake of the children”—the best we can often do—of our worst characteristics?
In the epilogue, five years later, we learn that the Reisers are still married, despite Carolyn's “treachery” of testifying against Jacob and despite Carolyn and Ben not speaking for months afterwards. Better marriages have foundered on less. While writing, what odds did you give them of staying together?
I didn't know till I got there. I gave no odds. In the end I believe they recognized the love they bore their son (not to mention each other). If there is one absolute in the book, that love is it.
The novel leaves many readers sad: There is no justice, and the mystery at the core of family—how little we know of those we love—is deepened at the book's end, not reduced. As Judith says about Jacob, “We don't talk much these days about anything except things that don't mean much to either of us.” Do the Reisers have enough to sustain themselves in the years to come? Do the Taverners? Is this mystery about family inevitable?
Mystery—yes, that, I think, is inevitable. Shipwreck is not inevitable, but only with luck does one escape it. I'm not the first to say that luck is indifferent. (And as for shipwreck, one of my favorite authors, William Maxwell, in one of my favorite books, So Long, See You Tomorrow, a very sad novel, quotes Ortega y Gasset: “Life is, in itself and forever, shipwreck.” If you think I'm gloomy.) Character may predispose some people to mischief or worse, but sometimes even the most problematic people die in bed without having seriously harmed a soul. If the Reisers have enough to sustain them, it will be because of their (anyone's) unquenchable—undrownable is a better metaphor, given the image of shipwreck—resilience. Thus, Carolyn thinks guiltily, they are stuck with joy: As long as they live they are stuck with the privileges of life. As for the Taverners, yes, they will survive because they are, by virtue of the harder life they've always lived, tough and unyielding. I don't want to sentimentalize them, but I see them as angry, shored up almost tribally by family, and not as surprised by what has happened as Ben and Carolyn, who have never expected themselves to be hurt, let alone to be at the giving end of pain.
You talk about adversity, “before and after.” Do you think it takes trauma as a catalyst to help you crystallize values?
I don't think it does, and to be perfectly honest, I wish I could write without that jump start that I get from these exorbitant actions. My short stories don't start that way, they don't have huge events in them. But the novels—somehow, I do exactly what you're suggesting. To be perfectly frank, I think I overwork it a little bit. I'd love it if my next book could be as quiet as, say, a Eudora Welty book. But that doesn't seem to be the way my imagination works. And at the moment, I'm stuck with what I have.
What would be your advice to the screenwriter or producer of the film version of Before and After?
Don't make this a violent movie. It is not about action but about responses. If there's any blood, it should be over with in the first scene (and then, as in the novel, reappear briefly, and reticently, in the account of the murder). Like Ben, I don't believe in reality much; I believe more in the imagination. Reality, for better or worse, as the Reisers discover, intrudes, but I hope the filmmakers will respect the fact that more of this novel takes place in meditation than it does in violence, and though I know that film and theater take place before our eyes, I'd like to hope the film can retain some of the tone of hesitation, confused response, retraction, and the sense that, much of the time, this family is sinking under ennui and enervation even as their fate hurtles along out of control.
The person who is doing the screenplay is Ted Tally, who wrote The Silence of the Lambs. God knows what gruesomeness he may dream up. The director is Barbet Schroeder, who did Reversal of Fortune. Schroeder has a fairly kinky mind, and I have no idea what he would do if he really got hold of this thing. Robert DeNiro has apparently been reading the book. I don't know if he really is thinking of playing Ben; I can't quite see it. This is absurd, you understand, having a movie of your book cast. I will say, though, that Meryl Streep is a pretty terrific candidate for Carolyn, because she feels like this woman, in my mind. She's a good-looking, tall, blond woman, but she's kind of single-minded. She has that intelligence that Streep has. But who knows? I don't trust Hollywood.
In an interview you said that you had a “persistent itch of alienation.” Are you a 20th-century alienated writer, whose books are to entertain us with this descriptive alienated writing, or are you a 19th-century writer with a fable, a morality tale? Do you intend to instruct?
I would have to accept your assumptions in order to answer your question, and I don't accept them. But I'll try to answer what may be the essence of your question, which comes down to “Am I attempting to entertain or instruct?” and then you can choose whichever century you'd put those intentions into. I don't like novels that instruct as such. I don't think fiction belongs in the “how to” section. I once had a really interesting experience when my first novel, The Autobiography of My Mother, which is about a lawyer and her alienated, withered flower-child daughter, had just been published. And I should say, by the way, the mother is in many ways an anti-heroine; she's a very difficult character, not pleasant. And I went to dinner with a friend who'd brought along a recent graduate of Harvard Law School. And in the course of the conversation it emerged to her astonishment that I had written this novel, which she either had read or had heard about, and I saw her face fall. She said, “You wrote The Autobiography of My Mother”? And I said, “I can see you didn't like it.” And she said, “Well, I have to admit, not really. I just graduated from Harvard Law School and you didn't tell me how to live my life.” And I said, “You're damn right I didn't tell you how to live your life. If I told you anything in this book, it was maybe how not to live your life, or how living your life is going to be very complicated.”
What I think we can get out of novels is some kind of illumination of other people's lives that casts some light on our own. If you look at the best of those 19th-century novels, at George Eliot or Jane Austen, in fact there is so much more going on than moralizing, even while they're able to deliver themselves of these grand sentences in which they seem to be telling you truths. Those truths are very complicated and they're undercut by all sorts of circumstances and ironies. And there's plenty of alienation in them, believe me. I think there are very few writers who don't consider themselves in some way alienated. I don't look at that as fashionable, I just look at it as human. Few of us are wholly comfortable in our lives. I will say that I've sometimes felt my kind of writing isn't all that fashionable these days because of the tendency of 19th-century sentences to crop up. Those sentences are out of fashion to some extent these days—maximalist sentences in a minimalist time—although I hope they come back in. My last novel, Civil Wars, was reviewed by Lynne Sharon Schwartz in the New York Times. She said, “I took your book because I write 19th-century novels and you write 19th-century novels, and I thought we'd better stick together.”
Why did you set Before and After in a small town?
Because everyone is eternally there. At the end of the book this family moves to Houston. They move there because it's a place that doesn't care what you've done in your past. Basically cities are anonymous places. But this had to be written about a place where your family is known, you're even held responsible for things that were done generations ago. The book is set in a real place; it's just that none of it ever happened.
Are you interested in writing about people who live in large cities?
Yes, as a matter of fact, Street Games, my first book of fiction, has just been reissued in a beautiful edition by Milkweed. It's about a transitional neighborhood in Brooklyn. Place has played a tremendous part in all my writing. I'm trying to work out my own lack of a particularly grounded childhood by writing about other people's movement to places where they don't belong. Only one book besides Street Games is set in a place where someone belonged, and that's Cora—my favorite of my books. It's 84 poems that make a story spoken by a woman in New Hampshire who is stuck in the little town that she grew up in. I wanted to see what that would feel like. The book begins with a tiny three-line poem in which she says, “I want to understand light years / I live in Oxford, New Hampshire / When, then, will the light get to me?” And that begins an attempt to find a larger world. She gives up and comes back home.
How distant are you from Before and After right now? You obviously enjoy reading from it. Are you rediscovering your novel?
I do sometimes, although to be honest, at this point I've read it pretty often. I read the opening part frequently before the book was finished. It was fun to take questions then, because I was really asking the audience for advice. I learned things from people and they asked good questions. Now of course it's fixed.
All I want for a book is that people that I respect will respect it. A little money on the side doesn't hurt, but that's certainly not why I write. If that was what was on my mind, I could have come up with a much better profession by now! Even interesting criticism gets more enlightening than more praise, in a funny way.
One of the most wonderful things for me is to discover all the book clubs who keep your books alive. I have met more book clubs than I can number on both hands who have read Civil Wars.
As a writer, the most exciting moment I ever had was not watching someone buy my book. I was in the Boston Public Library once, and I was down looking at the bottom shelf, and someone was reaching for Tender Mercies up on the top shelf. She took it down, and I watched her look at it and turn it over and thumb through it, and I said, “Will she? Won't she?” She put it in her arm and walked away. I didn't announce myself to her. It didn't have anything to do with “Hey, I wrote that book.” A writer wants to give back something of what she's taken. I've read all my life with great excitement, and all I've wanted to do as a writer was replenish that.
SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Troubled Family Needs a Reality Check.” Los Angeles Times (3 September 1992): E4.
[In the following review, Eder argues that Before and After is a compelling story, but believes that Brown fails to adequately develop the majority of her characters.]
A fortunate family, the Reisers [in Before and After]. Carolyn is a successful and devoted pediatrician in the bucolic New Hampshire town to which they have moved. They have added neat modernizing touches to their old farmhouse. Ben makes sculptures out of “found objects”; he is fulfilled, although he doesn't make much money. On the other hand, he makes gourmet meals and is an eager if compulsive househusband. They have two bright teen-agers, even if Jacob seems a bit absent, and Judith, his younger sister, is moody.
Nice people, all in all, and a nice life. They pretty much fit in with their small-town neighbors, although a handyman friend is a mite quizzical about the imported beer and the new picture window, and the town police chief once hauled away, as litter, a welded collage of “objects” Ben had contributed to the town park. Still, they have won a place in the community, and differences of class and taste are, if not minor, ignored.
Until one evening, the police chief drives up and, after some awkward neighborly chitchat, tells them that a local girl has been found dead with a crushed skull. Jacob was the last person seen in her company, he says, and he'd like to talk to him. Jacob is not to be found, though. When Ben goes out to check the car after some aggressive stonewalling, he finds blood all over the mats in the trunk and embedded in the head of the jack. Impulsively, he burns the mats and disassembles and hides the jack.
It is a kinetic start to what at first seems to be a story of terrible things happening to nice people and—besides the mystery of what really happens—of the individual agonies, the cruel testing of family ties, and the moral dilemmas set off. It is darker than that, in fact. “Nice” is a lid over a family with gears that are set wrong and that strip under the load of tragedy.
Rosellen Brown's novel is well-paced, and she sharply layers each strand of suspense. What did Jacob do, first of all, and when that pretty much becomes evident midway, how will the four of them respond to their knowledge and what will that response do to them as individuals and as a family? The disparate moral choices made by Ben, Carolyn, Jacob and Judith are the book's true and distinctive climax. And throughout, of course, we try to discover who each of them is and what moves them.
The strength of Before and After lies in its tight narrative flow and in the questions it explores male and female strengths, weaknesses and ways of reacting, the conflicting impulses to act in a crisis before knowing or to know before acting, and the relative duties owed to family solidarity, society and truth. Its weakness is the tidiness with which Brown sets her scene and plants her psychological clues, and the feverish and often coarse depiction of Ben's and Carolyn's thoughts and emotions.
The result, curiously, is not intensity but thinness of characterization, as if in their strident monologuing the adults, at least, had out-voiced their own individuality.
Jacob is impenetrably mute; only Judith emerges as a real presence. She is the book's still center, and all of a sudden, exhilaratingly, its moral voice. We must tell the truth or destroy ourselves, she insists. The imperative will align Carolyn with her on one side, and Jacob and Ben on the other. It is a memorable portrait of that brief time in adolescence when moral choice may actually become character.
The story, whose details would be unfair to disclose, moves through the search for Jacob, who sends a series of puzzling and disturbing postcards, and who is found, arraigned and freed on bail. It takes us through the reactions of a community in which class differences as well as a general conviction of Jacob's guilt serve to isolate the Reisers. It touches on two trials and ends with a subdued but illuminating postscript.
The townspeople and their reactions are set out routinely, not quite approaching cliché. The scrappy Greek-American lawyer who defends Jacob promises to develop some interesting complexity but never quite does. He comes to sudden, almost comically outraged life, though, when the family's differences lead Ben and Carolyn into giving two vastly different testimonies to a grand jury.
Ben, who starts out as passively overbearing and disagreeable, sheds the passiveness and grows even less agreeable. His hyperactive impulse to act at all costs to protect Jacob—his father's motto was “Honor thy children”—comes to seem like a denial of everything that nourishes life, including freedom; including even Jacob's freedom. Jacob's acquiescence to his father's strategies masks a frozen and disturbing sensibility. Carolyn's initial acquiescence is more human and endearing; as she puzzles her way out of it, she comes to seem increasingly vapid.
Before and After is often compelling and frequently provocative, but in her story of a dysfunctional family, Brown fails to give three of the four main characters much reality beyond their dysfunctioning.
SOURCE: Birkerts, Sven. “Family Secrets.” New Republic 207, no. 6 (2 November 1992): 40-2.
[In the following review, Birkerts praises the premise of Before and After, but believes the characters lack depth and dimension and that Brown doesn't follow up on some of the novel's themes.]
The title of Rosellen Brown's latest novel, Before and After, is misleading on a literal level: apart from a short impressionistic evocation of the Reiser family in happier days, the book is really focused upon after, on what transpires in the private and public lives of that family as the horrible facts of a killing come to life. But in the deeper sense, which is the sense toward which the narrative would steer us, the circumstances are in every way related to the before, to the assumptions about life once fostered by the Reisers and the members of their community.
Before, the chronological before, is given in a three-page prelude, a series of flickering images drawn from old home movies. “The little boy's smile is so wide, sun in his eyes, that he seems to be crying.” This would be Jacob, the son. And the little girl, “all dressed up, her fair hair shining,” is Judith, his younger sister. Then we see a blond woman and a bearded man: Carolyn and Ben, the parents. They “turn to each other at one point, just after the large shadow of a passing family darkens them like a cloud, and, as if they were clasping hands, grin at each other above the heads of their clowning children.”
The reader does not need to be gifted with second sight to know that all will not go well for this little group. The cheery ominousness belongs to television melodrama. Here is the bustling family getting ready for the day, or the mother making plans for the child's birthday party. … And sure enough, straightaway in the first chapter, Carolyn, a self-possessed and hard-working pediatrician in the New Hampshire town of Hyland, is called over to look at a body that has just been brought into the emergency ward. A teenage girl has been severely bludgeoned. Her skull has been crushed, “collapsed like a beer can, one of the younger doctors indelicately put it.” In a matter of hours Carolyn will discover not only that her Jacob may have been involved with the girl, Martha Taverner, but that he was very possibly her assailant.
The novel moves quickly through its opening crises. In short chapters that are parceled out between Carolyn and Ben (Judith's perspective is added later), we track the first jolts and aftershocks: the appearance that evening of Fran Conklin, a local police officer, who needs to ask some questions; the non-appearance—which soon becomes the disappearance—of Jacob. … Then the clincher. Ben searches the trunk of the boy's car and finds a bloodied jack. There is a moment of terrified recognition, but as soon as it passes he sets to work, destroying every last shred of evidence.
Brown hews to psychological verisimilitude, racing through the confusions of the first days and then decelerating. This, we say, is how it is with tragedies. First the haphazard tumble of news, the realignment of assumptions and expectations, then the interminable waiting. And indeed, it is only as the import of Jacob's disappearance starts to sink in that the novel discloses its true preoccupations. Before and After is only circumstantially about the crime and its punishment. The real focus of inquiry is on ethics and what might be called the metaphysics of family life. We butt up against the big questions: On what basis do we determine right and wrong? What are the bonds between individuals, family members, and citizens in a community? How are those bonds sustained, how are they ruptured? And, perhaps most pressingly, what do we ever know of other people—even those to whom we are bound by blood?
The mystery of Jacob's disappearance is eventually solved. He is picked up by police in Cambridge and later released to his parents on bail pending trial. Back on home ground, he moves about in a stunned silence, a revenant. The fact that he gets no chapters of his own intensifies our sense of his inner distance from the others. His isolation within the family more or less mirrors the status of the Reisers in the community. There are snubs, cutting remarks, and anonymous telephone calls. Carolyn loses so many of her patients that she decides to take a leave from her job. Then one night Judith gets a ride home from a friend and confronts a flaming cross in the yard: “After so much that was mundane, and so much innuendo, the muttering under the surface, this was extraordinary. It was huge and clear, God talking from the mountain: Thou shalt not kill.”
Relations between the Reisers and their neighbors grow predictably more strained as the trial nears. What is less predictable, but emerges as the core tension of the novel, is the moral standoff between Carolyn and Ben. For in time Jacob breaks his silence and confesses to his family: he did kill Martha in a fit of blind rage, he is guilty. In Ben's mind the course is clear. He has already destroyed the evidence, now they must cook up a story for the trial. The book's epigraph, from Pascal, explains his moral justification: “When one does not love too much one does not love enough.”
Carolyn feels the implicit reproach of Ben's position. She, too, loves—but she loves differently, more reflectingly. She is unable to think only of Jacob. While Ben is a sculptor and househusband, Carolyn's vocation has exposed her to a larger world of suffering. She has seen parents in agony over their wounded children. She remembers Martha Taverner as a delicate child and has no trouble connecting with the grief the girl's parents must be feeling. Since there is no law protecting her from testifying, she decides that she will have to tell what she knows. Her truth will go up against Ben's. Carolyn refuses to accept the logic of their lawyer, Panos, who says,
Carolyn, screw what really happened! What's it going to take for you to get this? “The truth” in a courtroom is just a construction of effects. It's theater. … Either side can skew the way things appear, and how they appear is all that matters.
Pascal and Panos: the reasons of the heart versus the cynical manipulation of appearances. Carolyn and Ben must navigate between these two poles. To say much more, or to explain how the struggle is resolved, would be to strip the second half of the novel of much of its propulsion. Suffice it to say that all members of the Reiser family end up as pilgrims in the harsh land of after.
Before and After is a tightly paced novel. Its conflicts have been orchestrated to expose the tangled root system underlying all acts of moral choice. Yet in spite of this—because of this—the work fails. It is at once not enough and too much. Had Brown been content to play out the sensationalistic possibilities of her subject, there would be no problem. She would not have set herself up to be judged in these terms. But her decision to move the focus of inquiry inward, away from the more garish temptations, proves her undoing. Though the novel generates its own local heat—given the premise, it would be hard not to—it fails on follow-through. The reader is stimulated, even compelled, by the crisis and its consequences. But stimulation is not gratification. As soon as the covers are closed, the heat dissipates.
Not enough and too much. I mean that Brown has neither discovered nor created real characters. Carolyn, Ben, Jacob, and Judith are utterly without the singularity, the sap, that would let them possess the page. They all have their pedigrees, their pasts, and their basic identifying mannerisms, and all but Jacob are given the chance to express their emotions to the reader. Yet for all that, and despite the immense pressure they are seen to be under, there is not a spark of real life in any of them. The voices fail. They reach to a certain depth—the depth at which generic characters live—and go no further. Brown, like so many of her contemporaries, has put her trust in the voice continuum, that non-individuated drone-aquifer located just under the crust of the collective imagination. The author summons up a type and then lets idiom and convention take over.
Listen for a moment to Carolyn, who is driving with Ben to Cambridge to work on getting Jacob out of police custody:
She needed a cup of coffee to steady herself; they were, God knows, in no hurry. They drove until they began to recognize buildings, as if, in the neighborhood of the jail, they had been lost in the woods. Around Putnam Square, Ben found a parking space. The musical chairs of commerce kept replacing shops and restaurants with fresh alternatives—this year's fashions in cuisine and apparel achieved their fifteen minutes of fortune, if not exactly fame. Every time they came down to Cambridge they discovered that an old hair salon had become an antiques shop or a hardware store had yielded to a bagel bakery. They headed toward something new called Café Olé. Their favorite army-navy store (where Carolyn remembered finding a canteen and a set of flares once for Jacob's Boy Scout trip) had become a wondrously green flower shop, a dash of tropical green that looked as if it should exude its steamy sweetness right out into the frigid street.
To be sure, there is nothing really wrong with this prose. It hovers between exterior narration and interior monologue, situating us somewhere near the periphery of Carolyn's psychic envelope. The problem is that there is not a fresh phrase or a distinctive rhythmic turn anywhere. The prose simply cannot put us into contact with what we could believe is an actual person. The sentences glide on, drone on, saturated to the core with the kind of hip attitudinizing that may pass for consciousness in certain circles. I get no feeling of life. And if I blast at Brown for stuffing her novel with so many pages of this riffing, I must likewise go after a whole echelon of contemporary American fiction writers. For this kind of writing, the signature of creative halfheartedness, is epidemic.
My concern here is not with prose style alone, but also with the ways that style constrains or enhances the creation of character. Character may be destiny, but to get the fictional character positioned for a destiny requires a great deal of imaginative—and stylistic—penetration. Prose like the above will never kiss the dust awake. The reader greets at best an animated census figure, a Jane or John Q. Public with some attributes pasted on.
Which brings me to the “too much.” To put it most simply: Brown's subject has possibilities that far exceed what she has been able to realize. To embark on the big themes entails a certain artistic responsibility. But Brown is not willing to go the distance. We are led to raise all kinds of primary questions, but we are not given the materials we need to forge our answers.
The Reiser family is nearly torn asunder, but because we have not encountered its members at any depth, we are not allowed to feel the true fear and pity of their situation. Brown raises the issue of knowability, for instance—how well do we finally understand those who are closest to us?—but does not know where to take it. Here is Ben, reflecting:
You buy the toys, you close him in the yard where he's safe. And you think you know the whole set of characters in his head, the scary parts, and the sweet dreams. Only, one night he has a nightmare. It rips his sleep in two, and yours as well. You rush in, pull him from his crib as if it's on fire and comfort him against your shoulder—and he can't tell you a thing. … He's never had a trauma. Spontaneous combustion is what it is. The little microbes grow in the warmth of his head, the moist medium.
Which means what, finally? Is Ben acknowledging the existence of evil in the world, or is he just confessing his own stupefaction? It's not clear. And since this reflection bears so vitally on Jacob, on the fact that he bludgeoned his girlfriend to death with a tire jack—and kept bludgeoning long after she was dead—it is clearly central to the thematic weave of the work. We are prompted to ask not only the general questions about knowability, but also the more specific question: What would lead a boy from a nice family to explode in this way? It is not enough to say that other lives are sealed enigmas, but that is where Brown has left it.
The author does, at one point, attempt to expose a vein of gratuitous cruelty in Jacob's character. She has Judith relate to her mother an incident she once witnessed: Jacob was methodically stoning a dog that had been tied to a tree. “Carolyn was too stunned to pursue the details. Did he have another life? This couldn't be Jacob. He was never cruel!” Sorry, but this is not good enough. And yet this is where, philosophically and psychologically, we are stranded. To answer the question about Jacob, a question as urgent as Raskolnikov's, Brown would have to create a character—indeed, a family of characters—who could support the reader's sustained inquiry. She never does—the promise of the Pascal epigraph comes to naught. Brown has cracked open a set of issues vital to all of us, but she has failed to find the language, and through the language the lives, that would allow her to explore them at depth.
SOURCE: Bell, Pearl K. “Fiction Chronicle.” Partisan Review 60, no. 1 (winter 1993): 65-6.
[In the following excerpt, Bell asserts that the conclusion of Before and After leaves too many loose ends unresolved.]
A brutal murder is also at the heart of Rosellen Brown's Before and After, and like Tartt's novel, it was an immediate bestseller, with the film rights quickly snapped up. Beyond this, however, the two novels have little in common. Brown is an intelligent, thoughtful writer, of poetry as well as fiction, who is not tempted into pretension. Her new novel is a domestic tragedy about a family of recognizable human beings whose normally stable, predictably uneventful life is shattered by an act of willful savagery.
Ben and Carolyn Reiser, with their twelve-year-old daughter Judith and seventeen-year-old son Jacob, live in a small New Hampshire town, where Carolyn is a busy pediatrician and Ben is a sculptor who works at home and manages the household. At her hospital Carolyn is summoned one afternoon to examine the body of a young girl bludgeoned to death in an icy field. Horrified by the gruesomely crushed skull, Carolyn soon learns that Jacob was entangled with the girl, was seen talking to her before the body was discovered, and is obviously a strong suspect. Worse, Jacob has disappeared. When his father, hot-headed and impetuous, realizes how Jacob's absence will be construed by the police, he rushes out to his son's car, where he finds a bloodied jack and other incriminating evidence that he proceeds to destroy.
Despite the melodrama, it is clear from the start that Rosellen Brown is not manipulating a suspensefully delayed revelation about the murder but is concerned with the suffering that Jacob's crime inflicts on his family, and the ethical confusion and terror they are now forced, painfully, to confront. Relentlessly, Brown circles around some disturbing conundrums: Do parents ever really know their children? Is there any conceivable way of reconciling the conflicting demands of justice and family ties? How can a parent cope with the indisputable evidence of evil in a beloved child?
Brown attempts to deal with these unnerving questions by dividing the narrative among three voices, those of Ben, Carolyn, and Judith, each offering different points of view about Jacob and the murder. But the boy is not heard directly, as though to emphasize his stark and terrible difference from the others. He clings to his sullen, disquieting silence, shattering the nerves of his parents and sister, until, home on bail and awaiting trial, he tearfully blurts out his version of that fateful night; but his parents know it is less than the truth. Each of them is determined to make different use of the truth they've grasped, and their irreconcilable decisions splinter the family more gravely than ever. Ben insists, “I had no illusions. But he was my son, and my love is not provisional upon his actions or his goodness,” and he refuses to testify against Jacob. Carolyn, the last of the true believers in justice, and haunted by the indelible memory of the girl's bloody skull, tells the court the truth. Yet the trial ends in a hung jury, setting Jacob free.
Unfortunately, as the antagonistic moralities clash, Brown's dramatic scheme becomes too schematic and contrived. The father's unconditional support for his son, which he dubiously regards as a form of forgiveness, is asserted over and over again, but it is never credibly demonstrated. The mother's uncompromising intransigence seems equally implausible. Only twelve-year-old Judith is allowed to speak words of wisdom instead of the exclamatory shallowness assigned to her parents, for Judith alone seems to have any awareness of the reality of evil: “I mean, aren't there people who are just plain not nice?”
In the end we are left with only an ambiguous and irresolute sense of the irreparable damage that the murder has done to all the Reisers, and a mawkish finale merely papers over the cracks, moral and psychological, that Brown has failed to confront. We don't encounter the decisive, probing intelligence this novelist brought to an earlier book, Civil Wars, about the post-partum depression of civil-rights militants bereft of their causes by history. Reading Before and After, with its considerable wealth of acute observation and social detail, we can't help feeling cheated by the equivocal ending that Brown settles for, rather than a hard-won quest for an answer to her terrible question, “If your son was a killer, what would you do?”
SOURCE: Armstrong, Isobel. “In Death Estranged.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4692 (5 March 1993): 21.
[In the following review of Before and After, Armstrong examines the degrees of alienation the main characters feel toward each other and toward their small-town community.]
Before and After is a crime novel seen from back to front. When a teenage girl is found brutally battered to death in a small New Hampshire town, the mystery begins rather than ends with the discovery of the killer. And the drama begins and continues with the murderer's family, when the unsuspecting parents learn that their son is wanted for the murder. Not who did it, but how and why, becomes the question.
Rosellen Brown, an American poet and novelist, has written a profound novel about a family which has to find out about itself. Witnesses, clues, evidence, the grand finale in the courtroom, these are at the periphery of this story, as the sickening sequence of suspicion and knowledge is reversed. Knowledge precedes suspicion, and suspicion turns inwards as a family investigates itself. What could appear to be the ordinary tensions between adolescent and parent—late nights, money, the teenage driver—come to seem pathological. As trust dissolves, the nuclear family looks mad. Jacob's sister is abused by him and sees him stone a dog. Has a monster been engendered in its midst? Or have the blindness of the adults and the atomization of the family created the tragedy? To the end of the novel no one knows the truth. The trial, seen on a video only after the event by the exhausted parents and children, is no resolution: “‘The truth’, in a courtroom is just a construction of effects. It's theater”, the lawyer says, as Carolyn attempts to tell what she knows about her son, the murderer.
The vulnerable family unit breaks up as the characters struggle not to lose “faith in knowing anything”. Estrangement is intensified by the indirection of communication. All relationships might be the phantasms of electronic media. The novel begins with sequences from an amateur video recording the children and their achievements. Ben, the father, a post-modern sculptor, has made a Shaman whose belly contains a tape player which has recorded their long-ago voices. The alienation of the telephone recurs, whether in hate calls, long-distance explanations to uncomprehending grandparents, or the one-sided telephone communication in jail, as the parents talk to their silent, son, separated by a wall of glass. Experiences at one remove—through tapes, movies or television—suggest the bafflement encountered by the Reisers. The numbing effect of the media which we accept as a commonplace experience—Jacob, on bail, sprawls mute in front of the box full of animated little coloured figures—becomes both a subtle and a sinister way of exploring the difficulties of “knowing anything”. The characters see their actions through the clichés of courtroom movies and know that they are caught in second-hand experience. The mothers of murderer and victim encounter one another as images, through the mirror of a hospital washroom.
The novel's organization, contrasting Ben's intense and often angry first-person narrative with the cooler indirect narration of his wife's and daughter's experience, creates a disjunction between their perceptions. And we are reminded that narrative, too, is a mediation. What is never represented directly, but only through others, is the consciousness of Jacob, an emptiness at the heart of the novel which begins to feel like that blotting out of knowledge which is a symptom of trauma, a kind of narrative aphasia. Jacob's car and torn jeans are more substantive than he is.
Ben's CB relays the gossip of the community to the kitchen, bonding him, he thinks, in a naively self-congratulatory way, to the small town. But the Reisers are intellectuals, an artist and a paediatrician who have reversed roles. Ben is Jewish. These seemingly unimportant unconventionalities are enough to open up huge rifts between the family and the town, as the fragile networks of community come under strain.
Rosellen Brown has always been fascinated by the ways a community can fracture. Her last novel to be published in England, Civil Wars, 1986, is an exploration of suffering and violence caused by the civil rights movement. Integration is just as much the moral preoccupation of Before and After. She has said in a recent interview, “I hate novels as instruction”—the moral complexities of her imagined community transcend instruction.
SOURCE: Ratner, Rochelle. “Categorically Writing.” American Book Review 15, no. 4 (October 1993): 31.
[In the following review, Ratner offers mixed assessments of A Rosellen Brown Reader and Before and After.]
Call it modernist, postmodern, experimental, or whatever you want. It seems as if fiction writers have two choices these days: (1) to abandon plot and sometimes character as well (or at least interaction between characters), concentrate solely on language and its ability to stand on its head and do tricks; or (2) to be a traditional, unliterary, unpoetic (a.k.a. boring) writer. For those would-be literary writers who can't let it all hang loose, there seems to be no middle ground. And they suffer because of it. As Brown says in an interview contained in A Rosellen Brown Reader:
Every day when I get up and look at what I've done the day before, I try to eliminate what I used to call ‘he said, she said writing.’ The dead circumstantial. I replace scenes in which things simply happen with language as vivid as I can make it, with ellipsis, metaphor, summary which makes a pattern, something which distinguishes the writing from the plodding prose one often finds in realistic fiction.
Or, to take an example of this from Before and After, Carolyn and Ben have gone to the local tavern run by people from New Jersey they think are their friends. These “friends” tell them the murdered girl's father's been doing odd jobs for them, he's torn up by this, etc. Implying there's nothing left but to cancel the friendship.
I was sloshing the beer around in my mug the way you jiggle your foot when you're impatient; a little went over the edge, onto the wooden table. We stared at the splash as if it was a public indiscretion. Mock reached down, not with a napkin but with the hem of her perfectly white apron, the lace edge, and dabbed it dry.
Though these two books have little in common aside from the name of their author and year of publication, these two factors alone ensure that I'm not the only reader looking at them side by side, searching for common threads. I view the work contained in the Reader as one would a writer's journal—brief passages, shorter works that were later turned to or drawn from (consciously or unconsciously) in forming the larger work.
Were it forced to stand solely on its own merit, I'm afraid the Reader would be of little interest. The aim of the entire “Bread Loaf Contemporary” series, keep in mind, is to show a writer's work in all its various forms. Thus we find poems, stories, and essays. Poetry has never been Brown's strong point, and her finest poems, from the book-length Cora Fry, are not reprinted in this volume. A few new poems are as unimpressive as those selected from her first book. The poems are political, didactic, while her fiction conveys its politics through intense character studies.
Such portraits of conflicted, gripping characters can be found in the stories that open the Reader, all of which focus on weddings. But they are not filled with the expected joy and happiness. Instead we find fear, loneliness, people settling for each other, weddings postponed so long they never happen, an old man in a nursing home telling his grown children he's about to marry again.
“You have to understand that my writing has always suffered (if that is the word) from an absence, or at least a minimum, of plot,” Brown says in her essay “On Not Writing a Novel”—a statement that, to my mind at least, contradicts her frustration with what she calls “he said, she said” writing. But call it what you will, the stories in the Reader's fourth section are examples of Brown playing into what she considers to be her weakness, a lack of plot. These experimental pieces show the writer at her worst. Even the better-plotted stories in this section, built around the lives of angry, lonely women, do not show the sensitivity she is capable of in her novels, or in the stories that fill the first section.
No sense of plot? Take a look at the story-line in Brown's previous novels: a mother and her grown daughter struggle over the upbringing of the daughter's child (The Autobiography of My Mother); a loving husband causes an accident that cripples his wife (Tender Mercies); two bigoted children are orphaned and go to live with an aunt, uncle, and cousins directly involved with the southern struggle for integration (Civil Wars). The family values that play such a huge role in Before and After are nothing new to Brown's fiction; her forte is in beginning her novels at the very moment when the family structure begins to fall apart, and picking up the action from that point.
The essays contained in A Rosellen Brown Reader—literary criticism on specific, and often large, issues—are also self-reflexive, referring to her own writings to confirm her views, setting her works side by side with the writings of others. Two essays are particularly useful in guiding readers through Before and After. In “Displaced Persons” she speaks of writers working from their own lives, “and in my case, it is starting nowhere, having no sense of place, that has been my bedrock reality. … My subject has turned out to be exile.” This sense of being an outsider, not accepted by a town no matter how long you live there, is the hidden agenda informing the whole of this latest novel.
But the more important theme is the ways in which parents have no control over their children's lives. As one of her characters in Before and After comments: “You start out thinking your child's life is in your hand, you can hold it right there: he's with you all the time, that little baby.” Contrast this with the following passage from her essay “Fingerprints,” where she's talking about the birth of her first child:
Often these days, when I'm wheeling the baby in her stroller—pushing her off curbs in front of me, my unwitting scout who would be the one to suffer for some fool rounding a corner against the light—I see quick visions of her catastrophe … I, spectator, who dare feel such separateness whether I want it or not, who dream it up out of terror because all the love she pays me cannot buy her protection.
The novel begins with a melodramatic situation: the teenage boy who (as reader and parents both understand) has killed his girlfriend. But Brown writes slowly, pausing for detailed description of trivialities. Instead of portraying the emotional panic we might expect, she shows us characters in quiet torment. Yet this also is not one of those books where you flip pages, anxious to discern what happens next. Readers get caught up in the same scenery that envelop the narrators.
There are three narrators (mother, father, sister) and three sections: before they catch Jacob; after they catch Jacob but before the trial; years later. What for conventional novelists would be the focal point, the trial, the essence of TV dramas, is omitted. As Judith says: “The trial was IT, everything was Before or After IT, when our real lives might begin again.” Ironically, Brown is even clever enough write her way past this absence. Judith again:
you have to remember that all of us were witnesses, except for Jacob, who was the only one who was allowed to sit there through the whole thing. All of us were walked in and walked out again by the bailiff practically in chains, so none of us saw the whole thing.
And Jacob, of course, is the one major player in this novel who never gets a voice. The reader, by missing out on his viewpoint as well, gains a rare opportunity to identify with the other speakers, each in turn.
Judith's voice, which works extremely well as that of a twelve-year-old in the first two sections, sounds extremely contrived in the final section, supposedly a few years later. She hasn't grown; her speech and thought patterns are still the same. If the entire novel is not as successful as one might have hoped, it is all because of the thirty-five-page final section. This should have either taken readers to a different place or simply been omitted. To end on page 315 would have been far more satisfying.
Then again, to end before the book's final section would have left readers in the dark as to the outcome of Jacob's trial. And this is where Brown is limited by her inability to break from realistic fiction. Because she has begun with a plot, she assumes there has to be resolution in the book's final pages (and I recall being equally disappointed by the ending of The Autobiography of My Mother). Things need not end with the happily ever after of fairy tales. There can be movement; the characters can change, affected by the events of the novel. They do not necessarily have to understand themselves any better at the end; they do not have to make peace with themselves and each other. Before and After is not the first novel to be ruined in its final pages, nor will it be the last—it is simply one of the best.
SOURCE: Brown, Rosellen, and Missouri Review. “An Interview with Rosellen Brown.” Missouri Review 17, no. 1 (1994): 91-115.
[In the following interview, Brown discusses her current writing projects, the pros and cons of writing a best-seller, and politics in her writing.]
[Interviewer]: Can you tell us about your background, your family, and early influences?
[Brown]: I think my beginnings as a writer were not unlike those of a good many others. I was feeling particularly cast out at a certain point. I was nine, and the writing was a comfort. We had just moved from one coast to the other and I was very lonely in a new school, so I started taking along a secretarial notebook in which I didn't so much confide as create friends for myself, and play with language, right out there on the playground where I thought at the time I was being ignored by the real kids. I'll bet that endeared me to them, this girl sitting under a tree writing conspicuously in her little notebook. Interestingly this was the same year I felt it necessary to re-name myself. I was being called Rose Brown by a teacher too inattentive to notice that my name was actually Rose Ellen. So I began writing it as Rosellen, which has led, instead, to a lifetime of mispronunciation—but that's another story. My sense of who I was or wanted to be was up for grabs, clearly, in this new place, and I can see now that I did an unprecedented, and unrepeated, job of self-creation. A thorough makeover.
Would you subscribe to the “writer-as-outsider” theory?
It's always been pretty clear to me that most writers are slightly mismatched to their surroundings. Nothing original in that; it's the sand-in-the-oyster theory. Whether the discomfort is that of personality, class, family situation, sexuality, whatever, very few seem a perfect fit. So writing begins, very often, defensively. It fills a void. I was a pretty decent artist when I was a kid, and a good musician, with an older brother who became a jazz drummer. Why the writing stuck I can't say. To be honest, I often wish I'd become a musician. I'd rather be doing something nonverbal, something for which you didn't have to be smart so much of the time. My intuition is better than my intellect.
But in the end you chose writing over music.
The thing that fascinates me about writing in my own life is that I don't tend to think of myself as very daring or aggressive or even ambitious about anything else. Yet obviously it takes not only a sort of public boldness but a private, deeply held conviction of one's talent and of the world's need or desire to hear your particular voice to make you persevere against so many odds and so much silence. It is my single anomaly, this conviction that I must and would write, and that I would make myself heard. Just think of—oh, I don't know, choose anybody—Flannery O'Connor, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, Muriel Spark, Donald Barthelme—I'm intentionally naming very mixed company. It isn't hard to account for the certainty of their calling and the endlessly opinionated vigor of their writing: those are all people full of convictions. But my own fascination with the voices of others, and the pleasure I take in making them up and delivering them before live audiences, are mysteries. I sometimes think it's just that I so enjoyed reading, early on. Although you don't exhaust a book by consuming it, I still thought I needed to try to replenish the well a little with my own words. I'll never understand this uncharacteristic self-assertion any better than that.
What kind of reception did your first books receive?
I remember that the editor for my book of stories sent me some yellow tulips on publication day. As a friend said recently, I didn't know enough to realize they were the book's funeral flowers! I had a two-book contract. My first advance was ＄5,000 for the two, and I was delighted with it. I had been a poet and it never occurred to me that I'd make any money at all.
What was the process that brought your first novel, The Autobiography of My Mother, into print?
It was a pretty typical deal: Doubleday would do my collection of stories, Street Games, if I'd commit myself to write a novel. It happened that I wanted to write one, so this was not an unwelcome form of coercion. If anything, it got me organized and kept me going when I felt like throwing in the towel. I suppose I could have reneged on the novel. It never occurred to me.
Were you surprised at the good critical response to that novel?
I'll never forget receiving a telegram from my editor saying, “Congratulations, this is a wonderful book.” People think I'm exaggerating but believe me, I can hardly reconstruct my utter amazement. If I'd actually been aware of how little I knew, I'd have been even more astonished and grateful! Then the critics went on to educate me about what the book was about. It was beautifully reviewed by everyone but Anatole Broyard, who had also disliked my stories. But he was the only one who went into print about it. It won the Great Lakes Colleges Association prize for the best first novel of the year. Of everything I've ever written, this was the book I knew least about and was most in need of help with, but the help came after the fact. It restored my faith, in a funny way. It assured me that I could write even on automatic pilot. True, pure writing in the dark. Such innocence! It will never happen that way for me again.
You say the help you needed with Autobiography came after the fact. Did you have help before that, with your poems and stories?
I had a couple of mentors. In college, the poet Robert Pack taught me a lot of things, the most important of which was to sit back down and write it again. And again. And again. When I finally found the right word, I knew I'd never have done that on my own. And the late George P. Elliott, a very dear man and an undervalued writer, had a good deal to say about compassion, about not judging one's characters, about treasuring patience and neutrality. It's cause for concern that, gender politics having become the abiding preoccupation it has, many women these days will only value instruction they get from other women. Yet the two men I've just mentioned, and another who was my journalism teacher in high school, took me and my talent very seriously and taught me lessons that transcended gender. Of the three teachers who most affected me in my hope to be a writer, only one was a woman, my freshman English teacher. What she did was simply to ask me if I intended to teach college. Since neither of my parents had gone to high school, it had never crossed my mind that such a thing might be possible for me, so that was an extraordinary encouragement.
You've worked in a variety of genres—fiction, poetry, essays. Have you ever written drama?
I've actually had a little experience with drama. The first theater piece I did was in 1983. A children's theater in New Hampshire, where we lived for eleven years, until '82, commissioned a musical, and a composer friend and I adapted that beloved classic The Secret Garden. We couldn't market the play because of some unexpected copyright problems, and in the meantime Marsha Norman came up with her six-million-dollar Broadway version. Ours cost something like ＄250 to stage, and we did get our money's worth! I've never had such a good time. Having collaborators—especially, I suspect, if you're not working on your own book but on an adaptation of someone else's—is an extraordinary experience for a writer who's lived in that terrible isolation of her own mind for so long. To have set builders, costumers, a director and earnest, hard-working actors all putting their art into what you're used to thinking of as your own fantasy is sheer pleasure. After The Secret Garden, my husband and I collaborated on a sort of documentary drama, featuring Isaac Babel as narrator, which gathered together testimony about anti-Semitism in Russia starting in the tenth century. The play, “Dear Irina,” was produced in Houston, where I live. I learned a few things about theater from it, but it was more agitprop than art, and intended to be so.
Not all fiction writers can write drama. Henry James is the classic example of a great novelist whose plays flopped. In your mind, how different are the two genres?
My most recent novel, Before and After, actually began as a play. I had an idea that felt too easy, too familiar, to render as a novel, and that coincided with my curiosity about whether I could write a decent original script. So I wrote an act of it, just enough to get into the meat of the story but not out the other end. I'd sent it to a director friend to ask if it had any promise and he entered it in his theater's works-in-progress competition and it won! So more or less by accident I got to see my one act, my half-play, in a semi-staged reading and get a sense of how it worked as theater. There I discovered, as I had even with the children's play, that the popular idea that writing good conversation has anything to do with creating viable theater is resoundingly wrong. Making visible equivalencies to what's on the page—finding dramatic climaxes, tangible symbols—all that makes theater very different from fiction.
How did the play metamorphose into Before and After?
It happened that I had just put a failing novel away so that I could get a little perspective on it, and I was hungry to have another large project going. So I took the play and sort of wrote around it—transformed it into narrative. To be honest I think the novel begins much more cleanly than it would have had I begun it in my usual wordy way; you might say it “cuts to the chase” a lot faster than it would have. A few reviewers called the book “cinematic,” some as a compliment, some to give voice to their suspicion that, since the galley copy advertising had given out the word that the movie rights were already assured, I must have been thinking of it as a film all along. Not true, but I was seeing it as a play initially, so things move cleanly early on, uncluttered by too much authorial expansion.
What are you working on now?
I've gone back to writing poetry, not only to clear my head but to announce, to anyone who cares to notice, that I'm going about my business doing whatever presents itself as needing to be done. My favorite of all my books is a sort of novel-in-the-form-of-eighty-four-poems called Cora Fry that I published in 1977. I wrote that after The Autobiography of My Mother, literally to restore silence in my mind. Now I've gone back to visit Cora fifteen years later, to see how she's doing in middle age.
How did the first book of poems about Cora “restore silence” for you?
Actually, silence was only half of it. In fact, I saw it spatially. After the very gray pages of the long mother/daughter argument that constitutes Autobiography, I needed spare, laconic, controlled speech, with a lot of empty white space around tiny little utterances. And that's what I gave myself: the poems in Cora Fry are syllabic, tightly measured out. Cora is New Hampshire born and bred. I wanted a kind of analog to the rigorous speech of a native New Englander.
How does the sequel differ from the first book?
This time, having established Cora's personality and her family and situation way back then, the challenge is in finding a new voice that's still recognizably hers, yet shows the inevitable changes that have taken place. The problems and their solutions are as much technical as they are spiritual or emotional: no more syllabics, a looser, more variable line, a more expansive kind of prosody. I'm having a fine time doing these poems, which I hope will succeed because I love the character and many readers have been wonderfully devoted to her over the years. Farrar, Straus and Giroux is publishing the two books together next year.
You just called Cora Fry a “novel-in-the-form-of-poems.” Even when you work in other genres, you seem to have a novelistic sensibility. Is it a natural form for you?
I may or may not have begun with a “novelistic sensibility,” but I'll say that in my experience, after you've written a couple of them you develop a novelist's muscles—by which I don't mean strong, I mean stretched! It's gotten very hard for me to go back to small forms, which now tend to feel puny to me. As a reader I really prefer the short story to the novel, and a good story or poem already achieved doesn't feel at all slight. I'm only talking about what it feels like to embark on the writing of one. The long forms are so spacious and the speed with which details accrete is so leisurely compared to the story, that it takes real discipline, and more flexibility than I think I have, to meet the demands of both genres simultaneously. Yet, I love the outcome of that discipline far more than the novel, which can and must accommodate so many imperfect choices. I appreciate the compression of stories and poems. A good story is like a jack-in-the-box: open it and be prepared for something surprising to leap out!
Your story collection, Street Games, could also be described as “novelistic.” The stories are linked through setting and characters.
The suite—the collection of interrelated stories or poems—is one of the wonderful compromises available to us. You can be the architect of something larger than its parts: The cumulative effect makes the payoff far more satisfying than the individual small work. I think a lot of short story writers who'd like to write a novel but haven't much interest in, or skill at, the creation of plot have found that the way to make their work cast a larger shadow is to build it in small increments that, taken together, weigh more than they would individually. There needn't be a long, intricate arc of plot, only the kind of path you can make out of modest mosaics. This is, to overstate it a bit, Chekhov's answer to Tolstoy—a very contemporary pleasure.
How deliberate was the decision to link the stories in Street Games?
I had already written about half the stories when it occurred to me to join them into a kind of confederation. This was at a time when there weren't a lot of those linked story collections out there. By virtue of my concentration on the neighborhood I was living in, I had been unintentionally painting a kind of portrait of the place. Once I had the concept, I was able to fiddle around the edges of a few stories to make those people seem like plausible neighbors, and then I generated such an endless list of other characters and emotional and sociological situations that I could have written a book twice as long before I exhausted it. The same is happening to me now with the “update” to Cora Fry. Every day I sit down to my notebook wondering what Cora has to tell me today. I have a list of possible—what should I call them?—complications.
What kind of complications?
Complications with implications. Wrinkles in the fabric of her life. At the rate they've been leading from one into another, I can see that I could probably write a poem every day forever. The momentum is thrillingly liberating. Out of it certain directions take shape, just as they do in fiction: To create a character we can understand and sympathize with, I have to find actions to elicit her re-actions, and that's essentially a fiction writer's strategy; this is a hybrid form. I can indulge my desire to make large gestures at the same time that I have the pleasures of extreme condensation, the pressure I can put on the word, the line, the stanza.
Do you have a sense of message, of purpose, as you write?
A lot of my fiction, and my poetry too, has been fueled by a sort of displaced political energy. My first book of poems, Some Deaths in the Delta, and my novel Civil Wars concern themselves with civil rights era Mississippi. Street Games, my short story collection, is about the diverse group of people who live on one block of Brooklyn, a very mixed block racially and economically. That, too, engages political questions, some head-on, some obliquely. Cora Fry is the voice of a woman very tentatively finding herself. And my most recent novel, Before and After, turns out to be far more political in its implications than I had originally expected it to be. A “safely” middle-class boy murders his small-town, working-class girlfriend, and many questions inevitably follow, not only about morality in general but about class and small-town chauvinism.
Where did the political energy originally come from?
I grew up in a somewhat left-leaning family, though no one had done much besides vote for Henry Wallace back when he seemed a wild radical to many, and send angry telegrams against the execution of the Rosenbergs. My mother used to tell us proudly that she was what was called a YPSL back in the twenties—that's the Young People's Socialist League. But I suspect hers was more idealistic, and social, than active participation. We were a rather typical family of a sort that included a majority of Jewish New Yorkers who were always liberal and committed to what we'd have called “progressive” political ideals. Voting Republican would have been as foreign as interterrestrial travel.
Civil Wars is probably your most political novel. Where did the material for that book come from?
In 1964, just at the point when my husband was finishing his graduate degree, I received an invitation from the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship people who had paid my way through my master's degree, to teach in a “disadvantaged” college in a program they had just begun. The colleges were mostly in the South, mostly, though not solely, black. I remember we looked at each other and said, “How can we not?” This was just before the summer of '64 and there was an urgency to the call that we couldn't ignore. We were eager to do our bit in what we thought was the relatively protected setting of a college rather than a Freedom House; we hadn't really intended to walk right into the heart of the action. But when we were given a choice of postings, we ended up in Mississippi and, there in our first jobs, at the college and in the early poverty program, we had our lives turned around. My husband, who had just gotten his Ph.D. in clinical psychology, never became a practicing psychologist, but pursued more community-related work. And I found not only the subject matter for two of my books, but got what I think of as an initiation into the realities of American political life. People are lucky, sometimes, to be swept up by interesting times—though under a cruel star they can be ruined by them. We didn't have to go looking hard for an experience that gave us heroes and heroines, ideals and some of the means of addressing them.
Do you consider yourself an activist?
I've spent a lot of time wishing I were of the turn of mind that makes for activism. I admire Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen and dozens of others tremendously, but I have no talent for public life, either organizationally or emotionally. So I've resigned myself, not without a searing sense of guilt, to chronicling some of the inner landscape that's shaped by political realities. I felt at least momentarily exonerated when an anonymous reviewer in the New Republic took me to task for saying somewhat defensively on the back of my first book of poems, Some Deaths in the Delta, that “poems are not action nor action's substitute.” Someone told me the writer was Robert Coles, whom I unabashedly admire. Whoever it was, he or she said that good poems are events, and that their utility perhaps lasts longer than many of the acts that could be done by any one of a thousand soldiers for change. I know what the reviewer meant, but I still wish I were a more flexible and efficient person so that I didn't feel I continually have to make a choice between a life in the world and a life at my desk.
How deliberate is your choice of political themes?
Much of what I've written has more than incidental political implications, and all the way back to the time when I lived in Mississippi in the mid '60s I've felt that the activism I wasn't very competent at could be sublimated in my writing. But I have to search for those subjects; they don't seize me and demand to be given voice. I work at figuring out how to embody other people's voices, not all of them aggrieved. I find myself wishing I didn't have to feel defensive about starting, not with an agenda, but with that elite-sounding motivation, a love of words; or, pardon the expression, “art.”
Would it be fair to say, though, that political themes contribute to the success of your work?
I think they do. I don't know if people read me as political, with the possible exception of Civil Wars. But I'll tell you that from the Mississippi and Brooklyn poems in my first book, to questions about history and about personal versus public duty in The Autobiography of My Mother, to many of the stories in Street Games and on into the present so-called family novel, I've thought my work political, though not with any didactic intention. I don't have a particular constituency—race, gender, whatever—on whose behalf I write. I also tend to raise more questions than I want to answer, so I think it wouldn't occur to some to think of me that way.
Would you agree with the notion that all art is political?
Yes, all art is political. Thinking it's not is a political stance in itself. It was very strange and disquieting that one of the approaches taken by a lot of interviewers when Before and After came out last year was to invoke “family values” as a background against which to talk about my book. At best, after I'd disposed of the right of any political party to appropriate such values and to assume it represented the only “truly American” ones, it gave me a chance to talk about the question that lies somewhere near the heart of that novel: are we obligated to love, that is, to protect, other people's children as well as our own? The family is a tribe, and if we are ever going to get beyond the most primitive concern only for “our own,” then we need to see our responses as political even if they don't seem on the surface to have any ramifications beyond the “home and hearth.” This of course can be extended to neighborhood, to ethnic group, to nationality and race.
While we're still on the subject of politics, you sometimes come down hard on a certain kind of liberal. Sarah and Michael Rappaport, for example, indulge in “fashionable mercies” and “knee jerk charity.” Do you see such characters as symptomatic of a larger impulse?
I suppose I find attractive—I wouldn't call them “targets,” exactly, but “tokens” of certain kinds of contemporary earnestness—in characters like Sarah and Michael, though I tried not to caricature them. They are decent, concerned, the “best kind” of liberals out there, doing the best they can from their comfortable place in the scheme of things. I'm not unsympathetic; in fact I'm similar in some respects, except that I may see myself more clearly, and thus more harshly, than they do. At the far distant end of the same spectrum I have made characters like Gerda Stein in The Autobiography of My Mother and Teddy in Civil Wars, who are so passionately involved in their political and ideological pursuits that they lack many “merely human” and domestic virtues—common sense for one. That's clearly a stance I don't recommend, either, so I don't know that I challenge the pious simplifications of my “liberal” characters so much as I try to show that, viewed from the perspective of anyone who's radically troubled, their pleasant solutions are simply inadequate—wishful thinking.
One of your more impressive characterizations is Jacob Reiser in Before and After. Can you talk a little bit about how that character developed?
Readers are always curious about how characters develop. I have to admit that I display the same somewhat naive curiosity about the books I like. But how does anything in a book develop? How do we combine the things we “know” with the things we “guess” or “intuit,” and how do the demands of a particular work shape our knowing? The answers are all extremely specific. In Before and After, for example, I had to make Jacob into what I needed for the circumstances. Disappointingly mechanical as this might sound, he was a “what” before he was a “who.” The situation was simple at the outset: What stimulated me to write the book was a murder case, an intriguing component of a case, here in Houston. A seventeen-year-old boy was accused of a terrible murder and when it came time for his parents to give their testimony to the grand jury, they refused, on the grounds that the same privilege should extend to parents that protects spouses from having to bear witness. They went to jail rather than give evidence against their son.
How close is your story to the actual case?
The details bear no relation to the ones I ultimately invented. I began with the absolutely un-fleshed out premise that if a boy were accused of murder, his whole household would be thrown into wretched disarray. This is a family crisis—the catastrophe would befall all of them. Period. The first thing I thought of was to move the action to a small town. Someone else might have seen this as a quintessential big city story but I knew that I didn't want to write that story. Here I was driven by my own obsessions, which in this case include not only my knowledge and love of small-town New England life, but also the sense that the effects of such a crime would cast a firmer shadow, full of social and psychological implication, across a village of five thousand than a city the size of Houston. Then I started building backwards, in a sense: What kind of family might this be, to precipitate the greatest dramatic conflict?
Jacob, the teenage murderer, is amazingly convincing—especially considering you're the mother of two girls. Would you say he's a normal kid?
I wanted him to seem a more or less regular kid with a few kinky, inexplicable habits. I have two older brothers but I can't say they were really my models. After all, they were teenagers in a different generation. Living in the world, you sop up a lot of things you don't even realize you've taken in. My husband teaches high school kids; some of our friends have boys—teenagers—who slouch and mumble and terrify their parents into wondering if they're pathological or normal. I remember Anne Tyler saying once that she was grateful for all the pop culture her daughters dragged in across the doormat. A lot of those details aren't as gender-bound as you might think. So the little fragments of Jacob's life were cobbled together without much difficulty. As for his soul, his offstage inner life—it's kind of up for grabs, isn't it? I don't see him as terribly disturbed. I wanted him to live on a continuum not too far from where boys live, with better luck, who don't fall into the pit of their own worst possibilities. Where my real concentration lay was in the construction of the parents' sense of loss as their children grew up and began their hidden lives. Any parent could write those scenes, provide his or her own sad and happy little details. Really, all I wanted to do was try to build a more or less ordinary family life and then make it run askew, but not so askew that my readers wouldn't see themselves watching their children's lives as they recede into privacy and mystery.
You say you don't see Jacob as terribly disturbed, yet you make a lot of his “kinky inexplicable habits,” and of his temper.
Jacob's temper is his father's, visited upon him out of Ben's unresolved problems. But even Carolyn is finally compassionate about Ben's anger. She says to their lawyer, what is a person to do with problems he's tried his best to solve? Ben's had therapy, he's done as well as he could. But, she says, “Children taste what their parents swallow.” Try though one might, children will feel those effects, but what is to be done? Should we give our children up? Should we be prevented from having them until we're perfect?
The scene in which Jacob stones a dog is especially disturbing. Why did you choose that action?
I'm not sure I should have chosen anything quite so alarming as the stoning of that dog. I've given it a lot of thought since I've published the book and heard how many readers are practically ready to have Jacob committed for this act of random cruelty. What I was really trying to do—and it might not have been calibrated quite perfectly—was to show a boy still unformed, trying out his capacity to give pain. At one point his mother thinks of how she's watched him trying to look a little sinister in his black and red and yellow parka. He's a boy on the edge of manhood, uncertain of what constitutes masculinity. In fact, though it turns out that she suffers violence at his hands—an act of passion, not of intention—he has been very decent to his girlfriend, Martha. He has not been brutal. He's even been careful and thoughtful in their sexual relationship, about making sure she doesn't get pregnant. And she accuses him of being a wimp, because she has another boyfriend, the one who has made her pregnant, who wasn't as controlled and mature. She uses this against Jacob.
A fair amount of Before and After revolves around the workings of the criminal justice system. What role does research play in your work?
Most books take some kind of research. Even when you're in an arena you know well, there are always specifics you need to learn. That's one of the pleasures of trying to go far afield from your personal experience. Most writers don't know enough about other kinds of work. It does us good to turn our attention outward, away from the subjectivity we invest in our characters. The major danger of research is that you don't want to stop to begin the writing. I did a lot of talking to lawyers to help me straighten out procedures, not to mention legal attitudes, for Before and After. One of my terrors was that somebody like Scott Turow would embarrass me in public—in a Times review, say—for making some egregious legal error. It was a great relief to get a note from him telling me that he envied me my book! I also got a note from Perri Klass, who's a pediatrician and a writer. She seemed to find my pediatrician sufficiently convincing. You breathe a real sigh of relief when you hear that from the horse's mouth, so to speak, especially because, unlike Tom Clancy who learns all about tanks, or Michener who has a staff of researchers, you want your research to be discreet. You want to keep it in perspective and not let it get the upper hand.
What about Tender Mercies? What research about quadriplegics did you do to create Laura?
For Tender Mercies I had some wonderful cooperation from a woman I realized, when I was about a third of the way through the book, I'd read about in an old Ms. Magazine. She sounded very much like my character. Both were quadriplegics, and their similarity sprang from their particular brand of irony that's not surprising under the circumstances. I searched her out, and she talked with me quite candidly and let me watch certain procedures when the “handlers” in her nursing home came to take care of her. She was able to do that without embarrassment because people whose bodies have become objects have buried their sense of self. Watching her helped me locate what was left to my character, Laura, and her husband Dan. As the body becomes a burden, no longer a pleasure, one seeks elsewhere for the soul.
Would you recommend a writing career to your children?
I do happen to have a daughter who's pursuing the writing life, but she never asked me what I thought of the idea. I don't think anybody can give useful advice about becoming a writer. It's one of those things, like dancing or acting or any number of chancy, expressive things about which vocational counseling will not avail. If you're not passionate about it, the question will soon enough answer itself. The one thing I do say to people who think they want to do this is that they probably ought to major in something other than English in college. Even now, with a very congenial teaching schedule, I wish I were doing something else besides the endless dissection of other people's head-work. But by now I'm stuck with it—though this isn't to say I don't enjoy it a lot of the time.
What would you tell a young writer about the financial unpredictability of the profession?
It's gotten hard for this generation to live with the uncertain financial situation that writers have put up with in the past. There are too many well-worn paths to fellowships, teaching jobs. If others have them, why not themselves? Understandable enough: it's hard to go barefoot when everybody else is wearing good shoes. I'm saddened, often, to see our students graduate and stop writing because they think they need to maintain a certain standard of living that might be more negotiable than they dare imagine. They've grown up without much patience for penury. For the children of the middle class it feels outdated. I hate to sound self-righteous about this, but the fact is that early on, my husband and I lived mighty close to the bone because I didn't have a paying job. I was home writing; that was my apprenticeship. Would-be writers need to recognize how many of what they think are rock-bottom needs are really choices, within their control.
What effect have the opinions of others and the pressures of the marketplace had on your choices of subjects and genres?
I don't think I've been much influenced by others' expectations in choosing, or letting myself be chosen by, genres, subjects, level of accessibility. Partly this comes of starting out as a poet, with no expectations of commercial success. And of being a poet, and then a fledgling short story writer, at a much more innocent time. Though I didn't write in a vacuum, I was pretty isolated from any group of knowledgeable writers. For a little while in New York I used to get together with Erica Jong and Norma Klein, old college friends, to look at each other's work—we were quite near the beginnings of our publishing careers—and talk about this cottage industry of ours. Then I moved to New Hampshire, where I didn't really know many writers. What I remember is that I had pretty modest ambitions: I wanted to publish in the little magazines. Of course I wanted a book, but unlike my graduate students these days I had no idea what any of that actually meant or what I might dare demand. They are jealous very early of other people's publications, advances, reviews, visibility. In my innocence, I truly didn't have a clue that any of that might be mine—I just wrote, sort of dumbly. Now I work with students who've taken the pulse of every writer out there. The poets, especially, are avid analysts of career, reputation, rising and falling stars. I'm not sure I could have withstood this competitiveness—this sense of writing as a profession with a job description and salary demands, and a timetable.
You've made it in the profession now—you've written a best-seller. What demands are made on the author of a commercial success like Before and After?
Well, I have to say I think of it as a pretty stingy success: lots of praise, a place on the best-seller list, a dream set of reviews, many other fantastic, unimaginable commercial things happening to it, but none of it enough to make me exactly a household name. Before this, no one had much bothered to market anything of mine as far as I could see. In the case of Before and After, I finally had an invitation to the dance—the exhausting, exhilarating, frequently preposterous business of the book tour, the endless readings, the tedious, earnest questions—for which I'm not ungrateful. That's what you get, or rather give, when you finally have an audience.
Would you say it was a valuable experience?
I learned a lot about marketing this year. It's very interesting, but it's in the hands of the publicity department at your publisher and you're pretty passive if you're willing to play the game. I will say that being available for all the self-promotion takes a lot of time. I don't know how people manage to rise to it book after book. It's a great way to keep you from writing for months at a time. But once in a lifetime—it was a terrific ride!
Now that you have gone back to poetry, do you worry about losing your new audience?
I'm sure that the next thing I publish, which will be as uncommercial as my other seven books, will disappoint my new readers, but I consider the “marketability” of Before and After a happy coincidence of subject, marketing and luck. I don't expect to repeat it, nor do I even want to try. The only reason you keep your audience in mind when you write is to help your work make the best possible sense it can make, on its own terms. The charge you give yourself is self-fulfilling, self-delighting. You are shaping the best story or novel or poem possible. Part of that imperative might demand a certain lucidity, or a certain mood, or a certain playfulness. Sometimes you add details that make something manifest, or you struggle to fulfill a certain form. The point is that the command comes from within the work. Hack writers aren't writing for themselves, they're cutting their fabric to a pre-existent pattern that they know is selling well that season. All serious writers are their own audiences, with all the books of the past looking over their shoulders. If our readers' pleasure coincides with our own, that's all the better.
SOURCE: Parson-Nesbitt, Julie. Review of Cora Fry's Pillow Book, by Rosellen Brown. Belles Lettres 11, no. 1 (January 1996): 34.
[In the following review, Parson-Nesbitt assesses the strengths of the poetry in Cora Fry's Pillow Book.]
Novelist and poet Rosellen Brown refuses to allow her characters less than their difficult and contradictory humanity. Her new poetry collection [Cora Fry's Pillow Book] is narrated by the astute and unsentimental Cora Fry, a woman approaching middle age in a rural, working-class New England community.
The burden of being female, and how women cope, is news as daily as the mail Cora delivers. She describes a friend's extramarital affair with dry wit, and understands of a woman who cremates herself that she had “Nothing left of the world except a narrow strip of fury / on which, satisfied, / she struck the match.”
Cora and her neighbors accommodate to what feels like a suffocating narrowness—not so much of their daily activities as of the ways they are able to see themselves. From these limitations, Brown creates a rich inner life for Cora, who slowly finds redemption in “the insulin shots, the weddings, wills, / douches and rhododendrons, the pills and potato bugs, the bankruptcies / and valedictorians and drop-outs, the picnics and teapots and wakes.”
Cora's life in the outside world is less convincing. Years pass, her children grow up, but no one mentions movie stars, the Gulf War or President Reagan. Cora's landscape consists of creeks and gardens, with no MacDonald's and no mall. The language lacks regional characteristics, but as poetry it is subtle and profound.
Cora refuses to deceive herself about love or the ever-potent American dream, observing of a friend: “She's won the Publisher's Clearing House jackpot / like the rest of us, which could help with these bills if it were only / true.” This beautifully produced book includes the earlier collection, Cora Fry, to which the Pillow Book is a sequel.
SOURCE: Wolk, Merla. “Offerings: The Price of Speaking Out in the Fiction of Rosellen Brown.” Critique 38, no. 2 (winter 1997): 123-34.
[In the following essay, Wolk analyzes the effects that “speaking out” have on the female protagonists in Brown's novels.]
For all the wise humor, the rich ironies, and the confirmation of life's ambiguities that mark the fiction of Rosellen Brown as measured and reasoned in its judgments, disaster—terrifying, irreversible, irrational—stands at the center of each of her novels. A child dies, the consequence of mutual rage between mother and daughter, in Autobiography of My Mother (1975); a boat accident in Tender Mercies (1979) reduces a wife and mother to an infant-like state, a quadriplegic, with only voice and mind able to function; an auto accident orphans two children in Civil Wars (1985). placing them in the home of the “enemy,” people who abhor what the children have been raised to think and say; and a good boy from a nice, middle-class Jewish family murders his pregnant girl friend in Before and After (1992). One cannot help but wonder what this author, so committed philosophically to complex, grey-area, interpretations of experience, finds compelling about these events that suggest a very different picture of the world, a black and white vision that emanates from a nightmare projection of irrational forces and catastrophic punishments. In keeping with the realistic tenor of her fiction, Brown contextualizes each of these violent events. But when she links the circumstances to character, however accidental the timing that turns them into disasters, she implies a cause and effect relationship and one in which the punishment far exceeds the apparent crime.1
To understand the curious conjunction of balanced judgment and the imagination of disaster, I want to look at a subtext running through Brown's novels that articulates a cautionary tale about the dangers for women of verbal expression. Some of Brown's female protagonists are strident and outspoken, others silent and withholding, but all are smart, sensitive, ironic, with a strong desire to speak out, confident that they know what they are talking about. At the same time, however, neither the desire nor the confidence eliminates the anxiety over verbal expression. Laura in Tender Mercies worries that the high-toned quality of her speech sounds pretentious, making others uncomfortable. Renata in Autobiography, for all the hostility in her actions, cannot speak up for herself—choosing instead to demonstrate belligerence through silence. Helen in Civil Wars reveals in her diary that she has strong opinions, a keen interest in language, a poetic sensibility, but fears that speaking out will leave her homeless and abandoned. And only through the course of harrowing experiences does Judith in Before and After find the self-possession to speak up for herself.
Justifying this reluctance are the many imprudent speakers in Brown's fiction for whom speech is an instrument of war: Gerda in Autobiography whose speech antagonizes others even as it charms them; Carolyn in Before and After who, when she does speak her mind, testifies against her son being tried for murder, and Jessie in Civil Wars who, as one of the principal combatants in a domestic civil war, sounds the death knell to her marriage with the strong opinions she cannot keep to herself. Through these speakers, Brown suggests the alienating, aggressive, and destructive potential of speaking out.
Still another woman's voice speaks out in Brown's novels, that of the author. Rosellen Brown's voice appears in her fiction, of course, through all the elements of the texts, but never more characteristically then in the strategies she employs to tell her stories, strategies that demonstrate an essential fairness and imply a refusal to arrogate total authority. Reflecting Brown's insistence on the relativity of truth—her judgment that to say that things are this and that rather than this or that represents the highest form of reasoning—is the conviction, pervasive in her work, that no one person, even the omniscient narrator, can speak for all. She reinforces this conviction through her narrational choices, whether the alternation of chapters from different points of view—as in Autobiography of My Mother and Before and After—or the use of a third person center of consciousness that provides the perspective of one character interrupted by a diary or personal reverie of another—as in Civil Wars and Tender Mercies.
Feminist theory has questioned the complex effects of personal relationships on the way women speak, on what they choose to say, and on the psychological imperatives that shape women's ambivalence about speaking out or keeping silent.2 Although respected studies have challenged the conclusion that the relational voice is necessarily a woman's voice, (Henzl and Turner; Davis) nonetheless, the judgment that anxiety over competition and fears of abandonment and aggression inform some women's speech seems highly persuasive and one that finds verification in Brown's fiction. If we read the subtext about speaking out in her novels, keeping in mind its pertinence to the woman writing, we will be able to read a connection between the discourse of rationality implicit in the texts' just distribution of narrative power and the discourse of irrationality lodged in the repeated imagining of disaster.
Autobiography of My Mother, like most first novels, sets forth the author's most psychically compelling concerns. This text corroborates the truth of Lacan's insistence on the connection between language and being. Brown's two angry women, each in very different ways, demonstrate an exhibitionistic desire to command an audience and exercise power. Each encounters resistance and rejection that threaten personal relationships. In reshaping their bids for acknowledgment and appreciation so that they can impress their audience, how and when and why they speak—or keep silent—can be read as attempts to accommodate their virulent competition with each other and to compensate for their positions as outsiders to the larger system.
Demonstrating the impartiality that is to become a hallmark of her fiction, Brown, in alternating chapters, allows each of her angry protagonists to voice her version of their uncivil war: the combatants—Gerda Stein, celebrated civil rights lawyer, mother, and grandmother, European, Jewish emigre and her daughter, Renata, a sixties flower child, with a fatherless daughter of her own. This battle brings them at the end of the novel to the side of a waterfall where Gerda intends to deal the most powerful blow of all—to inform Renata of her plans to sue for custody of Renata's little girl, Tippy, and where instead the neglected child falls to her death.
Emerging from their stories of “she did this” and “I only did that” are two contrasting responses to issues of speaking out. Gerda revels in language. Combative, assertive, “brook[ing] no uncertainties,” (94) she speaks for the undefended and the indefensible. Gerda uses language as a weapon; to talk is to dispute. Her daughter calls her “ballsy” (34), which at once sexualizes and masculinizes her activity. A writer manqué3 who loves words, Gerda shamelessly and deliberately indulges herself in exaggeration, fabricating stories about her supposed escape from Nazi Germany, creating a fictional persona. These stories make her the delight of the talk-show circuit—especially to publicize her book, “Conspiracy of Silence” (36). The title implies the psychological tension located in issues of speech in Brown's fiction and reinforces the notion consistent throughout her work that keeping quiet is in itself a speech act, one with subversive power.
Through Renata, Brown measures the reception of Gerda's exhibitionistic verbal expression, and what she finds is that Gerda's language, her big mouth if you will, in effect silences her daughter. Brown suggests that being overwhelmed by the mother, having her needs and her very self neglected and then rejected, being made secondary to her mother's own needs for self-expression accounts for Renata's passive, reactive psychology—her self-destructive acting out. In a poignant memory, Renata describes her mother taking her as a small child to an exhibition of pictures of the downtrodden and her trying to figure out what it was her mother wanted her to say about them—what would be right! what would please. Renata's adult reactions to her mother make evident her anger at having had to guess what the mother wanted her to say and then having to voice it. But expressing this anger more effectively damages herself than her mother. Although the sections of the novel she narrates reveal a witty, ironic, articulate young woman capable of a keen, if ungenerous, appraisal of her mother, Renata speaks out most commonly through adolescent actions. Demonstrating an odd combination of helplessness and exhibitionism, she gives herself over to men's desires—any man, anytime—at the same time that she makes increasingly outrageous attempts to gain her mother's attention. When she speaks out, when she leaves her mother cryptic, self-pitying notes, she earns only her mother's scorn.4 But when she chooses silence, she discovers the means to make her mother into an attentive audience.
Competition with the mother stands at the very center of this conflict over speaking out, and the images of combat reinforced throughout suggest that the competition is for one's very life, certainly for the personal identity that constitutes who one is (Wolk 169-72). Carol Gilligan argues that women, fearful of breaking the connection between self and other, frequently hide who they are and find ways around direct competition.5 The internecine competition in Autobiography between mother and daughter indicates the wisdom in finding alternate routes. In a crucial scene in that novel, Brown indicates that it is the competitive battle that sets the women on course for the disaster. Renata and Gerda appear on a talk show called “Confrontation” (214) in which a slick talk show host interviews three pairs of famous, successful parents and their offspring including Gerda and Renata. At this juncture in the text Brown brings the issue of competition to the forefront when the host asks the son of one celebrated parent a question that Renata thinks could “justify a suicide” (216)—“How do you manage not to feel—competitive … ?” When it becomes Renata's turn to answer the host's questions, she chooses silence as the only way to make her “voice” heard above her mother's. To Gerda's great embarrassment and her daughter's great delight, Renata discovers the antagonistic power of silence and remains mute on live television and from that point on to the horrifying climax of the novel. Renata's deliberate and sustained refusal to speak to her mother thus becomes the precipitating cause of the tragedy as it leads to Gerda's decision to try to take her daughter's child away from her. And that decision brings them to the waterfall.
In both Tender Mercies and Before and After, Brown presents less discernibly serious versions of the competitive struggle described in Autobiography—ones that have apparently more to do with etiquette than essence. Laura and Carolyn respectively are highly aware that appearing too smart, too well-educated, too well-bred intimidates others. When they choose to speak out or keep silent, they do so with an awareness of that threatening potential. But if the causal relationship connecting speaking out, competition, and catastrophe, evident in Autobiography, models what operates in the other texts, then the idea that competition merely threatens egos instead of lives is a camouflage. The severity of the disasters in the later novels—paralysis in one, murder in the other—give credence to this hypothesis.6
Tender Mercies, seemingly a much quieter book than Autobiography, a book in which the rage appears muted, nonetheless explodes in a disaster caused by an exhibitionistic display of macho—“a little boy playing power” (52)—from a husband “hurrying” to “catch up” (51) with his wife's verbal skills. Brown indicates that Laura's use of language dazzles the nonverbal Dan. Before the accident, she had been his teacher, instructing him in new words and new values. After the accident in which Dan took the helm of a boat he didn't know how to navigate,7 Laura becomes like a helpless infant who must be assisted in the most basic acts, who cannot function alone, and who has to learn language all over again. This conjunction of competition (“hurrying to catch up”), verbal skills, and disaster echoes similar conflicts in Autobiography.
Further evidence in Tender Mercies that Brown connects competition, speaking out, and disaster suggests that the accident serves as a kind of payment in advance, a sacrifice of sorts that enables speaking out. In one scene, the now physically disabled Laura allows herself the freedom to flaunt her gift for metaphor and her knowledge of poetry before her neighbors, something she would not dared to do before the accident. She can risk showing off, she implies bitterly, because she has lost so much: “they can all walk: let her have her advantage” (92). The one thing the accident has given her is the reckless confidence to speak out.
This scene burdens with heavy implications what certainly could be read as a simple, pardonable act of delighting in one's verbal powers. What is so socially unacceptable about a little showing off? What is so psychically threatening about speaking out? Whatever the specifics of the burden, many of Brown's heroines carry it. Renata, for all her passive aggressive behavior, does not seem able to speak in her own defense, although she speaks vociferously on behalf of her mother's housekeeper, Catalina. Laura, suffering both the indignities of her disability and the pain of her loved ones' difficulties in adjusting to it, finally at the end of Tender Mercies, timidly and modestly remarks, “I've learned to ask for things. No one seems to mind” (207-08). Judith, too, in Before and After, callused from her family's ordeal, announces at the novel's end that she is “learning to speak up a little” (359). In Civil Wars, Helen emerges from her preferred mode of communication—a withholding silence—to ask her step-mother to read her diary, and, Jessie, thinking she is respecting the girl's privacy, refuses. But Helen insures an audience the second time she asks by putting the diary in Jessie's purse with a sign that says “READ THIS” (400).
What can be construed from a consideration of these varying responses to questions of if and when and how to speak out is that as the author works from novel to novel, she finds progressively greater resolution of the conflicts. Helen's desperate demand to be heard, with which Brown ends Civil Wars, represents a bolder and more direct claim than the ambivalent bid imagined in Renata's silence or in her attempt to speak to her mother over the roar of a waterfall in Autobiography and than Laura's pathetic bravado in Tender Mercies. Although the dynamics between speech—either written or oral—and calamity shift through each subsequent text, Brown seems to remain convinced that the psychic complexities informing the anxiety-laden enterprise of speaking out exact high costs. Brown sets up situations that suggest that for a certain kind of woman access to verbal power and pleasure might be earned imaginatively through the experience of disaster. In this reading, the catastrophes are as protective as they seem destructive.
To get a sense of what kind of woman Brown imagines finds speaking out so dangerously competitive and competition such a provocative act, we must look at a condition that Brown's guilty speakers have in common, their status as outsiders. Brown, in interviews and in essays, calls the theme of “exile” central to her work and life.8 Gerda, of course, as pre-World War II immigrant from Alsace-Lorraine9 is the most obvious and literal exile in Brown's fiction. But other of Brown's female characters also bear the imprint of marginality: Renata has not only dropped out from the larger system, but has withdrawn from any social system (the talk show host compares her to Bartleby); Laura, in Tender Mercies, is doubly outside. The accident that excludes her from the ordinary social exchange, subjecting her to condescending or callus remarks, just reinforces the sharp differences in education and sophistication that have divided her all along from her small-town, close-knit community. In Civil Wars, Jessie is a Jew and a northerner in a southern town and Helen, a fundamentalist and a racist brought to live in an irreligious, politically liberal family. Being Jewish, being accomplished, being thus “privileged” turns the Reisers of Before and After into “them” rather than “us” in their New Hampshire town. When they first move to town, they are ominously reassured that if “everything went well, [they'd] never hear about [being Jewish]. But if anything ever went wrong—” (211), a warning that forecasts both their ready ostracism after the murder, as well as the nasty antisemitic tone it takes: an anonymously sent postcard that reads “JEWS BLEED CHILDREN,” and a cross burned on their lawn. The wording of this reassurance measures the stakes: the least these outsiders can be is perfect.
Thus religion, gender, geography, and education place these characters on the margins of their social system. This position then influences not only what they know but what they feel comfortable saying. Generally, being outside both frees Brown's female protagonists to see what insiders cannot and hampers them in the telling. That dual experience, of greater freedom countered by greater restriction, reflects the inherent ambivalence of the outsider, a conflicted attitude about the self in relation to others. Standing outside a social system intensifies the wish to get in even as it whets the desire, often defiantly so, to stand out. Being inside can be protective—the less one is distinguishable from others, the less of a target one is—but it can also seem psychically annihilating, because in blending in, the outsider ineluctably blurs the edges of what makes her special. Further aggravating the ambivalence of the outsider is a natural resentment against those whom she feels exclude her and a concomitant desire to dazzle them, perhaps even to show them. These impulses to impress others can go hand-in-hand with what Sander Gilman in his brilliant discussion of Jewish Self-Hatred argues accompanies adopting the standards of the dominant culture that keeps one outside in the first place—a negative self-judgment that ranges from Gilman's hatred to a tenuous self-esteem to uneasy feelings of being undeserving. Included, then, in this cauldron of mixed feelings is the linking of the wish and the fear of being noticed, on the one hand, and of being overlooked, on the other. Further exacerbating the conflict is that when outsiders speak, they do so from the understandably anxiety-producing position of inviting scorn and inciting envy. The subtext in Brown's fiction charts the experience of characters who exhibit different manifestations of this conflict and try out assorted maneuvers to achieve the odd success of the outsider, an achievement that includes exhibiting what one is, doing what one does best, and offering penance in advance in order to get away with it.
Now it is time to bring together the threads of this argument: the psychodynamics of the competitive wishes and fears of the woman as outsider as they manifest themselves in issues of voice; and the contradictory relationship between the discourse of rationality that occupies one pole in Brown's fiction and the discourse of irrationality that occupies the other. To do so, I want to look at the subtext on speaking out as it appears chronologically through her novels.
Again, Autobiography, as Brown's first extended exploration of the relative attractions of speaking out and keeping silent, instructs us. Not only does it articulate conflicts for the female outsider that will appear in differing forms in each of her novels, but it ties the characters' concerns to their author by identifying the female protagonists as writers, thus locating the concerns about speaking out in a dialectic about writing. We know from the title that we are reading about writers, two women involved in composing an “autobiography.” Curiously, however, the title also tells us that their writing project is a logical impossibility because by definition one cannot write an autobiography about someone else. In naming one of these two writers Gerda Stein, Brown insures that we will think of the precedence for such a project in Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and will associate Gerda with that other Jewish woman writer, that other exile (Wolk 179-83). Just as the real G. Stein's project expressed a literary sleight-of-hand allowing her to write about herself under the subterfuge of writing about someone else (a gesture that suggests both her strong desire to speak out about herself and some reservations, however particular to her, about doing so), the title suggests something camouflaged in Brown's novel as well. It is possible to see Gerda and Renata, whose symbiotic relationship Brown implies in the title and announces in the text where Gerda refers to them living “one life,” as two sides of a single writer.
If we think of Gerda and Renata as representing two projections of Brown's concerns about women's speaking out (a subject not surprisingly on the mind of a woman writing her first novel) we see her imagining two approaches—an angry, belligerent voice, insisting on the certainty of its own moral perceptions, shamelessly (from Gerda's own account) courting the attention of an audience—and a silent voice, just as angry, just as belligerent, and just as shameless in its aggressive application for attention, but of course representing an impossible choice for a writer.
The novel ends with what seems an excessive punishment for both the characters.10 Their bald, barely disguised efforts at commanding an audience, at exhibiting their charms, at insisting on their interpretation of their shared story, have led to the horrifying death of a child—the event that rebukes those efforts. At the same time that the novel tells a story suggesting that punishment befits those who speak out angrily and greedily, Brown herself “gets away” with commanding an audience and showing her immense talents. Her mode of presentation, however, strikes the balanced, impartial tone that eludes her characters. In a sense, that tone points to the conflict, and the disaster provides the remedy. She can punish herself by imagining the worst and survive to tell another tale.
That tale is Tender Mercies. In this novel, Laura is not a writer, but she exhibits a writer's sensibility in the poetic reveries that represent her voice in the text. The horrifying accident that reduces Laura's functioning parts to a voice and the mind that fashions it breaks the quiet surface of the novel. It is almost as if Brown imagines a fairy tale bargain, “all right, you want power through verbal expression! I'll grant your wish, but it will cost you.” What has Laura done to deserve such a cost?11 Nothing really. Certainly in part this tragedy just signifies unaccountable misfortune. But a causality and its implications inhere in the text as I have indicated earlier. We can see further implications in the equation between what she loses—her mobility, her dignity, her power to move and act and do—and what she gains—feeling entitled to speak out and no longer having to worry about offending.12
In Brown's next novel, Civil Wars, Helen represents a more readily identified writer as the author of a well-written diary—Brown's technical device for providing another point of view in the novel.13Civil Wars is a rich, complex novel framed by the catastrophes of a fatal car crash and a flood. It is also, for all the gravity of its subject matter, an exuberant novel, that contrasts in manner to the more restrained Tender Mercies. Despite the disturbing events of an automobile accident that orphans children, a flood that has the potential to drown one of them, ugly race and marital conflicts, repeated instances of fathers' abandoning and betraying their families, Civil Wars reveals its author as someone who has comfortably found her voice. If anything, Brown overindulges her brilliant talent for metaphor. At every turn she reaches associatively to create more complex and wider implications for her characters' perceptions and actions. At times the text takes on the qualities of the baggy monster of Jamesian definition, but Civil Wars presents an embarrassment of riches, suggesting that having found that voice, Brown cannot resist the opportunity to display all of her immense gifts. Although, technically, restraint might have profited the whole, the reader is the happy beneficiary of Brown's poetic gifts. Significantly with respect to this argument, in Civil Wars, although one disaster sets off the plot, placing the orphans in their aunt and uncle's home, in the second disaster, the flood, the sacrifice this catastrophe might have exacted is avoided.14 This novel replays, in some ways, the issues of Autobiography: the stories of two females, mother and in this case adopted daughter, the daughter angry at the mother, wanting her compassion and assistance. Helen's direct plea for readership and Jessie's willingness to be a receptive reader able to overlook the anger in Helen's diary and focus instead on the needy child beneath it are the means by which this child avoids becoming a sacrifice. One can hypothesize that conjoining the greater permission granted the exhibitionistic speaker, the more expressive and dazzling style, and the evasion of the final sacrifice suggests that the author has progressed significantly towards resolving her own conflict.
If Civil Wars replays some of the details of Autobiography,Before and After reworks elements of Tender Mercies. Set in the same kind of New Hampshire town, the Reisers are outsiders, by education and class and by ambition and religion. They also stand out and on the margins of this community by virtue of their unconventional gender roles: Ben, the artist and homemaker; Carolyn, the pediatrician and principal bread-winner. In this novel, Brown tells the Reiser's story through three narrative perspectives: Ben's (in a first person narration), Carolyn's (a third person center of consciousness), and Judith's, whose view we get first through an omniscient narrator until the end, when the narration shifts to first person, suggesting that she has found her voice. This time the horrifying disaster is seventeen-year-old Jacob Reiser's murder of his pregnant girl friend. Again, rage informs stories of staggering personal torment. Again, the author strives for balance by fairly giving each of the family members, except Jacob, a voice. Unbridled verbal expression still incurs retribution: the furious taunts of the pregnant “Bad” girl appear to bring about her own death through her insulting words. But the in many ways equally insulting speech of the mother who chooses to testify against her son in order to serve justice is not ultimately destructive. In an unexpected outcome, Carolyn's speaking out against her son saves him because her testimony cancels out the father's. (Ben hides incriminating evidence and then implies the boy's guilt by refusing to testify.)15 At novel's end, after two hung juries, the boy is free.
In this text, in terms of aesthetic coherence and of complexity of vision Brown's most accomplished and successful to date, she indicates, further—although not total—resolution of the conflicts addressed in the subtext. The family, following its torment comes together and accepts that joy, however momentary, can be experienced even in these circumstances. More significant, Judith accepts the mixed bag of the eager competitor. At the end of Before and After, as she speaks for herself in the first person, she expresses her determination to excel in her chosen mode of artistic expression, showing no more than a “tant pis” for not being “too nice in competition” (350) and becoming “the up-and-coming star of the dance department” through talent and “will.”16 Disaster seems this time to have offered as much as it took away.
Although Brown, through selected protagonists, works with different elements of this conflict over speaking up and being heard, none of them experiences the entire dynamic I have outlined here. Laura in Tender Mercies and Judith in Before and After earn the power and pleasure of speaking out from the disaster that changes their lives, but the disaster is not of their own making. In contrast, although Helen in Civil Wars and Renata in Autobiography set in motion the series of events that lead to the culminating catastrophes of their respective novels, it is only at the novel's end that each seems poised to make a claim to be heard. Thus, the full purview of these issues belongs to Brown, who re-figures the details of the conflict as she moves from novel to novel, and to her readers, who recognize and respond to their psychic power.
What Brown suggests through the discourse of rationality running through her fiction is her conviction that at best, we can only make muddled sense of a chaotic, ironic world and that maturity inheres in learning to tolerate and even embrace ambiguity. This adult voice renounces the literal, absolutist feelings of early childhood that envision a world sharply split between good and bad, right and wrong, ruled by the promise of unforgiving punishment. But, of course, no childhood voice is ever entirely silenced, and it makes itself heard in Brown's fiction through the discourse of irrationality with its harsh consequences for even imagined crimes.
For writers, speaking through the imagination is a sublimated activity that allows not only childhood fears to be spoken but pleasures granted. Some of those pleasures are either restricted or forbidden in many adult social contexts. For those outside the locus of power in society, such as women and Jews, the pleasures of exhibitionism, of competing and winning, of expressing anger, and of speaking out, have been, historically, restricted and even forbidden. A system of ambiguous rewards have been part of religious and cultural traditions that in their early forms silenced Jewish women's public expression at the same time that they sweetened the stricture by exalting that silence. The subtext in Brown's fiction reflects an appropriately ambivalent response to those coded and contradictory messages.
What I have called the childish voice speaks with a Jewish accent in the concept known as keyn eyn hore—the evil eye whose object is those who deserve punishment not through transgression but through accomplishment, or perhaps more accurately, through a transgression that is accomplishment. The disasters in Brown's fiction are her keyn eyn hore, her ptui ptui if you will, offering in advance the sacrifices conjured up by a punishing imagination.17
One explanation for the place that the irrational occupies in Brown's fiction is one she herself has offered—that she is interested in exploring the extent to which we can control our lives and wants to imagine how one deals with those forces that elude control.
In her 1982 study, In a Different Voice, Carol Gilligan urges her readers attention to the special characteristics of women's voices, asking that they not be judged against male models, but interpreted instead with an appreciation of their particular psychological imperatives.
But Brown tells us that Gerda feels she is “too tense and too straightforward” to become a writer; she needed to find a way “to circumvent the need for charm” (94).
Even at the end of the novel, when all the competitive anger explodes in Gerda's plans to sue for custody, the little girl dies because Gerda cannot “hear” Renata's warning to hold the child's hand at the edge of a waterfall.
See also Wolk 1988.
Gilligan reports that when she showed women pictures of two or more people in a work situation, the stories they imagined accompanying the pictures include some kind of disaster.
One of the few things Dan can recall about the moments before the tragedy was the sound of his wife's “happy” voice in the water.
In her essay “Displaced Persons,” Brown tells of her own experience with being the exile—the outsider—because she moved so frequently during her childhood. The longest time she spent in one place was four years. In the essay Brown indicates that writing compensated for the feeling of alienation as the other children came to admire her talents. Probably most writers feel like outsiders—a positioning that can provide an expanded perspective on what they observe. Outsider status tends to be also endemic with women and Jews.
Brown said, in a letter to me, that she chose this location for Gerda's birth to “double her alienation by making even her country-of-origin (or rather her vicinity-of-origin) a contested one, thrown back and forth as it was, like a football, between the Germans and the French.”
Susan Suleiman has argued persuasively that this excessive punishment is really a punishment for the mother/author (Brown) who feels conflicted about combining motherhood and writing. Because most issues are multidetermined, Suleiman's reading does not negate my locating the conflicts in speaking out.
Brown has said that she wanted to write in Tender Mercies the story of a marriage, and that to do so she stripped this woman of everything to show that she was still loved even though she could no longer do the ordinary work of a wife and mother. One cannot help but ask why the stripping had to be so savage? (Brown's comments were made in an unpublished interview with me in 1985.)
At the end of Tender Mercies, Dan asks Laura whether she would give up one of her children to get use of her limbs back. A curious question. The narrator remarks that Dan asks that question in an effort to understand what it feels like to be Laura. But the odd question contains the suggestion she must choose.
Although Helen represents another one of Brown's females who speaks most loudly and angrily through silent withholding, Brown's other protagonist, Jessie, speaks her mind. She confines herself, however, to the domestic sphere. Brown chronicles her development as a speaker from the young groupie of the 1960s civil rights movement who is annoyed but tolerates her hero-lover (soon-to-be-husband) Teddy kissing her in mid-sentence, stopping her speech about civil rights as he claims ownership of her, to the strong wife and mother of the 1980s who says what she has to say.
Helen thinks of herself as a potential sacrifice when she hides in the attic of the house abandoned because of the flood and waits to see if those who read her diary will come to the rescue.
Ben also tries to cite the Fifth Amendment, but its privileges do not apply in this Grand Jury situation where he is being called upon to speak out, not against himself, but against his son. The issues of whether to testify or not or the right to cite the Fifth Amendment both locate the conflicts again in matters of speech and silence.
Speech is still dangerous. [In this town, before the murder] “gossip … did the damage between antagonists that guns did in cities” (13) and disaster still occurs.
In conversations with me, Brown has spoken of how the principle of keyn eyn hore has deep significance for her.
Brown, Rosellen. The Autobiography of My Mother. New York: Ballantyne, 1976.
———. Before and After. New York: Farrar. 1992.
———. Civil Wars. New York: Knopf, 1978.
———. “Displaced Persons.” in A Rosellen Brown Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose. Hanover and London: Middlebury College P, 1992. 59-71.
Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.
Gilman, Sander. Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.
Henzl, Sally and Lynn Turner. “Rationalizing Conflict Choices: Do Men and Women Speak the Same Language?” Advances in Gender and Communication Research. ed. Lawrence B. Nadler et al. New York: UP of America, 1987. 175-87.
Suleiman, Susan Rubin. “Writing and Motherhood,” in The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation. ed. Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, Madelon Sprengnether. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. 352-77.
Wolk, Merla. “Uncivil Wars: The Reproduction of Mother-Daughter Conflict and Rosellen Brown's Autobiography of My Mother.” American Imago 45 (1988): 163-85.
SOURCE: Haskell, Molly. “Race and Reunion.” New Leader 83, no. 2 (May-June 2000): 33-4.
[In the following review, Haskell asserts that the racial situations in Half a Heart are at times unbelievable and the characters are occasionally unsympathetic, but notes that Brown's most effective depictions are of the bonds between family members.]
Rosellen Brown's best-selling novel, Before and After (1992), describes the devastating effect on a family when the teenage son accidentally kills his girlfriend and becomes a fugitive from justice. But the title could serve most of her novels, focusing as they do on a cataclysmic event that spotlights family tensions and radically changes things forever, like red dye poured into a colorless liquid.
In the exquisite and wrenching Tender Mercies (1978), the husband has virtually cut his wife in half in a motorboat accident, a horrifyingly literal enactment of a cleavage both physical and psychological as well as temporal. In Civil Wars (1984), a liberal, racially idealistic wife living in an integrated Southern neighborhood must adopt the children of her reactionary in-laws when the mother and father are killed.
The node point of Brown's latest novel, Half a Heart, is the birth of a biracial daughter to Miriam Vener, Jewish housewife and one-time social activist, 17 years before the story begins. This highly topical what-if fable, reminiscent of British director Mike Leigh's white mother-black daughter film, Secrets and Lies, chronicles the social and psychological fallout when a mother and child with different colored skin but the same intractable curly-hair gene, meet for the first time in their adult lives.
It is the summer of 1986. Now settled all too comfortably in a white Houston enclave with her successful doctor husband and three children, Miriam still experiences spasms of longing for the baby she surrendered to her lover Eljay back when they both taught at a Mississippi college. A music professor, Miriam's lover was charismatic to begin with and newly armed with messianic SNCC credentials. He'd convinced Miriam that the child should be raised black and she, all too prey to white guilt, had acquiesced. Now she regrets her weakness every day in what she sees, rather horrifyingly, as a “replacement life” with “replacement children” and a replacement love.
The heat in Houston is stifling. Miriam's children are off at camp, and she decides to track down Veronica, who, from the apartment she shares with her father in Brooklyn, has coincidentally been trying to find her lost mother. The stage is set for a reunion: Miriam will pick up Ronnee—she long ago rejected the fancy “Veronica”—and take her to the Veners' cabin in New Hampshire.
The trip is awkward, amusing, full of deep skepticism on the daughter's side and, on the mother's, a helpless yearning to connect. Over the years, Ronnee has resisted the intimidating pressures of her black power father—applying on her own to a private mostly-white school to get a decent education, following an apolitical bent for the theater, and now, having been accepted at Stanford on partial scholarship, vowing to go to there over her father's objections. She is anxious to get the tuition money he can't provide (her secret reason for looking up her mother).
It never occurs to the strangely naïve Miriam that her daughter has an ulterior purpose, but the mother is less than courageous herself when it comes to acknowledging her daughter. Although her long-suffering husband is aware of the situation, she has never told her children, her friends, her New Hampshire neighbors, and simply plops the young woman into an alien world hoping for the best. Miriam's hand is forced when a crisis in her ailing mother's health requires her to return to Houston and Ronnee insists on accompanying her.
Like the melodramatic Before and After, whose characters—the truth-seeking mother, the defiantly evidence-destroying father—were conceived as unchanging embodiments of conflicting attitudes rather than fluid human beings with overlapping needs, Half a Heart suffers from an architecture of polarities, shaped here by race. Suggestive of the novel's contrivance is the too-neat, too-complete bifurcation of Miriam's life. We are asked to believe that this once passionate demonstrator and academic would embrace—or at least enthusiastically settle for—a sort of white-flight life among rich and complacent suburban types: intellectually somnolent Houstonians, “bottle blondes” and a sprinkling of Jews. Even as Miriam is deeply and self-punishingly uncomfortable with her life, she is perversely comfortable with it.
But the life-style choice rings hollow, a setup in which Brown plays a double game, allowing Miriam to retain a feeling of superiority to her provincial world, as long as she lets herself off the hook by condemning her own snobbery. Comically dismissive of her corroding, even fatuous social conscience, Miriam is the designated radical of the group, given to futile spurts of anger at her smug friends. She accepts the riches of her large and glaringly well-furnished house, while never letting herself or her husband forget that their carpets were “created by dozens of small subcontinental children hunched double making knots, a lifetime of knots,” a description that rightly drives her husband Barry “berserk”—although he seems to have been initially attracted, and is still in thrall, to her bullying idealism.
As types, the Veners and their friends can be extremely funny at certain moments or illuminated by felicitous phrases. As characters, however, they are never allowed to resist the author's puppeteering. Brown's irony deflects but doesn't quite take the sting out of Miriam's nastiness toward her husband, whose common sense virtuousness she sees as a mark of limited imagination.
Perhaps the situation is itself too Oprahtic, too rife with metaphor, too laden with the weight of America's racial impasse. Brown deserves points for bravery in attacking head-on what is possibly the most difficult dilemma facing America today: How can blacks and whites engage in a conversation, find any sort of equilibrium that isn't instantly upended by programmed emotions and hardened reflexes, by revenge and separatism on the one hand, by guilt and condescension and conciliation on the other? A poet as well as a novelist, Brown is one of our most gifted writers, wise and humorous with an acute sense of paradox: Over and over she acknowledges the absurdity, the impossibility, of this attempt to communicate, as well as the desperate need to go on trying, but the sense of complexity and paradox is more evident in her authorial insights than in the broad brush-strokes of characterization.
Miriam and Barry are Sensibility and Sense, walking oppositions, like Miriam and Eljay, antithetical elements in a laboratory experiment. Miriam's unfathomable behavior with Eljay, the entire sequence where she becomes pregnant, decides to have and then give up the baby, remains inexplicable and is underscored by Brown's defensive writing. Has the putatively progressive Miriam never heard of contraception? Eljay does not want the child, but the very sight of a pregnant teenager with no access to abortion drives the inanely compassionate Miriam to go ahead with her own pregnancy. Say what? Later, with Veronica between them, she gives way to Eljay's belligerence while inwardly ridiculing his “sloganeering.”
During the account of Miriam's Mississippi days, our exasperation at Miriam's dumb side is voiced by the delightfully no-nonsense Jewel, who punctures Miriam's phony idealism. A bit of a sitcom guardian angel, but no less welcome for that, Jewel is a gutsy, funny black colleague and lesbian who was Miriam's best friend. Not surprisingly Jewel, and all the friends Miriam once loved and protested with, have been consigned to oblivion so that Miriam the apostate can live a life of self-reproach and reverse racism among pallid Texans.
In fact, neither Jewel's blasts of logic, nor Miriam's own self-accusations quite compensate for the abysmal gaps in Miriam's reasoning and impulses, the credibility gulf between the simpering doormat Miriam and the skeptical “what a crock!” Miriam. As a rich Jewish girl, she is at a perpetual moral disadvantage before Eljay's impossibly harsh childhood and history of discrimination.
“It haunted him like a doom, like a self-fulfilling curse,” Miriam says. Then, dazzlingly, “She had never been sure how much forgiveness its outrages ought to buy him.” This is no sooner said than it is broadened rhetorically into: “That, of course, was turning out to be the question of the century, not simply of her love affair with Eljay Reece: How much love, how much compassion do we owe in return for struggle and pain? Sometimes she felt she'd been part of an experiment to find that out.”
Just so. And perhaps the price of the experiment is not only Miriam's suffering but the distortions, the twists and turns in Rosellen Brown's perception of her, giving with one hand, taking away with the other. To me, the most chilling moment of the book is when we realize that Miriam's self-hatred, extended to her Houston life, embraces not only her “friends” but her husband and children as well, the latter seen as second best and inauthentic because they are white.
Miriam should have fought for her little brown child, forgiveness be damned. But if she had, we would not have the Guess-Who's-Coming-to-Dinner denouement in which Ronnee is introduced at a coming-out party and thereafter makes her way into the Veners' upper-middle-class Houston milieu.
The climax arrives when Ronnee and her white boyfriend, caught in a seedy section of town in his sister's car, are arrested for car theft and Ronnee is mauled and manhandled in a Houston jail. Finally, the moment Miriam has been waiting for. Her activist juices are flowing again; memories dance in her head of those '60s highs, the physical closeness and excitement of bodies crushed together, marching, hugging. She intends to file charges even though the publicity would cause havoc to her family, mortify Ronnee, and be an exercise in futility.
Jewel arrives to knock some sense into her head, lashing out not only at the self-indulgence of Miriam's cry for “justice,” but at the condescension inherent in her contempt for her “dungeon”—the luxurious house and circumstances, her material well-being. Most blacks, Jewel points out, would be happy to have a piece of it and would greatly resent Miriam's privileged martyrdom. And not just blacks, I would add, but a great many whites. Beyond the range of Miriam's black-and-white vision of the world there are a whole range of climbers and idealists: blacks and whites, esthetes, politicos, bigots, materialists—sometimes the bad and the good, consumer and dreamer, inhabiting one and the same body.
The difference between a felt, genuinely particular relationship and one that is politically pointed is the difference between Miriam and Ronnee's color-coordinated struggles on the one hand, and, on the other, Half a Heart's tangential but vivid love story of Miriam and her dying mother. There the orneriness of the mother, the exasperation of the daughter, the warring and loving intelligences of both yield some of the best writing in the book. It is not that the prose of this supremely skilled writer is ever flat. More often than not it is virtuosic—a passage in which Miriam listens to and describes Ronnee's unique speech noises is beautifully rendered. But in Miriam's scenes with her mother, and thoughts about her coming death, the novel's all-purpose, prime time friendly artifice falls away. There are in each precious mother-daughter encounter layers of richly inhabited, pulsating life, of specific yet identifiable tribal and family traits, a sense of characters so lived-in that their mutual story is a tiny gem of a novel within the novel.
SOURCE: Brzezinski, Steve. Review of Half a Heart, by Rosellen Brown. Antioch Review 58, no. 4 (fall 2000): 525-26.
[In the following review, Brzezinski compliments Brown's characterization and the situations that the protagonists must endure in Half a Heart.]
Brown, the distinguished author of Tender Mercies and Civil Wars, returns in this new novel [Half a Heart] to her two most enduring thematic preoccupations: family relationships and the racial divide in America.
The novel is composed of two major sections. The first surrounds the search by former civil rights activist Miriam Viner, now an affluent Houston wife and mother of two, to find the daughter she conceived 18 years ago with Eljay, a politically militant black college professor in Mississippi, and reluctantly gave up. The second section involves the daughter, Ronnee, who for reasons of her own attempts to reconnect with her mother, culminating with Ronnee's decision to come to Houston to live with the Viner family for the summer before starting college at Stanford in the fall.
Though the novel ends on a hopeful note, this is a sobering and honest look at family conflicts exacerbated by the confusions of race, identity, and class. Both Miriam and Ronnee's motives for reconnecting are complicated and ambivalent. Miriam is trying to assuage the guilt she feels for her increasingly comfortable and boringly privileged life; Ronnee manipulates this guilt in an attempt to extract financial reparations from her mother for her abandonment. How mother and daughter, albeit grudgingly and uneasily, are ultimately able to break through these agendas and finally confront each other as human beings provides the novel with its powerful and moving conclusion.
Though certain situations seem pat and stereotypically formulaic, the main characters, including the proud, embittered Eljay and Miriam's genially tolerant husband, Barry, sympathetic to the girl's pain but fearful about how her existence will impact his “standing” in the community, are complicated, richly drawn, and powerfully rendered. Ronnee, with her combination of intelligence, accumulated hurt, and defense mechanisms is an extraordinarily successful and memorable creation.