From life

On Movie Stars and Being Moved

In 1997, I was just out of college, having gone straight to graduate school and moved to New York where I knew almost no one. I had one friend from college who’d come here to try to be an actress who was living in this dorm-style residence for women where I’d also lived briefly in college and I remember going to the lobby to meet her and feeling like I was some girl from the fifties destined to be a shopgirl while pining for life on Broadway.

One weekend that summer, I went to see two movies that stuck with me for very different reasons. The first was Neil LaBute’s first movie, In the Company of Men, which was then making something of a stir for the way it shows bad man doing bad bad things – basically, a bunch of corporate assholes doing asshole stuff, one of whom fake seduces a deaf woman in order to dump and humiliate her. I haven’t seen it since then – I imagine I would find it fake-daring, as I do so many of these films that “dare” to show people as completely and flatly evil – as if that were any more psychologically insightful than a Disney cartoon. Inevitably these characters are still charismatic because they are being played by attractive movie stars good at making themselves liked, so these performances are seen as “brave” and “complicated,” making them “more than monsters,” etc. Probably if I saw it now I would note the ridiculousness and offensiveness of the premise that a woman who happened to be deaf (and who of course also happened to be beautiful) would be so desperate as to fall for this ploy, inexplicably having no friends or romantic prospects of her own. In any case, I don’t remember who I saw the movie with, but I remember afterwards we both looked at each other and said something like, ok, we each have to go home now and take twenty showers with bleach.

The second movie was Mike Leigh’s Career Girls. Its world was as grounded and measured as LaBute’s was absurd. I don’t remember a lot of the plot but I remember the dynamics between the two main characters, college friends whose bond and struggles the movie charts moving back and forth over six years in their twenties filled with crappy jobs and desperate doomed romantic obsessions. I especially remember the game they would play of “Miss Bronte, Miss Bronte,” turning to a random page of Wuthering Heights for the “answer” to a pressing question. (Roger Ebert beautifully ends his largely positive and somewhat perplexed review by apply this trick to understanding the movie. It works.)  And I remember the amazing face and performance of Katrin Cartlidge, who died way too young and was also breathtaking in Breaking the Waves.  I do remember that I saw this one with a female friend who I could tell was also very affected by it, in probably painful ways, and saying, ok, time to go home and read the Brontes. I got home that night and turned on my little clock radio to set the alarm and heard someone weeping because Princess Diana had died. I turned it off and thought, but the Brontes! Later that week I had an argument with a friend about why people were sad about the deaths of famous people they had never met, which in my young self-righteousness I saw as grandstanding and parasitic. It didn’t occur to me that I hadn’t been moved by the news because I’d been too busy being moved by fictional people.

Three times in my life I have been moved by the death of someone famous. Of course there are many many people I admire whose loss saddened me, but most often it’s an abstract rather than visceral reaction. It’s not the thing I couldn’t understand when people felt it about Diana,  thinking about them something in the way I would about someone I had known. Two of these were recent: James Gandolfini last year and Philip Seymour Hoffman this week. Partly this is for obvious reasons: they were such commanding presences, and ones whose performances I’d spent so much time with, that it was hard to imagine that force just disappearing. Interestingly, both were most famous for the dark characters who are often delicately referred to as “complicated” – meaning they do really terrible shit and meaning I might likely have reacted to them with the impatience I had with LaBute’s movie, but I didn’t. I do wonder what they might have done if we didn’t have this way of associating the powerful physicality they both had with violence or deviance. By far my favorite role of Hoffman’s was Phil Parma, the kind nurse who engineers a reunion between Jason Robards’ dying patriarch and Tom Cruise’s misogynist “motivational speaker.”  What if, I wonder, more of our best writers and artists thought that damaged people who do what most damaged people do – struggle, drink too much, take it out on themselves – were as interesting as revealing, time and again, that people who do terrible things are also damaged?

The other death that moved me was Heath Ledger’s. In this case it wasn’t because of any of his performances, but because of something that had happened a few months before. It started as a funny story – my first good New York celebrity story despite being a decade since that night when Diana died and I just wanted to read the Brontes. At the time I was volunteering at Housing Works bookstore in Soho. One day Heath came into the store. People started to whisper – was it really him? His companion, a woman with an Australian accent, asked if we had a copy of a certain book.  I explained that since the books were all used and donated, we didn’t have database, but mentioned the section where she might find it. When I pointed to it, she asked if I could walk with her. I explained that I was working the register. And then – at least the way I remember it  – Heath said – why don’t you look yourself – and gave me a look of sympathy. That’s right I thought. Heath and I are having a moment. It’s me and him against her.  It reminded me of what people always said about Bill Clinton – the making you think you are the only one in the room thing. Eventually he bought a couple hundred dollars worth of mostly elegant hardbacks. I remember one of them was Chomsky – one of the linguistics ones. He said “you have a beautiful store.” He joked about whether his credit card would work. I think I have enough on that one. There it was on his American Express – H Ledger. It didn’t work at first, so I rubbed it on my shirt. A week later he came in again, this time with his daughter. A couple months later, he was gone.

Sometime after that, I read what is probably my favorite short story, Miranda July’s “Roy Spivey.” It begins like this: “Twice I have sat beside a famous person on an airplane.” The first part of the story is the narrator’s account of the odd conversation with she has with the second of these, a movie star.  At the end of the flight he explains that they won’t be able to talk when they get off.  They come up with a code: he will say “Do you work here?” and she will say, “no.” But when the time comes a flight attendant interrupts. work here, she says. will help you. Then she rolls her eyes at the famous man, as if she was commiserating with him about people like her.  This is the kind of imperceptible but all-important shift short story writers often try and fail to give weight too:  the little shifts in our alliances, the circles we draw of who is inside and who is outside. The narrator wants to mark that her connection was real, but it was too late. “His eyes were mute. He was acting.”

In a brilliant n+1 essay, Christopher Glazek talks about the psychic space taken up by those who die while young and beautiful, thinking about how Joaquin Phoenix’s response to his brother River’s death has resonated with his own experience of his brother’s mental illness. I realized while reading that if I had seen My Own Private Idaho and Running on Empty before rather than after River’s death, his would have been the first to have shaken me, the way it did so many about my age.

The idea of separating an artist from his or her art can mean a lot of things in a lot of different contexts, most of which I think are largely impossible, even if desirable. This is especially so in the case of movie stars, who live inside the instruments of their art.  At the end of July’s story, the narrator finds the movie star’s number after many years and thinks about how the idea of their connection has promised to save her. At the end of Glazek’s essay, he describes why we cannot help but read our lives through those of the stars, especially the damned stars, no matter how complicit or parasitic that may make us:

When art fails to provide catharsis — when the movies won’t resemble reality, or admit their own unreality — the tabloids take over. Here, at least, the world is half-acknowledged, if not transcended. Recognition, of course, is not the same as resolution: the only thing like life is life, which is so much longer than a movie. The story seems never to end; the suffering does not stop.






Last week I went to buy a new blank notebook. The situation had gotten pretty desperate:  the scraps of paper I was using were taped to other scraps.  Somehow I went to my campus bookstore three times before I could find where they were keeping them. But how many to get? I needed one for my teaching notes, one for notes on various writing projects, one for a personal journal. Should there be one to take notes on things I was reading? Some of those were related to the writing projects, but some might be extensions of the journal. And sometimes the journal would turn into a story if I got bored with telling it straight.  Someone suggested another one for to-do lists and life management. In the end I bought four, but already they’re all mixed up, what is in one should be in the other . . . 

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On Being a Problem

Once, when I was studying in France during college, I was at some sort of dinner party, the kind where I was the youngest person there by about twenty years. I remember being asked about the death penalty (which often seemed to stand in for Europeans’ sense of the United States’s backwardness back then – ah, the relative innocence of those Clinton years) and about Virginia Woolf (because when you tell French people you’re studying literature they ask you about what you’ve read instead of asking if you like being poor the way Americans do).  In my mediocre French I managed to say, more or less, that I was against the death penalty and very, very much in favor of Virginia Woolf.  Then the male host, who up until then had been pretty quiet, leaned in with that “ok this has been fine and all but now I will ask the really important question people are afraid to ask” posture.

“Et les noirs, aux Etats Unis?” he asked. ” Comment ça va?” Black people in the U.S. How’s that going?

Now, obviously, he  didn’t rationally think there was anything I could say that would meaningfully speak to the condition of 30 million people. Like a lot of dinner party conversation, it was a performance. I think he disliked me for some reason and wanted to trip me up, to ask something ‘controversial’ that would throw me off balance.  The people he was talking about weren’t really people, weren’t really even a ‘problem’ or a ‘question,’ they were just words for him to say.  I wish I could say I whipped up a stinging reply invoking James Baldwin about how we don’t have a black people problem, we have a white people problem, or something like that.  Instead I mumbled, well, that’s a very complicated question. The female host saw my discomfort and changed the subject and may have shot her husband a nasty look. I don’t remember exactly.

But I remember that detail from that dinner party from all those years ago because it comes to mind every time I read some article about what people – most often women, or non-white people, or poor people – are doing wrong.

For a long time I was unable to read any article like this that was about a group I’m a part of. Being relatively fortunate and white, these were usually relatively mild pieces about why there were so many single women in New York City and why so many people were stupid enough to go to graduate school in the humanities. Back when I was doing internet dating, I made a rule not to reply to the (so so many) guys who had rants about how they never wanted to date anyone who identified with any of the women on Sex on the City.  I didn’t identify with them (well, almost never), but I was weary of anyone who was a little too excited to have a shorthand for the single-woman-as-problem. (Correctly so as I found out when I broke my rule).  I still have a problem getting through a lot of these kinds of articles, especially now that I’m a mother. Maybe I’m just sensitive, and this is just a variation on the Groucho Marx problem. I can’t read any article that has me as a member of its problem. But I don’t think I’m alone on this.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last few weeks because of these horrible ads.  Now, not surprisingly, a lot of the responses have been about the tone of them, whether they shame teenage parents and whether they’ll be effective. There’s been less discussion about whether they are accurate.

Kell Goff  claims that critics have focused on tone because “of course” they’re accurate – a claim she finds so self-evident she doesn’t feel the need to support it – although she finds time to link to a very relevant study about young people wanting to be famous.

But actually, there’s a lot of evidence that they’re misleading at best. This overview of recent studies  argues  that teen pregnancy is a result, not a cause, of poverty and that it actually has “little, if any, direct economic consequence.  Kristin Luker reached the same conclusion in her book from 1997, and Planned Parenthood’s criticism of the ads cites the work of Frank Furstenberg,  who did an early long-term study following young mothers and their kids and found the same thing and similarly summarizes the findings.

Now, I know a lot of people find this hard to believe. But you, know, that’s why we have studies: because something seems intuitive and is agreed on by both liberals and conservatives doesn’t make it so. And when you think about it, it actually does make sense. Kids are expensive! scream the ads. But they’re expensive no matter what age you are. If you’re middle class, your income will likely go up a lot over the course of your working life, so waiting has a lot of economic benefits. If you’re poor or working class, not so much. And having your kids early has some advantages: you have more energy, you’re more likely to have help from your own parents and extended family. (Ironically, you’ll see articles acknowledging this, but usually only when they’re using it slam on women for having kids too late.) And being a parent can inspire young people to do well in or go back to school, and to achieve in all kinds of ways.

But these false beliefs have real consequences for real parents and their kids. Listen to someone who’s been there: 

“As a teen mom, my life has seen some insanely high peaks of hell and it wasn’t because of my pregnancy or motherhood, it was because of the crappy experiences I had to endure with people who were (and still are) judgmental and bitter. When I wanted to apply for college in high school, my guidance counselor told me not to bother – that I should focus on trying to graduate high school first and apply to a community college IF that even happened. When I turned to people for support, they threw statistics into my face and told me I was what these very ads portrayed. I wasn’t. I’m not. And most teen moms aren’t. Until today, I still hear the “Well, you should have thought about that before becoming a mom.” 

There’s a particularly awful irony here: when people cite statistics about poverty in order to talk about the challenges of helping students succeed, the administration who spent your tax dollars on this crap accuses them of “making excuses.” Demographics aren’t destiny! A good teacher can solve everything! Defy the odds with bootstraps! But once you’re a fallen woman, the (misleading) statistics are all. You no longer have any agency.  Poverty isn’t a problem in Bloomberg-land; it’s a punishment.

That’s why the criticism that “you can’t change people’s behavior by shaming them” isn’t quite right. Because the people being shamed aren’t ones the ads are talking to. They’re the ones being talked about. They’re the problem. They’re the object lesson meant to wear the scarlet letter for the rest of their lives. And we should think twice before doing anything to improve their lives – or the lives of their kids – because it will send the wrong message. That might sound paranoid, unless you remember the “debate” over welfare reform.

I remember leaving the hospital with my son just over a year ago now.  The hospital where he was born is on a busy city street, so I remember the odd feeling of stepping out from that other self-enclosed world to find the city had been going about its normal business. I remember the mix of exhaustion, adrenaline, joy and terror.  I can’t imagine what it would have felt like if I had come across an ad, an official message put forward by the city of which I was a citizen, that told me my worst fears were justified, their realization inevitable, and that any joy I was feeling was a delusion to which I had no right. I would say that I wouldn’t wish such a feeling on anyone, but I sort of do wish that the ad team that came up with this “edgy” concept and probably is congratulating themselves, taking the controversy as evidence they’ve “started a conversation” or what have you, would feel it, just for a while. Because they’re the problem.

The Secret Lives of Wives and Widows

So T.S. Eliot’s wife has died.  Wait, what? How is that possible?

Of course you can probably guess: “Mrs. Eliot, who was almost 38 years younger than her husband, had been his secretary for several years at the publishing house Faber & Faber when they married in 1957.” 

The Times obituary itself is a kind of accidental masterpiece, a perfectly calibrated mini-biography, evoking the strangeness of the lost worlds that passed away with her:

Esmé Valerie Fletcher was born in Leeds, England, on Aug. 17, 1926. Her father, who was in the insurance business, was a bookish sort who passed on to his daughter his love of poetry. She said she fell in love with Eliot — or at least his work — when, at 14, she heard John Gielgud’s recording of “Journey of the Magi.”

After her schooling, she worked at a library at the University of Leeds and then as a secretary to the novelist Charles Morgan. When a family friend who knew Eliot mentioned that he was looking for a secretary, she applied.

I love those dashes. Because how is a 14 year old to know the difference between a man and a voice on a phonograph, one that doesn’t even belong to that same man? 

 In my benevolent literary dictatorship when novels about professors who sleep with their students have been banned, I may make an exception for stories about those students, or other younger women who  marry much older men years down the road: what happens later when the men are not older but old or sick or dying? I know this sounds nasty or vengeful like, ha, they still grew old and died but I don’t mean it like that. A while back I read the excerpt from Francisco Goldman’s memoir/novel Say Her Name in the New Yorker. He says that when they got together, they would joke about how the future would play out, and he’d promise that if he was still alive at a certain point he would go off and leave her while she was still young enough to meet someone else, but as it turned out he was the one who lost her.

But of course more often the odds are not defied.  Valerie was 86 when she died. The marriage that put her obituary in the papers  lasted seven years. Her widowhood lasted forty-seven. 

My own grandmother was a widow for twenty-seven years, despite having married a man one year her junior. Only shortly before her death did I come to understand that so much of her personality and interests, so much of her way of being in the world – or what I had understood it to be – had been forged out of this widowhood, and that my mother and aunt and her husband and four sisters and known and loved a very different woman.  

For Valerie, of course, the widowhood that lasted more than half of her life was also her career. She managed his estate,  edited an edition of The Waste Land, edited his letters, got rich by authorizing Cats, started a foundation with that money, and defended his reputation. 

There are a lot of very obvious feminist points about this, about the trajectories of bookish girls born in 1926.  For a while I got kind of obsessed with the throw away descriptions of wives in profiles of artists and such and started collecting them. Things like this: 

During their thiry-five years of marriage, Natalia Dmitriyevna served as her husband’s first reader, editor, assistant, cook, driver, researcher, and (because Solzhenitsyn was a kind of literary monk) conduit to the earthly realm of agent, publishers, journalists, lawyers, and politicians. She also raised three sons because, she said jokingly, “the way Alekasandr Isayevich saw it, they would just grow up on their own.”
“The Widow’s Peak,” David Remnick, The New Yorker June 18 2012

 Or this: 

“It’s curious, and perhaps no more than curious, that the two most productive periods of Bowie’s career coincide with his two marriages.”
Thomas Jones, “So Ordinary, So Glamorous,” Thomas Jones, LRB, 5 April 2012 

“Perhaps no more than curious.” Because of course one mustn’t make too much of such things.
I always thought “And they were mostly, men” could be the great title for something: how that phrase, nine times out of ten consigned to a parenthesis, is called on to do so much by way of explanation and apology.

And yet. Were one to make the obvious feminist points, to reach for our Virginia Woolf and go to that passage I just taught my students, the one about how we’re on “the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet,” when we read of “a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother” – we might be led off the track.

For one thing, there is this: apparently Valerie hated talking to the press but made an exception when the movie Tom and Viv came out, defending her husband against the charge, among others, that Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne, had written parts of The Waste Land and been denied credit. “The exemplary literary widow” delicately describes her understanding of Vivienne’s illness, expresses sympathy for Ted Hughes, and asserts that the first Mrs. Eliot’s role in creating The Waste Land was the traditional one: causing the misery that helped to inspire it.  Valerie comes across in The Independent as the reluctant truth-teller, making a more modest but more accurate claim for her role in the great man’s work.

No doubt for some people this is a cautionary tale about the perils of looking too hard for the evidence of lost female genius. I remember one time in graduate school a certain professor saying that for the material we were looking at, 19th century French poetry, there were no women. “And not because they’ve been suppressed,” he said with something like a sneer. But Woolf’s point was not just about the things that don’t get read, or the things that were written as “anon”, or the ways women’s intellectual capacities were channelled into work produced by men, but the things that never get written at all.

But in a way this all misses the point. In some ways,  literary history remains a stubbornly conservative field no matter how many of us pinkos teach it. The whole mythology of genius teaches us to spend our time thinking about creation as a process that is ultimately distant from the rest of human experience, done by a select few. We can expand the pantheon, and we can talk about “context,” we can look at literary movements that tried to be collective, we can study popular culture, but it’s very hard to ever have the cultural equivalent of social history or history from below, or to really study anything but a few works at a time, be they representative or exemplary, no matter what the “digital humanities” people say.

Looking again at the lives of those who live in proximity to the big names can of course be a part of this in the worst way, like those awful panels run by author societies where everyone talks about what so and so wrote to so and so and talks like they knew them, like when the nice Jewish lawyer in Quiz Show comes back from hanging out with Van Dorens talking about Bunny Wilson. That’s what they call him, he tells his wife. Well, you don’t have to, she says.

But when you look at these in another way, they can be something else entirely. My favorite part of the obituary is this:

He was made for marriage, he was a natural for it, a loving creature, and great fun, too,” Mrs. Eliot said in a 1994 interview. “We used to stay at home and drink Drambuie and eat cheese and play Scrabble. He loved to win at cards, and I always made a point of losing by the time we went to bed.”

If they’d made Tom and Valerie, no one would fall in love with Bertrand Russell and no one would go to the looney bin and I don’t know how you dramatize thirty years spend editing his letters, but I would watch any movie that showed a moment like this. Genius is all well and good (actually it’s not but that’s another story), but she also serves who knows when to lose at cards.

More Vanity and More Despair

So, this is what I’ve been up to. Of course, there’s an infinite amount to say about this, all of which is far too much and too overwhelming and too wonderful to give shape to just now. So for now I’m writing about easier things. Sadly, motherhood has not insulated me from the freak show that is the Republican primary, but distaste is a lot easier than love. Hence, Callista Gingrich.

During the 2008 election, I was reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel American Wife, which revolves around a fictionalized version of Laura Bush. It was an odd thing to be reading at the height of Obama mania. At the end, there’s a “twist”: she didn’t vote for him. On some level because she didn’t want to be First Lady, but also because in her sensible librarian way she thinks the other guy is more qualified. When she thinks about all the decisions the Bush-like character has made, she tells the reader, hey, I just married him, you all elected him. It’s a funny moment. It’s also one that from a certain point of view could be seen as a kind of liberal fantasy, with all the flaws therein, an extension of the old knock against Pauline Kael not knowing anyone who voted for Nixon: the liberal feminist novelist can’t imagine anyone who would vote for Bush, not even his wife. But Sittenfeld can’t really explain why she married him either, except suggesting his sexual prowess from some scenes I’m still trying to get out of my head and which prevent me from recommending the novel to anyone in good conscience.

Another funny moment comes when the Laura character describes the low point of being first lady: the book she writes under the “pen name” of the first pet. It’s a little unfair since as far as my google-fu can tell, she’s penned only her memoirs and a children’s book. Her mother-in-law, on the other hand, is the author of “Millie’s Book as dictated to Barbara Bush,” while Hillary Clinton has Dear Socks, Dear Buddy Kids’ Letters to First Pets to her credit along with Living History and It Takes a Village. It is of course beyond unfair to think this all says anything about these women; I’d wager that none of these were their ideas and that they spent no more than a few hours on them, and even if this weren’t the case, so what?
Still, I’ll cop to a curious fascination with the literary output of First Ladies and those who aspire to be First Ladies, which is how I ended up with a copy of Callista Gingrich’s Sweet Land of Liberty, a romp through American History with Ellis the elephant, on my shelf. I started thinking about Callista after reading this brilliant profile by the always-brilliant Ariel Levy. I remember talking about it when I was in the hospital and a friend was flipping through the then-new issue. When I got to it a few weeks later, I thought, have I already read this? No, that was the profile she did of Cindy McCain the last time around. You have to hand it to these women: god knows it takes a lot of something to do what they do on the campaign trail: as Levy notes, they have to gaze adoringly while listening to the same stump speech over and over.
In Wild Man Blues, Barbara Kopple’s documentary about Woody Allen touring Europe with his jazz band, we see Soon Yi taking care of his laundry and keeping the outside world at bay. It’s a bit of a shock, given everything, to see her acting as a sort of mother figure to him. You get the same feeling reading about the third Mrs. Gingrich. When Sean Hannity poses and unwelcome question, she “raised her eyebrows slightly and replied in the implacable tone of a kindergarten teacher scolding a six-year-old.” The sentiment seems to extend to her husband: “The woman is always the grown up,” her husband is quoted as saying. “No matter what.” No matter how much younger she is, presumably. It’s been said lots of times before, but it’s always stunning to hear this stuff from the traditional values crowd. Not that we feminist man-hating types never roll our eyes at stereotypical Peter Pan stuff, but we almost always have the good taste not to do it in public about men we supposedly love, let alone ones we’re holding up as great leaders.