Weak Eulogies

A close friend of mine, a warm and lovely girl whom I first knew during our college days in the early 1970s, committed suicide in 2004. She was one of the most level-headed people I knew in college, someone I could count on for sensible advice. She did the act in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. During her spring break from teaching at a small-town college, she drove from her home to a reservoir and set herself on fire. Passing motorists spotted the flames and called the police.

A few days later, two brief newspaper articles about the incident appeared, one in the town where she was teaching, and the other in her original hometown. One of the articles listed her many accomplishments: master’s degree in teaching and doctorate in education; college professor for twelve years; founder and first dean of the graduate program; chair of the Rank and Tenure Committee; Sunday school teacher and ordained deacon at her church; aunt to seven nieces and nephews. The other article was much more terse, sticking to the facts. A police officer explained, “Apparently the victim drove to a remote place, dumped a can of gasoline on herself and lit herself on fire.” The woman was described as someone with a history of mental problems who was seeing a caseworker.

Nothing about the girl I knew would have led me to believe that that she was capable of such an act. In college she was a political rebel in a small way, a Young Republican in a sea of Democrats. That put her in the minority, but it hardly made her a freak. As an educator, she expressed opposition to the “no child left behind” system that was in force during much of her career. But again, that hardly made her a unique crusader. If her self-immolation was supposed to make a political point or some other big impression, it failed spectacularly.

Her family set up an online memorial to celebrate her life and call attention to the scourge of suicide. Sadly, her former students barely responded. Probably the consensus was that she let them down. At the point around mid-semester when she left them, many must have felt abandoned as they tried to finish theses or prepare for graduation and subsequent job searches. Not that she intended to hurt them, but the few eulogies I read struck me as weak.

Why, then, did she do it, and why did she choose that method? I’m aware there are often hereditary components to depression. She told me once about a grandfather of hers, a Presbyterian minister, who succumbed to the disease. In view of that, her return to the church relatively late in life seem a little ominous. There had been a previous breakdown three years before, requiring hospitalization. That might have created obstacles to purchasing a firearm.

I can tell from my blog-reading that many people are dealing with depression and anxiety, as well as more clearly diagnosed conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. It’s a constant struggle, yet no one has to suffer alone. Many full and productive lives are being lived in spite of, or maybe even because of, these issues. The compassion for others that tough times can produce is in itself a worthy life skill.

Self-destructive behavior among writers is a fairly common phenomenon. For example, the poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton became acquainted in 1958, while auditing a course in poetry writing at Boston University. Both had attempted suicide in the past, and would succeed in the future. After class, they often went out for martinis with another poet, George Starbuck, who was rumored to be having an affair with Sexton. Their conversations reportedly centered around their flirtations with death, and the restrictions imposed by marriage, especially on women. Plath was married to the British poet Ted Hughes, a more accomplished writer than she was at that time. Plath did not yet have children, but intended to. Sexton, four years older, represented what Plath wanted to be … a successful poet who was also raising a family.

When Plath committed suicide in 1963, Sexton wrote a poem eulogizing her friend. Later, she flippantly called the act “a good career move.” True, Plath’s bitter end eventually stimulated interest in The Bell Jar, the autobiographical novel about her first suicide attempt, but she wasn’t around to enjoy it. The novel trashed the very people who had done the most to help her through that crisis. Her children benefited financially from her posthumous success, but they didn’t have their mother. In fact, her act exposed them to a “wicked stepmother” figure, the woman Hughes had been seeing and who sparked the rage that was evident in Plath’s final poems. That woman eventually committed suicide as well, taking her young child with her. Sexton herself followed in 1974, as if determined to duplicate that “good career move.”

Plath didn’t aspire to become a poster child for depressive writers, but that was how it turned out. When she was at her happiest, as when she first met Ted Hughes while studying at Cambridge University, she declared her intention to become a joyous, life-affirming writer. Within weeks, she determined to marry him and transform him into her vision of the best man he could be. In a letter to her mother, she declared, “ … having been on the other side of life like Lazarus, I know that my whole being shall be one song of affirmation and love all my life long. I shall praise the lord and the crooked creatures he has made. My life shall be a constant finding of new ways and words in which to do this … my whole life will be a saying of poems and a loving of people and giving of my best fiber to them.”

If her desperate act was a good career move, it was a terrible life move. It darkens and stains every eulogy she inspires. The same can be said for Sexton, whose daughters, far from remembering her lovingly, accused her of abusing them. Plath’s son, Nicholas Hughes, a noted marine biologist, killed himself in 2009. Suicide does not enhance a legacy, or enrich someone’s story. It is as destructive to those left behind as to the perpetrator.

Advertisements

Jo March’s Dilemma

I watched with interest the recent PBS dramatization of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, one of the first books I ever read cover to cover as a child. Alcott and her alter ego, Jo March, faced a dilemma common to all ambitious women of their time and place, nineteenth century New England: how to live a productive and fulfilled life while staying within the bounds of what was considered respectable womanhood. Although New England at the time was a relatively liberal place, a fount of many new social ideas, it was still no bed of roses for an ambitious female.

Alcott described Jo’s struggle to make herself a writer. Jo was determined to earn a living from it, because somebody in the family had to. They were a struggling family of four daughters, with a father who earned very little as the minister of a small congregation. A conversation between Jo and her father crystallizes their conflict. The character of Mr. March was undoubtedly inspired by Alcott’s own father, Bronson Alcott, a founder of progressive schools and a well-known supporter of transcendentalism, but useless as a wage earner. We learn that Jo’s father has been working on the same book for twenty years, and has yet to publish it. By contrast, Jo writes “sensation stories” for the weekly rags that sell like candy and help to buy household necessities.

A showdown occurs when Jo asks her father to critique her newly completed novel. Jo has been offered $300 for the publication of it, a fantastic sum for that time and probably more money than the family has ever seen before. Her father advises her not to make the requested alterations, which he feels would rob the book of its heart and soul. “Let it wait and ripen,” he advises. “There’s more to it than you know. You’re more talented than you realize.” Jo loses patience and bursts out something along the lines of, “Let it ripen? For how long? We need the money now.” She can’t resist pointing out to her father that he hasn’t supported his family. He takes this calmly, knowing it to be true.

Even though I was indignant for Jo’s sake, I had the sneaking feeling that Mr. March would be proven right … and he was. All through Little Women, the father appears weaker than his wife and daughters, but like most fathers in literature and popular entertainment, turns out to know best. Jo’s more practical mother urges her to go ahead and publish the book, figuring she will not only benefit from the immediate cash, but receive some useful criticism. As time goes on, it becomes apparent that the book isn’t selling, and any reviews she gets are too contradictory to be useful.

Later, Jo escapes the doldrums of home life by decamping to New York to work as a governess, the career of choice for educated women in those times. Here she meets an important mentor, although it isn’t love at first sight. Professor Bhaer is an immigrant from Germany, probably old enough to be her father, with two nephews whom she has been hired to teach. When Professor Bhaer realizes Jo is a writer, he asks to see her work, but she’s ashamed to show it. By this time she’s broken into the big city rags and is making a nice bundle, but still fears the professor’s judgment. Sure enough, his advice is basically the same as her father’s … that her romance writing, although lucrative, is unworthy of her. “You must be true to your talent. Never write a word that you haven’t felt in your heart and soul.”

The moral of the story seems to be that the men in her life have it right, even though she might have starved if she’d listened to them. It takes time, but Jo learns to make use of genuine emotional experiences that enrich her writing. In the PBS series, her breakthrough comes when she writes and publishes a poem about the death of her beloved sister Beth. The piece travels far and wide, and puts her on the path to success.

Alcott herself, like Jo, wrote “sensation stories” for quick money. But it took Little Women, a novel drawn directly from her real life, to immortalize her. By some accounts, Alcott felt somewhat flustered by her own breakthrough. She had felt pressured by the publishing powers-that-be to make Jo choose a more conventional, “womanly” path than she did herself. In the fiction version, Jo marries her professor and takes a break from writing to open a school for boys. Alcott, by contrast, remained independent all her life and never put down her pen.

So what does this conflict between Alcott and her alter ego say about authors through the ages? I don’t necessarily subscribe to the “write what you know” philosophy, which in my case would bore any potential reader to death. I can’t squeeze much drama out of my forty years spent riding subway trains back and forth from various workplaces in Washington, DC. Likewise, my office life was usually placid on the surface, with only a few eruptions here and there. Luckily, creative imagination can add spice to ordinary situations and people.

There’s nothing wrong with spicing up and exaggerating real life, of course, as long as an author still speaks his or her fundamental truth. Constrained by the social and commercial conventions of her time, Alcott didn’t quite tell the true story of Little Women. Later, as an established author, she seemed somewhat freer in the sequels Little Men and Jo’s Boys to introduce a few less conventional characters and situations. Still, you get the feeling Alcott remained under an edict to go on preaching platitudes to young girls and women. All in all, I find it a little sad that Jo starts out being Louisa May, but ends up being someone else.

Character In The White House

Nothing about current times is normal. Something has gone wildly askew in American political life. We elected the worst possible candidate for President in 2016, a man whose asinine behavior and utter lack of knowledge about government should have disqualified him long before he got near the Oval Office. Those of us who expected to be saved by an outbreak of sanity in the lead-up to that election were sadly mistaken. He was an insanely, almost comically bad choice then, and his behavior in office, if anything, has been even worse. Most likely we will be paying the price for many years to come, but one thing we must not do is to accept this state of affairs as the new normal.

Fortunately, we have history to fall back on. There has never been an era of true tranquility in American political life, but most of our presidents have appreciated the ideals set forth in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The American Presidency has been filled with a fascinating mixture of extraordinary men, troubled personalities, and some rather ordinary intellects. Even the exceptional occupants of the office have not been free of character flaws and partisan prejudices. Most have at least understood the magnitude of the job they were taking on, even if they couldn’t perform it adequately. A series of weak presidents leading up to the Civil War proved unable or unwilling to do anything to avert the growing emergency; it took Lincoln to do that. In the twentieth century, men who were highly respected and accomplished in other fields, like Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, nevertheless failed at the presidency. I suspect they were smart enough to realize the job was too much for them. Even presidents who weren’t that smart realized this on some level. Warren G. Harding reportedly confessed to friends that he was in over his head. By contrast, the buffoon who now occupies the Oval Office (when he isn’t too busy partying elsewhere) would never admit to any limitations. The more he blunders, the more he will double down on his own magnificence.

A great president can’t have Trump’s black-and-white, self-centered views. It’s too complicated a world for that. The right man or woman for the job would know how to compromise, to reason, and to see nuances. Opponents would not be dismissed as worthless because they disagree. Last President’s Day, I finally managed to watch all 8.5 hours of HBO’s wonderful series about John Adams, and it was worth it. Adams is unjustly neglected because he was a one-termer. (Trump probably never heard of John Adams, but if he did, he’d no doubt label him a “loser.”) Adams was a loudmouth, often his own worst enemy. But as a young lawyer, he took the courageous and unpopular step of defending British soldiers after the Boston Massacre of 1770, winning the acquittal of six of the eight soldiers on the grounds that they acted in self-defense against a mob. The rule of law meant more to Adams than popularity.

He had a complicated relationship with Thomas Jefferson. As young men, they were partners in the struggle for independence, although they differed in their vision of what the young country should become. Then as now, there were disagreements about how strong the central government should be. When Adams became the second president, Jefferson was installed as vice president. It was an uneasy partnership. They agreed on little, and the slavery question was particularly intractable. Adams was adamantly anti-slavery, while Jefferson, who agreed that it was a moral stain on the country, nevertheless professed himself unable to see his way to a solution.

Rumors about Jefferson’s relationship with the slave Sally Hemings were already rampant. The presidential election of 1800 was a close and bitter one, in which Jefferson edged out the incumbent. Adams presumably didn’t do much to broadcast the Hemings story, when it could have helped him most, because he wasn’t sure he believed it. Has Trump ever showed such restraint, once the merest glimmer of a conspiracy theory entered his warped mind?

Adams and Jefferson had a reconciliation of sorts, after both were through with the presidency. They established a correspondence that was still going on when both died, rather weirdly, on the same day, which happened to be the fiftieth anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence.

There have been other great reconciliations in American history. They came about because the politicians involved, even after a lifetime of disagreements, were able to regard one another as human beings. The brilliant historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has written at length about a few of these. Her 2005 book about Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet, Team of Rivals, describes Lincoln’s determination to bring on board the three opponents whom he had defeated for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. They were: William Seward, a product of the New York political machine and the frontrunner for most of the race; Salmon Chase, the Ohio governor and the strongest abolitionist among the four; and Edward Bates, Missouri Attorney General and the most conservative of the group.

Imagine how contentious those first cabinet meetings must have been, with the nerves of the campaign still raw. Somehow, those egocentric men found a way to join forces and bring the country through the Civil War. Contrast this with Trump’s handling of his cabinet meetings and briefings. He reportedly can’t sit for them at all unless a chorus of sycophants spends at least the first thirty minutes telling him how great and wonderful he is. They are always on tenterhooks for fear the dear leader will go off the rails if he hears an inconvenient fact that threatens his ego.

The theme of close friends falling out and eventually reconciling seems fairly common in the highest ranks of government. Goodwin’s 2013 book, The Bully Pulpit, describes the long, sometimes rocky relationship between back-to-back presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The two met around 1890, when both began working in Washington. Although they were near-opposites in personality, their political philosophies were in tune with the progressive Republican tradition of the time. (Neither, I venture to guess, would be a Republican today.) They enjoyed walking to work together and exchanging ideas, although a streetcar was available. Taft stopped off at the Justice Department where he was solicitor general, and Roosevelt continued ten blocks farther to the Civil Service headquarters where he was Commissioner. The two also enjoyed lunching together. Roosevelt would talk without noticing what he was eating, while the rather rotund Taft was more reticent, and savored his meals. I can imagine what stimulated their discussions. They must have shared plans to rid the government of the corruption that was rampant at that time. Their wives weren’t close, although both were well-educated and literary-minded. Edith Roosevelt was always trying to restrain her impulsive husband, while Nellie Taft’s ambition for her husband exceeded his own.

When Roosevelt became president, Taft served his administration as civilian governor of the Philippines and Secretary of War. When Roosevelt left office, he supported Taft in his successful presidential campaign, trusting his own legacy would be continued. It didn’t turn out that way. The two had honest disagreements about how far the progressive movement should go. Taft, a born lawyer and judge, believed that Roosevelt had done harm by trying to bend the Constitution to his will. He didn’t approve of that, even for a good cause. Roosevelt torpedoed Taft’s reelection chances by forming a third party, sending him down to a humiliating defeat. How could anyone be crueler to a former friend?

As in the case of Adams and Jefferson, it took years for the friendship to regenerate, but it finally happened. The first few attempts by Taft to reach out to Roosevelt were not well received. It took a chance meeting at a Chicago hotel, presumably aided by a nice meal, for the two to finally embrace and talk on a person level. Onlookers in the restaurant, understanding the significance of this meeting, reportedly stood and cheered. From then on, the two men enjoyed a lively correspondence until Roosevelt died.

Politicians in America have always argued, debated, and disagreed; the more heated the debates, the more vibrant the democracy. Trump’s pernicious influence is creating a post-democratic system in which well-reasoned disagreements carry less weight than personal attacks. Trump lacks the intellect and character to be president of a democracy, which thrives on honest, well-reasoned differences of opinion. He’d be perfectly cast as the dictator of a banana republic, in which nobody dared to question his perfection and greatness.

Forcing Romance

In my continuing effort to understand the popularity of the romance genre (and tamp down my jealousy, since I can’t seem to write in that vein), it has occurred to me that some stories try too hard to fit the mold.

I consider myself a fan of chick-lit, but I define that as any story that is woman-oriented, whether it has a happy ending or not. I prefer stories that skirt romance without necessarily following all the rules of the genre. For example, I was intrigued by the movie version of The Devil Wears Prada, based on the 2003 novel by Lauren Weisberger. It starts with an unusual premise and setting, featuring a rather innocent but ambitious heroine whom I easily identified with. Andrea, whose friends call her Andy, is an aspiring journalist who moves to New York after college graduation and gets a job at a fashion magazine, despite her own lack of interest in fashion. She works her tail off for a self-centered, insanely demanding boss, Miranda Priestly, who can never be contradicted or overruled because she controls the entire fashion magazine scene. Andy finds herself failing at the job, until she hits on a solution: she will become a fashion plate herself. This neutralizes not only her boss, but her nasty colleague Emily, who has continually belittled Andy for her lack of style.

Strangely enough, Emily grew on me, despite being as mean as blazes. Judging by some reviews I’ve read, I’m not the only one who found her more intriguing at times than Andy. At least Emily speaks her mind. She’s the one who gets stabbed in the back when Andy starts to become the crazy boss’s favorite. Still, Andy pays the price, losing the love of her idealistic boyfriend, who preferred the unstylish version of her. There’s some hope for a reconciliation at the end, after Andy impulsively quits her job during a trip to Paris for fashion week. However, it’s not certain that the boyfriend will “forgive” her.

When I became aware that there was a sequel in book form, published in 2013 (Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns), I downloaded it. The story picks up a decade later, when Andy and Emily, both having escaped from Miranda Priestly’s reign of terror, have become partners in a successful wedding magazine. Andy is married with a baby daughter. Her husband, an investor in her new project, is obviously more supportive of her fashion-oriented lifestyle than her old boyfriend could ever be. This seemingly ideal setup goes sour when Emily and the perfect husband join forces to sell the business to Priestly, striking a lucrative deal behind Andy’s back. A betrayed and shattered Andy breaks up with both the husband and the business partner.

If the rest of the novel dealt realistically with Andy’s efforts to get back on her feet and find love again, it would have continued to engage me. Instead, there is a happy ending that, for my money, is tacked-on and not adequately explained. I could see it coming a mile away, when the original boyfriend, Alex, returns to the city from a teaching stint in the boondocks and keeps managing to run into Andy. They get involved again, predictably enough, but why? What about the issues that broke them up in the first place?

This sort of forced romance is nothing new. It was going on in the nineteenth century, when Charles Dickens, in an effort to satisfy his serial-reading public, came up with three different endings for Great Expectations. Most readers wanted the star-crossed pair, Pip and Estella, to live happily ever after. That would have been unrealistic, considering that Estella was damaged goods. She had been raised by an embittered, jilted woman for the sole purpose of breaking men’s hearts, and that was all she was capable of doing. Dickens seemed torn between artistic integrity and the desire to please his audience. Since he was never financially comfortable, I’m sure there were also commercial considerations. In the final version, the pair reunites at the end without falling blindly into each other’s arms. The best Estella can do is assure Pip that they will always be friends, even when they are apart.

Some hedging along those lines, when Andy reconnects with Alex in Weisberger’s sequel, would have made logical sense. What has changed between them, except that he’s recently broken up with his girlfriend and Andy’s marriage has collapsed, making them both available? This was the same man whom, by her own account, she had shared everything with for six years, only to be dumped without warning. He kicked her to the curb even after she had quit the fashion job that he thought had changed her too much. That lifestyle, in his opinion, had made her “too eager to do what everyone else wanted.” She wondered, What does that even mean? Good question. Maybe it meant she was learning that a grownup must answer to others besides herself. Or maybe, deep down, he was offended that she made more money than he did.

At any rate, he had refused to elaborate on what he meant. He accepted a job with an idealistic nonprofit, Teach for America, and moved to Mississippi, leaving her behind with barely a goodbye. As she recalls later: “He hadn’t called a single time, and the only contact had been a curt ‘Thanks so much for remembering. Hope you’re well’ e-mail in response to a long, emotional and in hindsight humiliating voice mail she left for his 24th birthday.”

Who was he to decide she was worthy of his attention again? One thing I hope all women take from the rapidly developing “Me-too” movement is that it isn’t only about sexual harassment. It’s also about respecting women’s choices in other areas, even if they turn out to be wrong. The romance genre is full of ends that supposedly justify the means. The man, possessing superior insight, pinpoints the woman’s hang-ups on first meeting her. In the course of the story, he turns out to be right. The message seems to be that if only the woman had obeyed him without question from the beginning, she would have saved herself a lot of time and stress. Heaven forbid she should forge her own path and learn from her own experiences.

Andy had certainly changed and grown in the time they had been apart, but what about Alex? He had returned to the city and started teaching at a progressive school that paid more than his previous job. He was aware of Andy’s life circumstances through e-mail blasts from her mother. He had been forced to leave the nonprofit world because he needed to earn more, especially since his former girlfriend had made noises about wanting a baby. I expected that Andy, as a parent herself, might take that opportunity to point out that as one gets older and responsibilities pile up, there are more and more benefits to having a job that pays the bills.

Andy can’t help recalling “the resentment, neglect, lack of sex and affection” that had characterized the end of their relationship. Yet she says, “I think I’ll always love him.” Approximately a year and a half after her marital and business breakup, she has a freelance writing career going and is dating someone perfectly nice, but for reasons she can’t quite pinpoint, she’s not really into him. At this point we are 95% through the book, and I’m asking myself, when is Alex going to stop being a jerk so that Andy can take him back without sacrificing her integrity?

Never, as it turns out, because Andy keeps letting him off the hook. Rather creepily, Alex jokes about stalking her, physically and on Facebook. He summons her one morning from her regular writing spot in a café, fabricating an emergency (which should have frightened her to death, since she has left her young child at home with a babysitter).

Gradually, Andy buys into the idea that they were “meant to be,” an opinion expressed by Alex’s brother. (Do male opinions always carry more weight?) Alex suggests they take their new relationship slowly. That would be sensible, in view of his history of mistreating her. If Andy agreed with that, and demanded an explanation of his former cruelty, I would find the story more satisfying. This woman, with all her business acumen and ambition, would have the potential to be a fabulous role model. Instead, she does the romantic genre thing and declares that caution is for losers; she would prefer to dive into this “second chance” relationship with reckless abandon. All I can do as a reader is sigh and say, come on, ladies. We can do better than this.

Creating The Baby Boom

My parents regarded themselves as ordinary people. Their story is, in fact, quite commonplace. Dad was a corporal in the army during World War Two, serving with the 79th Signal Company in Europe. Like so many on the home front, Mom, then his fiancée, waited for his return, scribbling frantically in her diary and no doubt praying for his safety every night. When it was all over, they got married and started a family. This story was repeated so many times that it started a demographic wave known as the Baby Boom. We are just starting to become elderly ourselves.

Mom and Dad met when he was eighteen, about to leave for Harvard, and she was fourteen, a product of Catholic schools and later secretarial school. Judging from confessions made over the years, Dad never really loved anybody but her, and might well have remained a bachelor if she had turned him down. As it was, she put him through a long period of indecision while she debated the relative merits of her suitors in that well-used diary.

One of these was an older man by more than a decade, both handsome and mysterious. He wasn’t in the regular military, but worked for an organization he declined to identify, doing things he wasn’t at liberty to discuss. He, too, had to go away. Before he left, he asked her if she would send him off with the memory of fulfilled love. She refused indignantly, being a well-raised Catholic girl, but he took the refusal graciously; in fact, he claimed to respect her all the more. He disappeared after that, at least from her life. As far as she could learn, he never returned from a mission to South America.

It wasn’t until Dad was about to leave for the front that she decided he was the one. He could only hope she wouldn’t change her mind, and she could only hope he would return in one piece. She had a number of “Dear John” letters to write. The end of the war in Europe came when Dad was still overseas, but that didn’t end their worries. The soldiers who didn’t have all their points on VE day would be assigned immediately to occupation duty. It seemed likely that they would eventually be sent to the Pacific front. A few months later, two atom bombs ended that possibility. An act that inflicted untold death and misery on civilians in Japan may well have saved my father’s life, and many other American lives, and set the stage for the baby boom to come.

Ordinary as my parents’ story is, it has all the elements of a great drama. It has backstory, life-threatening scenarios, suspense, and apparent resolutions that were not as perfectly resolved as they appeared to be. The historians have delineated the basic plot, but the letters flowing back and forth between the war front and the home front fill in the details and supply the emotions.

Couples like my parents, buffeted by historic events out of their control, seemed to long not only for each other, but for a peaceful life. By the time it was over, they thought they’d endured enough drama to last a lifetime. They wanted nothing more than to settle down and live a “normal” life, surrounded by white picket fences and manicured lawns and happy children playing. Still, they didn’t totally trust that vision. A long economic depression before the war had darkened the national outlook. The hangover from that era made people cynical and untrusting of the economy, even when it appeared strong during the 1950s. They knew it had looked deceptively solid in the late 1920s as well. Even those who were living a decent middle class life tended to be careful. In their letters my parents had envisioned a family of three children, but they stopped at two. I guess my brother and I were challenging enough.

Eventually, Mom let me read her diary. I laughed out loud at the entry she made on Pearl Harbor Day. No political reflections on the cataclysm that had visited the country, but plenty of concern that her dating life would soon dry up. I learned, further, that her own father was instrumental in making the final choice between her remaining suitors. Once it had come down to two, it was quite a stark choice, between a Harvard graduate, my future dad, and a musician who hadn’t graduated from high school. She loved the exciting, on-the-edge band life that this boyfriend offered, but with her father’s help, she made the pragmatic choice. (My dad was also a musician, but it was only a weekend sidelight for him). I can’t help believing it was also the right choice, even if life didn’t fall into place immediately. My dad didn’t return to the bank where he had worked before the war. He eventually found himself in the Federal government, continuing a family tradition that my brother and I carried on as well.

That “happily ever after” ending seemed within reach after the great national crises were over, but it didn’t turn out so perfect, as it never does in real life. While the “greatest generation” had triumphed over the Fascists, we baby boomers had to contend with the Vietnam War, in which the goals seemed less justifiable and no clear-cut victory was possible. My folks had a son of draft age, and his lottery number was unfavorable. He came through his military sevice okay, but the anxiety they went through as a result shook their faith in the government and its leaders. The patriotism that had been sky-high and unquestioning all through their own war, and for several years afterward, took a serious hit.

Dad didn’t talk much about the grimmer side of his Army experiences. There were some good times he preferred to dwell on. He made friends with whom he reminisced at many reunions over the years. They recalled the jubilant day when their unit became one of the first to cross the Rhine, and my dad entertained everyone with his piano playing. He did reflect sometimes on the complicated reaction he and many of his bunkmates had when the atom bombs dropped on Japan. No one could help being grateful that the war was over, but the magnitude of the weapons that were now in play made people fearful and gloomy about the future of mankind.

When the soldiers came home from World War Two, pessimistic though they might have been about some things, a huge percentage of them made the most sincere investment possible in the future. The existence of the baby boom generation says something about the resiliency and determination of the human spirit. Faced with the greatest existential peril that mankind had ever known, what did they do? They made a wave of babies who would have no choice but to grow up and to carry on.

Our Imaginary Friends

The world would be a dull place if it were populated only by real people. Fortunately, we authors have a propensity to create alternate worlds and fill them with characters as original, outlandish, or ordinary as we please. Assuming you’re one of these hyper-imaginative people, how do you come up with the characters that populate your stories? Do you make them up from scratch, or are they thinly disguised caricatures of people you know? Maybe you use both methods, even creating the occasional character who’s something of a hybrid. The question follows: do characters who spring fairly complete out of your imagination tend to be less believable than those who can be traced to an actual person? Which type does a better job of advancing your story?

Authors live to make things up, but they also have to live in the real world. Our flights of imagination might get us locked up if we didn’t have an outlet for them. As it is, fantasy can intrude more than is safe or advisable. You better not be daydreaming when you’re supposed to be driving, cooking, or using power tools. However, as long as we make reasonable concessions to the real world, we’re pretty much free to dream up any kind of outrage, crime, or cataclysm we please.

Sometimes I get a mild shock, on rereading my novels after a long interval, at what my characters are capable of. I’m a believer in the philosophies of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and other prophets of non-violent resistance, yet some of my creations commit violent acts or at least contemplate them. Not that this should be surprising for a writer in the USA, with its insane gun culture and its almost daily headlines heralding yet another massacre. I live in a country where even dead schoolchildren can’t seem to move lawmakers to shake off the poisonous influence of a rich and powerful gun lobby. Yet I was startled when I recently opened the first chapter of The Rock Star’s Homecoming to find an ordinary coed imagining a violent attack against a much more attractive hallmate of hers who was favored to win the crown of Homecoming Queen. The character in question wasn’t violent per se, but her jealousy poisoned her imagination.

Any “normal” person … by that I mean a non-writer … would take us for lunatics if we revealed too much about our creative processes. I tended to be a loner at school, especially during the earliest grades. One time my older brother spied on me when I was by myself on the playground, and reported to my mother than I was behaving strangely. At the time I was probably acting out some kind of story in my mind. My mom was concerned, but thankfully didn’t rush me to a child psychiatrist or otherwise overreact. My folks took the right approach, I think, by continuing to encourage reading and imagination, but warning me against acting too different at school.

At the risk of sounding a little crazy, however, I must admit I’ve had one particular imaginary friend since I was a young kid. Owing to my lifelong love of rock music, I envision her as the sister of a rock star, quite talented herself although overshadowed by her brother. Both siblings suffer from a turbulent family background, yet she’s managed to become a nicer, more approachable person than he is. Besides that, she’s everything I always wished I could be: athletic, articulate, courageous, extraverted. All in all, she’s a composite of the traits I most admire, although not without flaws that get her into trouble. I named her Sara for the purpose of taking a starring role in The Rock Star’s Homecoming. She also appears to be grabbing control of my next projected novel, Sycophants, having evolved from college student in the first novel to professional filmmaker in the sequel, which picks up about eight years later. Being wiser than me, as well as more experienced in the world, she pops up at my side occasionally to give me advice which I follow if it suits me. She keeps prodding me to write about her, yet I can’t connect her to any known real-life counterpart.

By contrast, I used to have a work acquaintance who has appeared in different forms in no less than three novels. She goes by variations on her real name: Cass, Carolyn, Caroline. She was an office colleague and a casual friend, although not a close confidante. Nor was she a memorable person. In fact, she became my model for ordinariness, but that is not really meant as a criticism. She may be the epitome of the average person, but she’s also good-hearted and open-minded, a friend to everybody, and an antidote to the social nastiness I often write about.

Many years after I last spoke to the real-life counterpart of this character, I read her obituary in the newspaper. I knew she had left the quasi-government job where I had known her, and had drifted for a few months, by her own admission searching for something more exciting to do. I learned from the obit that she had found a job as a secretary at an international law firm. I knew her to be very good at such supporting roles, taking her secretarial tasks seriously, and she apparently made the same impression on her bosses at her final job. The obit described her as “a very dedicated and loyal 20-year employee” who “considered each member of the firm as family.”

I’m not sure how I feel about that tribute. It is well-meaning, no doubt, but it strikes me as sad. It’s not something I would want for myself. My work colleagues could never stand in for my family, even if all of my family were gone. But maybe my pity for my old colleague is misplaced. The way she keeps haunting my imagination, she must be more significant than I know.

Sylvia Plath’s Self-Invention

I’ve been fascinated with Sylvia Plath since my college days in the early 1970s, when I first read her startling poems, “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy,” in a lit class. Shortly thereafter, I read her novel, The Bell Jar, and her posthumous poetry collection, Ariel. I wrote my senior honors thesis about Plath, without knowing much about her except that the poems and the novel were highly autobiographical.

Plath was catching on like a rock star at that time, especially among young students. The novel had been released in 1963 in England, where she was living, shortly before her death by suicide. It had been turned down for publication in the United States, but a few bootlegged copies eventually arrived on these shores, and created a demand for it that the publishing industry couldn’t ignore.

Why did this story appeal to college students in particular? It’s the tale, thinly disguised as fiction, of Plath’s first suicide attempt when she was a scholarship student at Smith College. Many of us remember our college years as a time of self-discovery, but also great uncertainty and self-questioning. Even if we made the grade academically, we had plenty of reason to doubt that the job market would embrace our skills. Stable relationships were tough enough to develop and maintain during those four years, much less to carry into adult life. The Bell Jar captured all of these struggles and more.

Sylvia Plath seemed to have a compulsion to dramatize her life in minute detail, both in journals and in voluminous letters to her mother and many friends, boyfriends, and acquaintances. She supplemented these with scrapbooks and calendars. It’s as if she knew that her every passing thought would be parsed by scholars later. I am now reading The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume I, 1940-1956. (The second volume, covering the rest of her life, will be released in late 2018).

It’s a humongous book, almost too heavy to hold. It makes you wonder how she found the time to write so much, although she evidently wrote these letters fast, without stopping to edit. The book even preserves her hasty mistakes. She did all this self-chronicling while carrying heavy academic loads and many extra-curricular activities at college. Her summer jobs were strenuous as well. She felt compelled to get straight As, or close to it, in order to justify the generous scholarship help she received. Her dating life was active, almost frenetic. She had a habit of forming intense attachments to both men and women, which often ended in disillusionment. Of course, she took her revenge by expropriating many of these relationships for fictional and poetic purposes.

Plath’s journals reveal more of her inner life than the letters, which mostly present the face she wanted to show to the world. On the surface, she was a busy, happy young woman, blessed with intelligence, good looks, and plenty of male attention. She suffered many rejections for her writing, but managed to get a fair number of acceptances, enough to build quite an impressive publication record for someone of her tender years. Also artistically gifted, she illustrated many of her letters. She had a talent for color and design, as demonstrated by her exact descriptions of clothes and her knowledge of fashion. She dressed as tastefully as her limited budget would allow.

Once in a while her frustrations and darker moods burst through the narrative, but they seem like the typical young-adult angst we all experienced. You might suspect her of exaggerating some of her obstacles just to prove she could conquer them. For example, in a near-hysterical letter to her mother, she described her struggles with a required science course that grated on her because it was far removed from her interests. “I really am in a state of complete and horrible panic … I have practically considered committing suicide to get out of it.” Predictably, she would end up acing that course. Other letters described the hellishness of a summer waitressing job while she was in the midst of it. When she became ill with a sinus infection and had to quit the job, she looked back on it as an idyllic time during which she met many fascinating people.

In one of her journals, Plath identified her perfectionism as a demon that she was fated to battle all her life. She bounced easily from elation to depression, like many young people facing an uncertain future, but her changes could be extreme. The same woman who threatened to commit suicide over a college course wrote the following passage to her mother from the site of a summer job on Cape Cod: “I walked down to Brewster beach with a towel, feeling very happy and savoring how wonderful it was to be young and alive, noticing every smell and scent and sight with keen delight.”

If we didn’t know otherwise, we probably wouldn’t detect a real self-destructive urge between the lines. Yet her first attempt, during summer vacation after her junior year at Smith, was no bluff. She took a whole bottle of sleeping pills and then hid herself someplace where she thought no one would find her … and for two days, despite frantic searching, no one did. She had had a series of setbacks during and after that academic year, which are described in the novel. She was rejected for a prestigious writing course she had hoped to attend that summer. She was disappointed with her primary boyfriend, a medical student, who had been unfaithful to her but still expected her to marry him, become a conventional doctor’s wife, and put writing on the back burner. And what appeared at first to be the big professional break of her life, a guest editorship at a young women’s fashion magazine, turned out to be a disillusioning experience. The tedium of that job, which sapped her energy and left her no time for creative work, seemed to close off a major career possibility.

The letters paint a picture of a close, loving relationship with her mother. The reality of the relationship was more problematic, as can be seen in the poems and novel. Those are quite unforgiving, even cruel, to the central person in her life. Aurelia Schober Plath was a single mother, widowed while still young and left financially insecure. Nevertheless, she strove to give her two children the best of everything. Plath was not ungrateful. Certainly she was sincere when she wrote to her mother, “You are the most wonderful mummy that a girl ever had, and I only hope I can continue to lay more laurels at your feet.” Yet the novel’s depiction of her also rings true … well-meaning but clueless, unable to understand what her daughter was going through in her darkest moments, and helpless to prevent her breakdown.

For that matter, the medical profession served Plath poorly. By today’s standards, the failure to properly diagnose her condition, and the initial, badly administered shock treatments that made things worse, bordered on malpractice. It took her a long time to find a sympathetic psychiatrist, a young woman whom she kept in touch with for the rest of her life. She recovered from her early  breakdown, and went on to many impressive accomplishments, but the experience lingered. At the conclusion of the novel, she foresees that the stifling bell jar, a metaphor for her distorted view of the world, might descend on her again at any time.

Not surprisingly, given her perfectionist nature, Plath looked for a mate who would combine all the traits she valued in her previous relationships. Her ideal, she told her mother, was to combine the athletic body of one suitor with the incisive mind of another. While studying on a Fulbright scholarship at Cambridge University in England, she met the man who seemed to embody all that she was looking for, the poet Ted Hughes. She had already read his poetry, and he had read hers, which must have made their love seem predestined. She fell madly in love, proposing to him after only three months’ acquaintance. She was aware of his reputation as a ladies’ man, but that quality no doubt excited her, at least at first. She was certain she could provide the stability he needed to make him the man she envisioned. Her letters to him were full of endearments, variations on “Dear, darling Teddy.” In an early one, she wrote: “You are my own self for which I exist, somehow being father, brother, husband, son, in all one, the whole male principle of the world, in you, and without you how barren that world is, and sterile.” Maybe a little too much for any man to live up to?

Plath was intensely ambitious before that quality was in vogue for women. This was the 1950s and early 1960s, a time when most women led conventional lives. Very few were “leaning in,” or shouting “Me too!” in a man’s world. Plath was always insistent about wanting children, and lots of them. She believed her writing would enhance her life, but her family would be her life. At first her marriage to Ted Hughes seemed to work. He enjoyed more professional success than she did, which seemed right to her, as long as she could find her own niche. She sold her first poetry collection to a British publisher when she was eight months pregnant. The birth of their first baby did not seem to impede their progress. It was not until the second child was born that Hughes evidently felt crowded by domesticity, and his former lothario persona began to reemerge.

Sylvia Plath’s story leaves us guessing whether it is possible for a woman to have it all. She recovered from the suicidal depression she suffered at age 20, and held off the demon for ten highly productive years afterward, but she never learned to reckon with her perfectionism. I’m familiar enough with the rest of her story to know that she continued to write letters full of plans and bravado almost until the end. But that narrative of a perfect life, always elusive, finally rang hollow.