By Judith E. Vida
A NOTICE TO MEMBERS at the end of the LARB newsletter on February 12, 2017, inviting emails about “the favorite thing read this week,” reached me on my iPhone in Seattle, where I had traveled to join my writing group. Just two days earlier, I had written in my notebook:
Somehow, beyond all reckoning, I have found myself reading and absorbing what seems to me the most important voice at this very moment: Sara Paretsky’s.
With this sentiment in mind, I immediately sent the following email to editor-in-chief Tom Lutz:
The best thing I read this week was Sara Paretsky’s 2007 memoir Writing In An Age Of Silence, which had been quietly waiting on my bookshelf. I grabbed it for a flight, and it exploded on the page with sharply limned words of long-felt anger and despair and, yes, the determination to persist.
A short while later, Tom Lutz wrote back:
Thanks for this note, Judith–would you like to write an essay on the book for us?
Eager but fretting, I replied:
I’m really touched that you would ask, and I want to say yes, though time considerations make me a little anxious. I am just finding my way into writing my own personal essay for a hoped-for volume of parallel essays by a group of beloved psychoanalytic colleagues in Seattle. We have been meeting for over two years looking to unlock inhibitions and fears about “atypical” writing, searching to access and nurture our individual voices, informed but not limited by our experiences as therapists.
I found the Paretsky on my shelf in the run-up to this weekend’s meeting, read it on the plane, and brought it to the group. There is a deadline for my personal essay, which has some soul-wrenching aspects. The Paretsky is like a background wallpaper, not menacing like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s but friendly and encouraging. If I can find a way somehow to do this for you and yet not shirk my primary essay, then my answer is gratefully Yes. Do you have a time frame?
Tom, ever friendly and encouraging, responded:
No, Judy, no particular time frame. One of the things I wanted to do with LARB … is to host a conversation about books the way people read books, which is not always whatever is being published that week, but the things people are reading for any of the many reasons we read books. So whenever someone mentions an interesting book that has moved them that is not from this year’s publishing schedule, I tend to pounce. And of course I love “atypical” writing…
So, here we are. Seriously, Tom, thank you for asking. Pretty much the whole story is in this email exchange, needing only to be unpacked.
A voracious reader, I buy more books than I can read. (They pile up. You know.) But the decades have revealed a method to this hoarding-madness, an unconscious engine of prescience. In soccer, this would be called a “through-ball,” sent on ahead not to where I am at the moment but to somewhere beyond. On countless occasions of writing, or of just-life, I “happen” to touch, with eyes or fingers, a book popping out of hiding that, upon being opened, leads me where I hadn’t realized I needed to be led. Once, when fussing over preparations for a talk about Jasper Johns, I desperately wanted to read Deirdre Bair’s biography of Samuel Beckett, but thought of this desire as playing hooky. Yet one of Bair’s closing chapters turned out to describe Beckett’s collaboration with … Jasper Johns, and by then I had stumbled upon another layer of understanding of Johns’s work.
So, what had caught my eye when I first bought Paretsky’s volume in 2007? Possibly the evocative title Writing in an Age of Silence, or else the book jacket copy stressing “the traditions of political and literary dissent that have informed her life and work,” or perhaps the blurb promising a focus on “the writer’s difficult journey from silence to speech,” a subject of long–held interest. It is a small book, easy to carry on a plane, 138 pages with an additional 20 of introduction, comprising in expanded and revised form five of the talks Paretsky has given on the topic of her best-selling crime novels, all featuring the hard-boiled female detective, V. I. Warshawski (none of which, I confess, I had yet read).
When I picked up Writing in an Age of Silence, I was immediately struck by the first chapter title: “Wild Women Out of Control, or How I Became a Writer.” Nothing reticent or apologetic here about inhabiting a fierce writing self. (Paradoxically, Paretsky’s authorial voice is a quietly confiding one, rather matter-of-fact, which allows the raw elements to speak for themselves.) I need to read this, I thought, and bring it to the group. Ten of us meet monthly in Seattle — or, rather, eight of us do; one group member has moved to New York and continues via FaceTime, while I fly up from Los Angeles for about half of the meetings, otherwise staying in touch via weekly emails. I stuck the book in my bag.
Paretsky’s chapters weave details of an uneasy growing-up in a complicated family, where she felt emotionally pressured to care for her younger brothers:
My parents, both desperately needy, unable to help each other, laid on me, their only daughter, the role of domestic support. My mother was bitter over opportunities lost or denied and took a savage delight in the failures of other women.
The memoir also outlines Paretsky’s personal struggle toward freedom, as she bumped up against disturbing social forces during the 1960s and after:
When I finally started graduate work at the University of Chicago in 1968, my father told me not to be surprised if I failed, since it was a first-rate school and mine was a second-rate mind.
She discovered, early on, the survival value of reading, of story-telling, and of story-collecting:
Both my parents had stories to tell, their sides in an unending feud, one which grew more violent and more consuming as time passed.
All these experiences would leave their imprint on her writing career, including her brave decision to construct an unusual central character — one of the first female private eyes. To her surprise, these tales had survival-value impact for others who felt discouraged and disheartened:
A few years ago a group of women came to one of my readings in Chicago. They introduced themselves to me afterwards as wives of out of work steelworkers. With the death of the mills on Chicago’s south side, some of their husbands had been out of work for ten years; these women worked two jobs to keep food on the table and a roof overhead. They told me they had not read a book since leaving high school until someone told them V.I. grew up in their neighborhood. They came to my lecture to tell me that the blue-collar girl detective helped them get through this very difficult hand that life had dealt them.
All five chapters of Writing in an Age of Silence elicit memories and reverberations of those early years of turmoil that clearly have never been far from the author’s conscious awareness, providing fodder for ongoing reflection:
Male writers such as Sartre and Bellow have recorded knowing early in life that their destiny lay in literature…. I call myself a writer, but I do so without great conviction. Where did they get this sense, I wonder. Like them, I wrote from an early age, but I knew that as in all fields literature belonged to men.
Paretsky values the depth of introspection gained from psychotherapy and the unwavering support of a wise marriage, one in which there was no obligation to re-enter the role of “domestic angel” into which her birth seemed to have thrust her, and from which she had struggled to escape.
[Virginia] Woolf says the domestic angel also hovered between herself and her vocation as a writer. She describes the angel as “Intensely sympathetic. She was utterly unselfish. She sacrificed herself daily … she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but … sympathized always with the minds and wishes of others…”
Paretsky never forgets the troubles of her own life, using them as an impetus to “keep writing” in the difficult political climate of the mid-oughts and the ongoing backlash against the achievements of 1960s feminism.
Unfortunately, the wretched angel didn’t die so easily, for Woolf, or for the rest of us…. Contemporary moral and political pundits proclaim that women’s failure to meet the angel’s high domestic standard has caused the fall of America.
Despite its strain of pessimism, Sara Paretsky’s book offers solace and hope, for me and for my writing group. Our own life stories resonate, in various ways, with Paretsky’s. As therapist-writers, we face specific problems. For instance, those who come to work with us assume that our lives are and have been orderly, safe, and good, and we destroy that illusion at some peril. We learn in school, in professional journals, and at conferences that acceptable writing by therapists is objective, rendered in rigorous scientific prose cleansed of self-disclosure. The preponderance of psychoanalytic papers feature an objectified cloaking of emotion-laden events with cumbersome theoretical speculation and the over-attribution of difficulties in the analytic encounter to the problems of the patient.
To be sure, there has been some loosening of these strictures in recent years. Contemporary psychoanalytic research has increasingly revealed that some of the most revered psychoanalytic theories derive from personal experiences and sensitivities that have morphed into universalizing, distancing paradigms. For some decades my own work — separately and with my colleague Gershon Molad of Tel Aviv — has concerned the transformational possibilities of embracing the autobiographical element openly in professional discourse, and we are no longer alone. Yet the conventions of collegial censure and self-censure are always lurking, threatening to bring self-expression to a lurching halt.
So my thanks to the Los Angeles Review of Books for allowing me this opportunity to write a combination thank-you note and love letter to Sara Paretsky for urging us all to write on, to write our stories, to write what matters to us, just as she has written what matters to her. Because Sara Paretsky writes, others can know and value themselves better. I can only hope that this might be true of my own writing.
So although my words are only water squeezed from a rock, and although there are many days where I feel as though my voice, my very self were being crushed beneath that rock, these women have told me to get up, sit down, and keep writing.
And now I can stop playing productive hooky and write that other essay.