Miriam Levine

 

Food, Sex, and Betrayal

 

Growing up in the fifties, I experienced a terrible pressure to be good, which meant being cheerful, helpful, loving, and calm—or looking as if I were—qualities that were valued in daughters, wives, and mothers. Whenever I looked gloomy, my mother would tell me that she didn't want to see my mad face. She wanted smiles. I was rewarded for being good, praised as a berya (dynamo of efficiency) and a good little balaboste (housewife). I went for the excessive praise the way I went for candy.

I had the physical appearance of goodness—"sweet face," a "sweet smile." My regular features were set in an oval face. I was praised for my small nose and small ears. Girls with large noses often had them cut off. Some girls had their large, protruding ears stitched flat against their heads. I had a sympathetic depth of eye. People trusted me. Adults told me their secrets. I learned that I could be smilingly sympathetic and at the same time thoughtful and detached: a spy. Writers are spies. So my training to be good, and to appear good, helped me become a writer.

I write to spy, to betray, to take the smile off my face.

"Do you really mean it?" my mother asked me. She was standing near the window of my bedroom with my marbled black and white covered diary in her hand. I had written: "I hate my mother." I didn't answer her question. I had shouted such things at her before—we did yell in our house—but writing the words in a diary gave them authority, a privacy in which I could hear my own voice.

A book of Louise Bourgeois's prints has just been published. In one of her drawings the word no is repeated in lowercase letters; the black letters vary in size, jamming the space. How shocking it seems, the anti-Molly Bloom, even now, in the nineties. Bourgeois has also drawn a female Saint Sebastian, shortwaisted, naked, prancing, running from the archer, arrows bristling from her winsome flesh, a smirking smile on her lips. She's outrunning the archer.

. . .

 

When I was growing up, though I expected that one-day I would marry and have children, those events were so far in the future as to seem unreal.  I worked all during junior high school and high school, and saved my money for college. My friend Frances and I imagined ourselves in the future after college: we would each have an apartment in New York and would meet for dinner. We never talked about husbands. Frances was a musician. Her father had built a studio for her, stuck it onto their working-class bungalow, put down pale blue wall-to-wall carpeting, and moved in a baby grand piano—a virgin workroom. Frances would sneak out to meet her boyfriends, to press her back against a wall while she opened her mouth to their kisses.

I had my own secrets. I ate like a bad girl. I lusted for food. I satisfied my lust with vanilla ice cream cones dipped in a pot of hot swirling chocolate, which would harden around the cold white sugar and cream. I'd break the crust and suck. I'd steal money for food. I'd eat a whole package of Yankee Doodles, three chocolate cupcakes with cream filling, so dense and wet they would stick to the roof of my mouth. I loved gooey cherry pie heaped with chocolate ice cream.

I ate like a pig and wore immaculate white bucks, starched blouses, white socks, pleated skirts. In junior high I shaved my legs and sheathed them in nylons. I wore "little heels." At dances all the girls wore transparent blouses and taffeta skirts. The transparency revealed slips, which covered the bulwark of bras and straps. We waited for boys to ask us to dance. I lusted for Joe Malone, his pink and white skin, his hazel eyes, his small mouth and long legs.

I write so that I can describe the pleasures of food and sex.

No, that's not the whole story. "Writing is melancholy act," a writer friend told me. "Writing is longing," I answered. I thought of Walter Benjamin's analysis of the experience of viewing art, which leaves the viewer unsatisfied. Longing. The act of writing, as much as the finished piece, engenders longing. The moment of fulfillment comes and goes. Thoreau in his loneliness at Walden feels the very leaves swell in sympathy for him. The moment changes. If it did not, he would not have gone on writing.

. . .

 

I began as a poet and disclosed my own secrets; I tried to capture the intimacy of what I called my night voice, the whispers in the dark. When I wrote my memoir, Devotion, I told my family's secrets—congenital syphilis, mental hospitals, alcoholism. Just before Devotion came out, I became frightened of losing my family's love. My fear surprised me. All during the writing I had felt excitement and release. But as the book went to press, I felt that I had betrayed them. I had dramatized their early poverty, revealed their cruelty and their goodness, laughed at them in print—for all the world to see. If all their friends in Passaic hadn't known that I, their daughter, had had an illegal abortion, they would know it now. Writing is betrayal. A writer tells. Yet on some level I believed that, no matter what I said, my family would not abandon me. At the same time, writing about my family was a way to consign them to the past where I no longer needed them.

Before the book came out, I had given my mother some chapters to read and she had liked them. But when she saw the book in print, she said, "Now it's all out. I am Gert." I had used her name. She didn't like the disclosure. When the book was praised and she was interviewed by the local papers, she began to enjoy being "Gert." She felt that I had exposed our family, yet given them distinction. I had also freed her from the burden of keeping secrets. Readers liked the Levines and the Jacobses. One woman, who came from English stock, told me, "Reading your book made me want to be a Jew!" Her laugh rang with irony and surprise, which had as their basis the knowledge that Jews are despised. Family members whose names I changed in the book made it a point at readings I gave in New Jersey to identify themselves. "I'm Carmen in the book," my aunt announced to the people around her, as she pointed to her chest with her long index finger, her chin tipped up, her mouth curled in a proud smile. A cousin told me that he had seen Devotion in a bookstore in Seattle, where the clerk had written an in-house review praising the "depiction of family." "Our family," my cousin said, and I repeated the words. They and I now have the double identity writing can give. Some family members made it a point to tell me still more secrets. An aunt took me to dinner and recounted her experiences in Cuba with her "fiancé." He had kept her in high style and taken her to parties for Batista. An uncle of my husband's, whose family I hadn't said much about, wrote me a sixteen-page letter about his life. "Put it in a novel," he wrote. They want to be remembered. Some want to be known, to be important.

When I first started publishing, I wanted to be famous. I don't think much about that now. But I am still thrilled to have gotten anything into print at all. I am thrilled to have my books in libraries, to look up my titles in the catalogue, to be there for people to find "me." In the little world I came from, owning one's own house was a triumph—my parents always rented—and becoming a public school teacher was the highest job to which a woman should aspire. You could always go back to it after you had children. My high school guidance counselor glared at me when I told her that I wanted to go away to school. I was the only girl from my junior high class who would live away at school. The ones who went to college at all went to state teachers colleges. I still write and publish to laugh in the face of that counselor.

But now the act of writing is sometimes blessed with self-forgetfulness. I write to get it right. I put down one word after the other to find out what I don't know and what I can imagine. I leave my desk and take a walk through the garden and look into the dazzling white-domed heart of a pumpkin blossom, the petals falling back on themselves. I leave my desk when my neighbor calls to show me how a bee has made a tunnel in the unpainted Adirondack chair. We stare at the pile of sawdust on the porch. The black bee flies out. Joe tears the rotting chair apart. The bee's tunnel splits open to show a moist deposit of thick orange wax. I come back to my desk and write the blossom in, write the bee in. Perhaps they will turn to metaphor. It's happened in the past—only through words. Metaphor gives my life meaning. I can also stuff myself with words and not get fat. Words are a pleasure in the mouth. My mouth is moist when I write.

There's a clock on the shelf above my computer. I look at it. It's eleven in the morning. But time doesn't mean anything: I'm writing. I forget time, as I lose my self-consciousness. This feeling sends me back to writing again and again.

Writing itself is a metaphor—for living. Despite the sadness that's been with me since childhood, I swing my legs out of bed and try to face the day. I put one word down and then another. I feel less isolated. I am talking to you.

Sometimes writing is not a metaphor for living. Writing is the story we tell ourselves in order to fight boredom and to rewrite and reimagine the boring sections of life. Think of all the boring lectures and sermons you have heard. How would you change them? Think of all the mediocre meals you have eaten. What would you cook for yourself?

"You live in books," my brother once accused me. Yes, and searching for books takes me out into the world. For a novel, set partially in the thirties, I need information. I don't use my modem. I walk to Robbins Library and type in my subject. At the end of the day I find out that Father Divine's full name is Reverend Major Jealous Divine. During the depression, besides preaching to his following of two million people, he put on huge feasts for the homeless and hungry. He also trained domestics and renamed them. A woman writes that she had hired one of Father Divine's students, Everlasting Life. She called her "Ever." I drive to Concord Library where I find a history of the Belmont Hill School. I uncover a tape of early broadcasts of Amos 'n' Andy, Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden, two white men talking and acting "black"—sweating up their voices, shor'en-nuffing it, puffing because they're so tired from doing nothing. I find an old guidebook to Munich at the Boston Public Library. One thing leads to another. Now I have Klaus Mann's memoir with a section on Munich. Even Thomas Mann's children went barefoot during the depression. In the Paterson, New Jersey, Public Library, an armed guard takes me down to the toilet, unlocks the door, and waits outside for me to finish. "The addicts try to get in," she tells me. The parking lot of the library is surrounded by a chain link fence, fifteen feet high. The reading room is quiet. The white marble gleams. Children read.

. . .

 

Last night I wandered around Harvard Square with my husband and a friend. We drank coffee in Starbuck's and walked up Quincy Street and into Harvard Yard, past the Henry Moore sculpture, which looks as if it were just poured. Ahead of us was a new memorial to the Harvard dead. The giant wooden triptych had two pairs of enormous suspended iron pipes that serve as gongs. One after the other, each of us lifted the mallet and rang the muted notes. The Yard was deserted. In the dusk the grass seemed to foam, a gray green. A few quiet tourists sat with guidebooks in their hands on the steps of Widener Library. Some of the dorms were lit, but empty. We walked out into the busy street and to Wordsworth bookstore in Brattle Square. I went into the bright glare. The new books lay in stacks on the table near the door. The glossy covers shone. The shelves were jammed. I took a book out, put it back. A woman with black hair streaked with gray, stood reading in the travel section. Her absorbed face looked swollen and sleepy—as we all looked after three days of rain. I kept taking books off the shelf and putting them back. I'd read one sentence and stop. They seemed hateful, their slick covers, the photographs of the authors, the piling up of words, one book next to the other—a promiscuous babble, group sex.

When I left the woman had memorized the facts she needed from the travel book and was putting it back on the shelf. She and I left empty-handed. "Did you find what you needed," my friend asked me. "Yes, nothing."

This morning I pick up my notebook. It's still raining. Classes are over. I'm home alone. The phone is quiet. There's a window open upstairs, and a door. The wind moves the door. The door is sucked against the doorframe, but the wind isn't strong enough to slam it shut. A cardinal calls. A car passes. I hear these sounds more acutely when I describe them. Putting down one word after the other I find out what I don't know and what I imagine. For a moment I know where I am.

 

home biography works links contact