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Remembering Carolyn Heilbrun: Feminist Scholarship and Suicide

I don't know who I'm madder at, The New York Times for its insipid and irresponsible obituary of respected scholar Carolyn Heilbrun, or Heilbrun herself for taking her own life.

Or maybe it's what might be called the "new fashionability" of suicidal authors, discussed with relish last Sunday by Charles McGrath of the Times, that's got my goat. Writing about the movie "Sylvia," McGrath had the audacity to compare the "dignity" of Virginia Woolf's suicide with the "senseless and unnecessary, even selfish" nature of Sylvia Plath's suicide.

Honestly! Calling suicide "senseless" simply means McGrath himself can't make sense of it. I don't get it either (and I don't want to!) about Heilbrun, but more about that in a minute. It's the judgmentalism that both Times obit writer Robert McFadden and NYT Book Review editor McGrath insinuate into these articles that I feel is the greater crime.

(It's very much like the comment of Jeffrey Hart of the New Criterion, who blamed feminism, in his review of Heilbrun's book, for her discussion of suicide as a legitimate final step: "[Heilbrun's] emotions have been so wrenched out of shape by feminist dogma that she cannot present to the readers of her books a recognizable shared world." Those man-hating feminists! Give 'em the vote and look where they take it...)

McGrath refers to Plath callously "gass[ing] herself in a London flat in the winter of 1963, while her two small children slept in the room next door," as though this explains how "selfish" she had become. But possibly McGrath didn't finish Diane Middlebrook's recent book about Plath and husband Ted Hughes - called, appropriately enough, "Her Husband" - although he refers to the book in the Sunday piece.

Middlebrook's rendering, which reveals the inevitability of Plath's downward spiral ever since her attempt at suicide and electroshock treatments long before she met Ted Hughes, offers one of the most tender, bittersweet scenes of a self-destructive and doomed mother's last moments with her children that one could imagine.

With her mind "disintegrating" and "everything blown & bubbled & warped & split," Plath "poured cups of milk and arranged helpings of bread, then carried the food up a flight of stairs to her children's room. She set it within reach of their beds, and pulled their window wide open. Then she closed the door to their room and sealed it all around with masking tape. On a torn piece of shelf paper, she printed a note giving the telephone number of their doctor ... " All this before going downstairs to the kitchen, where she would "fold a little cloth and place it under her cheek (in the oven), for comfort while she drew her last breaths. Depression killed Sylvia Plath."

Middlebrook makes that last statement to assure us that Ted Hughes didn't drive Sylvia Plath to suicide - her own demons did her in, and they had been attacking her mercilessly all her life. Still, that compulsion to get the job of suicide done without endangering her children or making a big fuss about it seems to reflect as much "melancholy dignity" as Virginia Woolf's "stroll" (really, how dare he?) into the river after weighing herself down with a heavy stone.

But it's the difference between the suicide of these two writers and that of Carolyn Heilbrun that I find so heartwrenching. Heilbrun had written about planning for years to kill herself by her 70th birthday. "Quit while you're ahead, was, and is, my motto," she stated in "The Last Gift of Time" (1997). "Having supposed the sixties would be downhill all the way, I had long held a determination to commit suicide at seventy."

All the obituaries mentioned this after Heilbrun did, at 77, overdose on pills and even affix a plastic bag over her head so that she would be found dead, also without muss or fuss, by a friend.

But few obits discussed the fact that Heilbrun had considered suicide one of many options, that she had discovered "life was good" at age 70 and that as she aged, she wrote, "I entered upon a life unimagined previously, of happiness impossible to youth or to the years of being constantly needed both at home and at work. I entered into a period of freedom, and only past 60 learned in what freedom consists: to live without a constant, unnoticed stream of anger and resentment, without the daily contemplation of power always in the hands of the least worthy, the least imaginative, the least generous."

This idea of having lived with so much "anger and resentment" while settling into what many would consider a prestigious and comfortable job in academia, especially the previous male bastion of Columbia University, where she had "made it" as the only female for some time, was a huge revelation, I felt.

Heilbrun had, even before joining the faculty at Columbia, begun investigating the role of women in literature through her own distinctive lens as far back as 1957 with her "first notable essay" (NYT) for Shakespeare Quarterly on "The Character of Hamlet's Mother." There Heilbrun, according to McFadden, "portrayed Gertrude as clever, not shallow, lucid rather than silly: ideas that were forerunners of feminism at that time."

This is the same Heilbrun who concealed her identity as the pseudonymous mystery writer Amanda Cross, whose blistering indictments of academic life, woven into each Ivy League murder, at a stuffy male-dominated university like Columbia might have jeopardized her tenure. This, granted in 1972, allowed Heilbrun to "come out" as the creator of the fictional Kate Fansler, a professor of literature with a feminist sensibility very much like her own.

Soon Heilbrun, never a joiner, became known as the proven academic who was weighing in with feminist scholarship by writing now-classic scholarly works such as "Toward a Recognition of Androgyny," "Reinventing Womanhood," "Writing a Woman's Life" and other works she mixed in with more literary volumes ("Christopher Isherwood," "The Garnet Family") and memoirs.

All this is important to demonstrate how Heilbrun had become a huge literary force in her own right. But none of it helps to set the record straight about Heilbrun as a person of irrepressible humor and irreverence. Let me digress a moment to describe an onstage conversation between Heilbrun and myself at City Arts & Lectures in San Francisco after the publication of "The Last Gift of Time," when Carolyn acknowledged that she was "thriving" at 71.

Asked about her earlier plans to choose the suicide route when she reached 70, Heilbrun responded quite cheerfully that as long as "new pleasures and liberations" kept opening up in her life, she was not about to end it.

Could she give us an example of such "new pleasures"? Well, she said, with a twinkle in her eye, only recently had she discovered that personal computers were bringing freedoms she could never have predicted into the lives of elderly persons like herself. For anyone venturing onto the Internet, "worlds of discovery" were out there for the exploring, and one didn't have to move one arthritic leg in front of the other to find them.

When I asked if she could describe one of those discoveries, thinking she would mention a Shakespeare website or an online discussion of the classics, Heilbrun answered that she had "become addicted to computer solitaire," and smiled broadly as the audience burst out laughing. I noticed that half the crowd was nodding, as I was (who wasn't addicted to the damn game in those days - or, um, these days).

I remembered that moment when news of Carolyn's suicide hit the news, because *of course* when a person commits suicide, it's easy to forget such things as a sense of humor or a life of principle, both of which distinguished Carolyn Heilbrun throughout her tumultuous 33-year career as a professor specializing in British modern literature at Columbia.

And here is where one must say, Shame on you, New York Times, "newspaper of record," for sanitizing the Heilbrun obituary. Not only was Carolyn Heilbrun the first woman to be given tenure at Columbia (omitted by the Times), she didn't just "retire" after three decades there, she resigned in protest (also omitted by the Times) over sexual discrimination - not against her but against one of her students.

So let's set this record straight, too, since we'll never hear from Heilbrun again, and go back to highly controversial walkout in 1991, after spending her entire academic life at Columbia.

"There were two reasons," she said in an interview with me in 1995 - "I had been attracting graduate students because they knew I was a feminist or at least a modernist person interested in gender. Then they would get to Columbia and find no second person behind me to support them. Eventually it all came to a head when (male colleagues) refused to promote this really dazzlingly qualified young woman. I had to go. They were so angry at me for leaving, they wouldn't let some of my students into the Ph.D. program, and that's when I decided to go public. It was all very political. If I tried to tell people what really went on, I'd sound like a madwoman."

Had it always been that bad? Heilbrun nodded as if that were the least of it. Columbia, she explained, was notorious for teaching the great works, none of whose authors were women. Jane Austen was "allowed" in, she said. For years a department head pronounced Virginia Woolf to be "just awful."

No wonder for Heilbrun, the emergence of feminism was considered "a gift or miracle," despite confusion and outrage at Columbia. "Kate Millett's 'Sexual Politics' came out of Columbia," she pointed out. "At the time, some male professors thought, 'OK, we'll let the kid do it,' but people like Irving Howe blasted it, saying any department that would let this through as a dissertation should be dismantled. I thought it was wonderful.

"Even now, decades later, it still upsets, in modern British literature, which I teach, to suggest that a major influence on Lawrence or Conrad and Joyce and Eliot was the fear of women. And you see that fear even now. The major man in my field wrote an essay on 'The Color Purple' in which he said it was a horrible book because the two male characters end up unmanned."

It was perhaps that very iconoclast nature that brought Heilbrun to accept a challenge others in her position might have fled - that was, in the mid-1990s, to write a biography of feminist leader Gloria Steinem. (I reviewed it at

The need for a biography when Steinem was still only 61 might have seemed premature, but Steinem, hardly without enemies, had learned that less-than-honorable writers were considering something of a hatchet job, so she had been seeking a biographer with impeccable credentials to write an authorized version.

Of course, Heilbrun, who hated to travel, threw a wrench in the works right off the bat by refusing to accompany Steinem on her many trips (which people like me thought would have been the best part). Nevertheless, Heilbrun's tough-mined approach to her subject made for delicious reading about the "walking contradiction" that is Gloria Steinem -- the feminist in a miniskirt, the women's rights crusader who looks a little anorexic (not Heilbrun's word), the loner who's always in the spotlight, the compassionate listener who seems "accessible to no one," the natural speaker who's still paralyzed by audiences, and the leader who harbors an "innate reluctance to offend anyone" but has, at some time in her life, offended everyone.

What I loved about Heilbrun's "The Life of Gloria Steinem" was her ability to cut through usual rhetoric of an authorized biography and say what she felt to had be said, for example that Steinem's mother "was, to put it bluntly, crazy." (Of course, she also allowed that if any of her male colleagues at Columbia had heard about the book, "they'd just say it was one nut writing about another.")

A great teacher, Heilbrun also calls upon readers to look how history has neglected a treasure trove of information simply by turning its attention away from women:

"It is possible that a study of only daughters raised as members of the adult world, or of oldest daughters in large families where the mother was overworked -- famous examples might be Margaret Sanger, Agnes Smedley, Susan B. Anthony -- would reveal a life not dissimilar to the one Steinem eventually led. That is not to say that there was no price to pay for such a childhood; there is always a price."

Heilbrun also doesn't hesitate to offer her own critical appraisal of Steinem, remarking for example that "there is something grating ... about Steinem's brilliant use of the benefits of a privileged life and her apparent scorn of it."

But perhaps Heilbrun's most scathing criticism is reserved for the American press. "The way the media treats women is horrible," she said in the interview. Steinem, she noted, was attacked for being "a manizer," "baby killer," "whore," "oversexed, frustrated spinster" and the "Ivan Boesky of Nookie" (remember him?), plus a celebrity who refused to enter into "catfights" with other women leaders such as the relentlessly bitter Betty Friedan.

Worst of it all, Heilbrun felt, Steinem was maligned "for never marrying, never having children and for being so avidly heterosexual." In the interview, Heilbrun, who with her husband raised three children during the '60s in a "still-happy" two-career household," then entertained this tantalizing prospect: "One day I'd like to write about the pressures toward sanctification of motherhood in this country - the illusion that women choose to have children and that only the biological or adoptive mother should take care of the child 24 hours a day. It's a form of insanity."

So you see. The thought that the great Carolyn Heilbrun cut her own life short before she could devote a full investigation to this idea is to me as tragic as the loss of Heilbrun the memoirist, the elderly curmudgeon. Of course her suicide is "senseless" to us! We're still living, for pete's sake. How can we make sense of a great thinker who was not sick, not depressed (according to her son) and who had written long before of her decision to ""choose to live, each day for now."

What might have brought her to think that her "for now" was over? One event comes to mind. A few days before her death, Heilbrun attended publisher William Morrow's launch party for her son Robert's first novel, an exquisite mystery called "Offer of Proof." Robert, a NY legal aid lawyer, writes about his protagonist, public defender Arch Gold, and the trial of a lifetime with such authentic detail and biting humor that one feels we've been crawling through the gritty underside of the New York City legal system for years.

Perhaps Carolyn Heilbrun, witnessing Robert's early critical success - starred reviews everywhere - thought the baton had been passed, that life had truly "concluded" for her, as Robert told the Times. Carolyn "wanted to control her destiny," he said, and indeed her no-nonsense suicide note - "The Journey's over. Love to all. Carolyn" - would seem to confirm she made a decision that was hardly "senseless" to her.

The only note of humor that remains - and one that Carolyn would have enjoyed heartily - is the way the New York Post explained to its readers why Carolyn Heilbrun was important: "Heilbrun, 77," the paper reported, "lived in the exclusive Kenilworth apartment building at 151 Central Park West, where Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones live." Goodbye, Carolyn! Here's hoping your neighbors - you know, like God - are just as famous!

Pat Holt, for 16 years the Book Review Editor and Critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, is a manuscript consultant. To learn more about her Manuscript Express critique service, please visit This article is serialized with permission and originally appeared in Holt Uncensored, Pat's newsletter covering the publishing world. To subscribe, please send a message to

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