Monday, April 19, 2004

The Territory of Men by Joelle Fraser

I want to talk to you this morning about a searingly honest little memoir entitled The Territory of Men, by Joelle Fraser. Before I begin, let me say that given the events in Spain and the mounting worldwide protests against George Bush's war in Iraq, I might have chosen to talk instead to day about an excellent and powerful novel by an Italian writer, Francesca Marciano, called Casa Rosa. Marciano describes events in Italy during the sixties, seventies and beyond only hinted at by the American press that parallel and portend the events in Spain a few weeks ago. But rather than talking too quickly about two books, I'll put off the discussion of the Marciano book until another time and give Fraser's book its due.

Because I was so much a part of the sixties and seventies in this country, close to a number of loosely knit city communes as well as a few small groups who escaped from the city back to nature, I have often wondered about the children who grew up in those communes. Although I think the emphasis on free love and drugs has been overdone in recent descriptions of those times, nevertheless, I often wondered how children who are a product of this era have fared and how they believe themselves to have been molded by the times. Fraser offers us a very intimate and incredibly honest look at one child of the sixties.

Born in San Francisco in 1966 after an all night party, “... one that began in the morning and lasted all night and hasn't stopped for years,” Fraser's childhood not only bounces from apartment to apartment and city to city, but from father to father to father—her early introduction to the territory of men. There is something so matter of fact in her descriptions of her moves from Sausalito to inland California, and then to Hawaii, San Francisco, the Oregon coast, Portland that the reader can see clearly that she found this way of life to be simply the way things were, the way things are. She does not whine, does not tell us how much she resents her mother or the array of new men in her life; she simply describes. For a reader like I am, raised in the security of two parents, only one home I remember, and a community of familiar people, Fraser's early life seems almost unreal. I can only speculate about what sort of effect such a nomadic and unpredictable childhood would have had on me. Certainly my family, so many families, had very little more money than Fraser's, but I at least (and I think many of us who think primarily in economic terms) tend to forget the incredible importance (and dumb luck) of constancy and predictability in family life.

What Fraser learned at a very early age (when for many of us the biggest fear was the approach of kindergarten and a separation from the hovering constancy of a mother) was to appear as grown-up and self-sufficient as possible. This is what her mother needed from her, and this is what she gave. “In my experience, people had taken me for a small adult, much more capable than I was, and I felt the confusing pressure of that assumption like a constant wind.” By the age of seven, as the period of time with her second father was coming to an end, she had come to realize that when her parents were fighting the quiet of a strange motel room was preferable to noisy fights when her mother remained at home. And although this second man in her life had given her a kind of attention she had not experienced before, his leaving seemed inevitable, her move to yet another home a matter of course.

Instead of angry bitterness towards her mother, Fraser seems to have realized early (and still to believe) that her mother was doing what she had to do, and that there was much to be learned even in these circumstances.

Living with different fathers became its own kind of school, the trick being to figure out which lesson to go with. My mother did the leaving most often, and I learned from her how to tend to my happiness: I began to understand that the best way out of a bad choice is the door. Only now do I realize that at seventeen I had become like my mother—I had started my own pattern of leaving and starting over. She had taught me how to leave. What I never learned, and maybe never will, is how to stay.

A writer friend of mine who read an early draft of this review commented that there must have been some constancy, some dependable source of love for this woman to have emerged as whole and strong as she has and with such a clear voice. Upon looking over the novel again, I realized she was right—her biological father, though a lifetime alcoholic, was also a writer and a good, kind man. From him, she learned gentleness, learned to distrust the smug judgments of richer kids; she also learned that writing could be its own form of salvation.

I won't tell you too much about the string of homes and schools and men, the momentary alliances created with new friends only to be lost in a month or a year when circumstances dictated a new move—perhaps back to her biological father who, despite his alcoholism and usual pennilessness, was also warm and intellectually energizing. Instead, let me say that what impressed me most about this book, in spite of the very sad events, the chaotic hippy lifestyle of parties and drugs and constant, frenetic movement, is the wisdom and justice of Fraser in looking back over these times. I tend to be a bit suspicious of memoirs; as Fraser, herself, admits there is something self-indulgent about memoir writing. Still, if it is done well, it can tell the reader so much without being didactic or contrived. In Fraser's words:
With memoir writing, if you do it right, by telling the truth and doing it with a full heart, you'll feel naked, because a memoir requires you to be brutally honest. Otherwise it's like wearing sunglasses over a bruise: everyone knows you're hiding something and feels uncomfortable because of it.
Joelle Fraser has done it right, risking her family and her friends to do so. I'm not at all sure I would have the courage to write as honestly as she has. Besides her personal story, there is much in this little book about politics, about the brutal greed that has transformed Hawaii into a paved-over tourist attraction, about the grinding, pulverizing effects of poverty on children and adults, about the smug arrogance of economically fortunate children and families in their interactions with the poor, and the impossibility of the really poor to fit in or be accepted (no matter how hard they try or how bright and able they are). This is, in a sense, a political book, a social commentary, but with no pretenses, no grand claims. Rather, it is the eloquently told story of one girl, one woman in the territory of men.

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