What We Bring Forth
My mother is dying. She has been dying for a long time, so I’m not sure anymore what this means, when I should be there, or when we will say our last goodbye.
If we even do.
We've never actually said goodbye to each other. Even when I was a little girl and my parents would leave for weeks at a time, they wouldn't say goodbye before leaving. They didn't say goodbye when they walked out the door for work or to go on errands. They were there or they weren't. No transitions.
We don’t say hello, either, come to think of it. We haven’t said anything at all in a very, very long time.
I am waiting for the right moment.
I don’t know how I will know when this is.
In the meantime, I read books about mothers and write about other things. Including the many women who have nurtured me.
Gayle Greene has no biological children, but she mothered me as a young adult. When I was 18 and alienated from the community I had grown up in, she was my professor at Scripps College. She was there for me as a role model of feminine courage and independence, and I am eternally grateful for her guidance.
I interviewed Gayle in her home in El Cerrito a couple of weeks ago. Her most recent book, Missing Persons: A Memoir is on her own mother’s death and the ways she has grieved. I have so many hours of recorded conversation, I’ve only begun to sort through the dialogue, looking for themes, trying to put together a coherent narrative of a woman who spent 47 years in the classroom, teaching and guiding women like me. Here’s a preview of what Gayle says about the book she’s currently writing on the importance of a humanities education.
I was early into theory, and early out. Lit crit had drifted very far from anything I cared about. The interest had shifted from texts to critics, the problematics of interpretation, the ingenuity of the critic; pyrotechnical wit displays had taken the stage. The year I turned 50, I had a sabbatical, and felt I was at a crossroads. I had a choice: I could spend that precious time getting up to speed on Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Lyotard, Barthes (the canon of living white men that had been raised up in place of dead white men); or I could strike out in new directions, directions that felt more urgent.
I knew how to write a book. Why not write about one of the many issues out there in the world that felt more urgent? I started with health and environmental issues, with environmental pollution as a cause of cancer, which lead to a biography of Alice Stewart, a British radiation epidemiologist and guru to the antinuclear movement; then sleep science, which seemed so woefully stuck that I was still getting the same advice for my sleep issues that I’d got when I was as a child; Insomniac was a first person account of living with insomnia and an investigation into the science of sleep; and most recently, a memoir about the death of my mother and aunt.
Thanks to tenure and a tolerant college, I got to follow my nose to the next interesting subject, do something with my writing I felt was more urgent than literary criticism, while still teaching the literature I loved. I got to keep my day job, as I’d quip to a nuclear scientist I was interviewing, or later, to a sleep researcher. The kind of writing I was doing did require a “day job,” specifically, an academic job, because, as Zaynep Tufecki says of her work exposing the ways Facebook and other companies collect data and threaten privacy, “who else but an independent academy is going to do what we can do?...you’re not trying to make someone money, you’re trying to think about the public good. There’s no other group like us, that has this deep level of understanding informed from history and from the social sciences.
I felt, writing The Woman Who Knew Too Much, the biography of a radiation epidemiologist who took courageous stands against the nuclear industry, I can do this book (though a half a dozen journalists had failed at it) because I have an academic background, and because this book took half a decade, and my livelihood wasn’t dependent on it.
I was doing “public humanities” before it had that name. As I said in an earlier chapter, my notion of the humanities is “useful”; this is what I mean by useful. Today, a lot of people are calling for a public commitment from professors, and I do believe, as Tuckei says, “We have a responsibility to bring our conceptual and empirical understanding… into the public sphere.” She adds, “The other thing colleges can do is fill the enormous need for interdisciplinary thinking. That’s quite useful in dealing with the world as it is right now, with technological change and sociological change and politics and power. You have to think through all of it at the same time, to try to grapple with it. Colleges can foster that explicitly.”
My college has a respect for the interdisciplinary, and a long tradition of it. I don’t know how many other colleges have this, or would give a faculty member that kind of latitude; I’m not even sure Scripps would today. But academics do have an expertise few others have, that needs the background, and the backing, of the academy to develop and exercise.
More to come...