Surrendering Oz by Bonnie Friedman

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We live in an age when memoirs too often resemble a magician’s act: they dazzle us with costume changes, stripping away layer after layer as we wait in vain to behold the nakedness underneath. Surrendering Oz, to our good fortune, is nothing like this.

Bonnie Friedman’s essays actually reveal her vulnerability. She does not divert attention from the difficult stories, which include an extramarital affair and her sister’s decline from multiple sclerosis. Friedman, a writer and professor at the University of North Texas, traces her life in fourteen essays. The collection begins with the author as a young, mystified girl in the Bronx, and it ends with her as an adult in Texas. We lurch back and forth along the way, pendulumlike, just like Friedman as she is growing up.

A central theme, after all, is her ambivalence. Dominating her childhood is “the sort of dubiousness that makes a student shoot her hand up in class, but then, quite slowly, lower it, and afterward trail home unsettled, head bent.” This unshakable self-doubt, familiar to so many of us, follows Friedman to adulthood and inspires her title essay, “Surrendering Oz.” She describes Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz as a kindred spirit since both escape to fantasy in their most trying moments. Hence Friedman’s quest, in life, to surrender this meek version of herself—to surrender Oz.

Friedman’s prose confirms her success, for it is anything but meek.

Consider, for example, when Friedman describes a rose bush by her house in Salem, Massachusetts: “Each bloated bloom lolled, a silken bell . . . It possessed an almost painful beauty, a loveliness that was like a high-pitched sound behind everything, issuing a demand.” In a world where trees screech with poetic fury, we understand why Friedman feels mute. Even in her most straightforward passages, she festoons her writing with images that absorb the reader in the fantasy world she can’t quite escape. She earns our empathy.

Bonnie Friedman

Bonnie Friedman

Unadorned passages retain their own beauty. Writing about young adulthood, Friedman mentions her habit of visiting bookstores to browse authors more accomplished than she was. “Envy, I discovered, is self-estrangement. It is using another person to empty you of yourself.” Friedman’s prose sparkles here—sparkles in the sense that it actually illuminates truth for the reader. Envy, we learn, allows Friedman to avoid the possibility of her own failure. Readers realize that we, too, hide behind our envy. Sometimes the truth glimmers faintly behind Friedman’s metaphors, and sometimes it is lucid like a laser beam.

These epiphanies educate us alongside Friedman until both writer and reader understand, by the end, how to grapple with self-doubt. Friedman does not feed us advice, so her writing does not feel didactic. Rather, she convincingly wanders her way to knowledge. In analyzing The Wizard of Oz, for example, her commentary ranges from the etymology of “gulch” to training bras to Luke Skywalker, all within a few pages. Friedman’s peripatetic thoughts constitute an essay in its purest form—more like Montaigne than the typical collection today—and of course this style mirrors her real-life path, with many twists in the road. In addition to her affair, there is her trip to Greece, her meetings of Co-Dependents Anonymous, her parents’ bedbugs in Riverdale.

Occasionally these detours require patience. (Friedman’s title essay, a tricky skein to unravel, sometimes lacks the emotional resonance of other sections.) But overall, they make for a fascinating read. Each of Friedman’s observations is microscopic in its precision, but her collected wisdom, prolific and sprawling among so many topics, could fill a sea. By the end of the book, there is no defining moment when Friedman becomes an adult, but we know her mind has opened. “There isn’t one right way!” writes Friedman of her life’s choices, as if she is discovering this freedom with us for the first time. “I can get where I need to go by myriad paths, myriad sentences.” Exclamation marks, a hallmark of Friedman’s writing, showcase her keen curiosity. The earnestness is refreshing when so many memoirists today bury their insights in irony.

Not that Friedman lacks humor. There is nothing as funny or heartbreaking as the inertia of self-doubt—the fear that keeps us from acting as life passes by. We witness this truth when Friedman visits her family’s graveyard and realizes that she hasn’t reserved herself a plot. She imagines missing the deadline and decaying in a distant swath along the Long Island Expressway. “Who would visit me?” she wonders. “I would be so inconvenient!”

So many of us ask variants of this same question. We glue ourselves to our anxieties when we should be acting on them. For those of us still seeking permission to act, Friedman’s book is strong encouragement.

David Weinstein is the business and circulation manager at Ploughshares and a recent fellow of the Lambda Literary Foundation. Find his writing in Slate, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other publications. More from this author →