This week I found myself reading way too much about the Democratic primary. To what extent is the expressed dislike of Hillary rooted in sexism? Is being the first woman to win a primary contest in the United States giving a big f-you to the establishment, or is someone who’s been paid big bucks by Goldman Sachs by definition as establishment as you can get? Could a president determined to remain outside the establishment get anything done in this country, anyway? What does this pundit say? And that one? And….
My compulsion to click more links about Hillary and Bernie was worse when I was online, so I printed out the off-topic article I was most interested in, “The Science of Suffering” by Judith Shulevitz, which appeared in The New Republic over a year ago. It’s about epigenetics and the way the effects of trauma can be expressed in the genes of the next generation. I read it on the train down to the Harold Washington Library, where I went to hear Wendy Ortiz read from her book Hollywood Notebook. I love the way she writes.
I became aware of epigenetics only in the late stages of doing research for my memoir The Telling, which pivots around my childhood sexual abuse and sets it into a larger family context. I was well past the drafting stage when I started to see articles about how survivors of trauma might pass on a decreased inability to metabolize stress to their offspring, actually altering their cells and genes and making them more susceptible to PTSD, among other things. It wasn’t exactly clear how this related to the story I was telling, but I sensed it might be, somehow, in a very big-picture way. The thought made me nervous. I’d done so much studying, so much thinking and feeling, and I felt like I had just barely corralled what I had. Delving into ideas about actual genetics, with all the science, seemed as foolhardy as submerging in a submarine with a promise not to return until I’d seen a giant squid. I turned away from the subject and turned in my manuscript.
It’s hard to overstate how reluctant I was to crack open the advance reader’s copy of my book when it came, so sure was I that’d I’d hate it, but that wasn’t my reaction. I actually thought it was really good. But would it have been better if I’d kept pressing into this new area of interest? Another thing I read this week was this excellent interview Claire Cameron did with Alexander Chee in The Millions, about his thirteen-year-long process of writing Queen of the Night. What stuck with me was this:
“The hardest part came when I decided to pull the novel in 2013, and revise it around new research I’d found regarding the relationship between the singer Pauline Viardot-Garcia and Ivan Turgenev — both characters in the novel. . . .
I knew if I didn’t find a way to include this, I was in danger of returning to the material to write an entire novel just about the two of them. That piece then, and The Last Sorcerer, perhaps the most successful of their opera collaborations, is now a part of the novel that I may love the most.”
Oh well! Too late for me! The interview left with a wistfulness for the life I’ve not (yet?) lived, one with long stretches lost in research, the time to follow every thought to where it might lead. Alexander Chee made clear in the interview that he’s not had this luxury either, for the most part, but this week I was also finishing a novel, The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt, and the main character, Harriet/Harry Burden, is so erudite, and at a place in her life where she has all the time and space and money an artist could need. But does she have satisfaction? Mostly no. She’s embarked on a long-term project concerned with gender and perception to find out if her work is received differently—and if she herself produces differently—when she’s masked as a man. Come to think of it, Harry Burden’s project has a lot to say about the questions of the day: If Bernie Sanders were a woman, would he be put on the defensive for his rumpled look and tendency to point and shout? Let’s see what the Opinion page of the Washington Post has to say about that.