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A Death of One's Own

Founding feminist, Virginia Woolf scholar, and strong-willed enemy of the patriarchy (as well as mother, grandmother, and wife), Carolyn Heilbrun lived her ideals. The right to choose death—she committed suicide in October—was one of them.


Word Power: Caws and Heilbrun at the MLA in 1983.  

Even if Carolyn Gold Heilbrun hadn’t been a scholar of Virginia Woolf—“Carol created Bloomsbury,” Anne Olivier Bell, Woolf’s niece, once said—there would nevertheless be something about her suicide, on October 9, that would resonate with women’s lives, much as Woolf’s life did in The Hours. Heilbrun is one of the mothers—perhaps the mother—of academic feminism, laying the groundwork for women’s struggle over the past decades with what they called the “patriarchy.”

Patriarchy was a word Heilbrun used often, and freely, even in 2003. She had strong opinions on things, particularly on women’s issues, such as motherhood (not for everyone) and grandmotherhood (not for her); women’s relationships with other women, which should be conciliatory to a fault; cooking Thanksgiving dinner, which in later years she would not. She took Woolf’s concept of a room of one’s own to heart. In fact, she had several. There was one at her sprawling Central Park West apartment, purchased for tens of thousands of dollars in the sixties, and another at her country house (she had a “bat house” nailed to that house’s barn; Heilbrun loved bats). Then, when she was 68 years old, despite having three grown children, two grandchildren, and what by all accounts was a loving marriage, Heilbrun bought another house, all for herself. She wanted a house, she said, away from the “family togetherness” of the other house—“small, modern, full of machinery that worked, and above all habitable in winter, so that I might sit in front of a fire and contemplate, meditate, conjure, and, if in need of distraction, read.”

Then there was Heilbrun’s most problematic notion, the one she believed was everyone’s moral right: a death of one’s own—suicide. The days leading up to hers, at 77, were perfectly ordinary. There was reading, and writing, and endless reorganizing of the apartment with her husband, a retired urban-economics professor and author. Not many people came by the apartment: Heilbrun did not like dinner parties and, despite the fact that she was once a generous hostess, announced late in life that she would no longer give any of her own. Her clothes came from catalogues and dressmakers, and groceries from orders called in to the supermarket. “My mother was a busy woman,” says her son, Robert, “and she was not going to waste her time squeezing fruit at Fairway.”

Heilbrun spent most of her time with her vast library of modern British literature, mysteries, feminist theory, and works by Woolf. She broke her days up with long walks in Central Park, a cure she took nearly every day for as many years as anyone can remember. When her children were young, she would lure them along with the promise of buying a novel at the old Doubleday on Fifth Avenue. At night, they gathered around her on the couch, delighting in Winnie-the-Pooh, Norse myths, and the Mary Poppins series, all read in Heilbrun’s proclamatory yet oddly soothing voice, with just a hint of an English accent.

Tuesday at 11:30 was the time Heilbrun walked in the park with her old friend and colleague Mary Ann Caws, a literary critic and art historian. They had met for walks every week for 26 years, most recently on the corner of 81st Street and Central Park West. They walked their standard route: by Tavern on the Green, curving around to Central Park South, then uptown on the East Side, dodging horse-drawn buggies and in-line skaters and laughably fanatical runners. To all the world they looked like a pair of hausfraus chatting about grandchildren—Caws with her gray-blonde bob, Heilbrun in a blouse and slacks (she had stopped wearing nylons and heels at 62, as always, as a matter of principle). In fact, they were discussing Darwin, Manet’s Gare Saint-Lazare, women’s poetry, and the state of the world today, which they deplored.

“I feel sad,” Heilbrun said at one point.

“About what?” asked Caws.

“The universe,” said Heilbrun.

As always, Heilbrun greeted all oncoming dogs. (“Whether animals admit it or not, they and I communicate,” she once wrote.) She would hold out a hand for them to smell. Caws chatted with an owner about her Mephisto flats: They both had pairs. “Well, if you’re going to talk about shoes,” said Heilbrun, beckoning her away.

After their walk, Heilbrun returned to the apartment, to her reading, her e-mailing, her long talks with colleagues. By all accounts, she did not have an argument with anyone, nor did she contact any long-lost friends. But soon she was found dead, a plastic bag over her head. A note lay nearby: “The journey is over. Love to all.”

At the time of her suicide, Heilbrun was not sick, nor had she been, to anyone’s knowledge, recently informed of some impending illness. She had no history of mental illness, nor was she on medication, nor had she been diagnosed as depressed—but then again, Heilbrun did not see a therapist, viewing Freudianism (which she saw as the root of all psychological practice) as inherently anti-woman. “The Freudian view that accomplished women are sexually men, or trying to be, has done more, I suspect, than any other misconception to doom women to fear of accomplishment and selfhood,” she once wrote.

Heilbrun’s suicide was an act of will, an idea brought to life. It was something she chose, by herself, for herself. And, like everyone in Heilbrun’s life, including her children and her husband, Caws was stunned. She sits at Eli’s Restaurant, on the Upper East Side, with a cup of coffee. Like Heilbrun, Caws has the acerbic, no-nonsense tone of decades-long professorship but a warm, generous laugh, and an even kinder smile. “You know, Carolyn would ask me at the end of every walk, ‘Will you be here next Tuesday?’ ” she says. “And I can’t remember for sure, but last time, I don’t think she did ask.”

There was a sense, however, in which Heilbrun’s death wasn’t a complete surprise. In both her writings and in conversation, Heilbrun had often mused about killing herself at 70, which the Bible suggests is the appropriate life span for a human being (not that, as an agnostic, she much cared what the Bible had to say.)

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