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A Death of One's Own

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Plaid Innocent: Heilbrun in the 1947 Wellesley College yearbook.  

Part of the reason is easy to understand—“To watch parents go on and on and on, and well beyond where they would have liked to have gone, makes one feel strongly that you want to end it while you still are capable of doing so,” says Joan Ferrante, a Columbia University professor and friend. “We had agreed for a long time that [suicide] was the sensible way to face things.”

And Heilbrun was nothing if not sensible: She made what she considered informed decisions, and seldom second-guessed herself. She disliked idle chitchat, so, at 50, she took a Maoist approach to her social life, ordaining that her meetings with friends should be almost wholly restricted to one-on-one affairs. Her dealings with her children, when they were young, were similarly formatted—all were under warning that they would be disowned if they took up smoking or went into advertising, and at camp, all received the long, nearly daily letter from “Mommie” copied on carbon paper. In their teens, they were each suddenly required to cook dinner for the family once a week—it works out perfectly, Heilbrun told friends, as long as you’re willing to eat peanut butter and jelly from time to time.

The kinds of choices Heilbrun made in her personal life were natural extensions of the risks she took in her work. As author of a series of a half-dozen books geared to a lay audience (including Writing a Woman’s Life, Reinventing Womanhood, and The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty), onetime president of the Modern Language Association, and occupant of an endowed chair in the English department at Columbia—at least until 1992, when she resigned in protest over what she saw as the department’s sexual discrimination—Heilbrun was instrumental in securing a place for both female characters and female writers in the serious study of literature. She argued for the importance of the uniquely female experience of reading in clear, candid language: “Women, I believe, search for fellow beings who have faced similar struggles, conveyed them in ways a reader can transform into her own life, confirmed desires the reader had hardly acknowledged—desires that now seem possible. Women catch courage from the women whose lives and writings they read, and women call the bearer of that courage friend.”

It is this courage to choose—to live life as you want, and to hell with everyone else, even those who love you—that both enriched Heilbrun’s life, and hastened her death. E. M. Forster writes, “It is difficult, after accepting six cups of tea, to throw the seventh in the face of your hostess,” but Heilbrun made a life of, as she writes, “flinging the conventional tea,” whether it was accepting Adrienne Rich’s notion that women could express their true feelings about their children, or committing suicide, an act considered sinful since the age of Augustine. For Heilbrun, old age was a time of what she calls “borrowed time”: “Each day one can say to oneself: I can always die; do I choose death or life? I daily choose life the more earnestly because it is a choice,” she wrote.

“Carol had a strong ethical sense, about as strong as anyone I’ve ever known,” says Tom Driver, a theology professor who was her oldest friend, adding that she did not want to become what she called a “useless person.”

Not being able to make choices meant becoming what Heilbrun called a “useless person.” “Carol had a strong ethical sense, about as strong as anyone I’ve ever known,” says Heilbrun’s oldest friend, Tom F. Driver, a retired professor at Union Theological Seminary, down the hill from Columbia’s campus. “ It was her intention to live a moral life, and one of the components of that life was that life ought to be for something.”

Death, on the other hand, she invested with no meaning at all. She left no instructions for her memorial, or about what to do with her body: Her family knew only that she had once commented, after the death of the family cat, that she didn’t have any feelings on that topic. “You can flush my ashes down the toilet, for all I care,” she said.

The most important part of any story is, nevertheless, its ending. For women, the plot has famously concluded in marriage or death, real or symbolic, either by one’s own hand or another’s. Suicide can be an escape hatch from the patriarchal structure, as in the long swim of the protagonist in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, or for that matter, Thelma and Louise, and there is a history of it among prominent modern women writers, from Woolf (rocks in the pockets, walks into lake) to poet Anne Sexton (carbon-monoxide poisoning in garage) to Sylvia Plath (head in oven). Heilbrun’s friends answer questions about the connection between these women’s deaths and Heilbrun’s cautiously; they do not want a link made. “This is a person who was inventive and energetic and gutsy, and that same person at some point decided to stop living,” says Judith Resnik, Yale Law professor, co-author, and friend. “This is not part of an ideology of feminism—this was a person who made her own decisions, as her own person.”

Certainly the hunger for suicide that corroded the lives of someone like Sexton (who famously said, upon hearing that Plath had killed herself, “That death was mine”) was not present in Heilbrun’s. The central motifs of Heilbrun’s story were, instead, will, focus, and autonomy. The only child of upwardly mobile Jewish immigrants, Heilbrun attended Birch Wathen, and she recalls, in her writing, spending hours as a child roller-skating alone, or at the library, reading through the biography section in alphabetical order. In 1943, she left the city for Wellesley, where she met and married Jim Heilbrun, then a student at Harvard—but here, again, though voted “Most Brilliant” in her class, she felt alienated. Wellesley, she believed, promoted a type of woman who “pursued domestic and volunteer careers with a besotted devotion to ladylike attitudes and the mindless cheer of the lower half of a two-person career—for example, ‘We have just moved with our seven children, two dogs, guinea pigs, and the new addition to our family, a large turtle, to an igloo on an ice floe where Dick hopes to study frozen minnows.’ ”

After a brief stint as a receptionist at the Jewish Theological Seminary—Heilbrun came to view Judaism as a prohibitively patriarchal religion, and she did not bring her children up in the faith—Heilbrun enrolled in the doctoral program at Columbia in the early fifties. There, she was truly alone, though her marriage was a comfort (she typed her husband’s manuscripts; he read “every bloody word she wrote,” Ferrante says). She gave birth to her first child in 1955, but in school she had few female peers. She wrote, “The men I went to graduate school with in the 50s remember me as having fun, full of talk and excitement, enjoying myself, as they were. They are right, but they could not know the anxieties I hid, as a mother, as a woman fearing to be thought too bold, fearing worse to be timid and obsequious and to lose myself. They could not know the guilt I felt as the companion of men who had wives at home to watch the children, do the laundry, and know themselves unable to talk shop with their husbands as I could.”

That the times soon changed could not have pleased Heilbrun more. According to Susan Kress’s biography of Heilbrun, while she was passing by Columbia’s Low Library during the antiwar revolts of 1968, Heilbrun saw the students inside, the police outside, and the faculty, wearing armbands, in between: she put on the armband. Feminism was arriving simultaneously, and Heilbrun felt that she finally fit in. “I was born a feminist and never wavered from that position,” she wrote. “I do not mean, of course, that I expressed feminist views in the dreary masculinist years after World War II. But I never denied the pain to myself, or lied about my anger.”

With the new title of feminist and the old position of Ivy League professor, Heilbrun set about reinterpreting female literary characters from a female point of view: She noted that Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, is lustful, but not dumb; figured that Ulysses’s Molly Bloom is lonelier than modernism’s loneliest man, Leo Bloom. Fiction by and about woman, she wrote, centered on an immature woman whose fate was not yet decided, in disturbing contrast to the questing, destiny-making hero of male fiction. For Heilbrun, who was one of the earliest theoreticians of androgyny in literature, the object was not for women to become men per se but rather (as Woolf similarly argued) for a “reunification of the sexes in the self.” To recommend that women become identical to men, Heilbrun writes, “would be simple reversal, and would defeat the whole point of androgyny, and for that matter, feminism: in both, the whole point is choice.”

Heilbrun’s eldest child, Emily, is an administrator at a legal-services program for domestic- and sexual-violence survivors in Oregon, but her two other children live in the same part of Park Slope. Although they are twins, they could not resemble each other less. Robert, a criminal-defense attorney with the Legal Aid Society and a graduate of the Collegiate School and Yale; this fall, he published a Chandler-esque mystery novel, Offer of Proof. Margaret, 25 minutes Robert’s junior, has a similar academic pedigree (Brearley and Harvard) but a shy, sympathetic manner and the delicate oval face of a woman on an old locket. Though in one essay Heilbrun gleefully notes that both she and her daughter Emily hailed from a long line of eldest daughters, in some ways Margaret and Carolyn were the tightest dyad in the family at the time of Carolyn’s death.

Today, Margaret wears a delicate rose-patterned scarf over a black sweater, the roses the same deep burgundy as her carefully applied lipstick. She speaks softly and precisely, and was obviously once very shy—so shy, she says with a wry laugh, that when she interviewed with Princeton as a high-school senior, the interviewer asked, "So, Ms. Heilbrun, how long have you been here from Germany?” On her fingers there are three gold rings, including one she took from her mother’s jewelry box and an English mourning ring, inscribed to GEORGE BYNE ESQ. JR., 1831. She is planning to have a half-dozen mourning rings inscribed with her mother’s name, for friends. She will have some of her own rings reinscribed—Margaret, in fact, collects mourning rings.


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