A Death of One’s Own

Word Power: Caws and Heilbrun at the MLA in 1983.Photo: Courtesy of The Modern Language Association

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.)

Plaid Innocent: Heilbrun in the 1947 Wellesley College yearbook.Photo: Courtesy of Wellesley College Archives

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.

There was probably some darkness that bonded them. They talked a little when Carolyn was down. Margaret said Carolyn should watch Cary Grant’s The Awful Truth, which always made her feel better, though Heilbrun would respond, “Oh, I saw that when it came out.” Margaret, addicted to films from the thirties and forties, addressed e-mails to her mother as “JB,” for Judith Bliss, the difficult matriarch in Noël Coward’s Hay Fever. Over drinks at the dive bar around the corner from Heilbrun’s apartment, they quoted their favorite lines from old movies to each other: “Don’t anybody leave the room, I’ve lost my purse!”; “Why else should his grandfather have sent me, as an engagement present, one roller skate covered in Thousand Island dressing?”; and Heilbrun’s favorite, adapted from Blithe Spirit, to bring Margaret back to her point when she digressed: “Then why the hell are we discussing it?”

Each time they saw each other, Margaret would bring along a small shopping bag with a present, like a piano quintet, or strong ginger cookies from a tea shop downtown—she was, she says, on a perpetual hunt for the gingeriest ginger cookie for her mother. After Heilbrun said she was not going to write any more of her detective novels, Margaret suggested that they write one together—she had been laid off from her post as library director at the New-York Historical Society and was looking for a way to fill her days. “I’m 46 years old—it’s a silly thing,” says Margaret. “But she always used to like my writing, and she said all right.” She blinks. “I don’t know if she was humoring me, or if she meant it.”

In the days since her mother’s death, Margaret has been up and down: She is not quite sure what to think. “It’s not that I’m angry as much as I’m mystified,” she says. “She had so many more friends than I did—friends and acquaintances, people who looked up to her, who saw her as a nurturer and role model. Was it that she herself had no one to turn to? Why did she feel so isolated? She must have had fears and other feelings I can’t begin to have known. I know for myself that if you’re scared enough of something, you won’t ever speak of it.” She twists one of her rings. “But,” she says, “it was her plot.”

Plots were not only something that Heilbrun analyzed in scholarly journals or thought about in the context of her own life, but also something that she tackled as a novelist. Heilbrun’s children remember waking up to the sound of the typewriter from the time they were young, and early mornings were often when she worked on her series of detective novels, published under the pseudonym Amanda Cross (her alter ego was secret until 1970, when it was discovered by an amateur sleuth of copyright records). All of the Cross novels, which have a silly, sanitized Sherlock Holmes flavor, feature Kate Fansler, the slender, Waspy, feisty New York City professor of literature who drinks Scotch and smokes cigarettes on the hunt for cold-blooded killers, bemoaning male incompetence all the while. Characters correct each other’s grammar; a dog is named Jocasta, after Oedipus’s mother; chauvinists are ruled out as suspects of female-directed kidnapping because “the woman, even if she is the enemy, isn’t worthy of combat because she hasn’t got a you-know-what, which is the absolute signifier.”

The setting of most Fansler mysteries is, of course, a fictional Columbia, and the books feature thinly disguised members of Heilbrun’s department—university president Jeremiah Cudlipp, murderous professor Frederick Clemance (thought to be based on Lionel Trilling), Middle Eastern studies professor Canfield Adams (Edward Said). Heilbrun’s voice is clearly Fansler’s, especially when she expresses her irritation at departmental meetings with dour male professors, their faces “long trained to hide irritation but not boredom.” She writes, “Kate would sometimes picture her tombstone with ‘The Token Woman’ engraved in the marble. Above the inscription androgynous angels would indifferently float.”

Women’s marginalized status within the university system as gallows humor was good sport for a while, but there came a point when Heilbrun was no longer in a joking mood. The English department was always one of Columbia’s most contentious, and in the late eighties it became a crucial battleground in the culture wars. (Finally, after over a decade of bitter conflict, it took the rare step of entering receivership with regard to its hiring decisions in 2002.) Heilbrun was one of the department’s most volatile presences: Departmental giants like Trilling and Said had had success having their disciples hired, and she wanted feminists hired, junior professors and graduate students specializing in modernism. It was a respect issue, and her efforts met with bitter resistance and a tone that often became personal. “People had negative things to say about Carol, before they realized they couldn’t say such things in my presence,” says Robert Hanning, a Columbia professor and friend of Heilbrun’s. “They said she was a hysterical woman and such things, because she wanted in. She was a powerful woman, and she wanted in.”

So, in 1992, at 66, Heilbrun resigned from the university in protest—at the time, she said, the men “behave like little boys saying, ‘This is our treehouse club, no girls allowed.’ ” Heilbrun’s detractors, of which there were many, whispered of an undeserved Carolyn Heilbrun myth, and said that she had little to lose by departing Columbia and only publicity to gain: She had received a large advance for her next project, a biography of Gloria Steinem titled Education of a Woman. But a friendly article about her departure ran in The New York Times Magazine, and that fall an assembly of 500 scholars gathered at the Graduate School of the City University of New York for a rousing symposium in her honor, with speakers spanning generations of feminist thought. Several spoke of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ summer seminars on “Woman as Hero” that Heilbrun had led in the seventies and the eighties: “Looking back, it seems to me that my life began in that seminar,” said Patricia Smith Yaeger, a professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “Before then, I was non-feminist, non-tenured, non-published, a Romanticist, Yale-trained, deviously expert in worshiping the great males and great whales of the nineteenth century.” Feminist scholar Sandra Gilbert puts it this way: “There’s a Gertrude Stein opera about Susan B. Anthony called The Mother of Us All. Well, that’s the way we feel about Carolyn: She was the muse, nurturer, and mother of us all.”

The next time many of these women came together was for Heilbrun’s memorial, just over a decade later, and the turnout, at the spare, cavernous Unitarian church next door to Heilbrun’s apartment building, was almost as large. There was poetry by Adrienne Rich, a passage from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and, oddly enough, a vocal performance of “Danny Boy,” Heilbrun’s favorite song. Friends struggled to give closure to an important life: Steinem, her long, wild mane graying but possessed of the same statuesque presence, spoke of how Heilbrun’s death reminded her of an African queen she had once met—a queen “whose job is to keep the peace and make rain”—and who ends her own life after she passes down her wisdom to young women. Others expressed anger, guilt, and confusion, but an ultimate acceptance of Heilbrun’s decision to author her own life, even its ending. The last reading was from Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the final meditation of painter Lily Briscoe: “ … yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”

Sometimes Heilbrun saw promise in getting older. She wrote, “Neither rocking on a porch, nor automatically offering her services as cook and housekeeper and child watcher, nor awaiting another chapter in the heterosexual plot, the old woman must be glimpsed through all her disguises which seem to preclude her right to be called woman. She may well for the first time be woman herself.”

But there were also pitfalls to age: stasis, puttering, becoming a “useless person,” sinking “into the ancient sin of anomie when challenges failed.” To be inconsequential, for Heilbrun, was to die. She had said so much about women, their lives, and writing; she wanted to focus on something else. She turned in the last few years to the biographies of scientists, taking solace in the fact that science had tests, and answers. She did not understand their theories—“my comprehension is best expounded by Chaim Weizmann, describing a transatlantic crossing with Einstein: ‘Einstein explained his theory to me every day; by the time we arrived, I was finally convinced that he understood it.’ ”

For someone in the throes of this kind of creative crossroads, suicide can have a distinct appeal. So is that how hers should be read? As always, the textual evidence is conflicting. On one hand, Heilbrun was clearly casting about for something new to do. She writes, “Here is Hopkins, perfectly conveying what is these days my chief despair: ‘Birds build—but not I build; no, but strain, Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes. Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain.’ ”

On the other hand, Heilbrun’s suicide was part of the plan she had all along, perhaps an essential component of her feminism. She writes, “We women have lived too much with closure—there always seems to loom the possibility of something being over, settled, sweeping clear the way for contentment. This is the delusion of a passive life. When the hope for closure is abandoned, when there is an end to fantasy, adventure for women will begin. Endings—the kind Austen tacked onto her novels—are for romance or daydreams, but not for life.”

And suicide, while on one level is closure, is a kind of freedom on another. “The thing about suicide is that it is indeterminate,” says Susan Gubar, Heilbrun’s friend and a professor at Indiana University. “The only person to testify with any authenticity is God. Everyone else is bullshitting.”

In Heilbrun’s apartment, over the fireplace, there is a self-portrait by Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister. The Heilbruns bought the piece over 25 years ago, along with another portrait of Bell’s (homosexual) lover, Duncan Grant, at a time when Heilbrun had curly brown hair and, she writes, “was hardly a beauty, while Vanessa Bell’s beauty was widely celebrated.” In the painting, however, Bell appears in a serious pose, wearing glasses, her gray hair fastened in a bun. As the years passed, Heilbrun took to wearing her long gray hair pulled back in a bun as well, and she began to resemble, if not Bell, then the portrait, at first faintly and then strongly. She took pleasure in this.

“Many visitors assumed it was a portrait I had commissioned of myself,” she once wrote. “Such are the tricks and mockeries of time.”

A Death of One’s Own