I happened upon Emily Fox Gordon’s Book of Days by chance at the library, and when I saw it contained a collection of personal essays, that it was introduced by Phillip Lopate, and that several of the essays were about academic matters, I snapped it up. I read the first few essays unsure of what I thought, but eventually she won me over, as good personal essayists do. By the end of the book, I was enjoying her company. Gordon has published two memoirs, but in this book she talks about falling in love with personal essays first and only publishing memoirs later because that’s what publishers want. With this book, she finally got her wish to publish an essay collection.
Gordon mines some of her childhood experiences for this book: she grew up as a faculty brat who had a difficult relationship with her parents, and she spent many years in therapy, including three years after high school in a psychiatric hospital. As a grown-up, she spent a lot of time thinking about the dangers of psychotherapy, what it’s like to be a faculty wife, and what it’s like to be an outsider, a lazy person, and someone who finds her profession late in life. I found these preoccupations appealing; she makes her tendency to be negative, suspicious, and doubtful interesting. She spent years essentially passive and directionless, unhappy at times in her marriage and uncertain what to do with her time, but these were years of preparation for the writing that would come later in life. Here is how she describes herself:
I am a passive woman. I am a gormless woman. My life has been characterized by an extreme and pervasive failure of agency. When I look back at my fifty-four years, I’m appalled at the proportion of my time I’ve passed lying on couches, smoking, dreaming, sometimes reading.
Disinclined to plan, incapable of self-advancement, I’ve spent much of my life like a child waiting to be given a gift. My deepest wish has never been to achieve, attain to, or possess any particular object or state; instead it has been to receive something. To tell the truth, I find it hard to believe people when they claim to have a goal. Do they really want to become pharmacists, learn languages, play instruments, start small businesses? Privately, I suspect they’re being disingenuous and what they really want is to be surprised.
Now that I type out this passage, I realize Gordon sounds like another nonfiction writer I admire: Jenny Diski. Both writers take pleasure in resisting our culture’s call to work hard, produce, and be cheerful about it. It’s an attitude I admire.
One of the book’s preoccupations is Gordon’s mistrust of therapy, which is hardly surprising, considering the kind she experienced. She spent countless hours in therapy rooms with a silent therapist who would wait until she spoke, and from this she learned to play the therapy “game” — becoming the troubled person the therapist expected her to be. Her years in the psychiatric hospital were basically a disaster. She and the other residents learned to be passive and manipulative, and rather than improving, they just became sicker. In Gordon’s case, she was a troubled youth, but not one who needed hospitalization. She might have thrived in college, turning to the outside world to find interests and meaning there, but instead, she just retreated to an inner life that felt increasingly empty.
Other essays focus on her adult life — her writing, her marriage, her ambivalent feelings about being a “faculty wife.” I didn’t always agree with her ideas, but arguing with her in my head was part of the fun. I sympathized with her feelings of isolation and of being on the outside looking in, but sometimes she seemed so busy making a point about being an outsider that she oversimplified what other people experience. I didn’t recognize her portrayal of feminism, for example, which is a picture of feminine solidarity at the expense of all individuality, a “cavalry, rumbling at full gallop.” To be a feminist, she says, is to swear absolute loyalty to the cause. I suspect that this is a generational difference; the feminism she experienced was very different from the individualistic, enjoy yourself and do whatever you want attitude of today. But I wanted her to recognize that there is more than one form of feminism, and that identifying as a feminist does not mean giving up her own ideas.
But still, I don’t need to agree with everything a writer says to enjoy their writing. In fact, it’s more fun if I don’t. What I do need is for a person to be interesting and to have new ideas and experiences to share and to be willing to look at his or her life honestly, and all this Gordon does very well. She makes good company, which is what I always hope for when I pick up an essay.