Chapter Four: Corruption of Innocence
Today on NPR’s Writer’s Almanac Garrison Keillor quoted Bernard Malamud: “I write a book:, or a short story, at least three times—once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.”
As a writer, I recognize the truth of that statement. I write, first, to get words down on paper, letting the dangerous thoughts and ideas emerge until I know what it is I need to say. Endless revisions improve the prose. And finally, I understand what the piece must say, and I revise again.
What is different in the way I approach my writing, and the way Malamud did (beyond the difference in talent and dedication) is that he needed complete solitude and privacy to write, and apparently submitted his drafts to no critical eye except his own and his editors. I have the enormous benefit of belonging to a writing group of skilled writers, who hear and critique my work, and help me to not only understand what is on the page (they often see the subtle messages I’ve written but not understood), but help me get to what the piece must say. In his own writing about his process, Malamud said, “I don’t find writing an easy task. The idea is to get the pencil moving quickly. Once you’ve got some words looking back at you you can take two or three–or throw them away and look for other. I go over and over a page. Either it bleeds and shows it’s beginning to be human, or the form emits shadows of itself and I’m off. I have a terrifying will that way.” Indeed he did. To write about the shadow, which he did. As Carl Jung said, “To be confronted with our shadow reveals to us our light.” I wonder if he ever saw his light revealed?
Another Malamud quote: “Life responds to one’s moves with comic counterinventions.” All in the service of shadow, if we only but knew it. Shadow–our best teacher.
In her biography of her father, Jannna Malamud Smith mentions that two of their family’s best friends at OSC were Warren Hovland and Arvid Lonseth, professors of Religion and Math, and their wives. Coincidentally each of these three teachers provided an important turning point in my life.
Bernard Malamud…he was another window to a more expanded view of the world. And, a road not taken…
~ ~ ~
During my senior year in high school I brought home an application for a state scholarship. I waited until after dinner to ask Dad to fill in the part about family income. He tossed the paperwork back across the kitchen table. “Don’t need this. You’re not going to college.” He drank the last of his coffee and shoved away his dessert plate.
I was stunned. Mom had always told me I would go to college. My brother, Wes, was already a sophomore at NW Christian College.
“What are you talking about?” I said, hovering near the line I seldom crossed, the you don’t talk to your father that way line. Jenny was 14, Tim, 11, and Anne, four. They sat around the table watching Dad, silent and attentive. Their own futures were at stake in this discussion.
“Just a waste of time, and money we don’t have. You’re only 16, you’d lose your innocence. They’d give you high-falutin’ notions, make you question everything you believe. You’d come home with your head full of ideas, probably be an atheist. Or a Commie.”
“But …Wes …”
“Wes is a boy. And he’s studying to be a minister, at a Christian college. Can’t afford two kids in college, and you don’t need college to be a wife and mother. Get that uppity idea out of your head.”
He glanced at Mom, who was as grim-faced as he. “Your Mom, now. She always wanted to go to college, but what good would that have done her?” Mom shook her head and snorted—I figured she had her own ideas about what college might have done for her, and I knew she wanted a different life for me than she had known.
I knew what a sacrifice it was to send Wes $50 a month for his college expenses. Mom made her old coat last another year. Nobody got new shoes, or new glasses. Sack lunches for school were peanut butter sandwiches, sometimes with jelly, no meat or cheese.
“I’ll get a good scholarship,” I said. “And I’ll get a job. Lots of jobs! I can work and go to school, both. You won’t need to send me a dime.”
“You’re not going.” Dad stood up, reached for his barn jacket, and went out the back door. For him, the subject was closed.
I turned to Mom, beseeching. “Mom, you always said I would go to college. Mrs. Trullinger said I could get a good scholarship, easy.”
Her jaw was set, her mind as made up as Dad’s, but in the opposite direction. “You are going to college.” She was adamant. “You go ahead and fill out that application. I’ll take care of Dad. And I’ll write in the part about family income. When they see that they’ll for sure give you a scholarship to the University of Oregon.”
“But I want to go Oregon State College!” My boyfriend Terry, a neighbor, was already a freshman at OSC. I had already lost interest in him as a boyfriend, but at least I’d know one person in the new environment. He could be a fallback if I needed a date.
Her blue eyes grew steely. ‘‘Your Dad’s worried about you losing your religious beliefs, but I’m more concerned about you losing something more important—your future. You and Terry would probably have sex, you’d get pregnant, and that would be that. You don’t need to go chasing after that boy. He’s trouble.”
Terry’s father regularly beat his wife, and Mom had too often been the one to apply poultices and sympathy. She believed, from her personal experience with her own father, that such an example would mean the son would be similarly inclined. She had seen one of her brothers turn out the same way—punishing his children with physical and psychological punishment bordering on criminal. My Dad had never been violent with Mom. He seemed to understand—perhaps knowing more about her own father than he ever let on—that such treatment would see her gone in an instant.
“You need a good liberal arts education,” she went on. “OSC’s a cow college. You’re too smart for that. You’re going to the university.”
Mom was against OSC because of Terry, and because it was a cow college. I wanted OSC because of what I saw as the pretentiousness of the U of O— I had been on campus the summer before, for a two-week music camp, and felt intimidated by the subtle atmosphere of privilege and entitlement. “High- falutin’ ,” Dad would have called it. In spite of my big plans for my future, I knew I was too naïve for the sophisticated university, and wouldn’t fit in. It was OSC or nothing.
And I wanted OSC because at 16, I was in defiance against Mom and her wisdom. I was a precocious know-it-all, ready to be in charge of my life.
And devious. After Mom filled in our pitifully meager three-digit family income I crossed out “University of Oregon,” filled in “Oregon State College,” and put the application in the mail. Dad had a dead-end idea about my future, and Mom fantasized limitless possibilities for me, fulfilling the dreams she had never achieved herself She imagined me a literary, cultured author, or the first woman President. She didn’t say it, but I knew.
I couldn’t please both parents. Instead, I was stubbornly insistent on making my own decisions about my future, doing what my inner knowing told me was right for me, whether or not I understood why. Dad only saw my inner wisdom as defiance.
A few weeks later, Mom came home from a PTA meeting and called me into the kitchen.
She’d been crying. “You could have told me you got your scholarship. I had to hear it when Mr. Knotts announced it at PTA. It was embarrassing. I thought he must have made a mistake, but no, he said Home Economics! At Oregon State College! They don’t even have a liberal arts department at OSC. Just science and engineering, and Home Economics.” She used the term with a shudder. “I wanted better for you than glorified homemaking. Your father believes the university would make you challenge everything you’re been raised to believe, and he’s right! It will! I want that for you! At least you could have chosen to major in math or science!”
My face flushed with guilt, and bravado. “That’s why I didn’t tell you, Mom. I don’t want to go to the University. Rich people go there.” It was the first time I had openly defied my mother, gone over her head as it were.
“I think it’s a huge mistake.” She gazed at me for a few moments, saw my resolve, and turned away, uncharacteristically defeated, shoulders slumped, her tear-streaked face weary. “But I won’t stand in your way.”
It was the first time she had treated me as an adult.
My stubborn heart refused to feel guilty but didn’t succeed. I didn’t fully understand her regret about her own choices, and the limitlessness of her dreams for me, her hope that I could live the life she had missed out on. Paradoxically, years later she told me I had been an example for her, that my insistence on defying cultural norms and parental pressure to make choices in my life had given her the courage to make her own difficult choices. Her choice to attend college at age 55 required her to leave Dad—a separation which eventually became permanent through divorce—accept alienation from some of her children, and live in a tiny studio apartment in Portland.
Looking back, I realize my “inner knowing” and my defiance of my parents’ plans gave me the opportunity for the unlimited future my mother had wanted for me. Three memorable professors laid the foundation: Warren Hovland. Bernard Malamud. And Arvid Lonseth.
Warren Hovland taught Contemporary Religions. He was the man whose vision cleared the way for a Religious Studies Department at OSC, and he is one of few to be honored with a building named after him while still living. His neutral, gentle, often humorous discussions of religions I had never heard named—they were lumped together as “heathen” in my growing-up church—did exactly what my father had feared. My childish religious beliefs were thoroughly corrupted. I stopped attending the Corvallis church, where my attendance had been, at best, sporadic. I dated boys from other countries and other religions—Buddhist, Hindu, even some Catholics! For the first time, I began to question the religious dogma I had been taught was never to be doubted or questioned.
~ ~ ~
My writing gene came from my mother, who typed her stories on flimsy yellow paper on a decrepit typewriter on a tiny desk in the living room, and, later, balanced on the small shelf of the vanity in her bedroom. She kept her drafts in files in the drawer of the vanity. No room for makeup or hair frivolities. Her thirst to become a published writer was another dream unrealized—she had no encouragement or support for her passion. Nevertheless, she documented her life more thoroughly in books and stories and autobiographies than anyone I have ever known.
The next boost for my own interest in writing came from Bernard Malamud.
I had chosen Home Economics as a major mainly to qualify to live in Azalea House, a cooperative for girls majoring in Home Ec. It was the only housing I could afford, since the residents paid for room and board by doing the cleaning and cooking. I had not given much thought to what I wanted out of college. A career. But in what? My teen dreams were of becoming a reporter or a published writer and moving to New York City to live in an apartment with no yard, no garden, no “farming” to do, not even a geranium on the window sill. When more adult thinking intruded, I knew I would probably end up as a housewife and mother, and wanted to be good at it. Girl reporters existed only in a world that felt inaccessible to me. Jackie Kennedy had provided a believable image as a girl reporter, but even Jackie had quickly opted for marriage and motherhood.
Nevertheless, I chose all my electives in mathematics and writing.
I signed up for the MWF 10 section of Creative Writing. My instructor turned out to be Bernard Malamud. He had published his first novel, The Natural, five years earlier, and just that year his second novel, The Assistant. He was becoming a famous writer. I had never before met a real author.
Mr. Malamud was 42 years old at the time, about my father’s age, short and slight, balding with black receding hair and a dark beard shadow, his dress shirt neatly buttoned all the way up, often with a sweater vest or cardigan over the shirt. I had never met an author, or anyone from the east coast, or a Jew. I believed all Jews lived in New York City, where I wanted to live someday. Everything about him was exotically unfamiliar to me, a 17-year-old fresh-faced farm girl. He was a city boy who grew up in Brooklyn living over his immigrant parents’ grocery store, the kind of uneasy transplant to the West Coast who carried an umbrella and wore galoshes over his shoes when it rained. He seemed to take a particular interest in his students, especially those, like me, who were interested in literature and creative writing. After all, OSC was a college that turned out scientists and engineers, foresters and farmers and homemakers—not the kind of self-taught farmers and homemakers I had grown up with, but professional, technically-educated farmers and homemakers who would work for OSC’s large Extension Division. Home Ec majors who, like me, majored in Food Science and were required to take courses in cell biology and organic chemistry. The only writing we would ever do, it was assumed by the college and State Board of Higher Education, was technical reports and scientific treatises.
Mr. Malamud quoted Albert Camus, an existentialist writer also previously unknown to me but much admired by Malamud: “The purpose of the writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.” His lofty view of the purpose of the writer gave me, for the first time, a picture of writing as an important career possibility, beyond the glamour.
In fact, Malamud frequently sneaked in some teaching about literature, which he was forbidden to teach, not having a PhD. Most of the class fidgeted through. I didn’t fidget, I asked questions and read the books he quoted from. He praised my writing, and read my themes aloud in class as examples of what he was looking for, calling them “superior” and “promising” and “impressive.” His praise pumped up my young farm girl ambitions, especially from someone for whom I held a degree of awe. My teen dreams took flight under his praise. Years later, when I visited my daughter’s apartment in Brooklyn, I recognized it as the very one I had envisioned as a teenager, girl reporter in the big city, without even a geranium on the windowsill—except that Kelley did have a red geranium on her window sill. Her apartment was so similar to my childish vision, it gave me shivers.
Mr. Malamud assigned an essay about early experiences. I wrote about growing up on a flower bulb farm, and being one of the “farmhands.” Mr. Malamud gave me an A+ and read it aloud in class.
I was so proud of the piece that I sent it home to my parents, thinking they would want to hear my feelings about the privilege of growing up with a work ethic, an appreciation for nature, a closeness to the land. The animals, the birthing and growing and planting and harvesting that are part of farm life.
Dad didn’t comment until my next visit home to celebrate Thanksgiving, when he pulled out the piece with the A+ written large at the top of the first page. He shook the pages in my face. “What is this crap? Who is this Malamud character you keep talking about, giving you an A+ for a story full of lies! This is exactly what I knew would happen to you if you went off to college. He’s encouraging you to write crap like this!” His eyes spit fire, but also hurt, even betrayal. He was easily wounded, but usually managed to mask his hurt with anger. This time I saw his true feelings, the way his mouth turned down and his jaw worked trying to control the quiver in his chin.
Dad read aloud my description of him getting us up early on cold mornings to start the chores—yelling, “Hit the deck!”—and if we didn’t immediately leap out of bed and into our clothes, he might bring in a cup of cold water and drip it on our foreheads. He did that once or twice. For the purposes of the theme I implied he did it regularly.
“You’re a disrespectful little snot! Mocking me!”
“But Dad, you read it all wrong!” I was shocked and frustrated. That he could think …
He drew back his hand. “Don’t you sass me, young lady. You’re still only seventeen.” He still thought of me as a child, and I was slipping away, no longer under his control.
Mom got between us, facing Dad. “I liked the story! She’s a good writer. She described our life here very well. And her teacher is an accomplished writer. Let it go.”
He dropped his hand and turned away, muttering. “Fawning over a damn Jew. Knew this would happen.”
“Dad,” I tried to soothe, “it was about how much I loved growing up on a farm! Didn’t you hear that?” I was as frustrated as he, wondering how he could have so badly misinterpreted what I had written. I didn’t understand then, his feelings of inferiority at his eighth grade education, or his disdain for what he saw as over-educated college people. He had been the smartest man I knew, able to figure out how to fix anything, build anything, solve any problem. But emotionally, he was as vulnerable as a sea creature without its shell.
He was beyond listening. He put on his cap and left for the barn. His fears about me going to college were starting to come true. I had been corrupted, and by a New York Jew, anathema in his staunchly Christian view of the world. How he knew the origin or ethnicity of Mr. Malamud escaped me. Perhaps I had told him, clueless about how that knowledge would add to his fears for me.
~ ~ ~
When I returned to college after Thanksgiving, Mr. Malamud invited me to his office for a “chat about my writing.” Still smarting from the confrontation with Dad, I looked forward to some positive reinforcement.
Mr. Malamud’s office was small, dominated by a large, scarred wooden table with neat stacks of what I assumed were his own manuscripts, neatly handwritten in blue ink on unlined yellow paper. 1 seated myself across the table from him. He rolled his chair on wheels around to my side of the table. We were nearly knee-to-knee.
“Judy, I wonder if you have thought about writing as a career? You have a real gift, especially for describing family, landscape and setting, the foundation for story.” He leaned closer, putting us nearly brow-to-brow.
“I – I – I… a gift?” I squeaked. And leaned back.
“I would be willing to mentor you privately. Your talent should be nurtured.” His hand closed over my knee. His large knuckles looked red and chapped. I saw his curly black nose hairs. The black hairs in his protruding ears. Black expressive eyebrows. His breath smelled minty.
I leaned back further, my heart pounding in my ears. What was this? I’d had experience with teenage groping, but this was a man close to my father’s age! And he was my teacher.
I watched him get up and lock the door.
I panicked, confused, frozen by betrayal. Feeling cornered, I looked frantically around his office, noted the cracked window to my right, flush with the end of the table. I was acutely aware of my girlish corduroy jumper over a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar. This was all so creepy, icky, slimy—he was as old as my Dad!—what had he seen in me? Yet, at the same time, there was a secret feeling of puzzlement mixed with pride at being “chosen” by this talented person who fascinated me as a writer and teacher, but repelled me as a man.
He turned from the door and stood looking at me, his brown eyes filled with liquid invitation.
Shoving his chair out of my way, I leaped for the door, stepped around him and fumbled with the latch. Got it open.
“I. .. I’m sorry,” I stammered, “but I have to go. Forgot I have to get to work early today.”
He moved his chair back behind his table, looked mildly troubled. He fumbled with and restacked the yellow sheets, not looking at me.
“I work at the library,” I babbled, collecting my books and notebook and purse. “And I clean bathrooms at a frat house, and …” I stopped.
He waved me away dismissively, a slight flush creeping up his neck. Embarassment? Anger? “Go to work. I understand.”
Malamud still encouraged me in class, but never again read any of my work aloud. He was distant, and didn’t look directly at me when he spoke to me.
~ ~ ~
Later than same term, because I lived in a co-op house for home economics majors, I was able to find work cleaning for my home ec professors. One of my several jobs was to clean a house on North 31st St. for Dr. Atkins, an expert on Time and Motion Management. I took the bus to her house, in a tidy neighborhood of two-story houses and bungalows where many of the faculty lived. Family homes. Kids played on lawns and rode bikes in the street.
Dr. Atkins had never married, a bona fide spinster. Her home was smaller than the family homes in the neighborhood, but her pantry and closets were models of immaculate organization. She was clear in what she expected of me, and her standards were high. Her kitchen was arranged as carefully as her tight gray curls—the stove and refrigerator and sink forming a perfect triangle. She demonstrated how she could move from one appliance to another with the fewest possible number of steps while preparing and cleaning up after a meal.
One warm spring afternoon, all the windows open to freshen the air inside as I cleaned her house, I heard a trumpet playing nearby. A boy stood in an upstairs window of the house across the street, the bell of his trumpet pointed out the window, practicing, the notes ringing out into the neighborhood. I called Dr. Atkins’ into the kitchen from her study: “He plays so well for such a young boy,” I said.
She looked out the window and mused, “Oh, yes. The Malamud boy. Paul. Precocious.” So he was married? He had a family! My guts churned. I had trusted and admired him, until that day in his office. Seeing his family home was a further loss of innocence for me, another detail added to my picture of him as an alien being completely outside my limited range of experience. But still…he had wanted me, as an adult. Was I just too naïve to appreciate his interest? I looked at Dr. Atkins, who had said nothing about Malamud himself, and wondered how well she knew him—wondered if perhaps she had had sex with him. Or did he only prefer young girls?
Malamud became famous, and left OSC in 1961, just after he published A New Life, a novel which revealed the inner workings of the OSC English department, including the sex lives of the faculty. The protagonist describes his own assignation with a 19-year-old student, and another with the wife of a colleague in his department. One OSC English professor quickly posted a note on his office door: “It wasn’t MY wife.” Malamud left OSC for a position at Bennington College, then a women’s college, and his biographer reports his affair with a 19-year-old student that first year, when he was 47. Even now, it seems icky to me. Today, such an affair could (should?) be cause for dismissal of the professor. (I admit that my perception is colored by having later been married to a professor and finding on his desk among his papers a love note from a student, signed with a lipstick kiss.)
Malamud died in 1986 at the age of 71, exactly the age I am now. What different paths our lives have taken—I only began to write seriously in my forties. He spent his life writing every day, even on holidays, and published prodigiously.
Many years later, I realized he may have found me appealing for exactly the same reasons I was fascinated with him: everything he knew about my life as a girl growing up on a farm was alien and opposite to his own experience. Yet, we shared a strong work ethic learned from our parents, and we both had worked daily with our parents, he in a small urban grocery store, me on a small country farm.
And, perhaps, he was looking for what finally happened four years later—the liaison with a promising student whom he could tutor and mentor. His student, Arlene, rather quickly abandoned the sexual affair, but remained a friend for the rest of his life, corresponding fondly and regularly in a discussion of shared literary interests and family life. Malamud’s daughter describes coming home when she learned of her father’s death, to find her mother and Arlene crying together in the living room, a sight she found creepy and wrong.
I admit that being the focus (however briefly) of a famous author was an important turning point for me. I chose to believe him about being a good writer, because he was a good writer. Discovering his ulterior motive didn’t change my intention to be an author someday, like him. He fell off the pedestal I had placed him on, as a human, but never as a writer and a teacher. He was remarkable; I learned a great deal from him, about writing and appreciation for good literature. I learned how good writers build on the landscape of their lives and their personal experiences, and use their writing to metabolize and transform their own feelings and neuroses. Probably most importantly, I learned not to trust high praise too much.
Now I wonder. .. was I the imagined romantic interest of the protagonist in his novel A New Life? Or did he, perhaps, succeed in a liaison with an OSC coed, unknown even to his biographers? His protagonist in the novel was him in many ways, certainly not one of the other faculty members, all of them hearty Westerners content to teach grammar rather than literature. I sometimes think I should have had sex with him. How much more sophisticated might I have become, and how much more able to resist the structured future I fell back into. Maybe I’d have been in one of his novels, or his biography. But then I’d be part of his story, instead of vice versa.