WHEN I WAS 17, my uncle handed me a copy of The Ballad of the Sad Café. I had never heard of Carson McCullers. I devoured the collection. Years later I thanked him for the introduction, and he chuckled and half-apologized. “Kind of bleak, for a teenager,” he said. What I would have responded, were I someone who is able to come up with good things to say on the spot, is: Being a teenager is already pretty bleak, so I might as well have some company.
Carson came to me, via said uncle, in my final years of high school, during my first dips into the melancholia that has lingered in my peripheries for 10-plus years. I grew up in rural New England; it was idyllic and I did love it, but I was constantly aware of its smallness, its limitations. I was seen, I’m absolutely certain, as “normal,” but inside I often felt despairing, lonely, impatient. Like so many of Carson’s characters, I was desperate for my life — my real life — to start.
Jenn Shapland, whose My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is out today from Tin House, was in her mid-20s when Carson came to her. (Shapland calls her Carson, so I’m going to call her Carson, too.) She was in the archives of UT’s Ransom Center, where she worked for two years as she earned her PhD. A scholar requested the letters between Carson and Annemarie Schwarzenbach, and Shapland descended into the archives to retrieve them. What she found was a set of intimate correspondences, in which she immediately detected romance. “Other than my own, I had never read love letters between women before,” she writes. At the time, Shapland was grappling with her own sexuality, her ambitions, her identity. She, too, was hoping her life would start and questioning what that life should be.
This discovery set her on a years-long journey to unearth, retrace, understand, and even embody Carson’s life — particularly her life of love. The resulting book brilliantly interweaves Carson’s personal history with Shapland’s own. “To tell another person’s story,” Shapland explains, “a writer must make that person some version of herself, must find a way to inhabit her.” Shapland achieves this identity merger, to some extent. She lives in Carson’s childhood home in Columbus, Georgia, reads countless pages of transcripts from her therapy sessions, visits Yaddo, and examines her subject’s collection of coats and nightgowns, searching for clues, searching for answers, and in some ways, searching for herself. To see these pieces fit together, Shapland writes, “[Y]ou have to read like a queer person, like someone who knows what it’s like to be closeted, and who knows how to look for reflections of your own experience in even the most unlikely places.”
Carson’s relationship with Annemarie is relatively well known and frequently cited, as are her many friendships with other queer writers and artists, and her fiction’s atypical empathy toward homosexuality, blackness, and disability in the mid-20th century. Nonetheless, Carson is historically categorized as a straight woman (she was married twice, to the same man) who entertained “infatuations” and close friendships with other women. The question that propels Shapland’s book is not whether or not Carson was a lesbian; she’s not trying to prove, exactly. What she’s trying to do is see herself in history, show herself (and us) that Carson and other queer people have always lived, always loved, always made community for themselves.
One of the ways Shapland asserts her own existence, and the existence of a rich history of lesbians living and loving, is through the physical remnants of that history. Carson’s clothes, some of which were given to the Ransom Center, are crucial in this respect. Shapland measures and examines them in detail — more than she ever has with her own clothing. She describes a room in Carson’s house in Georgia which is lined with glass cases housing Carson’s old possessions: things like eyeglasses, a cigarette case, a wallet. They are mundane objects, but ones that prove Carson’s life, and thus make tangible the existence of a person whose identity has been glossed over by popular memory. “[I]f indeed there hardly is a lesbian history,” Shapland asks, “do I exist?”
At its core, Shapland’s book is about gaps — in stories, in language, in history, in ourselves — and how we attempt to fill them. Shapland casts aspersions on historians and critics who have called Carson a tomboy (“whatever that is […] I cannot imagine her displaying athletic ability, and she was by no means butch”), or her wardrobe as “mannish” (“how many men wear lapels that large, cuffs that long? What about all the embroidery, the beading? Though now I am gender policing”). The challenge, as she sees it, “is how little common language we have to communicate androgyny, ambiguity. We rely on binary terms […] to convey what is at heart both, or neither.” Shapland marvels at the historical rewriting of Carson’s life, in which she had “obsessions” with women, but of course, she was straight — because people are straight. Where there is no equivocal language to account for equivocal history, there is only lack.
Shapland detects queerness everywhere, but her findings are usually ignored, if not outright refuted. The director of the Carson McCullers Center in Columbus tells her “in no uncertain terms” that Carson and her therapist Dr. Mary Mercer were “never romantically involved.” At Yaddo, the artist residency in the Hudson Valley that Carson adored, and where she met another of her paramours, the residency director Elizabeth Ames, Shapland sees holes in the tour guide’s description of the benefactor family. She questions these relationships: Who was involved with whom? And to what extent? “Women? Men? […] Were they all enmeshed? None of these questions were answered on the tour, though I asked.” Apparently, queerness is not part of Yaddo’s self-mythologizing. In a section titled “Googling,” Shapland describes reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones while at Yaddo: “[W]ithin a minute I was typing ‘Natalie Goldberg lesbian’ into the search bar. I cannot tell you the number of times I have typed this search with different women’s names.” What she finds, perhaps unsurprisingly, and in a fitting metaphor for her entire project, is ambiguity.
Ambivalence is reflected and refracted in the book’s very structure. My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is made up of vignettes, some only a sentence long and some that span deeply researched pages. These pieces are grouped and sorted by topic and time, in keeping with Shapland’s archivist training, but there is also a certain amount of slipperiness to them, a constant regenerating and layering effect that renders the categories somewhat irrelevant. Shapland resists classification and prescription at every turn, opting for gray over black-and-white whenever possible. Her role, then, is less as biographer than as translator, rereading and queering Carson’s life for an audience that has only had access to a fraction of the story.
Of course, for Carson and her contemporaries, it was expected that queer “behaviors” be shrouded in normativity. As Freudian psychology gained popularity, so too did the idea that long-term homosexual behavior — particularly when undisguised by heterosexual partnership — was a pathology. Carson adhered to these strictures, marrying Reeves McCullers for convenience while engaging in intense affairs with women, residing in the famed February House in Brooklyn, and living apart from Reeves for essentially their entire marriage. It bears mentioning that Carson was accused of other pathologies, as well — she was chronically ill, and doctors often explained away her sicknesses as “psychological episodes.” In reality, she suffered a series of strokes, starting at the age of 23, incurred partly due to a misdiagnosed bout of rheumatic fever in her teens. Shapland, too, has a chronic illness that often leaves her exhausted, diagnosed in her early 20s. Invisible illnesses put the sick in the horrible position of constantly having to explain themselves, prove themselves, or else pretend. “The psychologizing of illness complicates the relationship between self and body,” Shapland writes. “If any malady can be connected to a patient’s psychology it follows that […] they could cure themselves.” Carson and Shapland are only two on an infinitely long list of women who were made to feel crazy, instead of simply sick.
Shapland’s book was catalyzed in part by Carson’s relationship with therapy and with her therapist, Dr. Mary Mercer. Carson began seeing Mary when she was 41 and convinced Mary to allow the sessions to be recorded and transcribed. Mary kept them private until her death in 2012, and in 2014 they were released. “[B]oth Mary and Carson describe these transcripts as an attempt at writing her autobiography,” Shapland explains. There is a lot of talk about writers in therapy, about writing as therapy, but therapy as writing? It’s an appealing concept, and a convenient one for a writer who struggles with introspection. Carson’s characters are, perhaps, more developed than Carson herself: “[I]t’s clear enough that she, a writer renowned for her psychological insight and emotional acuity on the page, is still at a loss as to how to articulate who she is.” This technique may very well have been a way for Carson to remove herself from her own mind, to analyze — or create — herself the way she would one of her characters. Shapland fills some of the holes left by Carson’s therapeutic testimony, chiming in to offer analysis where Carson couldn’t, or wouldn’t.
Shapland herself, on the other hand, is the archetypal therapy patient. Her experiences in counseling are interspersed throughout the book, mirroring and offsetting Carson’s sessions with Mary. Shapland is contemplative and anxious, plagued by impostor syndrome. At every turn, she is astonished when doors are opened, offers extended. All success feels like a fluke. She worries, even, that the very essence of her project is corrupt: “I became afraid that in the very process of trying to know her, I would somehow change her.”
At the same time, Shapland feels protective of her singular relationship with Carson, defensive when other people claim to “love” her. Through her rewriting of Carson’s biography, a kind of ownership emerges: Oh, you love her, do you? Are you writing a book about her? Not wanting to be one of these intrusive, presumptuous people, I mentioned my anxiety about writing this review to my own therapist: Am I attempting to take Carson away from Shapland? Am I appropriating her? If one day I happen to meet Shapland, will I be able to resist telling her I reviewed her book, stole a little piece of Carson’s legacy, inserted myself into the story? (The outcome of this debate is self-evident.)
My own experiences with therapy started in high school, around the time I first read Carson’s work. The routine remains an essential part of my emotional well-being. In retrospect, it’s an interesting time to have begun such a process: I was engaging in identity-making and personal storytelling at the precipice of my adulthood. I hadn’t thought of it this way until I read Shapland’s astute assessment that “[t]herapy has a lot in common with memoir: It’s telling your story.” Successful counseling, Shapland asserts, is just narrative-making through trial and error. At one point, she describes a session that helped her “shape a new narrative, one that wasn’t so strict and unforgiving.” A good therapist is like a good editor: she knows all your previous work, all your tricks, and never lets you get away with lazy storytelling.
When I read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, the book for which Carson is probably most famous, the man I was dating sneered over my shoulder, “Isn’t that a YA novel?” Carson is not, for Library of Congress cataloging purposes, a young adult author. But here is yet another place where official categories mean very little. Her books do speak to a certain type of anguished, searching youth that resonated with me when I was 17, and still does. Many of her characters (like my favorite one, Frankie, the 12-year-old protagonist in The Member of the Wedding who yearns to be part of something bigger and fixates on her brother’s wedding) are struggling through adolescence, feeling like outsiders for reasons that are invisible to everyone else.
That sense of longing and displacement clearly resonates with Shapland and is in part to thank for the existence of this book. In one of the very first sections, Shapland describes the “slow burning catastrophe of [her] twenties,” in which she realizes she’s halfway down the wrong path (academia) and isn’t sure where to turn. “I could tell I wasn’t cut out to be an archivist. I didn’t have the patience, and I spent too much time trying to solve mysteries of my own creation,” she writes, after listing the other occupations she’s certain she wouldn’t enjoy or be good at. Luckily for us, she turns to Carson, and spends 200-plus pages proving herself wrong about the archivist bit. She is a diligent, perceptive, and heartful researcher. Following along with Shapland-as-detective is a delight, and the mystery she sets out to solve is one of those wicked unsolvables: how do we account for the apertures in language, history, and identity? Shapland describes “the only story [Carson] ever wrote: a lonely misfit wrestles with her hidden self, unable to articulate her own longings.” It seems Shapland, too, has written that story.
Ellie Duke is the Southwest editor at Hyperallergic, and an editor at Contra Viento, a journal for art and literature from rangelands. Formerly she was the managing editor of LARB Books and BLARB editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.