MARCH 12, 2015
FOR THE PERCEPTIVE critic, essayist, and one-time novelist Daphne Merkin, it’s all about upbringing. She believes, for instance, that a woman often develops her flirting technique from the way she extracted concessions from her father as a girl. For Merkin, not only are our personalities formed in childhood, the roads we take in life are paved and cemented there. In her new collection of previously published essays, The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontës, and the Importance of Handbags, Merkin shows a special interest in why this or that celebrity or writer, who seems to have it all, suddenly crashes and burns. She sees these public personal disasters not so much as a veering off course as the opposite: try as people might to avoid the longterm recurring effects of a traumatic childhood experience, fate will find a way to get them back on a familiar track, and on their way to foreordained misery.
“I have always been interested in trying to create shapely narratives out of the unwieldy material the world offers up, unraveling surface incongruities the better to detect an underlying pattern,” writes Merkin in the introduction. Most of these essays first appeared (in publications such as The New Yorker, where she has been on staff, ELLE, The New York Times Magazine, and others) during a period from the late 1990s to 2011, though there are a few more recent pieces, and one that dates to 1980. Many are book reviews. Well, ostensibly. Merkin almost always uses the book or books under review as a launching pad for a larger discussion in which she brings to bear her impressive knowledge of the subject in question but sometimes gives short shrift to the works she’s supposed to examine.
Taken as a whole, The Fame Lunches proves more outward looking than Dreaming of Hitler: Passions and Provocations, Merkin’s 1994 collection of essays, most of whose entries are concerned with self-analysis. Having said that, the author scrutinizes the tortured souls she profiles in this book by way of psychological hypotheses she developed by analyzing herself (aided perhaps by four decades of consulting therapists, as well as her occasional “habitations on various psychiatric wards”). She illustrates this technique best in a powerful story about one of her own quirks. In “The Yom Kippur Pedicure” (2005), we see the secular Jewish Merkin going to pieces when she’s unable to get from a nail salon to her Manhattan synagogue in time for the religious service of the title. Here she riffs on the persistent influence of religious tradition and customs in the lives of non-observant adults. As Merkin puts it:
[M]y Jewishness and I are a vexed pair from way back. It’s as though we got soldered together when I was still young and impressionable, and now I’m doomed to drag this ancient, sober-minded belief system around for the rest of my life, like a giant ball and chain clanking behind me, dogging my every move.
There is a strong ritualistic element to this phenomenon. In attending religious services as adults, people such as Merkin voluntarily engage in an activity whose raison d’être is to honor a God who remains meaningless to them. Yet they continue to attach great importance to the activity itself. Merkin has pinpointed an elusive and puzzling truth: you can be a fanatic on matters of orthopraxy, even if you have little time for orthodoxy. The author believes this characterizes adherents of her religion in particular, at one point contrasting Jews with Evangelical Christians:
Although religious belief was presumably a manifestation of your inner life, Judaism struck me as a resolutely social institution, more about group behavior than private wranglings with God or faith. No one, it seemed, gave a damn whether or not you sinned in your soul, or hated in your heart, or fantasized about group sex right in the middle of the rabbi’s sermon. Primitive convictions about the transparency of your spiritual failings were fine for Southern born-again types like Jimmy Carter, who confessed to Playboy that he had lusted in his heart. Jews — Jews like us [Orthodox, of German origin] — were more sophisticated than that.
When Merkin turns her attention to people who are not her, she brings a laser focus to their upbringing, where she finds the seeds for the adult personality. That’s what she keeps circling back to when trying to isolate the reason for just about anything.
The essays in which this mode works best are concentrated in the book’s first section, “Stardust and Ashes,” which consists of 10 articles, most of them examining — as the title suggests — individuals who soared to the heights of fame only to nosedive, painfully and publicly. In a 1999 piece triggered by Barbara Leaming’s Marilyn Monroe and Donald H. Wolfe’s The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe, Merkin makes a very good case that the actress and beauty icon stumbled through life looking for a father figure. (Her real father abandoned her and later turned down her repeated requests to establish contact.) “Monroe retained the mind-set of a waif,” writes Merkin, “looking for the sort of unconditional embrace from men that only a child comes by naturally, from his or her parents.”
Michael Jackson, according to Merkin in a 2003 article, tried to give himself as an adult the childhood his father deprived him of (in favor of pushing him toward stardom alongside his older brothers). “If nostalgia is often bittersweet, nostalgia for what you didn’t have must create enormous pain,” she writes. “And for people who have never had a childhood, being a grown-up isn’t where the glamour is.”
The author’s observations on Monroe and Jackson might not qualify as entirely original, but she uses them as the basis for compelling portraits. For something more intriguing, consider Merkin’s take on the origins of Jean Rhys’s “sense of being at the mercy of latently hostile forces.” Apparently paraphrasing Lilian Pizzichini — in a biography titled Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys — Merkin writes, “Meta [Rhys’s childhood nanny in Dominica] was a believer in voodoo and obeah, the Caribbean form of black magic, and instilled fears in the vulnerable young girl of vampires, zombies, and werewolves.” Merkin implies that these stories accounted for Rhys’s later bleak outlook and self-destructive behavior. Even when she achieved a late-in-life fame for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), she remained unable to enjoy it, insisting that it came too late.
To her credit, Merkin admits that her psychoanalytical formula cannot explain the travails of each and every one of her subjects. If Henry Roth’s writer’s block (and warped personality) came about as a result of his incestuous affair with his sister (the bulk of which took place when they were both minors), why did it afflict him only after he had written Call It Sleep, his acclaimed first novel? Merkin also realizes that, in some cases, the fateful event or sequence of events she’s looking for needn’t have occurred in childhood or adolescence. The power of a traumatic adulthood experience to become pivotal in charting the subsequent course of a life is nowhere in greater evidence than in Merkin’s riveting examination of Bruno Bettelheim, which was occasioned by the publication of Richard Pollak’s The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim and Nina Sutton’s Bettelheim: A Life and a Legacy.
The Austrian Jewish psychologist-to-be was in his thirties when he survived a year (1938–’39) in the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. In Merkin’s 1997 essay on Bettelheim, who became the celebrated (and later controversial) director of the Orthogenic School, a Chicago institute for emotionally disturbed children, she claims that he treated his patients through a method “neither fully conscious nor fully integrated,” a method of shocking provenance. According to Merkin (taking Sutton’s argument further than she might like), Bettelheim attempted to jolt the children into normalcy by recreating certain conditions he experienced in the camps.
Just as the brutal intervention of the Nazis had shaken [a previously depressive and even suicidal] Bettelheim into psychological health, so he, in the form of the Big Bad Wolf (which is how he sometimes referred to himself), could direct the children’s aggression away from themselves and onto a more suitable object: namely, him.
Needless to say, Bettelheim’s strategy didn’t always work, but Merkin’s thesis makes this the most gripping essay in the book.
The author’s own strategy sometimes appears misbegotten. This is particularly true of those instances in which a person appears to have overcome a wretched or even harrowing past and is no longer beholden to it. Merkin’s solution is to predict his or her eventual reversion to the original state. For example, Nuala O’Faolain was an Irish newspaper columnist who became famous in Ireland and the United States following the publication of Are You Somebody?, a memoir hailed as both frank and charming. When Merkin meets the writer in preparation for a 2001 essay, O’Faolain is content and serene. Merkin sees this as mere prelude to melancholy. The Irish author, says Merkin, is most likely “running backward — toward the defeated mother of her childhood and toward the Ireland of the past, a desolate country of broken men and broken women.” And in a 1998 piece on Courtney Love prompted by the release of Nick Broomfield’s documentary film Kurt & Courtney and the (earlier) publication of Max Wallace and Ian Halperin’s book Who Killed Kurt Cobain? The Mysterious Death of an Icon, Merkin pushes her fatalism theory almost to cruelty. After sympathizing with Love, who “grew up in the black orbit” of an aggressive father, and expressing sadness that she had to shield herself with a “carapace of toughness,” the author asserts, “if this is where Courtney Love began, and this is what she’s running from, it’s also what she seems destined to become.”
When Merkin allows for other causations, the reader may feel a welcome relief. A many-minded Merkin proves more likely to bat away facile explanations for complex phenomena.
Consider her 1998 takedown of Joyce Maynard’s memoir At Home in the World. Merkin dismisses Maynard’s claim that her short-lived affair as an 18-year-old with the much older J.D. Salinger served as an escape from her parents’ (especially her mother’s) stifling affection. True, the author’s attitude may stem in part from her view that Maynard is a self-promoter and a drama queen. But that doesn’t detract from her trenchant criticism of “Maynard’s habit of glossing over her own extraordinary force of will.” Merkin sees nothing inevitable about Maynard’s pursuit of a relationship with Salinger or anyone like him.
Interviewing Cate Blanchett for a 2003 piece, Merkin at one point stops herself from offering a pat, glib explanation for the Australian actress’s career choice: “I don’t ask whether it was her father’s death when she was ten that triggered her interest in acting, on the assumption that she is tired of having this neat scenario presented to her as a profound insight.” Still, she cannot resist tying all impulses to the parent. “For such a breathlessly busy person,” the author writes, “Blanchett is almost devout about living in the moment, which may be the truest legacy of her father’s death.”
And woe to the writer who borrows Merkin’s technique. Reviewing Judith Hennessee’s “fairly absorbing” biography, Betty Friedan: Her Life, Merkin remarks that Hennessee “somewhat leadenly tries to link Friedan’s future difficulties with her early experiences.” Merkin, it seems, believes that Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique as a means of traveling back in time — as if she could choose a future journey different from the one she had earlier embarked upon — but not to a point in her childhood or adolescence:
The reader senses somewhere between the lines of The Feminine Mystique that Friedan is hacking a trail back to the stellar student she once was — the ambitious young woman about to make a bright future in a profession she loved [journalism and social commentary], only to renounce it in favor of a lower-profile, more ‘female’ presence.
In other words, The Feminine Mystique, according to Merkin, was not the inevitable outcome of anything its author experienced in childhood or adolescence. Yes, the book served as the coming-out party of Betty Friedan’s essence, but a decade and a half of domestic drudgery had nearly extinguished any such thing. The Feminine Mystique exists only because Friedan made a conscious decision to reignite her flickering quiddity and restore to its proper trajectory a life derailed by developments in her adulthood. And unlike Bettelheim, whom Merkin believes was shaped by his yearlong experiences as an adult in two Nazi concentration camps, the adult Friedan overpowered the (admittedly milder) circumstances trying to shape her, thereby coming into her own.
The flexible Merkin we see in the Friedan, Maynard, and Blanchett essays contrasts with, but also complements, the more rigid one. Though the author’s witty prose always keeps things lively, when she’s locked into her preferred analytical mode, you can’t banish the discomfiting notion that underlying a seemingly multi-dimensional endeavor lies a simple formula. Merkin’s formula succeeds when applied to figures haunted by, or in thrall to, their childhood or adolescence (including Merkin herself), or some point in their adulthood (for this last, think: Bettelheim). Other people, however troubled, conflicted or brilliant, might require a different approach to be understood. When the subject demands it, the author sometimes demonstrates her versatility. Indeed, perhaps the best feature of The Fame Lunches is that, just when you think you’ve got Merkin’s modus operandi pegged, she blindsides you by pursuing a separate and distinct tack — which doesn’t subsequently become her new favorite mode of analysis. This keeps the mind limber, both the author’s and ours.