In Other Words
A Woman on the Edge of Time by Jeremy Gavron
The Experiment, 255 pages
Jeremy Gavron grew up with no memory of his mother, Hannah, who died in 1965 when he was four years old. He was a teenager before he learned the cause had been suicide by asphyxiation, an act she carried out in the apartment of a friend. His family was prone to silence on the matter. There were no pictures of Hannah around the house, and his father, who remarried, never spoke of his late wife. Gavron grew up to be a journalist and author of nonfiction books and novels; when he was in his forties, he drew upon his professional skills in an effort to get to know his mother. A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son Investigates His Trailblazing Mother’s Young Suicide, as its subtitle indicates, is a piece of investigative reporting and an homage to a flawed, impulsive woman with a brilliant smile.
Hannah, an academic at the forefront of the feminist movement in London, had been fighting an uphill battle to have her research taken seriously and was sent to a psychiatrist by her husband and father when she tired of her marriage. Her doctoral thesis, entitled The Captive Wife, was published as a book several months after her death. It was considered an important-enough work to be reissued with an introduction by a respected academic years later, but though he had owned a copy of the new edition since his college days, Gavron did not read his mother’s book until he was well into research for his own. He had always feared that it was an indictment of men and of him in particular, a little boy who had saddled Hannah with responsibility she didn’t want. But the book is not what he thought. In fact, he finds it politically mild. Before he cracks the spine on The Captive Wife, however, Gavron tracks down numerous old friends of his mother, as well as schoolmates, teachers, boyfriends, colleagues, neighbors, and people who knew of her but had never met her. He wanted enough stories to try to recreate the memory of an entire person, rather than relying on the handful of family anecdotes that Hannah had become for him.
Despite losing his mother so early, his lifelong confusion about just what kind of woman she was, and what drove her to leave her children the way she did, Gavron writes with a clarity of purpose that is all the more surprising because he openly admits that he does not know precisely what he hopes to gain by amassing all this knowledge. His ability to write and think so directly about topics that are more idea than substance is a trait he seems to have inherited from his mother, whose intelligence, wit, and specificity of vision are cited as her defining characteristics by almost everyone who knew her. The portrait he draws is complemented by several pictures of Hannah from all stages of her twenty-nine years, as well as by excerpts of letters she wrote to a childhood friend, through which he discovers that he enjoyed his mother’s sense of humor.
“Dear Tash,” she wrote when she was seventeen, away at acting school, “I have begun to learn ballet which is foul!! ... I am leading a very quiet life I don’t [sic] want to go out much as I have a lot of work to do — lying on the ground breathing in and out.”
A Woman on the Edge of Time reveals a conflicted individual whose concerns — and feeling of captivity — are as relevant today as they were in the early 1960s, when every expectation for Hannah’s life was inextricable from the needs and desires of men, no matter what it was she really wanted.
Gavron is able to weave a meaningful discussion of the socio-historical context without minimizing other factors that may have contributed to his mother’s suicide, including heartbreak over an extramarital affair gone wrong and possible mental illness. His primary research is exhaustive, as he discovers personal details about his mother’s past that most sons would never encounter, including her extended affair with — or sexual molestation by — her high-school headmaster. He is unapologetically psychological in his approach, ready to analyze any aspect of her story for clues to her mindset, as willing to jump to conclusions as he is to have them dashed when new information comes to him.
Many of his interview subjects are in their seventies, including his father, and they exhibit varying degrees of openness to rehashing painful events that took place a half-century ago, but many of them are eager to finally be able to find — and offer — a measure of closure regarding a loss that has long haunted them. Gavron leaves no stone unturned in his quest. Whether or not he finds peace through this writing remains to be seen, but he has paid tribute to a deserving figure while offering a new generation of young women intimate insight into the relatively short history of modern feminism. — Jennifer Levin