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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

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