Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Patty & Caitlin

In the September issue of The Atlantic, there's an oddly moving review essay about Patty Hearst written by Caitlin Flanagan. Before reading it, I didn't know much about Hearst other than that she was kidnapped and subsequently fell in love with one of her kidnappers. As Flanagan tells it, though, Hearst's tale is the most extreme and violent version of a million such stories of young women on the verge of adulthood who, under the beguiling influence of a changing culture, left the safe embrace of their families for the unsettling world outside. Here's the lede:

"The thing you have to understand about Patty Hearst, the reason that her fantastically sui generis story resonated so deeply within so many millions of ordinary American households, is that back then a lot of girls like her were disappearing."

One of those girls who disappeared was Flanagan's own older sister. One day she "was helping my mother pin McCall’s patterns to paisley linen, and the next she had crammed a sleeping bag and a passport into a rucksack and made her way to San Francisco International Airport with just enough money for a Eurail Pass...."

Flanagan's essay feels to me like an elegy for a lost time, at least in her own life, when order prevailed and family connections were maintained. Who knows if the America where girls wore skirts and "light cardigans" instead of blue jeans was really that orderly, but surely many millions of people believed it was and the unmasking of the disorder that lurks in us all was a painful if overly documented development.

But that's not the point. The point is that through Patty Hearst's awful history, Flanagan seems to express her own yearning for order. It's almost as if she believes if a little bit of the world she grew up in could be recovered, our own world would not only feel safer but be better. It might be naive and absurd, but, really, who can blame her for that? As many times as Flanagan has confounded me in her writing, and she does so even in this essay, she always provokes a sense that order is better (even if order means mom stays home and if she leaves, the babysitter does her homework while her charge toddles about). At least order would mean security and security would mean less vulnerability and what parent doesn't want that?

Two months ago, a friend whose son is about the same age as my kids, 3 and then some, told me her marriage was ending. Her husband had been cheating, it wasn't the first time, and this was it. After something like 16 years, they were done. All her friends had rallied around her, she said, taking her to dinner, doing whatever they could. This wasn't a surprise. Friends always help out in a crisis. But her situation wasn't just a crisis. It was a live version of what, on some level, many coupled parents must fear: not simply the dissolution of their union but the unmasking of its inherently unstable core. There's something about having to once again sit around in circles singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star that makes you want to believe that even in an unstable world, your family unit is a sure thing, and there's something awful about the niggling knowledge that it just isn't. There's no sure thing, and it's so sad. That's what Flanagan conveys. The sadness and the outrage that comes along with the rift between childhood and adulthood. Patty Hearst's life story is more particular than that, but it's also, at least in Flanagan's telling of it, just that common.

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