Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Death of Amanda Cross

Elizabeth Zelvin

The other day on DorothyL, the mystery lovers’ e-list, the names of mystery writer Amanda Cross and her feminist academic sleuth, Kate Fansler, came up when somebody asked what mysteries readers consider contemporary classics. Amanda Cross was the pseudonym of feminist academic Carolyn Heilbrun, who made the news in 2003 by committing suicide at the age of 77. As her biography in Wikipedia puts it, quoting her son, “she was not ill, but felt that her life had been completed.”

I was angry at Heilbrun for throwing away what might have been as much as 20 years of life without even the excuse of declining health or faculties. I’m still angry, and when I said so in a post on DorothyL, a surprising number of people emailed me offlist to say they were angry too. Like me, they loved Kate Fansler and felt betrayed by Heilbrun’s choice. My favorite was the first in the series, In the Last Analysis, which came out in 1964, the year I graduated college and discovered mysteries, 20 years before I became a therapist myself. As the series developed, Heilbrun—the first woman to receive tenure in the English department at Columbia University—aired increasingly feminist views in both Kate and her published work as Heilbrun, including Writing a Woman’s Life, which I experienced as a companion volume to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. And it was a pleasure to watch her rip into the pomposities and rigidities of the fictional university that was obviously based on Columbia.

I’m 62, and my first novel (Death Will Get You Sober) will be published—a lifelong dream—when I’m 64. If I’m still a published writer 15 years from now, will I be ready to quit? No way! Not even to retire, much less to die. My mother, who went to law school at 21, got a doctorate in political science at 69, taught Constitutional law till 76, and lived to 96 (sharp as a tack until her stroke at 94 and still pretty funny after that), had a way of pooh-poohing the claims of younger women to be affected by aging. We spotted Betty Friedan having lunch in Sag Harbor (Long Island) one day shortly after I’d heard her give the keynote address at a conference on “conscious aging.” She had just published The Fountain of Age, declaring what my mother had known for a quarter of a century by that time: that there’s life after 60, after menopause and the empty nest. I described Friedan’s thesis as best I could.

“How old is she?” my mother asked.

“Around 70,” I said.

“Oh, 70!” she said.

The subtext: 70 is nothing—not even worth exclaiming over. I think she was 91 when she was told about some 86-year-old’s complaint about failing powers.

“Oh, 86!” she said.

The woman my mother most admired was Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. My mother was 92 when she called Ginsburg’s Washington DC office and wangled an invitation to meet her, describing herself as “the oldest living lawyer.” The two women hit it off and developed a friendship that was precious to my mother during the last years of her life. When she turned 95, Justice Ruth sent a card with a cartoon of herself and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. It said, “Happy birthday from the Supremes!”

One of the effects of any suicide is that it really pisses off the people left behind. Amanda Cross left not only her friends and family but many thousands of loyal readers. And she killed not only Carolyn Heilbrun, but the beloved and inspiring Kate Fansler as well. She did us all a great disservice for what I’d call a deeply inadequate reason. Any published writer is a public figure, whether or not it feels that way to those struggling to get into and stay in print. I believe Amanda Cross defaulted on an obligation by taking herself out of play while still healthy and relatively young. I also wonder if alcohol had anything to do with her decision, for no other reason—beyond my tendency as an alcoholism professional for many years to see it everywhere—than that Kate and her husband Reed were hitting the sauce pretty good in the later books.

As John Donne said so persuasively 400 years ago, “no man is an island…any man’s death diminishes me.” Any woman’s, too, Mr. Donne, and Heilbrun’s more than most. She did what she chose to do with her death, and presumably she thought she was right. But it was precisely because what she did with her life mattered—and continues to matter through the work she left behind—that some of us are still mad at her. As SF writer and editor Micole I. Sudberg put it in an Amazon review: “Carolyn Heilbrun is still talking to me. I'm still talking back.”


Lorraine Bartlett said...

Excellent, Liz!

Sandra Parshall said...

I have great sympathy for anyone who feels driven to suicide. If the world has become such a dark and unwelcoming place, I don't believe "obligations" to others -- especially to strangers -- are even a factor anymore. I wish she could have found help, and hope. But if her pain was unbearable, forcing her to go on would have meant prolonging her pain for the sake of others, who didn't have to live her life or feel her suffering.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, what made Heilbrun's suicide odd was that she denied pain and suffering or even depression--not that that means they might not have existed somewhere in her psyche. But she wrote a book announcing she planned to end her life at age 70 (and carried out her plan at 77) precisely to avoid difficulties she predicted she would have in later life. That strikes me as grandiose rather than hopeless and in despair.

Anonymous said...

I saw mention of this blog on DL & wandered over because I too have long been saddened by Heilbrun's suicide when she could have been another P.D.James turning out great stories well into her 80's.

But, I was particularly inspired by the bits about your mother and her accomplishments in later life.
At 68, I am attempting to become a published fiction writer after having spent my traditional work years doing accounting. I've been thinking maybe I should pack it in (definitely not sucide) around 70 if I haven't managed to publish by then, but after reading about your mother, maybe not!

Sandra Parshall said...

It's very sad, whatever her reasons were. No one can really know what was in her mind and heart.

Anonymous said...

I too was shocked and saddened by the news of Amanda Cross/Carolyn Heilbrun's suicide.
And yet... I can imagine her alter ego Kate, ageing and bereft of Reed, making the identical decision after considering the question with her customary scrupulous thoroughness, particularly its effect on Leighton. However I also imagine she and Leighton would have discussed the subject from time to time over the years, both being careful to treat it as merely hypothetical.
On a brighter note, concerning late-blooming seniors:
She's not a crime writer, but may I suggest admirers of Amanda Cross check out the delightful New Zealand writer Barbara Anderson. The House Guest is my favourite.

Jennifer Michelle said...

How arrogant and how insensitive of you to offer that any person's life is a responsibility to any other. Even a mother, a grandmother, a wife, and a host-- as Heilbrun herself has explained-- does not have requirements to meet for others. Patriarchy tells women that we are the ones with permanent jobs, without rights to our own time and our own deaths. How ridiculous to think that such a powerful, centered, accomplished, DECISIVE individual "fell vicim" to suicide rather than chose it. She was not hopeless, or drunk, or confused, or in need of help. She was just done.