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.”