AT 19, when most kids are off at college discovering the pleasures of the mind and of the senses, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison started scrubbing toilets in a Jehovah's Witness commune. Ten years in the twisted cult convinced her that "my intelligence was some kind of tricky, predatory animal, which if not kept firmly reined, would surely spring on and destroy me."
At 22--after three years spent doing housework for 30 male commune members--Harrison painfully squeezed out of the narrow cage of fundamentalist repression. Today, she is an independent, divorced Brooklyn feminist with two children. Her unshackled intellect hasn't destroyed her; it's made her one of the hottest magazine writers in the country. But as the essays in this first collection demonstrate, she can be what the church fathers had feared: a predator in prose. She's always on the prowl for the villains that disfigured her youth hokum, slovenly thought, and moral spinelessness, the national pastimes of American in the 70's.
Not that she's always feral. In fact, Harrison is as fundamentally chatty as Nora Ephron. In this collection she seems to be chatting over morning coffee with her best Greenwich Village friend. Her prose is wicked conversation, full of anecdotes, observations, comic asides, and devastatingly sensible reasoning. But the casual tone conceals a penetrating seriousness. Despite her glibness Barbara Grizzuti Harrison is always driving home a larger point.
Addressing contemporary ambivalences, confusions, culture heroes, and false panaceas these essays are heated by the intensity of one who has wrested truth and value out of confusion, wrong-headedness, and sham.
Off Center is a testimonial to Harrison's triumphant making of herself. From the spiritual and intellectual impoverishment of her early life of religious fanaticism she has reached a hard-won fullness of thought that rejoices in windy open spaces. She revels in true colors now that she's left the harsh imposition of a black-and-white world view behind.
Harrison has absolutely no patience with the neurasthenic absorption and empty style of Joan Didion--who has been called "America's finest woman prose stylist," but whom Harrison finds "transparently ersatz," and "merely cheap." "All connections are equally meaningful and equally senseless," says Joan of Dark; her nihilism, says Harrison, amounts to amorality. Didion's not entitled to "fiddle while Watts burns," and her disconnection of the suffering soul from any political or spiritual meaning, sorely contrasts with Harrison's crusade to restore those vital, fading links.
THE CRITIQUE of Didion could be done in the soporific manner of a sermon, but instead it's pulled off with bitchy wit and the "Oh, come on" acuteness of a woman with ardent, no-nonsense opinion. Here she attacks Didion's infuriating preference for sensibility over sense:
Didion: "What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask."
Harrison: "What makes those sentences work: I ask: Cadence I answer. What do those sentences mean? you may ask. Don't."
When Harrison does a hatchet job or a critical dissection it's clean and scalpel-sharp.
She is a highly-skilled agent provocateur, as when she goes undercover to write a piece on a New York est class. Her perfectly timed charges, wired together in a tightly-structured essay, totally demolish Werner Erhard's sham life-training course. When she turns to Jane Fonda or Billy Graham, she wields a razor instead of a club, making accurate, carefully-planned incisions. She distrusts dogma wherever she finds it, whether in Graham's entrepreneurial righteousness or Fonda's one-dimensional millionaire liberalism. A dedicated feminist, she nevertheless gets us past the cant and rhetoric that hardens around the core of feminist issues. Her review of Linda Bird Francke's book on her own abortion derides "Pro-choice" and "pro-life" activists alike for denying the obvious--abortion is a painful, morally ambiguous act demanding more than noisy "right on" slogans.
She dares to deflate poet-turned-ideologue Adrienne Rich, who's always screeching things like, "It's the lesbian in us who is creative, for the dutiful daughter of the father in us is only a hack." Harrison diagnoses in Rich a "fossilized moral imagination," parochialism, whining, polemicism, and a penchant for boring the reader. She says "the tender conscience and the tough mind alike are confounded by this diatribe." Making a plea for intellectual generosity and open-mindedness, Rich's rhetoric leaves no room for a more complex truth. It's refreshing to hear one feminist speak of another with more candor than piety.
While debunking the hardened-untruths of others, Harrison always remains self-deprecating, never entrenching herself in deep battle lines of argument. Unfeeling, bloodless righteousness has been the devil of her life; she is always on guard for it in herself. She is sincere when she says she feels "like a hard-faced bitch," when she can't find much sympathy for the woman in a consciousness-raising course who's always trying to draw attention to her domestic melodrama. And in her brilliant indictment of Didion she goes out of her way to be fair, whole-heartedly praising some aspects of Didion's work and reminding herself not to overdo her criticism.
Harrison, to be fair, is not without inadequacies of her own. She write often for magazines like Ms., Viva and Ladies' Home Journal, and either her editors or her own sense of her audience mar some of the pieces in Off Center. The McCall's article on the Moonies, for instance, opens with a paragraph as purple and swollen as a bad bruise. Sometimes Harrison's inspired chat turns to chaff--she goes completely gaga over Dick Cavett in a profile piece that is all flutter and giggles, just like the show. Occasionally we get the feeling that she is using words and criticisms for the sheer joy of being liberated, free to say what she wants.
But more often she is right on. Frequently we are breathless as she expresses the niggling unease about something that we've never quite been able to put into words. Though her early years promised almost anything but sanity, Harrison has caged that "trick, predatory animal"--her intelligence--and turned its wrath on our pretensions.