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Winger Crusades for Late Goddaughter’s Memoir

By Simon W. Vozick-levinson, Crimson Staff Writer

Debra Winger, the Terms of Endearment star long absent from the Hollywood scene, is coming back to the big screen today with her first major-studio role in eight years and her schedule has been accordingly full of publicity grabs—like a recent “Today Show” appearance and an event Wednesday at Mount Auburn Hospital.

But Winger hasn’t been promoting her supporting role in the just-released Radio or her upcoming star turn in Eulogy, nor does she plan to. The three-time Oscar nominee has something else on her mind: the placement of a former Brown University student’s book at the Coop.

Winger has never been known for making conventional career choices. After starring in Terms of Endearment, An Officer and a Gentleman and Shadowlands, Winger has spent the better part of a decade in a self-imposed exile from the movie industry, refusing to bend to the pressures of Tinseltown. And now Winger has taken on a crusade to rescue Breathing for a Living—the posthumously-published memoir of her goddaughter Laura Rothenberg, who died of cystic fibrosis in March at the age of 23—from oblivion.

“I’ve been sort of on the warpath,” Winger says.

Rothenberg spent her last years writing about her experience receiving a lung transplant which ultimately did not save her from her chronic illness.

“Laura wanted to live more than anyone I knew,” Winger says. “And I don’t say that lightly. Not only because she had a life-threatening disease—she just wanted every day to be as full and complete and directed as it could be.”

And Winger says the book has a valuable lesson about fundamental humanity in today’s troubled times.

“We’re in the, whether we like it or not, Bush era,” she says. “If you believe that things come from the top I’d say that we’re living in some of the most intolerant times, not even in recent history, but more far-reaching than that...There are some lessons here about tolerance that are so real, not abstract.”

But when Rothenberg died shortly after the book’s completion, Winger says it fell into marketing limbo.

“Hyperion, who put the book out, sort of weirdly didn’t know what to do when Laura passed,” Winger says. “They expected her to go on a national tour, and when she couldn’t they just put the book out.”

As a result, she says, the book that means so much to her has been unfairly ignored.

“Leave it to the corporate mentality,” Winger says dryly. “When it hit Borders and Barnes and Noble they put it in the medical section.”

Winger insists that such a vital, lively work deserves more prominent placement. If Breathing for a Living showed up on the front tables of the Coop, she says, Harvard students—the readers who she says will most appreciate Rothenberg’s perspective on life and death—would run into the book without searching it out, while “running from one class to another.”

Getting this kind of placement from the major bookstore chains has been a matter of more than a polite phone call, she says.

“I was shocked that I couldn’t go to Borders and Barnes and Noble and [get more conspicuous shelving for Breathing for a Living],” she says. “It’s so money-oriented.”

So Winger has tried to transfer some of her own fame to Rothenberg’s memoir. The day after her “Today Show” plug, she says, several book chains sold out of Breathing for a Living.

She’s also turned her attention to trying to get the book assigned in various high schools and colleges, including Harvard.

Winger says Rothenberg’s memoir would supply much-needed variety to the one-track studies of some students, especially those on the pre-med track.

“The last thing that happens is you read literature, and if you do read literature...you read it with a highlighting pen in hand,” she says. “You hand a guy who’s planning on being a doctor The Death of Ivan Ilych and let him read some works by doctors like William Carlos Williams or Chekhov and it changes their perspective.”

This would not be Winger’s first experience bringing complex questions to Cambridge—in the fall of 1999, she spent a term pushing Harvard undergraduates to read and reflect beyond their routine studies. As a teaching fellow in General Education 105: “The Literature of Social Reflection,” taught by Agee Professor of Social Ethics Robert Coles ’50, Winger strove to relate her stardom to students’ contemplation of moral and social issues. It is an experience that she says she’d gladly take on again if the much-loved course returns to the registrar’s listings.

“I would, much to the dismay of many students,” Winger kids. “I was told I was a bit of a hardass...A lot of people refer to [Gen Ed 105] as a gut, but I felt differently about it.”

Coles—who fondly recalls his former TF’s “tremendous enthusiasm and intelligence”—stopped teaching the course two years ago, but echoes Winger’s conviction that Breathing for a Living belongs on a Harvard syllabus.

“We would have used it,” Coles says. “Because when you connect a book like that to a lot of college students that’s something that goes a little bit beyond the reading list...Like all lives, there are moments where you’re given some pause, and this book gives you a lot of moral and psychological pause.”

—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at vozick@fas.harvard.edu.

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