The novelist rings at the door and spirits you off; the essayist invites herself in. Her wrap lands somewhere in the vicinity of the coatrack. She perches on the arm of your chair; she whispers in your ear. If she flashes her credentials, it’s while you’re in the next room, brewing the tea. She may agree to a stroll, but don’t bother suiting up. It’s always a languid day in essayland, where the weather is overcast, verging on melancholic. You can count on snacks; the essayist subscribes to the all-appetizer menu. While she may be breezy, she is not unmannerly. She won’t overstay. She will coax meaning out from the corner, where you least suspected it was hiding. When she leaves, her sensibility lingers in the air, like perfume.
Judith Thurman comes to essay writing from biography; insofar as there is traffic on that highway, it more commonly flows in the opposite direction. Thurman’s 1982 National Book Award–winning Isak Dinesen was followed in 1999 by her masterful life of Colette, Secrets of the Flesh. Already Thurman had begun to turn out critical essays for The New Yorker, selections of which were republished in 2007 as Cleopatra’s Nose. The shorter form seems to suit her. She has now collected fifteen years of New Yorker pieces in a new volume, A Left-Handed Woman. To it she brings the same carbon-into-diamonds trick she performed with her full lives, offering—in what she termed in a 2020 lecture “haiku biographies”—something closer to stills than film. She also abandons neutral ground, gamely venturing into the picture.
The spirit of inquiry remains the same. Thurman does not so much ponder a fact as assess it in the round, like a work of sculpture. Almost unfailingly, it talks back. In a few lines she might unpack Amelia Earhart’s wardrobe. Earhart may well have been the ultimate un-flapper, but the lithe, long-limbed androgyny, the bomber jacket and the tie, the lopped-off hair also unsettled, at least at the time. It would have disconcerted all the more had anyone known that Earhart wore men’s underwear beneath her flight suit—one pair (boxers) donated by a husband, another (briefs) by a lover.
Little escapes Thurman, including the rifle Earhart’s father buys his young daughter, “which,” Thurman tells us, “she wanted for shooting rats.” If you happen to die on a trip your astrologer warned you should not take, Thurman will notice. If an Italian verb insinuates itself into your Spanish, she will locate it. In a few realms she enjoys supernatural powers. She can spot a black satin dress across the room and identify it, five decades after its design, as a 1948 Christian Dior.
Part of what you appreciate in an essayist is her having accepted each of those supposedly fun assignments so that you won’t have to. Thurman has bushwhacked through all eight hundred pages of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, a volume first published in an abridged edition and that in its reduced form nearly demolished its English translator. (Reviewing the 2010 translation, Thurman emerges from the underbrush to report that—though Beauvoir was a bold and original and at times even aphoristic writer—she was no stylist.) In a particularly rich 2016 essay, Thurman flies to a Beijing industrial park, where “Made in China” has given way to “Designed in China,” to report on how a rising nation that discourages personal expression forges an identity. What to make of the extraordinary purchasing power of those paltry official salaries? She eavesdrops her way around Malta with a card-carrying hyperpolyglot. She submits to a memory test. She flies to a minor Dutch city for a linguistics conference.
She visits the underworld on our behalf, settling into a concrete barracks in the Ardèche, base camp for the archaeological team documenting Old Stone Age drawings in the Chauvet Cave. She descends through labyrinthine passages to report, from an immense vaulted chamber, on a 22,000-year-old frieze of lions, rhinos, and stampeding bison. Deep in the Niaux Cave, in the Pyrenees, she laughs aloud at an especially fine ibex. So there were Paleolithic perfectionists, too! “Halfway home to the mortal world,” Thurman does something spectacular: she suggests that she and her archaeologist Virgil extinguish their flashlights. The two are plunged into the void. The brain, she reports, skitters about madly, searching for a hold, grappling for the image that must be there somewhere. We tend, Thurman offhandedly observes, “to see creatures that aren’t there, while missing ones that are.”
At least until recently, a left-handed woman amounted to a three-word predicament. Not only would she need to struggle to find a voice, she also understood that—even with a careful curl of the wrist—she was fated to smudge her best penmanship. Her elbows will intrude on her dinner companion. She will forever face the metric side of the measuring cup. Some of us (fine, at least one of us) are reformed lefties, converted by parents who thought they were doing us a favor by sparing us from lifelong battle with the kitchen scissors.
Thurman is a second-generation lefty, a noun her mother warned her to avoid using when she started school, at the height of the McCarthy hearings. Thurman internalized the shame, the ineradicable anxiety that something was off, a fear that she comes to see as a constant among her literary heroines. The handedness became a metaphor for the unorthodox, for the not quite right, for the McCarthy-era girl who wanted to make her mark at something but for whom tap dancing was not on the menu and who—like the protagonist of Peter Handke’s The Left-Handed Woman—was eager to upend convention. Thurman borrows Handke’s title with a slight emendation. She opts for the indefinite article, opening the circle more broadly. Her lefty is a sort of second cousin to Vivian Gornick’s uncompromising “odd woman,” another salute to a work of fiction written by a man.
Thurman has earlier acknowledged a weakness for a breed she calls lost women. “Lost” may be a relative term, but two biographies and two essay collections later, it is fair to say that there is such a thing as a recognizable Thurman subject. She tends to be not so much adrift as unstoppable. She gets expelled from school. She sleeps around. (Thurman takes it as a central tenet that a good girlhood is a wasted girlhood, an observation she offers wistfully.) Her women are furies, bulimics, artists, hellions, rat shooters, possessors of rich inner lives and shameful secrets. They are women of appetite, in some cases of oceanic appetite, who swallow the world and cough up art.
Often they are women with uncommonly good eyes: Lee Miller, Leni Riefenstahl, Diane Arbus, Anne Frank, the artist currently known as Elena Ferrante. From every direction they take running jumps at the same stubborn riddle: Is it possible simultaneously to be a woman and an individual? Thurman tilts away from the Anglo-Saxon and toward the Continental, for a reason she explains in her 2007 collection. Female desire has thrived on French soil and wilted on British. (Those earlier thirty-nine pieces were billed not as essays but as “varieties of desire.”) These are women who prefer not to be held captive by definitions. Ambition tends with them to win out over propriety. Frequently at great cost, they have opted for self-possession, which means that just beyond Thurman’s pages two other cohorts ride into view. The first is a small army of divorce lawyers. Some women acquire on their way to self-expression. Others divest. Husbands appear among the earliest items to be deaccessioned.
Throughout her work Thurman asks, with various degrees of directness, the two questions she considers central to portraiture as well as biography: Of what does artistic excellence consist? And where did its practitioner—or the intermittent practitioner; these are critical essays, after all—come from? She knows her types. There are the “artistically inclined daughters of privilege.” There is the provincial misfit, the dreamy survivor of the flat-voweled midsize city, who seems to have wafted in from the pages of Sinclair Lewis and who needs to escape Fort Wayne to realize himself.
Her heart is with the tomboys, the spunky girls who enjoyed the paternal attention that might otherwise have been lavished on sons. They are “the holy terrors in the annals of fiction and biography,” the girls who, when “forced into a dress, hike it up and climb a tree.” (They also start on Latin at six. Among Thurman’s tomboys, Margaret Fuller stands out as the sole woman for whom a father fostered ambitions he never extended to his sons.) A second collection of specimens soon assembles. “Without its mother,” Thurman notes, in an essay on the graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, “a baby has no reflection.” And without a thwarted, difficult, often boundary-defying mother, it can seem from these pages, a female artist has no future.
With the “hostile love of mothers and daughters,” Thurman taps a rich, not-so-subterranean vein. A fair number of her subjects are veterans of miserable childhoods, survivors of depressive, disapproving, overbearing, frustrated, belittling mothers, martyrs to the cause. They bequeath demons and migraines. They trample boundaries and withhold affections. They undermine or usurp ambitions; it can seem as difficult to draw a line between the emotionally undernourished and the artistically inclined as between the protofeminist and the willful teen. Thurman does not take sides, but nor does she pull punches. (Amid the screeching maternal wipeouts, it is lovely to come upon the 2017 tribute to Maira Kalman’s mother, Sara Berman. After her divorce, at sixty-three, Berman dressed exclusively in white, for reasons she never explained. Her wardrobe wound up as an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
Emily Dickinson was in her late twenties when her mother suffered a nervous breakdown, a slow-motion event that sent the poet to the sanctuary of her room. The years of Emily Norcross Dickinson’s collapse and of Emily Dickinson’s greatest productivity coincided. The illness seems to have contributed to a violent neediness on the daughter’s part. Certainly it knocked Thomas Wentworth Higginson, with whom Emily Dickinson cultivated a long friendship, sideways. “I never had a mother,” Dickinson explained to Higginson. Bravely, she speculated, “I suppose a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled.” From the wings Thurman chimes in:
The daughters of depressive women often feel a propitiatory impulse to make some sacrifice of their own aggression and desire, perhaps because they are afraid to overwhelm an unstable figure on whom they depend; because they feel guilty about their own vitality; or to disguise rage—as much from themselves as from their parent.
Marina Abramović may have had the opposite problem. Communist partisans in World War II Yugoslavia, her parents served on the front lines. They wound up richly rewarded by Tito, who appointed Abramović’s father to his elite guard, her mother, Danica, to an agency that supervised historic monuments. Danica encouraged her daughter’s art but could be severe. Marina lived in fear of her. She also attempted any number of ploys to claim her mother’s attention, for which she was beaten.
Danica modeled an “ostentatious stoicism” that anyone familiar with Abramović’s work will recognize. She did not believe in pain. The toxicity of maternal self-sacrifice hangs about Abramović’s childhood. “Nobody has, and nobody ever will, hear me scream,” Thurman quotes Danica as boasting, two paragraphs after Abramović has separated masochism from art for Thurman: “The sense of purpose I feel [is] to do something heroic, legendary, and transformative; to elevate viewers’ spirits and give them courage. If I can go through the door of pain to embrace life on the other side, they can, too.”
“Wanting people to like you,” the novelist Rachel Cusk tells Thurman, “corrupts your writing.” Cusk got a head start, in a household that felt repressive and disapproving. She was blamed for everything; her childhood was a study in guilt and anger. Only once, at a particularly dire juncture, did she feel that her parents loved her. Birthdays might invite phone calls about the pain of her delivery, in an understaffed hospital, in a blizzard.
Cusk felt she met for the first time with kindness only as a young woman, at Oxford. Grievances, real and imagined, piled up. Attempts at a peace with her parents misfire. Cusk determines finally, near the end of her time with Thurman, that it is easier to live as an outcast. We do not need Thurman to remind us that Cusk’s mother is familiar to us from several novels, in which we have met women who can seem, in Thurman’s words, “a perfect storm of narrow-mindedness, seething resentments, and vituperative retaliation.”
The mirrors are not always so perfect nor the lips so pursed. Alison Bechdel’s mother passed along the message that life should not interfere with art. (Both Cusk’s and Bechdel’s mothers had found themselves standing professionally before closed doors that opened only later, in time to admit their daughters. The good fortune may have been difficult to forgive.) Thurman has a chance to observe Helen and Alison Bechdel in action: they circle each other, avoiding the personal, holding each other at a formal distance “like partners in a minuet.” Alison Bechdel works in a genre to which women came late and which, in its essence, subverts the parental stronghold. “I sometimes think I became a cartoonist because my mother simply doesn’t get comics,” she remarks, comparing her work to a ringtone to which the adults in the room are deaf.
The desire for attention is both crazy-making and futile. It falls to Alison Bechdel’s partner to note that Helen has a rather oblique way of expressing herself: “She brags about Alison to other people, for example, but won’t praise her in person.” She will carefully correct Bechdel’s pages but offer no comment on them. She withholds hugs. It is her mother’s very refusal to touch her that powers Bechdel’s 2012 Are You My Mother? With an assist from Alice Miller, the influential analyst, Thurman steps in. From the fragile, creatively frustrated mother, the child who demonstrates her otherness will not elicit the desired care. She will instead make a bid for compliance, stashing her unruly feelings underground. She will do anything to please. (For some time the working title of Bechdel’s book was a play on Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child.) Even with Are You My Mother?, Bechdel worries. Would the book fail at “one of its prime objectives: making herself visible to the one living person by whom she most longed to be seen”? Thurman solicits Helen Bechdel’s opinion on her daughter’s new pages. She gets little satisfaction. Helen is less forthcoming still with Alison. Reviewing six years of work, she allows: “Well, it coheres.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the Little House on the Prairie books, also leads us back to the land of hunger artistry. Again a mother’s martyrdom reads, to a daughter, as personal reproach. Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, felt her parents had abandoned her to an emotional desert. She could do nothing right. Her mother proffered not an ounce of affection. “She made me so miserable as a child that I never got over it,” Rose wrote in her journal. Rose wound up collaborating with her mother on the Little House volumes, for which she served, depending on the account, as either editor or ghostwriter. The two divided a career between them, a particularly odd arrangement as Wilder had believed she was writing an autobiography. For Rose the result seems to have been an opportunity to belittle the woman who belittled her. “I’m trying to train you as a writer for the big market,” she lectures her fifty-eight-year-old mother. “You must understand that what sold was your article, edited. You must study how it was edited, and why…Above all, you must listen to me.” The relationship is turned on its dissatisfying head. A child lays down the law; a parent is punished. In Thurman’s telling, the case is one of a mother infantilizing a daughter who, intentionally or not, returns the favor.
A published essay reads differently when it lands between hard covers. It has aged or matured. Sometimes it has gone stale. Its spark may or may not survive. And it has acquired a family. It exists not only in itself but in its resemblances and distinctions. Its siblings may show it up. Tics and preoccupations reveal themselves, as, to varying degrees, does the author herself. For whatever reason, the “I” of Cleopatra’s Nose is more forthcoming than the “I” of A Left-Handed Woman. With time, Thurman has removed herself to the middle distance.
To return for a minute to the dancing: “There were still not many avenues of glory open to ambitious virgins who couldn’t tap dance,” she regretted in 2002, recalling her childhood search for a heroic future. “The career prospects for a girl who couldn’t tap dance,” she notes this time around, “were depressingly limited.” The yearning is tempered. Glory is nowhere on the table.
Thurman’s breadth of interests is great—she has written on pearls, on architecture, on hair products, on tofu—but with the new anthology she has also largely left the inanimate world behind. She writes less often of men, although, as she points out, four of the seven men in these pages dressed women for a living. She gravitates still toward the convention flouters and definition defiers, toward the taboos that, internalized, erupt into art, toward the women who flee the frame. “Even to establish the bare facts of her life in a conversation, like the one we were having,” she writes of the playwright Yasmina Reza, “stirs her fear of captivity.”
What else do we know about this person writing as, or at least masquerading as, Judith Thurman? She is an only child. She enjoyed a short career as a Catholic. For her tenth birthday, she got the Amelia Earhart overnight bag of her dreams. In the late 1960s she butted heads with her father, who did not agree that Kissinger was a war criminal. She likes dogs. She wanted to be a brain surgeon, a profession at which she has arguably succeeded. She can count in Japanese. She takes her espresso bien serré. She owns two strands of pearls. She is not claustrophobic. She speaks four languages and is especially fluent in fashion; for some part of the late 1960s, she was a YSL addict.
She does the crossword. She was an unwed mother who raised her son in a Manhattan brownstone. She met Balthus in her twenties and Jackie O in her forties. She is a good sport: yes, the linguistics convention, but she has also played paintball with a group of twelve-year-old boys. She could use an additional closet. She remains—I can testify to this, having shared a stage with her—a lefty. She may well have flirted with bad-girldom, but she has made imperfect strides. Before she accepts a drink in Japan, at 10 AM, she does the math. It is a reassuring 9 PM in New York. She frequents thrift shops. She is wary of sentimentality, allergic to grandiosity, drawn to virtuosity in every form. She clambers past received wisdoms like a mountain goat.
As it turns out, there is reason why she might have an eye out for the fragile, critical, or catastrophizing mother. Hers, we know from Cleopatra’s Nose, was the first of Thurman’s lost women, “a fugitive from a life she might have lived.” Exquisitely attuned to language, Alice Thurman—briefly a New Yorker receptionist, less briefly an English and Latin teacher—was a grammarian of the first rank. On the publication of Ulysses, she punctuated Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Thurman’s high school essays came in for the same treatment. When her first New Yorker galleys were returned to her, they bore a set of markings familiar from her childhood, their margins “almost a work of art, every inch finely tattooed with wispy hieroglyphs, like the feet of a Moroccan bride.”
Nor, as we might have suspected, was that all. At eight, Judith Thurman took to writing verse. Her mother recopied the juvenilia into a binder, inserting among the pages half a dozen poems of her own. Later she insisted they were Thurman’s work. She had simply forgotten them. With that single act of maternal gaslighting—as Thurman notes, boundary-obliterating Alice was simultaneously showing her up and cheering her on—a career was hatched. Thurman writes, she says, partly “to discover the nature of my affinity with an elusive subject who was only rarely real to herself.”
Thurman reports that with each subject she gropes her way along, to be surprised eventually “with a private truth I couldn’t otherwise have expressed freely.” The floundering—that tentative feeling of the way—brings to mind Elizabeth Hardwick’s description of the essay: “the slithery form, wearisomely vague and as chancy as trying to catch a fish in the open hand.” Thurman and her obsessions often recall Hardwick, though as far as I can tell the two writers converge only with Margaret Fuller. She is a nineteenth-century rock star in both of their views, if a more exasperating one in Hardwick’s rendition. Here is Hardwick on Fuller’s tendency to push male friendships to the limit and then double back: “She is so often not quite in touch, confused perhaps by the dramas of friendship, a sort of insufficiency in nuance, missing signals.” Thurman tenders a simple formula: “She could love and desire intensely, but rarely at the same moment, and she could think and feel deeply, but not often in the same sentence.” Less lush than Hardwick, she shares her gift for distillation.
Thurman too is equal parts cerebral and seductive, though foregoes the occasional splashes of vinegar. She pulverizes clods of research. She is wildly, often thrillingly allusive. The worldliness may be her trademark. Not everyone can get away with comparing Anne Frank’s gift for detachment to Jane Austen’s, or Chanel’s aristocratic followers with those of Joan of Arc. The essayist is by definition a magpie but it takes a particularly well-traveled one to locate the Goya in Jacqueline Kennedy’s funeral veil or the streak of Rousseau in Teresa Heinz Kerry’s pronouncements, to suggest Marie Antoinette as a prototype for Emma Bovary, or to compare the “chasteness” of Alice Oswald’s Homer translations to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “In both cases,” writes Thurman of the decidedly different casualty lists, “you find yourself mourning other people’s children as if they were your own.”
Can a woman, I found myself wondering as I read A Left-Handed Woman, be debonair? The word carries with it a nonchalance that has been unavailable to those of us at permanent odds with our hair, who tug our onstage skirts toward our knees. But it is a sly insouciance that so lights up these pages and that makes Thurman’s voice so distinct. She brings a dash of the Continent to the task, smuggling perfectly rounded epigraphs into the mix with the ease of an Old World maître d’hôtel leading you to the sole meunière. (Reigning over an intellectual century, Beauvoir and Sartre are, in Thurman’s hands, “a pharaonic couple of incestuous deities.”) She admits that she thrills to the perfectly formed sentence but we hardly need her to tell us as much. The voice is so exact it can pinch. Her prose has high cheekbones.
Thurman leaves us with her meditation on D.M. Black’s new translation of Purgatorio. It’s a thoughtful gift, as—mid-ascent to the heavenly world—Dante offers up an address where, with a bit of effort on our parts, demons and diabolical habits fall away. The process, observes Thurman, is “slow and arduous, like analysis.” Also like analysis, it promises relief. She sends us striding toward the liminal heights. And then, with six liberating lines of Dante, our essayist darts off. There are crumbs on the chair. You conclude the appetizers really do have it all over the entrées. Tell me you don’t see what I mean about the lingering perfume.