Writer and feminist activist Alix Kates Shulman has used the pen to critique her own life and society’s influence on women. hen Alix Kates left Cleveland in 1953, she thought she’d never come back. After graduating from college at twenty, she escaped her hometown and settled in New York City. Forty years later, with her only sibling deceased, she was the one left to take care of her aging parents. So, Alix Kates Shulman (FSM ’53), feminist and writer, returned to Cleveland again and again in the early 1990s to look after the parents she loved but whose bonds she had feared. She began to regard her escape years before as nothing more than “a leap on the long road home.” The Western Reserve University alumna’s new memoir, A Good Enough Daughter, is about that journey home. If A Good Enough Daughter is about coming home, Ms. Shulman’s earlier books are about that long leap away. First came small steps, as she found her path as a woman and a writer. Not until she was in her thirties, married for a second time, did she seriously consider writing. Reading to her two children, she realized she could probably write a children’s book and earn some money. The result was Bosley on the Number Line, which explored math concepts. In 1971 came To the Barricades, a young people’s biography of the nearly forgotten anarchist and free-love feminist Emma Goldman. During these years, Ms. Shulman was herself becoming a feminist, and in 1972, her first novel, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, spread the ideas of the nascent movement, just as its frank sexuality and social criticism jolted her home community of Cleveland Heights, on which she based her fictional Baybury Heights. Like her creator, the novel’s Sasha leaves Ohio for New York; gets married, divorced, and remarried; has children; and undergoes a change of consciousness. Through Sasha, Ms. Shulman satirized the era’s limited choices for women. Called by The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing “the first important novel to emerge from the women’s liberation movement,” Memoirs was reissued in 1997, the twenty-fifth anniversary of its first publication, with a new foreword by Ms. Shulman. Next came the novel Burning Questions (1978). Its main character, Zane IndiAnna, also moves to New York, marries, has children, and begins attending meetings of women who are radicalized by sharing their stories with each other, becoming, like Ms. Shulman, feminist activists. Her third novel, On the Stroll (1981), explores more daring terrain yet—far removed from the safety of Ashurst Road where Ms. Shulman grew up. The “stroll” is the dark city street where runaway girls are enlisted into “the life” by predatory pimps. Women examining their choices occupy Ms. Shulman’s 1987 novel, In Every Woman’s Life. Both main characters consider fundamental questions about women’s lives: marriage, careers, childbearing. Ms. Shulman’s memoir Drinking the Rain (1995) responds to some of these questions even more radically than her novels. During the ten years the book spans, she spends summers alone on an island off Maine (as she does to this day), without electricity, telephone, or plumbing. She forages for seafood and native plants. She questions consumerism, the frenetic life she leads in New York, and her presuppositions about hard work and worldly success. And during this time, in 1984, her second marriage ends. Ms. Shulman has come a long way, but she has now discovered, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, the way leads back home. A Return to Roots “I’m trying not to think about it,” Ms. Shulman says with a laugh when asked to predict the hometown reaction to A Good Enough Daughter. Though not shocking or offensive, the memoir reveals some family secrets, such as her father’s impotence, her mother’s affair. “I had to wait until my parents were gone to publish this,” she says. For herself, the return to her roots has been cathartic. “In all my books,” she says, “there’s a mystery, a puzzle at the heart I want to uncover. Over the years, you think deeply and hard, and things get clear that weren’t clear before. Then when the book appears, the troubling feelings with which I began are laid to rest.” One of her new memoir’s “puzzles” is the subtle effect of her brother’s adoption on the family. Before Ms. Shulman’s birth, her parents adopted her cousin, Robert, when his mother died in childbirth. Dorothy and Sam Kates, respectively a homemaker and community volunteer and an attorney, tried hard to treat both children fairly, yet the adoption hung like a shadow over the household. Bob always insisted that his parents favored Alix, and she now suspects he was in some ways right. “The adoption is one of the elements that runs through our family,” Ms. Shulman says now. “I knew it was a big thing, but I didn’t see then how it influenced everything.” Writing the memoir forced Ms. Shulman to confront her blind spot about her broth er, who died in 1989 of cancer. Before the book, she explains, Bob was “sort of a blank” in her mind. With every draft, he became clearer. Now he’s “a major presence,” she says. Her examination of her family’s dynamics has inspired her to research the topic of adoption for her next novel, now in the note-taking stage. Her memoir also explores aging and death. Ms. Shulman’s charming, affectionate parents remain in their Shaker Heights home, purchased after Alix moves away, until Sam, in his nineties, develops heart trouble and Dorothy, at eighty-four, shows symptoms of dementia. Ms. Shulman finds a congenial home for them at Judson Park Retirement Community. Caring for her ailing parents—sometimes long distance from New York, sometimes flying to Cleveland for emergencies—becomes an opportunity to return the love they gave so generously rather than the burden she expected. In a publicity interview, she said, “I believe many in my generation…dread having to reconnect with their families, dread caring for them, dread facing death. Once, I, too, felt that way.” Though sympathetic with those who have gladly abandoned the middle-class strictures of their parents, she adds, “My recent adventure has taught me that the experience…may turn out to be surprisingly liberating and life-enhancing, as anything you face honestly is bound to be.” Ms. Shulman, regretfully, was in New York in 1996 when, at eighty-nine, her mother died suddenly at Judson, but she is eloquently grateful to have been present for her father’s death a few months later. She writes, “My true luck—my blessing— is to have witnessed my father’s [death]: to have held his ancient sinewy hand, spoken my love into his better ear, watched his eyes flicker open to meet mine one last time before falling forever closed, breathed with him that loud, deep, drawn-out final breath.” The end of life helped Ms. Shulman resolve her knotty relationship with her parents, still another of the “puzzles” explored. “Most books about caring for parents are practical books, not about spiritual transformation,” she says. “They don’t explore the whole life. Both sides want understanding— the resentments, pain, and struggles within the nuclear family.” Years earlier, her own nuclear family became, in Ms. Shulman’s mind, everything she wanted to renounce, from conventional sexual mores to Cleveland’s “bourgeois provincialism.” Why, then, did her quest to distance herself from these mores not take her farther away than Reserve? “I wanted to turn myself into an intellectual,” she says with a hint of self-deprecation. Reserve’s Flora Stone Mather College, where she studied history and philosophy, was the place for her. Though staying at home was partly an economic choice, she adds, “I now realize I wasn’t quite ready to leave my parents. I wanted to prepare to leave.” Graduating in three years, Ms. Shulman moved to New York, where her dad had staked her to a year of grad school at Columbia. She leaned toward analytic philosophy, and admits part of the appeal was the tough mental discipline of math and philosophy and that they were stereotypically male pursuits. It became clear even to rebellious Ms. Shulman, however, that a career in her chosen discipline was improbable. “How come you’re studying philosophy?’’ Sasha’s college friends ask in the semiautobiographical Ex-Prom Queen, and Sasha/Alix internalizes these doubts. Ms. Shulman adds now, “Math was an impossible field for women then. Even philosophy was impossible. Who would have given me a job?” Discouraged by her career prospects and succumbing to societal expectations, she married a graduate student in the English department and worked as a receptionist, researcher, and encyclopedia editor, among other things, to support them. The marriage didn’t last. Then came a twenty-six-year second marriage, and her two children, Teddy and Polly, born in 1961 and 1963. And then the life-changing women’s movement of the late sixties. The Ways of a Feminist “The minute I heard feminism articulated, I recognized it as an explanation of all my puzzles,” Ms. Shulman said in a 1997 Ms. magazine interview. In consciousness-raising groups, she and other women shared their frustrations with marriage, male infidelities and insensitivities, and educational and professional limitations for women. She joined the feminist groups Redstockings and WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell), through which she helped plan the protest outside the 1968 Miss America contest (in which a sheep was crowned); began advocating abortion rights; and began publishing feminist fiction and essays, notably “A Marriage Agreement,” a proposal to divide household and child-care tasks equally between herself and her husband. It first appeared in a feminist journal in 1969 and was reprinted in Redbook, and in the première issues of Ms., Life, and other publications. It provoked responses from, among others, Joan Didion, Russell Baker, and Norman Mailer, who famously said, in an imperious third person, “No, he would not be married to such a woman.” This “agreement” inspired Ms. Shulman’s contribution to a recent essay collection called The Feminist Memoir Project. “A Marriage Disagreement, or Marriage by Other Means” explains that the original agreement was really an attempt to hold together her second marriage, shaken by Ms. Shulman’s radical views. Written with “feminist irony, idealism, audacity, and glee,” she says now, that agreement divvied up all the duties required to keep one’s children alive and one’s household running. Thirty years later, Ms. Shulman believes that most couples now at least give lip service to “domestic equality” and that, as a result of the women’s movement, “the unbearable status quo…collapsed.” But she worries that, in practice, the inequality— “the inevitable slippage between intentions and their outcomes”—endures. The question remains: “Who will wind up with the housework?” Related questions frequently arise in panel discussions on the history of the women’s movement. At such events, Ms. Shulman is often asked whether the “second wave” feminism of the sixties and seventies made a lasting change. Are women’s lives better now? Though women now have wider career choices and theoretically more egalitarian marriages, Ms. Shulman says, other things have gotten worse. “There’s no safety net for poor women. The focus on women’s looks is much, much worse.” And the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal demonstrates that the double standard still obtains. “All these presidents and congressmen have always done these things,” she says heatedly, referring to sexual dalliances. “Why is it that generally only one side is snickered at and derided?” Never shying away from controversy, Ms. Shulman wrote a spirited defense of former White House intern Monica Lewinsky (“smart, savvy, and in-charge”) in a guest column for the New York Daily News on February 10, 1999, supporting both feminine sides of this particular triangle. “The best feminist response to…sexual humiliation, scandal, and manipulation is sympathetic support for each woman’s freedom to choose. This is what feminism stands for and has struggled so hard to win,” she writes. Feminism, now widened into ecological and larger spiritual concerns, still animates Ms. Shulman. She discovered in writing A Good Enough Daughter that this passion actually originated in her childhood home. Her mother worked for the WPA (Works Projects Administration) during the thirties when few other middle-class mothers worked outside the home, volunteered in political campaigns, collected art (including works by Frank Stella and Willem de Kooning), and became a published writer. Both parents expected her to succeed. She writes, “[M]y very awareness of a freer life elsewhere and the confidence I needed to pursue it were my parents’ gifts to me.” A Good Enough Daughter shows that, not only can you go home again, but that you’re likely to rediscover yourself there, in your memories and in your parents themselves. Getting to know her parents taught Ms. Shulman much about herself; after their deaths, her own gestures and voice remind her of Dorothy and Sam. In a last visit to their old house on Shaker Boulevard, she meets the new owner, a physician, and writes, “I clasped the doctor’s hand with Dad’s grip and held his eyes with Mom’s gaze and, speaking for us all, wished his family the complicated pleasures of long life.” is a writer living in Cleveland Heights.
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