In the prologue to Vertigo: A Memoir, Hunter College professor Louise DeSalvo recounts fleeing her family’s house for the local library, where she hides behind an encyclopedia, holding it, she writes, “in front of my face so that no one can see me, so that no one will bother me.” It is 1956, and at 13 she is a voracious reader. DeSalvo later smuggles her library books home through the coal chute, and devours them in the family cellar, away from the fighting upstairs, in “the best hiding place…there’s just enough space, behind the coal bin, for a smallish girl.” Many readers will recognize the echo of Jane Eyre in DeSalvo’s opening scene; Charlotte Brontë begins her novel with the young Jane hidden behind the scarlet drapery at the Reeds’ house, fearing “nothing but interruption” from the book she reads. As a feminist critic, DeSalvo surely intends the reference. Yet she does not feel compelled to acknowledge it as such.
By DeSalvo’s lights, hers is “the unlikely narrative of how a working-class Italian girl became a critic and writer.” Though her personal accomplishments are considerable (the first in her family to attend college, let alone graduate school), they are not entirely unprecedented for women of her generation. DeSalvo received her English doctorate in the ’70s, in the first blush of academic feminism, fashioning herself into a Virginia Woolf scholar of note. But Woolf herself, as early as 1931, pronounced literature “the freest of all professions for women”; it would seem more “unlikely” then if DeSalvo had become, for instance, a congresswoman instead of a feminist critic.
Feminist credentials notwithstanding, DeSalvo resembles the decidedly anti-feminist critic Camille Paglia in her cowgirl stance, if not her politics. DeSalvo writes that she came “from a people who, even now, seriously distrust educated women….The story I want to tell is that of how I tried to create (and am still trying to create) a life that was different from the one that was scripted for me by my culture.” That declaration rings a tad disingenuous after DeSalvo admits that her father built a corner desk for her, that her grandparents occasionally gave her money for school, and finally, that her mother encouraged her to apply to a women’s college at a time when secretarial school was the rage.
Certainly, DeSalvo has demons to wrestle, namely her mother and sister’s crippling depressions. Her mother’s ended in shock treatment, her sister’s in suicide. DeSalvo conquered her own “through reading, writing, meaningful work, and psychotherapy.” This is no minor feat, and DeSalvo does an admirable job of avoiding the syllogisms common in Crazy Chick Lit. She steadfastly refuses to romanticize depression or misread it as a feminist protest. Like any sensible person, the author recognizes it as a loss, and her meditations on it showcase her most powerful prose.
More than her social myopia, though, this loss handicaps DeSalvo’s narrative. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf famously maintained that “we think back through our mothers if we are women.” DeSalvo’s relationship with her mother is ineffably tragic, and the author’s attitude toward her veers wildly across the page, even to disavowal. Telling the story of her mother’s agonizing death, DeSalvo laments: “I never had a mother, and now she’s dying.”
But for all her struggle, DeSalvo’s mother emerges as a memorable and heroic figure. She could not afford to attend college, in spite of a scholarship, and she never realized her ambition to become a writer. As a result, her most treasured possession was the lapel pin she won as a writing prize from the Hoboken Elks chapter—she willed it to her only surviving daughter after her death. It is DeSalvo’s mother who teaches her daughter to read; it is she who enrolls DeSalvo in the first grade at age 4; it is she who urges DeSalvo to take college preparatory courses. When DeSalvo asks why she didn’t intercede in one of her several ill-fated adolescent love affairs, her mother replies: “I thought you read Romeo and Juliet.” Yet DeSalvo earnestly insists that she had “no role model among the women of my background to urge me on.”
DeSalvo complains that when her sister Jill killed herself, “she took my mother with her to keep her company.” The second chapter of DeSalvo’s work bears a deceptively declarative title: “My Sister’s Suicide.” Yet the chapter contains achronological entries primarily concerned with the aftermath. Throughout the book, Jill remains a shadowy figure, not because she is inherently enigmatic, but because—as the author admits—DeSalvo feels threatened by the mere memory of her sister. She acknowledges her sense of guilt in one of the most wrenching moments in Vertigo: “When I tell my friends about my sister’s death, I tell them that the belt she used to strangle herself had been a gift from me. I don’t know if this is true—I had given Jill a belt—but I am compelled to say it.” Here DeSalvo uses her critical acumen to great effect, laying her version of events against a variety of possible truths. Still, evasions like this should be used more sparingly than they are in Vertigo. They give the work a claustrophobic quality, which leaves the reader grasping for a broader understanding of the story.
DeSalvo only discovers that Jill’s husband had beaten her a full decade after Jill’s suicide and several years after her mother bequeathed a donation to a nearby battered women’s shelter. While DeSalvo’s resolution not to be her sister’s keeper seems understandable, it throws into relief some of DeSalvo’s more disturbing assumptions—among them, that feminism is a careerist’s pursuit. DeSalvo declares that she doesn’t “want to be just a mother, just a wife.” While other women might share that determination, few would articulate it with as much disdain.
“Somehow, without my realizing it, my work has become more important to me than my life,” DeSalvo writes. The mock heroism of DeSalvo’s scholarly pursuits becomes unbearably enervating in her discussion of Woolf:
“What can explain that I am devoting a very large part of my life to this woman with whom I think I have absolutely nothing in common? She is English, purely and highly bred. I am more Italian than American, rough, tough, a street kid, out of a working class neighborhood in Hoboken, New Jersey. We have nothing in common, except that we’re both women, and that, I think, is enough.”
Of course, they also share a profession. DeSalvo’s awe at everything highbrow, everything “purely and highly bred,” might explain her limited understanding of the immigrant experience. DeSalvo cannot acknowledge that she was meant to surpass her first-generation parents—that she was groomed for a life freer than her mother’s. She realizes “[her] version of the American Dream” through the force of her will, surely, but also through happy circumstance. Such an acknowledgment might heighten the import of her experience, rather than cheapen it.
“As a literary critic, I can always read between the lines, find the covert story behind the story,” DeSalvo boasts. That may be true, but as a memoir writer DeSalvo is more limited. Her story—through its several judicious omissions—feels dishonest. DeSalvo has organized her material from a fairly rudimentary women’s studies template. In addition to the tales of sexist oppression, she includes the requisite story of sexual abuse (though she never discusses its effect on her life), a chapter titled “Anorexia” (though the disorder is hardly its concern), and a near-clichéd insistence that women’s literature changed her life (as if merely positing it were enough to convince any reader). These are significant issues for many women, and DeSalvo’s slipshod and opportunistic handling of them insults writers who have given these matters serious consideration.
More than a third of Vertigo concerns DeSalvo’s teen years, when every girl feels uniquely alone in her tribulations. DeSalvo’s memories of the period are so vivid to her that she relates them in the present tense, but the adult reader will find it difficult to share DeSalvo’s indignation at the rotten birthday gift she received years ago, largely because DeSalvo has not bothered to shape or transform her material. Instead, she opts for the sensational confession of a teenage drinking problem and a promiscuous adolescence. DeSalvo borrows her title from Hitchcock’s classic film, which she claims changed her life at 14. She heeds its warning against “living in the unsatisfying realm of longing, yearning, and regret” by ending her affair with another girl’s boyfriend. Though it may have felt like a momentous decision to a schoolgirl, it hardly seems pivotal to the memoir.
The epigraph of DeSalvo’s book lists the definitions of “vertigo” and “verse,” which derive from the same root: the Latin vertere, to turn. In a later chapter of the book, DeSalvo declares herself “The Still Center of the Turning Wheel.” In reality, she is the center of a small universe outside of time and circumstance. DeSalvo barely nods to the women’s movement developing around her. Though DeSalvo acknowledges the role of female friends in her life (a concession, presumably, to Woolf’s call for friendship between Chloe and Olivia), they operate largely as plot devices. And after her mother and sister are absent awhile, DeSalvo seems alternately generic and grandiose.
At times, Vertigo reads like a journal hatched prematurely into print. DeSalvo admits that one of the aims of her scholarship has been “to catch Virginia Woolf…where…she might be least guarded.” But guardedness is a virtue in a writer—it implies the triumph of discrimination and form. To her credit, Woolf was notoriously private; her purely autobiographical writing was never intended for the public. The work she produced on women’s literature was intelligent and balanced, imbued always with an indebtedness to the women who had come before her—wives and mothers and Shakespeare’s Sister. Woolf would never have cribbed from Jane Eyre, even if she had admired the novel, which she didn’t: She found its heroine parochial.CP