Updated Thoughts on Jean Harris: The Books

Diana Trilling
This is a repost of a post I wrote back in 2008. I recently reread the books listed below (both of them fall into the genre of literary journalism: fast-paced writing with $3 words and decent analysis: quick but not shallow reads). Below are my initial thoughts followed by  revisions/addendums.

Mrs. Harris by Diana Trilling and Very Much a Lady by Shana Alexander are true-crime books (although Mrs. Harris is really more a memoir of Trilling's experience at the trial of Jean Harris). I urge reading both books together; they produce a multi-faceted and fascinating view of Jean Harris who killed her lover Dr. Tarnower.

Shana Alexander
In sum, Jean Harris was in love with Dr. Tarnower. At one point, he offered to marry her but changed his mind. She accepted the situation. She accepted his mistresses. She continued to go on trips with him and to stay at his house despite him having, towards the end, a serious (younger) mistress, who also spent nights at the house (and kept her things there). Harris accepted her lover's coldness, his indifference, his rudeness, his blatant degradation of her.

During this time, she was taking a massive amount of "uppers," prescribed to her by Dr. Tarnower. I consider these prescriptions (made out in various names to avoid problems at the pharmacy) to be Dr. Tarnower's major contribution to his own death although I question the so-called integrity of a woman who doesn't balk (and later claims not to notice) taking prescriptions in other people's names for nearly 10 years. [I also question the so-called independence of a woman who doesn't get her own doctor or a second opinion; unfortunately, "my boyfriend the doctor" could do no wrong in Harris's eyes.]

When Tarnower was killed, Jean Harris was in massive withdrawal due to the doctor absentmindedly not refilling her prescriptions. If she had meant to kill herself and had succeeded, her family could have sued the doctor for malpractice (and won a bundle).

The night of the murder, Harris drives up to Tarnower's house in Purchase, New York, goes in, sits on the bed next to his, tells him she needs to talk and waits for him to . . .

Lynn Tryforos is behind the doctor.
Trilling, Alexander, and Harris herself correctly diagnose that Harris expected a confrontation with some accusations, some tears, and finally, some tenderness. She probably played and replayed the scene in her head as she drove the five hours to Purchase. But Tarnower didn't respond. He knew she was coming and didn't leave the light on. He was grumpy when she woke him up. Even after he was fully awake, he didn't want to talk, closing his eyes and hoping she would drop the whole thing and go to bed.

So Harris wanders into the bathroom, sees his other woman's stuff, and all hell breaks loose . . . in a terribly literal way.

Both Alexander and Trilling fault the doctor for not responding to Harris' distress that night. Okay, so she woke him up, but once he was awake, he should have responded as he would to a man friend; he should have noticed her condition was worse than usual. The murder could have been averted if . . .

Alexander and Trilling have the honesty to admit that, well, that wasn't the guy's modus operandi, was it, and how stupid was Harris anyway? But I think they both miss another factor, the thing that gives me some sympathy for Tarnower.

Only cats belong on pedestals. 
Harris didn't leave Tarnower despite every instigation to do so. He made her happy, she claims in letter after letter that she sent him after their jaunts abroad and to Florida. She can't live without him. Alexander correctly perceives that Harris needed to believe she was wasting (oops, spending) her time on a worthwhile person. Trilling more perceptively points out that Harris would have had to re-evaluate her own taste and choices (and supposed high ideals) if she'd accepted Tarnower as he actually was. In any case, Harris's actions before and after Tarnower's death tokened an almost pathological need to keep Tarnower on a pedestal; subsequently, she invested everything he did with pedestal-quality meaning.

Alexander points out that if Tarnower said five mean things to Harris in a conversation and one nice thing, she remembered the nice thing: the nice thing became the only thing the conversation was about. And while I'm sorry Harris felt the need to do this, I'm also sorry for the guy. Because living on a pedestal can be tiring. Having one's every action, whim, bad temper, passing comment, minor thought invested with THAT MUCH MEANING would be unbelievably exhausting.

I'm not saying Tarnower is an innocent here. When he was younger, I'm sure Tarnower enjoyed Harris' adulation. He was an arrogant, self-involved person, and it gave him a thrill to have a reasonably intelligent, well-read, pretty woman think he was "all that." As he got older, it began to tire him. It is notable that the two women he went back to (without dumping Harris) in his later years were women who accepted him as he was. The first woman accepted him as he was and walked away from the romantic side of their friendship because, well, she saw him as he was. The second woman, the direct rival to Jean Harris, Lynne Tryforos (the only person involved in the case who behaved like a real lady and kept her thoughts to herself), saw him as he was and worshiped him. No matter what he did, she thought he was wonderful. No matter how few the crumbs he scattered, she gathered them up. He never had to meet her half-way.

And sure, that's sexist, and no self-respecting woman should put up with it; still, the guy never pretended he was anything other than a role model for narcissism. In fact, I got the impression that towards the end, he was trying to force the notion of his self-involvement down Jean Harris' throat: This is who I am, I'm not going to change, nothing is going to be different; let it go, let me go.

Jean Harris at trial.
Unfortunately, Jean Harris was just smart enough and just proud enough and just besotted enough with her "script" (as Alexander calls it) to need more than crumbs and indifference. The relationship had to have meaning: meaning to her, meaning to him, meaning to her sense of self, meaning to her past, her future, her life, her career, meaning, meaning, meaning.

The guy was nearing 70; can you blame him for being tired of it all? I don't think Tarnower noticed anything different in Harris when she showed up that night. Based on Alexander's excellent, detailed summary of their relationship, Harris was throwing off the usual "I want you to play a role for me" signals. And he didn't want to play. And he ended up dead.

As the dominatrix on CSI points out, in a domination/submission relationship, the submissive party does have power. It's no bizarre mischance that the supposed dominant party in the Scarsdale murder ended up dead. The woman who made the relationship out to be something it wasn't triumphed; she killed the disillusionment and hence, enabled herself to live forever in her delusion. And though he may have been a jerk, and he may have brought it on himself, his family at least didn't deserve his demise. (Although from a Freudian point of view, if one puts an Electra complex into motion, one should hardly be surprised by the result; still, despite reading Herodotus, I don't think Tarnower was prepared for Greek myths to re-enact themselves all over his bedroom.)


I still mostly agree with my views stated above. However, I do hold Tarnower more responsible than I did after my prior reading. It is so difficult to like Jean Harris (as Alexander and Trilling point out, people tended to have polarized responses to Harris: one either loved her or couldn't stand her), my sympathy slid off her self-delusion towards the doctor.

He doesn't deserve it. As a prior commenter pointed out, Tarnower not only was responsible for Jean Harris being on drugs and for her massive withdrawal, he was responsible for prescribing contraindicating drugs and the WRONG drugs in the first place (the family truly would have won a civil lawsuit). He was blithe, indifferent, and lazy in his doctoring and largely responsible for creating Harris's state of mind the night of the murder.

He was not only an irresponsible doctor, he was an irresponsible lover. I feel even more strongly now that he was trying to get Harris to dump him in their last year together (it wouldn't have worked); if I expect a woman to take responsibility for calling things quits, I should expect the same of the man. If five years earlier Tarnowner had said, "I am breaking off with you completely" (rather than trying to get Harris to guess that he wanted to break things off), he would . . . likely be dead by now. But he wouldn't have died that night.

But he couldn't be bothered to break things off. He was an entirely indolent man when it came to moral decision-making (and a blowhard, if that matters).

And yet, as Trilling points out, it is Harris, not Tarnowner, who holds one's attention. I think both Alexander and Trilling were attracted to Harris's story by the same inconsistencies that strike me: the bizarre cognitive dissonance between Harris's perception of herself and her actual behavior/choices. She resented being seen as Tarnower's kept woman, insisting that he never bought her clothes. Yet she went on trips where he paid for the tickets and the hotels. She insisted that she was happy, yet she was constantly embroiling herself in sordid arguments with Tarnower on how his other mistress had supposedly treated her. She claimed to be his intellectual equal (she was actually a cut above him intellectually), then insisted on helping him edit his trite diet book. She claimed she didn't want credit for editing the trite book; she only wanted to express her affection. Yet the Scarsdale Letter* revealed that she was keeping a careful reckoning of who got what.

I don't fault her for the last; it's very Jane Austenish (yes, money and love are linked!). What is so unnerving is how far Harris went to persuade herself that she wasn't concerned with things that she was obviously concerned with.

Harris was granted clemency 11
years into her 15-year sentence.
The oddest, and most untenable, was her claim before, during, and after the trial that she wasn't jealous. She was upset because Tarnowner's association with Lynne Tyrforos denigrated the doctor. Both Trilling and Alexander see through this; Harris was incredibly jealous not only over for the loss of affection but over her reputation. Tarnowner choosing a woman so different from her sent the message that she was interchangeable; any woman would do.

Since the doctor actually SAID as much outright, an objective outsider finds Harris's avowal of unconditional love and lack of jealousy unbelievable. The jury rejected it. Faced with uncertain forensic evidence, they might have acquitted. Faced with a woman who could lie so thoroughly to herself, they had to ask, "What else is she lying about?"

Voluntary manslaughter would have been the correct verdict. Harris's lawyer offered Murder in the Second Degree or Acquittal ("Go for broke!"). The jury could not in good conscience state that Harris hadn't had murderous feelings towards SOMEONE that night: the Scarsdale Letter* belied any other interpretation. Yet her lawyer--and Harris--refused to entertain the more useful defense of killing while emotionally disturbed.

Everybody in the world said, "Are you kidding me? Of course she killed him in a rage!" And Jean Harris went to jail.

 LATER: I review the movies.

*The Scarsdale Letter, a ranting screed of accusations and resentment, was written by Jean Harris the day before the murder. She sent it certified mail to Dr. Tarnower. The day after she mailed the letter, Harris called the doctor and told him to ignore it because it was "whining." Both Trilling and Alexander make exceedingly wry comments about Harris's description.
"[Calling it a whiney letter]," writes Alexander, "is rather like calling the Book of Revelations 'a very downbeat yarn.'"
"For all of its complaints," writes Trilling, "it is a tearing scream." 
Twenty years later, Harris would have written an email. It's that kind of letter--the one that someone writes late at night at the end of his or her rope and then wishes, "Oh, I shouldn't have sent that!"

Harris's lawyer retrieved the letter from the post office before it was delivered (to the dead doctor). Whether the letter should be produced at trial went to the State Supreme Court. Harris's lawyer ultimately decided that it would help Harris by revealing Dr. Tarnower's horrible treatment of her (something he wasn't allowed to do directly in court due to his client's wishes). He was mind-blowingly wrong. As insight into Harris's jealousy and emotional imbalance, it would have been quite effective. In the face of Harris's denial that she never meant the doctor harm, it created exactly the opposite impression.

1 comment:

FreeLiverFree said...

There is a tendency of people who are around narcissists to be sucked into the persons narcissism. (I could easily turn this into a political rant but I won't.)

I'm not sure why that is.