Mrs. Harris and Angel Falling Softly

I just finished reading, for the second time, Mrs. Harris by Diana Trilling and Very Much a Lady by Shana Alexander. These are both true-crime books (although Mrs. Harris is really more a memoir of Trilling's experience at the trial) of the murder of Dr. Tarnower in the late 70's (the trial ran into the early 80's) by his lover, Jean Harris.

I reviewed both books on when I first read them. My opinions haven't changed substantially although I am more in agreement now with Trilling (I admire her bravery in not accepting Mrs. Harris' view of herself--a view Mrs. Harris managed to sell many people on--as a woman of integrity who just happened to go off the rails).

The one major difference, and this is probably my age and experience (no, I'm not married; I just know more than I did in my 20's) is my pity for Dr. Tarnower.

I don't doubt the guy was a sleazebag. I don't doubt that I wouldn't have spent two minutes in his company. But I do feel pity for his final hours.

Basically, 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 having, towards the end, a serious (younger) rival. She accepted his coldness, his indifference, his rudeness, his blatant degradation of her.

She was also taking a massive amount of "uppers," prescribed to her by Dr. Tarnower. I consider these prescriptions (made out in different names to avoid problems at the pharmacy) to be Dr. Tarnower's major contribution to his own death although I seriously 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. When Tarnower was killed, Jean Harris was in massive withdrawal. If she had meant to kill herself and had succeeded, her family could have sued the doctor for malpractice (and won a bundle).

So the night of the murder (and whether Harris intended to kill Tarnower or to kill herself, Tarnower ended up dead, and he ended up dead because the stupid woman brought a gun into his bedroom, so I call it 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 . . .

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 just 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 very 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 like he would have 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 really 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 causes me to feel sorry for Tarnower.

Harris didn't leave Tarnower despite every instigation to do so. He made her happy, she claims in letter after letter 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 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, the letters and Harris' later reactions indicate that Harris needed this guy to be on a pedestal, and she invested everything he did with pedestal-quality meaning--with all the attendant pathos. (She basically created her own little Gothic romance.)

Towards the end of her book, Alexander points out that Harris didn't always remember things correctly. If Tarnower said five mean things to her 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 mostly sorry for the guy. Because living on a pedestal can be tiring. Having your every action, whim, bad temper, passing comment, minor thought, absent-minded choice invested with THAT MUCH MEANING would be unbelievably exhausting.

I'm not saying Tarnower is a complete innocent here. When he was younger, I'm sure Tarnower enjoyed Harris' adulation. He was an arrogant, self-involved person, and it probably gave him a thrill to have a reasonably intelligent, well-read, pretty woman think he was "all that." But as he got older, it would have just tired him out. I think 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 (and the only person involved in the case who behaved like a real lady: one who kept her thoughts to herself), saw him as he was and worshipped him. No matter what he did, she thought he was wonderful. No matter how few the crumbs he scattered, she gathered them up. He didn't have to do anything. And sure, that's sexist, and no self-respecting woman would put up with it, but the guy never pretended he was anything else than how he behaved. In fact, you get the impression that towards the end, he was trying to force-feed the notion of his own self-involved importance down Jean Harris' throat: this is who I am, I'm not going to change, nothing is going to be different, this is who I am, let it go.

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, it was the same "I want you to play a role with me" as always. And he didn't want to play. And he ended up dead.

As the dominatrix on CSI points out more than once, 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 disillusion. And he may have been a jerk, and he may have brought some of it on himself, but he and his family didn't deserve that. (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 mention this case, despite its datedness, because this whole business of creating unreal, perfect heroes has come up recently in exchanges I've been reading. Most of those exchanges regard Twilight; however, I've beat up on that series quite a bit lately here and elsewhere, and, at the end of the day, I think the series for most fans isn't anything more or less than a fun read. However, my brother Eugene's book, Angel Falling Softly, has recently come under fire, and I can't help but be miffed by a similar audience base that prefers unreal heroes to real, fallible people. (I'm floored by readers who can't tell the difference between amoral literature, where characters end up doing the "right thing" not from choice but through some kind of accidental karma--because they are supposed to--and moral literature where the characters actually grapple, sincerely, awkwardly, with moral issues.)

It isn't just that unreal heroes don't exist or that unreal heroes always cause problems; it is that the belief in unreal heroes can hurt all the parties involved. Sure, the disillusioned Mrs. Harrises get hurt, but the Tarnowers, who never pretended to be better than they were, end up dead. Everyone is fallible. Very few people, as Buffy points out in "Earshot" know what's going on in another person's mind; we don't know other people's scripts; we don't always anticipate what is expected of us. Investing anything--anyone--with the idea that it ought to be perfect, from presidents to governments, from religious institutions to marriages, can result in a great deal of unnecessary collateral damage.


1 comment:

Stephen said...

Well, Angel Falling Softly is a better book than the debate gives it credit for, but a guy who uses drugs to keep someone enslaved is a real vampire ...

I feel little sympathy for him getting shot in the end, and most people in his shoes aren't tired by the attention, they don't even notice the meaning given them.

I think you give your brother not enough credit, the abuser in the other story too much.