The Girl I Left Behind, by Judith Nies

The Girl I Left Behind

There’s a Monty Python sketch wherein chartered accountant Michael Palin tells skeptical vocational guidance counselor John Cleese that he’d like to change careers and be a lion tamer. In response to a question about his talents and experience in this area, Palin explains that he already has a fancy hat with “Lion Tamer” on it in letters that light up. Cleese considers this, and says, “Yes, yes, yes, I do follow, Mr. Anchovy, but you see the snag is if I now call Mr. Chipperfield at the circus and say to him, ‘Look here, I’ve got a forty-five-year-old chartered accountant with me who wants to become a lion tamer,’ his first question is not going to be ‘Does he have his own hat?’”

Most societies around the world throughout history have been less astute than Mr. Chipperfield in this regard, for when they were faced with an individual wanting to be a lion tamer (or president, or journalist, or doctor, or lawyer, or business owner, or member of the clergy, or just to have the same autonomy and opportunities to pursue their dreams as anyone else), their first question has been the equally moronic “But does this person have a penis? Does this person have XY rather than XX chromosomes?”

In the United States things have progressed considerably in this regard, all the way from sexism that’s horribly, blatantly, obviously wrong, unjust and indefensible, to sexism that’s somewhat unjust, wrong in subtler ways, and a little more in a gray area where reasonable people can differ about certain aspects. From ludicrous in the extreme, to moderately silly.

I have trouble achieving much of any common ground with a person who can’t see both of these points—that things are much better than they were, and that things are still considerably short of being fully right and fair.

The Girl I Left Behind is relevant to the first point. It’s a largely informal, non-technical, non-academic, anecdotal account of how much more absurdly sexist America was as recently as a few decades ago. It is the autobiographical story of a life that intersected with many of the most important issues, events, individuals, associations, writings, and trends of the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, (and to some extent with other political matters of the time, such as the Vietnam War). And I think it does a good to very good job of conveying some of the struggles and some of the absurdities of that period.

It’s not going to take the place of formal, scholarly histories of the era, but I think there’s a place for a more personalized, accessible account like this. This could reach a different audience and be eye-opening to a lot of people who would not be apt to read denser, more intimidating material on the same topics.

Though there are always limits to that. Most people who read something like this are probably already on her side of these issues. And if somehow you could twist a conservative’s arm to read it, I wouldn’t expect it to have much if any effect. Probably it would just further reinforce the notion of “To hell with these whiners and their obsession with ancient history. They’re just like the blacks, thinking they have a right to punish me because I happen to be the same skin color as some people who owned their ancestors as slaves centuries ago.”

Which is to say it’s mostly not a book that argues that things are bad now, but one that focuses instead on their having been really bad in the past, which will allow some people (wrongly) to dismiss it as irrelevant.

But for people who are at least minimally receptive to its message—young people especially—I would like them to read this book.

I’d say it’s reasonably well written but nothing special in that regard. There’s some repetition here and there, some places where I thought “Didn’t she just say this a chapter or two ago, and even with the same wording or same comparison?”

I’m wondering if, say, a skilled novelist or journalist could have made some of the characters other than the protagonist come alive more. The husband, for example, is creepy for the most part, but beyond that he seems a little too impenetrable and possibly caricatured. As a reader, I’d like to have gotten a better sense of what she saw in him initially, a little more sympathetic account of what made him someone one could fall in love with and want to marry, even if they later grew apart.

Sort of related to this, the first thought I had when I saw the cover photo of her (from 1965) is that she was a lesbian. Just a guess. And I certainly don’t mean that as an insult, since I don’t think it’s good or bad to be a lesbian. Nor do I acknowledge that it’s inherently objectionable to note that appearance can offer “gaydar” clues to such things—I’m remembering my feminist, bi-sexual ex-girlfriend chuckling over photos of herself in grade school: “Could anyone possibly not see what a little dyke I already was?” But maybe there’s a limit to how close she could ever really be to her husband, compared to her sisters in the movement and other women, and that’s why there’s just not a warmth, an intimacy, a deep understanding of him in how she describes him and their relationship.

I like the point she makes that progress is made because individual people take a stand, speak out, take risks, pay a price, etc.; it doesn’t “just happen” as some inexorable trend of history that people are powerless to facilitate or block.

I suppose I could quibble with a few specifics here and there. She’s quick to praise the movement for adopting forms of teaching, of therapy, of social connection, of political activism that maybe avoided being too hierarchical, too competitive, too coldly rational, too judgmental, etc., but I’d say there are pros and cons to what she describes, and I don’t think the cons are simply things I’m imagining because I’m a guy and I don’t “get it.” She herself remarks in passing later that none of these innovations prevented at least as much backbiting and feuding and wrong-headedness and general silliness as one would expect from groups that didn’t adopt such New Age methods.

I would guess also that I’d be a bit more skeptical than her about some pro-woman interpretations of history and such. She reports how excited she was to learn about the peace-loving, matriarchal societies that academic history has largely ignored or denied, but let’s be careful here of believing something because you’d prefer it be true rather than because the evidence fully supports it. Some of that stuff may be as dubious as the Afrocentric theories of history advanced for reasons of politics and building self-esteem through mythology.

Likewise I wouldn’t be surprised if in her accounts of the forgotten women of American history who’ve gotten too little acknowledgement for their contributions, she exaggerates just a bit in their favor, to compensate.

But overall The Girl I Left Behind is a solid book, and I’m sympathetic toward it in almost all respects, the main one being that she too thinks there’s something amiss when we adversely affect people’s lives by basing how we interact with them on utterly insignificant factors (such as whether they lack a really neat hat that lights up and says “Lion Tamer”).

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