Speaking Truth to Power by Anita Hill, second half review

anitahillI am pleased to report that I had a different experience with the second half of this book, in all the right ways. You will recall (or, I will direct you to) my first half review of same: I thought it was a wonderful book but such a painful story that I had to put it down for a little while. Well, in a nutshell, the second half is: still painful, tragic, and true, but also uplifting, far more hopeful than I expected; and equally well-written and impressive. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Anita Hill continues to be thoughtful and thorough – I definitely see the mind of a lawyer at work, as she discusses the what-if’s, the precedents, the niceties of the law. She is quite cerebral in her theories on society and stereotyping; far from being a simple revelation of her experiences, this is a treatise on gender & race. She examines the relationship between issues of gender and of race, and the indivisibility of feminism from the fight for racial equality, and the relationships between race and sexism. Hill is clearly an extremely intelligent women! She is also warm and loving about her family, and always seeking privacy, not eager to be a symbol or a leader. In other words, she comes firmly across as a “just regular” person, and someone I’d like to know.

Her story is also entirely convincing. It is beautifully put together and well-written: not lyrical, but methodical, structured, can I say thorough and lawyerly again? And she preaches more hope than I felt in my first-half review. However, the battle is still not over, and I still feel upset & angry that Hill’s experience reads so familiarly more than 20 years later. On that note, I’ll refer you to Jessica Valenti’s lovely speech to my local Planned Parenthood group, here. Well said, Jessica. You give me hope, too.

Rating: 9 strong women, please.

Speaking Truth to Power by Anita Hill, first half review

anitahillFor reasons I’ll discuss below, I have had to put this book down at about the halfway point, through no fault of Anita Hill’s absorbing story or lovely, clear, honest writing. This first review will be more about my emotional reactions and reason for pausing in my reading; soon I will publish my second-half-review which will be more about the book itself. Briefly, for the record, it’s a great book.

Anita Hill was a young black female lawyer from the south in the early 1980’s, when she found herself employed as an assistant to Clarence Thomas, then an aspiring government official looking for an appointment under President Bush (Senior). She was largely successful in leaving behind her unpleasant experiences in his employment as she moved onto other lines of work, teaching law back in her home state of Oklahoma, where she could be closer to her family and further from the nasty environment Thomas created for her in Washington, D.C. When Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1991, however, she reconsidered her silence on his sexual harassment, and ended up traveling to D.C. to testify at his confirmation hearing as to his behavior nearly 10 years earlier. She was excoriated for her decision and her actions; every piece of her life, her morals, her “virtue” were picked apart. This book is her attempt to set the record straight.

Most Americans know the name Anita Hill, in my (limited) survey. When I mentioned this book, a coworker spoke of having horrible, vivid dreams, set in the Senate, as the hearings went on; she sympathized with Hill’s unfortunate position. I am young enough that I don’t remember these events (I was 9 in 1991 and not paying much attention to sexual harassment and Supreme Court nominations, for which I suppose I’m glad); it’s history to me. However, the name Anita Hill did mean something to me, and it means much more now.

I am reading this book because my father raved about it and felt it was important reading for me, which I easily believed. And it’s a lovely book. But it so happens that I picked it up during a time when my personal life was in upheaval in a few ways. I don’t want to share too many personal details here (I’d rather get personal when the news is good!) but it involved my loved ones being spread around the globe dealing with various trauma, and I was distracted, worried, and depressed. And unfortunately, one of the central truths of Hill’s book, based on events in 1982 and 1991 and published in 1997, holds true today: that most women will be sexually harassed; that most will choose not to accuse their harassers; and that few harassers are sanctioned. Again, without revealing too much of my personal story, I know this firsthand. And reading about Hill’s experiences, both being harassed by Thomas, and then being harassed by her national media and political representatives, was entirely too painful to me. I felt physically sick to my stomach reading it, and I had to put it down.

I still agree with my father’s statements that this is a very good book, and that it’s an important book for me to read. I look forward to picking it back up – as I write this, personal-life issues are mostly resolved, and (thank goodness!) Husband is home here with me. Hill writes like a lawyer: she makes statements of what she knows to be true, and is careful to note where she speculates, while providing evidence to support her speculations. She speaks strongly where she is sure that she is right; and (as one would expect) she has a very sure and confident grasp of legal issues in their minutia, and is capable of making those legal details understandable to her reader. I also really enjoy her gentle, loving treatment of her family history; that background adds to her story immeasurably.

I wanted to give you this first-half-review of this book where I’ve paused in my reading of it, to note the painful emotional impact it’s had on me. Make no mistake, it’s a fine book and I will finish it and tell you more very soon. But for now, know that this story is rather excruciating.

Rating: 8 brave public statements.

A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman by Alice Kessler-Harris

Lillian Hellman’s paradoxical, powerful personality set against the backdrop of a turbulent century.

Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) was many things: a successful playwright, screenwriter and memoirist; a suspected Communist (maligned as an unrepentant Stalinist) who stood up against political intimidation in the 1950s; a labor organizer and civil rights activist; partner to Dashiell Hammett for more than 30 years; a woman criticized for being manlike and grasping, but simultaneously overly feminine and stylish; a New Orleans-born resident of New York, Hollywood and Martha’s Vineyard who persisted in calling herself a Southerner. She was respected for her literary contributions, hailed as a hero by a feminist movement that she largely rejected, praised and excoriated for her politics and, ultimately, vilified for what came to be seen as the outrageous mendacity of her memoirs. It would be difficult to locate a biographical subject more contradictory or complex. In A Difficult Woman, Alice Kessler-Harris makes an excellent case that Hellman represents the complexities and changing mores of the 20th century.

The contradictions in her personality and politics are brought into relief by her written work–including plays still popular in repertory theater today–which always included strong moral statements. The concepts of truth and deception, or betrayal and loyalty, play large roles in her work and this insightful biography, rich with context, shows how they were also themes that defined her life. Not an apologia, but an exploration of nuances, A Difficult Woman gives us an infinitely more complex Hellman than the popular image that has survived her.

This review originally ran in the May 1, 2012 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 9 ambiguities.
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