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Scarsdale Romance

The New York Times is reporting the death of Jean S. Harris, ‘Killer of Scarsdale Diet Doctor’. Anita Brookner wrote about ‘Mrs Harris’ in the LRB of 6 May 1982:

Mrs Jean Harris, a trim widow of 56, was a woman who had reason to congratulate herself on making a success of her life. She had risen from undistinguished but respectable suburban beginnings to the position of headmistress of the select Madeira School for girls, in McLean, Virginia. She had married young and had two fine sons. She had kept her looks, and, apart from the occasional bout of depression or fatigue, her health. She was well respected in the academic world, was an active fund-raiser, and presented to the girls in her charge a picture of independence, decorum and high moral standards. So high, indeed, were these moral standards that the penalties she inflicted on her girls for such relatively unimportant misdemeanours as drinking beer or smoking marijuana met with some criticism, not only from the girls themselves but from her colleagues and from the school board. Yet such criticism was powerless to modify Mrs Harris’s actions, for it was clear, even to those who did not warm to her, that Mrs Harris was a lady whose behaviour was so impeccable that she expected no less of others. Mrs Harris did not drink beer or smoke marijuana. But she did something else. On the night of 10 March 1980, Mrs Harris took a gun, got into her car, drove for five hours to Westchester, woke her lover of 14 years, Dr Herman Tarnower, from his sleep, shot him, then left him dying on the floor while she went back to her car and began to drive away. She did not intend to escape. [continue]

Comments on “Scarsdale Romance”

  1. philip proust says:

    This account is interesting for a number of reasons, one of which is the way Anita Brookner apparently finds nothing remarkable about Mrs Harris’ purchase of a revolver. The gun is so much a part of American fiction that its presence in real life is considered unworthy of comment. We must assume that Mrs Harris’ murderous behaviour is connected to some significant degree by her having bought into the American gun-narrative. The cultural acceptance of the gun-narrative shapes or even determines Mrs Harris’ response to her problems with Dr Tarnower.

    The tone of ‘Scarsdale Romance’ is also worthy of comment. It is hard to discover any sense of moral outrage about Harris’ action in Brookner’s account. This is partly connected to the blurring of the fictional and the real that is inevitable when a prominent novelist describes a court ‘drama’. There is also the obvious sense in which some may feel that the philandering and wealthy doctor deserved his fate: a stance which involves an extraordinary degree of moral desensitivisation. What is significant however is that the murderer’s act of barbarism has been so well papered over that its horror disappears in the telling.

    The general point I want to make is that the availability of guns in the US is not the only problem currently at issue. There is also a kind of gun-madness in the US – symptomatic of a deeper madness – that is under-written by popular culture, and which predisposes so many of its inhabitants to search for violent gun solutions to personal problems. And the proliferation of American TV murder dramas, video games and other cultural forms throughout the world only serves to work at depriving gun murder of its moral horror for non-Americans. (Clearly, Brookner has adopted this blase attitude.) It is only when a large number of undefended children are killed at a school that moral repugnance is aroused; the 10,000 other gun murders are considered too pedestrian to worry much about for most of the time.

    • outofdate says:

      On the other hand it’s a good story beautifully re-told. It’s the relentless hysteria of public utterance about absolutely anything at all that deprives such tales of their moral horror, not looking at them with a clear eye and a steady pulse.

      (Why, for example, do I get the feeling that you couldn’t be bothered to read the whole piece before you got going…)

  2. philip proust says:

    The cold fact is, outofdate, that progressive change only occurs when:

    1. Critics challenge taken-for-granted assumptions, as in the case of ideas about slavery, worker exploitation, the causes of climate change, racism, sexism, discrimination against homosexuals, anti-Semitism etc. (I concede that the critical scrutinising of texts is annoying to those who just want to enjoy their reading.)

    2. Activists feel sufficiently worked up about an injustice to animate a social movement capable of effecting the necessary change.

    In the US at the moment, the only activists who are sufficiently motivated and bankrolled to have an effect on gun laws are members and sympathisers of the NRA, who, by the way, have the support of the majority of the US population: thus the diagnosis of gun-madness.

    • outofdate says:

      Maybe; my point is that no such scrutiny has taken place, and that had you read the whole piece, critically or otherwise, you’d have found Anita Brookner neither blase nor any of the other things you accuse her of. In case you don’t have access to the rest of the article, consider:

      Diana Trilling (the author of the book Miss Brookner is reviewing) ‘complains that contemporary literature – by which she means fiction – does not deal with those high matters of love, grief, revenge, ambition, jealousy, infractions of morality and behaviour, so necessary to instruct us in the range of our own feelings and the conduct of our own lives. This is the most valid point she makes in what is by any standards a curious and even a profoundly disturbing book. And the omission is not made good – the author is too honest for that. For although the moral conscience is still active in Mrs Trilling, and no doubt in her readers as well, it is working in a context of uneasiness, and, more important, of confusion: the confusion of the familiar with the unfamiliar, of the junk food with the ‘morbid unimpeachability’ of Mrs Harris. Such a confusion would have been viewed as incompetent by any 19th-century novelist seeking to make his point.

      ‘And that is the main difference: Mrs Trilling has no point to make. She charts, with evident discomfort, the shifting of her sympathies. The Mrs Harris whom she hoped to serve as the wronged heroine of a major passion disturbs her, first as a relentless and unsympathetic enigma, bristling with her rights and wrongs, and finally as the victim and the perpetrator of a moral outrage.’

      That with respect strikes me as a vastly more interesting and nuanced way of looking at the story and the manner in which such stories are represented than the assertion that guns killed Dr Tarnower, which merely harnesses a case, any case, to irate sloganeering. Your knee jerked, philip proust, and I submit that the jerking knee and the jerking trigger finger are two symptoms of the same affliction.

      The question isn’t even whether the nobility of your ideals somehow excuses this slapdash way with the arguments of others, it’s whether you’re capable of imagining that such arguments have any legitimacy at all. Neither Miss Brookner nor I are citizens of the United States, so its domestic laws are inevitably of less concern to us than they might be to you (to me they’re a matter of vast indifference). It follows that the questions arising from a story like this may well be profoundly different to yours, and not only are we under no obligation to adjust them to your demands, we’d have to be plain howling bonkers if we did.

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