A Former Debutante’s Work to Abjure “Superiority”
These Walls Between Us: A Memoir of Friendship Across Race and Class
Picture a bright summer day. It’s Nantucket in 1956. A proper New England beach house looks out to the sea. On its porch stands a twelve year old girl. Before her on the sand, exposed to the sun, lounges the mother. Behind her is another girl. The "new help”, a fifteen year old, is vacuuming. From the vantage of the younger girl, the sound of a vacuum cleaner is comforting. It means she and her family are being cared for, and she sees her Mom as a lithe blonde movie star. Soon we’re told Mom’s maiden name was Riker Van Vechten. Her Riker ancestors once sold some real estate to the city of New York, a once arable island in the East River which still bears the family name.
On this day in 1956 the father is due to arrive soon. The mother is anxious. More so the young “help”. This will be dad’s first meeting with the girl who will be serving maid, housekeeper, maintenance worker, laundress, and cook. We’ll soon see this fifteen-year-old’s hands tremble as she serves her first prepared meal, a light lunch, to “the master." Of course, the word “master” is never used with regards to dad. It’s not necessary and it’s an anachronism. We’ve already been told that the family who rents this vacation home is white, a detail of 1950s America normally not requiring explication. Except…
Dad’s pending arrival already disquiets the sunbathing mom. Her daughter has finished her book, and reports this with the expectation that she will be quickly provided another. It’s a moment of great neediness. Or this girl has reasons, which perhaps she does not yet fully know, to also be nervous. Frustrated, the mom reminds the girl of how much mother/daughter time they’ve already had out here. There’s oh so much to do before dad arrives.
“And then,“ he will be here.” She stopped. “I mean, of course, it will be lovely to have him.”
Mom pleads with the girl to simply venture a bit down the beach and find some twelve-year-olds playmates. The father, warns the mom, “will most definitely not like a lot of moping and heavy breathing in the offspring department” The offspring department! How hard is it to see Mom, as Janet Leigh, lift her sunglasses to deliver that line and then snap them down again. The girl, now grown to be the author, remains. She clings. She’s nothing like a prisoner, but she’s stuck.
The older teen, still vacuuming, not a slave, is also “stuck”, but not in any temporary adolescent funk. She won’t be whipped for any failure on her part, but the possibility of being sent home is a crushing prospect. She'll have her customary afternoons off but where, on a staid resort island nine hundred miles away from friends and family, would a fifteen-year-old Black girl go? At this point there is not even the question of her being “a member of the family.” So she spends “free” time in her room, the one without a nice ocean view, reading books provided by the white mom. These are the types of books forbidden to her at home; bodice rippers which she gets as soon as they’re discarded. When she’s not reading during her free time, there’s an ironing board in “her” bedroom. It was her choice to have it installed there. This job is important to her as well as to her family at home, and she is someone who will always be quite determined to do well whatever the cost.
If someone wanted to spice this up for Hollywood–or Netflix, the young white girl would be reading Silvia Plath (possible anachronisms aside), Jane Austin, or at least Pippi Longstocking. But the author focuses on the actual book of that sunny afternoon, one of the endless volumes of Nancy Drew stories. She’s finished and would like another. This is the “real” world of 1956 with two relatively isolated teenage girls. Surely, each contains, or tries to, all kinds of expected or confused tumults, urges, imaginings, and dreads. Just as surely, there are potent forces working to limit how they express any of this to others–while also constraining how they might make sense of of it in their inner selves.
In a movie version of 1956, they might sneak off together to experience the night, opening themselves to the wind and tides under a waxing moon. We’d see their naked feet, white and black, running along the strand where the damp meets barren dryness. Leaving half sets of footprints on the impressionable sand, they’d scurry over wads of seaweed, they’d leap over tiny crustaceans, they’d see a lighthouse beckoning in the distance, and they’d stop to stare up at the stars. Maybe they’d venture into town, stumble into the backroom of a honkytonk and, after some gruff contretemps, befriend a coven of slow drinking, hard bitten, but gold hearted, motorcycle mamas who’d initiate them to marijuana, absinthe, Patricia Highsmith, and some form of radical cultural analysis. Alternatively (or in addition), they’d spend afternoons in a local library. An ugly incident with a racist patron would introduce them to the heroic librarian, a former flapper, mob moll, and showgirl who swore off heroin and is now a committed Marxist and retired lesbian. She, (he, or they) would initiate the girls to marijuana, absinthe, Simone de Beauvoir, and the idea of liberation. But this is not a novel with Hollywood aspirations to superficial wokeness. It's a cutting and sweeping memoir of historical and psychological reality whose title speaks volumes.
This is a searching memoir that strives to probe truths, meaning important slices of our reality, meaning “what was and what still happens”, meaning… Could we say there are always walls between us because there are always walls around us? Could we say that we are our walls? That our various senses of “self” are? But would everyone agree? Or would some simply resist the metaphor? Would everyone accept that there are always circumstances such as personality, age, gender, race, culture, class, affiliation, education, institutional roles, and experience, etc? And would they allow that any of these might render some means of communication awkward and bungling, that they could make some measures of mutual acceptance difficult or phantasmagorical, and always leave forms of understanding perilous, frustrating, and perhaps even unattainable in lifespans limited by three billion heartbeats? Does everyone agree that certain fields of distance, difference, and fear will always generate (at least) a sense of separation and thwarted expectations? And will everyone recognize that even the slightest difference always has the potential, given human nature itself, to feed feelings of superiority and/or shame?
“Wall'' is a more concrete metaphor than “field” although each can present a wide array of images. There are fields of heather wide open to the sky; battlefields of smoke, barbed wire, and gore; fields that are desolate stretches of endless scorching sands; and force fields that block, repel, or instantly incinerate. And there are walls that can be leapt over, walls craggy enough to climb, as well as those protecting desperate defenders well armed with missiles, cauldrons of boiling oil, and gallic insults. No wall can be so deep or high to prevent mining or scaling even if somehow it had no chinks or need of even a single gate. And what does it take to transverse such a field or to remove such a wall? Do we only know our answers from stories? Can we only explain our answers through fairytales? If so, the obvious “correct” answer must involve some combination of wit, courage, and love. But can even the most charming types of stories meaningfully dismiss the significance, the reality, and the challenges of certain fields of distance and separation. Can the charms of story telling build, reinforce, or penetrate those walls?
Many of the wise, and plenty of wise-guys, will explain that all good tales involve obstacles and how they are overcome. Whether it be a pit, mountain, sea, or loathsome enemy, the more daunting the challenge, the more ripping the yarn. A narrative projects depth when the heroine is not presented as pre-equipped with the requisite cleverness, wisdom, courage, or love required to prevail - or to at least survive. The struggle to discover, develop, or earn these qualities and how this travail is perceived by the listener, the reader, or the “audience” can exalt a story or quickly relegate it to oblivion.
One thing about stories might be sure. And it is that simplicity is not what makes a story effective, though the monumental effort to conceal powerful complexities and contradictions in the guise of a simplicity might be what is requisite for a story to transcend certain expanses of time and the many vast differences of separation so that it might be said to hold a meaningful place in certain realms of culture. Perhaps what is referred to here, though, are stories contrived by individuals. Stories crafted collectively by cultures themselves have enchanting ways of encapsulating complexity into simple seeming forms. Unfortunately this process of enchantment and its results can be as devastating as they are fortifying, depending on the whens and the hows and the whys… and, often especially, upon the whos involved in the telling.
The first two chapters of These Walls Between Us are entitled “White People Swimming…” and “Where We Came From…” In these, the reader quickly perceives that Wendy Sanford could, if it were her aim, “simply” write a gripping story about her personal relationship with Mary Norman but, of course, without resorting to fairytale tropes or Hollywood flights of fancy. The book's subtitle, “A Memoir of Friendship Across Race and Class” will already have alerted the reader that Wendy Sanford is committed to something more daunting. In the opening chapters she incorporates several lines of social, psychological, and cultural research as she sleuths family lines down deep into the Civil War era. The reader may feel uneasy, but it becomes clear the risks that most concern Sanford are not the possibilities of repercussions from intimate betrayals where her parents are concerned (the parent department). Nor is it that she might be accused of being preachy or dismissed as “woke”. With good reason she will not be discouraged by any prospect that the thrust of her core story will be overladen and submerged by all this learning. (She will sometimes refer to it as “the work.”) That’s because this learning, this “work” is, perhaps, the true thrust of this story of friendship. Her goal, I think, would be to remove the word “perhaps” from the previous sentence. The most treacherous obstacle, and the forces most likely to subvert her intention, are the cultural and psychological patterns (eons older than Hollywood) that threaten to encapsulate or warp any story that dredges up injustices from our histories and suggest that such cruelties endure in ways that call us to consider the possibility of change. Only a superficial fragment of these patterns might dismissively relegate Wendy Sanford’s “work” to that sometimes hysterically deplored bucket of “woke”.
No doubt Sanford would not shy away from the label “woke” any more than she denies what is problematic about the “privilege” she accepts as linked to her wealth, the color of her skin, her education, and also her well-honed ability to craft this memoir. A problem with both labels is how they might, in less caring hands, isolate her and make her stories less appealing or relevant to other readers. In her writing Sanford confronts this through hard edged honesty about her own family-of-origin circumstances which could in turn be unkindly labeled as “stereotypical” …if one’s stereotype of the “WASP Yacht Club set” involves alcoholism and domestic violence along with the capacity to secure a network of employees and associates able to safely relay a fifteen-year-old Black girl from rural Virginia to Nantucket. Sanford employs many such details and images to make her stories come alive, and this is an account of her friendship with Mary Norman, her parents’ former maid, who along with Wendy is now in her seventies.
If either label (wealthy WASP, “privileged,” or “woke”) remains a problem, it probably has more to do with our culture (perhaps our humanity?) and how our thinking warps and encapsulates stories than it does with Sanford’s writing. The goal is to contend against these warping and encapsulating tendencies. Sanford’s approach is to interweave the results of her understanding of broad abstract cultural patterns into her sharply etched narratives of fraught family dynamics and the halting, often awkward, sometimes painful, and occasionally hilarious efforts to penetrate social distance to achieve something that feels like a mutually rewarding friendship between two persons: one fighting to fend off an imposed set of sensations of superiority, the other struggling to withstand similar forces that would impose shame. Can social distance ever be immune to senses of superiority? And what is a sense of superiority when it is imposed on someone thereby deemed inferior? This is a heroic challenge for any set of stories to deal with, and one at which Sanford succeeds quite admirably.
Mary’s first burden of service to my family, however, was to climb into an unknown car and travel seven hours through unfamiliar landscape with an unknown white policeman. “It was a long ride [from Princeton] to Woods Hole with Norman,” Mary remembers. “He hardly had ten words for me, so I was just looking out the window wondering, ‘What am I doing? Will I be okay so far from home?”
A reader might first become aware of Sanford’s chosen approach in the depiction of Mary Norman’s first trip north. This was an epic nine hundred mile journey from Southwestern Virginia to Nantucket. It involved a lonely passage on a segregated train where she was denied access to the dining services, an unnerving car ride with a silent white police officer, and an equally unsettling solo ferry trip across Nantucket Sound where young Mary is the only Black face on a boatload of white working people and wealthy white vacationers with their sniggering kids on this final 3 hour, 53 mile voyage from Woods Hole. Wendy Sanford contrasts this with another near thousand mile journey the year before.
Mary Norman was born within a year of Emmett Till who in 1955 traveled from Chicago, also in a segregated train car once he entered the South. Since Emmett was accompanied by family on that leg of the journey, his trip might have been mostly pleasant. Of course in Money, Mississippi, young Emmett ran afoul of local folkways and was thereby deemed to deserve an historically gruesome torture and murder. His train ride home was in a box enjoined never to be opened. Apparently, in the days before his disfiguring end, Emmet had been expected to do some cotton picking to help out the kin who were hosting him, but even that might have been part of an adventure to be fondly remembered if... Lucky Mary, her grandmother had packed her some sandwiches for the train. And on Nantucket, when she wasn’t on duty, she stayed in her room to iron, sometimes to read romance novels, and even drink orange sodas poured over ice. “Her” room, the only place in the house where, except for eating her meals alone, she was allowed to sit.
Significantly, Sanford never reveals whether Mary Norman knew about Emmett Till in 1956 when she was still fifteen. Chances are good she did. But even if she never heard that specific story, there had already been thousands of such horror stories to hush how adults told her about herself in words–and in every other way. The chances are even slimmer twelve year old Wendy Sanford had any careful awareness of Emmet Till. The probability of this particular case coming up in any exchange between Mary and Wendy or Mary and Wendy’s parents in 1956 is very close to zero. Though they would frequently occupy the same house, there were many walls and many distances between them, some of which persist to this day.
Part of Sanders' work is to contend against any simplistic encapsulation of “woke” even as she leans into what “woke” (by her lights) signifies. These encapsulations can be far too facile in some segments of “the left” and too toxically dismissive in far too much of “the right”. It bears noting that the right wing of our political spectrum has vastly more resources and intentionality behind their efforts to frame any debate about “racial reckonings,” “wokeness” – or anything else. Also, notice how the inherent connotations of “reckoning” and “woke” make it easy for them to be turned for rightwing purposes. The first conveys a sense of threat. The second is redolent of condescension as often is the very notion of “woke”. But Sander’s work faces heavier challenges. It is a near sisyphean battle against cognitive and social/emotional gravity. Yes, once a narrative engages with abstractions like economic systems, historical patterns, and popular folkways associated with a system we might call “white supremacy racism,” it becomes easier for rightwing propaganda efforts to twist these notions against their intended purposes. (Consider the trope “white privilege” and how that plays with hardscrabble members of the white working class or the even more intransigent cadre of small business owners and professionals who were the bulk of the Jan 6 Capital Rioters. Wendy Sanders is correct to try to identify against “superiority” instead) But there is also a separate and prior challenge.
How does anyone develop the skills and habits of mind to allow their thinking to go beyond immediate circumstances and put them in the context of abstract principles like capitalism, racism, patriarchy, Christianity, etc? And, once this might begin to occur, isn’t there something much more formidable and pervasive than right wing propaganda? Could it be the sense (the reality?) that we all benefit in certain ways from such systems although, of course, some of us benefit much more than others? If so, it might be unnecessary to point out that those of us who benefit most from existing systems generally have the most power to change them, but also the most powerful incentives to continue tweaking those systems to benefit us even more.
This might even be something related to our sense of “self.” Or maybe it’s involved in what we call our sense of “shared identity” with those who seem most like us–or who seem most likely to share our interests, our values, and our investments in the walls and distances that preserve our differences from “others” with their potentially strange, disquieting, and perhaps questionable (or even fraudulent) challenges and claims.
Should we go there? Should we consider how our investment in our “sense of self” works to warp our thoughts and our culture which, to a certain extent, consists of bleakly reified notions of right and wrong? How we can so easily undermine our own and each others’ distinctions between truth and falsehood, reality and illusion, purpose and delusion? If we do, does it bring us face to face with the sometimes horrifying “through the looking glass” chaos of human consciousness as it plays out in the ways we warp our culture even as it warps us? And… some of us have more capacity to manipulate these conditions than others.
Getting back to a seemingly simpler type of story line, there are always seemingly insurmountable challenges whether the bleaker aspects of our selves are being portrayed as hostile forces, vast differences, or unscalable, impenetrable walls. Still, a heroine does not give up. Somehow she taps into (or develops) more patience, cunning, courage, and love. Somehow she defeats, or evades, demons. This, in no fairytale sense, is how and why Wendy Sanford’s stories focus on two young girls who, together and separately, grow into old age. Two women, two lives, two selves.
Whatever our selves are, no matter how they are influenced by molecules that compose our cells, chemicals in our environment, or the mix of institutions, ideas, and prejudices of our culture, those selves are real to us. They are what we, probably correctly, consider our “lives”, our life. All the rest, within and without us, may or may not be illusions. And if they are not illusory, they are abstract–often in the sense of something distant and difficult to grasp though they are always within and around us. The looking glass is always there. The terrain is mined with rabbit holes.
The closest we have to being able to measure certain capacities for abstract thinking is something called IQ. Even if some kind of “intelligence quotient” were a definitive measure of our species’ potential capacities for disciplined cognition with abstractions, it could offer only hints about the extent to which such abilities are inborn or are dependent on training and practice. Our currently ubiquitous technologies are based on advanced mathematics and various ways to encode all of that. These types of mathematics, based on calculus or statistics, may arguably be called a “restricted language”, but they unquestionably depend upon forms of writing/recording. The Chomskian inquiry into language strongly suggests that our basic linguistic capacity (so interwoven with our ability to construct, record, and understand thought) is essentially the same for all humans and has been so since homo sapiens emerged less than three hundred thousand years ago. Though we all have the same skeletal and muscular system, minute variations result in remarkable (to us) differences in strength, speed, and agility. Then, on the other hand (as Tevye would say) practice and effort often work remarkable changes even if few of us will ever contribute to quantum field theory or qualify for the Olympics. There are ways in which it may “come down to” motivation except that motivation contains its own universes of directions, distractions, and forces. Some of us might feel strongly compelled to use our cognitive/linguistic capacities in the service of self, family, or tribe. But what might seem as central to survival for those types might, for others, seem dangerously limiting. We might joke about some people’s self enforced “locality” and their resulting susceptibility to lurid conspiracy theories. Or we might snigger at others' tendencies to emulate Jeremy Hillary Boob Ph.D who described himself as "eminent physicist, polyglot classicist, prize-winning botanist, hard-biting satirist, talented pianist, good dentist too." (John Lenonn called him a "Nowhere Man.")
Even if we spend little or no time reading, writing, or watching fabricated forms of drama, we are all crafting and responding to stories. What’s clear is that even superficially simple stories can encapsulate one or many talismans replete with symbolic import for others to incorporate, distort, and pass on. And we boil ourselves in tragedy. This is what Wendy Sanford is tapping into as she weaves various story types together in her memoir of friendship across race and class. Like a physician she seeks to surgically excise and then inoculate herself and others against any lure of superiority and its devastating consequences. (What we think of as a “soul doctor'' has been encapsulated as a fussy older Germanic man peering over a female figure stretched out on a couch. Funny, how that works. Funny.)
The skeleton of Sanford’s book are narratives based on two lives. One was born into the epitome of what’s now labeled “white privilege” with fancy schools and edgy consciousness raising that became reified in work such as The Boston Women’s Health Collective which produced the infamous Our Bodies Ourselves of which Sanford was a primary author. The other was born into rural southern poverty ameliorated in part by income from domestic service in white households, a folkway and family tradition dating down deep into slave times. Since these stories stretch into 2020, we can trace how both lives struggled to emerge from their original circumstances and also the extent to which both lives remain, comfortably or not, immersed in persistent patterns. Wendy, by choice, went on to divinity school and a career as a college chaplain. Mary did domestic service probably until her retirement, though for a long period her primary (low) income was derived from a career in “Corrections'' where she distinguished herself with the same tenacity and dedication she poured into her intimate service to Wendy’s family. Both were married more than once. Both bore bore children, and each experienced ruptures to their preferred manner of fulfilling the ever fraught role of “mom”. Together they continue to challenge each other and their understandings of themselves as women, family members, citizens, and members of the human community.
This skeleton is finely wrought with telling images and well crafted set pieces. Among my favorites are one concerning Mathematics and another another involving granola. In both scenes Wendy’s dad plays a key role, and each encapsulates a range of the themes and issues that give this book value. In the classical sense of the word “comedy”, the granola incident is more that than it is tragic. It shouldn’t be dismissed as merely one passing exchange in an elaborate imbroglio in which Wendy, now a divorced mother, has invited her future spouse to her parent’s vacation home. It’s just that Wendy is not quite ready to disclose to her parents (or to Mary) that this woman, Polly, is her lover. What makes the whole thing delicious is that nobody is ever clear who really knows what and who is actually protecting who from what knowledge. And dads will wisecrack. The piece involving Mathematics is more classically tragic. The two chapters of which each piece is an integral part are, by themselves, well worth the price of the book–and the time it takes to read, absorb, challenge, and consider.
The life based narratives, what I am calling “the skeleton,” have literary merit, and literary traditionalists might sniff that they alone suffice to illustrate how race and class can wound and isolate. But Sanford might reply that the healing, the breaching, and the transversing require a bit more than just the pluck, luck, generosity, and vulnerability of fairytale heroes and romantic heroines. They require work and study because without critically understanding vaster historical patterns, everything important in these memories risks being dismissed as merely personal and contingent. Thus the skeleton is tightened together with the meaty muscles and sinews of more impersonal stories and their exegeses. Mostly, these actually heighten the drama and (occasional) comedy, making these living characters and situations even more vivid. The two chapters mentioned above are the best dramatic showcases where elements of an ongoing spiritual struggle (against superiority and exclusion) merely hover.
The Mathematics incident reveals so much about the two primary characters and the tensions they each suffered and sparked in Wendy’s family. It ‘s part of Chapter 5 (Dream Wedding) which also includes the scene that inspired the book’s main title. Again, one aim of Wendy Sanford’s work in crafting this book is to support all of our efforts to expand our outlook beyond our immediate circumstances so that we have more tools to understand certain forms of injustice without being overwhelmed with the types of guilt and fear that may now be tearing down the fabled American Experiment with limited democracy. The Marshmallow Test and the Algebra Project are two sets of stories that Wendy Sanford does not reference. But each represents an approach to what she is striving for.
As popularly understood (and, perhaps, the way it was originally conceived), the Stanford Marshmallow Test was a measure of preschoolers’ ability to defer immediate gratification in favor of future gain. (Max Weber enthusiasts and devotees to the Protestant Work Ethic take note.) After various preliminaries, the little boys and girls were left alone with a treat and told that if they could contain themselves for fifteen minutes, their reward would be doubled. This part of the process is still delightful to watch (whether or not your proclivities extend to torturing innocent youngsters). Follow-up studies with the same subjects into adolescence seemed to show a range of better outcomes for those who as children demonstrated the self control to wait. Educationally, they had higher grades with better SAT scores and college retention. They also seemed to be doing better on certain life circumstances such as lower body mass indices and other qualities as measured by questionnaires filled out by parents – including the ability to maintain friendships. Did the experimenters hit upon a measure, separate from IQ, to explain who in our society is successful–and who is not? Were they tapping into a new metric for predicting who would be more limited by their immediate circumstances and who would have more wherewithal to transcend them? But as critics and the experimenters themselves took pains to point out, one of the factors originally most difficult to measure (and therefore control for) was a child’s sense of trust in their intimate caretakers. Alternative experiments in 2013 controlled for the child’s perceived trust in adults in terms of an experimenter’s demonstrated reliability and honesty. Under this design, it was clear that self control was not what was primarily being measured. If adults were unreliable, it might not make sense to invest efforts in self control strategies when that tasty morsel was there for the taking. Even more importantly, the original Stanford experiment did not control for family circumstances. A 2018 experiment with a much larger sample size controlled for factors such as income, but also parental education level and, based on household observation, the number of books in the home, and the parent’s (meaning “mom’s”) perceived attentiveness to the child. Again, children raised in what could be measured as more secure environments were much more likely to resist immediate temptation. And, unsurprisingly, the fate of the alluring marshmallow had much less impact on future life outcomes than did indicators of security and nurturance in a toddler’s family environment.
The Marshmallow test turns out not to measure the ability to defer gratification at all. Does it even give us any clue about what might support certain types of abstract thinking or how such thinking might be put to use? It does seem merely to point to what we should already know about the importance of security (which involves more than food and shelter) in a child’s early years. And it only reminds us of how far we have to go, even when awash with excess wealth, to provide minimum standards of security for all little children so that they may grow to create a bigger life than the damaged world we bequeath to them might seem to allow. Maslow’s looming hierarchy is a treacherous ziggurat.
Readers of Wendy Sanford’s book are likely to agree that, despite important differences in their early intimate care, both Wendy and Mary as toddlers would have passed the Marshmallow Test with flying colors. Of course, we don’t meet them until they are twelve and fifteen after which we follow them through a lifetime of riveting situations with various efforts to link these to more abstract analyses of how they were impacted by enveloping cultural systems. This sounds more intimidating than it turns out to be. The third chapter, the one with the most daunting title: “Learning the Habits of Dominance” is where Wendy Sanford hits her stride, letting that title do most of the heavy lifting while outlining her germination as a writer in an exclusive girl’s prep school. (She had earlier described the one room multi-grade schoolhouse from which Mary “graduated”.) In that chapter is a near delightful description of how mother subliminally initiated daughter into a stifling sense of class superiority. Later we see how devastating this sense of superiority turns out to be–especially in her parents’ marriage. Superiority, whether moral, cognitive, or in any other dimension, is a demon Sanford continues to try to face down. Wendy Sanford’s father, though richly successful in business life, came from a background decidedly different from his bride’s. There were no trust funds or coming out parties for New York City debutants in his family background, but this may have been the least of the forces roiling the pressure cooker of his marriage to Wendy’s mother. Their daughter is not writing “creative nonfiction” in the popular sense of the term. Protected from the direct impact of any immediately traumatizing occurrence, we see only what Wendy saw, and we know what Mary witnessed only through what was disclosed to Wendy and which Wendy choses to pass on to us. And, in the hands of a skillful writer, that’s enough. We now know that trauma can have epigenetic impacts that might run down through at least three generations. But even without such empirical footings, the study of family dynamics (in clinical terms or in artful literature) does more than hint at the crushing impacts of emotional and physical violence even (or especially?) when everything is shrouded in numbing silence and clenched secrets.
These Walls Between Us ends with a list (“Resources for Restorative Reading'') with twenty-nine titles mentioned or quoted in the text. The list doesn’t seem to include tomes about intergenerational family dynamics, the impacts of trauma on different types of children, nor any books explicitly about domestic violence or alcoholism. These Walls Between Us is primarily about race and class, and how these forces warp our selves and our abilities to relate to so many other selves. For the peculiar relationship between Mary and Wendy’s mother, the two most important reference sources might be Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic's Life Characters and Between Women: Domestics and their Employers. Following this list is another ten item bibliography (“Additional Resources for Continuing The Work''). Recognizing that some of us tend to consider “work” a four letter word, Wendy concludes with “Oh what a joyful list to make!”
Wendy Sanford is surely being honest about her own joy, and sharing her lists is undoubtedly a happy choice on the part of a writer who has stretched to make a worthwhile contribution to our society’s contested efforts to support a better, richer life for ourselves and each other. Let’s not forget that the word “stretch” here refers not only to authorial skills extending themselves to create new narrative forms, but also to the writer’s metaphorical neck. A memoir like this is always a form of self exposure whether presented more like a confessional, a carefully (or not so carefully) contrived series of seeming indiscretions, or an autopsy of self, soul, and family. But a memoir always implicates the lives of others. In this case, good taste and seriousness prevail while any seeming high mindedness is always countered by well mixed doses of humor and humility. Not everybody allows themselves to care about racial injustice. How many of us struggle against our own comforting, if uninvited, senses of superiority? Too many of us deny race is even a meaningful issue. But for those who care to “work” on addressing such issues, Wendy Sanford has offered some bits of her life in the hope they will prove both informative and encouraging.
No doubt we should all try to stretch ourselves to extend her type of work as much as we can. Surely this includes direct behavioral changes on a personal and political level. It also involves building our own understandings of forces and circumstances that can work against us–or which are always at our disposal. In that spirit, and especially with regards to the mathematics incident in “Dream Wedding,” Wendy Sanford’s list could be appended with a reference to Robert P. Moses’s “Algebra Project”.
One of Bob Moses’ first projects was the “Mississippi Freedom Project” the storied voting rights drive of the early sixties. It was an organizing venture that could easily have resulted in just another brutal death by torture even if Moses didn’t have in his pocket the phone number of a White House lawyer which more than once helped inspire southern jailers to open themselves to the better angels of their nature. After a sojourn in Africa that lasted most of the seventies, Moses returned to Boston to secure a better education for his daughters. What he found, even in Boston, inspired him to organize “The Algebra Project,” an ongoing effort to create a culture of change and to create change in a culture that still tolerates too much oppression and exclusion. This approach to culture building and cultural analyses is outlined in Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project which Moses wrote with Charles E. Cobb Jr.
Moses' analysis of the American educational system indicated to him that “Algebra” was key to determining which students would go on to higher education and have a chance to somehow complete it. By “Algebra” Moses is referring to something like “passing those courses” or achieving a “floor” mastery of certain skills so that freshmen are not sucked into the rabbit holes of remedial courses that draw down their financial aid without yielding any college credit. But moreso, Moses is deliberately pointing at the types of abstract thinking that can take in how the cotton gin once made slavery pay and how the automatic cotton picker later made it worthwhile for white southern elites to “export” their Black workforce to the North. Of course when it comes to higher education, the word “key” here is only a metaphor and a potentially misleading one. As one who earned a Harvard Masters degree in Philosophy, Moses surely rubbed elbows with whites with diplomas and decent jobs who actually boast about their perceived “Math Illiteracy”. He was also a Black man who knew that members of US minority groups and even poor whites who struggle through college to secure a degree face a much rougher future than well connected whites who can charm (or pay) others to write their papers and skate by on a series of the most dismal form of the “Gentleman’s C.” Moses would also have been acquainted with many college graduates whose capacity for nonnumeric abstract thinking might be as easy to detect as an HIV retrovirus grimly controlled with our most advanced medications of suppression.
Moses (who died in 2021) was a remarkably advanced systems thinker who would outclass most of us in that dimension. He clearly recognized that algebra grades and any imaginable educational credential (whether a passing score on a GED or an MFA) are only symbols themselves. They don’t always mean what we might hope them to mean whether we are evaluating them for their social/economic import or for their potential benefits to ourselves as individuals. And Moses saw how grappling with Algebra is a strategic way to link the interests of parents, teens, and educators while forging communities to build better futures on both the macro and micro scales. Though eminently readable, Radical Equations, the book, is abstract in the sense that there is precious little Mathematics or Mathematics curriculum content. And that’s the point, but not simply because of the challenges of working mathematics into a narrative:
Across the page the symbols moved in grave morrice, in the mummery of their letters, wearing quaint caps of squares and cubes. Give hands, traverse, bow to partner: so: imps of fancy of the Moors. Gone too from the world.
Joyce had an easier time when he didn’t have Buck Mulligan prove by algebra that Shakespeare was his own illegitimate step granddaughter or when Joseph Heller didn’t explain how Milo Mindinburger could buy eggs for six cents apiece in Egypt, sell them for five cents each in Malta and still make an eighteen cent profit on every dozen. (And everyone gets a share!). Still… we have to stretch ourselves.
Bob Moses and Wendy Sanford are working toward the same goal using similar narrative techniques though in somewhat different realms as affected by their circumstances and genders. Weaving analyses of social patterns into personal narratives is not yet a traditional way of telling stories, but it may help us work our way into the types of understandings that might make a difference when it comes to harms caused by powerful forces like white supremacy racism–and then even far beyond so that we might struggle more effectively against the temptations of “superiority” themselves. Stories with their tensions and resolutions may (or may not?) have arcs. Still, even if life has no arc, racism, climate change, and gender (in the ways it is used to disadvantage some of us) create tensions that we are compelled to try to resolve one way or another. We are so compelled even if satisfactory resolutions may forever elude us.
Starting with Our Bodies Ourselves, Wendy Sanford has long been working in this direction. Her newest book offers us some telling vignettes from her particular life that show how she is trying to stretch herself beyond its confines. Her stretch is, in part, a cognitive one, but one engaged in stories. The human mind is an abstraction engaged in a clashing universe of forces we only dimly conceive (if at all), and none of us can ignore the ways ours ache to stretch and expand. Not all of us will frequently choose to focus our powers of abstraction in a disciplined way to either manipulate equations or to craft and record stories, but we all must live “in a world” created, in part, by stories and governed, to some degree, by algorithms. This is true whether or not we’re aware of it or even try (or not) to understand how all this might work. I’ll almost give the last words about stories (and faith) to Simcha Fisher, another New England writer unafraid to confront the idea (at least) of harsh injustice even if it should prove to be “unending”.
Could our worst fear be that human injustice is unending? That nothing we can do can matter? Or do we fear that cruelty, injustice, and exclusion comes from us, from our being separate selves? And what if that fear is a good one to have?
The mob that desecrated the US Capitol on January 8, 2021 was enacting a horrendous collective fairytale full of violence and demons. That clash of shamans and soccer moms still imagine themselves to be heroic and virtuous. A clutch of those Proud Boys and Post Office workers have done enough “research” to convince themselves that they are the defenders of the US Constitution. A controlling interest of those militiamen and machine shop owners sincerely see themselves as wounded warriors bracing for the next “storm.” The bulk of those klansmen and drunk uncles may have found new purpose and meaning in their kulturkampf. A lurch of those warrior priests and CEOs raise their eyes toward a smoldering vision of future glory that will be theirs if only they can winter out the bleak Valley Forge of the current administration. I may want to see them all as a clabber of orcs and idiots and baby men, but they are just as tempted to dehumanize or infantilize me. I may be comforted to see them as the creations of Trump, his lackeys, enablers, and corporate funders until I remember that Trump and his GOP ilk are equally the creations of that peculiar mob and the millions of ordinary Americans who see them as justified. The better angels of their natures feel only pity for me, lost as I am in my own fairytales and mythologies. And now they have made it possible for us all to imagine some future United States of America, battered by climate change and worse, where the names of those rioters are revered by well scrubbed children sitting in straight rows and raising their voices in song.
All I "know" is that whatever makes any of us find such a future repugnant is what might be worth cherishing and protecting. But, thanks to Wendy Sanford, I am more aware that whatever might do this for us, it can never make any of us superior to any of the rest of us. Certain stories may help us hold onto and build upon this understanding. To me those are good stories. But whatever those "good" stories are or appear to be, I also know they can never be simple.