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REVIEW of Lifesaving: a Memoir

By Marge Piercy
Published online

Lifesaving focuses on Judith Barrington’s loss of both her parents when the cruise ship they had embarked on during Christmas vacation went down and they both drowned in the Atlantic. She was nineteen and unable to cope with their deaths, particular that of her mother.

The narrative starts with a misadventure in her father’s boat when Judith was twelve. Her mother hated the ocean, feared it and was convinced she would die at sea—as she did seven years later. Her father took part in a yacht race from Shoreham to Littlehampton, in England, as he had many times. But this time he insisted his wife come along. They got lost in a fogbank and ended up on a sandbar. They could hear the large boats and tankers passing in the shipping lanes of the Channel and feared they would be run over. It turned out that they were only a few feet from land, as they could tell when the fog finally lifted, but the experience was a fearful one. It epitomized to Judith her father’s ineptitude and his insistence on doing things his way. In her adolescence, Judith was seriously at odds with her father. Judith Barrington is not a sentimental writer, but extremely honest about her emotions at that time and in the present, when she reviews that part of her life. She did not particularly like her father. She adored her mother and longed for more of her. This adventure at sea did not have serious consequences, becoming a family tale, but when Judith was nineteen, her parents drowned.

She was young, confused about her own identify and her sexuality. She did not know how to mourn her parents and took refuge in a numbness that lasted for years. At the same time, she was haunted by their death, imagining and reimagining their last hour, how it had happened that they were among the 150 people who did not make it into a life boat, how exactly they had spent that time on the burning and sinking ship before they climbed down the ladder into the December sea.

This is a very honest memoir about a difficult time in a young woman’s life. She had spent holidays in Spain with her parents through her late childhood and adolescence. This was a time when her mother blossomed, surrounded by women friends and in the sun she adored. Her father took home movies, two of which she salvages years later and watches in an unsuccessful attempt to make her parents in their marriage real to her middle-aged self. Her mother was liberated in Spain into a more adventurous, more social and outgoing persona.

After the death of her parents and a love affair with a woman, about which she is at once obsessed, ambivalent and secretive, Judith flees to the place in Spain where her mother had been happiest and their family life had been sweet and playful and rich. She takes a job as a tourist guide at a winery in a castle. Judith contrasts the reserve of her milieu in England—her brother and sister who cannot talk about the death of their parents, cannot reach out to her—with the emotionality of the Spanish, but she cannot access that warmth in any useful way, since she cannot mourn. She is encased in a lack of emotion that is at once protective and dangerous. To prove to others and herself that she is not a lesbian, she has numerous casual affairs with men—but does not let them enter her and does not herself reach orgasm. It is all without meaning, a kind of compulsive charade the young woman puts herself through night after night. Her real attractions are to women, but she is unable to face that yet or to integrate her real sexuality into her life.

The picture she draws of the small town in Catalan is vivid, sensuous, not just the scenery magnificently created but the daily life of the town, the people she meets. If she cannot connect with the men she has fumbling sex with in the dark, she does perceive quite clearly and remarkably the friends—although never intimate—and acquaintances of the town. In spite of her promiscuity, she is accepted—partly because she is blond and English, partly because she does not act guilty, but simply matter of fact. She is in a category of her own.

There are many compelling, beautifully written set pieces in the book: the yacht race with which it begins; the attempt of a fellow worker at the winery to get her engaged to her son; the death of a horse when she was a child; the heat, the beach, the mountains; the visit after two decades to her parent’s grave on Gibraltar with her lover, Ruth; the interview while back in London temporarily with a nun whom an older male friend had asked her to see, his supposedly long lost love; the coming of rain after the long dry summer.

When it did rain, a few heavy drops fell slowly from the sky, several feet apart, as if to tantalize the rain lovers with a sample of what was stored up in the thick clouds. More often than not those clouds moved on without unloading the deluge that bulged in their bellies. The ration of drops allocated to us just went on hitting the ground with a series of thuds, leaving their individual prints in the dust until everything, as far as you could see, was pockmarked. Then it would stop.

The writing is spare, precise, poetic when it needs to be. This is the recollection of wild youth from the perspective of a wiser and more integrated mature self, but she does not interfere with our perceptions of her at nineteen and twenty. She gives us her adventures, the chances she took, the luck that carried her through danger, the very real love she felt for the landscape that she could not at that point feel for any person—not without shame and secrecy.

It is a memoir of loss that is finally acknowledged in the last section through an analysis of her own earlier fantasies of rescue. I cannot help but empathize with her desire to “rescue” her mother—rescue her from her husband’s domination and also to rescue her from the ocean. As a girl, Judith had taken a compulsory life-saving class. For years, the fantasy of being on board with her parents—since she had been invited to go with them and had considered it seriously—and then saving both of them or at least her mother was an ongoing obsession. Finally, seeing a film of an actual shipwreck, she was forced to realize she did not and would not have had the power to save her mother in mid-Atlantic. Letting go of that long guilt was another step into the understanding and acceptance of her great loss. Finally visiting her parents’ grave on Gibraltar with her lover, she is able at last to cry and to begin to let go. I found Lifesaving a fine and moving book, even while she never attempts to depict herself as victim and never attempts to manipulate us into pity.

Marge Piercy
Marge Piercy is the author of seventeen novels including The New York Times Bestseller Gone To Soldiers; the National Bestsellers Braided Lives and The Longings of Women and the classic Woman on the Edge of Time; seventeen volumes of poetry, and a critically acclaimed memoir Sleeping with Cats.


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