Portraits Of The Feminist As A Young Woman
Wed, 11/13/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Writers Phyllis Chesler, left, and Nancy Miller, have written memoirs about the growth of self-knowledge.
Writers Phyllis Chesler, left, and Nancy Miller, have written memoirs about the growth of self-knowledge.

What can be said about the relationship between who we are now and the more impulsive young people we once were? Can the passion and pathos of youth offer insight into our more seasoned selves?

Two prominent feminists now in their 70s, the psychotherapist Phyllis Chesler and Nancy K. Miller, CUNY professor emeritus of comparative literature, have written memoirs that chart the authors’ awakening from innocence to a degree of self-knowledge. Each book is a portrait of the feminist on the cusp of adulthood in a pre-feminist time, complete with contradictory yearnings, costly mistakes and intimations of things to come.

Chesler’s “An American Bride in Kabul” (Palgrave) and Miller’s “Breathless” (Seal Press) both revisit formative breakaway adventures. Miller’s unfolds in Paris, starring herself as a naïve romantic who does largely unstartling things like write letters home, experiment with serial affairs and discover a new culture. Chesler’s book tells a far more singular story: It is set in Kabul when, as the young wife of a Muslim Afghan, she follows her husband to his exotic homeland only to find herself imprisoned behind high walls and condemned to the eventless life of his family’s luxurious harem. Both books recreate the mindset of the early ’60s, some years before the civil rights and second wave feminist movements challenged widespread assumptions.

Chesler and Miller were students in elite colleges and nominally free to invent their own lives. But neither saw a path to fulfillment in a sterile and conformist America. “I went to Paris because I was enamored of the sexy nouvelle vague movies which, like the eighteenth-century novels I had read in college, offered entry into the scenarios of freedom barred to me as long as I lived at home. I wanted to be sophisticated and daring, nothing like my nice-Jewish-girl self and her nice Jewish parents from whom I longed to escape,” Miller wrties.

Both writers now see themselves as having been victims of an incomplete rupture with the lives they left behind. In Paris, Miller promptly has an affair with one of her parents’ married friends in order to repair the older adults’ temporarily severed connection. Chesler made a far more radical break with her Brooklyn Orthodox upbringing by marrying Abdul Kareem,  a foreign student whom she describes as “a genteel, dapper, soft-spoken fellow who thought he would be able to Westernize his country.” Her impetuosity was, however, the inevitable product of her conventional thinking. “Abdul Kareem is the first man with whom I sleep ... I am a good Jewish woman and as such am not supposed to sleep with a man before marriage. But now that I have broken this rule, I must marry.”

Chesler and Miller rely on the contents of diaries and aerograms as sources for their accounts; in fact, the rediscovery of her decades-old aerograms inspired Miller to write this book. But we know that the weekly aerogram was as carefully edited as its creases were folded and smoothed. Selective memory is filtered through present day recall, leaving us all on shaky ground. Chesler thanks her diary — “Had I not written some things down, I never would have remembered.” But contradictions even she cannot reconcile abound. In her diary she writes of her husband, “He has begun to hit me.” But in the present tense she admits, “I have no memory of Abdul Kareem’s hitting me,” causing the reader to wonder what really did happen in this long-ago time.

Both young women learn lessons about gender relations and the always-elusive love they seek through their vulnerable bodies: Miller finds sex with her string of French lovers to be impersonal; frequently she imagines herself pregnant or ill. Chesler, unable to digest the ghee-based Afghan cuisine, ends up emaciated, pregnant against her will and dangerously sick with hepatitis when she finally escapes and finds her way home.

Why revisit these unsettled, formative days so many decades later? Miller writes, “I’ve been haunted by the girl in this book for most of my life.” While her pioneering career as a feminist critic of French literature was no doubt inspired by this immersion, we wonder if this narrative of unsatisfying love affairs and a disappointing marriage is the consequence of a disciplined academic succumbing to the pitfalls of reminiscence for its own sake.

Chesler’s process and intention is very different. She has in fact told the story of her early marriage before, in magazine articles and as chapters in larger books. She retells the story now in order to justify her controversial divergence from mainstream feminism. Speaking from her Manhattan apartment, she explains, “In the name of anti-imperialism and anti-racism, politically correct feminism does not go far enough in holding the Muslim world accountable for its misogyny.” Even in the early days of the feminist movement, Chesler’s stint as a captive wife in Afghanistan gave her a unique perspective on gradient shades of “gender apartheid.”

Her current bedrock concern is the anti-Israel stance that underscores politically correct, academic feminism. While herself a long-time supporter of the Women of the Wall (and one of the few founding members who rejects the current compromise), “at a time when Israel is existentially endangered,” Chesler prefers to keep Israel’s imperfect record on women’s rights an internal matter. She explains, “Is gender equality in Israel good enough for my needs? No, it is not. But compared to Saudi Arabia we are not all that bad.”

Only the first part of Chesler’s book describes her long-ago imprisonment in the harem of her husband’s wealthy family. The second part of the book broadens into an essay on the Muslim world; it is embellished by the accounts of a wide range of travelers going back centuries. She returns to her main theme, the troubled history of Afghanistan, and weaves in a history of Afghanistan’s all but vanished Jews. Her account condenses years of research, interrelating a wide range of sources. She concludes that Afghanistan is “a medieval, illiterate, impoverished, agricultural, tribal and highly religious country, one that had now been bombed back many centuries by the Soviets and further colonized, bribed and terrorized by the most fanatic Islamists.”

In part two, Chesler recounts the Kafkaesque complications of not only her extrication from this marriage, but even of her right to remain in America. Her American passport was immediately confiscated in Kabul; she returned to America with an Afghan passport with only a six-month visa. (When she appealed for help at the American Embassy in Kabul they told her they had no jurisdiction over the wife of an Afghan citizen). Once home, she never expected the American government to question her subsequent right to remain here. Chesler offers her own ensuing legal struggle as a cautionary tale for other foreign wives in Muslim lands.

The details of her marriage’s annulment were only recently revealed: Abdul Kareem protests the proceedings, “In this part of the world we are more civilized ... we do not have to fabricate lies.” Chesler later discovers that her lawyer was pursuing annulment on the grounds that her husband had falsely promised to convert to Judaism. Says she, “I did not know it then, but I know it now: Apostasy is a capital crime in Islam.” The lie that annulled her marriage endangered her ex-husband’s life under Sharia law.

Chesler reveals her darkest secret, one for which she seeks atonement. When intimidated by her mother-in-law, she converted to Islam. She admits, “I was this foolish, this frightened, this alone that I would actually jettison the religion of my ancestors.” What’s more, Chesler recently discovered that when her former father-in-law became a co-founder of the Afghan National Bank, he benefited from a maneuver that closed the world of high finance to Afghanistan’s Jews. “I am not saying that Abdul Kareem’s family stole their wealth from the Jews... What was stolen was the Jewish and Hindu ability to take their considerable banking skills to the next level.” Chesler not only converted, she married into a family with questionable karma. Her deeply held positions of today redress some of the follies of her youth. She writes, “Perhaps this chapter is a form of atonement ... written by a Jew who lived among Muslims in captivity but also in splendor. It is for having coveted that splendor that I must atone.”

Absolution for the past remains an abstract notion. But the dialogue between younger and older selves is rich in potential blessings. These two pioneers may yet again have started a trend.

Susan Reimer-Torn is author of the upcoming memoir “Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return” (2014).