Reviewed by Nicole DePolo
Mailer is a wonderful writer. Susan Mailer, that is. In her first memoir, In Another Place, Susan shines brightly as she presents vignettes of her own formative moments alongside valuable glimpses into the life and times of her father Norman—one of the most prominent literary lions and public intellectuals of the latter half of the twentieth century. That is not to say that the figure of Susan’s father dominates the entire memoir, for she shares her own life in crisp, vibrant prose that captures the essence of moments that are both remarkable and universally resonant.
Norman had a theory that in order to fuel his creative work, it was important for him not to produce an autobiography. As he explained to George Plimpton in a 1998 interview for the Paris Review, he would save his “crucial experiences,” those he referred to as “crystalline,” and “employ them for years as a crystal, if you will, through which you can beam the light of your imagination in different directions.” Now, Susan shares the crystalline moments of her own life through her “Diamond Eyes” (her father’s nickname for her), with sharp insights honed by her career as a psychoanalyst. The result is not an overbearing analysis, but a vibrant account that allows the reader to imagine and occupy the crucial moments of her lifetime thus far.
As far as Norman’s career goes, Susan provides a valuable service to the literary world by taming the lion, which is to say that she humanizes his most notorious or contentious moments. She also provides insight into the challenging personality traits and esoteric philosophies that shaped her father’s creative output, and that can pose considerable obstacles for contemporary readers. In its time, Norman’s writing was lauded enough to garner two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award. Now, in the twenty-first century, with hindsight colored by the #MeToo movement, there is a significant backlash against the machismo, and at times the violence, that engendered his creative work, his public life, and his private life. In Susan’s memoir, however, we see the fatherly side of Mailer, the “sage counselor” of “one-on-one talks” who nurtured his daughter’s abilities to ski, write, translate, publish, and carry the mantle of her extensive family of nine siblings, five stepmothers, and her own Chilean activist husband and their children.
On one hand, Susan renders a sympathetic picture of what it meant to often have her life overshadowed by the sheer volume of her father’s creative output and his behemoth public stature. On the other hand, she provides candid views into the historical moments and movers-and-shakers that she encountered not just because of her father’s connections, but because of her own mercurial ability to bump into revolutionaries and luminaries that fueled the formative social and political events that erupted while Susan’s life was evolving. As readers, we are introduced to remarkable people from her father’s stratosphere including Ted Kennedy, Woody Allen, and Brendan Behan, to name a few. Through her own undergraduate days at Barnard, we encounter the student revolution at Columbia University and its leaders, including anti-war icon Mark Rudd and one of Susan’s early romantic interests, John Jacobs (aka J.J.), the most radical founder of the leftist militant organization the Weather Underground.
And then there is Susan’s freshman English teacher, Kate Millett, who provided what Susan “so badly needed back then: one-on-one attention.” Only later did Susan discover that, at the time, Millett was working away on Sexual Politics, a book that would become fundamental to the Women’s Liberation movement—and that named Norman Mailer, along with D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, as an arch-enemy of feminism. Norman and Millett’s ensuing public dialogue would result in the imbroglio that would become known as “Town Bloody Hall.” In 1971, Norman was asked to moderate a panel of prominent feminist authors: Germaine Greer, Jaqueline Caballos, Jill Johnston, and Diana Trilling. While Trilling offered a considered opinion of Mailer’s works, the event turned into a battle between Norman and the majority of the panel members, as well as the notable feminists who packed the audience. For Susan, who attended the event, it was traumatic to see her father as the target of a vehement skirmish, but the core of the difficulty, as she describes it, echoes the conundrum that must be faced by her father’s readers: the fact that “there was no protective shield between the public and private personas of Norman Mailer.”
At the end of his life in 2007, Norman took Susan aside and told her, “This family, our family, is a fine tapestry. I want you to make sure it doesn’t unravel.” Susan has taken this role one step further now with her memoir, and has reknit the most problematic disparities in her father’s work with the bright and beautiful moments that are reflected in her account of her own remarkable private and public life. In so doing, she showcases the profound observations, both beautiful and grave, that her father’s work, and now her own work, exemplifies.