The Professor and Other Writings by Terry Castle

The essays in The Professor and Other Writings are an engaging series of writings that, by Castle’s own admission, are a departure from decades of academic writing done at Stanford, where she is Walter A. Hass Professor in the Humanities. The essays, which appeared in The London Review of Books and The Atlantic, are more personal, accessible, and entertaining than the majority of academic writing. Whether writing about her arcane obsession with British World War One paraphernalia or her strained relationship with Susan Sontag, Castle has achieved the ability to laugh at her foibles without giving her admirable intellect short shrift.

Personal essays, when done well, take enormous risks, and Castle leads the way, writing scathingly of her family, particularly her mother, who is still alive, albeit unlikely to read her daughter’s work. Castle emerged from one of those broken, impoverished households where finishing college was feat; becoming an academic, unthinkably strange. Her stepbrother, after a brief, horrifically violent life, blew his brains out in his elder sister Lee’s living room. Lee felt no need to move. That their half-sister, Castle, was not interested in marriage or children simply sealed the deal: she was an oddity, now barely speaking to her father, tolerating her mother, and avoiding her stepfamily entirely.

The first essay, “Courage, Mon Amie”, is relatively benign, if you consider an fascination with World War One benign. Castle’s interest is sparked by her great Uncle, Lewis Newton Braddock, who served for three years before dying of a gunshot wound. After copious amounts of research, backed by much purchasing of rare books, postcards, and memorabilia, Castle and her cousin, the intrepid Bridget, travel through France and Belgium. The trip is a decidedly gruesome one, with its endless stops and museums, memorials, and even Uncle Lewis’ grave. By its conclusion, the author realizes what she is confronting is her own terror of death, recently compounded by what Joan Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking, writes:

…the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event…confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell…

The misleadingly titled “My Heroin Christmas” is not Castle’s personal Trainspotting experience, but a holiday debauch of Art Pepper, the junk-addicted alto sax genius, whom Castle notes is an absolutely gorgeous male specimen.

Nervous at the idea of spending the holidays in San Diego with her aging mother, Castle invites her ex-girlfriend Bev along. Bev, bless her soul, is willing, but there’s a problem: her car doesn’t have a CD player. (I-Pods were still a Steve Jobean idea back then). Undeterred, Castle schleps her full-sized boom box into the car, along with more CDs than most mortals possess, only to find it refuses to function.

She nearly goes mad, until she reaches San Diego, where she escapes her mother’s infatuation with fashioning odd Fimo necklaces by “mainlining” Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section and reading his autobiography, Straight Life. To hear Castle describe it, Pepper makes Kurt Cobain look sane, but Pepper did manage to clean up some, and have a longer career. Castle eagerly digs up all the surrounding critical analyses of Pepper’s work and life, seeks out “the core emotional truth in the writing…” and goes on to say:” …it relates to something I’ve come to believe more and more about both writing and music making: that in order to succeed at either you have to stop trying to disguise who you are.”

The most widely written about essay from this book is “Desperately Seeking Susan”, a chronicle of Castle’s relationship with Susan Sontag, that most difficult of women. The “friendship” was really more of a competitive sport on Sontag’s part, an endless quiz on the most obscure cultural events, books, and musical productions; Castle, no dummy in the high culture department herself, is often left feeling stupid, an intellectual failure.

Nonetheless, Sontag’s charisma, her much vaunted allure, is too enticing for Castle to dismiss her, even after Sontag takes Castle to a dinner given by artist Marina Abramovic. Other guests include Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, but the small gathering refuses to acknowledge Castle’s presence, much less deign to speak with her: she simply isn’t famous enough. After an excruciating meal, Castle flees, leaving Sontag, who appears to have forgotten her entirely.

In “Home Alone”, Castle expertly teases out the lure of shelter magazines. These magazines, if you haven’t fallen addicted to them yourself, are home decor’s equivalent of fashion glossies.Ranging from the homey, cheap Wal Mart fixes in Ladies Home Journal to the snooty Architectural Digest, these magazines are a home decorator’s wet dream. Castle adored them. She read Metropolitan Home and Elle Decor and even Maison Française. Citing the literature, she suggests home decor magazine junkies are indulging less in desire than a small moment of security.

How could life possibly be bad in such an exquisite setting? Never mind the careful styling or the near-permanent absence of humans in the photos. No clutter here, no spattered spaghetti plates, no evidence of shedding cats or marital discord. Just serenity. But as 9/11 hits, then Katrina, Castle grows disenchanted, for the magazines barely utter a word of these horrors. Castle includes a withering quotation from the now-folded House and Garden, advising that in these terrorist times, fresh flowers could not be more essential.

“Travels with my Mother”, are just that, a trip to Taos made tolerable by Castle’s partner, Blakey. It is Blakey who manages not to get frustrated by Castle’s elderly mother, her wheelchair, near blindness, and deliberately narrowed mind. Castle, for her part, arrives at the shocking realization many of us face in middle-age: that our efforts not to become our mothers have failed. In Castle’s case, it is a shared addiction to collaging materials, including a memorable trip to a stamp store, where both women eagerly buy dozens of tiny craft tools. In fairness to Castle, she is a talented visual artist working in multiple media; the book’s cover features her artwork. More can be seen here her blog, Terry Castle.

The final essay, The Professor, delves deeply into Castle’s first serious romantic relationship—with her one of her college professors. Bear in mind this was the ’70s, before the advent of strict rules regarding student/professor liaisons (which, I assure you, are broken regularly at my place of employment). The professor in question, who might be identified by somebody more knowledgeable than I, had a brief, bright career as a folksinger before becoming a professor of Linguistics. From her perch in a large Midwestern university, she preyed on inexperienced young women, many of them struggling to come to terms with socially unacceptable longings.

Castle was one of these women, then a girl, who had by then been with a few other girls, albeit timorously. When the much older woman began courting her, telephoning her daily, lending her a guitar, Castle, predictably, fell in love.

What Castle was unprepared for, and too young to cope with, was the Professor’s malice. This was a woman who played with her students like toys, openly sleeping with other young women, often verbally berating a bewildered Castle for her whining immaturity, finally throwing her over for a pretty blonde. The pretty blonde fared little better: after living with the professor for some years, she moved on. The professor felt money was owed her, hired a detective to locate the woman, then successfully — gleefully — bankrupted her.

It took Castle years to recover from this toxic relationship, and even now, happily married to Professor Blakey Vermeule, she still feels the woman’s impact. Ironically, she writes:

She was the Trojan Horse. She altered everything. One doesn’t want to discount other factors, but… the relationship and its aftermath no doubt helped make me the figure of charity, selflessness, and erudite fun that I am today… And at this late stage it seems bootless to dream up counterfactuals or speculate on how things might have gone otherwise.

Indeed, by Flannery O’Connor’s lights you have a lifetime of writing material if you live past age 16. Perhaps you have two lifetimes of material if you survive such a relationship.Many of us have comparable Trojan Horses, who got behind our defenses only to decimate us. The difference is, few of us can write so compellingly about them.

RATING 8 / 10