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Gail Caldwell Explores Feminism, Friendship And Lessons She's Learned From Her 5-Year-Old Neighbor

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Gail Caldwell (Photo by Akos Szilvasi)
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Gail Caldwell (Photo by Akos Szilvasi)

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Gail Caldwell has been telling her own story for years now. 

In “A Strong West Wind,” the former book critic for The Boston Globe first wrote about her childhood in the 1950s Texas Panhandle. “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” was about her deep friendship with fellow author Caroline Knapp — their shared sobriety, love of rowing, dogs and their guys — until cancer took her far too young. 

Now in her new memoir,“Bright Precious Thing,”readers meet 17-year-old Caldwell in 1968 feeling like she’s been shot out of a cannon, only to be caught and cradled by the women’s rights movement.

Caldwell first started writing about this time in her life a few years ago in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when a neighborhood girl named Tyler walked into her life. The 5-year-old already had the hard-won assurance that Caldwell spent decades looking for in herself. 

“I saw this amazing child who said things to me that it took me half my life to be able to embrace,” Caldwell says. “And I was so blown away that here was our victory.”

She recalls a conversation with Tyler during the Summer Olympics when the young girl declared that she could swim faster than gold medalist Katie Ledecky. 

“My eyes just teared up,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, it took me years of therapy to even begin to think I could do such a thing.’ And now we’ve created these generations of girls who think they can.”

Interview Highlights

On why and how she found the women’s movement as a teenager 

“I think because I grew up in the Panhandle or because I was in blue jeans instead of villager pants. I was smoking cigarettes behind in the school parking lot. You know, I was like smart girl, bad girl, and that was the kind of the only revolution there was in the Texas Panhandle. It was the James Dean, date the guy who’s too old, drives a heap of a car and you have to like sneak around the block to meet him. That made me primed for a revolution.

“[It was] the danger of freedom. I mean, it’s just amazing to me when I look back. I have a friend who’s watching her daughters at the protests right now. And I said, ‘Oh, my God, I’m too old to be out there. I’d be like the guy who falls, you know?’ But I was fearless. I remember being fearless and angry and passionate and I thought nothing could stop us.

“I think I was a young anti-war protester. The sexism within the anti-war movement, I remember a guy, a very well-meaning Vietnam vet, who I became good friends with, said to me, ‘What’s a chick like you doing at a place like this?’ And so there was already a kind of demeaning, you know, ‘Make the coffee, but you can’t really do much here because you have no idea what this is about.’ 

“And then I remember coming across, I stumbled across a bunch of loud women talking at an outside rally, and I kind of stopped on the fringes to listen. And I loved the gutsiness of this woman, and I was like, ah. And I remember looking over my shoulder like, ‘Ooh are their boyfriends around?’ You know, like that first fear of like, can we do this? Will we get caught? And that was this very shy, careful turning point for me. The beginning of something. You know, it took somewhere profound, and then a lot of my life started to steer in that direction. And that would have been around 1970, ’71, which is really when the women’s movement started. And so it was on the heels of civil rights and Vietnam, and I jumped on that wagon. And I don’t look back and think, ‘Well, the next 50 years of my life were about activism.’ They weren’t.”

On leading a non-traditional life and talking about that with Tyler 

“She was right out of central casting. I can tell you and I think the one that really slayed me was when I was washing dishes one day and she must have been five. And we had never talked about the fact that I lived alone or was there anybody special in my life. I was washing dishes and she was lying on the floor with the dog and she said, ‘So did you vow never to marry?’ I tried not to burst out laughing because who says that? It’s like ‘Jane Eyre,’ you know? I don’t know where she even got the word. I remember saying to her, ‘I’ve loved a lot of people and I’ve spread my love around.’ And she absolutely took it as the way the world worked.”

On creating a family under her own direction 

“Sometimes on dark winter nights when I think, ‘Oh God, why didn’t I just do it the other way where I’m surrounded by, you know, kids and husbands or wives and partners and all kinds of relationships, so I wouldn’t have to face that sort of lonely sound?’ Though there is, I will say, always a dog in my house, at least one. I think it’s a hard way to go, and I also think it was the way that was set for me for a long time. You make room for those concentric circles of intimacy, and I think even with Tyler, my front door was open to her in every sense of the word. I was this writer who lived alone and people sort of knew don’t bother me between this hour and that. Tyler had no rules, and it was like she would open the front door and go, ‘I’m back!’ And she knew that I made room for that girl in my heart from day one.”

On if she felt the need to warn Tyler of the dangers she encountered in her life

“Not so much. And the reason is what I said at the beginning. She moves with an alacrity that I never had at that age. … Now, I did warn her and I’d say, ‘Honey, if you ever, ever decide that you’re going to try drugs or alcohol or you get in a situation that’s dangerous, you have to promise’ — cause, you know, I know kids aren’t going to call their moms — I said, ‘Call me. Just you promise that you will talk to me.’ And she said, ‘Gail, I’m not going to do any of that.’ And then looked at me like I was a real idiot and said, ‘I’m already awesome.’ And I thought, ‘My work here is done,’ or somebody’s work here is done. I don’t know. I look back and I think the conversation that I got from my very Presbyterian, be careful, the whole code of honor, it didn’t protect me sadly at all. Sometimes I put myself in danger, but sometimes all the good intentions and honor in the world is not going to keep you from a bad guy.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

Book Excerpt: ‘Bright Precious Thing’

By Gail Caldwell

Cambridge, 2015

My Samoyed is looking out the glass storm door to the street when I see her ears go back with pleasure. Tyler walks in and crouches down to nuzzle the dog, who outweighs her by about fifteen pounds, and then announces herself with the usual certainty, as though she’s on a tight schedule and has been gone only a few minutes. “We had early release,” she tells me, “so I was able to get here on time.” Tyler is five, and lives two doors away, and passes my house on her way to the neighborhood park. She has the countenance of a small superhero. When she was three she became enamored with Tula, a fluffy white creature who shares her affection, and now we are an essential stop on the trail of Tyler’s day. I make it a point to stock up on the dark chocolate wafers she likes. When she leaves town for a week on family vacation, my house feels as quiet as a cinder block. Then the door flies open one morning and I hear her shout: “I’m back!”

Today we’re lying on the back porch and planning what to do if we are marooned on a desert island—what we will choose to take. We can each have three items. Tyler decides that she will take a rope, a boat (which is broken, or why would she be there?), and a knife. For food she will take two Popsicles, an ice cream bar, and Jell-O.

Ignoring the fact that she has doubled her allotment, I suggest that she toss in a roast chicken and some milk. She agrees, knowing the milk, as she tells me, will make her strong until her mother arrives. Her rope will be blue, will be 250,000-plus-infinity miles long. That way, if her mother is late, the rope can be thrown wide, and reach land on the other side of the ocean.

I marvel that she has any idea what infinity is, though this is a mutual learning society: She reminds me of the innocence of forward motion, and I try to give her a palette for all that hope. I tell her a story about a surfer girl, lost at sea, who was hungry and alone. Then she remembered her mother’s teaching her the constellations as a means of navigation. If she held up her fingers to the sky, she could use the celestial map to fix her position in space, and chart her way back to land.

“Everything you need to know is in the sky,” I tell Tyler, and we look up through our fingers, content in that zone of serenity that children can elicit. I don’t tell her that I learned the story about the surfer girl from Hawaii Five-0, or that the girl’s mother was long dead, and that the girl was actually a woman cop who was hallucinating and dehydrated and nearly died at sea. Tyler will get to tragedy soon enough. For now the lost girls can have all the ice cream they want, and mothers who are on their way, and their journeys only have to be as far as a couple of houses down.

Around the time Tyler first appeared at my door, I was starting a book about growing up female in Texas, and about the profound influence that feminism—the women’s movement of the 1970s—had on my life. I came of age in the Panhandle, a stronghold of Protestant churches and Republican politics where the sky goes on forever. I left for college in 1968: The year that Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy were shot and Nixon was elected. The year of My Lai and the Tet Offensive. Student protestors at Columbia shut the place down; women stormed the stage at the Miss America pageant. It was one of the most tumultuous and exalted times in modern history, and I was seventeen and felt like I’d been shot out of a cannon. Within a few years I went from being a bookish girl with a head for numbers to an anti-war protestor and young feminist with a wet bandanna in my back pocket, to shield my face from tear gas.

That’s some expedition for a kid who spent her days reading at the town library and playing jacks with her sister. And it’s light-years from the world of the brown girl daydreaming on my porch in Cambridge a half century later—who by age five was quoting lines and singing lyrics from Hamilton. “Are you an immigrant?” Tyler asked me one day, conflating Texas with some place weird and far away. And then, in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Because immigrants, we get the job done.”

I realized pretty quickly that this story belonged to us both.

Part of what sent me back to my salad days was a quest to set the record straight. In the decades since I wandered into my first women’s liberation rally on the University of Texas campus, in the early 1970s, “feminism” had morphed into a dirty word in the lexicon. “I’m not a feminist, but . . .” The phrase baffled and irritated me. Oversimplified and sometimes demonized, the idea of feminism—at least the old-school, second-wave version—had come to suggest liberal white privilege, where the victories had been in the boardroom instead of the streets. And young women who were realizing triumphs of the movement were now in danger of disparaging or forgetting it altogether.

That an alliance with feminism came with a qualifier was a shock to me. The feminism that I knew was not bourgeois, exclusive, or, God forbid, boring. It was radical and often joyful and it quite possibly saved my life. The seismic encounters of adolescence had changed me from a levelheaded introvert to a wild girl and a cliff diver, ill-equipped to withstand the onslaught of sex, drugs, and rock and roll that defined my generation. The traditional paths of marriage and motherhood seemed lethal in a whole other way. The women’s movement delivered me from both fates. It offered a scaffolding of sanity and self-respect, a way to get a grip on everything that was scary about life. And in those days, when the blueprint for adulthood was being questioned daily or even set on fire, life could be scary indeed.

I started writing a reflection of that time, a personal story that began with a half-lost, frightened college girl on her way to class in Texas. In two different cities I read aloud a portion of the chapter, and during the first reading I was startled to see young women in the audience in tears. Maybe I had touched a known pain. Later that year at a teaching weekend, I talked to and read the work of women who were under thirty, many of whom knew a whole different kind of trouble, and I recognized something else in their voices—raw but also angry and determined. This time when I read the piece, the reaction was not tears but nods and half-raised fists. So I went home and kept writing. They had touched something in me, too.

Pastiches began to emerge of incidents I hadn’t thought about in years: hurdles cleared or dodged, egregious insults I’d put behind me. I knew I was remembering a story mystifying or foreign to men but next-door familiar to women, whether they grew up in Texas or Greenwich Village, in high cotton or hard times. All of us had been trained to take less than her share at the table, and some of us even hated and feared each other because that’s what pressure from above teaches and forces an underclass to do.

I wanted to take back the words and memories, just like we took back the night several decades ago, when I wore my TBTN T-shirt until it hung from me in shreds. The Take Back the Night movement was the start of mass demonstrations against sexual and domestic violence, and people marched in Austin and Atlanta and New York in the 1970s, thousands of us, to gain access to time and light as well as space: Give me back what should already be mine. Give me the dark, the freedom of the streets, the right to walk wherever I want, unafraid of rape or assault or just being messed with. The stars belong to me as much as you. Move over. Make room on the bench.

The lessons of those days were so basic: To view other women as allies rather than the competition. To unleash our intelligence, liberate our bodies, assume we were capable of things previously denied or unconsidered. We could be mathematicians, car mechanics, soccer players instead of cheerleaders. If this sounds obvious today, it’s because we took over buildings and challenged male professors who told us we didn’t have the brains for science or that we were cute when we were mad. The fight felt vital and dangerous, and often it was both. And when I feel hopeless or alone, or when all that seems a long time ago, I have to remind myself that—no other way to say it—a lot of what we did and said really did change the world.

We were heady with how much we knew, which was sometimes less than what we built our mettle on. But it was uplifting and even thrilling to realize you could replace a fan belt or build a bookshelf, even if you did it badly or it took four hours. We started all-girl rock and roll bands and law collectives; we played drums on the beach and argued about class struggle and grew our own food. We all thought, for a while, that we had broken free.

The struggle was hard-won, especially when the worst demons in the room were mine. The feminist notions so easily embraced as theory—that women internalize anger as depression; that power often eludes us in the service of being good—are brutally difficult to change. So this is partly a story about the soldering of self: about the paths and stumbles I took, into shadow and out again. But all that exposure to women’s autonomy had given me muscle I didn’t know I had. Long before I’d read a word of Virginia Woolf, I knew that, for me, a room of one’s own was the ultimate prize. That a lock on the door was the power to think for oneself.

Excerpted from “Bright Precious Thing” by Gail Caldwell Copyright © 2020 by Gail Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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