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A Good Enough DaughterReview - A Good Enough Daughter
A Memoir
by Alix Kates Shulman
Schocken Books, 1999
Review by Carolyn Gallaher, Ph.D.
Mar 9th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 10)

Alix Kates Shulman begins her autobiographical trek by reminding the reader that of all the travels we make in life, the most important journey we ever make is the one back home. Like all autobiographies, Shulman's is full of family gossip, grudges, and the minutiae of everyday life, yet she frames her story through the larger lens of feminism. She describes how her upbringing molded her as a woman and a feminist.

Coming home to settle the affairs of her still living but fast declining parents, Shulman finds that it was ultimately a safe, secure, and happy childhood that led her to the feminist movement of the late sixties. Free to explore herself in the warm confines of a loving and understanding family, Shulman discovered desires and ambitions not permissible in the constricting environment of her upper middle class Cleveland home.

Of particular importance to Shulman's narrative is her mother, a complex figure upon whom Shulman projected her emerging and conflicted subjectivity. Shulman paints a picture of an intelligent and humorous woman who was a teacher and an activist in her own right, but also a woman who was stunted by the social expectations cast on the upper class women of her day. In revisiting her mother's relationship to her father, she embraces the tender love they shared while musing over her mother's thirst for expansion and her father's attachment to tradition. Placing herself in this complex family web, Shulman portrays herself as a young woman unsure how to reconcile it all. On the brink of adulthood we find a young Alix unsure of the contradictions yet determined to leave them behind, even as she remained subtly tethered to them in the many years to follow.

As an autobiography Shulman's account provides powerful insight into making of early feminists. She paints an unflinching picture of the social milieu that propelled middle and upper class women to start a movement based in large part on rejecting their mothers. That Shulman's exploration is careful makes her book all the better. The reader is left with a clear sense that Shulman loved and appreciated her mother even as she feared having to mimic her life.

I would highly recommend the novel for those interested in understanding the emergence of the feminist movement. The book is also appropriate for teachers who want to introduce today's young women to a movement that few of them intuitively understand.

Nevertheless, I was troubled by the seeming nonchalance with which she examines her own privilege-both within her family and the larger feminist movement. On the feminist front, Schulman leaves her relative wealth and privilege largely unexamined. Her view of the feminist movement is clearly grounded in her personal experiences growing up in an economically secure household with a stay at home mom. Read today, in light of the debates within feminist theory and practices about the place of class, race, and sexuality, her book seems almost anachronistic. Yet Shulman's honest (if nonchalant) portrayal of her privilege provides excellent fodder for understanding why the feminist movement emerged as it did, and why it would experience growing pains as it moved beyond these confines. And, if read in companion with feminist narratives from poor and minority women provides an excellent view of the complex terrain of feminism today.

On the family front I found Shulman's depictions of her privilege vis-à-vis her brother lacking as well. As we discover early on in Shulman's narrative, she and her brother Bob would have a strained relationship their entire lives. As the orphaned child of a maternal aunt, Bob never fit into the family in quite the same way as did Alix, the natural born child. That tension would arise in this situation is quite expectable. Yet Shulman never seems able to move beyond the self-constructed narrative of her childhood to see her brother in the same reflexive way she does her parents. As such, while I felt I could hear and see Shulman's parents as people in their own right, her brother seems crudely drawn. And, unlike passages about her parents, who Schulman captures movingly, as I mulled over passages about her brother, I frequently found myself wondering what he was really thinking and feeling.

Perhaps it is too much to expect that anyone who delves into her psyche will hit gold with every formative relationship she mines. That she has captured her relationship with her parents is monumental enough, and for doing it publicly, warts and all, Shulman is to be lauded.

Carolyn Gallaher, Ph.D., School of International Service, American University


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