Memoir is a tricky form. It is all too easy to omit that which may offend one’s fellows or place the writer in a inglorious light. Yet, it is also just as easy to end up with an exercise in vanity. Achieving the perfect balance between these two potentials is the challenge of any writer attempting this form. In addition, sharing one’s personal life and thoughts with those they will never meet requires an ability to attach some significance to that life. Despite the dangers involved, some of the best writing out there is that of the memoir. When an author achieves the precise tone for their work and evokes a nod of recognition from the reader is when memoir is its most effective. There doesn’t need to be any life lessons shared or pearls of wisdom handed down, just a sense by the reader that the life they are reading is a life that is appreciated by the person writing it down.
Kendall Hale’s newly published memoir Radical Passions is such a life. The story she tells is that of a North American woman energized by a combination of liberal middle-class US values, her situation as a woman in the US, and a certain naiveté. The course of the book takes the reader on a journey shared in various ways by many of Hale’s peers. She goes from 1960s antiwar militancy to Marxism-Leninism and playing in a women’s band to building a house in Boston’s slums to helping the Sandinista revolution and then back to a middle class life accentuated by experimentation with various New Age modalities and genuine massage and healing techniques. Neither vainglorious or self-deprecating, Hale’s story is told with a precision for historical and physical detail and a remarkable sense of description. Her loves and fears and her children and her family are all part of the story, but not the story itself.
Hale does not gloss over disappointments or victories. Her recounting of the years she spent working in a Massachusetts shipyard as part of the 1970s new communist movement to organize the US working class includes not only the tribulations of being one of the few women in a yard full of men, but also the shortcomings of the communist cell she was part of. The same can be said for her impressions of Cuba and China—where she hoped to find the socialist society she still believes in. If there is a shortcoming to the book, it is in her failure to address what she believes to be the reasons these countries did not measure up to their revolutionary ideals. Then again, that failure in itself is part of Hale’s story. She is, after all, like so many of her peers, a seeker. The word brings to mind the Pete Townshend song “The Seeker:” “I’ve looked under chairs/I’ve looked under tables/I’ve tried to find the key/To fifty million fables.” Those who search do not often have the time to reflect as deeply as those who stop looking.
When she comes to the part of the book describing her interaction with healers and other New Age practitioners, Hale’s skepticism comes to the fore. She notes her attraction to some of the ideas involved and the often genuine changes the practices bring, but retains a questioning approach that is tinged with humor and a healthy dose of disbelief. As a person whose overwhelming skepticism never allowed me to go for what is known as New Age beliefs, the episodes describing Hale’s involvement left me a bit disinterested. That does not detract from their importance to the narrative, however. Let me put it this way, if someone hands me a crystal or offers to give me a reading, I don’t say no, but neither do I attach any special attributes to the stone or the exercise. The parts of Radical Passions dealing with New Age healing are like those crystals and exercises.
While one might find fault with some of Hale’s decisions or conclusions because of a difference in perspective or experience, it is almost impossible to find fault with her writing. It is flawless, emotive, captivating and descriptive beyond compare. Radical Passions is an exemplary account of a life fully lived. Hale’s telling insures that it transcends the ordinary confessional of a “Sixties vet” or a second-wave feminist. In so doing, it becomes both of these and a whole lot more.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com