Women Writers: Excerpt from “The Awakener” by Helen Weaver

from The Awakener

SULLIVAN STREET

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.
-William Shakespeare, Hamlet

I’m not sure I believe in “destiny,” but I’ve often pondered the irony of someone like me, a girl from Scarsdale with a strict and even repressive middle-class upbringing, ending up with these wild characters who represented the opposite of everything Scarsdale stood for: rebellion, art, sex, drugs, jazz, racial equality: in a word, freedom.
Looking back, I think it was the very fact that they were so different from everything I’d grown up with that explained their appeal.

I hadn’t much cared for Scarsdale anyway. It was all about what does your father do and do you have the right clothes and do you belong to the Scarsdale Golf Club, which in those days wouldn’t dream of admitting Jews, let alone “Negroes.” I think there was one lone black girl in my class at Scarsdale High.

When I fell in love with the boy across the street at age eight and I told my mother that we had decided to get married, she said I couldn’t marry Willie because he was a Jew. And I wasn’t allowed to play with a girl who lived on the wrong side of town, whose house didn’t have any furniture or rugs on the floor. Poverty, Jewishness-anything forbidden-became exotic and therefore desirable.

As an adolescent I was a shy, sickly “brain” who wrote poetry and lived for books and movies, didn’t go to dances or football games, and whose one date in high school was a disaster. When I graduated from Scarsdale High in 1948 the caption under my picture in the yearbook read “No genius without a little madness.”

I decided to go to Oberlin because, unlike the eastern colleges most of my classmates would attend, it did not have sororities and fraternities, and because it was as far away from Scarsdale as possible. Oberlin was full of bright kids, many of whom were social misfits like me. I felt right at home.

I had no idea what I was going to do with myself after I graduated from college. In my short life I had known nothing but school. I was terrified of the open space that suddenly loomed before me. At Oberlin I even dated, and I decided to marry the boy I was dating my senior year, an art history major from Brooklyn.
Three weeks after the wedding, Charles was drafted into the army and sent to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, for basic training. It was 1952 and the Korean War.

I signed up for a secretarial course in White plains. By the time I had learned Gregg shorthand and could type sixty words a minute Charles had wangled a job in the mail room at Fort Dix along with permission to live off base. We found an apartment in the home of a young Irish family in Mount Holly, New Jersey, and I got a job as a secretary at the Campbell Soup Company in Camden, the home of Walt Whitman and an incredibly dreary place.
Inscribed on the granite facade of the post office building near where I got off the bus every morning were the words “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” This always struck me as a pretty good description of Camden.

To get to work on time I had to catch a bus that left at 6:55 a.m. By the time I got home it was almost seven and I was always exhausted. On weekends I cleaned, did the laundry, and went grocery shopping.

I remember waking up one Saturday morning and thinking, Is this it? Is this all there is?

I also remember lying in bed with my husband and feeling nothing at all: staring at the ceiling and wondering what was wrong with me. Gradually I lost all desire for sex.

I started to wonder whether I was gay-a word I had just learned from my Oberlin friend Lili Chan, whom I visited a few times in her apartment in Greenwich Village.

Back at Oberlin, Chan had had a very intense friendship with a girl that I suspected was more like a love affair. I had been attracted to this girl, too-I’ll call her Eva Di Angelo-but since she was a piano major in the Conservatory, our classes met in different buildings. Then I became involved with Charles and soon Di Angelo became a shadowy figure in the back of my consciousness, mysterious and unattainable.

But one day at Campbell’s, I got a phone call from Di Angelo. She was right around the corner, asking if I was free for lunch. I walked out of the office and there she was on a street corner in Camden, looking like a boy in an Italian movie, tossing away a cigarette and giving me a crooked smile.

That was the beginning of the end of my marriage.

Nothing much happened in Mount Holly, but that summer, after the U.S. Army gave Charles an honorable discharge and I quit my job at Campbell’s, I spent two weeks with Chan and Di Angelo in a cabin in Ogunquit, Massachusetts, and ended up in Di Angelo’s bed.

The discovery that I could be attracted to a woman was mind-altering, life-changing. The whole notion of competing with women for attention from men was turned on its head, but it went beyond that. If women had suddenly been transformed from rivals to the objects of my desire, then all of my previous conditioning went out the window. The world was a far larger and more complex place than I had imagined. I felt my life cracking open. And of course the fact that homosexuality, in the fifties, was socially unacceptable only added to its appeal.

I felt that loving a woman had made me a better person, a more truly human being: nihil humanum mibi alienum est (nothing human is foreign to me), as the Romans used to say.

It did not, however, bring me any closer to solving the mystery of the orgasm.

In the fall Charles and I went back to Oberlin. He got a job as a graduate assistant in the art department. I took literature courses and sat in the stacks reading the poetry of George Herbert and trying to come
up with an idea for a master’s thesis.

I met an undergraduate English Literature major named Benjamin and realized I wasn’t a lesbian after all.
In the spring of 1955 Charles and I separated. My new friend Ben wanted to marry me, but this time I knew I wasn’t ready. I had been afraid of freedom. Now I wanted it. . . .

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awakenerThe Awakener is Helen Weaver’s long awaited memoir of her adventures with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce, and other wild characters from the New York City of the fifties and sixties. The sheltered but rebellious daughter of bookish Midwestern parents, Weaver survived a repressive upbringing in the wealthy suburbs of Scarsdale and an early divorce to land in Greenwich Village just in time for the birth of rock ‘n’ roll—and the counterculture movement known as the Beat Generation. Shortly after her arrival Kerouac, Ginsberg, and company—old friends of her roommate—arrive on their doorstep after a non-stop drive from Mexico. Weaver and Kerouac fall in love on sight, and Kerouac moves in.

Weaver recreates the excitement of a time when things were radically changing and shows us what it was like living with an eccentric genius at the turning point of his life. Eventually she asks Jack to leave but they remain friends, and over the years her respect for his writing grows even as Kerouac’s reputation undergoes a gradual transition from enfant terrible to American icon. She comes to realize that by writing On the Road he woke America up—along with her—from the long dream of the fifties. And the Buddhist philosophy that once struck her as Jack’s excuse for doing whatever he liked because “nothing is real, it’s all a dream” eventually becomes her own.

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