ADRIENNE RICH notes dryly that "the first verbal attack slung at the woman who demonstrates a primary loyalty to herself and other women is man-hater ." After the bad reviews of her previous prose work, Of Woman, Born , Rich might well have extended "the invitation to men" (in Mary Daly's phrase), whether sincerely or not, out of simple self-preservation. Instead On Lies, Secrets, and Silence continues to offer its primary loyalties to women. The author also refuses to allow her very real compassion for men (which as astute reader will not miss) to defuse her conclusions, for does she parade evidence of her "humanism" (a word Rich has elsewhere said she finds false and will no longer use).
On lies, Secrets, and Silence can be seen as one woman's journey past obligatory "humanism" (early in the book Rich quotes Virginia Woolf's constant sense that male critics are her audience, "I even hear them as I write" Woolf says), to the position of a woman who does not give a damn about such voices because she is talking to women. "(Robin Morgan's feminist essays in the recent Going Too Far chronicle the same change and comment explicitly on it.) The shift occurs halfway through the book, in 1974. The earlier Rich is capable of assuming (in "The Antifeminist Woman") that equal pay is "serious" and housework trivial; the later Rich, freed from attending to the voices that so tormented Woolf, can state, "it is the realities civilization has told [women] are unimportant, regressive, or unspeakable which prove our most essential resources."
Not a popular stand. But its uncompromising honesty frees her for some fine things, from the bitter accuracy of "Toward a Woman-Centered University" to the splendid "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson" (a title taken from one of Dickinson's poems). At her best Rich is inimitable: driving through the sentimental legend of Dickinson (Rich mentions Ransom and MacLeish's comments on her, and the recent play, The Belle of Amherst ) to the truth: Dickinson's three words to her niece (locking the door of her bedroom with an imaginary key), "Matty: here's freedom." Or "Husband-Right and Father-Right" in which Rich (as usual) says terrifying things about "the contemporary, middle-class facade of free choice, love, and partnership" and then, Heaven help us, backs her judgments up (as usual).
Inevitably the book is uneven. Among the best of the literary essays are those on Dickinson, Jane Eyre (although Rich scants the difficulties of the novel's ending), and the contemporary poet, Judy Grahn. The others include "Toward a Woman-Centered University," "Husband-Right and Father-Right," and "Conditions for Work." Rich's essays on lesbianism, like the last essay in the book (a meditation on racism and women) are more promising and less complete than the others, the other subjects being matter she understands more thoroughly because they are more limited. Her history of her own development as a poet is also here ("When We Dead Awaken: Writing As Re-Vision").
As Woolf has noted, charm is considered important in a woman writer and Rich is not charming; moreover, her uncomfortable honesty takes place in an atmosphere of passionately felt tragedy. The integrity and clarity of this book are very old-fashioned virtues, as evident in her condemnation of Pablo Neruda's dishonesty (a strikingly good piece of political insight in "Caryatid: Two Columns"), as in her silly attack on television (she attributes to the medium itself all the vices intellectuals used to see in the movies), or as in the too-gnomic epigrams of "Women and Honor."
It will be no surprise if this book receives the same treatment as Of Woman Born ; those who assume that female forgiveness must inevitably be the consequence of female compassion will be especially enraged. The attack of "man-hater" will most likely be made. Rich, mentioning wife-battering, father-daughter incest, the sadism of pornography, and the forced sterilization of poor and Third World women, asks simply, "who . . . hates whom."
This is a fine book to read if you want to find out.