ROBERT COLES HAS DONE some good things. His work with children struggling against various social, economic and racial restraints, was very good indeed. His five-volume Children of Crisis, the stories of migrant workers, Eskimo chidren and black women in the South, testified eloquently to man's enduring struggle against tragic elements in the world around him. Coles' people asked the painful questions about life in the way that a novelist's characters might have done.
He has written more than 30 books and 600 articles, reviews and essays, on everything from rich kids to "freedom rides" in the South. Much of this work was informed with intelligence, suffused with compassion and sympathy for his subjects.
Along the way, however, the compassion soured to righteousness; a fine moral outrage withered to predictable moralizing. He spread himself thin in his search for cosmic significance everywhere -- writing about the "existentialist novels" of Walker Percy, the sexual adventuring of Gay Talese.
And now comes Women of Crisis Ii, a second volume about women struggling against the vicissitudes of modern life, and he descends into soap-opera anthology -- slick, pop and two-dimensional, mixing the methods of biography, the novel and anthropology, with more than a whiff of piety and sanctimony.
The intentions of Coles, a Harvard psychiatrist, and his coauthor wife, Jane Hallowell Coles, are, as always, worthy and selfless: to eliminate self-important theories, findings, data and jargon of the "experts" in psychology, sociology and anthropology, and present straight to the reader a particular person's life history as it is placed "in the broader arc of humanity."
The intent may be noble, but the method is less so. We're given only the words of five women telling us their stories, with meager and often condescending commentary. Thoughtful grievances and whining tirades against parents, boyfriends and bosses are presented indiscriminately. While they might be meaningful if spoken from the privacy of a psychiatrist's couch, their presentation here makes the reader who wants -- and needs -- the other side of the story feel cheated.
The authors offer no synthesis, no corroborating voices, only compression, editing and the crashingly obvious: "Often it is hard for a person to talk about what he or she is in the midst of 'living out,' but there are (as existentialist philosophers have known) those 'true moments' when for one reason or another a person becomes more self-observant, more reflective." Stolid and serviceable professorial prose this may be, but the Coles often write prose that is also plodding and pretentious.
Laura, the Coles' first subject, is a successful advertising executive. She wanted to be a doctor, and might have become one but for her family, her school, her boyfriend and society. She blames all her failures on others until a psychiatrist, "Dr. Good," guides her to one of those "true moments," when she discovers that in spite of obstacles she is "a successful person." The Coles help her to raise her consciousness too, as she recalls a canoe trip she and her boyfriend took years before. Her boyfriend had refused to let her paddle stern to guide the boat, and she decided she never wanted to see him again. Today she interprets the incident with feminist self-righteousness, and paddling become the symbol of control in their relationship.
It might have been instructive, even fascinating, to have heard her boyfriend's perception of the incident. (Was the current swift? Were Laura's hands and biceps too small to challenge the river with her paddle?) Laura offers us only her recollections of the incident, years later.
Eileen, a nurse, defends her Middle-American traditions, her suburban life, especially her work. When her youngest child enters first grade, she takes a job, and the Coles strain to find in that a sociological significance pleasing to them. It is one which seems not to have occurred to Eileen. They set her up against the tides of history: "As the civil rights movement emerged, gave way to the antiwar movement; as the women's liberation movement came on the American social scene; . . . . as Eileen's husband began to earn a larger and yet larger salary (eroded all the time, however, by inflation), the question of a nurse's work became for one woman a means of approaching a national moral cimate." Eileen, who takes pride in a job that others, she thinks, find demeaning, sees it another way: "I went back to nursing because I wanted a change, I guess. We could also use the money."
In the most dramatic of these portraits, the Coles disappear. Their subject requires "no clarifications or interruptions . . . . no extensive editing . . . . no remarks meant to shift focus . . . . no authorial presence." The reader who does not share the Coles' need to go to a seat on the back row of the class and let Sue "give us her lesson" is out of luck. The Coles, like Sue, fought segregation in the South in the 1960s and are wont to lapse into campaign reverie, like graying American Legionnaires wistfully calling up the ghosts of the Argonne forest.
Sue tells her story with dramatic toughness, recalling in muscular detail the heat, the sweat, the rage and bitterness, a particularly horrible racist murder. But her portrait is marred by cliched perceptions of her family life, her rich (i.e., bigoted) parents pitted against their maid, Martha. We are told by Sue that Martha's advice to a stubborn, spoiled child not only helped her withstand the oppression of her parents, but contained the seeds of Gandhi's message to the world -- "that inside the apparently 'passive' or 'non-political' person, the so-called 'uneducated proletariat,' there is plenty of political savvy." Her parents remain indefensible and unfeeling as she drives away to the South to join the civil rights movement in the car they gave her.
In the end Robert Coles becomes a victim of his own reputation as an interviewer, his renown for decency and devotion to the correct set of values. Because he has a good eye for the telling fact, an appreciation of the struggle of the underdog, and the skill to elicit an abundance of rich psychological minutiae, he is only rarely held to a rigorous standard. Having earned a reputation as an early riser, he can sleep until noon. His work, like unused muscle, has gone soft. "Fine biography," writes Matina S. Horner, the president of Radcliffe College, in the foreword of his volume, "is first of all a work of scholarship, grounded in the virtues of diligent and scrupulous research, judicious evaluation of information, and fresh vision of the connections between persons, places and events."
Just so. An interviewer must weigh what he hears judiciously, examining and questioning, even testing it against prejudices and beliefs not his own. Sympathy for the underdog and pity for the oppressed, important as they are, are not enough to carry the weight of half-examined lives; portraits of half-examined lives add up to half a book. Women of crisis, and the rest of us, deserve better.