JEAN HARRIS' memoir -- which is, by the nature of her circumstances, an apologia as well -- falls into two distinctly separate sections of approximately equal length. The first deals with her life in the world of wealth and privilege, the second with her subsequent life in the world of deprivation and isolation. She claims to have been a stranger in both worlds, and she is right; she is the classic American outsider, a character from the imagination of Dreiser or Fitzgerald, a person yearning to belong yet fated never to fit in. It is a sad story, yet the sadness is not what sticks with you at its end; what is most impressive is, rather, the resilience and tenacity of a woman whose reserves of strength have enabled her to withstand losses that would have destroyed lesser people.
The story -- the one she tells in the first half of this book -- is all too familiar now. It has been told and retold in countless newspaper and magazine stories, television broadcasts and books: a bad one by Diana Trilling, a good one by Shana Alexander. Harris herself has little of moment to add to it as she describes her past: the quiet years as a housewife in Grosse Pointe, the divorce and the career in private education, the romance with Herman Tarnower, the mysterious encounter that led to his fatal shooting, the trial at which she was convicted of killing him and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. She is hard on herself -- "an earnest but wimpy character, running all the way, tripping along behind the world, trying to do all the things that were expected, or that I thought were expected, and finally giving up" -- but on the question of her innocence she gives no quarter:
"The trial of the People of New York State vs. Jean Harris lasted from November 21, 1980, until February 28, 1981 -- fourteen weeks. More than twelve thousand pages of testimony were taken. Ninety-two witnesses were called. The crux of the trial was intent. The indictment was for premeditated, deliberate murder. Did Mrs. Harris intend, and therefore deliberately kill Dr. Tarnower? The simple, unvarnished truth is that never at any time ever did the defendant express orally or in writing a desire to kill Dr. Tarnower, or indeed to harm him in any way. In fourteen weeks of testimony, with nine months to prepare his case, Assistant District Attorney George Bolen produced no evidence, of any kind, that could be interpreted as proof of such intent. It does not exist; it never existed."
The case she makes for her innocence, like the one made by Shana Alexander, is entirely convincing, and should be given the strongest consideration by Governor Mario Cuomo as he weighs the clemency plea now being pressed on Harris' behalf. But the details of Tarnower's death, though obviously of the most urgent importance to Harris, are not what make Stranger in Two Worlds such interesting reading; we have, after all, been there many times before, and Harris has nothing new to add to the story. Nor, for that matter, is Harris' account of her affair with the celebrated "Scarsdale Diet" doctor of any particular consequence; suffice it to say that she loves him as deeply as ever, but that nothing she discloses about him does anything to make him appear less reprehensible than he has in the past. Love is a private thing, explicable only to those who feel it; that this decent if insecure woman was so powerfully drawn to this icy, manipulative man was, and apparently always will be, a mystery.
Rather, what matters about Stranger in Two Worlds is its second half, in which Harris describes her first five years as a prisoner at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York. "What follows is not," she writes, "I repeat vehemently, not a feminine whimper from 'the belly of the beast.' I have not been there, and had I been there I would have little to offer that would serve ordinary people like you and me. This is a voice that once lived in the world you live in, the world which by your daily acts or failures to act, you help to create." This is the crucial point: Harris is not a member of the criminal class but of the middle class, our class, the class of people who write and read books, the class of people who do not go to prison. Yet that is where Jean Harris has gone, and her description of what she has found there has particular immediacy for the people who are likely to read her book.
The picture, it goes without saying, is not a pretty one, and there is a good deal of bitterness in it. With the rarest exception she despises the correctional officers (COs), or guards, whom she accuses of "deliberate cruelty, patent dishonesty, unspeakable stupidity," and of whom she writes: "The most frightening thing about prison, the most dangerous, senseless, wicked thing about it is that it is a place where people incapable of understanding or handling authority have it with impunity. They can throw it around, use it as a weapon, a threat, a crutch, a shield, or an entertainment. Such evil little people! I am safer with the inmates." She is no less outspoken in her accounts of the inefficiency of prison management, the inconsistency and frivolity of prison regulations, the preposterous expense of maintaining the inert prison bureaucracy.
Yet this is not really what interests her most. The greatest concern of this woman from the white middle class is with the "minority born" women from the lower classes who make up the overwhelming majority of the female prison population. There is nothing sentimental about her interest in these women; she reports their scatalogical conversation with obvious distaste (if, at times, equally obvious amusement), and she makes no attempt to paper over the countless differences between white Jean Harris and her black or Puerto Rican fellow prisoners. In her journal she writes: "When I reread what I have written about many of the women here it sounds as though I feel terribly superior. I don't. I just feel very lucky. Their conversations, and indeed their lives, sound so mind-bendingly boring -- so much emptiness, so much unawareness, so much not giving a damn . . . I found a quotation I had written down from somewhere about 'the infinite capacity of the human brain to withstand the introduction of useful knowledge.' I live surrounded by this infinite capacity." OVER FIVE YEARS, though, she has come to like and care about these women -- many of whom, it seems, feel similarly about her -- and to involve herself in their lives. Specifically, she has immersed herself in the New Bedford Children's Center, which attempts "to bring incarcerated mothers and their children together." It is "one of the few places in the prison where inmates are encouraged to do their own thinking, try new things, and know that if they succeed the feather is in their cap, and if they fail it's their fault and they must try harder." She asks: "What are the words you think of when you hear 'woman in prison'? Convict? Criminal? Whore? Dangerous? How long would your list be before you came up with 'loving mother'?" And yet: "Seventy per cent of the women at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility have children and two-thirds of their children are under ten. To most of the world, their mother is superfluous, a throw-away person who must be stashed somewhere at great expense. To her children she is still 'Mama,' the most important person in the world."
The passion that Harris feels for these women and their children -- people whom society has, without even thinking about it, chosen to discard -- transforms the closing pages of her book into a plea for mercy, not for herself but for them. Jean Harris could have gone to prison and collapsed into whining self-pity; instead she has found a cause and has devoted herself to it with the same single-mindedness she once brought to the classroom and the headmistress' office. "I still believe good teaching will cure almost anything short of the common cold," she writes; "I still believe that if I wasn't good at anything else I was a good teacher. And I still believe, more strongly than ever, that it is only through our children that we can make a better world." The only difference is that where previously she devoted herself to the children of the privileged, she now has turned her energies to the children of the despised; but the commitment, and the passion, are as strong as ever -- stronger, if anything, because the need is so much greater.