For three months in the winter of 1962-63, Alice Koller rented a house on Nantucket to spend some time sorting out her life and wrestling with her death-wish. It was the right time and the right kind of place for what we now call a midlife identity crisis--though this term was not then in general use and the process was not widely recognized or understood. She was 37 years old, unemployed and unmarried--though she wanted badly to be married and had lived with a variety of men, sometimes for years. At a summer resort in winter, she could enjoy undisturbed solitude--alone with the sand and the ocean and a German shepherd puppy she had bought for companionship. For someone with little money, this was a lot less expensive than years of psychoanalysis, which she had tried with inconclusive results. And she seemed well-equipped for the effort, having recently received a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard.
"An Unknown Woman" is the story of those three months and (fragmentarily, in her meditations and reflections) of the life that had brought her to her lonely winter in a summer place. It had been an eventful life--the life of a woman who had been offered a career as an actress and turned it down for a life of scholarship. But when she began to examine it, when she finally tracked down her horrible secret (which is also many other people's horrible secret), she found that life without value. About halfway through the book, she begins to reflect on death in a series of soliloquies that touch on some points missed even by Hamlet when he began to ask himself, "To be or not to be":
"Thirty more years of having no one who matters to me. Thirty years of days in which I can't feel anything going on inside me, in which I'd always wonder whether the response I was making to a situation was genuine or whether it was one more piece of acting. Thirty years of not knowing what I want to do, because I don't know how to want, what wanting is. Thirty years of getting in and out of men's beds unsatisfied, with no one man who belongs to me."
She has no important work that would be left unfinished, nobody who would miss her except her father, who is probably dying, and she almost rejoices at the thought of the life she would leave behind: "No more counting pennies, asking someone to put me up until I get money, waiting for some man, wondering whether I'm smart or beautiful. No more asking anyone for anything at all."
How has it all come to this desolate moment? How has an attractive, talented, highly intelligent woman reached the midpoint of her life with nothing to look back on, nothing to anticipate but emptiness and disappointment? The primary answer, reached after long weeks of agonized self-probing, is one that (rightly or not) many others have found in such a process: mother. It is hardly an answer to surprise Alice Koller, who has despised her mother and blamed her repeatedly for all kinds of problems. A year before she went into her isolation and crisis, a friend had put it into a few words: "You know, you can't keep on blaming everything on your mother . . . Just because she didn't give you attention when you were a little girl, you can't hold her responsible for . . . " But Alice Koller didn't let her finish the sentence; instead, she ran upstairs and burst into tears. She had been staying in the friend's house, perhaps treating her as a surrogate mother, as she did with many friends, even the men in her life.
A more important perception about mother--far beyond the simple imputation of blame--came on the island when she began reflecting on all the men who had been willing to hold her (like a mother) while she cried--sometimes about the loss of another man. What matters, she finds, is "not that they held me while I cried, but that I cried so they would hold me . . . What does that have to do with loving a man? That's what a mother does to a child . . . I went to bed with men, looking for her to hold me. I was an actress and then a philosopher, to get her to look at me."
It doesn't really matter whether Alice Koller's mother was the unfeeling monster who looms so large in her book. The odds are that others who knew her would hardly recognize the woman as she was seen by a sensitive, dependent and somewhat disturbed little girl. But that is all a matter of mere fact; in the world of the psyche, what you remember is de facto reality.
Alice Koller, once past her long, loving look at suicide, began to attack these constructs with the discipline of a trained philosopher, to set her life in order, to organize her thinking. It is not a job that can be done entirely in three months, even with intensive effort. But at the book's end, it seems well begun. What matters, she concludes, is "to call things by their right names"--at once a truism and a profoundly philosophical concern. Her three months have not changed her material situation; she is still penniless and she must still rely on friends to put her up (like a mother?) until she can get back on her own feet. But the internal change has begun and the externals will take care of themselves in due time.
"I feel naked and very small," she reflects. "But new. Nothing ever again has to be the way it was."
Although she was alone in her journey to this hard-won knowledge and resolution, Alice Koller is hardly alone in the problems she tackled that winter on Nantucket. Many readers--and not all of them women--will find parts of their own lives and problems echoed in this book.