"A distance achieved thanks to the mystery of time must not change events, landscapes, human figures . . . On the contrary, it can show them in full light, so that every event, every date becomes expressive . . . "
Czeslaw Milosz, Nobel Lecture, 1980
For Alice Koller, every event, every date took on meaning in a brave, inward journey she embarked on alone to sort out her life.
She was, she admits, "desperate." At age 37, and although she was talented, bright, attractive, with a Ph.D (in philosophy) from Harvard, "Everything was up in the air and there was nothing. I had no one and nothing to fall back on."
She had seen two psychiatrists, the last of whom had been "very helpful. He showed me that psychiatry was possible." When she learned that he had been killed in a car accident, "It was just one more avenue closed to me. The doors had just closed, one right after the other."
To literally "save my life," Koller took the extreme step of abandoning her "perch" in New York City and isolating herself on Nantucket Island in the winter, where she would walk for miles on the beach without encountering another human being, where the wind could wail for hours through her flimsy frame house, where both angst and jubilation skittered with the sand and danced with the ocean, and where there was only one person she had to confront daily: herself.
"It was a process," she says, "of tearing away everything that was not mine or me . . . It was wordless instinct. I was putting myself into my own natural habitat, to be rid of the burdens, where I could be quite thoroughly alone to do this."
Out of her meager savings, Koller bought a German shepherd puppy to accompany her -- "I felt I needed a dog to protect me on that island" -- which left her something like $300 to eke out an existence for three months. She named her dog Logos (from the Greek, meaning "word") to remind her of what she intended to accomplish and to emphasize one theme: how words shape and transform meaning.
A woman, a dog, an island and a small chunk of time and money, hardly propitious beginnings, yet wrenched from these is one woman's struggle -- and victory -- in finding a self that she could connect with. Koller's quest is the subject of a popular book, Unknown Woman (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 258 pp., $14.95) now in its third printing and due to come out in paperback (Bantam) next year. It is the Literary Guild's alternate selection for November.
Says the once unknown author, "I had set myself free by my own hand and I decided there ought to be a way to say something about how I did that. It had to be about me because I was my own subject, but my book is really about the process of coming to understand oneself and incidentally about me."
It has been nearly 20 years now since Koller's Nantucket experience and about 14 years since she wrote the book.
"I wanted to reconstruct the past that lay from that old life to the new one that I'd begun to live," she says. "I wanted to find out how I had gotten to this, from that."
To recreate the external Nantucket, Koller used copies of the local newspaper and weather reports from the island's naval station for the three-month period she was there. To recapture her inner climate, she drew on notes from a journal she kept.
Although people like Edward Merritt, of WAMU's "Bookmark," were impressed -- "I got hooked on this thing" -- and read the unpublished work three times to an enthusiastic radio audience, Koller was unable to market it.
"'Yes, yes, your book is very interesting and very exciting and very well written and all,'" Koller says publishers would write. "'But no one will read it. It's too personal.'"
She shipped the book to some 30 publishers before Holt bought it in January 1981 and told her it was "ahead of its time."
"So far as I'm concerned,' says Koller, now 56, "I'm in the line of a tradition of 2,500 years of people who thought about things. I wrote about it in a different way.
"I am a philosopher, and I think. The things that other people take for granted are very puzzling to me and I have to chew them around until I can understand them. The nature of philosophical problems is that they're often difficult to resolve within five minutes."
Readers have found that Koller's often painful remembrances -- like a long-buried tickertape of patterns -- tend to catalyze their own interior slides. They're with her -- and themselves -- as Koller, isolated in a barren island beach house, forces herself to examine old letters, to painstakingly review relationships, motivations, situations, frustrations. Day after day, she teases out the answers from an at-times reluctant intellect.
"I can't," she anguishes at one point, "think my way through 37 years of not knowing what the hell I'm doing."
Her questions at times appear simplistic: what is need, what is want, what is it to choose for oneself? Simple, yet significant, demanding answers that call on the complexities of a lifetime.
Finally, after her relentless questioning, Koller arrives at what she sees as the central -- and brutal -- truth. Although her deduction is almost embarrassingly trite, it has an irrevocability that brooks no further question: "My mother didn't love me. Not only didn't she love me, but she couldn't love me."
From her sun-washed home in McLean, she recalls, "We had screaming battles. I seem to recall it, just going on, never ever having started and never having stopped. There was nothing I could do that would please her.
"I simply stopped having her matter at all. And that broke the shell, the shell that I had allowed to grow up around me. The recognition let me cast it off."
The break was complete. Koller saw her mother for the last time on the day of her father's funeral, despite her mother's attempts to see her. "I cut the cord, and that was it."
Armed with this new truth, Koller says she no longer had to seek attention and affection from those around her. She could create herself.
Slowly, she built a sense of self through claiming her own pleasures: space, the beach, the ocean, Logos, "that I liked sweet butter, sleeping on a foam-rubber mattress."
"Those things I knew belonged to me. They were the only things that I was sure of, but that was the beginning of myself. Okay, I found these two, maybe I'll find a third, and a fourth, and a tenth, and then that will be me, as opposed to this morass that I had been dragging around for so long."
After Nantucket, she had a research grant with the Air Force Office of Scientific Research working on "mechanical translation," using computers to translate one language into another. "I unearthed the philosophical problems to try to separate them out from the scientific research and wrote a final report that resulted in a book, 'The Hornbook of Hazards for Linguists.'"
Koller's aura now is that of an independent, self-assured, determined person. Her life and goals, she says, are set. With her companion, German shepherd Kairos (from the Greek, meaning "the appropriateness of time"), she lives in a lovely one-story frame house surrounded by an acre of land and thickets of forsythia. She works as a free-lance writer specializing in energy-related topics.
"I don't have things unless I really like them and when I go to them it's unqualified ," says Koller, whose house with its sparse furnishings has the quality of an ascetic. "Not just to have a table because you need a table but to have that special table and those special dishes, that special thing, just because you like it. It spoke to you."
Her life now, she says, is "all part of the idea," resolved on that long-ago journey, "that every minute of every day from then on was going to be full, to be filled with things that I chose, that I wanted, that I could look at. It hasn't always been like that but I've always tried for it.