A FRIEND OF MINE has contributed to the Jean Harris defense fund. My friend did not exactly tell me why, but she did say she was just crushed when Harris said she planned to kill herself, not Dr. Herman Tarnower. This is not what my friend wanted to hear. My friend evidently believes that breaking up is a capital offense.
Apparently, a lot of people share that view. Not only has Harris raised some money from the public at large, but her story has captivated the nation. She is the scorned woman, the one who after 14 years was quietly given some gifts and the old brushoff. What she wanted was her beloved Hy. What he wanted evidently was to be left alone.
There is no denying that there is something gripping about the Harris story. In the first place, who among us is not thrilled to death to find that the old headmistress, the old Miss Grundy who would not tolerate pot in the dorms and probably never did you-know-what, not only did you-know-what, but did it with a man who did it with half the women in the country. Oh what a joy! Oh what glee! The only thing that could have been better was for Harris to have been Miss Dolan, my fifth-grade teacher and the one-woman precursor of the Moral Majority.
Harris, of course, is the classic scorned woman, a woman who took her rejection to epic heights. She hung on. She clung. She was tenacious. She was biting and then humorous. Sometimes she adjusted and sometimes she did not. Sometimes the other women were okay and sometimes they were not. It was fine if he slept with them and then not so fine and then not fine at all. It was awful if he cared for a woman he slept with. Oh God, it must have been hell for her -- not so terrific for her beloved Hy, either.
All that would make the classic sort of newspaper sob story -- a classic trial. But there is more. Harris is not just a scorned woman. She is a scorned older woman. She lost out to younger woman. In a sense, this whole thing wasn't even her fault. It wasn't that she got dull, forgot to do her reading, became obnoxious or something like that. She got old. She couldn't help herself and what made it worse was that the man who had given her the gate was 70 years old. It was unfair: She got old, but he did not. This is not the only way it is in Scarsdale. This is the way it is in life.
But that is not the reason my friend contributed to the Harris defense fund. And that is not the reason so many people have rallied to her side. The reason for that is that she has come to represent all wronged women, all women who have ever been scorned or even all women who had to accept the man's sexual mores when what they really wanted was something else -- exclusivity.
The trouble with this, aside from the fact that it is no excuse for killing someone, is that it is some sort of new sexism. It used to be that a man could kill a man he found in bed with his wife. It used to be that he could also kill his wife. It used to be that men were allowed to kill quite a bit of the time as long as the killing had something to do with a woman and his honor. It wasn't that these were not cases of murder, that someone had not died. It was simply that men who wrote the law excused it, condoned it, and so established was the practice, and so common the occurance, that in France, the home office of passion, it was given a name -- crime passionelle. After all, the injured or dishonored men represented all men. Something had to be done.
Now it is the woman who is supposed to enjoy these privileges. The man has other women -- bang, bang. She finds their clothes around his house -- bang, bang. He tells her it's goodbye -- bang, bang. As a result, a whole bunch of women rally to her side and contribute to her defense fund. The phenomenon is supposed to represent enlightenment, liberation, women striking back, but all it is role reversal with women now playing the part of men, excusing or pardonig or condoning killing, even murder, because the injured party is woman.
What seems to matter the most to people is the sex of the victim and the sex of the accused. But in this case, sex, finally, is irrelevant. What really matters here is that a person is dead.