An intimate look at the life and loves of Carson McCullers (1917-1967).
“To tell another person’s story,” Shapland observes in her deft, graceful literary debut, “a writer must make that person some version of herself, must find a way to inhabit her.” The author knew little about McCullers before she became an intern at the Harry Ransom Center, a repository for writers’ and artists’ archives at the University of Texas. Responding to a scholar’s request, she discovered eight letters from Swiss writer and photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach to McCullers that struck Shapland immediately as “intimate, suggestive” love letters. For Shapland, at the time suffering the end of a “major, slow-burning catastrophe,” the letters marked a “turning point.” Within a week, she cut her hair short. “Within a year,” she writes, “I would be more or less comfortably calling myself a lesbian for the first time.” The letters inspired further research, focused especially on McCullers’ sexuality, about which Shapland found intriguing evidence in transcripts of her taped therapy sessions with Dr. Mary Mercer, begun when McCullers was 41 and which McCullers described “as an attempt of writing her autobiography.” In addition, following the sessions, McCullers wrote letters to Mercer “awash in the joy of self-revelation” and her “love for Dr. Mary.” The more Shapland discovered about McCullers, the more convinced she became that McCullers was a lesbian who had been intensely in love with several women. Identifying with McCullers “as a writer, as a queer person, as a chronically ill person,” Shapland felt she had special insight into her subject’s life. At the same time, looking to McCullers “as a role model,” she wondered if she was “reading into her queerness”: imposing her own life story, and her own needs, on McCullers, in part to rescue her from “retroactive closeting by peers and biographers.” Shapland interweaves candid self-questioning and revealing personal stories with a nuanced portrait of a writer who confessed her loves were “untouchable” and her feelings “inarticulable.”
A sensitive chronicle of a biographer’s search for truth.