An Unknown Woman: A Journey to Self-Discovery

I came home this afternoon from what I have dubbed my “needle exchange,” dumping six books at the library and picking up eight fresh ones from the hold shelf, and dropped the pile onto my table. I picked the top one to read the first pages to get a sense of whether I’d read it now or later. Usually, I read the first few pages, perhaps the first chapter, and move onto the next book to verify its contents. Every day fresh from the library, a Christmas morning of half-unwrapped packages strewn about. Only this book, I opened, and read until the very end, only stopping occasionally to check in with work or eating dinner. I’d forgotten how I heard about it (of course, the worthy Neglected Book site), I just burrowed into my chair and heard the thoughts that have been echoing in my own head printed out on paper.

Alice Koller published this in 1981, but the story takes place in 1962 when she looks into a mirror in an apartment in NYC and says “I don’t have a life. I’m just using up a number of days somehow. There is no reason for me to be here. No plan formulated at some point in the past that has led me to this void that is my day, every day. No obligation to anyone requires me to live in this apartment, or in this city. I don’t live anywhere: I perch.” She acquires a house on Nantucket for four months in the winter to think and read and write. She buys a dog to warn her of strangers, names him Logos (she’s a philosophy PhD, natch), wraps up her life on the mainland and heads to the island. She gets moved in, tells the phone company to set up billing for her and when they ask where she’s employed, she says she’s not, so they ask “shall we put down that you receive private income?” Welcome to Nantucket, Alice. “Who would have guessed that the telephone company divides human beings into these two categories? ‘Let us put that down.'” Her first days there, the island is battered by wind, she ends up calling the operator to ask about the weather and gets patched through to the airport, told that no flights for the past few days, too windy.

As she settles in, she starts to pick apart her life. She’s brought crates of letters from friends through the ages, wants to understand who she is from their vantage point. They act as mirrors. She dissects her friends, mostly men, some women like Etel, a “friendship for long distance, in small doses.” She berates herself for her relationships. Gradually, her aha moment is that her mother doesn’t/hasn’t loved her, which is unbearably trite for this story. Also in the negative column goes the obsession about men, getting married, although she does gradually see that this was all related to wanting them to mother her because… her mother.
She starts to break rules as soon as she recognizes them. Gets up in the middle of the night if she’s not tired, goes to bed again in the morning if she is, goes without dinner, doesn’t finish unpacking before watching the sunset with a splash of bourbon. She gradually comes to see that she doesn’t feel anything (cue the tiny violins for white privilege), that she has been acting all her life to get applause from people. She writes down all the things she’s enjoyed over the previous year and studies it:

I run my eyes over the list, put it down, pick it up, and then go over it again… Half a dozen items on the list light their way to my eyes. Being out of doors; walking in the sun or rain or snow; driving with the top down, night or sunshine; walking on the beaches in California. Being outside, alone. As I am here.
I’ve liked being here!

Being alone here, able to get to the ocean every day, able to step out of my door and immediately be outside. All of this has been my natural setting. How incredible: I find myself doing something I want to do. No, that’s not exact. I can be exact now, because the outcome no longer has a price attached to it. I find myself doing something I like. That’s a stage along the way of trying to discover what I want to do.

More on Etel:

We know how to read; sometimes we even want to: we are the educated women of the twentieth century. Not that our education was handed to us, but that we tore it from the hands of men who professed to be able to offer it to us. No, not “offered”: they dared us to take it. Both of us understood that our sanity was at stake at Harvard: we each knew that about the other the first time we talked, sitting next to each other by chance at a Spinoza lecture. I stayed and lost mine; she left, but she’s no better off. The marks are there on us both.

She has great lines that get killed by her obsession with males:
“Being three steps away from my first look at water each day is as exciting as though I were about to meet a man. The difference is that here I’m never disappointed.”

Staying on the island over Christmas, she battles a deep depression that starts her thinking about death.

“I haven’t really lived this life that’s lasted thirty-seven years. I’ve only played at living it, pretending I’ve been alive, saying and doing things to let other people believe I’m alive. But the joke’s on me. Because now that I’ve stopped playing the game, there isn’t anything real to take its place.” She has run-ins with a mysterious neighbor who I nervously awaited to make a knight-in-shining-armor move at the end. Luckily he fades away before Christmas, off the island and does not re-appear (hooray!). Dropping her puppy off at a kennel, she heads to NYC for a philosophy conference after Christmas to try and find a teaching job for the next fall. Her heart is not in it, and she wants one of her philosophy pals to morph into Socrates and tell her why life is worth living. She runs into several exes at the conference, botches the interviews she has b/c her heart is not in teaching while she’s still trying to figure out what to do. In the New Year, she’s ready for a change, leaves the island early and heads into a new life.