The three S’s in the title of Lois Rudnick’s book—Suppressed, Sex, Syphilis—are as irresistible as was the legendary Mabel Dodge Luhan. No wonder that for thirty-five years Rudnick has studied complex Luhan, whose layered memoirs can add much to our understanding of life writing. If biography is “a novel that dare not speak its name,” as Roland Barthes observed, then autobiographer Luhan has written one that dare not even whisper.
Rudnick, highly respected for her scholarship on Luhan, faced several challenges in creating The Suppressed Memoirs. First was the enormous size of Luhan’s manuscript collection: one thousand pounds, including twenty volumes of autobiographical materials which were sent to Yale’s Beinecke Library, which makes contemporary Anaïs Nin’s papers seem like Cliff Notes. Second, the sequential opening of Luhan’s papers, creating a sort of strip-tease toward naked candor, required dogged scholarly patience and tolerance for innuendo. Third, in this reviewer’s opinion, is the daunting, self-contradictory, multilayered ego of Mabel Dodge Luhan herself. In the realm of life writing, where ego holds the home court advantage, Luhan is a star player.
Yet Rudnick continues to “listen” to Luhan, and through perseverant study of the newly available notes from Luhan’s first therapist, Smith Ely Jelliffe, provides impressive cultural context for Luhan’s maddening contradictory pattern of marrying men who had syphilis, all the while dreading infection. As Rudnick observes, “It was not until I read Jelliffe’s notes that I understood the underlying fear that drove Mabel to put ground glass in figs, and to take laudanum and veronal, as a means of [End Page 474] escaping fears with which she did not know how to cope” (33). Rudnick puts those fears in context within the perplexing world in which women like Luhan (and Charlotte Perkins Gilman), who were raised in Victorian homes oozing with family secrets and hypocrisy, tried to evolve into New Women amidst old values. This book, when added to Rudnick’s 1984 biography of Luhan, shows how much this “new” woman was constricted by her upbringing in an old double-standard world. Rudnick carefully frames the new iterations of Luhan’s memoirs, placing the final puzzle pieces in amazing sexual detail that could not be published in the 1930s but help explain her infidelities and serial divorces.
Yet despite Rudnick, there is much in Luhan that cannot be understood. Luhan’s multi-volume, multi-analyst self-analysis fails her in understanding how the dreaded syphilis could infect her even when she sought refuge with the “pure” Taos Indians. Luhan observed, “They seemed so clean and wholesome and free of the sin and decadence of the world” (125). She ultimately blames Tony Luhan’s syphilis on his clan brother’s wife while never interrogating or critiquing the complicity of male sexuality—or the “infection” of colonialism. And no matter how much she is contextualized or analyzed, Luhan—just like her contemporary Mary Austin—represents the audacious Anglo ego. Luhan wrote in 1946, “I am a pioneer. … Didn’t everyone say I couldn’t marry an Indian and ‘put it across’? I married Tony and even made Indians fashionable, at least to know and admire and dream about, if not yet to legally espouse! Unless I die of it, I suppose anyone would say I made a success of miscegenation; and I do not intend to die” (122). Rudnick carefully shows how Luhan was morbidly threatened by suppressed sexuality, not miscegenation.
This remarkable study presents its own dilemma: can one admire fastidious scholarship and like a book while still disliking its subject? In this highly interdisciplinary study, Rudnick has offered yet another way of looking at Mabel Dodge Luhan. Yet judging from the newly opened memoirs, Luhan is best explained secondhand, like an eccentric relative, lest the feisty aunt actually talk. Mabel Dodge Luhan, ironically, has at last found her best analyst in Lois Rudnick.