Memorable Lines: Vivian Gornick

Photo: Jill Krementz

Photo: Jill Krementz

“I’m eight years old. My mother and I come out of our apartment onto the second-floor landing. Mrs. Drucker is standing in the open doorway of the apartment next door, smoking a cigarette. My mother locks the door and says to her, “What are you doing here?” Mrs. Drucker jerks her head backward toward her own apartment. “He wants to lay me. I told him he’s gotta take a shower before he can touch me.” I know that “he” is her husband. “He” is always the husband. “Why? He’s so dirty?” my mother says. “He feels dirty to me,” Mrs. Drucker says. “Drucker, you’re a whore,” my mother says. Mrs. Drucker shrugs her shoulder. “I can’t ride the subway,” she says. In the Bronx, “ride the subway” was a euphemism for going to work.

I lived in that tenement between the ages of six and twenty-one. There were twenty apartments, four to a floor, and all I remember is a building full of women. I hardly remember the men at all. They were everywhere, of course – husbands, fathers, brothers – but I remember only the women. And I remember them all crude like Mrs. Drucker or fierce like my mother. They never spoke as thought they knew who they were, understood the bargain they had struck with life, but they often acted as though they knew. Shrewd, volatile, unlettered, they performed on a Dreiserian scale. There would be years of apparent calm, then suddenly an outbreak of panic and wildness: two or three lives scarred (perhaps ruined), and the turmoil would subside. Once again: sullen quiet, erotic torpor, the ordinariness of daily denial. And I – the girl growing in their midst, being made in their image – I absorbed them as I would chloroform on a cloth laid against my face. It has taken me thirty years to understand how much of them I understood.”

– from Fierce Attachments

Vivian Gornick, critic, essayist, memoirist, feminist. Her latest book is The Men in My Life.

Her revelation that she had made up some of the conversations in Fierce Attachments created a stir on Salon. Her response is at NPR.

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