from an Aesthetic Realism seminar, with a discussion of the life of Ruth Hale (1887-1934)
Women in our time have become increasingly independent—in the workplace, as elected officials, living and traveling alone. And, whether they ask it clearly or not, they also have the question: What do I need in order to be fully myself: what form of self-expression? what kind of relationships? Yet women are confused about these opposites. We can go from feeling independence is equivalent to strength, and that to need anything—help in carrying one’s groceries, a friend’s advice, the meaning another person might have for us—is a sign of weakness, even humiliation, to feeling we can’t do a thing by ourselves. So, how can we make sense of independence and need in our lives?
Aesthetic Realism is the beautiful, logical means of answering this question. “A need,” Eli Siegel explained, is “anything a person is nearer to completeness with [, or]…anything that satisfies a true desire.” Our greatest need, I’ve learned, is to try to know and honestly like the world and people, and this makes us proud. So we need the world to help us be truly independent selves.
There’s also another, very different kind of need: to feel we’re free to see things any way we please, to have our way regardless of what these things deserve. This need comes from the most debilitating thing in everyone, the hope to have contempt, and it always makes a person less sure of herself.
I’m glad to describe what I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism about independence and need in my life, and in my marriage to Alan Shapiro, jazz pianist and teacher of music. And I’ll speak about a woman who, while she could not make sense of these opposites in herself, fought for justice in many fields, including women’s right to be independent.
Independence and need battling in Brooklyn
As a child, I had the need everyone has: to feel I was in a friendly world. I loved going to our neighborhood park to splash around in the sprinklers, climb on the monkey bars, and see ships from around the world leaving New York Harbor, going through the Narrows Bay, and heading out to sea. I watched in wonder the building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, whose beauty comes in part from an amazing relation of independence and need. Its massive roadway is suspended from and dependent on 143,000 miles of tightly spun cable hung from two graceful, independent towers.
But as I looked at my parents, I got the message it wasn’t smart to depend on anyone. My father complained about people, and while he had acquaintances from work and the handball court, he wasn’t close to anyone. My mother was outwardly friendly, but she could assertively take over a task from someone trying to help her, saying patronizingly, “Let me.” Though they loved dancing together, my parents also argued and acted as if they didn’t need each other. I cultivated a hurtful form of independence, which Mr. Siegel describes as “one of the commonest [abilities people have…:] to get away from things….A child gets it early, and uses it a lot.” I kept to myself, and didn’t have many close friends. I loved reading but sometimes felt it was all I needed, and I’d hide in my closet with a book and a lamp. I’d also get away from the world by what is euphemistically called “daydreaming,” which is really a way of quietly annihilating reality; I felt the only world I could depend on was the one in my mind. Meanwhile, Mr. Siegel explains:
The self is a wanting-to-have-to-do-with thing; and denying, corrupting, diluting its wanting-to-have-to-do-with is like stopping [or] meddling with the growth of an infant.
By denying my true need for reality, I was meddling with my own happiness. I was agonizingly unsure of myself, especially with people I didn’t know. My sister reminded me that in my teens, I would beg her to come with me to the grocery store, so I wouldn’t have to talk to the clerk myself.
I wanted to feel my freedom was in flaunting how different I was; this showed in how I edited the quotation I chose to accompany my sullen photograph in our high school yearbook. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.” I left out the middle part, which points to a kind relation between oneself and others, so that the quotation read: “To believe your own thought…that is genius.” Yet with all the defiant independence in this statement, I didn’t trust my own thought, and was worried about my inability to concentrate.
The person with whom I was most in a whirl about independence and need was my father, Barney Rosen. At times I felt I needed him very much and spent a lot of time with him—jogging on the boardwalk, talking about books and world events, rummaging through odd-lot stores looking for unusual items. I enjoyed these times, but also used them to feel my father needed me more than anyone, and I felt powerful. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I’d feel I couldn’t be with him and would become very cool. I blamed our tumultuous relationship on his being demanding and explosive, but in studying Aesthetic Realism, I was encouraged to go deeper. My consultants asked if my father was angry that he needed people. I said yes; they asked: “Supposing you thought you needed your father. Would that anger you?”
LR: No, I think I do need him.
Consultants: What do you need him for?
I wasn’t sure and answered hesitantly, “Um, intellectual support.” I came to see I’d needed my father for two reasons. One made me proud, because through and with him I was trying to know the world. The other made me ashamed, because I was using him to make myself important while not really caring about him. Our relationship began to change immediately. I wanted to know who Barney Rosen was—and not only in relation to me. I became interested in how he saw my mother and sister, his co-workers, the Vietnam War, sports, his role as a union shop steward. I felt freer, more at ease and confident with him, and also with other people.
Independence and Need in an American Woman
A woman whose life shows a terrific mix-up about independence and need is Ruth Hale (1887-1934). Writes Richard O’Connor in his biography of her better-known husband, the popular journalist Heywood Broun, whom my colleague Michael Palmer spoke about in a seminar, “She was fiercely independent,…a crusader for women’s rights before that cause became fashionable.” She worked passionately for justice in many fields, and encouraged her husband to do so. A friend wrote: “It was Ruth Hale who, more often than not, buckled on Heywood’s armor and sent him into battle….Ruth was a fellow crusader and thought up new causes and new crusades for him to pursue.”
Born in Rogersville, Tennessee, the daughter of a horse breeder and farmer, she asserted her independence as a child, defying what was expected of her as a “properly reared Southern female”—for instance, refusing to ride sidesaddle on her pony. Her mother was fiercely anti-feminist, but early “Ruth [took] the opposite side of the debate despite her mother’s indignation.”
Feeling the need to express herself through the arts, she went at 13 to a Virginia boarding school to study music and painting, and later to Philadelphia’s Academy of Fine Arts. Wherever she went, O’Connor writes, “[she] preach[ed] the feminist doctrine;” this was bold “during the pre-World War I years when men could treat with genial contempt…the idea that women should be allowed to vote and have control of their own property.”
Ruth Hale showed independence when at 18 she began a career in journalism, first as reporter, drama critic and even sports writer in Washington and Philadelphia, and later for Vanity Fair, Vogue, and the New York Times; she also worked as a theatrical press agent. This “intelligent and ambitious young woman,” writes O’Connor,
furiously resented the patronizing, if not downright scornful attitude [by] male editors and colleagues, who considered her something of an oddity [for] doing what had been regarded as a man’s work.
She had a need, both personal and on behalf of her sex, to show that a woman was the intellectual equal of a man. In 1914, she met Heywood Broun, the man who would most respect her mind and ethics. At the same time, their knowing each other brought up intensely the question of how much she wanted to need anyone. It was Broun, who was then covering baseball for the Tribune, for which Ruth’s friend Alice Miller also wrote, who enabled her and Miss Miller—two “militant suffragettes”—to invade the male sanctuary of the press box to watch a game. Right away, Broun was fascinated by Ruth, whose “vitality, …candor, …mental vigor and intellectual curiosity—and…combativeness—were apparent the moment you met her,” writes O’Connor. “She challenged, questioned, hammered away at every preconception.” She even challenged some calls Broun made as the game’s official scorer, and had the audacity to say his writing on baseball was “too cute for its earthy subject.” He welcomed her criticism, and wanted to hear more.
If we really care for people, Mr. Siegel explains, we “hope to see their weakness less and their faults decreasingly powerful. This means that love and criticism are aspects of good will.” In crucial ways, Broun felt this was what Ruth did for him; she in turn was affected and usefully criticized by Broun’s genial manner, and the way he went against convention—not truculently, as she did, but with an easygoing sense of what seemed right. Within two days, he’d introduced her to his parents. Yet despite their dependence on and valuing of each other’s friendship, it was several years before they spoke of marriage. Theirs would be a very unconventional marriage. “Ruth made it clear,” writes O’Connor,
that…she would retain her identity and independence; she would continue to pursue her own career. They would be coequal heads of the household….Ruth kept offering qualifications almost as though she hoped Heywood would find them unacceptable….They weren’t to be shackled; each could have separate friends and go out on the town alone….If one or the other was attracted to someone else, the marriage would be dissolved for the asking.
She balked at parts of the marriage ceremony, especially the word “obey,” saying “she had never obeyed anyone or anything but her own conscience,” and insisted she would never be “Mrs. Heywood Broun.” With all this, they were married in June, 1917, and the next day they sailed for France where each had an assignment to cover the war: she as a writer for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune, he as a war correspondent with the American Expeditionary Force. Within the year, they returned so Ruth could give birth to their son, who later wrote: “I think those days in France were the last in which she felt in control of her own destiny and therefore happy in the enjoyment of that independence fiercely wanted and yet so easily defeated.” After this time, her career floundered while his “pass[ed] and eclipse[d] her[s], even as he depended more and more on her help and criticism.”
The confusion about independence and need in love
Though I was very different from Ruth Hale, what I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism could have helped her understand herself. For a long time, I said I wanted nothing more than to have love in my life, and bemoaned the fact that I didn’t. Meanwhile, I felt I was independent, and could take care of myself very well, man or no man. Somehow, men got the idea. What Ellen Reiss writes in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known describes a large reason for my pain about love:
All over America now, people want to love a person—and yet they don’t want to need a person. They want to feel things have meaning for them—yet they don’t want to need those things. And so, people find that they can’t love and that things don’t have the meaning they hope for: because to have anything or anyone mean a great deal without needing that thing or person is impossible.
As I studied Aesthetic Realism and saw I could be proud to need other people and things, I became hopeful about love, but there was more for me to learn. In a class some time after Alan Shapiro and I began dating, I said I sometimes felt he wasn’t wholly present as we spoke, and I’d get hurt. When Ellen Reiss asked, “Have you hung on every syllable of Mr. Shapiro?” I saw I’d been doing some dismissing of my own, acting as if I didn’t need him, even as I wanted him to need me. Ms. Reiss asked:
ER: Do you think Mr. Shapiro wants to show you that you don’t have him, and then do you have to show that you do have him—or you should have him?
ER: Do you want this to go on underground, or ask: “How do we see each other? Do you think I act like I own you in a way that is disrespectful, and you’ll show me I don’t?”
And she asked: “Is it possible to feel, ‘He wants something from me, and I love it’ and ‘She wants something from me, and I love it’?” It means so much to me that now, as Alan and I are husband and wife, we can ask: What do we want from each other?—and to try to meet each other’s hopes. One way Alan does this is through criticizing my tendency to act as if I can answer all my questions myself. He has useful, kind humor and keen perception which help me know myself better. And he passionately wants the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method, which we are both proud to use in our classrooms, to be known. I love him for this, and for so much more.
Some of what Ruth Hale and Heywood Broun wanted from each other was good. He valued her criticism of his work, and wrote: “For seventeen years practically every word I wrote was set down with the feeling that [she] was looking over my shoulder.” And I believe that even as they had somewhat separate lives—including living on different floors of their West 85th Street brownstone—she needed his good nature to counter her petulance. Working with her husband in behalf of ethics made her stronger, as in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, who were falsely accused of treason, unjustly tried and eventually executed—many called it murder—in Massachusetts.
But there were also ways they depended on each other that hurt them both very much. As members of the famed Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s, which included such writers as Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker, they—and especially Ruth, who had an acerbic wit—took part in conversations that were often malicious towards others. Just as with a couple tonight who join their friends in making fun of the neighbors and then feel disgusted with each other, the Broun-Hale agreement for contempt was poisonous to their marriage. So was the fact that while both of them drank a good deal, and Broun was also very troubled by his excessive gambling, it seems neither of them fought to have each other’s “faults decreasingly powerful.” I believe that if Ruth had felt her husband was against what she couldn’t like in herself and fought for the best thing in her, she would not have felt she was losing her freedom.
But she did feel this, and struck out on her own in various ways—good and bad. For instance, when she decided they should have a country home and Broun disagreed, she bought one herself, where he could visit, if he wished. She also co-founded the Lucy Stone League, an organization named for a 19th century fighter for women’s suffrage, devoted to giving women the freedom to keep their names after marriage. And she had a much publicized correspondence with the State Department to get them to issue her a passport in her own name.
Meanwhile, though she worked on and off as a theatrical press agent and journalist and assisted Broun, even writing articles and reviews published under his byline—which she quietly resented—Ruth was angry at her own waning career, and was agitated and irritable. Their son Woodie says “Ruth’s…room became increasingly cluttered with card tables bearing puzzles, piles of cigarette butts, and boxes of Requa’s Charcoal Tablets,” a stomach remedy. I believe her drive to solve jigsaw and diagramless crossword puzzles stands for her desire to put together things she saw as separate, to see that things could depend on each other in a way making for composition and strength. Unable to do this consciously, she felt that being “married to Broun, she was deprived of her individuality, even her identity.”
They separated for several years, though they never lived more than a few blocks apart. In 1933, Broun finally agreed to a divorce, but even then, their son writes, they had “a barbed-steel tether of dependence that held them together,” and they continued to collaborate on many projects. Friends said she came to feel “she should have worked harder at the marriage and resented it less.” Less than a year later, she seems to have given up her desire to live. She became ill and within weeks, she died at age 48.
“Independence or freedom,” writes Eli Siegel, “is a beautiful oneness of [a person] by himself,…and [a person] in a proud relation to all things….[It] is a great kinship of need and dazzling autonomy.” This is what every person yearns for. Aesthetic Realism is here to teach people that independence and need can truly be together in our lives!