FICTION NOVEMBER 4, 2010
by Millen Brand
New York Review of Books, 248 pp., $14.95
What happened to the reputations of Freud and Marx? Although Mad Men has invited some curious nostalgia for the old days of pipe smoke and neurotic repression, Freud is more or less archeology, not history, and any mention of his central theories in a therapeutic session would probably be, in itself, Something to Discuss. Meanwhile earnest undergraduates now read Deleuze or Adorno instead of Marx and Engels: a “Marxist” is likely to be an aging literary critic, not an indignantly awakened youth with a political and economic program.
In these circumstances, Millen Brand’s 1937 novel The Outward Room, recently re-issued by New York Review Books, presents some stumbling blocks for the modern reader. The book is dated, and there is a vein of dogma in it. But Brand’s artistry pulls away from these limitations and frequently overcomes them. The result is a strange and often beautiful book, an adventure story and a love story and, at its best, a kaleidoscopic glimpse of New York City during the worst moments of the Depression.
The protagonist of The Outward Room is Harriet, an initially unnamed woman in her early twenties who has been locked up in a mental asylum for seven years, since the death of her beloved brother sent her into a spiral of “periodic insanity,” or manic depression, as it had recently been categorized. In a tentative state of recovery, the woman finds refuge in the ward for hopeless cases, a more peaceful spot than either the manic or the depressive ward, where she can have her own room. Her treatment consists of sedatives and daily conversations with her therapist, Dr. Revlin.
“What did you dream last night,” [Dr. Revlin] said.
“Resistance today. Or is it—? No, try to remember.”
“I’m sure I didn’t dream—”
“You’ve remembered before when you thought you hadn’t dreamed. Try to think.”
“I can’t.” Yet she was yielding, her mood changing.
After she describes her dream, the doctor proceeds to explain exactly what ails her. “At the center of your dream, clearly, you became your mother, you were putting yourself in her place in relation to your father…It’s just another proof of something I’ve told you, that almost all children go through a period when they fall in love with the parent, the one of the opposite sex. It’s an old story now, well-known.” When the patient objects, arguing reasonably, “It’s just words, it’s just the way you want it,” he pushes on: “All the material, all I’ve uncovered, hundreds, thousands of details support what I’ve told you.”
Dr. Revlin’s grand theory is that because she saw her father as weak, her incestuous love passed on from him to her brother, a desire arrested and corrupted by his untimely death—and to move past it, she must meet with her parents, whom she has not seen in years. When this gambit fails dramatically, Dr. Revlin appears to sour on her, telling her that she “might as well” escape, as she has long wanted to do.
Today it is easy to see all the ham-handedness, male pushiness, and even the basic cruelty of Revlin's approach. But for Brand, Freudian analysts were heroes. He is most famous for having written the Academy Award-nominated 1948 screenplay for the The Snake Pit, in which a young woman falls into madness, enters a wretched asylum, and works her way back to health through the interventions of a Freudian psychoanalyst who shows her that all her problems date back to an uncaring mother. His novel Savage Sleep, published in 1968, fictionalizes with great if not uncomplicated adulation the career of the controversial Dr. John N. Rosen, pioneer of “direct analysis,” or the practice of forcing Freudian analysis through role-playing and rudimentary psychodrama on patients who are too mentally isolated to conduct normal talk therapy (most of whom can also blame their schizophrenia or psychosis on uncaring mothers). “Good boy,” Rosen says to a ranting patient whom he considers to be terrified that his father will castrate him because of his desire to have sex with his mother. “Use your squirter. It’s a nice big one and you can be proud of it.”
This is clumsy stuff, as is Dr. Revlin’s approach. But Brand, who worked as a psychiatric aide as part of his research for The Snake Pit, saw analysis as the humane alternative to unproven and potentially damaging treatments such as electroshock therapy or insulin-induced comas. The Snake Pit came out the same year as Albert Deutsch’s book The Shame of the States, which detailed the cramped and fetid lives of mental patients in state-run asylums in America, comparing them to the concentration camps in Europe. Even at the time The Outward Room was published, when electroshock was not yet available and most severe disorders were treated with primitive measures such as cold baths and knock-out drugs, psychoanalysis was viewed as a more sophisticated, nurturing approach. So although that early therapy scene reads like an uncomfortable Freudian parody, for Brand it seems to be a sort of primal moment, even if he is sympathetic to his heroine’s resistance.
Thirty years later, in fact, the Rosen character in Savage Sleep finds inspiration in Dr. Revlin’s case files, which describe the therapeutic encounter in The Outward Room and conclude: “The patient…escaped from the hospital shortly after this session and effected a recovery in the outside world, a recovery possibly helped by insights she received in analysis.” So is the idea that Harriet eventually heals because of the insight that she wanted to sleep with her dead brother? Luckily, Brand does not insist too dutifully on that explanation. As Harriet flees from Freud, so, to a certain extent, does the novel, and to excellent effect—until it crashes into Marx.
Her escape is a thrilling sequence. Late one night Harriet sneaks out, her clothes bundled up in a pillowcase with the hospital monogram on it. She climbs over the asylum fence, walks to a railway station, and hops on a train going in the direction of New York. The description of her moonlit bolt is quick-pulsed and lyrical: “Fear slowly ebbed out of her and the ringing sound of the crickets welled up with the promise of vacancy and peace.” She eventually finds herself in Manhattan with one dollar, her brother’s ring to pawn, and not a single useful skill in the summer of 1933.
Brand is at his best piling up the details of Depression-era New York, seen through the disorienting lens of the wandering and hungry stranger. Here is Harriet reading the “HELP WANTED—FEMALE” section of the paper: “The columns of fine print Steno-secty German-English dictation machine opers. with stock brokerage exp. on P.&S. work milliners first class forelady experienced handling operations corsets girdles brassieres brushmakers experienced on shaving brush knots...” On a subway platform, during one hallucinatory night criss-crossing the city underground, she sees “a number of men sleeping in shoe-shining chairs. The chairs were on daises; each man slept with his head back and his closed eyes staring into an electric light hanging above him.” Even the street markets display sad weedy vegetables, especially in contrast to their descendants, the organically deluxe goodies of the Union Square Greenmarket: “Shadowed by white cloth or canvas spread about them…were the fresh piles of lettuce, scallions, dandelions, celery, turnips…”
When Harriet is near collapse in a subway cafeteria, equally unable to pay for food or gather strength to leave, she meets John, a steady, honest, taciturn lathe operator. Guessing her situation, he buys her coffee and invites her home. He tells her his story—he is a former coal miner from Ohio, escaped to work in machine shops in New York—and she cleans his house. Tentatively they fall in love, although she resists marrying him because, as she says, “I’m insane…I died. I’m not really alive. And yet I wanted to have life.”
Its publishers compare The Outward Room to the work of Theodore Dreiser, who wrote a positive review of the book when it first came out. But unlike Dreiser’s Carrie, Harriet only makes friends in the city—no one hurts or takes advantage of her. (The first time Brand refers to his main character as “Harriet” and not as “she,” as he does all through the asylum and the escape scenes, is in a startling short chapter in which Harriet takes in a stray lost woman and holds her through the night.) Even Mr. Farbman, the boss at the dress factory where she eventually takes a job, is thoroughly generous and straightforward. It’s refreshing to read a 1930s novel with a sympathetic Jewish character, but in general the goodness of the many tenement-dwellers and factory-workers who befriend Harriet becomes unrelenting. Surely one or two of them were craven or selfish? It’s a measure of Brand’s sensitivity as a writer that the individual characters never lose their particularity or presence, but his parade of kind peasants (coupled with the occasional sadistic policeman) accumulates to create a world with almost no dynamic conflict.
In any case, the cushioning presence of other people and Harriet’s love for John carry her through another relapse into “darkness,” as she puts it, and finally into health. The novel’s title and epigram come from a stanza in John Donne’s The Second Anniversary describing the soul’s journey after the death of the body: death is the “outward roome,” the antechamber where the soul first sees the “little glimmering light” that prefigures the transcendent light of heaven. Harriet’s metaphorical death and resurrection give the last section of the novel an increasingly religious tone, as spring comes again and she ponders the words of her brother’s funeral sermon, taken from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” Well, why not make Harriet into Jesus? But Brand’s nonchalance is one of a few shortcuts that mar the ending. After all his lovely and delicate evocation of Depression-era New York, he goes out of his way to put the Socialist in social realism, adding some over-determined scenes of John spearheading the unionization of his shop. (A member of the Communist Party and a friend to many of the lefty writers of his time, including Richard Wright, Brand was eventually blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee.) And the actual final cure for Harriet’s “darkness” feels contrived, as if Dr. Revlin had popped up over Brand’s shoulder and made one of his mathematical suggestions.
These are the elements of The Outward Room that have not survived. But Brand’s imagery and detail still dazzle. As Harriet walks around New York, the city heaves into clanking, shimmering, sweating reality: “she passed bars behind blank windows, alcohol wetting the air with sweetness. … The street as she walked along it grew in heat and darkness, unstirred air holding the sun like metal.” Describing river waves lapping at the city’s edge, Brand writes that “They could hear the suck of the water, as soft as horses’ lips.”
In Brand’s later fiction there too few moments like these and too much pedantry about Freud. The Outward Room is the fascinating site of a contest between two antithetical writerly impulses, the judging and the observing; and even though the less durable one won out in the end, the conflict offers a lasting pleasure.
Britt Peterson is the deputy managing editor of Foreign Policy.