I’ve been touring the country lately promoting a new book. Nothing unusual about that, but I happen not to be the author of the book I’m hawking. Its author is my wife, Marjorie Williams, who died this past January of liver cancer.
The book, titled The Woman at the Washington Zoo, is a collection of her writings, many of them previously published in the Washington Post, Slate, and Vanity Fair, and a couple of them previously unpublished. In the introduction, I state that editing the book—which I did in the months after Marjorie died—was an act of mourning. This is particularly manifest in the final section, which consists of essays Marjorie wrote about her illness and her thoughts about impending death. As you might imagine, I am still very much consumed by—sometimes paralyzed by—grief.
But I don’t want readers of The Woman at the Washington Zoo to feel they’re paying tribute to a writer who died too young. I want readers to experience the pleasure of reading a writer who is witty, playful, trenchant, wise, and very much alive. Even if you didn’t know her, Marjorie was and is wonderful company. I want the reading public to make her acquaintance.
The catch is that to do this, I have to be Marjorie—to impersonate her, after a fashion, as I represent the book in media interviews and public appearances. The task, though necessary, is wildly presumptuous. In a couple of weeks, I’m supposed to talk about the book before a group of Washington women who regularly meet to discuss the conflict between family and work, a subject the book addresses at some length. I don’t know precisely what Marjorie would say about my claiming expertise on this subject, but I imagine it would include the word “buster” and make reference to the addictive properties of the Internet as experienced by the American white-collar male.
In some ways, not being the author of the book I’m touting is quite liberating. There is no obstacle to my saying, as I often do at bookstore appearances, that The Woman at the Washington Zoo is a wonderful book. That isn’t a boast because I didn’t write it. At the same time, it isn’t necessary that I defend every opinion expressed in the book, because the opinions aren’t mine. I didn’t choose the contents according to what I agreed with; rather, I chose the pieces, and the arguments contained therein, according to what I found interesting. Those were usually—but not always—the same thing.
At bookstore readings, people ask me what Marjorie thought about this or that, and I tell them. I am, as her widower, the world’s leading authority on what she believed and felt. But I try to remind myself as often as possible that even my expert opinion is of limited value. In his book A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis laments that the wife he mourns is really only his idea of his wife, unchecked by the little daily corrections and surprises of her actuality:
Slowly, quietly, like snowflakes, like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night, little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end. … The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone.
This is a blunt and disturbingly persuasive assault on the comforting notion that those for whom we grieve live on in our hearts. It isn’t Marjorie that I carry inside me, but my idea of Marjorie, which starts out imperfect and will grow faultier over time.
Thank heaven, then, for Marjorie’s words, which help me plow through snowdrifts of accumulating misconceptions. She put an enormous amount of herself into her writing; that’s a large part of what made her writing so good. While rereading the many pieces that I considered including in the book, I felt soothed by the presence of Marjorie’s voice. It felt as though I were experiencing her vibrancy firsthand, unpolluted by memory or grief. Even now, after choosing and footnoting the contents and proofreading them countless times, I still feel that a few minutes paging through the book will put me back in touch with what my dear wife was really like. It’s deeply gratifying to see other people—people who never knew her—respond to Marjorie’s warmth, her gumption, her humor.
The hitch is that not even a writer can ever be only, or even mainly, her words. Even if I were to confine myself to the words Marjorie wrote down—which exceed the capacity of any conceivable volume—that would leave out the things she said to me, the things she said to others, the things she meant but didn’t say, the things she said but didn’t mean. And even if I could sort all that out, I would fail to capture the infinity and brilliance of her dimensions beyond language or thought. Marjorie wasn’t, and isn’t, a book. It’s just as close as she—and I—can manage.
Click here to read an essay by Meghan O’Rourke about Marjorie Williams’ political journalism and The Woman at the Washington Zoo.