Review | Francine Prose’s first memoir spares no one, including herself

Review | Francine Prose’s first memoir spares no one, including herself

After publishing 22 novels and eight nonfiction books, including the 2006 bestseller “Reading Like a Writer” (a book I have given as a gift to many friends), Francine Prose has written her first memoir. Titled “1974: A Personal History,” it focuses on her life during that time, in particular her brief affair with Tony Russo, who, with Daniel Ellsberg, copied and leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971 to expose U.S. government hypocrisy, which they hoped would stop the war in Vietnam.

In 1974, 26-year-old Prose had left her husband, dropped out of graduate school at Harvard and fled to San Francisco. She had already published her first novel when she met Russo, who was a decade older. Immediately, she was drawn to a man she saw as “antiwar royalty.” Russo, an economist and engineer, had earned a certain mystique not only for his role in the leak but also for spending 47 days in jail for refusing to testify before a grand jury.

“Tony was charismatic. He was brave. He’d been to Vietnam,” Prose writes of his appeal. “He’d interviewed prisoners, peasants, scooter drivers. He’d seen the horrors of war. He’d help steal the Pentagon Papers. He’d gone to jail. And now he wanted me to listen, to hear what he had been through. He seemed to think I could help. He’d come to San Francisco to write a book, and I was a writer.”

The pair spent a lot of time speeding around San Francisco by car in the middle of the night. The city, Prose writes, no longer basked in the “hippie squalor” of Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” but had become truly gritty: “Nearly every corner had its resident meth heads, scratching themselves bloody.” Prose and Russo chain-smoked, talked and cried together. Much later, Prose would feel he had used her as a sounding board for the book he was trying to write.

Russo comes off as smart and passionate, but also rambling and deeply damaged. “Sometimes he’d tell stories with confusing chronologies or that lacked the smooth transitions that would have made them possible to follow. It often seemed as if words were moving through him, bubbling like drops from a fountain,” Prose writes. He was often paranoid about the FBI. “I knew that something had happened to Tony, but still I tried to convince myself that I was getting things wrong,” she writes. It’s worth noting that this memoir is coming out the year after Ellsberg’s death. Neither he nor Russo, who died in 2008, can refute any of these depictions.

Prose’s book is being promoted as the story of what it was like to be a young woman in the 1970s, and perhaps it is reflective of the experience of many women who came of age on the East and West coasts. This is her version of 1974, but it isn’t mine. I am a decade younger, but that isn’t it. Where we part company is in her descriptions of the home front during the Vietnam War.

Here, I readily admit my bias. I grew up in a working-class county in Ohio that lost 26 men in Vietnam. Countless others came home forever changed. They didn’t have the college deferments of Prose’s friends, or unethical psychiatrists like the one in Boston who “would see each patient a few times and write a letter stating that the patient was unfit for military service.”

Prose writes that “it can’t be overstated how much the public outrage over the Vietnam War was fueled by the fact that middle-class white kids were being drafted, unlike today’s ‘volunteer’ military, culled from the poor and communities of color.” This is a tone-deaf take. The majority of men who served in the war came from poor and working-class families.

Prose’s memoir of course reflects her own experience, but like all memoirs, it also offers a snapshot in time, in this case a tumultuous period in U.S. history. And, as with all memoirs, we must ask ourselves the question: How much of this writer’s memory can we believe?

It helps if the writer can offer evidence of their note-taking and reporting. It can be more challenging when a book is written about events and conversations that happened a long time ago. In those circumstances, a writer should offer direct quotes sparingly.

Prose says she was “too busy paying attention, trying to focus on what Tony was telling me. To remember it word for word. Not to write about. Not then.” Yet she recalls lengthy conversations that took place 50 years ago. She quotes Russo’s alleged monologues, some of them pages long, which occurred during those meandering drives at night. She wants us to believe she remembers his every word. Her book should have begun with a disclaimer that doesn’t appear until the acknowledgments: “Any attempt to recall dialogue verbatim will be approximate, at best, but I have tried to capture the voices of the people I knew and to describe what they did and said.”

Prose ended the relationship with Russo abruptly, during a moment of deep embarrassment for him that Prose describes in painful detail. “I felt justified. I felt young. I felt free. I felt like a monster who would never be forgiven. I never saw Tony again.”

Prose brings a sharp lens to her shortcomings. “I’d wanted to believe that I was always a thoughtful, kindhearted, responsible person. One danger of writing about yourself is that you may learn things about yourself that you don’t want to know.”

One of her more significant discoveries: “I suppose there was a kind of instability, what we would now call bipolarity, in the way that, during those years, I veered between periods of paralyzing dread and times of being dangerously trusting and even indifferent to danger … What I was working toward, what I hoped, was for my psyche to stay intact, bouncing comfortably in the middle between recklessness and terror, between safety and disaster.”

This is among the many reasons Prose is widely admired as a writer. She spares no one, including herself. Intentionally or not, with this book she is making the case that she was indeed meant to be a writer. On this we will always agree.

Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, is the author of the novel “The Daughters of Erietown,” and, most recently, the children’s book “Lola and the Troll.”