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April 15, 2015
Candida Lawrence 1924 – 2015
In San Rafael, California, on the morning of March 25, the remarkable writer who sometimes called herself Candida Lawrence died in her sleep. She was 90 years old.
In 2007, at the age of 83, Candida founded the now vanished journal Memoir (and) to further what she felt the genre should be. It was the second literary journal she had started. She also spent many years befriending writers and teaching children. But despite all that—and even though her books remain almost completely unknown—it is her writing about her own life that will have the greatest impact. And if that impact is never admitted, her extraordinary books will always quietly be there as a gloss on the works of memoirists to come.
The woman who wrote under the name of Candida (after Candide) Lawrence (for the author of Sons and Lovers) had a complex relationship with selfhood. She wrote with perhaps unparalleled frankness about her life, which indicates a desire for some breed of notoriety. But—as an unindicted but admitted criminal—she protected all of her names and those of her children, her parents, her husbands, and the friends who had in one way or another abetted her life underground.
She withheld her father’s name from her work, though she admired him and wanted to honor his memory, his writing, his work as a newspaperman. I don’t think she ever mentioned in print the name of her first husband—who appears in what I think is her best book: Fear Itself (2004). She never published the name of her second husband, the college professor from whom she snatched her children and disappeared in 1965—which is the story related in her first and most unique book, Reeling & Writhing (1994). For obvious practical reasons, the new names she gave her daughter and son in that book and its sequel, Change of Circumstance (1995), exist only in those volumes, nowhere else.
Perhaps most interesting, when she referred to herself in her memoirs, it was only by the name Giershe. “Candida Lawrence” is not even the name by which her friends knew her; nor was it the name by which her companion of over 50 years referred to her.
In short, for a memoirist Candida’s relationship to identity itself was complicated. But this, I think, is precisely what defines her work and makes it so affecting and important. Perhaps especially in Vanishing, her 2009 collection of memoiric essays, it is her distance as a writer from herself as an individual that gives her work its sometimes breathtaking power. I’m thinking especially of the essays “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” and “Mutuality.”
All of Candida’s writing has the overriding purpose of asserting that a woman must take unmitigated and unchallengeable ownership of her own story. That remained a defiant stance for a woman of her generation. And to take that position as a memoirist, she both literally and metaphorically had to refer to herself in the third person. More than the fear of prosecution this was the reason she told her own story (and documented it) as the tale of a woman named Giershe. And it’s why Giershe has no last name.
Despite the close-held and intimate desire to be heard that causes a writer to write, Candida Lawrence engendered in herself a distance, a self-abstraction, that paradoxically yielded up the most specific and frank of revelations. Of course one aspect of owning a story is that its truth can always be challenged if for no other reason but the choices made of what and whom to omit. But this seems to me beside the point. Let others own their versions of the stories Candida wrote.
What matters is the sheer force of a memoirist who believed what she remembered, feared fear, and did not worry herself about anyone’s disapproval. For over twenty years I was that writer’s publisher, and I can still hear the lilt in her speaking voice. It is comforting to know that every year more and more readers will discover the fierce one she wrote in.
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