On Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work: A Reckoning with Life
by Mark Chmiel
–first published in Episcopal Life, 1997
This memoir grabbed me from the moment when I first read its opening epigraph, “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.” I remember laughing with gratitude, “Yes! How terribly true!” I was gladdened at that time to take comfort in its bitter truth. For, it was only two weeks before in January that my wife, Mev Puleo, a vivacious photojournalist and activist, died of respiratory failure from the increasingly vicious ravages of a brain tumor. Mev had been ill for the previous 21 months, and in the last four, she had undergone an excruciating process of losing her vital powers, such as speech, mobility, and eye-sight (for such a gifted speaker and photographer, these were exceptionally cruel relinquishments). My mind had often been in hell during those months yet I had been buoyed — and kept from utter despair — by Mev’s own resilient love and good humor, as well as the solidarity and accompaniment of many friends and family.
And yet, in the aftermath of her death, in the return to an apartment now glaringly empty of her presence, resisting despair became an even greater challenge. With her powerfully honest and heart-rending memoir, Gillian Rose provided solace to me in my early harrowing days of facing loss. What a stylist, what honesty, what a life! I am sure that reading this book in such proximity to such a gut-wrencing loss opened my eyes to certain themes and stories of the writer.
A philosopher by passion and profession, Jewish by birth, British by nationality, Gillian Rose interweaves together the vivid stories and characters of her life. For Rose, “reckoning with life” means both facing loss and celebrating love. And Rose had plenty of loss in her life.
Rose also recollects and probes her life’s four nemeses — immigration, atheism, divorce, and dyslexia. She describes the dying by AIDS of her former teacher Jim who initiated her into a love for philosophy. She was a magnificent exemplar of accompaniment, holding him as he lay dying in a shelter in New York. She ruminates on the meanings of names, a reflection of her family’s break-up’s and assimilation as Jews in Christian England. She paints vivid portraits of friends, really odd characters, she has come to know and trust, like Edna the nonagenarian who has cancer of the face and a false nose. She recounts her travels to Auschwitz with a delegation of Jewish intellectuals who were called upon to advise the Polish government on the best ways to remember at Auschwitz. We learn that Rose’s mother lost 50 relatives in the Holocaust, and as far as she (the mother) is concerned, nothing ever happened.
Amazing for a philosopher, Rose reveals her torrid and doomed affair she had with an Irish liberation theologian. About their inevitable break-up, she writes, “Let those feelings uniquely called forth by sexual love, my life’s passion and pain, my learnt desirability, let them prevail. Now I am not dissociated from my ululation. I hear the roaring and the roasting and know that it is I. Resist the telephone! Even though help is only a few digits away. For the first time, I say ‘No’ to any alleviation, to the mean of friendship, to the endlessly inventive love of my sisters. I don’t want to be justified. Keep your mind in hell … I want to sob and sob and sob … until the prolonged shrieking becomes a shout of joy.”
An American bias toward the pragmatic and self-help industry might well rue Rose’s inability to find “a group” or a therapist to help her through this minefield of familial dysfunction, historical trauma, and relational woe (she considered herself an expert on terrible relationships). And yet, for all of this, there is the most amazing candor and lightness to Rose’s memoir.
And finally, when she writes about the ovarian cancer from which she ultimately died, she doesn’t turn to the facile blandishments of New Age spirituality or alternative medicines’ utopian promises. What Rose proposes instead is a highly personal commitment to love’s work: “I reach for my favorite whisky bottle and instruct my valetudinarian well-wishers to imbibe the shark’s oil and aloe vera themselves. If I am to stay alive, I am bound to continue to get love wrong, all the time, but not to cease wooing, for that is my life affair, love’s work….I will stay in the fray, in the revel of ideas and risk; learning, failing, wooing, grieving, trusting, working, reposing — in this sin of language and lips.”
Gillian Rose recently died from her cancer. On the day of her death, she entered the Anglican Church. As this marvelous and haunting memoir testifies, she lived fully and intensely in her short life. And, like my own wife, her commitment to “love’s work” is a gift and a challenge to those who knew her and who read her. For she kept her mind in hell, despaired not, and loved with passion and pizzazz.