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Stranger in Two Worlds by Jean Harris (Macmillan: $18.95; 320 pp.)

September 28, 1986|Janet Kaye | Kaye is a lawyer and writer currently at work on a collection of short stories. and

It is not just the wisdom of hindsight but also the oppressive weight of Jean Harris' repressed rage at Dr. Herman Tarnower, discernible throughout the pages of "Stranger in Two Worlds," that make the doctor's shooting death at Harris' hands seem inevitable.

In her book--part autobiography and part apologia--Harris presents herself as bright and capable yet intensely insecure. She believed herself to belong fully neither to the private school world of the wealthy to whose children she ministered nor to the world of the man who kept her at emotional arms' length throughout their 14-year relationship.

She portrays herself as addicted both to the doctor and to the "speed" he prescribed for her, which she suggests contributed to her state and therefore to the crime.

And she portrays Tarnower, best known as the originator of the Scarsdale diet, as a clever man and cruel misogynist; the direct cause and sometime-alleviator of her deep depression.

Harris maintains she intended to commit suicide, not murder on the night of March 10, 1980. She refers to "Hy's" death distantly, passively, much as one relative might refer to the quiet passing on of another. That eerie disassociation is matched by her belief that her second-degree murder conviction and 15-year-to-life-in-prison sentence are evidence of massive failure in the criminal justice system.

Prison life is portrayed as a Kafka-esque foray into mindless bullying. Harris says lack of self-esteem is common to her fellow prisoners. It is not a novel idea, but her insider's perspective gives it new weight. In one funny/sad example of women who do not believe themselves capable of fending for themselves, she quotes an inmate's reaction to Ibsen's Nora in "A Doll's House."

"No amount of explaining would convince them that Nora wasn't some kind of nut to walk away from all that good stuff her husband had provided for her. So what if he called her 'my little sparrow' and treated her like a brainless child . . . (Inmate) Darlene had the last word. 'She musta been havin' her period. She be back in the morning.' "

Harris calls Tarnower "the only man I ever loved." Yet, at last believing he was incapable of returning that love, she quotes Edna St. Vincent Millay:

Pity me that the heart is slow to learn

What the swift mind beholds at every turn.

It is evidence of the success of Harris' strange and disturbing book that we do pity her.

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