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When Memory Comes : THE ARCHITECT OF DESIRE: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family. By Suzannah Lessard (Dial Press: $24.95, 338 pp.)

November 24, 1996|Judith Hall | Judith Hall's "To Put the Mouth To" (William Morrow) was selected for the National Poetry Series

Suzannah Lessard's memoir assembles the beautiful wreckage of a family obsessed, from generation to generation, with art, class and female flesh. Lessard is the great-granddaughter of Stanford White, a man known less for his Gilded Age architecture than for his murder in 1906 by Evelyn Nesbit's millionaire husband, Harry K. Thaw. "Stanford White, Voluptuary and Pervert, Dies the Death of a Dog," a Vanity Fair headline reported with gusto.

Lessard, a former staff writer for the New Yorker, alternates chapters of "Danger" and "Comfort," tension and release, and White's compulsive seductions and beautiful architectural designs are presented as history, as foreshadow and as a shadow-memory of Lessard's allegations of abuse by her father, composer Frank Rousseau. "In adulthood a kind of memory came to me of a small violent scene. . ," she writes. Notice how Lessard approaches this defining experience with these qualifications: "a kind of," "small." Her verbal gropings indicate the difficulty of returning to that time. "Here I am on the stairs, a pretty little girl with curly hair wearing a pretty little dress. . . . Then my Daddy comes around. . . . Then my Daddy reaches up. . . ." This diction is substantially different from the rest of Lessard's memoir, and the repetition of syntax and regressive adjectives intensifies the effect of this devastating scene.

What happened is open to interpretation. Lessard is careful to distinguish between what she calls "body memory" and "mind memory." The memory of sensation, image and volatile emotion may contrast with memory that has been made over in the mind into a narrative coherence. Part of the task of Lessard's memoir is to reconnect the fragments of her memory, integrate interpretations and to feel again what she may remember only intellectually. "It was startling to me that I had been able so completely to forget what I knew, had been able to restore the concealing surface--halcyon, bright--so perfectly that it was as if it had never been breached. But it is in the nature of this kind of surface that, like reflections on water, it is automatically self-sealing: The challenge is not so much to pierce the slick of reflections as to maintain the break."

The memoir is traditionally a romance about the self founded on reminiscences. Whether the individual's memories are significant to readers depends on the shape and resonance of that romance. When St. Augustine describes his early debauchery, he justifies his confession as part of his education in "the grace of faith." His conversion to Christianity becomes a model for other sufferers. Frederick Douglass' classic slave narrative has a comparable didactic function and also defines the individual by his suffering and transformation. Lessard was clearly aware of this tradition of autobiography when she constructed her story of suffering and faith's solace. She describes persuasively her sense of "grace" as more than a stabilizing consolation.

Yet family and religion formed the traditional woman's realm, remember, and a romance about the self in this sphere is defined by relationships. Lessard's subject, shaped and interpreted in this way, seems an acutely conservative project. Is the woman's journey out of the family, rather than into the world, still the heroine's only romance? Is a woman's suffering still the price she barters for authority? A woman's story, enlarged by its attachment to another life, is the oldest "romance" there is. When the American poet Hilda Doolittle, known in poetry circles as H.D., constructed her "Tribute to Freud," she too justified her beautifully written memories as a confrontation with an overwhelming father-figure.

Stanford White's accomplishments include the original Madison Square Garden and the Boston Public Library. He argued for a public architecture that was neoclassical, a style, as Lessard explains, "that celebrates exclusive and total power." White opposed Gothic architecture because it suggested suffering and mysticism. He once recommended that all the Gothic architecture at West Point be destroyed, and when his idea was ignored, he called the decision "a public calamity, a body blow."

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