I was talking to my writing group friends Karen and Deborah the other day about what I was reading. I told them I’ve been on a memoir jag. I just finished Patti Davis’s book “The Long Goodbye” and now I’m reading Jane Fonda’s new autobiography, “My Life So Far.” In describing the books, I explained that while I am no fan of the Reagan presidency, I admire Patti Davis’s writing and was impressed by how honest she was about her own youthful actions. Even though she remains diametrically opposed to the politics of her father’s administration, she wrote about all the things she did during her dad’s White House years that make her cringe today. I then told Karen and Deborah how much I’m enjoying Jane Fonda’s searingly honest writing. She describes her ill-fated 1972 trip to Hanoi in detail and how she unwittingly found herself smiling on top of that North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun that had probably shot down American planes. The photos became lightning rods in the battle between people who were against the war and people who thought the anti-war protesters were traitors. Fonda doesn’t pass the buck in her book, she takes full responsibility for her own stupidity that led to this unfortunate photo op. She understands why people continue to be so upset by these images and she apologizes for her actions again and again.
“Oh,” Karen and Deborah commented, “you seem to be into women with lots of regrets.” I hadn’t made any connection between Patti Davis and Jane Fonda, but they were right. I had always admired Patti Davis as First Children go, even when she was appearing in bad made-for-TV movies and doing misguided Playboy layouts. And I actively followed Jane Fonda through all three of her wildly different marriages and diverse film roles that included sex kitten “Barbarella,” tragic Depression-era Gloria in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They,” hardened hooker Bree Daniel in “Klute,” naïve military wife Sally Hyde in “Coming Home,” and repentant daughter Chelsea in “On Golden Pond.” What attracted me to both of these women’s books was their willingness to revisit past actions with the benefits of age and maturity and provide an unflinching analysis of where they erred even if their motives seemed beyond reproach at the time.
I also liked that Patti Davis and Jane Fonda are both confirmed lefties who stand by their politics but eventually came to realize that some of their extreme tactics were less than effective. I remember seeing Jane Fonda speak once at a rally in Daley Plaza in Chicago. This was during the Tom Hayden years and I can’t even remember what the cause was—I think it had something to do with migrant workers. What I do remember is that Jane took the podium and for a good ten minutes screamed nonstop into the microphone, fists in the air, her words completely unintelligible even to people standing a few feet away from her as I was. It was perplexing to say the least. I wasn’t looking for sexy Barbarella to sugarcoat the speech with breathy pauses but I did think it a colossal waste that Fonda delivered her message in such an angry, shrill way as to render it meaningless. Maybe she was upset by the crowds standing under the Picasso sculpture carrying signs that said things like “Go Back to Hanoi” and “Feed Jane Fonda to the Whales!” Similarly, during the Reagan Era, some of Patti Davis’s angry public rhetoric about her parents began to seem one-dimensional and rote. How much more interesting it would have been, Patti now speculates, if she had not rebuffed all of her father’s attempts to talk with her about the issues they disagreed on. It’s unlikely such discussions would have changed either of their points of view, but they could have provided some common ground on which future understandings could be built. Being a card-carrying liberal myself, I often secretly long for more level heads among the left. I cringe at the shrill, hysterical geshreis of many activists and the over-demonization of the right even though I know I do it myself. There’s something liberating about reading Patti’s book and realizing that while I will never agree with Ronald Reagan’s policies or actions, he was just a human being with many good traits and many flaws and not the anti-Christ we once feared. But please, please, please don’t ask me to have this more evolved perspective about our current Führer just yet. Get back to me in about 25 years and we’ll talk.
Jane and Patti both had troubled relationships with their powerful, famous fathers who disapproved of their social activism. And both had emotionally distant mothers. Jane Fonda’s socialite mother suffered from depression and committed suicide in a mental institution when Jane was still in grade school (she learned about the real cause of her mother’s death from a fan magazine!). Patti was estranged from Nancy Reagan for many years and it was only during the former president’s long struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease when the two women became close. Is that all part of my fantasy? Resolving seemingly impossible family conflicts just when everyone thought it was too late? Jane never fully came to terms with Henry Fonda’s icy aloofness, but she dedicated her book to her mother and expressed her lifelong regret that she didn’t say a final good-bye to her when she had the chance.
Reading these books, I’m fascinated that both of these authors are able to express huge amounts of regret without falling into the quicksand of guilt. I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to separate the two emotions. I could almost say that it was this regret-guilt cocktail that killed my mother every bit as much as her lung cancer did. In the early 70s my parents’ teetering marriage came to an ugly end following the revelation that my mother was having an affair. This led to her losing custody of her three children, a rare turn of events in the 1970s and one that my mother never fully recovered from. While we constantly told her what a fantastic, loving mother she was, she could never shake the image she had of herself as the Whore of Babylon who had abandoned her offspring. She was apologizing for her long-ago actions until the final morphine drip released her from consciousness in 1999. And it is only sitting here writing this that I suddenly realize with deep sadness that we might have helped her a lot more during her life if we had just accepted her apology instead of insisting that she had nothing to apologize for.
Is this the real reason I am such a devotee of the “women with regrets” genre? I didn’t have the courage to acknowledge my mother’s mistakes while she was alive so I’m now transferring my personal family drama to women like Jane Fonda and Patti Davis and feeding off their painfully honest expressions of remorse?