An Unknown Woman

An Unknown Woman

This post is the second of my series about women who, against the odds, arrive at some form of emancipation. (My first post on this theme was: The GodmotherCan You be Too Honest?)

I like to read books more than once if theyʼve struck a chord with me. I donʼt remember how, years ago, I first stumbled on An Unknown Woman by Alice Koller, but I read it again recently. This ia memoir about a woman who reached a point of self-disgust at how she was leading her life. Recognising at last that in truth she didnʼt know herself, she found a way to clear some space to begin to discover who she was. She went, together with a German Shepherd puppy, to Siasconset (or Sconset) on Nantucket Island. I once stayed there myself, years ago, as nanny to a little lass. I can picture the scene: the windswept beaches where she walked, the scrubland and dunes with their shingled houses. Since then, I have also had the experience of living with two wonderful German Shepherd dogs, and this deepens my appreciation of the canine companionship aspect of Alice Kollerʼs few months on Nantucket.

An Unknown Woman was published in 1982 and accumulated a considerable following. It was written in the late 1960ʼs, at the beginning of the womenʼs movement, and the jacket sleeve of the first edition tells how “it was read three times in its entirety over National Public Radio in Washington, D. C.” And how, “Listeners responded by deluging the station with requests for copies of the book”. But still, 14 years passed before Holt, Rinehart and Winston published that first edition.

Koller opens with her realisation that she can no longer hide her age with make-up. Hiding her age had seemed essential, to avoid having to explain why, in 37 years, she had only one solid achievement to her name: her Harvard PhD. There was little else, in terms either of work or relationship, to her credit. The realisation that she could no longer pretend brought her to a full stop and the beginning of a path of radical reassessment: “If I could only go away somewhere. Somewhere quiet, without traffic or factories. Somewhere where I can be really alone, so that I donʼt have to be pleasant to people all day long …”

The PhD was in philosophy, and she realised she could use her philosophical training for her own healing. “All that accumulated discipline can now be shaped into the one tool I need: to be able to say with perfect care what I want to say. I can push my saying to the point of saying what I mean.” And so, through journaling, she embarked on a process of looking at herself as honestly as she could, and considering deeply what she found.

An essential ingredient in Kollerʼs journey of self-discovery was to remove herself from the world of human social life into a natural environment. The healing power of the natural world stands in contrast to the human construct of society. Mainstream religious traditions of both East and West have led many people to look upon the world as illusion, or as something to be denied. But it is a mistake to think it is the world of rock and soil beneath our feet that is the illusion. Rather, it is the world woven by human egos unrestrained by the impulse towards compassion and sharing of the common wealth that is to be denied; not the physical world, nor the world of straightforward, honest, dealing, or of loving relationshipsnot that world to which humans are bound, in the words of RoberFrost, By countless silken ties of love and thought/ To every thing on earth the compass round.” (Lines from his poem, The Silken Tent.)

I remember, on first reading, being struck by how Kollerʼself-discovery began with such simple acts as getting up when she liked, not when required; of pouring herself a bourbon when she wished, and not when some externally established custom suggested. But, because of the presence of that German Shepherd puppy whose needs imposed a requirement on her and anchored her to the world of relationship, the environment she created for herself was not one of boundaryless freedom. She called her dog Logos, a term from philosophy. But also the word used in the original Greek to describe Christ at the beginning of Johnʼs gospel: In the beginning was the Logostranslated as Word, but equally meaningWisdom. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Logos the puppy played the role of saviour to this Jewish woman who, despite her atheism, remarked her beloved fatherʼs “essential sweetness” during the Passover ceremony around the family table: “his concern for the prayers, a concern that set him apart from the rest of us, giving him a distinction he didnʼt normally possess.”

In writing a book about her attempt to deliver herself from an inauthentic life, Alice Koller touched a chord in the psyche of readers. Each of us, taking a good look at the person we are, the particular blend of nature and nurture that has made our personality-selves, has to face the question: How can I best be myself in the world? For some, the question may pose no significant difficulty. For others, it can be quite a challenge.


Gillian PB

September 2023

1 Comment. Leave new

  • I came across this book in the 1980s I think, in a second-hand bookshop in Hampstead. I still have it on my shelf, a small battered US paperback with the original jacket and yellowed pages. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it, but quite a few. It made a huge impression on me, as I now know it has on many others. I think this may be because she does what so many of us should, but never actually do – leave your life behind and spend a long period in quietness and self-reflection. I do remember the author’s feelings about her distant mother, her desire for some kind of success both in her career and in her relationships, and her sense that she could find an ‘answer’ to her problems, and then that in the end, this didn’t matter – she gave up her endless and exhausting self-questioning just to live in the moment. It’s a fine, fine book.


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