The Outward Room by Millen Brand
I dig and dig to find book recommendations. Every morning I go to lithub.com and dig through there. I follow all kinds of rabbit trails to find something that will shake me up. After reading The Wild Laughter, which was just so dang good, I knew that the next book would suffer simply from proximity, so I chose a book I had been avoiding because I couldn't remember ordering it and when it came I couldn’t remember why. It's The Outward Room by Millen Brand, published in 1937. My copy was printed in 1950.
This is the cover:
It looks to me like a bodice ripper: a wrung out woman without a blouse smoking a cigarette and wearing stilettos, a man's shirt and tie slung across the metal frame of an unmade bed in a poorly lit room. And then the headline across the top: “She fled the torment of a vile place—to find savage and sudden desire in... The Outward Room.”
So that's what I picked up to read because it probably deserved to suffer, stuck in line after such a brilliant book as The Wild Laughter.
I'll admit I loved holding in my hand a book that has the price right on the front cover—35¢, a book that someone seventy years ago had paid 35¢ to read. I wondered what they thought of it, why they bought it, if they had to hide it in their purse.
So I opened it up with very low expectations. Then I couldn't put it down. It's a touching, painful, beautifully written book about a woman named “Miss Barrett” who lives in a mental hospital, diagnosed as being nothing more specific than insane, having never recovered from the untimely death of her brother.
Here's a description of her waking up one morning inside the mental institution:
“She pressed her hand to her forehead. Stop! Stop! Far off, she heard a scream. Silence. Scream. Oh brother, she thought, if you had not died—Before her grew the world, cities, all the outside where there was life. Here nothing changed, there had hardly been any change in her body, nothing that took place in the living had taken place in her. Innocent and dead. She felt of a thin-banded ring she wore that her brother had given her and thought back seven years to the spring before his death.”
She's under the care of Dr. Rivlin, who she sees regularly. She thinks he cares about her and that he wants to help her, but he uses her as a toy, putting words in her mouth, making her confess things that she doesn't remember or believe. He trots out his pat theories and molds her to them. After he forces her to remember a dream she doesn't, in fact, remember, he tells her this as if he's had a sudden epiphany about what her problem is:
“All right. Then I'll tell you. It won't be easy for you. I don't know how it may affect you; maybe you'll be angry and won't believe me at all. But I think you ought to have it stated, put before you. Try not to argue, just listen to what I say...At the center of your dream, clearly, you became your mother, you were putting yourself in her place in relation to your father. The letters, the 'better half,' everything shows it. It's just another proof of something I’ve told you, that almost all children go through a period when they fall in love with the parent, the one of the opposite sex...You were jealous of your mother.”
… “No, I can't believe it. It’s just words, it's just the way you want it. It isn't like that in me.”
Of course, the doctor prevails and she is subdued.
After Miss Barrett has lived at the hospital for seven years, the administration hires a young nurse named Miss Child, and she befriends Miss Barrett, talking to her about her life, asking her about her interests, taking her on long walks on the hospital grounds. Miss Barrett finds herself waking up to life a bit and decides to escape. One night Miss Child “forgot” to lock the door to the outside, and Miss Barrett stuffs what few clothes she has into a pillow case and leaves the hospital by this unlocked back door. She hitchhikes, rides a train, and walks until she gets to New York City. It's 1937. The country is in the middle of the depression. And she doesn't have a single dime in her pocketbook.
Fearful that the hospital will send the police to find her, she changes her name to Harriet Demuth and we follow her as she struggles to emerge from the fog of those seven years and to recover from the damage done to her sense of agency about her own life. She is, literally and figuratively, trying to outwalk the voices in her head that lay siege to her confidence, her identity, and her will.
In the city, she pawns the only thing of personal and sentimental value to her—the ring her dead brother had given her. That gets her five dollars. That, her wits, and luck is all she has in order to survive. She not only has to survive physically, she has to survive mentally, and the ghosts of her past and of the mental institution pursue her relentlessly.
Millen writes in the close third person, so you get inside Harriet's head. You experience how those seven years occupy her thoughts like an invading force and leave her disabled. This is where Millen's writing shines, his prose fracturing as her mind fractures. She finds work in a clothing factory, but is laid off after two weeks because they had filled the big order and didn't need her. So she continues to look for work without success. Here's how he describes how her outer world and inner world twine in a moment on the street:
In the middle of a long block, on a board alongside of a building entrance she saw a sign in large letters: GIRL WANTED. SECOND FLOOR. She stopped...Work, the women she had seen in the factory windows. To have worked, to have had a job then would have meant, what--? “Life.” Death. Escape from memory, death backward. Here was work offered, “girl wanted.” Try?”
Again, she's walking and this is how we experience it with her:
“Night. Slat dark, life. And death thrown large, on the screen of the houses—yet, shadow? Had sleep, strength yet. Three days, since she had lost her job—it was a different peace, less sure? Street lamps. Anna. The faces of the moving thread, the sewing machines. She had needed the oppression, but they had not. Had needed work, even with oppression. But they had not. A cheap movie house, black script “IS THERE A PRICE OF FAME TOO HIGH FOR A WOMAN TO PAY? a Drama of--” A man stared at it, hands in pockets. Spindles, hours, thread drawing its slow line across their temples.”
Millen gets you inside her haunted mind and leaves you there with all that confusion. As the reader you are rooting for her. But as Harriet—and Millen writes such that you think Harriet's thoughts—you feel the instability, the insecurity, and the confusion of not knowing what is real and what the next day, the next hour will bring. You experience her desperate dependence on luck. Her wits, her goodness, her honest desire mean nothing. She needs luck, something that is in short supply in New York City in the middle of the depression.
The outward room that the title refers to is the room outside Harriet's head—it's the world, the world of friendship, and work, and love that she is trying to find and to navigate. And her inner room—the room inside her head—is in dogged pursuit. As I was reading I was never sure what small next moment of bad luck, or exhaustion, or belief in the pursuing voices would ultimately undo her.
This is a beautiful, human, quietly triumphant book. Harriet is an unlikely heroine in a battle invisible to all but herself. I felt so much yearning for her as I read it. I could feel myself leaning away from a slippery slope about to snag her shoe. I read the book straight through and felt so much small human satisfaction at the end—a belief in the small goodness of others and how much that matters. As Brand writes near the end of the book, “the evidences of winter were small, only to be seen, like the signs of spring, by the heart that feels small changes.”
So, why that stupid cover? I have no idea. I saw a single reference to it on google books, referring to the copy I read as a “sensationally packaged pulp paperback” but that is all. None of the other printings had stupid covers, from what I can find.
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >