ON MOVING: A Writer’s Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts, and Finding Home Again

Louise DeSalvo
Bloomsbury ($22)

by Suzann Clemens

To corroborate an unexpected sense of loss experienced in a move from her home of thirty years, Louise DeSalvo embarks on a journey of healing. The outcome is the author’s latest memoir, On Moving: A Writer’s Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts, and Finding Home Again. Through a close examination of the personal and professional writings of an impressive array of writers and thinkers, DeSalvo explores the “significant emotional and physical consequences” of the human experience of relocation. This essayistic presentation of the author’s investigation not only presents the author’s findings, but also the therapeutic benefits that DeSalvo experiences in conducting her search.

The restorative qualities of writing are well known to this author, who also wrote Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives (Beacon Press, 2000); because of her experience as a literary scholar, significant works of literature are a natural place for her to begin. Like DeSalvo’s previous memoir, Adultery, (Beacon Press, 2000) this new book uses literary works as filters for her personal examination. In this case, Virginia Woolf, Sigmund Freud, Elizabeth Bishop, Henry Miller, Pierre Bonnard, Carl Jung, Mark Doty, D. H. Lawrence, and many others reveal the gains and losses experienced in searching for a new home, leaving an old favorite, or exile. These narratives serve as jumping off points for DeSalvo’s examination of the history of her ancestors’ migration and her personal experiences of moving.

The inclusion of first-hand accounts of relocation and the ruminations provoked add texture to the narrative, while the retelling of Virginia Woolf’s preoccupation with houses, and Freud’s attachment to a collection of artifacts broadens the level of interest. But something seems askew. Perhaps the contrast of the author’s move—sixteen miles from Teaneck to Montclair in New Jersey—with the far more dramatic experiences of her celebrated colleagues produces the weakness in the narrative. DeSalvo’s affair hardly seems equal to Freud’s forced exile from Nazi-occupied Austria, Elizabeth Bishop’s frequent relocation as a manifestation of her endless loneliness, or the forced, tragic isolation of Pierre Bonnard as he managed artistic life with a woman who was chronically and severely depressed. These moves have been extracted from lives made extraordinary not only by their remarkable, professional pursuits, but also by their dysfunctions: alcoholism, child molestation, abandonment. Though DeSalvo suggests, “these creative people urge us to consider the complex subtext of moving’s meanings,” the complexity actually lies in the startling lives from which these relocation experiences come.

The imbalance provoked by this juxtaposition suggests an underlying mystery: why does the author think she belongs in this company? Is there more to her story that has not been revealed? This possibility taunts us as we move back and forth between historic, substantial moves and one that seems far less significant. DeSalvo attempts to balance this awkward association with the inclusion of a few less dramatic relocation stories and the wisdom of a small selection of philosophers and psychologists whose quotations are meant to substantiate the emotional reaction being explored. Both fail to achieve that balance; just beneath the surface of the reading experience lurks a desire to tell the author to “buck up.”

To be fair, DeSalvo does follow her investigation to those places that are both familiar and informative to her, and perhaps personal healing is accomplished by surrounding herself with stories far more poignant that her own. Meditations go where their authors’ minds take them, and though this meditation falls short to some degree, it does offer an opportunity for the reader to explore a human experience that “ranks as the third-most-stressful life experience (after the death of a spouse or the loss of a job).”

In addition to provoking important questions to consider when faced with a move, DeSalvo’s inclusion of significant relocation stories makes a important point: “their reflections attest to the fact that where we live matters deeply, that where we move to can enrich our lives, that wrong moves can be harmful, and that forced moves can prove tragic.” The memoir’s real success, however, may simply lie in its ability to serve as a model for how writing can provide healing when a writer is willing to explore.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009