Free Woman

By Lara Feigel, published 2018.

Philippe Petit said “I found out that total creativity involves a certain intellectual rebellion…not to become a criminal, but…you have to do things that are a little bit forbidden. You have to feel free.”

It seems that “doing things that are a little bit forbidden” is an important path to feeling free. In this book, which is part memoir, part biography, part essay, Feigel explores what freedom means to women, and particularly what it meant to Doris Lessing. She wants to know if a woman can be free and also be a mother and/or a partner? Can a woman be in love or in a committed relationship or have children and still feel free?

To me this is a different strand on a common debacle, which is: if freedom means opportunity, then limiting one’s opportunities (usually by making a choice, a selection) will mean diminishing that freedom to a degree. Being in a monogamous relationship or having a child will distract from other opportunities, but perhaps that relationship or child will produce a new kind of freedom. On a much smaller scale, the same can be said for choosing a job, or an area of study, or a new home. Simply, it is a common dilemma.

I found Feigel’s book to be most interesting when she assessed Lessing’s life and letters alongside her novels, finding incredible parallels as the writer persisted in creating her own sense of freedom. Lessing, like other famous feminists (and lots of other unknown people!), experimented with open relationships and non-monogamy. She also has been held up as a poster child for “ambivalent” motherhood, although I thought Feigel’s representation of Lessing showed more passion than ambivalence. Lessing seemed to believe she was doing what was best for them when she left her first two children, and went on to have another child. I would argue that an ambivalent mother would not have wanted children at any stage, and would be careless about the well-being of any she did have out of sense of duty or obligation.

The memoir sections of Free Woman were less compelling, perhaps, ironically, because I related very much to the feelings and concerns Feigel relayed about her various roles: romantic partner, mother, academic, writer. I am not a mother, but I understand that motherhood is seemingly all-consuming, and it can be difficult to maintain those other identities, or even to remember she wanted to maintain them, perhaps. I felt very much as though I have already worked through these emotions, but I imagine that many women have not and that this examination of a woman’s life and responsibilities would be revelatory. Others might read it as self-absorbed or selfish, but that is precisely the point of writing a book like this: to destigmatize these questions. If a person has not investigated these emotions and continues down a path of “shoulds” it will likely end in a lot of unhappiness. Feigel’s book is a way of avoiding those mistakes, of leading an examined life.

I think Feigel is very brave for putting these thoughts and emotions out into the world. I admire her dedication to researching Lessing’s life and writings, and if nothing else, Free Woman added a list of new titles to my TBR pile. Three stars.

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