On Broken Glass: Loving and Losing John Gardner/Susan Thornton: Reflections

Thursday, September 23, 2010

I find myself reading John Gardner these days—his thoughts about writing, his encouragements about teaching, a little of his work itself.  Last night, while waiting for an event to begin, I sat down with On Broken Glass, Susan Thornton's memoir about her tangled affair with John Gardner before, throughout, and after his marriage to the talented writer and teacher Liz Rosenberg—right up, indeed, to the day when a motorcycle accident took Gardner's life and foiled the plans for his wedding to Thornton.

Thornton, who had met Gardner at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, was an aspiring writer.  Transfixed by the white-haired man who seemed to know something about everything (perhaps even a lot about everything), she became his friend and then his lover, absorbing the sorts of inconstancy and intensity that might be expected of the idealizing mistress of a man who, in Thornton's words, "liked to set up close, incestuous love relationships where the women involved knew each other, were kept off balance, were expected to bow to his demands." Herself a drinker, she tolerated Gardner's excesses.  In love with a man who was not properly hers, she tolerated, or at least learned to live with, his many indiscretions.

On Broken Glass is not, by any stretch a lyrical memoir, nor one that aspires to universal proportions.  It is instead Thornton's story, studiously recalled.  Reading through, I wondered about many things—about the damage we do to one another, about why we allow so much damage to be done to ourselves.  But I also wondered about passages such as this one, wedged within the final pages: 
Gerry (Thornton's current husband) and I have worked hard to build a partnership.  Early in our marriage I idealized John, wished he had not died, yearned for his charisma, his charm, the sense that I had with him that anything was possible.  It has been very difficult for Gerry to live with a woman who yearned after a lost, perfect partner.  Until I became sober, I could not see the unmanageability of John's life, how his drinking damaged him, how it twisted his thinking and his relationships, how my drinking damaged me.  In our married life, Gerry and I have faced genuine hardship.... For a long time I lost hope.  I felt I would be unable to use the gift God had given me, the gift of expression in writing, that I would ultimately fail at what I had felt so strongly was my life's purpose.

Can writing be our life's purpose? I wondered.  Should it be?  And how best for a writer to speak (if at all) of his or her own gifts?


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