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From the New York Times bestselling author of Let’s Take the Long Way Home comes a moving memoir about how the women’s movement revolutionized and saved her life, from the 1960s to the #MeToo era.
In a voice as candid as it is evocative, Gail Caldwell traces a path from her west Texas girlhood through her emergence as a young daredevil, then as a feminist—a journey that reflected seismic shifts in the culture itself. Caldwell’s travels took her to California and Mexico and dark country roads, and the dangers she encountered were rivaled only by the personal demons she faced. Bright Precious Thing is the captivating story of a woman’s odyssey, her search for adventure giving way to something more profound: the evolution of a writer and a woman, a struggle to embrace one’s life as a precious thing.
Told against a contrasting backdrop of the present day, including the author’s friendship with a young neighborhood girl, Bright Precious Thing unfolds with the same heart and narrative grace of Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home, called “a lovely gift to readers” by The Washington Post. Bright Precious Thing is a book about finding, then protecting, what we cherish most.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Bright Precious Thing
My Samoyed is looking out the glass storm door to the street when I see her ears go back with pleasure. Tyler walks in and crouches down to nuzzle the dog, who outweighs her by about fifteen pounds, and then announces herself with the usual certainty, as though she’s on a tight schedule and has been gone only a few minutes. “We had early release,” she tells me, “so I was able to get here on time.” Tyler is five, and lives two doors away, and passes my house on her way to the neighborhood park. She has the countenance of a small superhero. When she was three she became enamored with Tula, a fluffy white creature who shares her affection, and now we are an essential stop on the trail of Tyler’s day. I make it a point to stock up on the dark chocolate wafers she likes. When she leaves town for a week on family vacation, my house feels as quiet as a cinder block. Then the door flies open one morning and I hear her shout: “I’m back!”
Today we’re lying on the back porch and planning what to do if we are marooned on a desert island—what we will choose to take. We can each have three items. Tyler decides that she will take a rope, a boat (which is broken, or why would she be there?), and a knife. For food she will take two Popsicles, an ice cream bar, and Jell-O.
Ignoring the fact that she has doubled her allotment, I suggest that she toss in a roast chicken and some milk. She agrees, knowing the milk, as she tells me, will make her strong until her mother arrives. Her rope will be blue, will be 250,000-plus-infinity miles long. That way, if her mother is late, the rope can be thrown wide, and reach land on the other side of the ocean.
I marvel that she has any idea what infinity is, though this is a mutual learning society: She reminds me of the innocence of forward motion, and I try to give her a palette for all that hope. I tell her a story about a surfer girl, lost at sea, who was hungry and alone. Then she remembered her mother’s teaching her the constellations as a means of navigation. If she held up her fingers to the sky, she could use the celestial map to fix her position in space, and chart her way back to land.
“Everything you need to know is in the sky,” I tell Tyler, and we look up through our fingers, content in that zone of serenity that children can elicit. I don’t tell her that I learned the story about the surfer girl from Hawaii Five-0, or that the girl’s mother was long dead, and that the girl was actually a woman cop who was hallucinating and dehydrated and nearly died at sea. Tyler will get to tragedy soon enough. For now the lost girls can have all the ice cream they want, and mothers who are on their way, and their journeys only have to be as far as a couple of houses down.
Around the time Tyler first appeared at my door, I was starting a book about growing up female in Texas, and about the profound influence that feminism—the women’s movement of the 1970s—had on my life. I came of age in the Panhandle, a stronghold of Protestant churches and Republican politics where the sky goes on forever. I left for college in 1968: The year that Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy were shot and Nixon was elected. The year of My Lai and the Tet Offensive. Student protestors at Columbia shut the place down; women stormed the stage at the Miss America pageant. It was one of the most tumultuous and exalted times in modern history, and I was seventeen and felt like I’d been shot out of a cannon. Within a few years I went from being a bookish girl with a head for numbers to an anti-war protestor and young feminist with a wet bandanna in my back pocket, to shield my face from tear gas.
That’s some expedition for a kid who spent her days reading at the town library and playing jacks with her sister. And it’s light-years from the world of the brown girl daydreaming on my porch in Cambridge a half century later—who by age five was quoting lines and singing lyrics from Hamilton. “Are you an immigrant?” Tyler asked me one day, conflating Texas with some place weird and far away. And then, in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Because immigrants, we get the job done.”
I realized pretty quickly that this story belonged to us both.
Part of what sent me back to my salad days was a quest to set the record straight. In the decades since I wandered into my first women’s liberation rally on the University of Texas campus, in the early 1970s, “feminism” had morphed into a dirty word in the lexicon. “I’m not a feminist, but . . .” The phrase baffled and irritated me. Oversimplified and sometimes demonized, the idea of feminism—at least the old-school, second-wave version—had come to suggest liberal white privilege, where the victories had been in the boardroom instead of the streets. And young women who were realizing triumphs of the movement were now in danger of disparaging or forgetting it altogether.
That an alliance with feminism came with a qualifier was a shock to me. The feminism that I knew was not bourgeois, exclusive, or, God forbid, boring. It was radical and often joyful and it quite possibly saved my life. The seismic encounters of adolescence had changed me from a levelheaded introvert to a wild girl and a cliff diver, ill-equipped to withstand the onslaught of sex, drugs, and rock and roll that defined my generation. The traditional paths of marriage and motherhood seemed lethal in a whole other way. The women’s movement delivered me from both fates. It offered a scaffolding of sanity and self-respect, a way to get a grip on everything that was scary about life. And in those days, when the blueprint for adulthood was being questioned daily or even set on fire, life could be scary indeed.
I started writing a reflection of that time, a personal story that began with a half-lost, frightened college girl on her way to class in Texas. In two different cities I read aloud a portion of the chapter, and during the first reading I was startled to see young women in the audience in tears. Maybe I had touched a known pain. Later that year at a teaching weekend, I talked to and read the work of women who were under thirty, many of whom knew a whole different kind of trouble, and I recognized something else in their voices—raw but also angry and determined. This time when I read the piece, the reaction was not tears but nods and half-raised fists. So I went home and kept writing. They had touched something in me, too.
Pastiches began to emerge of incidents I hadn’t thought about in years: hurdles cleared or dodged, egregious insults I’d put behind me. I knew I was remembering a story mystifying or foreign to men but next-door familiar to women, whether they grew up in Texas or Greenwich Village, in high cotton or hard times. All of us had been trained to take less than her share at the table, and some of us even hated and feared each other because that’s what pressure from above teaches and forces an underclass to do.
I wanted to take back the words and memories, just like we took back the night several decades ago, when I wore my TBTN T-shirt until it hung from me in shreds. The Take Back the Night movement was the start of mass demonstrations against sexual and domestic violence, and people marched in Austin and Atlanta and New York in the 1970s, thousands of us, to gain access to time and light as well as space: Give me back what should already be mine. Give me the dark, the freedom of the streets, the right to walk wherever I want, unafraid of rape or assault or just being messed with. The stars belong to me as much as you. Move over. Make room on the bench.
The lessons of those days were so basic: To view other women as allies rather than the competition. To unleash our intelligence, liberate our bodies, assume we were capable of things previously denied or unconsidered. We could be mathematicians, car mechanics, soccer players instead of cheerleaders. If this sounds obvious today, it’s because we took over buildings and challenged male professors who told us we didn’t have the brains for science or that we were cute when we were mad. The fight felt vital and dangerous, and often it was both. And when I feel hopeless or alone, or when all that seems a long time ago, I have to remind myself that—no other way to say it—a lot of what we did and said really did change the world.
We were heady with how much we knew, which was sometimes less than what we built our mettle on. But it was uplifting and even thrilling to realize you could replace a fan belt or build a bookshelf, even if you did it badly or it took four hours. We started all-girl rock and roll bands and law collectives; we played drums on the beach and argued about class struggle and grew our own food. We all thought, for a while, that we had broken free.
The struggle was hard-won, especially when the worst demons in the room were mine. The feminist notions so easily embraced as theory—that women internalize anger as depression; that power often eludes us in the service of being good—are brutally difficult to change. So this is partly a story about the soldering of self: about the paths and stumbles I took, into shadow and out again. But all that exposure to women’s autonomy had given me muscle I didn’t know I had. Long before I’d read a word of Virginia Woolf, I knew that, for me, a room of one’s own was the ultimate prize. That a lock on the door was the power to think for oneself.
Gail Caldwell is the former chief book critic for The Boston Globe, where she was a staff writer and critic for more than twenty years. In 2001, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. She is also the author of A Strong West Wind, a memoir of her native Texas. Caldwell lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.