Doris Lessing's death came hard to me. Her impact as a writer was magical, igniting women to find their callings and live more authentic lives. Her semi-autobiographical novel, The Golden Notebook, limned what life would be like if only women could step outside the girdle of society's constraints of how we ought to behave. She presented a woman who refused to conform to a life for the sole purpose of pleasing others. With millions of copies sold worldwide, this book became a touchstone for so many of us, though Doris Lessing herself didn't agree.
In 1967, I sailed with my first husband to the Channel Islands, together yet feeling very alone. Anchored there for days, I read Doris Lessing's book and couldn't help but compare my life to her heroine Anna's. Mine was bitter and constrained. Feeling as if I didn't yet exist, I yearned for Anna's freedom. When I finished, a raging fire burned. A way was shown. Opportunity lay there for the asking. I left the boat on shaky sea legs, applied for a fellowship program, divorced, and started my life -- my real life.
When Doris Lessing came to speak at UCLA in 1984, I went to thank her, even to kiss her hand. I was hardly alone -- Royce Hall was packed with thousands of other women who felt the same. Most of us carried a frayed copy of The Golden Notebook -- not to be signed by her, but to show her our gratitude for releasing us to find our own lives and our own work.
She didn't look like her photo back when she published. Gone was the lively spirit in her eyes and her short bouncy hair. Instead, a nagging old woman took her place: hair in a severe bun, a long shapeless dress, drab walking shoes. She read only from her newest work, a science fiction, which glazed over us, but still we waited for our turn to thank her. When she finished reading and asked for questions, many of us jumped up in the aisles to testify to her providing a road map for our own lives. After the first woman's near-worshipful expression of thanks, Lessing yelled back that she was not going to respond to any such remarks about The Golden Notebook. No, not on her agenda at all. "Grow up," she snarled. And, at that, more than half of the audience, reviled, fled. I stayed, despite my feelings, just to see who she had become. I began to understand that she was the very model of the woman she had set up for us, one who had dared to be herself even if it meant not being liked. Freed from the need for praise or any sense of belonging, she had pursued her own life's work, whether we liked it or not.
Brava, Doris Lessing.