December 4, 2019
In Another Place: A Mini Review
Today I finished Susan Mailer’s recently published memoir In Another Place: With and Without My Father Norman Mailer. The title refers to the distance between the two throughout Susan’s life, both figurative and literal, and journey that she made to reconcile these distances with Norman. She does so by the end of the latter’s life through her own journey to feel comfortable with who she is and not who her father would have her be. As first born, Susan has a unique perspective on the famous author’s life. She was both lucky and unlucky to have a front-row seat to Mailer’s life, beginning soon after he won international fame with the success of his first novel The Naked and the Dead. She was born a year after its publication (almost exactly 20 years before me) while Mailer attempting to recreate his success as a novelist to the Hollywood screen — ultimately unsuccessful. Life with Norman — at least what she spent of it — was often difficult for Susan, but pretty much what I would expect, based on what I know about Mailer. Still, the insights into Norman are plentiful and perspicacious — especially in how the public events that we know affected his life in a personal way.
While the book does focus quite a bit on Norman (as one would expect), it is as much about Susan and her life’s journey. Mailer’s narrative style often seems to background her voice, though it’s the one telling the story. She seems to place more emphasis on the external world, especially the life that orbits her celebrity father — how could it not. Her voice and presence in the memoir get stronger as she gets older, but Norman remains a dominant, larger-than-life influence. In fact, the personal vignettes are the most memorable, like the experience of the bullfights, her growing up in Mexico, her return to Mexico, and her relationship with the large Mailer clan.
In all, In Another Place is a great read, especially for those interested in Norman Mailer. While I think there is little to glean about Norman that an aficionado wouldn’t already know, you shouldn’t read this book for that. Read it instead for the story of a daughter’s relationship to her celebrity father and how that relationship displaces her life. Read it for how she learns to bridge that distance between herself and and her relationships, and more importantly how she is able to ultimately come to terms with herself and her own sense of belonging. Spoiler alert: while Norman explicitly charges Susan with keeping the family together — “This family, our family, is a fine tapestry. I want you to make sure it doesn’t unravel.” — it’s her time with the family that allows her to do that. For me, this is the one of the string messages of the book: the necessity of a strong, close community to make one feel human and needed.
Finally, if I had one criticism it might be that Susan let Norman off too easily — she might be too ready to vindicate his life. Near the end of the memoir, she states that “many times” Norman told her: “I cannot be the father you want me to be. My mind is captured by my ideas and by the need to write them.” This seems extraordinary coming from someone who didn’t believe in birth control. Someone who had nine (eight biological and one adopted) children. Someone who had six wives. Yes, one can respect the honesty, but at some point you have to grow up. This is not to say that Norman is not due some sympathy — and I can certainly empathize with him on my bad father days. I guess it has to come down to Susan and her relationship with Norman. In Another Place does not pull any punches, and even presents some cringe-worth moments, but I wonder if it doesn’t let Norman Mailer off too easily.
Read this book. It is touching, heartbreaking, sober, subtle, and rich. It’s a multi-colored tapestry that finally tells the story of the redemptive power of family and community — of a daughter overcoming and even benefiting from physical and emotional distance throughout her life. It gives a new, personal perspective on public stories, and shows a very human side to Norman Mailer the celebrity. Even without Norman, In Another Place would be compelling. With him, it’s a tale like no other.
- I posted a portion of this review on Amazon and GoodReads.
- Amazon affiliate link.
- Mailer, Susan (2019). In Another Place: With and Without My Father Norman Mailer. Northampton House Press. p. 285.
- Mailer 2019, p. 299.