Love, Sorrow, and Rage: Destitute Women in a Manhattan Residence, by Alisse Waterston. Temple University Press, 234 pages, $59.50.
Alisse Waterston originally went to Woodhouse, a New York City residence for mentally ill women, to conduct HIV research. She left with Love, Sorrow, and Rage, not one of those "'scientific' reports [that] teach us all about 'those' people behaving badly," but a passionately written book about how "the workings of our political, economic and popular culture contribute to the suffering experienced by our most vulnerable citizens." With Thoreauvian concision, she relays two years' worth of conversations--with 39 residents and 16 staff members--that illuminate daily life at Woodhouse. To preserve privacy, she uses pseudonyms for the women and for the house itself.
Waterston has a balanced view of the residence: It's a necessary place but also "emblematic of our social solutions, always fragmented and partial." She discusses, for example, the inevitably destructive power dynamic between residents and staff, which hinders the progress of women struggling to have as much control as possible over their lives. Yet "the women consider Woodhouse 'a blessing' and 'paradise.'" Funding for places like Woodhouse is often in danger of being cut because though they tend to symptoms, they are criticized for "not solving the greater social issues."
Rather than editorializing or presuming to read minds, Waterston often allows the residents and staff to speak for themselves. You get the sense that many of the women know their audience. Their speech is peppered with the language of psychoanalysis ("trauma," "antisocial"), academic words that sound oddly natural when mixed with street vernacular.
Though Waterston's analysis usually is illuminating and well-wrought, there are times when she would have done well to let the case studies make the point. Take Nora, who speaks frankly about her past and present, and even opens herself up to a friendship with the author. She shows a great deal of self-awareness when she relays her struggles with "drinkin' and druggin'" and with her "rage." Gender, race, and class are the stuff of her speech. Nora talks about her brief time in the army and about how being a black woman with much unresolved anger brought her quickly to the doorstep of an army therapist: "He told me that what I should do is go out every time I get angry and hit a tree. Take a stick and hit a tree. So I said, 'I'm not gonna hit no tree because a tree didn't do anything to me.'" Waterston doesn't need to tell us a paragraph later that "Nora knows the army psychiatrist is ridiculous when he suggests she hit a tree to vent her anger."
Most of Waterston's academic writing (statistics about HIV and homelessness, for example) is relegated to the prologue; the women's stories carry the bulk of the book, putting a great deal of emphasis on the personal. So one thing that's conspicuously absent, or hidden, is Waterston herself. She buries in an endnote: "The lens through which I view the world has also, in part, been shaped by my having experienced enormous monetary downs and ups and a profound sense of loss and financial insecurity as a child growing up between New York, Cuba, and Puerto Rico." She mentions that social scientists are trained to keep the "I" out of their writing, and certainly, theoretical insight and social criticism are waht separate Love, Sorrow, and Rage from straight memoir. But at this point in her life, Waterston is socioeconomically and academically pretty close to the readers she's likely to reach. Bringing her own voice at least into the book's introduction would have invited us to make personal connections too, combating what she calls the "exaggeration of otherness, [where] the other is born, objectified, and perceived as exotic, strange, frightening."