Rereading Mrs. Harris: The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor, by Diana Trilling

C. Fred Alford

There will be no more books like this. Published in 1981, it already has the glow of another era, in which a celebrity murder trial was still a one-ring circus. “Everyone in the White Plains courtroom… was quietly, unostentatiously respectful of the power and dignity of the law.” Diana Trilling did not say it then; she did not have to. She said it during the OJ trial, which she also covered (New Republic, October 30, 1995). A decade ago one could still imagine New Yorker publishing long excerpts from Diana Trilling’s account of the trial of Jean Harris for the murder of Dr. Herman Tarnower. No longer. There is still room for ideas in the popular press, and a version of the public intellectual has returned. But there is no longer room for thought, the thought that is as much about process as conclusion, as much about how you get there as what you find. It is not just a question of style, of her lucid prose that takes awhile to get to its topic without wasting a word. But it is a question about style. Trilling takes seriously a thesis that seems almost too politically incorrect for words: that taste and aesthetics are ultimately matters of morality. We can tell something important about a person’s moral character by his taste. “The bad esthetics of a society matter and so do the bad esthetics of the individual within the society; Tarnower’s house matters, the pretensions of his diet book matter—style is a moral mode” (41). Tarnower had vulgar and pretentious tastes, and this should lead us to question the moral seriousness of the woman who was his mistress and who killed him.

What a wonderful and outrageous thesis. And a dangerous one. Against the sorrowful and tacky romantic triangle of Harris, Tarnower, and Lynne Tryforos, his young secretary, Trilling contrasts “stories of sexual adventure pursued with courage and flair,” like those of Edith Wharton and Vita Sackville-West (312). Be careful! Taste is not like soap, purifying everything it touches. It is the outer manifestation of an inner seriousness and grace, one that knows that the worst evils are committed by people so convinced of their goodness they can no longer see themselves or their acts. Like Mrs. Harris.

Here is the real reason why Tarnower’s Purchase home (Could a novelist have come up with a better address?) is in bad taste, as is so much of suburban life, organized to “refuse knowledge of the evil and hardness of the world,” as another Trilling put it in The Middle of the Journey.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that my family knew Dr. Tarnower casually when we lived in Scarsdale. Both my father and mother thought he was a cad who deserved what he got. The view was widespread.

What in Mrs. Harris has such force of right that it solicits this identification with her defense? Perhaps her supporters fear the darker reaches of human feeling; they’re lost in a dream of innocence. This would put them, of course, in the traditional line of American political enlightenment. (276).

Not the jury, and not Trilling, who saw another side.

My research involves working with prisoners at a maximum security prison with a small treatment program for emotionally troubled inmates. They are not crazy; crazy inmates go to the state hospital for the criminally insane. Just troubled, so troubled most have killed a loved one: mother, father, spouse, lover. We meet in a group and talk about evil, the topic of my research. “Popular Concepts of Evil” the group is officially called. I don’t know where it got its name; someone at the prison must have a sense of humor. We have been meeting a couple of hours a week for over a year.

I have learned much, mostly about the infinite variety and terrible sameness of human suffering. Aristotle was right: it is family violence that is the most terrible and terrifying violence of all, because we are all so vulnerable. “Affective violence” it is called, and everywhere—across all social classes—it is the same.

 Those who, in the absence of any history of aggression, commit the sudden murder of a loved one are typically deeply dependent and profoundly narcissistic. On psychological tests (for what these things are worth), sudden murderers score higher than any other group on frustrated dependency needs. “Her dependency on this undependable man is measureless. She can’t be without him. She crawls at his knees” (265). The relationship to the loved one is typically experienced as bondage rather than a bond, the other not so much a love object as a narcissistic extension of the self, all one’s worth and merit bound up in the other. It is why Harris did not kill the other woman, but Tarnower, “who had her integrity in his keeping and destroyed it” (305).

Typically, the lover is killed when he attempts to end the relationship, as Tarnower was. In killing the beloved, the lover controls the separation, and so controls her idea of the relationship, its most important aspect. Prisoners in my group have more trouble than one might suppose making sense of the cliché “You can’t have you cake and eat it too.” Several still cannot figure it out, puzzling over it like a Zen koan. Murdering a loved one is about trying to have your cake and eat it too. It is about total controls: of the separation, of life and death, of the idea of the beloved, separated from the bother of his burdensome body–that is, his separate reality.

Mr. Leotins, an inmate in my group, spoke quietly, even reverently, about his parents. “I stood over them and watched them die. I shared their last moments, their pain, their sorrow. For once my family was close.” Mr. Leotins is talking as if his parents died in a car wreck, as if he had rushed to the hospital to share their beautiful deaths, as if he hadn’t shot and killed them. His eyes close for a moment. I think he is experiencing bliss, an oceanic merger with the idea of his parents separated from their awful reality.

He wanted to be close to his parents and free of them at the same time. Only he could not do the abstraction, the distinction between his real parents and their mental representation, internalizing their image while leaving their bodies behind. Or rather, the intensity of his hatred bound him to them so that the only way he could have their image was to destroy their bodies. He killed them to have them all to himself. It is what almost all who kill a loved one do.

 Inmates get better when they start to grieve (or rather, when they start to grieve they are getting better; I don’t know which comes first), not for their victim, as the prison program insists they must, but for themselves, and for how much they have lost by killing the beloved. It is totally and more than a little ironic, and that is just the point: that reality be acknowledged so that it can finally be mourned, accepted with deepest regret. You cannot kill your lover and have him too. You cannot have anyone really, just your own life for a little while.

 Most of the inmates come from the “inner city,” as it is called. A few come from upper-middle class homes. One said she should have stuck with the horses she raised and rode. Men just got her into trouble. If her lover had taken to the bit, she might not have needed the gun. None seem to come from the solid middle class, which as far as I can tell is just as crazy as any other.

If this is so, then how can it be that morality and style go together? Certainly the upper and lower classes in America, divided as they are into Black and White, have different styles. (Of course, not just Black and White: the substitution of race for class makes intelligent discussion of either almost impossible in America.) Or do they? The passage quoted by Trilling from a novel by Anthony Powell fits not just Mrs. Harris, but all who have killed for love, including, I presume, OJ.

When I read about crimes passionels in the papers, I am struck not by the richness of the emotions, but by their desperate poverty. On the surface, the people concerned may seem to live with intensity. Underneath, there is an abject egotism and lack of imagination (339).

Of all I have learned about evil and violence, this is the most important. Most of the prisoners I interview, and none of the free informants, said thinking evil is the same as doing it. On the contrary, imagining evil is the only alternative to doing it. Mrs. Harris lacked imagination.

The classical literature, morality and taste, as Trilling calls it, were one. Only the classics called it beauty, which includes a sense of proportion. For Aristotle, beauty is proportion. What is out of proportion in Mrs. Harris is the relationship between inside and outside. One does not expect them to be identical, but one expects some correspondence. The Greeks puzzled over this as much as some prisoners puzzle over why you can’t eat your cake and still have it.

How could a beautiful man like Alcibiades be a selfish fool? How could an ugly, pot-bellied, snub-nosed guy like Socrates have such a beautiful soul? How could Mrs. Harris, every inch a lady, have written such a vile, hateful letter to Tarnower, filled with loathing and disgust, “vomit” and “whores”? Recovered from the post office (Mrs. Harris sent her hate mail by registered letter!), and introduced toward the end of the trial, the letter swung the jury over to the prosecution, the defense having taken the position that Mrs. Harris was innocent because she was such a lady.

It is a risky strategy, or at least it once was. It does not seem to have made much difference in the OJ trial. What greater discrepancy could there be than between OJ’s affable, easy wearing charm and his murderous rage? But the discrepancy between inside and outside does not seem to matter so much any more. It should be progress, but it is not. It just seems to mean that we expect everyone (or at least every celebrity) not only to lie, but to be and live a lie.

Sudden murder, it turns out, is not really sudden at all. It is fueled by hatred, chronic rage. The goal of hatred is to destroy the object forever, not just in the sense of eliminating it, but of remaining locked in a relationship of hatred unto eternity. Hatred is a terrible type of love. Mrs. Harris, it turns out, was filled with hatred. Only that way of putting it does not really capture its depth. Mrs. Harris was hatred. Resentment might sound finer, but hatred puts it more clearly: hatred at a world that did not meet her dependency-needs so perfectly she would not have to know or feel them, hatred at a world that did not cooperate with her narcissism. How it must have galled her to crawl quite literally on her knees before him, the same position from which she shot and killed him (205).

It is an issue all the inmates must deal with. “I lost control for a minute, and must pay for the rest of my life? Is that fair?” No, but as Aristotle knew, tragedy has nothing to do with fairness, even if it does have to do with a sense of balance, proportion, what the Greeks called dikï, only misleadingly translated as justice. The balance comes when we look inside, when we see the moment of affective violence as the outcome of a lifetime of hate. It takes a lifetime of hatred to take the life of a lover: there is the proportion, if it makes you feel any better. I do not know if it should or not.

Trilling possesses psychological imagination. OJ, she argues, “is now in denial, deepest denial–I use the word as it is used in psychoanalysis to connote the complete eradication of fact.” He thinks he didn’t do it, couldn’t have done it, which is why he is so persuasive. Mrs. Harris didn’t deny the murder. She denied that she was the type of person who could have done it. She is, says Trilling, “sick on truth,” esteeming intellectual honesty, but unable to practice it about the most important things (305-306). So she must first of all deform the truth, convince herself that the lie is true before she can tell it. In the end the result is the same, neither OJ nor Mrs. Harris is able to feel what they are doing. Trilling writes of OJ smiling as he tries and fails to pull on the famous glove soaked with Nicole’s blood.

I was reminded of Jean Harris studying the blood stains on the bed sheets of her murdered lover, Dr. Herman Tarnower. Mrs. Harris didn’t smile as she examined the bedclothes, which were soaked with her lover’s blood, but she had no hesitation in handling them. Psychiatry has identified such inappropriate emotional detachment: it represents a lack of affect.

Trilling does herself an injustice. In Mrs. Harris and “Notes on the Trial of the Century,” she over-esteems psychoanalytic jargon. I say this as one who has written six books on psychoanalysis and social theory, and believes a version of psychoanalysis, called British object relations theory, to be true. Sometimes Trilling writes as if terms like “denial,” or “lack of affect,” carry special weight, unavailable to ordinary terms like “she lied to herself.” Certainly the weakest part of Mrs. Harris is the psychoanalytic interpretation of her crime. The gun was a penis, supplying her “with what she’d been deprived of by biology” (320). Female castration anxiety (317) and screen memories (323) add to the Freudian stew.

One senses Trilling doesn’t quite believe it either, but feels somehow obligated. Lionel used analytic categories more gracefully, but judging by Diana’s The Beginning of the Journey, it was she who used psychoanalysis (in spite of some terrible analysts) to make creative changes in herself. In any case, it is not her analytic categories, but her moral ones, that are of lasting value.

In an interview in The Paris Review (Winter, 1993, vol. 35, no. 129), Trilling said she did not take herself seriously when she was young. She hadn’t been brought up to take herself seriously, and her expensive education didn’t help. Lionel helped; he took her seriously. Eventually she did too. Maybe that’s what analysis teaches when it works.

 Mrs. Harris did not take herself seriously. She took ethics seriously, integrity seriously (“integrity Jean,” the students called her at the Madeira school where she was headmistress), values and morality seriously. She just did not take herself seriously, so when the two collided she altered reality, not her conduct. That means she lied to herself. If one does not take oneself seriously, one’s conduct can hardly be as important as reality, and reality must itself lack substance. What one does has nothing to do with who one is. Who one is is everything. . . and nothing, what one does is little more than tracks of a ghost. In other words, substance and action do not connect, because there is no one to connect them. “I was a person and no one ever knew,” she said (225). “No one ever knew,” including herself.

Here is where taste and morality converge. Good taste is about taking oneself and the world seriously. Which means, above all, not using art, architecture, literature, or anything else to deny the evil and hardness of the world, including the base and vile within oneself and others. If one can live with these realities, one may find some proportion — beauty even — in an ugly world.

It is not necessary to idealize the evil and hardness of the world. Many of the inmates like gangsta rap, songs like “Me and My Bitch,” which are always asking if you love someone enough to kill for them. It is not to my taste, but it is arguably in better taste than Tarnower’s faux-orientale house. Better
taste means closer to authentic feeling. Mrs. Harris felt deeply, but her feeling was “an expression of emotion that may be valid in itself, but is not anchored in reality” (225). Good taste is an anchor, because it is grounded in authenticity.

Diana Trilling concludes her interview in The Paris Review by saying she would like to be remembered as someone who, while fully a member of comfortable society, remained full of doubts about that society. In other words, she would like to be remembered as a moralist. But she is speculative. So fascinated with violence and criminal trials (she would have loved to have covered the William Kennedy Smith date rape case), she imagines she identifies with the enemies of society. “Otherwise why did I write as frequently as I did about people who were adversaries to our society?” It is an interesting question. Was Mrs. Harris an adversary of society, or was she its foundation that cracked?