Let Us Now Praise Famous . . . .

In 1941 James Agee, the writer, and Walter Evans, the photographer, collaborated on the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It documented the lives not of famous men, but the grim reality of life during the Great Depression of three tenant farming families.

I think of the title of that book when I think of my aunt Christine, although she would of course be part of a book entitled Let Us Now Praise Famous Women. She and her family scrimped and got by during the Great Depression, losing two farms in the process. But that in itself is only a small part of her story.

I am moved to write about it here because the reviews of my memoir Examined Lives have been unexpectedly glowing, but none of the them mention the important role of my aunt in my and my brother’s traumatized childhood. While much of the current literature on dealing with trauma in children emphasizes important aspects of the parent-child relationship, my brother and I were left with no mother present (she having been lobotomized and then institutionalized) and a father who was devoted to his work and absent much of the time. Into this void Christine came. She had worked hard to make a career for herself as a librarian, a calling she dearly loved, and at the time of our mother’s lobotomy was working as the Assistant Librarian at the Art Institute of Chicago. She simply stopped in her tracks and came to take care of my brother and me in Maryland, being in effect a housewife. She brought with her into our lives a level of responsiveness to our emotional states and a warmth that researchers have found promote resiliency. She helped make us feel that the world was more predictable and that there was someone looking out for our interests. I cannot thank her enough.

She fostered my love of reading—not just the “up-lifting kind” so often associated with librarians—but I entered the worlds of Freddy the Pig and Nancy Drew. We would also read together books whose vocabulary was at the time above mine, such as Mistress Marcham’s Reposeby T.H. White about an orphan girl who found a group of Lilliputians (from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels) and the popular satirical comic strip at the time Pogo. Both made us laugh. She taught me to sew. She loved ballet and the Chicago White Sox baseball team, a love which I came to share. More importantly, she taught me that I did not need to hide the fact that I had a brain and could use it.

Christine was one of those unique individuals who lived her principles in everyday life and in her career—a model I have tried to follow. She tended to her impoverished parents; years later when she married and her husband contracted Alzheimer’s, she nursed him at home to the very end. Those were her responsibilities which she handled with grace and good cheer and she would never have dreamed of shirking them or palming them off on someone else.

Thankfully she was able eventually to resume her career as a librarian, obtaining the coveted post of Head Reference Librarian at the University of Chicago. There her principles occasionally led to run-ins with the library director. When it was proposed that her staff spend some of their time filing library index cards (still in existence then), she was indignantly opposed. During her lunchbreaks she called her counterparts at many of the other major research universities to find out if their staff were required to do this task. She did it during her lunchbreak because she took the high ground and did not want the University to be paying for her opposition. She won the battle by the way! This was another good lesson she taught me, gather your best data and make your case. It was a good one in my own career.

So I sing the praises of my aunt Christine, who has meant so much in my life.


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