Optimal Distance: A Divided Life, Part One
by Joan Carol Lieberman

Camperdown Elm Publisher, 2018. ISBN 978-0-998-76901-0.
Reviewed by D Ferrara
Posted on 07/05/2018

Nonfiction: Memoir

To put it mildly, Joan Carol Lieberman has had an interesting life. A baptized Mormon, with a non-observant mother and Jewish father, she passed through phases of intense religiosity, then demanded her own excommunication in 1965. A beautiful woman, with a defined sense of style, she made her way through the tumult of the late 1950s and 1960s, building a life and career.

The greatest impact on her formative years was The Bear, the author's personification of her mother's paranoid schizophrenia. From her early years, Lieberman witnessed her mother's explosions, often in the form of claims that her family, the FBI and the Mormons were trying to kill her by planting snakes in the furniture. At the age of sixteen, Lieberman decided to establish the "optimal distance" from her mother's illness.

Her description of that optimal distance is touchingly self-aware, if a bit clinical:

"It is rare for two human beings to maintain optimal distance, a perfect blend of psychological and physical intimacy, for an extended period of time. But our memories of such moments are powerful and have lasting impacts. A complicating factor is that our earliest experiences of optimal distance are soon intermixed with necessary efforts to socialize us. It is that stew of sensations which makes relationships with our mothers so tricky. Our first optimal distance experiences become mixed with feelings of vulnerability, dependency, and frustration, the inevitable by-products of being parented and growing up. We end up yearning for closeness while simultaneously resenting it."

Her search for that distance took Lieberman to Europe and Africa, from Berkeley CA, to a shack in Colorado, with emotional and professional twists and turns. Along the way, she dabbles in various professions, meets Josephine Baker and struggles with yellow fever, breech births and missed boats.

Throughout she was a diarist, meticulously noting the minutiae of her life—her ribbons, dresses, teachers, classes, sewing projects, homes and furniture. She tells us about her father's 1952 federal pay grade (GS12), the rickrack on her (Lanz) dresses, the brand of her favorite sweater (Jantzen). And boys. Apparently, at every stage of her life, men found her irresistible. Her class mates, her professor, her doctor, a Jesuit priest, all yearned for her. The love of her life? Her daughter (the result of Lieberman's first and apparently non-intercourse sexual encounter).

While I found the book interesting and well-written, my inner editor nagged. For one thing, the author (and everyone else) speak only in complete sentences, with all the punctuation intact. Even her mother, subject to rage and delusion, was never ungrammatical. Lieberman has a facility with words, but her recollection of traumatic events can appear as stilted, yet overblown.

When she finds herself pregnant for the first time: "More critically, even though I was not the first unmarried woman to become pregnant, I knew of no one whose future was as blunted or as dangerous as mine. A tsunami of sexual shame washed over my psyche in a destructive moral aftershock."

"Blunted or dangerous"? Yes, to be pregnant and unmarried in 1963 was difficult, but dangerous? As for the "tsunami of sexual shame," it appears short-lived. Her mother, temporarily lucid, steps in. Divining the pregnancy without being told, she arranges for the teen dad to marry her daughter, finds a place for them to live, and even tells Lieberman's putative in-laws.

I wish Lieberman had shared more of things like what she actually did in her many jobs, rather than simply noting her job titles—shop clerk, executive assistant, management consultant. The glimpses that she shares of her daughter's kindergarten days are a powerful reminder of how the perceived sins of the parent are visited on children. The passages about assisting in failed delivery which cost the lives of mother and baby were wrenching. I finished the book wanting more.

And there is much to recommend this memoir, especially for women who came of age in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. An unsentimental blast from the past, from a woman of remarkable strength of character, Optimal Distance will resonate with these older women. Younger readers will find it eye-opening. All of us will relate to that search for the delicate, elusive perfect balance.

Born in 1942, Joan Carol Lieberman has been a diarist since she was five years old. Her life has taken her from a Mormon upbringing to volunteer work in Africa to roughing it in the mountains of Northern Idaho. Her career has included time working for the Head Start Program to the Ford Foundation, to her work as a management consultant.

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