Wilson Follett wrote an open letter to his daughter, anonymously; it was published in the May, 1941, issue of The Atlantic. I’m sorry the image is so small.
A year! It is very strange to reflect that two Christmases have come and gone, that the entire annus terribilis 1940 has been born and written its fearsome record and died, since any one of us who love you has clasped your hand or received a syllable written by it or unearthed the smallest clue to where you are, even to whether you are living or dead.
Any outright disappearance, even for a few hours or days, is incredible enough when it involves someone we have always known. We realize in a detached way that the Missing Persons Bureaus are called upon to interest themselves every year in a nondescript horde of our fellow citizens — eighteen thousand, is it? — of whom the majority have dropped out without a trace and will never be found. The knowledge is as irrelevant as the quantum theory when the void swallows up, not another anonymous statistical unit, but our own flesh and blood.
“But this is utterly different!” it is our first instinct to cry out to the level-voiced, stolid-faced official to whom (barring evidence of “foul play”) the whole thing is just the filling-in of one more printed form. “This is someone of striking presence, of glowing beauty, impossible not to notice in a room, a street, a subway, a crowd; a person twenty-five years old, born into an excellent family, five years married into another, and surcharged with distinction, with talents, as no one using half an eye could help perceiving in her carriage, the free swing of her stride, the quiet inner power she radiates unaware; an important being, one in ten million, and — don’t you see? — my daughter!” (Or wife, or sister, or whatever.) “She disappeared one afternoon between the office in which she worked and her apartment, and not even her husband has heard from her for ten whole nights and days. It is preposterous that such a one should just drop out of existence for that length of time, as if she were one of the indistinguishable crowd. Could Helen Hayes be lost for ten days without a trace? Could Thomas Mann? Could Churchill?” And now it is getting on toward forty times ten days, and the thing four thousand times as preposterous, as ever after a twelvemonth.
It is an interval that has taught us afresh the meaninglessness of time as measured by our clocks and calendars. The very months that have been a crawling agony of suspense about you have seemed a racing nightmare as we have followed the affairs of nations — among them the Germany, the France, the Italy in which as a young girl you made yourself so instinctively at home. I, on my quiet hilltop, have caught myself a hundred times straining every nerve to hurry the obstinate, the leaden hours, to make them leap and dart and fly; and this was simply my reaching forward to whatever unknown moment is to give you back. I say to myself in the morning, “This may be the very day when she will come, or word from her or of her,” and it seems that the sun is riveted in situ, that the hour for the mail stage will never arrive, that the moments are not successive drops in the flow called time, but each a frozen eternity. Yet I am perpetually trying just as hard, just as futilely, to hold back the hours by main strength and so to ward off the moment when the world’s news comes in. For that is the moment when we daily face once more that which it becomes daily more impossible to face and more unthinkable not to — the latest incredibly rapid advances of a humanity speeding toward self-destruction by forced marches that make the swiftest of history tortoise-like.
Thus, I pray time away, and also I wrestle with time as Jacob with the angel to make it stand still — I, the same man in the same hour!
A year, in common adult experience, is no eternity, but it is quite long enough to have told me to the last chapter the story of how I miss you. Surely you will not recoil from knowing just this: that simply, humanly, sorely, I miss you.
And it is not as we miss someone whose importance to us is based on everyday familiarity and habit. From your thirteenth year, when it had to be faced at last that your parents’ marriage would never be anything but a disaster to both, I could see next to nothing of you until you were grown up. Then, almost at once, you were married, and to someone with whom, in spite of both esteem and liking on my side, I have unhappily never learned to communicate. I have seen you at best, for only a few days of any year, a few hours of any day. Yet then, as in the long interval and always, you were one of the permanently important persons in your father’s cosmos — the cosmos, you will at least grant, of someone to whom the few human beings who are necessary are very deeply necessary. What would it mean to the dweller in a mountain valley if a peak that he had contemplated steadily for a quarter of a century were suddenly blotted from the landscape? I do not have to tell you, to whom everything above the timber line is both thrilling and familiar. A scheme of things in which I do not know where you are, do not provably know that you are — it changes, I assure you, the shape of my sky. This sky, in the sector where you should be, has now been misshapen for one whole round of the seasons; and by memory and reminder there has been telescoped into this single year all that I was ever able to have of you and share with you in the twenty-five before it.
Of all this, I find the trifling, the homely things somehow the most tenacious. You remember the two summers’ when you found the corn patch of my kitchen garden a weedy jungle? You insisted, both times, on tearing into it with me, and by nightfall, working shoulder to shoulder down the long rows in the hot sunshine (and raising identical blisters), you and I had the last hill handsomely to rights. This last season, with the rows twice as long and twice as many, the rains and the interruptions were more kindly distributed, and you could not have slaughtered a hatful of weeds in the whole area. But I never put the cultivator through it without reliving those two days, or without wondering what alien corn your terrific surplus energy might now be committed to saving. Day after day I was surprised anew that you did not breeze in to see for yourself how mine was faring.
From the day I started hand-sledding the first-run maple sap on a crust of snow waist-deep, not a week of the reviving year failed to bring you back in some such shape. A company that makes marine cordage has put a good lithographed reproduction of Patterson’s Daniel Webster on its 1941 calendar; it shows the packet running under nearly full sail in a freshening westerly. I chanced upon a copy in the village and begged it for the kitchen. (“If she knows this already, she will like it all the more when she drops in.”) I suppose you are aware, my child, that you are my sole acquaintance of your sex who ever sat on a foreroyal yard. If there are others living, I don’t know them and certainly don’t miss them.
You will hardly have forgotten the ten days you and I spent together above the tree line at the onset of winter. You were twelve then; it was the very last of our companionable idylls. How many quarts of the mountain cranberries did our numbed fingers dig out from under the crusted snow? And how many hours did we give over to contemplating the clusters of alabaster frost ferns, some of them longer than your arm, that build up out of driven cloud on every windward surface? (Is there any other work of nature that seems so like a conscious plagiarism from the human artist?) Unexpectedly I saw these again, and with them you, when I threaded our pasture woods to cut the Christmas tree. All the trout brooks ran with a muffled gurgle under a shell of snow-laden ice, but here and there they had kept open a breathing hole — a deep vertical shaft four or five inches across, with a black swirl of water at the bottom. Every one of these shafts was lined with thousands of frost ferns made out of the water vapor, but on so reduced a scale that a dozen of them would hardly have overlapped the nail of your little finger. No one ever had more joy of such things than you. And I — over the thirteen years I saw you seeing them.
It was brought home to me in the February a few weeks after you vanished how deep, instinctive, and unshakable is my faith that you live and remember and in your own time will let us know how you fare. Up to that evening, cold reason had made me partly doubt myself. Others to whom I should have looked for equal or greater faith had said that you were surely dead. When I told them steadily that you were surely not, did I quite believe my own words, or was I silencing with protest a conviction in my own mind that these others must be right — a certitude more dreadful than I could muster the courage to face quite yet? On such a subject a man does not infallibly know himself — at least, pending a revelation which was precisely what came to me on the occasion I speak of.
It was after dusk, and I was shifting some tons of dooryard snow with the big scoop on runners, working in a warm, contented glow at a temperature near to zero. Suddenly I was aware of a car leaving the main road and trying our hill — the first steep pitch above the mailbox. I paused and listened long enough to think: “Doesn’t know the hill. Not much of a snow driver, anyway.” After the third try I should have sauntered down to administer free advice, with perhaps a bucket of ash. But the third try brought the driver triumphantly over the hump, into the dip, and on up the second rise. An unexpected voice said: ‘Why, here she is. She has come. Of course!” Without the slightest impulse to hurry, and finding it all the most natural and satisfying thing in the world, I dumped the scoop once more, filled and abandoned it, and walked toward the car. I called, “Hullo! Hullo, there!” with the inflection of warm intimacy we save for those whose coming at any specific moment is a slight surprise because we are expecting them always. The next instant I was to have had you in my arms. But the head that leaned from the driver’s window turned out to be that of a somewhat disconcerted young woman who had been sent thirty miles out of her way to convey an ailing typewriter to the repair shop.
My heart missed, I suppose, two beats. But then it began to sing again. (Its song took the momentary shape of voluble and frothy chatter in a vein that I don’t ordinarily command and in fact detest.) I had verified something about myself—something that in importance to me ranked behind your actual coming, but only just behind. I knew that you are you, that you would come, and that my voice had not been merely giving the lie to a ghastly truth entrenched in my subconscious mind. In this shadowy experience I was vouchsafed by a stranger the very substance of a thing theretofore only hoped for.
I have mentioned how I stand divided against myself by the constant effort to make time fly like the arrow for one purpose while resenting and resisting its flight for another. It occurs to me that millions of men and women, perhaps a majority of us modern Occidentals, are being wrenched apart within themselves by just this bootless struggle to make every hour, every day, mean incompatible and mutually destructive things, according to the simultaneous dictates of their desires and their dreads. Is this perhaps the characteristic modern disease — this inner tug-of-war between time that holds us back from happy consummations and time that drags us toward brinks of doom? Human beings were not meant to live so, perpetually divided between chafing at what is and hanging back from what is to be; you and I feel that as passionately as Shelley did. We were meant to savor the present; and even when we reach forward with all the energies of imagination — as, being human, we are constrained to do — that reaching-forward should mean that we have abundant life already, life that overflows and transcends the moment. It should not mean that we are waiting for some speculative future to bring us to life. What with the nostalgic elders sighing for their good old times and the impatient youngsters telling themselves and the world that existence will be all one happy glow as soon as they have turned some particular corner of the future, I sometimes think the race has lost the simple secret and one possible source of contentment, which is to live while you live. How many of us are going to be fully alive as soon as today’s impediments to life have been put in their place! And meanwhile we are acquiescently dead in the only section of time that will ever be conceded — the now.
You, my dear: was it not, at bottom, some such perception that drove you to the extremity of renouncing — phrase of the bored and the desperate —”it all”? Did you not leave us because life had come to seem to you unbearably like a promissory note that is perpetually renewed?—because you had given up hope of ever realizing anything out of it but trifling and irregular payments of interest? I think you launched your one-woman strike against a system of deferred payments and for the right to live richly, fully, fulfillingly in the continuous present.
It would profoundly interest me — I say it in admiration and love, without ironic intention — to know this: Have you found that right so simply obtainable? Or are you perhaps still assuring yourself that life will soon begin to assume the shape of your demands? — as soon, say, as you have recovered from the unavoidable wrench of separation, ceased to be hounded by a feeling that you are a deserter, and created for yourself a new place, a new identity?
However that may be, it is an anxious and a perturbing thought, this business of the new identity. It may be borrowing trouble in your behalf, — parents, you will have noticed, are prone to that, — but I really cringe for you before the difficulties you have implicitly invoked. The problem tackled by an adult person who sets out from scratch to have himself a brand-new life — does not that call upon him for the precise endowment of the great creative writer, the major novelist or dramatist? For look: he sets out to re-create an already existing, fully formed person in the image of someone who has never existed yet, and even with the extra handicap that this person is himself — a terrific tax upon his utmost of disinterestedness, of detachment. I know that brilliant double lives, successive or simultaneous, have been lived by the ingenious and the resourceful; nevertheless, there is something makeshift and hollow about every one of them that I can think of. They strike one as the synthetic work of the minor novelist, the dilettante, as the feats of impersonation of a clever character actor. Nothing of that sort will be half good enough for a woman who has resolved to make a clean, sharp break with everything, in a mood of complete ruthlessness to herself and everybody else, for the presumable purpose of realizing her deepest potentialities and becoming a new woman.
Your cleverness is not going to sustain you: nothing short of ripe wisdom will count. There can hardly be much long-run value to you in a mere keeping of yourself out of our sight, or in the fabrication in cold blood of a specious career that ostensibly owes nothing to the past. The real question is, Can you re-imagine yourself de novo as a more important and vital person than you were before? More important to yourself, I mean. Are you sure that you will be, in manipulation of the materials of your own life, the supreme creative artist? Does it stand indisputably clear in your own conception what character you must henceforth, not impersonate, but be?
I know what you will say: that you have asked only to be yourself, and that being yourself demanded release from a set of conditions that thwarted and wasted and compromised you until they had become unendurable. Well, every creature has to be his own judge of what is endurable, his own discoverer of what he was meant to be. But let me remind you of this: You were a great person before, whether or no. You were born one. It is pretty safe to say that no one ever questioned that who has known you, or read those still radiant early books of yours, or received your letters, or followed you through much of either the work that you treated as play or the play that you sometimes made such hard work of. Confined, repressed, and stultified as you may have come to seem to yourself, you were to all others a very synonym of generous freedom, the ardent spirit, the courage to be oneself. Can you, in whatever your new surroundings and relations may be, remake yourself into a being more satisfactory to yourself than you used to be to the rest of us? If you can, you are indeed struck by the lightning of creative genius, and all the moral probabilities, the natural law of conduct, are suspended in your behalf.
There is, in this matter of the necessity to be oneself, a rather wide gulf between your generation and mine — the gulf across which multitudes of parents of my age find themselves staring at the bleak fact of failure with their children. We, when young, required to be ourselves, too; but as a rule we expected to accomplish it inside a particular framework of circumstances — the one we had more or less deliberately fitted together around ourselves. Our choice of a place, a calling, a marriage or no-marriage, a major ambition — that, we said, was basic self-expression. To pretend that one could freely loop back, begin over, reverse oneself, be born again — that was to decimate, not to fulfill, oneself. It was to abandon a capital investment in a way that no one felt really able to afford, life being so short and we not granted the option of trying its imperfect passages over again.
When, for example, one of our marriages became so untenable that sheer self-preservation dictated an end to it — as you saw happen to your own parents’ marriage when you were thirteen — we took its dissolution, not as a wry episode of funny overtones and ugly undertones, but as an irreparable, a tragic wiping-out of values. Our escape was that of a soldier who has left an arm or a leg — and much blood — in the trenches; he can be thankful that it was not his head, but he understands that what has got away is still no more than (as Hamlet said) a piece of him. Such things are no glorious victories of self-fulfillment; they are only the rescue of an exhausted remnant from a spiritual Dunkirk.
With you younger ones, all this seems to be rather different. Where we took the existing framework as a container into which to pack all of ourselves that would go, you take it as something to be kicked to pieces, or let fall to pieces, if it is not an immediately satisfactory fit. Your habitats, your jobs, your diversions, your marriages, all seem to be experimental, provisional, readily replaceable. The difference is partly, I presume, a consequence of the superior mobility of your era. Everything that does not happen to suit one is now physically much easier to slip away from than ever before, and morally easier than at any time since the continent ceased to be mostly frontier.
And here I must say some candid words about the marriage that you have yourself slipped away from — words that I could never have said unasked if you had not by your own act made the extreme, the ultimate comment on your five years with X.
You will hardly have come to the age of twenty-six without discovering at least some important aspects of the fundamental paradox that a normal woman cannot be herself without giving herself. Whatever she holds back, on some theory of saving her independence, her freedom of initiative, her selfhood, she holds back first of all from herself. There are two-person relationships — parenthood, marriage, all friendship worth the name — that by their very nature constantly ask you to throw yourself wholeheartedly into serving the other person’s necessities, just because they seem to be his necessities. It becomes your prime necessity to see that his are served. If you fail, you do not merely cheat him of the service: you dam your own deliberately chosen outlet of self-expression and so cheat yourself. To carry into wedlock the premarital valuation of oneself is to be no more than nominally wife or husband.
It seemed to me somehow that you took up your life with X with the air of someone perpetually and increasingly on guard. What you maintained a sort of unsleeping sentry-go against, I suppose, was partly X himself, but more the inherent insidiousness of all marriage as a threat to the ego, and most of all some generous instincts in yourself that you construed as self-betraying weaknesses. What you believed it important to defend, I suppose, was the sense of being your own woman, with a mind and a will to exert, perhaps an art to mature, certainly a life to live. (Of course, you believed with absolute sincerity that this tenacity in self-preservation would increase your value to X, too, and would vastly enrich your joint as well as your single life.) And so you created for five years a consistent impression of seldom giving anything with one hand but to take it back with the other.
If you found yourself being swayed toward X’s growing need of regularity and domesticity, you compensated it by developing some new interest or throwing yourself with doubled fervor into some old one. If you were drawn toward his extraordinarily absorbing and valuable work, you surrounded yourself with persons who only bored or mystified him. If he wanted to talk or just relax, you made it a duty to dance or swim or tackle Ktaadn or just go gadding. In the end your typical week was so parceled out that you and he can hardly have seen each other for weeks on end, except to bolt a meal together and say, “Well, so long!” When you finally got around to seeing the merits of some wish of his, it was likely to be too late: he had lost hope in it and with a self-effacing sigh put it away. Throughout, you seemed to be holding yourself up to a rather grim modern ideal of living adventurously, dangerously, even when it went against the grain — running, of all things, a marriage by the politically admirable maxim, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”!
Now, when you tackled the difficulties of other techniques than marriage, you never took them as a field for conquest by self-assertion. Three winters ago, when our back windows framed you practising the turns of skiing for several hours a day, you were systematically reeducating your body to tricks of balance that flatly denied some of its natural muscular instincts. By sheer dogged practice of a teachable and established regimen until it was second nature, you were making artificially acquired impulses displace innate ones. This was self-liberation through self-submission, and you knew it. You never expected to combine the rewards of playing Bach with the fun of improvisation. (Don’t you remember my calling down the dumb-waiter shaft from the third floor, “Not G-sharp, dear — G-flat?” You were able to submit yourself to G-flat without the slightest feeling that your identity was being menaced.) But any number of extremely bright persons seem to take it for granted that they can collect all the benefits of being married, without practice and without discipline, while handling themselves pretty much as if they were still single.
You will probably have detected the tacit parallel between this common perversity in marriage and the other characteristic modern dilemma that I mentioned — the homelessness in time of folk who rebel against the present and yet cower from the future. The first is, indeed, a special form of the second. That the greater and the lesser are actually characteristic ills of the time is shown by our fertility in new techniques of “integrating” the ruptured personality — all of them, so far as they are any good, translations of the world-old wisdom of living with heart and mind concentrated on something big enough to command them, and with a determination to pay whatever this something costs and to forgo whatever interferes with it. Only so can we be whole within ourselves and in our relationships, and only so can we keep spinning a future that we need not dread out of a present that we need not execrate.
But it is so very easy, in or out of marriage, to forget that today, whatever we have made of it, is nothing but the tomorrow of our yesterday!
This digest of mingled experience is, I realize, pretty sermonic; but let me tell you briefly why it is not smug. I should not have the courage to utter a word of all this save as preface to the confession that I feel myself to be very deeply and directly responsible for what has gone wrong. There is a natural inference, I suppose, that when a young wife runs away it is her husband she is running away from; but that is the last thing I have any impulse to hide behind. There is always the deeper question, What made her a woman capable of so desperate a solution? Do not imagine for a minute that I have not had to face and to live with everything that luckier moralists have ever said about the children of divorce.
You saw, when you were thirteen, your home breaking up; and you saw the initiative in it taken by me. You saw me, later, contract a wondrously happy remarriage and father children whose adolescence, pray God, will never have to undergo the unfair stresses of yours; and it must have looked to you as if M. and I had snatched lightly and irresponsibly at unearned blessings, paying nothing for the past, suffering nothing, contentedly leaving it to others to pay and suffer. It is the final testimony to your own fineness of grain that you knew M., almost on sight, for a great and brave woman and a supremely trustworthy friend. But could that, could anything, unteach what in the meantime you thought you had learned about marriage itself, and learned through me more than any other?
You had seen beloved persons, your nearest, misshapen by each other into something they were never meant to be, never wanted to be. You had seen mincemeat made of their best attributes and capacities. You had seen them at last so overwhelmed by agony as to put their own feelings ahead of your needs — and this must have been, to you, a toppling of the universe. I think you cannot be blamed — certainly you cannot by me — if presently you came to your own marriage with suspicions, reservations, and a degree of cynicism.
There is, too, another aspect of our past about which I have had to feel increasing qualms. You were treated from the beginning, not as a child, but as a person. Always you had a more than average amount of being let alone to make your own mistakes in your own way and learn from them. Even when those who loved you had the clearest conviction that you were squandering your powers, throwing yourself into aberrations, they religiously kept their hands at their sides — hands that yearned to be officious in your behalf. It used to give me a good feeling to possess no single crumb of knowledge of you that I had picked up by the common parental devices of inquisition and wiretapping. I wanted all of you that you would freely offer me, but there was nothing that I wanted so insensately as to grab for it or take advantage of you to get it. I summed up my parental attitude as a decent respect for privacy. Today, I have to wonder if that is not too kind, too self-flattering, a summary.
Would it have been better otherwise? Could you have used, at times, more interfering and tyrannic love, cherishing it for the love even more than you resented it for the tyranny? We took our non-interference as the final measure of our fidelity to you; but did you always take it so? I have lately feared, and with heart-burnings, that you took it as the final measure of our indifference. It is an appalling thought, now, that you may have come in the end to feel that no one cared, really cared, what you did or what became of you. Can we have hidden our solicitude overfaithfully? Did we pay too unstinted a tribute to your strength at times when you perhaps felt secretly weak, lonely, in need of a hand that could have been held out and was not? Have all of us together become tragic victims of the sometimes cruelly passive modern intelligence, when the saving wisdom would have been just a little more old-fashioned wearing of the heart on the sleeve?
For better or for worse, we have done as we could and as we are, always deeply caring for what we believed you were, and always hoping you understood. And I hope you understand now that I initiate this message wholly in the spirit of a person-to-person-call and by no means that of a moral subpoena. I wish it were possible for you to answer it. Can you not, without sacrifice of anything vital to you, at least choose one of us and cause him to receive for us all the basic reassurance that you live, that you are where you want to be and doing what you want to do, that there is nothing (if so it must be) that anyone can do for you? Is it truly indispensable that you condemn a whole group of lives to the awful and unending suspense, the permanent mutilation, of not even knowing how or whether they have helped kill the thing they loved?
I am not prejudging the answers or judging you: I am but asking the questions. There is, believe me, nothing in the world that I have the heart to urge upon you to the prejudice of your salvation. In some way not knowable to us your choice may actually be the flat choice between remaining long or forever lost to us and being irrevocably lost to yourself. If we could understand that that is so, we could the better bear what is laid upon us to bear. But we who have somehow failed you, we whose good intentions must stupidly have sown desolation and bitterness, since they are what we reap — we do not claim the right to lay down conditions or clamor for appeasements.
8 Replies to “To a Daughter, One Year Lost – from her father”
That is a real heartbreaker – particularly when he more or less loses his temper right before the end (as he had every right to)…
This does lead to the central question – what really happened to Barbara? My personal guess – she went off to temporarily get away from it all, and then met with misadventure fairly soon thereafter.
It’s an extraordinary essay, I think. My grandfather was quite a writer. I’ve just finished re-reading his only novel, 1933’s “No More Sea,” which has a minor character, Charlotte Robinson, who’s the mirror image of Barbara. I wouldn’t say that it’s a great book, although there are flashes of brilliance, particularly near the end when he describes a tornado. My favorite writing of his are his letters to my mother when she was in college in the 1950s. My grandmother said to her: “Your father’s letters shouldn’t be read, they should be bound.” One day, I hope.
Your guess about what happened to Barbara is as good as any. I just don’t know what to believe. I go from thinking she escaped everything to live a long and happy life on a distant island somewhere, perhaps with Ed Anderson, to thinking that JKel of the Astral Aviary blog was on the right lines — that somehow she died that night or soon after. His guess was that, exhausted mentally and physically, she accidentally fell off a ferry in Boston harbor, which I doubt, but I think it quite likely that some misadventure befell her on December 8th, or soon after.
C’est une lettre tellement égoïste… Wilson Follett cherche à se justifier… Encore une fois c’est à lui-même qu’il pense… Selfish man…
I feel so bad for him that he never found out what happened to his daughter. I really hope that her disappearance was by choice but I have a strong suspicion that her husband may have been responsible because the amount of time it took for him to report her missing and his lack of interest in finding her is incredibly suspicious imo.
Follett’s essay strikes me as an apology, but one written without him ever having to come out and say he regrets abandoning the family. Now, with his daughter’s disappearance “final”, he wonders if he could have helped things turn out differently. Too little too late, this is the worst kind of regret: the kind that must be written on the wind.
He should have seen it coming. Barbara pulled an Eepersip maneuver, a disappear, a ‘melt into the woods’. Which makes him into a regretful dad, but also a fool. He had been warned.
This is an incredibly sad letter, full of bitterness & ego. It’s also practically unreadable in its artifice. I can’t believe it was published & can only hope Barbara never read it.
Barbara’s disappearance has troubled me ever since first reading about her 40 years ago. I want so for her to have lived and found happiness. I wonder if family members have done DNA research? Still hoping for a happy ending.