& A with Beth Taylor ’75
Beth Taylor ’75, a senior lecturer in English and
teacher of writing at Brown University, recently published
a memoir about her experience growing up in a Quaker
family in rural Pennsylvania. Her book describes the interruption in her childhood
caused by her teenage brother’s suicide, and the path
that brought her to Smith and beyond.
Taylor will give a reading from her book on Wednesday, May
20, at 7 p.m. at Broadside Bookshop, Main Street, Northampton.
Meanwhile, she responded to questions about her memoir,
her days at Smith and teaching at Brown.
The Gate: What
inspired you to write The Plain Language of Love
Beth Taylor: In
my 40s, looking back at my life from my point of view
as a writer, I saw that the stories of young men I had known
and lost to the war in Vietnam were not just private sorrow,
but part of public history. I was interested in the journeys
of conscience of these young men; I interviewed their families
and used their letters and journals to bring them alive again.
First I wrote the story of Butch Geary, my 4-H Club leader
who had gone to the war as a Marine and died leading his
men through a meadow in Vietnam. Then I wrote the story
of my cousin Rick Thompson, who worked for the Quaker hospital
in Quang Ngai and died in a plane crash while transporting
children to Saigon. There is also the story of my high school
friend Tony McQuail, who sent back his draft card, left for
Canada in 1970, and stayed there for good. That story became
part of this memoir, The Plain Language of Love and Loss.
But this memoir focuses primarily on the legacy of my brother’s
suicide in 1965--which many believe was linked to
do you hope readers come away with upon reading The
Plain Language of Love and Loss?
hope that, although the story begins in sadness and a complicated
time in our country’s history, it inspires a sense
of affirmation as I explore the ways in which friendships,
marriage, and parenting helped me weather the losses and
near-misses that befall a life. At different stages
I see that grief can be a mask, even a lover, as well as
a teacher. I wrestle with questions about my family and Quakerism. I
wrestle with anger, alcoholism, and my own sense of faith.
Early responses to the book suggest these parts are particularly
resonant in many lives.
did your Smith experience inform what you have learned about
love and loss?
allowed me to immerse myself in my love of literature, the
stories of others who had endured the vicissitudes of life.
I remember taking Dean Flower’s seminar on Faulkner
and, after the twelfth Faulkner novel in the 12th week, I
could hardly get out of bed. But Faulkner’s language,
his dark vision and grim humor, seemed to wrap around an
essential hope in our life force in a way that made sense
to me. The
young American Studies Program at Smith also allowed me to
create an honors thesis that included oral histories and
documentary photographs of West Virginia families with whom
I worked during a summer AFSC Work Camp after my Junior year.
This was just after my cousin Rick had been killed in Vietnam
and the process of immersing myself in carpentry with these
mountain families, listening to their stories of living so
close to the bone, helped me to regain a sense of perspective
about what was important in life.
Smith I was also buoyed by wonderful friendships--classmates
with whom I am still close, and with now-retired Professor
Snoek and his family, with whom I attended Quaker meeting,
and whose kids took me outside myself and into the pleasures
of kid-dom while I studied hard.
specific Smith experiences do you cite in the book?
BT: I show
the richness of a women’s community and the
pleasures of the five-college consortium, through which I
took classes at Mt. Holyoke, Amherst, and UMass. I
show the grand rooms of Jordan House, where I enjoyed the rituals of sherry
and tea, formal dinners and holiday parties where we composed poems or songs
for each other–-what I call the “vestiges of an arcane but endearing
concept of gracious living.” I show my pleasure in the discipline of
studying hard all week, undistracted by young men. I show
friends in the co-op house, the art department, English seminars, and the Quaker
community around Mt. Toby Meeting. And,
I show the beauty of the area--the tobacco fields, orchards,
the camel humps of the Holyoke mountain range.
did your brother’s
suicide affect your education? Your road to Smith?
died when I was 12 and within the next year I went from As,
Bs and some Cs to no Cs ever again. I had always been bookish
in a Quaker family without TV, but after his death, I went
to books for solace. Looking back, I think academics were
perhaps something in which I could see clear cause and effect--something
I could control--and I needed that. As
I got closer to college, my father, who went to Haverford
like most of the men in his Quaker family, spoke highly
of Smith women and remembered visiting a girl at Smith and
climbing the trellis to kiss her goodnight. That sounded
pretty good to me.
components of your Quaker and Bryn Gweled upbringing have
find the ethos of Brown, where I teach, very familiar--its
emphasis on learning for its own sake, not just for grades.
Like my Quaker background, Brown values independent thinking
and personal searching. Like Bryn Gweled’s mission
as a cooperative community, Brown values collaborative and
creative ways of learning. Although
my husband and I did not raise our boys as Quakers, my youngest son, with no
prompt from me, has just chosen to go to a Quaker college. So, one never knows
how one’s past will send out little waves of suggestion--hopefully
in a positive way.
would you say, has the written word become your medium of
communication? How does writing best accommodate what you
have to impart?
are not only bookish; they take pride in directness and honesty--“plain
language” in style as well as in the historically democratic
use of “thee, thy, and thine.” And, witnessing
is part of Quaker practice. For me, that led to documentary
photography and writing as my preferred art forms. Agee’s
and Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and
Studs Terkel’s oral histories were my inspirations.
I was a photographer, doing my own darkroom work, starting
at age 12. In my 20s I was writing for the Sunday
Magazine at the Providence Journal, doing my own
feature writing as well as the photographs for the cover
art. But, one day my camera was stolen. I was very poor;
I had no insurance and couldn’t afford a new camera.
But, I realized all I needed for writing was some paper and
a pen, so I would just keep writing. And I did.
advice do you give your students at Brown who aspire to
read, read. Revise, revise, revise. Invite critiques by trusted
editors. Look for the complicating layers in any story. In
this era of glib blogging and first-draft writing, I teach
them in particular to research, to interview, to check all
so-called facts, to do the hard work of investigation so
they can reach for the ideals of the best journalism--to
be fair, balanced, and accurate, even when they are writing
about their own lives. This is essential for any writer or
producer--for a radio piece or a multi-media presentation.
It’s the old-fashioned reporting tools that make their
stories more significant.