That Crystal Teardrop

For some reason Joan Baez decided or was persuaded to write something called Daybreak, which is called “a unique self-portrait” by her breathless publishers, who at least have the candor to acknowledge the book’s “informal structure.” Since the book is a slim 160 pages long, that informality of structure is no mean achievement, though I fear on other counts I will have to be a little less generous — less generous too than the editors of the Atlantic, who published excerpts of the book in the August issue. Daybreak is a sloppy, confusing, and at times foolish book, which, however, is not without interest as an example of how liberal pieties and banalities can exist side by side with obvious talent in a given person.
Appropriately enough, Daybreak opens with a dream that Miss Baez can’t seem to forget. She is watching a carnival and sees thousands of colored balloons, and attached to them “about three children in all.” A little later, of course, we learn that Miss Baez is one of three daughters, and that her sister Mimi was married to Richard Fariña, who was killed in a motorcycle accident, but not before he wrote Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me.
Like those balloons, the girls have wandered a good deal. Their father is a physicist, and has taught on the East Coast and the West Coast and abroad. (For a while under the auspices of UNESCO he took his family to Baghdad.) We are told that he was born in Mexico and brought up in Brooklyn; that he studied hard, loved his parents and God and people; and that “he’s good, he’s a good man.” Of course in the middle of the twentieth century an enlightened liberal like Joan Baez knows that life is more complicated than that, even for good men. Her father has to be declared a “compulsive worker,” and it has to be acknowledged that “he will never stop his work long enough to have a look at some of the things in his life which are blind and tragic.” On the other hand, the author is capable of awe and ambiguity as well as careful observation: “About me and my father I don’t know. I keep thinking of how hard it was for him to say anything nice about me to my face. Maybe he favored me and felt guilty about it, but he couldn’t say anything nice.”
Miss Baez is very strong on that kind of thinking. She is at ease with glib, psychoanalytic “interpretations” that lend an aura of “depth” to essentially trite and boring re-
Daybreak by Joan Baez (Dial, $3.95)
marks. She knows how to look back, how to find all those important truths of early childhood — and the earlier the better. She knows about dream symbols and rejection and anxiety and fear and all the rest. She knows that her maternal grandfather had a “weakness for marrying domineering women.” She knows about “sadistic energies” and schizophrenia. And she knows that someone like her virtually has to have a neurotic symptom, a hang-up, a “problem” for which she can consult a psychiatrist—and believe me, only four or five visits a week will work.
So once again in our time we are asked to take notice of memories knowingly and ostentatiously recited. It must sound like this everyday in Beverly Hills and on Park Avenue, where well-to-do, progressive, and avowedly sensitive Americans by the hundreds lie flat on their backs and await the next interpretation: “The major part of my childhood was spent in fighting off terror of things which don’t exist, and I don’t think my father ever understood that kind of fear. The overriding and most terrifying boogeyman of my life, which has been with me since my earliest memories, and remains faithfully with me though now it seldom puts me out of commission, has been a fear of vomiting.”
Naturally there is much, much more to say about all that, and we are spared very few of the details. Mother Baez constantly had to reassure her vomit-prone daughter, and Father Baez couldn’t see why they both became so worked up, and why so many psychiatrists had to get into the act. “What’s so bad about throwing up?” he once asked. And another time he used the Arabs instead of the proverbial Chinese: “Right now there must be a hundred sick Arabs throwing up this very minute. It’s nothing. You just blugh, and it’s over, and then you feel great.”
I regret that Miss Baez has now chosen to throw up a good portion of this hook, which is dedicated to “the flower children.” Her appreciative publishers have set aside some of her stories and her trashy, silly thoughts as if they were Pascal’s Pensées or fragments from Kafka’s Great Wall of China:
“Only you and I can help the sun rise each coming morning. If we don’t it may drench itself out in sorrow.”
“You—special, miraculous, unrepeatable, fragile, fearful, tender, lost, sparkling ruby emerald jewel, rainbow splendor person. It’s up to you.”
“I live on a hill covered with oak trees and I have two goats — Daisy and Cassandra. Cassandra’s face is cockeyed, and her eyes are very strange. One night I dreamed she was a Mexican Gypsy telling fortunes.”
“My life is a crystal teardrop. There are snowflakes falling in the teardrop and little figures trudging in slow motion. If I were to look into the teardrop for the next million years, I might never figure out who the people are, and what they are doing.”
So speaks Miss Baez, whose “unshakable belief in non-violence” prompted her to found in lovely Carmel an Institute for the Study of Non-violence. Like many another radical who is convinced that brutish, cruel people run America, she is capable of being spiteful, cruel, narrow-minded, callous, arrogant — and ready at all times to escalate her smug, liberal nastiness into this kind of thoughtless violence:
“A friend of mine told me it would be risky to write about Jesus. I’ll risk it. I wonder if Jesus knows what’s happening on earth these days. Don’t bother coming around, Jesus.”
And other things come out, too, things that reveal how quick Miss Baez was to begin earning her credentials as a tolerant one-and how cleverly and ambitiously iconoclastic she has come to be, starting from way back: “Mother tells me that I came from the first day of kindergarten and told her I was in love. I remember a Japanese boy who looked after me and wouldn’t let anybody knock me around. When they gave us beans to eat in the morning I told him they’d make me sick, and he buried them under the table for me.
“A Saint Bernard tried to play with me one afternoon and he rolled me down the hill. I was so terrified that I wet my pants.
“There was a boy who drank milk with me. He picked flowers a lot, and I always wanted to pat his head. The kids called him a she-she boy. . . .
“I hated first grade. I hated ‘Red Rover, Red Rover, let Joanie come over,’ because it was easy to get hurt, and because I hated to be on a losing side, so I’d do anything, even cheat to win.”
There she is — full of unprejudiced love right from the start; ready to let foreigners help her; very much one who encourages the weak, though from a position of strength and power, which she will get to, one way or another. Today she can talk about political activities like a dowager who knows her Europe. (“We did civil disobedience together at the Oakland induction center.”) But once upon a time there were those Quaker meetings, which she hated, and those coffeehouses near Harvard Square, where she might meet a blind girl and talk with her about a school for blind children, which has “stuffy housemothers and overeducated teachers”; and turns out “nice clean well-behaved blind types.”
And that’s what is so terribly and instructively awful about this book. Amid all that talk of “listening to the Fauré Requiem” or “dancing to soul music” or “singing in a Mississippi church,” we hear about “blind types,” perhaps a manner of expression picked up in the “group therapy” that Miss Baez talks about endlessly. Until Daybreak came along I thought that Walker Percy (in The Last Gentleman) had once and for all applied to psychiatrists and their “groups” the satire they so urgently require. But Mr. Percy is a wry and gentle man. He is not afraid to be astringent, but he would rather smile and shrug his shoulders. On the other hand Miss Baez is deadly serious. She knows that people have to confront one another, and become mature; that they need “the group” in order to find out about their feelings. She is not about to let us forget how sly and evasive a “group-member” can become. Yet somehow we learn from one another, and become better in those sessions and better outside, where groups turn into reading audiences: “You, Dear Reader — You arc Amazing Grace. You are a Precious Jewel — would it embarass you very much if I were to tell you . . . that I love you?”
The three dots that Miss Baez felt constrained to put in that plaintive question indicate that even she, for all her therapy, both “individual” and “group,” knows what a moment of doubt is like, I wish she had been even more hesitant, and not bothered us readers at all. We do, after all, have ears. We can listen to her beautiful voice, full of power and delicacy. We can hear her mind and soul as well, as they go to the Appalachian Mountains (“Wagoner’s Lad”) or to Mississippi (“Old Blue” and “Lonesome Road”). As a singer, a balladeer, a gifted artist, she needs no defense or further praise, particularly the kind that may somehow have prompted her to write this completely ridiculous failure of a book. If only the whole thing was meant to be a put-on. But alas, Joan Baez speaks in great earnest, and we have no reason to believe that her way of thinking is unusual in this nation.