Jill Ker Conway
Jill Ker Conway
When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography
ISBN: 0679445935
When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography
Jill Ker Conway, one of our most admired autobiographers—author of The Road from Coorain and True North—looks astutely and with feeling into the modern memoir: the forms and styles it assumes, and the strikingly different ways in which men and women respectively tend to understand and present their lives.

In a narrative rich with evocations of memoirists over the centuries—from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and George Sand to W. E. B. Du Bois, Virginia Woolf, Frank McCourt and Katharine Graham—the author suggests why it is that we are so drawn to the reading of autobiography, and she illuminates the cultural assumptions behind the ways in which we talk about ourselves.

Conway traces the narrative patterns typically found in autobiographies by men to the tale of the classical Greek hero and his epic journey of adventure. She shows how this configuration evolved, in memoirs, into the passionate romantic struggling against the conventions of society, into the frontier hero battling the wilderness, into self-made men overcoming economic obstacles to create an invention or a fortune—or, more recently, into a quest for meaning, for an understandable past, for an ethnic identity.

In contrast, she sees the designs that women commonly employ for their memoirs as evolving from the writings of the mystics—such as Dame Julian of Norwich or St. Teresa of Avila—about their relationship with an all-powerful God. As against the male autobiographer's expectation of power over his fate, we see the woman memoirist again and again believing that she lacks command of her destiny, and tending to censor her own story.

Throughout, Conway underlines the memoir's magic quality of allowing us to enter another human being's life and mind—and how this experience enlarges and instructs our own lives.
—from the publisher's website

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TRANSCRIPT
When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography
Program Air Date: May 24, 1998

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Jill Ker Conway, author of "When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography," where did you get the idea for this?
PROFESSOR JILL KER CONWAY, AUTHOR, "WHEN MEMORY SPEAKS: REFLECTIONS ON AUTOBIOGRAPHY" Well, I have been traveling around with my publicist from Alfred Knopf and giving readings from some of my earlier volumes and memoirs, and I started to explain to the audience before I read something about the genre, something about its history and where I thought my own work fitted in with it. And the audience would always get very interested and ask a lot of questions, and finally, my editor said one day, `Well, why don't you do a book about this?' So I thought it was a wonderful idea and I--I had to do a great deal of reading of 19th century memoirs that I hadn't read before in order to do the book, but I had great fun doing it.
LAMB: I have a copy of something you'll...
PROF. KER CONWAY: Mm.
LAMB: ...you'll recognize, "The Road from Coorain," your--What?--memoir or autobiography?
PROF. KER CONWAY: It's a memoir. It's my childhood and growing up in the outback of Australia and my education in Sydney. And it's definitely a memoir. It evokes the life and times a lot more than being a full-dressed autobiography.
LAMB: And--and what impact did this have--your--your memoir have on your whole idea of what memoirs are about?
PROF. KER CONWAY: I wrote it for three reasons. First of all, because I was tired of all the Australian movies that celebrated male heroes in the Australian outback, the worst being "Crocodile Dundee," and I wanted to write a story that had a female heroine, my mother, and a female narrative voice, mine.

The second reason was that I've been teaching since I was 23, so that's a very long time now. And if I'm teaching a young man and talking with him about his plans for his future, what he'll do after graduation, I can always find just dozens of memoirs by men--how I founded General Motors, how I rescued the Chrysler Corporation, how I discovered DNA--which will maybe inflate the power of the narrator to control his own destiny considerably. But on the other hand, it'll be a working, sort of, road map for a young man to think about how he might plan a future. But if I am talking to a young woman, who's just finishing college and thinking about her life ahead, there are really very few memoirs about a woman's education that will help her think about it, and also, very few that deal with how a young adult woman sets about planning her life. And so I wanted to write a story that would be a useful kind of road map for somebody going through that process of graduating from college and thinking about the future. And so that was a second important motive.

And then the third one was feminism today is expressed in rhetoric that's being so politicized over issues like abortion and the whole question of pornography, that most people just switch off. So I wanted to talk in a narrative voice that drew the reader into the story, male or female, and made them experience, through the story, some of the central issues of--of feminism--what happens, really, when a society is unjust in its dealings with women. And in--in that narrative, you see my mother, who has been such a powerful, very creative, likable, attractive woman sink into despair and neurotic mental illness, mainly because the world she lives in doesn't have a dignified idea of how a widow lives or what she does. And you also see me run into a lot of discrimination. And I wanted that to be told in terms that were very faithful to the important men in my life, father, brothers, teachers, lovers, but made it very clear that the story wasn't a romance. It's not about relationships with men; it's about how a woman gets her life under control and makes important choices.
LAMB: By the way, what's Coorain?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Coorain is the name of my family's sheep station in southwestern New South Wales, a very remote, arid area. The word means `windy place.' It's an aboriginal word. And it's the land that my mother and father took up as pioneers before I was born, when they were in their early 30s. And it's a--a story about what a l--beautiful world they built for a child to grow up in and then how that world is destroyed, mainly as a result of--of climate and Australia's recurrent droughts. But it's also destroyed because my parents, unwittingly, are agents of the destruction. They bring in sharp-hooved animals into a very delicate, arid countryside where they--they just destroy the root system of the plants. And so the country turns into desert.
LAMB: The book was written in 1989.
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yeah.
LAMB: Out in paperback. And you can get the hardback, even. I found that in a store.
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yeah.
LAMB: How many years does this book--your--your memoir cover?
PROF. KER CONWAY: It covers the first 25 years of my life. I'm 25 on the last page, when I'm walking out across the tarmac to get on a plane and come to the United States.
LAMB: What year did you leave Australia?
PROF. KER CONWAY: I left in 1960.
LAMB: And since that time, you've been president of Smith College for 10 years?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes.
LAMB: Why did you leave that?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Oh, well, I--I had a--an agreement with my husband, was jointly arrived at, that every 10 years, the other person would get to say where you lived. And that way, nobody's career would be primary and the other one's secondary, nor would we have to have a commuting marriage. So the first 10 years of our married life was spent in Canada, and then he said, `I'll go wherever you want to go.' We spent 10 years at Smith. And then it was his turn again. We went to--to live in Boston, and I started teaching part-time at MIT.

But I really wanted to spend that time getting back my old writing style. I used to write a lot when I was an undergraduate at the University of Sydney. I stopped when I got to Harvard and did a PhD. I started writing for other historians and I began to write short articles and very scholarly academic prose. Then I became a university administrator, started writing bureaucratic prose, you know, memoranda to this person and that. So when I came to have the time again to go back to the writing I wanted to do, my style was gone. I--I couldn't write in anything but that terrible bureaucratic voice. So I knew I'd have to write something that was very close to the bone and got deep into my psyche in order to get my style back. So that's why I started, among other reasons, and it did come back.
LAMB: Small point, but I notice the difference in "The Road to Coorain," you dedicate the book to John...
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes.
LAMB: ...and in this new book, it's in memory of John.
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes. He died just about three years ago now.
LAMB: And where did you meet him?
PROF. KER CONWAY: I met him when I came to Harvard as a graduate student, and I didn't understand the system very well. I was in a big hurry to get through the pr--preparatory part of doing a PhD, in which you take courses and then you present yourself for a general examination on your understanding of the field you've chosen. And mine was 19th and 20th century American history. And I was in a hurry. And I'm also extremely compulsive, as--as a person, about studying, so I knew that if I gave in to the standard pattern in which graduate students took two, three, four years to prepare for their general examination, I'd just be so compulsive about it that I'd never get it done.

So I decided I'd have my general examination within days of passing all my preparatory courses. And I didn't understand that if I did that, I lost my scholarship and I had to get a teaching job. And so I hurriedly went to the Harvard history department to ask for a teaching job, and they said, `Oh, yes, there's one. You can go and be a teaching assistant in John Conway's course.' So I did, and that's how we met.
LAMB: How long were you married?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Thirty-three years.
LAMB: Any children?
PROF. KER CONWAY: No, alas. Not for lack of trying, but we just didn't manage that.
LAMB: Now in this book, did you ever total up how many different authors you talk about?
PROF. KER CONWAY: You know, I didn't count them. I've--I've often counted the ones in the anthologies I've done, but I didn't count them.
LAMB: Well, let me pick one...
PROF. KER CONWAY: OK.
LAMB: ...and have you talk about it. One of those that we know here on this network is Katharine Graham.
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes.
LAMB: Why did you pick her autobiography or memoir to write about?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Well, the main theme of "When Memory Speaks" is about the differences between the way, in different time periods, it's thought appropriate for a man or a woman to tell their life story. And in the opening chapters, I trace the way--the romantic myth about a female life shapes how women tell their life history. And the romantic myth, just to talk about it in almost parody form, makes the heroine wonderfully, emotionally finely tuned. She's usually beautiful or attractive or got some special quality. And she's carried by fate or destiny into meeting the romantic hero. There are some complications to the romance, but eventually, they marry, and then, you know, 19th century women's novels used to finish--or memoirs, `And so, reader, I married him.' And her history ends at the point of the marriage and is subsumed within his.

And for a--a strong or a powerful woman to try and present herself in this romantic vein, she has to conceal all her motivation for power, to exercise choice and influence over her destiny and to make herself seem like this lovely person to whom things just happened. And I was fascinated by Katharine Graham's memoir because she rescued a faltering family media enterprise, served very well as its president and as publisher of The Washington Post and clearly exercised a great deal of judgment about how that enterprise was run. But in her presentation of herself in her autobiography, she really lets you think that she's just this nice suburban woman who doesn't enjoy being thrust into this role and is always being badgered by her advisers and scarcely making a decision of her own. And she--she uses a phrase, `I heard my voice saying,' as though it's another person. And so I thought she was a wonderful example. She's a woman I admired greatly, and I'm so interested that even somebody who has exercised the power she has, after all, deciding to publish the Pentagon Papers, deciding to back the reporters who broke the Watergate story--despite that, she still feels obliged to present herself that way.
LAMB: Do you know her, by the way?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: Just before we opened the cameras up here and the microphones, you were talking about coming from a board meeting...
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes.
LAMB: ...and I believe--and I don't know that--but you are on quite a few boards, aren't you?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes, I am.
LAMB: How many?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Six. Six for-profit boards and then hospitals, colleges, schools, foundations.
LAMB: Would you mind naming the six?
PROF. KER CONWAY: I'm a director of Merrill Lynch, Colgate-Palmolive, Arthur D. Little Consulting Company, a small high-tech company called Allen Telecom, Nike and an Australian company called Lend Lease International, which is a global property and real estate company.
LAMB: How many days a year are you in meetings on boards like that, the commercial boards?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Oh, goodness me. It's probably half my life.
LAMB: What do you think of it?
PROF. KER CONWAY: I enjoy it very much because, remember, I'm a historian. I've spent a lot of my life studying economic history, and it's fascinating for me to see how contemporary organizations that have to make a profit work and to contrast those, which are not entrepreneurial in the exact meaning of the word, but li--live and operate in the non-profit sector, and they must always generate a surplus in order to be able to manage and improve themselves, but are really working not to return to shareholders but to return to society. And so, it fascinates me.
LAMB: As you know, you write about a Merrill...
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes.
LAMB: ...by the name of James Merrill...
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes.
LAMB: ...who has something to do with the Merrill Lynch.
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes, he's son of the founder of Merrill Lynch, son of Charles Merrill. And, of course, one of America's greatest poets.
LAMB: Is he still alive?
PROF. KER CONWAY: No, he died--oh, seven or eight years ago.
LAMB: And what was his memoir?
PROF. KER CONWAY: His memoir is called "A Different Person." It's one of my favorites, first of all, because he's a great writer; secondly, because it describes the life of a young man, who's gay, coming to terms with his sexuality. And it's a story of his struggle to become a mature person and to somehow escape from being the child of so enormously a--successful a man and yet respect and admire what his father does. So it's beautifully written. He has a wonderful talent for prose. There's a wonderful passage in it in which he describes being in Rome with his father, who's going for an audience with the pope. And his father sets out in the morning dressed in an absolutely white silk suit, so Charles Merrill greets the pope clad in the same color. And James Merrill describes it as a confluence of Jupiter and Saturn. It's wonderful language.
LAMB: What was his relationship to his father?
PROF. KER CONWAY: He finishes his story describing his affection and respect for his father. Of course, he has the standard youthful rebellions, but he comes to think of him as a--a very benivol--benevolent influence in his life.
LAMB: Is there anything left in Merrill Lynch of the Merrill family?
PROF. KER CONWAY: There's no immediate kin of the Merrill family, but the--there were, until quite recently. And the heritage of Charlie Merrill stays very strong in the firm. There are stories told about him, people recall how he talked about himself and about the business, and it's quite common for people to begin a presentation about the firm today, starting out with a--a quotation from him. So his--his spirit is very much there.
LAMB: Right next to the Merrill story in your book is a--an author that I was first introduced to when we did a special on Oxford. And that was when Mr. Clinton came into office...
PROF. KER CONWAY: Uh-huh.
LAMB: ...the president, and we went over there and did a special, and one of the books I read to get ready for it was Jan Morris' book on Oxford.
PROF. KER CONWAY: On Oxford, yes.
LAMB: Now you paint an interesting picture of this human being.
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes.
LAMB: Tell us about Jan Morris.
PROF. KER CONWAY: Well, Jan Morris began life as James Morris. He--he--she tells in the story the experience of being, even as a very small child, convinced that the--the person who inhabited this body, which happened to have male genitalia, was female. And the story is a narrative of how James Morris eventually became Jan Morris by having an--an actual surgical effort to create female genitalia. And what interested me about the story was that the narrative is told very much in a male mode until maybe the last chapter--maybe chapter and a half, in which the newly emerged Jan Morris begins to feel that she can't handle ordinary mechanical tasks or--she describes not really liking to draw--to open the wine or park the car and all--all those other things. And she also describes the shock of discovering that in this new form, people condescend to her and explain things that she understands very well, in a very condescending way. But she's happy because she feels she's got the right physical body to match her inner psyche.

And to me, she's very interesting because there is a school of--of feminist thought today that is what we call essentialist and which believes that there is, somehow or other, an essential female or male psyche in--in all of us. I don't happen to agree with that. I think our identities are very much socially conditioned and that, really, biologically, apart from the arrangements for reproduction, our minds and our mental powers and--and physical capabilities are very similar. But Jan Morris is a wonderful example of someone who believes the opposite, and because she does, she has no personal history to recount after becoming female. She's found the right essence for her substance, and there's nothing more to develop. So the story gets pretty flat after that.
LAMB: Well, there is a line that I wanted to ask you about, though I don't know if you have any more information on it. `She now lives as a woman...'
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes.
LAMB: `...with a female partner, and clearly doesn't want to think of the relationship as lesbian.'
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes. I--I--I--that's just my own observation, but c--that's clear in the book, very clear.
LAMB: The--there's--the next chapter is Grimm Tales.
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes.
LAMB: Now what's that mean?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Well, I was thinking about Grimm's Fairy Tales, because a lot of the victim memoirs that we are reading today read like fairy tales. There are wicked parents and much misunderstood and mistreated children, and there is a narrative drive in all of those stories to rediscover that parent and, somehow or other, even up the scales or there's a preternaturally wonderful parent, mostly a mother, who is being celebrated by an adoring child. And those are--those are story categories out of fairy tales. Life is much more complex than that.
LAMB: You picked--a couple I want to ask you about--Rick Bragg of The New York Times.
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes. Wonderful story. It's about Bragg's childhood in poverty in the South.
LAMB: This was just in 1997, w...
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: Yeah.
PROF. KER CONWAY: Very recent. And he is the child of a wonderful struggling mother who is married to a no-good, unreliable, alcoholic, brutal male who beats her and abuses her and the children. But she remains faithful to him and goes back whenever she's invited back to him, when he abandons--after he's abandoned them. And she labors mightily to support the two sons. And one son, Rick Bragg, escapes through his gifts and talents and one son remains in that imp--world of poverty, doing hard physical labor all his life. And Rick Bragg, the narrator, wants to celebrate this remarkable mother, as he becomes more and more successful as a journalist.

And he is--he writes in a narrative style that is not unlike the way women are obliged to present themselves in--as romantic heroines do, because he attributes his success to luck. It's just luck that he happened to get a job working as a sports reporter for a local paper. It's just luck that he's in the right place to move up in the journalistic world. It's even luck when he makes it to the Nieman Fellows Program at Harvard. And so he, in a way, treats his life as though he's not personally responsible for having abandoned the family and moved away, although he stays true to the South in wanting to report Southern stories. And I think that that's characteristic of--of men born in extreme poverty. It's almost too dangerous, psychologically, to think about striking out for extraordinary success. And so you attribute causation to luck.

But I don't think there's all that much luck in life. We are caught in a very complex web of causation, and we do exert our will and deploy our talents to make the most of that. And so I was very much struck by the way he presents his story, downplaying his talents and--and o--overemphasizing the role of luck in his life. And I'm also very struck by the portrait of the mother because it's a very conventional and traditional one of a suffering, nurturing maternal female. And I always wonder: What would the narrative voice of his mother be, and would she see herself as this suffering and much-abused person or would she see herself as triumphant? And so it's doing Bragg an injustice, but there is a theme in some of these memoirs celebrating a wonderfully nurturing mother, written by sons, which is--is deeply conservative and really pr--shows you women, you know, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.
LAMB: You point in that book that his high school education was so poor, he never--he--he'd never have made it into a good college or a strong journalism school, so it was athletics and his passion for it that opened the way up.
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes.
LAMB: The reason I bring this up is that here's a man who got to The New York Times, got a Pulitzer Prize...
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yeah.
LAMB: ...and has written a well-known...
PROF. KER CONWAY: A wonderful memoir.
LAMB: You--you've been up there in the Northeast...
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes.
LAMB: ...running a college called Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, for 10 years.
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes.
LAMB: How did you get there?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Well, I came to Harvard Graduate School, determined to study American history. I grew up in Australia, wanted to understand my native country, which has a similar history to the United States; a white settler population occupying a continent, developing a unique and very idiosyncratic culture, the white population convinced it was theirs, although they were displacing native population. And in the Australia of my growing up--it's different today, but in my growing up, we studied only British history, British and European history. We didn't study our own country. It was thought of as just totally derivative from the United Kingdom. And I knew it was different because I had grown up in this very remote outback, with the whole itinerant agricultural laborer population, very, very different experience; closer to Texas, in many ways, than something British.

And I was fascinated by the way Americans wrote the history of their country. So I wanted to study American history, originally thinking I'd go back to Australia and become a new kind of historian there. While I was at Harvard, I met and married John Conway, who's a Canadian, and we went, instead, to Canada, to Ontario, where he was taking part in founding a new Canadian university. And I taught at the University of Toronto. I continued working, both teaching and writing American history, and particularly, the history of American women and the history of higher eduction.

And in the course of doing that, I became convinced that the great difference between Australia and the United States or the United Kingdom and the United States was the very strong women's institutions that this culture developed in the 19th century--philanthropic ones, social service ones, schools, colleges and so forth; universities--Bryn Mawr has a graduate school. And so I was very interested in how those institution--institutions were founded and what impact they'd had on women's position in American society.

At the same time, at the University of Toronto, since I've never been able to keep my hands out of politics, I guess I got involved in a variety of political fights at the University of Toronto, including one about equitable treatment of women. I had the usual experience of women academics of being passed over for promotion, while all my male colleagues were promoted. And I discovered, at the same time, that I'd been paid much less than they, although I worked every bit as hard and had published, in a scholarly sense, and taught just as much and served the university in a variety of administrative capacities. So I got really mad. And I had the decision reversed and had my compensation corrected.

And then I got to thinking, `Well, it was easy for me to have that fight. I'm happily married. I've got a husband who'd support me. Wouldn't hurt me too much if I had to leave and go find another job. I'd easily find one.' But then I thought about the women who were single mothers or who were caring for elderly parents and couldn't really stand up and fight on their own. So I thought I'd call a meeting of all the women faculty at the university and talk about my experience and see if theirs were similar and find out what we wanted to do about it. I called the meeting, just about everybody came, and they told me stories way, way worse than--than my own. And so we tried to get the faculty association, which was male-led, to help us work with the administration to correct this problem. But they said, `Oh, there's no discrimination against women here. All the differences are differences in performance.'

So the University of Toronto, where I was, was a publicly funded institution. And the Legislature happened to be holding hearings on its upcoming budgets. So we went and put our names down at the legis--to speak at the legislative hearing and told our story. And the university's estimates were not adopted, and they were told that they wouldn't be until the situation was corrected. So all of a sudden, I had gotten myself in a fight with larger implications than I usually mixed--got mixed up in.

And the long and the short of it was that when I--when there was a new administration at the university, I was asked to become one of the university's vice presidents and I started out, having never been so much as a department chairman, being involved in the administration of a very large Canadian university. So I was somebody who had studied the history of higher education and women's education in the United States and had major academic administrative responsibility. And so that led to my being invited to be a candidate for the Smith presidency and I didn't originally intend to take it, if offered, but then I went to visit the campus and met this wonderful population of women students, and I was hooked. So that's how I got there.
LAMB: Is it still all women's?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes, indeed. It is.
LAMB: Now they--I can't make the best connection, because I didn't bring the book with me but Arthur Sla--Sla--Schlesinger...
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes.
LAMB: ...has written about Smith in his little book that discusses multiculturalism and political correctness. And he says at Smith, there is some kind of a code, and I wanted to ask you whether this came before or after you were there, where there were--put labels and--and be critical of people for--they call it ableism and lookism and heterosexism. Are you familiar with those...
PROF. KER CONWAY: I know what those...
LAMB: ...terms?
PROF. KER CONWAY: ...words mean, but I--I--I'm not familiar with this at Smith, no.
LAMB: And the idea was that people were asked to be very careful about the way they talked about other people and using the language that you do, you know, if somebody is not particularly good-looking or all that. Is--is it a--is Smith a politically correct place in the--in...
PROF. KER CONWAY: You know, I've managed to live all my life in the academic world and never run into political correctness. I see it today in many applications to the foundations on whose boards I serve, which will be couched in language that refers to the differently abled and things like that. But I have never encountered it in the academic world. I think that there is, at Smith, a very strong feminist concern with making sure that women are not called girls, that they are spoken about very respectfully. And certainly anyone who arrives on campus and talks condescendingly about women will be hissed and called to account for it. But this other obsession with using totally neutral language, I--I've never encountered. Could be that there is a--a--a--a group of the student body at Smith who has these concerns, but if so, I've never met them.
LAMB: Elizabeth Cady Stanton is one of your subjects in your book under the heading of--Chapter 5 is Feminist Plots.
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes.
LAMB: What's that chapter about, and what was she about?
PROF. KER CONWAY: The chapter is about the way in which women who were among the founders of the feminist movement in the United States and in the United Kingdom tell their life histories, because after all, these are all political activists of the most extreme kind, quite far out on the spectrum of behavior in their generation. So one wouldn't think that they would be able to tell their life histories as romances. And what interests me about Elizabeth Cady Stanton is that she moves between talking about her life in romantic terms and talking about it in straight-out political terms. And so it produces a very strange and uneven kind of narrative.
LAMB: When did she live?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Elizabeth Cady Stanton is a--a--an early 19th century American educated in very demanding secondary school but tremendously troubled by the fact that her brother could go away to Union College, but there's no college for women that she can attend. And she's infuriated by that and even more troubled by that when the brother dies very young and Stanton tries to take his place in her father's esteem. Her father is a very prominent, well-known and successful lawyer a--in--up in New York state. And she comes to realize that no matter what she achieves it won't be satisfying to her father because it's being achieved by a female child.

And she marries a member of the abolitionist movement whom she meets at the house of a--an uncle and cousin against the family's will, which is pretty feisty for a woman in the 1830s and '40s. And the--the couple go on their honeymoon to England, and she goes to the Anti-Slavery Convention of 1844 in London with her husband and finds, to her astonishment, that the women members of the American delegation were--were not to be seated at the convention and not allowed to speak, although the abolition movement in the United States is female-led in a very striking degree.

So that put Stanton in contact with a lot of women who were very politically active and concerned in the abolition movement, and it gives her an opportunity to discuss the political disabilities under which women live in the United States and in the United Kingdom. And that makes her vow, along with some of her abolitionist friends, that one day they'll call a national convention of women to discuss women's rights. And that time is, of course, postponed a little in Stanton's life by the fact that she starts a family, lives in Boston with her husband.

But eventually, she and Lucretia Mott, the great Quaker leader of the abolitionist movement, do get together, and they do call a--a women's rights convention at Seneca Falls, which is a well-known historical moment in feminist history, in which they write a women's declaration of independence, which Stanton mainly drafted. And it's a claim not just for political rights for women but for economic rights for women also. And that launches her on a career as a--a women's rights speaker and polemicist, and that shapes her life.

But she tells the first part of her life as though she were a romantic heroine, changes tone to talk about the unhappiness of her marriage and the joys she has in fighting for women's rights. But then the closing chapters of her memoir revert to the romantic mode. She's just back from a tour as a public speaker delivering a series of lectures on the inequities of marriage, and then she shifts gears within a page and starts describing in very romantic terms the wedding of her daughter, which she describes as though she were the most saccharine Victorian writer. So she's a woman who switches style and tone and mood depicting a person who's having trouble telling her life story because it doesn't fit the categories of the world around her.
LAMB: Do you--do you worry more about writing or about the story?
PROF. KER CONWAY: I worry about both. I worry about both. You--you can always tell when the narrator is having trouble by what happens to the style and the structure of the plot. And the story is really only well-told if it's well-written. It can be very striking, but if it's--if it's told ineptly, it doesn't--doesn't grab your attention.
LAMB: Do you write at any special time of the day?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes, I write between 5 in the morning and 8:00. Given all the other things I do in my life, the phone starts going around 8:30, and I'm probably on the run the rest of the day. So I get up, start writing at 5, finish at 8. Whenever I get home at night, I print out what I've done in the morning, start to edit it, and that means that I can put those changes in in the morning and get straight back into the story, no matter what's intervened in the daytime.
LAMB: Does it matter how you feel at that hour of the morning how you write?
PROF. KER CONWAY: No, you just gotta make yourself get up and sit down and away you go.
LAMB: Are you fast?
PROF. KER CONWAY: No, I don't think so. I'm a very painstaking writer, probably rewrite every sentence five or six times.
LAMB: How long did it take you to write this book?
PROF. KER CONWAY: About nine months.
LAMB: And how long did it take you to read all the books you had to read, or had you read them?
PROF. KER CONWAY: I'd read most of them. The only--the ones I hadn't read were the 19th century men's memoirs. I--I did that sort of while I was going along. I did that dur--over a summer. And I don't have a very heavy meeting schedule in the summer. So...
LAMB: And how many books have you written?
PROF. KER CONWAY: I've written five and published also a number of anthologies.
LAMB: And "The Road to Coorain" was what book?
PROF. KER CONWAY: It's number three. The others were history books and are not--not aimed at a general reader. "The Road from Coorain" is the--the first one really aimed at a--at a general readership.
LAMB: How many of these did you sell? Do you remember?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Oh, gosh, it's still going strong. I think it's around 500,000 or 600,000 in this country at the moment.
LAMB: And what is it that people say to you that means the most?
PROF. KER CONWAY: The thing that moves me the most is to get a letter from a young woman who says, wherever she may be in the world, `You've told my story, and now I know how to tackle my life,' or from women of any age who say, `Once I read that book, I got so much insight on my own relationships and my own life that I'm going to be able to live it differently.'
LAMB: You close this book on memoir by talking about your father and something you have in common with him.
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes. Yes. I--my father died when I was 10. The death and its effect on our family is described in--in "The Road from Coorain." The r--circumstances of his death were so troublesome that for most of my life I believed that he may have committed suicide. He was found drowned in a--a large dam on our property. And at the time, he was deeply depressed, and so we all thought that he must have done that deliberately because we had no inkling that he had any illness of any kind.

But a few years back, I began to discover the--to suffer from a--a condition called atrial fibrillation, which is an--a kind of electronic set of signals in the heart that go wrong and tell it to beat fast and--and to--to beat--it's pumping in rather than pumping out. And it's a condition that's well-treatable medically today but wasn't so easy 50 years ago when my father died.

And lo and behold, my brother has become an amateur family historian, and he found my father's medical records. My father was a--a veteran of the 1914-'18 war and was badly injured, and so he received a--a military pension. And so all his medical records were with the--the Australian war commission. And lo and behold, my brother found the record of--of the same problem. And, of course, if it's not treated, it can cause you to have a stroke or have a heart s--spasm, which turns into chaos and is a real heart attack. So it looks as though my father may have had a--a death from natural circumstances, which really changes the way I look at the relationship to him in my early childhood.
LAMB: Does it make you worry about your own heart?
PROF. KER CONWAY: No, 'cause it's very well-treated these days. They didn't have the same kind of medication and ability to deal with quirky nerves in the heart at h--at--at--in his time.
LAMB: How--how many years ago did your mother die?
PROF. KER CONWAY: My mother died in 1977, so 21 years ago.
LAMB: So she knew about you being president of Smith College.
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes, she did.
LAMB: What do you think if she saw you today, a well--you know, you're an author and people buy your books, and you're on six boards and teaching at MIT...
PROF. KER CONWAY: Sh--she'd be--she'd be just as disapproving as she always was. I think it's a very ambiguous experience for a woman who--who knows she's right and has not been able to get a good education herself to watch her daughter receive an absolutely first-rate one. On the one hand, you want to give it to the child, and on the other, it's just really so hard to bear that they have it and you don't. And she did not approve of how I lived my life, was not impressed with me becoming president of Smith. I think she just couldn't bear it. And I've now, as a much older person, watched so many other families bring the first child to college when they didn't go. And--and I can see how ambiguous that experience is.
LAMB: And how old were you when you lost your brother?
PROF. KER CONWAY: I was 13.
LAMB: And is your other brother still alive?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes, he is. He's the person who found my father's medical records.
LAMB: Oh, that's right. You write about a person in here who was a chief executive officer who--who wrote a book, very successful book. And I want to combine you talking about him, Lee Iacocca...
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes.
LAMB: ...and what you see as you serve on these boards about someone like him who's in the chief executive spot. And--and do you--and do--do any of the companies that you serve on have a woman as their chief executive officer?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Ah-ha, wonderful questions, all of them. Lee Iacocca first. He is a person I think, you know, a--absolutely encapsulated in everybody's mind as the person who rescued a failing Chrysler Corporation. And I was interested in his memoir because his is the s--the story of somebody who's a salesman, although he starts out life as an engineer and is given the opportunity to work in the engineering side of the Ford Motor Company. He says, `Engineering is really dull, and it's not really where the action is in the automobile industry; it's in marketing.' And he wants to become an absolutely first-rate marketer.

And so the early story of his life is the successful boy from an immigrant family who makes his way through college and gets a first-rate education, making his way in a corporate world. And Iacocca's way carries him right up to being president of the national division of the Ford Motor Company, and eventually, it gets him in second place to Henry Ford II.

And all through this narrative, he has always had in his own mind that he can make anything happen. And the story is narrated in terms of one success after another, one bright idea after another, the group of talented people he drew around him who he was able to guide as a--as a leader and be successful in any enterprise they undertake. And he's just never allowed for the fact that he's not really in control of his own destiny and the person who is in control of that top spot at the F--at the Ford Motor Company is Henry Ford II. And so he's utterly devastated when Henry Ford fires him, and you would think that that would make a man reflect on causation in his life and look around a little at--at all the circumstances in his life that he can't control.

And, of course, he doesn't; he simply goes to the Chrysler Corporation expecting to be able to do the same thing. And once again, he attracts a great pool of talented people around him, expects to succeed. And, of course, he can't because the energy crisis of the early '70s comes along, and the market for automobiles collapses, and his company is really not able to manage financially and can't even meet its--its loan payments. And so he has to beg the support of the--the US Treasury, and he goes off to Washington to plead for it and again doesn't see himself as somebody who's caught in this very complex set of events and circumstances he doesn't control. He's just impatient that he can't persuade them to do what he wants as fast as he'd like.

So at the end of his story, when he has finally, through the help of the US Treasury and the bailout of that loan, being able to revive the fortunes of the Chrysler Corporation, he's still thinking about the next phase in his destiny, and he--which he intends to make, and his closing chapter sounds very much like the early stages of a presidential campaign. And, in fact, his candidacy was muted for a little while in--in the period after his great success at Chrysler.

So his--his story to me is a fascinating one, a very intelligent man who simply is never able to look around and see what complex network of--of causation he's enmeshed in in which he can have some influence. But he really has to recognize some of the determining forces as well. What...
LAMB: Let me just ask you this. It turned out to be one of the largest-selling hardback...
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes.
LAMB: ...non-fiction books in history, two million plus.
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes.
LAMB: Why do you think it sold so...
PROF. KER CONWAY: Oh, because it--it's told in the conventional mode of the American success story, and every American wants to believe that through hard work and talent and industry, you can make it to the absolute pinnacle of success. And nobody really wants to admit, in a country devoted to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that sometimes you can't control circumstances and you run up against causal forces in your life that you are absolutely not able to shift. So it's the kind of story every loves to read.
LAMB: The other questions: On the boards you serve--on the six boards...
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes.
LAMB: ...are there any other women that serve on those boards?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes, on several of them, there are other women. Some of them, there--there are two other women. So that's a pattern which is changing. W...
LAMB: And how about--are there any top officers?
PROF. KER CONWAY: In some of them, indeed, there are, executive vice presidents. Few at the moment, but many more on the way.
LAMB: So what have you noticed about the CEOs of the companies that you...
PROF. KER CONWAY: Well, to...
LAMB: ...boards you serve on?
PROF. KER CONWAY: ...to me, the most striking thing about observing those organizations and the people who run them is that to be a good chief executive you really have to be what I would describe as an androgynous personality. You have to have tremendous drive and ambition, great strategic sense and very, very high intelligence.
LAMB: Do they read?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes. They read...
LAMB: Do they read your books?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes. But the other thing that's important about them is they have to be very finely attuned to people, have enormous empathy, be able to enter imaginatively into what it's like to be another person and to be able to call out the best in the talented people around them. These are none of the organizations that are run on a kind of military command and control mode; they are run by somebody who can really call out the energy and talents of those around them and be extremely sensitive to every nuance of every personality. And I think that's not the stereotype of the standard chief executive officer, but all the successful ones I know have those qualities.
LAMB: What would they say about your performance on the boards, do you think? What--how would they describe what you're--what you're doing for these boards?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Oh, I think they'd say that I'm a quick study and that I think well about strategic issues and that I'm somebody who is enormously interested in the business, whatever it is, and that I'm a strong representative of--of the stockholders.
LAMB: This cover has what on it?
PROF. KER CONWAY: It has two figures from classical mythology, male and female, and they're meant to be shown merging together because the concluding chapters of "When Memory Speaks" talk about the way in which male and female narratives are becoming closer and closer as we get toward the present.
LAMB: I have l--very little time left. Let me ask you about the Kathryn Harris...
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes.
LAMB: ...memoir, "The Kiss."
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes.
LAMB: What was it about, and--and why did you choose it?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Kathryn Harrison's memoir, "The Kiss," is about the experience of an incestuous relationship with her father. And it's called "The Kiss" because she frames the moment that she fell under the spell of this relationship with an erotic kiss from her father and ends the story with her ability to end the relationship by a kiss of farewell to her grandfather, who's the good male in her life. And it's a very mechanical story, and it's really told like a fairy tale, as though she's under a spell and has no willpower or moral ing--moral reasoning capacity of her own. And I...
LAMB: Did it work? Did it sell?
PROF. KER CONWAY: It certainly sold because it's very sensational material. But as a memoir, it's very unsatisfactory because it doesn't tell you anything about Harrison's life and times. There were no strong characters except this father who is, himself, really just his genitalia and his eyes and his hands; he's--he's hardly a person.
LAMB: And one last one. The--Jean-Dominique--Is it?--Bauby?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Bauby, yes.
LAMB: What's that about?
PROF. KER CONWAY: "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is a--a--a memoir written by a man who was totally paralyzed by a stroke. It's a stroke in the brain stem, so the--the rational capacity of the brain is in fine shape, but the motor part of the body is--is immobilized. And Bauby can blink only one eyel--eyelid, and that's his power of movement. And he manages to dictate the memoir to a friend who counts the number of blinks of his eye to signify a letter in the alphabet. And it's a story of what it's like to be imprisoned in what--a body that he describes as like a diving bell, can't move it except by some other people moving him around. And the butterfly is the traditional image for the soul in French poetry, and Bauby, of course, is French. And it's the image for the power of his mind and intellect.
LAMB: Can you pick one of these in here that you write about that you would hand to somebody and say, `This is a good place to start'?
PROF. KER CONWAY: Yes. I would certainly give them James Merrill, and I would give them Virginia Woolf's "Moments of Being." Those are the perfect places to start.
LAMB: Our guest has been Jill Ker Conway--you can see there on the screen, the copy of her book called "When Memory Speaks." Thank you very much for joining us.
PROF. KER CONWAY: It's been wonderful to be here.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1998. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.