Photo courtesy ofColumbia University PressMy best friend from my teenage years died of a mysterious brain disease more than 20 years ago, when we were both barely out of college, leaving me with an intolerable sense of unfinished business. Lately, though, my thoughts have turned with surprising regularity and intensity of feeling toward people with whom I've long since lost touch — a girl who wrote extraordinarily mature poetry and a pair of young teachers I admired. Sometimes I even fantasize about getting back in touch with these three; perhaps I might then understand where my mind is pushing me. But I don't dare.
Lois Banner has more nerve. In Finding Fran, a mix of biography, social history and personal quest, Banner describes how in 1993 she tracked down an old friend whom she hadn't seen or corresponded with in 24 years. Risky business. For on the face of it the two women, now in their 50s, couldn't be more different. As teenagers in Inglewood, they were intellectual comrades-in-arms against the prevailing 1950s jock culture; both married twice and have children. But Banner, a lifelong feminist, is now a professor of history and gender studies at USC, while her friend, the former Fran Huneke and current Noura Durkee, is a devout Muslim living in Egypt, her life largely focused on family.
For some, finding a friend so irretrievably changed might have marked the end of the story. But Banner's training as an academic — coupled with a profound, unwavering affection for Durkee — wouldn't allow her to let go. An inveterate questioner of preconceived opinion, she was able to cross seemingly insurmountable barriers to attain a fresh appreciation of their friendship, and to enter into a close analysis of the societal influences that propelled them down opposite paths. The result is not just a personal story but a fascinating portrait of broad social movements, from 1950s conformity and 1960s idealism to 1990s eclecticism.
Relentless scrutiny of the past, be it personal or political, invariably reveals more than one bargains for. Banner found herself forced to reconsider some deeply ingrained assumptions, to find shadings and complications where before she had seen only a simple black-and-white picture. As teenagers, Banner thought she and Durkee were soul mates, with a few personality differences — she was the shy yet always grounded one, Durkee was articulate, flamboyant, yet fundamentally dreamy. Examining their separate family histories, their teenage and student days — she at UCLA and Durkee at Stanford — Banner discovered subtle differences of upbringing that clearly laid the foundations for their very different adult lives.
Banner's family was working-class and upwardly mobile. She grew up with a houseful of relatives and a working mother, a high school music teacher, whose example as a daily wage earner instilled in Banner the inner strength with which she would later maintain her independence. Durkee grew up in impoverished professional, academic circles, with a sophisticated yet home-oriented mother and a frequently absent father. Most crucial here is Banner's reassessment of Durkee's mother, Lydia. The daughter of eminent Stanford classicist Augustus Murray, Lydia had traveled around Europe with her father at an early age, learning about literature, art, history and architecture firsthand. She also studied fashion design in New York and was full of stories about her wild life in the city.
For Banner, whose own mother died when she was 13, Lydia was the ultimate free spirit inspiring her to follow her own dreams. It was something of a shock, then, to discover that for Durkee, her mother was a smothering presence — beloved, yet also a dictator of the soul. Banner slowly began to understand that Lydia's example as a housewife kept Durkee from single-mindedly pursuing her dreams of becoming an artist, and inevitably bound her to marriage and children at an early age. Though Durkee worked hard at carving out her own space — painting, teaching, helping found a commune — she always followed her husband's lead, whereas Banner's struggles for independence led to divorce.
Banner has also found similarities in their disparate lives. Though they now sit at opposite ends of the political spectrum, both women have always yearned to be part of a larger community, Banner through feminism and Durkee through various Eastern philosophies. It is that sense of idealism, and a shared conviction that reason and intuition are more intimately entwined than Western beliefs generally allow, that has brought them closer together today — perhaps more truly connected, for all their differences, than they were as unquestioning teenage allies.
Since rediscovering Durkee and having gained a better appreciation of her friend's choices and a more complex understanding of Islam, Banner, the
rationalist, has embraced mystical Sufism, while Durkee, the teenage dreamer who once wanted to be
a painter and responded to the world intuitively, now works with Egyptian feminist social reformers helping to found schools and clinics for women and children.
Banner's ability to see personal choices as part of a larger societal picture has produced a special kind of autobiography, a living history, far superior to the flood of memoirs deluging the market in recent years. Though her writing is sometimes clumsy, lacking the poetry and humor of, say, Mary Karr's The Liars' Club, Banner's narrative, switching back and forth between the two women's stories, nevertheless maintains a brisk, almost novelistic pace. Despite the occasional stylistic awkwardness, Finding Fran almost never bogs down in jargon or in Banner's dogged and wide-ranging research. Rather, her historical analysis lends resonance to a profoundly personal story.
These days, it's fashionable to bash 1960s idealism. But from Banner's personal travails within sexist academia in the 1960s and '70s and her subsequent discovery of feminist scholarship, and from her recounting of Durkee's immersion in the philosophies of Krishnamurti and Gregory Ivanovich Gurdjieff, as well as her friend's experiments in communal living — at the Lama Foundation near Taos in New Mexico and at Dar-al-Islam, the Saudi-financed Islamic Study Center near Abiquiu, New Mexico, both of which Durkee helped found — the reader gets a wonderful inside peek at what it really felt like to go through a feminist conversion and to experience a 1960s alternative lifestyle. Far from feeling any sense of alienation or discomfort, one is seduced
by Banner's down-to-earth, common-sense approach, and by her suggestion that her unlikely friendship with Durkee is a paradigm for what feminism might be — indeed, for human relations in general — a kind of kaleidoscope, embodying all ideologies, each one influencing and honoring the other.
Reconnecting with one's past inevitably brings new, often painful discoveries, Banner suggests. It's dangerous, but it's also exciting. One emerges from Finding Fran with the Chekhovian insight that only by taking risks with people, by pushing at the boundaries of what we know, can we truly come alive.