Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

4 Imaginary Friends

with 4 comments

This is the 4th in a series. If you want to start at the beginning, scroll down until you get to number 1.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought this blog post was going to be about  my bucket list—once I figured out what was supposed to be on it. For some reason, the whole idea of a bucket list never caught on with me. There are always lots of things I want to do, and new ones all the time. Mostly, if there’s something I want to do, I get fairly single minded about doing it. I am sometimes so single minded, I scare even myself.

And right now, the only item I can think of that would fit the traditional idea of a bucket list would be to learn to play the harpsichord. That one, I don’t think I’m going to do. I’m bad at musical instruments in general. Learning to play would require a great deal of time and practice. And a really decent harpsichord would cost a year’s income of the ordinary sort, and with cancer expenses it would just be ridiculous.

But in general, I don’t think I have too much to complain about. I first decided I wanted to go to Vassar when I was 3. My father had a complete set of the Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia, and there was a black and white picture of girls parking their bikes in front of Thompson Library. And I knew, as soon as I saw it, that I had to grow up to be in that place.

I graduated in 1973. When I was a student, I would go into the main reading room and just sit, looking up at “the great window.” If I’d never heard of the place before my college tour, that window would have made up my mind.

Most of the other things I wanted to do as a child I managed to do over time. I wanted to write what I wanted to write the way I wanted to write it and have a “real” publisher bring it out in hardcover. I did that. I wanted to live in Paris at least for a while. I did that. I wanted to get married and have children.

A good friend of mine always warns me that I shouldn’t say things like this, because people will resent it. Most people do not do what they set out to do in life. They take the existence if people who do as a kind of implied criticism.

I’ve lived long enough to know that criticizing the way other people have lived their lives is a dangerous pastime. Lives are full if variables, and luck makes far too much of a difference.


Part of the problem is that I am always aware that in the matter of the most important item on my childhood list, I failed.

Worse, I failed in a way I could not fix. I failed for the sane reason I would have failed at capturing a unicorn.

I was looking for something that did not exist, and that certainly does not exist now.

To make this a little clearer, you have to understand that I spent most of my childhood and adolescence as a person out of place. I just didn’t fit, with anybody. I was absolutely the wrong kind of daughter for my mother. She needed a daughter who loved dolls and make-up. She got me a doll every Christmas, and I discarded it as soon as I opened the box. She was one of the most intellectually insecure people I have ever met. Her parents responded to the Great Depression by yanking the girls out of school so the boys could finish, which meant she never graduated from high school. All I ever wanted was to read books and write them.

The fit with my classmates and my relatives wasn’t very good, either, although the classmates thing got better when I was sent to an all girls high school.

What’s more, around junior high I discovered two things: philosophy, and the Yale Co-op.

Philosophy turned out to be what I imagined people read and talked about in places like that black and white Funk and Wagnalls picture. It was the core meaning of “the life of the mind,” which was a phrase I’d come across in a novel by Mary McCarthy (Vassar girl!). There were, I concluded, places where people cared most about reading and thinking, and if I could just get out and away to one of those places, I could be happy.

What’s more, people had been doing this thing for thousands of years. It wasn’t something out of the way, or unusual, or odd. People thought and read about life and art and destiny and then they wrote down what they thought about it all, and that was “philosophy.”

What’s more, the entire point of the enterprise was to think and to know. That was it. Not to know in order to put the knowledge to use, but just to know, because knowing itself was the important part.

Without realizing it, I had stumbled over the entire rationale for education in Western Civilization. This was why Socrates taught in Athens, why Plato founded the Academy, why one medieval city after another established universities.

And, as I said, about this time, I discovered the Yale Co-op. My mother’s people were from New Haven, so we went down there fairly regularly. And the Co-op was open to the public. And, best of all, the Co-op sold books of philosophy, history, classical literature, and everything else, very, very cheaply.

From that point on, my focus was in finding a way to get to one of these places. It was , I was sure, just a matter of time. I would suffer through the nonsense I had to, and then I would get to one of these places, and then I would fit.

I don’t know when I first began to realize that these places I had imagined didn’t exist, or at least didn’t exist any more.

It’s hard to know whether something in the past ever “really” existed. Time tends to strip away complexities and contradictions. Put 500 years between yourself and Roger Bacon, and you can manage not to notice that there is a huge gulf between what he wrote and the way he lived. The man may have founded modern science, but he was an opportunistic, traitorous little shit.

Still, something like what I imagined must have existed, at least partially, somewhere. I had professors at Vassar who were just the kind of people I was thinking of, men and women who lost themselves in the problem of evil, or the metaphysical poets, had or the way in which Loves politics lead to Mill’s.

And there were other indications. There was, for instance, one of my favorite books on the planet, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. That was a portrait of exactly what I wanted, of the university—and the life of the kind—ands I had imagined them to be.


By the time I got to college, the thing I was looking for was already dying, if it had ever existed at all.

Of course, there were still individuals out there who did the kind of thing I was thinking of. I got really good at finding their books.

But the enterprise itself seems to have largely committed suicide. Rather than being dedicated to knowledge for its own sake, the people who claim to be engaged in the life of the mind seem to care only for what they can use to prosecute an agenda. To that end, they allow themselves to know as little as possible.

I don’t understand what to do with “professors” of political science who don’t know what a right is, or “experts” in moral philosophy who advocate infanticide for children born with disabilities and don’t seem to realize that that idea has a history, I don’t know what to do with literature “professionals” who think that railing about Shakespeare’s “misogyny” says anything about Shakespeare.

I do know that I never got to that place where I thought I would fit, and never will.

I thought the world I was aiming for was a goal.

It turned out to be the homeland of imaginary friends.


Written by janeh

April 26th, 2018 at 11:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to '4 Imaginary Friends'

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  1. I think the element you’re missing here is that most people do not have such a clearly envisioned goal for their lives, and certainly not so young. That is a marvelous thing, to conceive your life’s ambition early, and to have the motivation, the drive and the ability to achieve it in large measure. The writing is a major triumph.

    That the milieu you envisioned never fully existed is unfortunate, but not your fault. Some people (Dorothy Sayers for one), wrote so persuasively that they led you to believe it did. Perhaps it’s because they longed for it as earnestly as you did, and hoped that writing it could make it so.

    I’m not sure ‘fitting’ is all it’s cracked up to be. There will always be a few people with whom you can communicate fully. And the vast majority will look at you oddly, not get your jokes, and nod slowly as they back away. Or maybe that’s just my experience. ;)


    26 Apr 18 at 1:07 pm

  2. I’ve come very late to anything that could even be remotely described as a “life of the mind”, and for that I have you and the old RAM crowd to thank. I’ve read more in depth and breadth over the last 20 years than I did in my first 57. I never had any achievable ambition that wasn’t thwarted either by straitened circumstances or by common or garden sloth.

    But as my life unfolded, I was forced into a measure of self-discipline whether I felt I needed it or not and, along the way, I came to realise and accept that my most important role in life was simply to do the best I could to support my family and to give my children the best possible start in their lives. Having achieved that, I’ll die content and without any regrets about what might have been.


    26 Apr 18 at 8:53 pm

  3. I was searching for something similar and I came across your essays on your website, which left a lasting impact on me. Then I followed this blog closely. Maybe you didn’t find what you were looking for but you gave a slice of it to others.


    27 Apr 18 at 9:55 am

  4. I suspect such things, by their nature and maybe by OUR nature, are fleeting at best. Take a good look at Shrewsbury College. Go back a short generation, and there are no women’s degrees. Go forward a generation, and the successors of those dons will be chanting “better red than dead” waving CND placards and generally looking for a totalitarian to surrender to. Those “earnest black men writing down every word” of the Political Developments lecture will be running single-party states in Africa. They might not sterilize the unfit postwar or chop up criminals for medical research, but they’ll be using aborted babies soon enough, and I think Miss Hillyard would approve.

    I suspect those golden ages require unvoiced and examined assumptions. Challenging or rejecting the assumptions is a logical development–but it makes the golden age go away. I’d like my fruit to stay ripe, too. But it’s not going to happen.

    We can pursue truth individually, and maintain each of us our own integrity. But the age itself–the zeitgeist–is beyond our control.


    30 Apr 18 at 12:38 pm

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