In Sara Paretsky's memoir, "Writing in an Age of Silence" (Verso, $22.95), the mystery writer explores coming of age in 1950s and 1960s America, where the women's and civil rights movements helped her develop the writing voice that would become her fabled Chicago detective V.I. Warshawski.
In her book, Paretsky addresses her soul-killing childhood in Kansas with emotionally abusive parents and her hard-won efforts to get a foothold in the misogynistic academic world. She also raises the grim specter that the victorious battles fought in the 1960s and 1970s over freedom of speech, women's rights and abortion access are being undone by the unfettered surveillance under the Patriot Act and violence against abortion clinics.
Paretsky had planned to publish a collection of her political writings, but her editor urged her to write about her own tumultuous experiences. "From an editorial standpoint, my editor at Verso was right to have me use the memoir material, but it seemed incredibly unfair to my brothers for me to tell the public version of our family story," said the 60-year-old Paretsky in an interview from a New York hotel room.
Paretsky's family settled in a small, Midwestern town, where they were isolated for being Jewish. Her father was a scientist given to explosive rages. Her mother was bitter and angry, having forsaken medical school to raise Paretsky and her brothers. From an early age, Paretsky was told by her father that she was dumb and had an inferior mind that could not handle the sciences. When she went for a history Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in the late 1960s, the faculty was condescending and discouraging to female graduate students. Of the more than a dozen female graduate students who started with Paretsky in 1968, only Paretsky returned for the next year.
"For me, change did not come quickly," said Paretsky. "I remember in 1969, when the women's movement was heating up, I went to my first feminist consciousness- raising group. I had been told my whole life that I was too stupid to do anything. This is what all women were told. It was years of work, psychotherapy, consciousness-raising groups and getting involved with a man that had a different take on me."
It was Paretsky's heady experiences in the 1960s, working for Martin Luther King in Chicago and watching a roommate almost die after a botched back-alley abortion in New York City that forged Paretsky's character and make for the most compelling, rawest reading in the memoir.
Edgy literary character
These experiences also helped form V.I. Warshawski, who debuted in Paretsky's first novel, "Indemnity Only," in 1982. Paretsky is credited with breaking the gender barrier by creating one of the first hard-boiled female detectives. "I suppose my experiences makes Warshawski edgier than the other private investigators," said Paretsky. "She speaks in a direct, personal way to the readers.
"Because I write out of my own angers, uncertainties and fears, somehow it makes it possible for other people who are also anxious and fearful to feel empowered and stronger," said Paretsky. "I can't explain it, but Warshawski makes me feel stronger because she gives a voice to things that I am upset about, thus she also gives a voice to other people as well."
In her 13 Warshawski novels, Paretsky has tackled unorthodox topics for a hard-boiled mystery writer, including domestic violence, toxic-waste dumping and the complicity of some major American corporations in the exploitation and murder of European Jews by the Nazis during World War II.
Paretsky's politics are not limited to her novels. She has argued in speeches across the country that this is a grim time for American civil liberties. Despite this threat, most young people seem concerned with possessions, not politics.
"It's pretty frustrating to watch this decline in civil liberties while most young people seem to be more interested in consumerism than in their rights and freedoms," she said. "People make public pronouncements that they don't mind the government spying on them. The only people who should mind, they say, have something to hide. It's infuriating to see such an attitude in such a large segment of society."
Paretsky has been attacked for her political views. In her novel "Blacklist," she dealt with the mass detention of Muslim men after 9/11, based on an actual case of an innocent Pakistani man who died in federal custody after he was reported by suspicious neighbors.
"I got so much hate mail, I cannot tell you," she said. "My name must have been on some right- wing website. I got so many illiterate letters. I don't think they were my actual readers."
Litany of abuses
In the book, Paretsky brings up bleak accounts of bookstores and libraries turning over information on their customers under provisions of the Patriot Act. She speaks of the 6,000 acts of violence against women's clinics the past 30 years and abortion providers being shot and assaulted. Paretsky remains an activist, giving speeches and even offering to join a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union against secret federal wiretaps.
There are, according to Paretsky, some glimmers of hope. "Many people are finally understanding how grave the situation is," said Paretsky of the threat to civil liberties. "It cheers me up when I think that if people are given enough time, they will sort it out for themselves. If people had more access to accurate information, it wouldn't have taken four years for the tissue of lies from the Bush administration to be revealed."
For her part, Paretsky will keep campaigning for America's civil liberties. "I wish I was one of those people who wanted to get on with their lives," said Paretsky wistfully. "It's so easy and restful."
Dylan Foley is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y.