Marjorie Williams was a Washington journalist who wrote for such well-known publications as the Washington Post, Vanity Fair, and Slate. The essays in this terrific collection cover the political scene of the 1990s, women’s issues, family life, and Williams’s battle with the liver cancer that took her life in January 2005.
The book is divided into three sections. The first is made up of lengthy profiles of well-known political figures and Washingtonians. The second section of short essays includes Williams’s reflections on issues of the day and on her personal life. The final section, on life with cancer, is the most personal of all.
In many ways, reading these essays was like stepping into a time warp. Williams wrote most of the political essays here before 9/11, so terrorism and the War in Iraq don’t come up. I remember most of the people Williams wrote about and followed many of the stories, although not necessarily closely, and I wish I had encountered her writing then. It would have been nice to know Vernon Jordan and Tony Coelho, two of her profile subjects, as something more than names and titles when they were in the news. Williams carefully observes her subjects and interviews people who have known them for years to get the fullest story possible. The portraits are often fascinating—and surprising. I never would have suspected that people were afraid of Barbara Bush, but, according to Williams, they were.
Williams expresses a clear point of view in her essays, although she’s not predictably partisan. She makes it clear that she’s a Democrat, but she’s ready to praise and criticize people on both sides of the political spectrum. Her essay on the feminist reaction to Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky is particularly interesting. Many of the essays are written as reactions to specific books or news stories that are long forgotten, but the issues they explore still resonate. I don’t remember when Ms. magazine started publishing beauty advertorials, but I am aware of the ongoing tendency for society to allow its understanding of beauty to be defined by what we see in magazines, and Williams’s essay on the changes at Ms. do speak to this.
Of course, illness and death are always with us, and Williams’s account of her diagnosis with cancer and her final essays on her final days are both frank and frightening. Here, she comments on people’s reactions to her diagnosis:
A cancer patient learns to see them coming, the ones who want to ask you (or tell you) just how you managed to give yourself this illness, and why you have failed so far to cure it. It is your toxic anger. It is what you eat or fail to eat. It is your neglect of your third chakra, or your stubborn refusal to take coffee enemas. They would never be so foolish.
She goes on to explain how the sniper attacks that were happening in the D.C. area at the time reveal that death is impartial, and that “there is no logic at all to some of the worst blows that life metes out.”
I’m a big fan of essays, and I enjoyed reading this book very much. I’m not sure it would be the best introduction to this kind of writing for those who aren’t at least a little familiar with politics of the 1990s, since the profiles comprise close to half of the book, and many of the names come up again in the other sections. But if that doesn’t put you off, and if you enjoy literary journalism, this is a great collection.