Monday, December 8, 2014

New book pays tribute to feminist author Merlin Stone

Cover of Merlin Stone's When God Was A Woman (1976),
a formative work of the Women's Spirituality movement

Merlin Stone Remembered: Her Life and Works
by David B. Axelrod, Carol F. Thomas, Lenny Schneir and Merlin Stone
(Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd., 2014; 384 pages)
ISBN: 9780738740911

reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa, InfiniteBody
also posted to hummingwitch

Merlin Stone's research into ancient Goddess civilizations and spiritual beliefs (as author of When God Was A Woman and Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood) and her prodigious creativity on the feminist scene of the 1970s and '80s, touched the lives of many women and our male allies. When I was a producer and host at WBAI, New York's Pacifica radio station, I interviewed Stone (World Watch: Goddess at Dawn, May 1988) and, in 1990, had the honor of speaking on a panel with her, Spiderwoman Theater's Gloria Miguel and other feminists working in non-mainstream spiritual traditions and the arts. Later, Stone invited me to assist with a new audio project. We began to meet, but our work was interrupted and never completed. In declining health, she passed in the winter of 2011.

We're now at a time when young women often distance themselves from the feminist label; when the public discourse, even among feminist activists, relegates spirituality to oblivion; and when the religious dictates of patriarchy demonstrate their disastrous effects on a civic and global level. I was excited to learn that Llewellyn Worldwide planned to bring out a book on Merlin Stone's life and contributions. Surely, Stone would speak to our condition once again, offering alternative perspectives and motivation.

Merlin Stone Remembered--a rough patchwork assembled by admiring colleagues and family members--is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the book I'd hoped to read. Ideally, that book might be researched and written by an independent scholar, not a committee intent on unnecessarily and redundantly pleading The Case for Merlin Stone's Greatness. It would offer both a deep, detailed, coherent, reasonably objective portrait of this unusual and unusually determined woman, born Marilyn Claire Jacobson in Brooklyn in 1931. It might give us an engaging account of her many travels throughout the Mediterranean and Near East, to the extent that adequate documentation exists, and a professional assessment of her life's work. At least the introduction by noted ecofeminist Dr. Gloria F. Orenstein takes pains to put Stone in the context of other pioneering, if often controversial, authors such as Helen Diner, Monica Sjoo, and Marija Gimbutas.

The book's collaborators take a preemptive tack, defending their inclusion of a memoir by Stone's companion, Leonard ("Lenny") Schneir. A professional poker player and dealer in gambling memorabilia, Schneir lived with Stone for decades, seeing her through her final illness and death. By all accounts, the relationship was a happy one and, for Schneir, instructive and transforming. Apparently, though, the book team ran into some unidentified women's objections to the idea of Schneir adding his story to Merlin Stone Remembered.

I would never take issue with Schneir having a say here merely because he is male. But I suspect that you, like me, might find yourself hurrying through the lengthy, at times self-indulgent narrative about his journey before and with Stone--and, definitely, you will want to move past the poems. Greater care should have been taken with the overall structure and balance of this book.

Schneir's participation is not the book's only flaw, merely one out of many. Throwing together excerpts from Stone's interviews, bits of her published and (perhaps, justifiably) unpublished work, and repetitive essays like David B. Axelrod's "reflection on the poetic genius of Merlin Stone" and another by Schneir with Axelrod, entitled "The Importance of Merlin Stone" argues that this is a case of opportunities not only missed but willfully refused.

Instead of illuminating substance, we get filler: Stone's honorary doctorate certificate from The California Institute of Integral Studies, her birth certificate, pages of photos not selected to add anything to our understanding of the woman. One section reproduces numerous examples of fan mail from her readers, but I doubt that, even in the Internet Age, this author needs Yelp-style testimonials. What follows these letters? Another essay: this time, "The Legacy of Merlin Stone."

Here's how I want to remember Stone: as the woman who, in a talk with Michael Toms, subtly noted a difference between "planetary consciousness" and "planetary conscience." As a white woman troubled by racism, an observer of psyches and societies who saw fear at the root of repression. As a writer, sometimes pedagogic in tone but broadminded in her vision of feminism and of spirituality. A writer whose informed, complex, inspiring work was everything this book is not.

Eva Yaa Asantewaa, InfiniteBody
also posted to hummingwitch

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