February 17, 2010


Tirzah Miller’s Intimate Memoir
by Tirzah Miller and Robert S. Fogarty, Ed.
204 pages, Indiana University Press

Review by A. J. Barker

At our house all genders are equal, but one is more equal than mine, so I was obliged to take notice when ‘She Who Decides Stuff’ decreed, “That memoir you’re reading is weird.”

“It’s unusual, for sure,” I agreed.

“It’s weird!”

We could leave it there (perhaps the shortest, and most definitive, review in the history of Booksquawk) but if you are interested in incorrect opinions, read on.

What’s ‘weird’? I thought. Depends on what’s ‘normal’.

It really would be weird if a woman who studied at three famous American universities (and has continuously flown the banners of Civil Rights, Women’s Rights and Reproductive Rights) had sex with her uncle because (he said) God wants it.

But a woman (an obviously intelligent, passionate woman) raised in an isolated religious community, free from the doubts and skepticism of the present age, accustomed to revere and obey a charismatic ‘prophet’, might easily suppose God wanted her to have a child by one of her uncles, and that He especially approved sexual relations with another uncle (the prophetic leader of the community.) She might think it was a good thing to be the prophet’s favorite lover, and that having children by a couple of other ‘suitable’ fellows was a religious duty.

Why not? It is all a matter of what you’ve been raised to expect. And this was the expected portion for Tirzah Miller, whose Memoir (just a journal, actually) was published by Indiana University Press (edited, with an introductory essay, by Robert S. Fogarty, under the title “Duty and Desire at Oneida”.) Yeah, it’s weird (of course it’s weird)—but it’s also poignant, even ‘heart-wrenching’, and the fact that it was not intended for our eyes makes it all the more so.

What we see is a woman struggling, against her heart’s wish, to remain faithful to what she has been taught. All around her in 19th Century New York, millions of (despairing) women were trying to fulfill themselves in monogamous marriage, ‘forsaking all others’ no matter how tempting. Tirzah’s problem was the reverse, how to remain true to the doctrine of ‘complex marriage’ (a sort of modified ‘free-love’) when she would have preferred monogamy. (Well, O.K., ‘serial monogamy’, but still, an exclusive relationship, potentially more tender than the bed-hopping prescribed by Oneida doctrine.) It is a book of revelations, showing how an earnest and sincere woman can persuade herself to do what her upbringing requires, while twisting and squirming to reconcile duty to desire. The usual marital problem, upside down.

John Humphrey Noyes, a recent Dartmouth graduate with a promising legal career ahead of him, was swept up in the Evangelical movement of the 1830’s and 40’s. Noyes dropped law, went to theological school, and eventually adhered to the doctrine of ‘Perfectionism’, which held that you either were, or you weren’t. If you were ‘Perfect’, ordinary concepts of sin and crime were irrelevant. Not surprisingly, the stodgy (vastly imperfect) folk of Putney, Vermont opposed Noyes’ doctrine. When things got difficult, he led his people to the frontier to build an ideal ‘communist’ society, practicing such non-Victorian novelties as ‘complex marriage’ and rigorous birth control.

Tirzah Miller, the daughter of Noyes’ youngest sister, was about three when her father and mother followed Noyes to Oneida. Her father died soon after, and Noyes became her surrogate father. By the time the memoir begins (1867) she is 24, and ‘Father Noyes’ has become her spiritual and moral guide, confessor, lover, mentor in journalism and the social director of her sex life.

It is widely known, though often forgotten, that the Devil quotes scripture. When appropriate, he quotes Darwin. The Origin of Species was published about the time the community switched from total birth control to ‘eugenic’ experiments, employing ‘scientific crossings’, hoping to create increasingly Perfect human beings. The science was a bit dubious. When his younger brother proposed having a child by Tirzah, Noyes agreed that two redheads would make a good combination.

There is a gap of four years in the memoir, during which she bore that uncle’s child. Unhappily, ‘Uncle George’ died (perhaps raising some doubt as to his Perfection.) Tirzah then became the favorite lover of the senior Noyes.

Notwithstanding the title, this book is more about love than desire—for it is clear that Tirzah loved Noyes, and that he (in his fashion) loved her—but Oneida doctrine prohibited ‘special love’—all belonged to all, and duty required that they should also love other members of the community. She tried hard. Too hard, sometimes. She records a bit of pillow-talk. Noyes: “…your sexual nature has been abused by your entering into sexual intercourse without appetite.” Tirzah: “It is true… I have slept with men without any appetite, and a good deal lately.” She then complains that her many duties have taken the romance from her life, leaving her “… with no appetite for intercourse with men whom I love, and have always had splendid times with.” [p. 60]

It was difficult to live up to the requirements of ‘complex marriage’, which not only required a degree of promiscuity, but prohibited ‘special loves’. On three different occasions Tirzah showed a decided preference for individual men. Reading between the lines we can see how Noyes reacted. The first of them, Homer Barron, was essentially exiled. Tirzah never got over wondering “Why?” although, in principle, she agreed with the ‘communist’ ideal. The second, Edward Insley, was the father of her second child. She had mixed feelings about this part of the eugenics program (when she first realized she was pregnant she wrote in her diary, “My death warrant”) but came to have ‘special love’ for him. Later, however, when Noyes discouraged their relationship, Insley quit Oneida, and demanded custody of the child. The diary is full of the tumult that resulted. The third was James B. Herrick, a former Episcopal curate, who fathered her third child, and whom she married after the collapse of Oneida.

So much ink has been expended on the history of the Oneida Community that one might suppose it was important, but compared to any ten pages of General Grant’s memoirs it is a trifling fragment of our history. Tirzah Miller’s journal is but a tiny fragment of that fragment, ultimately irrelevant. That may be one of the reasons we feel so uneasy violating her privacy. And yet, in the pages of her journal we detect a truly magnetic personality. We long to touch her—which was, of course, the problem.

1 comment:

  1. Considering the religious history of the United States, and the successful stabilty of the Oneida Silverware, this does indeed shed a different perspective upon the practices within the Oneida Commune, formerly of Putney, Vermont. Very poignant review!