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Matters Of Fact
Mrs. Roosevelt Faces Fear
October/november 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 6
Franklin Roosevelt’s exuberant selfconfidence was in large part the gift of his fond parents, a legacy of the affection and approval with which he was always surrounded as a boy. Eleanor Roosevelt had no such foundation upon which to build. Her father was an alcoholic; her mother remote and harassed. Both were dead by the time their daughter was ten, and she was raised by relatives whose interest in her was for the most part merely dutiful. She was timid, withdrawn, frightened of “practically everything,” she remembered—mice, the dark, other children, “displeasing the people I lived with.” Her Aunt Edith, Theodore Roosevelt’s second wife, had thought her likely doomed: “I do not feels she has much of a chance, ” she wrote when her niece was eight, “poor little soul.”
That poor little soul grew up to become the best-known, most admired woman on earth, of course, and just how far she traveled may be seen vividly in Without Precedent (Indiana University Press), a collection of a dozen assorted articles having mostly to do with her public and political career. The book is aptly named: no other First Lady before her—or any who has lived in the White House since she left it nearly forty years ago—could conceivably have inspired a similar compendium. Try to imagine articles with titles like “Bess Truman and Reform” or “Nancy Reagan and Foreign Affairs.”
Eleanor Roosevelt’s lifelong struggle to make herself matter has been most exhaustively and authoritatively chronicled in four books by her friend Joseph P. Lash, and he has now chosen to mark her centenary with two more: Life Was Meant To Be Lived (W. W. Norton), a relatively brief, richly illustrated biographical tribute; and a second and final volume of her personal letters, A World of Love: Eleanor Roosevelt and Her Friends, vol. II (Doubleday & Company).
Nearly every inch of her climb required her to surmount psychological obstacles. The thing always to remember, she said—and the italics are hers—is that “ Yow must do the thing you think you cannot do .” Although as a schoolgirl she had been so timid that she could not bring herself to spell even the simplest words aloud in front of her classmates, she taught herself as an adult to face huge and sometimes hostile audiences without apparent qualm: “If you forget about yourself,” she wrote, “[forget about] whether or not you are making a good impression on people, what they think of you and … think about them instead, you won’t be shy.”
Early experiences with her own erratic father and with an uncle whose drunken whims sometimes included firing a shotgun at her from an upstairs window had fostered in her an entirely understandable terror of irrational behavior. She learned at least partially to subdue it during World War I when, as the wife of the assistant secretary of the Navy, she regularly made herself visit the mental ward of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington. There she had herself locked in so that she might talk with battle-shocked sailors, some chained to their beds, others unable to stop shouting of the horrors they had seen at sea. “I wanted to bang at the door, to get out,” she remembered, “but I was ashamed of myself. I would not have shown my terror for the world.” Her fear of people who had lost what she called the “power of self-control” never entirely left her; to the end of her life her face froze in their presence and so did her emotions. But she did not let it interfere with her performance of the duties that justified to her her own existence.
She filled much of her life with such self-administered tests, designed to reassure herself that if her anxieties could not always entirely be dispelled, they could be managed, kept in perspective: she was not fully persuaded that she had rid herself of racial prejudice, for example, until she had kissed her black colleague Mary McLeod Bethune on the cheek.
The struggle took its toll and did not invariably succeed. She worried constantly that she might slip back, give in to the anxiety she called the “great crippler.” And her deepest fear—that she could never truly hold anyone’s love for long—ate at her always. The hundreds of personal letters Lash has newly culled from the countless thousands she wrote demonstrate again the near desperation with which she sought to hold on to the affection of a host of friends and family members. Joy did not come naturally to her; she was in fact “almost a melancholy person,” a niece remembers, but she could recognize happiness in others, and when she did, “you could almost feel her touching it and liking the warmth of it. …” Her giant web of correspondence was woven at least in part in an effort to capture and keep some of it for herself.