Back in the spring, I received a review copy of Babette: The Many Lives, Two Deaths, and Double Kidnapping of Dr. Ellsworth (2013) a memoir/biographical study by Ross Eliot. After six months of hectic life, I’m finally getting around to reviewing the book; my apologies to the author for my deleterious behavior.
In 1999, Ross Eliot was working odd jobs and taking community college classes in Portland, Oregon, when a member of the history faculty — Dr. Ellsworth — took an interest in him. In her seventies and living alone, Ellsworth was looking for someone to take up residence in a basement apartment and help out around the house, drive the car, and be a companion at meals as well as on frequent weekend excursions in exchange for room and board. Eliot accepted the challenge, and lived with Dr. Ellsworth, despite her many eccentricities, until a heart attack took her life in 2002.
Part memoir, part character study, Babette echoes such works as Alan Bennett’s essay “The Lady in the Van” (1989) or Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters (2005). Like its predecessors, Babette centers around the complicated, marginal life of an individual with whom the author had personal acquaintance — but whose personal life details elude complete or coherent understanding. All three of these narratives also involve troubling questions of ethical responsibility toward the stories of others, and challenging questions of power imbalances within such author-subject relations.
[mild spoilers after the jump]
In Babette we learn piecemeal, as Eliot does, about Dr. Ellsworth’s life through her own disclosure and the second-hand stories of friends, acquaintances, and family members. Her own narrative involves an out-of-wedlock birth in the 1920s, a shady international adoption, a childhood in France, a period spent in a religious order, a long-term relationship with a husband and wife, and a life of gender complexity that ends with a late-in-life transition from living publicly as Albert J. Ellsworth to Elizabeth “Babette” Ellsworth.
There are a number of ways that Eliot might have approached this story: as a historian, for example, placing Babette’s life in the rich context of international trans history from the 1920s-2000s, or as a biographer, attempting to piece together a coherent narrative of Ellsworth’s life from birth to death. Instead, Eliot chooses to embed Ellsworth’s self-narration and, ultimately, her life story within the context of their three-year companionship. He allows her story to emerge in fits and starts through her own (recreated) voice and the details shared by others.
At times I found this uncomfortable, as when a second house-guest outs Ellsworth’s trans history without her explicit permission, and Eliot compounds this transgression by introducing the information to other acquaintances. I felt a similar tension emerge between my perspective as a reader-historian and Eliot’s as a friend-companion when, following Ellsworth’s sudden death, Eliot makes the decision to destroy a number of documents and photographs related to Ellsworth’s life. In part, he is complying with her stated wishes. Yet he also goes beyond the destruction of materials she specifically indicated to additional items that would have been of historical value and possibly even interest to surviving family members. That Eliot takes it upon himself to make these decisions gives me pause. Yet I recognize that, in doing so, he honored the dead in his chosen way — perhaps more so than my historian’s preference for preservation of the documentary evidence!
Ultimately, in Babette, we may be invited, along with Eliot, into Dr. Ellsworth’s home, but — again, like Eliot — find we know surprisingly little about her life or central motivations, even as the arrangements for her cremation are being made and her final wishes (written and verbalized) are being carried out. As a historian, I wished that Eliot had done more research, made the effort to put Babette’s biography within the many possible historical contexts in which her life evolved. I wanted more analysis of her self-narration and her silences: what she chose to tell and what Eliot found out obliquely, sometimes in retrospect. Yet perhaps — like when he chose the incinerator over the archives — Eliot has chosen a more intimate and personal form of commemoration, one could more human. Hopefully historians can come along in the years to come and, with this prism of a life story piece together something more … outwardly focused. For now, I suspect, this more tender treatment is a right intention toward honoring the dead.