Polishing the truth. A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin
Lucia Berlin (Juneau, Alaska, 1936-Marina del Rey, California, 2004) started to write when she was very young, but spent almost all her life as an unknown writer. Her father worked in a mining company, and little Lucia and her Mum followed him everywhere. She spent her childhood in Western mining towns, manly in California and Mexico, then she moved to New York and Oakland, before ending up in Boulder, Colorado, where she became a Writing professor until she got really sick and moved to California to spend the last days of her life. She died in 2004, not long before a New York publishing house decided to publish a compilation of her short stories under the title A Manual For Cleaning Women. These stories that are like Lucia Berlin's life: uncomfortable, ironic, humane.
Written from 1960 to 1990, A Manual For Cleaning Women is a set of 43 short autobiographic stories, mainly inspired in the many jobs and places she lived. Berlin spend childhood in Texas, youth in Santiago de Chile; she was a bohemian in New York in the 50’s, an nurse and cleaner in inner Oakland in the 70s. She had three failed marriages and a problem with alcoholism. She was a survivor. In one of her stories, “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977”, a nurse tells a sad widower to stop crying. “It simply won’t help the situation, Mr Adderly.” “Nothing will help. It’s all I can do. Let me alone,” he replies.
In “Her First Detox”, Berlin exposes her struggle with alcoholism; in “Unmanageable”, she explains a woman’s efforts to survive until morning when the liquor stores open. “She wished she had a dog to walk. I know, she laughed, I’ll ask the neighbors if I can borrow the dog. Sure. None of the neighbors spoke to her anymore.” Lucia Berlin’s writing is cruel, detailed, and at the same time, funny.
“I told my mother I wanted to become a Catholic. She and my grandpa had a fit. He wanted to put me back in Vilas school but she said no, it was full of Mexicans and juvenile delinquents. I told her there were lots of Mexicans at St Joseph’s but she said they came from nice family. We are a nice family? I didn’t know”, writes Berlin in “Stars and Saints”, a story based on her sad childhood in El Paso, Texas. Berlin was abused by his father. Her mum had alcohol problems too.
There is also a particular story called “A manual for cleaning women” inspired in Lucia Berlin's own experience working as a maid for several families. All of them different, all of them America: “Try to work for Jews or blacks. You get lunch. But mostly Jewish and black women respect work, the work you do, and also they are not at all ashamed of spending the entire day doing absolutely nothing. They are paying you, right?”, she wrote.
Halfway between journalist and writer, Lucia Berlin is an observer, she pays attention on every small detail around her, from banal to the poignant. And she credits her mother for her powers of observation: “We have remembered your jokes and your way of looking, never missing a thing. You gave us that. Looking”, she wrote in “Mama”.
As an autobiographical writer, Lucia Berlin also used her stories to make reflections about her writing methodology and the way she “stole” scenarios to build up her fictional narrative. In “Point of view”, the main character is Henrietta , a women in her 50s, single, in love with his boss, a renowned nephrologist. “Dr.B is based upon a nephrologist I use to work for. I certainly wasn’t in love with him. I’d joke sometimes and say it was a love/hate relationship. He was so hateful it must have reminded me of how love affairs get sometimes”, she wrote (Berlin had 3 failed marriages). Henrietta feels alone, she hates Sundays. “I am having a hard time writing about Sunday. Getting the long hollow feeling of Sundays. No mail and faraway lawn mowers, the hopelessness”.
In the 1990s, Berlin took a visiting writer’s post at the University of Colorado in Boulder and she was soon promoted to Associate professor. She finally found a job according to her virtues. “Rather than dwelling on the difficulties faced, or chasing after illusory solutions, Berlin’s characters sit with their challenges, move quietly toward their difficulties and find a way to keep standing on their slick and tilted floors”, observes Laird Hunt, one of his former students, in The Washington Post. Perhaps this is Lucia Berlin's life lesson: disastrous lives should be accepted with normality.