1974: A Personal History

Image of 1974: A Personal History
Release Date: 
June 18, 2024
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As much as 76-year-old Francine Prose is saying, there always seems to be so much more she is not telling us. She’s not being purposely deceptive, but rather has trouble being forthright while writing about memories of her earlier self. It is precisely this discomfort we find compelling in her new memoir 1974: A Personal History.

Prose seems to have been somewhat of an odd duck from the get-go. She is the daughter of two physicians who loved her to the best of their ability, but Prose seems to have needed more. She did all the right things, participating in extra-curricular activities and making friends, but we sense wherever she was at any given moment, her heart was somewhere else.

She took pleasure in writing early on and loved to eavesdrop on conversations, looking for material for the stories she was writing. She published her first two novels in her early twenties to great acclaim, but even this incredible feat of daring and inventiveness didn’t seem to move the ground beneath her feet. She was like a lot of other smart, confused young women of her time, looking for their place in a strange new world.

Prose recalls doing a lot of drugs, not just pot and hashish, but cocaine and LSD. In what now seems to her like a rash act, she married young, and the marriage was immediately rife with endless bickering. She got divorced quickly and began to travel to exotic places like Bombay, which seemed to have the magical effect of taking away the anxiety that had always chased her. She began jotting down ideas in journals for future novels and relishing the newness each day brought forth. She slept with many men for no reason at all. She recalls one guy seducing her by simply stating his favorite Dylan song which happened to be hers as well. Prose writes: “I had intense, short-lived crushes on available men.”

None of this seemed to bring her much happiness; nor did the tarot cards she had taken up reading. She would crash on a friend’s couch for days or weeks at a time, but we never hear anything substantial about these friends. They remain inconsequential to whatever it was she was looking for. There is an aloneness present in her prose that speaks to the isolation she felt back then when the world seemed to offer everything and nothing at the same time. Perhaps this is what made her so susceptible to a man she would soon meet who would greatly influence her. 

Prose was 26 and once again staying with friends in San Francisco. The city appeared to her as if it were “sharp-edged, bright and ghostly, desperate romantic, filtered through a dreamlike haze.” Anthony Russo came bolting through the door and introduced himself, and Prose was smitten. He was a decade older than she, and famous for being a whistleblower who along with Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers. Anthony Russo, now called Tony, had spent 45  days in prison for refusing to testify about Daniel Ellsberg, but soon afterward the two had a rotten falling out. Tony had been to Vietnam and was a full believer in the war until he saw what was really happening there, and when he came home, he went to work for the RAND corporation as an analyst where he and Ellsberg agreed to expose the government’s treasonous betrayals.

There was something about Tony that caught her attention in a way no one ever had. She was impressed with his heroism, idealism, and acts of conscience, traits she wished to develop in herself. She was taken in by his charisma and messy good looks. Her friends told her to be careful, that he was not always in good form. But she ignored them and spent countless evenings with him driving the streets of San Francisco talking about their love of movies like Vertigo, and books like Gravity’s Rainbow. Sometimes they wouldn’t speak at all and yet she felt comfortable not trying to make conversation. Other times, Tony would speak for hours at a time, barely stopping to breathe, but instead of feeling concerned, she felt it was just his zealousness about all he had endured and survived.

He didn’t make a pass at her for months, and the lack of sex perplexed her but didn’t really bother her. When they did sleep together, it was awkward and bumpy, but their lack of chemistry didn’t dampen her interest in him. She thought it might get better over time. What did concern her was the state of Tony’s apartment, which was almost overtaken with stacks of paper with all kinds of notations she didn’t really understand. Prose recalls being happy when he came by to pick her up for the night, and disappointed when he didn’t appear for a day or two, only to return.

She took him to meet some of her other friends, and he alarmed the party when he asked nonchalantly if the food was poisoned and waited too long to say he was kidding. And then there was the press conference he held that promised new revelations, but Prose saw from the reaction of the press that he was providing them with nothing of the sort. In an unexpected burst of fear, she fled and never saw or spoke with him again.

Prose is a magician at pulling us into the intensity of their unusual relationship. We understand that Tony represented for her something she couldn’t find anywhere else. We find ourselves struggling beside her trying to figure out what was it about him that held her in his grasp. Did he allow her to speak her true feelings without fear of censure? Did he make her feel interesting in a way others hadn’t? Was it simply the fact that they both knew how unsuitable their pairing was that allowed something that felt almost mystical to pass between them? Did she find his lack of possessiveness appealing? Or the way he made her feel comfortable in silence with him, something that had never happened to her before.

Still, there were signs he was an impostor of sorts. She recalls the way he would tell certain dramatic stories about Vietnam in group settings precisely the same way each time, pausing to breathe and lower his eyes at the same exact moments, that made her uneasy. But she pushed negative thoughts about him away, thinking that he was just engaging in a polished form of storytelling, and what was so dangerous about that?

When they first met, he had mentioned to her how much he wanted to write about “what it was like being in Vietnam, the silky air, the smell of sweet vinegar, the put-put of the scooters, the bright green of the paddies, those beautiful kids . . .” But as far as Prose knew, he never began to write the book; he seemed too distracted by then. Prose never knew what was wrong with Tony but concedes “I suppose there were always signs Tony was walking a narrow and perilous edge, hints I chose not to see.”

Prose is too good a writer to pretend Tony somehow changed her life and offered her a pathway toward some sort of transcendence. The nervous little girl who became the anxious teenager and eventually the uneasy woman is still present when you watch Francine Prose speak on YouTube where she rarely laughs or smiles and maintains an overly serious posture. The aloneness we recall from the book still seems to be dancing beside her. But her loneliness sits alongside her tremendous success as a novelist and nonfiction book author who also served for a time as the art critic for the Wall Street Journal. Prose went on to remarry and is the mother of two adult sons.

Tony gets relegated to the past, and Prose’s memoir seems like her attempt at a belated burial. It is obvious he still holds a tender place in her imaginings. Something related to an aliveness she felt when she was with him that she never was truly able to feel again. The endless long nights when they drove too fast through San Francisco’s rolling streets pulling red lights when it rained; she had to yell at him to put on the wipers before the two of them disappeared into oblivion.