My Sister Phyllis Pearsall Gross
And the Meaning of Truth
I had trouble writing this conclusion at first. I couldn't get away from believing that all the craziness about this book and the A-Z and my family is closely related to everything else we believe that is pretty crazy too, including our many ideas about life & politics & "God" & finding another planet to live on. But this was far too much to include in any reasonably brief and cogent conclusion.
Anyway, I've finally calmed down a bit, so I'll start by telling you only what we know for sure. And maybe then getting into a few of those other details...
Here's what we definitely know about this whole affair:
1. Our father Alexander Gross was the primary creator of the A-Z Atlas of London. Whatever role our sister Phyllis may have played was pretty secondary. I've already devoted several web pages to this undeniable reality, and Peter Barber, the curator of maps at the British Library, has confirmed it by his own independent research. I will not argue this point again, since it has been proven.
2. Phyllis really did love to go through lots of different versions of the same storyjust about any storyuntil neither you nor she could tell which was the real one any more. Everyone in the family knew it, even the author of Mrs P's Journey concedes it was true, and there is no further need to argue this point either.
3. It would appear that something a bit strange took place during the development of the book that became Mrs P's Journey. We won't know what it wasor how strange it wasuntil someone at Simon and Schuster decides to tell us. It may well be perfectly innocent but it could just turn out to be even more serious than the US "Chick Lit" scandal of 2006. Pending further information, check out my "Chick Lit" page here.
4. British anti-Semitism definitely played a role at several key points in this story, obviously when Papa first lost control of his business during the early 1920s but also during Phyllis's bullying at a fashionable school for girls and later when she decided it might be helpful if she could find God and Christ. I actually looked on as an intimate witness while my sister worked her way towards making this decision. Comparable situations and pressures are often present in British society, as Anthony Julius recounts in his massive volume Trials of the Diaspora.
5. What people believe to be true at any point in our development as a speciesand in any societyis often dependent on intense social pressures that may have little to do with anything resembling truth.
I'm not sure how guilty anyone should feel about any of this, it may just be par for the course in our personal and collective development. But there is certainly room for improvement, and we all ought to working in that direction. Anyway, I take the first two of those five points to be proven beyond dispute, while the third awaits final clarification. I'll comment just a bit further on the fourth topic, leaving the way open for a few brief thoughts about the final point.
As for the anti-Semitism my sister encountered, I can do no better than quote Anthony Julius concerning what went on in English public schools for boys and suggest that similar pressures were present at Roedean, the girls' school where Phyllis studied during the "early years" of the last century:
"At Harrow school, in the early years of the twentieth century, the Jewish boys were known as 'the damned Jews'; there was always a 'background of anti-Semitic feeling.' 'As a successful young sportsman,' recalls one former pupil (1943-7), 'I clearly remember a master shouting "knock the Jew boy off the ball". Testimonies of Jews bullied as children at school, and not only public schools, throng memoirs of the period. These experiencesthe 'Jew hunts', the casual violence, the disparagements and insults, the laboured, wounding humourduly made their way into literature and film."[Note]
It was such experiences that no doubt led my sister to dissuade Papa from enrolling me at an English public school for the autumn of 1945, and I am still grateful to her for doing so.
Anti-Semitism of course also exists in the US, but it's fairly unusual to discover it at this intensity on either coast. The state closest to Britain in this regard, despite the high honorifics of English manners, is probably Texas.
But let's leave all this behind and get to the fifth point, since it leads up to what may be my most controversial question. Precisely why did the British public and literary world so readily accept the nonenseChick Lit and allcontained in this book, and what other comparable nonsense do they also readily accept on a daily basis? This is by no means an anti-British question, for I would like to show how this matter applies equally to all nations and within all cultures.
I find this an absolutely fascinating question, and I would truly love to answer it. Unfortunately, my reply would range over so many nations and cultures, delving into obscure back rooms of history, that I would end up tripling the length of this mini-website. Face it, my time and your patience are both at an end. If you want to know something more, my two main websites are just a click away.
Ours has been a truly remarkable family, one that shows every sign of continuing to be so, and I count myself lucky to have been a part of it. Even my slightly batty sister did fairly well for herself, I wasn't in England to watch her on the telly as you have been, but I gather she came across as a sort of female version of Malcolm Muggeridge, urbane, witty, and utterly personifying the spirit of the English eccentric. Perhaps that's how we should all remember her, as she was at her best.
*Julius, op. cit. pp. 377-78.
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