Hidden Gems is a semi-regular series as part of my blog where I talk about books that for some reason are neglected. There are some books and writers who have been underrated over time. Today I am talking about Diary of a Mad Housewife by Susan Kaufman, which was published in 1967. The movie based on the book with Carrie Snodgrass and Richard Benjamin is better known, which is a shame because the book should be better known.
Published before seminal feminist literature such as The Women’s Room by Marilyn French and Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, Diary of a Mad Housewife tells the story of Bettina Balmer, who is married to an attorney named Jonathan and mother to two girls, Liz and Sylvie. They live in a huge apartment on the Upper West Side. Bettina starts a diary, which she keeps hidden from her family. She admits that she has many problems. She says that she was anorexic, a huge admission considering that people didn’t talk about it during the 60’s. She makes a list of things she’s afraid. of, including elevators, subways, bridges and “fatal diseases- every one known to man.” She walks the dog in Central Park and worries about being raped. At parties, she likes to stand by the door in case there is a fire.
Her husband Jonathan acts more like a dictator than a true partner. He tells her where buy groceries, where to buy a new dress and when to go get her hair done. He also wants her to go back to her therapist Dr. Popkin, who she saw when she got married. Sometimes Jonathan’s advice backfires. He tells Bettina to go to a fancy grocer, but when one of the girls gets sick and wants chicken soup, she looks in the pantry only to find cans of bisque instead.
This is very much a novel of Manhattan in the 60’s and the Balsers go to many parties. One of Jonathan’s ambitions is to be an important Broadway producer and at these parties he schmoozes with Broadway directors, actors and playwrights. He thinks being a producer will open up his creative side (Meanwhile Bettina was an artist before she got married.).
At one of the parties she meets George Prager, and up and coming playwright. Their first encounter is a disaster. George keeps asking her, because she is standing at the doorway, if she saw his date, a tall woman with glasses. She’s dismissive of him and he’s rude back. Later on, they meet at another party and she strikes George’s fancy, despite acknowledging that she’s neurotic. Soon, they start an on and off again affair that is far from romantic.
The book is great at showing how men influence Bettina in negative ways. Bettina starts reading Proust and quotes from him when she is in bed with George. Instead of encouraging her, he belittles her. Doesn’t she realize that Proust was gay and that all the woman in his books are really men? Soon after, she puts the volume of Proust she was reading and picks up a Rex Stout mystery instead. It mirrors earlier in the book when she shows Dr. Popkin her art and because of his critique, she destroys most of her paintings.
It’s also interesting that both Jonathan and George are not romantic. When ever Jonathan gets horny, he asks her if she wants “a roll in the hay’. George refuses to talk to her about his plays and tells her all he’s looking for is sex. “A lay is a lay is a lay. ” He’s also selfish. When Bettina thinks she might be pregnant, he automatically tells her to get an abortion, which was illegal in New York at the time. He even gives her the name of a doctor to go to.
The book at the end gives us hope for our “mad housewife”. She winds up breaking the affair with George. At the end of the novel, her husband Jonathan confesses to her that he’s not perfect. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it turns out that he’s not the perfect husband he has tried to portray to everyone. The balance of power shifts in Bettina’s favor. You get the sense at the end that she isn’t crazy after all and that she will continue to thrive.
Please let me know if this has inspired you to read the book and please let me know if there are any other hidden gems you want me to talk about.