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Book Forum: Autobiography and Biography   |    
My Life So Far
Am J Psychiatry 2005;162:2406-2408. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.12.2406
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Los Angeles, Calif.

By Jane Fonda. New York, Random House, 2005, 624 pp., $26.95.

When an Oscar-winning movie actress writes a memoir, most readers expect it to be a kiss-and-tell recounting of dalliances with celebrities. They are not surprised if the exposition includes details (when and how who did what to whom and with which) that would fit well into Popular Mechanics magazine. Accordingly, depending on appetite for titillating triviality, a reader will either gorge or pass.

I felt confident that Jane Fonda’s autobiography would not fit that description. I anticipated that whatever was described would be as revealing of personality as of salacity and therefore really exciting. So I bought an early copy. I was prepared to find an account of a life that moved from gifted artist to passionate antiwar activist and beyond, but I was completely astonished to find that this volume also has other and major importance.

First, the writing is completely accessible and clear and yet often displays the grace and charm of poetic prose. Fonda’s prose particularly favors the accounts of the shooting of the long roster of her marvelous films. Second, the content reveals in full perspective a child trying to surmount the terrible deprivation of a cold distant father and a psychotic mother who committed suicide when Fonda was 11 years old. Fonda discloses how she metamorphosed into a creative and mature woman who loved three husbands, her offspring and theirs, many friends and co-workers, and people in general.

Fonda’s life illustrates the deeply ingrained drive of all people who survive into adulthood to try to emulate the caregivers who succored them as babies by later on "making it better" in some way. Jane’s tenacious personality, not discounting the later neglect she experienced by both parents, must have stemmed from someone’s devoted nurturance in early infancy. This toughness is exemplified in her selection, as a belated transitional object, of her older sister’s English saddle, the cleaning and preservation of which she took on when she was 11. The need to make it better did not diminish as she grew older and was transferred onto people—her spouses and their offspring, as well as her own children. Fonda’s account shows how still later this nurturance has become an abiding calling, being invested into helping impoverished young girls and teenagers avoid teen pregnancy.

Along the way, this remarkably insightful writer recounts how she developed a lifelong trend to surrender her inner self to please her man, the all-too-common adaptation of women to a world in which male dominance is a near universality. Finally, Fonda shows how with sustained effort this cramping of personality can be unlearned and relinquished. In so doing, she beautifully illustrates the rewards of individuation and generativity expressed in Erikson’s concepts in Childhood and Society(1).

Especially interesting for psychoanalysts is her description of her early psychosexual development of a "tomboy" and "Lone Ranger" identity. Fonda’s account shows how this phase, while manifesting phenomena especially stimulated in our "more is better" patriarchal societies (and often dismissed as mere penis envy), eventually was supplanted by another that was enriched by the childbearing and nurturing compensations of femininity along with their sometimes unavoidable sacrifices.

Here are a few brief illustrations, out of scores that are relevant, of Fonda’s remarkable native talent in psychodynamic probing. (In the interest of brevity, I’ll leave to the reader any further probing.)

In the midst of her "Lone Ranger" identification at age 11:

I was furious that Peter could whip out his little penis and write his name in the snow, so I tried to do the same by taking off my panties and running as fast as I could with my legs far apart trying to spell "Jane" as I peed. Needless to say, it was indecipherable—and I got very cold. (p. 64)

If I felt a boy was cute, he’d be the one I’d beat up.… Teddy, the stable boy, was blond and very cute and… I…kicked him in the balls.…Seemed to me like a perfectly reasonable way to flirt. (p. 68)

Regarding her personality after her mother’s suicide:

The kudos I got for appearing strong satisfied a need for approval and locked me into a modus vivendi: Jane the strong one. The shell that formed around my heart served a purpose of keeping me on my feet, but it solidified my superficiality and independence. (p. 73)

About her teenage social-sexual experience:

My classmates started having parties where…post office and spin-the-bottle were de rigeur.…I don’t remember if I was more scared that someone would "get me" and "try to go too far" or that no one would want to. As other girls became more feminine, I seemed to be a lump of androgyny, always behind trying to catch up. What happened to the girl who saw herself as heroic? She had slipped away so quietly that I never said "Goodbye, see you again in 50 years." (p. 74)

Writing about her decision to have a child, Fonda recounts,

I felt the first wave of nausea. I didn’t need a pregnancy test to tell me. I broke into a cold sweat, returned to my car to sit down—and was overcome with a sense of dread. I felt I had to muster all my forces against an unknown terror that seemed to have invaded me. Why? I wanted this.…And then I knew: the pregnancy was incontrovertible proof that I actually was a woman—which meant victim. Which meant that I would be destroyed, like my mother. It was one of those strange moments when I was feeling what I was feeling while simultaneously standing outside of myself analyzing the feeling—and being shocked by what it meant. (p. 183)

Whatever may be their personal politics, fair-minded readers cannot fail to be impressed and touched by the determined and persistent struggle this woman has made to become fully her own self. That includes the courageous solitary trip to Vietnam to photograph the terrible damage inflicted by American bombing of dikes that threatened to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands from starvation and/or drowning. She does not accept as warranted the complete rejection by some critics of the justification for the trip, her feeling that she had the special responsibility of celebrity to unmask lies by the U.S. government. Particularly convincing, however, is her heartfelt self-criticism and apology for the "betrayal" of allowing a photographer to depict her sitting on a North Vietnamese antiaircraft gun rig.

Jane Fonda’s autobiography has great illustrative-educational value for professionals in the fields of helping others to find their way to their own maturity. I have recommended it to several psychiatric resident supervisees and psychoanalytic trainees as well as to patients. All have reported that reading it has engaged them emotionally with the joys and agonies—and wisdom—of the author and thereby conferred profound personal benefits. Not the least of this book’s wonders is that, scattered among many passages that evoke tears, there are others leavening every illuminating chapter with hilarious humor.

Since this inspired book covers only Jane Fonda’s life "so far," I am left wondering what creative achievements are yet to come and in what medium they will be expressed.

Erikson E: Childhood and Society. New York, WW Norton, 1950


Erikson E: Childhood and Society. New York, WW Norton, 1950

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