Joan Schenkar / Patricia Highsmith

The inside of Patricia Highsmith’s creepy, offbeat and dark mind may not be a place you want to spend much time.

Unless you want to understand how she turned her endless, brooding and troubled “inner theater” into some of the most gripping, memorable (and equally dark) stories you’ll ever experience.

Enter Joan Schenkar, who had access to Highsmith’s diaries and journals (cahiers), some 8,000 pages of notes in all, and pulled together “The Talented Miss Highsmith,” a richly detailed biography (though I’m not sure that stilted word works in this case).

Patricia Highsmith pumped life into Tom Ripley (“The Talented Mr. Ripley”), Guy Haines (“Strangers on a Train”), Walter Stackhouse (“The Blunderer”), Robert Forrester (“The Cry of the Owl”), Sidney Bartleby (“Suspension of Mercy”) and dozens of other disturbing, original characters.

Despite fairly “rough and unadorned prose”—that’s Schenkar’s assessment and I would agree—most Highsmith characters find a way into your head, heart and soul like few other writers of the past, say, 60 or 70 years.

Similarly, Joan Schenkar pumps life into Patricia Highsmith.  Know that if you decide to plunge into the long read that is “The Talented Miss Highsmith,” that you will not be in pleasant company.  What you will see is the workings of an artist who observed, thought, pondered, worried, brooded, drank, wrote and jumped from relationship to relationship with self-defeating recklessness.  The laughs are few.  (Other than Schenkar’s chapter titles – La Mamma, Les Girls, Greek Games, etc.)

By the way, I enjoyed Andrew Wilson’s “Beautiful Shadow: A Life Of Patricia Highsmith.” But Schenkar, given access to Highsmith’s volumes of personal notes and comments, takes Highsmith to a whole new level of complexity.  Wilson’s book is an overview, more of a chronological recap. Schenkar’s book, by comparison, is a deeply drawn, three-dimensional portrait.

A few samples of Schenkar’s analysis:

From La Mamma: “Pat’s editing of her early life—perhaps it really was really only her isolation from other people’s attitudes—gave her a claustral as well as usable view of childhood. She often produced an early memory to explain a recurring unhappiness or to justify a returning depression or lingering anomie. At twenty, she wrote: ‘I cannot remember as much of my childhood as I should like, or even remember myself a few years back. I hope to do better when I am older.’ ”

From Les Girls Part 1: “Emotional blackmail of any kind, one of the many twisted strands by which she was still connected to Mother Mary, brought out Pat’s inner executioner and her outer escape artist.” (Mother Mary is Pat’s mother.)

From Les Girls Part 9: “Someone as caught up as Pat was with pursuit, someone as much in thrall to the chase, could never settle her feelings on one side of the ‘hunt’ or the other, could never finally choose the hunter over the hunted. Hence the perpetual ambivalence that allowed her to course with the hounds and run with the hares. That is the ‘hunt’ in her work so often turns on a dime—as it did in her first commercially published story, ‘Uncertain Treasure,’ when the pursuer becomes the pursued, and vice versa. The constant shifting of roles was a compellingly disruptive premise for her fictions—and a cruelly exhausting one in her life.”


In most Highsmith fictions, the attractions and repulsions of love—the moment when an urgent embrace becomes an overwhelming desire to strangle—are twisted up in the braid of character. Love and hatred pull together, pull each other apart, and share the same nervous system. This crosscutting of love and hatred—the critic Susannah Clapp calls it ‘an extraordinary loop of abhorrence and attraction—which kept the young Pat so busy recording her high school crushes and aversions, wreaked a predictable havoc on her love life. Most of her adult sexual affairs, in flesh or in fantasy, were electrified by violent and contradictory feelings: their landscapes look like war zones. Many of her lovers emerged from these couplings telling tales more closely associated with bombed-out buildings than with burning desires.”

More than anything else, “The Talented Miss Highsmith” shows the sheer hard work and dedication that Highsmith poured into her craft. For fuel, she drew on her personal rage and dark view of the world. The results are novels and short stories that grind their way into your head and stick.  Schenkar calls it “Highsmith Country.” It has a population of one, writes Schenkar, and it’s “a territory so psychologically threatening that even her most devoted readers hope never to recognize themselves in its pages.”

As a person, Patricia Highsmith is unsettled, dark, rocky, feisty, irascible, grumpy, quick-tempered and deeply self-centered.  There is much to learn from Joan Schenkar’s in-depth probing of Highsmith’s journals.  Her early life, her time as a writer for comics, her odd attitudes about cats and dogs, her love of snails, her ability to drink (and drink), her bumpy relationships with agents and editors, and her love affairs with a long string of women (and one or two men).

There are also the odd bits about Highsmith’s enjoyment from ironing clothes, her endless list-making, her sense of order, her vagabond nature, her hatred of the taxman and many other such details that provide fascinating glue to the biography.

Such as her ability to find pleasure in dentist chair gas: “My sensations under gas are really too compelling for me to ignore any longer…a recurrent pattern with cosmic suggestions. They have made me feel I was all consciousness that ever existed, that in this black bowl at whose perimeter the bouncing rabbit, the bouncing rubber ball races, I feel all sensations, wisdom, achievements, potentialities, and the stupendous failure of the stupendous experiment of the Human Race.”

Schenkar’s style is cool, straightforward. Schenkar marvels at Highsmith’s talents but this biography is warts-and-all approach. More than anything, “The Talented Miss Highsmith” shows how Patricia Highsmith was the embodiment of contradictions and turmoil.

“She began keeping her cahiers the month she entered Barnard and she started the diaries when she was twenty. The journals gave her an opportunity to continually renew her vows for the only lasting `marriage’ she ever made: the union that joined her intense rushes of feeling with her compelling need to commit them to paper. The fact that she repeated those vows dressed more like a groom than a bride and she usually do so in a counterfeit ‘male voice’ (‘I am a strong man, like Chaucer, like Shakespeare, like Joe Louis’) was merely one of the ways her obsessions colored her work,” writes Schenkar.

Reading “The Talented Miss Highsmith” might make you want to go back and reconsider her classics. It might also prompt you to dig up a few lesser-known works, “This Sweet Sickness”  or “The Cry of the Owl.” I know I’ll be looking for a few short stories I missed.

Such dark, compelling stories aren’t just pulled from thin air by a writer trying to conjure up something moving. Schenkar shows they are the product of an artist finding a way to express herself, to react to her feelings and emotions and pour those out in print.

Writes Schenkar: “She kept her central would–that terrible certainty that she was cursed at birth and was, really, nobody’s child–stubbornly intact (she could not have done otherwise), and she found a foundation of inspiration in it, although not beauty or peace, for a very long time.”


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