Gail Stearns’s biography, Writing Pauline: Wisdom from a Long Life, is the story of an ordinary eastern Washington woman who came to some extraordinary conclusions in the twilight of a long and often frustrated life.
Stearns, director of the Common Ministry and an adjunct faculty member in Women’s Studies and the Honors College at Washington State University, wrote the biography based on notes, journals, and oral interviews with Spokane native Pauline Thompson, an educator, nurse, veteran, and activist who died in 2000 at age 95.
Stearns notes in Chapter One that “one cannot understand Pauline without acknowledging paradox.” Paradox is a constant theme throughout Pauline’s life and Stearns’s book about it. In religion, she was raised a strict Methodist, had a falling out with God, and later reconverted to Christianity. In relationships, she waded in and out of heterosexual and homosexual affairs, was pro-choice, and yet believed marriage was a moral imperative for women. In politics, she was a patriotic veteran, yet criticized U.S. policies, had communist leanings, and was arrested for political activism.
Raised in the Spokane area, Thompson entered pre-med at WSU in 1921 after feeling called by God to become a doctor. She was—perhaps unjustly—barred from medical school when a physician proclaimed her not strong enough for the physical rigors of medical training, a setback that left her professionally and personally unfulfilled for years. She then shifted her academic focus, earning two master’s degrees in English and a Ph.D. in education from Columbia University.
Despite a successful career teaching English, she was continually pulled toward medicine. After several failed relationships with men—including one marriage and two abortions—she decided to go to nursing school, and there initiated her first homosexual experience, falling in love with her senior nurse. The woman left her three years later, a rejection that catapulted Pauline into several pointless heterosexual relationships, notably with a married father-of-two who was the school librarian where she taught.
Feeling called to “fight for democracy,” she enlisted as an army nurse in World War II, working in U.S. migrant labor camps and eventually the Army hospitals of France, where she began a long-term relationship with a fellow female nurse. They denied their homosexual relationship in order to remain on active duty, but after the war, moved into a house together in Berkeley. Pauline eventually left her for a man—an affair that also went nowhere.
Her longest love, while unrequited, was a decades-long infatuation with her female Jungian analyst under whom she studied for years and credited with helping transform her “fool’s life” into something more meaningful. The further she delved into Jungian analysis, the more she linked Carl Jung’s philosophy with a religious quest to find Jesus. After retirement, she embraced the Quaker religion and intensified her political activism, leading to several arrests for civil disobedience at anti-nuclear protests.
Stearns describes an elderly Pauline as someone who left “one of two immediate impressions . . .
“Either one felt Pauline had lost her mind, or at least simply talked too much and he or she could not get away soon enough, or one sensed she was a wise elder and was eager for further conversation with her.”
Writing Pauline is similar. Pauline’s ramblings about religious symbolism and Jungian psychology sometimes seem muddled and strange, while other reflections are poignantly sage. Stearns balances this paradox aptly, and helps the reader appreciate Pauline as less of a “batty old woman” and more of a “wisened elder.” She writes with authority when theorizing in the introduction and conclusion, helping simplify the crisscrossing themes of feminist theory, theology, and Jungian psychology. But academic twist aside, Writing Pauline is mostly about a regular woman wrestling with career, religion, sexuality, politics, and self-reflection. She wasn’t prominent or famous. But her struggles with some complicated cultural issues imparted an important lesson—that wisdom gained over the course of a long life can be life’s biggest gift.
Stearns writes, “as I learned the stories of her life, I sensed an incongruence between the foolishness of her youth and the depth of perception she achieved in her old age.” By sharing those life stories, Stearns illuminates one woman’s path from “foolishness to wisdom.”