Lisa Schwarzbaum
November 01, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

Life On the Line

Current Status
In Season
Faye Wattleton
Nonfiction, Women's Studies, Politics and Current Events, Memoir

We gave it a B-

Smart, beautiful, black, and almost six feet tall, Faye Wattleton was the mediagenic embodiment of Planned Parenthood for 14 years, before she resigned as president in 1992. Indeed, so attractive is she — the only executive of a reproductive-rights organization, surely, to be regularly photographed for fashion and beauty magazines — that when Wattleton stepped down (in a less than joyous departure), her first gig was that of TV talk-show host. The project quickly collapsed. But her book deal has paid off.

Life On the Line is a dense and interesting document, as much for what is conveyed beyond the author’s poised control as for the stories she chooses to tell. Written as an autobiography, but with aspirations for serving as a kind of history textbook of an era, Wattleton’s memoir unwittingly serves as a textbook about a certain stressful contemporary state of working womanhood as well.

Her childhood was extraordinary. Wattleton’s formidable mother, Ozie, a fundamentalist minister, traveled the country preaching, sometimes leaving her only child behind but often taking her along and upending her life. The strong-willed girl, in turn, found a path that didn’t follow Mama’s, first as a nurse-midwife, and eventually (to her mother’s dismay) at Planned Parenthood. Wattleton chose to work at an organization concerned with sex education and contraception, reproductive rights and abortion — everything ”ungodly” and controversial in American private and public life. She married and bore a daughter, Felicia, now 21. She and her husband, Franklin Gordon, divorced, acrimoniously, when Felicia was 5, and Wattleton then faced the conflicts inherent in being a working single parent. Her Planned Parenthood tenure spanned years that saw the rise of the pro-life movement and the development of the RU-486 abortion pill.

Wattleton conveys her story with utmost equanimity — but too much composure in the name of moderation is no virtue. Accounts of her hectic schedule segue, businesslike, into observations about her daughter’s welfare and then slide into transcripts of interviews, reprints of press releases, and reports of conversations with then surgeon general C. Everett Koop and Katharine Hepburn. An inventory of policy battles is interchangeable with a recounting of her daughter’s needs; everything personal is political. (Following a confession of parental insensitivity, she concludes, ”In so many ways my lapse of judgment with regard to Felicia was not terribly different from the United States government’s attitude toward women in the Third World.” Sure, tell that to the kid.)

Nowhere, meanwhile, does the author, now 53, appear to notice the striking parallels between her own upbringing — schlepped around by a mother who was driven by her own calling — and the schlepping she in turn imposed on Felicia, as she carted the girl around with her on her global speechmaking rounds. And although it hangs unspoken on every page as she concludes the story of her Planned Parenthood years — a tenure that ended in internal rancor — nowhere does the former president examine what it feels like to separate from the company that ”made” her, and from which she felt estranged by the end. Nowhere does she stop to reflect on what it feels like to be an attractive, single, middle-aged African-American woman with an elderly mother, a grown daughter away at college, and a whole new chapter of life ahead of her.

That would be a great subject for Faye Wattleton’s second book — provided she’s willing to show us fewer pages of press clippings and more pages of herself. B-

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