Evidence of Subjectivity
When Superintendent Van Waters evaded the labeling of homosexuality during her dismissal hearings, she also sidestepped implicit questions about her own sexual identity. Just as she had refused to label her long-term romantic partnership with New Jersey philanthropist Geraldine Thompson, Van Waters avoided applying the term “lesbian” to other women. She reserved the homosexual label to refer to women’s pathological, though curable, sexual aggression toward other women.22
What of her internal consciousness of her own sexuality? The private story of Miriam Van Waters’s own relationships with women both parallels and contradicts her public pronouncements. Beginning in adolescence, she fell deeply in love with other women and, for the most part, preferred their company to the attentions of male suitors. Never a sexual prude, Van Waters recognized the importance of the erotic, especially in the poetry and fiction she wrote in her late twenties. But she also placed great stock in the power of sublimation for harnessing erotic energy into expression as art, spirituality, or public service. Thus, upon reading Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness in 1929, Van Waters commented in her journal that had Stephen Gordon’s parents been more loving, instead of becoming a lesbian, Gordon might have “run a girls camp,” become a high school counselor, or supervised a juvenile protective agency, all activities remarkably similar to those Van Waters chose.23
The detailed introspective journals Van Waters kept as an adult provide further clues about her subjective experience of sexuality, despite the frequently coded and intentionally obscure nature of her writing.24 Tantalizing passages in Van Waters’s journals made little sense to me until late into my research, when I gained access to a cache of personal papers that had not been deposited in the archives. Literally locked away in a rusting trunk and forgotten in an attic, that cache included passionate letters from two of Van Waters’s ardent admirers: one set was from Hans Weiss, a young Swiss social worker who wished to marry Van Waters; the other, a year’s worth of daily letters from Geraldine Thompson, the older, wealthy, married philanthropist whose subsequent correspondence Van Waters burned in 1948. Working with both the journals and the “courtship letters,” as I called them, I learned how Van Waters struggled to balance the erotic, the emotional, and the spiritual in each of these relationships.
Despite significant differences between the Weiss and Thompson corre
spondence — his letters were more erotic, hers more spiritual; he was more emotionally demanding, she longed to be of service to her beloved — I was struck by the consistency in Van Waters’s response to her male and female suitors. In each case, she remained publicly silent, restrained in her responses to passion, and conflicted about making any lifelong commitment. The two relationships did present separate challenges to Van Waters’s sexuality. The younger, less established Weiss frequently articulated his erotic longings; in response, Van Waters struggled to incorporate physical passion while subsuming it to her ideal of a spiritualized romantic friendship. The older, wealthier, and more powerful Thompson longed for “the Justice of the Peace and church bells” to signify their commitment; in response, Van Waters feared the dependency that could result from their union.25
In both cases, the management of passion was a recurrent theme for Miriam Van Waters. Although her journals were characteristically obscure about sexual experiences, one passage written after a visit with Weiss alluded to an unidentified young “Beloved” with whom she had experienced both a spiritual epiphany and a “yielding to love.” In one entry, she recalled a candlelit scene in which her “hands were flung up by a strong clasp of young hands on my wrists — and with another soul — I plunged down a glittering waterfall immeasurably high, and sunk at last — into a pool — where two floated in weariness and content.’^6 More typical, however, was her insistence on limiting their intimacy. “As a lover I yield to no one in sustained worship,” she wrote in her journal. To Weiss, she explained that their spiritual union transcended the need for physical proximity, suggesting that unrequited love could yield the “deepest spiritual gain.”27 By 1930, she had successfully encouraged Weiss to wed someone else and had informed him of another unnamed attraction.
The Thompson courtship, begun during the late 1920s, overlapped with the waning of Van Waters’s intimacy with Weiss. Both women valued romantic and spiritual intimacy, and neither wrote explicitly about their sexual experiences. Yet Van Waters left hints about her consciousness of lesbianism and her continuing management of erotic impulses. In 1930, she read an article about Katharine B. Davis’s 1929 study of female sexuality, which found that a quarter of unmarried women college graduates acknowledged a sexual component in their intense emotional relationships with other women. Van Waters placed a star next to the statement that these were normal, not pathological, women, as if to differentiate her experience from the perversions she had earlier identified among juvenile delinquents^8 As in her relationship with Weiss, however, Van Waters continued to place limits on erotic expression. Thus, when Thompson expressed a desire “to ‘catch your soul’s breath’ in kisses,” Van Waters questioned the impulse in her journal: “What one calls appetite — satisfaction of warmth needs — hunger needs — is not just that. . . . In maturity some times in some circumstances — to feed hunger fully— is to lose hunger. There are other ways of quenching the fire — and all must be escaped.” Professionally, she had recommended channeling youthful sexual energies, whether heterosexual or homosexual. But her personal ideal suggested that desire should not only be sublimated but also could be maintained best by leaving it largely unfulfilled. While staying at Thompson’s home, she again alluded to the value of control: “The secret of life is manifested in hunger — it can’t safely be quenched — neither by denial, nor complete feeding, nor running away, nor escape — but by a new way.”29
Whether or not she discovered this “new way” of managing desire, by the time she and Thompson pledged their love at the end of 1930, Van Waters recognized that she had crossed some line. “The object which arouses love — cannot be foreseen or controlled,” she wrote in her journal. “All we know is — that same force which engulfs us, and makes us ready for service to husband and children — some times — to some persons — flows out to a man, woman, child, animal, ‘cause,’ idea.” Van Waters did not, however, acknowledge her love publicly nor claim a lesbian identity. When Geraldine longed to “shout about” their love so that her family would “know what life through you is giving me,” Miriam counseled discretion.30 Similarly, when an acquaintance who lived openly with another woman later asked Van Waters in public about the ring she wore — a gift from Thompson — Van Waters seethed at the impudence of this inquiry into her private life. Perhaps her status as a civil service employee and as the guardian and later adoptive mother of a child made Van Waters more cautious than her independently wealthy partner, Thompson. Equally likely, Van Waters struggled to reconcile her passion with the psychological construction of lesbianism she had already formed.
Another cryptic journal entry suggests how powerfully that psychological construction influenced her. In a dream, she wrote, she had enjoyed a feeling of “Understanding” that derived in part from “the recent Rorshak [sic] and integration.” Van Waters used the Rorschach test to detect “innate homosexuality” among inmates; in 1938, a trusted friend administered the test to her, and the results made Van Waters feel confident and optimistic. One line in this passage was crossed out heavily in pencil, especially over someone’s name, but the entry continued, “Geraldine and I shall learn together.’^1 In my reading, the Rorschach test proved to Van Waters that she was not an innate homosexual, thus freeing her of the deviant label and, ironically, granting her permission to integrate her love for Thompson without adopting a lesbian identity.