Love is the Hardest Lesson: A Memoir

By Margaret Hope Bacon

Pendle Hill Publications, 1999 | ISBN 0-87574-936-4

Reviewed by Merle Harton, Jr.

From the autumn of 1944 until the end of World War II, the author and her husband, Allen, a conscientious objector, were connected with the Springfield State Hospital, a mental health facility in Sykesville, Maryland. Married in the manner of Friends right out of college, but forbidden to leave the US for alternative service with American Friends Service Committee, the two ended up as attendants in the overcrowded hospital called Sykesville, determined to remain together for the duration of Allen's conscription. It was not a pleasant experience. At the hospital, the couple joined several other conscientious objectors and wives—Amish, Brethrens, Lutherans, Methodists, and others. From beginning to end, they were regularly shunned, slighted, or openly harassed by non-peace advocates at the time of a popular war.

Bacon's book was started as a novel, and before that a series of short stories, perhaps out of a therapeutic need, but she ended up reworking it as a very personal memoir. That fictional heritage has helped the narrative, for she manages to bring a vividness to this bleak place and humanity to its inhabitants. We remember with her the heavy doses of Paraldehyde, the electric-shock treatments, the insulin therapies, the lobotomies, the suicides, the few successes, and the cheerless prospects; but we also remember with her the good hearts and the dispensations of compassion.

From one perspective, this is a book about war and peace, fairness and injustice, loyalty and betrayal, meanness and benevolence, and disease and the horrible things we do in the name of medical science. But Bacon has given her memoir a meaningful literary poise. It could easily have been a startling expose of the horrors of the era's mental institutions; it could have been a simple tale about the wife of a conscientious objector during a popular war; it could have been a story with villains and heroes, sexuality and madness, ending in nightmares, bitterness, escape, and reversion. Instead, it is a balanced treatment of people in service in a fallen world and the persistent triumph of love over evil.

For all the beauty of Bacon's memoir, her readers will wish that Pendle Hill editors would treat their books with the same conscientiousness expressed by the writers. At least some of the critical dates could have been fixed before going to press.

Readers will also want to read more about the life of this gifted writer and Friend in service. Bacon has written several histories of Quaker women [available from Pendle Hill Publications]. Now that she is herself a grandmother, still married to the same man, Bacon ought to catch us up with the rest of her life as a modern Quaker woman. Until that time, though, we still have her wonderful gift in this memoir of a difficult period for Quakers in unity with our tradition's peace testimony.

Quaker Books: "Love is the Hardest Lesson: A Memoir" |
Copyright © 2000 by Merle Harton, Jr.  All rights reserved