Drawing the Line
Drawing the Line, a passionate life
Susan Gardner
Red Mountain Press, 2011
A Life Beyond the Lines
Jessica Treat

Susan Gardner is a poet and artist whose memoir, Drawing the Line, chronicles the life of a woman who increasingly places the rigor and discipline of art and the act of creation at the center of her life.  But Gardner’s memoir is most interesting and impressive for its chronicle of the life of a highly intelligent, capable woman who, given the times, familial, marital and societal expectations, consistently finds her ambitions thwarted (enrollment at M.I.T. is rejected by her parents in favor of Hunter College;  later as the only woman in the international relations doctoral program at Johns Hopkins, she’s told by her advisor: “It’s too bad you’re here, but the university has decided to admit women to this program. You were the best qualified. I hope you aren’t wasting a space that could be better used by someone else” (97)).  Her husband’s career in the foreign service takes them for several years at a time to Korea, Japan, Washington D.C. suburbs, and Mexico. Yet despite these many moves, an increasingly difficult, even abusive marriage, Gardner is able to devote herself to her sons, and enjoy the demands of motherhood.  At the same time she finds her way around obstacles and limitations (foreign service wives were not allowed to work at this time) to a life of great integrity and accomplishment that includes teaching, public service, fluency in first Korean and then Japanese, along with painting, drawing, printmaking, gallery shows and expositions.  Carving out a path that is her own, Gardner eventually journeys to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where in time, an unsought but ultimately welcomed second marriage begins and a dizzying number of houses are bought and reconstructed until the right one is settled upon.

After an initial chapter in Mexico, Drawing the Line follows Gardner’s life chronologically in a manner that is not markedly artful or poetic but one which the reader comes to find increasingly compelling. The balance Gardner strikes between reserve and divulgence seems right, and the honesty and clear-sightedness with which she relates the continual challenges (the loss of a child, her husband’s affairs, exclusion from the working sphere abroad) as well as the resources she is able to draw from in facing them bind the reader to her with great compassion and respect.  Wherever she lives, she attempts to reach out, to create community, a life much larger than the one prescribed to her.  “From very early childhood I learned that because I was able to, I must do what was required of me,” (90) Susan Gardner writes. Here she chronicles her journey from meeting the requirements of being a daughter, sister, wife, mother, foreign service spouse, to those dictated by her art and her heart.  Gardner’s memoir will interest many, and to those women who struggle still against the dictates of society or their own upbringing, it provides an important example, a path of encouragement and a means of support.

Jessica Treat

Jessica Treat is the author of three collections of fiction: A Robber in the House; Not a Chance; and Meat Eaters & Plant Eaters. Her stories, essays, and prose poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies.