BALM IN GILEAD: JOURNEY OF A HEALER by Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 321 pp. $18.95
THIS biography describes the journey of Margaret Lawrence from her childhood as the daughter of a black Episcopal minister in Mississippi to her own professional success as a child psychiatrist in New York City. It is unforgettable because Sara Laurence Lightfoot, a distinguished sociologist, is her mother's biographer. She writes Dr. Lawrence's life from this dual vantage. Mother and daughter travel back into memories of family bonds, racial trauma, and supportive love. They look for and find the sources of strength in such a life. The book celebrates these journeys, journeys that depict a black woman's successful life's work and love, as well as a daughter's personal response to that life. The search allows the daughter to both find and share ``the presence within me that was my mother.''
Dwelling at length on her mother's relatives, Lightfoot shows how their powerful personalities both inspired and terrified her. Her narrative takes on aspects of the child psychiatrist her mother was, exploring ``the potential for change and growth'' in her formative years.
Margaret's father provided an important model as well; his listening to ``the Spirit'' and his interest in ``the healing power of prayer'' led directly to Margaret's decision to become a doctor. Wanting to have such a healing ministry herself but barred as a woman from the Episcopal ministry, she aimed for medical school.
Aware of her mother's great talents as a teacher of black children, Margaret was determined to get an education that would prepare her for a medical career. She wanted her life to be ``the expression of soul.''
Moving in with protective aunts and a grandmother in Harlem, she attended one of New York City's classical high schools. She won a full scholarship to Cornell University in 1932. The only black undergraduate student at Cornell, she was not permitted to live in the college dormitories and so worked as live-in maid, sleeping in an unheated attic.
Cornell refused her admission to medical school because the only other black med student had developed tuberculosis 25 years earlier. Margaret went to Columbia Medical School.
The ideal husband for Margaret, Charles Lawrence, encouraged her professional growth. He ``joined'' her in her dreams and showed his pride by exhibiting an early newspaper article about her until it was ``frayed and torn.'' His book-filled boyhood at the black Utica Institute and education at Morehouse College prepared him for a life committed to social justice. He brought his positive images of family life to their marriage, fully sharing the parenting of their children as he pursued his own career as a sociologist.
While ``Balm in Gilead'' traces the events in Margaret Lawrence's successful life, its focus is on her personal growth rather than on the political and social events of the times. Designed to reflect Margaret's gift of an associative and creative mind, the biography weaves narrative episodes from various time periods with dreams. It allows the reader to reflect on their importance to Margaret's own view of her personal and professional growth.
``My People's Wound,'' the most moving chapter for this reviewer, interrupts the roughly chronological account to focus on Margaret's images of the traumas of being black in a white world. In a ``free-floating narrative, `like what happens in analysis,''' she relates memories of a man bellowing at her mother to make her move from a train seat, of the ``polite'' racism at Cornell and Columbia, all of which felt like ``the slow erosion'' of her spirit.
As its title suggests, this biography is especially interested in ways of healing the ``sin-sick soul'' sung about in the Negro spiritual ``Balm in Gilead.'' Although Lightfoot's book sometimes makes her mother's life sound easier than it must have been, it offers new views of black professional families whose lives are filled with caring, dignity, and wholeness. It chronicles a strong marriage rooted in religious faith and dedicated to individual achievement that betters all people. It describes Margaret's important mentors, such as the capable black women who taught and ``mothered'' Harlem. It creates an all-too-rare portrait of a woman who loves her work and family and successfully gives to both.
Above all, it is the moving drama of a daughter's journey with her mother and the strengthening of their bonds. As such, it is an appropriate volume in the Radcliffe Biography series of ``extraordinary women.'' It breaks new ground in its innovative portrayal of the richness and complexity of such a life.