Review of Laura May Venice's "Laura"

The book under review is a carefully researched hoax. It must be. Laura May Venice was a well regarded biologist around the turn of the last century. She wrote a series of influental articles on social insects in the 1890's. Following the publication of her last article in 1897, which veered off in the direction of speculation, she vanished from the scientific scene. The author of this work claims to be Laura May Venice - not her grand-daughter, not her great-great-grand-daughter, but the original! Actually, if we are to take this work at face value, the situation is vastly more complicated and what we have said so far hopelessly misleading.

According to the author (whoever it may be) Laura May Venice'' is a constructed entity, the product of a collaboration between two Cambridge undergraduates, Laura May and Laura Venice. Like all claims in the book, this one is consistent with what is known of the facts. Cambridge University records show that students named Laura May and Laura Venice entered the university in September 1884. The same records show that both students withdrew in June 1886, having completed all but the last year of their studies. Finally, the records show that a student named Laura May Venice returned to the University in October 1886.

The book interpolates between these spare details: The two Lauras lived in the same college at the university and became fast friends once they discovered that they shared similar backgrounds and interests. They both grew up in affluent, intellectual households, and had little formal education. Unburdened by the usual strictures associated with schooling, they read widely on their own. Bookish, intense, and educated far beyond their years, the two Lauras had no friends whatsoever until they found each other at Cambridge.

Laura Venice had a cousin, Stephen Venice, two years her senior. In the book he is described as a weak-willed, acquiescent young man. To make a long story short, the two Lauras persuaded Stephen Venice to marry Laura May, even though the two lovers'' had no interest at all in each other. The marriage was conducted in secret, in July 1886. The union existed solely on paper, in the form of a court document. The court document enabled Laura May to change her legal name to Laura May Venice. The two Lauras and Stephen rented a flat on the outskirts of Cambridge for the 1886 academic year. Laura May Venice re-enrolled in the university and completed her studies while Laura Venice formally withdrew.

The Cambridge University Records show that Laura May Venice completed her undergraduate studies in spectacular fashion, taking nearly double the usual load. Her prodigious accomplishments earned her an invitation to continue her studies at Cambridge, carrying out graduate work in biology. One speculates that Laura May Venice, already a brilliant student, further blossomed in her last year. In light of her future accomplishments as a scientist, such an explanation would not be completely unreasonable; the annals of science are littered with cases like this.

In the book it is explained simply that the two Lauras split the coursework between them. They carefully coordinated their schedules so that they were never seen at the same time. They methodically exaggerated the natural resemblence they bore to one another, amalgamating their wardrobes, dying their hair the same color, wearing the same hairstyle, and so forth. They wore large hats and identical pairs of thick, ornate glasses. They hid behind scarves and shawls. They copied each other's mannerisms, trained their voices to match, affected the same gait. Nobody got close enough to them to discover the subterfuge.

It seemed unlikely that the scheme could be continued into the more intimate setting of graduate studies, but for one semester it was continued. Following that semester, in the spring of 1888, Laura May Venice proposed to do her fieldwork in the United States. The carefully argued proposal was not entirely unprecedented, and after some deliberation on the part of the faculty it was granted. Supported by a generous research stipend, the two Lauras and Stephen left for the United States in May 1888, seeking to settle in a remote, unpopulated area.

On Page 104 it is said Together with Stephen we set sail for the United States on 17 May 1888.'' On Page 106 it is said I took up residence on the outskirts of Bismarck, North Dakota, in an austere but confortable farmhouse.'' It is clear from the context that I'' refers to the two Lauras. Stephen Venice is never mentioned again. With the vanishing of Stephen Venice - and the concomitant changing of we'' to I'' - the reader is led into the deep waters of the book. It is no longer possible to distinguish the separate identities of the two Lauras. There is only Laura''. As if unhooked from a mooring, the writing in the book begins to change character. Previously a linear account of things, the narrative gradually evolves into a kind of kaleidescope presentation.

Laura speaks neither about the completion of her fieldwork nor about her steady rise in stature as an insect biologist. This information can be found in the annals of biology, so to speak, and we shall not detail it here. The interested reader can still find her articles, a few of which have become classics, in practically any university biology library. It is worth noting that hers was an unusually isolated and short-lived career. She never collaborated with other scientists, rarely cited other work in her articles, never attended conferences, and never held a university position. It is impossible to tell, either from the book or from public records, how she supported herself at the time. One presumes that she inherited a sizeable amount of money from her parents or from other relatives.

The hospital in Bismarck records the birth of a baby girl, Laura May Venice, on 4 September 1894. The mother is listed as Laura May Venice and no father is listed. In the book Laura says that she had a total of eight daughters. She says gave birth to the first daughter on 4 September 1894, as is consistent with hospital records, and to the last on 21 March 1899. Medical records do not exist for the seven additional babies. If one is to believe the book, the babies were born at home and in secrecy. We can surmise that Laura learned the birthing procedure from the first experience and carried out the remaining procedures herself, without the aid of a hospital. All eight girls were named Laura May Venice; no fathers are mentioned.

Speaking generally, there is a kind of Faustian bargain a more established person can offer to a less established person. Prestige is offered in return for self-negation. For instance, this bargain is made all the time, to a greater or lesser extent, in business and politics. A young employee is groomed for, and promoted to, an executive position at an early age, but then serves as a puppet for the more experienced person who facilitated the promotion. Political leaders have proteges who ultimately land in high sounding but essentially powerless positions.

In theory, such a bargain could be made in the context of child-raising. Very young children imitate their parents all the time. They pretend to go to work, for example, or to talk on the telephone with friends. What child does not wish to be her parents, at some stage? The offer is this: The child is allowed to identify with the parent completely, to count the actions and accomplishments of the parent as her own. The child becomes a kind of external terminal'' of the parent, a kind of appendix, managed from afar but nominally given the same status as the manager. One can hardly imagine the ghastly consequences of an arrangement like this.

From birth, Laura read to her children, saturated them with classical music, exposed them to mathematical patterns and progressions. Pushed and pulled into a preternaturally early rationality, each baby was raised as a subsidiary of Laura, a unit in a functioning whole. Encouraged (or forced?) to read the same books read by Laura, the daughters shared all they knew with each other and with Laura. At first Laura speaks about my children'' or my third Laura'', say, but gradually the language changes. By 1902 she speaks of my younger selves'' and my other eyes and ears''. By 1905 she simply says I''.

From 1914 to 1915 McConnell and Sons, a prosperous Bismarck construction company still in business today, extensively renovated the farm whose registered owner was Laura May Venice. Among other renovations, they added extra rooms onto the existing house and converted the barn into another house. All of this is carefully detailed in the records of McConnell and Sons, which stretch back nearly a century. Laura does not mention these renovations, though we can imagine that their purpose was to accommodate a growing family''.

Laura again speaks of my babies'' in 1916. As with the previous generation'', the new generation of Lauras is methodically pushed into an early rationality. This generation is educated as intensely as the original, but much more narrowly. Encouraged or forced to devour books at a bewildering pace, each child is channelled into a specific area. One studies chemistry, one philosophy, one mathematics, and so forth. Once again, the children function as components of a whole, sharing their specialized knowledge extensively with each other. Regarding the status of these new children, the same evolution of language happens again; by 1918 Laura only speaks of I'' and never again mentions the second generation.

The process of reproduction and consolidation goes through repeated iterations, with the basic cycle repeating roughly every thirteen years. No mention is ever made of fathers, or of male babies. No medical records exist for the babies, though the growth corresponds with public real estate records which show that Laura May Venice purchased neighboring farms and similarly developed them. To give the reader some feel for the evolving nature of education given to an individual unit we reproduce Laura's account of the training given to one of my Lauras'' in 1956:

I taught the infant to distinguish between the primary colors by the careful withholding of food. By her first year she could distinguish not just the primary colors, but thirteen different hues of red. Laura could also tell mauve from purple, lime from chartreuse. By her second year Laura could distinguish fifty-seven different hues of red, thirty-nine different hues of purple, and nineteen hues of yellow...'' The narrative continues in this vein, but becomes incomprehensible, due to the use of private names for colors, such as infra-vermillion'' and sand vermillion 4''. Similar accounts from this time period are given with respect to sound perception, taste, and so forth. In all cases, the account devolves into incomprehensibility, due to the use of private names which make distinctions between seemingly identical things.

Properly speaking, there is only one event'' in this book. On 7 April 1966 a young reporter named Gary Tillson conducted an interview'' with a representative for the women who owned the cluster of farms. Over the years the area surrounding the farms had become incorporated into a township. The other residents of the town grew suspicious of the large collection of women who lived amongst them but did not interact with them in any way. People suspected that the group was a cult. Tillson was elected, more or less, to do an interview. Tillson never published his interview, but he assured the people in town that the group was harmless. In 1991 he published a short account of his experience in New Modes'', a New Age periodical:

I arrived at one of the farms and saw dozens of women, young girls mainly, buzzing around the place like bees. For the most part they paid not the slightest attention to me, absorbed as they were in various tasks. Every once in a while a very young girl would come up to me and stare intently at me. Sometimes these young girls touched me, or looked especially hard into my eyes. One spoke to me and said Say hello, say hello, say hello'' over and over again until I said it. Once I said hello she vanished into the background.

After thirty or forty minutes had passed like this I got the general impression that my presence on the farm had registered. A graceful woman in her mid-thirties approached me and asked me my business. I told her that the people in town had finally become interested in them, and that I would like to interview her, or rather the owner of the farm. She explained to me that the people on the farm were a non-religious collective, dedicated to simple hard work and quiet contemplation. Everyone on the farm had either come voluntarily, or was the offspring of someone who had come voluntarily. She said that the collective was protected under the government's freedom of assembly provisions, and that the collective lived within the laws and standards of the community.

When I pressed her for more details she said nothing. When I asked her if I could speak to someone else at the farm, she said that she was the public representative for the collective, and that it would be impossible to speak with anyone else. As she led me off the premises, I had the eerie feeling that she had been trained for encounters like this, like an actress, and perhaps did not even understand the words she had used. I did not want to start an avalanche of events that could destroy this unusual group of women and so I never wrote the article.''

Laura's account of the interview takes over a hundred pages. She notes the wind speed at the time of the visit, the angle that the sunlight makes with the ground. Two pages are devoted to a description of Tillson's palms, and the way they sweated. Four pages are devoted to a description of his right iris. A million little details are presented like this. It is as if a short interval in time has been frozen and duly recorded. Without any justification certain emotions are ascribed to Tillson; these are elaborated upon with a clinical precision. When carefully analyzed, the reader sees that Laura's account of the interview matches Tillson's account exactly, whenever it is possible to compare them. Laura's account {\it contains\/} Tillson's account - as a symphony contains a smattering of its notes.

The latter part of the book contains a number of descriptions like this, each presented as a sort of entry in a journal. The descriptions from the 1960s are still somewhat comprehensible. Putting aside the undue precision, the kaleidescope presentation, the frequent use of private terminology, one can see that a particular emotion is being described, say, or a certain carbon compound, or a mechanical device.

The descriptions from the 1970s are enigmatic, spooky. They hover just out of reach, for the most part. Every once in a while the reader feels a remote connection to what Laura says. One has the impression, for instance, that on 14 September 1973 Laura was contemplating how a tree-like thing feels to its bark, though a tree is not explicitly mentioned. On 22 May 1974 Laura seems to describe the longing a mind feels for itself when it is separated from itself by a short interval in time. In this passage one is given the general impression of a bridge suspended between two incarnations of the same mind.

Unexpectedly, there is a completely lucid passage dated 9 October 1977 in which Laura describes an enormous ball of space. The black and featureless space is filled with countless blue bubbles. Each bubble expands slowly, its center fixed in one spot, until finally it pops. As soon as one pops another one appears somewhere else in the space and expands anew. Against this slow and stately evolution, yellow beams of light dart from bubble to bubble, filling up the giant ball of space like a tapestry.

As Laura describes things and events beyond 1980 her writing becomes an ocean of incomprehensibility. It seems not to be gibberish, however. Unable to penetrate into the substance of the writing this reviewer tried to listen to its song. This is hard to express exactly: Cut loose from any discernible meaning the writing takes on a kind of a majestic cadence - one imagines a horse transitioning from a trot into a gallop or a candle gaining a steady flame after its initial sputtering.

Wading through the last hundred pages of Laura's unearthly narrative, one senses the promise of meaning if not the presence of meaning. Down to the last sentence the writing teases the mind, like a name that cannot be recalled or a story told in a voice too soft or swift to hear. One is given the impression, finally, of a letter written in an alien language, or a call backwards from an unknown future.