Gayl Jones. (1998). The Healing. Boston: Beacon Press.
Gayl Jones is an accomplished black author whose novels,Corregidora and Eva’s Man, address themes such as incest and sexual violence that date back to slavery. Her writings boldly preceded works such as “Roots,” “The Color Purple,” and “Beloved.” Her most recent publishing, The Healing, is significant in that it breaks a lengthy period of silence (over 20 years) in which she had chosen to withdraw from the American system. A recent Newsweek article (1998, February 16) tells of Jones’ resignation from the University of Michigan, following an incident in which her husband found himself in legal trouble in connection to his actions at a gay-rights rally. Shortly before his trial, they both disappeared. Gayl sent a letter to President Reagan with a copy to the university which read, “I will not continue at this university. I reject your lying, racist s— and I call upon God. Do what you want. God is with Bob (her husband) and I’m with him. You have nothing to keep me here.” She went on to refer to the United States as the “racist American system of Justice.” Since that time, she has kept extremely low profile. In fact, her editor has never met her in person and her only interviews for the book’s publishing were done by e-mail. In light of this background information, the message of her book is interesting and revealing.
The Healing is a fictional account of Harlan Jane Eagleton, a black faith healer, who travels the country and shares with small towns her gift of healing. Little is known about her at the outset of the novel. Readers are immediately captured by her sensitive nature, modest dress, confident demeanor, rambling yet deep insights, and distinctive dialect. Community residents are often initially skeptical or extremely anxious in regards to this faith healer’s amazing powers. She is extremely accepting of all those who come to see her, regardless of whether they anticipate healing, a performance, or a show. The results of her visits are genuine; people receive healing-mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual.
As the story develops, Harlan invites the reader into her past. The further she goes, the deeper she digs below the surface into a powerful testimony of life experience. Much is revealed about her professional background. Beginning with her life as a faith-healer, Harlan returns to her days as the manager of a rock star, and eventually shares her early ambitions in beauty school (and her discouragement from auditing classes at a big university). As her background is uncovered, so are her struggles with pain, anger, frustrations, and love. These struggles are learned through a dizzying array of her shared anecdotes: African travels with her husband (he was anthropologist), separation from her husband, flings with her friend’s ex-husband and a married man from overseas, recognition of the injustices faced throughout the world by people of color, expressing her insights and attitudes toward popular culture and the different systems of society, coming to terms with herself as a person, dealing with chauvinism, sharing how her father and grandfather left their wives and family, and being open about her flaws and imperfections. This is a powerful work.
In the end, Harlan reveals the true way in which she discovered her power of healing. As she seems to arrive at the conclusion of her tale of memories, she surprisingly shifts readers to a scene in which she was stabbed with a knife by one of her closest friends. A strong man runs to her aid, but she doesn’t need his help. The knife falls from her side and as she touches her own wound, she is miraculously healed. The moment seems symbolic: through her own healing, she discovers the power to heal others. The epilogue is also powerful.
In conclusion, one cannot help but to parallel the fictional character with the author herself. Much is seemingly revealed about her attitudes and feelings; a sense of peace may very well have occurred in her life through “healing.” This book should be read two or three times to grasp its fullness.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What are your impressions of Harlan in the early chapters of the novel? How do other characters view her? How does she seem to view herself?
- How significant is race to her story? Who among her family/friends are affected by race? In what ways? How do they deal with racial disadvantages?
- Identify the most significant theme in the story. Why did you choose this? What are three secondary themes? Do these themes relate to individuals in real life society today? If so how?
- What was your overall attitude toward the main character? Positive? Negative? Can you identify with her? Does her story make you uncomfortable?
- Discuss your feelings about the racial atmosphere in today’s society. Identify problems. Discuss how our society copes with these problems. Brainstorm and act upon possible solutions.
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