Jenniemae & James

Brooke Newman’s memoir honors the numbers-savvy maid who delighted Newman’s mathematically brilliant father even as she saved Newman’s childhood.

Jenniemae and James By Brooke Newman Harmony Books 320 pp., $24

Perhaps “The Help” should have come with a warning label: Do not attempt to duplicate results at home.

Part of the reason that Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel about black women raising white children in the South in the 1950s and ’60s succeeded so well was that she was aware of the racial pitfalls (abysses really) over which her novel tread, and stepped carefully and lightly as a result.

Now, we have a memoir from one of those children, Jenniemae & James: A Memoir in Black & White.

Brooke Newman’s father was the brilliant mathematician James Newman, who came up with the mathematical concepts “googol” (they changed the spelling for the website) and googolplex. He could play chess blindfolded against five opponents simultaneously, hung out with Albert Einstein, and liked to tweak the FBI agents spying on him by conducting phone conversations in foreign languages. He also endured bouts of debilitating physical illness and depression and was a perfectionist with weaknesses for custom-made suits, bourbon, expensive cars, and women.

Newman remembers her mother playing Scrabble at night with some of his live-in lovers, who were, she writes, just there “like the dogs who slept on the living-room rug.”

Her mother, Ruth, was, to put it delicately, an emotional mess. She was an artist and clinical psychologist who had lovers of both sexes and grappled all her life with night terrors, migraines, depression, claustrophobia, and “borderline schizophrenia.” She told her daughter that cigarettes were her “very best friends in life” (she smoked four packs a day).

Mary Karr could fill an entire library with this kind of material.

Instead, Newman focuses on the source of stability in her life: the family’s maid, Jenniemae Harrington. But she doesn’t rely on her own relationship with Harrington. Instead, her subject is the friendship Harrington and James Newman developed over the years of her employment in the family’s Washington, D.C.-area home. (Ruth Newman was not comfortable befriending “the help,” and in the book this comes off as either callous or racist. Take your pick.)

Harrington, though illiterate, also had a gift for numbers, and used it to play illegal lotteries – which she won, a lot. This delighted her mathematician employer, who had a second phone line installed for Harrington’s use. He also became her champion after Harrington was raped by a white bus driver – picking her up at her home and dropping her off every night so that the driver could never assault her again. When Harrington became pregnant as a result of the attack, he hired an extra maid to help her clean the four-story house during the last months of her pregnancy – and she tyrannized the teenager with glee.

Ruth Newman, for her part, appeared wholly unaware of the attack or pregnancy, arguing that Harrington could keep up with her work just fine if she lost some weight. (In the memoir, Newman mentions Harrington’s obesity so many times I was ready to break out the Ben & Jerry’s in solidarity with her.) Throughout the memoir, Newman makes excuses for her mother, which is understandable, but still ineffective.

Newman clearly loved Harrington, who, she writes, basically saved her and her older brother’s lives, and the book was probably intended to be a celebration of her life. But Newman does not appear to have done meaningful research into Harrington’s life. Instead, she makes up syrupy dialogue and relies on her own memories as a young child and racial generalities that don’t give much life to the woman about whom she’s writing. (In fairness, she gives her dad some pretty corny lines as well, but at least she doesn’t make him recite them in dialect.)

Newman doesn’t seem to understand that – leaving race aside for a moment – a grown woman grappling with rape and an unwanted pregnancy is not going to confide her emotional or mental state to the child in her care. And that Harrington’s feelings toward her employers (and their children) may have been more complicated than the “yes, ma’am, thank you, ma’am” facade she presented to keep her job.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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