Susan Griffin’s A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War (Anchor Books, 1993) is a bold leap into the mostly-unknown—the subjective lives of a number of historical figures caught up in war or in the development of nuclear weapons. The book made the short list for the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1993, and it’s easy to understand why: Griffin’s writing is powerful, often poetic, even generally prophetic.
How do history and individual lives shape each other? This should matter to everyone, though each of us might describe our present historical moment—the times we share—differently. Griffin’s approach, which she calls “social autobiography,” allows her to explore this issue (here and in two additional volumes, What Her Body Thought and Wrestling with the Angel of Democracy). “I do not see my life as separate from history,” she tells us. “In my mind my family secrets mingle with the secrets of statesmen and bombers.”
Accordingly, in Chorus a number of historical figures ranging from Gandhi to Heinrich Himmler are vividly imagined. Griffin’s choice of a structure that juxtaposes personal experience with public history anchors her meaning not in a single story readers can trace from the book’s beginning to its end, but instead in “the private life of war” (the book’s subtitle) and on the role denial plays in history as it causes—and perpetuates—emotional and physical damage. While some of the comparisons Griffin makes between private and public realms may seem to be straining for authentic connection, for me this concern is far outweighed by the importance of her insistence on the necessity of struggle to move past denial, and into real relationship.
As in Transforming Terror, part of Griffin’s concern in A Chorus of Stones is to engage the reader’s imagination. Griffin’s willingness, for example, to consider whether and in what ways she and Himmler, the architect of Nazi atrocities against Jews and others before and during World War II, had similar backgrounds takes us a step beyond our habitual denial. We are encouraged, in a necessary way, to think of our lives as unfolding within a larger story. How can we shape that story, even as it shapes us? —Joli Sandoz