Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Jenniemae & James

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Jenniemae & James

Article excerpt

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

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. …

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