What Does Laurie Abraham Want?

Laurie Abraham wrote one of her new books as a fly on a tenement wall and another as a modern woman staring into her soul.

The book that’s getting all the attention is Mama Might Be Better Off Dead: The Failure of Health Care in Urban America. (There’s a long excerpt in this issue of the Reader.) In the tradition of Alex Kotlowitz introducing us to children in the projects, or Tracy Kidder to a doughty urban schoolteacher, Abraham follows the fortunes of a poor west-side Chicago family in need–as who isn’t?–of decent health care. Her angry conclusion: “Perhaps the only time the uninsured have a good chance of getting timely, quality care is when they are damn near death.” A point to which they’re driven before their time.

The book, which began as a series of articles in the Chicago Reporter, appears at exactly the right moment, as reform of health care dominates the public agenda. What worries Abraham are the concessions Bill and Hillary might have to make to sell their plan to the middle class. She applauds its emphasis on home care and preventive medicine, and the broad-based “health alliances” it proposes don’t look bad to her on paper. “But if it’s chipped away at,” she told us, “in 10 or 15 years we’ll still be saying, why is it the middle class gets super medical care and this other class doesn’t?”

What Abraham really likes is the Canadian plan. It’s simple, it’s global, and it’s fair. “Everyone is covered by the same insurer,” she said. “People with political clout–the middle class–can advocate for change, and those changes will affect everyone, rich and poor alike. People who are poor have a much greater chance of getting an even shot.”

The book is a harrowing family chronicle larded with the usual statistics that paint the bigger picture. Normally we would have interviewed Abraham in search of the person behind the reporter, but there was no need. In a collection of essays she and five friends published earlier this year, Abraham revealed herself.

To quote the cover of Reinventing Love: “Six women talk about love, lust, sex, and romance.” Abraham, 29, is the youngest and the moodiest. Here the contrary force is her boyfriend “Mike”:

“It is not unusual for the warfare to begin out on the back porch, while we’re reading the newspaper. Outraged at one or another injustice against mankind, I typically say something like ‘Can you believe that families of four on welfare only get three hundred and sixty-nine dollars a month?’ I used to expect Mike to mumble assent, share my indignation for a moment, and then move on. Instead, I hear, ‘Maybe if they didn’t get three hundred and sixty-nine dollars they would go get jobs.'”

We’re quoting from the essay “Arguments.” She writes, “Raised by a woman with Freudian tendencies . . . I keep looking for the ‘real cause’ of our arguments, but perhaps the cause is simply our different political views. This notion has been a revelation for me. I remember being surprised to hear friends say that they could not marry Republicans. (I do not have any friends who could not marry a Democrat. Indeed, I wonder: Are there any such women out there?)”

She acknowledges that during the “starry-eyed state that is the first stage of romance” she might have been more attentive to certain warning signs. “During our second or third date I challenged him about his repeated use of the word ‘pleasant,’ a listless, effete word that did not fit into my more passionate black-and-white view of the world. . . . I don’t remember how Mike responded to my ‘pleasant’-bashing. He probably thought, ‘Gee, this is one prickly woman.'”

So here she is, contemplating her “uncommonly strong need to win, to be right, whatever the subject, and especially with men,” and the real poser Mike asked her after one bitter fight, “if I was capable of loving someone with more conservative views than I held. . . . I did not answer.”

As “Arguments”–and for that matter the entire book–closes, the relationship hangs in the balance. It’s an awkward contraption of ardent, contentious love.

“‘Laurie,’ Mike groans, ‘I’m only saying that in the end antidiscrimination laws may do more harm than good.’

“‘That’s fine for you,’ I shoot back, ‘but you’ve obviously never been black or a woman.'”

Abraham told us, “I think I pay a lot of attention to the relationships between people and to the subtext of what’s going on when people are talking. I think that’s revealed in my essays, but it’s also revealed in the kind of reporting I do in my book, the questions I ask. I think I’m an OK observer of people because I observe myself.”

In both books you’re writing out of a keen sense of dissatisfaction, we observed.

“It may be true, but the dissatisfaction seems so different,” she answered. “I guess I feel my personal dissatisfaction is more a product of my age and more trivial than the dissatisfaction I have with how the health-care system treats people. I don’t think dissatisfaction is what unites me as a human being–that sounds a little disconcerting!”

All we’re trying to say, we said, is that the same critical edge that makes you a good journalist might make you a difficult person to put up with. “How did you jump to the conclusion I’m a difficult person to put up with?” she said in unconvincing amazement.

It’s our experience that anyone with a compulsion to set things right can be a handful–not that Mike, whom she describes as “much more pleasant and rational,” couldn’t also be impossible.

“Arguments” begins on their back porch on a scorching summer day. Abraham is yelling; Mike is unflappably pleasant. The issue is jobs and the ghetto, and Mike wonders why people who don’t have a job here don’t just move someplace where they can find one. “I snarl,” Abraham admits. Mike points out that the neighbor on a back porch 20 feet away just retreated into her apartment.

“Actually,” said Abraham, “the ‘Arguments’ essay was written right after that argument, when I was stewing alone at home and he was out playing Frisbee. I banged that baby out in the heat of anger. That’s why when it starts out, immediately we’re on the back porch. Well, I was still on the back porch when I was writing it.”

There is a fair amount of compassion throughout Reinventing Love, a fair amount of hard-earned wisdom from all the essayists and a celebration of monogamous marriage. But whatever fires drive someone to slog out to the west side day after day to witness a destitute old diabetic with an amputated leg withering away–well, it’s only in Abraham that they still burn fiercely.

Abraham told us, “I wrote one essay that was killed from the book. It was about my desire to be alone conflicting with my desire to have a family. And it was killed because the editor in New York said, ‘She doesn’t know what she wants.'”

Good News! Columnist Canned!

The Sun-Times features section just got better than it ever was. To quote the paper’s modest bragging, the “improved advice line-up” brings readers “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” on Monday, “Child Life” on Tuesday, “Rat Dog, P.I.” on Wednesday, and “Relationships Matter” on Thursday–plus, of course, the “lively” “All That Zazz.”

The Sun-Times put the stress where it belongs, on the good news. The bad news is of interest only to Diane Crowley, whose “Dear Diane” column was dumped by the paper, and possibly to the handful of readers who are still leaving hysterical pleas for help in her voice mail, which was not shut down, and wondering why she doesn’t respond.

We hear the Sun-Times was so eager to get rid of Crowley it didn’t even wait for her contract to run out. An unpleasant business, no? And it could get even nastier if Crowley, who’s a lawyer, decides to sue. But why should the Sun-Times trouble any of us with the details? What matters is there are brighter days ahead.

The funny thing is that there are always brighter days ahead if you know where to look. But a newspaper can be counted on to spot the silver lining only when the cloud hangs over its own head. No wonder people get tired of reading the papers–everything but the house news is such a downer!

It doesn’t have to be this way. Consider:

BULLETIN, DALLAS: Colorful Texan Lyndon Johnson unexpectedly became the 37th president of the United States Friday, inaugurating an exciting new era of American politics.

BULLETIN, PEARL HARBOR: The destroyer USS Monaghan sailed gallantly out to sea Sunday, inaugurating an exciting new era of American naval warfare based on the carrier task force.

FROM OUR FOREIGN DESK: A Sun-Times survey of medieval Europe finds the continent on the threshold of an exciting new era. “With a third of the population disappearing, anyone who wants a job can find it, and wages have never been higher,” said a high government official who hasn’t dropped dead yet. “Among intellectuals, the level of eschatological debate is really stimulating, and environmental issues are finally on the front burner.”

New Concepts in Dining

Famous chefs are like famous matadors: a lot of them are tough kids from terrible neighborhoods who wind up glamorous figures in gossip columns. Knowing that, we were still surprised by the candor of a press release touting the chef of the new Evanston restaurant Trio. It begins:

“Rick Tramonto’s resume reads like a fairy tale. A troubled teenager from a struggling working class family in Rochester, NY, Tramonto’s father was sent to prison when Tramonto was in his early teens.”

What’s the motif–Formica tables around a chipped kitchen sink? What’s the menu–Chef Boyardee?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.