By Joanne Passet, $28.95; Bella Books; 359 pages
On the third page of Indomitable: The Life of Barbara Grier, the woman herself is described as "rude and insensitive." This serves not as deterrence for readers, or as a sign that biographer Joanne Passet can't stand her subject, but piques curiosity. So, how did a rude, insensitive woman network her way into creating a landmark lesbian publishing company? And how rude and insensitive was she if that's how she she's remembered?
Barbara Grier's life was a study in pure drive and passion. From the moment Grier realized she might be a lesbian, she went to the library to confirm her suspicions, and this desire dictated the course of her existence for the next several decades. Never college educated, Grier did her own, self-directed research on lesbian stories, and her knowledge alone connected her to organizations such as the Daughter of Bilitis and their publication The Ladder, and to personalities including Barbara Gittings and Jane Rule. As we watch Grier professionally develop, we see her stifled by a 20-year relationship with Helen, a librarian who simultaneously provides for her, giving her the space to read and write, and cripples her, reading her mail and eschewing company.
It's a relief when Donna McBride appears on the scene, first as a library clerk who fills Grier's voluminous requests: The slow ratcheting of Grier's tension living with Helen is novelistic, growing unbearable by the page. With Donna, change is possible. Grier can grow off the pages of The Ladder and use all of her connections and observational power to create a place for lesbian work to flourish. Naiad Press became a fountain watering the growth of feminist bookstores around the country. Passet is frank about some of Grier's mistakes: how her drive often pushed authors away and left people who entrusted her with their life stories feeling cold, but there's still a deep reverence for what Grier was able to do, and the feeling that meeting her might make you appreciate her even more.
Passett's prose somehow manages to simultaneously remain academic and convey Grier's fire. She is a master of the well-chosen illuminating quote, such as this, about Jane Rule's friendship with Grier ( which the isolated Grier always wished to deepen into romance ). "You are who you are," Rule writes in the aftermath of a disagreement, "which is sometimes a great blessing, sometimes a great trial. That is the experience of a friendship that grows as steadily and soundly as ours does. You don't ever need to apologize to me about who you are."
Granted, Passet had a lot of material to work with: Grier ( 1933-2011 ) produced reams of letters in her work as researcher of lesbian literature and Ladder editor, reviewer and devoted fan. But her research is abundantly obvious, and she deftly balances and braids the threads of Grier's life. Anyone with the vaguest interest in lesbian affairs, both literary and literal, should pick up Indomitable, and prepare to fall in love with that prickly Grier through her words and her will.