Reading Matters

How Jim Grimsley shed his racial prejudices

These three books are such an excellent batch that instead of having you read about them in the paper, I wanted to call you up and tell you about them in person.

It’s 1966 in Pollocksville, a hamlet in Jones County, N.C., and a white Jim Grimsley is entering sixth grade in the first year of school integration. “How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Lessons of a Racist Childhood” (Algonquin, $23.95), due in April, exposes the shedding of his deepest prejudices and attitudes.

Three black girls enter his classroom, and that first day, Grimsley’s impulse is to call one a name. Doing so, he knows, will make the boys in the back of the room laugh. And, at 11, he is also “filled with a vague sense of purpose, and ready to do my part, though for what I could not have said.” Grimsley gives into the impulse, and the black girl neither cringes nor ducks. She hurls the name back at him, and then some, foiling the stunned Grimsley. “If I was superior to her, as I had always been told I was, why didn’t she feel it, too?”

By breaking the old social patterns, integration served Grimsley well in a surprising way. “My own life of hiding, of masking my sexuality…, would have been far harder in a white junior high,” he writes. “…at least I was not forced to pretend to have a girl friend, or to trick a girl into thinking I liked her.”

Layer by layer, young Grimsley sheds his deepest beliefs, prime among them that white skin bestows superiority. An Emory professor and the author of several acclaimed novels, he describes the friendships, alliances and turf wars (blacks at the front of the school buses, whites in back, whites with whites in the cafeteria) of the daily life in the newly integrated public schools of the South, where two worlds collided but rarely merged. A must-read book.


Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry, by Jeffrey A. Lieberman, M.D. (Little, Brown, $28). I gobbled this book. The history of psychiatry from brutal and barbarically invasive treatments (asylums, infecting with malaria, ice-picking into the brain) through talk therapy and psycho-pharmacology. Entertaining, anecdotal and enlightening by a thoroughgoing scholar.

Bettyville, by George Hodgman. (Viking, $27.95). Betty is Hodgman’s aging, Southern Belle mother. Hodgman is sophisticated Fire Island gay. In this achingly honest memoir, you feel for Betty, for George, for their misunderstandings, grievances, neuroses. You cheer their wit, their playfulness, all the good love between them. A warm, intense delight.