Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Second coming


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The Woman I Am by Helen Reddy; Tarcher/Penguin, $24

Helen Reddy's memoir The Woman I Am may have trouble finding an American audience. The Australian vocalist burst upon the American scene in the mid-1970s when her song "I Am Woman" became an international feminist anthem. Unfortunately, by 1980, that white-hot career essentially ended, and few Americans under the age of 40 will now recognize her name. But no American will have trouble reading her memoir; I haven't seen a prose style like Reddy's since my fourth-grade subscription to The Weekly Reader expired.

Problems with the book start early when she spends the first third indulging her passion for genealogy, discussing three generations of Australian Reddy predecessors. This portion of the book is simply deadly. But I now know that Helen Reddy is a founding member of the Tasmanian Genealogical Society. By the midpoint of the narrative, things begin to pick up with stories about her professional career. If you recall that Reddy is writing a memoir and not an autobiography, you can forgive some of the lapses in her memory, and the subjects she glosses over.

The thrice-married song thrush had horrible taste in men. This may explain why the author of The Woman I Am never mentions any of her husbands' names. The first was an alcoholic, 15 years older than Reddy; the third husband she mentions only once, in passing. But the second husband, Jeff Wald, became her undoing, both personal and professional. Wald was both husband and manager, a man who became verbally abusive as his cocaine habit spiraled out of control. When they divorced acrimoniously after 17 years of marriage, she found herself saddled with debts it would take decades to repay. According to Reddy, Wald purposely sabotaged her career, making it almost impossible for her to obtain work during and after the divorce. He also absconded with their only son, accusing Reddy of neglect. It was a divorce so nasty, I can still recall the negative press coverage she received at the time.

Things really get interesting in The Woman I Am when Reddy delves into her own personal spiritual search and her belief in reincarnation. Along the way, she informs the reader that Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, was the reincarnation of Richard III; and that Elvis Presley was the reincarnation of King Tutankhamen. Reddy also provides a genealogical chart detailing the overlapping reincarnations of English royalty throughout the ages, and how the same souls have reincarnated into the royal family for centuries.

In this memoir, first published in Australia last year, Reddy borrows heavily from the Shirley MacLaine oeuvre. But she does so with sincerity and a good heart. Having suffered from Addison's disease for many years, Reddy now lives in Australia, where she works as a hypnotherapist. By the end of The Woman I Am, only a complete misanthrope could hold a grudge against the author. Helen Reddy comes off as a straightforward, likable human being who led an interesting life. It would be mean-spirited to wish her anything but the best.

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