‘Traveling ad infinitum’ might be a better title

June 18th, 2015 10:28 am

First Posted: 3/21/2015

If you have ever had the experience of dating a good person and feeling guilty because you wish you could love him or her but can’t, you’ll understand how I feel about “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,” Jane Hawking’s memoir detailing her 30-year marriage to Stephen Hawking, the brilliant theoretical physicist/cosmologist.

Having tried, albeit not very successfully, to read Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time,” I was eager to learn more about him and the woman who shared his life. Theoretically, their story has everything going for it: two idealistic young people who marry, have three children, and try to live a normal life in the face of seemingly impossible odds. When Stephen is diagnosed at 21 with motor neuron disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, his doctors give him only two years to live. Knowing this, the young couple marries anyway, determined to enjoy what little time they may have together. As it turns out, Stephen’s type of ALS is a rare, slow-moving form. Nevertheless, it is a devastating illness, gradually robbing its victims of mobility and speech and making them prey to all manner of life-threatening side-effects.

That Stephen was able to defy the odds, go on to win every prestigious honor the scientific community awards and live a vigorous life of the mind appears to be due to three things: his absolute refusal to allow his illness to interfere with his life, his wife’s unrelenting vigilance and care and their deep love for one another, which, Stephen once said, gave him “something to live for.”

In Jane Hawking’s memoir, we see how her husband’s progressive disabilities inevitably force her to become responsible not only for his daily care, but also for maintaining a semblance of normal life – coping with the work of raising three children, running a household, entertaining family, friends and Stephen’s colleagues and often accompanying him on his international travels, despite her fear of flying. She does all this at the expense of her own intellectual life, postponing work on her PhD in medieval Spanish literature for many years. The physical and emotional exhaustion Jane suffers is only part of her burden. She makes clear that what bothers her most are the lack of resources available from the British government to aid people with disabilities like Stephen’s and her perfectly understandable anger that, as the wife of a genius, she is often ignored, reduced to the status of an invisible non-person.

After reading “Traveling to Infinity,” I was left feeling deeply ambivalent about the Hawkings. I have no doubt that Stephen was a difficult husband and not just because of the care his illness demanded. As Jane portrays him, he is arrogant, stubborn and not particularly sensitive to anyone’s needs but his own, yet she also says he can be witty, playful, loving and generous. Likewise, it’s impossible not to admire Jane’s courage and determination, her commitment to her husband and family. And it’s heart-breaking to see her youthful, romantic optimism crash against the realities of Stephen’s illness and personality changes, not to mention his eventual liaison with and subsequent marriage to one of his nurses. But man, she’s a terrible whiner and pessimist. Her glass is always half empty. Though one can’t help but feel sympathy for her situation, her endless complaining takes away from her nobility.

Sadly, my biggest complaint is that the ex-Mrs. Hawking is a lousy writer. She makes us plow through nearly 500 pages of material obviously taken from the journals she kept, and as a result, the writing is stilted and filled with the minutiae of daily life. What we crave, but don’t get, is a deeper understanding of the crucial events in that life. Perhaps this lack of depth is due to typical English reticence, but I got the sense that she wanted to appear to tell all while obscuring the real story. She is so stingy with specifics and explanations of the many veiled references she makes, yet, ironically, devotes pages and pages to explaining medieval Spanish poetry to us. Have mercy!

Just as she glosses over her growing attachment to and subsequent affair with Jonathan Hellyer Jones, her choirmaster and family friend who devotes years to helping the Hawkings cope, she also refuses to paint us a vivid picture of the breakdown and dissolution of her marriage to Stephen. For readers, it’s frustrating to have her allude to various acts of “treachery and meanness” without giving concrete examples that would certainly arouse our interest and sympathy. This latter section of the book is so filled with malice that Jane ends up doing herself a disservice, since she comes across as mean-spirited instead of heart sick, as I’m sure she must have been.

In the face of all she sacrificed, I feel terrible that I couldn’t love Jane Hawking’s book. But unlike a great book, which you wish would never end, a poor one makes you afraid it never will. Sadly, “Traveling to Infinity” belongs in the latter category.