The freedom to be one’s authentic self is often compromised in a society that fears nonconformity and devalues personal differences. In stories that touch upon this theme, the fundamental conflict is an unfair choice between security and personal fulfillment. Paula Martinac’s novel Testimony recounts the implications of such a choice, both at a personal level and for society as a whole.
Testimony’s central character is Dr. Virginia “Gen” Rider, a tenured history professor at Baines College, a private school for women in the rural community of Springboro, in 1960. Gen keeps her sexual orientation carefully guarded, even from her close female colleagues. She fabricates a deceased fiancé to explain why she is unmarried and covers up her frequent trips to visit a close “friend,” a woman named Carolyn with whom she was partnered for six years.
At the beginning of the novel, a male professor at the college is arrested for having sex with a Black man in a public park, initiating a witch-hunt that threatens to implicate Fenton, a theater instructor, and Gen’s closest friend. Gen finds herself vulnerable when someone begins leaving mysterious gifts for her, including a copy of a lesbian-themed novel. Finally recovered from her break-up with Carolyn, Gen embarks on a new relationship with Assistant Professor Juliet May. A neighbor sees the two women kissing in Gen’s kitchen and reports the incident to the Baines College administration, resulting in Gen’s suspension and a series of hearings about her morality, including false allegations that she has approached female students.
Testimony was inspired by the experience of Dr. Martha Deane, a full professor at UCLA, who in 1952 was suspended after a neighbor witnessed her kissing another woman. Deane ultimately took a monetary settlement from the university and left teaching. Martinac’s story positions Gen in a similar dilemma. Does she try to minimize the damage and go away quietly, or does she defend her right to privacy and risk exposing herself?
Gen is a likable and believable main character, though not an especially noble one. She takes her scholarship seriously and boldly transforms the Southern history narrative into a more inclusive and questioning version, much to the chagrin of her academic colleagues. Yet Gen also makes mistakes, such as when an NAACP leader accuses her of attempting to educate him on his own history. She becomes aware of the sexual abuse of female students by a predatory male professor, yet does not become a champion for them. Above all, she is careful, and that cautiousness defines the complexity and limitations of her character. As a result, she waffles on how willing she is to give up the comfortable lifestyle her tenure has earned her in order to be her authentic self.
Testimony captures the sense of fear and helplessness of an unjust system with McCarthy-era precision and exposes the hypocrisy of presumably well-educated people. Its best moments – and there are many – are when the reader feels the injustice of bigotry and entrapment through the characters’ words and actions. For example, fearful of being evicted from her home and having her secret life exposed, Gen burns the collection of letters and cards from her former lover, as she “imagines her younger, more innocent self going up in flames.” To protect himself from further suspicion, Fenton takes up a relationship with a young woman he has no real interest in. Later, in a psychiatrist’s office, he feigns wanting to be “cured,’ but feels a mix of oppression and pretension, as his eyes “took in the diplomas and Rothko-like paintings on the walls, the Kleenex box on the coffee table, the thick medical tomes on the bookshelf. Fenton swiped his damp palms together and tried to get comfortable, but the couch’s stiff cushion reminded him of a mattress in a cheap hotel.”
The novel loosely touches upon racial injustice, though the theme is not fully developed. The reader feels a heightened sense of outrage in the community that the accused professor was found having sex with a Black man who ultimately receives a much harsher punishment than the white men who are implicated in the crackdown. The threat of racially-motivated violence is also real, as men carrying baseball bats linger outside the community center where the local NAACP chapter meeting is held, yet it seems to have no impact on the college’s life. Although Gen cultivates a connection to the local Black community, it seems to be a transactional one, motivated by her research interests and, to some extent, her guilt. For example, while she was up for tenure, Gen suspended her membership in the NAACP chapter and ignored a request to help a young Black woman gain admission to Baines. She tries to make amends by donating a few extra dollars. She does not equate her own mistreatment with that of African Americans, yet it isn’t clear that she feels any great sense of empathy with them. The absence of a strong Black character limits how well racial justice is integrated into the story’s fabric.
Although Gen’s sexual identity drives the story, she is an outsider in other respects as well. Testimony does an excellent job of depicting the second-class citizenship forced upon accomplished women professionals in academia. In one scene, female historians at a conference are sent off to a “genteel tea” with faculty wives while their male counterparts engage in meatier intellectual discussions in the banquet hall. This added dimension of “otherness” enhances the novel’s realistic portrait of a society that fears the unknown and defiantly clings to its past.
There are a few other minor lesbian and gay characters in the novel, present in the background but largely hidden. The community seems to know they exist and tolerates them to a point, as long as they remain in their place. The reader knows that it will be decades before people like them will feel anything close to freedom to be themselves. Meanwhile, for Gen and Fenton, the adoption of the false self, the pretense, is as painful as the persecution.
By Paula Martinac
Published January 19, 2021