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The Choice Carol Had to Make

One writer’s personal history with Highsmith’s forbidden love story—first as a young woman and then as a wife and mother.

The Weinstein Company

There is a scene in the beginning of Carol, Todd Haynes and Phyllis Nagy’s brilliant adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt, where we see two women—the older, sophisticated Carol and the younger Therese—having evening tea in a New York hotel. A man in a fedora bounds into the dining room, looks over at the two women—when he calls out to Therese, we learn he is a friend inviting her to a party. Carol excuses herself and places her hand on Therese’s shoulder on her way out; a moment later, we see the male friend pat Therese on the shoulder as he tells her he’ll wait outside. Only Carol’s touch is charged, as the camera indicates, resting on her hand for an extra, meaningful beat, as Therese looks longingly at the manicured fingers giving her a gentle squeeze. It may appear to be a fleeting gesture, yet there’s nothing simple or even wholly chaste about it: Carol’s touch pulsates with erotic possibility and terror.

Highsmith published The Price of Salt in 1952, when a public display of same-sex affection was positively daring. That same year, the American Psychiatric Association published their first Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (DSM), in which homosexuality was described as a “sociopathic personality disorder.” Highsmith wrote her novel at the dawn of the Lavender Scare, when queerness was aligned with communism and the government targeted gay men and women as agents of the Cold War. Though lesbians could more easily live in plain sight than men, they could have been imperiled for being perceived as “deviant” or “obscene” if witnessed by the wrong person. As we soon discover, Carol has indeed been stalked by a detective hired by her husband to collect evidence of her Sapphic activities. We see more clearly in the film than we do in the novel that Carol is forced to make a choice between custody of her daughter and spending the rest of her life with the woman she loves and, more plainly, being true to herself by living a lesbian existence.

The Price of Salt was the follow-up to Highsmith’s debut, Strangers on a Train, and it was originally published under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan,” as Highsmith didn’t wanted to be branded a “lesbian novelist.” Her publisher, Harper & Bros., rejected the manuscript, and Highsmith instead published the hardcover with a smaller house. When the book was released as a 25-cent pulp paperback the next year, it sold nearly a million copies to readers hungry for a new kind of forbidden-love story.

Lesbian pulp novels were plentiful and popular at the time, so booming sales weren’t such a surprise, but The Price of Salt was distinctive because Highsmith traded melodrama for quiet tension, patiently stoking the suspense of the two women’s evolving, then-illicit relationship and the brewing trouble that follows them on their car trip. In addition to being an incredible storyteller, Highsmith is a remarkable stylist, and Salt is a shamefully overlooked work of great literature, at once a heady, heart-stopping romantic love story, a gripping road novel, and a rich coming-of-age story set in mid-century Manhattan that vividly and honestly evokes the claustrophobia, the terror, and the adrenaline rush of living and loving in secret, and all of the accompanying repercussions, compromises, and even inescapable bouts of remorse.

But readers weren’t simply flocking to the novel for its literary virtues. Lesbians hailed The Price of Salt as a triumph because of its “happy” ending: neither woman dies, goes insane, or returns to a conventional life with a man—which was how lesbian pulp novels often ended to avoid breaking obscenity laws. Highsmith instead has Carol invite Therese to move in with her, though her invitation comes with the sacrifice of Carol never being able to see her daughter again.

Highsmith distanced herself from the novel for years, likely because it was based on details from her life: the department-store job, the obsession with an older married woman. But “Claire Morgan,” and later, Highsmith, received countless letters praising the novel, thanking the author for writing the first book of its kind. “As I remember,” wrote Highsmith in an afterword to the 1989 reissue of The Price of Salt (which was re-titled as Carol), “there were as many letters from men as from women… The letters trickled in for years, and even now a letter comes once or twice a year from a reader.” Until quite recently, this outcome, of having to give up motherhood for romantic love and living as a lesbian, really was the best we could expect at the time. The Price of Salt was a bold work when it came out in 1952, and is arguably even bolder today because of what comes into sharper focus at a time when same-sex marriage is legal, but so too is discrimination against LGBT people—that injustice can feel even more outrageous when voters can decide to strip LGBT of their rights to be protected under the law and judges can still threaten to take children from same-sex couples at their whim.

I didn’t consider these sorts of injustices when I first read The Price of Salt in 1994, because I presumed that injustice was an occupational hazard of living life on the margins of sexuality, so I shared in the belief that the novel had a happy ending. At 23, I identified strongly with 19-year-old Therese, the aspiring theater-set designer and department-store temp clerk who sheds a lovesick boyfriend for whom she’s felt only ambivalence, to pursue…something, she doesn’t know what, with Carol, a middle-aged woman in the grips of an ugly divorce who visits the store to buy a doll for her daughter. The infatuation evolves into a mutual love that is consummated with sex and the beginnings of a relationship, but which abruptly breaks off when Carol’s husband ratchets up the battle over their child from joint custody, to supervised visits, to no contact at all.

 I had just emerged from a breakup with a woman ten years my senior, a former colleague who left me in search of husband material because she wanted to start a family. Our relationship had an expiration date from the outset—she told me early on she wanted a conventional family, and that was something I couldn’t give her—but anticipating an end date didn’t make our dissolution any easier to bear. Twenty years ago, I knew a handful of lesbians with kids, but they were outliers, even outlaws of a kind, with no legal protection, and that’s nothing to say of support from respective families’ and surrounding communities. As for same-sex marriage, well, that wasn’t even in the lexicon, let alone our imagination.

When I was younger, I don’t think I even registered the Faustian bargain Carol had to make in order to be with Therese. I hardly recall reading any of the maternal scenes between Carol and her daughter—my 23-year-old mind must have turned to static as I read those passages. What mattered most was everything that happened between these two women, including the many naps I’d hoped would turn into make-out sessions during their get-togethers at Carol’s New Jersey home. When Therese finally tells Carol she loves her, rather than ravish each other, the older woman suggests they literally sleep together first before making love. The feverish quality of Therese’s obsession with Carol, an intimacy paired with so much sleep, made sense to me when I learned that Highsmith mapped out the entire plot in eight pages, while burning up with a high temperature and a case of the chicken pox.

No love is declared between the women until halfway through the book. Instead, much happens when seemingly nothing is happening—the equal sense of passion and fear is palpable from the moment Therese sees Carol across the toy department floor. “How was it possible to be afraid and in love … these things did not go together,” Therese asks naïvely just before she finds out the hard way that they are inextricably linked in this life. As a 23-year-old reader, my thoughts were simple: Could Carol and Therese find a way to be together in the end? Or would Carol return to her husband and child, defeated?

As for Carol’s relationship with her daughter, I remember thinking, Well, that’s how these things go, lesbianism comes with a lot of sacrifices. When I came out to my parents at 15, in 1986, what they heard me say—and what I had to believe then—is that I was opting out of marriage and parenthood. (That is, unless I outgrew this “phase” and decided to marry a man.) I soon learned as I pursued women in college two years later that no matter how intense things were in the present between two people of the same sex in private—and it was always in private, no matter how deep the love was—heartbreak loomed as inevitably as death. I learned to expect that my lovers would experience remorse the next day, and the promise of an expiration date. Could I bear this life?

When I was in my 20s, I could have never imagined the life I live now: married to a woman I’ve been with for nearly 15 years, raising our son we adopted together four years ago—both of us his legal parents. Neither, I think, could have Highsmith, who’d left many girlfriends in her wake before her death in 1995, well before same-sex marriage was even in the cards. Or the first woman I was in love with, a deeply closeted woman with a prolific lesbian love-life, who lived with a woman she couldn’t bear to tell me—or nearly anyone, it seemed—was her partner, before she died of breast cancer in 2006.  My life still feels like a stroke of luck rather than something I should have been entitled to expect. As we’ve seen, recent decisions made by state courts and the voting public serve as stark reminders that the struggle continues.

Over the summer, I read The Price of Salt again and I was as bewitched with the novel as I had been 20 years earlier, but this time, I more closely identified with Carol, and by the novel’s end, I was devastated. I understood how Carol and Therese would have to compartmentalize their lives in order to love each other: evasive at work, or with friends or family, or possibly threatened by angry men who felt rejected and emasculated. One might have to brace herself for the mornings when the other might have second thoughts about sacrificing a life of heterosexual privileges. The agony of having to choose between your lover and your child was now unfathomable to me. The best Carol could hope for was visitation rights at her husband’s whim, not even shared custody of her daughter, whom she loves desperately, in order to be who she is and live with the woman she loves. The novel has lost none of its romantic power—I still rooted for the women’s relationship to endure and was happy they are ultimately together. But to force Carol to make such a sacrifice, for either woman to have to make any compromise at all for love—call it progress—has recast its ending as anything but happy.