Personal Best: The Silence of the Lambs

"The Silence of the Lambs" by Thomas Harris

Published September 30, 1996 8:21AM (EDT)

i suppose you wouldn't believe me if I told you it was either this or "Pride and Prejudice." But it was.

So, what does Jane Austen have in common with a gory serial-killer thriller so mind-blowingly scary three people I know had to remove it from their bedrooms each night before they'd dare go to sleep? Well, a superior heroine, of course.

And the older I get, the more settled in my work-and-mom routine, I find that I can only tolerate reading about really superior heroines. I just don't have the time to waste on wimps and twits. Give me Elizabeth Bennet, with her dignity and humor, showing the snobs that class has little to do with money, and good breeding has even less to do with genetics. And Edna O'Brien's strong, reckless, passionate women, who are all basically the same woman, and "Little Women," but really only Jo.

But as much as I adore these women, my favorite heroine of late is the sort of woman I've come to realize I will never be -- a bold woman, a woman of action who puts herself in danger for a living and climbs things and can do math and shoot guns. OK, maybe she's a little foolish or arrogant or obsessive, too, but she works it out. I'm not talking about Sarah Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski -- rendered in TV-movie prose, she bores me to tears. I prefer Charlie, the actress mixed up with Middle Eastern terrorists in Le Carre's "The Little Drummer Girl," even though she turns out to be sort of pathetic at the end. And Smilla, big ol' stubborn Smilla. But most of all, I prefer -- OK, I'll say it, I want to be -- Clarice Starling, the gutsy FBI Academy student who singlehandedly takes down a nasty woman-flaying serial killer in "The Silence of the Lambs."

Has a heroine ever been as beloved by her creator as Clarice? Thomas Harris, former newspaperman, current recluse/thriller-writing genius, treats Clarice with exquisite tenderness and respect. Take the name, for instance, a piquant blend of clarity and radiance and scrappy little bird. Clarice has survived a childhood of poverty and abandonment, and with economy and grace, Harris shows us her determination to maintain her hard-won confidence in the face of every creep and bureaucratic obstacle that comes her way: "Clarice Starling flinched as the first of the heavy steel gates clashed shut behind her and the bolt shot home. Chilton walked slightly ahead, down the green institutional corridor in an atmosphere of Lysol and distant slammings. Starling was angry at herself for letting Chilton put his hand in her purse and briefcase, and she stepped hard on the anger so that she could concentrate. It was all right. She felt her control solid beneath her, like a good gravel bottom in a fast current."

But in order to rise above her humble beginnings and become the woman she wants to be, Clarice must confront the thing she fears most, which is her own helplessness. With the utmost gentleness, Harris leads her to her nightmare, and that nightmare is what gives "Silence of the Lambs" its heft and snap: Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

The erudite psychiatrist-turned-serial-killing-cannibal is a figure of pure evil (and proud of it). Yet Harris handles him with delicacy and esteem too, forcing us to admire his gift the same way we admire Clarice's. It's Lecter who coaxes Clarice to confess her deep, dark hurt, a hurt that could have turned her hard and mean but didn't. And then he says thank you, and she says thank you, and these worthy adversaries both mean it.

Clarice Starling has been as imitated within the thriller genre as Lecter. Consider her influence on "The X-Files," for example; without Clarice, there'd be no Agent Scully, or at least no Agent Scully so wise or -- and this is the thing -- so good. Meanwhile, Harris is holed up in Mississippi, where he's been working for way too long on a sequel to "Silence of the Lambs." Where is Clarice Starling now, in her life and career? Until Harris is ready to tell us, his glistening parting glimpse of Clarice, enjoying a much-deserved rest with her new lover in a warm house on the Chesapeake shore as "Orion stood high in the clear night," will have to do. Clarice's face is "rosy in the firelight," writes Harris, "and she sleeps deeply, sweetly, in the silence of the lambs."

And in the hands of her understanding and benevolent creator.

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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