I had been waiting a year to read Elizabeth Abbott’s Mistresses. In the early days of bébé, I was eyes burning, skin aching, fall asleep standing tired. Every time I opened a book, no matter how much I fought it, I was out within five pages. Now when she sleeps I lie awake in bed reading, devouring, until 2, 3, 4am like I’m back in college and can sleep until noon.
I love a good nonfiction book, it’s almost as though I can turn off my interpretive brain worm and just experience the story. It’s nice to enjoy without wanting to deconstruct and reconfigure. And Mistresses is right up my proverbial alley. Madame du Barry. Aspasia. George Eliot. Hannah Arendt. Maria Callas. Simone. I’m in. This is my circle.
Some chapters were tough. Eyes shut, pausing, empathizing, reeling, I read about children being snatched away forever, killed, or “exposed.” I read about inquisitions and beheadings and torture. From ancient Greece to Nazis to Marilyn Monroe. Then 2am, she’s awake, hungry, I rock and nurse bébé, inside I nurse rage.
When I was pregnant I felt awful all the time. Nauseous and sore, all alkaline and zero energy. I thought about how delicate my constitution was. It wasn’t really, I was growing a fucking human. But it was, I didn’t want to do anything but lay there and grow a human. I thought about how some woman are forced to do this, to sacrifice and grow people. (How some want to force everyone to do this.) How pregnancy, surely, has held us back. And I’m not even going to go into the oppressive little girl cult industry of pink and sparkles and pretty big Disney doe eyes. I was pregnant and I was pissed.
Then I had a daughter and I make her DIY Riot Grrrl onesies and hang posters in her room of little girls in suits of armor, brandishing swords, saying, I can save myself! Because while I can block princess now, I know that phase will come, and I must arm her as much as possible so she’s ready, so we’re both ready. I read Simone and Cixous, I choked back vomit this entire bullshit presidential election. I read Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
Sometimes that’s easier said than done.
When I was little I thought there were two kinds of women: the wives of the sun with their church and their baking and their cleanliness; and the mistresses of night with their sex and their will. I always identified with the bad girls, I rooted for them. They seemed so strong and luring. Of course, this black and white dichotomy is ludicrous. Both are dependent on heteronormative monogamous marriage. But at eight, I didn’t fathom outside of that, at least not really. Through mistressdom, I saw a kind of way out and I leapt onto it, and absorbed it into my identity.
The mistress was my first sidestep out of the suburbs, out of my Catholic uniform, out of conformity.
She will always have a special place in my heart.
And Abbott did her a solid.