When She Woke, cafeteria Christian feminist candy

WhenSheSpoke_AFWhere to begin with Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke, a misogynistic dystopia, where criminals have their skin dyed according to their crime?

Not when Hannah wakes up blood red in a Chrome Ward prison for having an abortion. Not when she escapes the clutches of a menacing but lax theocratic government safe house. We’ll get there. Let’s start here, at the height of the narrative’s silliness, the proverbial pelvic thrust:

Her head in the nook of his shoulder, her arm draped across his chest, their legs intertwined. Adam and Eve, before the fall. Minus the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

First, in no way do Hannah and Aiden symbolically represent the “first couple” or “the dawn of mankind.” But more stupidly, this creationist bomb was dropped right at the end of an already rushed and progressively vacuous book about radical Christian right politics taken to their penultimate conclusions. I say penultimate because the book is soft–oh so soft–critiquing religion while cradling it.

Jordan separates good Christians from bad Christians, the latter being the ones who interpret the Bible more literally. The Puritanical prudes who are rabidly anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-sing-and-dance. Then there’s the happy-go-lucky, you’re okay I’m okay, to each their own, God is love variety. To quote Simone, the lesbian terrorist running an underground railroad resistance to chroming, “I do not believe in this God of theirs, this pissed-off, macho God of the Bible. How can such a being exist? It is impossible.”

And that’s that. Though, what ho? What exactly does she believe? What message is Jordan sending?

If God is the Creator, if God englobes every single thing in the universe, then God is everything, and everything is God. God is the earth and the sky, and the tree planted in the earth under the sky, and the bird in the tree, and the worm in the beak of the bird, and the dirt in the stomach of the worm. God is He and She, straight and gay, black and white and red–yes, even that…and green and blue and all the rest. And so, to despise me for loving women or you for being a Red who made love with a woman, would be to despise not only His own creations but also to hate Himself. My God is not so stupid as that.

This book is billed as a modern mash-up of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter (which I haven’t read in forever), and while the premise–Jordan’s initial chroming idea–may lead one to believe this, the text, however, is utterly jejune. Every time Hannah is about to get seriously critical, or hurt, raped, or killed, someone is there to save her.

Hannah Elizabeth Payne. In acronymic terms, HELP.

(We won’t even touch her blaringly obvious choice of sir name.)

Help me, Hannah says. Lord, help me. Aiden, help me. Daddy, help me. Simone, help me. Kayla, help me. Straight Path Center, help me. 

Help me. I’m in pain.

Take it away boys…

Then she’s all, Fuck this shit. Fuck the church. Fuck shame. Fuck the rules. I don’t need anyone’s help.

Halfway through, I was hopeful.

Not so long ago, she too would have turned to God for help as a matter of course, would have believed without question that He was interested enough in her one small life to intervene in it. She probed the place within herself where He used to reside and found an empty, ragged socket. Her faith–not just in His love, but in His existence–was gone.

Huzzah! All right, fast-paced, “Unputdownable,” (says the cringe worthy blurb) rushed revolutionary text, let’s blow some religious lady’s minds! Because, duh, this is written by a woman, with a female protagonist discussing women’s issues, this book is not for men. And nor is it for me. It’s for those who have yet to question their faith, question their religious doctrine, question the men laying down the rules for the right way to live, doling out the punishments, racking themselves with guilt and shame and disgust and fear.

Great, I initially thought. I love these narratives. But this book is poppy, it’s not going to tread on any type of Christian values. Atwood delivers a mean uppercut, a patriarchal gutting. She and Simone de Beauvoir (who Simone is named after…) interpret the Christian doctrine correctly. The texts, the Biblical and catechist texts do not like sex and they do not like women. Your body is not your own, not if you’re a woman. Your womb belongs to the people and the people belong to God.

Both Jordan’s and Atwood’s narratives begin after an epidemic has rendered a good deal of the female population sterile. In When She Woke, abortion is outlawed; it is murder; the punishment is red skin, ostracism, insecurity, and shame. Chromes have no rights to privacy and their safety is greatly jeopardized as well. But that’s it. While Hannah grew up in a strict religious household, a fellow chrome she meets at the Straight Path Center did not. This friend, Kayla, lived outside of the zeitgeist. Which means living outside of the zeitgeist is possible. Which means that this really isn’t a theocracy. There’s leeway. Abortion is still illegal, but slutting it up isn’t. It’s just more frowned upon. Sounds like a pretty lenient dystopian society. One that can be combated. One with hope. Which is how it ends. Hopefully.

So yes, soft. Painfully soft. Jordan’s political message seems to be, Watch it, America. If you’re not careful things will get a little worse and then we’ll have to fight super harder to get things back to the good old days of freedom bleh blah blue.

The Handmaid’s Tale is COMPLETELY different. There is no outside of the zeitgeist. Gilead is a theocratic state, with punishments much more brutal and severe than red skin and reflection. People die. People die horrifically. Fertile women become the property of influential men, and every week are raped by them while their infertile wives hold the girls’ arms and cover their faces. The girls are so afraid, so used to this state of affairs, that they really want to get pregnant. They want to save their own skin. I doubt any of them would give much of a fuck if the punishment were that it were dyed as opposed to the outback toxic cleanup death camps they face. Margaret Atwood’s not kidding. She’s distrustful of religion–oppositional to it, disdainful of it–not optimistic about it.

Here, let her explain.

*For audio, you have to change the quality from 360p to 240p.

Atwood: If your government says, Not only am I your government, but I represent the true religion. If you disagree with it, you’re not just of another faction, you’re evil.

Bill Moyers: But you don’t imagine that could happen here?

Atwood: Wanna bet? Wanna lay some bets as to that?

Margaret Atwood is not fucking around.

Hillary Jordan is. Sure, she’s pro-choice. She is the good kind of Christian. But I think the entire religion is suspect. Jordan’s critiques don’t go nearly far enough. What she wants is not Christianity, it’s utopia, where all religions are one and we hold hands and sing yet keep the basic framework of something so archaic and misogynistic for tradition and comfort.

When She Woke is candy but that nasty candy that’s hard and has been sitting unwrapped and clumped together inside your grandmother’s good bowl for years. Jordan’s only really speaking to fanatics; they’re the only ones who would find these kinds of cafeteria Christian ideas challenging.

I find them annoying.

Just as I find nosy, proselytizing neighbors annoying. Just last night I was walking Aria around the neighborhood when a woman stopped me to hand me this insane Baptist “business card” about hate being murder and repent your sins and don’t deny Jesus. “Where do you go to church?” she asked me. “I don’t,” I said. She then looked at Aria. Yes, we’re keeping her in the dark. And to use Jordan’s language, thank God.

I am emphatically team Atwood. But you don’t imagine that could happen here? Now? My encounter last night I think emphasizes how right she is. I’d say I could be a handmaid, or I could be dyed red. But I know, just as know I would’ve been burned a witch a couple of centuries ago, or stoned to death if I lived eastward, I wouldn’t make it past the first societal purge. Because if I did, I’d die fighting them.

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The Anti-Film Tarot Art Project

Last night I participated in The Tarot Nook’s Anti-Film Tarot Art Project with the mistress of ceremonies, Kelsey Lynore.This was not your average tarot reading. No mysticism. No bullshit. Kelsey begins every session by placing a ban on any and all discussions of truth. Truth, as she says, has nothing to do with tarot.* Meaning, this was not necessarily a prediction of the future so much as a deconstruction of the present. With a background in Comparative Literature, she approaches tarot using theory and analysis to unlock perception and elucidate possibilities that need churning, to be unearthed. It was everything that therapy should be. And it was all live on her Google+ and Youtube channels.

Though in the beginning I was nervous, fumbling my introduction as a writer and a “muddler,” which roughly translates to “a mother of a toddler” or “one who muddles introductions”. An apt Freudian slip, I’d say, an open expression of anxiety concerning the permanence of video, the conversation recorded, staying still, my appearance as I speak and gesticulate.

But Kelsey is calming, alluring. With a tranquilizing presence, you want to confide.

It was as though I’ve known her a very long time, when in reality, I’ve only known her since this blog’s inception. She’s then only known me through my writing. And yet despite my usual inclination toward neurosis, I was excited in the eyes of the unblinking lens.

I wished it were endless. I wished I were beside her somewhere on the bare earth, talking, absorbing, challenged, sated.

Afterwards I wanted a cigarette. Today I stole one of my mother’s and enveloped myself in an imaginary night, laying myself on the internet, for better or worse.

This project fascinates me. Watching her give other readings satisfies the voyeur, and not cheaply so. She calls this project “deeply humane” and it is. Her subjects are painfully human. They’re honest. They struggle. Their problems flick across their faces with every insight. Flashes they keep hidden. Now sewn onto their skin and forever caught, archived, are able to be studied. And for this I am immensely grateful. I want to relive these insights, peer further, deeper, go into them, transform and coddle them.

While the subjects know they’re being taped, the other is still ever-present but recedes into the relaxed and familiar landscapes of video communication. It’s not the same as speaking into the big black void of a lens. I was home. I was myself. Eventually forgetting the world outside of Kelsey and my pulsing life questions. I felt clear and charged, revealing possibly more than I should have on the internet, which is exactly what should have happened.

In other words, I couldn’t recommend this, her more.

*Just as truth has nothing to do with theory, with literature, or with life. To quote Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?”

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Geek Love: subverting the carnivalesque and the grotesque

In light of my forthcoming post on Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, I’d like to reblog an older post I had written about Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love.

Geek Love: subverting the carnivalesque and the grotesque

I get glimpses of the horror of normalcy. Each of these innocents on the street is engulfed by a terror of their own ordinariness. They would do anything to be unique.

Arturo Binewski.

Geek Love is so brilliant, so wonderful, that I almost urge you, if you have not read it, not to read on. This is your official Spoiler Alert.

“This thing of darkness I Acknowledge mine.” Prospero, The Tempest 5.1.275-6, the epigraph to Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love.

Everyone has secret desires, lusts, revulsions, curiosities. Everyone has demons and dragons. No one is as isolated as they think, nor are they as connected as they want. No one can escape their bodies.

Everybody poops. Everybody dies.

To each their own.

Grotesque realism is all about this kind of materialist introspection, it’s about degradation, “the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of the earth and body in their indissoluble unity.” (Bakhtin) Powerful images of the humans–often larger or deformed in some way, though not necessarily so–eating, drinking, fucking, menstruating, micturating, and defecating.

“The material bodily principle in grotesque realism is offered in its all-popular festive and utopian aspect. The comic, social, and bodily elements are given here as an indivisible whole. And this whole is gay and gracious.” Bakhtin.

Mikhail Bakhtin developed his theory in his study of Rabelais. Bakhtin thinks that in order to understand Rabelais, one must reconstruct their aesthetic and ideological perceptions by entering and elevating the bawdy, chaotic world of folk humor, in other words, toilet humor. This subversion and liberation has its roots in the carnival, where social hierarchies are overturned, where the fool is wise, and a king is no better than a beggar. Opposites comingle, everyone is included.

The carnivalesque is a joyous event. Festive and utopian.

“Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all people. While the carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time, life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal sprit; it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world’s revival and renewal, in which all take part.” Bakhtin.

Ideally, it is vividly felt as an escape from the usual official way of life.

But what if the carnival is your official way of life?

The Binewski’s live behind the glitz, behind the flashing lights. They work hard to be festive, to create gaiety and illusions of hope. To them, the sacred occasion of carnivalesque, the light poetic humor that serves as a beacon from the unbearable weight of drab everyday existence, is itself profane and barren, just like everything else.

The happiness that Oly has in it is the happiness she has in her family, in her love.

“A carnival in daylight is an unfinished beast, anyway. Rain makes it a ghost. The wheezing music from the empty, motionless rides in a soggy, rained-out afternoon midway always hit my chest with a sweet ache. The colored dance of lights in the seeping air flashed the puddles in the sawdust with an oily glamour.” Olympia Binewski.

You can hear the nostalgic ache in her voice contrasted with the decay in her language.

Geek Love opens with Aloysuis Binewski and Lilian Hinchcliff Binewski reminiscing about the times before the children, the day that she decided to geek for him, meaning, she would fling herself into the pit and bite the heads off of chickens. After they were married, to alight the Fabulon circus that Al had inherited, they hatched a plan to breed a family of bona fide freaks. Lil ingests illegal and prescription pills, amphetamines, insecticides, and radioisotopes. She first gives birth to Arturo the Aqua Boy, who has flippers for limbs, then Electra and Iphigenia, the conjoined twins, followed by Olympia, the hunchback albino dwarf, and then Fortunato, a telekinetic, whose appearance is depressingly normal. There were others, who didn’t make it for various, and obvious reasons, who are now floating in jars on display for a moderate price. “Born from normal parents!”

Polishing her late siblings is only one of Oly’s jobs at the Fabulon. She is the useless child, the unmarketable child, but she is also our narrator. The novel oscillates from her childhood on the road, a life lived entirely for Arty, to now, a life lived entirely for her mother and daughter. Though they each know her, as they both live in the same apartment complex as her, neither has any idea of their relation to her.

The novel predominantly takes place at the Fabulon when Oly was a child. This is her story, the Binewski’s story, archived, for her daughter, Miranda.

“In grotesque realism, therefore, the bodily element is deeply positive. It is presented not in a private, egotistic form, severed from the other spheres of life, but as something universal, representing all people.” Bakhtin.

The children’s deformities are not universal, they are unique. The children are proud of their appearance and proud of their family. They are not mere representations to illustrate some satirical truth about Western culture, they each have individual personalities, egos, and desires. They are characters, they have dreams, fears; they love.

The Binewski’s are a traditional nuclear family, with Papa Aloysuis manning the helm, but as soon as Al’s mind shows its first crack the line of power begins to transfer over to his Machiavellian firstborn.

“The material bodily principle is contained not in the biological individual, not in the bourgeois ego, but in the people, a people who are continually growing and renewed. This is why all that is bodily becomes grandiose, exaggerated, immeasurable.” Bakhtin.

As opposed to Arty’s body taking on these qualities, his ego is grandiose, exaggerated, and immeasurable. Stalinist yet Capitalistic. Smothering, exiling anyone who stands in his way, Arty’s act soon bourgeons into a self-help act, a personified greeting card. He becomes a sort of soothsayer with an inflated sense of superiority. An evangelist. A charlatan.

“Arty said, ‘We have this advantage, that the norms expect us to be wise. Even a rat’s-ass dwarf got credit for terrible canniness disguised in his foolery. Freaks are like owls, mythed into blinking, bloodless objectivity. The norms figure our contact with their brand of life is shaky. They see us as cut off from temptation and pettiness. Even our hate is grand by their feeble lights. And the more deformed we are, the higher our supposed sanctity.’ ” Olympia Binewski.

He then takes this idea and turns it into a religion. Arturism.

“What Arty wanted the crowds to hear was that they were all hormone-driven insects and probably deserved to be miserable but that he, the Aqua Boy, could really feel for them because he was in much better shape. That’s what it sounded like to me, but the customers must have been hearing something different because they gobbled it up and seemed to enjoy feeling sorry for themselves. You might figure a mood like that would be bad for the carnival business but it worked the opposite way. The crowd streaming out from Arty’s act would plunge deeper into the midway than all the rest, as though cantankerously determined to treat themselves to the joys of junk food and simp twisters to make up for the misery that had just been revealed to them.” Olympia Binewski.

When this kind of megalomania is taken to its logical conclusion, Arturism has thousands of people paying thousands of dollars, leaving their families, everything behind, to follow the carnival, and amputate their limbs one by one. The Admitted wait on the more advanced, and all meditate on the slogan: Peace, Isolation, Purity. They give Arty monikers like His Armlessness.

While Arturism functions like a religion, there is no mention of god or gods (except maybe His Limblessness), and there is no claim to any afterlife. The cult represents itself as offering earthly sanctuary from the aggravations of life. “Arturo knows All Pain, All Shame, and the Remedy!”

Generally, according to Bakhtin, when the grotesque exaggeration is bodily, the leading themes are fertility, growth, and a teeming abundance, but, as we see, the Fabulon’s motto is about deletion, about disappearing, minimizing the physical self, and what that self can do, in order to feel whole, pure, and at ease.

Ironically, when the ultimate goal of Aturism is reached, a lobotomized head sitting atop a torso, one is completely dependent on the help of others, on the more recently Admitted. Given Arty’s complete success manipulating, it’s easy to forget how dependent he is on Oly how much he needs her to be his hands, to be his extra eyes and ears. She does everything for him. After he finds out she’s pregnant, it’s a startling moment, to watch him feebly attempt to attack her with a plunger as the handle keeps slipping from his flipper.

“I stared through my safe green lenses at Arty, gibbering with frustration in his chair because he couldn’t keep a grip on the stick with his flipper even though his belly rolled in crevices of muscle, though he could lift a hundred and fifty pounds with his neck, he still couldn’t hold the stick to hurt me when he needed to.” Olympia Binewski.

Though Oly doesn’t buy into Arturism, she truly loves Arty, to a point beyond masochism, venturing into more sinister realms, and on the one hand, it’s easy to deduce that she craves a normal life with Arty and baby, and each of them would bust at the seams with incestuous happiness, but that life is an impossibility, for if Arty were normal, if Arty returned her love, he wouldn’t be Arty, he wouldn’t be the one she loves.

“Life for me was not like the songs the redheads played. It wasn’t the electric clutch I had seen ten million times in the midway–the toreador girls pumping flags until those bulging-crotched tractor drivers were strung as tight as banjo wire, glinting in the sun. It wasn’t for me, the stammering hilarity of Papa and Lil, or even the helpless, dribbling lust of the Bag Man rocked by the sight of the twins. I have certainly mourned for myself. I have wallowed in grief for the lonesome, deliberate seep of my love into the air like the smell of uneaten popcorn greening to rubbery staleness. In the end I would always pull up with a sense of glory, that loving is the strong side. It’s feeble to be an object. What’s the point of being loved in return, I’d ask myself. To warm my spine in the dark? To change the face in my mirror every morning? It was none of Arty’s business that I loved him. It was my secret ace, like a bluebird tattooed under pubic hair or a ruby tucked up my ass.

Understand, daughter, that the only reason for your existing was as a tribute to your uncle-father. You were meant to love him. I planned to teach you how to serve him and adore him. You would be his monument and his fortress against mortality.

Forgive me. As soon as you arrived I realized that you were worth more than that.” Olympia Binewski.

Her language is so desperate, so wracked with pain that it’s hard not to be moved by this passage, by her immense yearning to love again. With Arty dead, and her mother and Miranda unaware of her identity, she loves in secret, incognito. She follows both of them, protects them from afar. Miranda doesn’t need as much immediate help as Lil, but she is in danger of becoming a full-fledged norm.

Miranda works at a strip club, but a kind of strip club for very particular fetishes, each of the girls there has a little something extraordinary. Miranda has a tail, which drive a great deal of men wild. At work one night she is approached by Miss Lick, who has the eccentric hobby of locating down and out pretty girls and disfiguring them so that they become more than some man’s wife, or, obversely, locating freaks and paying them to become normal. She has offered Miranda a small fortune to remove her tail. This, of course, outrages Oly, and instead of spilling everything to Miranda, explaining why her tail is so important, she decides to befriend and spy on Miss Lick.

“Miss Lick’s purpose is to liberate women who are liable to be exploited by male hungers. These exploitable women are, in Miss Lick’s view, the pretty ones. She feels great pity for them… If all these pretty women could shed the traits that made men want them (their prettiness) then they would no longer depend on their own exploitability but would use their talents and intelligence to become powerful. Miss Lick has great faith in the truth of this theory. She herself is an example of what can be accomplished by one unencumbered by natural beauty. So am I.” Olympia Binewski.

I have heard and I have read that this contemporary story isn’t as interesting as life at the Fabulon, but I do care to differ. It’s an integral part of the thematic whole. Geek Love champions the unique and freaky, the unconventional and the nonconformist, the ugly and deformed. It’s not that all our souls are deformed and our bodies long to reflect our inner ugly, nor is it that our bodies weigh us down, and that in order to be free we must reduce ourselves to drained, dependent nubs, utter impuissance. This is a message of girl power. One that questions what it exactly means to be normal. To have a normal family life. To experience love normally.

And while “normal” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, it’s an indefinable word, it’s a word that relies on an ever-changing society. Basically, it’s a word that only means “majority.”

“ ‘You are so lucky,’ [Miss Lick] said that night. ‘What fools might consider a handicap is actually an enormous gift. What you’ve accomplished with your voice might never have been possible if you’d been normal.’ ” Olympia Binewski.

This certainly isn’t what Bakhtin had in mind for the carnivalesque. This isn’t a jolly Momento mori reminding us that we are our bodies and we will decay, this isn’t another womb/tomb tale. Through Oly’s strange appearance and her unorthodox upbringing, we learn about her existential languor. In the end, I don’t think Oly is a sad character, or a misunderstood character. She is honest, strong, fiercely loyal, and extremely lovable.

In short, I loved every second of this book.

(And there’s so, so much more I didn’t say.)

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The tyranny of pink.

barbie-store-shanghai-china-neon-pink-architectureMy husband:

The tyranny of pink.

Pink is a kind of pre-pubescent white, white that blushes. And, as with every real princess in history, tyranny is the power that lurks behind every principle of feudal purity.

We should resist it as surely as we should resist every other kind of tyranny, and we shouldn’t waste time pretending that it’s all benign. After all, the effects are real and as nefarious as with any other kind of consensus.

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Fat Girl

Though in my last post I talked about the cumbersome baggage I’m lugging around, this post is about the film, Fat Girl, not myself.

Catherine Breillat is my favorite director. This week I’m devouring her films, some for the first time (Fat Girl, Bluebeard (now streaming on Netflix)), some all over again (The Last Mistress, Anatomy of Hell). Breillat’s films are always explicit yet surreptitious. Natural yet philosophical. Audacious. Feminist. Perverse. Delicious. Exceedingly gorgeous. And oh so French.

ImageFat Girl is a story about the relationship between the sharp and hungry Anaïs and her sister, belle du jour, Elena. Anaïs is thirteen, Elena is fifteen. Both are coming into their bodies and trying to understand their sexuality: what it is, how it works, where it should be directed, exposed, displayed, or hidden. Elena falls in love with Fernando, an Italian college student; though, when we meet him, the way the camera angles, the tone of the movie, conventional hopes and tropes dictate that he’ll pursue Anaïs, snubbing the sometimes cruel Elena. Expectations thwarted.

There will be spoilers. You are now officially warned.

One of the things I love about Breillat is that she finds poetry in the ordinary. She’s not afraid to keep the camera, the scene, the characters rolling. Fernando sneaks into Elena and Anaïs’ room. Anaïs pretends to be asleep. From an ignored corner, through her eyes we watch Fernando persuade Elena to give up her virginity. She’s visibly reticent, afraid, and uneasy. As are we. His rapey persistence masquerades as love until finally Elena gives into anal sex, which doesn’t really count everybody’s doing it and besides it’s an act of love. By the time he inserts himself and Elena gives us a couple of anguished cries, I’m twisted and nauseated.

Anaïs’ powerful, beautiful sister has been reduced. Like a charcoal drawing of Icarus falling (to borrow from Swamplandia! (the current book I’m reading)). Anaïs knows this, and behind the typical veil of proscribed passion, I get the feeling Elena does to, or maybe I’m just hoping. But while I hope, Anaïs cries.

The sincere and authentic emotions come from the concealed sleeping girl. (We’ll see later, in Sleeping Beauty, Breillat explores these themes again.)

To the film’s credit, nothing happens to Anaïs. But still, in spite or because of, she is our princess. Boredom is her power. She sings, I get so bored It’s not over yet, swimming back and forth from the pool’s diving board to the ladder, pretending each was her lover. Still curious, still hungry, this fantasy isn’t at all like what happened to Elena. Here, Anaïs is in control. When her lovers become jealous she says, “Women aren’t like bars of soap, you know. They don’t wear away. On the contrary, each lover brings them more, and you get all the benefit.”


But then the ladder says, “You make me sick. How can you disgust me and attract me so much? You’re the one I’ll give it all to.”

Elena’s insecurity comes from being an exchangeable, ordinary body. Anaïs knows her power comes from her body, the same body that renders her invisible, that allows her to watch, to take it all in. This isn’t the body that will be taken down by a boy. She knows a fuck is a fuck. Wise for a thirteen year old. Wiser than her sister. Losing your virginity shouldn’t be about love, and certainly shouldn’t be about forever.

Fernando does end up getting Elena’s virginity. In exchange he gives her his mother’s opal ring, who later comes to the door demanding it back. Pissed, the girls’ mother ends the vacation. They start the long journey home. Everything changes. The mood is grim, sad, foreboding. Elena is crying. Anaïs is whining. The mother, as always, completely ineffectual, is smoking, says, “Your father wants to have you examined.” WTF? To see if she’s still a virgin? Just to make sure she isn’t pregnant? Oh, don’t get me started on the Western father fetishizing his daughter’s purity. UGH.

Speaking of breaking the fourth wall, I love how lecherous these girls are. I’ve never before seen teen sexuality depicted so candidly and honest. I could never imagine an American film with such bravado. Most of our texts pander to the masses, who are (oh so unfortunately) prude sheep, heads buried in the sand, gums flapping all the same.

Much like Elena and Anaïs’ mother who zags in and out of lanes. We already know she hates driving, and also that she’s the type of person who, instead of moving to safety, prefers to pull the covers over her head and clamp her eyes shut, as though sleep will protect her from the storm. She can’t take it anymore. She pulls over to a rest stop to sleep. Bad idea! The tone isn’t right. Something awful is going to happen. Elena gets out to go the bathroom. Alone. TERRIBLE IDEA! But she safely returns and they all go to sleep. My terror subsides and I realize, Breillat wants you to be terrified. The terrain of female sexuality is dangerous. It isn’t all jealous diving boards and mooning ladders, or even douchey law students. You never know when an axe murderer will suddenly charge at you, shatter the windshield, smash your sister’s skull, fondle your mother, then strange her to death before raping you in the forest.


Except during the rape, with her panties in her mouth, Anaïs locks eyes with him, and then they share a moment. She participates. The axe murderer is confused. Off screen, he lets her live. In the next and last scene Anaïs is escorted by the police, telling them she wasn’t raped, and she didn’t care if they believed her or not.

This ending is so unexpected, so brutal and hideous, that you long for something to make sense. Then you remember all those times Anaïs warned Elena to leave love out of losing her virginity, to do it with nobody so you can go on living, so you can go on to love. As this rapist takes Anaïs’ virginity, she looks him in the face, daring him to kill her (because, as she sang earlier, even long after death she’ll still be bored), but also, telling him, that he isn’t taking and she isn’t passively taking it either. This is her fucking show. Go away so she can finally experience it.

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Bad Feminist

Photo on 2012-10-31 at 12.33I’m overweight. At times, this consumes me. Then, immediately thereafter I feel like a bad feminist.

Roxane Gay writes in her article, Bad Feminist:

As Judith Butler writes in her 1988 essay, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution”: “Performing one’s gender wrong initiates a set of punishments both obvious and indirect, and performing it well provides the reassurance that there is an essentialism of gender identity after all.” This tension—the idea that there is a right way to be a woman, a right way to be the most essential woman—is ongoing and pervasive… Butler’s thesis could also apply to feminism. There is an essential feminism, the notion that there are right and wrong ways to be a feminist, and there are consequences for doing feminism wrong.

I know that my figure doesn’t define me. I know it’s not even an indicator of beauty. I’m not supposed to care. I’m not supposed to body snark myself into a dark corner. I’m not supposed to adhere to the narrow and superficial principles of how a woman should look. I’m not supposed to want to ever be objectified. But I do.

Sometimes I feel fucking fantastic. I look at myself in the mirror and fall in love all over again. But then other days I feel like such a pathetic glowworm.

I know I’m supposed to forgive myself: I just had a baby! And I’m still nursing her 16 months later, so I’m hungry, like all the time. Things have been stressful: out of work, flooded with rejection letters, exhausted, moving, temporarily squatting next door to the house where I grew up, back in the neighborhood that displays the scars from my bullied years at Catholic school.

Then I think about Anne Frank. Ivan Denisovich. Ivan Ilyich. Precious. Celie. Ophelia. Sophie Zawistowska. Winston Smith. Catelyn Stark. Esther Greenwood. Chloe from Fight Club. Hecuba.

Then suddenly my suffering isn’t suffering at all.

Allow a moment from Girls.

Adam: “You think that just because you are 11 pounds overweight…”
Hannah: “I am 13 pounds overweight, and it has been awful for me my whole life!”
Adam: “Holy fucking shit. Here’s the world’s smallest, tiny violin playing ‘My Heart Bleeds For You.’ Fuck you! You don’t know struggle…

I’ve lost friends over the illusory bifurcation of feminism, because sometimes I’m on the wrong side. I’m in a heternormative marriage, one on which I’m emotionally dependent.  If we’re fighting, I am not operating at one hundred percent in any other sector of my life. To some, this is a sin. Much like marriage in general. To some, I willingly signed myself into a system that oppresses women. Simone de Beauvoir famously refused to marry Sartre on existential grounds. Because how could she, or he, be free if they belonged to one another? Or, if you like your feminism angrier, Andrea Dworkin says, “Marriage [is] an institution developed from rape as a practice.”

In the end, obviously, I decided one could marry and still be a feminist. I drew some lines though. Our marriage was a joint decision. I am both proud and glad that there was no proposal, no engagement ring, no traditions where I’m put on a pedestal, on display, given a day to feel as pretty as a picture, veiled, dipped in purity, white as a dove, given from one man to the next. Weddings depress me. So we didn’t have one. And I never took his name.

I’m not cursing any women who have done things differently though. (Freedom is the freedom to chose, after all.) For a while I did consider changing my name. We knew we didn’t want to hyphenate our children’s last names (as that would only kick the can further down the road), and we didn’t want to combine our last names into some hideous portmanteau either. I liked the idea of the whole family sharing one name, but my gut told me to keep my own name. So I did.

There, my gut lead me to a decision that made me feel like a good feminist, but now, its prominence, its protrusion is leading me into a double-edged shame spiral. From vanity to fraud, this gut has got to go.

I’ve started running. And while I’ve always exercised here and there, it’s never been regimented, and it was never running, not really. I would do yoga, work the elliptical machine, ride a bike. All indoors. Running outside is a completely different animal. I’ve always wanted to become a runner, to train for a marathon, and whether it was laziness, or smoking, or my migraines, I have always found a reason to discourage myself. Then three things converged.

1. We are temporarily living in my old neighborhood where I grew up. One that I’ve mostly avoided as my parents have long since moved out of the south side. One that unequivocally reminds me of Catholic school and its ignominious end.

2. I’m overweight. More so than usual. And my metabolism is slower than congress.

3. I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.

Now, I run through distant settings, mirages, places full with childhood memories, with fear, shame, and self-pity. With hope and anxiety and immortality. Ethereal scenes made concrete under my crunching, aching feet, thinking about the strain, the sheer physicality of hurling my jiggling body through space, until I crash into a moment, something someone said, something I said, or did, or was done to me. Ghosts of friendships past. Fingers pointing. Whispers. Derisive laughter. Remembering what it feels like to have a rock thrown at your head. The first metallic taste of betrayal. My tendon then gives out. Frustration. Self-pity. Self-loathing. Looking for a way out. To stop. Retreat. Then I just keep going.

The fantasy is that as I run these bad memories will melt away. Not disappear, but that I can run through them, run toward something that resembles healing.

Much like Comic Crit‘s rendition of Strayed’s journey:

wildThis a spiritual journey. Hiking into the blaze of her grief and then right through it. Beating, scraping, blistering, burning her body with every step. In a pair of boots a size too small. Unshowered. Unkempt. Singing to warn off bears. Stomping into the unknown. Feeling weak. Feeling like a hardass motherfucking Amazonian queen.

I want this.

No, I need this. More of this. I want a spiritual revolution. I want to feel like a hardass motherfucking Amazonian queen.

The bullying from Catholic school isn’t on my mind much (meaning, if we hadn’t moved here, it would barely be on my mind at all), but it is the genesis for a great deal of my insecurity. I want to run through the source, then run through the rest. Which includes the guilt over the possibility of being a bad feminist.

I don’t like being fat. Body shaming is bad. But wanting to be healthy is good.

Feminism is complicated. There are so many inherent contradictions, problems, glass ceilings. For instance, wanting female protagonists to be strong warrior types, but then again, complaining when they don’t have these “masculine attributes” could mean that feminine traits are something negative. Hate femininity as it was bestowed or reclaim it? This is what I feel is at the heart of feminism’s polarization.

Later in the essay, Roxane Gay says, “The most significant problem with essential feminism is how it doesn’t allow for the complexities of human experience or individuality.” BAM. That’s it. That’s exactly it.

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Mom, I love you.

cheryl-strayed-wildCheryl Strayed is a badass. I picked up her memoir, Wild, because of her association with Lidia Yuknavitch (they work together in a writing group with Chuck Palahniuk), but also because the premise: lonely girl, grief-stricken and recovering from a dalliance with heroine, decides to heal through hiking the damn near entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail ON HER OWN. This moved me. It slayed me. I would stop, look over at my husband, just to say, again, “On her own! By herself! Here she is getting charged by a moose and I’m losing it because we’re moving, Aria’s Aria*, and I haven’t written in weeks.”

(*My darling, wonderful, happy baby girl is in her terrible twos, and has been for awhile now. She’s 16 months, manipulative, and sharp as the tack she’d shove in her mouth if I would only let her stand on the table long enough to reach them.)

I’ve seen Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (awesome and available to stream on Netflix) and that guy knew his shit. He was a seasoned hiker, knew the bears, trusted them, lived amongst them, AND WAS STILL EATEN BY ONE. I was very worried for Cheryl. But not really, as I know she survived. I was mostly worried for myself, the self that is transported into whatever I’m reading. But I couldn’t take the everyday cowardly self out of this equation. I would love to do something like this. But I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. At least I think I wouldn’t. I once lived on the top of a small mountain in Australia with no electricity or heat or a toilet for a couple of months. I had to sleep under six blankets and walk around at night wearing UGGs to avoid the rats (nice marsupial mountain rats, none of their vicious and filthy and terrifying cousins scurrying down in NYC’s subways). Then, I thought I was tough. Rugged. Agro-chic. Everyday we cranked the generator so I could juice my computer to write, or watch movies, then we’d drive to the town, stock up, and smoke weed and cook over the fire. Basically living in luxury. But this? Hiking the PCT by yourself? as a woman? took the kind of ovarian fortitude I’m trying to cultivate. Cheryl Strayed is impressive. Brave. And her confessional memoir only echoes everything implied in its physical premise.

The event that catalyzed her decision toward self-destruction bent toward self-discovery was the sudden and tragic death of her mother when Cheryl was only 22, that ripe age of existential angst already. Her mother was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer then only lived a couple of months after. This stung. I’m an ex-smoker who occasionally picks the habit back up for a week or two when I’m too stressed and weak and too eager to engage in some private ritual of self-destruction. I was never one to experiment with drugs heavily, most give me a nasty migraine. (Kids, anything that dilates your pupils, also dilates your blood vessels. If you’re predisposed to getting migraines, it’s best to avoid such drugs, or you’ll wind up on acid, in a dark room, accompanied by your demons, maybe literally, basically giving birth through your skull.) That being said, I loved to smoke. Until my hypochondria consumed me and I quit. Now, cigarettes are that ex-lover I just can’t help but occasionally sleep with because he just looks so fucking fine in those dark rimmed glasses.

My mother smokes too. She also gets migraines. On any given visit, one of us has a headache. We use different methods to heal, something that’s a bit of a sore spot. I worry about her. Of course. As she does me.

Not ten pages in and Wild has found my terrors, Strayed has reached inside my chest, beyond my blackened lungs, and threw my heart into my throat. I don’t want to die. I don’t want my mother to die. Especially not without saying everything I have ever wanted to say–needed to say–to her. I don’t want to live my life, drowning in domesticity, not living up to the potential I fantasize about. And then in the end, die, suddenly and in agony, ripping Aria’s mother from her, ripping myself from Aria. GAHHHH. WILD. FUCK. I NEED TO READ YOU RIGHT NOW.

Cheryl, I need your courage.

So I read the first chapter then quit my job. Because, YOLO!

I wanted to write this on Mother’s Day, but again, my evil and indifferent migraines got the best of me. I wanted to write this because I so desperately wanted to write, but I also wanted this to be a kind of ballad to my mother.

I wanted to say, Mom, I know I get on your nerves. I know my decisions often frustrate you, and I know you don’t want me to know this. I wanted to say, that it’s okay. I love you, Mom. I love you so much, but sometimes I can’t relax. I can’t be the silly and affectionate daughter you want. I’m too serious and angry. I want to yell at the world and behead the patriarchy and you want to just have a nice dinner and watch romcoms without me poking holes and complaining about traditional gender roles, and the Bechdel test, and the use of narrative to conform and shape and oppress. I want you to find the things I say interesting, but sometimes I don’t think that you do. I want to be as pretty as you, to have been born with your avian bone structure. I want to hear all about the things you think I don’t want to hear. I want you to write your memoir. I want to destroy anyone who has ever hurt you. I want to spend the day downtown, immersed in being girly: let’s get our hair did, and our nails painted. Let’s go shopping and drink tea and eat tiny layered cakes with even tinier fondant sculpted roses. Let’s watch shitty romcoms with green mud masks and sparkling lavender lemonades. I want to let my guard down.

From Wild:

We were her kids, her comrades, the end of her and the beginning. We took turns riding shotgun with her in the car. “Do I love you this much?” she’d ask us, holding her hands six inches apart. “No,”we’d say with sly smiles. “Do I love you this much?” she’d ask again, and on and on and on, each time moving her hands farther apart. But she would never get there, no matter how wide she stretched her arms. The amount that she loved us was beyond her reach. It could not be qualified or contained. It was the ten thousand things named in the Tao Te Ching’s universe and then ten thousand more. Her love was full-throated and all-encompassing and unadorned. Everyday she blew through her entire reserve.

Scan 113610004

My mother and me.

This is my mother. Quirky and animated with love all-encompassing and unadorned. Whatever complaints about her I’ve ever had, I always knew I was loved. And that is no small thing.

Cheryl Strayed, you’re a badass.

Mom, you can be a badass too, just stop worrying so damn much.

All my love, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

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Excuse me,

Lately I’ve been craving female companionship. As my living situation at the moment is precarious, I’ve substituted books, my paper heroines for flesh and bone people. Still reading Kate Zambreno, I stop: “I find myself afraid, feeling too fucked up to have real friends in my embodied existence.”

That pierces. I’m afraid of making friends. Not light, easy friends, acquaintances, dinner party guests, facebook friends, colleagues, but close friendships, blood sisters. My best friend (that term both huge and pale) lives oceans away, and though ever-thankful for skype, speaking through boxes is not the same. I miss her. I miss laughing with her.

In this respect, she is my opposite. She makes friends easily, within minutes she’s charmed her elbows onto their tables and guiding conversations, while I’m neurotically speaking in waves, sometimes awash in irrelevance, I’ll slip away, often to smoke, except I no longer smoke.

As a kid at Catholic school I was bullied for no reason, though I’m sure there was a reason, I was just not privy to it. I know they hated how dark my arm hair was, and they didn’t like my sexual enthusiasm. How openly boy crazy I was. We were all friends, me and these girls. It was a group of about ten of us, always rotating who was in and who was out pending who couldn’t make the latest sleepover, but ostracism, while still devastating, was only temporary. Then, one day, it was my turn, again, except it never stopped. My clique hated me, then the rest of my grade. Later that year we moved. I was thrown a surprise going away party. They gave me a Precious Moments statue they collectively paid for. It was a cheerleader whose caption read: Cheers to the leader. To this day I have never been more humiliated.

I know this is why I struggle making and maintaining close female friendships. But that’s such a generic and textbook explanation. I’m pathologizing myself. Like I said, I also was completely boy crazy, just nuts for sexual intimacy, so I fluttered in and out of relationships with ease. My high school girlfriends were all the same way. We were close, but we held each other at a distance. In a lot of ways I felt closer to whoever I was dating. I can count on one hand how many times those friends had seen me cry, whereas my lovers had seen me collapse into a puddle on sometimes a daily–or christ–hourly basis. My friends never totally knew what a fucked-up mess of a hysteric I was. How dark and afraid and wild-eyed.

I maintained this Plath-like existence. So vanilla on the outside, wholesome and clean. I shopped at the Gap, wore concealer, exercised. But I was so sad and messy and angry, feverishly scribbling and scratching in my diaries, chain-smoking cigarettes, not giving a fuck while giving all the fucks. I wanted to be Ophelia, I wanted to carry the sexy crazy, but I couldn’t stand the dishes piling up.

Again Zambreno, “We live in a culture that punishes and tries to discipline the messy woman and her body and a literary culture that punishes and disciplines the overtly autobiographical (for being too feminine, too girly, too emotional).”

I do like where literature is going. I like the shift in the feminine identity zeitgeist. I like that there is now a space for messy girls. (There are even goddesses: All hail Dodie Bellamy!) Though there’s still such a long way to go for girls to be seen as serious, for them to feel their stories matter and are not frivolous.

The blogs that I follow, the tumblrs that I follow, I would’ve loved to have immersed myself in this online fucked-up girl culture in high school. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so alienated in my other self, I could’ve found other sad girl ponies with which to frolic.

But, what am I saying. I’m still looking for those sad girl ponies. Meeting friends just never came as easy to me as ensnaring a lover. My best friend says it’s the same, just a different kind of seduction. I still cannot see it.

So much of this also comes from the isolation of parenting a toddler.

I didn’t intend for this post to get so maudlin. I’ve been sifting through my belongings and parting with everything nonessential. The entire process is taxing. I’m both nostalgic and cold, cutting memories off at the knees. I can’t believe there was ever a life before my child. That I existed once as a free agent, attaching and detaching myself to whomever I felt like, with feckless abandon. Yes, I’m nostalgic for that.

But I wouldn’t go back.

Excuse me, I’m now tired and embarrassed. Image

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To break the silence, the silencing.

From Kate Zambreno’s Heroines:

I am beginning to realize that taking the self out of our essays is a form of repression. Taking the self out feels like obeying a gag order–pretending an objectivity where there is nothing objective about the experience of confronting and engaging with and swooning over literature.


Before I read Heroines, I read a lot about Heroines: Bitch ;Necessary Fiction ;Full Stop; Jezebel; The Paris Review; Pank;LA Review of Books;The Daily Beast.

The internet has Heroines covered.

From blog to book about writers as characters: the suppression, the silence, the forced institutionalization of the “mad wives,” the femme fatales, the tragic muses to the modernist literary giants. Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien(ne) Eliot, June Miller, Virginia Woolf, and Zambreno herself.

I align myself with the genealogy of erased women.

These women were pressed into madness, like flowers flattened in books.

I can relate to Zelda, married to a great writer.

I also relate to Zambreno, landlocked in the midwest, feeling as though I’m flailing, failing. Yet inflated with grandeur.

I’ve read the critiques, and I think most of them are bullshit. I couldn’t care less that Zambreno comes off elitist, or pretentious. I like it. I like it because it’s honest. She compares herself to the heroines she studies and she feels pathetic, but also hypocritical as she holds herself to higher standards. This masturbatory text is a brutal self-critique. And I found it brave.

Much like I find Lena Dunham brave. Though differently. (The internet definitely has Girls covered.)

Our blogs serve as legitimizing networks for anger. The rant can be revenge, to get something off our chest about our place in the world. To break the silence, the silencing.

I’m on the edge of a nervous breakdown, hyperbolically speaking. I’ve just recently returned to work (hence the lapse in time between this post and the last) and am still working on the balance between Pods, money, and me. It’s a part-time job, one that I’m lucky to have, but I’m not happy. The money is small, the tasks are small, my worth to the place and to its customers is small. It all makes me feel so small. Not insignificant. Eclipsed. Forgotten. As though I’ve given up on myself and took what was easy. Finances required immediate attention and this fell into my lap. In this economy, I would be a fool, a snob, selfish to pass it up. So I took the job, and now I spend 3-4 days a week away from my daughter. My free time, my writing time is meager.

I miss myself.

So I’m now moody. Surly and stressed and filled with existential loathing.

When life–to construct meaning–is assembled by mood, significance is placed on insignificant things.

I wear my self-hatred. It hangs on me. It’s as though I’m no longer inhabiting my body but am shackled to it. Stupidity then has become concentrated in the pounds I’m still struggling to shed. In public, out from the safety of building blocks and flashcards and Yo Gabba Gabba! in my living room, I feel exposed, ugly, dumb. As though they’re all of a piece.

Right now, I’m a mess.

The desire, sometimes, to throw everything away.

Tomorrow I am packing up my bedroom, but mostly, tomorrow, I am getting rid of a lot of clothes. Clothes I know I will never wear again. Because I am no longer X. Those past selves that have accumulated in my closet. The cheap bar tops. The frayed hemp necklaces. The goal dresses that were too sizes too small when I was in my prime.

Because I’ve been practically the same size since I was 10 (that is, until I quit smoking and made a person), I have clothes from when I was 10.

There are memories in these shirts: The day I quit that job. The day I finally fucked that guy. The day I was arrested. The day I broke up with my best friend.

All of it now: relics, horcruxes. Clothes I can’t wear. Clothes that laugh at me, teasing me, TOO FAT TOO FAT. Your time is over. It’s all yoga pants and hoodies now, both encrusted in puréed carrots and coffee stains of telling sizes. ACCEPT IT.

That booming voice? Yeah, I know it can go fuck itself. But, it does have a point. Those selves, those memories? They’re dead, gone, archived in journals, in dreams, in photos, in my head. I don’t need the fabric to remind me, to mock me. And let’s face it, I could lose all the weight in the world and I’m still too old for that questionable ironic Mickey Mouse sweater.

It’s all unbearable weight.

Tomorrow I’m throwing my clothes away.

(Well, donating or consigning them.)

Just as Zelda burnt all her dresses in the bathtub.

And then I will finish Heroines.

And hopefully write about it.

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Scratching at my Thanatophobia

I’m afraid to die. Terrified, actually. My parents think it’s because I’m an atheist. Though, I was terrified when I was a Catholic too. As a kid, I couldn’t shake the idea that I was going to be trapped inside my body, then buried, surrounded, corroded and forgotten. I would be stuck in my mind, without any further momentum, warts and all.

I am inclined to agree with Christopher Hitchens: that I didn’t become an atheist, but rather, I was always one.

Either way, Heaven sounded just as awful as Hell. So boring and prostrate (a celestial North Korea, Hitchens called it); the exact opposite of what makes life awesome.

To quote Alan Watts, “Nobody wants to be in church forever.”

Yesterday I came across this hauntingly beautiful mash-up video of an Alan Watts recording and the video for “Sometimes the Stars” by The Audreys on Brainpickings (which may be the best blog ever) and found myself very suddenly moved.

(Until I was violently interrupted with an irksome advertisement in the corner…)

Watts’s words were so familiar, and although thinking about death with any kind of empathy and immediacy generally ices my blood, sharing these terrifying thoughts felt deeply human. It’s moments like these where I can peek through and briefly experience what it might be like to not be so afraid. There’s ecstasy in giving up. I guess I’m just not ready to feel completely comfortable with my impermanence. I’ll get there, hopefully.

This video helped a little though, and that is worth sharing.

What’s it gonna be like, dying? To go to sleep and never, never, never wake up.

Well, a lot of things it’s not gonna be like. It’s not going to be like being buried alive. It’s not going to be like being in the darkness forever.

I tell you what — it’s going to be as if you never had existed at all. Not only you, but everything else as well. That just there was never anything, there’s no one to regret it — and there’s no problem.

Well, think about that for a while — it’s kind of a weird feeling when you really think about it, when you really imagine.

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