(This post is being drafted using voice typing on Google Docs. I am using this technology because I broke my dominant wrist and had surgery, and am still recovering. Please excuse any Typos and imperfections!)
In thinking about my friend Gayle Brandeis’ new book, I recalled Joy Williams essay “Why I write” from her book Ill Nature. In the essay, Williams writes, “The good piece of writing startles the reader back into Life. The work– this Other, this other thing– this false life that is even less than the seeming of this lived life, is more than the lived life, too. It is so unreal, so precise, so alarming, really. Good writing never soothes or comforts. It is no prescription, neither is it diversionary, although it can and should enchant while it explodes in the reader’s face. Whenever the writer writes, it’s always three or four or five in the morning in his head. Those horrid hours are the writer’s days and nights when he is writing. The writer doesn’t write for the reader. He doesn’t write for himself, either. He writes to serve… something. Somethingness. The somethingness that is sheltered by the wings of nothingness– those exquisite, enveloping, protecting wings.”
I was thinking about how to talk about my experience of reading the new work of Gayle Brandeis. How these riveting verses accumulate into story, and along the way, yes, enchant, for their lyrical brilliance, and yet still, for their horrifying imagery, explode in my face. Although (please know) they are extremely unsettling and certainly violent, the voices of these (imagined or channeled) victims of Countess Bathory make their impression in part because of the importance of not looking away. The lives of these girls and women, from the perspective of their torturer, were incidental, always a casualty to Bathory’s drive to torture.
The victims survived by adapting. As victims often do. On page 29, Gayle writes,
“We learned to stay upright, to work even when wounds wept beneath our sleeves; we learned to keep our voices down, learned to not look her in the eye; we learned fear becomes another organ in the body, pulsing gall through every vein.”
On page 35, Gayle writes about how the body keeps the score, writes about the words burn, drown, freeze, scald, verbs which were among the methods of torture, how they stay with the spirit even when the body is gone.
“…These words have become something more than words. They have become weapons, ready to get under the surface of you, pry you back open.
Your body remembers even when you no longer have a body.
(some tender part of you still flinches.)
( some immaterial nerves still flare)”
This short, crystalline book is not an easy read. After diving in and becoming quickly engrossed, I was unsure how exactly I would get through it. But I trusted that Gayle–and the survivors’ spirits–would lead toward light. And they did. The victims, so many unnamed survivors, found and picked up their power through making a circle, banding together. And they needed to tell their story. Ghosts need witnesses.
We need to witness.
From page 102,
“It’s fine you don’t know our names now.
You know our testimony.
You know enough to yell “Meat!”
when we call out “Bone?”
if you are listening
(are you still listening?)
You know enough to lay some flesh upon our forgotten skeletons,
to feel the weight of our death inside your own body.
You know enough to remember how alive you are
I am grateful for the reminder, for knowing enough to remember how alive I am, and how lucky.
It was great even through the lens of Orenstein’s preaching to the cliched choir (me). It was great despite how depressing it was to read what inspired the Disney Princess phenomenon–in 2000, a new executive at Disney went to see Disney on Ice, and noticed, to his horror, that the girls wore HOMEMADE princess dresses. In the small gowns, rather than creativity at the hearth, he saw a missed merchandising opportunity. Thus the Disney Princess brand was born. (And now we have girls clad in shiny, generic, made-in-China garb, rather than homespun results of someone’s invention.)
I live in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a bubble like Orenstein’s city of Berkeley, both places relatively more immune to over-the-top materialistic madness than much of the U.S. This book was great because it was reassuring to read someone thinking about how to revolt against the default definition of femininity as only and always about what girls look like rather than what they do. And not only is Orenstein thinking about how to revolt, she’s done her research. She backs up her arguments. As a journalist, she seems responsible in her work. Her credibility as a person in the narrative is crucial to how therapeutic this book was to read. Throughout, she’s grappling in plain view with the same questions other parents are.
It’s overwhelming to consider how to fight the subtle and unsubtle corporate power of entities like Disney. My four-year-old daughter saw the Disney Princess undies at Target, and it’s all she wanted. She could not be easily dissuaded. (I bought them.) The other day at Goodwill, I steered her away from the shelf of half-clad Barbies in the toy section. I lured her to the books, figuring that was safe and we could get out without her wanting to buy yet another “baby.” (She has always loved her “babies” and it’s often a struggle to convince her she has plenty of plastic mouths to feed.) In the book section, she found a shiny pink Barbie book called Little Sisters Keep Out. She does not know what Barbie is, though she’d seen them on the shelf. She saw the book’s cover and said, “It’s a princess book!” Ironically, I had just finished reading Orenstein’s book the night before. I stood there, holding my own literary find–a gorgeous illustrated Aesop’s Fables–and reminded myself I had grown up with Barbies, and I turned out okay. (Yet, like Orenstein, my self esteem was not helped by Barbie, nor by Seventeen Magazine, nor that iconic, tarted-up teen, Brooke Shields.) Like the “I grew up watching too much TV and I turned out okay” argument, my Barbie excuse thins when I think too hard about it. I bought both books, though I refused to read the Barbie book to her. I told her that I didn’t like the kind of story inside it. She said, “I love it.” I told her those kinds of stories say girls can only do certain things, like brush their hair, not run and jump and climb and do fun things like that. “But they go to the playground,” she said. (One picture shows the dolls sitting on swings. She decided she would read the book to her babies. She makes up stories about the plastic dolls in the photos, and we have a compromise.)
Now that we grownups realize what TV does to a young person, or what all-pink-all-the-time (not to mention the focus on how a girl-to-woman looks rather than how she feels) does to the feminine psyche, we have the power (the responsibility!) to make better choices.
For me, all roads lead back to Buffy. A slayer, a killer of demons. Always fashionable, sometimes wearing implausible slaying footwear (but hey, she’s the slayer!) she takes care of herself and by “takes care of herself” I do not mean a pedicure. In a dark alley, Buffy is the one kicking ass. The final paradigm shift of the end of the TV series still makes me cry, every time I think of it:
“From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Who can stand up, will stand up. Every one of you, and girls we’ve never known, and generations to come…they will have strength they never dreamed of, and more than that, they will have each other. Slayers. Every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”
Buffy wasn’t taken seriously at first. She grew from a blonde teen cheerleader to a strong woman who changed the (fictional) world. She spawned a small academic field called Buffy studies. (And yet I found a Buffy dress-up game, where you can change Buffy’s clothing as if she were a paperdoll on the screen. Sigh.) The size of the problem of raising a strong, confident female person amidst well-funded and deeply entrenched corporate sinisterness makes me tired. I have no answers. But Orenstein’s book gave me hope. Maybe parents will read it and meet together, talk about alternatives to the madness. Maybe this kid’s parents read the book. Maybe this kid can help start the revolution.
Maybe we will start making our own costumes again.