Friday, October 08, 2010

if only men read women's literature

[Note: These opinions are my own. I don't consult with others before having them and I don't ask permission before sharing them. This is my prerogative as the owner and writer of this space. Do I really need to say this?]

If only more men read more feminist literature the vast unknown-ness of their wives would be laid bare and life would be less confusing.

During the various ups and downs of watching my family 'find themselves' I'm struck at how hard it is for a woman to break free of social expectations. Like Lucy Honeychurch, my sister is bucking all the expectations of her class, gender, mothering status and perceived orientation and, in the process, making everyone around her freak out. Even I am stunned, watching my sister go through a process that makes me think of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own or Kate Chopin's The Awakening.

Her defiant refusal to remain in her marriage has apparently broken the rules of her little social community. In this community obligation to family (including friends) and church supercedes anything else, no matter if you're dying inside. But now, suddenly, relationships and identities are thrown into upheaval, children are endangered and all of morality has been upended and requires defense. Justifications must be made, core motivations must be plumbed and Someone needs to give a public accounting of how one has Betrayed Everyone.

Certainly, there was a betrayal. But which comes first? The betrayal of vows, or the desperate scramble for air that prompts the betrayal of vows? My brother in law asked me if I thought it was 'ok' that my sister did what she did. But I don't think in those terms. I try to put myself in her shoes and imagine what could have been done to facilitate the most immediate break in a marriage, deliver the greatest shock and bring things to an inevitable, and irreparable, conclusion. And then my sister's actions make sense.

But it doesn't make sense to the male members of her community. Their reactions are interesting. I think hysteria is accurate. There's also a degree of anger, seen especially in their demand for my sister to 'explain herself.'

All because a woman decided she wasn't happy.

What happens when men aren't happy? They can pull a Tiger, flaming out in a collection of hostesses and sleazy text messages. Or they can pull a Pastor C-, pushing everything down, only to release the unhappiness in bursts of furtive vacations. What do women do? We suck it up. We swallow our unhappiness until it turns us into the woman from The Yellow Wallpaper. Or we kill ourselves like Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary.

Again, I don't think men read a lot of 19th century domestic fiction. If they did, women's unhappiness would make a lot more sense.

A patriarchal society always inhibits a woman's autonomy and refuses to see her as an agent with a value system of her own. Her freedom, her independence doesn't exist unless some man authorizes it. And this is what I see. Men (very nice ones) demanding that my sister give an accounting of her actions because they're not satisfied with any of the answers they've received. These aren't bad men - they're just men. In defense of one of their own, they want to reassert control of a situation that she has set in motion.

For this, her journals have been secretly dissected, in an effort to find these answers when the woman herself is standing in front of them, repeating, "I wasn't happy. This wasn't me. I lied from the start. I never wanted any of this - wife, marriage. I was only that other person for everyone else."

Let's go back to literature (where all answers can be found, actually. At least humanist ones.) At the end of A Room With a View, Lucy Honeychurch is living in Florence with George Emerson, isolated from her family, even from her staunchest supporters like Rev. Beebe, because that is the price a woman pays when she betrays all expectations of her.

When a woman has defined for herself what her freedom entails, and she dares to take it, she finds herself cast outside of the castle walls. Imagine the Disney castle gone dark and quiet. The moat is filled and the drawbridge pulled up.

The only thing she has in front of her is the open world.

And it's worth it.


Songbird said...

Thank you for these words.
It was because I started to state my unhappiness that my husband confessed his wrongdoing, not so much because he felt guilty but because he could not maintain the Tiger side of his life if we actually WORKED on our relationship. My decision to question the status quo started an unexpected process. I'm reading things this week that make me wonder if my auto-immune disease was not the 21st century equivalent of "The Yellow Wallpaper."
I admire your sister, and I'm sorry her privacy was violated.

Delia Christina said...

I admire my sister, too. (even though the initial news made me freak a little.)

And I admire you - what a blow. Not to delve into the particulars of your situation, but I'm thinking that your position would put you and my brother in law in the same boat. And so I wonder how you're navigating your emotions?

liza said...

You're right, and yet it's not always true. I think this perfectly encapsulates why literature matters, why art matters: how it can help us make sense of the world. Still: people can read, analyze, and understand, and it can have zero impact on how they live their lives. Take my mom, for instance. She reads Chicana feminist writers, understands and advocates Chicana feminist ideas, and still it changes very little in her behavior--both in how she subjects herself and others to patriarchy and self-denial in the name of the ever-supreme FAMILIA.

Still: you're spot on in your analysis of how and why everyone is freaking out about your sister. She's lucky to have you by her side.

tina said...

How's she doing? I mean, you close with "All that's in front of her is the open world. And it's worth it." Is that where she is, or is that aspirational by you on her behalf? If not yet the former, I don't doubt she'll get there. Brave woman, and lucky to have a sister who SEES her. That can only ease things as the storm runs its course.

Thanks for this. I'm in a place where I'm kind of wondering whether I'm in a Yellow Wallpaper place, which suggests I must be, and I WANT to want to deal with it, so that's a start. I don't foresee shucking a whole skin -- a lot of what's in place in my life really is part of me -- but it's scary to consider really looking in that mirror. (How many metaphors can I throw in here? Let's see ....) Maybe I need to revisit some of those long-ago ladies. Again, thanks.

Em said...

Hi. I lurk here and occasionally comment. Thank you for writing this. I'm in the same kind of situation as your sister as far as I can remember from what you have written before. I hit my late 30's before I understood my sexuality and I was married to a man I deeply loved. I'm in a dark night of the soul experience and your writing this has opened up some lit suggestions that I think might help. My cousin suggested Anna Karenina. I should have lstened to him. Anyway. Today your writing helped a stranger. Thanks again.

Delia Christina said...

@tina - it is aspirational but not necessarily on my sister's behalf. she is, i think, well on her way out into the world that she has chosen.

i wish, but won't presume, that it could be aspirational for all women. even when i am in conversation with women i consider feminist, i am really surprised at how easily some of us fall into the rote expectations society has of us. our talk is still of marriage, of babies, of men. not of US.

you know? so i want that image of a woman with a whole horizon in front of her to be one that all women could carry and not be afraid of it.

Delia Christina said...

@ Em - or Madame Bovary. or Jane Eyre. that one is one of my favorites. she is plain, out of step with everyone around her, stubborn and driven by a deep, internal, ethical compass that belongs to no one.

i love Jane. even the story's too neat ending satisfies me, because Jane 'wins' on her own terms.

thanks for lurking, responding and i hope the dark clears.

Delia Christina said...

@ Liza - you're right; the handy guidebook that lit could provide isn't always there. the catalyst needs to come from the person. catalyst, awareness. a coming alive. an awareness of desire. (not sexual desire but the recognition of something lacking. hey, how lacanian!)

it was telling in one of the earlier conversations with my sister and i was trying to figure out what the heck was going on, she said something like this to me: 'Delia, i read books! i think things! he doesn't read anything!'

it's so textbook, isn't it? reading leading to awareness, leading to emancipation of the subject. it's so...feminist.

Anonymous said...

Ok, your sister has learned to be honest with herself. She probably never wanted to be married. She only did it because like you say, it is the social norm in our society. Marriage is not for everyone, is it? It is something that cannot be enter into lightly by those who think they want a fairy-tale, or an idea. your dad is far behind your sister in learning to be honest with himself. Forgive me for being blunt, but your father lives a lie.He is not honest. I wish your sister well, though. It is only a journey, full of twist and turns,who knows where this will lead her.

Your dad...well.. he hasn't learn to be free yet. They call this Down Low, right?

I see why you are concern for your dad.

Songbird said...

Delia, I think it's different in that my husband had a secret HE knew about for a long time as opposed to discovering something about himself that he then eventually got around to revealing to me. He practiced deceit for some years (I don't know for sure the length of time and have been reluctant to get that specific as my life is in the shredder). I guess where I identify with your brother-in-law is that a freight train hit me and knocked all the breath out of my body.

Delia Christina said...

i'll be praying for the eventual easing of the pain. hang in there.