When I was 19 years old I told my first boyfriend, “I don’t want to wait for you on a cliffside while you go adventuring.”
I often talk in imagery when, frustratingly, I find myself unable to articulate everything I wanted to say. What I wanted to say was that, I didn’t want to just be someone’s wife or caregiver. I didn’t want to be swallowed by the story of a man. I wanted to be an individual, with my own adventures. I’d read stories of the wives who waited. Or more accurately, I read stories of the men that they waited for. Women tended to disappear inbetween the gaps, when mythology and history were being made, and that was my best way of saying that I didn’t want that to happen to me.
I also told him that if we were going to date, I needed to be able to drive off into the desert alone for weeks at a time. I’ve always been a weird kid.
I’ve currently been reading Simone Beauvoir’s book about women, The Second Sex. It’s a slightly dated, but wonderful and complex book about the female experience, and covers a broad variety of the female experience spanning from history, mythology, culture, psychology, and biology. Inside that book I’ve come across many passages of female experience that I had, up until that point, had no idea were universal experience. Here is one of the passages from the book:
“Playing with dirty things is obviously a way of overcoming disgust; this feeling becomes much more important at puberty: the girl is disgusted by her too-carnal body, by menstrual blood, by adults’ sexual practices, by the male she is destined for; she denies it by indulging herself specifically in the familiarity of everything that disgusts her. “Since I have to bleed each month, I prove that my blood does not scare me by drinking that of my cuts. Since I will have to submit myself to a revolting test, why not eat a white worm?” This attitude is affirmed more clearly in self-mutilation, so frequent at this age. The girl gashes her thigh with a razor, burns herself with cigarettes, cuts and scratches herself; so as not to go to a boring garden party, a girl during my youth cut her foot with an ax and had to spend six weeks in bed. These sadomasochistic practices are both an anticipation of the sexual experience and a revolt against it; girls have to undergo these tests, hardening themselves to all possible ordeals and rendering them harmless, including the wedding night. When she puts a slug on her chest, when she swallows a bottle of aspirin, when she wounds herself, the girl is defying her future lover: you will never inflict on me anything more horrible than I inflict on myself.”
I’ve lost count of the ways I’ve tried to harden myself against future suffering. Here I am, at 27 years old, and I am reading this book that makes me feel like I am a stranger to myself. And for the first time, I’m realizing how deficit we are as a species where half of its members have for the most part, been efficiently silenced for the better part of our existence. We don’t need female stories just so that women can feel empowered or capable – it’s for a fundamental reason of why art exists in the first place – so that we can understand ourselves.
When you grow up female, it doesn’t necessarily seem strange that the world is dominated by men. You’re small, and you’re young, and at least for me I had the concept that for the most part the fundamental components of existence made some sort of sense. I grew up in the 90s. I was not told I had to be a housewife. I was told I could be whatever I wanted. And yet – everything important was dominated by men. All presidents are men. Business people are men. I wanted to be a writer. Most writers are men. Most movies, videogames, and books are about men. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? Throughout history, men have been the ones who went out for the purpose of making stories.
And these were many of the stories I learned. Yes, we had Little House on the Prairie and The Babysitter’s Club and Alice in Wonderland, but primarily the stories I was interested in reading – horror, science-fiction, fantasy – were dominated by men.
Of course, we already know this.
It’s one of the reasons that when I wrote We are Wormwood. I’d primarily designed it as a horror novel for girls, about issues that girls faced. Things like puberty, pregnancy, being a woman who didn’t meet up to standards of “femaleness”, mother-daughter rivalries, and trying to come to grips with who you are as a person. Something that for all the novels out there, I wasn’t seeing much of.
Women have grown up on a diet of men’s stories. Men, for the most part, can avoid stories about women, and often do.
Sometimes I think we know their history and trajectory, better than we know our own. From a very young age we’re taught empathy and kindness toward others, to gain an understanding of why people act the way they do, but many of us are still ashamed of our own desires, whether it be for sex or independence, we find it difficult to articulate our needs, and see our bodies as great mysteries.
Many women think they are dying when they first get their period.
It’s something that’s been culled from our stories. I mean, women used to be exiled from temples and sometimes even their family’s homes when they had their menstrual cycles, being deemed as unclean. It was a shameful secret, and you almost never see it written about in literature. And this sort of secrecy carries over into other things that are inherently female. As you can imagine, this creates psychological problems. Beauvoir writes:
“Every young girl carries in her all sorts of ridiculous fears that she barely dares to admit to herself. One would not believe how many young girls suffer from the obsession of being physically abnormal and torment themselves secretly because they cannot be sure of being normally constructed. One young girl, for example, believed that her “lower opening” was not in the right place.”
I too, often thought my body was hideously deformed, that my breasts didn’t develop right, that my vagina was infected or that my appearance was something monstrous. Little did I know that many girls were walking around who secretly harbored the same thoughts.
We’re never going to get back those stories that we lost about ourselves.
I want that to sink in. I want the gravity of that sentence to truly reverberate. We are NEVER going to get those stories back that we lost about ourselves.
We aren’t going to unearth any epic novels about the adventures of the wife that the knight left behind, the young girl who has to deal with the complications of being married off to a feudal lord, or the Native American kidnapped by Englishman. We’ll never know what it’s like to be Kalypso, living on a lonely island without Odysseus, or to have a grand ballad about living as a prostitute.
When we are introduced into literature, we’re often mysterious, graceful, epitomized, and clean. We’re side-pieces, escorts, and romantic interests. Rarely do we bleed in ungraceful ways. And because of that, we lose the richness of being actual characters.
For several years I’ve struggled with how I feel about feminism, and how I want to relate to other women and my own “female” experience. I cannot be merely human – I must also be female, and that carries with it its own weight, its own expectations, its own history and mysteries. As a writer, I want to begin to explore what this means through our narratives, and how that shapes how we define ourselves.
I don’t want to wait on the cliffside – but what of the women who did? What were their stories? It’d be foolish of me to think that their inner world and thoughts do not have the capacity to be as rich as my own, and that the stories they have to tell would not enrich my understanding of myself.
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