Sick: A Memoir By Porochista Khakpour
New York, NY; Harper Perennial, 2018, 272 pages, $15.99, paperback
Reviewed by Julia Berner-Tobin
The best memoirs about trauma are never just about the injury itself. Ghostbelly (2014) is about stifling Western attitudes toward birth, death, and mourning told through Elizabeth Heineman’s struggle to grieve her stillborn son. When Breath Becomes Air (2016) ponders mortality and time explored through the story of Paul Kalanithi’s diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. Jana Leo's Rape New York (2011) is about racialized city planning, architectural theory, and the criminal justice system anchored in the story of Leo’s own rape.
But Porochista Khakpour ’s new book, Sick, is about Porochista being sick. It details the mysterious and severe physical pain she endured after years of wrong calls before finally receiving a correct diagnosis of late-stage Lyme disease. It’s about her body—where it went, who it slept with, what it felt when it came in contact with ecstasy, benzos, a cigarette; about her eyesight that comes and goes and creates “hyperglycemia-diabetes-cancer-AIDSgodknowswhatIhave” stars in her vision when she stands. How her spine goes into shocks when it’s at rest. Excerpts from emails to friends provide revealing details: “I have increased salivation and gum bleeding, weird heart rate and blood pressure and dizziness and disorientation ... if candida was detected in the blood, then is this sepsis?”
It’s feverish and frantic. Each chapter is just long enough to establish who she was dating, where she was living, and what she was taking. There’s New York, LA, Santa Fe, Germany, Chicago, Jacob, Alexander, Ryan, Jerry, Cameron, Xanax, Paxil, Celexa, Ambien, Neurotonin.
But each place, person, or drug fails to make her better. She has always been sick. She writes, “I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t in some sort of physical pain or mental pain, but usually both.” Khakpour was born in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War following just a few years later. To escape the turmoil, her parents moved their family to the US when she was five. They lived close to a suburb of LA nicknamed “Tehrangeles,” but she never felt at home in California and found her own escape in a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. There, like so many New York liberal arts freshmen, she immediately started smoking cigarettes, dressing all in black, and using drugs.
“The best parts of Sick are about drugs. She’s honest about her desire to alter her physical state using means she can control.”
The best parts of Sick are about drugs. She’s honest about her desire to alter her physical state using means she can control. Here her writing is sharp and personal, switching to second person so there’s more space to enter into these moments. “Drugs make holes so they can fill them for you later,” she writes. Then, later “If you know a part of you is always dying, taking charge of that dying has a feeling of empowerment. My body goes against me often, so what if I put it through that myself?” Her descriptions of getting ahead of some of the inevitable pain—emotional or physical—is relatable.
The emotional pain caused from being sick is tied in with emotional pain caused by her many boyfriends, the characters who serve as witnesses to her body’s ups and downs. I’m a fan of romantic novels, so I was surprised at myself for wanting less of these lovers, with whom we rarely get beyond the surface-level. They bleed into each other, distinct more for the time they came into Khakpour ’s life than their own discernible characteristics. Though she does reflect on how her identity as a sick person defines these relationships and raises the stakes—“I liked that there was danger involved with me, that I was someone people could lose”—she could’ve delved deeper into the role of the caretaker: how those people can make and fill holes in a sick body just like drugs, and how caretakers can define themselves by the job of keeping their loved one from falling apart. Khakpour provokes many interesting questions like this throughout Sick, but they’re often asides, given a back seat to the details and facts of what happened, when.
I loved this book before I started it. I loved that the whole thing is dedicated to the story of her body. The premise is so brave, and I felt in awe of her fearlessness at the start. All these things happen to her physically, but there’s still a thinking person, a writer, attached to this body that is falling apart. So tell us, writer, what that’s like. I opened the book wanting—I knew my (often falling apart) body had never been given someone else’s story to find itself in; I wanted this to be it.
I found many points of connection. At thirteen, after months of feeling strange and horrible I, like Khakpour and many other women, was given a misdiagnosis of anorexia when there was much more wrong with me. Next, again like Khakpour and many other women, the diagnosis was psychological issues. Then finally, correctly, I was given a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease at fifteen. After the diagnosis there were years of medication, trying different combinations of steroids and immunosuppressants that gave me their own range of difficult-to-deal-with and at times nearly impossible symptoms. Like Khakpour, I felt my personality change with drugs, steroids giving me anxiety and strong mood swings, emotions I was confused by. But the drugs allowed me to go to school and graduate on time with grades that were good enough. Now, like Khakpour, after what I hope is the worst of it, I pretend my body isn’t sick at all, taking medicine only sporadically, drinking, smoking, and eating what I want. And this behavior does make me sick, but sometimes the indulgence is worth the sickness.
I know it’s an unfair thing to bring to a memoir, my desire to unlock or loosen the disassociation I feel with my own sickness, to read a book in the hope it will make me take better care of myself after some enlightenment brought about by connecting to someone else’s story. But it only feels so unfair to me because she was so sick, because she wasn’t taken seriously or listened to, I feel I have to. I don’t want to critique her because women are critiqued for their pain too much.
I worry that it’s also unfair to ask for a narrative arc from a body that’s defined by holes and stops and starts and wrongness. Khakpour addresses it herself in the epilogue, she explains that Sick “didn’t believe in my bows, my full circles, my petty arcs, my character development.” But what was there was not enough to hold onto or dive into or find myself in.
I left Sick on the table when I was out with a guy friend and he said, “God, we need to get you something else to read, not this depressing stuff.” I felt immediately defensive. “Everyone loves reading about depressing stuff,” thinking of A Little Life; Sing, Unburied, Sing; H Is for Hawk—all enormously bleak and critically acclaimed. “What do you mean?” And he looked down at the cover with the pills and her face with an oxygen tube in her nose, and said, “not this kind of depressing.” He meant physical pain and disability aren’t the kind of stories people want to hear. But I did.
This book reads like she worked through real personal trauma in its writing. I felt her catharsis at its finish, and that is the payoff. And it’s not unsubstantial after seeing her go through what she did in these pages. A section of self-analysis spoke to the feel and intention of the memoir itself. “I wrote ... as a person who could not be helped, who knew this, who could live with just being heard, a sign of being alive somehow, perhaps.” Her individual suffering is now out there in the world, and that changes it, and I’d argue (from the way the writing speeds up at the end) releases it. So reading this was never about me and my sickness, it was about me as a witness to what happened to Khakpour and her body. Sick was her catharsis. Her individual suffering is now out in the world. I can feel that release, and the satisfaction of unburdening some of her pain.
In the spring 2014 issue of VQR, Leslie Jamison wrote a much-discussed essay called “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” In it, she argues that a “cry for attention is positioned as a crime, as if attention were inherently a selfish thing to want. But isn’t wanting attention one of the most fundamental traits of being human—and isn’t granting it one of the most important gifts we can ever give?” And that is what Sick is. It’s an account of pain for the gift of an audience. She didn’t have a listening audience throughout her illness—instead, she faced consistent deafness from the medical community, and often her friends and family—so she found her listeners by writing this memoir.
Women aren’t supposed to write about their pain unless it’s sexy. Pain because of a lover is sexy, madness-pain can be intoxicating—but pain because of an illness is unwelcome, perceived as imagined, irritating, gross. Khakpour wrote about it anyway. And in a publishing landscape that says no to many stories about this other, unsexy kind of pain, the existence of Sick is a really big deal.
Julia Berner-Tobin is the managing editor of Grove Atlantic.
Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory By Griselda Pollock
New Haven, CT; Yale University Press, 2018, $60.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Tahneer Oksman
What desire shapes our scholarship?” Feminist art historian Griselda Pollock poses this question in the preface to her tour de force study of Berlin-born artist Charlotte Salomon’s masterpiece, Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?). Salomon, who was born into a Jewish family in Germany in 1917, exiled to France in 1938, and gassed to death in Auschwitz in October 1943, when she was five months pregnant, created her uncategorizable magnum opus—ultimately consisting of 769 paintings and fifteen additional pages of painted words selected from over 1,000 gouaches—from late 1940 to early 1942. Pollock describes Salomon’s work as “one of the most challenging, enigmatic and demanding artworks of the twentieth century”; her record of sitting for years with the incredible story told in words and images proves it. As she explains in a note appended to the preface, “A Word of Personal Explanation,” she spent more than fifteen years preparing to write this book, lecturing, researching, and touring, interviewing and discussing, thinking and writing. After two earlier failed attempts at addressing, in a full-length monograph, an artwork that “transgresses our existing categories of knowledge” and an undertaking that “calls for another mode of writing,” Pollock has finally completed Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory.
Pollock is not the first to find herself taken in for prolonged periods by Salomon’s legacy. As her contemporary, Jacqueline Rose, writes in Women in Dark Times, “You do not exactly look at, or read, Life? or Theatre? You enter into its world.” Other critics, scholars, and historians to submerge themselves in this incredible work, and its attendant, eventually annihilating, historical moment, include the historian Mary Lowenthal Felstiner. Her influential 1994 biography, To Paint Her Life—what she describes as a “personified history”—was the culmination of over ten years of research. Felstiner ’s book itself was partly made possible by Judith Belinfante (director of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam from 1976 to 1998), and her assistant, Eva Orenstein. Having acquired Salomon’s archive for the museum in 1971, the pair spent almost two months laying out all of Salomon’s pages on the floors of an empty house and trying to make sense and order of the hundreds of paintings, some double-sided and many including overlays. While the exact structure of the visual narrative will always remain indefinite (and, to make things more unwieldy still, particularly when it comes to exhibitions, many of the images reference suggested musical accompaniments), it is largely due to these women’s efforts that scholars, artists, novelists, filmmakers, and lay-audiences can find themselves in proximity to the work.
In 2017, in the wake of its burgeoning accessibility, Overlook Press published the full narrative in English, and Salomon’s achievement has spawned a number of inspired texts. These include movies (two by Dutch director Frans Weisz), plays, art and literary criticism, additional historical inquiries, and a 2014 prize-winning novel, titled, simply, Charlotte, by French writer David Foenkinos. But Pollock does not regard all afterlives of Life? or Theatre? to be worthy of her analysis. (“I couldn’t read it,” she says of Foenkinos’s book.) Partway through the novel, Foenkinos’s narrator encounters Salomon’s artwork in Berlin, and he experiences “the feeling of having finally found what I was looking for. The unexpected climax to all my vague longings.” Pollock’s intervention is a direct response to those, like Foenkinos, via his narrator, who reduce the artwork to its “authorial centre” or “read through one dominant frame of analysis”—those readers, in other words, that confuse artistry for confession, that overlay Salomon’s life—and death—upon her art, obscuring its constitution, the exceptional coordination of philosophies, constructed affects, and aesthetics that is Life? or Theatre?
Pollock insists that “Life? or Theatre? is not a narrative of what happened.” She connects this slippage between biography and work, a common and often gendered blunder that, for instance, leads many to refer to women authors and artists by their first names and to read their works primarily through the lens of biography. “I can see why it is so much easier to ask and then imagine
“Pollock's intervention is a direct response to those who reduce the artwork to its “authorial centre” or “read through one dominant frame of analysis.”
‘who Charlotte Salomon is’ than it is to seek to know ‘what Leben? oder Theater? is,’” Pollack concedes. How then does one approach this complicated and important work that is so entrenched in its own history, a great artwork whose existence is as improbable as its craft is astonishing?
Pollock’s rich, provocative, and complicated study is built from a prologue and introduction followed by twelve chapters, each of which employs an individual image as a starting point to tackle this important modernist work from different but connective angles. She looks not only to the individual pieces in themselves, the works of art, music, philosophy, film, and literature that they dexterously reference, the architecture of each word-image construction, but also to the way the narrative as a whole coheres, the different visual and lyrical rhymes and rhythms that cycle throughout the prodigious, densely packed text.
One chapter, for example, opens with a spectacularly bright and fluid image depicting Salomon’s protagonist, Charlotte Knarre, painted in several different configurations while working at her easel. Pollock notes the signifiers referenced in these images—Van Gogh’s boots and sunflowers, Cézanne’s fruit and water jugs—and she draws parallels to a series of images depicting Knarre doing artwork at a desk, details culled from a variety of scenes. The images are brought together in service of this exploration of becoming an artist in these particular circumstances, of a Jew coming of age and diving into her calling, first during the Weimar years and then in the midst of the rise of the National Socialist Party. “What was it to be Jewish and a woman entering the field of art at the moment at which modernist art—identified with Van Gogh, Cézanne, Munch, Modigliani, Chagall, Nolde and Picasso ... would be outlawed?” Beginning with these investigations into the work itself, Pollock is able to extend outward, to examine, in this case, the two famous art exhibitions, one opening in Munich in 1937, the next opening a day later in Berlin, that set the stage for what the Nazis hoped would be an “aesthetic revolution.” Pollock turns to mirror a Vincent Van Gogh painting alongside a detail from one of Salomon’s paintings, allowing us to see, in this conjunction, not only the ways that the referenced works of art can help us read Salomon, but, perhaps more compellingly, how Salomon can help us reread these canonical figures of art history. As Pollock describes,
That an artist ... could appropriate as a possible position for her own creative defiance not only the inventiveness of Van Gogh’s psychologization of space but also the tenacious restaging of remembered places figured through an untrained but intuitively creative freedom with color and drawing helps us create different questions to ask of modernist painting and to map out different pathways through its many possibilities.
In Pollock’s hands, Salomon’s Life? or Theatre? becomes more than a work of Holocaust memorialization, or a testament to Jewish life in Germany during those troubled times (what Pollock calls “before Auschwitz”), or a personal history put down on paper. Instead, she unframes the work, to unmask its dynamism, to call attention to its force as an uncategorizable, deeply complicated construction. “The artist invented a form of art,” she persuasively argues.
Salomon’s work is built around an uncannily disastrous narrative. The text is the story of Charlotte Knarre’s learning, in the wake of witnessing firsthand her grandmother’s death by suicide, that a number of deaths in her family history also happened in this way. Though she had been told as a child that her mother died of influenza, she finds out, while living in exile in France with her grandparents, that her mother and the aunt that she was named after both also died by suicide, among others in the family. In fact, the work opens with the young painter imagining these early scenes for herself. “Salomon invented a theatre of memory,” Pollock writes, explaining that these were “not memories of, but memory for, those otherwise unremembered.” Pollock sees the work, in the end, as situated somewhere between what she calls “the Event and the Everyday,” bounded by “a philosophy of life-affirmation through creativity and music and an interrogation of the fragility of gendered subjectivities within the domestic realm.” The two are inextricably entwined, and Pollock imagines this interrogation as the occasion through which Salomon-the-artist potentially learns to see through the cracks of a henceforth mysterious, and disguised, family history, a space where it becomes possible to grasp the ways in which individual stories conjoin (in complex and often difficult-to-bear ways) with broader familial, political, and cultural narratives and networks.
About halfway through Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory, in the space of a chapter focused on what Pollock describes as “after affects,” a chapter focused on the images in Life? or Theatre? in which the artist reimagines, in graphic detail, her own mother’s death by suicide, Pollock suddenly and unexpectedly engages with the desires behind her own scholarly endeavor. “I have been drawn to Leben? oder Theatre? for many reasons,” she writes. “One compelling factor is a long-standing personal and scholarly interest in maternal loss.” Though seemingly buried in her meticulous and painstaking analysis of the text, Pollock’s admission, once revealed, echoes back through the book; it seems she has been reading, just like the artist had once been painting, in order to know what she can never fully know, to explore the inexplicable absences haunting her world. In Darcy C. Buerkle’s vast and similarly affecting book of scholarship, Nothing Happened: Charlotte Salomon and an Archive of Suicide, published in 2013, a work that reads Life? or Theatre? in the context of the history of suicide in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Buerkle connects survivors of suicide with those more generally who immerse themselves in what has passed. “Implicit in the question of suicide and the study of the past,” Buerkle writes, “is a desire to answer the question ‘why,’ to identify cause.” Can exploring a particular artwork fulfill our need to approach the persistent unknowing that ultimately haunts us, whether or not we acknowledge its power over us? Pollock’s book suggests that in the attempt we can find a way not out of, but perhaps beyond, our longing to know.
Tahneer Oksman is an Assistant Professor of Academic Writing at Marymount Manhattan College. She is the author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs (Columbia University Press, 2016), and the co-editor, with Seamus O’Malley, of the forthcoming anthology, The Comics of Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell: A Place Inside Yourself (University Press of Mississippi, 2018).
Intoxication and Its Aftermath By Leslie Jamison
New York, NY; Little, Brown; 2018, 544 pp., $30.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Ariel Gore
Imagine an AA meeting crowded with all the famously drunk living and dead scribes you’ve ever romanticized:
Hunter S Thompson
And on and on . . .
Hello, My Name is Raymond Carver, and I’m an alcoholic. Hi Raymond!
This is the experience of reading The Recovering, Leslie Jamison’s sweeping new research-based memoir. Ambitious and scholarly (there are more than 50 pages of notes following the text), The Recovering grapples with that tangled relationship between writers and their drinks. It’s part memoir, part literary biography, and part profile of the enduring power and somehow transcendent properties of “the program.”
The book begins with Jamison’s own decent into alcoholism. At 21, after graduating from Harvard, an insecure Jamison (with a heart condition and a penchant for cutting) moves to Iowa City to attend the famed writers workshop. “In Iowa,” she writes, “I spent my days reading dead drunk poets and my nights trying to sleep with live ones. I love-groped my way through the future canon. I was drawn to the same unhinged sparks of luminous chaos that had animated the old legends. I idolized the iconic drunk writers because I understood their drinking as proof of extreme interior weather, volatile and authentic.”
“Iowa” culture, we learn, is intergenerational and alcohol-fueled—there is the fiction bar (a double-wide trailer), not to be confused with the poetry bar (neon Schlitz sign) and many, many pot-lucks with whiskey and wine. The promise of drugs and alcohol for the writer is that inebriation will put us in touch with the truth—even bleak truths—and keep us enthralled enough to write significant prose. Writers drink, at least in part, with the idea that drinking is going to help our work: We’ll be able to go deeper, write faster, stay up later, and maybe—that last shot promises— reach some kind of mystical breakthrough. (The cultural connection between drinking and writing is so deeply ingrained that the alt country band Freakwater felt it necessary to issue a public service announcement in the mid 1990s: “Everyone who gets drunk,” they twanged, “will not write a good book.”) After five years, it becomes clear even to Jamison that drinking-until-sheblacks- out-every-night-even-when-it-clashes-withher- heart-medication isn’t exactly sustainable—and might not even yield her a good book. At this point, Jamison turns, like millions before her, to Alcoholics Anonymous.
And so it is that the tension of the narrative comes to includes the narrative itself: “I wanted to know if stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart,” she writes. While the scope of The Recovering is broad—and ambitious—enough to include all kinds of experiences with addiction, the book focuses on the connection between “whisky and ink”—on the subset of alcoholics whose drinking has been wrapped up in some way with their creativity, so that the terror of sobriety includes the fear that they’ll never work again. In some ways, that tension becomes the thread of suspense, too. We know going into The Recovering that Jamison has survived, and that, at 35, she must be secure enough in her sobriety to tempt the fates with a 544-page tome about it, but ... Will it be any good?
Evidence of this very anxiety riddles the literary landscape, as Jamison makes clear with deep profiles on various famous and obscure writers. For example, when Stephen King wrote The Shining, he was drinking beer and snorting coke like a fiend. It was, Jamison points out, “a nightmare written by an addict terrified of sobriety.” “I was afraid,” King acknowledged years later, “that I wouldn’t be able to work anymore if I quit drinking and drugging.” Denis Johnson, another drunk writer Jamison brings into her AA-meeting-of-a-book, remarks it is “typical of people who feel artistic” to dread sobriety.
The picture Jamison paints of herself at her most addicted is less evocative of the romantic, truthfacing scribe capturing unhinged sparks of luminous chaos than it is, well, a portrait of someone clearly gifted, but kind of self-absorbed and irritating. During a particularly drunken summer in Bolivia, Jamison’s then-boyfriend comes to visit her. She unceremoniously dumps him in a humid motel in a small Amazonian village. When he gets back home, he writes to say he got sick on the way. She responds with an email “that spent about three sentences saying, I hope you are okay. Drink water. I am imagining your fever, and about twenty-three sentences saying, I really think I have a botfly maggot living in me.”
Maybe she didn’t have so much to lose, either. But the creative results weren’t instantly inspiring. Midbook, Jamison laments, “Sobriety was shaping up to hold precisely the blankness I’d feared it would.” Not a nightmare so much as a bore. And this dullness, this common feeling, was her nightmare.
As an aspiring author, Jamison had been taught uniqueness that made her stories interesting. “Cliché” is not a word any writer wants to see scrawled in the margins of her prose, thus AA is a sort of hell for the editor or writer. It’s full of clichés:
“Every recovery begins with one sober hour.”
“Let go and let God.”
“My worst day sober is better than my best day drinking.”
“You’re only as sick as your secrets.”
“Have an attitude of gratitude.”
It’s enough to make your head explode—or send you running straight from the metal folding chair of the church basement to the cracked barstool in the brick-walled tavern at the end of the alley. “The insistence on simplicity seemed like part of AA’s larger insistence that we were all the same,” Jamison writes, “which was basically a way of saying fuck you to my entire value system.” It’s almost unbearable to sit through those clichés and those endless stories, but (amazingly) you can bear it and, eventually, it works. In recovery, Jamison slowly learns the value of the “we.” Because unlike literary theory, part of recovery theory rests in helping us see that we’re just like everybody else.
The Recovering is impressively and deeply reported. It’s expansive. If you start reading on the first day of your sobriety, you’ll likely be through the hard part when you reach the end. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise when, towards the end of the book, Jamison mentions that “creativity and sobriety” are the topic of her doctorate research. She submitted her Yale dissertation, “The Recovered: Addiction and Sincerity in 20th Century American Literature” in May of 2016. Given her capacity for rigor, I was surprised at how little of the narrative focused on gender, but Jamison’s portrait of the writer Jean Rhys—drunk even when her infant son died in the hospital—does remind us that our romantic cultural image of the soused writer is indeed gendered. Jamison writes, “If the mythic male drunk manages a thrilling abandon— the reckless, self-destructive pursuit of truth—his female counterpart is more often understood as guilty of abandonment, the crime of failing at care.”
Jamison’s analysis of race and socio-economic standing goes deeper. As an intellectual-class white female, Jamison can see that the culture treats her as a victim while women of color and poor women— and men of color and poor men—are feared, demonized, and brutally punished. But when she writes about a woman named Marcia Powell who, as “prisoner 109416,” was literally cooked alive in a cage in the desert where she had been sent for a minor disciplinary infraction, the implied empathy and solidarity doesn’t quite land. Marcia Powell had been originally sent to jail for solicitation— prostitution that had been supporting her meth addiction. Powell died in 2009, the same year Jamison got sober for the first time. Jamison writes,
While she was in a cage in the middle of the desert, I was getting welcomed into church basements, handed poker chips, bombarded with phone numbers … in the world where Marcia Powell died in the desert, where Melanie Green faced a grand jury for being a pregnant addict, where Jennifer Johnson was initially convicted of delivering a controlled substance to her own child, where George Cain got a gun pulled on him in a doctor’s office, where Billie Holiday died handcuffed to a hospital bed—in this world, the story of my drinking is not a private story.... My story included a woman who died in a cage in the desert, or her story included me, and not just because of my guilt—the guilt of my privilege, or my survival—but because we both put things in our bodies to change how we felt.
It’s easy to forget that Prisoner 109416 and I are part of the same story, because we have been granted the right to tell very different tales about our pain.
She is more successful in her gorgeous recovering of many of those fabled blitzed scribes who’ve spent time in Iowa City. In her hands, Raymond Carver becomes one higher power that redeems the cliché of the drunken writer, for Jamison and, by extension, for the reader. She reveals that after that most famous denizen of the Iowa Writers Workshop world got sober, Carver viewed his own writing as something that happened despite—not because of—the chaos of his addiction. Her stories of another star of Iowa, Denis Johnson—she calls Jesus Son “our bible of beauty and damage”—also points to the inevitability of alcoholism and recovery. “It seems there are two kinds of American writers,” a young fan wrote to the author Denis Johnson in 1996, “Those who drink, and those who used to.” In this book, though, we learn that Johnson had only written a couple of stories and a handful of poems in his decade-long bender; Jesus Son itself was written after he stopped drinking.
Jamison has looked at being an author from both sides now. Her first novel, The Gin Closet, written before she got sober for good, tells the story of a young New Yorker who goes looking for an estranged aunt and finds the woman drinking herself to death in a trailer in Nevada. The Gin Closet was well reviewed, but it was her second book, The Empathy Exams, essays largely written after her sobriety, that established Jamison as a rising literary star. Her special brilliance wasn’t linked to the alchemical transformations of booze.
As for fearing repetition and clichés, in recovery Jamison ultimately posits that, “our stories were valuable because of this redundancy, not despite it. Originality wasn’t the ideal, and beauty wasn’t the point.” This “we,” after all, unplugs us from the narcissism and the self-loathing of being a drunk— as well as that of being a writer. Throughout all of the scenes in Iowa, we see writers who thought that they were connecting when they drank, but it was in waking up from their delusions of grandeur and failure that they recognize a true “we.”
Herein lies the brilliance of The Recovering: By braiding multiple experiences and teasing out the differences between them as well as allowing for the chorus of their similarities, Jamison creates, astonishingly, a story we really haven’t heard before. One in which we come to understand that our stories are valuable both because we’re unique, and because we’re just like everybody else.
Ariel Gore is the author of ten books including, most recently, We Were Witches.
The Female Persuasion By Meg Wolitzer
New York, NY; Riverhead, 2018, 464 pp., $28, hardcoverr
Reviewed by Kate Schatz
In March of 2012, novelist Meg Wolitzer wrote an essay for the New York Times Book Review titled “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women.” The title, of course, is a nod to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex; the essay itself calls out the literary establishment for the sexism inherent in everything from book covers to word count. Wolitzer opens with a pointed question: “If The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention? Or would this novel (which I loved) have been relegated to ‘Women’s Fiction,’ that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated?”
As evidence, she pointed to “the presence of a female protagonist, the gracefulness, the sometimes nostalgic tone and the relationship-heavy nature of the book.” Further in, Wolitzer contrasts wistful “women’s fiction” book covers featuring “a pair of shoes on the beach” with “the typeface-only jacket of Chad Harbach’s novel, The Art of Fielding, or the jumbo lettering on The Corrections.” These latter covers, according to a book publicist Wolitzer spoke with, “tell the readers, ‘This book is an event.’”
The Female Persuasion, Wolitzer’s eleventh novel, is an event, with the jumbo lettering and bright, bold cover (nesting triangles that look somewhat like a Judy Chicago place setting) that a novelist like Wolitzer covets—and deserves. Female protagonist? Check. Graceful, nostalgic tone? Sure. Relation-heavy nature? Yes. Ambitious, sprawling, somewhat problematic attempt to incorporate the past six decades of the tumult and triumph of American feminism? Indeed. (Try that, Eugenides!)
The Female Persuasion is a kind of 21st century bildungsroman. We begin in 2006 and observe our protagonist, Greer Kadetsky, a determined, bookish freshperson at an average East Coast liberal arts institution, as she transitions through her twenties: that complicated phase that many psychologists refer to as “emerging adulthood.” Greer and her best friend Zee have a chance encounter with Faith Frank, a famous seventies feminist, in a public restroom. Faith gives Greer her business card, and the trajectory for Greer ’s post-college life, and a complex mentor/mentee relationship, is set in motion. This small transaction and its ripple effect is something that Wolitzer does a great job with, as the book regularly comes back to the small encounters, actions, and choices that have outsized impacts on our lives. The book is at its best when exploring the power of these relationships, clicks, and connections: The “small realizations leading you first toward an important understanding and then toward doing something about it” and the “people you would meet who would affect you and turn you ever so slightly in a different direction.”
Faith Frank is that person for Greer—a glamorous figurehead, a publisher, a writer, and a public speaker. Faith’s now-classic feminist text is called, in fact, The Female Persuasion. Greer is enamored of Faith, and after graduation, she heads to New York City to work for her—but not for Faith’s long-suffering-but-beloved feminist magazine Bloomer (for Amelia Bloomer) as she’d anticipated. Bloomer has lost funding, going the way of so many print publications in a digital age. Faith is starting a new foundation, one that puts women’s issues at the forefront, and seeks to address everything from workplace harassment to pay inequity to gender-based violence by way of pricey “summits.” It’s called Loci (as in “the center”) and the devil isn’t just in the details—it’s in the funding. In one of many shrewdly contemporary plot developments that Wolitzer employs, we learn that Emmet Shrader, a widely loathed VC millionaire (billionaire?) is underwriting this new feminist enterprise. Though Shrader assures Faith—they go way back, we discover—that he supports her wildest feminist dreams, strings are attached.
Their relationship frames a core reality: the ways in which women must constantly compromise in order to get what they want—and need. Which compromises are O.K.—and which are betrayals? Faith is no stranger to hustling for good. In the 1970s she was trying to convince businessmen at Nabisco to buy ad space in Bloomer; in 2016 she’s getting rich white ladies to buy pricey tickets to luncheons where celebrities speak about equality. What, Wolitzer suggests, is really the difference? Under capitalism and under patriarchy, the tradeoffs and negotiations are constant. This may be old hat for Faith, but it’s new territory for the idealistic, wide-eyed Greer.
Another key question that the book examines— but doesn’t necessarily answer—concerns these intergenerational feminist dynamics. How women like Faith, who is a “strong, appealing, dignified, older feminist,” grapple with “the galloping changes in feminism” as they strive to work in the present. In the early 1970s, a journalist once asked Faith what she stands for, and she answered, “I stand for women.” This was a good enough answer back then, but “later it sometimes wouldn’t be.” At Loci, her young employees harbor a “sweet nostalgia” for those bygone days, but they—and many others—are also full of criticism for an approach that many see as dated at best, and racist, transphobic, and classist at worst. Greer is concerned about the judgments that Faith receives on “the newer feminist blogs” that call her out for “Corporate Feminism”—but these qualms are not enough to make her leave. Faith deflects, choosing not to look at the critiques and laying the burden on Greer, saying, “I hope you’ll tell me if I start being anachronistic.”
Instead, the quietly ambitious Greer studies Faith closely, and Faith rewards her with increased responsibility at Loci. Greer is an excellent listener and writer, so she is tasked with conducting interviews with women who’ve experienced workplace harassment, and then writing speeches for them to deliver at high-profile events. It is satisfying, energizing work for Greer—for a time. The bulk of the book tracks Greer’s growth both as an employee of Loci and also as a young woman who navigates challenging personal relationships— with her best friend Zee, with her high school boyfriend Cory, and of course, with Faith. As Greer grows more and more into her adult self, she navigates what it means to be seen by someone you admire, and how ambition, desire, and purpose can fluctuate over time.
Wolitzer is a confident writer, and readers will likely find it easy to get swept into the worlds she creates. The book feels light rather than labored, even when grappling with difficult topics. There is an effortlessness to the way she moves through story, casually dropping back several decades before returning to a present moment. Yet she is also precise, a master of closely observed detail as she explores everything from how history repeats, to how misogyny and power replicate and perpetuate. Wolitzer understands that women may make great strides and significant gains, only to be thrown backwards—sometimes by a single election.
And Wolitzer nails the zeitgeist: pop cultural markers ground the reader as we shift back and forth across the decades. A flashback to Zee’s early 90s Bat Mitzvah references her MySpace page, and the gifts of “Lucite picture frames and Barnes and Noble gift certificates.” A section on Faith’s upbringing marks 1965 with White Rain, Bobby Darin, and illegal abortion. A 21st century sandwich has a “stiff Elizabethan ruffle of kale.” We also get hashtags, both real and imagined: Faith’s efforts with Loci get called out on Twitter with the real-life hashtag #whiteladyfeminism as well as the delightfully made-up #fingersandwichfeminisms.
But hashtags develop overnight—novels develop over the course of years. Conspicuously missing is #Metoo, which while initiated more than a decade ago by Tarana Burke, came to social media prominence in October 2017, mere months before the book’s release. One can’t help but wonder how the book would’ve differed had it been written during, or just after, #metoo exploded on the scene, bringing with it the takedowns of high-powered men, as well as the complex and often brutal intrafeminist exchanges. The election of Donald Trump isn’t mentioned, but a doomed energy hangs over the book.
Wolitzer isn’t here to offer easy answers, nor is she trying to make a case for a particular kind of feminism. Her ideas don’t feel new, but the format does, and while I didn’t love the book, I love that the book is. This big mainstream novel is taking on the ideas, phrases, and concerns that have always felt isolated to feminist twitter, women’s studies courses, and contentious comment threads on feminist blogs. There were moments, while reading, when I felt a certain thrill at seeing a name or reference pop up. Because of this, I felt conflicted during the moments when I felt less than thrilled— the moments when, like contemporary feminism itself, the book is flawed. It makes missteps precisely because of its ambition—and isn’t that, well, a familiar feeling? It’s as if The Female Persuasion reached its long, charming arms into those siloed realms, and swept it all together, in one big, messy book. All of it—abortion, equal pay, celebrity feminism, GamerGate, the Women’s March, diversity, workplace harassment, pronouns, #whitefeminism. The end result is often exciting, but frustrating.
This is especially true in the way Wolitzer tries to navigate race, privilege, and whiteness. The book nods to the struggles and limitations of a feminism that is not “keeping up with the times”—but it does not go beyond peppered references to racism, classism, and trans inclusion. In fact, these complex realities are often treated dismissively or jokingly as narrative foils for white characters who are trying to do the right thing. Non-white characters exist peripherally, as do their valid, justified, and ultimately unexplored concerns. Just as Faith is not going to question her own sense of white superiority, Wolitzer is not here to interrogate white supremacy, to really examine the ways in which it’s operating either in her characters or in contemporary feminism.
Characters repeatedly get defensive when called out: neophyte teacher Zee completely misses signs of a serious issue with one of her troubled students, and then gets prickly when her older African- American coworker challenges her idealism. Faith seems exhausted at having to prove her “racial bonafides” and getting “gender pronouns right” during college visits. Both Faith and Greer are surprised when Loci doesn’t turn out to be as magnanimous as they both thought. As a reader, I wasn’t surprised by any of these twists—I saw them coming, and I also saw Wolitzer falling prey to the same naiveté that she develops in her characters. None of the characters truly have to reconcile with their privilege—they acknowledge it, but in a frustrated “I can’t help that I’m privileged!” way, or in the sly, ironic manner that allows one to name the bad thing without having to own the bad thing. Greer’s easy glide into post-college New York life (her Brooklyn apartment, her stylish wardrobe) goes wholly unexamined (especially since Greer ’s parents’ financial ineptitude is a major point of contention early on in the plot). Greer’s disdain for her standard-issue liberal arts college reeks of unexamined privilege, as does Zee’s indulgent anger at Greer for not helping her get a job at Loci.
In the unsatisfying end, it is 2019. Greer has achieved immense financial, professional, and domestic success (we’re clued in to this early on, so this is not a spoiler) when, at 31, she becomes the bestselling author of a “well-meaning feminist rallying cry” that “was not, she knew, original or brilliant.” Despite its enormous financial success, the book “was frequently criticized, of course” for failing to “speak for all women” who exist “so much farther outside of privilege and access than Greer Kadetsky.”
I clocked the dismissiveness of that of course, and how, in the next sentence, we are assured that “many others bought the book and loved it.” While not every book need be brilliant, it felt icky to end on this note of inherited white mediocrity. Greer has become Faith, and has nothing changed? How many Black and Brown women are brilliant, original, firebrands deserving of the spotlight? How many marginalized writers dream of getting published, let alone becoming bestsellers who buy Brooklyn brownstones with their enormous advances (as Greer predictably does)?
In a scene toward the very end, Greer is taken to task by her infant’s teenage babysitter (Kay Chung, 16, who is “small and fireplug-fierce”) who points out the outdated ideas in her brand new book—but it doesn’t feel like enough. Kay admits that she’s “a skeptic about feminism” and rejects “the white, cisgender, binary view of everything.” While this moment briefly decentralizes Greer ’s white feminist mediocrity and offers Greer a mildly destabilizing glimpse into a new generation of young feminists, Kay becomes just another fleeting moment of critique. Her youthful energy is used to undermine her potency: she offers her opinions “as if they were entirely new” and lines like “[a]nd anyway, Kay went on in a chatty voice of amazing confidence, it wasn’t so much about people as it was about ideas” feel condescending. The exchange between Greer and Kay can also be read as Wolitzer’s attempt to preempt this very criticism, by demonstrating the inevitability of tear-downs and call-outs that virtually all feminist writers face. True as this may be, I expected much more from Greer—and from Wolitzer as well.
The Female Persuasion is engaging. It’s compelling. It addresses power, histories, and the complexities of platonic female relationships in a way that is rarely, if ever, presented in mainstream fiction. Like Faith, it manages to feel a bit outdated, a bit lacking, but also warm, and engaging. I hesitated to even share my critique, worried about taking down a fellow female writer whom I truly respect, and who, like her characters, is clearly trying. Like Greer, I am younger, ambitious, and admiring of my feminist heroes. But like the often-dismissed critical voices in the book, I’m not interested in silence-as-solidarity. I can critique without condemning—this is a good novel, and Wolitzer fully deserves a top spot in the literary realm. But she—and other white women writers— can do better. Must do better.
Toward the end of her 2012 essay, Wolitzer quotes the novelist Mary Gordon, who told her “As a woman writer, you get points if you include the ‘male’ world in your work, and you lose points if you omit it.” By that logic, what happens if you include the word ‘female’ in the title? Wolitzer is about to find out. I like to think that Gordon’s quote stuck with her as she settled on calling it The Female Persuasion—it feels like a strategic challenge to those who would try to deprive her a place in the “top tier of literary fiction—where the air is rich and the view is great and where a book enters the public imagination and the current conversation.” This space, Wolitzer writes, “tends to feel peculiarly, disproportionately male.” The Female Persuasion is anything but, and I feel certain it will enter current and future cultural conversations. I hope those conversations can be as honest and nuanced as the ideas in the book deserve.
Kate Schatz is the New York Times bestselling author of author of Rad American Women A-Z, Rad Women Worldwide, and Rad Girls Can.
Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure Edited by Patricia A. Matthew
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016, $27.95, paperback
Reviewed by Marybeth Gasman
In an essay for the Washington Post (September 23, 2016), I wrote about the lack of faculty of color in our colleges and universities, claiming that the reason we have so few is because we simply do not want faculty of color. We know how to recruit and retain them, but we do not have the will. Because of the essay, I received more than 7,000 email messages and hundreds of phone calls. The article was shared on Facebook and Twitter at an incredible rate. But I did not say anything that people of color have not been saying for decades. The only aspect of the article that was different was that I am a white woman faculty member at an Ivy League institution. My race and my institution’s prestige made my message palatable to many of the same people who had ignored the voices of people of color.
With these factors in mind, it was a true pleasure to review Written/Unwritten, edited by Patricia A. Matthew, an associate professor of English at Montclair State University who usually focuses on British Romanticism and British abolitionist literature. She decided to pull together Written/Unwritten after navigating a difficult tenure process, during which her provost objected to granting her tenure. Matthew was supported by her department and school but ran into trouble at the provost’s level because several of her publications were forthcoming rather than already published—a distinction that was not made clear to her at any time during the tenure process. As Matthew worked on her appeal of the provost’s decision, she learned that many black women and people of color had experiences similar to hers. Eventually, the president of the university overturned the provost’s decision, and Matthew was awarded tenure. Regardless, she felt the need to share her story and to provide a platform for other scholars of color to share theirs. This need and desire resulted in a beautiful book of vivid and gutwrenching stories told by those who had lived and endured them.
As you read this book, it is important to understand that if you have a soul, it will tug at it, and if you are a white faculty member, you may not be able to move forward in your career without changing the way you think and act around issues that your colleagues of color regularly face. If you can move forward with no change, I beg you to pursue another profession, as academe does not need you anymore!
Written/Unwritten is organized into six sections: “Foundations,” “Navigations,” “Identities,” “Manifestos,” “Hierarchies,” and “Activism.” An introduction and conclusion bookend these sections. Of note, the overwhelming majority of the authors are women of color. Matthew places the voices of these women center stage, where they belong.
Matthew has structured the collection to lead the reader through the lived experiences of the authors. At the same time, readers discover how they can make change—that is, if they are willing to take on the difficult work of pushing against the status quo in the academy. “Foundations” features interviews with two important African American scholars, Houston A. Baker Jr. and Cheryl A. Wall, about race and gender in the academy. Most important to me were their accounts of how the academy has changed—or not—over time. Despite shifts in the student bodies at most colleges and universities, the professoriate has remained overwhelmingly white and male. Faculty are not prepared for or comfortable with teaching the next generation of students and are often too stubborn to realize they need guidance from others who are more expert than they. Moreover, although the academy has moved toward using the language of diversity in faculty search and tenure processes, it has not learned to be truly inclusive and continues to force faculty of color to operate according to rules that preserve white patriarchy. What surprised me most about the interviews is that even though Baker and Wall have lived through decades of racialized experiences, they are still hopeful about the potential of the academy, mainly because of the young scholars entering it.
“Navigations” focuses on the experiences of two women of color, one Asian American and the other Latina. Leslie Bow’s essay, “Difference Without Grievance,” tells the story of the limbo she often finds herself in as an Asian American woman: she is considered a minority by some but not by others. Asian Americans, she explains, are both visible and invisible within the academy—used when convenient to showcase diversity, but otherwise left out. Lisa Sanchez González demonstrates the damage that the academy can do to Latinas, noting the way that senior faculty often sabotage the lives of young faculty of color. However, she also discusses the way these same faculty of color can succeed despite the damage, sharing the story of her own success after sabotage.
Two of the many decisions faculty of color must make as they navigate the professoriate is whether they want to embrace their identity (or identities), and how they will cope with the ramifications of doing so. In “Identities,” the authors discuss the intersections of language and sexuality that some faculty of color confront in the academy. They argue that issues of language are juxtaposed with the securing of tenure, because the granting of tenure is not merit based but deeply rooted in issues of race, class, language, sexuality, and nationality. Queer faculty of color may find themselves taking on additional responsibilities of advising and mentoring both students and other faculty members of color.
The “Manifesto” section of Written/Unwritten is perhaps my favorite, as it is wholeheartedly unapologetic and documents the lack of safety that faculty of color continually feel in both the formal and informal spaces of the tenure process. Sarita Echavez See, for example, discusses the ramifications of not attending a dinner at a senior faculty member’s home. Although attending social events has nothing to do with one’s qualifications for tenure, it somehow factors into the evaluation process, and skipping a dinner with a powerful faculty member can be detrimental to one’s career. Although the academy claims to be a meritocracy built on hard work and intellect, it often requires genuflecting to the powerful.
In “Hierarchies,” the authors critique the false notion that all are equal in faculty governance. Even when African American faculty are invited to the table, they end up eating in the kitchen. In other words, they may be counted in the diversity numbers, but when they ask to be fully included in the college or university community, they are often ignored—or worse, their requests are viewed as out of line, even if they are simply asking for what they deserve as full colleagues. Similarly, although adjuncts—who are often people of color—made up the majority of most faculties in 2017, they continued to receive minuscule salaries, no benefits, and no job security. They are not allowed to vote on governance decisions. The situation creates a caste system within the faculty.
The final section of the book focuses on activism. Because the academy was not set up for faculty of color, many become activists for the sake of their students, their communities, and each other. They may suffer for their activism if their white colleagues start to feel uncomfortable. For most faculty of color, their research is part of their activism, even when the research seems to have nothing to do with the activism. For example, faculty of color working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields often consider their research activist because their very presence can make a difference in the lives of people of color and motivate others. Moreover, it pushes against stereotypes about people of color and their abilities in various disciplines.
Matthew ends the book with a chapter on the risks of tweeting about diversity. Many faculty of color have taken to social media to discuss diversity and to push against racism, white supremacism, and prejudice in the academy. However, turning to social media can be risky, especially for untenured and adjunct faculty. Tweets and posts last forever, even when deleted, given screenshots and glitches in technology. Moreover, these forms of communication can be taken out of context and used against faculty during tenure and promotion processes. Recently, adjunct, tenuretrack, and even tenured faculty have been fired for their comments on social media.
Written/Unwritten is an important book. It should be read by anyone considering the professoriate, whether or not they are a person of color and no matter what their discipline, not only to gain a full understanding of the experiences of faculty of color, but to understand whites’ role. Attempts to defuse academic hierarchies and systems are not generally welcomed, and administrations and faculty who want to uphold the status quo often retaliate. For the academy to become a place that welcomes all voices, we must be willing to dismantle the elements of it that leave so many ostracized, left out, and erased.
Marybeth Gasman is the Judy and Howard Berkowitz Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She serves as the director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.
The Book of Emma Reyes: A Memoir By Emma Reyes, translated and with an introduction by Daniel Alarcón
New York: Penguin Books, 2017, 177 pp., $24.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Marjorie Agosín
Although I teach Latin American literature, when I was asked to review The Book of Emma Reyes, I had no idea who Emma Reyes was. I wondered about the title, and decided that The Book of Emma Reyes must be a historical novel about a Latin American heroine. I wanted to get to know her. The book itself is beautiful. It is slim and elegant, with colorful, abstract design on the cover, elegant type, and sepia-colored pages. In the age of digital books, it is a joy to hold a real, physical book.
Once I started The Book of Emma Reyes I could not put it down. It is not a historical novel but rather an autobiography in letters, like no other I have read in Latin American literature. Reyes’s story of a horrific and abusive childhood is infused with lyricism, humor, and beauty.
As translator Daniel Alarcón explains in his introduction, the publication of this book is a miracle. He has done a superb job of introducing an international audience to Emma Reyes—and perhaps interest in her life and work will awaken interest in other women artists of her time, such as Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, who settled in Mexico during the late 1930s and lived in relative obscurity until the 1980s, when art historians began to take interest in their work. Like Reyes, Varo and Carrington were painters as well as writers who wrote unconventional autobiographies—Varo in the form of a cookbook of dreams, and Carrington in the fantasy, The Hearing Trumpet (1976). Like theirs, The Book of Emma Reyes will become a classic.
The Book of Emma Reyes was originally published in Spanish as Memoria por encargo (1967) and became an instant bestseller. It consists of 23 letters written over eighteen years to Reyes’s friend Germán Arciniegas, a historian and journalist. Although Reyes meant the letters to be confidential, Arciniegas showed them to the Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez. Reyes stopped all communication with Arciniegas, but later resumed the friendship and the correspondence. According to Alarcón, Arciniegas encouraged Reyes to write her autobiography, but she decided to let the letters become her autobiography.
The letters are not dated, but there is an internal order to them. In the first half of the book, we enter into the sordid conditions and physical and emotional decay of Reyes’s harrowing childhood. She and her sister were imprisoned in rooms without toilets; Reyes describes a door with “three locks, two large padlocks, one chair and two thick wooden bars … that separated us from the world.” There, they would wait until dark, when an abusive adult would come to feed them. Their story may remind readers of Oliver Twist, but it is told without sentimentality or self-pity. Instead, Reyes’s vivid descriptions of the traumatic events of her life are full of lyricism and even humor—an inspiration to readers to live with hope under the cruelest of life’s adversities.
In the second half of the book, Reyes and her half-sisters end up in a convent for abandoned youth, where they remain for fifteen years, until their escape. Even in this religious institution, they endure abuse. Reyes writes, “We came from a world so distant from that of the convent that our adjustment was very slow and difficult.” The children are forced to labor constantly and are often beaten by the nuns. “The work was hard, we had to wash the floors of the chapel, the sacristy, and the tiny room near the front where the priest entered to lead masses,” she writes. Then, Reyes is chosen:
The Mother Superior and Sor Carmelita decided I would be the one to make a robe for the Pope. The only quality the nuns recognized in me that I was the best embroiderer, perhaps because they trained me so young and I knew the secrets of each kind of cloth, each kind of stitching for each thread.
Her later vocation as a painter may have begun in the convent, where she learned to draw in cloth. (Unfortunately, the book does not cover Reyes’s career as a Latin American painter living in Europe.)
After I completed reading this intense and brief collection of letters, which have such a sense of immediacy, I realized they were written by a woman who was illiterate as a child and only learned to write at age fifteen. Because Reyes is so tenacious and determined to learn, she is able to turn her somber experiences around and begin a new life as a painter.
Because of the ups and downs of Reyes’s life, I often thought that this book could fall into the category of the picaresque novel. Her last letter is particularly moving, as she tells of an encounter between two worlds. From her captivity at the convent, she sees the milk man on the other side of the fence. The person who has the keys to the convent falls asleep while praying and thus Reyes is able to escape—although her visionary tenacity has always made her free.
After reading Reyes’s letters I was filled with questions: what happened after her escape? When did she decide to paint? We learn from Alarcón’s introduction that she became a world traveler and befriended the writer Alberto Moravia, the filmmaker Federico Fellini, and other artists, and that she became a kind of godmother to Latin American artists and intellectuals living in Europe, but I wanted to know more. I hope that soon, someone will write a comprehensive biography of Reyes.
This is an important book by a relatively unknown artist who deserves to be better known. It will hold a special place in my heart, as it reveals the persistence of the hope for a better life. Reyes succeeded in her quest, and in turn I have become richer by reading and knowing her. Each of her letters is an act of courage as well as of transformation.
Marjorie Agosín is a poet and human rights activist. She teaches at Wellesley College. Her most recent book is Las Islas Blancas (2016).
When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir By Patrisse Khan-Cullors (with asha bandele; introduction by Angela Davis)
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018, 272 pp., $24.99, hardcover
Reviewed by Susana Morris
The words “Black Lives Matters” come together to form a simple, declarative phrase. It plainly states that Black life— which has been under siege in the wake of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and Trumpism, simply put—matters. Yet, since the hashtag burst into the public consciousness in the wake of the death of Mike Brown in 2014, the words have taken on an even more profound meaning. For some, Black Lives Matter is the clarion call for a new generation of organizers and activists to resist racism and police brutality. For some, Black Lives Matter rebukes lazy post-racial thinking in favor of a deliberate focus on the how far race relations still need to come. For some, Black Lives Matters elevates one race above all others, for shouldn’t “all lives matter”? For some, Black Lives Matter is the rallying cry for crazed, far left, anti-white “Black identity extremists” who are just as bad as the white nationalists on the alt-right. For some, “Black Lives Matter” reflects the sad state of contemporary activism, in which Blacks are not even seeking power but just basic recognition of their humanity.
For those invested in the phrase Black Lives Matter, it is neither a reflection of the anemic state of activism, nor an example of the violence of the “altleft,” nor evidence of “reverse racism” (which is actually not a thing). Instead, the notion that Black Lives Matter rests on the assumption that if Black lives truly mattered in our society then all lives would, in fact, matter. For when the most historically marginalized people are recognized in the fullness of their humanity then all of us can truly be free.
Although, the term “Black Lives Matter” gained national momentum during the Ferguson protests, the phrase was coined in 2013 in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of another unarmed Black teenager, Trayvon Martin. Three Black women organizers, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Khan-Cullors joined forces in response to the seemingly never-ending cycle of state sanctioned violence against Black people. Since then, Black Lives Matter has become a full-fledged movement with chapters across North America. The Black Lives Matter network identifies itself as a global entity, a decentralized “chapter-based, member-led organization whose mission is to build local power and to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” This network is just one of over a dozen of grassroots organizations that also come together as the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of progressive groups devoted to supporting, protecting, and preserving Black life in the face of pervasive anti- Blackness and state violence.
In When They Call You a Terrorist, Patrisse Khan- Cullors, one of three Black women who founded the Black Lives Matter movement, traces her life her working class roots in southern California to the organizing and activism that characterizes her identity today. The memoir is in the tradition of Assata Shakur, Audre Lorde, Shirley Chisholm, Elaine Brown, Maya Angelou, and so many other Black women freedom fighters: it illustrates how the personal is in fact the political.
Khan-Cullors’s early life is characterized by a close-knit family beleaguered by poverty. Her mother works 16-hour days for low pay just to keep her family clothed and fed, her father figures flit in and out of her life as they navigate factory closures, addiction, and jail time all the while trying to parent.
While the recent Great Recession of 2008 plunged many American families into financial peril, Khan- Cullors’s memoir is a reminder that for many families of color the 1980s and 1990s were also a time of hyper-unemployment. As a child, one of her favorite forms of escaping this reality is watching the popular early 1990s drama Beverly Hills 90210, which is a sharp contrast to her Van Nuys neighborhood, where the only grocery is store is a 7-Eleven. Unlike the pristine white neighborhoods she watches on TV, police in her community “circle blocks or people… like hungry hyenas.”
Police surveillance and frequent arrests for petty crimes, such as tagging, or for actions that should not be deemed crimes—like standing in public while young, Black, and male—plague her family. Some of Khan-Cullors’s earliest memories involve the terrifying presence of the police patrolling her neighborhood, harassing residents, and targeting her neighbors. The men in her family—her brother Monte, in particular—are repeatedly terrorized by the police. Monte’s story becomes a touchstone in the memoir, as mental illness and the carceral state collide in his life again and again. Monte suffers from schizoaffective disorder, something he is not diagnosed with until he is well into his twenties and already has a rap sheet. Monte’s experiences illustrate the deep failings of the prison industry and mental health; Khan-Cullors notes that “there are more people with mental health disorders in prison than in all of the psychiatric hospitals in the United States added up.” Khan-Cullors’s memoir asks us what would happen if we as a nation focused on providing access to quality physical and mental health rather than the building of more prisons?
Throughout the book, Khan-Cullors explores what terrorism looks like. Despite the fact that neither she nor her comrades espouse or commit violence, they are frequently depicted as terrorists.
There was a petition that was drafted and circulated all the way to the White House. It said we were terrorists. We, who in response to the killing of [Trayvon Martin], said Black Lives Matter. The document gained traction during the first week of July 2016 after a week of protests against the back-to-back police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minneapolis. At the end of that week, on July 7, in Dallas, Texas, a sniper opened fire during a Black Lives Matter protest that was populated with mothers and fathers who brought their children along to proclaim: We have a right to live.
Despite the backlash, she and her fellow activists press on. In countless examples throughout the narrative, Khan-Cullors rejects the notion that she and others who fight for justice and speak truth to the power of white supremacy are, in fact, terrorizing others. Every detailed account of police brutality and lack of accountability flies in the face of the lie that those who seek to expose and disrupt terror are truly the ones to fear.
The book soars in its ability to make meaningful the phrase “the personal is political.” In her story, Khan-Cullors’s family history of poverty and incarceration is not about individual failings but about collective and systemic ways in which Black and Brown folk are set up to fail. And just as she shares the dark times that shaped her life, so does she share the times of love and laughter that spur her onwards. A progressive high school becomes the author’s lifeline, where she learns that even, or perhaps especially, as a youngster that she can make a difference. Her experiences as a queer woman navigating romantic and platonic love are poignant and unabashed. The prose, though heartbreaking at times, is also poetic and triumphant, formed by the deft hands of both Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, a noted writer and political advocate.
In many ways, the book reads not just as a memoir of Khan-Cullors’s own individual life but as an autobiography of the movement, as its subtitle “A Black Lives Matter Memoir” suggests. This is not because her life is not compelling but rather because Khan-Cullors so convincingly leads readers to understand how system oppressions shape the lives of marginalized folk in similar ways. And the memoir also traces a trajectory to activism that although far from trite feels familiar (see the autobiographies of community organizers from Shirley Chisholm to Barack Obama and you’ll see some of the path that Khan-Cullors follows and blazes a trail for). And, undoubtedly, co-founders Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi could tell similar stories of their path to activism while living the complicated lives that Black women fighting to be free often do. Ultimately, When They Call You a Terrorist is a memoir that tells the story of both one incredible woman and of a generation.
Susana M. Morris is associate professor of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She is author of Close Kin and Distant Relatives: The Paradox of Respectability in Black Women’s Literature (UVA Press, 2014), and co-editor, with Brittney C. Cooper and Robin M. Boylorn, of The Crunk Feminist Collection (Feminist Press, 2017).
Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun By Jennifer L. Shaw
London: Reaktion Books, 2017, 256p., 100 color plates, 80 halftones, $45.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Irene Gammel
On November 16, 1944, two French women, Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, stood before a German war tribunal on Jersey, one of the English Channel islands near the coast of Normandy, just a short distance from Vichy France. The pair, who were better known under their artistic pseudonyms, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, were collaborators in radically queered photography and photomontages. They stood accused by the Nazi regime of having acted as “irregular soldiers,” as Cahun writes, paraphrasing the accusations of the officer in charge, Oberst Sarmsen. “[W]e had used spiritual arms instead of firearms”—an offense punishable by death.
So what crime did they commit, exactly? Using scissors and glue, prohibitively expensive during war time, the pair created tracts, collages, photomontages, and symbolic objects to instill doubt about the war and the Nazi regime among the German soldiers. Moore, who was fluent in German, created the German texts, which they signed Der Soldat ohne Namen (the soldier without a name), a nom de guerre that implied an entire network of agitators lurking among the enemy soldiers. The pair used simple objects, such as coins, as Cahun described their unrelenting inventiveness in 1943: “I painted them meticulously with nail polish … and managed to write very clearly on them Nieder Mit Krieg [down with war].” These coins they placed in public sites, ensuring they were in plain sight where they would be found and read. Despite the daily danger, the pair practiced their subversive art for several years before they were caught, tried, and sentenced to death, though they were eventually pardoned in 1945.
These harrowing experiences and courageous acts about an art practice both dangerous and playful are recounted in Jennifer L. Shaw’s fascinating book, Exist Otherwise, which casts Cahun and her partner as heroines. As Shaw writes, “[T]he resistance work that [Cahun] and Moore undertook during the Nazi occupation of Jersey shares more with our contemporary ideas of performance art and conceptual art than it does with the anti-Nazi propaganda of Cahun’s own time.” However, I would add that employing satire and even laughter in resisting tyranny is a longstanding tradition. Using a number of sources still unpublished or unavailable in English, and lacing Cahun’s voice throughout the biography, Shaw tells the story in four parts, each describing an artistic practice that functions as a counteraesthetic to the era’s dominating thought and revealing the multimodal flexibility of Cahun’s oeuvre.
Part One, “Views and Visions: Nantes, 1894-1920,” takes us inside the explosive trauma of growing up in a tension-filled household. Cahun was born Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob in 1894, the daughter of Maurice Schwob, the Jewish publisher of Le Phare de La Loire, (The Lighthouse of the Loire), and his Catholic wife Mary-Antoinette, “an ‘Aryan’ mother,” in Cahun’s words, “obese … struck by mental illness,” whose volatile, violent, disordered personality left her daughter traumatized. Tiny and brainy, Lucy emulated her mother’s independence, intellectualism, and subversion, and embraced her father’s Jewish identity, positioning herself as an outsider in anti-Semitic France. At the age of twelve, she recalls, she was “tied with jump ropes to a tree in the schoolyard” and “stoned with gravel,” because her father advocated the release of Major Alfred Dreyfus, a victim of anti-Semitic persecution, from prison. Searching for alternative identities, Cahun pursued the classical education reserved for boys and dove into homoerotic symbolist literature, including that of her famous writer-uncle, Marcel Schwob. She also embraced a homosexual identity. At the age of fourteen she met Suzanne Malherbe, who would become her life partner, collaborator, and stepsister (her parents divorced, and her father married Suzanne’s mother). The pair adopted sexual and artistic pseudonyms, and Lucy Schwob asserted her maleness and Jewishness by naming herself Claude Cahun. The last name, a riff on Cahun/Cohen, was a particularly bold one to take in an anti-Semitic society. Malherbe became Marcel Moore.
In Part Two, “Heroines, Theatre, Masquerade: The 1920s in Paris,” Cahun and Moore are confronted with the rappel à l’ordre (return to order) that followed the cataclysmic Great War. This conservative ideology called for natalism and motherhood, hearth and home, inciting opposition among the feminist and lesbian circles of Paris, which included Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney, Sylvia Beach, and Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, friends of Cahun’s. This collective resistance also led Cahun and her partner to formulate their most radical innovations, performing gender in ways that anticipated Judith Butler’s philosophical formulations and Cindy Sherman’s artistic practice decades later. Like Sherman, Cahun used make-up and props, including wigs and body painting. She applied hearts to her cheeks, used lipstick to create a Clara Bow-type mouth, painted nipples on her dress. She transformed herself into an exaggerated doll-like figure, head tilting, body swaying, eyes staring boldly at the camera.
Cahun included many of these photographs in photomontages in her most famous book, Aveux: Non Avenues (1930), translated as Disavowals: Or Cancelled Confessions (2008). In this difficult, multivoiced text, Cahun transposes her whimsical deconstruction of femininity into experimental literary strategy. She did something similar in Héroïnes (1925), translated as “Heroines,” (in Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman ). Héroïnes playfully rewrites western mythology and fairy tales, recasting figures like Eve, Penelope, and Cinderella. In “Sappho the Misunderstood,” Sappho refuses to kill herself as she does in the traditional stories, explaining, “‘I am no fool! It was only a mannequin … pushed into the violet sea. (They do the same thing in the movies.)’” As Cahun sees it, the most important objective for the woman is not to love, but to create.
Although she was not politically dogmatic, Cahun turned her art into activism, as seen in Part Three, “To Embody My Own Revolt: Surrealism and Politics in the 1930s.” The surrealist effects are evident in a number of photographs: for example, an untitled one from 1932 shows Cahun asleep on a shelf in her wardrobe with her arm spilling over, an evocation of sleeping beauty. In another, Cahun stages her severed head disturbingly inside a bell jar, hair slicked back, eye brows painted on, lips painted full; the work is both a memento mori and a critical treatment of surrealism’s misogynist entrapment of women, as Cahun’s eyes stare at the viewer. Other surrealists wondered why an otherwise attractive woman would thus disfigure herself.
Shaw’s thesis—that women’s resistance must be read as part of their art practice—culminates into Part Four, “Spiritual Arms Instead of Firearms: Cahun and Moore on the Isle of Jersey.” The tracts, montages, and objects Cahun and Moore created during this period were not only resistance projects responding to Hitler’s racism and World War II, but were also consistent with their lifelong artistic practice. Surrealist effects can be seen in the pair’s cemetery project. They built wooden crosses that they painted black and inscribed in old German Gothic script, “Für sie ist der Krieg zu Ende (For Them the War is Over),” which they planted in the German soldiers’ cemetery in Jersey. Given the danger the pair were incurring, Cahun later called her resistance “my madman’s project,” adding, “But at least I was taking action.”
Shaw describes her book as “the first full biography of Cahun in English,” but she is quick to acknowledge a significant debt to François Leperlier, author of the pioneering Claude Cahun: L’Écart et la métamorphose (1992) (Claude Cahun: Distance and Metamorphosis). To this, it’s fair to add the work of a plethora of other recent scholars (including Elza Adamowicz, Gavin James Bower, Georgiana Colvile, Gen Doy, Therese Lichtenstein, Andrea Oberhuber, and Shelley Rice).
Readers interested in women’s multimodal art practices will find much to admire in Shaw’s book, which engages literature, performance art, surrealist sculptures, and resistance tracts. Moreover, such readers will be attracted to this story of art as it intersects with love. Cahun’s torrid affair with Moore anchored her and kept her sane (in contrast to the violent turbulence of another famous couple experimenting with photomontage, Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann). “Our desires meet one another. Already it is an effort to disentangle them,” Cahun writes in Disavowals. “My lover will no longer be the subject of my drama. S/he will be my collaborator,” Cahun continues, as queered desire becomes a metaphor for women’s artistic collaboration. In a letter written to Moore, excerpted in Disavowals, Cahun and Moore look together at a portrait of Cahun, which acts as a “magic mirror.” Cahun writes, “The exchange, the superimposition, the fusion of desires. The unity of the image obtained by the close friendship of two bodies—even if it sends their souls to the devil!” Cahun’s post-script, “At present I exist otherwise,” provides the title for the book.
Exist Otherwise is elegantly written and beautifully illustrated with artwork, and includes an appendix with short, translated excerpts of Cahun’s writings. Some readers may quibble with a narrative structure that, within each section, first lays out the events of a given decade chronologically, then performs a close reading of Cahun’s work during the same period; this necessitates occasional repetition and creates a sense of déjà vu. Although Shaw’s readings of the art works are deft and interesting, questions remain. What is the meaning of the 1915 photo of Cahun sitting at a little girl’s school desk? In this image, she is not a preteen but a 21-year-old adult. What was Cahun’s relationship to other leading avant-gardists in Paris, such as Marcel Duchamp, a photograph by whom is included in at least one photomontage in Disavowals? Or Man Ray, whose trademark checkered studio-floor, seen in several of his 1920s photographs, appears prominently on the bathrobe Cahun wears in the untitled mirror image (c. 1929)? Is this photograph perhaps a reference to Man Ray, who also played with mirrors, frames, gender, and Jewish identity? I also wondered about the glaring absence of dadaist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who famously paraded her body as art as early as 1915, and whose film stills, showing her shaved head and body, circulated in Paris via Man Ray from 1921 on.
Despite these gaps, in Shaw’s telling, Cahun models how to practice radical art and action during politically fraught times like hers—and our own. “Human beings can be destroyed from the outside,” she wrote. “They can only be built from the inside, by themselves, through the exercise of their own freedoms.” Even though Cahun’s health was fragile following her ordeal at the hands of the Nazis, and she died in 1954 at the early age of sixty, her words still resonate and even gain new significance today, as she writes about confronting authoritarianism in a tone that is nearly manifesto-like. Ultimately, hers is a remarkable story of creativity, courage, and determination. As Cahun says, “Sacrifice yourself on your own altar. You are a god: respect yourself. But do not bend, for you will be beaten.”
Irene Gammel holds a Canada Research Chair in Modern Literature and Culture at Ryerson University in Toronto. Among her books are Looking for Anne of Green Gables (2008) and Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity (2002). She is the coeditor of Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (2011) and Crystal Flowers: Poems and a Libretto by Florine Stettheimer (2011). She is the director of the Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre in Toronto. For more, see http://mlc.ryerson.ca/ and follow her on Twitter, @MLC_Research.
A Class By Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s-1990s By Nancy Woloch
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015, 337 pp., $39.50, hardcover
Reviewed by Katherine Turk
Nancy Woloch has written the definitive history of sex-specific labor legislation, a cornerstone of gendered public policy in the twentieth century. As the Progressive-era activists of the late nineteenth century positioned the state to protect workers from the ravages of industrial capitalism, they adopted a strategy that rooted heightened workplace standards for women in the logic of their inferiority. In the decades that followed, each state established some limits to women’s working conditions, hours of labor, wages, and more. These laws are Woloch’s main characters, but she also profiles many others: reformers, attorneys and judges, and state and local officials. These actors both conspired and collided as they debated whether women workers needed special protections and what the government’s role should be in labor relationships.
The first several chapters of A Class By Herself analyze the origins and early growth of state labor laws for women. Turn-of-the-century activists, inspired by European workers’ legal victories, argued that state governments should limit workplace dangers by exercising their prerogative to safeguard citizens’ well being. But judges frustrated their efforts to establish sex-neutral protections, instead preserving workers’ right to labor unencumbered by a so-called meddling state. Advocates responded by adjusting their claims to frame working women as especially defenseless. By defining the sexes against each other, protectionists found allies in state and federal courts. They also carved out a new sphere of authority for female reformers, who were denied full membership in the wider “legal fraternity,” writes Woloch. She spotlights some of the conflicts over sex-specific labor laws among workers, managers and reformers that began bubbling up all over: in “a Lowell mill”; “a Chicago box factory”; “a Utah mine”; and “a New York book bindery.”
The watershed US Supreme Court case Muller v. Oregon earns its own chapter. Woloch deftly avoids the pull of abstract arguments about sex equality and difference that often frame its analysis. Instead, she places the 1908 contest over an Oregon provision limiting female laundry workers’ hours within its social and legal contexts. As Woloch explains, the state’s attorneys countered the “conservative ‘legal fiction’” that worker and employer could bargain as equals with the “countervailing legal fiction” of females’ innate dependency. In accepting this argument, the Court placed woman “in a class by herself” and signaled its new willingness to consider the law’s practical effects. Muller thus narrowed reformers’ options at the same time that it opened a path forward. Advocates adjusted to this new legal environment with a “commitment to ‘difference’” that “hardened over time,” explains Woloch.
Muller accelerated the spread of state labor laws for women. The book’s central chapters analyze the years between the provisions’ “golden age” in the 1910s and the beginning of their decline a half-century later. As courts began to affirm restrictions to women’s hours and working conditions, the US Department of Labor established the Woman in Industry Service—later the Women’s Bureau—to promote and monitor the restrictions. But the laws’ weak conceptual foundation rendered them less entrenched than they appeared. Some federal courts found defects in Muller’s edifice, and after 1916, the activist National Woman’s Party countered the rise of gendered protections with a push for strict sex equality. As these equal rights feminists sparred with the social feminists who acknowledged practical differences between men and women, Woloch argues, both sides lost momentum.
The New Deal and World War II undermined the protectionists’ position. The sex-neutral workplace provisions established in the 1930s tended to benefit men and diminish the viability of sex-specific laws. For example, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 found legal authority for new minimum wage, maximum hour, and overtime regulations in the Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause. But advocates knew that interstate commerce “was not a gender-neutral term,” writes Woloch: most women worked in localized jobs that the new law would not reach. Policymakers relaxed gendered protections during World War II, which aroused the suspicion “that women workers didn’t need them, want them, or appreciate them,” Woloch explains. States tended to restore sex-specific provisions at the war’s end, but now these were part of a broader campaign to deliver male-typed jobs to returning veterans. As the logic sustaining feminist arguments for gendered protections lost its power, the laws’ surest allies began to defect. Progressive-era activist groups dwindled, their mission less attractive amid a postwar campaign for workplace equality driven by the Women’s Bureau, some state governments, and many labor union women.
As the book’s concluding chapters explain, sex-specific labor protections could not weather the shifting political currents of the 1960s. The President’s Commission on the Status of Women supported gendered distinctions in its 1963 report, but Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 threatened them. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), after several years of uncertainty, interpreted Title VII’s federal guarantee of workplace sex equality to invalidate state provisions that treated women as a special class. Rejecting protectionists’ notions of rights rooted in sex difference, the EEOC applied to women the mainstream civil rights movement’s conception of workplace equality, which prescribed attacking racial distinctions by expanding opportunity. Pressure from both the courts and feminists coerced this federal policy realignment against the backdrop of women’s increased waged labor, families’ growing need for two incomes, and structural economic transformation.
A Class By Herself closes with a critical analysis of the equal rights framework that survived these struggles. An overly blunt instrument, formal legal equality has not delivered parity to women. Late twentieth-century battles over workers’ reproductive lives reveal that strict sex equality has extinguished the potential for gender-based accommodations. In addition to awkwardly covering pregnant workers under protections designed for disabled people, equality, defined as nondistinction between the sexes, has offered little to women in “the lowest-level and most precarious jobs,” writes Woloch. In particular, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which grants some workers up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave to attend to domestic emergencies, traps working-class women between providing life-giving care and earning life-sustaining wages. Sex-based protections were always a troubled remedy for laboring women’s problems. But policymakers have not come much closer to solving those problems in the age of equality.
Woloch’s volume distills previous scholarship that has emphasized sex-specific labor laws’ “double-edged” character: their benefits only ever compounded women’s workplace disadvantages. The book’s main strengths lie in its scope and detail. Bringing remarkable clarity to a complex story, A Class By Herself examines the laws themselves, their practical effects for working women, the groups and institutions that promoted them, and the clashes they provoked among women’s advocates. Woloch blends biographical and legal analysis without losing sight of the broader social movement and political circumstances. Complementing this hybrid approach, the book balances local and national components, explaining how gendered notions of citizenship shaped debates on the limits of federalism.
A Class By Herself also draws many previously obscure characters into view. Woloch attends to well-known reformers such as Florence Kelley, Louis Brandeis, and Mary Van Kleeck. But she also unearths lesser-known figures such as Caroline J. Gleason, an Oregon Consumers League researcher who assembled information about Portland women workers’ lives on and off the job. Gleason and her team went undercover, posing as ordinary laborers in the workplaces they were investigating. They calculated the costs of living in area boarding houses and purchasing clothing in local department stores. These prices, when compared to women’s average wages, provoked Gleason and her team to label Portland industries as “parasitic in character.” Woloch reminds us that each of these players, whether familiar or heretofore unknown, had distinct motives: lawyers burnished their authority, employers tended their profits, and advocates buttressed their class status.
Woloch refuses to evaluate labor laws for women by painting in broad strokes. Instead, she highlights the contingency in their story. As the book reveals, the history of state protective labor laws “veers closer than most to the accidental, unanticipated, and unpredictable. It is a story of close calls and near misses, false hopes and unintended consequences.” Reformers’ two-part defense—which sought to compensate for women’s labor force disadvantages while serving as an “entering wedge” to force sex-neutral worker accommodations—was not doomed from its inception. Rather, this strategy lost traction as its context shifted during Depression-era campaigns that drew from gendered strategies while weakening their rationale, wartime demands to abandon precedent in light of emergencies, and postwar economic and political transformations.
Considering the number of moving pieces Woloch must juggle, A Class By Herself is a remarkably coherent account. Still, she might have added another layer of analysis by presenting a more nuanced look at working women’s opinions of gendered protections. Beyond several pages on “Working Women’s Voices,” the author dedicates more attention to the policy arguments these laws inspired than to their reception by the women who toiled under them. Drawing from Dorothy Sue Cobble’s pathbreaking work, including The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America (2004), Woloch explains that union women, in particular, understood the trade-offs bound up in gendered laws because they reasoned from experience as well as principle. But millions of other women worked without the unions’ protections or constraints. How did they make sense of gendered provisions, and how did the arc of their support or opposition match up to their unionized counterparts’? While questions of class drive the book, an emphasis on a wider cross-section of workers’ relationships to sex-specific labor laws could have illuminated these laws’ role in gendered racial formation.
Woloch’s volume offers major contributions to the fields of women’s, gender, legal, political, and twentieth-century American history. Bringing much-needed insight and synthesis to a key piece of our recent past, A Class By Herself is also a cautionary tale on several fronts. The book highlights the danger of trading varied and imperfect reforms for top-down coherence and reveals just how much advocates have forfeited in accepting narrow sex-based comparisons as the terrain for gender justice campaigns.
Katherine Turk is assistant professor of History and adjunct assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her book Equality on Trial: Gender and Rights in the Modern American Workplace, was published in 2016.
Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century By Tera W. Hunter
Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2017, 404 pp., $29.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Katherine Franke
The institution of marriage is asked to do an awful lot of work in most societies. It is used by couples to signal serious commitment, care, and love. It provides the social, economic, and legal structure for adult sexuality and the family, legitimizing those who enter its territory. Marriage also establishes the dominant rules of dependency and responsibility among adults and their children. And marriage serves as a useful means by which society makes distributional choices, such as allocating health insurance, tax preferences, property ownership, and other transfers of wealth. In its 1888 Maynard v. Hill decision, the US Supreme Court reflected the vital role that marriage plays in society when it ruled that marriage is “the foundation of the family and society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress.”
But even more fundamentally, the capacity to marry has served historically as a social and legal endorsement of a person’s full humanity. Time and again the Supreme Court has found that laws limiting the right to marry interfere with fundamental notions of personhood, whether it denied the right to marry to incarcerated people, lesbian and gay people, disabled people, or interracial couples.
Historian Tera Hunter’s new book, Bound in Wedlock, shows how the dehumanization of enslaved people in the United States was normalized through the institution of marriage. Bound in Wedlock is a detailed, careful, and comprehensive mapping of the role of marriage in the enslavement and emancipation of black people in the US in the nineteenth century.
Hunter is no newcomer to the painstaking work of assembling a complex narrative out of the seemingly random data points of a rich historical archive. In her first book, To ́Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (1998), Hunter provided a stunningly detailed account of the role of work in newly emancipated women’s experience of freedom between the Civil War and World War I. As Hunter tells it, her subjects did not become free through legal documents such as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment; rather they actualized their own freedom through a range of performances of self-ownership in and through wage-based work. To ̓Joy My Freedom marks a paradigm shift in the history of freedom in the US. It moved beyond the canonical accounts at the time of Herbert Gutman, Eric Foner, and Kenneth Stampp by foregrounding gender and focusing on Black women as stewards of their own emancipation—under conditions, of course, of enormous constraint. Hunter was joined by the historians Laura Edwards, Noralee Frankel, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Brenda Stevenson, and Deborah Gray White, among others, in documenting the domestic lives of enslaved people in ways that refused an appeal to stock characters or totalizing stories that either cast negative judgment on or romanticized the agency of enslaved people.
With this new book, Hunter provides a well-woven synthesis of others’ work on marriage, together with her own significant archival rendering of the ways in which both enslaved and freed black people solemnized their intimate relationships in marriage. The book contributes to the growing body of work that illuminates how marriage became, curiously, a container for both enslaved life and for freedom.
Of course, enslaved people could not legally marry, as marriage is a legal contract and enslaved people—legally considered property—did not have the capacity to form such contracts. Nevertheless, as many scholars have documented, enslaved people married outside the law. Their marriages were sacred and recognized before their god and their community, although not before their owners or the law. These marriages were every bit as “peculiar” as the institution of slavery within which they were nested. The first chapters of Bound in Wedlock provide some new examples and contexts for the well-known phenomenon of owners breaking up the marriages and families of enslaved people. These owners cared not at all about their slaves’ familial attachments—and love—as they made decisions about trading them as they might any other chattel.
Hunter also reveals the double binds spouses experienced in mixed marriages—that is, marriages between enslaved and free black people—in the antebellum period. Against a backdrop of overwhelming precarity, enslaved people did their best to preserve the integrity of their marriages and families; some freed spouses actually sold themselves back into slavery in order to remain close to their loved ones. This tragic necessity was motivated by laws that required emancipated black people to move out of the state in which they were freed. Uneasy slaveholders feared that the presence of former slaves would provide a bad example to the people they held in bondage and pushed for laws that would eliminate black people unbound to a white owner from the communities surrounding their plantations.
Perhaps the best example—though not one included in Hunter’s telling—of the perverse incentives created by these laws was embodied in George Washington’s will. Washington wanted to free his slaves upon his death, but he was reluctant to do so because many of his slaves had married slaves owned by his wife Martha—and the law of dower (which required him to provide for his widow in the event of his death) did not permit him to free her slaves as well. Further, if George’s slaves were set free upon his death, they would be required to flee the Commonwealth of Virginia, thus breaking up married couples and families. “To emancipate them during her life,” he wrote,
would, tho’ earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties on account of their intermixture by Marriages with the dower Negroes, as to excite the most painful sensations, if not disagreeable consequences from the latter.
George solved the problem in his will by giving Martha 123 of his 124 slaves, with the proviso that they be freed upon her death, thus (advertently or inadvertently, we do not know) putting a price on her head.
The underlying question upon which Bound in Wedlock rests is whether matrimony and slavery can coexist. While there were certainly contexts in which enslaved peoples’ interests in maintaining the integrity of their kinship relationships was coextensive with their owners’ interests in maximizing profit, maintaining a compliant labor force, or upholding their religious values, these felicities were mere coincidence, not necessity. Property law, not that of family or religion, provided the overarching structure for relationships among enslaved people, and between owners and the people they enslaved. Although both marriage and slavery created status relationships, when those statuses came into conflict, the status of being property always trumped the status of being a spouse.
Hunter’s study of marriage extends beyond the antebellum period to document the afterlife of slavery in the married lives of freed people up to the end of the nineteenth century. She describes a liminal state in which Black people were trapped between slavery and complete freedom, and how the right to marry figured in that racial entrapment. Cynical enforcement of fornication, adultery, and bigamy laws imposed a kind of racial discipline on newly freed people in the postbellum period.
Reviewing a valuable book like Bound in Wedlock presents a challenge for historians like me, who have written on this topic and have spent a great deal of time in some of the same archives. Marriage, slavery, and freedom are complex institutions amenable to many thoughtful readings.
The postbellum experience of marriage by formerly enslaved people goes to the core of what I termed in my book Wedlocked (2015) “freed-dom,” that is, the condition of being freed but not fully free. Freedom, it turns out, is a racialized term, something enjoyed fully in the United States only by white people. The badge of inferiority that marked black people as enslaveable persisted long after emancipation and licensed all manner of racial terror. For the most part, marriage provided a new opportunity for white society to elaborate that inferiority and terror rather than mitigate its violence. In my own work I portray this as the predictable result of a politics of liberation that looks to state regulation as key to freedom. Marriage rights, I argue, merely inaugurate a new regulatory relationship with the state, one amenable to cooptation by those who cling to the durability, if not truth, of white supremacy. Hunter’s book, by contrast, is animated by a refreshingly romantic view of marriage; she argues that the passionate and kin-based ties of formerly enslaved people persisted, notwithstanding the violence of the state and white society operationalized through the law of marriage.
Bound in Wedlock suggests a set of hard questions that arise in the settings where two foundational nineteenth-century institutions meet: matrimony and white supremacy. As Hunter notes at the close of the book, the forces that frustrated freed peoples’ efforts to achieve human flourishing through matrimony in the nineteenth century remain intact today. A social and legal landscape saturated with notions of racial inferiority deprived freed people of the security and dignity that matrimony promised to white couples.
Hunter concludes her monograph with the recognition that today African Americans marry at rates far below those of white people. Echoing the arguments made by Ralph Banks in Is Marriage for White People? (2011), Hunter attributes this disparity not only to the enduring effects of racism but also to the ways in which marriage no longer serves as the institutional family form for achieving economic security. The low marriage rate among African Americans is a kind of canary in a coal mine, she argues, for larger societal trends in marriage rates. For African Americans and for low income whites “[m]arriage is seen as something you do after you have established your material foundation in life, not as a means to building up from it,” she concludes. Ending with insights relevant to the current moment, Hunter observes that economic and social equality are the preconditions for enjoying the dignity and agency that marriage can provide, and that oppressed groups, such as formerly enslaved people or same-sex couples, cannot expect marriage to deliver dignity and well-being on its own.
I take a more critical view of marriage altogether. Hunter sees the crisis of marriage for African Americans as rooted in preexisting racial and economic status inequalities, thus letting marriage off the hook as the institutional site that generates its own status inequalities worthy of critical concern—particularly for African Americans. While gay people have had astonishing success in deploying the right to marry in a larger campaign of rebranding homosexuality as decent rather than disgusting, and respectable rather than repulsive, marriage remains a site of failure for African Americans. For African Americans, marriage has reinforced racial inferiority and reinscribed a toxic badge of inferiority. Recent Republican statements about the need for welfare reform have revived racist—and false—notions of “welfare queens” and other unwed women of color living on public assistance. Even the Obama administration endorsed the notion that low marriage rates among African Americans and absent black fathers (rather than the mass incarceration of black men) explained a wide range of “pathologies” in the black community.
Rather than see the low rates of marriage in the black community as a problem in need of fixing, or worse, as the cause of all manner of social ills, I see the complexity of kinship relations among black people as a virtue—evidence of resilience to be honored rather than of degeneracy to be repaired. The same may be said of the lesbian and gay community as well—the complex forms of attachment, care, love, and responsibility that we formed when we were banned from the institution of marriage were not malformations that grew out of necessity during an era of now-repudiated oppression. Rather, queer kinship provides a model for all people—queer and straight alike—that in many cases enables human flourishing, security, and happiness far better than the nuclear, marital family.
Like the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which affirmed the constitutional right of same-sex couples to marry, Bound in Wedlock succumbs to the sanctification of marriage. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Obergefell,
Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.
Yet a marriage can be one of the loneliest places on earth. When it comes to writing the history of marriage, it is vitally important to foreground the role of white supremacy in devastating the family lives of African Americans, yet it is also crucial that in doing so we resist the impulse to sanctify the innocence of marriage itself.
Notwithstanding our different takes on these issues, Tera Hunter’s Bound in Wedlock makes a significant contribution to our understanding of slavery, of marriage, and to the contemporary implications of that history.
Katherine Franke is the Sulzbacher Professor of Law and the Director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School, and chair of the board of trustees of the Center for Constitutional Rights. She is the author of Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Equality (2015).