The Towel

A single tangible vestige remains of the marriage that ended over forty years ago: a threadbare hand towel imprinted with  faded flowers.  When it arrived, gift wrapped in paper covered with wedding bells,  I was  twenty-two, three months pregnant, and trying to believe I was still in love with the nineteen- year- old boy who, in a state where the legal age for marriage was twenty-one, forged the application for the license that legitimized a union that was doomed from its start. The towel in question was one of the few gifts we received after I tried to restore a whiff of middle class respectability to the marriage by paying more money than our cheap wedding rings cost to have announcements printed (after consulting a book of etiquette by Emily Post from which I also learned to set a table and write a proper RSVP) exactly as the book mandated: “Mr. and Mrs. Francis E. Roy announce the marriage of their daughter Paula Alida Roy to ….” The announcement avoided the fact that my father and mother, Francis and Yvonne, estranged and living separately, knew nothing about the elopement until after the fact.  No copy of the announcement remains, but for some reason this towel endures, the only domestic remnant of that life-changing union.   

Now almost 60 years later, 40- plus years after the marriage ended, that towel, the last survivor of a set of bath towel, hand towel, and washcloth, covers the teak bath stool on which I sit after every shower to dry and lotion my pale, skinny shanks. Having removed it from the dryer after its weekly wash, I held it up to begin folding it. The light from the window passed through its antique thinness. Whatever thread count once defined its slight heft has now thinned into near-sheer fabric through which I can see not only light but also the actual window frame. I wonder why I haven’t banished it to the rag box. Is a tatty towel that is hardly capable of of drying anything but perhaps the most reluctant tears, a mnemonic, an cotton umbilicus tying me to that sad girl a long time ago who opened the gift with little gratitude because its drab homeliness challenged the veneer I was already trying to stroke, layer upon layer, over our “shotgun wedding”? 

For that’s what unkind acquaintances, raising eyebrows, surely called it. People at my place of employment knew that there was too little time between the news of my marriage date and the bulge at my waist. They sniggered when I waddled by, a walking version of an old, old story. Remember: this was 1962, long before femnist consciousness raising and Roe v. Wade, and Murphy Brown vs Dan Quayle. Being unmarried and pregnant suggested sin, scandal and disgrace. I should note, however, that the unhappy union did result in the happy birth of three children within 17 months, another reason it endured for another 15 years before ending in anger, outrage, and mutual recrimination. I thought I had put its memory behind me until I found myself staring at the shabby towel stretched between my hands. 

One of the antonyms for memoir is bewilderment. Holding the towel, I begin in bewilderment, not at the pull on memory that the towel exerts, but on the narrative that spools out from it, telling me my own story that I thought I understood fully over the years that passed in forward time. As I write now, I think that I understood so little of what happened to me, to us, to the world around us. The shabby towel prompts what Toni Morrison in her novel Beloved remarkably called “rememory,” a word she used both as noun and verb, as in “I rememory…” I rememory the time of the towel as I stand holding it up to the light from the window. Before this old towel is consigned to the dustbin of history where other memory-evoking items have disappeared, I want to wring out of its scanty shape what it may have to say to me in 2022.

I graduated from college in June, 1962. In the fall, I realized that I might be pregnant, a fear confirmed by the obstetrician recommended by a married friend. I wore a fake wedding band to the appointment; I pretended I was thrilled when the doctor confirmed the pregnancy.   I remember feeling as I left the office on I street in Washington, DC, as though I had fallen through a rabbit hole into an impossible alternative universe, as unreal and inescapable as being kidnapped by a stranger. The feeling of being held hostage dominated the next months. I think it is difficult for educated and liberated young women today to understand the utter powerlessness I felt. All I knew about access to abortion was the story of a college friend who had gone to Puerto Rico to have an illegal abortion; the details were terrifying and the cost impossible. There was no way I could imagine seeking to terminate the pregnancy; while I had by that time rejected most Cathoic Church teachings, I still felt ambivalent about abortion; it takes a long time for Catholic indoctrination to wear off. So the first pregnancy ran its course, and then a second accident resulted in twin daughters. Three babies in eighteen months. My first obstetrician had refused to prescribe the pill or fit a diaphragm. My second, non-Catholic obstetrician offered both, and thus I joined so many women liberated by the birth control pill into the paradoxes of the “sexual revolution.” 

This old towel I hold in my hands, warm from the dryer, its hem unraveling into loose fringe, must have dried all of our bodies at one point or another, must have toweled skin and hair, hands and feet of our grown up bodies and those of our babies. I remember the smell of a newly bathed baby, the pleasure of nuzzling damp, warm belly skin, ruffling the downy hair dry. This towel was small enough to wrap a wet baby like a burrito before carrying the little wriggling body to the changing table to diaper and dress. Three babies, bathed one at a time until they could sit up safely together in the tub. In memory, it seems like a pleasure; in truth it was a chore, coming at the end of a day of endless  diaper changes times three, the rank diaper pail, heaped loads of laundry waiting to be pinned to a clothesline, bottles and baby food, the boredom of repetition. No one tells young mothers-to-be about the boredom of caring for the physical bodies of babies and toddlers, let alone the constant anxiety and fear that one is not providing the emotional sustenance and intellectual stimulation and patient love that is supposed to instinctively guide a new mother’s every thought and gesture. No one tells you that you might find yourself tempted to violence or flight after three days of feverish children suffering with simultaneous colds, their hot faces crusted with dried snot, their crying a cacophony of wordless need. Alone with the babies all day, then the tense, combative dinner times and evenings. I often thought I was a bad wife and mother, that is, when I was not too tired to think.  

Life’s trajectory can change in a second. My beloved children were conceived in such a second or however long it takes to start the process.  Now all three teeter at the edges of 60. Smart, funny, caring, productive, loving individuals who have given me both angst and joy in more or less equal measure and six cherished grandchildren. As I rememory the early years of my children’s lives and of my troubled marriage, I wonder if I regret what felt like the inevitability of their births. I know I have said, when asked, that  I would have considered abortion had it been legal back then. And some listeners have responded with horror: “How could you imagine not having your children, those wonderful men and women?”  I can’t imagine it because I did have them, maybe not a freely chosen decision, but here we all are.  I know that had I chosen to terminate a pregnancy, I would not have been ending the life of a now-known, loved, and cherished human being.  There is more to every human being than the cells that separate and grow in the uterus.  Potential life is not the life of a fully developed human being.  To tell the truth, I don’t know what I would have chosen if I had had a choice.  The woman I am now thinks I would have left the relationship; in daydreams, I imagine I would have continued my association with the civil rights movement, maybe gone south to register voters, maybe gone on to graduate school and scholarship and university teaching. I daydream in hindsight, however. At the time, I think that I did what most people do when faced with a crisis: I did the best I could.  I worked at a full time job through both pregnancies; the boy I married found a decent job, too, after the twins were born. We held the marriage together as best we could, moving to Connecticut and Kansas and then to New Jersey, where it finally collapsed under the weight of too much pretense and pretending.  The husband and father moved out and away; I raised the children more or less alone while pursuing a rewarding career in education.  They grew up into their own lives; I too grew up and grew old. 

At the recent bat mitzvah for my youngest grandchild, I was surrounded for the first time in over ten years by all of my children and grandchildren, literally surrounded for photos and embraces.  On a sunny roof terrace in Brooklyn, in the bright light of the day and of the now, I had no regrets. Life is what it becomes as one tries to make the best of gains and losses. Much of it was not what I imagined or dreamed. Nothing I imagined, however, could replace the joy and love I felt among the men and women who are my family. 

Memory and regret and silent partners. They often conspire in the sleepless, lonely shadows to animate our demons, to replay our acts of  failure and cruelty and meanness; to enlarge disappointment and disillusion; to mock and diminish even our little triumphs and successes. To my mind, Morrison’s rememory is different: it’s divorced from regret and self-recrimination. It may hurt, but it also heals.  Rememory asks that we take another look back through a more honest and compassionate lens. Rememory reminds us to try to understand and forgive ourselves and others. Rememory is old age tinged with grace. 

The towel with which I began this essay? It still covers the teak stool on which I sit after each shower. I think I shall keep it there. After all, that raggedy piece of cloth has touched the bodies of people I love and of people I have lost. It’s a relic, really, not unlike, though less famous and fraught, the shroud of Turin, Jesus’ burial cloth on which his face is said to be imprinted. The story has been officially debunked, but that doesn’t stop believers from pilgrimage and worship. None of our body parts is visibly imprinted on my towel, but I do claim it as a relic. The word relic suggests the sacred to me. That’s a heavy label for a shabby old towel to bear, but things acquire what meaning or sacredness we bestow on them, individually or culturally. I have made this old towel into a relic imprinted symbolically, invisibly with the hands of everyone who touched it. 

As Carl Jung suggests in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, “It all depends on how we look at things, and not on how things are in themselves. The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.”  

Reflections at 79: On Not Going Gentle

At our family celebration of my 79th birthday, my daughter noted that I was now entering my 80th year.  Eighty! I hadn’t thought much about turning 79, probably because I don’t like odd numbers or the ends of things, in this case another decade. But 80! When people in their 80’s die, visitors to wakes or viewings (shudder-inducing term) or Shivas often comment consolingly, “She lived a good long life” or, in the case of the still-popular open casket, “She looks good for a woman of 80.”

If I make it to 80 on this side of a hearse, I have been very clear about my expectations for the celebration of my birthday: I crave a full-blown party with attendance mandatory for family and friends. While I no longer drink alcohol (long story there, each chapter an embarrassing record of one or another fall from grace –or just plain fall on my face on 14th St. in Manhattan, one example of why I no longer drink alcohol), I want champagne to be served along with delicious food. Bring on the tributes, spoken and written and even sung. If I am at 80 on the verge of devolving in the crucible of fire to unrecognizable ashes, I want to go out with a bang, not a whimper, while I can still participate in the fun.

As some of my (few) readers have noted, I haven’t posted a word to this blog in months. I have been rendered literally speechless by my own anger and indignation at the state of our country and the world. I have written rough drafts of several rants and then fallen into the swamp of my own inadequacy to say anything important. My blog file lists several possible topics about which I was briefly energized/indignant/enthusiastic. Among the labels: patriarchy (no surprise), St. Therese of the Blessed Sacrament (my college writing professor, rumored to be a mystic), sentiment vs. sentimentality (That one I still plan to pursue.). And Aging. Since I am considering the imminence of my next, 80th, birthday, I’ve decided to click that draft back into life.

When I opened the “Aging”  file, I saw that all it contains is a New York Times (January 12, 2019) opinion column  by Mary Pipher entitled The Joy of Being a Woman in Her 70s. Her thesis is best summarized in the subtitle: “Many of us have learned that happiness is a skill and a choice.” Reading that precis, I remember why I copied her piece into my file. While I enjoy and respect most of what Mary Pipher has written, this piece rubbed me the wrong way. Pipher begins by asserting an obvious truth: “…ageism is a bigger problem for women than aging.” I certainly agree, having been micro-aggressioned to virtual death by endearments like “honey” and “dear” and, most maddening of all, “young lady” delivered gratuitously like pastel teddy bears on a pediatric ward by people (doctors, nurses, waiters and waitresses, flight attendants, gas station attendants, clerks of various establishments.) I know what many of you are thinking; “They are just trying to be nice/polite/kind.”  So was my dear mother being kind when she patted a small Asian child on the head and crooned, “What a little China doll!” I suppose tolerating kind endearments from people who look no  older than 12 is better than enduring howls out a car window by thuggish young men crudely disparaging  the physical adjustments old age has made to my body. And then we have the ads, with women who look no older than 60 marveling at the comfort and joy of the latest incontinence diaper-designed-to-resemble-sexy-underwear or the gentle relief, without the embarrassments of gas or leaks, offered to a glowing silver haired woman by the latest laxative. There is also the ongoing insult of plastic surgery’s omnipresence and the almost mandatory tone of those ads encouraging women to have bits and pieces lifted, smoothed, plumped or reduced. Jane Fonda et. al, make natural aging look cheap and aesthetically offensive.

Let me share my latest experience with the medical establishment. A few months ago, I had what has been called a “small” stroke. In the aftermath, I had Dopplers and scans and blood tests and finally an appointment with a neurologist. I couldn’t get in to see the woman most recommended, so I was given an appointment with a man in her practice. Given the fact that he is an attractive and healthy male specimen who looks maybe 16, I assume he is relatively new to the game, although he didn’t seem uncertain or tentative. At his request, I told him the circumstances of the incident. He leaned casually against the exam table that I had not yet mounted. (I try at initial medical appointments to greet the doctor from a regular chair, maintaining the fiction that we are on equal terms.) The young doctor asked a couple of cursory questions, told me to “hop” up onto the table, and ran me through what seemed a very cursory series of exercises to determine if my stroke (I’ve come to have a rather proprietary relationship with the incident.) left any residual damage. So I touched my nose, raised and lowered my arms, and so on. He pronounced me free of damage and asked if I’d like to see the scan of my brain on which the “small” stroke appeared as a kind of fuzzy milky spot. As he seemed to be indicating the end of our session, I asked him if I was a greater risk for another “incident” and what he recommended as preventative measures. Smiling patronizingly, he said that really the greatest risk for a recurrence was “your advanced age.” He assured me that all people of my “advanced age” were prone to strokes. He seemed not at all interested in salt restrictions, blood pressure meds, weight loss, exercise –any of the various easily Googled measures recommended post stroke. He ventured that baby aspirin and the prescription blood thinner my regular doctor has prescribed were more or less interchangeable as perhaps reliable attempts to forestall future strokes, but repeated (for the 4th time) that my “advanced age” was my greatest risk for finding myself drooling in a wheelchair, wearing not-so-sexy institutional diapers. He said a pleasant goodbye with no encouragement that I return. My conclusion is that he was faintly bored when he realized that he was dealing with a garden variety “advanced age” incident, not a more exotic brain injury. I know I am making assumptions here, but I left that exam room feeling older and closer to death than when I entered.

I digress in the service of anecdotal experience. Back to Mary Pipher. What really sticks in my craw, as my New England farmer ancestors would have it, is Mary’s choice to speak in the collective “we” as she rolls out her argument. She says, “Most of the women I know describe themselves as being in a vibrant and happy life stage. We are resilient and know how to thrive in the margins. OUR happiness comes from self – knowledge, emotional intelligence, and empathy for others.”

Whoa there, Mary Pipher! Who is/are this WE about whom you make such confident statements? She assures her readers that WE older women don’t make assumptions as we were wont to do when younger. What about this assumption of the WE/US?  She goes on paragraph after paragraph to describe US as choosing happiness, making everything work, finding serenity in even the worst circumstances, like the woman she describes,  “old, crippled and living in a tiny apartment facing a brick wall” who claims she is happy because “I have everything I need to be happy right between my ears.”  I guess she’s the antonym to Melville’s Bartleby, who chose to die facing his brick wall; she simply chooses to be happy, no protest against the political and economic forces that have abandoned her to her fate.  And that’s one of Pipher’s main points – WE (old women) just merrily accept the slings, arrows and depredations, throw on our yoga pants without apologies for sag, and add blessings to our gratitude lists every day. Describing the state of collective bliss WE can achieve, Pipher offers as an example that now she “can feel it [bliss] “when I look at a caterpillar on my garden path.” That’s some caterpillar!  As Mary says, “Attitude is not everything, but it’s almost everything.” That’s a line with a familiar jangle. Isn’t that what some Trump official, Ben Carson, I think, said recently about the poor? Of course, he is not the only one in a long line of privileged power people who dismiss the discontents of the poor and oppressed as simply a problem of attitude.  They need to pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps! Who cares about the aging poor? Or the incarcerated elderly? Or the demented? The lonely, abandoned, hungry, cold, homeless senior citizens all over this country?  I wonder Pipher expects them to alter their negative attitudes in order to feel that caterpillar bliss.

And my point is? That articles like Mary Pipher’s are themselves ageist-sexist, in that they glorify another aging female stereotype: the wise, kind, patient, forbearing, accepting old woman who avoids anger, criticism of others, complaints and ingratitude. And that WE? It doesn’t even encompass me, even though I enjoy some measures of middle class privilege. Given that much of what Pipher praises about these women she “knows,” who seem in her telling to constitute the collective containing the pleasures she and her WE and Us  experience – yoga pants, good friends and long term partners, stimulating books, homemade pie, friendly phone calls –. I would suggest that she is dallying in the feel-good fields of economic comfort, lots of company, physical agility and health, good reviews and book sales. How else could she prattle on with her sentimental vision of the way WE are?

Yesterday, standing at my dresser, looking at myself in the mirror, I noted a long hair growing witch- like from my chin, the puffy blue pouches under my blue eyes, and the dewlaps that my grandchildren love to jiggle.  Then I looked down. There on my dresser were the little black casket in which my very expensive hearing aids hang out each night to be charged; my home blood pressure monitor that I should be using every day according to my regular doctor and useless according to the neurologist who knows it’s really all about my “advanced age;” the base of my emergency alert system, currently disabled after the cat knocked it off the table, given to me by my daughters to reassure them that I can summon help at the push of a button; and an extra pair of glasses. Oh, also a bra that more closely resembles an architectural support system than a piece of sexy lingerie. As a retired English teacher and constant reader, I know a symbol when I see it. These metonyms speak of and to the realities of old age for women as privileged as I am to have good medical insurance, generous children, and enough education to rely on irony, literary and otherwise, instead of sentimental gratitude, to get by one day at a time.

How can I (not WE) be happy in the “miracle” and “privilege” of life that Mary Pipher lauds? Although I don’t believe in a generic attitude of happiness, I do believe in heartfelt defiance, full awareness of the human condition, and love. Not sentimental, feel-good love, but fierce love that resists easy platitudes and hymns to the beauty of aging and death. I’m with Dylan Thomas here: “Do not go gentle into that goodnight.” I recently saw Glenda Jackson on Broadway in a production of King Lear. She was splendid. I have discussed the play many times with students and with colleagues. I only began to “get” it, however, as I grew older. At this production, seen at 79, I felt its full tragic majesty in my bones (and in the backache that resulted from four hours of theater sitting).  So much is great about the play, but for me this time around, I was struck by how emotionally dynamic the drama is, how much Lear (and Gloucester) learn about themselves, about others, about love. The play is cruel and fierce, as tragedy should be. In its fierceness I see illuminated the possibility of transformation even at the very end of life. As fortune turns against him in the form of his ungrateful daughters, and his confused ego drives him mad, Lear realizes something surprising for a man who has taken advantage of his privilege to ignore the sufferings of others. In the raging storm, he takes a first step outside of himself to recognize the suffering of others:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en

Too little care of this!

 

First he is humbled to the edge of empathy for the “other,” and then, annealed by a descent into madness, he learns to love. Reunited with Cordelia, he is ready to be go to prison with her, where “We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage/ When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down/And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,/And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh.”

And then, of course, she is murdered, his “poor fool” is dead and he must take his new-found wisdom and love with him to his grave.  The grave to which we all take whatever we have learned, unable to judge the effects of what we leave behind.

Piper says that WE all have more tragedy and bliss than we expected in life. She doesn’t account for the vast inequality of both tragedy and bliss in the widely divergent lives of old people, even in OUR own privileged circles. I for one have known more sadness than bliss, and that is probably at least partly a function of my own psychology, a lifetime of the kind of chronic depression that so many women face, adding to the physical insults of old age. Like so many other women, I have known lots of loss.

Loss is out of my control:  death, especially the death of the young to disease and to suicide; disillusionment, especially the failure of democracy to keep its promises; divorce, the failure of what I thought of as enduring love; dementia, my sister, mute and frozen in a locked ward. I am often reminded to feel lucky that I am still showing strong cognitive function. Sure, but at every visit to that ward, I also feel the weight of human pain, what Arnold in the poem “Dover Beach” called “The eternal note of sadness…” that “Sophocles long ago/Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought/Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow/ Of human misery…” To borrow from John Donne, “No [woman] is an island.” I cannot control but I can choose to make each woman’s grief my own.

I know my old age is fortunate in that it is comfortable, I am loved by my children and a few dear friends, and my health is more or less stable. I know that the appropriate old woman thing to say is that I am not afraid to die. Sometimes, however,  I am tempted to agree with Ezekiel Emanuel, oncologist, brother of Chicago’s ex-mayor Raum, who wrote an article for the October 2014 issue of The Atlantic, explaining that he hoped to die by age 75, preferring death to endless tests and procedures, being a drain on the medical system, and watching his family witness his slide into old age.  Of course, Dr. Zeke was in his healthy, active 60’s when he wrote of his preference for death over aging and left himself the option to change his mind when the time came. He did not encourage suicide but rather cessation of medical tests or treatments for anything except an emergency such as a hot appendix.

Another writer I admire killed herself rather than hang on into the declining years. Carolyn Heilbrun, feminist scholar and activist, wrote that she planned to kill herself by her 70th birthday, then reversed herself when she found she was enjoying her old age. Later, at 77, she did commit suicide, leaving little behind to explain herself except that earlier commitment. Having read all of her works, I think I understand why she chose to take control of the timing of the inevitable, to go out on her own terms.

I am not advocating for suicide, but I now believe that it’s a reasonable alternative to an impaired and senile old age. Pipher says “it’s been a miracle and a privilege to be alive.” Perhaps, but we don’t get to choose the beginning, the circumstances or the end. Maybe that’s her point: that we can choose to be happy or act as if.  But what if it all ends in a dementia ward, a cancer treatment center, in a homeless shelter, a warehouse for the aged. What about elder abuse? Hunger? Loneliness, a condition considered epidemic among the old. I am NOT as Pipher says, “less angst filled and more content.” Like Lear I have learned so much about how human beings suffer, what they suffer at the hands of other human beings; I have educated myself into the real mysteries of human life: cruelty, indifference, selfishness. I think often of James Baldwin’s “There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain.” What I have seen and read and learned in this long life is that there are so many ways, overt and covert, to look away from, denigrate, and blame others for their pain, if not actually to inflict it, that I can’t choose an attitude of personal happiness as my default emotion.  I can and do know moments of joy and satisfaction, sometimes serenity.  But I don’t really aim for happiness in the sense of feeling wise or fulfilled or part of some larger mystery. Life is what it is, my life has been my own, partly of my making, partly controlled by forces within and without of the self that is my own. If I seek to be fully human – and I do – I can’t assume that my experience of old age is universal nor can I pretend that a woman’s attitude toward the depredations, physical and social, of old age is more important than defying and decrying the ways our culture denigrates, mistreats and ignores old women.

I think I am saying – and please don’t read it as prescriptive for anyone but myself – that I don’t think I should be happy, knowing what I have learned, seeing what I now see, refusing to look away from the hard reality of being mortal, of living to a “ripe” old age. To me, if, as Hamlet said, “ripeness is all,” we should remember how short the time is between ripeness and rot. And we are all destined for that rot, one way or another– “Green” burial, tree fertilizer in a pot, old fashioned lead- lined casket, or the finality of fire. As I move into the genuine agedness of my eighth decade, I’d like to think my life has been worth something, that I have made a difference beyond the important but quotidian bearing and raising of children, my reproductive duty to replace myself and the long absent partner who donated not much more than genes to the project.  But I am not sure. I have been more or less existentialist in my philosophy, long in love with Albert Camus and his unwillingness to commit himself fully to any cause, even as he participated in the work and goals of several. Although I have long eschewed formal religion, I sometimes attend a Friends meeting for worship, finding nothing objectionable in Quaker silence, so my inner critic gets an hour of rest.  And since I first heard the advice attributed to Rabbi Tarfon – “You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” — I have tried to act with integrity, never sure that my acts make a difference but sure that I must perform them anyway.

I feel a prick of guilt for launching this critique of Mary Pipher’s rhetorical use of all-inclusive plural pronouns. I am sure she was thinking, as she said, of her friends; but her choice of collective pronouns was ill-considered and exclusive.  She might at least have mentioned socio-economic-educational status as factors in the female experience of aging. As it is, her cheerful description of how WE all feel doesn’t apply to me, for reasons I have carried on about long enough now. I’ll never accept learning “to thrive in the margins” because the margins are artificially drawn and too narrow for me and so many other women.  So, Mary Pipher, whose work I usually admire, forgive me. I don’t fit into your WE and US categories, and I suspect many other women can’t see themselves there either.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reclaiming “Cunt”

BY ANY OTHER NAME….

Every Friday on the PBS News Hour, veteran journalists Marks Shields and David Brooks take to the pundits’ table to offer their polite, judicious, Public TV- style commentary on the week’s events. On June 1, in response to Judy Woodruff’s question about the relative DE- merits of Rosanne Barr’s racist tweet and Samantha Bee’s javelin-hurl of the word cunt, David Brooks, always the gentleman touting the virtues of civility, bemoaned the degradation of manners. Shields, always the more colorful and opinionated of these two talking heads, leapt to the high moral ground, sputtering, “It is—what…Samantha Bee did, was nuclear. This is a nuclear word. This is a—this is the universal most offensive word to women that I know of.”  Reading the transcript misses the visuals: on screen Shields looked as if he was about to pop, like an overinflated balloon. He appeared apoplectic, his considerable jowls quivering as he shook his head in a palsy of righteous anger.

Now let me clear: the word cunt has stopped me in my tracks when I have heard it hurled as an insult. When I saw news clips of Trump supporters in shirts that applied the cunt epithet to Hillary, I wanted to rent a flame thrower. But watching Mark Shields fulminate in full  blown hyperbole about the absolute awfulness of this little noun, I found myself asking why he declares it the “most offensive word to women.” I rummaged around on etymology and dictionary sites, finding that cunt is a very old word used by Chaucer and Shakespeare literally and punningly (as in “country matters” in Hamlet). Some sites note that the word has not always been pejorative. After some web surfing, I decided I was less interested in the history of the word than in its effects, particularly on an old feminist like me. Why did I shudder when I heard the word?

Cunt means literally, according to various sources, female genitalia; some dictionaries say it’s the vagina; others embrace a fuller context of vagina and vulva. (So few young people, girls included, have a clear idea of the complexity of lady parts — vulva, big labia, little labia, clitoris, urethra, all before one gets to the vagina.) All agree that the word cunt refers to our genitalia, our “lady parts,” the terra too often incognita down there.

So why is cunt so vile a word as to earn Mark Shields’ epithet “nuclear?” Let’s analyze dispassionately. The word refers to female genitals. One could compare it to prick, but that word would not, I am sure, earn Shields’ opprobrium at the same level of disgust. Prick is a dry word that conjures up images of the aggressive penis in contrast its opposite, the even less offensive limp dick. Cunt on the other hand evokes from Shields and many others a cringe, a wrinkled nose, the yuk effect. Why? Because there is a long cultural history of revulsion and disgust associated with female genitalia and its functions.  Think about the most obvious –menstruation. Even today in the age of TV advertising for tampons, unthinkable when I was a girl, our then president-to-be expressed disgust when he made his “blood coming out of her wherever” remark during a debate. I’ll stick to what I know well here, but there are still religious rules and traditions that stigmatize a menstruating woman as unclean. So menstrual blood (and other seepages) may be an obvious source of disgust toward female genitals.

To call a woman a cunt, the most offensive insult according to Mark Shields, is to reduce her to biological destiny, to those tucked away body parts that pee and bleed and ooze and produce lubricants to facilitate sexual intercourse, which can, in turn, if one wishes and sometimes when one doesn’t, produce a baby. To call a man a cunt is to ratchet up the insult scale; calling a man a woman (as in “you throw like a girl”) is bad enough. Calling a man a cunt reduces him even further, to what lurks between a woman’s legs, hidden, interior, mysterious, female, and disgusting.

Is cunt worse than pussy or twat or any number of other slang terms/insults? It seems to pack a greater punch, a nuclear one according to Shields. The general coarsening of public discourse, so decried by David Brooks and others, has certainly led to a greater tolerance for words formerly banned on TV and radio. (Judy Woodruff noted that Samantha Bee had used a word “so bad we can’t repeat it here on the News Hour.”) Music lyrics, the internet and our current president have “liberated” a whole lexicon of previously taboo words and phrases. Still, some vulgar references to female parts retain the power to shock.

If cunt is a dirty word, it is because women’s private parts are seen as unclean, shameful even as they are desirable. The sexual and reproductive power associated with the vagina and its habitat is both seductive and repellant. Perhaps that power is also mysterious, threatening, fearsome. In Yeats’ poem “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop,” the old woman cries, “But love has pitched his mansion in/The place of excrement.” Talking to several acquaintance about why they remove by razor or wax all of their pubic hair, I often hear, especially from young women, that it is disgusting and nasty. When I point out, as I am wont to do, that the removal of pubic hair leaves them looking like pre-pubescent girls, they seem oblivious to the implications of that image. In this supposedly post-feminist age, women have the right to remove, alter, plump up, lift any part they deem inadequate or unattractive, I guess. I do wish, however, that they would be cognizant of the politics of such alterations. I mean, labiaplasty? Vagina rejuvenation? So many ways to make one’s cunt more beautiful, more virginal, more penis-friendly…and less natural.

Back to Samantha Bee and her now notorious use of the cunt-word. (Note, I am not playing the “c-word”game! A word is a word is a word. It gains or loses positive or negative power by the way we use it; its value either way is not lessened by expurgating all but its initial letter.) I am sorry that Samantha chose to use the word cunt in derogation of Ivanka Trump’s insensitivity in tweeting out the photo of her nuzzling her adorable child. In using the word as an insult, Samantha bought into and validated the ongoing cultural problematizing of the female body, specifically its genitalia. She perpetuated disgust for the female body. In choosing that word to do her dirty work, Samantha, usually feminist  in her consciousness, added her own brand of plutonium to the nuclear fuel that outraged Mark Shields to castigate feminists in general and the Me Too movement in particular, saying, “but I just found incredible hypocrisy on the part of the MeToo movement, on the part of a lot of feminists and a lot of liberals, that they have not been as harsh on Samantha Bee as they were rightly on Roseanne…” (What’s a week of cultural outrage without an attack on feminists from a white male pundit of a certain age?)

There is a similarity with a difference between Roseanne’s nakedly racist tweet and Samantha’s sexist name calling. Yes, I am calling out Samantha Bee’s use of the word cunt as sexist because cunt’s power to dehumanize and affront depends on the cultural feeling that a woman’s private parts are nasty, disgusting, and vile.  If Ivanka had any truly feminist smarts, she would have turned the insult on its head by embracing the word, by claiming pride in her sexual, generative anatomy that produced the adorable toddler in her arms. There is, however, no way to redeem Roseanne’s tweet that called upon a racist trope so widely available in our culture: African Americans as less than human, as ape-like. Both insults rely upon stereotypes deeply embedded in our casually racist and sexist culture. The difference I see is that one can redeem cunt from its power to disgust by reclaiming it as a powerful descriptive noun. There is no redeeming the verbal or visual image of an African American woman as an animal.

I am not defending Samantha’s use of the word cunt. She hurled it out there in the most sexist/misogynistic of ways. She validated its cultural baggage – nasty, smelly, disgusting, vile: that’s what the word has come to say about what lurks between women’s legs. She apologized; I don’t think she should be fired. After all, as Shields points out, the show was taped and approved before broadcast. Samantha did not blurt out the insult spontaneously.  Roseanne, the solitary tweeter, has a long history of racist remarks on and off twitter, not to mention her support of wacky and dangerous conspiracy theories. Samantha Bee, like many comedians, is no stranger to the shock value of vulgar language, knowing that it seems more outrageous, thus newsworthy,  when spoken by a woman. Since she has already staked out and gotten lots of publicity in the forbidden territory of cunt, I would like to see Samantha deliver a routine in which she reclaims the word; in which she takes us on a tour of cunt’s original meanings and explores why and how it has become such an incendiary verbal weapon. I’d like to see her repeat the word over and over, incite her audience, as Eve Ensler did with vagina, to chant it as a way of reclaiming cunt from opprobrium and misuse. Remember pussy hats? How they and their wearers reclaimed the word that described the female part Trump bragged disdainfully about grabbing? So perhaps, if we can knit the pussy into respectability, we can reclaim cunt from the bathroom wastebasket of contempt. After all, cunt at its four-letter core is simply a word for the collective “down there” parts that we often don’t know how to label. Cunt covers more territory than the more specific vagina. Cunt has a powerful one-syllable punch. Having typed it now many times, I feel ready to befriend the word. I think it will take practice for me to say it aloud, publicly and securely, as in “One’s cunt is a seat of pleasure and sometimes pain.” But really, readers, think of cunt as a useful addition to your conventional vocabulary. The next time some street corner tough or TBS comedian tries to insult or intimidate you by calling you a cunt, refuse to cringe or blush. Somewhere in this great country of ours, someone is, I am sure, working up an intricate crochet pattern that honors the irrepressible cunt.

 

PS: I want to laud Samantha Bee’s use of another all-too-seldom applied adjective –”feckless.” She called Ivanka a “feckless cunt.” Feckless means “lacking strength of character, weak, irresponsible.” Samantha could have stopped there, as in “the feckless Ivanka Trump.” I don’t think Ivanka or any woman should be attacked by equating her to her cunt, which, after all, is merely a collection of body parts, not a brain with the feckless will to tweet out an insensitive photo. Maybe Samantha just needs a better editor on her team of comedy writers and an online copy of the O.E.D.