The Scream

I know I’m not alone in this because I’ve been hearing it everywhere: It’s really hard to concentrate these days.

“It has been hard to concentrate on reading books and seeing movies since the election,” author A.S. Hamrah writes simply in this excellent essay about Trump and B movies for n+1. Yes, yes it has. In her sweet, intimate email newsletter last month, journalist Anne Elizabeth Moore wrote, “I haven’t had it in me to write lately, dears, and I apologize for it. Democratic inaction on the ACA repeal, the multiply broken heart, and extreme frustration over the fact that MY CORN IS NOT COMING IN has all conspired against our delightful communications.”

I’ve been troubled by this sort of stuff myself for several months now — since, oh, about November. I haven’t written much that I’ve enjoyed writing for a while, I’ve been intermittently depressed—I haven’t been able to find the kind of psychological stillness that you need to GO THERE, to get to that place. That in itself isn’t so unusual; writing is hard, and there are lots of things that, as Moore puts it, conspire against it. The strangest thing, to me, is how hard I’ve found it to read.

Reading is easier than writing—usually, anyway. Someone else has done the work; you just need to show up, and if the story or the language is good enough, unusual enough, and if you stick with it for long enough, you’ll get carried away on that current. It’s a powerful form of escapism, to be inside your mind but not really, to get a break from your own thoughts not merely by being distracted, but by actually inhabiting another person’s mind. It’s magic, when you think of it that way. Some people have compared it to time travel, but I think it’s more like leaving your body and moving along the astral plane, the closest you’ll ever get to being someone else.

For months, as I’ve been unable somehow to access this magic, I’ve felt the loss of it acutely. Sure, I actually “read” plenty: I read online news articles and everything the wonderful Masha Gessen has written for the New York Review of Books about the Trump presidency, and even the occasional personal essay, like this beautiful piece by Laura Maw that was published a few days ago in Catapult, about the film The Shining and the ways it talks about violence in the home, within families. I read the newsletter and essay that I quoted from above, too, obviously. But that experience of picking up a book and disappearing into it for a while? Looking up from the page now and then to think about one of its ideas, and an hour or two later, emerging wholly, refreshed and a little bit changed by the experience? I couldn’t do it. For a while after the election I had no interest, and for a longer while after that I missed the experience but still couldn’t do it. It’s become a problem, the way a bad or nonexistent sex life becomes a problem. You think about it all the time, but as simple as the supposed fix would be, should be, you just can’t make it work.

I remember that for months after my father died, almost 20 years ago now, my mother was plagued with the reading problem. She’s a huge reader who always has at least a couple of books going, but when she was in the depths of her grieving, she couldn’t do it. It was a kind of forgetting—not how to read, but how to want to. The desire just wasn’t there. It came back to her in bits and pieces, enough to haunt her for a while before she was able to fix it, and as I recall it was the sweet, clever Precious Ramotswe novels by Alexander McCall Smith that finally broke through and brought her back to the Land of the Reading. Grief is weird that way: It resets everything. You’re still alive but, for a time, you lose your life. If you’re lucky you eventually find your way back, though not everyone does.

My life is still in progress, I’m happy to report, and I’m writing this now because I’ve started to find my way back to it. (I’m also writing this now because writing has always been the thing that saved me, like throwing an ice axe out in front of me, one of those tough-ass climbing tools, and using it to drag myself forward along that slippery mountain’s edge. You gotta hang on, but you gotta keep moving, too.) The book that’s finally helped me remember how to live/read again (they’re the same thing) is called Scream, and it’s Tama Janowitz’s first book-length memoir, published last year by HarperCollins. I got it at the library a few days ago and have nearly finished it, and am totally confident that this time, after reading the first 10 or 20 pages of a lot of other books, I actually will. This small/ huge victory (they’re the same thing) is the result of some combination of wanting my life back and finally finding the right book, though I’m not sure I know what makes this book the right one, beyond the fact that I already knew I loved Tama Janowitz’s essays and memoir-style writing. In fact, she once wrote one of the best and most life-affirming things I’ve ever read about writing, in her 2002 collection of essays, Area Code 212: New York Days, New York Nights:

“But there is one thing I have, no matter if I can’t ever get published, or sell a book, or get an award or money or praise—I CANNOT BE STOPPED FROM WRITING.” Emphasis hers, baby. The emphasis is always hers. (She then goes on to say, “As for advice, I offer only this: Mamas, don’t let your daughters grow up to be writers.” Which I take as the feminism-edged joke that it is, and choose to ignore as actual advice.)

This new book is as deadpan-weird and hilarious as all her best writing, like a conversation with—if not a friend, a person you’d LIKE to befriend. With her stories about her friendship with Andy Warhol and the time she heard the Sex Pistols play their second-ever show at some guy’s house party in London, knowing her seems aspirational, even though she makes it clear that all of this stuff feels accidental to her. At one point she writes something to the effect that everything that’s ever happened to her seems equally weird, surprising, absurd, even the nothing-things. (She writes about those too, complaining lustily about the stupid organization of her local supermarket. She’s always pissed off, always on the verge of giving up, but never doing so.) I loved reading this because it’s a way I’ve felt many times in my life. And if everything’s equally weird, everything’s equally likely, too. Looking at the world like this has a way of making it open up to you.

I’d have to call Janowitz’s writing voice utterly unique because she is seemingly being herself COMPLETELY, all the time, in a way that most people can’t or won’t try to be. It puts me to mind of something I once read in an essay by Dorothy Allison, “Stubborn Girls and Mean Stories,” which was published in an anthology called An Angle of Vision: Women Writers and Their Working Class Roots. In it, she talks about treasuring the early “review” that her partner and the mother of her son gave her after reading one of her first books: ‘“It’s not bad,” she said. “You are the real thing.”’

The real thing. I think about this often. There can be no higher compliment, no worthier goal. That’s what Tama Janowitz is, and it’s what I am too, when I don’t forget it. I guess that’s why this book is the one that pulled me back onto land, exhausted and coughing up seawater. It has that fighting spirit. If you read between the lines, all that’s there is a will to live.

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“…the blade struck against a waterfall, which was rushing down near them from a lofty crag, and with a splash, which sounded almost like a burst of laughter, it poured over them and drenched them to the skin. Whereat the priest of a sudden woke from his dream…” From Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué
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Storming the Castle

Well THAT was a fucking letdown. JEEZ.

When was the last time someone you greatly admired gave a talk that made you feel so confounded and pissed off and disappointed that you literally ran out into the night but still missed your train, and then in your pain and confusion got on the wrong train and ended up in a suburb you’ve never even heard of even though you grew up taking these stupid trains because the one you got on by accident was an EXPRESS, and then you had to call home for a ride cuz it was cold and you were wretched? What, that hasn’t happened to you? Well I guess you were smart enough not to place your emotional and psychological well-being in the hands of the Penn Humanities Forum last night.

I’ve been looking forward to hearing Terry Castle give her talk at Penn for months now. It was initially scheduled for November and then got pushed back to February. No problem, my calendar flips by at an alarming rate these days anyway, so I decided I could handle the wait. But this is thing—I really, really looked forward to this. I love(d) Terry Castle. I have thought of her as a genius. She is so funny, and has such a fine, nuanced, unusual mind that she’s one of my favorite critics to read on contemporary culture and queer and gender issues, and one of my favorite writers, period, when it comes to the even more personal stuff that she writes about, i.e., her own life. She teaches at Stanford in California, so getting to see her at a university right here at home (the one I graduated from, go Quakers!), was a rare treat. She was appearing as part of a yearly, academic-year-long conference called the Humanities Forum that is open to the public and pretty reliably excellent. Every year I look through the schedule and choose a few lectures that I am excited to attend, and this year I hit the ceiling when I saw one of them would be given by one of my personal writing heroes. I could go hear Terry Castle say surprising, funny stuff in person, for free! Lucky me.

Maybe I should tell you that I gave some thought to what I’d wear to this lecture, because I think, rather a lot, about what I’ll wear every time I go anywhere, and about what those clothes—and other aspects of my physical appearance—might communicate to the people who will see me. In the end, I chose my trusty skin-tight black jeans because I think they’re becoming AND cool. I wore a little makeup, too, like I usually do. None of this was a very big deal and it didn’t take me away from my more SERIOUS, INTELLECTUAL interests for any longer than, say, I don’t know, putting on aftershave or organizing my fucking fishing lures would have done. Just so you know.

The talk was held in Penn’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, which happens to be one of my favorite places in the world. We knew the subject of the lecture: “I’m not a woman, I’m a not-a-woman,” which was Castle’s own coinage (obvi) to describe that unusual sort of woman who manages to live outside of the constraints of expectations of behavior and attitude that are typically placed on women. People who “fail” to “be women,” either willfully or because they can’t help it. It’s an interesting idea, and one I’ve given a lot of thought to myself.

Castle’s list of Western women through history who met these criteria—most of them artists or dramatic performers, since that’s her own personal bent—was a kind of queer history, but it was more complex than that. Claud Cahun, Eleanor Roosevelt, Madonna, Susan Sontag, Susan Boyle, H.D., Gertrude Stein. What do they all have in common? They are “not-a-woman” women. Some of them are gay, some aren’t. Some are cross-dressers, and some are skilled at and interested in cultivating the kind of female beauty that appeals to straight men. Some do not possess those skills but seem basically unaware of this fact, so uninterested in it are they. In one way or another, all of them have managed to circumvent, ignore, flout, or knowingly use to their own purposes the traditional gender role of a [heterosexual] woman.

It’s an interesting and provocative topic, though I’m sorry to say I didn’t find what she had to say about it especially deep or enlightening. I kept waiting for her to surprise me with these points, and she didn’t, much. This didn’t make me want to throw rotten eggs at her, though. That impulse came later, when Castle got to the part she prefaced by saying “You may want to get out your rotten eggs to throw at the stage now.” That’s when she read a passage from Karl Abraham on the female castration complex that frankly stunned me. I wish I could share the damn excerpt but I haven’t been able to find it because I don’t know what she was reading from. Abraham was Freud’s collaborator and best student, and Castle herself admitted to being a mostly unreconstructed Freudian, so brace yourself: She read two paragraphs in which Abraham explained that women wish they were men, whether they realize it or not. It’s like a penis envy thing, ya dig?

Does this seem true to Terry Castle? It does, yes. Does she think that an attraction to masculinity or a masculine presentation indicates a desire to be a man? Yep, she thinks that too. Hideously, Castle’s (admittedly anecdotal) evidence that all women would like to be men is that, when she has asked some women whether they would have chosen to be born male, if they had been given that option before birth and all other things being equal, they either said yes, perhaps they would, or they threw up such “walls” of anger or denial that they must simply be kidding themselves, and on some down-deep, sublimated, fucking Freudian subconscious level do actually wish they were men. So here we have Castle gas-lighting the people who disagree with her, which I must say is very … manly of her. She gave the weirdest little half-apologetic, half-angry, “what do you want me to say” sort of smile after she said these things. Like, Don’t get mad at me! It’s nature! Or perhaps, This is awful and I feel bad, but I’m saying it anyway. Also, fuck you!

Castle’s penis envy idea struck me as boring and dumb and wrong, since I—a real person, who was sitting right there—am a woman who likes being a woman. Theory debunked, dog! And you know, what exactly does Castle mean by “being a man”? She never really said. I assumed she meant having access to experiences, or to a way of being in the world, that women have historically not had (though some of us do now, sort of). But maybe she meant having a penis, plain and simple. Do you wish you had a penis, those of you who do not currently have one? Yes? No? If you answered yes, would that prove Castle’s point? Does the penis make the man? Aren’t these questions kind of retro? I grow tired.

But not too tired to go on complaining about this, because I had another problem with Castle’s talk, and that was the way she discussed gender vis a vis transgenderism. As I understood her, she seemed to be saying that she considers a person who is making a male-to-female gender transition to be a sort of polar opposite of her because of their desire to be a woman, or perhaps an exaggerated example of a cisgendered woman who really enjoys “being a woman,” in the sense that she likes those social markers of, maybe, wearing long hair and / or makeup and / or pretty “women’s” shoes. Like, no. Not all transwomen like those things and want them for themselves, first of all. And as I understand it, that’s not the fuck at all what being transgender is about. I mean, being a transwoman might include desiring to “look like” a woman and / or enjoy girly things like experimenting with different types of makeup, and maybe in a larger sense also gaining membership to the sisterhood of understanding and sharing those things with other women. MAYBE. SOMETIMES. Just as many cis-women do not wear makeup and / or subjugate themselves to men in order to attract them (you’re not the only one, Terry Castle!), many transwomen do not do those things either. Anyway, as I understand it, a transwoman is a person who was assigned the gender identity of male at birth but who knows that they are actually female, and any outer expression of this (via manner of dress, a name change, or a change in bodily presentation that may or may not be surgical) is an expression of the gender that was already there. I winced down to my toes listening to her talk about these “men” who “want to be” “women.” Did I misunderstand her? I might have, that’s totally possible. Please tell me I did.

She brought up Caitlyn Jenner a couple times, once to say that some comment Caitlyn made in an interview that she just wants to share makeup tips with her girlfriends (or something to that effect) was incomprehensible to her. Which, okay, fine, it’s a big world, there’s room for Caitlyn Jenner’s AND Terry Castle’s differing attitudes toward makeup in it. But she also said that she considers this kind of activity to be so pointless and degrading that she can’t understand why anyone would choose it. Huh? This is gender studies? Sounds more like some Cool Girl shit to me.

One of the ideas Castle brought up that I rather liked was her suggestion that some Not-a-Woman women are Femme Fatales: She named Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich, Madonna and Lady Gaga. (Interestingly, these Femme Fatales are all also “gay icons,” a fact I don’t remember Castle bringing up.) She considers them to be outsider women, but ones who are interested enough in worldly gain that they knowingly, self-consciously amp up those feminine markers in order to get what they want. (Unlike lowlier, regular, yes-a-woman women, I guess, who just brainlessly, helplessly participate in some master-slave set-up every time they look in the mirror and put on their lipgloss.)

Is this feminism? Hahaha, nope, but then Castle didn’t say it was. It’s not scholarly either, a fact she also acknowledged. So what is it then? A personal, idiosyncratic, mostly eloquent disquisition on the subject of gender. There’s a place for that, for sure. Furthermore, I greatly appreciate a little controversy in these kinds of conversations. After all, her talk got me writing this blog post, trying to articulate my own ideas, and I’m thankful for that. Nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned conversation starter. I just—I’m shocked at how poorly thought-out her ideas seemed to be, and how insulting her perspective on the topic was. Sitting there, I felt humiliated, as though she’d tripped me just for the pleasure of watching me fall down.

There are two more things to say about last night’s lecture. First, Castle told us that she’s only presented the ideas in this talk once before (she didn’t say where), and there were some prominent feminists in the crowd, Vivian Gornick among them. Apparently she was ENRAGED. Second, Heather K. Love, the Penn professor who was the Topic Director for the Humanities Forum this year, introduced Castle by saying that she agrees with the people who have called Castle our greatest living critic. Hearing this made me smile, since I’ve been so admiring of Castle too. Then, after Castle had gone off the rails and wrecked her train right there in the auditorium—and during the Q&A—Love chimed in with something useful. She said that she has long been interested in the same women Castle mentioned, for the same sorts of reasons, and that she personally sympathizes with Castle’s lack of interest in makeup (or whatever; I’m having the damnedest time encapsulating the “regular woman” category), but she likes to keep her personal taste separate from her politics and would like to see enough change in the world that no one should have to conflate wanting equality with wanting to be a man.

So thank goodness for Heather K. Love. But I still have so many thoughts.

I am reminded of a talk I heard last year, given by the extraordinary war photographer Lynsey Addario. She has made beautiful pictures of, among other subjects, Afghan women living with extreme restrictions on their daily lives. Addario is interested in, and actively seeks, justice for women around the world. And yet someone in the audience asked some question or other about these women, and Addario reminded us that many of the women she met in Afghanistan are happy and that, though they were all too well-mannered to say such a thing, she knew many of them felt sorry for her, putting herself at risk to do her work, alone; what some of us see as personal liberty is viewed by some others as the unfortunate circumstance of a person who has no one to care for them. Make no mistake, yours is not the only way of looking at the world.

I’m also thinking about the Barbara Pym novel I read a few weeks ago. It’s one of her first, Excellent Women, a hilarious and touching comedy of manners that deals with midcentury, just-after-the-war-and-still-all-bombed-out-and-deprived England. More specifically, the England of bachelor vicars and their quirky households, “nice” families with comically impeccable manners, socially awkward lonelyhearts, blazing eccentrics, and spinsters. OMG, spinsters. There are few topics dearer to my heart than that one. Spinsters, bluestockings, Pippi Longstockings, Ramona Clearys, Jessica Vyes. Tomboys! I’m straight—and now I’m married, to a man—and I have aligned myself with all of these identities for at least some part, but more or less all, of my life.

In Excellent Women—in the Jane Austen tradition—we have a main character who is an unmarried woman over the age of 30 and who ponders that situation pretty often. Mildred Lathbury lives alone in a flat with a shared bathroom in a boarding house, and because she is churchy and not married, she finds herself lumped in with a category of women who can always be counted on to help her married friends with their more sophisticated problems. She is one of the condescendingly-referred-to “excellent women” who are always on hand serve the tea. In a piece on Pym for The Guardian, the novelist Alexander McCall Smith writes, “Men, young and otherwise, were to form a major focal point of [Pym’s] writing; men, wryly and sometimes wistfully observed by a single female character, bring both excitement and disappointment – and mostly the latter – to the heroines of all her books. Excellent Women is as much about men as it is about women; the excellent women who populate this novel are excellent because they have been described as such by men.”

The wonderful joke of the book is that Mildred doesn’t view her life as dire at all; if anything she seems to feel a bit above the silliness of romance. She has almost-romances, though, and goes on dates, and her observations of these are hilarious. She sometimes feels lonely or left out, but she also seems curiously undriven to get to the social place where her married friends dwell. The wistful thing that Smith mentions is also certainly there; she has a touch of the kind of admiration of men that Castle talked about, though Pym’s treatment of it was vastly less ham-fisted than hers. Mildred is a type of woman that has always interested me, probably because, in my commitment to singleness and the vocation of my writing, I was so much this way myself for such a long time. Why do these ladies not want to do what most women want, or feel obliged, to do? In what way are they different? Why do some women remain different in these ways even after marrying? (Frida Kahlo, with her bisexuality and separate house away from her husband, comes to mind; she was incidentally one of Castle’s not-a-woman women too.) The answers are as varied as there are types of individuals, and failing to acknowledge this on a deep level seems like simple misogyny to me, which feels like the worst kind of treachery coming from a woman who loves women.

I don’t know, dude. Whatever the hell it was that happened last night, it was bad enough to make me get on the wrong train. Maybe I should stay in for a while.