Anonymous | Longreads | January 2020 | 20 minutes (4,879 words)
“I’m Nobody! Who are you?/Are you — Nobody — too?”” — Emily Dickinson, 1891
“I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” — Virginia Woolf, 1929
“No name? Well, the roads are full of nameless girls.” — George RR Martin, Feast of Crows.
* * *
Years back, on a summer night in Oregon’s high desert, I was riding in a car with three other people. There were two women asleep in the backseat, leaning in opposite directions. I was in the front on the passenger’s side, and a man was driving. Somebody had put Rod Stewart’s Storyteller: The Complete Anthology, blaring and loud, on the car’s sound system, and though I wouldn’t have considered myself a fan, the heartfelt crooning was as seemingly endless and beautiful as the desert around us. We were wrapped in a velvet night, under a star-filled sky, headlights cutting through the dark. We were writers, carpooling back from a rare weekend retreat. A cool wind found its way in through a narrow slice of open window and whipped the driver’s shaggy hair into a minor frenzy. Over the sound of Rod Stewart’s mandolin, this driver scratched mosquito bites and told me about a woman writer he’d once known. “She was so talented,” he said, in admiration.
I envisioned a passive, classical sculpture of a beautiful woman being physically hoisted onto a pedestal.
“She was an awesome writer. Really, amazing.” Wistfully he added, “She got married. I’ve never seen her writing again.”
End of story.
These are points on a line: the rise of potential, then the particularly feminized fall embedded in gentle, hetero domesticity. It’s a wistful blend of longing, regret and admiration. For the story to work the way it always works, the woman has to be better than average. She has to shine. Then she conforms. Then she disappears, fading into the ambient noise of a dishwasher and the washing machine, the TV, lawnmower, barking dog, and family phones. She comes to mark a spot in memory, on a real writer’s path. It’s one of those story structures that’s so pervasive, people harbor and project it onto the arc of a faint career well in advance. There might even be a sort of satisfaction taken in the comfort of assuming this path is inevitable for other people, those women writers who once foolishly set out to have it all.
For the story to work the way it always works, the woman has to be better than average. She has to shine. Then she conforms. Then she disappears…
The narrative becomes, collectively, a place to put and justify failed dreams. It’s a societal role, come to be expected. I’ve known women as undergrads who were never encouraged to apply for grad school because they were already married, or on the verge of possible marriage, or deeply coupled. Sometimes even a looming potential marriage was considered to eclipse other possibilities. Surely there was the implication of kids, eventually? Kids would mean a human sacrifice of time, to the cosmos, to the species.
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Women “adjust” their careers for family life, and we collectively build the trajectory to match our expectations. Women do, and women should, are tangled at the root.
“Oh, E-lea-nah Fahhhr-quahar,” the man driving said, letting the syllables of the mythical woman’s name become drawn out and dreamy, as they escaped his lips. “What ever happened to Elena Farquahar?”
That classical sculpture of the beautiful woman on the proverbial pedestal shattered into glimmering dust.
The truth is, writing takes time. Much of the labor is done in private. I’ve worked on books for a decade each, though simultaneously. I’m a steady multitasker, always parenting. I teach college too, because writing is a gambler’s income while teaching runs closer to steady, and if you’re lucky, it comes with health insurance. There was a time when I had 185 students per semester. That meant almost 1,000 essays every 10 weeks — 5000 pages of reading, editing and comments. Even then, I kept writing. My strategy is to let ideas sift, settle and reconfigure. I work in bursts when time allows, instead of adhering to the write-every-day adage. I’ve published three books while serving as primary parent, learning to care for an infant, then catching up on caring for a toddler, then navigating sending the same child to grade school, forever trying to stay just ahead of the learning curve as our child grows, in an ever-evolving job.
The man driving allowed himself a leisurely pace without considering whether his own failure to publish marked the death of personal ambition.
“Has Elena Farquahar ever seen your work?” I asked.
His cuspids — those canine teeth, dog teeth, eyeteeth — they were long and damp. They gleamed when he tipped his head back and laughed, catching the light cast by an oncoming car on the other side of the two-lane desert road.
Being a mother, a woman, a wife and a writer is different from being a writer-writer. It’s possibly more precarious. It’s sketched in along different lines.
Almost at the same instant the words unfurl in my thoughts, in all sounds and meaning, a chorus of doubt chimes in to tell me otherwise. “Writing is writing!” one voice yells, deep and loud. “Onward!” another says.
Then, “If you’re good at it, work hard. If you’re original…cream rises.”
That’s possibly true, too, I concede. I’ve heard about cream rising before, in workshops and rejection slips. Very likely, it happens.
The implied corollary is that if you can’t make it, you’re not good enough. It’s a bootstraps philosophy.
Then I think about a particular pack of white men in Hollywood, how wealthy they are and have been for so long, and the famously wealthy neighborhood where at least one of them lives, and the single lunch I was fortunate to enjoy with a cluster of actors and one showrunner, before my idea — a successful indie novel — was lifted almost whole cloth, lightly disguised, and the main character’s gender switched to suit their needs. A show’s concept instantly emerged among these men, and their show had more than strong parallels to the work of mine we’d been discussing; I was turned into an unacknowledged muse, crushing a movie deal my publisher and I spent years establishing.
In interviews, the famous men said they’d been in a bind, running out of ideas, with the clock ticking on a deal already in place that they were struggling to fulfill. The idea came to them out of virtually nowhere.
They looked after themselves. It had nothing to do with who was or wasn’t, creatively, “cream.” Honestly, shit floats, too.
“Let it go,” a chorus of women’s voices chimes in. These voices are friendly, and kind, even as they veer toward shaming for that backward glance at what would’ve been a chance to bring home more money than I’ve ever made in my entire life.
“That’s Hollywood! What did you expect?” the disembodied vocal orchestration says. “Have a drink,” the women remind me, “It’s happy hour!”
Being a mother, a woman, a wife and a writer is different from being a writer-writer. It’s possibly more precarious.
Lately I’ve been losing sleep in direct proportion to the interest accruing on my excessive credit card debt. My bank account is so threadbare that if it were a pair of underwear, somebody would’ve been right to tell me to throw it away months ago.
My financial struggle isn’t because I haven’t earned money. I did. I have. I hope to, again. And it’s not because I don’t know how to save.
Money is an abstraction that all too often it lends itself to systems of dominance and subordination, wealth and poverty. In my 20s, in the Reagan era of cocaine and cash, I opted to dress out of free boxes in my apartment building’s basement, wearing a mix of ironic ragged high fashion and functional low key grunge, and intentionally shunned conspicuous consumption. When our daughter was in grade school, I earned more, deeply motivated by taking care of her, while also poised to earn based on decades of life experience. My husband and I had no significant debt other than our home. Suddenly we had savings in the bank, and plenty of it. I bought the family a Subaru, the safest car I could find, and paid in full.
“Try writing while queer,” another voice in my mind suggests, softly, and I give a nod of concession in that general direction. I’m sure it’s a hard road, more so for some than others.
“Try being a POC,” a voice says, articulating the initials. I can’t disagree. I listen.
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When I talk about the difficulties of being a woman writer, a wife and a mother, what I’m actually thinking of is specific. What I mean is that on the evening of the day my publisher and I announced plans for my third book, when my daughter and I were home having dinner, after I’d taken her to swim team, after school, after work, on an otherwise ordinary day — a day when I was simultaneously filling the role of stay-at-home mom and primary wage earner with a creative career on some imagined “side” — on that night my husband, her father, came home and hissed through his teeth, “Your mama…” and he balled up a fist, tightening his pecs.
He’s a writer, too, more or less: two small-press novels, few to no book sales. It might be a conservative estimate to say that I’ve sold about 20,000 or more books to his two or three or six individual copies.
I’ve had more than one interviewer ask, over the years, “What’s it like to be married to a writer, two writers in the same house?”
“It’s great,” I’d always say, smiling. Sometimes, it really was. In the beginning I set my husband up with book review opportunities. We went to events together. I talked up his work, supported my family, my partner.
I would not give that same answer now.
On that night, when we could’ve celebrated the impending birth of my third book, our daughter and I had made Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken, a sweet, sticky mess, because she wanted it and I’d had a long day. Later, I’d repeat that to lawyers: “We were there, eating Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken…” I said it the way a baffled person might say, “I was walking down the street…” to describe being hit by a car, or “We thought everything was okay, I was out in the garden…” to describe the moments before a cyclone takes down a house.
We were eating Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken…
There was no argument. Nothing. Only family.
In addition to the third book, I was about to start the first and possibly only sabbatical of my life, after teaching for more than 20 years. I’d have a full year off from work, at half my annual income. We’d be fine, financially. For once I’d have both time and money. I’d finally be something like financially comfortable and relatively free.
A Nora Ephron line from a commencement speech floats around these days as a meme, meant as inspirational advice: “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” On that evening I felt deeply how I’d carved my way, holding it all together, and reached goals that I’d been working toward for years.
My husband came home as a cyclone, ready to take down our house. He was a car wreck, an assault.
He puffed up his broad chest, raised up on his toes as though to expand against his own short stature, strutted around the house, and said, “Your mama…gets away with too much…”
He made intimidation into a performative event, performing a theater of patriarchal anger for his family. And we watched. His threats and animal-like postures were both baffling and horrifying. His behavior was irrational. He yelled about expenses, getting the numbers wrong. Violence and money — in my experience, I’d say those are the concerns to which he turned, to assuage and release his darker emotions. I’m sure there was a part I was expected to play in response, for him. I think I was supposed to make myself small.
Instead, I said, “Wha-a-a-t?”
His performance escalated. He was all over the house, behind me, behind our daughter, yelling, yelling, yelling….there was a moment on our back stairs, outside, over a pile of construction debris, over nails and wood and wire, over cement, when he had my wrists. I thought I’d fall, hit my head, be impaled on rusted metal. I screamed for my life.
Nobody came to help. Still, when I screamed, he let go and ran inside. I remain thankful, every day, to have gotten away.
There’s more to the violence — always more — but male violence is cliche, learned and repeated like a bad sitcom sans laugh track. I find recounting it to be tedious as well as traumatizing. To relay each detail of grotesque interpersonal horror is a shallow, gratuitously aggressive movie in my mind that I’d rather stop watching. Picture it any way you’d like. Yes, I had bruises. Yes, I was terrified. No, I didn’t call the police, I didn’t want our child to witness her father being arrested. I tried to bring the drama down, for her sake. Yes, before the worst of it started, I tried asking my then-husband to take a walk around the block. I asked him to tone it down. I suggested we talk later, when our daughter was at school. But he wanted to perform his violence for her. It was meant to be a take-down of the child’s mother in front of our child.
In his mind, he wanted to present what he would later refer to, horrifyingly, as “instruction.”
You can’t control a person who has come home in the human embodiment of a loaded gun. He wanted a witness and wanted somebody to act out aggression on. He was drinking wine. His words were slurry. He said later in court that he wasn’t drunk. It’s possible he was high on pure, high grade, uncut professional jealousy.
After hours of ongoing aggression, he stepped into the bathroom. I saw our moment. I whispered, “Run!”
Without hesitation, our daughter ran. She saw the need as much as I did, and put her faith in me.
I clutched my keys.
He came out, zipping his fly. We were out the door. He ran after us and pounded on the Subaru’s windows, that family vehicle I’d bought out of love, operating from my best effort to do everything right, to keep us safe in all weather. Now it kept us safe, from one of us, one of our family, my husband, her dad. He’d made himself into a monster. I put my foot on the gas and didn’t look back.
So what I mean when I say that it’s different being a woman writer, and particularly a mother who is also a writer, is that I don’t think male authors are physically assaulted by their spouses for gaining a modicum of success.They aren’t as likely to be violently attacked for being cream, rising.
Culturally, we hold ideas about gender and money, and gender and genius.
It’s a different kind of jealousy when there is that combination of creative ambition and gendered dynamics within a marriage. Domestic violence can occur between any set of people, anywhere on the continuum of gender, but statistically certain elements of that old plot tend to repeat with high frequency: male entitlement and domination, aiming for female subordination.
Mothers, wives, who write, have, in the wrong mind, “gotten away with too much,” by beating the odds. Keeping women from having the freedom to succeed supports the persistent myth that men are more naturally successful.
There are studies showing that some men “feel insecure” — to put it mildly, and possibly euphemistically — when a woman earns more than her male spouse. What those articles aren’t saying is that a woman’s life may be in danger if she outpaces a male partner in her chosen career, tipping the scales away from tattered patriarchal mythology.
Apparently, in a number of households, both partners actively lie to the census bureau — as though lying to some omniscient, bureaucratic god — to preserve a false narrative and a weak ego, protecting and validating old stories of men and money, instead of clarifying with the inconvenience of actual facts about women and earning power.
The entire setup — all the steady parenting I was doing, the meals and housework and my career as a professor, against a backdrop of my husband’s persistent vocalization of financial fears and his insistence on complete control of our investments and our budget, with no room to bring in help, or childcare, or support — was designed to try to push me into that narrative of minimizing my own existence in the world of ideas so that I, too, would fade into a murmur of feminized domesticity, as so many other women writers have. But at the time, I refused to recognize that the game was rigged. I only did what seemed to need to be done.
“Marriage is hard,” people told me.
It was hard. I worked to make it easier, and better.
“Writing is hard,” is the common refrain, and I know that to be true. Instead of giving in, I upped my game, working to hold onto it all: I graded papers during our child’s swim team practice or other tiny, found moments; I wrote late at night. I let the housework go when I was finishing drafting a book, then cleaned it all, once the writing was done.
“Your mama…” he said. The hiss of his words still invades my thoughts now, after that first hellish night. “Your mama gets away with too much…”
By succeeding under duress, I broke the standard story of femaleness and maternal overwhelm and the accompanying narrative expectations that allow others to minimize a woman’s creative production. It was taxing as hell, but writing requires tenacity, parenting is awesome, teaching college is a good gig, we had bills to pay, and I was all in.
At one point, when I posted on social media about all this, a man commented to say, “You’re lucky. Women can write romance novels. There’s a lot of money in romance novels.”
He meant the kind of novels that satisfy rather than subvert reader expectations, with a certain range of plot, a heavy focus on two characters falling in love and a decidedly “optimistic ending.”
My husband came home as a cyclone, ready to take down our house. He was a car wreck, an assault.
If romance novels are something a man wants to write, I imagine the avenue is there for him as much as for anyone. I don’t know for sure, because romance writing isn’t my terrain. It takes time to write a novel of any kind. It also takes time to explain gender bias in publishing, and the VIDA count has done this well enough. Earlier, Francine Prose covered it in her essay, “Scent of a Woman’s Ink.” This man’s fantasy about being oppressed in the world of literature because his manliness wasn’t welcome in the genre of romance writing didn’t ring true. He was trying to find a table to turn, as a man without a book written. It was an effort to imagine a context in which women writers have it easy, to justify his own failure.
There are good men, and there are men determined to do harm. My husband was smart, funny and could seem kind, but as I found ways to get my words out into the world, he proved himself to be operating from what I’d consider the darker and more fragile side of the continuum of masculinity.
When he assaulted me, on hearing the news of my third book deal, with his puny book reviewer’s fists and failed novelist’s rage, I left and I did not go back.
Be the heroine of your own life, Nora Ephron said.
God, I was trying. I am trying.
Since that day, I’ve had four years of restraining orders, based on ongoing threats and violence. Seven or more judges have looked at my concerns and unanimously agreed each time that a genuine threat is present. I have full custody, because of my ex’s unstable, violent behavior.
Even with the restraining order perpetually in place, I’ve turned down public writing-related events. One can’t give readings when there’s a person out there willing to do you bodily harm. It’s dangerous to have your image on a poster or an event’s site, to advertise that you’ll be anywhere, at all, standing alone at a podium or on stage, at a specific time and place.
I’m still called back into court when he gets angry.
“Let it go!” that chorus of friendly voices chimes. “It’s happy hour!”
When family court mandates you show up, one cannot “let it go.”
My ex and one of his lawyers pulled a photo of me from social media, to flash around the courtroom: Me, in a dress. Me, with a glass of white wine, standing politely at a book launch, supporting other authors. The subtext of these photos, in court, was that I was a pretty woman out having a good time. This was somehow deserving of scorn.
The entirety of my one and only sabbatical was spent in divorce court.
I was forced to spend $200,000 on legal and related fees, approximately four times my annual income, to buy my own freedom. I’ve been driven into deep poverty, because I dared to sell a third book and outpaced my failed novelist of a husband.
One can’t write about divorce court while it’s going on. You can’t write about violence without fear of retribution. You can’t write the strange things a judge mumbles from the bench, without appearing to mock a muttering judge.
Kafka was a lawyer. He understood the absurd, witnessed the human failings and cruelty of a purportedly civil process. I thought of Kafka, as I sat in the witness stand and tried to prove myself against often unstated, free-floating assumptions and accusations. The nightmare of having to defend one’s life is the essential basis of Kafka’s novel, The Trial.
A men’s rights lawyer barked that if I’d written three books, I must not have been doing a lot of parenting. The word “writer” came up more times than one might expect, particularly in a no-fault divorce state. It came up as accusation, in my direction, and as unmet need, in my husband’s case.
Invisible rocks were steadily being thrown at my head, inside the courtroom and out. Court took on the tenor of an ongoing cult indoctrination.
My ex’s men’s rights-style lawyer was a skinny man with an overgrown, unkempt, Portlandia-style beard and a suit coat with the sleeves too short, which let his knobby white wrists stick out. He took the time to catch me in a hallway of the courthouse, on a break. “Do you know who my favorite writer is?” He asked.
Trapped in a courtroom struggle for my life, livelihood and wellbeing, the opposing lawyer’s reading list was not my concern.
“Chuck Palahniuk,” he said. Spittle flew through his lips.
The ghost of my man Kafka gave a slow, cynical clap for the absurd, from far down the courthouse halls.
The lawyer had said this as though it were a kind of code. The subtext of everything in court was somehow about writing. The divorce process had become about putting a woman writer in her place.
In Nora Ephron’s now famous Commencement speech, in a perhaps less known section, she says, “We weren’t meant to have futures, we were meant to marry them. We weren’t meant to have politics, or careers that mattered, or opinions, or lives; we were meant to marry them. If you wanted to be an architect, you married an architect. Non Ministrare sed Ministrari — you know the old joke, not to be ministers but to be ministers’ wives.”
In my ex husband’s mind, it seems I was supposed to play the part of a great writer’s wife. Instead, I am a writer.
Your mama…gets away with too much…
One might think this is a personal story, a tiny domestic tale of a woman and her weak and violent husband, but once you’ve been pushed down this manhole, you meet the others. All over the world, women are working, writing, raising children, raising their literary voices, and escaping violence. They are talking to each other, in solidarity, on social media, in essays and in person. That conversation drives change.
So when I say “I,” replace that with “we.”
When I say “me” it means “us.”
These are the contours of patriarchy. Sometimes patriarchy is ambient, and jovial. Sometimes it’s outright violent, and sometimes it is institutional.
When it came time for the judge to announce the division of assets, after years and financial drain, inexplicably, the judge, a woman, gave 100 percent of our remaining joint marital funds to my violent ex-husband. The judge made domestic violence financially lucrative. There was no equitable division. Divorce law went out the window.
Even with the restraining order perpetually in place, I’ve turned down public writing-related events. One can’t give readings when there’s a person out there willing to do you bodily harm.
It was not cream that rose, in that courtroom.
I have full custody, because I am a good mother and have done nothing wrong. Divorce is not a crime, but the settlement read as punitive. The judge offered, from the bench, the judicial equivalent of…Your mama…Your mama gets away with too much….
People ask why a judge would reach this verdict, contrary to all law. I have no answer. A fast, single internet search shows that the judge, too, once held a flicker of a dream of being a writer. She mentioned the lost dream, in an interview.
By the time I was forced into her courtroom, the judge, seeming worn out, jumbled even the titles of books she claimed to be reading. Her dream had fizzled, possibly decades before.
Court was a cult of patriarchy. Writing, while female, was an offense.
These days, my writing is in an invisible mode. I write late at night, after working to pay off divorce debt during the day, parenting all the time, and generally surviving under duress, publishing under pseudonyms or not at all. I’m moving along two lines: love and fear. I have a novel, almost completed, founded in loving the world and humanity. But essays that crowd my brain are about the fear of what I’ve seen, witnessed, what I’ve been forced to participate in, including that trial, Kafka-style, defending my ordinary life.
Terror, violence and inflicted poverty are ways to silence a person. I’m scared, but trying to not let fear silence me.
So if you’re ever in a car, carpooling home from a writing workshop, or in a late night bar, or out for brunch, or catching a bus, or anywhere at all, and somebody wonders out loud, in a romanticized tragic way, “Whatever happened to [Author’s Name Redacted]?” in reference to gaps in my visible productivity, please, answer that question, on my behalf.
First, say, “Thank you.” To remember an author fondly is to honor that person’s work, if even only in a way that allows their voice to be almost submerged otherwise.
But don’t let anyone make this story into a romanticized and gentle slide into domesticity. As for so many women, the silencing was not gentle at all.
Tell them, She was making Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken, as though that is the salient detail, the single detail that says: ordinary love and goodwill.
Tell them, she had a sabbatical.
Say my third book was set to come out.
Say I trusted the courts. Say there’s no law. Say there’s no justice. There are only stories we tell ourselves, and psychological traps, cages, built in pettiness and ego and rage. Tell them I was pushed into a manhole. I fell, into the world of patriarchal violence.
I went down kicking and screaming. I got back up and raged, raged, raged against any dying of any light in my name or work or human endeavor. And happy hour is fine, but it is not an answer. And there is sometimes no such thing as too angry, when you’re speaking up for your child, and your own basic right to live and put words on the page, to stand on a stage and share a few laughs with strangers, because that’s what a writing career comes down to, often, in my indie lit world.
Somehow, I became a character in a horror movie who runs but not fast enough, who jumps but not high enough. They caught me by my shins. I was successful in my way, though not yet successful enough. I was treated as disposable. Now, I am climbing out of a manhole like an open grave, leaves in my hair, dirt on my face.
But I am breathing.
Violence and institutional corruption flat out tried to break my spirit, as clearly as a person might break a bone. I’m the heroine of my own story. Integrity is heroic, as is persistence, and women all over the world know that. Money doesn’t make a winner. Far from it.
I’m in my body, living the life of the mind, nearly genderless in spirit, too, as I’ve always been.
Tell them the contours of patriarchy closed in, but haven’t crushed me. I’m the same person I’ve always been, broke but stronger.
Tell whoever asks, that I’m still right here, and I — by which I mean we, us, women voices, mine and others — we’re not going away. We’re speaking up, erasing patriarchal privilege by calling it out.
Tell them, I’m still writing.
* * *
Anonymous is the author of three books, a teacher and a mother. She’s a grown daughter, a former fast food employee, a sales girl, the receptionist, like so many other receptionists, smiling when you may have checked in, then an MFA student-turned-professor. She’s been the one fixing a copy machine when it jams, holding a baby in one arm, making student handouts late at night but before her husband came home, and somewhere, in the settling dust post-divorce court, between filing for a restraining order’s renewal, in between letting the restraining order lapse, optimistic about staying safe, she wrote this essay.
Editor: Sari Botton