Search Results for: The Rumpus

A ‘Constellation of Meaning’: The Rumpus Interviews George Saunders

Last week, Maria Bustillos released a blockbuster Humanities Kit in which you can experience George Saunders teaching Anton Chekhov for yourself.

In Kate Harloe’s interview at The Rumpus, George Saunders reflects on the creative process for his new novel, Lincoln In The Bardo, bold compassion as the right course of resistance under a Trump presidency, and how his interviews, notes, and scenes coalesce into the “constellation of meaning” that inform his nonfiction work.

Rumpus: There are so many characters in this story. Did these characters flow out of you during the writing process or were they more of a conscious creation? Did you think, “I need a character that represents this or experiences this kind of suffering?”

Saunders: No, it was definitely the first thing. My general approach to writing fiction is that you try to have as few conceptual notions as possible and you just respond to the energy that the story is making rather than having a big over plan. I think if you have a big over plan, the danger is that you might just take your plan and then you bore everybody. I always joke that it’s like going on a date with index cards. You know, at 7:30 p.m. I should ask about her mother. You keep all the control to yourself but you are kind of insulting to the other person.

Rumpus: I don’t want to leave the topic of your book, but I love what you said about starting a piece with as few conceptual ideas as possible. Do you approach nonfiction the same way? For the New Yorker story you wrote about Trump, for example, did you begin with a similar kind of open-mindedness?

Saunders: It’s a different form of that. With nonfiction, I go in trying to be really honest about what my preconceptions are. In the Trump piece, I knew I didn’t like Trump and I confessed that to myself and also to my interviewees. I’d always say, “I’m a liberal and I’m left of Gandhi and I don’t like Trump and this article is me trying to understand why you do.”

My theory for nonfiction is that nobody can be free of some kind of conceptions about whatever story they’re writing. But if you can find a way to build those into the story, then the story becomes a process of deconstructing and heightening and sometimes changing those notions and that makes dramatic tension. The initial statement of your position, and then letting reality act on you to change it, is pretty good storytelling.

All I really know in nonfiction is that when I come home, I’ve got all these notes and I’m trying to figure out what actually happened to me. I usually kind of know what happened, but as you work through the notes, you find that certain scenes write well and some don’t even though they should. Those make a constellation of meaning that weirdly ends up telling you what you just went through. It’s a slightly different process, but still there’s mystery because when you’re bearing down on the scenes, sometimes you find out they mean something different than what you thought.

Read the interview

The Rumpus Interview with George Saunders

Longreads Pick

In addition to plenty of great advice for aspiring writers, George Saunders reflects on the creative process for his new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, the mystery of the “constellation of meaning” — the interviews, notes, and scenes that once distilled become his nonfiction work, and on bold compassion as the right course of resistance under a Trump presidency.

Source: The Rumpus
Published: Feb 20, 2017
Length: 23 minutes (5,848 words)

The Rumpus Interview with Elizabeth Gilbert

Longreads Pick

The Eat, Pray, Love author talks to the Lucky Peach editor about how she became a writer, and the key to creativity:

“I was just so committed, and I did have six years of rejection letters. And it really didn’t break my heart. Some of them made me really excited because some of them had little handwritten notes at the bottom. Pretty good, but not our thing. And I was like, I got a really great handwritten note from Harper’s! And I would hang it on my wall, like, That’s such a great rejection letter! I don’t know why I felt like I had the right to do it. I don’t know. I’ve always been really surprised—and I really remain very surprised—at people who don’t think they have the right to do their work, or feel like they need a permission slip from the principal to do it, or who doubt their voice. I’m always like, What? What? Fucking do it! Just fucking do it! What’s the worst that could happen?! You fucking fail! Then you do it again and you wear them down and they get sick of rejecting you. And they get tired of seeing your letters and they just give up. They don’t have any choice. So part of it was real confidence, and part of it was fake confidence, and part of it was insecurity. It was a combination of all them.”

Source: The Rumpus
Published: Nov 1, 2012
Length: 40 minutes (10,118 words)

Conversations About The Internet #1: The Rumpus Interview with Twitter Co-Founder Biz Stone

Longreads Pick
Source: The Rumpus
Published: Apr 17, 2009
Length: 12 minutes (3,245 words)

The Brazilian Healer and the Patron Saint of Impossible Causes

Illustration by Aimee Flom

Leigh Hopkins | Longreads | July 2019 | 25 minutes (6,131 words)


The roosters started at 4:30 in the pasture behind the inn. On the second crow, I rolled onto my back and blinked at the jalousie window’s slatted light, considering my first day at The Casa. We were allowed to ask three questions, no more. A visit with the world’s most famous “spiritual surgeon” was like going to see the wizard.

Mariana was silent in the bed next to me, the sleep falling in loose spirals across her face. I pulled back the sheets and slipped inside. “Bom dia.”

“Bom dia, meu amor.” A soft sound from a distant place.

Seven and a half years later, I receive a text from a friend in Rio: “Did you see the news?” She links to a New York Times article: “Celebrity Healer in Brazil Is Accused of Sexually Abusing Followers.”


Read more…

These Rooms Alone

Illustration by Stephanie Kubo

Jill Talbot | Marcia Aldrich | Longreads | June 2019 | 10 minutes (2,531 words)


Interested in more by Jill Talbot and Marcia Aldrich? Read their collaborative essays, Trouble and Someone Called Mother.

I knew I was pregnant the moment my boyfriend fell back onto his side of the bed. I pulled the blue blanket over my naked body, willing it not to be so.

In elementary school, when we were bored in social studies or math, we’d play MASH, but only the girls. We’d write the letters for mansion, apartment, shack, and house at the top; 1, 2, 3, and 4 (for number of children) on the bottom; the names of four boys (for the men we might marry) on the left; and four types of vehicles on the right. Then we’d draw a spiral in the center, count the lines, and begin moving around the square. Our future in pencil. I don’t remember enjoying the game or trusting in it the way the other girls in fifth grade did, their hushed giggles. Most girls didn’t like it when I added a 0 to the children, RV to the housing, a category of careers instead of men. That’s not how you’re supposed to play.

We were raised to follow the narrative of life — college, marriage, career, children — as if this were the only story. In my 20s, I started checking off items like I was playing MASH. I didn’t get far. During my first semester of graduate school, I listened to a nurse on the phone tell me I was pregnant, and when I told my boyfriend of four years, he proposed. This is an odd detail, but that afternoon he had bought a new watch. I remember staring at the black band and feeling the spiral tighten, my choices being crossed out. I said no to all of it. This was not the story I wanted.


It took me a long time to realize I was pregnant, to realize I was carrying something inside me.

Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up

Unlike most of my girlfriends in high school I had never dreamed about a future filled with children. I did not make lists of possible names for those children or talk about whether I wanted girls or boys. My friends knew they wanted two boys and two girls and what they would name them. Not for a single second did I look ahead and see myself with a child. Was there something wrong with me, something missing — did I lack the maternal gene? I felt I was supposed to want children and look forward to that day when they would arrive. It was the culmination of my two older sisters’ desires when they became mothers. It was assumed I shared their desires, but I did not. In my fantasies I had multiple lovers but remained unattached to any. I was a singer, an actress, and finally a writer: my essential solitude the common thread. Never was there a child waiting in the wings for me to hold.


Everything I wanted, I wanted alone.

After reading your words, I went on a walk to think about what it was I wanted in high school. I went back to my mind at 16 , at 17, those years when decisions were made for me, when I didn’t think beyond the borders of Texas because no one else did, and my parents never offered it as an option having never left the state themselves. I didn’t grow up in a small town, but it felt that way. On my walk, I remembered, clearly, how I had hoped for one thing — to be far away. The rest of my yearnings I don’t remember, not really.

I’ve always felt the pull of elsewhere, somewhere I don’t yet see. How that desire perplexed me at a young age because I couldn’t name it, just fought against all those who tried to warn me against myself. And there were many. You think you want this now, but you’ll see. By the time I finished college, most of the people I knew were still living in my hometown or returning to it, having children, buying houses, choosing color schemes. I respected their lives, I did, but I didn’t see that for myself. What I wanted was still far away, and it wasn’t until graduate school — when I sat in professors’ offices listening to them tell me I must keep going, I must pursue a Ph.D. — that I recognized my secret self, ambition. Everything I wanted, I wanted alone.


About a great many things, I was unsure; about my unsuitability to be a mother I was certain.

I don’t know exactly when I got pregnant. I can’t say what I might have felt at the time of conception except to say the last thing on my mind was making a baby. It was not a momentous occasion. I’ve read about sex being enhanced because the couple thought they might be making a baby — that thought never touched me. It only finally occurred to me I might be pregnant because my symptoms couldn’t be explained by anything else. You see, the father had been told after undergoing tests that he was sterile. Until those tests I had dutifully used a diaphragm, carrying it around with me in its blue plastic case with the accompanying tube of spermicide. I hated the thing, but I used it because I knew the worst thing that could happen to me was to become pregnant. At 19 I had nothing about me to recommend I become a parent. About a great many things, I was unsure; about my unsuitability to be a mother I was certain.


I was surprised by the crowded waiting room, all ages and races, the way we tried to give one another the privacy we had surrendered in the parking lot.

My boyfriend and I met in college and dated, off and on, for a total of four years. He followed me to graduate school, to Lubbock, where he got a job teaching history at one of the middle schools in town. I was 23. I was following the narrative of life. Begrudgingly. Our relationship felt weary, obligatory at times, something I’d try to break free from every few months, but here we were, together. Here we were, in a gray sky bearing down without the deluge. And here we were, driving to a nondescript building one morning in October, the day after I sat through a counseling session with a nurse, who told me about my body and what it carried in an office that looked like a craft area for a kindergarten class. I restated my choice, my decision, my certainty, then I listened to the steps of the procedure, how long I would bleed, when to call a doctor. Did I understand? Was I sure? If so, come back in the morning at 7:00. Don’t eat anything after midnight. We’ll give you a Valium. I remember my only worry: how we would pay for it. The next morning, I wasn’t surprised by the gathered protestors outside the Women’s Clinic on 67th in their coats of indignation, their posters of blood and Bible verses. I was surprised by the crowded waiting room, all ages and races, the way we tried to give one another the privacy we had surrendered in the parking lot. I slumped down into the Valium, considered the affluent couple in the corner, their gray hair and look of shock, as if their bodies had betrayed them. I remember the numbing shot in my cervix and a painting of blue flowers on the wall and the sound of the vacuum and the way I trembled in the recovery room, sipping Sprite from a plastic cup and throwing up into a trash can and being told it was time to leave.


When the father was pronounced sterile, the outcome did not surprise him though it surprised me. I had never considered not being able to get pregnant since I lived in constant fear I would get pregnant. According to the doctor, there was some minuscule possibility I could conceive. The word miracle was used. I remember that. After receiving the doctor’s prognosis, I stopped using birth control, secure in the medical knowledge I couldn’t get pregnant. In late September, I was beset by all manner of physical symptoms I couldn’t explain. Without telling Bruce, I went to the health clinic on campus where I described what turned out to be morning sickness and was told I must be pregnant. I protested but took the test and sure enough six months after the doctor’s declaration of Bruce’s sterility, I was pregnant.

I did not run home to share the good news with Bruce. I called it a mistake, the latest in a long line of terrible mistakes I had been making or that had befallen me since I had met Bruce. It never occurred to me that this might be the only child he might conceive, his one chance at parenthood. Picture a young woman, more like a teenager, who finds herself pregnant and all she can feel is a desperate fear. Perhaps she isn’t a sympathetic character, perhaps she should have felt maternal stirrings, but she did not. There was nothing but the sense that with each passing day she was losing more of who she was, and she had already lost too much.


It was the years after, for me, when I lost myself — in drinking, in danger — but it wasn’t the aftershock from that October morning. I am sure of that, though the years with Dean had something to do with what became a recklessness in me. When I left Lubbock to pursue my Ph.D., I learned to act as if there were no rules except the ones I ignored.

What I did, I understand, I did alone.

Dean and I get back to his apartment, and I crawl into bed drowsy and queasy. I pull the blue blanket over me while he paces the hallway, his athletic figure darting back and forth in the door frame. The air conditioner clicks on, because this is Texas, and 20 years from now in 2013, the House will close the clinic we just left, along with half of the others in the state. I begin to doze off, hear the jingle of keys, and call after him, a question. “You have to stay with me, in case I hemorrhage,” I say, but he looks toward the front door and mumbles, “Call the school.” I hear the key turn in the lock and shuffle to the bathroom. Make sure. What I did, I understand, I did alone. I want to be kind, to say Dean couldn’t handle what he had seen that morning, but he saw only a waiting room and fists pounding on his truck when we pulled out of the parking lot. We stayed together out of some perverse, young person view that if we had gone through such a thing together, we had to honor it. When he proposed again that next spring, I said yes. Surely there’s a word other than mistake.


In 1970 the state of New York led the way, offering legal abortion on demand through the 24th week of pregnancy. The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Roe v. Wade wouldn’t legalize abortion nationwide until 1973. Unlike one of my high school friends who had to fly to Mexico for an abortion and another who was secretly admitted to a high-end clinic, I made an appointment over the phone with Planned Parenthood.

It was a cold day when we drove to Syracuse. The day was gray, the waves choppy with small white caps, foamy, spraying when they rolled to the shore of Lake Cayuga, the wind biting. There was nothing fresh about the day.

We left early in the morning to make my appointment. The drive was silent. The decision had been made. There was nothing further to be said and we didn’t say the nothing that was. We parked in a lot by the nondescript building. I checked in at a small metal desk, filled out forms, verified I was 18, then was taken back to the medical part of the clinic. Bruce stayed in the waiting room, empty or nearly so except for him.

I was treated kindly. I had a vacuum aspiration, and I remember the noise of the suction and the pain of the contractions. Then I was moved to an empty recovery room and lay on a narrow bed. It was as if the clinic had been invented and staffed just for me.


My recovery room was a row of chairs against a wall in a very small room, more like a hallway. All I remember is white. Maybe it was the white gowns or the white trash can or the white cup I trembled in my hand. We were lined up, not looking at one another, huddled into ourselves until a nurse asked if we could stand. I wonder about the difference between the solitude of your narrow bed in the 1970s and a chair among many in a hallway 20 years later, but nothing’s that different, not really, not even now, because we still shoulder these rooms alone. I told only one person back then — a long distance phone call — a friend who responded by naming girls who snuck away for abortions before we even graduated high school.

One month before the wedding, Dean called to ask, “Ph.D. or me.” I flew from Dallas, where my mother had bought me a white dress, and I sat in the Lubbock airport bar sipping wine when Dean walked in, resignation on his face. I understood — I could chase ambition or I could stay in Texas. I had to cross one of them out. I left Dean in the parking lot, then wandered the empty corridor of the airport in a daze until morning. I got on a plane, and I got on with my life. Later I would come to understand how I sidestepped a story I didn’t want to live. Now, it’s a story I tell.


I didn’t tell anyone about the pregnancy and the abortion. It wasn’t the sort of thing I’d share back then, and I had no one to share it with. Did I feel any regret? The girl I was felt relieved. I felt spared from a great calamity. And I felt grateful above all else that abortion was legal, that Bruce could afford to pay for it, and that I had someone who shared my feelings going forward with the decision. I felt lucky my life could resume. I held onto the idea that my getting pregnant wasn’t my fault and that I had been given incorrect assurances I couldn’t conceive. It was Bruce who felt guilty about what he put me through because unbeknownst to him he had passed along the doctor’s false assessment and I got pregnant, I bore the consequences, I had to make the decision and I had to undergo the procedure. It was me, not him, who would have to say I had an abortion when I was 19. He wouldn’t have to admit a thing. I would have to reveal this piece of information for the rest of my life on medical forms. I would have to count myself among the countless women who had abortions. I would not stand apart, unscathed.


Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction, the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together, and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her writing has been named Notable in Best American Essays for the past four years in a row and has appeared in journals such as AGNI, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Fourth Genre, The Normal School, The Paris Review Daily, The Rumpus, and Slice Magazine. She teaches in the creative writing program at University of North Texas.

Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women published by The University of Georgia Press. Her email is


Editor: Krista Stevens

Copy Editor: Jacob Gross

‘Brokenness and Holiness Really Go Together’: Darcey Steinke on Menopause

Nefertiti, 14th century B.C., dark granite bust.(Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Jane Ratcliffe | Longreads | June 2019 | 19 minutes (5,308 words)

By the time I finished reading Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life I had over nine pages of questions for author Darcey Steinke. She does, after all, explore a variety of topics through the lens of menopause: Sex; grief; the patriarchy; whales, gorillas, horses, and elephants; God; art; the transgender community; and, of course, women’s bodies, along with our minds, our spirits, our anger, and our animalness. She braids all of this into sparse, patient prose that’s somehow lush and explosive, not to mention formidable and exquisitely sensitive to all beings. [Read an excerpt from Flash Count Diary on Longreads.]

I first met Darcey back in the day, when I was a newbie writer and she was my scorchingly cool teacher. Dirty blonde hair, black tights, oozing brilliance, confidence and a bit of the daredevil, she kind of scared me. As it turns out, she is all of that — and also gigantically kind, funny, generous, and wise. The perfect combination to pull off a book like this.

Darcey’s menopausal journey begins with hot flashes so intense she, a minister’s daughter, believes God must be visiting her and ends with the bone-deep realization of her place within the divinity of nature. “I pray to the body, I pray to the lake, I pray to the whale,” she writes. In between she explores why there is so much scarcity and shame around menopause. Read more…

And What of My Wrath?

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

Sara Fredman | Longreads | May 2019 | 9 minutes (2,555 words)


What makes an antihero show work? In this Longreads series, It’s Not Easy Being Mean, Sara Fredman explores the fine-tuning that goes into writing a bad guy we can root for, and asks whether the same rules apply to women.

I didn’t want to write about Game of Thrones. Truly, I didn’t. In the first place, it is an ensemble show and therefore not technically an antihero vehicle. It is also generally the realm of the hot take and this series is usually a place for tepid, if not downright frigid, takes. It is Winterfell, not Dorne. But here we are in Dorne, talking about Game of Thrones, though probably a week or so after it would have been maximally festive. So maybe it’s more accurate to say that we’re in King’s Landing, which is perfect because we’re here to talk about how, on any other show, Cersei Lannister could have been the female antihero we’ve all been waiting for.

Cersei is the closest female analogue to the Golden Age antiheroes who turned the genre into a phenomenon. Those men — Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White — all do terrible things for a host of reasons: because they want to, because power feels good, because they’re doing what they need to do to survive in the world. Despite the fact that these men do terrible things, we root for them because of a careful calibration of their characters and the environment in which they operate. They are marked as special, or especially skilled; they are humanized by their difficult pasts and their dedication to their children; and, finally, they are surrounded by other, more terrible people. Cersei has, at one point or another in the show’s eight-season run, fallen into all of these categories. She is smart and cunning. I recently rewatched a scene I had forgotten, early in the first season in which she pokes holes in the plan her dumb and petulant son Joffrey comes up with to gain control of the North. The scene shows us that she understands the stakes of the titular game and how to play it successfully: “A good king knows when to save his strength and when to destroy his enemies.” The audience knows that Joffrey can never be that king and, despite Cersei’s keen grasp of her political landscape, neither can she. She may be depicted as a villain throughout most of the series but she is also clearly a talent born into the wrong body, and she knows it. As she says to King Robert Baratheon: “I should wear the armor and you the gown.”

This brings us to our next antihero criterion, which is the humanizing influence of interiority and family. It is axiomatic among the show’s characters and creators that Cersei’s most humanizing characteristic is the love and dedication she shows her children. In their final scene together, her brother Tyrion begs her to surrender with the only card he believes will matter: “You’ve always loved your children more than yourself. More than Jaime. More than anything. I beg you if not for yourself then for your child. Your reign is over, but that doesn’t mean your life has to end. It doesn’t mean your baby has to die.” In showrunner David Benioff’s view, Cersei’s children were the only thing that could humanize her: “I think the idea of Cersei without her children is a pretty terrifying prospect because it was the one thing that really humanized her, you know — her love for her kids. As much of a monster as she could sometimes be, she was a mother who truly did love her children.”

But the thing about an antihero show is that it can turn any monster into a hero.

It is of course true that Cersei loves her children, but it is hard to square Tyrion’s description of his sister with the Cersei of season two’s “Blackwater” who was prepared to kill herself and Tommen, her youngest son, rather than be taken alive by Stannis Baratheon and his army. Tyrion thinks that Cersei loves her children like a June Cleaver when she actually loves them like a Walter White. For the antihero, love of family is about self-advancement, not self-sacrifice. Invoking his children will not dissuade him from doing bad things because their existence is the very thing that motivates him to do them. This is why Walter White can yell “WE’RE A FAMILY” right before he takes his infant daughter away from her mother.

David Benioff’s assertion that Cersei’s love of her children is the only thing that humanizes her is possibly the best example of the way in which the Game of Thrones writers misunderstood their characters and their audience. It overlooks the other reasons the show gave us to root for Cersei and betrays an ignorance of the extent to which enduring patriarchy might itself be, for at least a portion of its audience, humanizing. It reveals an inability to grasp the possibility that the mother and the monster can be the same person. For a show dedicated to demonstrating just how thin the line is between good and evil, Game of Thrones was surprisingly blind to Cersei’s potential to become a compelling antihero, to be humanized by something other than her children. Or maybe the show realized it all too well.

Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up

Seasons five and six in particular could have been a — forgive me — game changer for the audience’s relationship with Cersei. Their storyline has Cersei first trying to manipulate and then fighting off a band of homophobic and misogynist religious ascetics called the Sparrows. Initially, the audience appreciates the way the High Sparrow thwarts Cersei’s attempts to use religion to strengthen her own political position. She’s been a villain for four seasons and we relish seeing her hit a roadblock. But the High Sparrow and his sidekick Septa Unella take it too far and our allegiances begin to shift. Septa Unella tortures Cersei in prison and the High Sparrow declares that Cersei must take a walk of penance through the streets of King’s Landing. Her hair is shorn and she walks naked from the Sept of Baelor to the Red Keep as Septa Unella chants “shame” and rings a bell to draw onlookers. In that sequence, we don’t forget that Cersei’s done terrible things, but we feel sympathy for her because she is, in that moment, at the mercy of other, more sinister forces. We also feel sympathy for her because this showdown with the High Sparrow reminds us that her story is that of a woman living under patriarchy, that her autonomy has always been contingent and therefore largely an illusion. We remember that this is not the first time Cersei has been powerless, that in the first season we saw her husband hit her and then tell her to wear her bruise in silence or he would hit her again. We remember the way her father, Tywin Lannister, spoke to her (“Do you think you’ll be the first person dragged into the Sept to be married against her will?”), and we also remember that she was raped by the one man she loved next to the body of her murdered son.

In most of the ways that matter, Cersei’s relationship with Sansa Stark, betrothed to marry Cersei’s abusive son Joffrey, is evidence of her villainy but it is also a frank education in what becoming a wife and mother means under patriarchy. Looking back on some of their scenes together, one gets the sense that Cersei feels compelled to explain to Sansa what she’s in for, to disabuse her of any notions of happily ever after and replace them with the reality of life as a political pawn, a prisoner in expensive dresses. We see this as coldhearted and evil because we hold out hope that Sansa will be able to remain an innocent princess looking for true love, but that’s not an option for girls like her, and Cersei knows it. In a heart-to-heart after Sansa gets her period for the first time, Cersei assures her that while she will never love the king, she will love her children. Sansa has just become a woman, which makes her eligible to be a wife and mother. Cersei knows that this is an occasion for a political lesson rather than a domestic one: “Permit me to share some womanly wisdom with you on this very special day. The more people you love, the weaker you are. You do things for them that you know you shouldn’t do, you’ll act the fool to make them happy, to keep them safe. Love no one but your children. On that front, a mother has no choice.” When we hear it from her own mouth, Cersei’s love for her children sounds less like deliberate self-sacrifice than yet another matter in which she has no choice.

Tyrion thinks that Cersei loves her children like a June Cleaver when she actually loves them like a Walter White.

It’s probably worthwhile to remember that the “game” we have spent eight years watching is only being played in the first place because Robert Baratheon assumed that a woman who left him had to have been taken (“I only know she was the one thing I ever wanted and someone took her away from me”). Women are things to be taken and traded; they are the tools men use to cement alliances and consolidate power. Freedom of movement and freedom of self-determination are precious commodities to which only some people in Westeros have access, either by birth or cunning. None of those people are women. Cersei is hardly the only victim of patriarchy on the show, but she could have been its most symbolic. More than anything, Cersei wants to control her own body and her own destiny. She wants to be a player, rather than a pawn. When Ned Stark confronts her about her relationship with Jaime and the illegitimacy of their children, he warns, “Wherever you go, Robert’s wrath will follow you.” Cersei replies, “And what of my wrath, Lord Stark?” This question is, of course, rhetorical — everyone knows that a woman’s anger only earns 78 cents on the dollar. We side with Ned, but on another show, Cersei’s question could have been a rallying cry. We might have written it on signs taken to #resistance rallies and anti-abortion protests. Neither Cersei nor Robert has been faithful, but Robert’s anger matters more because he is the king and Cersei’s infidelity matters more because her body is for making him a bloodline.

The Sept of Baelor pyrotechnics in the season six finale could have easily been Cersei’s “Face Off” moment: a shocking triumph over her enemies showcasing her intelligence and tactical skill. The move was not only brilliantly efficient, killing off everyone who opposed her at once without leaving home, but also bursting with symbolism. She destroys the religious cult that stripped her of what little bodily and political autonomy she had and blows up the place where she married Robert and was raped by Jaime. Cersei watches from her window as the architectural incarnation of patriarchy goes up in green flames and then takes a sip of wine.

That masterfully shot suspenseful sequence is immediately followed by Cersei’s vengeful speech to her torturer, Septa Unella, before leaving her in the hands of Gregor Clegane:

“Confess, it felt good, beating me, starving me, frightening me, humiliating me. You didn’t do it because you cared about my atonement, you did it because it felt good. I understand. I do things because they feel good. I drink because it feels good. I killed my husband because it felt good to be rid of him. I fucked my brother, because it feels good to feel him inside of me. I lie about fucking my brother, because it feels good to keep our son safe from hateful hypocrites. I killed your High Sparrow, and all his little sparrows, all his septons and all his septas, all his filthy soldiers because it felt good to watch them burn. It felt good to imagine their shock and their pain. No thought has ever given me greater joy. Even confessing feels good under the right circumstances.”

Cersei is hardly the only victim of patriarchy on the show, but she could have been its most symbolic.

This is Cersei’s “I am the one who knocks” speech, the moment where the antihero lays bare her unsavory machinations, and we applaud because a formerly weak person now has some hard-won power. Walter White takes some time to understand that if he is to have any power, he must take it. Cersei has always understood that power is her only available means toward self-determination, a ballast against the whims and wishes of those who would try to use her to further their own storylines and try to capture a bigger piece of the Westeros pie. Power is, for her, a necessity rather than a perk. Thinking about Cersei as an antihero, however brief the time we spend cheering her on, makes clear the extent to which writing a successful antihero always involves portraying that character as but a small player in a much bigger game. This is Walter White up against Big Pharma, which cut him out of profits to which he feels entitled and is now forcing him to forfeit his family’s financial security to stay alive. It is Tony Soprano chafing against RICO and the possibility that anyone in his orbit could help the FBI lock him up. It is Don Draper trying to hold on to a life he was never supposed to have. And it is Philip and Elizabeth Jennings doing the job they were trained to do, while people we never see change the rules and determine its stakes. An antihero isn’t on top of the world but right there in the melee, jockeying for some small measure of self-determination. We realize, as they do, that no matter how much power or control they seem to have, they are only one step away from being literally or metaphorically paraded through the streets naked while someone rings a bell.

Cersei is the closest we’ve come to a female version of this kind of character. David Benioff is right: Cersei is a monster. But the thing about an antihero show is that it can turn any monster into a hero. It compels us to root for a monster by making us see the monstrosity lurking all around him and, in so doing, turns him into our monster. Monstrosity in Westeros is like wildfire under King’s Landing: There is more than enough of it to make Cersei a queen we root for while she sips her celebratory wine. Allowing Cersei to become a full-on antihero could have been incredible, giving the show an opportunity to explore the particular powerlessness of women under patriarchy. What difference does motherhood make? What particular vulnerabilities does it bestow, what kinds of unexpected powers or motivations? But this is the fantasy world we have, not the one we need, and Game of Thrones could never allow Cersei to fully become the antihero character they had temporarily conjured. Three weeks ago — on Mother’s Day no less — we saw her crushed by a building, dying in the arms of her rapist after begging him not to let her die. As bad as Game of Thrones was at writing women, it gave us one possible roadmap for creating a female antihero on par with the bad men we’ve seen win Emmys over the past two decades. But it also makes clear just how tough that road is to travel because it requires that we expand our idea of what kinds of people are allowed to do bad things in pursuit of their own self-determination, to become the one who knocks.


Previous installments in this series:
The Blaming of the Shrew
The Good Bad Wives of Ozark and House of Cards

* * *

Sara Fredman is a writer and editor living in St. Louis. Her work has been featured in Longreads, The Rumpus, Tablet, and Lilith.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Illustrator: Zoë van Dijk

The Psychiatrist in My Writing Class and His ‘Gift’ of Hate

Illustration by Olivia Waller

Rani Neutill | Longreads | May 2019 | 11 minutes (2,723 words)

It is day three of the writing workshop. I sit in a small room with a table fit for ten. The chairs, blue and plastic, are uncomfortable. The table, smooth. The walls, buttercream. I cram writing, reading, and workshopping into four hours a day. Each morning a slight wind breaks through the New England summer heat and wafts salt through the air. It reminds me that the ocean is not far away. I am grateful to have five days away from waiting tables and teaching so I can learn and write.

Covered in greens, reds, and orange, I wear tank tops that expose my tattoos, that make eyes follow the lines of my decorated arms. My skin has grown into a deep brown from the sun’s finesse, from the batches of melanin that lay under my flesh, from my mother’s Indian blood.

All my classmates are white.

I have meticulously selected this date, smack in the middle of the week to present my work. I wanted time to get acclimated, to know my fellow classmates, to feel comfortable around them. When I walked into the room on the first day, I felt my difference, my race, my arms marked with color. I knew my story would be different. How questions of racism and immigration might not pertain to the other members of my class. The eight pages I workshop are from the memoir I’ve been writing for three years about my mentally ill Bengali immigrant mother and the way she tragically died. A memoir about the silence around mental illness within South Asian communities. A memoir about the costs of beauty defined by racism, a quintessential Bengali story about the impact of the forces of migration and colonialism.

The teacher is intelligent and kind and has encouraged helpful criticism, beginning with an author’s strengths. She does not like the Iowa Workshop type of annihilating appraisal. Students talk about what they like. Then a fellow workshopper says,

“I guess I’m the only one who hated this piece.”

I recoil.

My skin combusts into tendrils from the force of his statement. My back sharpens. Eyes wide, I turn towards this man. I am thankful there is a student between us so I don’t have to be near his translucent skin, his bald head shimmering under the fluorescent lights. Sweat beading on his brow. His long grey and red beard, his attempt to look distinct. His small silver earrings, his attempt to look edgy.

The class takes a quick breath, exhaling after two Mississippi seconds. It is a pause and silence that registers what was said. That impenetrable word, hate.

He continues.

“I found myself furiously crossing things out and correcting grammar, fixing sentences and wondering when this writer learned to speak English.”

I wonder if he has British blood. I was a professor of postcolonial literature for sixteen years. I am familiar with the white man’s interrogation of colonized peoples’ ability to speak English. I read and taught Freud and Lacan to analyze the white man’s words; Kipling, Macaulay, EM Forster all come to mind.

I am livid. I was born in the United States. English is my first language and I speak it fluently, but am embarrassed because my relationship with the language is fraught. My mother’s English was fractured. Her accent muddled white people’s perception of her. She tried hard to rid herself of that accent, to sound like a “real” American. As she grew older, her Indian accent crept back in and her English became broken.
Read more…