I entered my daughter’s kindergarten classroom and walked behind her with enough distance to accommodate the swinging of her backpack and the unpredictable steps taken by a five-year-old wearing wet snow boots on a linoleum floor. We squeezed through the door and by her classmates who, with barely combed hair and missing baby teeth, are practically carbon copies of her. She shuffled over to her friends, and I placed onto a table the well-labeled Ziploc bag containing the exact amount of money she needed for the school’s pre-Christmas sale, in the exact denominations requested.
One of my daughter’s classmates placed his sack of coins on the same table, but it was not over-prepared in the way my daughter’s was. There was no label or even a seal to keep his change from spilling onto the table or floor. His money was seemingly grabbed from what could be found in pockets or the car on the way to school and was stuffed into the clear cellophane wrapper pulled off of a pack of cigarettes. It was clearly an afterthought on a morning that placed other things more stressful or pertinent above a kindergarten teacher’s reminder to send a dollar’s worth of dimes into school for a holiday tag sale.
Even with their different backgrounds hidden beneath the surface of similar physical features, each child is measured against the same school motto: Be Kind, Be Safe, and Be Your Best. The expectations are reasonable, but the ability of each child to exhibit these qualities is variable. One’s best may be viewed as far below another’s. Sometimes one’s best is only as good as what is provided at home, by what is held in one’s hands.
I don’t know this boy’s circumstances, and the similarities in our childhood experiences may start and end with this isolated detail provided by a cigarette-smoking caretaker. But his bag of tobacco-greased pennies and nickels could have been pulled from my childhood home, if my parents had been so clever or resourceful. The coins and their presentation quickly conjured memories from my childhood.
Newly unearthed letters from Sylvia Plath to her therapist — apparently validating her accounts of abuse at her husband Ted Hughes’s hand — inspire Emily Van Duyne to raise the question of why many in the literary world cast doubt over Plath’s allegations, or treat them lightly.
At LitHub, Van Dyune looks at the way men like Peter K. Steinberg — co-editor of The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 1: 1940-1956, a collection of Plath’s unpublished letters forthcoming from Faber in October — characterize her accounts of being beaten, in one case to the point of miscarrying her second child with Hughes. Steinberg is quoted in a Guardian article she refers to as saying the unpublished letters promise to be “tantalising” — a disturbing choice of words for domestic violence.
I don’t write this to argue that there is some kind of conspiracy or cover-up of Hughes’s behavior, or even that there is a single thread of golden truth about their marriage that these new letters, or any new document (oh, for those torched last journals!) will suddenly, gloriously reveal, allowing us closure on Plath’s biography. Instead, I want to point out the cultural bias against women’s voices and the domestic truths of women’s lives and the deep role this has played in painting Plath as both a pathetic victim and a Cassandra-like, genius freak. It is only in a culture where these two things be claimed simultaneously that Hughes, a known philanderer and violent partner, can spend forty years botching the editing of, or outright destroying, his estranged, now dead wife’s work, then win every conceivable literary prize and be knighted by the Queen. It is only in this culture that Plath can tell of his abuse, in print, for the better part of the same 40 years, only to have the same reports in a handful of letters recognized as “shocking.” And it is only in this culture that unseen letters detailing abuses as dreadful as a miscarriage induced by beating, and the expressed desire that one’s wife was dead, be described, without irony, as “tantalising.”
The winter that I leave, the desert nights become so cold that cactuses uproot beneath the weight of ice. Old saguaros the size of trees lay like fallen men in front yards and on medians. Under the ink sky, it is so dark that the mountains disappear—even the wall of the Catalinas to the north—and I lose my compass entirely.
I am standing at the door, my breath freezing in punctuated wisps beneath the porchlight. The sky is a low-hanging ceiling, and the city lights have swallowed up the stars. If I could, I would make a bed from the clouds. I would turn like a dog in a rounding ritual before lying down.
Don’t go inside, thrums my heart, and so I stand, idling, inspecting bricks and mortar, the very bones of the house. I do not know it, but the thought of leaving has made a home in my body. It is an animal scratching toenails at the walls.
The lady at the Motor Vehicle Department has done-up fingernails stamped with tiny chevron lines. I feel underdressed. She says I need to take the car to the emissions testing center, even though the check engine light is illuminated and we both know it will fail. But she needs proof that it will fail so the car can be transferred out of the ex-husband’s name and into mine. Besides our children, this is the last thread that connects us, and the rope will not fray.
There are inspection and penalty fees, extra paperwork, countless people meddling in one 1998 Volvo station wagon. I am consumed by the work of untethering. I consider giving up, abandoning the car on the side of the road, gifting it to someone in need of a dry place to sleep.
The seat belts snap apart while driving. The driver’s side door panel falls off. The glove box is secured by a jumbo paper clip. The rearview mirror will not adjust. Everything in this stupid car is coming loose. When I clutch the steering wheel, mine are the white knuckles of vulnerable mothers. Read more…
In this installment of the Survival Skills column at Hazlitt,Katherine Laidlawrecalls an abusive relationship in which her boyfriend threatened her with a boxcutter. In examining why she stayed as long as she did, she observes how the emotional scars affect her thinking and perception in what should be a new, exciting relationship — to the point where “Everything now — a flicker of tone, a sideways glance, a distant voice on the end of the phone — is a sign, a flag, a warning.”
It’s hard to know what to do when someone says, “this is the knife I was going to use to kill you.” On a cold day in January, he holds a box cutter up to my face, runs it in front of my neck, his expression placid as flat water, and then walks calmly back over to a cardboard box that sits on the other side of the room waiting to be sliced open.
It’s hard to know what to do when that same person, later, says he loves you.
For women who are raised to believe they are strong, agency is complex. Privilege makes you reckless. I remember the moment I chose to buy into the interesting situation I could sense unfolding. It happened one morning, maybe around 4 a.m., when I couldn’t sleep—I usually couldn’t sleep when I slept over. We almost always went to bed angry and I almost never knew why. There is something insidious about love built by two brittle hearts. I made a choice and chose wrong. How naive I was, to have thought that when someone hurts you, the polite response is to ask him to stop.
She’d been receiving vicious emails for a decade. Sometimes she sought solace by commiserating with friends, or by stomping off to do something else, or occasionally — after the cruelest messages—by lying on her bed and crying. Temple-Wood became a frequent target of abuse merely because she is the rare female Wikipedia editor who has been active on the site for years. She manages to let much of the harassment slide off her. But many women eventually find the bullying to be too much, and leave the site.
…Temple-Wood had an idea. For every harassing email, death threat, or request for nude photos that she received, she resolved to create a Wikipedia biography on a notable woman scientist who was previously unknown to the free online encyclopedia. She thought of it as a giant “fuck you” to the anonymous idiots seeking to silence her.
If you live long enough, you create some regrets. Some people also make the difficult choices that alleviate their regrets. In Oregon Humanities magazine, Loretta Stinson writes about her moment of clarity, the night when she saw her fifteen-year relationship to an abusive alcoholic for what it was, and decided to walk out on him, her self-deception and her hopes, and to quit putting her own life on hold while he drank and injected his paychecks away. No more abuse. This is how she left him:
It’s best not to say too much and not to look at him for too long when he’s been drinking, kind of like running into a bear in the woods—you just back away slowly and try not to piss him off. The fights can start just by the way I look at him. He says it’s my face. My face shows too much of what I’m thinking no matter how little I say, but maybe that’s just what he needs to believe because he has to be mad at some-one and I happen to be available. Tonight I’m just watching him start to spin. I can see by the way he’s crashing around pissed off about nothing that it was never my face that pissed him off, never anything I did or didn’t do. He needs a reason to fight with me so he can leave to drink more, and that’s what he intends to do no matter what I do or don’t do. This idea is a revelation.
It never fully leaves. Years later, you find yourself at a New Year’s party and idly ask a friend a question about dads, and after 10 minutes’ conversation you realize both of you are on the verge either of insensate bawling, or else ready to throw a chair through a window. Or you find yourself back in the old hometown at Christmas, talking a drunk high school buddy into getting back in the car because the house he asked you to stop at – one you didn’t recognize – is his dad’s new house, with his new family, and your friend is talking about how much he wishes he could just ring the doorbell and beat his father’s face into a gory smear, until it looks like someone dropped a tray of lasagna out a fifth-story window.
Or you find yourself at a college football party last weekend, and Adrian Peterson comes up, and a woman from out of town asks, “Do people in the south really do that still? How does it stop?” And a dude in his early thirties who looks like a 6ft-3in brick wall says, “Everyone on my block did that. It stops as soon as they realize you might be able to beat their ass just as good.” And without thinking about it, you kill the party for the next two minutes by saying, “It’s not just the south. I grew up in San Francisco. Sometimes nobody winds up bigger or stronger. Sometimes it stops because you move out. Or because you realize that if both of you don’t grow up, one of you is going to die.”
In February, Mary Beard, a classics professor at the University of Cambridge, gave a lecture at the British Museum titled “Oh Do Shut Up Dear!” With amiable indignation, she explored the many ways that men have silenced outspoken women since the days of the ancients. Her speech, which was filmed by the BBC, was learned but accessible—a tone that she has regularly displayed on British television, as the host of popular documentaries about Pompeii and Rome. She began her talk with the Odyssey, and what she referred to as the first recorded instance of a man telling a woman that “her voice is not to be heard in public”: Telemachus informing his mother, Penelope, that “speech will be the business of men” and sending her upstairs to her weaving. Beard progressed to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which Tereus rapes Philomela and then cuts out her tongue so that she cannot denounce him. Beard alighted on Queen Elizabeth and Sojourner Truth before arriving at Jacqui Oatley, a BBC soccer commentator repeatedly mocked by men who were convinced that a woman couldn’t possibly understand the sport. A columnist for The Spectator, Beard noted, currently runs an annual competition to name the “most stupid woman” to appear on the current-affairs show “Question Time.”
Finally, Beard arrived at the contemporary chorus of Twitter trolls and online commenters. “The more I’ve looked at the details of the threats and the insults that women are on the receiving end of, the more some of them seem to fit into the old patterns of prejudice and assumption that I have been talking about,” she said. “It doesn’t much matter what line of argument you take as a woman. If you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it—it’s the fact that you are saying it.”
“Sacha Coupet, a professor of law at Loyola University Chicago, who used to work as a guardian ad litem and as a psychologist, worries that the Adoption and Safe Families Act, by promoting ‘adoption as the normative ideal,’ has made it easier to avoid ‘dealing with the enormously complex root causes of child neglect and abuse,’ which may have little to do with parenting skills. ‘There’s this very American notion that mothers should be self-reliant, capable of taking care of their kids without any support, when that’s just not the world we live in,’ she said. She finds that child-welfare agencies often ‘rush to get to the end of the story,’ creating a middle-class fairy tale: ‘a poor kid is rescued by the state, given a new mom and dad, and the slate is wiped clean.’
“Martin Guggenheim, a professor at New York University of Law, who represented children in court for more than a decade, believes that before long we will look back at the policy of ‘banishing children from their birth families’ as a tragic social experiment.”
“Domestic abuse is believed to be the most frequently unreported crime, and it is particularly corrosive when it involves the police. Taught to wield authority through control, threats or actual force, officers carry their training, their job stress and their guns home with them, amplifying the potential for abuse.
“Yet nationwide, interviews and documents show, police departments have been slow to recognize and discipline abusers in uniform, largely because of a predominantly male blue wall of silence. Victims are often reluctant to file complaints, fearing that an officer’s colleagues simply will not listen or understand, or that if they do, the abuser may be stripped of his weapon and ultimately his family’s livelihood.”