The Thread: Goddesses and Monsters

The book was The Chronology of Water. This isn’t a plea for forgiveness. She has her own idea about what is important, decides which of Demeter’s values to keep (mothering) and applies them to her own area of interest (the untended dead). I needed to be something, someone different from her. I didn’t always rebel directly. And they use it indiscriminately, to speak of women who identify as feminist, but just don’t seem to “get” some topics. Hillary Clinton called black children “superpredators.” Audre Lorde was allegedly abusive, throwing shoes, plates, and verbal abuse at her husband. That by putting her on some mental pedestal, I was inherently denigrating myself, my own work and spirit. In Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, The Female Persuasion, the young protagonist, Greer Kadetsky, meets the woman who will shape her life, Faith Frank, at a college speaking event. And the children were literally feasting on the body of their mother in order to survive. Demeter is overjoyed, as this is a sign of Persephone’s return. I didn’t write another word on my manuscript until my daughter’s first birthday, when I attended a retreat (at my husband’s urging) with none other than the author of Chronology, Lidia Yuknavitch. Human. Instead I try to embrace the ambiguity of humanity. A couple of years later, I read the memoir that would change the course of my life. She chooses when to go down to the realm of the dead, and when to return to her mother’s world of the living. They are lonely. The dead come one by one to speak with her. My feminist pantheon is full of contradictions. She was brilliant. They want someone to talk to. Both of these women are third wave feminists (though Weiss, like me, might be an early part of the “fourth wave” which began in 2012 and is linked to social media and the rise of feminist websites like Jezebel and Feministing). Part of that is deciding what we will tend to, even if our mothers think our priorities are wrong. Faith Frank is a kind of Gloria Steinem stand-in. This was a mother literally feeding herself to her children. Persephone tells her mother that she wishes to go tend to the dead; Demeter refuses. ***
The Thread is a monthly literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Julie Greicius. The events in question had happened a decade earlier! The author was a genius, and I promptly stopped writing my own book, or even thinking of myself as a writer. She was flawed. She was human. We are simply women. The myth of Persephone is familiar to most of us: Demeter’s daughter, Persephone is raped and kidnapped by Hades, god of the Underworld, and eventually made to split her time between her mother’s world and her husband’s. She was brilliant; she was flawed. Thirty was just a baby. How do I honor the women who brought us: the right to wear pants; the right to vote; the right to own property (without any man’s “permission,”); the right to get a line of credit in our own name; the right to contraception; the right to bodily autonomy; the concepts of mansplaining, intersectionality, and rape culture; the existence of domestic violence centers and rape crisis lines; the laws against spousal and statutory rape; the idea that the vagina is not disgusting and doesn’t need constant, floral-scented cleaning or surgical shaping; pockets; tampons; gender-neutral restrooms; environmental activism. There are many dead; Persephone is gone for a long time. Instead I smiled and thanked her, then fumed to my friends and family. I rebelled. I read it, then picked it up and read it again. The second wave feminists, the real ones, are at least in their seventies, and many of them are dead. And reasons that we maybe couldn’t articulate. The consumption of a mother by her offspring. I wanted to tell her how she meant everything to me, and yet, I didn’t want to overwhelm her introverted nature with my extroverted gushing. That she, brilliance that she is, was neither the Goddess of Perfection I imagined her to be, nor the misfit weirdo she sometimes saw herself to be. This process usually takes place within the first weeks of life, and has been documented in some arachnids and other insects. I was better at saying yes, and doing what I wanted anyway. Bari Weiss’s ridiculous NYT piece in defense of Aziz Ansari; Katie Roiphe’s Harper’s screed about “twitter feminists.” It seems like when one of these women publishes something under the banner of feminism that doesn’t align with the most recent feminist ideals (for example, believe the women), these friends are willing to toss them in the fire with the rest of the bigots, and drag them as “second wavers.”
Of course the pedant in me is irritated because these women are (mostly) not second wavers. But this was no metaphor. Persephone decides to go to the underworld against her mother’s wishes. You’ll need a coat. What is the proper amount of respect without idolatry? Let’s take the women in our lives, and the women who came before us, off the pedestals but also, out of the graves of irrelevancy. Their job is to tend to the living, growing world, she says. We are not our mothers, but we carry copies of them inside us like scrolls. I was conflict-avoidant. I walked away from my book for a year. Our faves will all be problematic. I listened, cringing. The suffragettes were racist. She was right; she had been right. I’m just saying, each of us has stories. How do I thank them, especially when they got some other things wrong? She is seeking an agent and publisher for her first book, Played, a memoir of precocity. Those shoes are too high. &laquo Previous post like this

The Thread: Goddesses and Monsters

By Marissa Korbel
May 15th, 2018

In the old days,
the myths were the stories we used to explain ourselves
but how can we explain
the way we hate ourselves?1
It started with simple directives. I didn’t mean the details of the story; I meant the writing, the way the whole book was structured. Over a decade, her rules had set me to opposition. In my early thirties, while writing my first book, I took classes with other nonfiction writers, many of them older than me. The mothers call their children, thrumming the web with their legs.  
What must I devour of my mothers’ in order to become myself? Nobody is above the fray. While I was reading it on repeat (something I hadn’t done since I was a child with Anne of Green Gables), I was asking myself how I could write anything if I couldn’t write like this. I thought she was wrong about so many things: her parents, my fashion sense, the necessity of thank you notes, the superiority of organic produce, the usefulness of supplements, the futility of weight loss. Lena Dunham’s privilege and racism. We devour, and we become new.  
Matriphagy: literally, to feed on the mother. I have heard friends use the term “second wave feminist” like it’s a curse word. Not just my biological mother, but the mothers of my philosophies? And I liked being the “good daughter,” even though I wasn’t that good most of the time. Brand New Ancients, Kate Tempest, 2012.↩
***
Rumpus original logo and art by   Aubrey Nolan. After their birth, some mother spiders feed their young by mouth for a few weeks, before calling them to eat her body in a strange, maternal suicide. Everything she said, I wrote down. Bari Weiss is younger than me (born in 1983). I was *so* ready. My mother was the wisest, my only mother. When my daughter looks at the nascent fourth wave, she’ll find fault with it, just as I found fault with the women who came before me. More from this author → A mother being eaten by her children was not a new metaphor. Nothing stays the same, but history repeats itself. Sometimes it feels like I struggle with this question daily. The children feast. Third wave feminists were the women and girls I have always looked up to and wanted to emulate. Nearly every one of my feminist icons has said or done something problematic. Demeter is bereft; she refuses to tend to the plants. The past is the present, and the present is, paradoxically, already the past. I had elevated her in my mind, and imagined myself at her feet, a supplicant to her brilliance and blonde hair. Brilliant; flawed. That’s not enough food; that’s too much. In the older myth of Persephone she actively participates in her own narrative. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and their toddler, and writes with Lidia Yuknavitch at Corporeal Writing. But the third wave brought us sex-positive feminism (as a response to anti-porn feminism, yes); Take Back the Night and the first push to stop campus rape; the words “sexual harassment,” and riot grrrls. Her body becomes their body, in a strange inter-generational communion. She nicknamed me Sassafras, and I remember getting in trouble for giving her a hard time. How dare she? But I need to remember their humanity, and the context of the worlds they survived. I had read a real writer; I felt broken. I can’t predict the future, but one thing is certain: generations rise on the bones of their ancestors. She was human. And again. In the end Greer faced the same issue with Faith that I had with Lidia, with my mother: What to do when our heroes are revealed to be imperfectly human? And different contexts. Then one day, crocuses push their way out of the snow. Second and third wave feminism was too focused on white women’s needs (despite the fact that the term “intersectionality” was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, during the third wave). The myth lasts because it still has meaning: younger women must push back, call out, and otherwise separate and define themselves against their mother generation. ***
1. I got pregnant. bell hooks said Beyoncé is a cultural terrorist. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made transphobic comments, and then doubled down on them. I’m sure there’s more. They had to devour her in order to become. It’s so easy, so intellectually lazy, to simply point out what others are doing wrong, or what they’ve done perfectly. Katie Roiphe was in college in the 1990s. Our goddesses will be scrutinized and found lacking. She is only defined by the powerful gods attached to her name through rape-marriage and birth. Persephone gives us a way to both be our whole honest selves, and honor our lineage. Part of that is tossing out what doesn’t work. My mother, it turned out, was neither the sainted goddess of correctness that my child-self believed in, nor the idiot that my teenage self dismissed. That skirt is inappropriate. The way time flies. I hadn’t lived yet. I was smitten, but in the way that a mortal falls in love with a goddess. While initially, Greer is so taken with Faith, she places Faith on a pedestal, eventually Faith’s human imperfections begin to show. That first time meeting her, I could barely stay in my skin. The second wave happened in the 1960s and 70s, while these women currently forty to sixty years old were maybe young children, or maybe not even born yet. Knowing my interest in stories of the shadow in motherhood, my friend   Katharine Coldiron recommended the episode to me. Like the ecstasy I did, the men I dated, the times I missed curfew, sneaking in while she was asleep. Marissa Korbel’s award-winning essays have appeared in The Manifest Station, Under the Gum Tree, Nailed Magazine, and others. My constant, know-it-all, snotty rejection of her wisdom drove her mad. But there is another version, an older version. I can’t remember with specificity when I was forced to admit she had been right about some of those things. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to   [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on   Twitter   or   Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column. Those shoes are too slippery. In fact, my greatest rebellions remained secret at the time, and for many years after. Not all of them, but more than I could ignore. She weeps and longs for her daughter, and the world is plunged into a winter that doesn’t end. Gloria Steinem said women were voting for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary because they   wanted to impress the boys. Eileen Myles has been called out for trans-exclusionary comments. As human beings, our stories are rarely uniquely ours. I first heard about this concept on the introduction to the podcast, This Is Love. There is no such thing as an original story, and yet each person’s story is their own unique recipe of free will, desire, circumstances, privileges, and oppressions. Demeter, goddess of the harvest, brings her daughter Persephone to walk beneath the earth and encourage the roots to grow. We are neither goddesses nor monsters. I hadn’t lived long enough since the events in question to have “perspective.”
I wanted to hit her. When I was a very young child, I imagine, I listened. She’s not just a victim of the powerful desires of her mother, of Hades. And then, over the course of the next two years, I actually got to know her, and realized that she didn’t want to be elevated, by me or by anyone. What I have lived will be lived again, and has been lived before. She is the goddess of both the Spring and the Underworld, death and rebirth, and she integrates her duality without needing to denigrate the priorities of her mother goddess. The women who came before, on whose bones I stand. It doesn’t always mean they are let off the hook for their choices, methods, or means of survival. She fills a basket with grain and poppies, and begins to descend. When they do this, Persephone hears the voices of the dead in the underworld. In this version, the one I was told, Persephone is little more than a maiden-object. I don’t mean metaphorically, I mean literally, though I didn’t know that when I read it. It was their introductory episode—a strange and dark prologue to the many forms that love can take. How do I critique them without smashing them to smithereens? I remember one woman in particular, after reading one of my pieces in a workshop, told me that maybe I “wasn’t quite ready” to tell this story. This is the cycle of movements, just as it is the cycle of women with their own mothers. You have to drive like this, eat like that, be home by this time. When the next generation of feminists begins to excavate the modern day, they’ll find us in all our flawed and human imperfection. By the time I was a teenager, the issues had grown, too. She listens, she feeds them from her basket and brings them joy. But by the time I was ten, my mother had become sick of my constant resistance to her well-meaning (and often correct) advice. Women do what they need to do to survive. It doesn’t mean I have to agree. Sometimes, one of these older writers, who had lived much longer and fuller and more interesting lives by the time of our meeting than I had, would advise me that I was “too young” to write a memoir.