Monday, December 15, 2014
12/15: Suzanne Scanlon on Virginia Woolf and Scary Mary
One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.— A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don't ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn't care whether there was a word for it or not. — As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
Sister Mary calls me into her laboratory room just off the classroom. She yells, asks me to explain why I am giving up. I’ve failed a chapter quiz. She raises her voice. I try not to smile. You have so much promise—but you are throwing it all away. Don’t you care?
I don’t remember what I said, how I denied to myself that she was right. I do remember talking about it over lunch, my best friend repeating the conversation back to me, which she could hear from the classroom. I laugh it off. As if I wasn't moved.
1992, New York, NY
The second time I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, I am lying in my single bed in a cement walled room of my own on a New York State psychiatric ward in Washington Heights. I read As I Lay Dying in that same bed. Faulkner’s book about the body as meat, I remember my professor saying. It did not occur to me that my body was meat, too: that the goals of the hospital where I lived for the next many months which became years, had much to do with the disciplining, the confining, the containing of that body. The hospital offered me a room of my own, but the room came without a door; I was “checked on” at fifteen minute intervals by a man or woman with a clipboard and, as often as not, a lack of regard for my humanity; I was told not “to isolate”. Isolating was grounds for losing privileges. Privileges meant leaving the ward, the building, the neighborhood: for an hour, an afternoon, a day. No one mentioned white privilege, but that was there, too—a selective state hospital treating predominantly white women; low-level staff on the ward were predominantly black women.
My room was my own, but it was only temporary, dependent on my being ill; and paid for by the taxpayers of New York. (Nothing like this exists any longer, in New York or elsewhere. In the mid-nineties, funding was cut for mental health services, and the long-term ward, as it was known, was closed.)
We called her Scary Mary, though she was nice, not scary, but we were mean. And it rhymed. I couldn’t take Sister Mary seriously because if I did I would have to change and I wasn’t able to change, not yet. A Buddhist proverb:
When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
That same year marked my first real diet: the quiet, unmarked beginning of a preoccupation (with meat, with my meaty body) which would own me for many, many years. One day, Mrs. Gordon, our religion teacher who occasionally spoke in tongues, saw a copy of Cosmopolitan on a friend’s desk and told her to put it away before she threw it away, announcing to our class that “the devil lived in the pages of that magazine.”
One of the articles I recall most from Cosmopolitan was a feature story: “Lose- Seven-Pounds-In-Seven-Days”. It was the Cosmo Spa Diet, and it would be my first real diet—something insignificant at the time, a phase or passing fancy. The discipline and structure required for the diet appealed to my Catholic girlhood; to punish myself felt religious. For seven days I ate: ½ cup oatmeal for breakfast; a cup of raw mushrooms and one hard-boiled egg for lunch; a slice of chicken breast for dinner; and two rice cakes as late night snack.
I discovered the satisfaction in waking with hunger, with a stomach flatter than it had been the day before. My first mortification.
I wasn’t in a mental hospital in New York because of dieting, but you could say that I was in a hospital because I’d realized, at some point before my 21st birthday, that I would spend the rest of my life on some version of the Cosmo 7-Day Diet and that, among other ideas related to life and language, felt unbearable.
When Mrs. Gordon linked the devil to Cosmopolitan magazine, she might have been invoking what Chris Kraus calls the schizophrenia of being female: Think for yourself! What really matters, though, is how you look!; or, the impossible demands of rigid femininity: Dream big! But, of course, you must find a man!
She wasn’t, though; we knew the devil Mrs. Gordon feared had more to do with how we, almost-women, thought about sex; we knew the magazine’s insistence, that women should have sexual agency, was exactly what our teachers didn’t want us to learn.
1990, Los Angeles
The first time I read A Room of One’s Own, I had just seen Glenda Jackson and John Lithgow perform Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the old Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood in a production directed by Edward Albee himself; though I must have learned something that night in the theater, I couldn’t say what; the title seemed both warning and urging. There was something so smart but so dark, ugly in Albee’s view of marriage; I couldn’t know if it was real. At 18, I’d witnessed marriages where the two parties seemed to dislike, if not outright hate each other—but George and Martha were of another order altogether. Why would someone stay with someone they hated so much? I wondered, as young people do. Just leave! I wanted to say to those couples, as if it were so simple, as if hate was not all mixed up with love and care and need and rage and habit and friendship and sadness. Longing and loss and sorrow. As if marriage was not just this: standing side by side over the void for the rest of your life.
Sister Mary warned me that my falling grades would ruin my chances of getting into National Honor Society, which, she added, would ruin my chances of getting into a good college. She was right, but I knew it didn’t matter. I laughed at her, though I enjoyed her attentions; I was so desperate. Didn’t anyone notice that I was slacking off? Didn’t anyone care? To be loved without criticism is to be betrayed. I read that line in book by Adam Phillips, and it haunted me. Philips later quotes D.W. Winnicott: It is a joy to hide, but a tragedy not to be found.
If Sister Mary or Mrs. Gordon or anyone else at my girl’s high school had addressed the fundamental dilemma (addressed neither in our Catholicism nor curriculum) that occurred to me first in those pubescent years—that is, how to have a life of the mind and a female self, all at once—perhaps I’d have listened. If someone had told me that much of what I was learning as female: deference, passivity, dependence—was antithetical to the qualities of mind and self I’d need to be an artist, a writer, a thinker; I like to think I would have listened.
But probably I wouldn’t have. I wasn’t ready.
Woolf’s book-length essay began as a lecture she was asked to give for two women’s colleges of Cambridge. Early on she describes a meal she has at the men’s college: soup and salmon and ducklings. Woolf writes,
“It is part of the novelist’s convention not to mention soup and salmon and ducklings, as if soup and salmon and ducklings were of no importance whatsoever, as if nobody ever smoked a cigar or drank a glass of wine.”
The women, Woolf notes, do not receive salmon or ducklings; the women are served “plain gravy soup” and “beef with its attendant greens and potatoes—a homely trinity, suggesting the rumps of cattle in a muddy market, and sprouts curled and yellowed at the edge, and bargaining and cheapening, and women with string bags on Monday morning.”
There was a long-running play, onstage in these years, titled Sr. Mary Ignatius Explains it All to You. Another Catholic-bashing hit was titled Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? The lapsed Baby Boomers made an industry of entertainment mocking the absurdities of a church within which some of us were meant to live. In those days, few seemed to find it problematic that nuns received so little respect. The Catholic high school I attended—an inferior girl’s college preparatory institution—lacked authority. Rosary High School had a brother institution (I use the word in all resonance), Marmion Military Academy, just a few miles away, which was radically different in structure and curriculum; the only thing the two schools shared were the combined mission of religious indoctrination and single-sex education. Marmion had more AP classes; a longer and more thorough summer reading list; higher test scores and acceptances into highly selective universities. Marmion was wealthier, more prestigious, and, even architecturally, superior to Rosary--a single level, single building structure, shaped like an upside down horseshoe. Rosary offered one AP English class.
It wasn’t impossible to get a good-enough education at Rosary—if one weren’t, like me, so utterly distracted by the Cosmo Spa Diet—but still, the designation of “college-preparatory” was relative, or so I learned once I actually got to college.
I’m sure there were many women in England and beyond who would happily eat the meal that Woolf derides; it took me some years of rereading and teaching the book, to understand how wholly situated in bourgeois privilege Woolf’s genius could be. Now it is as necessary for me to understand the privilege that gave her this insight, as it is to acknowledge my own.
Something else, too: Sister Mary was breaking down. We’d been watching it all year, though we didn’t know what a mid- or quarter- life crisis actually looked like. There were signs, small changes or departures from curriculum that revealed a conflicted self beneath the pedagogical performance. In the middle of an otherwise dry lecture on mitosis and meiosis, she’d veer off into reveries on her father, who’d read Robert Frost to her, who called her “Wiggle”; who taught her Serious Life Lessons. My friends laughed at her, and so did I. ( In those years, in most of my life before university, I defined myself in relation to these girl-friendships. I did not know how I felt about anything, but I did know how my friends felt, or how I was supposed to feel.)
“Wiggle,” she quoted her father, “I took the road less traveled, and that has made all the difference.”
It was embarrassing—though I think now that we were also intrigued. There is nothing more interesting than a person honestly, openly in spiritual and intellectual crisis: moments when the narrative ceases to provide a sustaining framework. Everything I thought I knew was no longer true. I tell my students to find these moments, to write through these moments: A time when something you always believed no longer felt true. Narrative breakdown. Joan Didion, in The White Album, an essay that explores such a time in her life:
We tell ourselves stories in order to live . . .
Or at least we do for a while. I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself . . .
Sister Mary did not stop teaching us Biology, but she did make it clear that there were more important things in life. Eventually she left Rosary; she took a leave of absence from the Dominican order. Later, I hear that she left the convent altogether, came out as lesbian, and was living with a partner in the south suburbs.
Part of Rosary’s lack was communicated through the obvious inequities I noted above, but it also had to do with the presentation of authority. Authority, we’d all learned in the MTV-dominated 1980s, linked to style. Madonna had authority; Cyndi Lauper did, too. Prince. Michael Jackson. Dominican nuns: even in the updated shorter habit and veil, lacked authority.
These days, I see all the ways a life of quiet service is heroic—but that is not what I saw as a young girl. It may be that I could not imagine subversion from a life so familiar; but I think it was also clear that there was nothing radical or inspiring in subservience.
Not long ago, a group of nuns in Madison, Wisconsin took over a Benedictine Monastery to use for retreat and women-centered services. The Holy Wisdom Monastery offers ecumenical retreats, prayer services, environmental work. “The bishops are furious,” a friend explained, “but they can’t do a thing about it!”
In the extreme renunciation of sensual pleasure, the nuns who educated me did nothing to inspire my awakening appreciation for what Gustave Flaubert would call the refinements of femininity. Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, too, lost her mother and was raised in a convent. The education she received there was far less compelling than the education coming from novels. What did nuns eat? We wondered. We tried to find out, but then, one or another of us would return from a dull visit to the convent with a report: “They shop at Aldi,” the local budget grocery store stocking generics, and our interest would wane.
When I began starving myself, I came to understand, at least momentarily, what it was to be a nun: that is, I understood anew the pleasure that comes through abstinence and deprivation.
Emma Bovary, in the midst of despair after a disappointing affair, starves herself:
She tried, by way of mortification, to eat nothing a whole day.
Flaubert knew of the link which exists between religious and sensual passion. If you asked me then, or in the years following, I would not have been able to articulate what is so clear to me now: like Emma Bovary, I was in a profound spiritual crisis. There was no room for who I needed to become in life as I knew it. All options were disappointing, impossible, or both. To become a woman—nun, wife, movie star, mother no matter—seemed either impossible or horrid. The thought of spending the rest of my life in a body that I could not control, nor wished to control, filled me with dread.
That all of these thoughts coincided with my first real diet was not coincidental. During my hospitalization, I was made the subject of a Byzantine study, where staff made comments in a chart of my “bizarre eating habits”. A therapist in New York told me that she was told me the results of a study she was involved in, linking women’s depression to protein intake. This was in the 1990s, a time when low-fat diets were trendy; I would spend days eating nothing but low-fat carbohydrates: rice cakes, a bagel, fruit, Diet Coke. To eat protein terrified me; it left me feeling full, which then left me feeling fat. This dysmorphia meant that I felt quickly and swiftly the alterations in my body from thin to fat, which in turn led to to self-loathing or elation—rapid shifts from one to the other. It was a complicated daily, hourly process of interpretation and emotion. How insane this physical and mental activity seems to me now! What an absurd waste of time and energy! How politically disturbing, too, when I consider so many smart, complicated women consumed this way: how to control their meaty bodies. Better control a body than challenge a world that has taught her to hate that body. A world that both valorizes and despises fleshy young bodies.
I don’t want to deny the truth and validity of my perspective in those days, however warped. Still, I would have little patience for myself, from my current vantage. It seems rather ridiculous to me now—not eating, channeling energy and focus and drive towards such a shallow concern; and yet, so many intelligent, complicated, smart women fall into this same very trap.
Something else I learned about myself in those early days of disordered eating / preoccupation with diet: It didn’t matter to me that I knew it was a trap. It was not something I could not do.
There is another world, but it is in this one, wrote Yeats. I like to think that Woolf allowed me to travel not just away from my family, but away from the ones who educated me, whom I resented because they could not teach what I needed to learn, but also because, I could no longer be taught. I needed to live, to play out these lessons and learning. As Fanny Howe put it in her novel Indivisible: For the truly mad, it’s not enough to merely tell stories. They have to act them out.
The third time I read A Room of One’s Own, I am a teacher, sitting in a classroom with seventeen young women and one man. One after another responds to Woolf’s book by reading this line:
One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.
Emily speaks of body image. Alex notices how prophetic Woolf seems to be, but also how off she is in other ways—particularly, in her declaration that women will soon cease seeing themselves as “a looking glass” for men. Jane brings up Foucault’s ideas of policing and discipline; the new police state is one the inmates run themselves. I speak of ways that constructions of mental illness have traditionally colonized women and individual identity. I think about how normalized it is for these women.
It strikes me how differently these students view mental illness and antidepressants, compared to how it was when I was in hospital. There is something dangerous about the asylum structure—the way the institution itself was larger than we were, shut us off from the world—even with the intention of helping us.
My students, this generation following my own, seem to have integrated their sense of self and so-called mental illness more thoroughly, able to casually talk about the various pills they are on, their diagnoses. Maybe I am optimistic, but it seems that they know mental illness is constructed, linked inexorably to culture and that it is real, that there is nothing necessarily abnormal about it. That is, they know that it is 'wrong'—the over diagnoses, over reliance on pills. The difference is they don’t disown it, and the meta-relationship to their own constructions of mental illness inspires me.
Consider the facts, we said. First there are nine months before the baby is born. Then there are three or four months spent in feeding the baby. After the baby is fed there are certainly five years spent in playing with the baby. You cannot, it seems, let children run about the streets. People who have seen them running wild in Russia say that the sight is not a pleasant one.
I leave class and return home to my baby; however much joy having a baby brought me it was after his birth that I came, again, to long for a room of my own.
A part of me wanted a second baby, too, though the further loss of time to myself—time for reading and writing and being—terrified me; it was in the midst of this reading A Room of One’s Own this third time that I had the first in a series of miscarriages. This particular spring, I spent weeks bloated and nauseous, tired and dizzy, before finding, early one morning, blood in my underwear.
At the hospital, the doctor gave me an ultrasound and confirmed what I knew:
“You are having a miscarriage.”
A nurse gave me enormous pads, a prescription of heavy doses of ibuprofen, and told me to call if the pain became worse. I went to class that night, dopey on ibuprofen, and, for the ninety minutes of the class period, talked about Judith, Shakespeare’s theoretical sister imagined by Woolf in her essay; genre-mixing, anger in women’s writing, Woolf’s advice in the shadow of her suicide; I almost forgot to notice the cramps that meant I was bleeding out a baby.
The human frame being what it is, heart, body and brain all mixed together, and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in another million years.
That same night, I dreamed that Woolf herself came to me, as if I were her student (I am); she told me that it was a wise choice—to lose the baby, she said—and I told her that it wasn’t my choice—and she asked me, But you want to write, yes? You want to write? I said, Yes, of course I do. Well, was all she said. Well.
And then I woke up.
*This essay originally appeared at Delirious Hem.
Suzanne Scanlon is the author of Promising Young Women (Dorothy, 2012), and the forthcoming fictional memoir, Her 37th Year, An Index (Noemi Press, 2015). She lives in Chicago.