Saturday, September 05, 2009

Maggot Lace

Caitlin Flanagan is a stunning writer:

A long time ago, I attended the funeral of a teenage boy who died the way Wade Edwards did, in a car that flipped badly and killed him quickly. I remember standing at the burial site, under a hot Los Angeles sun, a large crowd of us waiting for the parents to arrive. The cortege turned in through the gates, snaked up the winding road, and pulled up to where we were gathered. For a long time nothing happened, the car doors all stayed closed, and you realized—in a misery of embarrassed voyeurism that occluded even the sadness—that a drama was going on inside the car containing the mother, that getting her to stand out in the sunshine with us was going to involve someone persuading her to allow her son to be dead.

At last the car doors opened, and you felt you should look away, but that wasn't right either, and so you watched, and it was a bad thing. At first, the procession faltered forward. The family made it down to the graveside, and a rabbi spoke. The pine box was lowered into the ground and the time came for the boy's brother to spade the first shovel of dirt onto the coffin, and that's when things fell apart. I'd known the boy well—he had been a student at the school where I taught English—but I hadn't loved him. In fact, I had never loved anyone yet, because I was years away from having a child of my own, and until you've done that you're just guessing about love, gesturing toward it, assuming that it's the right name for a feeling you've had.

Things fell apart when they tried to spade in the earth, and there was screaming and titanic grief, and you were in the position of watching someone being forced—physically forced—to bear the unbearable. At last it was done, and the family stumbled back up the hill to the air-conditioned cars with the liveried drivers, and the mother collapsed into one car, and the door was shut solidly behind her, sealing her into her shadowed madness.

Beautiful, is it not?

Too bad that those marvelous paragraphs are embedded in a review of three books which connects Helen Gurley Brown (the author of Sex And The Single Girl) with the infidelity of John Edwards. The subtitle of the review tells us what Flanagan's message is:

How Helen Gurley Brown inspired a generation of home-wreckers, and brought down John Edwards

These home-wreckers are the secretaries and receptionists Gurley Brown wrote about in the 1960s or their spiritual granddaughters of today: Women ready to grab whichever available man they can, and to hell with the wife at home.

The Gurley Brownish single women don't have the power to get promoted at work, Flanagan reminds us, but they have the power to claw their way up along a hairy male leg. At least until its owner shakes the struggling single woman off, as he will, in due time, because mistresses are for sex, long-suffering wives at home for real life.

Home-wrecking is not like other blue-collar industries, in Flanagan's world. It's totally staffed by women. Men are apathetic victims, led around by their penises, and cannot be held responsible for their urges to bed-hop even while married. This is something women should just accept as the framework for their lives.

That, according to Flanagan, leaves them with three options: either marry one of those bastards and stay long-suffering in the kitchen, refuse the rigged game altogether and become a lonely spinster with cats or wreck the homes of godly married women. What juicy choices we are offered in her world!

What's ultimately weirder is the great contempt towards all men Flanagan demonstrates, without seeming to notice it. That this contempt is associated with complete acceptance of male dominance in all paths of life makes me wonder how she sees her life in general. Isn't it dreadful to be in that position of always justifying one's own internalized misogyny? How does she cope with the cognitive dissonance that certainly would bother me if I was a woman telling other women that housewives are the only Good Women and that house-cleaning is the epitome of spiritual enlightenment, while all the time carrying on a nice little writing career with paid help at home? Or is it all just a game, something for laughs while tossing back a beer or two with the guys at the bar?

Who knows and who cares, you might say. So let's move on, to note that women in Flanagan's world belong into groups, some very bad (feminists), some bad (single women planning to wreck home) and some just pitiful (women who forgot to have children), but men don't belong to any similar subgroups. They are allowed to belong to the whole boys-will-be-boys dominant class, but no one man is an example of a sub-group (such as philanderers) that Flanagan would condemn. She condemns her own sex in that wide sweep of the brush. Perhaps this is what Ta-Nehisi Coates means in this quote about the review:

I don't really agree with this Caitlin Flanagan piece on Helen Gurley Brown (it feels weirdly gender-nationalist to me) but I enjoyed it a lot.

Gender-nationalist??? What nation does Flanagan hold a passport from, I wonder.

Well, certainly not from Arkansas. Our Caitlin fairly shudders when writing about Gurley Brown's childhood:

Born in an Arkansas hollow in 1922, fatherless by 10, Brown was poor—dirt poor—from the get-go, and she was raised by women who tended to step off the road and pee when the urge hit them. Clearly, there is something Appalachian about the easy truck with bodily functions that became so important to Brown's mission and message. While the Mount Holyoke grads were meeting in embarrassed little encounter groups to discuss possibly putting a mirror down there, Brown was telling her readers to embrace all aspects of their body, including the various functions and products of the alimentary tract.

In another woman, one whose life journey began elsewhere, this might be described as a hard-won, anti-bourgeois earthiness, but Brown never was bourgeois. The central tension of her work, and what has made it such a success, is that her ideas, launched at women who desire to gain or maintain position in the middle-middle class, emanate from the sort of person who gives that group the deepest and most reflexive shudder of all: pee-on-the-side-of-the-road white trash.

So many interesting avenues to explore there, not to mention the general question whether Helen Gurley Brown really was a feminist forerunner or just a woman who told other women how to work the patriarchal system a teeny-weeny bit to their advantage. I also find the column an odd mixture of steeped-in-the-sixties arguments with an otherwise sterile ahistoricity (no infidelity before Gurley Brown, no contraceptive pill). Not to mention how infidelity in the column is always between a single woman and a married man, never the other way round.

But rather than go there I want to return to that first quote from Flanagan, about the great grief on the death of a child.

What is its role in the column? The obvious tie-in appears to be to Elizabeth and John Edwards and their loss of a son. If you connect that with his later infidelity and blame it on single women as a group, what are you truly trying to say? That you fear (fear) what might happen to your family? That you see enemies to it everywhere, enemies who want to kill what you most value? And that you are vulnerable, naked and at risk?

Wouldn't it then be very reassuring if you can picture your enemies as ultimately pretty non-violent women: feminists or greedy temptresses or whatever group you pick? They are not likely to have any real power over your family, after all, and you can then avoid looking into the real dangers.