Monday, December 29, 2008

Notes from the Attic

I mentioned the idea of the Madwoman in the Attic and the Angel in House in my last blog. Essentially this is the way that that goes: In 1979, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gunbar came out with a profound criticism asserting that the male voice had been heard for too long in literature. I mean, come on, let's admit it--it was the white boy's club for a really long time! Anyway, the name of their ground-breaking work, Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination, identified the two aforementioned stereotypes. The Angel in the House realizes that material and physical comforts are gifts from her husband and her goal in life is to please her husband and her children. Virginia Woolf's reference to her own mother as "intensely sympathetic, immensely charming, utterly unselfish, excelling in the difficult arts of family life.....she sacrificed herself daily." Woolf claimed she heard her mother's voice until she wrote To the Lighthouse whereby she "exorcised the voice of the angel and all expectations that came with it." Well.....I don't know where Virginia's Room of One's Own was located but I'm kinda thinking the Attic was probably in the running since she filled her pockets with rocks and walked peacefully into the water to her death. Gotta wonder if that voice of the Angel in the house was ever completely exorcised??

I think of all of the Madwomen in literature that have been relegated to the "Attic" and it is heartbreaking. It's like--if we can't understand her, if she is a little too spirited....she's off to the "attic." It's not one of those trendy renovated attics like we see on HGTV (the show makes me literally break out in hives for all of the missed opportunities of home renovation that pass me daily but that's another story)--I'm thinking the cobwebby, dank and dark attics of our youth. Of course Jane Eyre, the angel in the house that she was.....a little rebellious, yes but hey, she returns to Rochester and ends up marrying him despite the fact that he kept Bertha, his first wife, locked in the attic for years. Don't you think you would be a wee bit frightened to marry a man who had relegated his first wife, screaming like a banshee, to the top floor of his own home, for fear that a little PMS or hormonal madness might land you in the same boat? There's a real threat here Jane--it doesn't look good for the unpredictable days of mood swings. I would be willing to bet that when the mansion was rebuilt after Bertha burned it down it did not have an attic. Surely Jane had enough wherewithal to prevent a repeat of the "Upper Room" syndrome.

The absolute most frightening case of the "Madwoman in the Attic" is in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story The Yellow Wallpaper. Here a woman is stripped of all meaningful and productive work, medicated by her arrogant and maniacal doctor of a husband and, with no other stimuli than the wallpaper, the pattern and designs on the wallpaper become increasingly intriguing, and a figure of a woman soon appears in the design. She eventually decides that there is a woman creeping on all fours behind the "bars" created by the shadows, who is trying to escape her prison. It's terrifying especially for an attic-dweller like me. This is a cautionary tale to those of us who need to feel productive, needed for our own voice but are called to be "the woman behind the man." As a side note--- I am and have been a "stand by your man" woman and I have chosen it, tailored it to suit my own Annie Oakley mess with my husband and I'll rip your eyes out style. But that has only come with time---I have also been the diagnosed "patient" convinced that she is unfit, unworthy, unimportant. Luckily, I escaped that particular tower room. There's danger ahead for those who are asked to give it up whatever that "it" is that makes you----YOU--that's all I'll say about that. Well actually, that came from the woman in wallpaper who I talked to each morning

Oh, and one more little tidbit that is just the icing on the cake for the Madwoman--she is "sexually fallen" whatever that means! I"m not touching that one with a ten foot pole dance.

When I think about attics and angels and madness I wonder how far we have come? I know that growing up in the south it certainly behooves a maiden to be able to baste a turkey, bake a cake, clean an oven, nurture a crying baby, wake up early and make the coffee, stand at the door with your lipstick on......and, of course, be a hellcat in the bedroom. This is an old stereotype though, right? I am not a feminist, per se. I wear red lipstick, I love sexy shoes, I do wear makeup and sometimes mascara to bed makes me feel better about myself, I love being a wife (thank God he's from the North and not into the whole little woman in the kitchen thing) and a mother and I have been know to bake, albeit burn, a batch of cookies. That is not the point. Here's the thing: when the angel in the house flys the coop where oh where does she go? Is she replaced with another halo-hanging sweetie pie while she screams her head off in the attic? I don't know---where is Bertha when you need her?

Well...enough ruminating for the day.....It's time to come down the attic stairs and put the casserole in the oven.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Finding my Voice--A Mother in Search of Herself

I debated whether to cut to the chase and just label my blog "Mothers Without Custody" and Mothers and Daughters, Heart vs. House. I did not. It has been more than just that, this journey through madness and maternal castration---perhaps there are insights, perhaps there are only shared experiences but hopefully there can be clarity in what continues to be a muddy pool of identity as a woman and as a mother--the two are inextricably linked. Can we be still be "women" if we feel we have "failed" as mothers? Have we failed if by circumstance, by the overpowering legalism of a patriarchal dictatorship if we are not the "Angel in the House" but have been relegated to the "Madwoman in the Attic" (more on this later)? I have searched for these answers and, perhaps, for myself --my identity apart from that of a mother or maybe in addition to that as a mother--as redesigned by my situation, which I must make clear is not a situation I would have ever imagined in my wildest ideas of how life would have turned out. How does one reconcile the two?

But, I must say, as matter of record, that mine is a mistake of misplaced trust and of incredible underestimation of my own worth and strength. Domination of the self by anyone whethere that is physical, psychological or by some external power such as the law or religion is lethal, at best. There is a way out from under, though. There are ways to claw your way back up. I hope this blog opens a forum of discussion for ways to "claw back up" from the deep wells of adversity--loss of anykind and triumph over said loss is a triumph shared if readers gain some insight or strength from shared experiences. Personally, I have gained tremendous insight from the pages of books--sounds cliche but it's true.

My story line failed miserably. I became the dastardly damsel in distress much to my horror. Locked in the tower of my own isolation, I looked to other voices beyond the mythical magical kingdom of suburbia I took on the words of women, and a few great men, and their experiences and I reveled in the language when I had no voice. That is the gift. That is everything when there is nothing.

We are not victims of circumstance, I believe. We are, in fact, not victims at all. Taking on or even playing with the idea of your self as "a victim" is the single most harmful cloak a woman, or a man I suppose, can wear. I have been a fashion maven for such cloaks at various times along the way. Those layers of the victim's adornment are tempting to drape around us to cloak all that is raw and exposed; however, we are, underneath, still naked and raw and exposed and suffering in our freezing conditions of a heart stripped bare.

I have not found answers, per se, as there are not answers to some things. How do we find answers when we didn't know there was a question to begin with? I never knew that I, Melanie as an individual worth preserving, would have to answer to and defend my very right to exist as a mother. The self is reborn with the birth and our identity as mothers are so profound, so pronounced that the image in the mirror, the inside reality of my "self" was rearranged to include another--an added bonus, if you will. what to make of the image in the mirror? The question of having to defend what has not offended seems foreign-a loud resounding babble of gibberish from some terrorist sect.

It seems the greater the grief the fewer "answers" there are to assuage the pain. However, there is the hint for a new self and a renewed heart. Something rearranged in the mirror, in the "self" that makes for a new identity--a way to reconcile the past with what the future holds for me and more importantly, for my daughter. I am still here---my voice is stronger.

*Pictured above: My daughter, Macy, Summer 2008