From the Trojan princess Cassandra to the British Florence Nightingale’s “Cassandra”

When I last read “Middlemarch,” I was a high-school senior, without much knowledge of Victorian culture. But I feel sure that Dorothea’s words and thoughts, as she surveys the marital home in which she will live, made a deep impression on me. Last night, I read the chapter in which Dorothea sinks into silence and feels some disappointment that there will be “nothing for her to do in Lowick.” She almost hopes for “a larger share of the world’s misery” in the parish where she will live, because that means she will have something to do.  “I have known so few ways of making my life good for anything.”

I could not help but think of Florence Nightingale’s “Cassandra,” an essay in which the woman who would take over the management of a British military hospital during the Crimean War and save countless lives describes herself as “shrieking aloud in her agony,” not because of her ineffectual prophecies, but because of an “accumulation of nervous energy, which has nothing to do during the day.” Nightingale was tormented by the thought that “the inability to exercise ‘passion, intellect, and moral activity’ would doom British women of privilege to madness.”

It is worth recalling that Cassandra, the daughter of the Trojan King Priam and Queen Hecuba, was wooed by Apollo, who tried to win her over by promising her the gift of prophecy. There are many versions of the story, and the one told by Hyginus in his Fabulae, reports that Cassandra spurned Apollo’s advances (he approaches her while she is sleeping), and the god retaliated by turning his gift to her into a curse (in some versions by spitting in her mouth).

It was genius of Florence Nightingale to recognize how closely aligned Cassandra’s lack of credibility aligned with the plight of Victorian women.  Only a hundred pages now into Middlemarch, it becomes evident how Miss Brooke is never taken seriously and the target of constant condescension for her misguided aspirations to do some good in the world or to broaden her knowledge by trying to keep up with her husband’s broad reading. No surprise that the philanthropic efforts of women like Dorothea are mercilessly mocked by Charles Dickens through the figure of Mrs. Jellyby, with her “telescopic philanthropy” that is invested in charitable causes in Africa even as she neglects those in her domestic orbit.

“Middlemarch” captures the deep frustrations of privileged women with nothing to do, and George Eliot captured in fiction what Florence Nightingale described with such eloquence and passion in “Cassandra.” It’s fascinating to me that I grew up in a culture that saw heroism in Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton. Today, it’s old-fashioned to invoke their names and histories, but rediscovering them this past year left me in awe of what they accomplished in a world that was telling them to stay at home and have children.






Ashley’s Sack

Ashley’s Sack, an object handed down across three generations of Black women, tells a story about the beauty of courage and care and how women’s handicraft was deployed not just to adorn but to express feelings not found in the historical record. Here is what Ashley’s granddaughter embroidered on the seed sack given to her by her mother, when she was separated from her and sold at age 9. “It be filled with my love always.”

In One Modest Cotton Sack, a Remarkable Story of Slavery, Suffering, Love and Survival - The New York Times

As Tiya Miles tells us, “the past seems to reach out to us” through this fabric. Before women and enslaved peoples had access to the instruments of writing, cloth became a medium for for preserving the “mythohistories” of entire groups. Ashley’s Sack reminds me of Philomela’s tapestry and other ancient story cloths that documented atrocities yet also revealed the fearlessness and love that could not be vanquished under the most oppressive circumstances. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich refers us to the “mnemonic power of things,” the evocative force of stories hitched to homespun or handmade everyday objects. “We have made art out of pain,” Miles writes, “sustaining our spirits with sunbursts of beauty, teaching ourselves how to rise the next day.”



Why are Justice and Revenge Represented as Women?

Kali by Raja Ravi Varma.jpg


How ironic that in times when women themselves never operated in legal systems and did not have access to institutional resources, justice itself was, more often than not, embodied in female figures. Create a mental image of justice, and you will no doubt imagine a woman dressed in flowing robes, a blindfold over her eyes and a scale and a sword in hand.  That’s what we see in three iterations at the building housing our Supreme Court. And that’s also how the Greeks and Romans envisioned Justice in her various incarnations at Themis, Dyke, Prudentia, and so on.

How can we explain why female figures adorn buildings housing the seats of authority and prestige? Is the presence of women at the portals of power driven by the need to soften patriarchal authority through maternal images to negate the coercive features of social institutions?  Marina Warner tells us that “we are living now among female forms who have adapted the allegorical language of the past, but are not reproducing it in stone or plaster or copper, but enacting it live.” In other words, those monuments, strategically placed where power resides, are unconsciously shaping women’s behavior today,

But since women were so often excluded from the judicial arena in times past, they slipped into another role, making appearances as goddesses of vengeance, retribution, and implacable justice. Remember Orestes and the Erinyes? Alekto, Megaera, and Tisiphone, representing anger, rage, and destruction, hounded Orestes for killing his mother Clytemnestra. And then there is Nemesis, who carries a sword and a whip, out to get us all for any of our lapses and missteps. And if you want to get truly scared straight, just take a look at Kali, the Hindu goddess who destroys the forces of evil. Incidentally, her stuck-our tongue inspired the tongue and lips logo used by the Rolling Stones. And the first issue of Ms. magazine featured an image of Kali, her many arms representing the multi-tasking demanded of women.

Here are my questions: Is our newfound commitment to social justice driven by the increasing representation of women in the labor force, in other words, the social and economic empowerment of women? Are women now doing precisely what Marina Warner suggests, enacting the roles found in the statuary that adorns our legal institutions? And will the legal system find  ways to address the current extra-judicial means used by women (for example, the #MeToo movement) to secure justice, not just by disavowing public accusations but hearing them in a judicial setting.  Or are shaming and arraigning destined to remain separate and distinct forms of securing justice?

[edited July 19, 2021]

Curiosity and Care & How One Doc Operates

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

“Tell me, Stevens, don’t you care at all? Aren’t you curious? Good God, man, something very crucial is going on in this house. Aren’t you at all curious?” 

“It’s not my place to be curious about such matters, sir.”

“But you care about his lordship. You care deeply, . . . If you care about his lordship, shouldn’t you be concerned? At least a little curious.”

I came late to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, which famously takes us inside the mind of a British butler, a “myth of England that was known internationally” (as the author put it). Ishiguro’s portrait of the butler reveals the disastrous self-deceptions by which Stevens, butler to Lord Darlington, lives. And, not to give anything away, it enshrines care and curiosity as alternatives to the treasured dignity long embraced by men like Stevens.

A few days after I put the novel down, I spoke to a physician who had been treating a patient who had developed odd lumps in his feet. A podiatrist had proposed surgery to remove them, and, of course, there was the fear they were cancerous. These days health-care plans dictate 15 minute appointments. The perplexed physician had never seen anything like the lumps on the patient’s feet and called in colleagues to take a look. They too were stumped. That would have been the end of the story for most doctors. But this one cared about his patient and sat down at his desktop and began researching until, after an hour of searching symptoms, he discovered something called Ledderhose disease, a rare ailment in which connective tissue builds up and creates lumps on the bottoms of the feet.

Because this doctor was curious, he was able to care for his patient. Or maybe because he cared about his patient, his curiosity was aroused. I’m reminded of how curiosity and care are co-dependent, each requiring the other to flourish and thrive.

Corporate America Co-opts Empathy

Emperor's New Clothes by Arthur Rackham | Museum Art Reproductions |

For years now, I have been fretting about empathy. Of course, I have faith in its power, but, like many in my generation, I rebel against orthodox pieties, especially those that try to control and regiment affect. Which is why, I put my foot down after watching an advertisement that opportunistically recruited empathy to sell Lexus’s luxury LS 500 vehicle. I have struck the term from my vocabulary.

“We’re all different,” Emmanuel Acho (the caption describes him as an athlete, author, and speaker) intones from the driver’s seat of his Lexus. “But once we get past our differences, that’s when we find empathy. Because everything great is birthed through discomfort. . . .  Because real empathy knows no difference, no age, no color, no gender. Real empathy says, hey, I see you, I feel you, I hear you. . . . I understand you.” Never mind the irony of touting the benefits of discomfort from a luxury vehicle. What really captured my attention in that ad was the mystified child, who hears Acho rehearsing his motivational speech while running by her.

Recall Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” which ends with a child speaking truth to power, revealing the hypocrisy of the adults watching the naked emperor parade down the streets in the exquisite “attire” woven by two swindlers. The child in the Lexus ad serves as a powerful reminder of how adults march to a cultural drumbeat that has become an empty slogan rather than an authentic sentiment. An empathetic adult would not have been so trapped in the world of commercial enterprise and self-promotion that he would ignore the child on the street in the rush to prepare his inspirational speech.

It’s time to find new ways of expressing what it takes to cross the many cultural, linguistic, national, and geographic divides we live with today. For starters, sympathy, is a term that adds an ethical stance to the cognitive leap that it takes to designate our understanding of what others experience and feel. Sympathy, unlike empathy, includes a judgment that the “distress” felt by someone else is “bad,” as Martha Nussbaum tells us in The Upheavals of Thought.

Even better would be substitution of curiosity and care for empathy, a subject I take up in my new book, The Heroine with 1001 Faces.  Once we exercise our human desire to know, almost a reflex in most of us, we can take a second step that moves toward alleviating the pain or misery we witness. All too often, feeling bad makes us feel all too good, and it’s only when we take make the move from affect to action that the world begins to change. Lexus has it right—time to move out of the empathy comfort zone and begin the harder job of caring for those around us.

History as Farce? Tarantino’s “Once upon a Time . . . in Hollywood”






Once upon a Time . . . in Hollywood has been acclaimed as Tarantino’s valedictory love letter to Hollywood, his “Tinseltown valentine,” but also denounced as belonging to the “Manson-sploitation” genre. Invoking the “Once upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France” intertitle of the first “chapter” of Inglourious Basterds as well as the titles of two Sergio Leone’s westerns, Tarantino’s new film reminds us that we are in the realm of make-believe, invention, and playful artistry. Anything can happen, including the “happily ever after” of the Hollywood dream factory. History can be rewritten, and what was first tragedy can be repeated and, at least at the movies, turned into farce.

“Once upon a time”: that’s how we signal a story. We are about to leave the here and now for the domain of the counterfactual, the great “What if?” There are, of course, variant forms. In Haiti, a storyteller will chant “Krik” and the audience responds with “Krak”—we are ready to hear your tale. And in Majorca, a storyteller will begin: “It was and it was not.” What you are about to hear is both true and untrue, a big old lie (that’s Zora Neale Hurston), but one that captures a higher truth about who we are. Or as Milan Kundera put it, in a meditation on painting delivered by one of his characters: “On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath the unintelligible truth.”

But Quentin Tarantino and fairy tales? In Django Unchained, a film that seems far removed from the world of fairy tales, it is something of a surprise to discover a Sleeping Beauty subtext. Recall that Django’s wife is named Hildy, or Broomhilda, and that we first see her locked up in an underground chamber, her punishment for trying to run away. Naked, dehydrated, immobilized, and painfully vulnerable, Hildy lives up to the name given to her by German slaveholders. Recall Brunhilde’s punishment for disobeying her father Wotan: he narcotizes her with a “sleep-thorn” and surrounds her with a ring of fire, sealing her off from the world until a man who does not know fear will rescue her.

Inglourious Basterds is just as allusive in its use of fairy tales. After all, it opens with Beethoven background music and gives us a kick in the head with the cold-blooded shooting of a Jewish family, hiding underground from the Nazis, reminding us of the German genre that captures beauty and horror with unparalleled expressive intensity. And fairy-tale tropes appear in the film with chilling force, most prominently when Colonel Landa interrogates Bridget von Hammersmark and asks her to try on the incriminating shoe in his pocket. Presto, the shoe fits and the actress must “wear it,” Landa declares, after placing her foot in the shoe and then lunging on her to strangle her to death.

Perhaps those fairy-tale tropes are part of the nostalgic sensibility attributed to Tarantino, a filmmaker who is “profoundly and passionately conservative,” as A.O. Scott aptly put it, capturing elements of both self-indulgent regression and archival aspiration in the filmmaker’s imaginative universe. But there is more to Tarantino than that. Fairy tales are there to be rescripted, reinvented, and made new by each generation, and Tarantino does just that. They give us the tried and true, but they also stage the fears that haunt us in the here and now. The symbolic has always enabled us to navigate the real, and, since it is often larger than life and twice as unnatural, it can have a cathartic edge, the therapeutic power ascribed to symbolic stories by Bruno Bettelheim, when, in The Uses of Enchantment, he urged parents to read their children fairy tales, no matter how dark and unforgiving the violence in them.

The movies are, in many ways, our new folklore. Films tap into our collective desires and anxieties in the same way that stories once told around the fireside, in the fields, and in spinning rooms once did. They engage with all the social and cultural contradictions that are in our DNA and, they enable us to talk about those contradictions in ways that may not resolve them but at least rein in their toxic effects.

These days, in an age when we casually invoke the term “meta” to describe nearly every entertainment, we are also interested in what goes on behind the scenes as well as in the sensibilities of the filmmaker/auteur who can no longer be detached from what he directed. And here’s where even the darkness of Tarantino turns a shade darker, when we begin to wonder whether his cinematic violence is truly therapeutic and whether in the many public calculations of its cathartic value there may not also be a missing loss.

In a review of Tarantino’s film, Anthony Lane closes with concerns in an otherwise reverential viewing. Two things “freaked me out,” he confesses. “One was the sudden, insane burst of brutality that is inflicted by men upon women. And the other was the reaction of the people around me in the auditorium to that monstrosity. They laughed and clapped.” (Here, I’m reminded of gleeful reactions of audiences to the ending of Get Out, but that is another story.) Is this preposterous violence, so over-the-top vintage Tarantino that we double over with laughter rather than cringe in fear? Its hard not to notice that excessive force is trained largely on the female Manson acolytes, one of whom perishes after her face has been smashed into every surface and object available, the other of whom shrieks and screams while the fire from a flamethrower slowly consumes her flesh (it’s almost impossible not to think of the witch in another famous German fairy tale).

Tarantino is never shy about piling on, and you almost need a scorecard to keep track of the many noxious women in Once upon a Time . . . in Hollywood. There is the hectoring wife of the stuntman played by Brad Pitt, a woman right out of Hitchcock’s playbook who was more than likely (justifiably, as the snippet of her shrill outburst suggests) murdered by her long-suffering husband. There is the creepy precociousness of the “actor” (that’s what she calls herself), Julia Butters, whose soulless ambition turns an eight-year-old girl into a threat. And then there are the Manson minions, who eerily resemble Hitchcock’s avian killers in their power to silently and menacingly appear out of nowhere, vulture-like in the way they stare down their prey.

It took the #Metoo movement to reveal that what may appear to be standard-issue misogyny, culturally symptomatic rather than personally motivated, can be more than that. Recall Uma Thurman’s New York Times Op-ed, in which she revealed the abuse to which she was subjected while filming Kill Bill. Among the scenes was one in which she had a chain wrapped around her neck and appeared to be choking. Here’s Tarantino’s defense of how the scene was filmed, “I can act all strangle-ey, but if you want my face to get red and the tears to come to my eye, then you kind of need to choke me. I was the one on the other end of the chain and we kind of only did it for the close ups. And we pulled it off. Now that was her idea.” Was it? During the making of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino decided that his hands, rather than Christoph Waltz’s, would be filmed in the strangling scene. “Look, I’ve got to strangle you,” he told Diane Kruger. “If it’s just a guy with his hands on your neck . . . it looks movie-ish. But you’re not going to get the blood vessels bulging, or the eyes filling with tears, and you’re not going to get the sense of panic that happens when your air is cut off.”

“I always believe in following the advice of the playwright Sardou,” Hitchcock long ago declared. “He said ‘Torture the women!” . . . the trouble today is that we don’t torture women enough.” Nowhere is Hitchcock’s sadism more evident than when seated in the director’s chair. While filming The Birds, Hitchock had no reservations about sacrificing Tippi Hedren’s personal safety to cinematic realism and “integrity.” The two-minute assault scene in that film required a full week of eight-hour days, days that left Tippi Hedren on the brink of emotional and physical collapse. “Miss Hedren was placed daily in a cage-like room . . . and two men . . . opened huge boxes of gulls which they threw directly at her, hour after hour. . . . Eight hours daily , for an entire week, she was subjected to this nerve-wracking experience. Birds flew at her, and birds were tied to her.” As she herself tells it, “Finally, one gull decided to perch on my eyelid, producing a deep gash and just missing my eyeball. I became hysterical.” In a final stroke of irony, on each day of shooting, representatives from the Humane Society were present to ensure that the birds were not mistreated.

Cinematic violence, in other words, inevitably seeps into the real world, in ways that are not always easy to calculate. Yet do we now want to police directors, demanding an end to imaginative work that may need what Shakespeare called violent delights to capture the attention of audiences and, more importantly, to remain authentic and true to its time and place?

Can we let Tarantino off the hook? After all, he may be doing nothing more than offering a meditation on how the success of Hollywood films is fueled by mayhem and violence. Or he may be delivering a message on how stuntmen take all the risks and save the day while actors lounge in the pool. Is he mocking the way we cheer on the tough guy who will snuff out the killers (using their tactics)? Or is he revealing how a violent killing spree can be turned into just another day at the office, with the fading TV star played by Leonardo DiCaprio casually and happily accepting an invitation to socialize with Sharon Tate and her friends as charred and battered corpses are driven off in ambulances? Tarantino may be giving us the fairy tale we deserve, even as he mischievously critiques the medium in which he operates and the illusions in which it traffics. Reminding us of our desperate need for scapegoats, he shows us what hypocrites we are when we preach the gospel of kindness and empathy to our children.

Like every good fairy tale, Once upon a Time . . . in Hollywood gets us thinking more and thinking harder about who we are and about why violence in the movies is, as Tarantino once put it, “cool,” even when real-life violence is “one of the worst aspects of America.” What does it say about us when we cheer on the stuntman smashing faces into walls and the Hollywood star extinguishing life with his flamethrower and then recoil in horror when we wake up to headlines about another shooting spree in America?


Scorn’d Women Getting Even: Maleficent, Dr. Foster, and now Daenerys

Image result for dr. fosterBeginning in the 1970s, rape moved to center stage in cinematic culture (I Spit on Your Grave, Act of Vengeance, Extremities), and what critic Carol Clover refers to as “rape-revenge stories” began to proliferate. Today we seem to have turned a corner, with new plots: this time “betrayal-revenge stories,” with the the “Woman scorn’d” (as William Congreve put it in his 1697 play The Mourning Bride) as the motor of the plot.

Case in point, Netflix’s Dr. Foster, which opens the second episode of season one with Suranne Jones (who plays Gemma Foster) reciting Congreve’s lines:

Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d,
Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.

Congreve’s wisdom has become proverbial “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” (or did he appropriate the proverb?) and here is where online definitions become helpful, with the proverb meaning  that “a woman will make someone suffer if they reject her” and “women can be particularly furious and emotional when angry” (implying of course that they get even crazier than angry men). Gemma Foster enacts that proverbial wisdom, and the Dr. Foster becomes almost unwatchable in Season 2, when Gemma descends into extreme madness of the suburban sort.

We’ve seen this same behavior, which I call the Maleficent Syndrome, in Robert Stromberg’s 2014 film, starring Angelina Jolie (soon to become “The Mistress of Evil” in a sequel).  There it is Stefan who betrays Maleficent, cutting off her wings in what has been called “a metaphoric rape” Angelina Jolie confirmed this view when she noted, in a BBC interview, “We were very conscious, the writer and I, that [the scene] was a metaphor for rape.”

Image result for maleficent

Still, it is the fact of Stefan’s abandonment that enrages Maleficent, turning her into the Evil Queen of the Moors and leading her to put a curse on King Stefan’s daughter, Princess Aurora.

And now we have scary Daenerys, scorned by Jon Snow, on a rampage, going full mad queen as she rides her fire-breathing dragon, engaging in what gives the term scorched-earth policy a new depth of meaning. No—Daenerys Targaryen And Her Failures Are Not 'Bad For Women'

There may be a shift from revenge-rape stories to tales of betrayal and madness, but there is a constant that remains: Hell hath no fury like a woman.

Arya Stark as Classic Horror’s Final Girl

Game of Thrones s8 e3

If you want to see how much Game of Thrones fans loved Arya Stark’s sleight-of-hand before slaying the Night King in the godswood with a Valyrian steel dagger, just go on Twitter and look at how often her face has been superimposed on basketball players making breathtaking stealth moves before a stunning slam dunk.  Entertainment Weekly reports that Maisie Williams was worried that fans would “hate” how the Battle of Winterfell was resolved and conclude that Arya “didn’t deserve it.”

The show prepared us for the finale all along in a variety of ways, one of which was the scene showing a terrified Arya making her way through the library, trying her best to elude the White Walkers lurking in the stacks. (Did anyone else have a flashback to Jurassic Park, with a terrified Tim and Lex hiding from the raptors in the kitchen?) Here we have the “distressed female” of classic horror, the survivor known as the Final Girl, who is “chased, cornered, wounded” and whom we see “scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again,” as Carol Clover puts it in Men, Women, and Chainsaws. She is the one who looks death in the face and finds the strength to slay the monster.  Even as she is terrorized and tortured, the Final Girl rises to the challenging terrors that no one else was able to face down.

And while we are at it, did anyone else notice the striking resemblance between Max Schreck in the German horror film Nosferatu (1922) and the Night King?


Stones of Patience: Silence and Storytelling

The Patience Stone movie

Golschifteh Farahani in Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone

Stones of Patience are a rarity in European and Anglo-American folklore, though the German phrase about something being capable of moving a stone to tears or making a stone empathetic (etwas könnte einen Stein erbarmen) tells us much about the power of stories.  These stones can be found in the folklore of many cultures, with a Persian tale, for example, called SANG-E ṢABUR (a story that inspired Rahimi’s 2012 film).  The patient stone in the title represents the most empathetic listener imaginable. Collecting all the compassion that has been squandered in the world, it absorbs suffering as it listens to the tribulations of those who must bear an intolerable burden of misery. The patient stone sacrifices itself, willingly bursting into pieces by taking on what would otherwise crush its human interlocutor.  Do I need to ask in how many ways this is relevant to last week’s hearings?

For centuries, women in fairy tales have made use of veiled speech and clever ruses as they prowled around the margins of storytelling worlds. They engaged in a practice one expert calls idio-narration, talking to themselves as much as to others, using their words to get their story “out there,” even when, or perhaps especially when, no one seemed to be paying attention. In fairy tales, they are often silenced as girls, by fathers, brothers, and other male relatives—in some cases even by creatures exceptionally low in the food chain or high in divine hierarchies. When the princess in the Grimms’ “Frog King” explains why she is weeping, the frog tells her, with an air of authority: “Be quiet and just stop bawling.” “Don’t cry, Gretel,” that’s also what Hansel tells his sister when they are lost in the woods, unable to find their way back home. And the Madonna herself silences the girl in “Our Lady’s Child” when she refuses to admit that she opened a door forbidden to her.

“The Goose Girl,” a story recorded by the Grimms and included in their collection of 1812, reveals the complex ways in which silence and speech operate in tandem to produce self-reflexive narratives that allude to the power of storytelling. A princess traveling to foreign lands for her wedding is betrayed by her chambermaid and forced to tend geese in the kingdom she was to rule. On pain of death, she cannot reveal her true identity. All the while, she retains magical powers, summoning the winds to divert the attentions of unwanted suitors or communicating with the head of her beloved horse, a creature decapitated by the chambermaid. If speech in its most urgent form is denied her, still she finds, as is the case with Cinderella, Snow White, Donkeyskin and a host of other fairy-tale heroines, some consolation in her power to commune with and be at home in the natural world.

It is the father of the prince who, after getting wind of intrigue and betrayal from the horse’s head endowed with speech, proposes that the goose girl tell her troubles to an old iron stove. Once he walks away, the princess crawls into the iron stove and starts “weeping and wailing”: “She poured her feelings out and said: ‘Here I sit, abandoned by the whole world, even though I’m the daughter of a king. A false maid forced me to remove my royal clothing and now she has taken my place with my bridegroom. And here I am, forced to do menial work as a goose girl. If my mother knew about this, her heart would break in two.’” The king has put his ear to the stovepipe and hears every word she speaks. Truth becomes public thanks to an eavesdropper or sympathetic listener, a male intermediary with the authority to validate and air the facts, even when, or perhaps especially when, they are hotly denied. Telling her story, finding the power of speech in what could have been mere breath in the wind, has transformative power.

Our word for silence comes from the Latin silentium, meaning “quiet, still, calm,” a condition of being free from noise. But there is a strong bifurcation of meaning embedded in the term. When we use “silence” as a verb, it signals something imposed or inflicted, yet “silence” is also golden, a condition of serenity associated with physical and spiritual wellbeing. With the writer Rebecca Solnit, we can think of “silence as what is imposed, and quiet as what is sought,” thereby reserving silencing for a coercive form of behavior, one that ranges from the violent cutting out of tongues (paging mythical creatures ranging from Philomela to the Little Mermaid) to the illocutionary force of a command to shut up. Women have always spoken up and acted up, but, as we have seen, they were often silenced in ways that forced expression through artifacts associated with women’s work (like Arachne or Philomela, weaving stories about criminal behavior into tapestries). Or, in acts of desperation, they confided in themselves or inanimate objects, discovering that justice came only when a male intermediary listened in (often in an enclosed space!) and made things better or right.  Today, with new technologies that provide public outlets for telling stories, airing grievances, and exposing injustices, we have established an alternative system that rivals our legal institutions in its power to shame, punish, and chasten. The premium on good storytelling has never been higher, and the challenges that lie ahead remind us of the vexing complexities implicated in the difference between telling a good story and telling one that is true. As always, aesthetics and ethics dance a tango in a drama that is compelling, complicated, and enigmatic to the core.

Munchausen syndrome by proxy and Fairy-tale Revenge

Image result for mommy dearest and dead Erin Lee Carr’s remarkable documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest (2017) contains a remarkable sequence that begins with Gypsy Rose Blanchard, victim of her mother’s need to turn a healthy child into a dangerously ill patient, sitting in Cinderella’s castle at Disney World, eating “some real mashed potatoes.” As we discover, this is a girl who will not know how to distinguish fantasy from reality. “Life is not a fairy tale,” she reflects while awaiting trial for plotting with her boyfriend to kill her mother. “I learned that the hard way,” she admits after she has been charged with second-degree murder.

What fairy tale did she use to make sense of her life?  “I liked the Disney film Tangled,” she tells us.  “It’s about Rapunzel. She’s a princess in this kingdom, and she’s kidnapped by Mother Gothel from her real family.  And Mother Gothel keeps her in this tower for all of her life and tells her ‘Don’t leave this tower’ so that is all she knows. . . . At the end Mother Gothel dies. She got thrown out a window because Rapunzel tried to stand up for herself and leave her tower.”

After years of treatment for diseases like muscular dystrophy and leukemia–diseases she never had–Gypsy Rose finds love in a relationship, one that is once again mediated by fairy tales.  On Facebook, she chats with Nick Godejohn, who persuades her that “every Beauty needs her Beast.”  “We can relate to it from opposites of it, Sweetie,” he tells her.  “I was taught that a woman’s role is to be submissive,” Gypsy Rose declares, “and the man is dominant.”  On Facebook she tells Nick “Well, I’ll be your Belle if you be my Beast in bed.”

Gypsy Rose never had a chance to learn to distinguish between fantasy and reality. The desperate need to follow scripts that are pure fantasy turned her life into what one officer describes as a “fairy-tale nightmare,” a worst-case scenario that replicated the excesses of fairy tales and never gave her the chance to experience the redemptive therapeutic value of stories understood as story, told in a safe space that creates the opportunity to use the symbolic to navigate the real rather than to model it in ways that turned horrifyingly real.