When I first met the journalist, feminist cultural critic and all-around genius Susan Faludi several years ago, I was delighted to discover that we were both working on Mary Rowlandson. Mary Rowlandson: author of the first book by a woman in the Americas, a captivity narrative that takes place during our original war on terror in the 17th century. I was writing my second novel in which the ghost of Mary Rowlandson haunts a woman right after 9/11, and Susan Faludi was writing about Rowlandson for her book Terror Dream, in which she places the gendered response to 9/11 in historical context.
Susan Faludi’s brilliant book Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America came out in 2007, and in it she writes, “Virtually no film, television drama, play, or novel on 9/11 had begun to plumb what the trauma meant for our national psyche.” Faludi believes that instead of dealing with the reality of our fear and vulnerability around 9/11, we retrenched into a “fantasy” of hypermasculine heroism and invincibility. 9/11 brought forth a return to Cold War values, to John Wayne and traditional gender identities. According to Faludi, women–both fictional and real–support this fantasy by acting as “vulnerable maidens” who need rescue by heroic men. In her introduction, Faludi describes one particular reaction to 9/11 that exemplifies this fixation on restoring “invincible manhood by saving little girls.” Five gaunt teenaged girls came to a hospital directly after 9/11 and complained they could not swallow, though they had not been near the Twin Towers. Faludi concludes, they “have a national tragedy lodged in their throats.”
My own creative writing students at UC Santa Cruz didn’t write about The World Trade Center or the war on terror, but more of them started writing about zombies, apocalypses, zombie apocalypses, fantasies about wars between good and evil, anxious stories about our threatened world and the dangers of the enemy within. Then, a few years after 9/11, I began noticing that many of myundergrads had started referring to themselves as “girls” instead of “women”; some began to dress like little girls as well, in high-knee socks and short skirts. Indeed, according to the website “History of Fashion,” in the years after 9/11 women’s clothes became more “feminine, excessive and ‘anti-modern.’” My female students often wore heavy eye make-up that made them look like “vulnerable maidens,” too, like little match girls begging to be let in from the cold. Talk of feminism made them shift in their seats, roll their waifish eyes.
With my own novel still lodged in my throat, sometimes it seemed that Susan Faludi was the only one interested in the link between the war on terror and the reification of gender stereotypes. But then, in October 2011, Homeland premiered, the wildly popular Emmy award-winning show about a female CIA agent’s fight to thwart a terrorist attack. I was immediately captivated. Obsessed. It was the first time I’d seen a layered exploration of an American woman’s psychological response to the war on terror.
The opening sequence of Homeland is a minute-long black and white surrealist montage that portrays the inner-life of a girl coming of age in the war on terror. It begins with the close-up of a small, light-haired girl sleeping while in a voice-over Ronald Reagan intones that “Air and Naval forces have launched a series of strikes against terrorist facilities.” In the next scene, we watch the little girl watch a news broadcast about the Pan Am Flight 203 terrorist attack. The first Bush intones, “This will not stand,” and we see an image of a little girl in a lion mask inside a maze. Then the images come faster: photos of the girl growing older, improvisational, discordant jazz the sound track, the maze again, and then the adult woman, Carrie/Claire Danes, sleeping, with a voice over of President Clinton: “This is an act of terrorism.” A shot of Danes’ fluttering eyelashes in REM sleep. The Twin Towers falling. Obama: “We must, and we will, remain vigilant at home and abroad.” This montage could be an artistic expression of Faludi’s thesis–the little girl as passive observer of the masculinized war on terror, but then there’s a twist. We hear Danes’ plaintive voice: “I missed something once before, I won’t, I can’t let that happen again.”
Carrie/Claire Danes, the main character, is a CIA agent with bi-polar disorder obsessed with catching a terrorist leader. No one believes her hunch that she’s found a mole in a returning war hero. The show itself plays with the tensions between paranoia and vigilance, pattern making, intuition and reason. Should the war on terror be fought through logic or through intuition? Will an intuitive or non-linear approach to the war on terror mark Carrie as a madwoman? How much of the war on terror is paranoid fantasy? Can a woman whose inner-life has been transformed by the passive watching of the unfolding war on terror, who has been pressured to play victim, to lie asleep and silent since 9/11, intervene now? I wanted to hear not just from Homeland, but from women writers like me; I wanted to know how they would explore these questions.
I thought again of the montage at the beginning of Homeland, the mazes, the masks, the dreaming, and about Homeland‘s focus on intuition, pattern-making and madwomen, all characteristics of the surreal and/or the gothic. What better mode to respond to the fantasies of post 9/11 invincibility and masculinity than in a “fantastic” mode? I was trying to do just that in my Mary Rowlandson ghost story. And in fact, there has been a recent upsurge of women fiction writers working out of a complicated mix of surrealism, fantasy, the gothic and the fairytale, writers sometimes called female fabulists. Perhaps this might be the genre in which I’d find a response to the hypermasculine fantasies that emerged after 9/11.
I thought a good place to start looking was the anthology, Fantastic Women: 18 tales of the Surreal and the Sublime, published by Tin House in 2011. Many of the most recognized women writing fabulist fiction are represented here, including Aimee Bender, Karen Russell, Kelly Link, and Miranda July (conspicuously missing is a slightly earlier generation of fabulists, Karen Joy Fowler, Molly Gloss and their mentor, the Most Fabulous Ursula K. Le Guin).
In Joy Williams’ smart introduction to Fantastic Women, she writes “the new heroine is the super adaptable woman, wanderer, perpetrator and acceptor of illogical action” because “the important thing is to be alert to one’s surroundings, as we’ve been taught in these borderland, murderous, drug-crazed, netty, webby, clear-cut, schizoid times, even as those surrounds are morphing, melting, darkening and shifting before our eyes.” She goes on to conclude, “Writers create the myth of their age’s concerns, finding forms in which the concerns can be felt if not understood.” What are the concerns of our age if not the war on terror? This is it, this is it, I thought. But then she writes, “These stories do not take up…political issues.”
What does that mean, not political? I wondered if this recent fabulist trend might represent a turning away or inward rather than a subversive grappling with the war on terror. But perhaps Joy Williams’ assertion is meant as a reassurance to the reader, as in, yes, these stories are all by women but don’t worry, there’s no agenda beyond the aesthetic. But then, what are the apolitical myths and concerns of our age that these stories do take up? What in our culture has been morphing, melting darkening and shifting? Isn’t that the war on terror? In an age in which the violent crime rate continues to drop, why do we have to be alert to our surroundings if not because of terrorist wraiths? How could the primal wounding of 9/11 and the subsequent hypermasculinist war on terror not be the secret engine driving these female fabulist narratives?
So, I read the book to find out. I read the 18 stories, and let me report back that they are indeed fantastic. The writing is sly, creepy, amusing, often daring. But to answer my own question: these stories do and do not engage with the war on terror.
A good example of this absence/presence is the first in the collection, Aimee Bender’s “Americca.” The title seems to suggest an overtly political theme. The set up is signature, charming Bender, a suburban, domestic setting, characterized by whimsy and muted sadness. This Bender family is quietly terrorized by a ghost who is bringing them random things–a kind of reverse robbery–a tube of toothpaste, cans of soup, a third candlestick. The main character is made “claustrophobic,” “paranoid,” finding this strange invasion “creepy.” She places a twig in the front door, and it is not disturbed during the night, proving to her that the increase in items is coming from inside. Echoes of the paranoia of the terrorist enemy hiding within. But, the narrator also seems to find these intrusions deeply satisfying. When the intrusions cease, she holds onto a bag of curry, a memento of the “gifts,” and when she eventually eats it years later, she cries “the whole way through it.” The ghost of 9/11 hovers over this story, with its uncontrolled intrusions from inside and its paranoia, but it seems to be more overtly consumed with “Americcan” consumerism as Bender focuses on the twinned hunger/oppressiveness of family and home.
Julia Elliot’s is one of the few stories that engages more directly with the war on terror. In “The Wilds,” a Lord of the Flies family full of lost boys moves next door to the girl narrator—her “longing” pulls her into their backyard, where they take her hostage. The boys have knives stuck in their belts. They bind her, and then announce, “She’s got to be interrogated.” In the scene that follows, they “pick through (her) magic things” in a symbolic rape that the narrator finds both disturbing and erotic. This scene links itself to the sexual connotations of torture, with its power games, its ropes and blindfolds, and humiliations. We cannot not think of Abu Ghraib.
Elliot’s boys are imagined as animals–they smell like “ferret musk” and “dirt.” The Wild boy who interrogates her wears a wolf mask, and the narrator refers to him as the “wolf man”. In Mary Rowlandson’s foundational narrative, she frequently refers to the Native people as “wolves” and “bears.” And some speculate that Rowlandson wrote her book about her captivity to counter rumors that she had “married” (had sex with) one of her native captors. Susan Faludi describes a Bush re-election commercial “set in a dark forest invaded by a pack of wolves. A trembling female voice over” warned voters against Kerry because “‘weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm.’” So, then and now, the other as animal, as sexually out of control, terrorizing women and girls. Is this the complicated, disturbing wildness that Elliot set out to explore?
But the story moves away from these images of terror and interrogation in another, perhaps simpler direction. It turns out the boys are werewolves, and through a bite, the narrator becomes one, too. As her mouth fills with the taste of “the craziness of animals shut up,” the story resolves into a sexual coming-of-age tale.
The story in the collection that most overtly engages with the war on terror is Lucy Corin’s “The Entire Predicament.” The story opens with the narrator elaborately tied up and swinging from the rafters in her own home. She is “separated,” “gagged,” “homebound.” She explains, “My country’s at war…I swing here, hung, dumb, limb after limb, by hook and crook, bound, naked, open.” No one helps her, perhaps because “the neighbors are cowering in their houses.” “There is nothing I can do,” she decides as “the mountains in the background materialize into soldiers with camouflage outfits, their faces as stiff and suspicious as pioneers in photographs.” In this one deft image the narrator is imagined as the passive homebound woman, the bound suspected terrorist and the Native American menaced by suspicious pioneers.
The soldier/pioneers are right outside her house now. She hears the static of their walkie-talkies. The soldiers poke into her barbecue and gather up the neighborhood children, and she believes, “atrocities are imminent.”
When Mary Rowlandson is captured, her house is surrounded by native warriors, and this image of a white settlers’ home attacked by natives repeats itself for the next 300 years. As Faludi writes, “The trial of Indian bondage was the first story America told itself. Again and again.” Like Corin’s narrator, Mary Rowlandson describes the impossibility of action: “Some in our house were fighting for our lives, others wallowing in their own blood, the house on fire over our heads, and the bloody heathen ready to knock us on the head if we stirred out…Lord what shall we do?” Rowlandson’s impotent despair echoes down through the centuries and can be heard again in the heart wrenching 911 calls from the Twin Towers. Corin’s narrator is quiet, though, not calling out for help, perhaps because she embodies not just the captivated woman, but perhaps also the suspected terrorist, and the Native American, and thus the soldiers may not arrive as hero/saviors at all. So she keeps quiet.
She watches a soldier enter the house. He prods at her with a poker from the fireplace, “his face is in (her) crotch.” And, in one of the only simple emotive expressions in the anthology, she cries.
She watches through the window as the soldiers direct the children outside and is suddenly unsure if “the soldiers are directing the children or the children are directing the soldiers, as if it’s simply their toys that have grown life-size.” This image is reminiscent of Elliot’s wild boys playing at interrogation. Both authors seem to wonder at the violent, disturbingly interchangeable war games that both children and men engage in.
And then Corin’s narrator suddenly remembers how she ended up bound and gagged. “I wanted to do something–I wanted to change, and I wanted to change the world…but the world…slipped two degrees farther in a direction it had been slipping for a long time.” Thus, she has been “abducted in her own home.” The narrator’s epiphany parallels Faludi’s analysis of the ways in which we were all abducted in our own home by the hypermasculinized response to 9/11, the slip two degrees farther in gender reification, with the attending requirement of female passivity and victimhood. In the end Corin’s narrator is unable to free herself. As she watches children and soldiers continue to play war games outside her window, she realizes that she has colluded in her own capture. She says, “I am the ropes that bind me and the silver tape that stops my voice.” Again, Faludi’s teenagers who cannot swallow.
So, Fantastic Women–a gorgeous anthology, but still, but still–except for Corin, not directly taking up the myth of our age, our deep national wound, perhaps the silver tape still stopping our voices.
Near the end of the first season of Homeland, Episode 11, Carrie has a manic episode and uses crayons to create a terrorist timeline. Her boss and mentor Saul/Mandy Patinkin sorts through all her seemingly chaotic papers and puts them up on the wall sorted by color. When Carrie, drawn, thin and bruised from her mania, comes downstairs, she says, holding back tears, “You understand.” Carrie’s father declares, “It’s goddamn glorious. It should be in the National Gallery.” But it’s not just art to Carrie. When the head of the CIA arrives, Carrie refers to her collage as a report–”That report is very important. It’s very meaningful.” The CIA director orders the attending agents to “Strip it.” And it all comes down.
Yet even as the CIA director silences Carrie, her report still speaks to us, the viewers. We see the collage. We know it makes sense.
And now, a year later, what is there to report? In the second season of Homeland, Carrie refuses to escape with her lover across the border. She returns to the United States to continue to struggle with the war on terror. Kathryn Bigelow, the director of Zero Dark Thirty, has become our newest mouthpiece for the unquestioning necessity of torture and assassination, and like Mary Rowlandson, Bigelow’s female character, Maya, miraculously moves through a world of warriors but is never treated as a sexual object. Unlike Carrie, whose fear and vulnerability quiver over her face like lightening, Maya has a single emotion, revenge. It appears that Bigelow could only imagine her way out of the binary of warrior/vulnerable maiden by creating a woman warrior without vulnerability, a kind of Terminator in drag with a robotic focus on killing Osama Bin Laden.
Meanwhile, I’m keeping my eye out for nuanced depictions of women engaging actively with the hypermasculinist fantasies around the war on terror, so Dear Readers, please give me suggestions if you have them. In my own small personal journey, I thought I was done with my novel a year or so ago. My agent sent it out to publishers along with blurbs from three prominent writers who attested to its historical significance. But editors said it wasn’t clear what it was about. One editor called because he said he wanted to help me. He said, I don’t agree with those women, referring to the three writers who had garnered between them a MacArthur, a Guggenheim, and a National Book Award. He told me to cut all the material about Mary Rowlandson and 9/11. He said it would work better as a simple story of an abused woman. I’m sure the editor thought he was swooping in to save my novel, stripping it down to a story about a vulnerable maiden so that it made some kind of sense to him.
But I’m not giving up on the complications of my novel. I’m struggling to revise, to get it right, to speak. Sometimes I feel like a madwoman scribbling patterns in crayon. And I don’t have any soulful Saul to gather up my drafts and order it for me. I guess I’ll have to untangle myself.
Art by Andrea Nakhla