In the old days,
the myths were the stories we used to explain ourselves
but how can we explain
the way we hate ourselves?1
It started with simple directives. You’ll need a coat. Those shoes are too slippery. That’s not enough food; that’s too much. When I was a very young child, I imagine, I listened. My mother was the wisest, my only mother. But by the time I was ten, my mother had become sick of my constant resistance to her well-meaning (and often correct) advice. She nicknamed me Sassafras, and I remember getting in trouble for giving her a hard time. My constant, know-it-all, snotty rejection of her wisdom drove her mad.
By the time I was a teenager, the issues had grown, too. That skirt is inappropriate. Those shoes are too high. You have to drive like this, eat like that, be home by this time. Over a decade, her rules had set me to opposition. I needed to be something, someone different from her. I rebelled.
I didn’t always rebel directly. In fact, my greatest rebellions remained secret at the time, and for many years after. Like the ecstasy I did, the men I dated, the times I missed curfew, sneaking in while she was asleep. I was better at saying yes, and doing what I wanted anyway. I was conflict-avoidant. And I liked being the “good daughter,” even though I wasn’t that good most of the time. I thought she was wrong about so many things: her parents, my fashion sense, the necessity of thank you notes, the superiority of organic produce, the usefulness of supplements, the futility of weight loss. The way time flies.
I can’t remember with specificity when I was forced to admit she had been right about some of those things. Not all of them, but more than I could ignore. She was right; she had been right. My mother, it turned out, was neither the sainted goddess of correctness that my child-self believed in, nor the idiot that my teenage self dismissed. She was brilliant; she was flawed. She was human.
In my early thirties, while writing my first book, I took classes with other nonfiction writers, many of them older than me. Sometimes, one of these older writers, who had lived much longer and fuller and more interesting lives by the time of our meeting than I had, would advise me that I was “too young” to write a memoir. I hadn’t lived yet. Thirty was just a baby. I remember one woman in particular, after reading one of my pieces in a workshop, told me that maybe I “wasn’t quite ready” to tell this story. I hadn’t lived long enough since the events in question to have “perspective.”
I wanted to hit her.
Instead I smiled and thanked her, then fumed to my friends and family. The events in question had happened a decade earlier! How dare she? I was *so* ready.
A couple of years later, I read the memoir that would change the course of my life. I don’t mean metaphorically, I mean literally, though I didn’t know that when I read it. The book was The Chronology of Water. I read it, then picked it up and read it again. And again. While I was reading it on repeat (something I hadn’t done since I was a child with Anne of Green Gables), I was asking myself how I could write anything if I couldn’t write like this. I didn’t mean the details of the story; I meant the writing, the way the whole book was structured. The author was a genius, and I promptly stopped writing my own book, or even thinking of myself as a writer. I had read a real writer; I felt broken.
I walked away from my book for a year. I got pregnant. I didn’t write another word on my manuscript until my daughter’s first birthday, when I attended a retreat (at my husband’s urging) with none other than the author of Chronology, Lidia Yuknavitch. That first time meeting her, I could barely stay in my skin. I wanted to tell her how she meant everything to me, and yet, I didn’t want to overwhelm her introverted nature with my extroverted gushing. I had elevated her in my mind, and imagined myself at her feet, a supplicant to her brilliance and blonde hair. Everything she said, I wrote down. I was smitten, but in the way that a mortal falls in love with a goddess. And then, over the course of the next two years, I actually got to know her, and realized that she didn’t want to be elevated, by me or by anyone. That by putting her on some mental pedestal, I was inherently denigrating myself, my own work and spirit. That she, brilliance that she is, was neither the Goddess of Perfection I imagined her to be, nor the misfit weirdo she sometimes saw herself to be. She was brilliant. She was flawed. She was human.
In Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, The Female Persuasion, the young protagonist, Greer Kadetsky, meets the woman who will shape her life, Faith Frank, at a college speaking event. Faith Frank is a kind of Gloria Steinem stand-in. While initially, Greer is so taken with Faith, she places Faith on a pedestal, eventually Faith’s human imperfections begin to show. In the end Greer faced the same issue with Faith that I had with Lidia, with my mother: What to do when our heroes are revealed to be imperfectly human?
Sometimes it feels like I struggle with this question daily. The suffragettes were racist. Second and third wave feminism was too focused on white women’s needs (despite the fact that the term “intersectionality” was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, during the third wave). Nearly every one of my feminist icons has said or done something problematic. Gloria Steinem said women were voting for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary because they wanted to impress the boys. Hillary Clinton called black children “superpredators.” Audre Lorde was allegedly abusive, throwing shoes, plates, and verbal abuse at her husband. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made transphobic comments, and then doubled down on them. Lena Dunham’s privilege and racism. bell hooks said Beyoncé is a cultural terrorist. Eileen Myles has been called out for trans-exclusionary comments. My feminist pantheon is full of contradictions. Nobody is above the fray.
I have heard friends use the term “second wave feminist” like it’s a curse word. And they use it indiscriminately, to speak of women who identify as feminist, but just don’t seem to “get” some topics. Bari Weiss’s ridiculous NYT piece in defense of Aziz Ansari; Katie Roiphe’s Harper’s screed about “twitter feminists.” It seems like when one of these women publishes something under the banner of feminism that doesn’t align with the most recent feminist ideals (for example, believe the women), these friends are willing to toss them in the fire with the rest of the bigots, and drag them as “second wavers.”
Of course the pedant in me is irritated because these women are (mostly) not second wavers. The second wave feminists, the real ones, are at least in their seventies, and many of them are dead. The second wave happened in the 1960s and 70s, while these women currently forty to sixty years old were maybe young children, or maybe not even born yet. Katie Roiphe was in college in the 1990s. Bari Weiss is younger than me (born in 1983). Both of these women are third wave feminists (though Weiss, like me, might be an early part of the “fourth wave” which began in 2012 and is linked to social media and the rise of feminist websites like Jezebel and Feministing). But the third wave brought us sex-positive feminism (as a response to anti-porn feminism, yes); Take Back the Night and the first push to stop campus rape; the words “sexual harassment,” and riot grrrls. Third wave feminists were the women and girls I have always looked up to and wanted to emulate.
Matriphagy: literally, to feed on the mother. The consumption of a mother by her offspring. This process usually takes place within the first weeks of life, and has been documented in some arachnids and other insects. After their birth, some mother spiders feed their young by mouth for a few weeks, before calling them to eat her body in a strange, maternal suicide.
I first heard about this concept on the introduction to the podcast, This Is Love. It was their introductory episode—a strange and dark prologue to the many forms that love can take. Knowing my interest in stories of the shadow in motherhood, my friend Katharine Coldiron recommended the episode to me. I listened, cringing.
A mother being eaten by her children was not a new metaphor. But this was no metaphor. This was a mother literally feeding herself to her children. And the children were literally feasting on the body of their mother in order to survive. They had to devour her in order to become.
What must I devour of my mothers’ in order to become myself? Not just my biological mother, but the mothers of my philosophies? The women who came before, on whose bones I stand. What is the proper amount of respect without idolatry? How do I thank them, especially when they got some other things wrong? How do I critique them without smashing them to smithereens? How do I honor the women who brought us: the right to wear pants; the right to vote; the right to own property (without any man’s “permission,”); the right to get a line of credit in our own name; the right to contraception; the right to bodily autonomy; the concepts of mansplaining, intersectionality, and rape culture; the existence of domestic violence centers and rape crisis lines; the laws against spousal and statutory rape; the idea that the vagina is not disgusting and doesn’t need constant, floral-scented cleaning or surgical shaping; pockets; tampons; gender-neutral restrooms; environmental activism.
I’m sure there’s more.
Women do what they need to do to survive. It doesn’t always mean they are let off the hook for their choices, methods, or means of survival. This isn’t a plea for forgiveness. I’m just saying, each of us has stories. And different contexts. And reasons that we maybe couldn’t articulate. It doesn’t mean I have to agree. But I need to remember their humanity, and the context of the worlds they survived.
Let’s take the women in our lives, and the women who came before us, off the pedestals but also, out of the graves of irrelevancy. As human beings, our stories are rarely uniquely ours. What I have lived will be lived again, and has been lived before. It’s so easy, so intellectually lazy, to simply point out what others are doing wrong, or what they’ve done perfectly. Instead I try to embrace the ambiguity of humanity. We are neither goddesses nor monsters. We are simply women. Brilliant; flawed. Human.
The myth of Persephone is familiar to most of us: Demeter’s daughter, Persephone is raped and kidnapped by Hades, god of the Underworld, and eventually made to split her time between her mother’s world and her husband’s. In this version, the one I was told, Persephone is little more than a maiden-object. She is only defined by the powerful gods attached to her name through rape-marriage and birth. But there is another version, an older version. Demeter, goddess of the harvest, brings her daughter Persephone to walk beneath the earth and encourage the roots to grow. When they do this, Persephone hears the voices of the dead in the underworld. They are lonely. They want someone to talk to. Persephone tells her mother that she wishes to go tend to the dead; Demeter refuses. Their job is to tend to the living, growing world, she says.
Persephone decides to go to the underworld against her mother’s wishes. She fills a basket with grain and poppies, and begins to descend. The dead come one by one to speak with her. She listens, she feeds them from her basket and brings them joy. There are many dead; Persephone is gone for a long time. Demeter is bereft; she refuses to tend to the plants. She weeps and longs for her daughter, and the world is plunged into a winter that doesn’t end. Then one day, crocuses push their way out of the snow. Demeter is overjoyed, as this is a sign of Persephone’s return.
The myth lasts because it still has meaning: younger women must push back, call out, and otherwise separate and define themselves against their mother generation. This is the cycle of movements, just as it is the cycle of women with their own mothers. Part of that is tossing out what doesn’t work. Part of that is deciding what we will tend to, even if our mothers think our priorities are wrong. In the older myth of Persephone she actively participates in her own narrative. She’s not just a victim of the powerful desires of her mother, of Hades. She has her own idea about what is important, decides which of Demeter’s values to keep (mothering) and applies them to her own area of interest (the untended dead). She chooses when to go down to the realm of the dead, and when to return to her mother’s world of the living. She is the goddess of both the Spring and the Underworld, death and rebirth, and she integrates her duality without needing to denigrate the priorities of her mother goddess. Persephone gives us a way to both be our whole honest selves, and honor our lineage.
When the next generation of feminists begins to excavate the modern day, they’ll find us in all our flawed and human imperfection. Our goddesses will be scrutinized and found lacking. Our faves will all be problematic. When my daughter looks at the nascent fourth wave, she’ll find fault with it, just as I found fault with the women who came before me. I can’t predict the future, but one thing is certain: generations rise on the bones of their ancestors. The mothers call their children, thrumming the web with their legs. The children feast. Her body becomes their body, in a strange inter-generational communion.
We devour, and we become new. The past is the present, and the present is, paradoxically, already the past. Nothing stays the same, but history repeats itself. There is no such thing as an original story, and yet each person’s story is their own unique recipe of free will, desire, circumstances, privileges, and oppressions. We are not our mothers, but we carry copies of them inside us like scrolls.
Rumpus original logo and art by Aubrey Nolan.
The Thread is a monthly literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Julie Greicius. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on Twitter or Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column.