Ode to Girlhood: Olivia Gatwood’s Life of the Party

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Last summer, around the time when Olivia Gatwood’s Life of the Party was published in New York, I was sleeping on friends’ couches in Tel Aviv. It was my annual homeland visit from Chicago, and I was living out of a suitcase and trying to drink up my former life as quickly as I could, as if through a now-unfashionable plastic straw. One day I stopped by a friend’s house to pick up the face cream I’d forgotten on his bathroom counter in a hurry. My friend examined the container: flat, round, and alien like a flying saucer. “You know what’s surprising about you?” he said. I didn’t know. I wanted to know. “That you’re really a girl.”

“i don’t think i’ll ever not be one” (that is, a girl) is the line that opens the first poem in Gatwood’s book. In the poem, the twenty-eight-year-old author (she was twenty-seven when the book was published) imagines herself old, gray, and loose-skinned: “even then i’ll want / to be called girl, no matter the mouth / it comes from or how they mean it.” In Life of the Party, girls seem like an endangered species: precious and under constant threat of violence or death. Gatwood dedicates her author’s note to describing how her fear of murder or assault, which people often dismissed as irrational, has first led her to consume true crime stories for validation. It happened to other women, and so it could happen to her. However, she eventually became frustrated with the limitations of the genre: its focus on narratives that perpetuate racial stigma, its celebration of prison and the police as vehicles for justice, and its misogyny. Gatwood’s book of poetry about girls, girlhood, and the fear that is inextricable from her experience of being a girl, offers an alternative path to validation. Rather than prove that she is right to be afraid based on news items or crime statistics, she turns to explore the one indisputable fact—the fact of her own feeling. “This book is, in large part,” she writes, “a memoir of my fear and how it was planted in me as a child, then perpetuated throughout my adult life.” What happens to fear when we stop thinking about it as a mental reaction that requires justification, and instead understand it as a form of embodied wisdom with a rich genealogy of its own?

Some of Gatwood’s poems have dates and places attached to them, exact records of the moments in which fear is born, like realizing her own vulnerability in “First Grade, 1998” after her primary school custodian had killed baby mice in the school parking lot: “on my understanding he was a murderer of tiny things & we were tiny things.” Other poems in the book follow the more insidious ways in which fear takes root in the psyche, sapping it of clarity and confidence. These poems revise each other, adding new details to vignettes that had seemed complete, and alternating between expressions of doubt and reassurance. One such trajectory begins with “No Baptism,” where the speaker recalls a painful but innocent childhood memory of burning her buttocks when riding a metal slide on a hot summer day. Several pages after the poem is concluded, she adds an “Addendum to No Baptism.” The first stanza begins, “When I tell the story of the slide… / I leave out the ending.” We then learn that when the speaker’s next-door neighbor saw her injured body, he promised her that he could heal the burn using his hands:

And so, I end the story in my scream,
not in my silence, facedown
on a card table in the backyard
while the next-door neighbor
hovered his splayed fingers
above my newborn wound,
how he promised if I focused
hard enough, closed my eyes,
listened to my breath, I would
feel something. Energy, he called it.

The searing physical pain of the previous poem now acquires the sickening pinch of fear. Soon after, “Addendum II to No Baptism” revises this disclosure, too: “I should also mention that I don’t know / if his hands ever touched me, though they did.” In a series of poems, Gatwood cleverly employs the devices of true crime narrative—deferred discovery, a plot in which every new detail sheds light on past information, suspense—to show the emotional intricacy of processing the memory of sexual assault. The book is best read in order, for the purpose of following the various stories that Gatwood unfolds in her poetry. Some of these stories are about growing up and seeing how gender violence develops from cruel childhood games into its adult forms, or finding out the secrets of an admired babysitter. Other narratives, like “No Baptism” with its addenda and related poems, reveal the psychological results of sexual violence, which causes gaps in memory, self-doubt, and isolation.

Although the mind may struggle to describe what happened, to tell a convincing story about it, or even to recall it at all, the fear that suffused the body at the moment of injury does not leave it. For Gatwood, this fear is a form of knowledge about what happened and what may happen again. On the page following the second addendum, a nameless poem reads: “memory, too, / lives in my body / not my brain.” The inadequacy of the language of the brain—admissible evidence, coherent testimony, and levelheaded media reports—for talking about sexual assault reverberates everywhere in Gatwood’s poetry, and she writes (in a different poem) that, “there is a difference between fact & truth. the fact is that she overdosed. the truth is that he killed her.” In her own and others’ experience, the facts that can be rehearsed with certainty, in words that would be intelligible in a courtroom or on newspaper pages, nevertheless fail to capture the physical and psychic pain that many women suffer and even the reasons leading to a girl’s death. Poetry, on the other hand, documents what happened in the words of embodied experience and provides Gatwood with the right language for saying what she knows to be true.

 

In his “Ode to Fear,” the eighteenth-century poet William Collins personifies the feeling of fear with an energy that has been described as “nervous.” The poem seems ambiguous about the kind of knowledge that fear possesses:

Thou, to whom the World unknown
With all its shadowy Shapes is shown;
Who see’st appall’d th’unreal Scene,
While Fancy lifts the Veil between:
Ah Fear! Ah frantic Fear!
I see, I see Thee near.

Does fear get a privileged view of an unknown world filled with real dangers, or does it create the very dangers from which it shrinks, dangers made from shadows with the aid of imagination? Fear looks both outwards, at a threatening world, and inwards, into the dark crevices of the mind. Collins appears to believe that his allegorical fear, equipped with an eye for sublime images, can unlock the secrets of poetic genius. In exasperated jealousy of his renowned predecessor William Shakespeare, he pleads with fear: “Teach me but once like Him to feel… / And I, O Fear, will dwell with Thee!”

In Life of the Party, fear is not abstracted but embodied, and it is its embodiment that allows fear to be as capacious as Collins’s fearful figure. Most of the time, Gatwood’s fear is directed outwards, especially towards men: those who have already acted violently, those who’ve made threats, and those who might still show up one day and try to force their way into the house. But Gatwood also shows the ways in which fear of physical injury by a perpetrator’s hand can proliferate and spawn new and different fears, which are sometimes directed inwardly. In “Aileen Wuornos Isn’t My Hero,” one in a series of poems about Wuornos, who was executed by lethal injection in 2002 after killing seven men that she has claimed had either raped or attempted to rape her, Gatwood writes:

I am afraid of being impulsive;
whenever I stand on the subway platform
I face the wall, I am not afraid of being pushed,
I am afraid of jumping by accident,
I am afraid it would be easy to believe
I did it on purpose.

Whereas for existentialist Søren Kierkegaard the fear of throwing oneself down a precipice (rather than falling by accident) testifies to the radical freedom human beings possess, Gatwood’s poem shows that she is afraid not of her own agency, but of the degree to which even her inner sense of agency has become compromised by a world that tries to harm her. “Jumping by accident” is a jolting paradox that blends intention with misfortune, and makes it hard to tell whose will moves the speaker’s body. By comparing her own fear of self-harm with the actions of her imaginary interlocutor, Gatwood seems to ask: How does fear of being harmed change us; how does it make us do things we didn’t think ourselves capable of doing; how does it make us afraid of ourselves?

The constant possibility of violence changes not only how a person lives in the world, but also how they understand themselves. In the poem “Will I Ever Stop Writing about the Dead Girl,” Gatwood speculates: “maybe there is a dead girl inside of me, / inside all of us.” The dead girl, the murdered girl, the fear of becoming another dead girl on a man’s whim, and the solidarity with countless girls who are dead or missing, all become inseparable from the speaker’s feeling of being herself. The dead girl as an image, a possibility, a real person that she used to know, also becomes a source of creativity. But not in the same ways that violence against women is used by artists that sensationalize homicide and exploit women’s injured or dead bodies for inspiration. Gatwood’s poetry instead communicates identification and commitment, from which it draws its power. If Gatwood like Collins admits a connection between fear and poetic inspiration, it is not because she hopes that fear will teach her how to feel. Rather, she finds in the fear that she already feels the means for giving words to women’s experiences.

 

Although I’m at an age when most would prefer woman, when my friend called me a girl the word hung in my ear sweet and clear, like pasteurized honey. When I was a tween girl I spoke in a deep, low voice that the other kids said sounded like a boy’s. My father was a pediatrician, and I would flip through the pages of his great manual of things-going-wrong, still unable to read the small English script but perfectly sensible to the pictures of intersex adolescents, standing in a row with their eyes covered with black bars. I was terrified that my voice was only the first sign, and I was going to erupt into boyhood at any moment (this was before I thought about gender ambiguity as anything but trouble). One day, I was talking to a friend in the girls’ bathrooms when a squeal of alarm came from inside one of the stalls: “Is there a boy in here?!” Another girl, unfazed, answered, “No, it’s just a girl with a boy’s voice.” I was suddenly reassured: I could be a girl even if I sounded like a boy. Armed with this insight, I relaxed, and my fear of suddenly and involuntarily becoming a boy abated. My voice softened as I got older, and nobody’s mistaken me for a boy in a long time. Twenty years later, though, I’m still relieved when I call ComEd and the customer service representative answers, “How may I help you, ma’am?”

I will not do justice to Life of the Party if I leave out the book’s celebration of girls, girlhood, and girliness, which brought back to me the urgency of my own teenage desire to be undeniably girl. Gatwood’s memoir of fear tells not only about the threats that women encounter daily, but also about the courage, resourcefulness, and plain charm possessed by girls and women (traits that also shine in Gatwood’s recent New York Times profile). The many odes in the books—to jealousy, to the women on Long Island, to pink, to name only a few—revive the neglected genre of abundant and emotional praise in order to extoll women and their world. In “Ode to an Unpaid Electricity Bill,” Gatwood reassures her lover, who had forgotten to pay the electricity bill until she was cut off: “Every day before this has been a day without electricity, / a dark house, digging for my wallet and keys— / Who needs light when I have you?” The directness of her approval suggests that women, with their ability for appreciating others and for emotional expressivity, are the ideal writers of odes.

The world that suffocates women still has a lot to learn from them. This is especially true of teenage girls. In “When I Say That We Are All Teen Girls,” Gatwood envisions a world where girlhood with its big feelings is the paradigm for all and everyone’s experience. She concludes the poem with the image of loud teenage girls on the subway:

and all of the commuters, who plug in their headphones
to mute the giggle, silence the gaggle and squeak,
not knowing where they learned to do this,
to roll their eyes and turn up the music,
not knowing where they learned this palpable rage,
not knowing that teen girls are our most distinguished
professors, who teach us to bury the burst

until we close our bedroom doors,
and then cry with blood in the neck,
foot through the door, face in the pillow,
the teen girls who teach us to scream.

In its main project, Life of the Party traces a genealogy of fear, but the book also illuminates the many other vents of the heart: its capacity for love and anger, and the potency of these and other feelings for shaping and describing the world. Gatwood invites us to think with our hearts and ask in earnest, how did we learn to feel this way?


Michal Zechariah is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, where she works on ethics and the emotions in early modern British literature. Her translation of selections from John Milton’s Paradise Lost into Hebrew appeared in Ho! Literary Magazine in 2019. At UChicago, she founded and continues to lead an interdisciplinary workshop for the study of emotion in the humanities and social sciences. More from this author →