Wednesday, September 17, 2008
The Christian Martyr and the Pagan Witness in The Well of Loneliness
The Well of Loneliness is the canonic lesbian novel that many people think they know; in some sense, it has become a part of queer folk culture. As the tragic story of a female “invert,” in the language of the time, the novel itself has been dramatically persecuted. Attacked in several courtrooms in 1928 and 29 for daring to suggest that gender “inversion” and sexual “perversion” should be tolerated, it has been attacked since 1970 by Second Wave feminist critics for its essentialist and patriarchal world-view.
However, like the works and the persona of the martyred writer Oscar Wilde, The Well of Loneliness and its author, Radclyffe Hall, have had too much influence on an evolving gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered culture for us simply to dismiss it as a relic of the past.
Hall’s central character, Stephen Gordon, has moved generations of young readers who have secretly feared (and hoped) that they too are fundamentally different from everyone else they know and that they are doomed to be rejected and misunderstood by the shallow philistines around them. The judges who feared the influence of this book on the impressionable young were probably onto something, since a reader’s identification with Stephen tends to obscure the textual evidence that her social isolation is not simply a result of human prejudice.
The brief but significant appearance of the “pagan” lesbian character Valerie Seymour serves to show that Stephen is not simply doomed because she loves women but because her masculine, genetically-determined nature, combined with her traditional Christian value system (which is endorsed by the narrator), leaves her no room for the ethical fulfillment of her emotional needs. According to God’s laws as Stephen understands them, wholesome joy in the lives of her“people” can only be an illusion.
Stephen’s life-story, like that of a saint or a hero of legend, seems to be largely predetermined by forces beyond her control. It begins, appropriately enough, with the courtship of her Irish mother and her English father, who recognizes his true mate when he meets the fair Anna, who is “all chastity,” on a visit to Ireland. Sir Philip Gordon brings his bride to his ancestral home, which seems like a structural expression of her personality:
“It is indeed like certain lovely women who . . belong to a bygone generation – women who in youth were passionate but seemly; difficult to win but when won, all-fulfilling. They are passing away, but their homesteads remain, and such an homestead is Morton.”
Sir Philip and Lady Anna seem complementary in every way, and eventually they complete their union by having a child. The unborn baby, whom both parents presume to be a son, is named Stephen. When the baby is born female on Christmas Eve, her father insists on keeping the name he has chosen, that of the first Christian saint.
Stephen’s mother is instinctively repelled by the changeling at her breast: something not recognizable as a daughter, even in infancy. Lady Anna tries to be a good mother, but she must continually wrestle with her anger at something amiss when she notices the growing child’s resemblance to her father. The “lady of Morton,” who reminds the village peasants of the Virgin Mary, can’t understand her own child, who seems both cursed and blessed beyond ordinary parental expectations.
Ironically, Anna has passed a certain “Celtic” sensitivity to Stephen, who is in some sense a half-breed as well as a bundle of contradictions:
“ . . her mother had looked at her curiously, gravely, puzzled by this creature who seemed all contradictions - at one moment so hard, at another so gentle. . . even Anna had been stirred, as her child had been stirred, by the breath of the meadowsweet under the hedges; for in this they were one, the mother and daughter, having each in her veins the warm Celtic blood that takes note of such things.”
Stephen can no more ignore the “Celtic blood” which makes her emotionally receptive to the natural world than she could choose to become feminine. When Stephen, an excellent rider, is given her own horse, the animal and the owner form a feudal bond partly because of their shared Irish “wildness:”
“. . . his eyes were as soft as an Irish morning, and his courage was as bright as an Irish sunrise, and his heart was as young as the wild heart of Ireland, but devoted and loyal and eager for service, and his name was sweet on the tongue as you spoke it - being Raftery, after the poet. Stephen loved Raftery and Raftery loved Stephen.”
The identification of Stephen and her horse with young Irish wildness and poetry suggests both unstoppable creativity and persecution on various levels.
The devotion of Raftery, the good animal servant, is matched by the devotion of the human servants of Morton to their master and mistress. Stephen also shows an instinct for service and self-sacrifice for those she loves, which seems both feudal and Christian. (It also seems to foreshadow the revival of this idealized concept of loyalty in the literature of BDSM, especially the “leatherdyke” variety, but that is another topic.)
As a seven-year-old, Stephen develops a crush on the housemaid, Collins, who complains of pain in the knees. Stephen tells her “gravely:’
“I do wish I’d got it - I wish I’d got your housemaid’s knee, Collins, ‘cause that way I could bear it instead of you. I’d like to be awfully hurt for you, Collins, the way that Jesus was hurt for sinners. Suppose I pray hard, don’t you think I might catch it?”
The child is bitterly disappointed when God seems to ignore her request for an affliction which would unite her with her beloved.
The God to Whom Stephen prays for suffering (and Who eventually answers her prayers) is strangely non-denominational, especially considering the probable religious difference between an English father and an Irish mother. The “God of creation” Whom Stephen later seeks in a church in France, land of her exile, seems to transcend specific details of doctrine and ritual. As a Catholic convert, the author seems to place her hero in a universe for which the traditional, hierarchical doctrines of “the Church universal” serve as a reliable guide. However, this fictional world isn’t seamless enough to prevent radically different world-views from being glimpsed through the comments of minor queer characters, notably the writers Valerie Seymour and Jonathan Brockett.
Much of the narrative, in hagiographic style, recounts Stephen’s struggles to understand God’s inscrutable will. As a young adult, she is betrayed by each of her earthly parents as she feels she has been betrayed from birth by her heavenly Father. Like Adam, Stephen feels abandoned by the loving father who modeled gentlemanly honor in her life, as well as by the mother who drives her into exile for surrendering to erotic temptation.
Stephen’s father reads and rereads a “slim volume” by a German author, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, which explains Stephen’s “nature.” Sir Philip does not want to tell his wife or daughter what he has learned until it is too late. He is killed unexpectedly when a tree falls on him as though to punish him for "the sin of his anxious and pitiful heart." Sir Philip succumbs while pruning a beloved old cedar tree because it is overburdened with snow. Like Stephen's friend and spiritual brother, Martin (who wants to return to the untamed forest in British Columbia), Sir Philip cares about trees as part of God's creation – even though neither of these men is Celtic.
Deprived of her father’s protection and watched anxiously by her lesbian tutor, Puddle, who dares not reveal what she knows, Stephen falls passionately in love with another outsider in the village, Angela Crossby. Like her father before her, Stephen tells her beloved: . . “‘all this beauty and peace is for you, because now you’re a part of Morton.’”
Trapped in a sordid marriage into which she sold herself, Angela encourages Stephen to court her. Like Delilah, however, she is wily and incapable of loyalty. Pressed to make a commitment, Angela taunts her lover: “’Could you marry me, Stephen?’” Tormented by her inability to offer her own and God’s protection in an honorable marriage to the woman she loves, Stephen buys her an expensive ring set with a “pure” pearl, in a kind of parody of her parents’ engagement.
Angela predictably exposes Stephen to the scorn of her enemies after Stephen finds her in flagrante with a bullying male who is Stephen’s oldest rival: an unworthy man who appeals to an unworthy woman. Stephen describes herself as “God’s mistake” in an anguished love letter to Angela, who hands it to her husband to protect herself from the consequences of her infidelity. Angela’s husband completes the betrayal by forwarding Stephen’s letter to Stephen’s mother, who refuses to continue living under the same roof with her. Stephen chooses to leave Morton, taking the loyal Puddle with her, and enters the purgatory of a world in which she feels homeless.
Although she has inherited wealth, Stephen wants to distinguish herself in a respectable profession so as to justify her existence to a hostile world. She becomes a novelist with the intention of eventually writing the story of her life: a novel such as The Well of Loneliness.
Stephen is approached by Brockett, a male novelist whom she finds decadent and unmanly (and who seems to be based on the playwright Noel Coward) and who serves as a Beatrice to her Dante: a guide to the hidden world of fellow "inverts" in Paris, Stephen's home in exile. Brockett introduces her to Valerie Seymour, a noted hostess of the demi-monde. Stephen initially resents Valerie’s interest in her because she assumes it is as “morbid” as Brockett’s:
“. . . she was seeing before her all the outward stigmata of the abnormal - verily the wounds of One nailed to a cross - that was why Valerie sat there approving."
Valerie seems to sense Stephen’s resentment and charms her out of it by talking to her “gravely about her work, about books in general; about life in general.”
By all accounts, Valerie Seymour is based on an actual person, the bilingual American heiress and writer Natalie Barney, whose Friday salons were legendary in early twentieth-century Paris. Partly because the character is drawn from life, she seems out of place among the stock characters of the novel. Valerie is described from Stephen’s viewpoint as giving an impression of feminine grace, yet she shows a degree of iconoclastic independence which seems incompatible with femininity as Stephen conceives of it.
By Stephen’s conservative standards, Valerie’s home and her life are chaotic: “The first thing that struck Stephen about Valerie’s flat was its large and rather splendid disorder.” Stephen comes to learn that Valerie’s large circle of friends is also “disordered” in the sense of being diverse and not highly respectable; several of her other lesbian friends are dissolute by Stephen’s standards, yet their alcoholism and maudlin despair don’t seem to affect Valerie, who does not indulge in alcohol or self-pity.
Valerie’s world-view, as well as her circle of friends, clearly upsets Stephen’s sense of order, and Stephen is at pains to understand Valerie’s apparently effortless success in surviving on her own terms. She attempts to explain this phenomenon to herself as well as to the reader:
“. . . Stephen began to understand better the charm that many had found in this woman; a charm that lay less in physical attraction than in a great courtesy and understanding, a will to please, a great impulse toward beauty in all its forms . . . And as they talked on it dawned upon Stephen that here was no mere libertine in love’s garden, but rather a creature born out of her epoch, a pagan chained to an age that was Christian . . . And she thought that she discerned in those luminous eyes, the pale yet ardent light of the fanatic.”
Valerie’s perceived “fanaticism” seems to be her determination to create, as far as possible, an alternative culture for herself and all those who seem "out of place" in a society which does not accept them. She seems “pagan” in the sense of resembling a Lesbian of old, a follower of the poet Sappho on the island of Lesbos, where Natalie Barney seriously proposed to establish an all female colony as early as 1901. Valerie seems both behind and ahead of her time, as aforerunner of the lesbian-separatists of the 1970s who denounced patriarchal “order,” valued an androgynous combination of qualities, and rediscovered the goddesses of pre-Christian religion.
Valerie recommends an old house to Stephen, which she agrees to buy. Like Valerie’s flat, the house and its neglected garden seem characteristic of her:
A marble fountain long since choked with weeds, stood in the center of what had been a lawn. In the farthest corner of the garden some hand had erected a semi-circular temple.
This is almost certainly a reference to the actual “Temple of Friendship” that still stands in the garden of the seventeenth-century house in Paris where Natalie Barney lived for many years. However, neither the pseudo-pagan ruins of her new home nor Valerie’s feminist and woman centered world-view affect Stephen’s sense of herself as marked by “stigmata” in a Christian universe.
Valerie tactfully offers her friendship to Stephen by saying: “’I’m not going to bother you until you evince.’” Stephen avoids her until she reluctantly joins Valerie’s community of outcasts to relieve the loneliness of the woman for whom Stephen feels responsible. Although Valerie eventually becomes a kind of mother-confessor for Stephen, Valerie can’t change Stephen’s world-view, and wisely refrains from trying.
Earlier in the novel, the outbreak of war caused Stephen to feel morally compelled to serve her country. Rejected for combat, she is forced to settle for being an ambulance-driver in an all female unit, where she meets a young, feminine orphan with whom she falls protectively in love. After the war, Stephen tries to spare her beloved Mary from the degradation of a life with herself.
As her name suggests, Mary is pure-hearted and brave enough to accept a hard fate; her passionate nature seems to arise from her own “Celtic blood” (which in her case is Welsh). Mary asks Stephen: “’Can’t you understand that all that I am belongs to you?’” Stephen accepts the gift of Mary’s virginity, despite her misgivings. Her “bride” has none:
“. . . Mary, because she was perfect woman, would rest without thought, without exultation, without question; finding no need to question since for her there was now only one thing - Stephen.”
Although Mary is the mate for whom Stephen has longed, her acceptance of masculine responsibility for Mary’s “unthinking” feminine nature eventually prompts Stephen to make the ultimate sacrifice by driving Mary into the arms of her old friend Martin, an honorable and “natural” man who can be trusted to take care of her. By this time, Stephen’s inability to protect Mary from isolation and insult has convinced her that “giving” her to Martin is the only morally acceptable course of action left to her.
Stephen, as feudal protector, is devastated when Lady Anna refuses to invite Mary to Morton or to acknowledge her role in Stephen’s life. Stephen is forced to watch helplessly as Mary is ostracized by supposedly “normal” people because of her loyalty to Stephen. Even Mary’s desire to be indispensable to Stephen as a housekeeper and secretary is thwarted because Stephen’s household is run by paid staff.
Mary languishes in isolation while Stephen is hard at work, presumably to justify Mary’s faith in her, on a defense of her life like the novel in which both women appear as characters. Recognizing her lover’s need for other human companionship, Stephen descends with her into the night world that Valerie inhabits, where Stephen and Mary meet other outcasts who resemble damned souls.
Stephen unburdens herself to Valerie, whom Mary begins to resent as a rival. Valerie points out the contradictions in Stephen’s personality:
“’You’re rather a terrible combination: you’ve the nerves of the abnormal. . . you’re appallingly over-sensitive, Stephen - well, and then. . . you’ve all the respectable county instincts of the man who cultivates children and acres . . . one side of your mind is so aggressively tidy . . . supposing you could bring the two sides of your nature into some sort of friendly amalgamation and compel them to serve you and through you your work - well then I really don’t see what’s to stop you.’”
Stephen thanks Valerie for her kindness, apparently without understanding her assessment of the “contradictions” in Stephen which lead her to martyrdom.
To her consternation, Valerie proves most useful to Stephen as a means of driving Mary away. Valerie responds with concern to Stephen’s request:
“’If you want to pretend that you’re my lover, well, my dear . . . I wish it were true. . . All the same. . . Aren’t you being absurdly self-sacrificing?’”
Stephen explains grimly that her strategy is necessary. It succeeds.
Alone in her Calvary, Stephen has a vision of her “children,” the “inverts” of the future who pray for salvation through her, their spokesperson:
“They would turn first to God, and then to the world, and then to her. They would cry out accusing: ‘We have asked for bread; will you give us a stone? You, God, in Whom we, the outcast, believe; you, world, into which we are pitilessly born; you, Stephen, who have drained our cup to the dregs - we have asked for bread; will you give us a stone?’”
The novel concludes, in Biblical-epic style, with Stephen’s anguished prayer:
“’God,’ she gasped, “we believe; we have told You we believe. . . We have not denied You, then rise up and defend us. Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!’”
Unfortunately, the influence of this cry on generations of readers has almost drowned out Valerie’s gentle admonishment to Stephen: “’. . . even the world’s not as black as it’s painted.’” Or (to flirt further with essentialist notions of race) as white.
LOOSE NOTES (for more accurate footnotes, see the version of this essay which appears in the archives of website “The Shadow Sacrament,” http://www.shadowsacrament.com/ – 2005).
Passages from The Well of Loneliness are from the Permabooks (New York, 1954) edition.
Radclyffe Hall was officially accepted into the Catholic Church on February 5, 1912 (Michael Baker, Our Three Selves: A Life of Radclyffe Hall, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1985, p. 44).
One literary historian provides extensive evidence that Jonathan Brockett is based on the playwright Noel Coward, whom Radclyffe Hall knew fairly well (Terry Castle, Noel Coward and Radclyffe Hall: Kindred Spirits, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, pp. 38-55).
Baker refers to Natalie Barney’s seventeenth-century home at No. 20, Rue Jacob, Paris, which included a courtyard “with an enchanting enclosed garden containing a Doric ‘Temple d’Amitie’ [Temple of Friendship] (Baker, p. 142).
Barney’s status as a salon hostess is not only mentioned by Hall’s biographer, Michael Baker (p. 142 in Our Three Selves) but by critic Karla Jay in The Amazon and the Page: Natalie Clifford Barney and Renee Vivien (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988, passim). Baker, Castle, Jay and other critics have followed the lead of Hall’s lover and first biographer, Lady Una Troubridge, who states that the character Valerie Seymour is based on Natalie Barney in The Life and Death of Radclyffe Hall, Hammond and Hammond, 1961, pp. 83-4).
Re “leatherdyke” literature - works of erotic fiction and theory on lesbian sadomasochism (or Dominance/submission) are now too numerous to be listed here. The anthology Coming to Power (Alyson Publications, 1982), edited by an early lesbian s/m organization, Samois, was probably the first to have widespread cultural influence.
For a historical account of the feminist movement which was gathering strength from before Hall’s birth in 1880 to the end of the Great War, when British women gained the right to vote in 1918, see Midge Mackenzie, Shoulder to Shoulder: A Documentary (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1975) and Rose Tremain, The Fight for Freedom for Women (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973).
For an account of the intimate “smashes” among women which flourished without social censure in the era in which The Well of Loneliness was written, see Lilian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: Junction Books, 1981).
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Here is a review of Obsession, my collection of fourteen erotic stories from Eternal Press (www.eternalpress.ca).
The review is by Dr. Steven Hart, veteran actor and professor of theater in New York. He is one of the staff reviewers for "Erotica Revealed," where this review is posted for the month of April, 2008.
Obsession is the topic and the title of Jean Roberta's new collection of short stories. She has got the title right, but the book does not deal with sexual obsession as I suppose most of us think of it. It is not a book about sexual fixation. It is about obsession as a state of being of which sex is a key part. Her principal characters fasten onto others in sexually obsessive ways but they want more from them than an orgasm. It is not at all certain they will get whatever it is, nor should one be too confident that fulfilling their desires is the best fate for them. In that sense, they are much like many of Shakespeare' s characters who yearn for some possession, conquest, or revenge in the name of completing themselves. That is often as much a flaw as it is an objective.
The best example of sexual obsession in Shakespeare is Lord Angelo in Measure for Measure. He has an uncontrollable desire to sexually possess Isabella, a votary in the strict order of St. Claire. It is precisely unyielding chastity which draws him on to her. He is completely aware of that, but he cannot help himself. Like many of Ms. Roberta's characters, Angelo's mania is driven by the fact that what he desires is what he would otherwise never allow himself. What is more, he would never have been possessed by that need if fate had not thrust the object of his desire in front of him.
In Jean Roberta's world, obsession is most often the result of existential disconnection, a sense of drift that the characters feel more than they see and sense more than they articulate. It is the low level uncertainty that I believe all modern people feel as we are barraged by irrational bits of information and formless disorder. Sex does not fulfill her characters as it gives them a way to define themselves, regardless of whether they like the picture that forms or not.
Her characters' problems cross all the lines of age, gender, and sexual proclivity. We may all be very different people in her mind, but we all come to the same dumb obstructions and forced turns in life. Her stories include gay and lesbian couples as well as straight sex. There is a fair amount of D/s and BDSM that is ranges from the overt to the symbolic. The greatest strength of these stories is the authenticity of the sexual play.
It is not that Roberta's writing is unusually graphic or clinical. They are not, even though the sex is often earthy, often mildly comic, and hotly detailed. Her sense of the erotic is highly sensual and she has a remarkable sensitivity to the emotional impact of scent, taste and touch. You feel the presence of a lover's body in these stories as a source of power, attachment, arousal and comfort. She uses sex as a deeply human form of faltering connection in an unreliable and harsh world.
The better stories in Obsession penetrate the superficially banal lives of middle-class Canadians. The stories range from incidents of the moment to broad political themes, but the resolution is never more than partial by design. Roberta is not trying to dig out the nasty – and tedious -- secrets of the bourgeois. She seems to me rather more interested in the ways in which the condition of being – and sexual being – evokes the conflicts that we can never fully understand or escape inside ourselves. That extends from erotic punishment in the form of racy spankings to the results of procreation, having children.
What do these things mean? They surely mean something, but what? We will never fully know. In that sense, sex in these stories defines itself as the medium of passion and affection. Why do we love and make love as we do? It is because that is who we are. I believe this passage from "Taste" reflects that very well :
"I wished I could tell Simone about my latest dreams and hear about hers, but that kind of exchange hadn't happened between us for years, and now it just didn't seem possible. Despite her attitude, her values, her portfolio and her apartment, she still seemed like a child in many ways. How much could she know about the kind of need that is too strong for politeness, discretion, or remorse? Ironically, she was the result of that kind of need, as perhaps all children are. Nonetheless, they rarely seem to understand it in themselves, let alone in us."
Overtly this story is about the abrasion created by the difference of a mother and daughter's sense of taste in such banalities as clothing. Unlike other author's Roberta does not use the quotidian as a clue to the deeper self. Here the mother deeply understands that their differences of taste deeply express the difference of their sense of the sensual and thus their view of the world. It is very moving to read because these are two intelligent likeable women speaking across an uncrossable gulf.
Ms. Roberta's style varies in quality. In a few cases, her writing becomes stiff if not rather starchy, as though she were over-explaining some nuance of literary irony to a class of dunderheaded undergraduates. As one can see though, the passage quoted above has a wonderful sense of flow and insight. It is nearly poetic. She sometimes has a hard time with dialogue. The nature of dialogue is that people do not say things when they talk. They talk to discover what they are saying.
"The Hungry Earth" is a about the Serlingesque misadventures of a gay couple in a cornfield. As any casual fan of sci-fi will tell you, grain is menacing stuff especially when it is still on the stalk. In this case, the narrator feels compelled to tell us that having abandoned the "liquid flesh" of his former wife, he sought, "to discover the good solid earth of another man." If the image were not painful enough, what he ends up with seems to be a twink who sweetly inquires, "I want to go to the farm today. Will you take me in a wheat field?" Apparently the old rake will because he replies, "My dirty boy. You sure you don't want a date with a sheep?" Heady stuff, eh?
"The Hungry Earth," however is the exception in this collection. I can only imagine that this story is as it is because it is so far from direct experience. She clearly does best with narrative environments that are based in the concrete and recognizable. It is in such places that her characters seem able to discover and expand their awareness, which is the reason Roberta sets them before us in the first place.
Just as Measure for Measure ends in shady resolution, many of Roberta's stories end in uncertainty. In some ways the stories remind one of "The Graduate" wherein there is a happy ending of sorts, but it is hard to say just what it is and what will become of the characters. The people of Roberta's world may well be perfectly comfortable with their fate; but the reader is hardly reassured, and we are not meant to be. What we do know is that the world of the characters has been shaken and disturbed by deep, obsessive tremors of eroticism.
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
(I have an audience! Bless you!)
Thank you for your patience thus far.
Here is the conclusion of my story, not to be reproduced in any public venue without permission of the author (me). Beware of heavy curses, if not legal consequences.
Losing Deirdre, Part 3
by Jean Roberta, copyright 2008.
“You really going?” she whimpered. I had pulled on my clothes and was slipping my feet into the satin pumps that would look like badges of my profession in the grey light of early morning. All the same, I liked the look of my pale slim legs coming out of sleek black shoes, and I liked the sharp sound they made on the wooden floor, as though my feet meant business.
“Come with me,” I urged. “We have to get out of here, but we don’t have to leave the agency until something happens. Or we could even set up our own.”
“It’s not even light yet, Jackie.”
“My name is Christine,” I reminded her. I ran a comb through my bleached-blonde curls. “If we wait too long, the cops could show up. I’m serious. This has been coming down for a few weeks, and if they got Amanda, they’re likely to come here. You know the cops have everything on computer these days, and Ben and Alexis must have had some reason for splitting Montreal to come to this dump.”
Like a child, Deirdre rolled over and pulled the blankets up to her chin. “I want to sleep,” she muttered. “I’ll call you later.” My stomach lurched as I realized that she really wasn’t coming with me, and I couldn’t make her.
“Sleep tight, baby,” I whispered, squeezing her shoulders through the bedclothes. I kissed her and turned away before my tears could start streaking my mascara.
I got home to my apartment before sunrise. My furniture looked alien to me, as though it belonged to someone else. A part of my life is over, I thought. Much as I always said I hated it, I knew I would miss the excitement of the game. Not to mention the tax-free income.
I told myself I could find an honest job if I looked hard enough. I had done two years at university, and I could type. And if I were lucky, one of the bosses would take an interest in me and then I could make a little on the side. Unless I could find a better gig. I might even be able to support Deirdre.
By late afternoon I was high from lack of sleep and jumpy from lack of news. Jenny had started getting on my nerves as soon as she came home from school, so I parked her in front of the TV and told her to leave me alone. I had been trying to cut down on my smoking, but I was into my second pack of the day when the phone rang.
“Jackie,” breathed a husky voice. It was Charlene, who was christened Carla, one of Ben and Alexis’ other girls. “Ben and Rosie were busted this afternoon.”
“They should have seen it coming,” I told her. My voice sounded too shrill.
“The cops want us all to come down. They got a statement from me.”
“Are you out of your mind?” I screeched. “Unless I’m under arrest, I’m not telling them anything.”
“Jackie, they got the book.”
“Our photos in the album? Those should look good, taped on the walls of the cop shop.” She laughed. “Where’s Deirdre?”
“They’ve got her.”
“Shit. Can they charge her with anything?”
“I don’t know.” She sounded tired and bewildered.
“Thanks for telling me, Carla.” As soon as I hung up, I flipped through my little black book and dialled.
I phoned all the other girls who used to work for Ben and Alexis. Finally I reached Jonelle (Karen), who had been scooped up by the cops along with everyone else in the house at that time. “The cops let us all go,” she said, obviously impressed with their chivalry, “after they asked us questions. I think they want to nail Ben and Alexis. They got Dee’s foster parents to take her home.”
“The Tobaccos?” I asked in dismay. “Those Bible thumpers?”
“They’re not that bad,” she snickered. “They’re really good people and they’ll take care of her.” The same way they did before, I thought, until she moved in with Amanda when she was sixteen.
Karen’s naivete was the last straw. I have always been amazed by the willingness of some whores to believe that the straight world is as squeaky-clean and transparent as the glass in a commercial for window-cleaner, and by the willingness of most johns to believe that wild women never get the blues. The grass, as they say, is always greener on the other side.
“I don’t want you to talk on the phone, Mom,” whined Jenny. I’m not taking care of my girl, I thought. Either of them. Jenny’s naturally-blonde hair caught the light, and the sight almost moved me to tears.
“Be patient, honey,” I told her. There were four Tobaccos listed in the phone book, and my fourth call got results. “You one of them escorts?” The voice was uncouth. I didn’t know how much Deirdre had told them, so I mumbled something under my breath. “You leave Deirdre alone,” growled the man. “You’re the one got her into this whole thing.”
“No. Will you put her on the phone?”
“She’s not a whore like you!” The voice on the other end seemed to be gathering steam. “She’s in a good Christian home now. You leave her alone.” The man hung up.
I made supper for Jenny, feeling numb. I knew Deirdre’s current family would guard her as though she were a novice in a convent. She would try to seduce someone in the household so she could get what she wanted. She wouldn’t need me. I wanted to scream at her: Do I really mean nothing to you? Can’t you distinguish between men and women? Or between johns and lovers?
When I went to bed, I felt as if I were floating near the ceiling. I couldn’t close my eyes. I wanted to be brought back to earth by a warm young body pressed against mine. It’s an addiction, I thought: I need it like a fix. My husband used to call me a born slut before he ever had reason to, which probably wasn’t a sign that he had an uncanny ability to predict the future. Still, he wasn’t completely off. No part of my body seems to hibernate for long.
I consoled myself. I’m still making it with a woman, I thought; I can always have the pleasure of a woman’s touch. When I came, I shuddered all over as though I were cold. Afterwards, I felt feverish.
I made a doctor’s appointment the next day, and had myself thoroughly checked for diseases. I turned out to be clean, and I was not only glad for myself. I lived on welfare for a few weeks until I got the job I have now, waitressing in a nightclub. I still see a few of my old regulars because I need to save money to go back to school. I’m keeping my whoring to a minimum while I’m raising Jenny. I heard from Carla that Ben and Alexis skipped town as soon as they were out of custody.
I got a scrawled postcard from Dee about two weeks after I phoned the Tobaccos. She was writing from the north where her blood relatives live, and said she was planning to go back to school. It was something I had urged her to do. She also said she was pregnant, and looking forward to having the baby. Goddess only knows how much of her message was true, but at least she wrote to me. That’s something. I let her know that if she ever comes back to town, I want to see her.
Saving Deirdre was not the only hopeless mission I’ve ever tried to accomplish, but it’s probably one of the most pathetic. She could seem so innocent when she wasn’t playing a role for an audience, but of course, “young and innocent” was one of the roles she could put on like an outfit requested by a john with a specific taste. We whores are privileged to know from experience that all the world’s a stage.
Listen, Dee, even if I never get to tell you this in person: love exists. It really does. And even though it hurts like hell, it feeds the lover more than it feeds the loved one. For better or worse. Believe it or not.
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
Continued from last post:Dee was doing her best to get me in the mood. I almost resented her for waking up my hunger for what I thought of as real sex, after I had spent an evening faking it for a salesman in a bland motel room. I wanted my real feelings to stay well buried; that seemed safer for everyone involved.
Dee was pushing for a response from me. She was like my little Jenny, saying, “Mom, look at this.” With mixed feelings, as usual, I opened to Deirdre and begged her silently to give me the satisfaction I never got any other way. She was kissing my sweaty neck, and almost slurping at my bleached hair. “Did your husband ever turn you on like this?” she whispered.
“No.” I laughed, wondering why my marriage to a drinking man in my straight past seemed so important to her. The thought of him made me uneasy. I knew he would get me arrested if he could, even though he had never supported Jenny, and he had left me with debts to pay. “Men can’t do it, baby,” I told her.
“Women are sweeter, right?”
“Right.” More heartbreaking, actually, I thought.
“Did he ever force you?” She had asked me this before, and the question wasn’t sympathetic. She was into rape fantasies.
“No,” I told her once again. “That’s one thing he didn’t do.”
Her masochism alarmed me. Considering her past, I knew it must be hard for her to think of herself as anything but a toy for others to play with. Not that it was easy for me to feel like a manifestation of the Goddess on earth.
I dug into Deirdre, giving her what she wanted. I remembered singing lullabies to my baby daughter to put her to sleep, and recognized my current activity as something similar. I had wanted Dee fiercely in the past and thought I would do so again, but this time I was too worn down for lust.
Deirdre always came with abandon, howling loudly enough to let everyone else in the house know she was there. Her sex-noises always had a mournful edge to them, like the cry of a coyote, as though she were still calling for help that never came when she was raped at age ten on a northern reserve by her teenage cousin Tom. Or as though she were crying for her son, now four years old, who was being raised by unknown foster parents.
Jesus, Deirdre of the Sorrows. Your life-story is a textbook case for student social workers. But stories like yours are ancient and universal. Anyone who doesn’t know that is a fool.
By the time she subsided into quiet breathing, curled at my side, my sad mood seemed unshakeable. I had reasons, other than my instincts, to suspect that the police were going to close in on us in spite of the ambiguous Canadian laws that made soliciting and “living off the avails” illegal without mentioning prostitution as such. The local cops had left the agencies alone as long as no one complained. Now that the half-dozen honchos who ran all the agencies were feuding with each other and selling dope, I could foresee a bust in my future.
There would probably be a rash of arrests, intended to assure the voting public that our town could never become a center of sin like Montreal or Vancouver. To the themesong of We Won’t Let It Happen Here, the cops could march everyone in this house off to jail on one charge or another, and I could lose Jenny. And when I returned to the streets, all the routes out of this business and into a dignified job would be closed to me.
I couldn’t sleep. I thought of Jenny, spending the night with a friend whose parents knew me through the school parents’ association. But of course they didn’t really know me. If they did, they probably wouldn’t be so willing to let their daughter hang out with mine. I wanted my baby to have a normal life, whatever that was. But if she grew up normal, she would probably think of me as a freak someday.
Someone was pounding on the front door of the house, yelling for Alexis, also known as Rosie. I heard her swearing in the rooms she shared with Ben, then she clicked down the stairs in her silly high-heeled slippers.
“Damn it, Paul,” she screeched, trying to whisper, “it’s four in the morning.” I could picture her long, tousled, dyed-red hair over her mascara-smudged eyes. She unlocked the door to let him in. Paul kept Ben and Alexis supplied with weed and hash. They weren’t into coke, since their tastes seemed to have been formed in the sixties.
“’Manda’s been busted,” Paul slurred for the whole house to hear. “Trafficking.” He sounded drunk rather than stoned.
“Oh, God,” moaned Alexis. Amanda was one of her rivals, but sometimes the kinship of outlaws goes beyond their general desire to wipe each other out. “Did you hear that, Ben?” Alexis quavered.
“Yeah,” growled Ben, who seemed to be right behind her. He was a big bear of a man who had formerly worked as a collection agent and a bouncer in a bar. He always looked sleepy, and he always growled.
“Is Dee upstairs?” Paul demanded. “With that other chick, Jackie?”
“They’re sleeping, Paul,” reproved Alexis. But if he offered enough money, I thought, you’d wake us up.
“Damn whores!” he yelled, bounding up the stairs. “They think they’re too good for men? Nobody turns me down, fuckin’ sluts! Stupid lesbians!”
Paul yanked open the door to Deirdre’s room, but Ben and Alexis were hot on his heels. “Paul!”
“Hey, Paul, you can’t do this in our house,” hissed Alexis, clattering along behind him.
I couldn’t stand it. I jumped out of bed, pulled my dress on, and ran to the landing where Ben and Alexis were hauling Paul toward the stairs. “I worked all day,” I spat in his face. “I don’t owe you a goddamn thing and neither does Deirdre.”
He sneered at me over his shoulder, though the fight was oozing out of him. “You weren’t the one I wanted anyway, you old bitch.” To Ben, who was dragging him downstairs, he mumbled, “I’m goin,’ I’m goin.’ I don’t want to stay in your fuckin’ whorehouse.” When the little party reached the ground floor, Alexis opened the front door and Ben heaved Paul into the night. Alexis pulled the door shut with a crash, and locked it with a loud click.
I stood still in Deirdre’s room, sick with dread. “What’s happening, Jackie?” she muttered sleepily, stretching her legs in bed. For the second time that night, I pulled off my dress and lay beside her.
“It’s Paul,” I sighed. “If the cops weren’t already watching us, he’ll make sure they do. Amanda was busted for trafficking.” Deirdre shot bolt upright. She had worked for Amanda before she had come to Ben and Alexis.
“Shit,” she whispered, her eyes round with a teenager’s fear. I knew she was terrified of having no place to live and no way of making money. Selling sex was all she knew.
I stroked her thick, silky hair. “Honey,” I told her, “I think we should get out of here. When the heat comes down, you won’t want to be found here and Ben and Alexis don’t need to be charged with living off your avails. You could stay with me, at least for awhile.”
Deirdre seemed on the verge of tears. “What did Paul say? Is he coming to see me tomorrow?”
“He wanted you tonight,” I told her. “He wanted to jump in between us, but I wouldn’t let him. Ben and Alexis kicked him out.”
Dee pouted. “Someone should have told me,” she complained. “I like Paul. Just because you don’t like men doesn’t give you the right to send them away mad.”
“Honey,” I told her, “you can screw him all day when I’m not around. But not while I’m in your bed.”
For the umpteenth time, I wondered whether I would have been better off scrubbing floors for a living. That way, I could have avoided caring too much for a messed-up young woman who probably wouldn’t live to be thirty.
(End of Part Two. Stay tuned for Part Three, to be posted in due course.)
Sunday, February 24, 2008
I am waiting patiently for responses to several of my story submissions, sent to various venues months ago.
The following passage is from a story that I sent to a literary magazine produced in the English Department of another Canadian university (not the one where I teach). I sent it in July 2007. I haven't received an answer. When I sent a query letter in December, I was told that the mag is run by volunteers, so I should be patient.
The story, "Losing Deirdre," has never seen the light of day before. It is mildly erotic because of
the subject-matter. I leave you to guess how much is based on my colorful past, how much on other lives I have observed, and how much on educated guessing. If you would like to see the rest of the story, leave me a note.
Losing Deirdre - Part 1
by Jean Roberta. Not to be reproduced without author’s permission.
I haven’t seen Deirdre for years now, but our last night together replays in my memory from time to time like an old melodrama on TV. I keep wishing I could change the ending.
“How’d you do, babe?” was the first thing I heard when I entered the dark room. She always asked me that when I came in from a call.
Dee, honey, how could you sound so childish and so knowing at the same time?
“Not bad, not great,” I told her. “One-fifty.” We were in one of the little third-floor bedrooms in the old house Ben and Alexis had rented as soon as they had arrived on the prairie from the bright lights of Montreal to start what they called a top-notch escort agency. Deirdre was living in this musty little room, and I spent the night with her whenever I had a late-night call.
“Turn the light on, Jackie,” she ordered me, in baby-domme mode. “I want to watch you take your clothes off.”
“It’s three o-clock in the morning,” I complained. I wasn’t sure whether I was annoyed at the prospect of being pressured into more sex when I wanted to sleep, or whether I resented her for using my working name instead of Chris, the name my parents gave me.
Deirdre lay in bed while I stood in darkness in the middle of the room, pulling off my black dress, black satin heels, stockings, garter belt and matching red bra and panties. I knew she was naked under the covers, and I could see a faint glimmer of moonlight from the window on her smooth skin.
I wanted to see her somewhere far away from this house, to run naked with her in some prairie farmer’s wheat field where our slim bodies – mine pink, hers golden-brown – would look like part of the landscape and not like objects for sale.
“You’re so beautiful, honey, and I really like the way you dress.” Only an eighteen-year-old could say it like that, I thought, in this context. I wondered whether she really understood that I was old enough to be her mother.
“I wear what the johns want me to wear,” I whispered back. “Same as you.” Nonetheless, I crawled into bed where she was waiting for me with open arms, and I held her as tightly as ever.
Kissing and rocking each other back and forth, we generated heat between us. I suspected that she had been working herself up for several hours while I was out. Sex seemed to dominate her life to an unhealthy degree, or maybe I told myself that to avoid recognizing how my own life had been slipping out of my control. What an irony, I thought, that this is what we like to do when we’re not working. But with Dee it wasn’t work.
Her raven-black hair slid past my face. I thought of her native sisters standing on street corners, and I thought of my own seven-year-old daughter, who had once asked Deirdre to put makeup on her so she would look like us ladies. Oh, the guilt. But oh the hypocrisy of a culture in which everyone is judged by how they look, and every desirable thing is for sale.
There is nothing I could feel about my messy life, I thought, that won’t look like a cheesy cliché when I examine it later. But I really do want to protect the girls I love, for what that’s worth.
End of Part 1. To be continued on request.
Cuba is not a rich or glamorous country. Everyone knows this. We were approached by Cubans working at the hotel where we were staying (part of a package deal - for more info, look up "Sunwing Airlines") who wanted to practice their English and subtly complain about low pay & long hours. The hostess of a delightful bed-and-breakfast place in a cobblestoned village on the south coast of Cuba told my partner (in Spanish, their shared language) that everyone she knows wants to escape, immigrate, defect to the U.S. They seem to imagine that life there is just like in the movies.
Everyone wants to live in a place which does not exist, with a beautifully temperate climate and satisfying jobs for all, plus a social safety net to soften the blow of disease, accident, job-loss, unexpected bolts from the blue. Socialist utopia has never existed & probably never will, but much of the "bad luck" besetting the many is systemic and unnecessary.
Some time ago, someone sent me an email on why they (email correspondent) had never been a "liberal" because practice and theory are different things. Here is my response.
Why I have never been a Republican or a Conservative
I'm a woman of (ahem) a certain age, and I have seen too much to believe the hype from the Right. (I don't believe the hype from the extreme Left either, but this is not the topic of today's sermon.)
I live in Saskatchewan, a large rectangle near the middle of Canada which most people in large urban centers regard as The Back of Beyond. However, I watch the media when I’m not traveling to various cultural Meccas and sunny beaches. Everyone who lives anywhere can observe reality, as distinct from theory.
Conservative/Republican/Jingoist American Theory tells us that the U.S. is the only "free country" (as I was taught as a child in Idaho), where the Yoke of Tyranny has been thrown off, and a system of "checks and balances" allows the almighty People to control the government, rather than vice versa. Monopolies presumably can't take root in a system of "free enterprise."
Visiting any city in the U.S. from a place (such as Saskatchewan) with a tradition of grass-roots socialism is educational.
U.S. cities are great places to visit if you don't have to live there. The stores full of consumer goods (for those who can pay), the sights, the fashion, the music, the art, the restaurants, the architecture are all very hip. All you need is $$$$.
Goddess forbid that one get injured or come down with a serious illness without having adequate medical insurance. In the Land of the Free, you're free to die.
If you can't find a unionized, relatively well-paid job, you're also free to live on the sidewalk until the cops tell you to move on.
And of course, if you own anything, you are a target for those who don't, so increasing amounts of your income need to be spent on good security systems for your house, your car, your person. Even then, you can't be sure you're safe.
The movie Ghost Busters includes an explanation of the river of psychic green slime that flows under a representative U.S. city which looks like New York. Most folks don't actually see it, but they feel it and know it's there.
In the Land of the Free, you have the freedom to hate and fear: fear the Man (if you have nothing), and what he can do to you, fear the riff-raff (if you have good grounds for thinking they resent you and want your stuff) and what they can do to you, hate & fear those who don't look like you or live like you.
You also have the freedom to breathe polluted air and drink polluted water, thanks to the freedom enjoyed by Big Business to exploit the resources that God supposedly gave only to those with capital.
Those of us who live elsewhere know it doesn't have to be like this - at least, not this extreme.
But if you live in the Land of the Free, you assume that what you see is normal, no matter how bizarre or painful to you personally. This is because the "free press" tells you that this is as good as it gets and if you dream of anything better, you are a flaky idealist who believes in pie in the sky.
Is it really naive to believe that the richest nation on earth could fund its public school system adequately? (This is not a reference to curriculum, but to crumbling walls, broken windows, outdated and dog-eared books, and blatant advertising in schools by Coke and Pepsi because they are providing needed financial support.)
Is it naive to believe that REAL "family values" must include some responsibility for children on the part of fathers (including non-biological co-parents), and practical support for mothers who must work outside the home, as well as for their kids?
Is it naive to believe that an ounce of social-problem prevention is worth a pound of cure? (This means that even if investing in day-care, schools, the welfare system, libraries, training programs, job-creation and other social services looks like throwing money at the undeserving poor, it's better than having to spend ever-increasing amounts on the police and the prisons, not to mention the military.)
The real problem with Right-Wing Theory is that, in some sense, THERE IS NO PLAN. This is the meaning of "Laissez-faire," which (like other French phrases such as “mange de la merde”) sounds more appealing than it really is.
From a conservative viewpoint, leftist idealism is easy to laugh at because practice usually falls short of theory. When the well-intentioned theory is interpreted by a zealot who wants to run the world, the practice can be appallingly unsocialist by the standards of those who want the greatest comfort for the greatest number. This is not surprising.
It's still better to have a plan than no plan. Laissez-faire capitalism arose more-or-less haphazardly from the ruins of feudalism, and a good thing too. That doesn't mean it is the greatest economic means of advancing civilization.
"Let It Be" or "Let It Happen" means: let the robber-barons take over, let the drug lords take over certain neighborhoods, cities, nations, let a high crime rate force all potential victims to live under siege, let people die of hunger and disease as they did in the Middle Ages.
Is no design more intelligent than this? If none of the alternatives work, why does a certain degree of government planning for maximum general survival work in the Scandinavian countries and (probably to a lesser extent) the rest of Europe? Why does it still work (sort-of) in Canada, despite decades of attrition from the Right?
Due to the gap between theory and practice, I'm probably ill-suited to belong to any political party because, sooner or later, they all let me down - and not only me. But I can't accomplish anything by staying completely out of the political process, so I still look for the least-worst party in terms of who has the most sensible plan to prevent the rich from eating the poor. In an imperfect world, that's the party that gets my vote.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Here it is - the photo I promised. Now you know, for better or worse, what I look like as of last week. This is a teaching outfit - sweater was a present & it has shiny copper threads, not clearly visible in photo. The earrings are from the 1960s - actually fake leopard fur in metal frames. Just in case you need to know this.
- Jean Roberta in snowy Canada, about to go to a beach in the Caribbean.