On reading books and discovering powerful women
Why did you teach me such a specific form of womanhood? One that rewarded me for my passivity and obedience? Why was I granted respect for letting people walk all over me? Why did you not teach me about powerful women?
I mean, when I was 15, what if I had been handed Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, or Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own? The stories of women’s lives in these books could have provided an antidote to mine. One of the most harmful lessons I learned from you was unquestioning obedience to parents, and all the cultural items I was allowed and encouraged to consume backed it up. The Christian books I read and the Christian music I heard — they were all safe and dainty and timid, and they told me to just trust God. He was in control and everything would turn out ok, and not just ok, but the way they are supposed to. The verse that was drilled into my head for years was, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord for this is right.”
You wanted me to know that growing into a good Christian woman meant acquiescing to authority.
But what happens when your parent is abusive? When you aren’t allowed to live the kind of life you want? What happens when a traumatized girl is given no examples of female strength, defiance, and owned boundaries? In Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she describes Shakespeare’s plausible sister, ‘Judith’, as being restricted in life options because of the culture she lived in. And the people largely responsible for the restrictions were her parents. They upheld their medieval society’s expectations for women. These parents were imagined by Woolf as people who might have spoken to Judith about these restrictions, “sharply, but kindly,” because she knows that oppression so often comes kindly.
It comes with our best interests at heart, but it comes without imagination to consider that maybe we, too, have our best interests at heart.
The messages you all taught me in the Christian world were delivered with almost genuine love. You wanted the best for me, but only in a way that didn’t upset the world you lived in. Do you know how damaging this was to me? In the book, Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, Lauren Olamina’s life was chaotic and changing — nothing was certain or dependable, and like she told her friend Joanne, “I intend to survive.”
She knew she could save herself. Do you know how powerful that could have been for me to read?
A main theme of this book is that the world changes and people must change with it. In order to survive a dangerous world, Lauren needed to be prepared, and she defiantly was, because she knew she had to. But she didn’t do it, couldn’t do it alone. She needed to have support, to have friends who were on her side and were prepared along with her. They knew how to suffer with each other while they fought their way to freedom, and they were only able to do this because they were honest about the world the way it was. I can see now why books are considered dangerous, because what if Lauren Olamina had been my role model? What if I had been taught to resist abuse instead of capitulate to it? And what if I had had people to do that with? The lack of powerful women role models in my life created an isolation that amplified my pain.
When you spent years instilling a theology in me that required me to silence myself in the name of Christian obedience, you removed any avenue of escape. I had no examples of strong women who defended their lives, who were able to defy authority and make the decisions they thought best, like Lauren did. You taught me that my emotions were unreliable, that my own sense of the world couldn’t be trusted.
Your love wasn’t liberatory.
Your teachings did not prepare me to stand up for myself. I had to fight for my freedom every step of the way, and when I did, most of you fell away as if dead. How many other girls have been stifled and turned into stunted women because that’s what they thought God required of them? Are you still teaching this toxic theology of how a woman’s role in the world needs to be submissive to men and parental authority because you don’t know how much damage this causes, or because you don’t care? How many girls could turn their lives into forces for good if they were encouraged to be warriors?
In the opening section in The Woman Warrior, there are two tellings of one story. It is a set of simple facts. A woman gets pregnant out of wedlock. The baby is born. The woman and a baby are found dead at the bottom of a well. The stories Kingston imagines are two sides of a woman coin. She was raped, she was in love. Her family made her sit at the outcast table, her family welcomed her back. But the real story has been lost to the silences and the shame, because the situation ended badly, and the family never spoke of her again. Kingston says the real tragedy is not the death, but the forgetting.
The not speaking the truth and the life lost is to say the woman never mattered. But she did, and her story mattered, and Kingston mourns the loss of the presence of this woman, her aunt, in her life. I feel the loss with Kingston, because there was another version of me that could have lived, if I hadn’t allowed her to die. Kingston tells stories of women who have discovered their power in difficult ways. Her mother faces down a ghost alone in a room for an entire night, and did you know you were causing my dark night of the soul? Why, when my life was unbearable, did you offer no freedom? Why did you not prepare me to take on the world? I just wonder, what kind of woman were you raising me to be?
By teaching me constant submission to all authority and men, who did you hope I would become?
I always knew the umbrella of Christian authority was God, Jesus, parents, and that all other earthly people in positions over me were not responsible to me, but to my parents. I instinctively knew that none of you were to be trusted with the painful truth of my life. I knew that if I said how hard my life was, you would feel an obligations to talk to my parents. If I had said how I wanted to run away to college because my mom forbade me from going, I would have been told to, “let go and let God.” I knew I would not have been encouraged to take any concrete steps to change my life; I would have been told to just trust that God is in control and he will work everything out. I knew that if I were to speak, I would endanger any fragile stability that I had in my life, and the chaos of having an unstable mother could erupt at any time. My life was painful enough. Why would I speak up and make it worse, when I knew in the end, nothing would change? I knew you, or God, couldn’t make my life better, because if you could, you would have. I didn’t know it could have been different because I had no examples of the women I needed.
You could have told me the stories of defiance and rebellion that were in the Bible at least. It is no mystery to me anymore why I was drawn to the story of Jael in the Bible, or the story of Bluebeard in the fairy tales. Jael, her story only given 6 verses, tricked a man, an enemy king, and killed him by driving a tent spike through his temple. This story, when it was told to me, was filtered through the lens of dishonest women and the misuse of hospitality. The misuse of hospitality could be one lens the Bluebeard story could be read through as well, but in actuality he was killed because of his violence towards women. In the original fairy tale, it is two men who kill Bluebeard to save the woman. In Angela Carter’s retelling in The Bloody Chamber, it is a woman who kills him, and the liberation for her is immediate. Why did no one ever give me this version? Why wasn’t The Bloody Chamber discussed as a means of how dangerous it can be for a woman to seek out the truth and challenge those in authority?
Why did you work so hard to minimize the transforming power of strong womanhood?
What is so threatening about a woman who is in charge of her own life and is able to set boundaries around it? What would it have been like to grow up with stories of warrior women? To know that a girl of seven, as told in Kingston’s book, knew enough to follow the bird when it called? What would it have been like if I could have developed the skills necessary to be the woman I could have been? In The Woman Warrior, Kingston tells the real story of Fa Mu Lan, and Fa Mu Lan has an older couple who spend years teaching her and guiding her. These stories show me that no strong woman gets that way on her own, or immediately. It takes time and practice, and companions along the way. Just like Lauren Olamina needed people, and Bluebeard’s wife needed her mother, so did Fa Mu Lan.
In the story of Shakespeare’s sister, she is forced to marry, even though it is a hateful thing to her. Her father, the eye of which she was the apple, beats her before resorting to that ever-present kindly tool of oppression: shame.
Don’t shame me, he says to her, as if her life isn’t the one that is going to be shaped by this event.
I knew that to speak the truth about my mom’s anger, her restrictions on my life that altered my career options and altered my education in so many ways, to speak anything of how miserable I was would be to bring shame on my family, and shame is the unforgiveable sin for a woman. It is no surprise to me that Woolf’s version of Shakespeare’s sister ended with suicide, because the tension between who you are and who you are not allowed to be can be unbearable, and Judith was alone. She did not have anyone helping her live the life she wanted.
You thought by restricting me, I would become free. That if I didn’t know about the wider world of freedom, I would never want it. But as the story of The Bloody Chamber shows, facing reality and knowing the truth gives one courage to handle it. It never would have been easy to break free from the absolute control my mom wielded over my life. I can tell you it was no more easier at 34 than it would have been at 17. Power never gives itself up voluntarily. But imagine what I could have done with those 17 years in between. Like the aunt in Kingston’s book, there are two narratives I can shape of my life. It was ruined, and I spent my 20s changing diapers instead of writing papers. I spent my 20s learning who I was and was not, and gathered the experience necessary to strike out for freedom. Maybe both of those are true. It is what it is, at any rate. But trauma leaves a mark, abuse an imprint, that like Carter’s red mark, can never completely be erased.
Kingston chased the ghosts of her past to find herself, and I too chase the person I know I could have been. I want to grasp my past’s future self, to lay my hand at its hem, and trust that the power contained within is enough to save. But chasing my own ghost for the sake of myself is not the real reason I think about the way you formed me. I question the way I was raised because I know you are still actively teaching the same things.
I know there are still girls becoming women becoming bound in the name of freedom.
Do you not want them to be truly free? Fill them with stories of power and perseverance, of courage and boldness and in a way that addresses the real world. Be their companions as they set boundaries and assert themselves. Be responsible to the young women in your lives as the autonomous people they are, and not to their parents. Let them name what it is that will help them survive and then walk with them in it. Because if there is one thing you have taught me well, it is that your god is big enough to handle the kind of disruption this will cause your world. If you would let go of your obsession with authority and control, if you would truly let go and let god, you might find yourselves surrounded by women warriors who will lay waste to the injustices of the world. Including yours.