by Reed McConnell
The literary landscape of the college student: the books you are assigned for class, those you read for research, those you read for fun. Most of these books elicit some interest, but not much. Novels are mindless treats or exercises in cultural capital. But then there are the rare books—however you discover them—that turn you inside-out, fulfill some sort of deep need that you didn’t know you had, leave you weeping silently in the shower.
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines was such a book for me, the first in a very long time. Unconscionably reduced to a sentence, it is a book about the wives of the modernists—Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien(ne) Eliot, Virginia Woolf—and about that designation, about how most of them never got to be more than wives despite their dreams of making art, despite their talents, despite the intense fights they put up, both abstract and physical. And at the same time it is memoir, the story of Zambreno’s own struggle to write, and to publish, and to legitimate her desire to make art about the messier sides of femininity. Because who wants to read about hysterical women? How can there be complexity, certainty, answers in an emotional landscape dominated by insecurity?
Women are taught to question ourselves. This is fundamental, it is basic to our femaleness, we must be inculcated with uncertainty if we do not wish to be immediately and unceremoniously labeled butch or bitch. We are embarrassing, the lot of us, our emotions distasteful, our makeup whorish, our bodies unruly—we who either bleed everywhere or are denied our gender by society.
So how does this translate into art? And who, exactly, gets to translate it into art? Historically, the husbands. They cannibalized these women’s lives, says Zambreno, F. Scott and T. S. and Leonard and James. And she tells us stories that elicit an impossible sort of frustration: Virginia Woolf being banned from writing and forced to garden four hours a day, Vivien(ne) Eliot writing portions of The Wasteland without attribution, F. Scott cutting chunks out of Zelda’s autobiographical novel because, he said, those parts of her life were his material. She does the living, he does the writing of her life. She the eternal object to his subject, so utterly deprived of creative agency as to be stripped of her identity, her humanity. She the hysteric, he the haver of creative passions.
What happens to a writer deferred?
Does she dry up like a raisin in the sun, or does she just go fucking nuts?
Like Zambreno (and then, of course, unlike her in so many ways), I write. Compulsively, constantly, on receipts, napkins, the palms of my hands. I who have to keep my journal next to my pillow so that I can write things down as I fall asleep, I who carry a tiny notebook with me to avoid the tragedy of forgetting.
I grew up anxious and bullied. By the time I was in middle school I had learned journaling as a way of coping with my fears, and once I took it up, I never stopped. So writing has always been there, an inextricable part of Reedness, and for as long as I can remember the ultimate goal has been “writer,” that loaded concept that occupies such a central place in the white Western intellectual imaginary. “Writer” as fundamentally different from “someone-who-writes,” “writer” as more legitimate, more Romantic, more exciting, but then—on the other hand—“writer” as necessary, “writer” as this-is-not-even-a-choice.
And yet—what does the world want with a woman writer, really, what can she say that hasn’t been said, what does she know of existential angst?
(Tenth grade: You can’t write this angrily. And I’m cutting the word “vagina” from your newspaper article about abortion. Completely inappropriate.)
You say that women are regularly published—yes. You say that women writers win awards—yes. And yet we are feminized against our will, we are branded aggressively, and we can still only be marketed within delimited categories whereas men can write the whole world in all its permutations. We are forced into being the authors of pink books with dark contents. To be a woman writer is never to be neutral, and to exhibit any intense emotion renders non-existent your ability to be taken seriously.
Throughout my life, the general consensus: I was too attached to the topics I wrote about, too emotionally invested in the ideas I brought up in conversation. There was a certain intensity in me—I cared so much I did not know what to do with all the caring, I felt so much I did not know what to do with all the feeling, but passion was not something that was respected. It was an excuse for condescension, patronizing smiles, for reduction.
So these women who threw themselves out of taxicabs, threw plates against walls, walled themselves up in rooms and refused to come out for days—reading about them was catharsis to me. I am not alone, here are these people, and this excess of feeling is something central to all of us.
(Eleventh: Why are you so upset by your English teacher? He can talk to the girls however he wants, he’s a teacher, he went to Harvard. Sexual harassment? You’re full of shit.)
But an excess of feeling is not easy to grapple with, either internally or in social contexts.
I have spent large parts of my life paralyzed by all the pent-up rage, by all the indignation that was dismissed out of hand (feminist, crazy, lesbian, whiner, self-victimizer). The years spent sobbing for no apparent reason, staring at walls, feeling ashamed for caring about the way my male friends talked about my body. Some are better at keeping it bottled up than others. Those who cannot are quickly labeled crazy.
Mental illness is a loaded concept. To pathologize someone’s behavior is to set them aside, to dismiss them out of hand, to label them as deviant. But its flipside can be just as terrifying—if all of this anxiety isn’t a disease, isn’t out of my control, then it must be manageable and is therefore my fault. Then I need to pull myself the fuck together, then I’m just unstable and irritating and making a spectacle of myself. So there has always been this push-and-pull, this wrestling I have been forced to do with a bewildering alligator-concept.
Writing has always been the only place where I am able to face this alligator head-on. It is inextricably tied to my mental health, to my manic spells, to my bouts of soaring emotion and relative calm. Writing has been the processing plant for all of my messes and I write because my thoughts and feelings and the intensity of my identity demand it, because if I could not write, my crazy would surely drive me crazy. Writing as catharsis, writing as a therapy light years more effective than talking to a strange woman in a chair. Writing as a lifeline.
Zambreno’s discussion of her struggle with mental health and social acceptability is central to her book. But unlike me, she is more interested in discarding the labels than wrestling with them. She fights tooth and nail against all of the post-mortem pathologizations of her beloved writer-wives, and recounts with bitterness the varied ways that people have tried to diagnose her throughout her life. And perhaps pushing back is a more important project, anyway. The medical establishment has already had enough say in the contours of our identities.
(Senior year: Harvard does not like my application essay about my panic attacks, calls me for a second interview and an informal mental health evaluation. What do you do to de-stress? Do you ever have dark thoughts? asks the smiling man in the plush armchair. As if my mental health affected how worthy I was of becoming a Harvard student, as if I hadn’t been able to get through high school with straight A’s despite the constant fear and self-loathing, as if as if as if.)
So then, the final question: how much do we share? Much of Zambreno’s writing is designed to make the reader uncomfortable, and pushes hard not only at the boundaries of what we feel it is okay to share, but at the boundaries of what is allowed to constitute art. At what point does even the most indulgent reader turn away, too disgusted to continue reading? Is it at detailed descriptions of my bodily functions, or of my manic spells, or of the time I screamed at him for twenty minutes on a train? When do I finally lose credibility, any last claim I might have to sanity, normality, acceptability? And then—when does the confessional become masturbatory? When is it all just self-indulgence empty of any larger meaning?
The absolute gall of thinking that the details of my periods/rages/emotional tidal waves are publishable.
The impossibility of telling myself it’s better to hold it all in.
And then, finally, the questions that come faster than the answers, the lakes of uncertainty, their final distillation:
Will I ever be enough for writing?
Will writing ever be enough for me?