Refuse to fall down. If you cannot refuse to fall down, refuse to stay down. If you cannot refuse to stay down, lift your heart toward heaven, and like a hungry beggar, ask that it be filled, and it will be filled. You may be pushed down. You may be kept from rising. But no one can keep you from lifting your heart toward heaven— only you. It is in the midst of misery that so much becomes clear. The one who says nothing good came of this, is not yet listening.
Earlier this year I confided to a dear pen-pal that I was going through a tough time. I don’t often like to tell people about tender personal matters face to face, but I find I can “talk” about them in writing. I’ll put them down on paper and then send them off, like hopeful little paper airplanes, into the hands of a trusted friend, and see what comes back to me.
So yes, in some ways I have had a sad, hard year. But as I told my friend in my letter, reading helps. Some books have been a downright salvation. I tore through Mark Haddon’s novel, The Porpoise, which is based on the ancient story of Pericles, a prince who goes to sea and has adventures. I had never read the myth before, and its details had me totally engrossed. There was something about the story, with its violence and passion; its birth, death, and rebirth; that I found uniquely comforting as I was dealing with the more elemental stuff of my own life. Using the strange, dream-like symbols of fantasy, myths like these cut to the heart of everything that’s real.
The stories we call fairytales and folk tales are like this too. My mother, when she was going through her own tough time, once mailed me a photocopy of the poem “A Prayer” by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. (I ask you, what would I do without my beloved pen-pals?) Estés is a Mestiza Latina psychoanalyst and a cantadora—a keeper of the old stories—who has recorded readings of several of her books. When my mom was feeling sad and lost, she listened to Estés read from Bedtime Stories, a collection of stories she learned from her family as a child, and they helped her get safely to sleep, where her unconscious, creative mind could start to sort out her troubles.
I’m thankful to my mother for introducing me to Estés, who has a dreamy voice and so much to teach us. In another one of her collections, Mother Night: Myths, Stories, and Teachings for Learning to See in the Dark, she talks about the need for these kinds of fantasies. Mother Night, she explains, is an ancient archetype, sometimes called Mother Sleep: “…not sleep like unconscious, but sleep as in opening the door to stories, ideas, innovations, inventions, and dreams.” She’s the “medial force” who “stands between the two worlds, handing things back and forth, informing the world that has grown too dry with things that are moist and alive. Things that rise from the unconscious, that rise from the dark.”
A few days after I sent my letter, my friend wrote back with another reading recommendation I’m thankful for: Feminist Folktales From Around the World. These are tales that were compiled and edited by a scholar named Ethel Johnston Phelps in the 70s and 80s, and that have recently been reissued in four volumes by the Feminist Press. “I love how sassy and possible the tales all are,” my friend wrote. This sounded like a very sound endorsement to me, so I got a copy of the first volume in the series, Tatterhood, and filled my head with its wild imagery while I reflected on the idea of possibility.
Phelps, in an illuminating preface, explains that before these stories and others like them were written down, they were told orally, mainly by rural women, for well over 1,000 years. When in the early 19th century they began to be compiled and put into print, it was by outsiders who were usually well-educated men of a different social class—and in the case of stories collected in Africa and Asia, a different nationality and race. She posits that the bias of these story collectors, along with the possible reluctance of the women to share their stories with a person who might ridicule them, could account for the relative lack of strong female heroines in the fairytales we’re all so familiar with today.
The stories in Tatterhood, by contrast, feature heroines who exist outside the made-up binary of young, beautiful, passive / old, ugly, horrible. Instead, they are adventuresome, sensible, brave, clever, and fun. Marriage is not the point of these stories, and it doesn’t usually matter what the women look like. The men, when they do appear, are more fully human, too—not boring stock heroes who do everything and save everyone, but real people who appreciate a woman with a bit of sense and sometimes need a hand themselves.
Take Tatterhood, the heroine from a Norwegian tale. She’s a charming and no-nonsense girl who saves the kingdom from a pack of destructive trolls, goes out adventuring on a ship by herself, and impresses the hell out of a young prince with her bravery and attitude, not her looks. I also loved “Janet and Tamlin,” a Scottish Borders tale, because when Janet falls in love with a knight, she goes out to rescue him from the fairy queen who’s holding him captive—at midnight on Halloween!
But my favorite heroine in this book is the plucky old woman in “The Hedley Kow,” a story from the north of England. Hard-working and undaunted by bad luck, she earns the friendship of a fun-loving goblin (the “kow”) who everyone else in the village thinks is scary and mean. This story in particular has a lot of humor in it, and as I read it I could hear the voice of my own hilarious grandmother, my mom’s mom, whose people come from that part of the world. When the old woman in the story finds a pot of gold by the side of the road, she says, “Ah! I feel so grand I don’t know myself rightly!” That’s just what my grandmother would say to me whenever anything special was about to happen. “You won’t know yourself!” she’d say approvingly, when my mother had gotten new furniture, or I’d won a prize in school. She’s the only person I’ve ever heard use that expression, and remembering her made me feel connected to the character in a way I could really feel. That’s the power of folk stories, I guess: the power of the folk themselves.
In her preface, Phelps says something about the tradition of women storytellers that I really liked. “The phrase old wives’ tales, now used derisively, takes on a new and more positive meaning—for the old wives’ tales were, indeed, the very rich and varied source of each nation’s heritage of folk literature.”
Yes! I promise to never again call a silly belief an old wive’s tale. The old wives sure know what they’re about, the grandmothers and the cantadoras. Let’s treat their stories with the love and respect they deserve—and let them teach us what’s possible.
In June I attended an unusual event at Parkway Central, Philadelphia’s wonderful main library. It’s such a wonderful library, in fact, that if you were feeling fanciful—or if you had recently looked through a book of type specimens—you might be inclined to call it eminently grand, bold and solid, magnificent.
Yes, our library is a special place, and the “Reading Type Specimens Aloud” event was unique. It was organized by The People’s Museums of Philadelphia, a project run by the artists Leah Mackin and Alina Josan, and its conceit was that anyone who looked through type specimens like the one above would want to read aloud from them—to “declaim their contents,” as the organizers put it. After looking at the books myself I see their point.
Type specimens were books produced by type foundries, the companies that manufactured the metal and wood type used in printing presses, to showcase the type for potential buyers. But rather than simply printing the alphabet in the different typefaces, they composed the type into sentences and turns of phrase, many of which were poetic or amusingly strange. Josan, who is a librarian in the Art Department, explained that the phrases were sometimes left over from print jobs, sometimes taken from popular advertisements, and sometimes composed especially for these books.
The organizers began the evening by going up to the podium and giving brief readings from a couple of the books. Afterward, the rest of us were invited to do the same. We milled around the room and looked at the books that had been pulled from the library’s collection, all of which were produced between the late 1800s and the 1920s—bona fine antiques, some with gold inlay or elaborately embossed covers.
The phrases I liked the best suggested a jumble of images that don’t usually go together, like strange, lyrical poems. In a book produced by the American Type Founders Company of Philadelphia in 1899, I found “Autumn Fashions, Damsels With Beautiful Dresses” and on the opposite page, “Trained FROG Catcher.”
Here’s another wonderful arrangement of phrases I found:
I didn’t go up to the microphone to declaim anything; it was nice, after I’d looked through the books, just to sit and listen to people read something when they felt so moved. The whole thing was reminiscent of Quaker meeting, only much sillier. One woman read some lovely words I didn’t understand from a book in French. Two different people read the thing about headache makers and pocket breakers; can you blame them? Someone else went up to the podium with a book and read, joyfully and very distinctly, “FIRST CREEP. THEN GO.”
Josan told us that Parkway Central is unusual in that books like these, which would be housed in a special collection in many other libraries, are in circulation and accessible to the general public—crumbling pages, broken spines, and all. As we browsed, the cover of one hardbound book that someone was holding came away from the spine and fell to the floor with a slap, but no one made a big deal out of it. It felt like a lesson: while we should be gentle when handling the books, the more important thing is that they get used, looked at, and loved.
If you don’t live in Philadelphia, or you can’t get to Parkway Central for whatever reason, you can find scans of similar type specimen books on the Internet Archive. I “paged” through a few just now and found some excellent phrases. My favorites are “Presenting Prime Novelties From Bright Brain and Deft Digits”—goodness knows what product that florid phrase was advertising— and “24 Glorious Summer Mornings.” I think I’ll take this last one as a reminder to give my bookishness a rest for a while, and go outside.
Photos from type specimen books in the Philadelphia Free Library’s collection
I seem to love every book the Feminist Press ever publishes, so when they put out Laurie Weeks’ novel Zipper Mouth in 2011 I made a note to read it, then forgot for awhile. I finally got around to it this spring, and wow. There is a lot going on here.
The jerk on Amazon who said Bret Easton Ellis already wrote this book, only better, was wrong on both counts. It’s a different book, and hers is better. Though it was written by a woman and narrated by a female character, Zipper Mouth, in my opinion, would be better classified as the heir to Notebooks of a Naked Youth by Billy Childish. I’ve written about Childish’s wonderful novel on this blog before—in fact, one of the things I wrote about was the genderfuck of my extreme over-identification with its narrator, William Loveday, who is a man. Then along comes Zipper Mouth, offering us the female version of that sorta lovable antihero, who never stops spilling her guts in the same filthy, hilarious way.
The novel doesn’t have a ton going on in the way of plot. To sum up, an unnamed (young?) protagonist with a huge personality and a growing drug problem makes her way in New York in the ’90s. (I only know it’s supposed to be the ’90s from descriptions of the book I’ve read. It’s not really apparent from the book itself, at least to me, though the characters do wear a fair amount of animal print clothing.) Like Childish, Weeks has a rare poetic gift; the language in this book is insane. It may send you, as it sent me, googling excellent phrases and weird words to find out what they mean, or if Weeks made them up. A “vent figure,” if you didn’t know, is another name for a ventriloquist’s dummy. A “vaginal vault” as also apparently a real thing. Here’s Zipper Mouth, walking down a New York street in the dead of summer: “The dilapidated blocks had undergone a phase shift from zones combustible with violence to the sultry chiaroscuro of a black-and-white film starring Ava Gardner in a tropical setting.”
I find I want to call the narrator of Zipper Mouth Zipper Mouth, since we never learn her name—kind of like the lead in that show Fleabag who, as pretty as she is, seems to be named Fleabag. Zipper Mouth is marvelously messed-up. An adolescent grown-up who can’t stand to be around anyone ever, she betrays her need for connection through her obsessions with movie stars and unrequited real-life loves. She frequently composes letters to her obsessions, who include Vivien Leigh and Judy Davis, and incorporates them into her thoughts: a gushing of consciousness.
Like William Loveday, Zipper Mouth’s primary obsessions are love and lust, and any other emotions she can stoke up inside herself and wallow in when she’s alone. Throughout the novel, on every page really, she tweaks her mood with drugs or quasi-drugs, like cigarettes and caffeine and those speed-like herbal substances weightlifters (ab)use. In her various heady states, she wobbles on the walk-and-turn sober test between florid beauty and visceral revulsion:
“God I love everything, I thought, gazing out my window at passersby several stories below. Blossoms dripping from the trees, robins in love warbling among the peeping spring budlets, trash spilling festively from an orange dumpster. … Love leaked from my pituitary and converted on contact with my bloodstream into panic and I was swelling up, threatening to leave the ground and float off fast.”
Most of the descriptions in the novel are like this. They gave me intense sensations, and though the book is short—you could read it through in a couple of hours—I had to take frequent breaks to keep from feeling overwhelmed. I kept getting “worked up,” the way Zipper Mouth reports feeling when she listens to music and daydreams druggily, or reads something challenging and weird. In the final analysis, this novel does not have the substance of Notebooks (though both novels have strangely awkward endings); it needs to be more grounded, more finished. But it is literary body horror at its finest. If Zipper Mouth had a thesis statement, it would be something like this line she writes to Miss Davis in her mind: “The body is a great thing, Judy, a horrifying thing, a great and horrifying thing to be trapped in a body, anything can go haywire at any moment, you’re just hanging on with clenched teeth to a rope that swings your body sickeningly around and around over that bottomless and legendary thing we’ve come to identify as The Abyss.”
Three months on, I don’t find myself thinking about this novel; I had to rely entirely on my notes to write about it. There was something ephemeral about it even as I read it, the imagery hard to hold onto, the ideas slipping away like smoke. But it was everything to me while I was reading it. Sometimes I have a desperate need for a book like this, something that gives my inner demons a song to scream along to. Come to that, I made a note while I was reading it that I’d found the perfect musical accompaniment—the doomy noise of an industrial act called Terminal Brain Disease. While I lived (briefly, feverishly) inside Zipper Mouth’s mind, this music came pouring out of the cassette player that sat on the floor beside me, filling the room with its perfect attitude: Witness the absolute horror and wonder of simply being alive!
All of MarkHaddon’s fiction for adults has, until now, been rooted in contemporary realism: emotionally intelligent, yet possessed of a light touch and a sweetly British sense of the absurd. You could argue that his best-known novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is a work of deep imagination; the book, though meticulously realistic, is told from the point of view of a teenager with Savantism. But with his new novel, The Porpoise, Haddon goes deeper still. This time he gives us the gods and goddesses of the ancient world, priestesses and pirates, carnelian and amber. It’s a different kind of storytelling, rich as brocade and powerful indeed.
Let’s get this out of the way: I am something of an Ali Liebegott superfan. It started 13 years ago with The IHOP Papers, her novel about a lovesick lesbian waitress named Francesca that I read almost straight through one hot summer afternoon while I sat at my desk. It’s a wonderful book—heartbroken and messy, packed with arresting images, so funny it hurts. Her next novel, Cha-Ching!, addressed the subject of addiction, and though the main character in that one was more mature, she was still just as tough and funny as I needed her to be. “She’d … always wanted to make a mood ring for alcoholics—the rainbow of colors could translate into words like lonely, and sorry, and marry me.”
Iceland was the last of the European countries to be settled, just over a thousand years ago now, by Viking explorers, Celtic women, and monks. Today the country has a relatively small number of people living on it; it’s around the size of the state of Ohio, which has some 11 million inhabitants, but only about 340,000 people live there. The island’s tumultuous natural features are a big reason for this. There are hundreds of volcanos and many of them are active. Evidence of their previous activities can be seen all around the countryside in the form of lava fields, which look sort of like regular fields because they’re covered in green moss but are rocky and cracked all over by fissures, some of them treacherously deep. The heat from volcanic sources creates warm geothermal pools and magnificent geysers. (The word geyser, in fact, comes from the Icelandic name of a huge one near Reykjavik, Geysir, which was the first such water spout modern Europeans had ever seen.) Parts of Iceland are covered in ice caps, including the largest glacier in Europe, and the glaciers’ constant melting feeds the rivers and results in some 10,000 waterfalls across the country. The Icelandic highlands, situated in the middle of the country, are mostly uninhabitable and largely without infrastructure; the rivers there change course frequently, even daily, and can’t be bridged. The country’s landscape is wild, stunning, and in many ways rare.
Iceland is also, of course, the land of the midnight sun. That’s the reason J and I chose to visit there over the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Ever since I learned in school that, way up north, the sun is up around the clock in the summer and dark for most of the winter, I’ve marveled at the idea, have wondered for all these years what it would feel like if the sun never set. Now I know: It feels weird. Almost enchanted. During the week we spent there, it never really got dark. Even after sunset at midnight the sky stayed lit but dim, like the light at twilight, until it rose fully again at around 3:00 a.m. On sunnier days, as opposed to cloudy ones, slices of yellow sun peered through the slats in the blinds behind our bed and rested on my face, giving me the confused sensation—at two o’clock in the morning—that I was on a beach vacation and lying down for a nap on a drowsy afternoon. It felt moving, too—strange to think of people in another part of the world having a different sort of understanding with my old companions the sun and the moon—and very energizing.
The chaotic emotional stuff I’ve been going through in recent months has drained me, and I think something about the idea of drinking in full, 24-hour days of sunshine must have struck me as a kind of personal restoration technique. Sure enough, though I felt tired from traveling and from all the walking we did while we were there, I didn’t exactly get sleepy in the evening, the way you do naturally when it gets dark. It was as if my little internal battery was plugged in and getting recharged. One day I even refreshed myself the way the locals do, by soaking in a geothermal pool, right on a beach in Reykjavik. It was a grey day with a low, moody sky but I’d packed my bathing suit for our long urban hike in case we found a place to bathe. When we did find one I looked out at the unfriendly sea and felt dubious: Who goes to the beach on a cold, rainy day? Icelanders do, that’s who. We saw people trucking across the sand in bare feet, and others swimming in the ocean with mitts on their hands and feet to protect them from the sharp rocks on the bottom. Before I chickened out I went into the locker room to change, then hustled through the chilly air to a long concrete tub built into a platform on the beach. The water was only about as deep as a bathtub, and sinking gratefully into its warmth I had the embarrassing yet thrilling sensation that I was in fact taking a bath with a bunch of strangers. I eavesdropped on but couldn’t understand their conversations because they were in Icelandic, Russian, and rapid-fire French. My body was warm while a light, cold rain spritzed my face, which struck me as strange enough to be funny, and the pleasure of a rare feeling of pride filled me. I’d gotten myself to this beautiful, special place, I’d been brave enough to get naked in front of strangers, and here I was, quite literally basking in it.
One evening in Reykjavik, J and I went to a concert. It was the thing I was most looking forward to on our visit to Iceland, which sounds silly given what I just told you about the lava fields and geysers, but before this trip I had no frame of reference for things like that. Listening to live music in a darkened room, on the other hand—that’s an experience I already knew I loved. This show was to be experimental ambient music performed by Jo Berger Myhre on standup bass, and his collaborator Ólafur Björn Ólafsson, who plays keyboard and drums (sometimes with Sigur Rós!).
Most of the concerts in this Midsummer Music series took place in Reykjavik’s large and impressive concert hall, and I’d somehow gotten the idea that the series itself was something most people in town would attend, as part of a circus atmosphere I imagined would be created by the perpetual sunlight, everyone up all night and partying. Once there I found that, with the exception of a few to-be-expected drunks hooting out on the street late at night, most people were not deep in some wild revel but were in fact composed and very soft-spoken (and, of course, going about their normal business). Likewise, as we walked to the venue I saw that this show was being held “off site” at the kind of place I’m infinitely more comfortable than in some fancy concert hall: a small art space located in what looked like it had previously been a storefront. People in good outfits were standing around and talking quietly, drinking from bottles of beer. I felt at home.
We sat in folding chairs and waited for people to come out and begin playing the instruments, both electronic and organic, that were arranged a few feet in front of us. Slowly Myhre and Ólafsson, with the aid of a dude squatting on the floor and working a big, blinking mixer, began playing from their album The Third Script. I’ve read that the album was almost completely improvised, which of course means that each performance of it is also completely unique. We listened as the music built up slowly, crescendoed, then deconstructed itself back into its separate parts before disappearing again. Myhre pulled his bow across the strings and made the bass moan and cry. The more rhythmic sections lumbered inevitably but irresistibly, like a dance and a dirge at once. Higher sounds occasionally streaked across the music’s horizon. Tiny bells tinkled in the middle of all that space, like wind chimes in the countryside reminding you that there’s a house not too far away, comforting you; you’re not really alone.
I tried to resist it, but it was hard not to hear some elements of the music as reflections of the landscape around us: Ólafsson’s violent drumming as eruptions, Myhre’s bass as whalesong or the groaning of glaciers as they move, chafe, and break apart. And after all I do believe that, as a part of nature, we human beings possess the same qualities as the animals, earth, and atmosphere around us, so the art we make is necessarily formed from this elemental stuff. In any case, I loved the way the music made me feel. It matched something inside me, felt familiar. The movements of my life can be tectonic, rumbling low underground, or they can be sudden, violent, and smothering—a volcano. Whose can’t?
The writer of this review of The Third Script gives an interpretation of the album’s name that I find profound and beautiful (and according to the musicians themselves, he’s correct). He writes that he finds the music “meditative” and “ruminative,” as I did. Several times throughout the performance my chattering mind went blessedly quiet, even as the music activated my poor, overworked solar plexus, who always comes to life during highly emotional moments. I let the performance be a way to meditate and breathed into that space, letting all of my constituent parts, my mind and my body and whatever else, know that they were free to wake up, if that’s what they wanted to do.
When we left the gallery it was 10:30 at night and the white, cloudy sky was still lit up as bright as daylight. It had taken several days for the strangeness of the perpetual sunlight to properly register and make some kind of sense to me, and all at once, for just a moment, it did. It just gives you more time, that’s all. More of each day to live. We walked the short walk through the city’s downtown to our rented apartment, not hurrying the way you do in the dark, but strolling like we had during the day, trying to take it all in.
Over the years I have read many descriptions of full moon rituals. I seek them out because I want to feel more connected to nature—to all of life—and to give my spiritual self a voice. I guess I still haven’t fully embraced this mode of spirituality, but I love its imagery, symbolism, and ideas.
The details of the rituals vary but they always have some elements in common. Typically they center on releasing, letting go. With tonight’s full moon in my thoughts, I made a found poem out of some the phrases frequently used in these rituals. Distilled this way, the advice sounds possible and, to my surprise, practical.
Create a sacred space.
Share some wishes and
set your intention.
Chant using sounds of power,
take several deep breaths,
and conjure a connection to the divine.
Write it out.
Release and declare.
Release what no longer serves!
burn these papers,
I’ve been paging through a secondhand book I found some time ago called Common Weeds. It’s actually a coloring book that was put out by Dover in 1976, the year I was born. One of the things I find interesting about the book is that it helps to define what makes a weed a weed, which is something that really puzzled me as a kid. What makes one plant “good” and another one “bad”?
Weeds, of course, are not bad. They’re just plants. Many of them look pretty because they flower, some are edible, and lots of them have medicinal uses. E. F. Bleiler, the editor of Common Weeds, writes that a weed is usually defined as a “vigorous, intrusive wild plant that becomes a nuisance.” He doesn’t say anything about their being ugly or not useful. A person could certainly decide to cultivate any of the plants we consider weeds (though I can’t easily think of a good reason to put, say, poison ivy in your garden). My mother likes to grow tansy, a yellow-flowering perennial herb, in her garden, even though it’s considered a weed in many contexts—and is one of the plants included in Common Weeds—probably because of its tendency to take over.
Honeysuckle, the first entry in the book, is another good example. Any gardener will tell you that honeysuckle can be a problem because it grows like crazy and chokes other plants out. In my small yard, honeysuckle takes over the back fence and grows up and around an old tree on the property behind us. We hack it back occasionally to keep it from overtaking everything else that grows back there, but actually, we like it. It’s a wild-looking, lush vine and it smells heavenly. When I was a kid I’d pluck the white flowers, put them in my mouth as I pulled the stamen through, and told myself the sweet taste was real honey. In traditional Chinese medicine, parts of the honeysuckle plant are used to treat headaches and colds.
Thinking about the value of weeds reminds me of “Pigeon Manifesto,” a poem by Michelle Tea that I have long loved. It’s about her admiration for the scuzzy city birds, the kinship she feels for them. She says, “I am suspicious of people who say they hate pigeons. I think, Who else do you hate?” The thing about weeds is, they grow where most other things can’t. In shallow, poor soil; in wasteground; in parking lots; between cracks in the sidewalk. They grow wherever they can, and they thrive. There’s a metaphor in that for sure.
I’ve spent the last few days cleaning my house like a demon. This is an activity I enjoy on any day of the week, but currently, to my great satisfaction, it counts as two categories of work since I’m also writing a book on the subject. I’m in my kitchen making up batches of natural cleaning products, trying them out, writing about them, then going back to my kitchen to tinker some more. I’m getting my book finished and my house smells gorgeous. Honestly, it’s pure bliss, but I have to chuckle about just how much I enjoy putting my house in order. It’s a little demented. I can’t help but think of one of my favorite lines from one of my all-time favorite movies, Mommie Dearest. “I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt!” Faye Dunaway, playing Joan Crawford, sing-shouts this in an attempt to seem cheerful toward the poor hapless housekeeper she’s just read to filth for neglecting to mop the floor under a potted plant. I relate to this. I’m not mad (or sad, or anxious, or confused, or hopeless, or doomed)—I’M CLEANING!!!
Yesterday I watched the movie for the 200th time and laughed out loud all by myself, as I always do. It made me want to share this piece of writing with you again. I posted it on this blog a few years ago, and it originally ran in a food-themed zine put out by The Soapbox. The portrait of Faye Dunaway from that famous wire hanger scene was made by Joe Carlough of Displaced Snail. Enjoy it, folks, and remember, I would rather be here with you than anywhere else in the world.
When we were kids, my little sister and I watched Mommie Dearest on a regular basis. We had a VHS tape of it that we’d recorded off theTV a few minutes in, so we never got to see the very beginning, when Joan Crawford wakes up at four a.m. to begin her meticulous morning routine. In that scene, with the swirling, corny score playing in the background, we see Joan scrub her face with steaming water—literally scrub it, with a brush—and then plunge it into ice, a strange ritual that I didn’t really understand but knew had something to do with making and keeping yourself beautiful. There was something so incredibly satisfying to us about watching that movie. There were the terrible, overacting extras, who make me hoot with laughter when I watch them now; the cathartic, crazy screaming; the hush of melodrama that settled over the whole thing like snow. Even the way the word mommie was spelled was weird. It was wonderful.
I don’t know how much Joan’s rage and loneliness really registered with me back then, and as kids Liz and I certainly didn’t have the life experience to appreciate the subtleties of “camp.” I think what we were responding to instead was the childishness of Christina’s complaint, the outrage that every kid feels, at one time or another, however lucky they are: This isn’t fair! No one gets to choose their family, and it doesn’t matter how enviable it looks from the outside—there’s something scary and sad that lives in every household. Liz and I were no strangers to the way a parent’s mood could shift like the weather, responding to nothing but itself, the air dense with gathering storm clouds. And so we screamed along with Christina, and Joan too, since the anger of every person in the movie thrilled us equally. “Tina!” my sister would cry out, just before the rose bushes were about to really get it. The sob in her voice was just right. “Bring me the ax!”
The sumptuousness of the setting was a big part of the movie’s appeal too, of course. Joan puts on these floor-length gowns and glides down her art deco staircase like she’s in a movie, even when she’s just hanging out around the house. She goes out to dinner dripping with diamonds. And the dinners themselves? Nothin’ but steak. Whether she’s at home or cradling a vodka tonic at Perino’s, Joan always orders hers rare.
One of several baroque punishments Mommie hands out to her daughter has to do with the steak. They all sit down to lunch at home one day—Christina, Joan, little brother Christopher, and that lackey of a nanny, Carol Ann—but Christina balks, calling the meat on her plate “raw” in a babyish voice. She presses down on it with her fork and watery blood runs out. Mommie won’t let Christina eat anything else for the next several meals. Instead she sets out the same cold steak every morning and evening and waits for the girl to break down and eat it, but she never does.
The thought of eating steak for lunch (a rare one, no less) made a big, sickening impression on me back then. There was something so queasily grown-up about it, not unlike Mommie’s spooky sex appeal, or the very female rage that fills the movie. Christina wins that battle, just like she wins the war in the end. But that’s not what you remember, is it? It’s Joan’s anger and ego, larger than life, that matter to this story. She so often seems to want to kill the daughter she loves, but there’s that one moment, when she finally relents and lets Christina scrape the disgusting food into the trash, that a tiny smile plays at the corners of her mouth.
“Why must everything be a contest!” she hisses, but you can tell she’s kind of proud.