Getting Real

I had to admit it: I was never going to read all the issues of the London Review of Books that were sitting in two tall stacks on my office floor. They’d been there for months, and some of the covers had started curling up with age. I went through and clipped only the essays and reviews that interested me the most, and for the last couple of weeks I’ve been making my way through that stack—also a large one—quite happily. I thought I’d share a few of the gems with you here.

  • I read “I’m an Intelligence,” a long-form review by Joanna Biggs of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. I: 1940-56 and The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. II: 1956-63, edited by Peter Steinberg and Karen Kukil. The essay looks at the last years of Plath’s life (and briefly and very poignantly but amusingly imagines what her life might have looked like, had it lasted a lot longer). Because of this, it is largely about Plath’s relationship with her dreadful husband, the poet Ted Hughes, and her own mental health and sense of self. It’s also about the varying ways we portray ourselves (or hide ourselves) in communications with other people. ‘Ted may be a genius,’ Plath wrote to her mother in 1962 or ’63, just a few months before her death, ‘but I’m an intelligence.’
  • I read art historian Eleanor Nairne’s short essay about Keith Haring, published last year on the occasion of the first large-scale exhibition of his work in the UK. Haring is an artist I have a lot of affection for and, along with the many other New York street artists of his era, a real fascination with. In Nairne’s piece I learned about an aspect of his graffiti art that I didn’t know: In New York in the early 80s, when a subway ad was taken down it was temporary replaced with black paper, and Haring used these as canvases for his chalk drawings. He made 5,000 of them between 1980 and 1985 and was arrested several times for doing it. 
Tseng Kwong Chi photo of Keith Haring
  • I read LRB editor Andrew O’Hagan’s essay, in an installment of the paper’s Diary (usually my favorite section), about funerals, which I clipped because the first sentence was about the poet Philip Larkin. It ended up being not about Larkin’s poetry but his funeral, as well as the funerals of a few other poets and O’Hagan’s own father: “When I read it now, I see his order of service was a publication chiefly for people who hardly knew him, and when all’s said and done, that’s fine, isn’t it, even appropriate, if what mattered to the person in question was cultivating the admiration of strangers? A lie can confirm a truth.”
  • I’ve read two pieces about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. One was a dense, poetic little piece about the changing face of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic during the 60s and 70s by the poet Padraig Rooney. The other was a chilly account of the Birmingham Six, the six Irishmen who were wrongly convicted for two 1974 bombings that killed 21 people and seriously injured 170 or more, by Chris Mulilin, the journalist who wrote a book that helped prove their innocence (though not until many years after they were imprisoned). The people who committed the crimes have never been brought to justice, though Mullins knows who they are. He writes that the purpose of his reporting was to prove the innocence of the Six, and “Journalists do not disclose their sources.” A reporter’s account of his own reporting makes for fascinating reading. As I read his essay I remembered the powerful film In the Name of the Father (and its impeccable soundtrack), then looked up the movie and remembered that it was actually about a different case, the Guildford Four, in which four different Irishmen were falsely accused of a different bombing in England. Like the Birmingham Six, those men spent some 15 years in prison before their innocence was proven and they were released. 
  • In Barbara Newman’s review of a Jack Hartnell history book, I read about “medieval bodies.” Newman reports on extremes of feasting and fasting; exaggerated depictions of whiteness and blackness; laws governing what people wore for the purpose of identifying them by their profession or social status (“French prostitutes could not wear embroidery, pearls, gilt buttons, or robes trimmed with squirrel fur”); Pope Joan, the 9th-century lady who cross-dressed and fooled everyone into letting her become pontiff until she got pregnant and either died giving birth or was murdered (modern scholars think that most likely none of this actually happened); women who shaved their eyebrows and wore cone-shaped hats during a period in the 15th century when having a broad forehead was considered very beautiful; and the idea that witches could cast a spell to make a man’s penis disappear. Bodies: They’re weird! 

  • I read an unusual meditation on the idea of “the beach” by Inigo Thomas. He first discusses the meaning of the word “pebble”—its etymology is obscure, but he writes that “Pebbles begin as a fragment of rick that through natural agency has broken away from the rockface” and quotes Clarence Ellis’ book The Pebbles: “The weather, very slowly, but very surely, breaks down even the hardest rock.” Later, he evokes Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, which was made from two thousand square meters of black Doria marble from Genoa and thirty thousand Moorish tiles purchased from an American collector, among other materials. Very grand indeed, but Thomas reminds us, “There’s no argument about rising sea levels, only their causes. … eventually Mar-a-Lago too will be worn down by the actions of the waves. A house on the shore is no less transient that a pebble on the beach.”
  • I read Madeleine Schwartz’s review of two books by Kathleen Collins that were prepared for publication posthumously by her daughter Nina some thirty years after they were written. Collins, a Black writer who worked in the 70s and 80s, wrote stories, plays, and films, though many of them did not see the light of day during her lifetime. Collins wrote stories that showed, in her words, “African Americans as human subjects and not as mere race subjects.” Schwartz writes that, though Collins’ characters tend not to be overtly political themselves, the title story of her book Whatever Happened to Interracial Love looks at “the pressure and lies created by racism.” When her only film, Losing Ground, was made in 1982, it couldn’t get distribution in arthouse movie theaters “because they couldn’t imagine who would want to watch it,” Schwartz writes. She refers to an essay on the film by Phyllis Rauch Klotman, who writes that “audiences complained that the movie had no ghettos, ‘no ‘poor suffering black folk.’ ” But Schwartz reminds us that the Collins stories that were released just a few years ago were received with a similar bemusement; critics seemed unsure of what to make of these “stories of black love and conversation” that don’t fit easily into the walled-off categories of our understanding of art or race.
American writer and filmmaker Kathleen Collins

Maybe don’t

(Major content warning on this one, friends: r*pe, murder, misogyny, stalking, serial killers)

Jenny Diski was lots of people’s favorite writer. She published many books of fiction and memoir during her lifetime, though I haven’t read most of them—I only knew her from the essays she wrote for the London Review of Books, where she was a frequent contributor. After she died a few years ago I bought a copy of Don’t, a collection of book reviews and personal essays she wrote for the magazine, and I spent some time today re-reading it. 

One of the first pieces in the book, in a section titled “Looking at Monsters in the Dark,” is a review of a lurid-sounding book called The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer, which came out in 1993, a year before Dahmer died in prison. I was a young teenager when Dahmer was caught and his crimes were revealed. I remember being horrified by him, but at the same time somehow comforted by the knowledge he had preyed on boys and men, which was new information to me, a surprise. I filed the information away: Men harm other men, too. It’s not just women and girls who are in danger. It is always the men doing the harming, though, it seemed. That part was not a surprise. 

When I saw this essay in Diski’s book I had the same reaction to it that I always do to articles or films about serial rapists and murders: I don’t want to read it. I can’t look at it. / I have to look at it. I have to read it, every word. Typically, after I read or watch the thing, I will get sick to my stomach or have at least one very bad night’s sleep, but I continue to do it occasionally anyway. Am I interested in these subjects, or am I punishing myself for something? Am I trying to keep myself safe, or to understand something about human nature? Or about myself? Or is all of those at once?

So I read the Dahmer essay, along with the rest of the book. I deeply enjoyed the essays. This is writing about many areas of life—reportage of a kind—by someone with a truly interesting mind, as well as a wonderful sense of humor. Diski looked at Dahmer the way she looked at the book written about him, and about subject she addresses: Not only does she not look away, as I was tempted to do, she looks inward as well. She does not shy away from the horrible things that happen in the world or from her own dark thoughts, and by letting all these exist together on the page she makes room for the, shall we say, fullness of the human experience. Even still, by the end of her essay she admits that she might not see much need for books about people like Dahmer, agreeing with something he once said about himself: “This is the grand finale of a life poorly spent … How it can help anyone, I’ve no idea.” 

But old Jeffrey Dahmer has a way of popping up again and again, doesn’t he? All these guys do, these serial killers everyone is so fascinated with, along with all the other kinds of violent crimes that are splayed all over the news. They won’t go away and so occasionally, I guess, we feel compelled to take a look. 

When I was in my 20s and working at a Barnes & Noble, a sweet but possibly creepy guy I worked with there asked me to get the book he’d ordered from behind the register, and when I saw that it was a biography of Jeffrey Dahmer I felt truly skeeved, I can’t lie. As I handed it to him I gave him a look that said Why?, trying to cover my discomfort by teasing him. He just looked embarrassed, and I remained afraid of him until I quit the job a few months later.

But then, I was a young woman, and I was afraid a lot of the time. Even specifically at that job: There were a few men who would pester the young women who worked at the store, asking for us by name even though they were strangers to us. One man in particular came in looking for me after we’d spoken on the phone when he called to ask about a book. He then stood there in front of my register (and a bunch of other people) and told me what a “soothing” voice I’d had over the phone, gazing at me with a truly demented expression in his eyes. I often worked the store’s evening shift, which meant I had to stay until it closed at 11, help do all the closing-up stuff, then leave to walk out into the dark, empty parking lot at midnight and walk home alone. The whole time I worked there I nursed a low-level fear that the soothing voice guy would be there waiting for me, and yet this feeling was indistinguishable from the at-least-low-level fear of all men that I carried around with me all the time. I don’t know if I’ve ever even considered that particular anecdote important enough to tell anyone about before now, though I’ve thought of it often over the years.

A few years before I had that bookstore job, I was in college and living in downtown Philadelphia, when the so-called Center City Rapist was at large. He lived, it turned out, in an apartment just a few blocks from the one I shared with my best friend K. Several times over the course of a few years, he slipped out of the bed he shared with his girlfriend in the middle of the night to break into women’s apartments while they slept and rape them. He murdered one of them, a woman named Shannon who lived a few blocks from where I lived at the time. (All of these crimes were committed within a few blocks of where I lived.) She was 23, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania while I was an undergraduate there; I was 21. The Philadelphia Police Department’s habit of underplaying, ignoring, and mishandling crimes of sex crimes has since been reported on widely, though at that time my friends and I did not know this, and didn’t need to know it to realize we were deeply unsafe. We already had the much larger knowledge that most women have always had—that we were on our own with this stuff.

Actually, I once read a book about Jeffrey Dahmer myself. At the library one quiet afternoon, looking for something good to read, I found a graphic memoir by a man who’d gone to school with “Jeff.” He wrote about Dahmer’s crimes as well as his memories of him as a teenager, and how those did, or did not, line up with what later happened. It’s a very sensitive and powerful book—it was later made into a film, which I haven’t seen—but it scared me so badly that I regretted reading it with the same intense energy one usually feels for regretting having done something, not simply having read or looked at something. If only I could take it back! Some things, once you’ve seen or heard them, do not go away.

I want to say here that the current wave of fascination with murder, which as far as I can tell has been spurred on if not created by podcasts and the Netflix’s serial killer documentary machine, leaves me very cold. I don’t find the “fandom” of well-known murders funny, and I don’t think being preoccupied with stuff like this makes a person interesting. I wish it would all go away. The violence, and the glamorization of the violence. Just make it stop. A line from one of my all-time favorite shows, Six Feet Under, comes to me now. When his coworker starts describing the M.O. of a serial killer they’ve agreed to embalm after he was executed by the state, the undertaker David nearly shouts: “Don’t tell me. It’s bad enough things like that happen. Do we have to talk about them too?”

But—I think sometimes sometimes we have to talk about them. Last year, during a period when I was feeling extremely disturbed after learning about an act of sexual violence that had happened to someone I love, I watched Conversations With a Killer, a four-part, nearly four-hour documentary Netflix produced about Ted Bundy and the journalists who managed the rare feat of interviewing him while he was on death row. I was hungry for this story, and not in my usual, guiltily self-harming way. It felt important for me to try to understand the reason a person might hurt someone for pleasure. I have to conclude that a hunger for understanding is the reason people write books like the one I read, and the one Diski reviewed, though I can’t say that in the case of this documentary I really gained much wisdom beyond an astonished sort of appreciation for the depths that people can sink to. 

(And yes, like it or not, these are people, not monsters. There’s no such thing as monsters, I’m afraid. In a song on Tori Amos’s album American Doll Posse—one of the funny, spooky little ditties she does so well—she sings: “Devils and gods, now that’s an idea / but if we believe that its they who decide / that’s the ultimate detractor of crimes / cuz devils and gods, they are you and I.”) 

One of the details from the Bundy film that haunts me the most, a year after watching it, is something one of the journalists said, something about regret. He was a tough old-school newspaper reporter and didn’t seem the type to be scared by much, but he talked about how thoroughly disturbed he was by Bundy, how he felt that by spending time with him he’d been infected by his essence. He described bringing home with him a darkness that has gnawed at him more, not less, as time has worn on, and he said he wished he’d never done the interviews at all. 

I Capture the Castle

professorSeveral years ago, when Trixie the cat and I were living in our cozy bachelorette pad, I got an ad in the mail from the London Review of Books. They offered me a year’s subscription to the weekly paper for some very low price, like 30 bucks, so I decided to give it a try. I thought the writing might be over my head – and sometimes it was – but I really enjoyed picking through the essays in there every week. (The classified section was a revelation, too. A quick look shows me that this week’s personals aren’t especially charming, but some very funny people submit ads to that paper, and following them week to week was a hoot. One of them, posted by a woman, ran for months with only her first name and one word: “Elegant.” Then one week that one ran as usual, but out of the blue a new one had appeared: “Natasha: Inelegant.”)

But there was one writer alone who made my pennies-on-the-dollar subscription worth every cent: Terry Castle. What a fuckin genius. Castle is a literary critic and a scholar, and most of her publications are academic books that never crossed my path. But she writes about books for a more general audience too, and in a bombastic and hilariously autobiographical way. I loved these essays and looked forward to getting updates on her life with Blakey, the woman to whom she is now married, and used to refer to by a funny nickname – I forget what now. She’d talk about a new book she was reading – with insights like an arrow to the heart – in the same paragraph that she described rummaging through cardboard boxes to get ready for a move, or sitting up in bed poking at her laptop and eating chocolates over the Christmas holiday. And somehow all these things were about the same thing. Her life and the the life of her mind were totally intertwined, in the most interesting way – she seems to make such good use of the things she reads, thinks about, and experiences, as if her whole life is a fact-finding mission on how to get through it. It’s really nerdy and pained and passionate. I relate to it.

Furthermore, she is funny as hell. After enjoying her work in the LRB I ordered her book of essays, The Professor, which I took off the shelf just now. I’m looking at the piece she wrote about a book on the jazz alto saxophonist Art Pepper, which she called “My Heroin Christmas,” but hastened to explain, “Not that I used any … I’ve always been afraid of serious drugs, knowing my grip on ‘things being okay’ was pretty tenuous already.” I relate to this too. Just now I found this (ALSO RELATABLE, though I won’t elaborate), in a LRB essay about getting gay-married:

“Despite being friendly and garrulous to a fault, my mother has always been somewhat averse to self-examination. Nor is psychological transparency her strong suit. Indeed, she might once have served as poster-lady for that delicate mental process Freud called the Censorship. Given all that seems to go on unacknowledged in her emotional world, these undated, untethered notes can often read – shockingly – like eerie and unprecedented eruptions from the maternal unconscious.

Witness a pencilled memorandum from one of the real-estate pads: ‘WE’VE BEEN THRU A LOT TOGETHER & MOST OF IT WAS YOUR FAULT.’”

If you’re not laughing right now I don’t understand you at all.

The reason I’ve got Terry Castle on the brain is because she’s coming to Philadelphia in November, to give a lecture. Hooray! And it’s a free lecture, open to the public, at Penn, that’s part of a themed series they do every year that is always excellent. This year’s theme is sex. See?

They put this picture on the brochure. The audacity!
They put this picture on the brochure. The audacity!

But it looks like the symposium is also, maybe mostly, about gender, which of course is not the same thing at all. Gender is something I spend about 30% of every day thinking about, and Terry Castle writes about it a lot as well. This talk she’s giving is called “No, I’m Not a Woman–I’m a Not-A-Woman: A Not-A-Woman Dossier.” Hee. This is Castle’s own term, according to the brochure, for “a person who looks and functions as a woman only in a nominal sense, having lost, refused, or neglected to cultivate standard markers of the “feminine.” Her examples include Gertrude Stein – okay, sure, no surprise there – as well as Hillary Clinton and Greta Garbo.

!!!

All of this makes me feel so happy and intrigued. I mean, Greta Garbo, could you die? This conversation also puts me to mind of Nuala O’Faolain, who I wrote about below, and who once, after being introduced as the Only Woman to Such-and-Such at a lecture she gave here in Philadelphia, said plainly, “I’m not a woman. I’m an honorary man.”

Woof. There’s a lot to think about here. Learning about Castle’s lecture came at an interesting time for me, because just yesterday I finally started reading that stone cold classic, Stone Butch Blues, which I saw was being given away for free as a PDF. As a not-very-obvious gender weirdo, I found the childhood stuff in the beginning relatable and tough to read; the book already feels so important to me. Maybe this will be the year I sort out some of my feelings about my gender, for once and for all. Maybe I never will, but instead I’ll keep on reading and writing and thinking about it forever. I guess I could be alright with that too.