I like to ignore Valentine’s Day for all the reasons you’d expect to hear from a feminist. However, I don’t begrudge anyone his or her right to celebrate it, as I do think there are ways to try to recognize the importance and beauty of love without the commercial stank of lingerie, cards, and chocolate. I believe that one the most authentic expressions of love is to listen. Listening is a way to be a witness to someone’s humanity, and I think this is why I’ve come to be obsessed with podcasts. Certain podcasts give me a great exercise in listening. Here are a couple of my recent favorites:
- Aisha Tyler’s conversation with W. Kamau Bell. Holy shit. The have a great rapport and swap delicious stories about the comedy world, which is crack for people like me who are fascinated with the machinery of showbiz. I didn’t think it was possible to love Bell more than I do, but the honesty he reveals at the end of their talk blew me away. And Tyler’s compassion completely matches Bell’s bravery.
- Marc Maron’s conversations with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. The WTF Podcast remains at the top of the comedy podcast heap for damn good reason; Maron has an unrivaled ability to draw deep and meaningful responses from almost everyone he talks with, and it’s clear to the listener that both parties in the conversation are often surprised by the intimacy that comes about through their talk. In the Brooks and Reiner episodes, Maron is reverent, fascinated, and so sincerely excited to be in the presence of two comedy legends that his act of listening comes across as a true act of love.
Probably the best thing about being a teacher who is really a dilettante is being able to dip into the long list of books that I’d like to reread or read for the first time and initiate conversations with students who are (for the most part) willing to go along for the ride. Last fall, I picked The Bell Jar off this list, which I hadn’t read in about ten years. I have this working theory that there is a “statute of limitations” on books I’ve read. There’s not a set duration of time that needs to lapse since reading any given book; this depends on the reader, and the reader’s relationship to the book. For a work like The Bell Jar, though, ten years–especially when those ten years involve one’s early 20s to early 30s, the age when Plath committed suicide–gives one time enough to warrant a re-acquaintance with the world of Ester Greenwood.
As a story, it absolutely holds up. Ester has a dry, sardonic voice that will endear any reader who’s a sucker for an unreliable narrator. Much has been made of The Bell Jar as a feminist classic, which is why I assigned it to a feminist theory class. Most disheartening, though, was that so many students recognized Ester’s struggle to seek out an identify that isn’t only defined by being a mother as one that still endures. And indeed, this struggle is now framed as an unintended consequence of women who want to “have it all”–as if it’s audacious to live out the full potential of one’s humanity and demand that society revisit entrenched sexism.
On the 50th anniversary of her death, a handful of writers who happen to be women reflected on the influence of The Bell Jar. Unsurprisingly, one my favorites writers, Jeannette Winterson, hits the nail on the head about why this story remains powerful:
“The Bell Jar was published at the same time as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was reissued after its long ban in the USA. The misogynist masterpiss billets half the population to the whorehouse. All women are for sex. Rich women are for cash. Poor women are for housework. Why wouldn’t a woman go mad in a world like this? Why wouldn’t a woman as gifted as Plath become terminally depressed and end in suicide? Pills don’t change the world. Feminism did.
The Bell Jar was a call to action because it is a diary of despair.
Plath was gifted. She could have been great. Wrong generation. Wrong medication.”
In 2002, my mother and I went to see a film called The Magdalene Sisters, which told a fictionalized story of a dirty little secret of Irish history: for over 200 years, young women and girls on the social and economic margins of society were sent to work from dawn til dusk in asylums under the supervision of Catholic nuns. These institutions were known as Magdalene laundries, as the bulk of their labor was just that, as well as other domestic work. Based on the 2002 film, and the narratives in the 1998 documentary Sex in a Cold Climate, those confined in laundries ranged from being prostitutes to unwed mothers to mentally retarded to “too pretty.” Their penance for any and all of the above was to work deep into and well past the point of physical exhaustion and to be regularly castigated for the sins they had (yet) to commit. Silence and obedience was strictly enforced, often through corporal punishment and psychological abuse. And, all you have to do is layer that onto the deeply entrenched misogyny of the Catholic church hierarchy, and so, sexual abuse and sustained protection of the abusers inevitably followed.
When I saw these two films, I was outraged and deeply disturbed. Anyone would be. But my feelings came out of the awareness that if my great-great grandparents had not left Ireland in the late nineteenth century, there’s no reason to think I wouldn’t have been rounded up alongside other poor, unsuspecting, and hopelessly trusting young women. I say “trusting” because it’s likely that when they were shepherded into the laundries by the nuns, they saw these women as ambassadors of God, who would ultimately protect them (provided they asked forgiveness). It’s likely their families felt the same. I would have believed in their good intentions, and I, too, would have been devastated upon realizing I was confined to a prison without the knowledge I had even committed a crime. When I think of these women, I think of the absurdity of human existence, of my existence in this time and place. There’s no good reason I am here expressing my thoughts and there’s no good reason they lived, worked, and died having suffered such injustice.
So, when I turned on the radio yesterday I was surprised and grateful to hear about the report of the findings of the Inter-Departmental Committee Investigating State Involvement with the Magdalene Laundries, thanks in large part to the efforts of Justice for Magdalenes. Unsurprisingly, the report found that the Irish State was directly involved in maintaining the Magdalene Laundries–the last of which was shut down in 1996. I’m very interested to see how this unfolds, and I expect to be appropriately haunted as more light shines on this dark truth.
My latest dilettantish move was to write a letter in response to Ross Douthat’s opinion piece from last week’s Sunday NYT. I was moved to do it because I spent much time in grad school thinking about the ins and outs of the abortion debate in the U.S., and have arrived at the conclusion that the problem of being pressured to name oneself as pro/anti anything related to abortion will always get in the way of human understanding of this complex issue. ‘Twas a failed move on my part, since it won’t be running in this week’s paper, but at least I can put it here.
“Ross Douthat is correct that the pro-life movement shows no signs of disappearing from the public eye, but it’s not because more and more Americans see a clear path to gender equality without the necessity of widespread abortion access. In truth, millions of Americans are unconvinced that relying on the argument for unrestricted access to abortion will help improve gender equality. Rather, Americans have grown weary of the pro-life/pro-choice schism because they know the argument itself presents a false choice. This is one of the reasons Planned Parenthood announced this month that it will let go of the label “pro-choice,” and it is also why Exhale, a non-judgmental post-abortion talkline calls itself “pro-voice.” Such efforts encourage public discourse about the common human experience that is abortion to more accurately reflect the lived reality of those who’ve been there—without encouraging that one pledge allegiance to “life” or “choice.”