It would be better…to describe under what conditions women lived, not throughout the ages, but in England, say in the time of Elizabeth. For it is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet. What were the conditions in which women lived, I asked myself; for fiction, imaginative work that is, is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground, as science may be; fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. … Indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various, heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact…she was locked up, beaten and flung around the room. A very queer composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.”
Roxane Gay was transformed in the worst possible way by a gang rape when she was twelve. Her story interested me because people I know have been similarly transformed by callous manipulation of their bodies when they were children. The protective mechanisms -- obsessive physical and emotional privacy, a sharp reaction when touched, flashbacks -- are not always obvious, and Gay has made us more sensitive to them. Millions of people know how this works because violation of children is so common. Adults may deal with the death of a parent, neglect, foster care, illness or disability, war, forced emigration, poverty, beatings, but perhaps molestation is uniquely harmful. Gay’s case protective reaction has been to eat herself into an impermeable, outsize fortress, and once you do that, it is hard to go back to the way you were before. I personally know at least one person who has created such a outsize fortress, and then there’s Oprah, who was also molested as a child. Each episodic chapter, written in unremarkable sentences without attention to a narrative arc, outlines a separate area of suffering. Gay cannot fit into hospital gowns, clothes found in most stores, feminine clothes; she cannot stand for long, climb stairs, or walk long distances. She sometimes has trouble getting through doors. People make comments or say insensitive things about her weight. She folds in on herself to become invisible. Diets don’t work because she panics when the fortress thins out. She admits that she is essentially disabled in certain ways, though she functions at an unusually high level in many areas where others struggle. She tamps down her rage when a fellow airplane passenger questions whether she will be able to handle the duties required of people sitting in the exit row. She writes, "I was fat, but I was, and still am, tall and strong. It was absurd to imagine I could not handle the exit-row responsibilities." As Gay has taken pains to inform the reader, she has difficulty maneuvering, and it would take some doing to send her hurtling down an inflatable exit ramp; if she stayed to assist others, her bulk would hinder the easy passage of other passengers to the ramp. The man's question is reasonable, not personal. She complains bitterly that event organizers do not pre-plan to be sure that she can get up stairs and doesn’t have to stand too long. They often fail to provide a chair that will not collapse under her weight or squeeze her painfully. She is "morbidly obese," and even if an event manager were forewarned of that, how many would assume the requirements of her particular case? Instead of having a little advance conversation about her needs during a doctor's appointment, she doesn’t go to doctors at all. She is too self-conscious to ask for a chair without arms in a restaurant, though many would have such a chair somewhere. Her world is replete with insults and indignities which she could handle more adroitly, to say the least. In her fury, she makes false statements such as “black women are never allowed their femininity.” I have envied the flair of many a feminine black colleague or friend, and also remember the dynamic femininity of black women from Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge to Michelle Obama and Lupita Nyong’o. Gay also writes that “no one wants to hear fat girl stories,” yet viewers and readers have been avidly following Oprah’s fat girl story for decades and hit television programs are based around fat people's stories. She didn't know how many books she would sell when she wrote that statement, but it has also been a hit. Ringers like these, manufactured from her rage, sour her case. Talk about sour -- she goes to a gym and sees thin white girls working out. “They know that they work hard and look good and they want everyone else to know it too.” Yes, they do, and so what? That is why they are at the gym, and why she is at the gym, too. To look good and to feel good. The reader is supposed to swing with it when Gay reveals that she cannot bring herself to demand “justice” for the perpetrator of the original rape, as wished for by her father and this reader. She Googles the heck out of him decades after his crime, and stalks him, calling his office, hearing his voice, then hanging up after listening to him breathe for a while. I advise her to blast his name in capital letters in Times Square. Just blast it. "JOHN DOE. From Roxane." The many readers who have read your book will understand, and he won't be able to sue you because you will not have accused him of anything. It will feel good, I promise. She has an unconditionally loving family, friends, lovers, a PhD and has established herself as a successful writer, speaker, and teacher. What is she now waiting for? I put down the book discouraged and unimpressed, though a little better informed about people I know who have been tragically transformed by a childhood violation. Unfortunately for all of us, there is little of the unusual in Gay’s story. The kicker is that Roxane Gay has just been given an advice column in the New York Times. I would that people "Do as she says not as she does.”
Woolf was writing in 1929, and here is one of her projections. “In a hundred years, I thought, women will have ceased to be the protected sex. Logically they will take part in all the activities and exertions that were once denied them. The nursemaid will heave coal. The shopwoman will drive an engine….Remove that protection, expose them to the same exertions and activities, make them soldiers and sailors and engine-drivers and dock labourers, and will not women die off so much younger, so much quicker, than men that one will say, “I saw a woman today,” as one used to say, 'I saw an airplane.' Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation.”
HILLBILLY ELEGY: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” is a cri de coeur commenting on the state of affairs in our country, where we are despairing of doing things that our country has frequently done better than anyone else in the world -- running honest elections, building bridges, educating ourselves, and being charitable to others less fortunate than ourselves. According to one Senator, and one assumes those he represents as well, we don't even have enough money to fund healthcare for poor children. We are giving up on the future, greedily consuming everything we have, tearing apart our greatest treasures for fear that the End is near. Or, in the case of J. D. Vance’s people, killing ourselves. A few years ago, a Ukrainian friend told me that when he goes back to Kiev people treat him like a tourist, though he looks like a Ukrainian. “Why?” I asked him, “Is it because of the way you dress?” “No,” he answered, “it is because I look like I have hope.” Hope is what Americans used to have, and still might have, though there is a big enough block of us that sees only “carnage,” and one fraction of that block is Vance's subject. His book is docu-literature, part history lesson and political commentary, part memoir. For life to become art takes a while; Vance’s story is about life. For literary merit, it does not compare to, say, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, by John Steinbeck, another story with a political point about a similar despairing community. Vance writes, “The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future – that if they’re lucky, they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose, as happened to dozens in my small hometown just last year.” This is the first, and I hope the only, time I will read that becoming an opioid addict is the result of bad luck. In my opinion, their missing ingredient is not luck, it is hope. Vance’s beloved grandmother, Ma-Maw, threatens to shoot people because they have insulted her grandson. Fortunately, she doesn’t pull the trigger, and nobody calls the cops on her -- there exists a law of omertá among Vance’s people. By the end of the book, this reader came to respect Ma-Maw because, at great sacrifice to herself, she stuck with her addicted daughter and struggling grandson until her last breath. She might be a difficult neighbor, though, and I’m not aiming to imitate her brand of bellicosity. As one of the reviled “Americans” who, he writes, “call [his people] hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash,” I found myself jacking up repeatedly. I am the sort of “American” he objects to for their ignorance of his people’s plight, but I do not call anyone such names, but even if I did, what role would that play in the suicidal spiral of addiction and dysfunction that his people find themselves in? Vance has disdain for me, but I’ll be darned if I can figure out what ill I have brought to his people. Vance portrays himself and his family as emigrants from their homeland in Kentucky to an Ohio only a few hours’ drive away where they and their ways are strangers. He freely acknowledges that compared to other immigrants -- my mind wanders to the Rohingya of Burma, Africans forced from their homes by a ceaseless drought, or the Syrians whose whole towns, neighbors, and families were reduced to dust – they have had it easy. He acknowledges the flaws in his culture, but seems as baffled as the rest of us at its precipitous and devastating decline. Vance believes that simply telling the story will be helpful, and has become a spokesman for his people. The success of his book has made him a rich man, and to his credit he is using his wealth to be a force for good in the place he came from. Who better than Vance to know what they need? On visits to the South, I have heard a great deal about the haughtiness and self-satisfaction of “Yankees,” and when Vance refers to “Americans,” that is who he is referring to – the types he met at Yale. He is not criticizing cowboys in Texas or loggers in Oregon. Yankees have accepted the critique of a lot of books that reveal the underside of their own community, from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, to The Great Gadsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and numerous movies and television programs that are brutally critical. As a Yankee, I have been humbled and informed by these critiques, and there is no reason that I can think of why people like me would not become Vance’s allies as he tries to heal cultural wounds grave enough to make so many people kill themselves. Vance uses a few brushstrokes to describe his military service. It apparently made a man out of him. This reader, however, is disturbed that Vance feels his only path to making a living is going abroad to kill and disrupt the lives of people whose lot in life is worse than his. He doesn’t give enough information about his service to allow for intellectual engagement on this subject, but he does present it as his escape from hopelessness. For that American soldier, there is more hope in Iraq and Afghanistan than in Ohio. I hope Vance uses his passion and storytelling to keep us informed of what is going on in his Appalachian or ex-Appalachian community. After reading his book, I wash my hands of responsibility for their woes, which is what he seems to want, but retain an interest in their welfare nonetheless.