We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Reading Marge Piercy's poetry: Giving dignity to pain · 6 December 05

Dear Marianne,

Yesterday I spent yet more time reading Marge Piercy’s poetry. In my section of a required general education course, an introduction to literature section, we are scheduled to discuss her The Moon is Always Female. I went onto the Net too and found a few essays, as well as this poem I’d never seen before:

for a ballerina who died of anorexia

Her body inscribes an arc like a fine metal
point, her body is a feather floating.
Her bones are those of a swallow,
her bones are chalky.
Her bones are hollow as flutes.

Her flesh is only lacquer on muscles
taut and overworked, tendons
that ping like breaking violin strings,
joints forced the wrong way,
blood in her toe shoes.

Even though she has no flesh
still she bleeds from her feet.
She is a perfect dream of light
bent to earth in her feathered tutu,
face remote, smile brilliant

over the dying body as a lamp
illuminating a vision of fleshless
grace, an angel of bones gleaming,
pain as an art form patronized
by eaters of large expensive dinners.

I’ve also been reading Chantal Thomas’s Souffrir, and have sent away through Interlibrary loan for her La Vie réelle des petites filles. I find I’m becoming impatient for to read this Real Life of little girls, and if it doesn’t come soon, I may succumb to temptation and buy it from a Canadian bookseller for $10 plus postage. I’m hoping for more truth than Bobbie Ann Mason was able to bring herself to provide in her Girl Sleuth and Clear Springs.

I don’t know if reading Piercy’s poetry has freed me suddenly. In my lecture on the poetry I include her words that she has written as she does

That the poems may give voice to something in the experience of a life … To find ourselves spoken for in art gives dignity to our pain, our anger, our lust, our losses. We can hear what we hope for and what we most fear in the small release of cadenced utterance.

Perhaps it’s Thomas though she hasn’t come near my experience yet. Or perhaps it’s having this blog and finding a place to write. At any rate when I woke this morning and knew the snow was out there under a cool dark-bluish haunted sky, the following words came to me:

When I turned 12, I discovered I was attractive to boys. They would come to me and talk, some overtly flirtingly, after a while all aggressively in some way. I was at first "asked out" on dates. I admit I exulted and felt triumphant. I was proud of my apparently pretty body. But I didn’t know how to cope with their behavior, and liked to be sexually aroused. It was physically enjoyable to me. I quickly learned the response was a mixture or alternation (depending on the boy) of surprize, scorn, derision, dismissal, and contempt or ridicule and very disrespectful behavior in public.

My first response was retreat. I began to "go steady" with one boy (whom I mistakenly, most unfortunately for me, and him probably too, married at age 16). It was a kind of protection, shield. I had tried going out with other boys where I behaved offstandishly and tried to keep the boy away. It never worked. I was harassed or nagged and continually pressured, so would give in. I did enjoy the physical sensations, and I saw I couldn’t control my behavior or the situations in the way I wanted.

So I stayed with one boy —and was compliant to him and have now come across descriptions in the New York Times by other teenage girls where such compliance is described as fun (by the girl) or liberation and it’s asserted this is common hidden reality. If it was, when I was young (very late 1950s, early 1960s) I didn’t know it. I felt humiliated and used.

I wondered if I was overreacting and tried to talk to one girl to see if I did have a "reputation," and what she would say (she seemed kind), but the next day another girl came over to me shocked, and said, "what did you say to X!" Do you know she’s telling everyone!" I tiried to talk to my mother and got some jeering response whose words meant girls who "give" (and her disgust and derision were strong here) get boyfriends and what they deserve.

I found myself all alone. On the rare occasions (a couple of times) in the area of Long Island where my father had a house, I would have an encounter with a boy, where I would become literally terrified at his aggression. I was laughed at.

The next step was anorexia. Hillary Mantel’s "Girls Want Out" explains driving center of my motivation much better than I can here. But this sense of what I was doing— exerting self-control, getting rid of this body which was causing me such shame and grief—is inadequate. Maria Selvini Palazzoli’s Self-Starvation has made me recognize how my anorexia was partly brought on, and then encouraged by my mother and father as part of a family system where I was to be kept a bullied (by my mother), pet and companion-wife as to conversation (by my father) so as to maintain the fiction they were keeping up their joyless catastrophically individually-destructive marriage on my behalf. As I wrote he also ridiculed me because I was supposedly "pleasingly plump" (don’t you know), and for this humiliation, as a result of it, I took a vow I would not be mocked again over this body of mine.

The sins of the fathers are visited upon the daughters. Born to a wretchedly shamefully poor immigrant family, his father an alcoholic whom his brutal mother beat, unable to gain the confidence & self-esteem, without the necessary thick-skin or manners or connections and know-how to break into cliques of people whose intelligence was as high, and character traits as capable of fineness as his own; a socialist, and atheist, genuinely too poor to go to college until much later in his life (and then too old), my father lived in mostly isolation as a low-level US government employee, with a small group of uneducated stupid (all of them but one, the lawyer who got my divorce for me from my first husband) male friends outside work. They looked up to him.

It was one of the bitternesses of his life that my mother did all she could to break his relationship with these people as they were "beneath" her as she was a middle-class Jew. She did succeed for years at a time to distance him—through moving, through inventing things he had to do on a weekend which kept him from them and loosened his relationship with them. How he hated her for this. And yet did not rebel really. If I were to let her (on occasion she threatens this, to get back at me), she would during these bi-weekly imposed phone calls rush to tell me (triumphing) how she deprived him of sex, how he became "impotent." He never broke away from his obligation to that mother, his dense family (just about all self-destructing in his generation, except for the eldest sister who lived through cruelty to her husband and daughter). In his last years one of the pleasures of his existence was to return to the south-east Bronx to play hand-ball with young Spanish men in Crotona Park.

So I was to repeat his pattern. He wanted that. To keep me by him. I almost did.

Going to college was the first step in my breaking this vise. He discouraged me. Yes. Like Edward’s mother did him. But I went, I did very well, and I made little friendships with people and talked to them and they to me. I was respected and (I thought) liked.

My father also encouraged me to stay married to the hopelessly inadequate young man I was then still living with (though not having sex in order not to put any nails in that coffin, to use his phrase for his having had a child in his marriage with my mother). The young man himself broke that chain. He said I was becoming "bad" again. I have no or little memory for the years I was 17 to 18. I seem never to have slept, and can only remember walking the streets in the dawn one morning, or riding trains late at night. I couldn’t have been mad as I was working as a secretary during the day for the FAA, and had begun college. But I remember little but that I didn’t eat except when I had to. (Luckily I didn’t know the trick of drinking water to keep the food away or I might be dead now. I didn’t know the name of my condition even. This came much later, when I was in my early 30s. No one spoke of such things. Silence. Horrible self-protecting silences.)

Books too helped. I’ve worked out that during those 2 years I read Austen’s NA and Persuasion.

At any rate I seemed to calm down, and at age 19, my consecutive memory of my past resumes when I am sitting on a park bench with a friend I had meet at the FAA, who had herself quit that job, gone back to college, and married a sweet Jewish boy, a meal-ticket (middle class banking job) and was now herself going to Queens College full-time. Brenda. I am still friends with her. My memory is I am telling her how I hope to find a way to spend my life reading and writing. I know I probably cannot hope to get tenured position given my lack of knowledge of how middle class people network (I wouldn’t have used that word any), but I want to have some joy out of life. Othewise why carry on. And I can only live through this way.

It was around then that I began to let myself gain a little weight. I went from 78 pounds to 91 to 92. I am five feet two inches high.

Well what a story for this morning. It has probably also broken through finally as a result of the ten years I’ve spent here on the Net, no longer alone, learning, changing, seeing the world as other intelligent people see it. They do not always keep up their guard. They make visible through writing what they are in ways they would never f-to-f. Books alone won’t do, even the greatest women’s poetry. And paradoxically, remaining alone, not being able to flee into determinedly shallow (the way some of my orrespondent-friends write to me) or partly play-game falsifying faces of others, which I know have been partly kindly-meant.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Thanks, Ellen. You’ve shared bits and pieces of this story before, but never all at once and certainly never so completely. Thanks again.
    R J Keefe    Dec 6, 9:10pm    #
  2. How good it is to know, Ellen, that that part of your life wss succeeded by your marriage to Jim and all that followed that. Thank you for being so open.
    bob    Dec 6, 10:10pm    #
  3. Thank you both very much for your kind words. It was an intense relief to find the words to say what happened to me, especially in my early teenage years, and to say them aloud in a coherent unexaggerated ways. It only took 47 years.

    I feel much stronger for it, released from some taboo and shame.
    The oppressive norms define strength inhumanely and hollowly. I like Piercy’s lines in "For strong women:"

    "A strong woman is a woman who craves love / like oxygen or she turns blue with choking. A strong woman is a woman who loves / strongly and weeps strongly and is strongly / terrified and has strong needs. A strong woman is strong / in action, in connection, in feeling … What comforts her is others loving / her equally for the strength and weakness / from which it issues." Here’s beautiful half-line: "In rain, clouds disperse."

    Much hurt is enabled, carried on by the enforced self-protective silences, which really protect those who do the hurt. These latter are characterized in Shakespeare’s very great Sonnet 94: "That who have pow’r to do hurt and will do none, / That do not do the thing they most do show ... Who, moving others, are themselves as stone … They are the lords and owners of their faces …"

    Chava    Dec 7, 8:49am    #
  4. Ellen,

    Wow. What a story. I feel that usual sense of social awkwardness even though this is on the net. You know, when someone tells you something intimate and important, no I mean IMPORTANT, but you don’t know them well but you are so respectful of their work. Then they say something IMPORTANT and you want to say the right thing next, but you fear you won’t so you plunge in with something. Perhaps not the right thing, but something that says, thank you. I heard you.

    I am struck by how anorexia was a part of your life and then it lessened and stopped. Not through treatment or therapy, but perhaps just through time, getting older. You note, though, that there was also the reality of not having information of how to take it further (drink water, etc.) Still I am always fascinated how our bodies reach toward healing us, even when we turn away from them. I’ve heard other women describe that as well. I makes me marvel and it makes me thankful.

    I’m also thankful for Marge Piercy whose words seem to come to so many women at moments that we need them.

    Thank you for writing this.

    Julie R. Enszer    Dec 10, 11:20pm    #
  5. Dear Julie,

    Thank you for your comment. The traumatic matter comes from the part about my early teenage years, and I still am not capable of telling it graphically so people realize what I mean when I say encounters. Still I have gone further than I ever did before, and sense some freeing up and power coming to me because I was able to speak it without exaggeration. Simply putting something out there in public de-mystifies and takes its power from it.

    I reread it and say to myself, Nothing so very bad here. What’s the fuss? Another book that has helped enormously for me: Naomi Woolf’s Promiscuities has remained in my mind since I read it and been therapeutic, especially the ironic passages where she describes herself sucking a teenage boy’s penis in front of everyone else and suddenly asking herself, If this is liberation?

    Anorexia is not just a form of behavior, but a state of mind, and my experience teaches me that this state of mind doesn’t go away. It can’t as the demand a woman be thin and sexy remains as insistently aggressive in our society even to the older woman’s eyes. There she sees ads which denigrate and dismiss her (useless, "redundant"—don’t you just love that Victorian word?).

    It would’ve helped had I known I had a condition that was described somewhere and seen some explanation. But you’re right about time. Also the woman needs to get into a new situation where she’s freed from some of the people (often family members) who are reinforcing this behavior. Over the years I’ve seen more than one woman who I knew to be anorexic who "got over it" by removing herself from her original situation to a better one.

    In my case very important was moving to England. I needed to get 3000 miles away from my parents, the (to me) dense, harsh, philistine, abrasive middle class world of NYC (I refer to the suburb culture) and yes stay there for a while.

    Chava    Dec 11, 6:49am    #
  6. A note to myself: On H-HistSex (a history of sexuality list), in a discussion of sex among younger people and between people "above the age of consent" and below," one man remarked:

    " ... for a girl, reaching the ‘age of consent’ (menarche) signals essentially an open season on her body …"


    Chava    Dec 20, 7:47am    #

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