Lesbian eXcursions: Chapter Three

Lesbian eXcursions: Journeying through the personal narrative – Chapter Three

© Nicki Hastie

Dissertation submitted for the degree of M.A. Modern Literature: Theory and Practice, University of Leicester 1991

If you are quoting from or printing parts of this page, please give full acknowledgement and reference as: Nicki Hastie (1991) Lesbian eXcursions: journeying through the personal narrative [WWW] http://nickihastie.co.uk/my-writing/essays/lesbian-excursions-chapter-three (add date you visited this page)

Some parts of this dissertation were revised and subsequently published as Nicki Hastie, “Lesbian Bibliomythography” in Gabriele Griffin (ed.) Outwrite: Lesbianism and Popular Culture London: Pluto Press, 1993 pp.68-85


Contents


(A number in square brackets, e.g. [1] indicates a link to a footnote)

Chapter Three

I told you we literary lycos have to follow things right through to the bitter end and even farther, digging up our own graves, sirens howling, frantically seeking the source of the source.

(Miss X or The Wolf Woman, Christine Crow)

I

I begin to realise that a large part of my discussion is related to the idea of the source. This is one purpose of the library: a hunting-ground for the source; somewhere to look ‘things’ up; to enter and to exit armed with references. It’s also a potential ‘cruising-ground’ – well, another basis for learning, anyway. Learning how to be a lesbian reader. Alison Hennegan and Lee Lynch and me. [65] It was in a library that Audre Lorde first realised stories were possible for herself, that she could be both reader and writer. Daffodil Mulligan, in an aptly titled lesbian developmental novel, returns again and again to the library, hoping to discover the secrets of sex. [66] I think even “Poor Miss P” had her day, when there was still a lending-library at Boots.

I suspect you are thinking that I’ve been holding back on the ‘X’ caper. You’re probably correct; isn’t that the nature of Xes – algebraic ones, at least – there’s lots of work to be done before they begin to disclose themselves. It’s not easy to look up an ‘X’: it doesn’t give one an awful lot to go on. But there has to be some way to solve a mystery. There had to be something which led up to the ‘X’ being necessary in the first place. So, again, it is the study of sources I return to. It’s a matter, to some degree, of seeking connections, often in unlikely places: the back cover of a book, for example, as I remember having mentioned before. I refer to:

that mysterious process whereby the searching eye rapidly and unerringly isolates those elements – identified in a particular publisher’s colophon, in chapter headings, in an author’s photograph or coded biographical note, in the identity of a series editor, in the cumulative effect of a writer’s previous publications listed in the front – which suggests that this book might repay examination.
[67]

‘X’ has never one meaning alone. This is Alison Hennegan’s experience in locating books in the early 1960s which could somehow ‘belong’ to her, be included in her own paracanonical library, as she attempted to detect a history for herself as a young emerging lesbian. She discovered a wide variety of reading material, not necessarily containing overt lesbian characters, a journey extending from Homer to Enid Blyton. Here was fiction which could be ‘rewritten’ in straining to create a version of ‘lesbian identity’.

In the 1980s, I was able to search the library shelves for a particular black and white-striped design on the book’s spine. The familiar cypher of The Women’s Press, which in my desire for knowledge of lesbian experience, signalled to me a potential source. If I didn’t always find what I was looking for there, I at least knew that I was very close. Twenty years on, unlike the young Hennegan, I was able to limit my search to women writers, not trusting what men could write about women, there seemed less chance in male-authored books of finding out about me. Perhaps I ignored a great deal of literature, unwisely, through this tactic, but Alison Hennegan knew the importance of a successful search – the discovery of lesbians in literature and, furthermore, the discovery of literary lesbians other than those who form part of the canon of Western European Classics, other than those who “without knowing or caring who or what I was … had helped to distort my own sense of myself.” [68] One of my beginnings was that search for the black and white coded books, which Hennegan was by this time promoting as editor of The Women’s Press Bookclub.

Strange how all these sources should be connected. The fascination with ‘X’ is the fascination of discovery … unearthing what is hidden … keeping the story/ies alive …

II

Miss X or The Wolf Woman: beloved by me, not so much for its place in my development, but because through the text I can recognise my development. Not parallels, but connections; these cross-overs (X-overs) which the text of Miss X depends upon. A love of literature is one of the clearest themes, those sources which we use to help make sense of ourselves. It’s time to introduce you to Mary Wolfe.

Miss X is, in part, a version of the apprenticeship novel conveyed through confessional form. Mary Wolfe is the schoolgirl developing sexual awareness, discovering a guide and mentor in her teacher and falling in love. Only later, from a distance, can she let the story be known:

I had … known the flames of true passion, true, reciprocated, yes, reciprocated passion, passion for an older person, a Person of Authority, who just happened to be three times my own age, not to mention the same seX as myself. (p.1)

This older person is ‘Miss X’, a pseudonym of course, for Mary is aware that hers is an illicit desire. The discovery of love between a headgirl and her headmistress would result in the expulsion of one and the shameful dismissal of the other, a crossing of boundaries on two or even more accounts. But Miss X is not the first object of Mary’s desire. It is a case of mistaken identity during a reading of Racine’s Phedre which prompts Miss X to believe she is the one to have captured Mary’s affections. Unable to tell Miss X that she is wrong for fear of hurting her, Mary begins to desire Miss X alone, labelling her original love for Miss P, teacher of Classics, “a mere schoolgirl ‘crush'” (p.16).

The subjects taught by Miss P (“Poor Miss P”, changing her ‘potboiler’ fiction at Boots) and Miss X – Classics and French – are significant. These are both a source and the influence upon other sources contributing to the story-telling of Miss X or The Wolf Woman. In Mary’s development, passion and literature are closely linked. Baudelaire’s poem, “Les Femmes Damnees”, in Les Fleurs du Mal is her first introduction to “the forbidden fruits of Lesbos – women as ravenous wolves in the desert” (p.1), one example from that canon of Western European classics which has had the power to stereotype and distort lesbian experience. Her favourite classical Greek myth is the voyage of Odysseus (because of the desire to ‘come home’, perhaps), which in turn influences the structuring of her own narrative as a journey. This journey hinges to a certain degree upon discovering what it is to be a lesbian and how, based on her own experience, identity may be considered meaningful.

In the traditional Bildungsroman selected reading materials receive significant attention insofar as they influence the protagonist’s education and formation; in the case of Miss X, Mary’s reading informs the narrative to an unusual extent in that her reading experience not only assists in shaping and explaining specific episodes in her personal development, but also gives shape to the text itself. She tells her story by ingesting myths, fairy tales and fantasies, denying in the process a convention of academic literary discourse that distinctions should be made between the primary and the secondary source.[69]

A love of literature – Mary hopes her own is obvious (p.152) – is, perhaps, for the lesbian reader a love also of the formative experience, of that search through libraries and literature – the journey of discovery and the process of coming out. Consider Alison Hennegan discovering origins in Homer, seeking in Greek myth representations for herself: she was extending the possibilities which could be imaginable in her life. It is her personal reading of Greek myth which is important rather than what the myths have come to mean in their shared traditional form. This is true also of Jeanette’s mythologising in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and of Mary’s in Miss X or The Wolf Woman. Why should the Greeks find their way into the formative paracanon?

That I turned early to ancient Greece need come as no suprise. If there’s one thing everyone knows about the Greeks it’s that they were all That Way. Even I knew that much. Yet because they were so thoroughly dead, so safely Then rather than dangerously Now, even quite strict grown-ups seemed to regard the Greeks with relieved approval. … That women’s own voices were virtually silent, bar a few precious scraps of lyric poetry and the occasional verbatim transcript from a court hearing, did not then worry me. What I was looking for were strong and passionate emotions which bound human beings to members of their own sex rather than to the other. … [The Greeks] offer[ed] me a world free from the assumption that human completeness exists solely in the fusion of male and female. … at a time when I desperately needed it, they were the only ones to offer me the vision of a world which acknowledged – rejoiced, even – that the ties uniting people of the same sex are frequently, in part, erotic. [70]

Myth needn’t allude specifically to female experience in order to be useful to lesbian readers and writers. This understanding is actually worked out at the level of structure and theory throughout the course of Miss X. The use of classical myth – Oedipus, Odysseus, Dionysus, the Minotaur et al. – is criticised within the novel by a character called Annabel. I shall speak more of her role as a reader in the text at a later point, for now I wish simply to examine Annabel’s understanding of myth, which is to some degree informed by her understanding of (lesbian) feminist theory. She says of myth: “Politically it’s eXtremely suspect, you know. Universal time, universal consciousness, never mind the eXclusions,a and not a chance in hell of ever getting things changed” (p.149). This raises some interesting issues, especially as the text of Miss X purports to challenge the championing of universalisation. Change is exactly what Mary imagines her writing to effect. She wishes to make an attack upon the enemy of homophobia, and, in a larger view, oppression in general. There’s always a way to read which allows for new creations. Classical myth, which may exclude or debase women, which may face charges of being ahistorical and apolitical, that is, linked with dangerous patriarchal behaviours, needn’t be completely phallocentric.

Here is one central example in Miss X: a dramatic reinvention of the story of Osiris. Osiris is savagely slain by his brother, Seth, and Isis “travels the world over to find the fourteen scattered pieces of his mutilated body … in order to stitch them together again and turn Osiris back into a god” (text’s emphasis, p.66). According to Mary’s Dictionary of Myth, however, “there was one small but allegedly vital piece still missing”: the phallus. Mary, like Isis, is the travelling detective desperately trying to connect those ‘pieces’ in her own story, for Miss X is divided, not by chapter, but into fourteen sections, given the title of ‘Pieces’. That vital (for Mary) missing fourteenth piece, the unknown or ‘X’, is actually the lesbian body (Le Corps Lesbien, also title of the ‘lesbian classic’ by Monique Wittig).: “lost phallus of the embalmed Osiris, my foot” (p.202), making the final (fourteenth) connection involves an understanding of the erotic desire which is possible between two women (not a phallus in sight). It is a terrific discovery of the journey; it is that commitment of “skin, blood, bone and breast and all” (Miss X, p.201) previously ingested by you (through the words of Catharine R. Stimpson that time) in this story which you read now. Must be contagious, this need to collect and connect all the pieces. It is this process I love in loving Miss X.

It becomes possible to view Miss X as an ironising of the Bildungsroman genre, absorbing what is appealing about the form and disclosing is inadequacies. There is certainly nothing ‘straightforward’ about the text. This is no neatly-mapped journey, but one where the telling of the story runs excitedly away with itself. It is non-sequential because the significances of events changes with memory and memory changes with time. Mary seems to have had her seventeenth birthday some time in the early 1950s; as she writes she occasionally hints that not only does she possess her very own wordprocessor, but also now a zimmer frame. Whether Miss X is written over a period of years, and if so, how many, it is impossible to say. She is neither young nor elderly at the novel’s opening and close. Occasionally, she chastises herself for alluding to events out of sequence, for confusing a particular part of a story by anticipating the consequences, disclosing too much too quickly, but she is at the same time dissatisfied with “the painful chronology of literary self-discovery” (p.104), and to a large extent has to tell the story as events are unearthed through the process of writing. Mary’s struggle with these boundaries emphasises the inadequacy/falsity of the linear chronology restriction. The process of writing is here truly a process of discovery. Miss X maps also a process of soul-searching: “meticulous, self-scrutinising confession” (p.144); but not as a way of determining one’s accommodation to the dominant society. [71] It differs also from the form of confession characteristic in 1970s feminist writing. It differs mostly in that it is ironic.

The rejection of a linear, ‘realistic’, narrative form removes Miss X from any relation with the exemplary feminist tale of struggle. This confessional form has tended to avoid comedy and mockery because “in the ironic discourse, every position undercuts itself, thus leaving the politically engaged writer to deconstruct her own politics”. [72] This is a particularly relevant statement in the light of the highly self-conscious narrative of Miss X. There is actually an awareness within the text of the possibility of ‘politically correct’ motives and intentions being undercut. For me, personally, this serves to make the whole text thoroughly more engaging. It is a text which desires a “substantial relationship with readers”, [73] inviting criticism exactly because it doesn’t claim to have all the answers. Once again, the two sides of the identity debate, the assumption of, and the questioning, are revealed:

Precisely because of its instability and – sometimes – secrecy, affirmation is particularly important for the lesbian identity, yet lesbians too need the space not only to voice their oppression and their determination to transcend it, but also to explore uncertainty, ambiguity and vulnerability. [74]

‘X’ is for secrecy, the pseudonym, a mark of censorship and silencing, and a reason for anger and affirmation; and ‘X’ is, at the same time, a symbol for what is ambiguous, uncertain, currently without definition. Mary is herself a ‘Miss X’, the subject in process. There can be more than one Miss X. There must be considering the book is dedicated “To the other Miss X”. Is this ‘other’ the New Tutor at Oxford, who nurtures Mary’s love of literature and encourages a freeing of the imagination? ‘Miss X’ is only one of the layers of pseudonym. Although I have introduced the narrative voice as ‘Mary Wolfe’, in the ironic discourse this certainty in the author may also be undercut. The ‘or’ in the novel’s title is part of this same machinery, not an ‘either-or’; more like a ‘both/and’. Perhaps I need to explain that a bit further. Both/and suggests an end to the dichotomised universe, an end to a system of polarising which supports hierarchical structures:

A both/and vision born of shifts, contraries, negations, contradictions, linked to personal vulnerability and need. … A both/and vision that embraces movement, situational … Structurally, such a writing might say different things, not settle on one, which is final. This is not a condition of ‘not choosing’ since choice exists always in what to represent and in the rhythms of presentation.
[75]

Both Mary Wolfe and Miss X and more.

The reader may be fairly certain of the fact that Miss X has a single narrative voice but attempting to identify a specific author’s name is slightly more tricky. In this respect Miss X or The Wolf Woman is reminiscent of some of the autobiographical writings of Gertrude Stein. For example, there is no author’s name on the title-page of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. A conventional understanding of ‘autobiography’ and ‘Alice B. Toklas’ in the title implies Toklas is the author. This ‘autobiography’, however, has Toklas reveal on the final page that Stein has been writing all along. A fine example of Stein’s irony, which challenges preconception, making the centre of the text extremely difficult to locate. Miss X does, of course, disclose an author’s name on its title-page, but this surely doesn’t exclude the possibility of her re-naming herself or of accepting a new spelling of her name, to quote from Audre Lorde/Zami. Is Christine Crow Mary Wolfe and vice-versa?

The text explores in a quite innovative way the whole history of lesbians choosing, or being forced, to write under a pseudonym. From the introduction of the Miss X figure, who could be anybody, including ‘Nobody’ (‘pseudonym’ of a lover of the first Miss X; also escapee from the cave of the Cyclops, the Cave of Oppression, p.199), a tension between the concealing and the revealing of identity is set into play. At the end of ‘The Tenth Piece’, Mary reads aloud what she believes at the time to be the completed manuscript of Miss X. Her audience is composed of her sister, Pin, Annabel (whom I have already quoted on the myth-question), and, of course, the external reader who is aware already (published book in (my) hand) that there are four more ‘Pieces’ to come.

The reading of Miss X within the text is a coming out, an opportunity to name: “the reading is over. Someone else knows. The Wilderness, if not Miss X, has been given a name. Mary Wolfe is no longer alone” (p.147); but, because of this, it also contains a potentially dangerous power which suggests that it is sometimes necessary to conceal names. This love which dares to speak its name must sometimes do so at the expense of being able to name the lover. [76] Mary Wolfe has already displayed her reticence to name the lover (who is/are ‘Miss X’?), but she hopes, by encouraging the breaking, or at least the more open discussion, of taboos, to change the world with her book. On hearing the text, however, Annabel suggests that if she is still set on publishing she should probably do so under a pseudonym. Challenging Annabel to explain her reasoning, Mary and the external reader (me, if you like) are treated to an instance of dramatic irony. Annabel is not the homophobic critic, she too is the lesbian reader; teacher also of the ‘Lesbian Feminist novel’ as part of her Women’s Writing Course. The pseudonym is suggested because Annabel believes Mary’s plans to have backfired, that the intended “passionate Defence of Homosexuality (p.152) actually resembles an attack.

Pin backs up Annabel’s plea for the pseudonym, searching for a name that is in keeping with the conjunction of ‘Mary’ and ‘Wolfe’:

Something jazzy and alliterative … but with the same kind of … oh, I don’t know … smugly, sorry, triumphantly self-devouring relationship between the two parts as you’re lucky enough to have already in ‘Mary Wolfe’. Pride in the nature of the partly self-inflicted, partly self-transcended, purply wound, predator/victim kind of thing. (p.178)

Could ‘Christine Crow’ be the answer? These name cross-overs are extended when Pin makes a further suggestion: “you could always put on the fly-leaf ‘the characters in this novel are all purely fictional’, needless to say” (p.204). And there, on the fly-leaf, above the British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data, is ” ‘ “The characters in this novel are all purely fictional”, needless to say’ “. Talk about covering one’s tracks; this is a trail of double-crosses.

It is that notion of a text having a “substantial relationship with readers” which I feel offers a way into Miss X or The Wolf Woman. I do not claim to do justice to the text; that would certainly require a longer study than this one, and, I suspect, a completely labyrinthine structure. I am confident, though, that the reading I am able to offer in this space will reveal Miss X to have a profound contribution to make to the identity debate and a considerable bearing on the ‘Lesbian Nation’ discussion.

There are different layers of reader inside and outside the text and, of course, Mary is both writer and reader. She is not always content just to lead the “Dear Reader” by the hand (wolf’s paw); she emphasises this reader’s responsibility finally to become writer: “You must finally learn to be your own detective, whistle your own bloodhounds, harness your own horses, track me down like Hippolyte with your own impetuous Racinian dragons” (p.193). It is as much my responsibility to explore the ‘X’ question, which I suppose, partly, is the identity question. If it is the writer who shows us who we are, [77] who develops community and a certain security, the next step must be the reader discriminating between different writings in order to choose something for herself: to emulate a source or to use it as a touchstone for the emergence of something new. The writer and the reader in us are responsible to each other. Annabel reads Monique Wittig, The Lesbian Body being an example of the ‘Lesbian Feminist novel’ which she teaches in her Women’s Writing Course. But just what is this elusive ‘Lesbian Feminist novel’? And which of the two M.W.’s grapples with this question? Although Miss X is criticised (by Annabel) as “decadent, out-dated, Romantic, captitalistic, voyeuristic, not to mention self-indulgent, self-pitying, sado-masochistic …” (p.154), doesn’t the fact that the text contains (or anticipates) its readers’ criticism, thereby opening up a space for dialogue and debate, actually reveal this ‘Non-Lesbian-Feminist novel’ to be a more valuable contribution to theory?

A further charge against Miss X is that it is stereotyped, guilty of instances of self-oppression in the very act of trying to fight oppression:

We don’t all dress in hairy tweed costumes … We don’t believe all men are evil … We don’t all try vicariously to seduce inadequate, over-doting mothers … We don’t all have the depraved seX drive of a bat … In short we’re not all ageing pederasts like Miss X … [Miss X is really not much better than Radclyffe Hall [another source: The Well of Loneliness] and all those Baudelairean wolves and vampires and things. (pp.150-51)

But of course the novel is not complete at the end of ‘The Tenth Piece’ and Mary proceeds to search for a much more personal understanding of her life in the remaining four. This involves a certain breaking away from the first Miss X who feared her lesbianism and whose influence has quite probably hindered Mary’s personal development. Mary’s revolutionary act is to realise that in believing her
energy should be focused on fighting for the cause of ‘The HomoseXual’, as Victim, Outlaw and Rebel she has neglected the importance of her own personal vulnerability and need. Rejecting an icon, an essentialised, archetypal, lesbian identity, and accepting truly for the first time her erotic desires, Mary celebrates that “each of us is different, unknown, eXceptional“:

Far from educating me to the Olympian heights of the ‘HomoseXual‘ to which rebellious status I so proudly aspired in order to escape call-up to prejudiced Enemy Ranks, Miss X had spoiled me for the real love of women – certain women, not to put too fine a point on it, Annabel herself – which had been my birthright all along. (p.189)

In actual fact it is Monique Wittig who may be criticised for erasing the real material and ideological differences which exist between lesbians. [78] She concentrates on the affirmation of a single harmonious group of lesbians to the exclusion of the exploration of uncertainty and vulnerability which allows historical change. Wittig’s is a romanticised theory of lesbianism, linked to the theme of ‘Lesbian Nation’, for she speaks in terms of a ‘free cultural space’, recalling the dream of the lesbian utopia. She seems certain that lesbians can escape patriarchal territory. [79]

It is Annabel who reminds Mary of the ‘male’ reader inside herself. This ‘male’ reader who searches for knowledge of lesbians merely for titillation: “Our minds are just as much prey to Phallocentric dichotomies of Patriarchal Discourse as theirs, you know” (p.151). The alternative to the new paridisal Lesbian Nation seems to be to “develop our own New Rhetoric, capable, since we must still fly in it, of hijacking the plane of Patriarchy from within” (p.151). A journey not towards Lesbian Nation, but towards a personalised re-reading/re-writing of those myths, fairy-tales, fantasies, stereotypes which aim to limit who we should be. Audre, Jeanette and Mary Wolfe reach out through storytelling, imagining a collectivity of lesbian readers and writers, but the real significance of their (non-exemplary) personal ‘truth-telling’ / ‘confession’ is its ability to empower readers to produce other stories. Jeanette receives the “rough brown pebble” (Oranges, p.114), which appears in her reinventions of fairy-tale, as a reminder of who she is becoming, of the choices she has made. Mary has her own pebble, ‘Petrus Borel’, the stone paper-weight which used to sit on the desk belonging to Miss X and later sits smugly on Mary’s “neXt to the new wordprocessor” (p.190). She calls ‘Petrus Borel’ (‘PB’) a “Corner-Stone” of the novel. It is the ‘Wolf Stone’, ‘Petrus Borel’ being the “name of a nineteenth-century writer called Champavert who raved against the Evils of Society and called himself ‘Le Lycanthrope’: someone who imagines himself a wolf” (p.183). The Wolf Stone: another source to assist Mary’s understanding of identity; also the touchstone, by which to imagine a New Rhetoric:

… it may seem odd, but ever since reading the first part of this aloud, I’ve been groping about for some kind of Theory … which, less concrete than a pebble, but in some ways more reliable, would suddenly bring the whole Novel into focus with a bang … being able to choose my own identity perhaps for the very first time in my life … . (pp.203-4)

‘Lycanthrope’ is a new spelling of Mary Wolfe’s name. The Little Red Riding Hood fairy-tale, Baudelaire’s “Les Femmes Damnees”, Freud’s The Wolf Man and the tale of Rumpelstiltskin who guesses the name all have a part to play in this discovery. The Wolf Woman is Mary’s ‘New Rhetoric’, her personalised reinvention of the patriarchal stereotype which portrays the lesbian as predatory wolf: “greedy, voracious, ravenous, rabid, rapacious, anthropophagic … eXcessive” (p.92). She chooses identity/ies instead of ‘identity’ being chosen for her, as in the Baudelaire poem; she may be the wolf, but on her own terms. Unlike the first Miss X who ingested the wolfishness of the patriarch and continued to hide, Mary’s wolfishness is a self-designated, self-declared coming out.

How does ‘The Wolf Woman’ relate to ‘Lesbian Nation’? As wolf she goes out into the empty space of the Wilderness, rummaging around in those ‘interstices of society’ where individuality can begin to take shape. [80] This is not the ’empty space’ or ‘uncharted territory’ of ‘Lesbian Nation’. It is the search for a ‘New Rhetoric’ within, not an exit from, patriarchy. The wolf is usually a pack animal, but Mary has chosen, for the moment at least, to remain the lone wolf. There is no utopian community. Being able to choose identity for herself allows Mary an historical and cultural specificity which challenges the universalist principles of the ‘Lesbian Nation’ ideal. She may now explore ‘lesbian identity’, both at the level of community and individually, based on changing personal, social and political circumstances, maintaining the voice against oppression through the politics of identity affirmation, but also freeing time for an exploration of personal need:

We wolves have three sources of learning after all. Our ancestors, our parents, our own eXperience. Shy, compleX, intensely social and lone (there, you see!), I use them all. I am myself. Not frightened anymore of my own infinite appetite … . [my emphasis](p.228)

Recognising the complexity of all identities, Miss X or The Wolf Woman rejects the notion of ‘types’.

Writing has been a process of exploring ‘self’ through a reorganisation of learning experiences, writing itself perhaps one of the most significant of these formative episodes. The development of both the narrative voice and the novel as ‘The Wolf Woman’ / The Wolf Woman strengthens the novel’s theme as a personal cry against oppression. Issues become clearer in being written about, maybe find voice for the very first time:”Writing had given nothingness a name” (p.221); “Hours, weeks, month, years even, waiting, waiting, to eXpress, to eXpel, to eXorcise, to give tongue at last” (p.229). Re-discovering and reorganising one’s earlier writings is part of this process too: the secret blue notebooks and poems of youth. By reinventing the early reading experience, Mary discovers a space for herself within patriarchal language and literature, and is able to say: “For the wrong reasons, Baudelaire was right” (p.232). The significance of becoming ‘The Wolf Woman’ is the “freedom to imagine yourself imagining yourself a Wolf and, in so doing, at last cut the Gordian Knot” (p.231). Writing is an exorcism of the first Miss X, freeing Mary from another Cave of Oppression, and helping her to the discovery that she is able to love women ‘Now’.

*

Some of my readers may wonder why I have not entered into the psychoanalysis/psychotherapy debate in my discussion of Miss X or The Wolf Woman. I would not deny the place of psychoanalysis in the theorising of identity. Psychoanalysis introduced a way to explore how recollections of the past involve a constant re-working of the notion of ‘self’. [81]

I have chosen not to examine Freudian imagery in Miss X or The Wolf Woman for a number of reasons. Besides the fairly obvious and significant reason that Freud would have led me beyond my current interests of this study – into that labyrinth, in fact, which I am not keen to enter just yet – I believe that Miss X or The Wolf Woman actually attempts to reject the usefulness of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, or, at least, the usefulness of the psychoanalyst. Psychoanalysis is one of the enemy sources in the history of oppression. But it has been a starting-place for many lesbians, seeking explanations for themselves both voluntarily and under force; seeking a cure even. I adopted the language of psychotherapy when I was attempting to name myself: did you recognise the word ‘transference’ in the Prologue poem? I wrote another poem at the same time, with a similar theme, beginning: “Take psychotherapy / where the object is to discover yourself”. I rejected that one at the time in favour of the poem which appears in the Prologue; it wasn’t psychotherapy itself that I was attracted to, but a process which would allow me to name my experience and assign meaning to myself.

Psychoanalysis was a cliche, and I personally think that Miss X or The Wolf Woman uses its discourse this way too – ironically. The novel opens with a visit to the analyst, but Mary doesn’t return for a second session. She decides she can do without the analyst and writes Miss X or The Wolf Woman instead. As lesbian writer/reader, Mary develops a theory which is “One up on the OediPUS(s) compleXXXX” (p.205): the coming-out process of writing itself. “Writing is not … a mere one-way diagram, but something which helps to release the X-factor or unknown” (p.220). It is in the personalised narrative as a subject in process that the best lesbian discoveries are made.


Contents

Recent Posts

What does your love look like?

We stand with Orlando ribbonSo here I am – driven to leave my quiet-ish hiding place (of late) and send some comments out into the world. It’s hard to have anything new or powerful enough to say about the atrocity in Orlando, FL, USA this weekend, but I must register my voice of grief, outrage, solidarity and connection with LGBT+ communities and allies everywhere. My thoughts are with all those who have been affected directly through the loss and injury of loved ones, and through the weight of being witness.

Some facts are clear. A heavily-armed man murdered 49 people and wounded 53 others at the LGBT+ Pulse nightclub. This was an act of hatred and homophobia (also biphobia and transphobia), and the majority of those targeted were people of colour during a Latina/Latino/Latinx night. All believed themselves to be in a safe place of celebration during a month of worldwide Pride events.

Here are some other commentaries which say far more than I can:

Latinx LGBTQ community response from Isa Noyola interviewed on Democracy Now (warning – this video contains a shameful clip of Donald Trump taking advantage of the massacre to spread anti-Muslim hate speech).

Orlando is just the tip of the iceberg – a powerful article by Jane Czyzselska, editor of UK Diva Magazine for lesbian and bi women.

Statement from the British Psychological Society recognising that members of LGBT+ communities experience high levels of abuse, discrimination and psychological distress.

I’m sad and angry and confused. It seems to have been a default position of mine recently. But at least these emotions make sense in these circumstances, even if I will never be able to understand how someone can plan and carry out such an attack. I am unable to understand any crimes of hate, whoever is being abused and killed. I have empathy beyond the communities I specifically identify with. It’s important I say this because some despicable individuals are already using the Orlando shooting to encourage different marginalised communities to turn against each other. We must not let that happen.

News sites are reporting (surmising) today that Omar Mateen was most likely gay himself and therefore chose to kill people in a LGBTQ venue due to intense self-loathing. As if this somehow stops the attack being an act of homophobia! As if it’s suddenly explained and means all others in wider society need take no further responsibility and can file it in a tidy box which requires minimal scrutiny: Oh, that’s alright, then – it was just one queer of a certain faith we can’t be bothered to understand killing a load of other queers we can’t be bothered to understand. They only have themselves to blame!

Don’t you see? No person starts out hating themselves or others. It comes from years of indoctrination and prejudice, where instead of  being embraced and celebrated, difference and diversity are viewed as the enemy. When you think of love, what do you see? Who do you include?

On Sunday 12 June, I posted this on Facebook:

Fuck! Why do some of us care? And the rest are intent on destroying the whole world. You don’t have to understand me to not want to kill me. I’ve spent my whole life trying to hurt no-one but myself. I shouldn’t even want to hurt myself. If there was more empathy for diversity, far more of us may survive.

All of my Facebook friends are trying to comfort each other right now.

I understand something about self-hatred. I really do. The agonising attempt to explain to yourself why recognising you’re different from a so-called ‘norm’, and regularly being misunderstood, can make you feel as if there is something fundamentally wrong with your whole being. That your very self is the problem. It’s sad enough when that personal inner struggle only destroys the individual experiencing it. But where does the destruction end when fear and hate is routinely justified? No-one decides to hate. It is taught and it is validated by legislation. The Orlando massacre comes after lawmakers in the US filed more than 200 anti-LGBT Bills.

This fear of difference goes way beyond sexuality. I have experienced this feeling of self-doubt, self-sabotage and insecurity around my mental health. Some of my close friends will know of a new journey of self-exploration I’m just embarking on. It’s not the time to talk about that but, ultimately, this will be positive for me, and I will write about it when I’m ready.

Actually, I’m not sure I have ever *hated* myself for being a lesbian. I just feel as if I’ve been bruised and punished a lot, and that is why the poem below refers to “being a lesbian / would be one / prompt apology.” I am who I am. I’m proud of that. I have not, do not, and I never will apologise. But I have always had to be ready to defend myself which can sometimes amount to the same thing.

It’s another blackout poem, taking words from an interview with author Emma Donoghue which appeared in the Observer Magazine on 8 May 2016. It makes a lot of sense to me, but I wish it didn’t mean so much. I wish I didn’t have to write about being sad, confused and fearful.

It was two weeks ago when I chose to highlight these words and create a new personal commentary. It doesn’t help much with understanding the atrocity in Orlando. But in light of the terribly sad events, perhaps I can ask you to read between the lines to find another space which invites connection, remembers to begin with love, and doesn’t have to end on hate.

Newspaper blackout poem from interview with Emma Donoghue

  1. Susan Calman and Me 2 Replies
  2. Some of us are Literary: Get Over It! 4 Replies
  3. Lost and Found: the importance of archiving for personal and cultural memory 2 Replies