Willis Digby is the letters editor at Sis (Sisterhood) magazine, a job that drives her mad. A Miss Lonelyhearts for feminists, Willis plows through correspondence that fluctuates from the predictable, boosterish boilerplate to letters challenging conventional notions of sanity, struggling to find a balance in her selections for publication in the landmark journal. Memorable letters include those from a woman who sprinkles cat food into her husband’s breakfast cereal each morning, one from a woman convinced that the man on the label of her cleaning products is harassing her, and endless gender-specific descriptions of peculiar sexual proclivities.
As Digby strikes up an unconventional friendship with one of her correspondents, she also confronts a harrowing childhood incident that has come back to haunt her. At once witty and powerful, Dear Digby is a thrilling tragicomedy that explores the shifting borders of the self, or selves, that define individual sanity and conventional thought, and redefine communication among lost souls.
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By Carol Muske-Dukes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Carol Muske-Dukes
All rights reserved.
At the top of the Wandstar Building, high above Manhattan, dwarfing the towers of Chrysler and Pan Am, are the offices of SISTERHOOD magazine, commonly known as SIS. In the late rays of cocktail hour, the SIS windows purple like stained glass, and till dawn the rotating red SIS logo (the bio-sign of the female, with an S curled inside) glows reassuringly as a lighthouse beacon, a neon night- light. For others, though, it's a migraine, unsettling sleep as it circles: a bloodthirsty bat on a rafter.
I ought to know. For five years I've been letters editor at SIS. Every day I ride the elevator to 72, press the security buzzer, nod to the bronze SIS logo and Minnie White-White-Goldfarb, the hyphenated receptionist, pass the Situation Room and Day Care—on my way to my little red desk, piled high with scrawled letters to the editor.
SIS is a new kind of magazine for women. A magazine for that generation of changelings called the Independent Woman. Our covers usher in the New Woman in a series of role models, mother goddesses, psychological bricklayers. The Soviet woman cosmonaut. The IRA firebrand and Parliament member. The French head of Female Cultural Affairs. The Indian premier. The Greek Resistance fighter. We are an unheard-of representative medium: a national glossy with "matte" concerns, a bimonthly cross between a feminist Time and a liberated Ladies Home Journal with an all-woman staff serving a readership of five million. SIS is hot stuff. It comes close to having what men call power, but we at SIS never use that word.
I myself never use the word because I have no power. What I feel like is a clerk in some lost warehouse of the imagination. I sit for days sifting through sky- high stacks of postmarked dreams. There are letters on lime-green stationery with little yellow bunnies running down the margin, and letters on paper with photos of smiling ape heads in the upper left-hand corners reading: "Notes from a Profound Thinker," and letters pocked with teardrops, blood spots, bacon grease, semen. Every hour or so I put my head down on my desk and bump it casually. "My name is Willis Jane Digby," I say to myself, "Willis Jane Digby. And I am a sane person." But I'm not convinced.
It is my opinion that I am going mad in the capacity of letters editor. The letters themselves started out being amusing, then disturbing, then haunting, then capable of driving me slowly (if that's possible at the rate of ten thousand per month) out of my mind. I felt that I had come to recognize in their diabolical styles, in their terrible false heartiness and conspiratorial tone, the unmistakable echo of our own SIS style; in certain of them I've come to recognize the mirror image shot back in our eyes by shards of glass, clear breakage. I sit with my head in my hands and feel the successive flashes like gunfire.
Certainly the sanity of the average reader of SIS has often been called into question by establishment shrinks. We publish articles on Getting to Know Your Cervix, complete with a couple of sisters sitting around with hand mirrors earnestly comparing labial puckers and yawns; we solemnly discuss nonsexist parts of speech, including "na" and "nu," the liberated pronouns; our list of suggested Christmas gifts for the Free Woman includes a bronzed diaphragm, a trophy. Was it such a big step to the woman who wrote in that she was sexually harassed by the bald man on her can of oven cleaner? Or the one who complained to us that a tiny orthodox rabbi entered and vacated her vagina at will?
Well, okay, maybe a big step for mankind, but for womankind it seemed smaller, a lateral move, a sidestep. I've known so-called crazy women all my life (haven't you?): the ravers in supermarkets, the savers of string and old nylon stockings (whose hoard soon filled rooms!), the nonstop talkers, the depression shoppers, the neighborhood kook with rouge spots and old Christmas bows in her hair, bag ladies, bugged slaves of the spotless house, polishers of the same spot on the piano. My mother, one hot June day in 1959, throwing the iron out the window, and yelling after, "Ironing drives me nuts, did you hear that, Mrs. Comstock???"
Male crazies come in predictable (often boring) wrappers, but the women are chattier, more distracted from the solemnity of dementia—hearing six voices at once (like a mother!) and still talking, jugglers of thought-hors d'oeuvres, hearers of stereo prayers, weirdly hopeful in a hopeless world. Coupon snippers, shoplifters, crash dieters, home decorators, jingle thinker-uppers, the occasional baby smotherer who did it for love.
Well, I (with reservations) salute them. The stuff from men really gets on my nerves sometimes. I read letters from deranged, vindictive males aloud at editorial meetings amid great protest; I post them in the john. But the women's stuff I take home with me, sometimes; I read their letters over a cup of hot tea, nodding, shaking my head, feeling for us all.
So here I sit, lonely hearts joker, at my little red desk. Where my job is to read (with a few fast-disappearing assistants) every letter. To answer each with at least a form reply. To select a few of the more sane for publication in the Letters column. To get back to those that seem to warrant either an official or semipersonal response.
On an average day I find my IN box bristling with envelopes. First come the run- of-the-mill cheerleaders—"keep up the good work, sisters"—and general commentary from both sexes: intelligent, thoughtful letters about child care centers, prenuptial contracts. Then comes the first level of Ink Theater:
Hey Female Libbers of the World—Thought for the Day on the Subject of Rape (or what I call Got Lucky Sex!): GET POKED, DOLORES! Do you hear guys going around pretending to know anything about being Knocked Up and feeling like a Blind Dumb Sow? Do I give you advice on Cramps? Then why is it you chicks act like you know what it's like to get a nice steaming whopper of Semen delivered free to your testiculs with No Where to Unload???
If enough loads pile up, Sister, a Guy can get Pissed. Real Pissed.
Upshot: Walk a mile in my Jockstrap, Yolanda.
I'd like to drop by SIS and show you all this process, how it works, but I got my third leg in traction right now. It gets thrown out of joint because of its size. But I got a few Hot Loads comin' up. You'll know me when you see me, girls.
SIS thanks you for your letter. Unfortunately, due to the volume of our correspondence, it is impossible to answer each letter personally. However, we will place your letter in our files and look forward to your continued interest in SIS.
In struggle, Willis J. Digby, Letters Ed.
Impotency is a common enough male sexual dysfunction. Don't let it getcha down. Traction sounds like the most intimate relationship you'll ever get. Hang in there, pal.
You see, I've actually begun to answer the weirdest letters. I think about them all the time, but the transition from thought to paper is a major shift. I have a pair of Bugs Bunny rabbit ears attached to a wire halo that I put on when I feel in the mood to respond to the Loonies. On the days when I also wear my three-piece pinstripe suits and ties, or my tux, I feel immortal—the way the authors of those letters feel righteous, deathless, sublimely inspired. I like looking weird; I've found that it gives me confidence. People look, laugh uncertainly, then watch their step with me. I look up from a stack of letters, the rabbit ears wobbling, and I loosen my tie just a little and frown. That gets them.
Because of my first name (for the Willis my father expected as first son in my place), I get a lot of letters from guys who think I'm odd man out at SIS. Good Old Willy Digby.
Don't know what you're doing there, comrade, but I thought I'd write to you, who must suffer much at the hands of those Amazons.
I am a youthful, personable, impeccable-looking dentist (twenty-eight and a full-fledged D.D.S.), and I ride my bicycle to my office each day to keep fit. One morning I'd paused at a STOP sign (I, of course, obey all posted traffic regulations!) when a young woman (we shall not refer to her as a "girl") about twenty-three or so passed in front of me. Her bow-shaped lips were smiling in a little smile, which I took to be an acknowledgment of me. (Though maybe she was smiling to herself?) At any rate, as she sashayed in front of me, swinging her hips in girlish fashion, I called out in a jovial tone (and without, I believe, a trace of sexual innuendo), "Hello, my lovely!" and I flashed her what I think was an energetic but neutral grin.
Now prepare yourself. She stared hard back at me and said in a calm, even polite voice, "Why don't you take this and light up your asshole, you smarmy little twerp!" Then she threw her lit cigarette at my bicycle seat and marched off.
Well. I went to my office and gave myself a good blast of nitrous oxide. (Laughing gas, to you.) I'm still reeling as I write this, but I'm abjectly depressed. Daylight is about one-twentieth the size of New York, and if this sordidness can go on in Ohio, I shudder to think what you guys are going through there.
Willis, I think (if you can beat those harpies off the typesetting machine!) you should print this letter. I'm well aware of the official SIS line of propaganda regarding unsolicited male comments—but I'd like females everywhere to know how provocative their appearance is to men, and to dentists. And how we're kicked in the teeth like this and still expected to come back for more! I am gassed, yes, gassed right now, and ready to drill any female I see (excepting my dental hygienist, who is above reproach), but I would be very grateful if my story came to light. Fight vagina dentata!
From: Badly-Gassed in Ohio
Dear Badly Gassed,
I am not a man, but of the female persuasion myself. I do somewhat understand your position here, though. Prone. You sure must feel stupid. "Energetic but neutral"—Christ. I think you oughtta lay low for a while, stay gassed, and sell that bike. The image of a sexually aroused dentist is never a happy one.
Yrs, WJD, Tooth Fairy
Listen Up, CUNTS!
Your Rich-Bitch politics suck a big weenie!
SIS is in bed with all the corporate powers of the Pig Capitalist Structure! SIS gives head on Wall Street! You run silly ads telling women to paint their faces and fingernails and wear panty hose. You support the use of feminine hygiene products—with impunity! You shake one fist in the air in the Liberation salute while the other gives Max Factor a hand job!
Are you proud of this, SIS? Ask yourself: Would Che's sister have read SIS? Would Lenin's mother have subscribed? Mother Jones would have used SIS for t.p., you bovine big-bottomed bourgeois bitches!
Who will liberate your neo-pussy rhetoric, SIS? Let's get REAL, SIS, let's hang those flabby tits and armchair asses out the Window of Life—and shoot the breeze with the masses!
Those who are out to destroy your hypocrisy will roll over on you in the end! I suggest that you wake up now, before it's too late, and invest some of your ripped-off profits where they can effect real Social Change. Send your bank- authorized check immediately to me care of my Institute.
THE RANDOLPH JORGE TUTMYER FOUNDATION
Randolph Jorge Tutmyer, Exec. Director
P.O. Box 69
Yorba Linda, CA.
Dear Randy (or may I call you Tut, Tut?),
Sorry, no handouts. We need all our money for breast augmentation. Big overhead, you might say.
Dear Mere Women,
Ever since Adam and Eve (that ballbreaker!), women have been trying to prove that they are superior to men. Men, of course, have never had to prove their superiority (it's writ On High!). While chuckling over this unarguable Fact of Nature just the other day, I realized that we men have had, all this time, indisputable proof! And here it is: FLASHING is an occupation wherein men play Hard Ball and leave women choking on their exhausts!!! You wimpy little women libbers can't reply when the world asks: Where are all the female flashers? Everyone knows that men are bolder, more death-defying by nature. Women are shy, cringing little pipsqueaks who should never attempt to become telephone repairmen or men's room attendants. These are jobs that require guts and savvy and women just don't have these things—no matter how much they blab about equality! Women say they are being kept back. Well, my dears, males are leaving you behind in the bulrushes in the field of flashing, and nobody is keeping you back from doing it. I'm proud most flashers are men. Still, I wouldn't mind seeing a woman rapidly ascend through the ranks of flashers.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that if a woman gets out and flashes she will become head of a large conglomerate or President of the U.S., or something. Flashing expresses the individual in one's being, and women's bodies (let's face it) are just not that individual. Their bodies are woefully inferior to men's, they sag in many places, and the most disgusting thing is, they shake like a bowlful of Jell-O when they run across a room naked! Have you ever noticed? This is why the public stands one hundred percent behind its male flashers! If you met a real flasher in a side street, you'd probably scream at his statuesque form, his lithe churning hips—and his proud hello! You'd run shrieking off for the police, you fat, fully clothed inferior chicks!
Sincerely, Desmond Blatz
I did hear from a number of fat, fully clothed inferior chicks. Those on the track of sexist symbology wrote in regularly with new findings:
Dear Editors, I've had it! Take a gander at the logo below.
NORTH AMERICAN TRACKLINES
Do you see what I see? Well, if you don't, you're blind as a bat! Any hapless, train-riding wanker can see this subconscious sex symbol for what it is, to wit: a huge, hot, fully erect penile gland being rammed into a calm but retracting vagina! Thank you, Perversion Central (our friendly Advertising Industry), for this big gratuitous bone tossed smack into the slavering jaws of America's rapists!
Please! Peruse this gonad gestalt! Realize, please, that now any ad-reading commuter—pervert who wants to cream his pants on the way home—can!! It's a short track from this eye-popper to Rape itself. Meanwhile, he's riding high, and he's headed your way—this loose cannon, this venereal Crab on a fast- rolling P-word-on-Wheels!
I think I've said all that I need to say here, but I would appreciate your further investigation of the origins of this depraved violent visual assault. Remember, I wish to be kept posted!
Yours, Mona de Rowster
Thanks a lot for alerting us here at SIS to this sexist marketing technique. However, I think that the penis-on-wheels notion is going just a bit far. I have to catch the 5:10 pecker to Scarsdale today, and knowing Namtrak, all we can count on them for is premature ejaculation.
Yours in struggle, Willis Digby
I imagine you're getting the idea now. Still, one letter I set aside as a kind of Weirdometer—I started rating the letters 1 to 5, 5 being the weirdest, based on the following letter as a 6. The letter was from Iris Moss.
Iris Moss was a little cagey about her residence, but it became apparent that she lived a brave life significantly restricted by the state or other concerned parties. While, in the main, Iris's concerns were not mine, I felt a reverence for her obsessions, which began to feed into my own. Her style of thought grew on me.
Iris L. Moss
44 Gardenia St.
The Clark Building
Dear SIS magazine,
Over the years you've published a lot of articles I've liked. Recently you published one entitled "Why I Stay Single"—I think that was the name of it! I was very impressed by the author's viewpoints on the subject of why she never married and why she never wished to marry. I would like very much to share with you my own reasons for remaining single and for insisting on my own spouse-free space.
Excerpted from Dear Digby by Carol Muske-Dukes. Copyright © 1989 Carol Muske-Dukes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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