Buying into the dream that education is the road out of poverty, a teen mom takes a chance on bettering herself and talks her way into college. But once she’s there, phallocratic narratives permeate every subject.
Wryly riffing on feminist literary tropes, We Were Witches documents the survival of a demonized single lesbian mother as she’s beset by custody disputes, homophobia, and America’s ever-present obsession with shaming unconventional women into passive citizenship.
But even as the narrator struggles to graduate, a question uncomfortably lingers: If you’re dealing with precarious parenthood, queer identity, and debt, what is the true narrative shape of your experience?
|Publisher:||Feminist Press at CUNY, The|
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About the Author
Her memoir, Atlas of the Human Heart, was a 2004 finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Her anthology Portland Queer: Tales of the Rose City won the LAMBDA Literary Award in 2010. She has taught at The Attic Institute in Portland, Oregon, at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and at the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. She currently teaches online at Ariel Gore's School for Wayward Writers.
Read an Excerpt
BOOK 1 Invocations
When I was born, my mother was so horrified to be handed a female baby that she took three months to name me. My birth certificate just says "Gore Girl."
I have the copy of Sylvia Plath's Ariel my mother read when she was pregnant with me.
She highlighted just one stanza in just one poem: I am terrified by this dark thing / That sleeps in me; / All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.
When Ariel was published, Sylvia Plath had already killed herself — a casualty of the soft, feathery war between art and motherhood. In the book's title poem, a child's cry "melts in the wall" as the poet flies on by, an arrow on her horse, a hope, free and suicidal.
As I grew up, my mother would tell me she named me Ariel so I could pass for a man on paper. She said Ariel was a man's name.
But I have the book.
I know that I'm not just a failed man.
I am at once the malignity and the escape.
Other Starting Points
Things the world has taught me to feel ashamed of:
1. Being born a female body.
2. My sexuality — the whole of it.
4. Scars and stretch marks.
5. Debt: $127,862 in outstanding student loans, still snowballing at 8.25 percent interest from a $32K original loan.
6. My art (mostly stories).
Things I have in fact felt ashamed of:
1. All items listed above.
2. Artistic failure.
3. Also, success when it draws too much attention.
My creative writing instructor stood up fast, nearly tripping over the ragged hem of her full-length purple skirt. She grabbed a piece of white chalk, drew a giant penis on the blackboard, tapped her heels on the floor, and said, "This is a pyramid." Her lipstick edged slightly over the boundaries of her lips, and I wondered if she'd tried to make them seem fuller with the edging or if she just didn't see very well.
I glanced at the other women in the workshop.
Was the illustration on the blackboard not obviously a penis?
I'd been allowed into the graduate workshop as an undergrad. Maybe best not to ask too many questions.
The instructor dragged the white chalk up one side of the penis. "You begin with the rising action," she explained. She drew a quick circle around the head of the penis. "It culminates in climax!" The other women in the class nodded like they'd heard it all before, like they totally didn't see the penis.
I jotted a note, pushed it toward the poet sitting next to me: I'm gonna put a vagina in the middle of my story, not the head of a penis.
The poet glanced at my note, but didn't seem to read it.
* * *
La Figa Ariel Gore Creative Writing Workshop 201
In the front passenger's seat of Rosella's little silver hatchback, I clutched the paperback copies of Spiritual Midwifery and Natural Childbirth that had arrived in the lavender-scented care package from California. My fear takes the shape of every cypress silhouette in the Tuscan night. Where are we going? Dark roads curve through stone mountains. The books said the pain would come in waves. This pain is not waves.
The books said I could trust my body.
Where? To a hospital where they speak a language not my own and I won't remember the word for "push."
Had I ever known the word?
No natural light. No soothing music.
I repeat aloud the only words I can remember in the foreign language: "No farmaci, no droga."
The clock on the hospital wall is large and it bends and morphs like Dali's clock, exploding on the ledge of my girlhood.
I lay on my back, open my legs.
The nurse's gloved hand reaches inside me. "Che tempo," she says, her voice soft, her words hard, her face blurred.
The books said try and sleep, but who can sleep with this pressure erupting between spine and belly? The books said I would reconnect with the goddess Artemis tonight, but crucifixes hang on the hospital walls and my boyfriend smells like whiskey.
"Go away," I mumble.
"Fine, if you don't want me here." And a door slams shut.
Now cold shower and sudden clamor, now yelling in the language I can't remember. A wheelchair. The clock on the ledge. Morning light blinds. A man is angry. Nurses scurry to move my body like moving my body will make the man unangry. Fluorescent lights blind. A cold metal table at my naked back. Metal stirrups tighten. And still this pressure. "No farmaci, no droga." I chant the words like a mantra.
Nurses scream shrill, "Spingere!"
A wide leather strap at my belly. They're tying me down tighter. Tighter still. What does the word mean? Spingere.
It's a word written on doors.
Surely some part of me knows this word.
Surely no part of me wants to push my newborn into the hands of an angry man.
I'm naked and tied down. The nurses have my arms now. The nurses have my shoulders. My legs shake and the nurses hold my legs as they yell more words I don't understand. Stone hospital, and the crucifix swells against the wall and a woman calls from the hallway, "Benedetta?"
She stumbles into the doorway of my bright delivery room, her nightgown covered in blood, and she's crying, "Mia figlia sia morta." She falls onto her knees and someone — another woman — pulls her away.
I am bright dark pain pull dream bent clock.
Now the angry man stands between my legs, his eyes glowing yellow gray.
I blink into his face and into the sound of the women screaming.
My own scream becomes a moan, then goes silent as the man shoves the pointed blade of his steel surgical knife into my unmedicated teenage cunt and cuts a hard left.
As the blade slices through the wall of my vagina, it sears hot like molten iron, then cold as everything goes dark.
A starched nurse holds my baby.
My baby blinks wide-eyed surprised silence desire.
I pull against the metal and leather restraints to reach for her.
And in that blinding false light of morning, the doctor hits her. The sound of his open palm against her skin is a sound I will not forget. The doctor wants to hear my baby cry. The only alive the doctor knows is crying.
My baby cries. She is alive.
The woman in the bloody nightgown calls from the doorway, "In vita!" Alive means they hit you.
I reach for mia figlia in vita because I have to tell her that alive means your mother will hold you, too, but they splash her with cold water away from me and she cries, alive.
The other woman cries, too. Benedetta is not alive.
By midday, the clock will appear round on the wall again and my baby will sleep in a bassinet next to my narrow hospital bed and the nurses will all mock me: "No farmaci, no droga!" And they'll laugh and shake their heads and glance at my daughter and call her "poverina" and "zingara."
The other mother steps into my doorway, her bloody nightgown clean now. A nurse holds her by both shoulders as she reaches toward my baby's bassinet and speaks in a language I understand clearly: she knows my baby is not hers, but she wants to hold her.
I curl my hand to invite Benedetta's mother into my room.
The nurses watch, nervous, but Benedetta's mother just places one hand on my baby's small chest and whispers, "In vita."
Later, the doctor will appear to ask my boyfriend, sober now, if he thinks they should sew up my vagina. The doctor offers to make it tighter than before.
And my boyfriend points to my crotch and says, "Si, si, la figa. Sew it up."
So a nurse I've never seen before sits between my legs and stitches me, laughing to herself — "no farmaci, no droga" — as she embroiders my unmedicated inner labia with her thick needle.
I stare vacantly at the doctor and my boyfriend as pain blooms through my body like nausea.
"Cut them," I whisper to no one. And maybe I close my eyes for a moment because just then I hear a faraway clamor of hooves on cobblestones. As the sound gets closer, the church bells outside begin to clang. I look up to the hospital-room window just as the glass shatters and Artemis appears — head of a goddess, body of a deer — a day late, shooting arrows into necks of the doctor and my boyfriend. They both fall, bleeding from their jugulars.
The nurse looks up, startled, and freezes midstitch.
I gesture toward the fallen men as Artemis rides on. "Sew them up," I say to the nurse with her needle, and I close my legs.
* * *
Later still — seventeen and a half years later — I'll have my legs spread for a midwife in Portland, Oregon, because I'm knocked up again, this time with the help of borrowed sperm in a yogurt cup, and the midwife will squint in the soft natural light and she'll say, "Oh. My. Goodness. Is that a mediolateral episiotomy?"
And my breath will catch in my throat and I'll whisper weakly, "Yes," and I'll be surprised that an ancient scar I didn't ask for still holds so much shame.
The midwife in Oregon will gasp a quick inhale and she'll reach for me fast as if to touch my scar, but she'll stop short and instead ask, "Where on earth did you get that?"
And I'll say, "Rural Italy, 1990."
"Would. You. Mind?" the midwife will breathe, cautious, like she's discovered a rare archeological site. "If. I. Bring. In. A. Few. Students? To. See. This?"
And I'll swallow hard against the tears as four women in white coats gather between my legs and their teacher points and lectures, "This is the routine genital mutilation you've read about in early to mid-twentieth-century Western obstetrics. They cut to the side rather than downward through the perineum — so the patient likely experienced excruciating pain and often tremendous blood loss. As you can see, it wasn't even stitched with dissolvable sutures.
I'll glance up at the wall as the clock begins to bend.
The women in white coats will stare between my legs, and they'll aah, and they'll hmm, and I'll know they all want to touch it. But not one of them will have the nerve.
My body is a curio shop.
* * *
That creative writing instructor, with her ragged purple skirt and her lipstick edging over the boundaries of her lips, didn't like my birth story with the vagina right in the middle of it. She said, "Ariel, I'm not seeing the pyramid."
* * *
It was just a few years after I took that class that I started publishing essays and stories and zines and books, and started going out and doing readings and planning zine tours and book tours, and started traveling with bands and other writers or with puppeteers, and always traveling with my daughter, Maia, too, of course.
And here was America, neon lit and dusty.
And here were my social anxieties.
When I started publishing, sometimes the projects brought with them fat checks and sometimes the projects brought with them slim checks and sometimes the projects brought with them no checks at all. Or like, you know, The check is in the mail.
And here was America, capitalist and anti-artist.
And here were my rent and utility bills.
When I started publishing, I thought my career would trace rising action like that creative writing instructor's chalk-drawn plot structure that looked like a penis — and culminating in an impressive climax —
But maybe you can't expect your career to form the shape of a penis if you don't actually have one.
* * *
Take me back to that graduate writing workshop, but this time with a voice. I have some questions for my instructor. I will raise my hand. I will speak when called on.
Professor, what is the true shape of experience?
What is the shape of successful failure, of vulnerability and humiliation, of inexplicable joy?
What is the shape of a story that maps the cultural tyranny of what it means to be a girl child and a woman mother and a woman intellect and a woman creator in a world built from male paradigms?
Professor, my arc isn't rising.
The first urge is to shape the story into a vagina — in opposition to the shape of a penis — because the first urge is fuck you, and that's how they taught us to fuck.
* * *
When I was a kid, there were naked women all over my house.
My mother and her best friend, Roberta, were going through their vulva phase.
I'd tumble in from elementary school and there'd be one naked woman splayed out across the live-edge oak coffee table, another sitting, back straight, in a wicker armchair, another frozen in some tai chi pose by the front window.
Roberta drew the naked women's portraits in charcoal.
My mother sculpted their bodies in wax, planned to cast them in bronze.
Sometimes the naked women were plump and sometimes the naked women were thin, but the naked women were always younger than my mom and Roberta, and always older than me.
"Hi, Tiniest," my mother said as I set down my green backpack.
"Hi, Ariel," Roberta called from her easel.
I smiled awkward, unsure if I'd walked in on something or what.
"We're about to sit down to tea and oysters," my mother offered.
"Oh, all right," I said.
At our round dining-room table, the naked women sat silent, now wearing light-colored robes.
I stared at a raw oyster in its shell on the plate in front of me.
"Ariel, just eat the whole vagina," my mother admonished me.
And so I did.
It tasted good.
Salty and citrus.
"I brought vulva biscuits," Roberta announced, all singsongy as she rose up from her place at the table and glided into the kitchen and back out again carrying a red plate of sugar cookies each shaped like the oysters. She pointed to the nuances of their form: "The outer labia, the inner labia, the clitoris ... Ariel, try one!"
I reached for the plate. My fingernails were bitten down to their nubs. I brought the cookie to my mouth. It tasted like vanilla and maple, but I felt funny.
It was 1979 or 1980. Judy Chicago's epic vulva-plate installation, The Dinner Party, had just arrived at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Judy Chicago, were you their influence?
Judy Chicago, I think I had a really weird fourthgrade year because of you.
I mean, I liked your dinner party.
Believe me, I ate the whole vagina.
But what if this genital obsession doesn't have to be the only taste?
* * *
When I sent my Gammie Gore a postcard telling her I was pregnant at age eighteen, she wrote to my father on a brown card: Ariel tells me she's pregnant. I think that's very irresponsible.
When I called her a few months later to ask if she wanted to meet the baby, my Gammie Gore said, "Isn't it a shame?" My Gammie Gore wore slacks and sensible sweaters and I loved her beyond reason, but now her unhappiness flooded my veins.
I swallowed hard and tasted copper.
My Gammie Gore and my Grandpa Gore had a wealth I'd never know. Both their fathers had been copper-mining engineers in Chile and in Anaconda, Montana, where "The Company," as they called it, extracted hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of metal from the earth just as Thomas Edison's light bulb sparked demand for endless miles of copper wire across the country. Both my Gammie Gore's and Grandpa Gore's families went up to Montana to profit from the destruction of the earth there — they weren't from the area, didn't happen upon it by chance. Their families met there in the shadows of the smokestacks, so my father is the direct result of the intentional human destruction of the earth for profit.
No destruction of the earth = no my father.
No my father = no me.
Isn't that right?
Cut into the earth, slap the baby, and see if she cries alive.
"The Company" was later responsible for the pump-and-dump stock market manipulation that helped to create the Great Depression of the 1930s.
But my Gammie Gore did not say It's a shame about those things.
She did not think those things were irresponsible.
The Anaconda stack, 585 feet of phallocratic reality, still dominated the landscape of my grandparents' town, but the soil and rivers and topless mountains and strip-mine pits were contaminated with arsenic and acid and copper sulfate and god help the migrating snow geese that stop at the Berkeley Pit outside Butte, Montana, thinking that a round of bright blue is the international symbol for fresh water.
As a teenager, my Grandpa Gore had bone cancer, which may or may not have been the result of metal poisoning, so he had his leg amputated, which made him feel weird and ashamed about his body forever and always after that — but he survived it all to be a man like they told him to and to cofound a huge defense contractor that would make all the world's B-2 stealth bombers and Black Widow night fighters and cruise missiles. But my Gammie Gore did not say It's a shame about that.
She did not think that was irresponsible.
Instead, my Gammie Gore felt ashamed of my grandpa's body and the way it had been cut. My Gammie Gore felt ashamed of my father's schizophrenia, too, which may or may not have been the result of metal poisoning. And now my Gammie Gore felt ashamed of me and of my teenage motherhood.
I sat with that.
I needed to sit with that for a long time.
I sat with the baby on Carmel Beach, not far from my grandparents' little yellow house, and the two of us looked out to the ocean.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "We Were Witches"
Copyright © 2017 Ariel Gore.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ALSO BY THE AUTHOR,
BOOK 1: INVOCATIONS,
Other Starting Points,
Salvage Your Skin,
Rules for Being Twenty,
Important Milestones: Your Baby at Nine Months,
Do You Have a Beau?,
BOOK 2: DEEPENING ACTION,
The Customs of Suburbia,
To Protect Yourself from a Neighbor,
Things That Are Red Besides the Scarlet Letter,
Our Skin Is Alive with Signals,
The One That Got Away,
Poets and In-betweens,
A Pretty Small Coven,
To Keep the Money Flowing,
Womyn Helping Womyn,
The Secret Lives of Witches,
When a Woman Thinks Alone,
A Beautiful Day in This Neighborhood,
BOOK 3: RESISTANCE,
A Closet with a Window in It,
Nobody's Going to Save You,
The Feminist Agenda,
Mills College in September,
Don't Be Surprised When Your Magic Works,
White-Lady Feminism 101,
Poor Little Male Violence,
Queen of the Sea,
Sugar on My Tongue,
We Were Meant to Be Witches,
Children Need Fathers,
BOOK 4: SHAME THEORIES,
Insults Reserved for the Feminine Besides "Brazen Hussy",
To Attract Urgent Money,
Since the Baby,
Spell to Prevail in Family Court,
Bodies of Resistance,
The Woman from Spelman,
Just Because It's a Magic Apple Doesn't Mean There Isn't a Worm in It,
Why They're Called Spells,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,
ALSO BY FEMINIST PRESS,
ABOUT FEMINIST PRESS,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I love, love, love this book. It's rare that I do this, but I read it in practically one sitting. Ariel Gore's spare, evocative prose made me appreciate what it must feel like to be a young, single mother with few supports and lots of chaos in her life. Her remarkable will and resilience is poignant and inspirational, in addition to the fact that she's a wonderful writer who knows how to use her words to paint a vivid picture. All that, and I learned a few good magick techniques too.