My mother called me early one morning last October. "Your father and I are getting a divorce. He has been having an affair for fourteen years, and I've known about it for four. We were seeing a marriage counselor but he no longer goes. So I made my decision. We've been together forty years, but that is enough." A strange three weeks followed. When my mother presented the news, my father appeared to be so devastated, she explained, that even I could not have left him alone. He promised to change and he said that the affair was winding down anyway. My mother agreed to reconcile; the slightest contact with this woman, however, and it was over.
Of course it was not. They compromised and my mother swallowed her pride. As she conceded later, "I like my life." On the surface, it's a good life. As compensation for a marriage without trust, my parents have a recently-restored Victorian home. Their backyard adjoins a tidal estuary off the Long Island Sound -- they share this space with nesting waterfowl, fiddler crabs and, of course, the bank. They travel, they have dinner with the Warners, weekends at Karen and Bill's, the annual Super Bowl party with the Keltons. A divorce would bring drastic changes to a woman in her sixties. She would lose the house and probably her friends.
Besides, divorce does not fit the life-plot that shaped my parents' generation. Their narratives were of secret affairs and quiet suffering: a tad less noble where Newland Archer marries May rather than the Countess Elenska, with Newland suffering in unrequited love even after May's death. (Poor Edith Wharton, stuck with Teddy.) My mother and father came from a pre-Brady Bunch world where the man played it the company way while the mother raised the kids. Even as the early seventies showed cracks in the facade-- Adrienne Rich dove into the wreck and Sylvia stuck her head in the oven -- my mom and dad skipped the Women's Movement and Viet Nam protests, they never inhaled, they bypassed the counterculture and proceeded directly to Reagan. When mom and dad visit my wife and I in Georgia, where I teach English at a local university, we revert to the formal breakfast. It seems like every dish we own gets used. Bacon and eggs, saucers for coffee cake, separate bowls for the grapefruit, a pitcher for the milk, cloth napkins and two kinds of spoons. After we eat, my father stacks the dishes, clears the space around him and unfolds the newspaper. Manners keep me from allowing someone else to bus our table (certainly my wife Julie will not) so I take his setting, knowing that he'll probably want me to top off his coffee as well. These minor indignities drove a generation to Washington for bra-burnings and pro-choice marches. My mother missed those; she retaliated instead with a wicked wit. My father claims that her sarcasm helped drive him to another woman.
So forget what Barbara Kruger said. Language is a battlefield. One unexpected front is the magnetic poetry on the side of our refrigerator. My wife Julie spelled out there a declaration of woman's lib:
The piece is why I love my wife; she's an occasional Riot Grrrl who manages to combine second-and-one-half wave feminism with a dose of southern womanhood -- and she has a good ear to boot. But something strange happened with my parents' visits. Whenever they were in town, the poem disappeared. The first time, Julie found it brushed back into the babble of unused magnets. She blamed one of our cats and re-ordered the words. When the poem disappeared again, she began to link the crime and a suspect. My wife set the scene for the third visit, clearing away any stray language so the words "I AM A MAN EATING GODDESS" were unmistakable. A couple of days later and true to script, "lather" and "ly" from the next stanzas were lifted from the older poem and drafted under a new line, "raw power can rip a boy." Julie pounced on the scene. "Been writing some poetry," she asked. My father said he hadn't touched her work, or if he did it was accidental and he resented the accusation. An argument followed. My father was all denial. He would not believe that he had appropriated someone else's language even as he held the magnets between his finger and thumb. This denial was almost pathological -- it was one of those little crimes that we usually fib our way out of, but we come clean if we get caught. The customs of patriarchy would allow him to avoid a truth: that in this silly little exercise, even if unwittingly, he had stolen a woman's words. He felt no need to apologize. The changes on our refrigerator represented one of those silent rumblings of power in male-female relations, the kind that don't show up on spousal Richter scales but that shape lives nonetheless. The earlier revisions had been passed by without comment, and if no one commented, then the silencing never happened. One of the best strategies for avoiding a rejection of patriarchy, even if its in magnet poetry, is to deny that there had even been a story to tell. The declaration "I am a man eating goddess" turned what is ordinarily a playful space into one where voices are defined, appropriated and defended.
The poet Gloria Anzaldúa has quite a bit to say about goddesses, silencing, blood sacrifice, and giving voice to women. Her book Borderlands/La Frontera traces a genealogy for the virgin of Guadalupe, known by her Indian name as Coatalopeuh, a central deity and link to native roots for the Mexican people. For Anzaldúa, the recovery of a poetic voice demands that she connect to Coatlalopeuh in a form that was silenced: first by a male-dominated Aztec-Mexican culture that drove Mayan deities underground, then by the Catholic Church. Coatlalopeuh descends from an earlier aspect of a Mesoamerican fertility goddess, Coatlicue or "serpent skirt." But the Mexican military state split the deity, leaving Tonantsi as the good mother, and taking the serpent/sexuality out of her. This division that began with the Aztec-Mexica invasion of the Nahua people evolved into a present-day dichotomy between Guadalupe, the chaste protective mother, and Coatlicue, la puta. Anzaldúa must undo the dichotomy. In writing, she explains,
The consciousness of a new mestiza demands the recovery of language. It heals the puta/virgen split, it reunites Coatlalpopeuh and Coatlicue: "I will have my tongue -- my woman's voice, my sexual voice, my poet's voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence" (59). For Anzaldua, this arrival to consciousness has mortal stakes. The average life span of a Mexican farm laborer is 56; her father died at 38.
Anzaldua's mythology of la frontera would seem to be quite distant from my parent's Long Island Sound. But we all fight different battles of spirit and silence. About four years ago, I attended a Mother's Day service at the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Philadelphia. The theme was violence against women. An ex-nun named Joan and our minister Holly, one-half of a husband/wife team, gave the sermon. They began by reviewing some of the chilling statistics on domestic abuse, proceeding slowly and punctuating each fact with the beat of a drum. Ordinarily, the prospect of two white women drumming from the pulpit would have sent me toward the exits, and had I known the topic I would have stayed home, but there were stories I probably needed to acknowledge. According to the National Coalition of Domestic Violence, Holly stated, a battering crime occurs in this country every fifteen seconds. Boom. Over fifty percent of all women will experience violence in a domestic relationship. Boom. About one-third of all women who visit an emergency room are there for injuries related to on-going abuse. Boom. Five to 25% of all pregnant woman are battered. Boom. One in four of all gay couples experience domestic violence in their relationships. Boom. By a conservative estimate, at least 60% of all disabled women have experienced sexual abuse. Boom. Over two-thirds of all female victims of violence knew their attackers. Boom. Divorced and separated women make up 7% of the United States population, but they account for 75% of women who have been battered. Boom. The minister read each point in a clear deliberate voice while Joan the ex-nun hit her drum. It was more than I could take. We sang "Spirit of Life," one of those god-awful holdovers from the seventies that UU's keep alive, and for the first time in my life I cried in a church.
My sister had let slip the night before over a second pitcher of beer that my mother was taking heart medication. I had never faced the mortality of a parent before, the news caught me off-guard, and at an unconscious level the statistics connected to my mother's irregular heartbeat. My mother has a Scandinavian reserve, which means that she complains very little when she is upset, and the generation of marriage that she inherited compounded this tendency to swallow her thoughts. She is an enormously intelligent woman, a professional with a degree from Cornell University, but one whose needs and career came second to domestic partnership and family. The relationship that my parents forged in the 1950s never moved beyond the seventies. That was the contract she agreed to. Whatever my father might feel for my mother, I don't ever recall him doing a load of wash. They talk over important decisions but the final say almost always resides with him. Dinner is ready when the woman has prepared it. My mother traded autonomy for marriage, and the affair came as a blow to her self-respect. She learned to suffer the indignity in silence, retaliating only with a sharp tongue that steadily got sharper, and she directed the leftover pain against herself. Meanwhile my parents fronted the image of a happy relationship, one that had weathered the culture of divorce. Whether consciously or not, I sensed that morning in church the violence in a betrayed marriage contract. Especially now, my mother emphasizes the good things that my father has done. He loves his children, he is proud of us all and he never lifted a hand against her. But the lying was a form of abuse. As she said over the phone, "I would rather he had thrown me down the steps."
I cannot stop thinking about the poem on the refrigerator. The words "I am a man eating goddess" are still there. Only a trace of the prior conflict remains: the word "but," left after my parents' last visit, hanging at an odd angle as if to suggest contingency to a feminist's half-playful declaration. The hint to a clash of personalties, I think, adds to the poem. It positions the words as a counter-attack before the fact. The area of contest had been language itself. My father and I need to discuss the damage done by this kind of abuse. What I would like to say is that of course relationships sour, libidos wander, but the lying distanced him from the people that he loves, from the people that need to love him. He relied upon the weight of a patriarchal institution to hide the pain that his affair caused. The story of the old marriage plot did more harm than good. I had sensed the suffering even before I knew the source. Most of this essay was written before my mother called me about the divorce. (Language always creeps through the cracks.) She still lives with my father, and his response has been to pretend that nothing ever happened. My mother draws repeated lines in the sand and now regrets mentioning the affair to anyone but my sister: "I should never have told you boys." She has a serpent tongue, a Victorian home on the Sound, and medication for her heart. To find her own voice, Gloria Anzaldua had to turn from the Virgin of Guadalupe to Coatalopeuh, to Coatlicue, the "serpent skirt." She describes a painful journey that only some women have the nerve or the need to undertake. When patriarchy meets the man-eating goddess, the goddess only sometimes wins. The costs for most of us are too high and we settle for the comforts that come with silence. The stakes were small enough with refrigerator magnets to start an argument, and the rewards of Victorian marriage were enough for my parents to reconcile. Each decision gets weighed against risks and rewards. As my mother later explained her decision to me, "I like my life."
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: aunt lute, 1987.
Armstrong, Julie Buckner. "I am a man eating goddess." Kenmore Refrigerator. Valdosta, GA: 1998.