I wrote an arguably scary novel in which very bad things happen, so one of the questions I’m often asked by bloggers is some version of: Why did you do that? Sometimes the person asking me the question will preface it by saying, “You seem so nice.”
I could blame it on what I read as a child, which planted in me a love of the creepy. But what came first, the creepy kid or the creepy reading? I think it was probably love at first sight, pure chemical attraction. A magical meeting between mind and mind’s perfect match. Two novels that I read at a young age and which—no exaggeration—formed me, were Dracula by Bram Stoker and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. There isn’t a box those two novels didn’t check for me. Long before this was quite such common knowledge thanks to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” I knew about garlic and holy water and the required invitation by which a vampire could enter your home. Oh, yeah, and how it's best to be extra safe and cut off the head of the vampire after you’ve staked it. You knew that one, right? That is super important. In “Buffy,” the vampires turn to dust when they’re staked. No. No, no. Incorrect. They do not do that. And you need to cut off their heads after you stake them, because what if you missed the heart? What if the stake is removed and they come back to life? Trust me. Any job worth doing is worth doing well. If you stake a vampire, please: Take the time to cut off its head. Preferably with a silver knife.
Where was I?
Oh, right. Charlotte Bronte. I won’t belabor this one, but I remember reading Jane Eyre as a child and being transfixed by the long (it felt to me, anyway) and detailed description of the cold, privation, loneliness, and cruelty of Jane’s childhood—from the torture she is subjected to by her aunt (locked overnight in the room where her uncle died!) to the sadism of the Lowood School. Mr. Rochester may have thought he had all the power in his relationship with Jane, but any woman who could survive all that should not be underestimated. And in the end, she was the one leading him around.
Another question I’m asked by bloggers is what frightens me. I’m usually coy in my response to that—I don’t want to put into words what terrifies me the most. But this last time I was asked, I went ahead and answered: Right now I’m most terrified that our president is going to destroy the planet on which I want my child to live a long and healthy life. I’m terrified that this president is in the process of destroying pretty much everything else I hold dear, as well: freedom of speech, affordable access to healthcare, reproductive rights, equality under the law for all, the truth.
The degree to which women and especially women of color have been targeted by the current regime is unsurprising. And we still live in a democracy, so one poisonous regime can be voted out. What really terrifies me is the prospect that this presidency's combination of misogyny and racism is a fast-moving parasite that will keep infecting host after host. That is a horror story that I don’t have to write, because we’re seeing it all around us.
Elizabeth Warren’s silencing when she tried to read a letter written by Coretta Scott King on the Senate floor sparked a wonderful-sounding hashtag: #shepersisted. And don’t get me wrong, I love it, and I bought myself a T-shirt. But that hashtag didn’t prevent Senator Kamala Harris from being silenced just this past week. One of only three women on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the only woman of color, she was effectively told to behave by white male Senator Richard Burr. He said she was being discourteous for insisting that white male Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein answer her yes or no question. Implicit: How dare a woman of color insist that a white man do his job, respect her office, and answer her question?
This parasite is spreading, and we can see it all around us if we open our eyes. A few days ago I was on the subway with a friend in my blue city in my blue state. As passengers were exiting the train, a small, older Asian woman stood meekly off to the side in the doorway. Was she in the way a little? Sure, strictly speaking. Was she preventing anyone from getting off the train? No, definitely not. There was plenty of room. It wasn’t a hideously crowded subway. First I saw a white man shout directly in the older Asian woman’s face, “MOVE.” Then I saw the middle-aged, nicely dressed white woman a few paces behind him shove the small, Asian woman. The shove was unmistakable. The white woman pushed her in the space between her shoulder and chest using the entire open flat of her hand. The Asian woman seemed confused by the whole experience, and it was unclear if she spoke much English. To my eyes she seemed to shrink in the face of the onslaught, willing herself to be smaller and even less significant. My friend used the word "accommodating," and I think that's exactly right.
Why did the white woman feel entitled to push a stranger who wasn't bothering her? Was it because the older woman was smaller than she was? Was it because she was Asian? Or was it because the guy in front of the white woman had emboldened her by dehumanizing the Asian woman first? Who knows? Maybe all of the above. I followed the white woman off the train and up the steps. “Excuse me,” I said. “Excuse me,” I said again when she wouldn’t respond. Finally I came right up alongside her and said, “I saw what you did. I saw you push her. That’s not okay.” Her response? “I’m so tired of people pushing me on the subway.” But no one had pushed the white woman, at least not in that moment. That was her cover-up for bullying a smaller, weaker person. She thought she could get away with it. And truthfully, she did. The Asian woman back on the train actually apologized to the white woman after she’d been shoved. Yes, the victim apologized for being in the way.
This incident occurred less than two weeks after the Portland stabbing that left two women (one wearing a hijab) terrorized, and two men dead (and a third badly injured) who rose to the women's defense. I don't despair that people of strong character will continue to be so. Those three men are heroes, and it is a fact of human nature that the truly hateful will always be among us. But it's the iffy inbetweeners like the woman I encountered on the subway that I actively worry about and puzzle over. They're the most susceptible to the parasite. They're the ones who seem all too willing to let it in. They're the ones whom I want to ask the question: Why?
The most horrifying element of my novel, The Beast Is an Animal, is the one drawn most directly from history. There is a scene in the novel in which a character is accused of being evil (essentially, a witch), and she’s forced to wear what I called in the book a witch’s bridle. This is a real thing, a form of torture that was used as late as the 18th century in Europe and America. It was a metal contraption that locked around the head and had a bit that pressed the tongue down and prevented the wearer from being able to speak. Originally used on women, they were actually called a scold’s bridle, and weren’t intended for punishing witches. They were used on women who were considered trouble-makers—who talked too much. I wonder now what the other women in the town thought when they saw one of their sisters in the bridle. Did they persist?
What am I most afraid of? Things that really exist. I can handle the make-believe horrors with my silver knife.
Book recommendation? Oh, heck. I haven’t finished this month’s book yet, but what I’m reading right now is fascinating and certainly timely. It’s The Witch’s Trinity by Erika Mailman. Set in 16th century Germany, it's about the accusing eye we turn on the weakest among us (in this book's case, elderly women), when we’re looking for someone to blame for our problems. It’s chilling. And now I wished I’d handed my copy to that white lady on the subway.
May we all keep surviving with our hearts intact, our eyes wide open, and our voices heard.
The scold's bridle in action. It was developed in the 16th century to punish mouthy women, and was used in England and other parts of Europe as late as the mid-1800s. Often bells were attached, thereby attracting more attention and shame. The concept of the bridle was imported to America as a way of further brutalizing the enslaved. Moral of the story: Don't let this happen to you or someone you love. Or even to someone you don't love.