Get Your Gun, Girl

by Philippa Snow

Anne Carson once wrote that in order to survive, you needed an edge; in this age, I suspect that a blade might be better. Reading the year’s new clatch of stories about the “real” Gone Girl — this time, a Canadian woman of 80 who’d poisoned four husbands — I found myself wishing that men who turned out to be killers and mass manipulators were rare enough that a story about the “real” Gone Guy would catch on. You want a “real“ Gone Guy? Try a cursory Google search for “men who killed their wives,” which turns up 10,500 results in about half a second. Actually, try Googling “Wikipedia” + “men who killed their wives,” at which point the first hit is “marriage” defined, along with the bold-faced snippet: “laws have provided for mitigating circumstances, partial or complete defenses, for men who killed their wives due to adultery.”

“Nowhere are the effects of the historical and cultural forces that predispose women towards masochism more keenly realised than in marriage,” Natalie Shainess writes in Sweet Suffering: Woman As Victim, a book whose publisher write-up lists its primary purpose as being: “describ[ing] the symptoms of masochism, explain[ing] why its victims are predominantly women, and giv[ing] advice on leading a more assertive and fulfilling life.” “The husband has the fantasy of destroying the wife, and that fantasy will give him potency.” Why, then, shouldn’t the wife become potent by killing or crushing her husband? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If he’s a prick, should she not cut him? The rape-revenge films of the ’70’s certainly thought so, and unabashedly showed us the blood on their hands — all those girls who’d gone nowhere, except maybe further and further inside of themselves.

Watching or reading Gone Girl seemed, to me, beside the point once I’d read its famed “Cool Girl” monologue 15 or so times — I understood from online debate that the titular girl, Amy Whatever, was either 1) so violent she gave us a bad reputation, or 2) refreshingly violent, thus feminist, though I could never quite understand why we should care if thin women ate hot dogs, or liked anal sex. Is Gone Girl’s Amy a Misogynist? A Misandrist? Or Both? asked The Washington Post, though if Gone Girl’s popularity fed on misandry, it was that very particular misandry which might also be defined as a meme — even Rob Kardashian posted a still of Rosamund Pike with her pale dress and body all bloodied on Instagram, captioned: “This is my sister, kim [sic], the bitch from Gone Girl,” a move so teenage it made me nostalgic for LiveJournal.

When Anne Carson talks about edge, what she’s really describing is living as someone who won’t stand for boredom. “That is what boredom is,” she continues. “The moment with no edge.” Gone Girl, I surmised, was likely to be made up of 149 such moments, each of them easily surpassed by a million other better examples of feminine madness as life force. A case in point: another famous Anne, the poet Sexton, who bought into love and marriage and baby carriages, then half changed her mind. While she stayed married, she hardly stayed faithful, and though she’d created new life —twice, in Linda and Joyce — she tried shucking hers, later successfully. “Why has no mother, including Hamlet’s own, admitted to her own libidinous impulses,” asks Hilton Als in the opening essay of White Girls. “Saying this crazy-ass dick or uncontrollable freak works for me, I could never do what he does in the world, be so out of control, terrible and boundary-less, I’m a woman, confined by my sex, prohibited from acting out because other lives, my children’s lives, depend on me, but there’s my husband acting out for me, what a thrill as he crashes against the cage of my propriety.”

Sexton crashed against her own cage from inside, while her husband cooked and cleaned and fretted over their children and left her to drink and philander and, in the end, leave him and gas herself. It’s difficult to blame her: I can think of few more sickening sounds than the screams of a baby, which never fail to make me feel anxious, rather than motherly; rather than being psychotic, though, I think I’m just unattuned, meaning that this particular frequency — motherhood, or procreation, or whatever — doesn’t turn up on my radio. Women, being seen as somehow more in control of the real apparatus for making new life than men are, are expected to fold and to mould themselves: curving already in various places, it figures they’re apt to. Even Elizabeth Wurtzel, the famously drug-addled, mentally off-kilter memoirist, wrote —aged 46, and childless — that she was in agreement with the Pope about family values.

“We are here to reproduce,” she insists. “We are here to leave something behind that is more meaningful than a tech startup or a masterpiece of literature. Everybody knows this. The biggest idiot in the world who thinks he knows better—even he deep down knows this.” Except: a few years earlier, Wurtzel had been dedicated in toto to the art of living as freely and as insanely as possible. “I intend to scream, shout, race the engine,” she says in her brilliant essay collection, Bitch, whose subtitle notes that the book is a paean to “difficult women.” “Call when I feel like it, throw tantrums in Bloomingdale’s if I feel like it and confess intimate details about my life to complete strangers. I intend to do what I want to do and be whom I want to be and answer only to myself: that is, quite simply, the bitch philosophy.”

Elsewhere, she writes about Sexton (in whom “the gifted beauty and the ugly monster are both chained to the same weak and faulty life-support system, [so] that neither will loosen its grip, like Siamese twins who will surely die if separated”) — and Plath, and Delilah; Nicole Brown Simpson, Amy Fisher, the horribly named “Long Island Lolita”, and Hillary Clinton, her range implying that bitchiness takes many forms, and is sometimes more sad than empowering. Given that the word is synonymous in my mind with middle-aged sexists, with rhinestone t-shirts, with all of the un-basic best of Rihanna and various blinds about Sharon Stone, Charlize Theron and Saint-Ange the Adulterer, I would say “bitch” was a double-edged sword. Having never read Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, I ordered a copy and then devoured it in one day while sitting outside on the pleasant, conventional lawn of my pleasant, conventional house in south London, thinking something like there but for the grace of God go I as I did so. There is one particular passage where Wurtzel is taking her elderly mother home after a mugging in which she — her mother — was brutally beaten: I dog-eared it, read on, flipped back and re-read it, and still felt a frisson of something like horror the second time.

“As I load my mother into a taxi, toting her shopping bag of bloodied clothing,” she shrugs, “I try to act concerned. Which I guess I am, but really I’m too miserable to care. I feel duty-bound, but I am so absorbed in my own depression and misery that I almost hate her for burdening me with this now.”

Obviously, Wurtzel is sick; but also, your instinct is that she’s sick-hearted. Reading those lines feels like reading the exposé of a psycho, in which he or she — though more typically, he — starts out life killing bunnies, and ends killing people: most typically women, which means that it’s shocking to see the Sweet Suffering… victim turned predator. Isn’t there something electric about this ice-cold kind of volte face, even when it’s disgusting? I remember that in the days when Vice magazine ran “Dos and Don’ts” (do they still?), they printed a photograph of a girl passed out drunk with the caption: “When women get all Weekend at Bernie’s, it’s just not right. It’s like she fell asleep at the vagina and that makes all mother’s sons feel uncomfortable,” which made me uncomfortable. It’s unheimlich enough that some pundits suggest we’re worth less than our foetuses; now we’re also expected to spare the feelings of hypothetical sons.

The playwright Sarah Kane, in 4:48 Psychosis  — about a production of which The Guardian once asked, “how on earth do you award aesthetic points to a 75-minute suicide note?” — has written the script for this feeling succinctly: “Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you for rejecting me by never being there, fuck you for making me feel like shit about myself, fuck you for bleeding the fucking love and life out of me…but most of all, fuck you God for making me love a person who does not exist. FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU.” Mostly improvised and entirely terrifying, the play was the last thing she made before she killed herself, meaning that she was aware that it would be seen as her definitive work. Recalling meeting Kane for an audition, an actor (male, of course) wrote a piece also for The Guardian, detailing how surprisingly pretty, how girlish she was. “I realised that I had been unconsciously influenced into thinking that the author must be some raving, ranting, hard-edged ball-breaker,” he cooed. “And here in front of me was a rather sweet, funny, impish, wry and beautiful young woman.”

The message is one that’s as old as Delilah, a variation on Baudelaire’s “be beautiful and be sad,” where the “sad” is “mad,” instead. In a piece for The New Criterion regarding Anne Sexton — Connoisseur of Madness, Addict of Suicide —the critic John Simon describes his interactions with three famous poets whose lives had been caught up with suicide, one of which is Sylvia Plath. “During a brief conversation, Miss Plath impressed me as rather plain under her defiantly blondined hair,” he sniffs, “but lively enough for a Smith girl, a part she looked to a ‘T.’” A little later, he also addresses Sexton’s looks, in a passage that ends with his doubting her claims of abuse by her father: “She was a handsome woman who seemed, even sitting down, quite tall; I now read with surprise that she was only 5' 7{1/2}"”. Still, to seem tall is much the same as being tall, even as, psychiatry tells us, to believe you were raped in childhood by your father is emotionally tantamount to having been.”

Depressingly, in the case of a male academic, believing your opinion of a woman’s appearance to be important is also tantamount to its being important, though women are hardly immune to the same sin —Wurtzel, who often refers to her own blonde gorgeousness, rushes to tell the reader of Bitch that the teenage murderess, Amy Fisher, “is not like Brooke Shields or Drew Barrymore, two such comely, contained children that people would project adult notions of sexuality onto them no matter what they did. Amy looks pretty enough, in pictures, but more than anything she is just cute and boppy,” as if being “cute and boppy” nullifies her status as a killer; a woman. Evil, lovely girls, like Nabokov’s Margot Peters or Day Of The Locust’s Fay Greener, are worth more as a commodity than the dowdier ones — and they’re more dangerous, too, especially when they’re in the business of fleecing sleepy-eyed, dopey men with moderate fortunes and weak dicks.  

“RUIN YOUR FUCKING SELF BEFORE THEY DO,” advises one of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms, broadcasting to every beautiful, screwed-up psycho-woman who’s ever considered a sideline career in the crushing of men. “OTHERWISE THEY’LL SCREW YOU BECAUSE YOU’RE A NOBODY. THEY’LL KEEP YOU ALIVE, BUT YOU’LL HAVE TO CRAWL AND SAY “THANK-YOU” FOR EVERY BONE THEY THROW. YOU MIGHT AS WELL STAY DRUNK OR SHOOT JUNK AND BE A CRAZY FUCKER. IF THE RICH GUYS WANT TO PLAY WITH YOU, MAKE THEM GET THEIR HANDS DIRTY. SEND THEM AWAY GAGGING, OR SOBBING IF THEY’RE SOFT-HEARTED. YOU’LL BE LEFT ALONE IF YOU’RE FRIGHTENING, AND DEAD YOU’RE FREE! YOU CAN CHANGE THE RADIANT CHILD IN YOU TO A REFLECTION OF THE SHIT YOU WERE MEANT TO SERVE.” Living in service to shit is, of course, what mad, bad girls are no good at, which is why so many of them end up dying for freedom. As it happens, the 80-year-old “real” Gone Girl had begun her career as a goddamned “real” Gone Girl by running her second husband over two times in her Chevrolet Cavalier, “on a dirt road. He was crushed and found with a near-lethal dose of drugs and alcohol in his system.” His defense — which surely to anyone sane isn’t much of one — was that he’d tried first to rape her, then tried to escape her.

“I can’t say that from now on I’ll be a perfect citizen,” she said after her latest arrest, “but I’m just going to try, day by day, to behave myself and do what I should have been doing all along. But I can’t say that that is going to be the outcome of how my life will end.” Some madwomen try day by day, while others don’t try at all; or, if they do, their efforts are aimed entirely at tearing things down (it isn’t just some men who want to watch the world burn). In Robert Altman’s Dr. T and the Women, a gynaecologist played by Richard Gere says that women are only insane because “it’s men that make ’em that way.” I can neither agree nor disagree with him, save to say that I think it’s a shame to let men take the credit as usual. Doing so, I think, might really be crazy — more so than even we’re capable of being.


Photograph by Ian Cook of Anne Sexton

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