Lisa Hogeland – October 2016
Mother’s Day, as I’m sure many of you know because we all used to get the same email every year from someone insistently re-circulating Julia Ward Howe’s 1870 “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” was originally imagined to be a sort of Mothers-Against-War Day, rather than a holiday revolving around brunch. The “Mother’s Day Proclamation” is an edited and abbreviated version of Howe’s original essay, “An Appeal to Womanhood throughout the World,” which argues that, “. . . women need no longer be made a party to proceedings which fill the globe with grief and horror” (H&K, 607). Women, as mothers, should come together and stop war and declare a special day on which to do so.
There is something so sweet about the idealism of the late-19th century reformers. As if women could simply absent themselves from that dreadful men’s business of war. That is not really how things worked out, is it? Schoolgirls in Nigeria and Pakistan and Syria would like to have a word with you, Julia, and so would their mothers. Women might like to imagine we can absent ourselves from war, but war does not and will not absent itself from us.
We might like to imagine, with Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas, “that I have no country, as a woman my country is the whole world” — to shift to the sweet idealism of the 20th century — but in fact we do have passports, and our passports do implicate us in all manner of that dreadful men’s business of war. They set us in relation to those schoolgirls the world over, and their cousins who are denied schooling, and their mothers.
In any case, Mother’s Day was an invention of anti-war reformers, and it was formalized in 1914 by Woodrow Wilson. It is the most popular day for American families to go to restaurants and to send greeting cards. Few people remember to stop war on that Sunday.
Brunch, of course, was a later invention. It came to the US, some say [on Wikipedia and at the Smithsonian], in the 1930s, when Hollywood stars stopped over in Chicago on their way East, and wanted something other than train food, some other kind of meal, and Chicago restauranteurs were happy to oblige. I will say that I found the articles about the history of brunch I read on line rather dubious, so it is a “some say” sort of thing. Brunch probably does derive from the English hunt breakfast — that seems plausible — but since most of us don’t go out at dawn and shoot birds with our mothers, that it’s become so associated with Mother’s Day is likely a function of restaurant promotion, capitalism, and the holiday-industrial complex
I have, as Jane Canary says to Doc Cochran in the first episode of the television series “Deadwood,” “a dark turn of mind.” My last Mother’s Day went dark on me, not least because I miss my mother. So this is the story of the day that I had, and the day that I had in my head. Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day it was not. It’s not exactly fiction because it is actually true, except for the parts of it that are not, which I think makes it, technically, memoir.
Let us begin at dawn.
Mother’s Day is not my favorite day since I lost my mother 21 years ago, and it’s Sunday, of course, which is never my favorite day of any week. It’s hot here for May, a little sticky, and the birds are just riotous-noisy — which also means it is quiet enough that their noise is what I am hearing, rather than traffic or music from cars. This will change at around 1:00, because the brunch business picks up when the Blue Laws permit the neighborhood restaurants to serve and sell liquor — and who the hell would go to brunch on Mother’s Day without a glass of wine or a Margarita? No, Mom, really, let’s go at 1:00!
I live on the second floor, upstairs, where I can leave my screen door to the patio and my windows open. I hate having to run the A/C, so when I can run fans and suffer a little, I do. Until I have guests or the heat/humidity index rises beyond my tolerance. Living upstairs is meaningful to me, if sometimes inconvenient, because I never lived upstairs until the first time I lived in the Midwest, in graduate school. A ranch house is my childhood; an upstairs apartment is adulthood. Until I break my first hip.
The bird racket makes me laugh, always, because birds are so demanding of the world’s admiration. I also sometimes hear and overhear random conversations from passers-by. Some of them throw me out of my chair with my cell phone in hand in case I need to call the police, and some of them throw me out of my chair to pursue the Human Condition walking past my building. Screaming can be hard to distinguish from laughter at a distance. I worry about girls. I wonder at languages I don’t speak; what do people wear who speak that language? Why are those people shouting?
Why are those people shouting? Often it’s simply people saying their loud farewells from cars parked across the street from each other, or landscapers calling out instructions for mulching, or loud kids, or late at night, loud drunken kids leaving a party. Today, it’s some young woman or girl just having all her feelings at the same time at the top of her lungs.
What she yells, after a couple of sentences that get my attention but I can’t make out, is “Stop being such a hypocrite!” O, happy Mother’s Day to us all!
I do not get up from my chair to look out the window; I would much rather keep the sentence and imagine around it. Who would be shouting that at whom — on Mother’s Day?
If I were the sort of person who teaches writing (O, wait, I kind of am that), I would imagine this sentence as a paper prompt. I don’t teach what we call “creative” writing, though I am moving toward more creative assignments that allow my students better paths to demonstrate their engagement with texts than the standard-issue English-major paper of the last century. So: stop being such a hypocrite! Who, in what we have read so far this semester, would yell that at whom? How would the story/novel/play/poem be different if he/she/they did so? What would happen differently — and what would have to be set up differently to make that possible? Or: how is that entirely impossible, unspeakable, un-shoutable in the world of that text?
At what point in Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel The House of Mirth would protagonist Lily Bart have best been served by yelling that at whom? Perhaps her horrible mother? Her deeply hypocritical Ant Julia? The married woman trying to blackmail her? The man who invested her money in order to bed her? The high-minded man who refused to love her until she was dead? The man who offered to marry her if she’d blackmail another woman? The entire novel is a testament to how impossible it was in that historical moment and that social milieu to call out hypocrisy. What a lovely array of papers I might get, I imagine for a moment — and then I remember that is easy to be idealistic when classes are over for the summer.
How would my favorite Flannery O’Connor story, “Revelation,” be different if that sad and angry girl had said that instead of calling smug Mrs. Turpin an old warthog from hell? Or what if one of Mrs. Turpin’s fawning chorus of Black sharecroppers had lit a cigarette, leaned back against the bed of the truck, and said it flatly? Stop being such a hypocrite. Yes, yes it would require a different system of race relations to make that speakable by one of the Black characters — and? Yes, that girl at the doctor’s office would seem much more sane and sensible if she had said that instead — and? In a perverse way, this would be a terrific prompt for that story, because it would enable the right student/s to get at O’Connor’s drama and the subtlety of her social critique of a system that enables people to think well of themselves — and can only be dislodged from doing so by the weirdness of the accusation. Hypocrisy can always be defended against by the righteous and self-righteous; being an old warthog from hell is a little harder.
My train of thought switches itself off to a siding and I begin to contemplate reasons to see O’Connor as a perfect writer for the Cold War era. She sees, her characters see, the irrepressible problems of her moment — racism, sexism, rigid class structures and Southern poverty, the ghosts of violence that haunt the Gothic tradition — and her solutions or, indeed, her “revelations” are never themselves political. Her Catholicism, while it may have emboldened and even perhaps generated the social criticism in her work, also served to protect her from being red-baited.
When we move to the mid-20th century, to the Cold War era, the depiction of hypocrisy changes, especially for women. Women in the mid-20th need to be hypocrites. And, of course, this is the story of the women of my mother’s generation. I mean to say, what we learn from Patricia Highsmith, to take one example, about social pretense and social climbing is not different from Edith Wharton in the earlier 20th — it’s just nastier and less comic. There’s a higher body count in the hardboiled. Manners become grimmer and the stories about them grimier. “Stop being such a hypocrite” has a weapon behind it, rather than just a daughter’s disappointment.
One of my favorite writers in the hardboiled tradition is the novelist Dorothy B. Hughes, who is little known and only one of her eleven novels is currently in print (sadly, not the one for which I wrote the Afterword when it was reprinted in 2003). Hughes’s first novel, The So Blue Marble, has an opening scene that I find remarkable every time I read it. Our heroine is walking to her borrowed New York City apartment, when she is accosted by a pair of strangers, young men, twins, who call her by name and forcibly escort her home. They know where she is staying; they say they know her ex-husband, whose apartment she’s staying in; they take her keys from her hand and open the door, holding her firmly by both elbows. She alternates between terror and doubt. This must be a joke or a prank — or else they are kidnapping me? Who can help me? She experiences fear and fear of fear and fear of making a fuss about fear. She is too embarrassed to act in her own defense, too afraid of being shamed for being a poor sport. I take this fear of fear, fear of shame, to be a central problem of mid-century white womanhood, and Hughes captures it perfectly.
Of course, had Hughes’s Griselda seen any of the several Oprah episodes with security consultant Gavin de Becker, she would have learned the important life-lesson: “never go to the second location.” I did once step out of the elevator because I thought the man boarding it with me was unsettling. Probably, he wouldn’t have murdered me and left my body in a dumpster, but probably I would have spent that elevator ride in a sweaty, clenched-fist fear. “I forgot,” I said vaguely and turned around and walked away. But Griselda, poor thing, had no access to such life-lessons, and in the novel, it’s abundantly clear that simply walking away would not have sufficed to rid her of the evil twins.
My mother always wanted to write a mystery novel or a spy novel, genres she read by the truckload. She read a book a day in her later years, when she was my age, and I like to think sometimes when I read on my Kindle, how much she would have enjoyed that device. She was also one of those women who watched the neighbors across the street from her kitchen window. James Stewart in Rear Window had nothing on my mother’s ability to figure out exactly what her neighbors were up to; she managed her nosy neighborliness with a full-time job and three kids.
My mother would have caught the spies from “The Americans” for sure. [“The Americans,” for those of you not watching the show, is a cable television series in which a Soviet married couple are trained and sent to the United States as spies. They have American children who do not know their parents are spies; their neighbor across the suburban cul-de-sac is a CIA agent. The show is set in the 1980s, during Ronald Reagan’s Cold War; the Soviet sleeper cell family is hiding in plain sight. The series was created by a former CIA officer.]
Having discovered that the nice family living across the cul-de-sac was a Soviet sleeper cell, what would my mother have done about it? I don’t mean to suggest that my mother would have condoned Soviet spying (she was a Republican who voted for Ronald Reagan for governor of California, though never for president because he was anti-choice). Rather, chances are good that she would have convinced herself she’d read too many novels. She would have talked herself out of her knowledge, I think. I think that what we know from an awful lot of second wave feminism, the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, is that women of that generation routinely talked themselves out of their knowledge. It’s what Hughes develops so perfectly in her opening scene. You don’t quite believe what is happening to you; no one will believe you when you try to explain what is happening to you. Your own self-doubt becomes your sure certainty that no one will believe you. Because who would believe you? If you married young in the late 1950s because you could not find a safe abortion, you would have had strong reasons to doubt your own judgment and knowledge — and nothing in American culture would have supported you.
And then I think about the chilling chapter in Marcy Knopf-Newman’s book on breast cancer about Rachel Carson, the scientist and environmentalist, whose doctors refused to tell her that she had cancer. Marcy’s book is called Beyond Slash, Burn, and Poison: Transforming Breast Cancer Stories into Action. Rachel Carson, of course, was the author of Silent Spring, which alerted its readers to the possibility that pesticides could poison birds to the point of their extinction, and DDT was making a very good start at it. Carson imagined in her gorgeous prologue to the book that the spring had gone silent, because the widespread use of pesticides would have silenced my beloved bird racket. Her doctors didn’t tell her that her tumor was malignant — because women didn’t need to know. She was a scientist and her doctors were lying to her. Even when she was dying, her doctors would not tell her how seriously ill she was — because women didn’t need to know. It would only make her upset, perhaps even hysterical.
At the same time, Carson had her own reasons for keeping her cancer treatment private. How could she criticize DDT when she herself was undergoing chemotherapy? Or criticize the U.S. government’s secrecy about radiation when she was having radiation treatments? Given that some politicians were anxious to discredit Carson as a Communist — clearly, her work was designed to reduce the food supply in the capitalist West and thus weaken us in our struggle with the Soviets, and clearly, any spinster without children who was concerned about genetics could only be a Communist (Knopf-Newman 31) — Carson was understandably reluctant to be called out as a hypocrite by the defenders of pesticides and Big Agriculture. Carson died of a heart attack consequent to radiation seven years before then-President Nixon declared his War on Cancer.
Let us return to the era of Ronald Reagan’s War on School Lunches, and my mother’s predicament, having identified that nice family across the street as Soviet spies. What could she do?
Being, as my mother was, an imaginative and voracious reader was either an idiosyncrasy or a cliché for a woman in that era (“Those were the days of dark oppression,” writes Connie Willis in “Even the Queen”). Her voracious reading would not have been understood by the authorities as a virtue or a credit or a source of authority or a foundation of knowledge. My mother would have been a hysterical housewife to the authorities, just as she was to the doctor who prescribed her valium for the lung cancer that had already metastasized to her bones. O fuck me: it’s Mother’s Day. I am sad and I miss her. I am angry at the awful pastel bouquets the Internet wants to sell me, because they are ugly, and because I want to have brunch with my mother. We could argue about wars.
I do believe my mother would have been too smart to try to blackmail the spies across the street. She gave me her love for mysteries and spy stories, and we know, we all know, and certainly my students know, that “never blackmail a murderer” is Lesson One in the genres. It’s a basic rule for living, like “never go to the second location.”
So: hysterical housewife, avid reader of trashy books, what does she do? The authorities won’t believe you and that nice family across the street will murder you. Nothing good can come of this. Let’s set it in Glendale, California, where both I and my mother were born, and which is the site of much of the action of James M. Cain’s classic hardboiled novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice.
I think that “Stop being such a hypocrite” is not your best advice. What a woman needs in this circumstance is low cunning, not righteousness. “I denounce you, Soviet Spies” — is perhaps not the best or most efficacious thing to say to people who will drive your dismembered body out of their garage in the trunk of their car, wrapped carefully in plastic trash bags, and dispose of you in a field or a river or a creek or a ditch [invented in 1950 by Canadians, the plastic trash bag]. Your best bet, I think, is not to let them know that you know. They will murder your children and set your house on fire, after all.
I think low cunning is an underrated skill set. I think the simplest choice in the face of the murderous family across the street is to move. And not to let them know you know. But then you have to fake up some story about how you hate your house to your husband, after you’ve carefully chosen new lighting fixtures, painted the bedrooms, and finally — finally! — organized the kitchen perfectly.
I want to make this a larger metaphor about women’s lives in patriarchy and how we survive, as James Tiptree, Jr. wrote, “like opossums, by ones and twos in the chinks of your world machine.” The story I’m quoting is called “The Women Men Don’t See,” published in 1973, and is a signal work of feminist science fiction. A mother and her adult daughter would rather fly off with aliens to another planet than be rescued by yet another clueless human man, would be one way to sum the plot. And my love for that story knows no bounds; when human-text marriage is legalized, I will fight duels over it. But there’s more to it than that.
So I went out for cigarettes into the damp afternoon. (You need not lecture me about smoking: it’s been 41 days and about 4 hours since my last cigarette.) My going out for cigarettes is never the story of the deserting father, that sad tale of abandonment become a running joke on The Simpsons. Nelson Muntz! I am looking at you! I often think of this character and laugh when I make a plan to go out for cigarettes. Not today: not this Mother’s Day. I was struck, walking past happy people eating brunch with their mothers, or at least people pretending to be happy because they had cocktails and food on their tables, by another story arc, another way of telling the story of low cunning. Tiptree was right: it’s opossums all the way down.
If you denounce the Soviet spies across the street, they will kill you and your whole family. If you go to the authorities, they will laugh in your face and find a doctor to give you valium — which will, of course, make it easier for the neighbors to kill you and your whole family. So, of course, you must kill them first.
I am laughing out loud on the sidewalk, trying to imagine my mother’s murder plot. I am imagining her writing out her list of steps, the last member of my family to have elegant handwriting. Thanksgiving dinner in our house required a four page list of steps on the fridge; how long a list do you need to do a murder? O, wait! I kind of do know that!
In 1987, a young man I had known in high school was convicted of two murders. As part of the planning for the crimes, he wrote out a seven-page list of tasks, a grisly To-Do list. He then proceeded to leave that list behind at the scene of the first murder. Apparently, you need an eight-page list of steps to commit a murder and get away with it, and the eighth page should read in huge letters: destroy this list!
My mother and I followed the trials closely – the first in LA and the second in Redwood City, at the courthouse around the corner from my upstairs apartment. There was even a television mini-series about the case; like the true-crime book on which it is based, it is called The Billionaire Boys Club – which has since become the name of a clothing label, which freaks me out. That Gillian Flynn uses the device of the long and detailed To-Do list in her novel Gone Girl only means that we share a taste in true crime narratives.
In any case. Note to Mom: get rid of your list. Item 4 on Joe Hunt’s list reads: “cuffs, tape” (Horton 113). That is not, I think, my mother’s murder.
I am, apparently, the sort of person who can be doing a stupid errand about her even stupider addiction who is startled by a thought and then cannot let it go. I do not think this is unusual for scholars, I think this is how we work, but that might just be me rather than some indictment of scholarly method. I am chatting with the sweet-faced, cheerful, young man at the gas station who sells me cigarettes and thinking, how would I set this place on fire? It’s a gas station; how hard could that be? Stop being such a hypocrite and become a murderer! I am laughing out loud on the whole walk — to the gas station and the CVS and Skyline for a cheese coney and then home again — about how my mother would murder the Soviet spies across the street. Happy Mother’s Day!
Because the thing I do know in some deep place that’s about my love for my mother and her love for her children — is that she would do it. It would take her a long time to plan, and she would have to exercise a whole lot of low cunning and hypocrisy while she was planning it, and I would have been that teenager on the sidewalk screaming at her, “stop being such a hypocrite!”
And then, late one night or early one morning, the house across the street would explode. She would have tried to think out a way to do it when the kids were in school, though I don’t think she would have waited until they went away to summer camp. She would have smiled and had them over to dinner and bragged about her kids and praised theirs and gently suggested that we be nicer to their badly behaved children — and then set their house on fire while they slept. The gas water heater in the garage would be blamed. My plumber father never worked on it. She would have seen to that.
Terrible, just terrible, what happened to those people.
“Sit up straight,” she’d hiss at us at the funeral.
The Americans. FX television series, 2013-15 (renewed for 2016).
The Billionaire Boys Club. NBC two-part television movie, 1987.
Cain, James M. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934).
Deadwood. HBO television series, 2004-2006. Season One, Episode One, “Deadwood.”
Engber, Daniel. “Hot and Bothered.” Slate, July 8, 2015. On-line. (Refutes anti-airconditioning snobbery.)
Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl. New York: Random House, 2012.
Horton, Sue. The Billionaire Boys Club. New York: St. Martin’s, 1989.
Howe, Julia Ward. “A Proclamation to Women throughout the World” (1870), rpt. in The Aunt lute Anthology of U.S. Women Writers, Volume One: 17th through 19th Centuries, Gen. Eds. Lisa Maria Hogeland and Mary Klages. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2004.
Hughes, Dorothy B. The So Blue Marble. New York: Dell, 1951.
Knopf-Newman, Marcy Jane. Beyond Slash, Burn, and Poison: Transforming Breast Cancer Stories into Action. New Brunswick: Rutgers, 2004.
O’Connor, Flannery. “Revelation” (1965), rpt. in The Aunt Lute Anthology of U. S. Women Writers, Volume Two: The Twentieth Century, Gen. Eds. Lisa Maria Hogeland and Shay Brawn. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2009.
Rear Widow. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock (1954).
Tiptree, James, Jr. “The Women Men Don’t See” (1973).
Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth (1905).
Willis, Connie. “Even the Queen.” (1993).
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas (1938).