Bildungsroman BigFun!

Dear Millicent,

I just finished reading Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, and the ending very much reminded me of an old Jezebel post from this summer about the quarter life crisis versus the return of Saturn.  You know, how everybody in their twenties tends to have a moment where their world breaks a bit, and it is often framed as, oh are you 27 or 28, must be your return of Saturn? Or, oh, are you isolated and living in Tokyo, you lucky full-lipped thing?  They did a great job or parsing the subject, pretty much boiling it down to the flummox before we get a sign that our life is going to make sense.  In the Jezebel writer’s case, she got a job, and calmed the fuck down.  This calming does seem to depend on that very important thing (job, plan, opportunity) actually arriving (which I liken to the comet Dimmesdale sees in the sky in The Scarlet Letter).

Lessing’s characters seem to go through a similar process, all self scrutiny and intense panicked thought, until, voila, jobs and marriages are agreed to. Then it is a fast, slap-of-the-hands, end.  Which, brings me to the bildungsroman ending where the young hero, after his or her adventures, has to decide whether to return and join the community through marriage or job taking, or keeps going into the wilderness, decidedly a lone wolf (much like the Amish rumspringa tradition).  Molly and Anna are not immature women, and their decisions arrive in middle age, after children and full histories.  They also need less of each other once their decisions have been made, much like Scarlett leaving Bill Murray and going off to her future, probably publishing her first book through her richie-pants connections and going on to write provocative things about how boring the culture class in America is.  I want to puke on my future version of her, and also be her, wear her clothes, and write her scathing richie-pants words.  But that is not the point.  I wonder if we leave behind the structures of support we find in the wilderness when we agree to go back to the fold, something like Tarzan waving good-bye to the apes as he puts on his tuxedo.  But, isn’t part of why Tarzan is awesome is that he never actually does that? He and the apes keep in touch?

Back to the bildungsoman, there is something in this…is all angst calmed by an acceptance of purpose, with the search being traded in for any answer at all?




Dearest Millicent,

I have some obvious revelations to share.  The first is Doris Lessings’ The Golden Notebook.  I’m in the middle of it, and with that, a big crush on the book itself.  I’ve read other of Lessing’s works, but this one is a new delight to me.  It feels to cliche’ to like it in the way that I do.  It does present women’s relationships in a way that I don’t think I have seen before. If I have, it has been rare.  Her characters are wonderfully cranky and judgmental, and constantly examining their crankiness and judgments.  Plus, the writing is exact and pretty.  Like Munroe, but with a different edge.  I read this paragraph, and thought of you:

“With strawberries, wine, obviously,” Anna said greedily; and moved the spoon about among the fruit, feeling its soft sliding resistance and the slipperiness of the cream under a gritty crust of sugar. Molly swiftly filled glasses with wine and set them on the white sill. The sunlight crystallised beside each glass on the white paint in quivering lozenges of crimson and yellow light, and the two women sat in the sunlight, sighing with pleasure and stretching their legs in the thin warmth, looking at the colours of the fruit in the bright bowls and at the red wine.

Second obvious revelation: That pang of “is there more?” that happens in relationships, it must be a luxury of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  Once a certain round of qualifications are met, a new sphere seems possible to ask for.  I think of this regarding the mutual friend who would like to have a boyfriend she actually likes.  I think of this regarding my own panics, outraged that I am yet to be actualized (and seeing that first I must conquer that great beast of esteem).  This actually calms me a little, writing it, because it suggests the issue is some of my own.  Is the great “work” of marriage that everybody is always talking about really the climb of this ladder–actually a case of chutes and ladders?

Third obvious revelation: When I am out in the world with my husband, I think I experience less of it, and it is my own fault.  I was grocery shopping solo yesterday, and I had a very strong sense of my public self.  Usually, when I am with him, I have no concern for the public self–if we are grocery shopping, I am unaware of how I look, or that I am a person part of the milieu.  I almost go on autopilot, and I think this is because I assume he will make most of the decisions (and because I like him making most of the decisions (these are the tiny myriad of decisions that take place every day: things like driving, which store to go to, which card to put it on, which cereal, which parking spot)).  When I am alone, suddenly I have to make these thousand choices myself, and I feel my own weight again.  I’m not sure which I prefer, or if I even feel guilty writing this.  However, it has been observed.

Hope you are well,



Welcome to the Dollhouse

Dearest Carla Fran,

That was Doris Lessing! I read The Fifth Child standing up in a aisle of Tower Books in downtown Sacramento a bunch of years ago. Two interior decorating details are still with me: one was a long, long wooden dining table the couple had bought, the other is a strong impression of scary stairs. I left chilled and convinced of the unwisdom of having a big family.

I must tell you I watched Welcome to the Dollhouse for the first time ever, and spent most of the movie gaping in disbelief at Dawn Wiener. She was me. I was she. Shall I list the ways?

  • The t-shirt tucked into the elastic-waist pants. This was how I dressed.
  • The hairtie with the two plastic balls twisted up together on top.
  • The tiny perfect dancing sister. The way the tiny sister makes everything about Dawn twice as blobby and big.
  • The jerky sibling move that results in the sister’s endangerment (in my case, her getting locked into a Holiday Inn hotel room when she was 3. She bolted the door on accident, and the hotel had lost the master key. The fire department couldn’t get in, and I stood there, watching my father pull the fire alarm, my mother tearfully talk my sister away from the fatal toilet drowning mechanism, thinking to myself that I had lied, that I hadn’t had to go outside the room, that I hadn’t heard them coming at all and just wanted to feel important for a second and get away.)
  • The piano-playing.
  • The total submission to abusive people, except that I was more of a tattle-tale.
  • The weird spurts of agency in which she makes Steve Jello and macaroni and plots his seduction.
  • The clubhouse. Mine was a fig tree that gave me rashes on my legs. Whatever.
  • That shot of her lying in bed, expressionless, all night, after she’s met Steve.
  • The voice!!! That was my voice!!!
  • The terrible moment of appearing at the party in her “Love” heart-shaped earrings, her grown-up hairdo, lime-green pants and electric blue midriff-baring top. Mine was white roller-skates with with hot pink wheels, long silver dangly heart earrings, a turquoise spandex top with silver lightning bolts and bike shorts to match.

I’ve never recognized myself so completely in a movie before. I don’t know what to think—I experienced it almost as an unfamiliar invasion of privacy.

The line “There’s voices in my head / Coming from the phone” reminded me of your observations on schizophrenia, specifically of a friend of mine who hears the air condition constantly telling him that he’s a horrible person, good-for-nothing, ugly, etc. When this happens he very stiffly gets up and takes the dog for a walk.

The happy puppet is pretty terrifying, I guess. You’re right, it suggests that we’re yanked around by our genes, or by a genetically encoded desire to please and get attention, which might be the same thing. So what other phenotypes are there? Are the rest of us disaffected dummies? Moody marionettes?

In my trolling for belly-dancing material I watched a history of burlesque last night and came across an act in which a woman lies down on a couch and is fondled and partly undressed by a life-sized puppet of the devil. This was in response to censorship laws decreed that a dancer couldn’t bump and grind directly facing the audience or touch herself anywhere at all while onstage.

What terrifies me even more than the genetics, dear CF, is the puppetry that happens in reverse. As long as the dancer’s controlling the devil, it’s okay, but Welcome To The Dollhouse is so much about being controlled by the people you hate. It’s about that moment when you hear their voices in your own head. Good old Dawn. Every time she gets called something—“Lesbian,” “Retard,” “Faggot,” she turns around and does it to somebody else. The only person she really treats nicely is Brandon.

I wish I could condescend, pat her on the head, and tell her this too shall pass. Fact is, I don’t think it stops. I feel the Firecracker in my head every time I try to write. How do we not become puppets? And should I get a dog?



Dear Millicent,

I just woke up feeling rattled from having a dream where I was at a party and suffered the same minute embarrassments I do at real parties.  In the dream I talked too much about my work, flirted poorly with an esteemed professor of my youth, and then my mom got mad at me for not making her guests comfortable.  There was not even an incisive meaning of the dream.  It was mundane, obvious, and pretty much already lived, why did my mind go through the motions of making it up?

I once heard a This American Life where a psychiatrist who was schizophrenic had made a training tape for New York City cops so they could understand a bit more about schizophrenics when they approached them. They had to wear headphones and listen to the tape for an entire day, if I remember correctly.  She said that “hearing voices” was not like have strange thoughts float around in your mind. It was like somebody behind you startling you by yelling or whispering things to you.  The cassette was of these possible assaults/conversations and it illustrated to the cops how hard it is to focus one’s attention beyond the external voice that has most of your ear.

I was surprised by this definition.  Schizophrenia has that fuzzy meaning when said casually–usually suggesting something out of nowhere, contradictory, or strangely juxtaposed.  Schizophrenic critics must be an unsynchronized chorus, and a schizophrenic work must be a patchwork (with seams either clumsily or masterfully exposed).  Schizophrenic love must be hot and cold, out of balance, or a case of a PMS.  But, like you mention with your sister, none of this cutesy summing up actually holds sway with the real effect of the condition.

The one thing that irks me when the word is used as an adjective, even with the “being cut in half in the shower” phrase (I think I have to mention, what does the shower have to do with it? The drain, for cleanliness?) is that it relies heavily on a sense of absolute freedom from responsibility.  This is where it makes me think of the training cassette.  We are attracted to the odd contrast, the juxtaposition, that just arrives.  Perhaps this is why we embrace the word and the idea of the word, and don’t really want to know about the real stuff of the schizophrenic experience.

The Happy Puppet terrifies me, as do all genetic prophecies that suggest procreation is a lottery or grab-bag, or worse, the highest stakes and most depressing version ever of the game show “Let’s Make a Deal.”  Is it Doris Lessing that wrote about the family that has hit the genetic jackpot until their last child, which ultimately destroys, well, everything?