Women We Read This Week

Ruth Fowler’s “The Loneliest and Saddest Kind” on Guernica

It was fitting that I should find Ruth Fowler‘s essay this week, as I was working on an essay of my own about addiction narratives. Fowler’s piece exemplified the kind of unredemptive, messy depiction of recovery that I felt was missing from the cannon of addiction narratives for so long. Her characters here aren’t saintly, wise gurus who’ve triumphed over their demons and found salvation, but rather nuanced individuals who continue to walk a kind of tightrope–which is to say, her characters are real. Ultimately, I don’t even really feel this is a story about addiction or recovery. It’s a story about loneliness, and a goddamn good depiction of it.


Francesca Rendle-Short’s “Impossible Without A Body: A Song, (Breath), and Dust” in Killing the Buddha

In a piece that began as a creationist paper, and exists now as something like a found poem, Francesca Rendle-Short has transformed her father’s writing from a decade earlier through the process of redaction.

Following the redacted paper is her “Postscript—definitions and the like,” in which she explains the difference between her own agnostic beliefs and her father’s creationist beliefs—this time relying largely on straightforward definitions, and continuing to leave much unsaid. In a way, this recalls her explanation of redaction: “Sometimes so much of a text is redacted it makes the original text virtually meaningless, but meaningful nonetheless—more so, in some cases.”

She explains the redaction process as one of “censoring a text, or removing confidential or sensitive (secret) material from a document before it is released,” but the work itself gives the opposite impression: that she has freed something provocative and poetic from an unlikely form.


Kate Lebo’s “The Pie Lady’s Manifesto” in The Rumpus

Reading our food connects us to history and culture and demands we participate in the marketplace of each. It is the difference between eating and feeding. It makes us human.

In a beautiful and imaginatively written essay, Kate Lebo intricately weaves details from her own writing life, quotes about and by Sylvia Plath, and a meditation on feminism into the overarching theme of making pies and assembling a cookbook. This essay is as much a discussion of feminism in writing as it is an analysis of the writing process—the way we ingest and adore language, our hungry devouring of books, and the labor of producing text.

Lebo’s essay is not simple and yet it is lovely; she analyzes the work of Plath in the context of the domestic, not “subversive,” she states, but “feminist,” and her language is both lush and detailed. Of Plath’s “Morning Song” Lebo says, “The nakedness of a baby is like the nakedness of David, the new mother like Michelangelo, new motherhood the museum that shelters creation.” Like the vivid imagery of her poetry analysis and the early image of small threads trailing pathways through her kitchen, Lebo’s essay shimmers in sunlight. I’m left with the feeling that she will deliver on her promise, that “to make a cookbook is to make something people can use. People can use something better than what they’ve been getting. I’m going to give it to them.”


Kiera Feldman’s “Sexual Assault at God’s Harvard” in The New Republic

Kiera Feldman’s account of sexual assault at evangelicist Patrick Henry College in Virginia — commonly referred to as “God’s Harvard,” a school where drinking, smoking, gambling and dancing are not allowed on campus — is deeply troubling. Given the prevalence of rape culture in schools throughout America, the assaults she details aren’t exactly shocking. But the administration’s response, the way it has systemically failed its victims of sexual assault is incredibly disturbing. The failure isn’t one of carelessness. It’s worse: Feldman finds that the administration is consistently placing the blame on the victims for failing to protect their “purity,” for tempting male students or lying about sexual interactions that were actually consensual. Dean of Student Life Sandra Corbitt, the primary disciplinarian at the college, sits at the helm of this response:

Listening to Sarah from across her desk, the dean was as polite as ever. But she didn’t seem to believe Sarah’s story at all. “If you were telling the truth about this,” Sarah remembers Corbitt saying, “God would have kept you conscious to bear witness to the abuse against you.”

A colleague of mine mentioned that this story had been brewing for quite a long time, and it shows: the reporting is meticulous and probing, the picture Feldman paints of “God’s Harvard” and its leaders vivid and damning. She selects the perfect details to contrast the pristine veneer of the campus and its administration with the stories she’s revealed: Corbitt “wears pearls and blazers with turtlenecks. Her shoulder-length hair is styled in a soft curl.” At the beginning of the piece, Feldman describes the campus at night as having “the still and quiet feel of a small town hours after everyone has gone to bed.” But by the end of the story, she has brought to life an atmosphere that doesn’t feel serene but profoundly stifling, an atmosphere that might not be the reality for all of its students, but certainly was for these young women. — Simone


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