Photo: Slawek Puklo

Women We Read This Week

Kate Shellnutt’s “Why 30 is the decade friends disappear — and what to do about it” in Vox

“It’s crucial that we keep at it,” Kate Shellnutt writes in her recent Vox essay. “Making new friends keeps us engaged in our own identity. We understand ourselves in relation to others: I befriend, therefore I am. Without getting to know other people, it’s harder for us to know ourselves.”

It’s particularly gratifying to find a narrative essay directly addressing a quandary of your own personal life. When I happened upon Shellnutt’s piece, I counted our similarities: Married without children, only 2 years apart in age, living in a new place without friends. Shellnutt approaches the task of finding friends with exuberance. She talks to psychologists and friend experts. She actively pursues friendships, and celebrates going on a friend date for lunch at Panera. This is making friends in real life, as an adult. She no longer looks for The One Best Friend, and instead seeks ladies who respond to her texts and actually want to hang out.

Now that I’m at the edge of 30, I’m entering uncharted territory and feel like I need life advice, affirmation, and direction more than ever. Should I be saving more for retirement? Should I do the Paleo diet to lose these last 10 pounds? Can I keep putting off having kids? I know I can always turn my old friends, but I also need people who know me now — in my current place and context — to walk through it with me in day-to-day life…

Her essay is a vulnerable and inspiring musing on the fragility of a life devoid of friendships, with a healthy dose of can-do attitude and friend-making advice.
Amanda P.

Lily Gurton-Wachter’s “The Stranger Guest: The Literature of Pregnancy and New Motherhood” in Los Angeles Review of Books

This amazing essay provides a brilliant overview of the literature of new motherhood, from its sparse appearances in historical texts to its recent rise in popularity. Author Lily Gurton-Wachter eloquently articulates many things that I’ve long pondered—such as why, given the similarities, motherhood is not awarded the same literary significance as war—as well as things I’ve tried to write about, such as motherhood being a deeply transformational experience. You become a different you and it’s scary and surprising and beautiful, and that transformation has nothing to do with mom hair and yoga pants. She quotes many recent authors relating motherhood to an annihilation of the self.

…having a child, too, is a profound, frightening, exhilarating, transformative experience at the boundary of life, an experience from which one comes back a different person. In Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf describes Septimus Smith returning to London from World War I: he “had fought; he was brave; he was not Septimus now.” This is not far from the way the poet Alice Notley describes the self-erasure of motherhood: “For two years, there’s no me here.”

Gurton-Wachter wonders why philosophers weren’t chomping at the bit to delve into the experience of pregnancy and child-rearing, as it would be incredibly fertile ground to examine the concept of the self and other. She says some great thinkers offered critiques or opinions about child-rearing practices, despite having little to no parenting experience or even being notoriously terrible at it, but didn’t bother to ask how women felt about becoming mothers.

She attributes this to the lack of female philosophers—which stemmed from the belief that women were lesser than men, that women were incapable of Deep Thinking in general. So how could they have revelatory thoughts about motherhood? Men’s work will always be afforded space for reflection, while women’s work will be seen as occurring only on the surface of things, in the rote daily actions of domesticity. Still today, the majority of books on the subject are suggestions and opinions on how to parent, not how it feels to become and be a parent.

How will having a baby disrupt my sense of who I am, of my body, my understanding of life and death, my relation to the world and to my sense of independence, my experience of fear and hope and time, and the structure of my experience altogether? Dr. Spock is silent on these topics.

Elizabeth Yuko’s “Lizzie Borden: Why a 19th-Century Axe Murder Still Fascinates Us” in Rolling Stone

For this fantastic piece, bio-ethicist and writer Elizabeth Yuko digs deep into the American psyche to uncover why the 1892 murder of Lizzie Borden’s parents has continued to fascinate us throughout the decades since. Our obsession has produced a long-parade of television shows and movies about the event (including an upcoming one), books, and articles, and even turned the family home—re-created to look as it would have at the time—into a museum and bed and breakfast that sees a steady stream of visitors as well as ghost hunters.

In the Borden case, the prosecution–and in turn, the media–used the trial to convey that the wealthy are not exempt from unsavory, violent behavior. Lizzie’s defense was, in some ways, a defense of upper-class society; an attempt to demonstrate that someone from her background could not have possibly committed a brutal murder. This clash of ideologies and opposing narratives made for compelling copy, and newspapers and the public ate it up. Once the media created Lizzie Borden as a persona and celebrity, the process was self-sustaining: the more Lizzie became a household name, the more newspapers people would purchase.

The case is a perfect storm of unique-ness; of shaking up cultural norms of violence: a female killer, a particularly brutal murder weapon, an affluent family, and the accused being related to the deceased—not a stranger, a robbery gone wrong, or even a jilted lover. It’s these aspects that help make the case seemingly unshakeable in popular culture.

The salacious elements and the uncertainty surrounding the Borden murders has become modern American mythology. In addition to the fact that the only real suspect was acquitted and the case was never solved, the murder and trial occurred during a time when the quantity, quality and content of American newspapers was changing rapidly.

Yuko interviews various experts for this piece—a psychiatrist, a Lizzie Borden historian—which adds depth and nuance to her search for answers as to why this case in particular has remained so captivating.


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