Echo answers back: my first reading of Metamorphoses

(Content warning for frequent references to death, violence and rape.)

*****

Friends, I am in love. This time it’s a poet. As anyone who follows my personal blog may have noticed, Ovid has stolen my heart. It’s rather inconvenient as he was born in 43 BC in the Ancient Roman world, and I followed on two millennia later, but I don’t care. It was meant to be.
To read Ovid’s Metamorphoses at 23, having never read a text like it before, is to have a light switched on in a dark room. No, it’s having the sun come up and illuminate your world. To anyone who loves language and stories, the Metamorphoses are an endless delight and the springboard for endless connections, reflections and ideas. Have you ever wondered about the origin of the word lycanthropy, or the stories behind the words arachnid, hermaphrodite and echo?
Have you ever explained to a child that the whole world is made of atoms, which are constantly shifting and rearranging themselves; about how water dissolves and condenses as cloud and falls as rain? Have you ever thought about how the content of your own human body will one day disintegrate, the atoms in you becoming part of other people. Have you ever felt limited by your own body and have you wondered about the possibility of becoming something greater than or different from yourself? Dickinson wrote that “this quiet dust was gentlemen and ladies” but in The Metamorphoses death (and dust, and decay) is only one direction that a body can take. In this world there are multiple possibilities; people are changed into spiders, wolves, flowers, swans, water, and the whole universe is in a constant state of flux.
You’ve read and seen plenty of retellings of Proserpina’s story – from the references in David Almond’s novel Skellig to Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s iconic painting. But now you read the original tale and its full horror and beauty comes afresh. The story captures the primal anguish of rape, and the terror of a mother who loses a daughter and quite literally tears up heaven and earth to find her:

“[Ceres] had torn up two pine trees,
Kindled both in Etna,
And holding them high
Through the long nights
Lit her path of glittering frost.”
(The Rape of Proserpina)

The stories have a primal, brutal quality, like something that just happened. The word ‘Ovid’ used to conjure up to me a lot of stone statues and dry classical allusions. But read these tales from two thousand years ago and they feel chillingly real. Yes, you think. It happened like that. That’s exactly how I would have felt too.
I discovered Ovid this summer through my usual method of finding new things, which is to chase up references my favourite authors make in their books to other authors. You should also know, if it’s not obvious, that I am basically classically illiterate. I was born a bit early for the Percy Jackson stories, so my primary introduction to the classical world was reading Roger Lancelyn Green’s retellings of Greek and Roman myths at age 8. I found them really dry, and couldn’t identify with heroes like Achilles or Hector or Hercules.  
I didn’t have a classical education at school either, so as a teenager I found initially that Metamorphoses, The Odyssey, The Iliad and The Aeneid were inaccessible to me even in translated form. I didn’t understand the references or who anyone was supposed to be. I was a girl from inner-city Birmingham and felt locked out of this world. “Well,” I thought, “who needs that anyway?” and I went off and read books by basically anyone born after the fall of Rome. I don’t regret that at all, but I do think it’s a shame that I was so put off by this apparent cultural and textual inaccessibility.
A friend of mine and I once discussed the class aspect of classical education, (in Britain it is generally private schools that teach Latin and Greek language and mythology, whilst comprehensives and grammar schools teach modern languages). We spoke about feeling left out of discourse with people from private schools, who were just as smart as us but had access to a frame of reference that we didn’t know about. We agreed it was unfair that knowledge of the classical world should be associated in our country with wealth and intelligence.
Of course, I still don’t think reading Ovid makes one superior to anyone who prefers reading contemporary novels, or reading graphic novels, or not reading at all. But I will say that Metamorphoses was a thousand times more accessible than I expected. Reading Ted Hughes’s brilliantly accessible and gloriously written translation has made an enormous difference for me. It makes me feel included in an ancient mythological tradition which continues to have an enormous impact on Western culture. I’m able to really understand and treasure stories that have influenced storytelling itself. It makes me realise that anyone, regardless of education or background, should be welcome to this mythological tradition.
In writing this essay I hope to share the joy I had in reading Metamorphoses, and also share a few thoughts on what it was like reading the text as a 21st-century woman. I can’t detach my reading of it from the fact that I am a feminist and a woman, nor do I want to.
Before I read Metamorphoses I associated classical mythology with films like Troy and Wrath of the Titans, and always assumed that it was mostly about buff heroic men. Which doesn’t interest me much, frankly, because my primary joy was and is to read well-written stories about women and girls. Of course, what I didn’t know is that Metamorphoses is full of strongly drawn, believable female characters. That there are transformations of gender, like Tiresias’ and the strange fate of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, which imply that gender has the capability to be utterly fluid. That the stories frequently return to the violent, volatile tensions between powerful men and the women under their control.
The stories often take in other, entirely human transformations of the body and mind. Rape, pregnancy and childbirth are often inextricably linked, as they unfortunately were in Ovid’s Roman world.
Reading Ted Hughes’s version (Tales from Ovid, published by Faber and Faber) I started making notes about the prevalence of rape and its meaning as power play, punishment and manifestation of addiction. In Tereus, quoted below, it’s interesting to note that Tereus’s behaviour is utterly condemned throughout the story.

“‘He’ll explain,’ cried Juno, ‘why you are
Slave to your irresistible addiction
While the poor nymphs you force to share it with you
Do all they can to shun it.’”
(Tiresias)

“She was to blame – her beauty. But more
The King’s uncontrollable body.
Thracians are sexually insatiable…
He was the puppet
Of instant obsession…
Philomela twisted away.
Shame tortured her.
She would not look at her sister –
As if she herself were to blame.

(Tereus)

(Bolding mine).

I also noted the instances of, as we call it now, “speaking truth to power”.
Rape is a manifestation of power. It is the gods, especially Jupiter, who are the most frequent perpetrators, but the men of the stories are often no better. The poet often sympathises with their victims and allows them to speak back, even though doing so is often followed by punishment. For instance, Philomela’s wonderful speech to Tereus – where she declares that “shame will not stop her” – angers Tereus so much that he cuts out her tongue. But although the poem is titled Tereus, we know whose story it really is that we are reading. It was a very strange experience to hear Philomela’s articulate voice ringing out, and to realise the commonality of women’s experiences down the centuries:

“I may be lost.
You have taken whatever life
I might have had, and thrown it in the sewer.
But I have my voice.
And shame will not stop me.
I shall tell everything
To your own people, yes, to all Thrace.
Even if you keep me here
Every leaf in this forest
Will become a tongue to tell my story.”
(Tereus)

Then there is the story of Arachne, the weaver, who believes herself to be better at weaving than the goddess Minerva. (Arachne notes that “I make up my own mind and I think as I always did.”) Minerva challenges Arachne to a competition to find out who is better at weaving. Minerva’s tapestry illustrates “the kind of punishment Arachne could now expect for her impudence” by showing people being turned by the gods into mountains, storks, cranes and stone. Arachne, meanwhile, creates a tapestry which graphically shows Jupiter raping Europa and other women. Minerva’s response, realising that the tapestry is technically perfect, is to tear the tapestry off the loom and “rip it to rags” – censorship at its most primal. Again, the victim is silenced but her story resonates.
The women of Metamorphoses often meet a ghastly fate. Arachne hangs herself, and Minerva takes pity on her and transforms her into a spider. Echo, who defends her friends by telling lies, is turned by Juno into a disembodied echoing voice. Philomela transforms into a nightingale, and in the most horrific of the stories Niobe loses all her children because of her pride. They’re punished for being proud, for being talented, for being vocal, for defying the gods. These characters stand out to me; they feel much more real and more interesting than the gods. I feel that their stories are not closed, they are ambiguous and they open up in the retelling and rereading.
I am thankful every day that I fell in love with Ovid and discovered the stories of the women in Metamorphoses. Their stories resonate endlessly; they don’t win, but God, they are brave. Their stories still exist, and the telling of them (however you choose to retell them) is endlessly powerful. In her story True Short Story, Ali Smith writes about the nymph Echo and asks: “When is a short story a short story? When its echo answers back.”
I’m reminded of Akhmatova’s poem, Lot’s Wife:

Who would mourn this woman, who was thought
To be the least of losses, hardly worth a breath?
Yet I will always hold her in my heart,
Who for a single glance accepted death.
(Lot’s Wife – Anna Akhmatova)

***

Further resources
In Our Time – Metamorphoses
girl meets boy – Ali Smith
Proserpina – Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Abuse Survivor Resources

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On writing about mental health and exploring vulnerability

Last year I wrote a post where I declared:

“One problem with [media] presentations of mental illness is that they assume everyone’s problems will be helped by the same techniques. More importantly, the issue is always placed firmly in the past tense: “I was anxious, but then I…”

I’ve been writing this blog for ten months now and it’s taught me a few things: like, writing about mental health is hard. Sometimes you just have to crack on and do it.
Since writing that post I’ve definitely hit a temptation to place experiences in the past tense. “Should I write that my anxiety is flaring up? Should I be open about my intrusive thoughts? Or should I couch it in general terms?”
Sometimes this tension occurs because it’s hard to write from the centre of ongoing experience. You end up removing yourself from your writing, however autobiographical it looks. But then I find the more of myself I put in a post, the more people enjoy it, and I still don’t know why.
One thing I do know is that whilst I use my experiences to write about mental health and disability, the blog isn’t dedicated to documenting my issues. I don’t really like people using my blog to check up on me personally, because I think the content of my writing is more important than whatever it says about me.
The paradox is that I write openly, so I have to remember that my life is not public domain and I am under no obligation to share everything.
I once saw the poet Warsan Shire read, and I remember the room went quiet. There were gasps and some tears. By the end of the reading I had heard exquisite poems that explored vulnerabilities and trauma, but I knew as much about Shire herself as I had at the start.
Nor did I feel I needed to know. That’s not what her work is for.
Some people are keen on investigating the hidden autobiographical meanings in confessional poetry and this is because the poet has played a trick. They’ve confessed, but they haven’t told you everything – and why should they? Vulnerability is a precious thing which should be handled with great care.
The compulsion to overshare in public can be cathartic, but it’s also addictive. We live in a culture where women’s suffering is frequently consumed as entertainment. In that environment I know I must take responsibility for my own experiences, and take control of what I share.
And lastly, that leads me to Liz Jones.
Much as I hate the Daily Mail, I like its journalist Liz Jones: she’s a good writer, albeit highly problematic. She has written openly about topics like her anorexia and OCD, her body image issues, and her self-hatred.
Last time I looked, the comments on her pieces were a mix of vitriol and concern. Liz Jones was mad, she was ugly, she needed help and the editors should intervene. It was like seeing a crowd watching someone having a breakdown.
My thoughts:
1) How awful to see someone’s suffering packaged as a fun lifestyle column to entertain readers.
2) It was brave of this writer to share private experiences, and a shame that she was stuck with an audience of Daily Mail readers.
3) What was drawing me, as a reader? Was it a negative fascination with Ms Jones herself, or was it that I had a nagging feeling she might be playing a trick – leading readers to believe everything she said was confessional, and then possibly making things up?
4) Was I complicit in suffering as spectacle? After all, it doesn’t matter what you think about a crowd if you’re part of it.
So I stopped reading.
I have no easy answers to these questions. But I admire anyone who writes from a place of vulnerability, who writes of unpopular experiences, who opens their wounds in writing. I just hope that vulnerability can be handled with care, not exploited by other people.
Lastly my thoughts on this are summed up in Jenny’s Diski’s piece ‘In Defence of Liz Jones’ and I suggest you read it in its entirety:

“I couldn’t see what the universally abominated Liz Jones… had done wrong… She was making a very personal statement about what it was like to be someone who continuously experienced life as not worth living…
In a world that didn’t demand an upbeat ending to every story, she might have been thought to be offering a real insight into a long-term depressive’s point of view. Other people in her condition (I’m one of them), seeing the way she’d been attacked, might conclude that it was better not to talk about their experience, for all that society presently tells itself that it is vital for people to express their feelings.”

After Me Comes The Ableism: how to write really badly about mentally ill women

I had high hopes for Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes The Flood. Unluckily my hopes have been dashed, after finding yet another weird portrayal of a mentally ill woman in its pages. I’ve read a string of books in the past year where the same awful stereotypes crop up. At this stage, let’s just say that if some scientist were to invent a radar for Problematic Portrayals, I’d buy the hell out of it.
After Me Comes The Flood looked promising. It’s the story of a man called John Cole who leaves London one day; his car breaks down, he pulls over near a house in the woods. Unexpectedly, the community of misfits in the house hear John’s name, and greet him as an old friend. The premise had everything I like in stories – liminal space, mistaken identity, a timeless rural setting, mystery.
Turns out (spoilers, here) that the Mysterious Band of Misfits are all ex-residents of a private mental hospital. That I wouldn’t have minded, as a premise, but… Alex and Claire. Oh, Alex and Claire. These two characters made me grit my teeth, sigh, and seriously consider throwing the book across the 171 bus.
Alex and Claire are described in the blurb as “siblings full of child-like wonder and delusion”. That alone should have set alarm bells ringing. These mentally ill, mentally disabled adult characters are romanticised in a positively Victorian way. They are constantly described as, and compared to, innocent infants.
Alex, experiencing psychotic delusions, is made out to be a suffering martyr too good for this world; he was expelled from the mental hospital because he secretly stopped taking his pills, which “muted each of his senses”. He also encouraged other patients to stop, which hurt them. (But really, Medication is Bad for people like Alex, because it Makes You Less Sensitive and Romantic. Do you see?)
Meanwhile, Claire is oddly sexualised and at the same time made out to have the intelligence and mannerisms of a child, despite being an adult woman. Claire’s condition is not stated, but she is heavily coded as mentally ill and autistic. Claire, I will stress, is written in a very sexualised way which emphasises her physical beauty but reminds the reader constantly that she is an innocent, a child. The disturbing implications of this I don’t need to spell out; draw your own conclusions.
This reaches a climax when Claire, late in the book, sneaks into our hero John’s room at night (“he smelt sweet alcohol on her breath… something a child would drink in furtive nips when parents were away”). Claire then attempts to flirt, mimicking her friend Eve “in a parody as unconvincing as a schoolgirl in her mother’s shoes”; finally she takes her dressing-gown off and stands “facing him, naked and afraid”. (“He’d have liked to say ‘What are you doing?’ but knew she wouldn’t have been able to answer”.)
Ick. A painful scene ensues; the upshot is that John, being a Good Guy, doesn’t take advantage of her. Instead, she ends up sleeping in his bed. They curl up together in quite a chummy way, and he tells her the story of Wulf and Eadwacer (a moment which is actually well done; if Sarah Perry wrote a book bringing Anglo-Saxon poetry to life, I’d read it). End of scene.
What, as mentally ill disabled women, can we take from this? That we’re not real adults; that we don’t have a real sexuality, we are merely copying other women’s attempts to flirt; that it is up to men to be kind and not take advantage of our frail child-like selves? Well, that’s my takeaway. How comforting! – to find yet another book in which the sexuality of people like you isn’t real, and their agency is ignored! Hurrah!
A friend read over this piece for me and commented that Claire is implied to be good and pure because she is incapable of real sexuality; she’s ‘parodying’ the techniques of Eve, who John is in love with. (Note the name; he finds Eve tempting, d’you get it?)
So what does that say about women who are sexual? That only ‘normal’ women are sexual, that women’s sexuality is somehow corrupt, that a mentally ill disabled adult is technically an infant? There are so many implications to this scene that it’s hard to cover the dreadfulness of it in a short essay.
The other woman in the book who’s presented as mentally ill – Hester – is a manipulative harridan. She’s self-conscious of her “ugliness” and afraid of getting old. She turns out to have been taking advantage of poor, innocent Alex by encouraging his delusions, because she doesn’t want to be alone. So, there’s that. It doesn’t leave much for a mentally ill, disabled reader who doesn’t really want to read about either of these characters.
It’s not the first time this scenario has cropped up, either. In Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, which I also disliked, the hero meets a girl in a mental institution who is strikingly similar to Claire:

“She invited me into her room and closed the curtains. I said it would help to draw her in natural light, but then she unbuttoned her blouse and took off her bra and we sat in silence for a while… I drew her half naked in the half-light of her room. And I drew her scars.”

My initial reaction is plain old bafflement; I know many mentally ill and disabled women, and I’ve never heard of anything like this happening. Ever. If straight men think that vulnerable women are likely to strip their clothes off as soon as they’re alone in a room with them, they’re probably flattering themselves. Whatever sexist hell-dimension these two books are set in, it’s not this one.
Mentally ill and disabled women are at a far higher risk of getting raped and sexually assaulted, especially in institutions and by police and other ‘professionals’. Scenarios like this play into society’s sexualisation and infantilisation of mentally ill, disabled women: the idea that we never understand what we’re getting into, that we don’t understand risks or stranger danger. Many of us are well aware of that, thanks.
And those women who, for whatever reason, aren’t aware of risk? Well, of course they don’t deserve to be raped! And nor do they deserve to be portrayed in this horrible, patronising way which objectifies their bodies and simultaneously implies that they are sexless, pure, innocent children in the bodies of adults. This is what it looks like when ableism and misogyny converge.
Returning to the real world, almost all the mentally ill, disabled women of my acquaintance have stories about ableist ignorance, medical neglect, and abusive relationships. I also know a developmentally disabled woman who is highly vulnerable, and her carers have had to fight hard to make sure she is safeguarded. These women’s trauma and the danger they face is absolutely valid and real, and it’s really quite insulting to romanticise it like this.
Stories are not reality, no, much of literature is escapist in some way. But literature doesn’t exist in an apolitical vacuum; you can’t handwave this portrayal away by saying it’s all a dream. People’s hatred of mentally ill, disabled women is not a dream.
What we’re really looking at is a male fantasy (which is even worse when you remember it’s a female author perpetuating it in After Me Comes the Flood). The fantasy goes like this: a beautiful, vulnerable woman throws herself at you and strips naked. But you’re a good guy, so you understand that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. You don’t take advantage of her; you sit with her and try to Ease Her Pain.
This is queasy-making for so many reasons; it’s not realistic, it’s not fair, it’s creepy, it filters women’s pain through the male gaze. It ignores the sexuality and agency of the woman; the scene becomes about the heroic man’s feelings. It’s also insulting to mentally ill, disabled women who’ve been targeted precisely because of their vulnerable body and mental state.
I really don’t understand what Sarah Perry was trying to do in that scene. Perhaps she was trying to establish (again) that Claire is Innocent and Pure, despite trying to mimic sexuality like a Big Bad Real Woman; or that John is a Good Man for taking care of her. I don’t know, and honestly I don’t really want to know. What I do know is that I keep coming across these awful portrayals of disabled women, and I want it to stop. We deserve so much more than this apolitical, insular, ignorant rubbish.

Abusive feminists are not my ‘sisters’

There are three things I wish I’d known when I became a feminist.
Firstly, it doesn’t matter how you dress. (Wear what you want! Fashion should be a pleasure, not a chore.)
Secondly, my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit*. (Flavia Dzodan.)
And third, a surprising number of well-known feminists – media-friendly, intelligent women – are abusive. They are prejudiced against vulnerable people, particularly trans women and sex workers. And by having a blind spot the size of Australia, mainstream feminist discourse manages to paint these feminists as victims of uppity minorities.
The power dynamic is positively dystopian.
Recently, an open letter appeared in the Observer, complaining of “a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed “transphobic” or “whorephobic””.
The letter is bollocks, for reasons that have been beautifully expressed elsewhere** and can be summed up thus:

– Feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite lies that she was no-platformed by a university for her views on sex work, Muslim women and trans issues.
– Prominent academics and journalists, including several feminists, then use a national paper to collectively complain about being silenced: JeSuisSmurthwaite.
– Media storm ensues, with a huge backlash from trans people and sex workers.
– Ultimately, many of the signatories will profit from this mess, mostly by writing paid thinkpieces on free speech. They will then use their platform to continue accusing marginalised women of being ‘trolls’ and ‘bullies’.
– At least three of the signatories crying victimhood are white, cis feminists who have previously, unapologetically expressed virulently transphobic, whorephobic views.***
– These feminists are abusive.

For several years, I thought that talking about abuse by women (including the power dynamics between feminist communities) would be letting the side down. To discuss it would be to invite sexism, to perpetuate negative stereotypes of women and feminists as bitchy harpies. Of course, this reflects my position as a white, cis woman: this discomfort with seeing any woman in a bad light. I reasoned that although abuse by women was awful, it wasn’t a structural problem; that women hating each other must be ultimately down to patriarchy, and internalised misogyny. If it weren’t for that, we would all get along, as Feminist God intended us to.
Still, I wasn’t satisfied.
2013 brought more answers. After reading through the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen****, I researched. I read about slave owners’ wives. I read about violence committed by white women against women of colour, particularly black women. I researched modern-day violence against disabled women, which is often committed by female carers, and violence against trans women and non-binary people.
The ‘sisterhood’ narrative ignores structural violence, power structures and everyday labour relations between women. It ignores the propensity of some people with a little bit of power to kick down, hard.

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