What if mothers refused to deny their womanhood

Dear Sibilla,

A Woman, tr. Rosalind Delmar (1980. Original: Una donna, 1906) is a disturbing novella where rape, depression, suicide, adultery, and domestic violence are packed in together in just over 200 pages. The book is a claustrophobic box full of despair – and yet, the aspect that seemed to have upset your readers the most, at the time of its first publication in Italy, was the protagonist’s decision to leave her son.

The novel is told in three parts in first person by a nameless woman. We follow her from her childhood with a dominating father and a submissive mother. From the start, we get a clear image of the complexity of the family dynamics: the protagonist’s father frequently criticizes her mother, debasing her in front of their children; at the same time, he spoils our protagonist and encourages her to study and to be an independent woman.

She has a complicated relationship with her father: while it is evident that he is a very influential figure to her, she also has a vague idea that something is not quite right in their lives. Her feelings towards her mother also evolve as the story unfolds: if initially she emulated her father’s scorn for her mother, later she comes to a new understanding of her condition as a woman.

When the protagonist is eight years old, the family moves to the countryside, after her father takes up a job as a factory manager. Her studies are discontinued for lack of schools, and, as a form of compensation, her father hires her as his secretary at the factory. In the provincial town, her mother grows more and more depressed, and almost never leaves the house anymore. Silent, submissive, and confined in her domestic life, our protagonist’s mother seems to be doing exactly what is expected of her at the time – so, no one around is able to notice that something was seriously wrong with her.

She attempts suicide, survives, and becomes increasingly aloof. The local priest simply blames her for her suffering, and says that her problems are God’s judgement on the family. Our protagonist’s mother becomes cheap fodder for gossip in the village and, eventually, she will be committed to an insane asylum, where she will remain until her death. “How I suffered for her and for myself, how ashamed I was to have come out of the belly of such an unhappy person”, wrote Elena Ferrante in The Lost Daughter (tr. Ann Goldstein, 2008. Original: La figlia oscura, 2006), a book that shares with your novel not only the thematic exploration of motherhood and identity, but also an unflinching approach to the topic.

Sibilla Aleramo

By the time our protagonist is fifteen years old, she will be raped by one of her father’s employees, she will lose her father’s respect, and will feel compelled to marry her assaulter. She will find out that her father keeps a mistress in town, and that her mother more or less knows about it. She will completely lose her admiration for her father – and, along with it, she will lose the ground beneath her feet, her sense of direction in life.

Renouncing the future her father had dreamt for her – and marrying a man he despised – will almost be her form of revenge against her parents. Self-sacrifice and self-hatred will be two intertwined forces here. Later, much like her mother, our protagonist will be regularly abused, beaten, and forced into domestic confinement. Two paths of survival will open up before her: motherhood and independence, two opposing forces which will almost tear her apart.

The novel reads like a letter addressed to no one, a journal entry, a confession of guilt, and a plea for forgiveness. You are particularly good at depicting our protagonist’s conflicting states of mind, her descent into depression, and the gradual development of her awareness as part of a larger movement for women’s emancipation. The technique of the stream of consciousness even makes an appearance in several moments of the book.

I must admit, though, that the tone of the book put me off a bit sometimes, as the character tends to take herself too seriously. She is always reasoning in terms of duty and high moral stakes. This is not a tone that finds a comfortable home in contemporary fiction, where humorous self-deprecation seems to be the norm. However, it is a tone I often find in many feminist writers of the time. More often than not, it makes me cringe: it can be so sanctimonious. However, I must remind myself, again and again, that women of your time were never taken seriously as a rule: for them, this tone was something they had earned the right to adopt after much struggle. They were desperately struggling for the right to point out the mistakes around them. They had to be tough, and had the right to be proud. They earned us the right to be able to be self-deprecating now.

The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand”, wrote Elena Ferrante in The Lost Daughter (tr. Ann Goldstein, 2008. Original: La figlia oscura, 2006). Your protagonist is constantly doing this hard thing: she is trying to come to terms with something she does not understand; something which escapes her at the very moment she thinks to have grasped it; something she can only approach through writing. Something about herself, and something that was made part of herself by the conditions she has lived in and the people around her.

The character exploration feels particularly poignant – and real – when the protagonist is caught in the contradiction between what she feels and what is expected of her as a woman. After her rape, she oscillates between hatred for her abuser and self-hatred. She ponders whether marriage would be a form of reparation or a form of self-punishment: “Did this man own me?”, she asks herself over and over.

Sibilla Aleramo

Meanwhile, she takes up writing, as a way to understand her world and her condition, as well as to overcome loneliness by opening up a conversation with herself. She examines her attitudes, her motives, and her mistakes: she never shies way of engaging in self-criticism, and is constantly changing her perspective and her views over time. By articulating her pain, she becomes gradually aware of the many ways it relates to the broader topic of women’s social position in Italy at the time.

I tried to sketch a portrait of my state of mind.  I examined my pain, I asked myself whether to suffer in such a way could ever be productive”, she writes, “I felt able to accept my stringent commitment to walk alone, to struggle alone, to bring to the surface everything that was strong, beautiful, and uncorrupted in me.  Afterwards, I blushed with shame at my long, sterile path of suffering.  I realized then that my self-neglect had bordered on self-hatred.  And I finally I savoured life again, relishing its taste as I had done when I was a young girl”, she writes.

A critique of the idea of female redemption through self-sacrifice is at the heart of your exploration. At the same time that motherhood sustains our protagonist through her most lonely years, it also enslaves her – and, given the Italian child custody laws at the time, her love for her son also chains her to an increasingly violent husband.

By and by, our protagonist realizes that, by staying with her man, she will eventually go mad and kill herself. She doesn’t know how best to protect her child from suffering: either way, staying or leaving, she will be faced with a form of sacrifice – be it of her life, or of her love for her son. “The reasoning and the intimate assurance were not enough for me. I had continued to belong to a man whom I despised and who did not love me: in front of others I wore the mask of the satisfied wife, legitimizing in a certain way this ignoble slavery, praising to the skies a monstrous lie. For my son, not to run the risk of being deprived of my son. And now, the last cowardice that has defeated so many women, I thought of death as a liberation: I resigned myself to leave my son so I could die: I did not have the courage to lose him so I could live“, writes our protagonist.

“And if the homework brings you down/Then we’ll throw it on the fire and take the car downtown.”

 

She soon becomes aware that what was demanded of her by society did not make any sense: anything she chooses to do will bring social reproach and remorse. To leave or not to leave is not even a good question: either way, she will be accused of breaching her duties as wife and mother.She wants to break free, and yet she looks for support in the very moral principles that forced her into captivity in the first place.

“Soon she’ll start yelling, I thought, soon she’ll hit her, trying to break that bond. Instead, the bond will become more twisted, will strengthen in remorse, in the humiliation of having shown herself in public to be an unaffectionate mother, not the mother of church or the Sunday supplements.” This excerpt of Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter (tr. Ann Goldstein, 2008. Original: La figlia oscura, 2006) in a way, could easily apply to your protagonist.

She has no name. No characters are named. She could be many people at once. She could be anyone at that place, at that time, going through that situation. Anyone lost and lonely in the vortex of self- loath and -love, anyone trying to cope.

Yours truly,

J.


Ramon Casas – “Over my Dead Body”,1893

“But a good mother must not be simply a victim of self sacrifice, as mine had been: she must be a woman, a human individual. But how could she possibly become an individual if her parents handed her over, ignorant, weak, and immature, to a man unable to accept her as an equal, a man who treated her like a piece of property, giving her children and then abandoning her to perform his social duty, leaving her at home to idle away her time – just as she had done as a child?” – Sibilla Aleramo, A Woman

*

“What if mothers refused to deny their womanhood and gave their children instead an example of a life live according to the needs of self-respect? (…) Perhaps if we realised that relationships founded on domination and seduction originate in selfishness, we would put more emphasis on the responsibilities involved in parenthood.” – Sibilla Aleramo, A Woman

*

“Time and space seemed to me to be fluid, carrying me on their stream; I was the Wandering Humanity, the aimless Humanity, yet inflamed with ideal: the Humanity enslaved by some laws and yet driven by a rebellious will to break them down, to make an existence free from them” – Sibilla Aleramo, A Woman

*

“And I wrote for an hour, for two hours, I do not know. The words flowed, serious, almost solemn: I managed to define my psychological state, I asked my suffering if it could be fruitful (…). It was the only time in my life that I wished to find Faith in a Divine Will, and I waited for it with my hands joined. And in this invocation there was all the despair of a mind feeling weak, exhausted, at the very moment when it sees a long way to go.” – Sibilla Aleramo, A Woman


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