“Dark Warm Heart”: my grief over womanhood

This is not a light-hearted meditation. This is about a lot of things, congealing as they sometimes do for me, because of story. This is not the first time such things have solidified in this way, just the most recent.

This is about my grief. It is an old grief. It comes from the child who was not allowed to play tag with the boys, from the girl who was reminded by the men, and women, in her life of her powerlessness, from the adult, myself, who constantly struggles with the shackles of gender, nearly invisible until you move wrong, speak wrong, dress wrong – and run up against them strangling you. This is about being a woman. A woman who is awake. And it is about a story, a horror story that cut too deep, called “Dark Warm Heart.”

I read this story about the same time that Twitter, at least, reeled from yet another shooting. The victim was Karen Smith, an elementary school teacher who married a friend and then realized she had married a monster when he came into her classroom and took her life, as well as the life of one of her students, and then killed himself. This shooting was part of a larger epidemic. The article from Huffington Post discusses the statistics, seen in the above tweet. Teen Vogue did a wonderful job of continuing to unpack this in their article. As the writer Morgan Jerkins observed, “most murderers in murder-suicides are male and the most prevalent kind of murder-suicide is between two intimate partners, such as a man killing his wife or girlfriend.”

I read “Dark Warm Heart” before I knew any of this, of course. Not long before – I think I saw the first fragment of a headline cross my screen only about a half hour later. These stories, the real and the true, tangled in my brain. As they should.

If you want to read the story, the voice is beautiful, the writing is technically solid, the plot is compelling. It is chilling – if you’re into that sort of thing, do go. If you’re not, if you’re just here to listen to me ramble, be aware there are spoilers. Pretty much line-by-line spoilers.

This is a story about domestic violence. About the hunger of the male body and how women must accommodate it. About the isolation of womanhood – about not having anyone to lean on because you are supposed to lean on your husband. This is about how a wife and mother must sacrifice her flesh. I can’t tell if the author (Rich Larson, presumably male) intended for this story to be about that. I can’t tell if they meant this story as a critique, as a piece of feminine horror. For me it didn’t read that way. The character certainly never questioned her choice.

Kristine is a young woman. We presume she is newly married, from the text, though there’s no explicit discussion of how new. Her husband is returned from a research trip to the Arctic, where he has encountered something eldritch and strange. It has changed him. It is made clear, through text, that he chose this change. It may not have been much of a choice, but it was a choice nonetheless. From the story:

the wendigo gives to the man a dark warm heart of human meat. a man can die, or a man can eat. a man travelled by night. he ate the wendigo’s [offering]. the man lives, the hunger stays. hunger is the wendigo.

Through his choice, he is made a monster.

Kristine knows none of this when her husband returns. She knows that she is happy. She knows that she is pregnant. But she realizes something is wrong. He bites her, hurts her. She reaches out to her mother, hoping for advice, or succor.

Her mother tells her that Kristine is obligated to make it work. He’s her husband. She just needs to try harder. Give more. She never asks what, exactly, has made Kristine so skittish. She doesn’t want to listen.

Kristine’s husband, Noel, cannot contain his hunger. To his credit, he tries other ways of assuaging it. He tries to eat himself, but the curse doesn’t work that way. He thinks that he might eat a body in the morgue, but he is not able to get access. Feeble attempts, really. In the end, he has wanted his wife since he came home. His bite marks, forced on her already, tell that story clearly.

“What are you doing?” she whispered.

“Whatever I want,” Noel mumbled into her skin.

He never tries to eat another living person. There are so many other people on this planet, but he tries to eat his wife first, of all the living people in the world. She must be the one to feed his hunger.

“When dad died, you said you’d have traded anything, didn’t you?” Kristine asked. “Anyone or anything.”

Kristine makes a choice, too. Where her husband chose to make a dreadful bargain and live, where he chose to push his hunger, in the end, onto his wife, she chooses to accommodate it. She chooses, at the end of this story, to feed him – to give up a literal piece of her body to his hunger. Whether she should do this thing is never questioned by anyone except her, and then only in the darknesses of her mind.

How easily this story follows the pattern of abuse. The lack of questions, the lack of wanting answers, the isolation. How quickly she is expected to do what is best for everyone else, and not for herself. How easily she succumbs to male violence. How virtuous it must seem.

I am so tired of reading stories which rationalize male violence and female self-flagellation. Which not just rationalize, but normalize, even glorify, these things. Noel was a victim. Kristine was a martyr. Sure. Really Noel was a selfish fool who made a deal with the devil, or something very like it, and Kristine was the innocent told that she must do anything to save him. How often women must pay for the men in their lives’ mistakes, for their aggressions. It’s a uniquely feminine horror story. It’s a story about something that many don’t even acknowledge as an issue in life. And yet it sat wrong, on a day when yet another woman had lost her life to someone who should have been a partner. When the horror is all around us, and not acknowledged, how then do we read a supposedly fictional horror story and not grieve and rage?

I’m not the only person who has asked this question, and the same Tor.com published this timely post the next day on horror and women’s intuition. This post discusses the trope of the woman who, like Kristine, knows something is wrong. Cassandra-like, she tells of doom, but no one believes her. As the author, Emily Asher-Perrin, notes:

…some of these lessons are simply mirror images of terrors we know all too well—like a girl telling someone that she isn’t comfortable, and being told in response that she’s the worst kind of downer for daring to admit it.

Perhaps I just wish that the critique of Kristine and Noel’s supposed romance was laid out in more than unease and thrilling mystery. After all, Bluebeard was a story designed to keep young women obedient and it was a horror story, too. I want someone to acknowledge that the world, that society, failed Kristine. That she was backed into a corner with no one to rely on, no one to turn to, and only once choice: succumb in a way she might survive, or die. That the world fails women every day, and offers them this same choice. I wish, desperately, that this fiction might not just use that struggle, but acknowledge it in solidarity. And I don’t feel that that happened.

Likability in ASOIF

I’ve spent a lot of time this week reminding myself that I don’t have to be likable. In a way, writing Liana in The Creation Saga has been an exercise in writing an unlikable female character for me. That isn’t to say that I don’t want humans to commiserate with her, or understand her. The opposite, really. I want them to understand all of it and feel that same sort of dysphoria that she feels. I should be able to do betterI must be able to live up to their expectations.

There’s a point, when you are obsessed with likability, where you can slide into this kind of thinking. And it is easy to be obsessed with being likable as a woman. It offers you a sense of protection, however inaccurate that sense is. Likability is a kind of social capital. Politicians rule by it, at least in part. Celebrities live by it. It is a kind of power.

It is, however, fickle as powers go. A person must build their worth on other stuff. Cersei shows us this in A Song of Ice and Fire, as does Arya. Neither of them are cuddly sorts. We might admire Cersei’s competence at times, or her pure madness, but we certainly don’t like her. And while we pity Arya, hope that we would be as strong as her in the same situation, admire her skills and her bloodthirsty nature, most of us would not be able to hold a conversation with her. We’d be appalled when she slit a man’s throat without explanation. She is stunning and devious, not likable, despite the fact that we, as readers, like her.

The most likable character, in fact, is Sansa. In terms of being someone who could have a conversation with you, entertain you, someone who is generally beautiful and, if not kind, at least not cruel, your best bet is Sansa. Despite this, Sansa is usually the least liked character in the books, at least by readers. This is because Sansa has no power.

I may seem to have contradicted myself there, so let me unpack that.

A person’s worth doesn’t come from the likability, much as we are taught otherwise as women. Sansa swallows the princess narrative hook, line, and sinker. She thinks that if she can just be pretty and witty, she will be safe and cared for. She thinks that beautiful people on the outside must also be beautiful on the inside. We hate her for this, because we recognize very early on that the good do not win in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. That good people have already spent the one quality which might help them to survive, which is ruthlessness. But if we met Sansa on the street, we would probably consider her an upstanding girl, a cute little thing. She would be the kind of person we would hope to invite over for tea. We would talk about stories of knights in shining armor and fair queens.

sansa
For the record, I don’t watch the show. That said, here’s Sansa in Game of Thrones looking innocent.
We dislike Sansa not because she is unlikable, but because she has no power to affect her world. She has traded that power for the very likability that we teach little girls like her to strive for every day, with promises that it will protect them.

In some ways, I think Sansa’s character and her development is the most transgressive element of George R.R. Martin’s work.

In my own life, I spend a lot of time trying to cultivate other kinds of power. Not necessarily power over others, but power over myself. I try to be fearless in situations where fear does not help me. I try to be rational in making choices that are best for myself even when those choices may inconvenience others. And, most importantly, I try to quell the need for likability that sometimes comes clamoring out of my gut. When I make decisions to accomplish given outcomes, I recognize that I might be navigating my boat unevenly, listing towards positive reinforcement, begging for someone to recognize my sacrifices. This wastes valuable energy, but it is a human thing, too. We all have inconsistencies, foibles, weirdnesses that make us what we are.

It’s not bad to be kind, to be charismatic. But when it takes you into dangerous waters, you turn that boat around. When your self-worth becomes tied up in how people receive you, you will lose it. Remembering that, as a woman, is hard. Remembering that brief social buoyancy will not protect you from your status as feminine in a society driven by masculine values can be soul-crushing.

After all, it is so easy to want people to like you. But the most interesting people are often the least likable ones.