“Welcome to Girl Land, my good little girls!”—Thank you Marlo Thomas and Friends

Caitlin Flanagan has a new book out.  When a writer of a certain standing (read: excellent agent and/or energy-filled editor and publicist) is about to publish (again or for the first time), her name begins to pop up, there and here and there, again.

Ms. Flanagan is a writer I love to hate.  Or hate to love.  And with these contradictions, I have begun to suggest what addles me about her.  Not her, but her writing.  No, not her writing, but her.  And yet it is a truism that we do not know a person because of her, or his, written work and the persona therein.

Person aside, I am too-often galled by the absolutism of so many of Flanagan’s arguments and assertions.   I am by temperament not a person of absolutes.  (See above.)  I see grey in almost everything—in fact the grey, for me, is the crux of humanity and literature, character and psychology both on and off the page.  We may take decisive action, speak decisively, but what stands behind that decision or instinct is seldom black-and-white.

In Flanagan’s first book, To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, she gives us the wife as angelic nurturer of not only children but husband.  I read the book in what I recall as a domestic cocoon when my first son was just over a year old, cold and grey outside, my Bosnia novel not coming together as I wished.  I remember reading it in bed, and so I think it must have been when J. was sick that winter.  With hindsight, the book was one of the thorns in my side that led to the rapid-writing of the “domestic” novel that has morphed and transformed in subsequent years, and which I am yet revising.  Flanagan is a powerful writer, and an irksome one.

In the essays popping up now, culled from, or thematically in sync with, her new book, Girl Land, she approaches girlhood as an enchanted child-world.  Girlhood (for her a whole land) as she conceives it, is regrettably, even inevitably, broken, but idyllic at least in its inception.  Now I am being reductive too—how easily the habit arrives in the context of polemic or critical essay.

This month, having avidly (avidly, contradictions and shades of grey, indeed—and also with increasing irritation) read Flanagan’s essay in The Atlantic, “The Autumn of Joan Didion,” and her briefer piece for The New York Times Magazine’s “Lives” section, “The End of Girl Land,” both on the themes of girlhood, I now understand in starker terms that our childhoods ran parallel, in at least one significant respect—that of academia—and yet they were drastically different.  Our growing-up-years were off by a decade, in real-time, and yet our experiences (and their rendering) diverged by a generation.  So often Flanagan’s position reads as though stuck in a yet-idyllic version of the 1950s: whole family in-tact, working husband, supportive wife, children in the protective bubble of childhood.

Flanagan is taken up by girlhood, intoxicated by and nostalgic for it.  I am not even sure that I recall what girlhood is, certainly not this version.  The 1970s and early ‘80s brought increased rates of divorce; cultural criticism; tampered-with bottles of Tylenol swept from drugstore shelves; and talk of hidden dangers in Halloween candy, even apples, not in the form of sugar-frenzy, but the lurking malevolence of other adults.  Vans could pull up, a door opening with a stranger waiting to steal away a child.  Surely I am exaggerating.  Yet how easily all of this returns, these memories far more present than the tickling grass and sunshine of the farm where my childhood began.  The idyll yet unbroken?  (My own parents, both professors, like Flanagan’s father, separated and divorced when I was four.  Early days of marriage’s ‘new wave.’)  But even in the heyday of “family values” and childhood security, the 1950s, there were grown-ups who fought, tension lurking, for some beneath the surface, skirted or sublimated, for others right there in front of them.

I cannot say if Flanagan’s own childhood held overt signs of such tensions and dangers, felt or real.  While she is expert and insightful enough as a writer to ferret out inconsistencies and compromises in her own parents’ marriage, to retrieve the urge of the adolescent child to leave (home, girlhood, adolescence and stagnation), she still asserts a rosiness that belies so many real experiences.  In her “Lives” piece, we read…

“There wasn’t anything any of us could have done to forestall the end of Girl Land.  We got over it, we made it up to each other, but it was never the same again.  It never is for anyone.”

It is with this for anyone that my scalp begins to tingle and an old amalgam of anger, frustration, annoyance and righteousness begins to percolate.  Flanagan has described a particular with tender precision, then gone on to make it universal, not by virtue of an emotion or reaction created in the reader (among the finest of abilities a narrative writer can possess), but through statement of supposed fact.  Scene has become polemic.

And yet, immediately following this frustrating collision of effective description with preaching mono-vision—drawing boundaries as though forming an elite club of experience—Flanagan goes on with such beautiful simplicity to tell us of a memory of her mother (a nesting doll of memories) that in its particularity and brevity puts us right there with her and her grief, not a fresh grief but the poignant loss that can pursue us for the balance of our lives.  One experience becomes capable of drawing up a whole array of related emotions and experiences, not only hers, but our own.

“’I want you to have these,’ my mother said to me one night, a few weeks before she died.  She gave me the two hollow gold bracelets that her own mother wore and that she wore every day, the ones that clink together in a certain way, reminding me so powerfully of the way they clinked when she turned a page in ‘Little House on the Prairie’ or brushed my hair or zipped up one of my dresses, that even now, so many years later, they are in two separate pouches in the back of a drawer so that I never have to hear that sound again.”

Here, one person’s particulars become another’s not through blunt assertion, but through the nuances of carefully honed craft, and the intense intimacy created through honesty, first with one’s self.

I can’t help but wonder if Flanagan’s new book might not be a lengthy mourning for her mother, a love letter to the deceased, and if perhaps her first book (that paean to the “inner housewife”) might have been performing a similar task.  After I began this post (yes, things proceed slowly here in parent-writer-land), The New York Times Book Review ran a review, in which reviewer Emma Gilbey Keller notes that “real girls are absent from ‘Girl Land.’  And so is their energy.”  Indeed, we are visiting fantasy.  We are inhabiting loss.

Let’s jump for a moment to the album of so many feminist daughters of the 1970s, “Free to Be You and Me.”  Remember?  There is a song precisely about this—Girl Land—complete with capitalized significance.  But this is a song filled with eerie carnival music and irony.  Girl Land is confining, a jail keeping girls from the world—in all its joys, if also its complications—and we might yet break free.

Welcome to Girl Land, my good little girls!
Admission’s a wink and a toss of your curls.
They’re closing down Girl Land. Some say it’s a crime
To be losing the trees you’re forbidden to climb.
And other folks say it was always a bore
To wait for a boy who would open the door
To the funhouse …

(still more carnival music playing through next verse)

Wonderful Girl Land, the island of joys,
Where good little girls pick up after the boys!
So come on in. Look about.
You go in a girl … and you never get out! (wicked laugh)

Back in the ‘70s, at least in the “Free to Be” version, they were “closing up Girl Land.”  Girls could climb trees, needn’t be trained as domestics, might break free, and boys would learn to cry.  “It’s all right to cry,” we were told.  Feelings were part of the human condition, not consigned to girls alone.  And yet here we are with Flanagan’s Girl Land: a place women must hold onto, re-create even, in order to mourn.  Flanagan grieves through her two treatises, Girl Land and To Hell with All That—on girls and women and the allures and obligations of domesticity—and she tells us of her mother’s similar need,

“She never recovered from losing her own mother as a girl and never believed it possible to recapture that lost world—the dress-up box and the fairy plays and the evenings in the rocking chair—until there it was again, complete.”

For Flanagan’s mother, girlhood could be retrieved through her two daughters.  Flanagan herself has sons.  Much as I am sometimes drawn to the metaphor of books as children of a sort (demanding, loving, unpredictable), I cannot conceive of writing, of the bearing of books into the world, as a replacement for childhood.  Nor as a sole vessel for grief.  Keller, in the NYTBR, points out that Flanagan “likes to keep her womenfolk isolated and at home.”  How true.  And yet the writing of her books takes Flanagan into the world, a world she has cracked quite handily, her skill as much as her retro, pseudo-reactionary topics, placing her in the pages and corridors of  The New Yorker and  The Atlantic (among others), two of the most elite, and still male-dominated, magazines in their fields.  Flanagan may be proclaiming her love and loathing for her inner housewife, all the while illustrating her need for and fear of her inner feminist.  On the subject of Joan Didion, a writer she has long admired even while panning her most recent memoir (Blue Nights, ironically, on the subject of grief, for a daughter, rather than mother, and for herself as death grows closer, rather than for lost childhood per se), Flanagan writes,

“Didion is the writer who expressed most eloquently the eternal-girl impulse, the one that follows us into adulthood: the desire to retreat to our room, to close the door, to spend some time alone with our thoughts and feelings.”

Funny, but this is the writer’s impulse, for solitude, for retreat into worlds of the mind, invented or un-ironed from fact, and, yes, in order to write, there must be solitude.  Rather than permit a professional (likely personal too, why else write?; while retreating from the world may be necessary for craft, it is also fraught) obligation and necessity, Flanagan has relegated not only her own need—to put thoughts into words with eloquence and then share them—but also Didion’s, to the land of childhood.

Wonderful Girl Land, the island of joys,
Where good little girls pick up after the boys!
So come on in. Look about.
You go in a girl … and you never get out! (wicked laugh)

Ms. Flanagan, please, it’s time to let yourself out.  Must women, particularly mothers, fear their own professional needs and urges, infantilize themselves and their careers?

And soon, in a park that was Girl Land before,
You’ll do what you like and you’ll be who you are,
As you wander in and wander out
And pretty soon forget all about …

Girl Land need not be a prison, in reality or in memory.  And grief, painful as it is, need not be its own new jail.  Adults have desires, they have emotions, some write.

~   ~   ~

Writing, grief, mortality, action in the world and the urge to tell, these themes remind me of one of my favorite poets, Adrienne Rich, and a new poem I also had the pleasure of reading in this same fortnight of Flanagan’s belittling of her sex.  At the end of “Endpapers,” in Granta, 118, Rich writes,

“The signature to a life requires
the search for a method
rejection of posturing
trust in the witnesses
a vial of invisible ink
a sheet of paper held steady
after the end-stroke
above a deciphering flame”

~   ~   ~


About Kara Krauze

http://karakrauze.com Kara Krauze is a writer, consultant, and educator. Kara has worked in publishing, financial services, the mental health field, and community organizing. Her essays have been published in Quarterly West, Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Highbrow Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She has a B.A. from Vassar College in International Studies and a M.A. in Literary Cultures from New York University. She has participated in workshops in New York City, Prague, and France, studied in Moscow and lived in London. Her writing, including a memoir and novels, engages with the subjects of war, loss, and memory. She grew up in Ohio and currently lives in New York City. Kara founded Voices From War, offering writing workshops for veterans, in 2013. http://VoicesFromWar.org
This entry was posted in COUNTRIES OF LOST THINGS, Grief & grieving, Memory, Motherhood, Writing & Reading and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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