Wednesday, April 30, 2008


So I Google this blog on occasion (read: twice so far --- I may be a shameless, obsessive nerd but I am still very lazy), and what did I find but somebody who's put me on their blogroll!

Q-Sputnik is a British grad student doing a dissertation on UK feminism, particularly as manifested in blogs and other grassroots media and organizations. She must have found my blog when I attempted to join The Nectarine's group blog about feminism and mental illness (which I later found out was meant to be UK-only). But I'm on her blogroll and that's awesome!


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bringing the Doctor-Patient Relationship into the Bedroom

In Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English describe the historical gendering of the doctor-patient relationship: the older, wiser, fatherly male doctor ministering gently but firmly to the hysterical female patient. This was not hugely different from the 19th- (and early 20th-) century ideal of marriage, in which the husband takes over for the father as caretaker and chaperone for the eternally childlike, hothouse-flower daughter/wife. Given this role overlap, it's hardly surprising that several works of literature created during this era feature husbands and wives who are also doctors and patients. I'm thinking particularly of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" and F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is The Night.

There never fails to be something sinister about such relationships, since the balance of power is so tremendously one-sided. Here's the protagonist of "The Yellow Wallpaper," introducing herself and her husband at the beginning of the story:

John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.
John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.
John is a physician, and perhaps--(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)--perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.
You see he does not believe I am sick!
And what can one do?
If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression--a slight hysterical tendency-- what is one to do?
Personally, I disagree with their ideas.
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
But what is one to do?

You can see the extent to which her sense of herself and her own thoughts and opinions has already atrophied; we get so many words about John, what John thinks, what John says, and only a few slight glimpses of what she (the character is not even named!) thinks. When she does choose to express herself, it is alone, confiding in "dead paper" rather than fight with her husband over how much she should be taxing her poor fevered lady-brain. She's clearly worn down from having everything she says taken as proof of her wrongness and frailty. Paradoxically, she's utterly alone while her husband, sister and maid share a small summer cottage with her, and while her husband hovers over her, watching for signs of recovery.

I worry sometimes that this dynamic might be at work in my own relationship. He's older, more independent, NT (though he suspects himself of being a borderline Aspie), and robustly well-adjusted, while I struggle with severe depression. Because an aspect of my autism is a difficulty voicing my own needs and feelings (or even recognizing them!), it often happens that if I'm upset and don't know why (or can't articulate it), he will step into the gap and try to figure out what I need. By itself, that's fine --- people who love each other comfort each other when they're sad --- but he also tends to disregard what I say I want from him in those moments. It's almost like when I told him I couldn't decode my own emotions, I forfeited the right to have an opinion on them.

I showed him this passage from Tender Is The Night, which I thought illustrated the way that scenario normally plays out for us:

"This letter is deranged," he said. "I had no relations of any kind with that girl. I didn't even like her."
"Yes, I've tried thinking that," said Nicole.
"Surely you don't believe it?"
"I've been sitting here."
He sank his voice to a reproachful note and sat beside her.
"This is absurd. This is a letter from a mental patient."
"I was a mental patient."
He stood up and spoke more authoritatively.
"Suppose we don't have any more nonsense, Nicole."
"Listen to me --- this business about a girl is a delusion, do you understand that word?"
"It's always a delusion when I see what you don't want me to see."

He talks down to her, dismissing the evidence she presents of his infidelity as "deranged" and "absurd," and brings up her questionable sanity ("do you understand that word?"). My boyfriend recognized this as a more extreme version of a trend that can appear in our own interactions (though he heard my voice in Nicole a lot more than he heard his own in Dr. Diver), but he still tends to pathologize the things I say when upset. If I tell him to leave me alone, it's unhealthy and self-destructive, so he can ignore it and stick around, even if I really do feel smothered.

I wonder how prevalent this problem is among autistic women in relationships with NT men? We have very high rates of emotional problems, like depression and anxiety, which could lead a healthy person to dismiss what we say when sad or stressed-out as merely symptomatic (and thereby ignore the content of our complaints), and our autism puts us at a further disadvantage in trying to communicate with NTs --- both because we're less readily able to verbalize things, and because we know the NT is considered "right" by society. Indeed, autistic women get a double whammy of self-doubt: they're women, which I've indicated above has a long history of being pathologized (and still is, to read about the hormonal ravages of PMS and menopause), and their thoughts, feelings, needs and ways of communicating differ dramatically from what they've been taught is normal and healthy.

Literary Analogues

In all the commentary on the FLDS, several people have made comparisons to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. This is apt in a lot of ways: both the FLDS and the Republic of Gilead are polygynous, patriarchal religious communities in which access to women is granted only to the high-ranking men in the society, and in which women's only role is to obey and serve these men in varying capacities. (In the FLDS, the leader of the sect gets to decide who gets to marry whom, and a man's wives and children can be "reassigned" to other men if he gets into trouble with the higher-ups. Likewise, in Handmaid's Tale only high-ranking government and military officials get a Wife and Handmaid; poorer men get a single Econowife, and young men are not allowed contact with any woman). Women are also pitted against one another by the social structure --- Wives do not trust Handmaids, since many of the wives are infertile, and Handmaids are of course very fertile, which makes them valuable to men in ways the Wives can never be. Since both Wives and Handmaids are defined wholly in terms of the men to whom they are bound, and their welfare is entirely dependent on his choosing to support them, this means that the Wives will resent the Handmaids and see them as threats to their positions, and the Handmaids will fear the Wives' resentment because the Wives hold legal and social power over them (the hierarchy is Man > Wife > Handmaid). This mutual mistrust among women, and the intense competition between them to be the most valuable to their husband, is exactly the dynamic Carolyn Jessop describes in the quote I posted yesterday. Also, not only do women mistrust and compete against each other in these polygynous religious communities, they are primarily responsible for ensnaring the next generation of girls in the same toxic milieu.

There are even visual similarities between the dress of women on the FLDS compound and in Atwood's imaginary Republic of Gilead: women's dress is strictly regulated, uniform and color-coded. In Handmaid's Tale, the color coding sorts women according to station, with Handmaids in red, Wives in blue, prepubescent Daughters in white, and servant Marthas in green; this picture taken of women and children exiting the FLDS compound seems to show them color-coded by age.

As pervasive as the similarities between the FLDS way of life and Handmaid's Tale are, though, I think there's a better analogue elsewhere in feminist science fiction. In Sheri S. Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country, the main character, Stavia, goes on an exploratory mission to try to find other areas of human settlement, and finds a polygynous enclave whose members forcibly abduct her and make her one of their leader's wives. I think this is a truer analogue structurally, because what makes Gilead oppressive is its omnipresence; each household is just a microcosm of the larger totalitarian state, and any woman who managed to escape her household would have to escape detection by the authorities, who in a police state are ubiquitous and practically omniscient. The FLDS patriarchs do not have the backing of an entire government and military; their power comes from their isolation. Women who have spent their entire lives inside the sect are practically helpless to escape it (of course, some do, but the odds are dramatically against them, which is why those who do escape are so noteworthy). They are uneducated, have no skills or prospects to survive on their own, have no friends or family outside the cult, and are kept ignorant of the resources and programs available to help them (FLDS children are taught to run from child-protective agents and other officials, and to lie whenever a stranger asks about where they live or whose child they are). The enclave in Gate to Women's Country is similarly isolated; the sect's members are a single family that has inbred for generations, taking the occasional captive from Women's Country's exploratory teams, but largely undisturbed by outsiders and unaware of any other human settlements existing. If women there wish to escape, they have nowhere to go.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Few Words on the FLDS

Lots of other bloggers have already posted in depth on this, and have subjected it to far more penetrating analysis than I could. So I'm just going to focus on making one point: that polygynous enclaves like the FLDS are about male ownership of women. They're not about free, equal adults choosing to enter into unconventional lifestyles (generations of girls have been born into it now; they're never taught anything else), and they're not about the free exercise of religion (again, it's only free exercise for the patriarchs. The women and girls are essentially free to do whatever the man of the house says, or be beaten or get kicked out and starve).

You don't have to take my word for it: here's FLDS escapee Carolyn Jessop on the conditions under which she lived as church elder Merril Jessop's fourth wife:

To protect myself, I had to remain of value. Sex is the only currency – every polygamist wife knows that. A woman who possesses high sexual status with her husband has more power than his other wives. (emphasis mine)

She also has more children, and children are an insurance policy. Even if her husband takes a new and younger wife, a woman who produces a bevy of beautiful babies will earn respect.

She had to remain "of value," or else, presumably, her husband would tire of her and neglect her and her children. That's not the dynamic of a loving and mutual relationship that happens to include more than two people, that's the dynamic of master and slave.