The Rim of the Wound

An open letter to the students of Columbia University Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board, with a special note to my daughters

Mike McQuade

I read with interest your recent op-ed in the Columbia Spectator arguing, among other things, that Ovid's Metamorphoses should be assigned with a trigger warning because of the story “The Rape of Proserpina.” As you put it:

Metamorphoses is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.

You clearly struck a nerve, because there's been a lot written about your letter and what it means for higher education. Some people are supportive and sympathetic to the experiences that might lead a young person to need a trigger warning in the first place, while others cluck-cluck over how thin-skinned and coddled kids are these days. They fret that your parents—and all contemporary parents, which I guess includes me—are so protective and overinvolved that students are unable to withstand even the slightest discomfort or intellectual challenge.

That line of argument makes me a little defensive, being both a mother of daughters and a sexual assault survivor myself. I'm deeply concerned about young women like you and my daughters—when they are old enough to get there—being safe at college. It is essential and it ought to be above argument that students who are combat veterans or sexual assault survivors or victims of other traumas should be able to immerse themselves in the world of ideas without unnecessarily reopening old wounds. And, yes, I am tired of the mom being blamed for every one of society's perceived weaknesses.

I'm your friend. I'm a feminist. I'm old enough to be your mother. I want what you want—a world where injustice is chased into the night by fierce kindness and right action. And yet it made my heart sink to watch four bright, passionate young women toss Metamorphoses onto the bonfire and prepare to light the match. Yes, the Western canon is too white, too male. I made the same argument when I was an undergraduate thirty years ago. And unfortunately, it's still true.

But let's stick with the specifics of “The Rape of Proserpina” for a moment. Many of our readers will know it in its Greek form, the story of Demeter and Persephone, though the version I love is the translation by poet Ted Hughes, and he retains the Roman version. As a refresher, here are the highlights: Ceres, goddess of the harvest, was busy making the Roman Empire a fertile and productive place until the giant Typhon—who was buried under Sicily—started “vomit[ing] ashes / Flame, lava, Sulphur.” Pluto, god of the underworld, feared his roof would collapse, so he came to the surface to check for damage. Aphrodite saw her opportunity to bring the chaos and mischief of love to the nether regions, so she goaded Cupid into shooting his arrow deep into Pluto's heart. Proserpina, Ceres's daughter, was gathering flowers in a field with her friends, and “in the sweep of a single glance,” Pluto became mad with love. Being the god of the underworld, he kidnapped a terrified Proserpina and took her to his kingdom as his wife, which sent Ceres into a fit of rage and grief. She ransacked the world and demanded Proserpina's return:

With an instant epidemic, throughout the island.
She broke up the ploughs with her bare hands,
Forebade the fields to bear a crop
Of any kind. She made all seed sterile.
This island, that had boasted its plenty
Throughout the world, lay barren.
As soon as the blade showed green—
the grain died.
Floods, heatwaves, and tempests
Sluiced away or dried and blew off the tilth.
The bared seeds were collected by birds.

Ceres's negotiating position was seriously strengthened by her destruction and relentlessness, so her brother Jupiter—the mightiest of the gods and Pluto's brother—arranged for Proserpina to return to the world of the living. But Proserpina had violated one of the conditions of the underworld by eating seven seeds of a pomegranate. As a result, she was allowed to come back to the surface for only half the year. For the other half—one month for each seed she had eaten—she returned to Pluto and the underworld, dividing both her time and her nature between dark and light, between cold and warmth, between sunny meadows and the depths of hell.

It's a stark tale. Proserpina is kidnapped, raped, and held hostage by the king of the underworld, and that is nasty, violent business. Though I had probably heard the story sometime before I arrived at university, I didn't study it seriously until I read Metamorphoses as a freshman. That was the same year I was sexually assaulted by a classmate. And that was a nasty, life-changing business as well. One I didn't want to be reminded of in honors literature. And one I don't want to be reminded of now. And one I don't want to write about in my hometown magazine. But I do write about it because I know that I am one of the 20 percent of American women who will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. And I write about it because my identity—including my identity as a survivor—has changed over those years, and so has my relationship to the myths of Metamorphoses.

In the nearly thirty years since, I've turned to the tale of “The Rape of Proserpina” and its Greek counterpart again and again despite its shocking title and the violence at the center of it. The story—like all great metaphors—just keeps opening up. As a young woman, I found sisterhood in the brutalization of Proserpina. It wasn't just the rape that was familiar, but the sudden descent into darkness despite all my efforts to stay in the light. It was also the confusion of connecting to a deep, sometimes frightening, inner life while being expected to be smiling and presentable in the outside world. Later, it was the tug of war between being a daughter and being a wife

In recent years—for obvious reasons—it's been Ceres I look to for comfort. Of course I worry myself sick about my own daughters' safety and whether some dark lord will pluck them out of my motherly nimbus. But Ceres is so much more than a doting mother. Despite her devotion to sunny wheat fields and the fruits and flowers of the world, Ceres has a fierceness that is not to be trifled with. One of my favorite moments in the story is when she takes a break from her desperate search for Proserpina to drink a jug of water infused with barley and herbs. A “cocky brat” jeers and calls her a “greedy guzzling old witch.” But he does not know who it is he's decided to mock. Ceres throws the jug of broth in his face, then slowly and methodically shrinks him, transforming him into a newt. Believe me, as an adult, educated, professional woman who sometimes finds herself the impatient recipient of what has brilliantly become known as “mansplaining,” I wish I had a jug of barley broth and the power to transform someone into an amphibian. But at least I can turn my inner eye toward Ceres and know that she has—and through her, I have—the last laugh.

Truth be told, I even recognize the impulses of Aphrodite. Though I hate to admit it even to myself, it is sometimes sorely tempting to use the “tickling barbs” of love (or at least desire) to move the needles of power, to—as Aphrodite put it—“expand our empire.”

Shit happens, ladies. And it's unfair. And I hate it. And I wish it weren't that way. But I want you to have the full range of tools to keep becoming the badass women you are meant to be. Can you imagine what it must have been like two thousand years ago with no heat, no air-conditioning, no emergency broadcasting system? “The Rape of Proserpina,” along with many of the stories in Metamorphoses, offered a human-scale rendition of that which is fearsome and capricious and unexplainable—earthquakes, violence, winter. And for all the intervening years, the stories have offered companionship as we struggle with great mysteries and great pain, including the pain of being raped. But we are not bound to take myth literally, and we are tough enough to use it for our own purposes. As the American poet Louise Glück puts it in “Persephone the Wanderer”:

You are allowed to like
no one, you know. The characters
are not people.
They are aspects of a dilemma or conflict.

 

Three parts: just as the soul is divided,
ego, superego, id. Likewise

the three levels of the known world,
a kind of diagram that separates
heaven from earth from hell.

This is not to suggest that you and your friends are the biggest threat to metaphor in the culture. But I do want you—along with my own daughters—to be the ones with access to the mystery. Now I fear that the most well-known metaphors are those being offered by advertisers. Of course capitalism—the market, as we quaintly call it—has no incentive to generate myths and stories that sit with us in our grief and confusion and anger. It has every incentive to try to convince us that with enough money and consumer goods, we can buy anything, including immortality. Tales of suffering and disaster are not particularly useful in selling moisturizer.

But let's be real. Immortality is not for sale. The thing that is making us feel unsafe is not a collection of ancient myths; it is the fact that the world is not safe. I don't say this to excuse violence or repression. But I do say it to wake us up. The world will never be safe enough to save us from our own deaths. By turning away from myths that grapple with pain and violence, we are turning away from the companionship of the immortals.

And in my book, the immortals go far beyond my favorite dead white guys—Ovid and Dante and Blake. When I am casting about for guides—or at least traveling companions—in the perilous swamps of the inner life, I turn not just to them but to the dreamlike novels of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende. I lie awake poring over the numinous images of Adrienne Rich and Vénus Khoury-Ghata. I seek out the stories and poems that touch the unconscious, that hang around when confusion and despair threaten to overtake me entirely.

I am in search of art that is rich in what the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca called duende. The word duende itself refers to a foul little goblin that appears in Spanish myths and fairy tales, but in Lorca's construct, duende is the sense of earthy foreboding that brings the artist face-to-face with death. It is duende that gives flamenco its devastating combination of vitality and desperation. As Lorca put it, duende is “a sort of corkscrew that can get art into the sensibility of an audience ... the very dearest thing that life can offer the intellectual.”

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but from my advanced age, it is looming death that increasingly injects intensity into the hours of my life. There are days when I cry all the way to work, knowing that our days are numbered, knowing that I will drop these particular children at these particular schools only a few more times, even if the repetition sometimes seems enough to make me chew my foot off. I am keenly aware of the dangers of the world, the ones facing my daughters and the ones facing you. But that awareness makes it (almost) impossible to take even the carpool for granted. So I'm with Lorca when he stands on the edge and cries out: “Pain is made flesh, takes human form, and acquires a sharp profile. She is a dark woman wanting to catch birds in nets of wind.”

I don't write this to bust your chops for calling out Ovid, but it is a dangerous thing for a culture to lose access to the language of the unconscious. As my grandmother might have said, you are bright as a shiny penny. But I will add this: You—like all of us—are bound to confront the darkness sooner than any of us would like. And if we turn our faces away and pretend that winter will never come, we are doomed to live under fluorescent lights and heat lamps, taking selfies and preserving only that which is singular to us. Then what? We will have chosen our own imprisonment, a conscription to a world of surface, corporatized images, fearful of that which reminds us that we are bound for pain and death. And if we are unable to look into the face of suffering—our own and that of others—we seal ourselves into our own individual experiences that we replay in their particularities, cut loose from the arc of human experience.

It is a frightening thing, reliving trauma, but our souls—as Lorca put it—“love the rim of the wound,” and myth lays down a path for us to find each other across cultures and millennia. Come close, dear ones, let's walk the path together. I'll reach for your hand. I hope you'll grab mine back.

Comments

12 comments have been posted.

Thank you for the well written article. I loved the clarity, the archetypical connections, and the wisdom. I agree with the belief that people, especially our young, need to be exposed to the full circle of life with its pains and beauties. And I agree with Paige's comment that I didn't understand the op'ed to be pulling these literatures but to give a heads up. Being someone who grew up repeatedly raped as a young kid, I would appreciate an advance warning so I can read challenging stories in a safe environment. As a student, class discussions prompted by literature greatly helped me to heal. I have experienced the panic shutdown in public when I was blindsided by a trigger; I did provide a real life example for the classroom. I'm very grateful to the teachers who provided an advanced warning on the topics so I could be present in mind to learn and not be disruptive. I would be grateful to be taught by someone like you and to have a trigger warning to wrap a level of protection around me as I add another layer of understanding and beauty. I see more challenge in writing a disclosure so politically correct that it has no value in truly saying anything. Everyone has some sort of trauma and every good story has some trigger. If I attempted to place a warning to cover every potentially offensive item, I'd have such a generic statement that it would be useless. Life is life. Thank you to those who take the time to think of others and to discern solutions.

Kathy | November 2015 | Seal Rock, OR

So well-considered, and beautifully expressed, Wendy.I think that avoiding whole swaths of literature because of our own traumatic experiences would narrow our worlds even more than the original injury. And there is much to be said for discovering one's ancestors and companions in struggle.

Deborah Dombrowski | October 2015 |

Very well said, good argument. My favorite part was when you said, "Shit happens, ladies. And it’s unfair. And I hate it. And I wish it weren’t that way. But I want you to have the full range of tools to keep becoming the badass women you are meant to be." Yes, it is frightening reliving trauma, but coming out the other side makes it well worth it! Thanks for this :-)

Badass Cat Names | October 2015 |

This is beautiful and powerful and smart, and full of compassion to so many, including yourself. I also was raped when I was a university student. Reading was a comfort. The metaphor of story let me go to dark and fearful places that I was not ready to go to directly, and there was a kind of repairing below the surface that carried me through.

Jackie Shannon Hollis | September 2015 | Portland, Oregon

I liked your essay and I loved that you shared how you relate to the Metamorphosis over your lifetime and how it helped you. On its own this essay is well worth reading. This part struck me as odd, though: "And yet it made my heart sink to watch four bright, passionate young women toss Metamorphoses onto the bonfire and prepare to light the match." I mean... that is not really what happened. I hadn't read the op-ed until after I read your essay, but this description seemed rather alarmist and I went looking for it. Yes, I realize it's a metaphor, but honestly, you're arguing that Metamorphosis should be taught--and they didn't recommend that it not be. What they actually mentioned in the op-ed is that they proposed that faculty be sent a letter about possibly implementing "potential trigger warnings." You realize TV does this all the time, right? "Warning: What you are about to see contains graphic content. Viewer discretion is advised"--and then it goes ahead and plays the movie/show/whatever anyway. A scenario like this is actually what they advocated for. I'm...having a hard time seeing the problem. They're not trying to take the Metamorphosis away; they're trying to get faculty to teach it--with sensitivity. Why is that so bad? Why do you liken to book burning and intolerance?

Paige | September 2015 |

Thanks for writing this, Wendy, and for sharing it (with special thanks to "The Lorca.") Like so many complicated issues in the art of living, I see this as a yet another paradox. Because while I think it's often critical to separate the personal from the universal/political/legal/administrative/what-have-you, it's also comforting to enmesh ourselves with, as you call it so beautifully, "the arc of human experience," both to find comfort and to establish our identity among humanity. We're all wounded, and we all struggle. Some of us emerge more intact others, but 2 truths remain: shit happens and eventually we all die. I'm wondering what, ultimately, would be gained by putting a trigger warning on this or any other required reading? Or on anything -- whether text or any other media? (Think: commercials, social media, video games, email, text msgs, movies, live theater, high school, network news......presidential campaigns?) As an older woman, mother, and grandmother, so much of what I know now is a result of simply living on Earth so many damn years. As a younger woman, I often felt bullied and buffeted about by the cruelty, violence, and indifference of the world, often at the hands of men or persons with more power and authority. I'm sure I'm not alone, and I would love nothing more than to protect all the world's vulnerable from such things. Clearly, the trauma of sexual assault, war, and all forms of trauma and loss should be acknowledged and its profound impact on its victims respected. But to put a trigger warning on all that hot mess -- "Warning: Life Can Really Suck" -- would bring little comfort & most likely induce paranoia and fear of, well, everything. The students you address in this letter are fortunate to have the caring guidance you've offered here. I know when I was their age, such a letter would brought tons of comfort and encouragement to keep diving into the scary, beautiful unknown. More than anything, young people need hope and to know that what Mr. Rogers called "the helpers" are out there.

Suzanne | September 2015 | Portland OR

I read this a few weeks back and loved it. However, since then I had a friend tell me she has been unable to finish her English degree because of courses where she read this kind of material and was assigned to write about "the loss of innocence" after a traumatic and brutal rape. My perspective is shifting slightly in the light of the knowledge that this kind of pain is real and affects real lives.

Rhiannon | September 2015 | Portland, Oregon

Beautifully spoken, Wendy...

Tricia Snell | September 2015 | Portland

For another interesting take, see Madeleine Kahn's article “Why Are We Reading a Handbook on Rape?” Young Women Transform a Classic,” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language and Composition, 4.3, September 2004, 438-59, expanded in her 2005 book “Why Are We Reading Ovid's Handbook on Rape? Teaching and Learning at a Women's College.”

Chris | September 2015 | Oakland, CA

As someone who continues to teach Ovid, Dante, and Blake to undergraduates -- for some of the same reasons you voice eloquently and clearly here -- and also has spent years working with survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence, and as someone who also has a college-age daughter, I thank you for holding together the complexities and speaking your mind with passion, and in process, reminding me of why I do what I do.

Wendy Petersen-Boring | August 2015 | Salem

Wendy, thank you for this - thoughtful, tender, fierce and most of all, wise.

Karen | August 2015 | Portland

Thank you, Wendy. I descended in this and came to the top and descended again. Beautiful.

Tricia | August 2015 | Portland, Oregon

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