Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party is stuck in a very small room in a fairly small gallery on the fourth floor of a huge museum in Brooklyn. Some say it’s not The Last Supper, which it cheekily nods to, but rather the First. The piece gives 1,038 women, left in the wake of the history boat, a space in which their stories are relayed, where their legacies can stretch and breathe. The space acknowledges their accomplishments. It’s just not very much space.
I’m jogging in my neighborhood when I pass a house that has recently been transformed into a live action game center called “BREAKOUT.” Their sign asks me “Are you up for the challenge?” In America, we love to pass our free time like this: we pay someone to lock us and some of our dear friends in a room, then try to “break out” of that room in a certain amount of time. This is what we do as a family on Saturday afternoon. The house is located less than five city blocks from the local jail. One of the “rooms” you can choose, if you choose to participate in this game, is “Detention” and another an expedition into the “African Wilds and miles off the coast” gone wrong. The website tells potential customers that all it takes to BREAKOUT is “Luck, skill, willpower, divine intervention.”
Michelle Olley stands up a bit straighter. She’s backstage, completely naked. Her breasts hang low and heavy. Her body is powdered, primped and prodded. She’s nervous as hell. Two make-up artists, around her age, glue moths to her flesh: three above her left breast. They tell her, don’t be embarrassed about being naked, we’re both mothers too. Michelle is not a mother. The glue puckers her skin, like in grade school: Elmer’s covering her fingers instead of construction paper, red and purple and orange dyes rubbing off and mixing in, her flesh a veritable rainbow. Two smaller moths on her left shin, wings closed, and a butterfly, spread open in between them. Her body starts feeling thick and ready. The butterfly falls off, is restuck. Two entomologists flutter about, keeping a close eye on their stock. Michelle’s been keeping a diary over the days leading up to this one. She writes, “in my little cocoon head, covered in perilously glued-on, highly breakable insects, I feel pretty placid. Have done since the mask went on.” The mask is some silver number, bat-ear horned. Her body is primed, powered. Bellyslick as a fishlip split. Her body becomes more her own than it has ever been.
Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel ROOM details a young woman, kidnapped and held captive in a converted garden shed by a middle-aged man called Old Nick, who rapes her almost daily. He gets her pregnant, makes her get rid of it. Gets her pregnant again, and she insists on keeping it. So now her son lives with her too; they inhabit this tiny room, 10’ x 10’, and this is all her son knows of the world. He turns five at the beginning of the novel. It won a Man Booker prize, and was recently made into a film that was up for a sluice of Oscars.
In 2011, New Yorker staff interview Donoghue from their office, while she’s at home in Ontario eating a chicken pot pie. At one point, she types: “Although my conscience is clear, in that I was not exploiting any real individual’s story in writing ROOM, of course I was aware that my novel, by commenting on such situations, would run the risk of falling into those traps of voyeurism, sensationalism and sentimentality…when I was researching confinement cases I became as fascinated by my sources...Especially that unnerving mixture of the saccharine and the judgmental; it seems that we set up these Suffering Girls only to bludgeon them off their pedestals.”
Meanwhile, a middle-aged man is holding three young women captive in his two-story house in Cleveland, Ohio. He kidnapped them at different times: Michelle Knight in 2002, the day before she was supposed to appear in court for a child custody case; Amanda Berry in 2003, walking home from her high school job at Burger King; Gina DeJesus in 2004 from a payphone outside her middle school. He keeps them in separate rooms, sometimes; sometimes, the same room. He feeds them one meal a day, sometimes; sometimes, two. Sometimes he doesn’t feed them at all. He impregnates them, accidentally, sometimes, and sometimes forces the end of their pregnancies: sometimes with bricks, sometimes with fists. They won’t be found for two more years.
Alexander McQueen has chosen Michelle Olley for fashion week: his Spring 2001 collection, VOSS. At the end of the show there’s a countdown, lights out, the models leave and then the walls fall, shattering. Olley’s stuck inside a box, inside another box. The whole stage a cage. Vogue describes it as “a mirrored cube, which, when lit from inside, revealed itself to be a mental-hospital holding cell.” Kate Moss, Stella Tenant and Karen Elson: the models playacting “demented girls”—running their hands along the glass, nude makeup, eyes sleepy and distant, tearing at their dresses. They all wear flesh-colored nylons keeping their hair tight to their heads. The outer walls are one-way mirrors: the audience can see in, but the models can’t see out.
The morning the Cleveland Three are rescued, May 2013, I drive a friend to her MRI. We get a beer after, and she talks about how the machine, while she was stuck inside it, made this whirring hum that sounded like a delirious cartoon character: happyhappyhappyhappyhappy. We grab a barbeque lunch, the television tuned to a news station—footage of the release. None of them want to be interviewed. Day-buzzed, I tell my friend I want one of them to write a memoir. She shoots me a look of disgust over her fried catfish, sets down her plastic fork. “Really?” she asks, “why?” Shame flutters up inside of me. Why? Why do I want one of them to write a memoir? What about this makes me want to read and fawn over the horror they experienced, why this fascination taking root inside my gut. I respond with some bullshit about empowerment and writing through experience and though this is true, I don’t think it’s the reason I said it.
That fall, Michelle Knight does publish a memoir called Finding Me. I read it for all the wrong reasons. Her story is one of brutal triumph. She was alone in the house for almost a year before the other girls were kidnapped. She was kept alone in the top story of the house. She was rarely allowed to interact with the others. Her captor bought her a puppy, and then, a few months later, wrung its neck in front of her. No one had really looked for her. She and Gina DeJesus had been found by proxy of Amanda Berry, it seemed. According to her memoir, it seems like Michelle got the worst of it. The press agrees. They don’t talk to her any more, Gina and Amanda. But in interviews they say they wish her the best.
In 2012, wandering around Savage Beauty, the Alexander McQueen retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I stumble upon the projection of Michelle Olley attached to her breathing tube through that bat mask, butterflies attached to her naked body. It reminds me of my grandmother, pushing her oxygen tank through the mall near Christmas, just a few months before she died, the tinny sounds of carols echoing wildly, the grotesque face of Santa Claus leering from shop windows. It reminds me of my own mask of virility, the shame petalling up my face.
There are no butterflies in Joel-Peter Witkin’s photograph Sanitarium, McQueen’s inspiration for the show. Just an obese woman attached to a tube, the tube attached to the mouth and genitals of a taxidermied monkey. The photograph, according to Witkin, was inspired by an article about anthrax. He says his photographs reflect the “unavoidable connections” of things in life.
There’s this joke in The Sopranos: all of the bosses and captains are gathered around Last-Supper-style for one of their weekly meals, plates of pasta and piles of bread and pitchers of wine, Tony at the head and Uncle Junior slinking into a Judas position. Paulie, Tony’s left hand man, tells a joke about Jesus and leans over to Tony for the punchline: “Hey Peter, I can see your house from here.”
I used to go to this bar, The Gray Lady, to get shitfaced with my best friend. Just obliterated. Like nothing else existed except our faces; we can’t even feel them. There’s a big black trash can right next to the door that people sling their glass bottles in after chugging them. Between the trash and the bar there’s a big yellow-chipping mock version of Alabama’s electric chair. Empty. Some reminder: Yellow Mama. On Halloween, the barback hoists her from her usual position onto the stage, props a dummy up in her lap. One of those bald gray-faced dummies, festive, skinny as The Scream, black plastic mouth in a perpetual yawp. Hooks it up. Slumps it over.
In America, we love entertainment that fetishizes a revocation of the very same freedom upon which we pride ourselves. As a culture, we love movies like this: Saw and Hostel and even The Purge. There’s something entertaining to us about watching someone stuck in a room, trying to find their way out, battling for their lives. Hell, we love football. And wrestling. And hockey. Everyone loves a good fight. And, there’s a market for paying to be voluntarily stuck in a room, in order to find a way out. And this is how we remake our history.
In 2015, a movie is made about the Cleveland Three, for Lifetime, based on Michelle Knight’s memoir. Her character is the star, played by Taryn Manning, who hit celebrity status for her portrayal of villain-victim Pennsatucky on the Netflix show Orange is the New Black, which takes place in a female prison.
Spoiler alert: Emma Donoghue’s main character gets out of the room & tries to off herself.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s narrator spends too much time in the nursery, and begins to see women stuck behind the wallpaper, begging their ways out. She tears it down, tries to help, but instead is forever doomed to crawl around that same room, digging a rut into the wall with her shoulder. And in some ways, seems happy to do so.
In America, you can tour old prisons like theme parks. There’s a facility in New Mexico that served as a film site for All the Pretty Horses and Zero Dark Thirty. Before that, it had been the site of a 36-hour siege in which 33 people died. It remains one of the most violent uprisings at one of the most corrupt institutions in US history. Old Main closed in 1998. Now, for $15, you can take a two-hour tour of the place. When you get there, you are assigned an institutional number, and have your photograph taken for “booking.” Then, the guide walks you and your group step-by-step through the 1980 riot. A journalist for Vice magazine took the tour, and writes that it “allows people to experience a permanent nightmare in the American collective conscious: prison.” The nightmare here being not the prison itself, but the people inside. The nightmare not being the prison industrial complex, but instead the idea of being locked up with the people living inside of the prison industrial complex.
In America, the chickens always come home to roost. In America, you can be anything you want. In America, you can call it anything you want. In America, you have your pick of pastimes. In America, you can run a marathon. You can compete in a triathlon. In America, you could sign up for the Escape from Angola triathlon. The Escape from Angola triathlon includes a 1-mile swim, a 44-mile bike ride and a 10-mile run across the 18,000 acres of land upon which the prison sits.
Escape from Angola was to be hosted on the property of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the largest maximum security prison in the United States, with a housed population over 6,000. The website offers that “after several logistic meetings and facility tours, Escape from Angola was born.” The medals for finishers were to be replica keys to the prison. The top winners in each category by age and gender were to win retired keys from the prison. For those travelling from far away, there was an overnight package available. Racers would sleep in former cell blocks of the unit that was, until a decade ago, death row.
After much criticism and lash-back, The Advocate published an article announcing the cancellation of the race. Over 350 people had already signed up, paying the $150 entry fee. The organizer made it clear that “athletes would have been safe from offenders and otherwise face the same risks posed by any Louisiana terrain.” The website has since been 404ed. There is, though, an Escape from Alcatraz triathlon that’s been ongoing for the last four decades. It begins on Alcatraz Island, home of the famous prison, with a 1.5-mile swim to the mainland, and ends under the Golden Gate Bridge. Their website asks if you are “Ready to Make your ESCAPE?”
Angola’s property is also home to a 9-hole golf course, “offering a spectacular view of Louisiana’s only maximum security prison.” Among those not allowed to play this course: ex-felons, those without proper ID, those without verified background checks, anyone listed on a current or former prisoner’s visitation list.
The joke goes that Jesus is up on the cross and rasps, “Hey Peter, heeeyyyy Peter! Come here.” And so Peter walks closer, and Jesus says, with his dying breath: “Hey Peter, I can see your house from here!” I guess that’s the punchline: the trivial things we notice in death. I guess that’s the punchline: that we often overlook the larger and looming things at stake. I guess that’s the punchline: that on occasion there is a situation that warrants us to see beyond our typically contained range of sight.
The incarcerated men assigned to maintenance work the course, tending the green and cooking in the pro shop restaurant. Angola is also home of the Prison Rodeo, a twice-annual event attended by thousands and thousands of spectators. A woman I met told me I should go sometime because “it’s a real riot.” She had taken her children, ages seven and nine: “They had so much fun.” The prison tourism is said to reinforce “the power inherent in the position of ‘free’ non-incarcerated citizens.” Playing golf, or competing in a triathlon, on prison property, as someone not incarcerated, who makes the choice to leisure their time away as such, “makes the free feel freer.”
When I had trouble sleeping as a child, I would imagine rooms: circular rooms that contained anything I might need—stove, sink, strainer. Bathtub, bookshelf, begonia. Tylenol, television, tangerine. The effect was oddly comforting. And then it was beyond sleep—I was sketching these rooms at school: during history lessons, at recess. I would hang them in my locker. To be somewhere else. And so here we sit, in a room of our own making.
I have a friend who recently transitioned, boxed in a gender in which he didn’t fit. When my friend was still a girl by the standards of society, back in high school, before the hormones and before the operations, he acted. I saw a production of Ragtime in which he played Fraulein Schneider opposite a lispy kid in the role of Schultz who shouted, excitedly, stammering over his lines: “I want to fill yo-your entire womb with pineapples.” And what a tight place in which to grow.
By populating the world of his photographs with his own versions of creation, Joel-Peter Witkin proclaims “to seek the face I had before the world was made.” Witkin eventually began to practice in Mexico because he was no longer allowed to photograph in the way he desired in the States: with corpses and dwarves and transsexuals and intersex persons and the physically deformed. The corpses were the thing the US kicked him out for, saying that the contents of his images were exploitative and upsetting and shocked the public opinion. I guess the thing I really want to know is who defines the public opinion.
The second wing of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party boasts a place setting for Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor was one of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages. She became queen of France, and organized an army of women to attend the sick and aid in fighting during the Crusades. After divorcing Louis VII, she married Henry II of England, who imprisoned her and laid claim to her property. She was kept sequestered for 16 years, released for certain holidays. She was thought to be kept primarily in Haughmond Abbey, a triangular castle.
Her place setting in The Dinner Party is based on The Unicorn in Captivity, one of the tapestries on display in The Cloisters museum in New York. The tapestry features a unicorn chained to a tree, lying down in the middle of a small circular fence surrounded by a field of flowers. Eleanor’s plate sits surrounded by a garden full of blossoms. Judy Chicago says that this symbolism “seemed to provide an appropriate visual metaphor for Eleanor’s own imprisonment.”
Eleanor of Aquitaine was eventually released, by the same husband who kept her captive all of those sixteen years. And now she stands waiting, waiting for her chair.
Growing up, I kept rabbits as pets. Some children like to pretend to be dogs, crawl about on all fours and offer up barks instead of words, lap water out of a bowl on the kitchen floor. We like to teach our dogs to play dead. I liked to pretend to be a rabbit, crawl in the cage and tuck my legs inside the hutch. Press my tongue against the cool metal ball bearing of the water bottle, the cold liquid seeping out. I liked to lick the salt wheel, the sandstone-smooth brick of red hanging from a string.
We’d put them out for deer, too, during winter: big blocks of salt. We need salt for our nerves and muscles to work correctly. We need salt to preserve our food and regulate our fluids. A girl I teach at a local detention center writes that her crooked teeth are “salt pouring out rainbows.”
Joel-Peter Witkin wants his photographs to be as powerful as the images that appear to us just before death. So unbearable. An absolution. And we still ask our dogs to “play dead”. After listening to the news, or reading the paper, encountering the daily dead unnumbered. Numinous. Imagine: an encounter of such objectivity. Imagine: a slight trick of the light. Imagine: being stuck in a container that’s not even yours.
Susan Stewart proposes in her book On Longing that the miniature sparks within us a nostalgia: for the imagination, for childhood, for the past. She writes, “the interiority of the enclosed world tends to reify the interiority of the viewer.” And Alice shrinks, then grows, then shrinks again.
Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographs usually harken back to famous paintings: Expulsion from Paradise of Adam and Eve, Guernica, Pygmalion, Las Meninas, The Birth of Venus. An afterword by Gus Blaisdell in the back of Witkin’s monograph Gods of Heaven & Earth questions the perversion of the work, and the fascination found therein. Blaisdell writes, “Joel-Peter has said he is a portraitist and that his portraits are conditions of being. Of being what is the critical question. The corpulent, voluptuary, concupiscent subject matter arouses as it repulses…How deep, how shallow is incarnation? Human embodiment is where I begin to essay this narrow, elusive, continuous, uneasy and sometimes defiled range of thinking.” Containing their tiny histories in tiny rooms of tiny houses.
The Dinner Party itself is a container, housing these histories. Confined to a plate. Stuck in the museum. A living history suggests lateral movement. Our histories immortal, we are trapped by the past. Here, static, we stand. Containment suggests protection, a container, a fitting, or match. For storage. Confinement suggests something else: restriction, inaccessibility. You may be both contained and confined by your position.
Karin Woodley writes in “The Inner Sanctum”, her review of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, that “an exhibition which attempts to show the contribution of women to Western civilization using a triangle banqueting table strewn with altar cloths, 39 place settings representing 999 women grouped together according to common experience, achievement, historic period or place of origin within the context of a sacramental celebration, in my opinion is doomed to failure.” There’s no way we can fit all of this into such a small space.
My immune system does not function properly, which means my body does not easily retain sodium like most bodies, which means that I could easily drown myself if I drink too much water. It’s called hyponatremia. Some people put rice in their saltshaker to keep the moisture out. Some use crackers, or nothing at all. Then it clumps, all that salt. Lot’s wife, turning back, in perpetuity. And the particular woman-ness of this: a pillar of salt, rendered voiceless, motionless. Rubbing salt in the wound. Salt’s made up of two chemicals, sodium and chloride, in equal proportions, this cubic compound near perfect. But, this is easily dissolved, with a grain of salt. Salt is farmed, it’s harvested, it lives all over the open ocean. Salt’s been used to build roads, statues, houses. The ritual of “salting the earth” was practiced in the Middle Ages by spreading salt over a conquered city, purifying the land and rendering it unusable. A curse to be wrought upon anyone attempting to rebuild or reinhabit this space.
At Angola, they’re still farming, some strange iteration of an inconceivable history. The fields stretch for miles, the incarcerated workers daily scattered out in them. Annually, they harvest over four million pounds of vegetables. The hot Louisiana sun groping the scorched earth.
Salt, symbolic of Earth, is said to cleanse areas of harmful and bad energies. During many rituals, the altar will harbor a dish of salt, a dish of water. Saltwater helps clean passageways; we, the salt of the earth. In the 1970s pregnant women who no longer wanted to be pregnant women had to go to New York, where they would have an installation abortion. In this procedure, the amniotic fluids are replaced by a saline solution that poisons the baby, and slowly corrodes the outer layer of his skin. Labor thus induced. Last fall, at a fraternity, the captains make their pledges stand in buckets of ice and salt. For hours. This results in third degree burns on the pledges’ feet. The captains were arrested, and released on bail.
Last month I drive past the low-cost women’s health clinic. I’m getting on 82 West off Jack Warner, taking my dog to the vet. He needs to have his anal glands drained. A fat man’s seated outside in the grass between the clinic’s parking lot and the highway entrance, looking pleased. Tent above him; it’s a rough sun. Dotting the shoulder of the road are signs about how great god is and how great life is and how we should most definitely end abortion. I drive past him again a few days after, heading out to the dog park. He looks so smug, like a dude who just got a raise and put up Christmas lights around his house for the first time in years, and aren’t his neighbors going to be so jealous.
Women have to walk or drive in past these signs. When I went, it was a sunny day, just Alabama-March perfect. It was early, eight or nine in the morning. The protesters were basking in the sun, in their intents. All of the good they’re doing for the world right now. They bring the high school youth groups on the weekends. The pro-life crowd likes to tout this statistic that most women, once they look at the ultrasound, change their mind about having an abortion. I forget the number. Another group came to escort me from car door to clinic door. Once inside, though, the nurses made me look at the ultrasound. I didn’t forget what it looked like. I still had the abortion. I haven’t forgotten what that felt like.
The escorts are volunteers. They volunteer their bodies for these tight clusters of protection against protestors. The protesters are also volunteering their time, to stand in this valiant sun. I was already so tired, I could barely hear their shouts, their nails clicking against the wooden stakes of their signs, telling me not to do what I was about to do.
Alice feels stuck in the house, so she goes to read by the river. She sees a rabbit, and follows it down a hole. The rabbit goes to Wonderland, and then Alice gets stuck in Wonderland. In Wonderland, Alice finds the rabbit at his house, and goes inside. In the house, she eats a cookie frosted “Try Me.” She gets stuck in the house. She swells so large her feet come out the windows, her head in the attic.
The synopsis of Cleveland Abduction, starring Taryn Manning as Michelle Knight, on Lifetime’s website reads: “When Berry became pregnant with Castro’s child, it was Knight who delivered her baby, even performing CPR on the infant girl under the threat of Castro while he told her, ‘If the baby dies, you die.’ Despite enduring more than a decade of brutality, Michelle’s spirit would not be broken, and her unshakable faith in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation was a testament to the human spirit. On May 6, 2013, Michelle was rescued from the home that was her prison for nearly 11 years, and finally given the chance to reclaim her life.” Users on the Internet Movie Database give it 6.7/10 stars. One user in particular says that the film might be a little too “heavy-handed in its approach.”
We reserve our justifications, and hold rancor for excuses. Things seems the way they seem. Things are the way they are. Things will be what they will be. We dislike duplicity, duality. That we can mean two things at once. So, we fit ourselves into boxes. We force each other into roles. We peg the strangers walking down the street as this kind or that kind. No delicacy about it. It’s rhythmic, routine. Like checking the mail, the time, the stove, the shoes for dog shit. The door for locked.
In ROOM Jack and Ma have one window, a skylight: thick, quilted glass. Emma Donoghue says when researching the book she felt “creepy” looking up what kind of shockproof security glass a man like Old Nick might buy: to let a filtered, delayed sun in, but not let anything out. Donoghue says, “it made me realise that the author is always the Old Nick of her book: locking her characters in, deciding what resources to allot them, what’s going to happen.”
At one point, a dry leaf falls on the skylight. Jack freaks out. All the leaves on TV are green, he doesn’t believe it’s real. He doesn’t really understand rotting, nature, life cycles. They have a plant in ROOM, but that’s all he knows of flora. He knows no world outside this room, outside what he’s learned from TV, that tiny box within that tiny room.
Joel-Peter Witkin includes requests for models at the end of his monographs, for the next one: “I need physical marvels—a person, thing or act so extraordinary as to inspire wonder: someone with wings, horns, tails, fins, claws, reversed feet, head, hands…Anyone without a face…Anyone bearing the wounds of Christ. Anyone claiming to be God.”
Michelle Olley lies still, propped up on a divan. Tumescent. The live butterflies pumped into the vitrine hover around her. Her breasts droop, full of breath, of energy, along her round stomach. Eerie sounds: the fluttering of wings, the deep gasp of the oxygen. One magazine said that VOSS “was about trying to trap something that wasn’t conventionally beautiful to show that beauty comes from within.” As if beauty, like a butterfly, is a thing we can trap. When the walls fall, the moths fly in all directions.
For one month at the beginning of 1972, Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro, professors of feminist art at the CalArts Institute, decided to move their female students. For one month, they all lived and worked in an installation and performance space called Womanhouse. Womanhouse was a response to the lack of studio space given to the program by the academy. They decided to literalize the ideological conflation of women and houses by creating a domestic space in which their art could live. They found a 17-room dilapidated mansion that would serve well as a location for their “dreams and fantasies.” They worked for three months, eight hours a day, to renovate it. The students started to feel bitter toward Chicago and Shapiro, viewing them as “monsters” and resenting their “impossible” demands. One artist says: “I left the Program after one year, because of my disagreements, and because I wanted to experience the school outside the confines of the Program. I have avoided group feminism since then.”
For the opening day, only women were allowed to come view the exhibition. The rooms of Womanhouse were full of art: in the kitchen, plates of food sit under florescent lights, an assembly line. In a closet, a mannequin’s body is vivisected with drawers and shelves, upon which sit folded sheets and towels and washcloths; in a bathroom, all white, sits a trashcan in the corner, overflowing with used tampons. The Dollhouse Room, a collaboration between Miriam Shapiro and a student, represents the texture and tension between “supposed safety and comfort in the home” and “terrors existing within its walls.” Womanhouse was critiqued, challenged, and praised for taking “private and collective female experiences” and putting this on display for the public. One participant responded to the project 25 years later: “Put 30 women together and see what happens. A nightmare.”
In a 1982 interview, Dinah Dossor remarked to Judy Chicago midway through their conversation: “One thing I found odd about The Womanhouse Project was that the women who were all working in the same building said they felt isolated.” Chicago responded: “Yes. Isn’t that peculiar?”
The final entry in Michelle Olley’s VOSS diary entry reads: “I want people to know what I just went through wasn’t a breeze and I did it for art. Yes, art. Because I believe it’s worth going through that much palaver if it creates a strong image that conveys an important idea. And I believe that the idea that we are trapped by our ‘civilised,’ socially approved identities is massively important. It causes women so much suffering. Fear of ageing, fear of not being thin enough. Fear of not having the right clothes. Fear of our animal natures that we carry in our DNA—fish, bird, lizard, insect, mammal.”
I’m in the low-cost clinic recovery room, sitting in a big navy-leather easy chair with the footrest popped up. The other women in the recovery room have their footrests propped up, too. We don’t make eye contact. We aren’t allowed to drink anything. We might throw up if we do, or worse, I’m told. I’m thirstier than I’ve ever been.
Saint Bridget’s place setting in Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party is a column of fire, as she inherited the symbols of her mother goddess. The fire opens vulvically, the green outshoots rimmed with blue—an igneous labellum. Bridget, the patron of midwives and milkmaids, dairymaids, infants, children born into abusive unions.
When of marrying age, Saint Bridget met a man who taunted her, saying that because of the beautiful eye in her head she would become betrothed to a man whether she liked it or not. In response, Bridget plunged a finger into her eye and handed it to him, saying here is that beautiful eye for you, no one will ask for a blind girl’s hand. She warned him that soon his eyes would bust like two grapes inside his head. As he laughed at her, there was a viscous pop, followed swiftly by another.
Salt doesn’t grow in caves, like I assumed. Salt caves are actually holistic spas and health centers offering natural therapy options to help alleviate a variety of symptoms. A salt cellar is where the table salt lived, before there were shakers. In origami, a salt cellar is the same as a cootie-catcher, another game we used to play in elementary school, in order to predict each other’s futures. In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” he says that the philosopher is like a prisoner, doomed to look at shadows, thinking he is viewing reality. When he is released, though, he realizes that the shadows are not reality at all, in fact, but an abstraction thereof. It’s just a matter of knowing any better, of having the chance to know any difference.
As if these walls could talk.
Amanda Berry had a child in that house, by her captor. When asked if her daughter is imbued with any bad memories or feelings because she was the product of her captor’s abuse, she says no. She says once she gave birth everything got better. She and her daughter decided to play a game, and scream and scream and scream as loud as they could, as often as they could. Finally, she found one of the interior doors they were usually trapped behind unlocked. Amanda held her daughter, who was six at the time, up to an exterior window. She saw a neighbor through the screen, and she and her daughter played the loudest game they ever had. The neighbor responded to the sound and came over to help. His name, like their captor’s, was also Angel.
Though clung to congenital chastity of herself, Bridget had an understanding that this was not so easy for everyone. In certain circumstances, she secured sanctity for those who failed. One of the earliest accounts of abortion holds Saint Bridget at its helm: when a young nun failed to upkeep her vow, and grew thick with child, she turned to Bridget, seeking counsel. Saint Bridget sought from deep within herself a potent faith, a crucial concession to human fallibility, a sincere desire to restore to this young woman what she had promised herself. Upon Bridget’s blessing, the woman experienced a wanton waning of her womb—no birth, no blood, no pain, no scorn.
Emma Donoghue’s character Ma, and her son, escape the room through the idea of a game. Ma tells Jack that it’s a memory game, and he’s got to remember all these steps: he has to play dead, then count the turns, then jump out of the truck and meet a person. There are seven steps. Jack’s not sure if he can remember them all. But he remembers enough of them to get them rescued. Brie Larson wins an Oscar for her portrayal of Ma in the film adaptation. In an article with Rolling Stone just after the release of the movie, Larson “lets out a noise that sounds like a cross between...guffaw and a gunshot,” before adding, “We’re definitely going to a restaurant. I can actually leave my room to eat now!”
In another country, people are going to prison to eat. A restaurant recently opened in Milan called InGalera, Italian slang for “In Prison”—an apt name since the restaurant is literally in a prison. InGalera opened in October of 2015, as form of rehabilitation—those incarcerated cook and serve, making some money, getting industry experience. The menu is made up of traditional and experimental Italian dishes. It’s high-end, aimed at an audience who can afford to dress fancy, dine out. The owner is quoted in an article in the New York Times: “Our first worry was: Who would come?...But many people are coming.” The author of the article surmises that, “Curiosity about a forbidden and feared world has turned a night at InGalera into a daring adventure, with a fine meal as a bonus.”
Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party confines women to one millennium, one role, one notable accomplishment. The Dinner Party confines women to one wing of the table, one plate, one symbolic vagina. The Dinner Party configures these women in a particular arrangement, doesn’t even give them a chair in which to rest. The Dinner Party puts them all in the same room, to breathe the same air. In some ways, they begin to exhale the very selfsame thoughts. All contained to contend with one another.
We trap these histories because we can.
Goldfish swell to the size of their containers, or at least that’s what they say. If you keep them, take them out of the bag and put them in a tank, then a bigger tank, then an even bigger tank, they will grow accordingly. Ani DiFranco sings, “but goldfish / have no memory / you know their lives are much like mine / and that little, plastic castle / is a surprise every time.” I take this to mean that if you can’t get any bigger, you won’t remember any better.
That glass ceiling: you can see through it but you can’t get above it. I, too, live under that glass ceiling, some big bug under the microscope, magnified and dissectible, paralytic and mountable. But there’s also that thing they say about glass houses, about how the people who live in them shouldn’t throw stones. I guess maybe that’s true of glass ceilings, too, though maybe throwing stones is the only way to get out. Like Zora Neale Hurston writes in Their Eyes Were Watching God: “Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget.” As the space swells, the mind keeps up. It’s capable, and willing.
Robert Morris’s 1961 piece “Box with the Sound of Its Own Making” is a simple wooden box that plays from within a recording of the making of the very box in which it’s held: three and a half hours of sawing and sanding and pounding, on loop.
Artist Andrea Fraser took over the entire 18,200 square feet of the fifth floor of the new Whitney Museum of American Art for her most recent exhibition. Her exhibit, Down the River, a part of the museum’s rotating “Open Plan” show, was only auditory. She spent time recording ambient sounds at Sing Sing, the maximum security prison just up the Hudson River north of New York City. Fraser, who is known for her provocative pieces, cites the show as marrying “the bookend institutions of our increasingly polarised society—institutions that celebrate freedom, and institutions that revoke that freedom.” Played on loop are the sounds of footsteps, voices whispering, chatting, yelling, echoing over the intercom, birdsong, doors sliding open, doors slamming shut.
Just a few weeks ago, I pick my friend’s kids up from school. I pick up Liliana from kindergarten and as we’re driving to pick up her baby brother from daycare, I see a squirrel in the gutter. It’s acting all strange, skittering and shivering like one of those wind-up toys that moves so much but doesn’t go anywhere. Liliana’s asking me a question about this guy on the sidewalk in a motorized wheelchair: why’s he in it, why isn’t anyone driving him, what happened. As I skid to a stoplight, I see the guts of the squirrel pouring out from its pelvic region. “I don’t know,” I tell Liliana, “maybe his friends couldn’t pick him up.”
We get back to my house and my puppy’s going crazy with the kids. I put him in his crate. They ask, “Why does he have to go in his cage?” I make spaghetti for dinner, accidentally call it pasta. They whine, and chant in unison, “We don’t like pasta! Take the pasta out of my spaghetti!” I cut it up with a knife and let them eat it with a spoon. The puppy’s whining. “Take him out of his cage,” they tell me, mouths full of noodles, “take him out of his cage.”
Alexander McQueen told the press after his Fall 2008 collection, The Girl Who Lived in a Tree, that he doesn’t really take inspiration from specific women, but instead it’s more the “minds of the women in the past, like Catherine the Great, or Marie Antoinette. People who were doomed. Joan of Arc or Colette. Iconic women.” Right before he committed suicide in 2010, he said, “Beauty can come from the strangest of places, even the most disgusting of places.” He continued: “I find beauty in the grotesque, like most artists. I have to force people to look at things.” In Birmingham, Alabama, there’s a photography studio called “Get Captured.” The windows of their space on 22nd Avenue are littered with exclamation points, silhouettes of women in high fashion and photographers “capturing” them.
BREAKOUT has a sign on the wall of the detention room that reads: Teach me how to obey. The local newspaper quotes the owner and founder of the business as saying that she knew our town “deserved something like this.” She said, “It’s just good, clean fun.” A story on NPR about the rise of popularity in escape games quotes a university professor saying that they are an “escape, but at the same time allow us to work through emotional issues, cognitive issues, under the larger auspices of simply playing a game.”
There’s an escape room in Helsinki, Finland called “The Dinner Party” which boasts, “you’ve accepted a dinner invitation from an unknown hostess. Who is she—an artist, or a witch? What does she want from you?” A preview of the room says that, “through the grapevine, gossip, and with a little questionable digging, the likely location of this dinner party has been narrowed down to a massive white mansion in town…you are directed to search the underground level of the suspected address while the guests dine.” The room is very small. It is recommended for groups of 4-6 players, but up to 8 can play. The more you have, the cheaper it gets, but the room gets smaller. A 2015 reviewer gives the room 5 out of 5 stars, commenting, that it’s “a very fun activity for a group of people where you are locked inside a room…very fun and something that appealed to the child in you.” Another site advises that you might not like it if: “you like linear progression in your games” or “you’re easily scared.”
The general capacity of human beings: we can do anything, within our specific confinements and containers.
We still are anything we ever were: a reeling and clinking of remembered sounds, collected textures.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Shaelyn Smith grew up in northern Michigan and received her MFA from the University of Alabama. Her first collection of essays, The Leftovers, is forthcoming from Cleveland State University Poetry Center in 2018. Other work can be found in storySouth, Essay Daily, The Rumpus, Sonora Review and Forklift, OH.
The former site of Womanhouse. These women spent more time renovating this space they didn't own than working on their artwork. It has since been turned into an apartment complex with a large garden out front. Jill Soloway is currently at work on an Amazon series based on the Womanhouse collaboration.