“The Politics of They”:Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina
As Critique of Class, Gender, and Sexual Ideologies
Moira P. Baker
“We were the they everyone talks about--the ungrateful poor,” asserts Dorothy Allison, referring to her childhood experiences in Greenville, South Carolina (“Question” 13).Her work, she writes, represents “the condensed and reinvented experience of a cross-eyed working-class lesbian. . .who has made the decision to live. . .on the page. . .for me and mine” (“Preface” 12).In the stories collected in Trash and in her stunning first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, she offers an uncompromising vision of the ugliness and injustice of poverty.Incandescent with grief, rage, and pride, her fiction also affirms the complex subjectivity of persons who must endure the contempt of a society that affords them one of two mythologized positions:“the truly worthy poor” or “white trash.”In “A Question of Class,” Allison exposes how the middle-class mythology of the noble poor--those “hard-working, ragged but clean, and intrinsically honorable” persons--encouraged her family to destroy themselves because they did not fit this myth (18).In Bastard Out of Carolina, Allison critiques not only two of the most damaging bourgeois myths about so-called “white trash”--their characteristic illegitimacy and incest--but also the ideology of motherhood underpinning a sex/gender system that cuts across social classes.1Central to her critique is her conception of a lesbian subjectivity forged in resistance to the economic and sexual systems whose ideological interests these myths serve.
As Roland Barthes suggests, the production and dissemination of bourgeois ideology require a process of myth-making that distorts and appropriates objects by emptying them of their history and then investing them with new meanings.The new meanings constitute a mystification that naturalizes a concept.This mystification obscures causality and contingencyin order to legitimize the bourgeois order, making its values seem natural, eternally given, ahistorical, and inevitable.2Dominant discourses of social class mystify poverty by erasing the historical and economic conditions that produce, indeed require, it in advanced capitalism. These discourses then replace history with a cultural myth:that anyone who is willing to work hard will rise out of poverty and that anyone who cannot rise out of poverty is either unwilling to do so--lazy--or naturally incapable of any human development--trashy.
Allison analyzes how bourgeois ideology conceals the actual material conditions of families like her own.Her own family, she writes, “were the bad poor:men who drank and couldn’t keep a job; women, invariably pregnant before marriage. . . .We were not noble, not grateful, not even hopeful.We knew ourselves despised” (“Question” 18).In her essays and fiction, Allison deconstructs self-serving bourgeois mythologies about poverty; she interrogates what she calls “the politics of they” grounded in socially constructed categories of class, race, gender, and sexual orientation.Though produced by heteropatriarchal bourgeois culture, such categories purport to derive from nature and claim to describe the innate, inevitable, immutable essence of devalued or stigmatized groups.In fact, these categories serve to rationalize and justify the domination of one group by another.Discussing her project, Allison posits as central her examination of the myriad ways in which a politics of marginalization pervades contemporary society:“Most of all I have tried to understand the politics of they, why human beings fear and stigmatize the different while secretly dreading that they might be one of the different themselves. . . .[A]ll the other categories by which we categorize and dismiss each other--need to be excavated from the inside” (“Question” 35).Rejecting bourgeois notions of social class, Bastard Out of Carolina excavates “from the inside” the material conditions of those whom society stigmatizes as “white trash.”
In the first several pages of the novel, Allison deconstructs the category of class by demonstrating that the dichotomous and hierarchical terms it rests upon to distinguish the privileged from the lower classes--industrious/lazy, legitimate/illegitimate, respectable/ shameful, civilized/uncivilized--are arbitrary, self-serving, and reversible.As the novel opens, Allison’s narrator, Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright, recounts her illegitimate birth to her fifteen-year-old mother, Anney Boatwright, and her mother’s annual humiliating attempts to get her child a birth certificate without “Illegitimate” stamped across the bottom (4).In Bone’s narration of Anney’s quest for a new birth certificate without the dehumanizing stamp, Allison indicates that the category “white trash” is an ideological construct--one of the enabling myths of a bourgeois society that relies upon the exploited labor of the class it stigmatizes in order to secure its own wealth:“Mama hated to be called trash, hated the memory of every day she’d ever spent bent over other people’s peanuts and strawberry plants while they stood tall and looked at her like she was a rock on the ground” (3-4). Allison reverses the qualities associated with the privileged class--hard-working, honest, civil--and those associated with the underclass--lazy, shiftless, uncivilized.In Allison’s analysis, Anney’s employers appear inhumane, unjust, and uncivil as they objectify her body stooped in labor for their benefit; she appears hard-working and purposeful while they appear lazy and self-indulgent in their exploitation of her work.Thus the qualities ascribed to the underclass and the elite cannot embody metaphysical essences constituting the nature of each class since the allegedly defining qualities of each are interchangeable.Allison implies that rather than innate, “natural” attributes of each class, these characteristics are arbitrarily assigned signifiers of class distinction that serve the interests of the economically privileged.In “A Question of Class,” Allison suggests that the horror of class prejudice, racism, sexism, and homophobia is that they persuade people that their security “depends on the oppression of others, that for some to have good lives there must be others whose lives are truncated and brutal” (35).
Allison does not merely demonstrate the anguish that this zero-sum ethics and its corollary, the “politics of they,” cause members of a subordinated class:on the political level she analyzes how prejudices are the grease lubricating state apparatuses as they grind out ever more intricate hierarchical relationships and stamp individuals with their ideological imprint; and on the psychological, she examines the interior mechanisms of class prejudice. “[C]ertified a bastard by the state of Carolina” (3), Bone has effectively been relegated by the state to the category “white trash,” that is, positioned in a class system.The state exercises its power even in the most intimate matters of sexuality, marriage, and birth to maintain a class system.The concepts of the patriarchal nuclear family and of legitimacy or illegitimacy, thus, afford mechanisms not only for the regulation of sexuality but for the perpetuation of a class system; illegitimacy is not a moral blight endemic to the lower classes but a conceptual tool for regulating them.
As Anney makes her annual pilgrimage to the county courthouse in her futile attempts to erase the stigma of illegitimacy from her daughter’s birth certificate, the psychological mechanisms that maintain the class system are apparent in the behavior of the clerks conducting the state’s business.The male clerk takes enormous pleasure as he exercises power to establish “truth” and to categorize Bone as “illegitimate” and Anney, therefore, as sexually promiscuous:3
“Well, little lady,” he said. . . .[S]he could see some of the women clerks standing in the doorway, their faces almost as flushed as her own but their eyes bright with an entirely different emotion. . . .“The facts have been established.”. . .The women in the doorway shook their heads and pursed their lips.One mouthed to the other, “Some people.” (4-5)
Though they occupy a marginal position in the office, the women feel no empathy for another beleaguered woman; instead, they are inflamed--with moral indignation is it?Or pleasure?Like the male clerk, they take delight in Anney’s humiliation and in their power over her.Subjects produced by hierarchical class and sex/gender systems,the male and female clerks reproduce those systems not only in their concepts of themselves and of those labeled “different,” but also in their work.
Allison’s representation of the psychological mechanisms of class prejudice suggests an homology with racial prejudice.Afro-Caribbean theorist Frantz Fanon has distinguished what he calls a “manicheism delirium” (183) characteristic ofracist thinking as it creates an “imago” of the black as absolutely different--as “The Other,” who is dangerously sexual, morally slack, and bestial, not fully human (169-70).Postcolonial theorist Abdul R. Janmohamed, drawing upon Fanon, argues that when confronted with the complex and incomprehensible alterity of the racially different, at least one type of European colonialist thinking seizes upon a “manichean allegory” that posits the native as absolute evil by projecting onto him or her all the darker motives and desires that the colonizer refuses to acknowledge in him or herself.4Psychologically this “manichean allegory” assures the colonizer of his or her own moral rectitude; it produces “‘surplus morality,’ which is further invested in the denigration of the native in a self-sustaining cycle” (23).5
In the novel Allison demonstrates how the construct, “white trash,” creates not a racial but a class-defined Other, the effect of a psychological process of projection similar to the one Fanon and Janmohamed describe in the mind of the colonizer.Most of the upper classes in Greenville County accumulate “surplus morality” from their projected fantasy about the Boatwrights.In the series of courthouse scenes in which Anney seeks the new birth certificate, we see how the surplus morality that the community gathers to itself through its denigration of the Boatwrights turns the clerks ever more savagely upon Anney.Finally a lawyer, whom Anney has retained to help her, says with a “grin that had no humor in it at all, ‘By now, they look forward to you coming in’” (9).As with racial prejudice in a colonial situation, the “manicheism delirium” that attends class prejudice in Allison’s fictional world is a psychological sickness that pervades a whole society and infects the state apparatuses and their functionaries.
Allison’s novel intervenes in dominant discourses concerning social class, gender, and sexuality not only to expose their self-interested political and psychological mechanisms but also to explore whether the human subject might resist their ideological pressure, and if so, how.To elucidate Allison’s portrayal of her characters’ resistance to ideology, I would like to turn briefly to some contemporary theory on subjectivity and agency.In his influential essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Louis Althusser theorizes that individuals acquire subjectivity only when interpellated by ideology, which “hails” them by a name that they accept.6The act of naming at once creates subjects and subjects them to the ideology within which they recognize themselves. Problematizing Althusser’s concept of the subject, Paul Smith suggests that the interpellation of individuals is never final because they emerge out of a shifting intersection of interpellations that call them to a number of conflicting subject-positions.The contradictions and disturbances among these subject-positions allow for agency and resistance to ideological pressure (xxxv).Allison’s novel demonstrates how working-class women are often called by a variety of discourses to contradictory subject-positions and how, out of the contradictions, an individual may begin to exert agency, resisting the powerful, debasing interpellations of the state that would “hail” one into the position of “white trash” or “bastard.”
By the end of the novel, Allison suggests that the private, oppositional discourse spoken among the Boatwright kinswomen empowers Bone to resist interpellation by a bourgeois, patriarchal state.Working in an almost subterranean, matrilineal network on the margins of patriarchy and capitalism, these women enable Bone to resist subjection to mutually reinforcing class and gender ideologies that define her as trash because she is both poor and a woman.We see inklings of the potentially subversive workings of this network in Granny’s derisive comments about the irrelevance of the state’s document conferring “legitimacy” upon a child.By the time Granny is through with it, the state’s stamp of “illegitimate” appears in all its naked glory as an ideologically interested fiction.When Anney’s sister, Alma, leaves her husband Wade because of his philandering while she is pregnant, we see how important the private discourse spoken among the Boatwright women is to Bone’s developing sense of herself; ultimately, her position as a Boatwright woman--kin to strong, independent women like Granny and Aunt Raylene--is one factor that allows her to survive the abuse she eventually endures once her mother marries.
Unfortunately, Anney and most of her sisters have so internalized patriarchal norms that the discourse they speak among themselves cannot counteract the powerful interpellative effects of the surrounding society’s discourses on femininity, sexuality, and the family that bombard them from every quarter, telling them that their life is incomplete without a male lover, that their ultimate validation comes from bearing children to their husbands, and that they are nothing without a man no matter how much income they bring home to support their children. Though they share a woman-centered kinship network on the margins of society, the grid of heteropatriarchy is superimposed upon their lives.Their powerful “woman-talk” points out the contradictions in patriarchal ideology that represents women as passive, helpless, and dependent yet expects them to bear children, take full responsibility for raising them, keep house, hold down a job, and “stand by your man” when he is beat up, drunk, in jail, down and out, or out of work.Awareness of the gaps and fissures in patriarchal ideology creates spaces in which women exert some agency, as when Alma leaves Wade. But it does not always enable the women to resist the ideological pressures that urge conformity to patriarchal gender norms; neither does it help them to cope with the crushing economic burdens that drive them back to the men who hold them in contempt.Alma, after all, must return to Wade when the demands of raising her obstreperous sons and ailing infant become more than she can handle alone.Without a man in their lives, most of the Boatwright women feel worthless. To that extent their interpellation as female subjects in a heteropatriarchal state has been effective.
Only Raylene Boatwright, Bone’s lesbian aunt, who refuses to work for the factory system or for anyone else, resists becoming a subject in, and being subjected to, capitalist and heteropatriarchal ideologies though she cannot entirely escape them.Allison’s critiques of class and gender ideologies intersect and reinforce each other in her portrayal of Raylene, who represents a subject-position in radical conflict with the one to which Bone’s other aunts and mother seem irresistibly pulled back.She does not merely speak an oppositional discourse; she embodies it in her own living.I do not mean to imply that Allison constructs an utopian lesbian site or a conception of lesbian subjectivity essentially outside dominant binary categories of gender and sexuality, beyond culture and discourse, or outside the mechanisms of power.As Annamarie Jagose suggests in Lesbian Utopics, such transcendent, utopian conceptions underpin some instances of contemporary lesbian theory and fiction that depend upon an inside/outside, heterosexual/queer dichotomy.But they “may be entirely complicit with the oppressive categories they are intended to exceed” because they, too, essentialize the lesbian subject, freeze her into a single “nature” to which every lesbian must conform (7).
Rather than offer a lesbian space outside of dominant discourses and beyond the sex/gender system entirely, where the binary gender categories of male and female do not exist, Allison suggests that the lesbian subject is cross-hatched by dominant gender discourses and engages in what Butler calls a “radical invention, albeit one that employs and deploys culturally existent and culturally imaginable conventions” (139).Far from offering a utopian fantasy of transcendence in which the subject escapes the sex/gender system, Allison’s text may be seen, in Butler’s terms, as working toward the “dissolution of binary restrictions through the proliferation of genders” (136), a move that suggests possibilities beyond the conventional opposed roles of“male” and “female.” Raylene is both maternal and tough-talking; she is as likely to wear a black serge skirt as a pair of overalls; she cans her own preserves and spits out of the side of her mouth; her porch and yard swarm with children yet she has no desire to bear children of her own.Allison does not envision a stable lesbian essence beyond the categories of gender; rather her notion of lesbian subjectivity has no universal essence; it is multiple, shifting, and seemingly contradictory.Raylene’s“performance” of gender improvises its own script by drawing upon available cultural norms for both female and male identity, embracing qualities that the sex/gender system assigns to both genders.
Raylene’s place overlooking the Greenville River affords Bone a space in which oppositional discourse reverberates, calling into question dominant ideologies.A marriage resistor and fugitive from the injustices of a workplace that has worn her brothers out, Raylene manages to maintain her household by scavenging for trash that floats down the river, marketing it by the roadside, and earning “steady money by selling her home-canned vegetables and fruit” (18).Raylene transforms into a locus of resistance the domestic space that entraps her sisters; the labor that goes uncompensated in traditional patriarchal households provides her enough income to live as she wants.Operating in the informal economic sector outside the state’s regulated structures,Raylene consistently makes the rent on the place she has called home for most of her adult life, while her married sisters are displaced from one house to another, bill collectors and eviction notices hounding them from the homes they struggle to hold together.
From her lesbian space of resistance, Raylene quite pointedly redefines gender, class, and sexual ideologies for herself and for Bone, who begins spending her afternoons at Raylene’s place when her stepfather’s emotional rages and physical abusiveness are exacerbated by his failures at work and his father’s intensifying scorn.In the crucial chapter in which Anney tells Bone to stay with Raylene after school, it is clear from their violent masturbatory fantasies that both Bone and her younger sister, Reese, are being sexually molested by their stepfather, Daddy Glen.Though Anney is not aware of the sexual abuse, the reader infers it from the children’s masturbation and their accompanying fantasies of entrapment and escape, their means of coping with the abuse by reclaiming their own sexuality and pleasure.Prior to this chapter, Glen has subjected Bone to vicious beatings, ostensibly to discipline her for misbehaving, while Anney stands helplessly by.Earlier in the novel, grunting, sweating, and masturbating against Bone’s terrified body, Daddy Glen molested the seven-year old, his wrist bone ground into her flesh, the delicate petals of her child’s vulvae crushed down and forced open.Consumed by shame and self-loathing, afraid of hurting her mother, Bone conceals this sexual abuse and all Glen’s subsequent sexual violations as he disciplines her while Anney is at work (113).
By the time Bone arrives on Raylene’s front porch, having (mis)recognized herself in dominant discourses concerning social class and gender, she has accepted the position of a soiled, culpable, “trashy” girl whose life will amount to nothing.Almost immediately Raylene calls into question society’s discourses on social class, femininity, and romantic love that have fashioned Bone’s subjectivity. “‘Trash rises,’” Raylene jokes. “‘Out here where no one can mess with it trash rises all the time’” (180).At Raylene’s place, Bone is fearless and masterful, her former hopelessness challenged by Raylene’s affirmation of her capacity to make a difference in the world:“‘I’m counting on you to get out there and do things, girl.Make people nervous and make your old aunt glad’”(182).
Raylene offers a critical perspective on the country music Bone adores, reserving her greatest contempt for lugubrious ballads that bemoan faithless lovers and include “a little spoken part during the chorus:‘Terrible maudlin shit,’ she’d declare” (183).The maudlin variety of country music is a highly effective working apparatus of heteropatriarchal ideology, one which tells a woman her worth comes from being loved and remaining faithful even to a “faded love” that leaves her nothing but passivity and obsessive “sweet dreams.”7Unlike Bone’s mother, Raylene has not fallen into the trap of “romantic thralldom,” which, according to Rachel Blau DuPlessis, is one of many “socially learned” patterns or “scripts” that are “central and recurrent in our culture” (67).DuPlessis suggests that every culture has social conventions that function as “scripts”;she examines three such scripts operating in narrative structures and subjects as well as in human social institutions and practices:heterosexual romance, romantic thralldom, and a telos in marriage (2-3).Like DuPlessis, Allison is concerned with the ways in which culture mandates certain gender norms and sexual practices while proscribing others.DuPlessis defines romantic thralldom as “an all-encompassing. . .love between apparent unequals. . . .[W]hile those enthralled feel it completes and even transforms them, dependency rules” (67).Refusing to perform the cultural scripts of heterosexual romance and romantic thralldom, Raylene is the only person Bone knows who always seems “comfortable with herself” and is “completely satisfied with her own company” (182, 179).
Under Raylene’s guidance, Bone confronts the inevitable and justified, though misplaced, anger and destructive self-loathing that are developing not only because of her experience of abuse but also because of the class hatred she has internalized from the surrounding culture. When Bone runs away from Anney to stay with Raylene after Glen’s physical violence becomes family knowledge, she is seething with a potentially healthy but presently corrosive and inward-turning anger. She challenges Raylene: “‘How am I supposed to know anything at all?I’m just another ignorant Boatwright, . . .[a]nother piece of trash barely knows enough to wipe her ass or spit away from the wind.Just like you and Mama and Alma and everybody’” (258). Bone’s despondent and angry outburst at Raylene suggests not only her need for love and acceptance but also her introjection of dominant class and gender ideologies: “‘Hellfire. We an’t like nobody else in the world. . . .Other people don’t go beating on each other all the time. . . .They don’t move out alone to the edge of town without a husband, . . .run around all the time in overalls, and sell junk by the side of the road!’” (258).
Urging Bone to see beneath the prejudices that oppress them as working-class women, Raylene counsels:“‘People are the same. . . .Everybody just does the best they can. . . .You think about it, and you’ll see that the biggest part of why I live the way I do is that out here I can do just about anything I damn well please” (258-259).Raylene cautions Bone to refuse the position most often accorded women in the dominant culture’s sex/gender system, that of passive female victim; to exert agency in shaping her own life, however limited her means or circumscribed her circumstances; and to redirect her anger away from herself and the women in her family toward the sources of abuse and suffering in her life.Only then can Bone’s self-destructive anger be transformed into a force that enables her to refuse the subject-position of victimized girl-child, occupying instead the position of survivor of sexual abuse and resistor, like her Aunt Raylene, of the compulsory heteropatriarchal family structure.
Ultimately, Bone--whose emerging identity is forged in the crucible of conflicting discourses about what it means to be a woman, to be poor, to be a Boatwright--exerts agency by asserting her own worth no matter how poor or abused she may be:she refuses to return to a violent patriarchal household, even if it means leaving her mother and choosing a home with her lesbian aunt as surrogate mother.Bone resists, in other words, the interpellation that her mother and other aunts accept.Together on the margins of hegemonic institutions, Bone and Raylene carve out a space in the fissures and cracks, and there they preserve the oppositional discourse of Boatwright women that is muffled or silenced in the mainstream.Raylene cautions Bone:“‘I like my life the way it is, little girl. . . .You better think hard, Ruth Ann, about what you want and who you’re mad at.You better think hard’” (263).
Anney’s desperate quest for a patronymic to legitimize her child suggests how effectively she, in contrast to Raylene, has been interpellated into bourgeois heteropatriarchal ideology and subjected to it; and how effectively her actions are molded by the scripts of heterosexual romance and romantic thralldom.Her quest results in her marriage to Glen Waddell, whose family is comfortably middle-class, upwardly mobile, ashamed of him for his failure to succeed at anything, and thoroughly contemptuous of the Boatwrights.Ironically the marriage intended to protect Bone from class prejudice associated with illegitimacy exposes her to emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather.Allison explodes the myth of incest as characteristic of the underclass and traces its taproot to the unequal power relations of patriarchy itself.The novel suggests that incest originates in the "traffic in women" that establishes kinship relations.
In describing Anney’s introduction to Glen by her well-meaning but thoroughly proprietary brother, Earle, Allison emphasizes Anney’s desire for a conventional patriarchal nuclear family that will shield her children from the contempt they have already met in Greenville County.Allison’s careful staging of the scene also emphasizes ominously how little power Annie will have to protect herself or her children in this relationship, for Annie appears as an object of exchange in a transaction between two men.Allison associates the incest that follows Anney’s marriage not with Anney’s class status but with her position in an unequal power relation, and she associates that unequal relation not with social class but with the structures that undergird patriarchy itself and the practices that sustain it.
The scene in which Anney meets Glen is a curious one, indeed. Though Earle brings Glen to the restaurant where Annie works to show her off, he gets “hot-angry” when Glen leers at Anney’s body, his sense of male entitlement momentarily offended even though he intends to set Glen up with his sister. Glen’s attraction to Anney is intensified by his hatred of his father, his damaged sense of himself as a man, his preoccupation with his own projected fantasy of “the notorious and dangerous Black Earle Boatwright,” and his desire for a bond with Earle: “Glen Waddell wanted Earle Boatwright to like him. . . .He would marry Black Earle’s baby sister, marry the whole Boatwright legend, shame his daddy and shock his brothers.”(12-13).
I contend that we can make the fullest sense of this scene in view of Levi-Strauss’s theory of the fundamental structural principles of kinship relationships and Gayle Rubin’s brilliant feminist critique of his thinking. Like Rubin, Allison offers a critical perspective on patriarchal systems of kinship based on “the exchange of women” that Levi-Strauss posited in TheElementary Structure of Kinship as the normative origin of social organization in all cultures, whether “primitive” (as the anthropologists say) or contemporary. At the same time, Allison also interrogates the myth that incest is a common occurrence in low-income families and something to which the upper class is, for the most part, immune. Allison suggests that Anney’s class status is not a determining factor in the abuse of her daughter. Rather the power differential between men and women in conventional marriages based on the exchange of women encourages abuses of paternal authority that can, in extreme cases, result in incestuous abuse.
Drawing upon Marcel Mauss’s “Essai sur le don,” which examined the theory of reciprocal gift giving as the basis for social exchange in primitive cultures, Levi-Strauss distinguished women as the most important gift to be given, marriage as the most basic form of exchange, and the incest taboo as a safeguard to ensure exogamous exchanges.8The metaphors Levi-Strauss seizes upon are revealing:women must be “given” in marriage and men have a “right” to the daughter and sister of other men; marriage is constituted by an “exchange” between two groups of men rather than between a man and a woman; women are “objects of exchange” rather than partners.
Allison’s novel plays out the disastrous consequences of this system of sexual exchange and the patriarchal kinship system it produces, a system that relegates women to a relatively less powerful position and requires the suppression of feminocentric systems of kinship like the one we see among the Boatwright women.Her analysis hews closely to Rubin’s critique of the theory that the origins of culture are prescriptively invested in the “traffic in women.”Rubin examines theoretically, and Allison fictionally, the destructiveness of a sex/gender system in which “women do not have full rights to themselves” (Rubin 177), a system that Rubin argues cuts across social classes and cultures.
Though valuing Levi-Strauss’s work because it illuminates “what would otherwise be poorly perceived parts of the deep structures of sex oppression” (198), Rubin faults him for failing to see the implications of his own thinking:for failing to see that the “exchange of women” is a systematic social apparatus responsible for the oppression of women; and for positing this exchange as a cultural necessity rather than criticizing it as a socially constructed and mutable system.Rubin finds in the “traffic in women” not the origins of culture but the “ultimate locus of women’s oppression” (175).Calling for nothing less than “a revolution in kinship,”she advocates a rearrangement of the social machinery that has produced the sex/gender system characteristic of most Western capitalist societies in order to “liberate human sexual life from the archaic relationships which deform it” (199, 200).
Allison elucidates some of the same “deep structures of sex oppression” that Rubin critiques and reaches some of the same radical conclusions as does Rubin about the need to reconstitute kinship relationships and eliminate obligatory heterosexuality if we are to shape a society in which women and children are safe.Allison stresses not only that the “exchange of women” is a locus of women’s oppression; she reveals, further, its fundamental ineffectiveness as a system of social organization.In the novel, the exchange of Anney between Glen and Earle does not preserve the incest taboo, the supposed “supreme rule of the gift,” for it rather encourages the man who has been given one woman as a gift to consider any woman, even his daughter or stepdaughter, as his own property, a sexual object to be taken and not given.Allison suggests that any system positioning women as sexual objects over which men have proprietary rights may invite, rather than discourage, breaches of the “supreme rule” prohibiting incest, just as Anney’s marriage to Glen opens the way for his sexual abuse of her daughter.Thus, she attributes incest not to lower socio-economic class status but to a sex/gender system that produces male subjects who assume ownership rights over women and female subjects who internalize the culture’s discourses that shape femininity, sexuality, and the family.
Anney and Glen’s courtship is shot through with troubling emotions:his regressive infantile dependency needs and violent possessiveness beneath a veneer of romantic ardor, her need for romantic love and a father to legitimize her child.The emotional extortion beneath Glen’s lachrymose, slobbering proposal of marriage betrays not only the dominance and submission that DuPlessis claims are implicit in the cultural script of romantic thralldom but also the dangerous privilege of male entitlement to women and children that Rubin critiques in Western, capitalist sex/gender systems:“‘Oh Anney. . . .I can’t wait no more. . . . And your girls, Anney.Oh, God! I love them. . . .You’re mine, all of you, mine. . . .Don’t say no, Anney, don’t do that to me!’” (36)When Anney says she’ll think about it, Glen pounds his fist on the car and screams:“‘Goddam. . .Goddam Anney!. . .I knew you’d say yes.Oh, what I’m gonna do, Anney!. . .You an’t never even imagined!’” (36).Indeed she hadn’t.
For her part, Anney desires a father for her child to erase the stigma that bourgeois culture attaches to illegitimacy (13, 15).Allison emphasizes the complexities of Anney’s desires, shaped not only by class ideology but also by the ideology of love, mapped out in the cultural scripts of heterosexual romance, romantic thralldom, and a telos of marriage that DuPlessis notes.Though all of Anney’s family have misgivings about Glen, they acquiesce when Alma invokes sentimental illusions of romantic love:“But Anney loves Glen. . . .She needs him, needs him like a starving woman needs meat between her teeth” (41).Anney’s sense that her children might find security and happiness only in a conventional nuclear family and that she might find only in that same institution someone to love her with a love as strong as hers for her children is oddly out of sync with the experience of love and nurturance her two girls find in Anney’s extended family--a complex kinship network of strong and capable aunts, numerous cousins, and an indomitable matriarchal grandmother.
In contrast to this feminocentric, non-nuclear family, the male-dominated nuclear family that Bone enters when her mother marries Glen is a site of verbal and physical violence, obsessive male jealousy of Anney’s attention toward her children, and escalating sexual molestation culminating in Bone’s rape by her stepfather.I suggest that Allison’s use of such incendiary material does not flirt dangerously with demeaning class stereotypes, as Randall Kenan suggests in his review of the novel.Nor does it function solely as a paradoxical defusing of stereotypes that enhances the humanity of Allison’s characters, as David Reynolds argues in his otherwise fine study of working-class literature.Allison offers horrific scenes of abuse and incestuous rape not only to defuse stereotypes about the working class, but also to expose the secret violence against children hidden within the bosom of those bourgeois patriarchal families in which the authoritarian rule of males is given full sway.Modern Western society has both recognized and tried to conceal this violence for one hundred years--since Freud’s repudiation of his “Seduction Theory.”
In this theory, Freud hypothesized that the cause of his patients’ hysterical symptoms was their repressed experience of incestuous abuse, usually by their fathers or other close family members (“Aetiology” 208).Based on his patients’ testimony, Freud constructed his “Seduction Theory” of the origin of neurosis, which he delivered in a lecture to the Vienna Society for Psychiatry and Neurology on May 21, 1896.In a letter to his colleague Wilhelm Fliess, Freud angrily protested that his lecture was given “an icy reception by the asses” in the Viennese psychiatric establishment.9The Viennese psychiatric establishment aggressively ignored Freud’s theory, and clients avoided consulting him.10Not surprisingly, he soon reversed his position, writing to Fliess that he had rejected his original theory because “in all cases, the father, not excluding my own, had to be accused of being perverse. . .whereas surely such widespread perversions against children are not very probable” (Letters 264).And this Freud concluded despite the compelling contradictory clinical evidence gathered from almost every one of his hysterical patients and from his observations in the Paris Morgue.11As Christine Froula argues, “Freud turned away from the seduction theory not because it lacked explanatory power but because he was unable to come to terms with what he was the first to discover:the crucial role played in neurosis by the abuse of paternal power” (118).He simply could not accept what all the evidence suggested:that sexual abuse by fathers or other family members was, indeed, “very probable.”
Recent studies of sexual abuse, such as Judith Herman’s Father-Daughter Incest (1981), David Finkelhor’s Sexually Victimized Children (1979), and Diana Russell’s The Secret Trauma:Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women (1986) all suggest that the incidence of incest and other forms of childhood sexual abuse is alarmingly high in our society.12In 1990, Finkelhor used a national survey of 1,481 adult females and 1,145 adult males to examine the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse.He found that twenty-seven percent of the women surveyed and sixteen percent of the men had experienced sexual victimization (“Sexual Abuse” 21).13Using much more thorough questioning about sexually exploitative experiences, Diana Russell’s random sample of 933 adult women indicates that thirty-eight percent of the subjects experienced some form of sexual abuse before the age of eighteen and twenty-eight percent before the age of fourteen (“Incidence” 137).14
Reading Allison’s fiction in the context of Freud’s repudiation of his seduction theory and in the light of recent statistics on the cross-cultural incidence and prevalence of child abuse suggests at least one stark conclusion.The myth of the slack-moraled, over-sexed, incest-ridden “white trash” family could well be one mechanism whereby a bourgeois patriarchal culture projects its darkest fantasy of the ultimate paternal power and control onto an “other,” thereby distancing itself from its own desires and occluding the reality of abuse that pervades all social classes.The so-called “white trash” family functions as the scapegoat for the incest and abuse that are endemic to the authoritarian household in which paternal rule goes unquestioned and unchecked.By projecting incest onto a class-defined “other,” the dominant culture does not have to confront it in itself.
Rejecting the self-serving mythology of the depraved, abusive “white trash” family, Allison posits the origin of incestuous abuse in the upper-middle-class Waddell family.A resolutely patriarchal family, the Waddells have so damaged their own son that he turns his rage and regressive dependency needs upon the Boatwright women in an attempt to compensate for his own sense of emasculation.In Allison’s fiction, incest is not a defining characteristic of poor white southerners, nor is it an inevitable phenomenon in that class; rather, the conditions that breed it occur in the most “typical” bourgeois family and are exacerbated by the expectations that both patriarchy and capitalism lay upon the male as he struggles to forge a secure identity.In fact, when Bone’s Boatwright uncles learn of Glen’s physical abuse of her, they are clearly appalled that a man would beat a child bloody.“‘Shit!’” Uncle Nevil, a man of few words, exclaims when Raylene shows him the angry welts and weeping scabs on Bone’s thighs (246).The uncles--Nevil, Beau, and Earle--beat the tar out of Glen, sending him to the hospital and giving him a permanent limp to remind him of what a whipping feels like.
Allison, quite significantly, does not suggest that they do this merely because Glen has violated their sense of male entitlement over their family’s sexual property, though proprietary they certainly are at times.Whatever problems the uncles have in dealing with their wives, they dote upon children.Allison’s depiction of their solicitude toward children is all the more significant in view of the hard exteriors they have to present to a world that heaps abuse on them because of their social class.15In one of the more haunting moments of the narrative, Uncle Nevil comes to Bone after Glen rapes her and she is living with Raylene.Bone narrates their conversation:“Nevil. . .stood silently in front of me. He touched my bruised chin with one outstretched finger, traced my hairline, and leaned forward to kiss my left cheekbone with dry chapped lips. . . .‘I promise,’ he said. . . .I knew what he meant, and I smiled” (304).
Whatever violence Allison represents in the lives of these uncles, they are not characters with whom the abuse of a child sits well.After the workweek is over, they may get liquored up and bust a best friend’s jaw, as Earle does; they will surely go to jail for it, as he does.They are often not concerned with their wives’ emotional and sexual needs.Yet Allison’s complex representation of their material circumstances suggests that they are emotionally drained themselves by a constant grind of work that never quite gets the bills paid.Forced to live amid undeniable economic injustices and seething with anger because of it, they seek releases from their circumstances in fighting or liquor, and they do not begin to acknowledge, let alone respond to, their wives’ needs.When his wife leaves him because of his infidelities, Uncle Earle seeks out the sexual attentions of much younger women, who do not remind him of his own failures and insecurities.Allison does not make excuses for these behaviors; rather, she contextualizes them in the material realities of economic oppression.Whatever else the uncles do, they do not beat children bloody.
It would be possible to argue simply on the basis of that narrative fact, I suppose, that Allison is idealizing her own class, mythologizing them in just the way that she says is debilitating.In view of the whole novel, however, it would be quite difficult to support the position that Allison presents a romanticized view of the Boatwright males since their violence, drunkenness, and infidelities punctuate the narrative.It is more persuasive to argue that her location of the origin of sexual abuse in the Waddell family rather than in the Boatwright family is a strategic intervention in the discourses about social class that associate incest with poverty.I am not arguing that by rejecting the myth of the incestuous poor, Allison implies that the middle class is responsible for most abuse or that the poor are immune to it; rather I contend that by challenging conventional prejudices about incest and poverty, she suggests that incest pervades society, not just the one social class with which it is stereotypically associated.
Glen’s successful businessman father constantly taunts him because he is a failure while his brothers are successful professionals, whose conspicuous consumption Glen yearns to emulate. Glen’s father practices what psychologist and therapist Alice Miller calls a “poisonous pedagogy” that constantly humiliates and shames a child or beats the child under the guise of a “spanking for your own good,” so that he or she will “know his/her own place.” Though widely acceptable, such pedagogy, she argues, has both domestic and political consequences: it creates children who may grow into tyrannical and physically abusive parents; and it may account for the widespread acceptance of violence in society (vii-xii, 142-189).
The effects of his father’s “poisonous pedagogy” upon Glen’s masculine identity are devastating.Whenever Glen brings his family to his father’s house,he dare not leave “before his father [has] delivered his lecture on all the things Glen had done wrong in his long life of failure and disappointment” (99).Glen’s reactions to his father suggest two things:the atmosphere of shame that bleeds into terror in an oppressive authoritarian household, and its continuing traumatic effects upon the victim.When he is around his father, Glen breaks out into a sweat and watches his father’s face nervously, pulling on his pants “like a little boy” and dropping his head if anyone asks him a question (99).
When Bone’s Aunt Ruth asks her whether Glen has ever molested her, Bone cannot speak the truth, but she remembers:
Mama thought that keeping me. . .away from Daddy Glen was the answer, that loving him and making him feel strong and important would fix everything in time.But. . . every time his Daddy spoke harshly to him, every time he couldn’t pay the bills, every time Mama was too tired to flatter or tease him out of his moods, Daddy Glen’s eyes would turn to me, and my blood would turn to ice. (233)
Glen turns abusive when his failure in a capitalist system and his father’s continuing emotional tyranny reopen old wounds, which he feels can be stanched only by letting the blood of his own stepchild.Like Miller, Allison discloses the roots of violence and the monstrous proportions to which it can grow in the hidden and acceptable cruelties visited upon children by the child-rearing practices of typical families.And so the cycle of paternal abuse continues generationally:the trauma visited upon the shamed and terrorized child is revisited upon his or her own children.
In addition to challenging the myth that poverty is the provenance of incest, Allison critiques deeply ingrained patriarchal ideas of motherhood, insisting that the power vested in motherhood in heteropatriarchal households is an illusion that frequently guarantees women’s failure.She deflates the cherished myth of the blissful nuclear family as the most healthy and “natural” site for the raising of children.As Janet Jacobs contends, feminist theorists of child abuse see it as a consequence of patriarchal family arrangements that produce female dependence and powerlessness and maintain male control over women and children (“Reassessing” 500).Feminist theorists like Nancy Chodorow, Dorothy Dinnerstein, and Adrienne Rich have urged a reexamination of the traditional patriarchal family and its institution of motherhood, arguing that the process of mothering is not simply a biological or natural imperative but rather a culturally determined, political institution that reproduces not only the species but also male dominance. As Dinnerstein so tartly puts it, the “female monopoly of early child care” (33) perpetuates a sex/gender system in which women are expected to be all powerful in the domestic sphere, since that is their “natural” realm; they are defined by their maternal functions and are judged by their success or failure as mothers.Although the experience of motherhood confers upon women a sense of their own power through the biological fact of parturition, in fact, as Rich argues, women have relatively little social power within the institution of motherhood since their reproductive power remains under male control (13).
Regardless of the affective power Anney Boatwright exerts in the lives of her daughters, as the wife of Glen Waddell she is powerless to save them.In “A Question of Class,” Allison writes that one story haunted her until she understood how to tell it:“the complicated, painful story of how my mama had, and had not, saved me”; the story that she tells in Bastard Out of Carolina (34).Allison lucidly elaborates the impossible expectations placed not only on damaged men like Glen, but on the mother in the traditional patriarchal family.She critiques patriarchal family norms and power relations founded upon the sexual division of labor and the conception of the two spheres, the public and the private, representing the male and female domains.As pathological as it is, Allison suggests that Anney and Glen’s marriage represents merely an exaggeration of patriarchal norms, not a departure from them.Because a woman’s primary and defining function in patriarchy is motherhood, she is expected to be the sole nurturer of everyone, including her husband, if need be.She is to meet the needs of her children and her husband, making a haven for him in the domestic realm and bolstering him up so that he can return to the more important work in the productive sector.Given this ideology, a woman whose husband is in a regressive state of infantile dependence, as is Glen, almost certainly will fail in her role as nurturer.
In the novel, the institution of motherhood compels Bone’s aunts to define themselves entirely in terms of their reproductive and nurturing functions:“Ruth, Raylene, Alma, and even Mama. . .seemed old, worn-down, and slow, born to mother, nurse, and clean up after the men” (23; emphasis added).None of the aunts, except Raylene, questions a system in which women define themselves by their capacity to nurture and their responsibility to mother even grown men.Bone notices how these gender arrangements infantilize men and boys:“My aunts treated my uncles like overgrown boys--rambunctious teenagers whose antics were more to be joked about than worried over” (23).Dinnerstein argues that the institution of motherhood as we know it “gives us boys who will grow reliably into childish men” (81).
In an unbearably poignant moment, Aunt Ruth tries to create a space in which a deeply troubled Bone can talk about why she would say, “‘Daddy Glen hates me’” (122).Bone refuses to speak, but Ruth continues:“‘Glen don’t like you much.He’s jealous. . . . There’s a way he’s just a little boy himself, wanting more of your mama than you, wanting to be her baby more than her husband.And that an’t so rare. . . .Men. . .are just like little boys climbing up on titty whenever they can’” (123).Ruth and all the Boatwright women understand that their maternal powers are jealously guarded and circumscribed by men, who are themselves trapped in an infantile state.Allison suggests that the institutionalized practices of mothering create these dynamics and encourage paternal abuse.Significantly, Ruth’s next utterance implies that the abuse of children is one logical outcome of the not “so rare” appropriation of women’s nurturing capacity in the interest of adult male needs:“‘Bone, has Daddy Glen ever. . .well. . .touched you?. . .Down here, honey.Has he ever hurt you down there?’” (124)
“[B]orn to mother” and interpellated into the ideologies of heterosexual romance and romantic thralldom, Anney is drawn into an ever more destructive relationship with Glen precisely because he is in such dire need of the mothering and nurturance he never received as a child.Narratively, Allison erases Glen’s own mother almost entirely, suggesting that maternal paralysis and passivity that attend paternal domination.In a conversation with Ruth, who warns her of Glen’s jealousy of Bone, Anney protests:“‘Anybody can see how Glen got bent, what his daddy’s done to him. . . .All Glen really needs is to know himself loved, to get out from under his daddy’s meanness’” (132).Anney has interjected the myth of the all-powerful mother whose love can heal all wounds.16Anney feels compelled to play the role Glen’s mother never could in a household where masculine authority was absolute.In fact, his vulnerability and seeming need for her maternal love if he is to become a man ineluctably draw Anney to Glen.Through Anney’s plight, Allison suggests that the ideology of motherhood, with its emphasis on the power of female nurturance, can put women into a double-bind:they are asked to meet the needs of both children and husbands and yet these needs may be in conflict if the husband has unmet dependency needs.Merely nurturing her children, Anney unwittingly incites Glen's jealousy, exacerbates his insatiable needs, and deepens his hatred of Bone, whom he sees as a rival for Anney’s love.
As Janet Jacobs argues, the incestuous father often turns to his daughters to satisfy the needs that the wife cannot fulfill.No one can. When this occurs, the mother is blamed by both the child and society for not fulfilling her role as nurturer and protector of her children (“Victimized Daughters” 133-35, 137).17Jacobs contends that the most important recent studies of incest reveal that the mother becomes the focus for “feelings of anger, hatred, and betrayal on the part of the daughters who were abused by their fathers” (“Reassessing” 501-502).Furthermore, and more disturbingly, she asserts that existing theories of sexual abuse and therapeutic models for recovery incorporate a “strong bias toward mother blame” (502), which freezes the victim of abuse in a state of rage against her mother and severs permanently the bond between mother and daughter.Contemporary family dysfunction approaches to sexual abuse and psychotherapy thus “support the notion that the mother is in some way responsible for the acts of the father, a view that is consistent with cultural norms that justify male violence by blaming the female victim for the actions of the aggressor” (502).
Jacobs submits that anger at the mother is an important stage in the process of emerging from childhood sexual abuse as a survivor because it helps the victim separate from the mother, whose sense of helplessness the child often internalizes (“Reassessing” 500).Moreover, focusing anger on the mother allows the victim to externalize the anger that she so frequently turns inward as she directs “hatred and aggression against [herself]” (512).Remaining in this stage of mother-blame, however, though it offers a strategy for psychological survival, causes conflicts in the victim’s own gender identity and a devaluation not only of the mother but of women in general (513).Jacobs contends that once the anger at the mother is expressed and validated, a feminist perspective on the incest can help the victim move beyond anger at the mother to a “less distorted perception of the mother’s role in her victimization” and an appropriate focusing of the anger on the perpetrator (512).Allison interrogates the bias toward mother-blame in dominant theories of sexual abuse, family pathology, and psychotherapy.She exposes mother-blame as another myth of patriarchal ideology.And she rejects it.In its stead, she textualizes a process for emerging from the experience of paternal sexual abuse as a female survivor who understands, richly and empathetically, the position of her mother and the ultimate responsibility of her father in the abusive household.For the sake of narrative compression, she distills into thirty pages and a matter of only a few fictional days a process that can take years, decades, or a lifetime to complete, if ever.
In the rape scene and its emotionally devastating aftermath when Anney leaves Bone with Aunt Raylene in order to care for the man who has raped her daughter, Allison pulls the reader through the experience of an exhausting and bewildering range of contradictory emotions:horror, numbness, rage, resentful blaming of the mother, anguish for her impossible position, and a painful recognition that blame is an utterly inadequate response to the sufferings of this mother and her child.The rape itself is excruciating reading as a child is violated in unspeakable ways.Allison speaks the unspeakable, articulating with precision and sharp detail the emotional and physical savagery of the act, the verbal and sexual specifics of an assault intended to overwhelm and damage not only this twelve-year-old child’s blossoming female sexuality but her sense of her own worth as a human being.
Limp from exertion and detumescent, Glen lies draped over the brutalized child when Anney happens upon the scene.Her reaction is immediate and fierce as she beats Glen off Bone’s body, calls him “monster,” and tries to protect and calm Bone, covering up the child’s nakedness as best she can, clasping her to herself, and soothing her with her repeated whisper of, “‘Baby, baby’” (287-288).When Anney tries to get Bone to the car, Glen begins sobbing “like a child,” and Anney slaps, then punches him “full on,” in the face as he whines her name “like a little boy” (288).As Anney struggles to get the driver’s door open, her prostrate child pleading “Mama” to her from the passenger side, Glen threatens suicide in a whisper:“‘Kill me, Anney.Go on.I can’t live without you.I won’t.Kill me!Kill me!’” (290).Punctuating each blow with the cry, “Kill me,” Glen repeatedly slams his bloody head into the closed car door.As Anney grabs his head to block the impact, Bone pleads “Mama” and Glen whispers, “‘Kill me, Anney’” (290), the emotional extortion of his marriage proposal having come full circle.
Allison clarifies the impossible and conflicting demands laid upon mothers in heteropatriarchy by placing her character into the situation of having to choose between her battered child and the emotionally damaged husband whom she has loved as a vulnerable child because the institution of mothering and the ideology of motherhood have conditioned her to do so.No matter what she does, in her own eyes, Anney fails.The easy response for a reader is simply to write this character off as a failure and to despise her, as Bone initially does, because she leaves her child.Bone reacts with instant rage and hatred of her mother:“I hated her now for the way she held him, the way she stood there crying over him” (291).But the superb rendering not only of a child’s brutalization but also a mother’s anguished position between an abused child and a disturbed, desperately needy husband, whose nurturing she has been acculturated to take responsibility for, throws the reader into a conflict-ridden position not unlike Anney’s.
Bone’s rage is salutary because it prevents her from blaming and despising herself for the abuse, as we have seen her do earlier in the narrative.But as Raylene speaks to Bone, who is convalescing at her house after Anney abandons her at the hospital, the text nudges the reader beyond an initial response of rage at the mother to a fuller understanding of Anney’s position.Raylene tries to get Bone to see how wrong it was for Glen to put Anney in the position of having to choose between her child and her lover.Without denying Anney’s responsibility, Raylene urges Bone to remember that her mother loves her and will suffer forever for her failure to protect her child.
In the wrenching scene in which Anney returns to give Bone a new birth certificate without “illegitimate” stamped on the bottom and to assure her that she loves her, Bone’s growing awareness of her mother’s difficult life moves her toward forgiveness:“Maybe it wasn’t her fault.It wasn’t mine. . . .Maybe it was like Raylene said, the way the world
goes. . .” (307).When Bone notices the unstamped certificate, she begins to reflect on her mother’s failure in the context of her whole life:its deferred dreams, its terrors, its unmet needs, its shame.Bone asks, “Who had Mama been, what had she wanted to be or do before I was born?. . .What would I be like when I was fifteen, twenty, thirty?Would I be as strong as she had been, as hungry for love, as desperate, determined, and ashamed?” (309).By refusing to go with her mother, choosing instead to live with her Aunt Raylene in a safe space out by the river “where trash rises,” Bone takes her first step toward survival.She directs her anger not inward, nor outward toward her mother, but toward her abuser.Though Bone holds her mother responsible for her choice to stay with Glen, she places full responsibility for her sexual abuse squarely on Glen’s shoulders.Allison represents the abused child as taking her first steps toward survival in a way that liberates her from both self-loathing and rage against her mother.
Allison rejects myths about incest and about those “white trash” families who are allegedly haunted by it.Further, she offers a feminist analysis of paternal sexual abuse in place of an essentializing myth that at once posits incest as the exclusive domain of the underclass and lays the blame for its incidence upon the mother.In “A Question of Class,” Allison writes:“I grew up poor, hated, the victim of physical, emotional, and sexual violence, and I know that suffering does not ennoble.It destroys.To resist destruction, self-hatred, or lifelong hopelessness, we have to. . .refuse lying myths and easy moralities, to see ourselves as human, flawed, and extraordinary.All of us--extraordinary” (36).By rejecting bourgeois myths about white-trash illegitimacy and incest, by exposing the injustices of an economic system whose interests those myths legitimize, and by critiquing some of our society’s most cherished institutions--the heterosexual family and its institution of motherhood--Allison lets us see the Boatwrights and persons of their social class not as subhuman trash but as human, flawed, and extraordinary.
1. I predicate my analysis on Gayle Rubin’s theoretical position that every society is organized by a sex/gender system (168).Rubin repeatedly stresses that a sex/gender system is socially constructed and subject to historical change (166).
2. Barthes contends that bourgeois ideology requires and produces cultural myths that veil social or cultural processes in order to give the appearance of the natural and inevitable to phenomena that are socially, culturally, and historically produced (117-174).The fundamental principle of myth is that “it transforms history into nature. . . .Myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal” (140, 155).
3. In “The Subject and Power,”Foucault elaborates his conceptual model for analyzing the operations of power in the constitution and regulation of human subjects. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault analyzes Western discourses of sexuality and their implications for the constitution and government of the subject.Foucault examines how power permeates discourses, gaining access to the “forms of desire” as it “penetrates and controls everyday pleasure” and “wrap[s] the sexual body in its embrace” (11, 44).In “The Subject and Power” he delineates a technique of power that “categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity. . . .It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects” (781).In The History of Sexuality, he explains the pleasure derived by those employing this technique of power (45).
4. Janmohamed describes the colonialist’s psychological process as follows:“[T]he native, who is considered too degraded and inhuman to be credited with any specific subjectivity, is cast as no more than a recipient of the negative elements of the self that the European projects onto him” (20).
5. Janmohamed’s description of the psychological benefits of the “manichean allegory” clarifies the unquestioned sense of moral superiority as well as the gratuitous cruelty of Allison’s upper-class characters (23).
6. Althusser suggests that all ideology constructs individuals as subjects:
[A]ll ideology has the function (which defines it) of constituting concrete individuals as subjects. . . .I shall then suggest that ideology “acts” or “functions” in such a way that it “recruits” subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: “Hey, you there!”. . .[T]he hailed individual will turn round.By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject. Why?Because he has recognized that the hail was “really” addressed to him, and that “it was really him who was hailed” (and not someone else). (160, 162-63)
7. Allison also examines the subversive potential of country music, inevitable because of the contradictory positions to which women are called in patriarchal ideology (Bastard 256).8. Levi-Strauss writes:“The prohibition on the sexual use of a daughter or a sister compels them to be given in marriage to another man, and at the same time it establishes a right to the daughter or sister of this other man” (51).The exchange is established not between a man and a woman but between two groups of men, the woman figuring “only as one of the objects in the exchange, not as one of the partners” (115). Perhaps most tellingly, Levi-Strauss argues that the incest taboo, the “supreme rule of the gift,” is more a rule “obliging the mother, sister, or daughter be given to others” than a rule prohibiting marriage to her (481).
9. The fierceness of Freud’s conviction about his theory is striking as is the psychoanalytic community’s snubbing of his work.Fully persuaded of the legitimacy and importance of his findings, he published an expanded version of the lecture in his 1896 essay “TheAetiology of Hysteria,” a piece written “in defiance of [his] colleagues” (Letters 190).Contrary to accepted practice, Freud's colleagues refused to publish in the weekly journal, Wiener Klinische Wochenschrift, the abstract of his lecture and an account of the ensuing discussion (Masson 6-9).
10.Freud confessed to Fliess:“I am as isolated as you would wish me to be” (Letters 185).Though Freud claimed to be bearing the contempt of his colleagues “with equanimity,” the fact that his “consulting room [was] empty” and no new clients had sought him out for weeks was “more troublesome” to him (Letters 185).
11.For a fascinating but controversial account of Freud’s recantation of his “Seduction Theory,” see Jeffrey Masson’s The Assault on Truth.
12.In Finkelhor’s non-representative sample of 796 college students, 19 percent of the women surveyed and 9 percent of the men reported childhood experiences of sexual victimization (Sexually Victimized Children 53).In a later study using a representative sample of 521 adults, Finkelhor found that 15 percent of the women and 5 percent of the men reported experiences of sexual abuse as children (“How Widespread,” par. 21).
13.Some of Finkelhor’s additional findings are also pertinent to Allison’s examination of sexual abuse.Males were more likely to be abused by strangers, females by family members.Both males and females reported that most of their abuse was perpetrated by men (“Sexual Abuse” 21).
14.Sixteen percent of Russell’s subjects experienced intrafamilial sexual abuse before the age of eighteen and 12 percent before the age of fourteen; 31 percent of the subjects experienced extrafamilial sexual abuse before the age of eighteen and 20 percent before the age of fourteen. The 38 percent figure resulted when both categories of sexual abuse were combined, and the number was adjusted to account for overlap between the two categories since some subjects experienced both kinds of abuse (“Incidence” 137).
15.In her recent autobiographical piece, Allison writes:“Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that no one is as hard as my uncles had to pretend to be” (Two 32).The Boatwright uncles are similarly compelled to conceal their vulnerabilities beneath a granitic facade.
16.For a discussion of the destructiveness of this myth, particularly upon the mother-daughter bond in cases of incest, see Regen, 17-21.
17.I am grateful to Harriet Mauck Regen for pointing out the importance of Jacobs’s work to a reading of Allison.
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---. “Victimized Daughters: Sexual Violence and the Empathic Female Self.”Signs 19.1 (1993): 126-145.
Jagose, Annamarie.Lesbian Utopics.New York:Routledge, 1994.
Janmohamed, Abdul R.“The Economy of Manichean Allegory.”The Post-Colonial Studies Reader.Ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffith, and Helen Tiffin.New York:Routledge, 1995. 18-23.
Kenan, Randall.“Sorrow’s Child.”Rev. of Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison.The Nation20 Dec. 1993: 815-16.
Levi-Strauss, Claude.The Elementary Structure of Kinship.1949.
born 11 April 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina
60. birthday 11 April 2009
Biography • Literature & Sources
Describing herself as a feminist and a working class storyteller who writes to change the world, Dorothy Allison is an accomplished writer and speaker who frankly tackles gender, class, violence, and sexual orientation.
Dorothy was born on April 11, 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina, the first child of Ruth Gibson Allison, a poor, unmarried fifteen-year-old. Dorothy and her younger sister did not get to know their father, who died when they were still babies. Ruth worked as a waitress and clothes launderer and maintained close relationships with her own mother and sister. From an early age, Dorothy admired her grandmother and Aunt Dot as strong women and dazzling storytellers.
When Dorothy was five, Ruth married a route salesman who began sexually abusing Dorothy. At age eleven, Dorothy was able to talk of the continuing molestation to a cousin, who informed Ruth. Although Ruth took the children away from their stepfather for few weeks, they returned when the stepfather swore he would stop. However, the abuse did not end for another two years, at which point she and her sisters found ways to discourage their stepfather’s sexual advances.
Around the same time, Allison’s stepfather lost his job and the family could not pay their bills, so they decided to make a fresh start in Central Florida. Despite continuing poverty and her mother’s worsening health, Dorothy found relief when her classmates and teachers recognized her intelligence despite her “white trash” working class background. In her essay, “A Question of Class,” Allison notes, “because they did not see poverty and hopelessness as a foregone conclusion for my life, I could begin to imagine other futures for myself.”
Allison did begin to create another future, winning a national merit scholarship to Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College). Aware of her attraction to women since early adolescence, Allison fully embraced the women’s movement at college, studying feminist literature and living in a women’s collective, while sneaking out to date “butch” women. Upon graduation in 1971, she worked as a substitute teacher, maid, and Social Security Administration clerk, while volunteering at a feminist magazine and rape crisis center.
Allison soon moved to New York to pursue a master’s in anthropology at the New School for Social Research. During the 1970s and early 1980s, she was an award winning editor and writer for early feminist and lesbian and gay journals including Quest, Conditions, and Outlook. Allison also continued her own maverick lesbian-feminist activism, helping found the “Lesbian Sex Mafia,” a support group for lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, and transexual women engaged in consensual bondage, discipline, sadomasochism, and alternate gender identities.
With her first published work, a collection of poetry called The Women Who Hate Me (1983), Allison honored and scrutinized her class background and sexuality, and at the same time outraged mainstream feminists by lauding promiscuity, sadomasochism, and butch-femme roles. In 1988 she won two Lambda Literary Awards for a short story collection, Trash. In the preface, she declares the collection to be “the condensed and reinvented experience of a cross-eyed working class lesbian, addicted to violence, language, and hope, who has made the decision to live.” Parallel to the literary exploration of her Southern working class background, during this time Allison also reconnected with her sisters and mother, from whom she had distanced herself as a young adult.
Allison won the strongest mainstream praise for her largely autobiographical novel, Bastard out of Carolina (1992), a best seller and a finalist for the National Book Award. In Bastard, Allison offers a loving, humorous, and unsentimental portrayal of a girl from a poor family who suffers sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather. Allison presents her characters fully, powerfully capturing both painful incest scenes and the girl’s admiration of the strong women in her family, including an aunt who once had a love affair with another woman. The book has been translated into more than a dozen languages and was adapted into an award-winning movie in 1996.
In 1994 Allison released an essay collection, Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature, which won the American Library Association’s Gay & Lesbian Book Award. A year later the New York Times Book Review named her memoir, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1995), a notable book of the year. In her second novel, Cavedweller (1998), Allison further developed themes of poverty, family violence, and redemption. A New York Times bestseller and prize-winner, the book was adapted into a play and a movie (2003).
A member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and former board member of Feminists for Academic Freedom, Allison counts among her literary influences Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, Jewelle Gomez, and Audre Lorde. In 1998 Allison founded The Independent Spirit Award to support writers who help sustain small presses and independent bookstores. She was awarded the 2007 Robert Penn Warren Award for Fiction and her forthcoming novel is She Who.
Allison now lives in the San Francisco area with her partner of eighteen years, Alix Layman, and son, Wolf Michael. She maintains a busy speaking schedule and is Emory University Center for Humanistic Inquiry’s Distinguished Visiting Professor in spring 2008.
Quotes from Allison general “I wear my skin only as thin as I have to, armor myself only as much as seems absolutely necessary. I try to live naked in the world, unashamed even under attack, unafraid even though I know how much there is to fear.” – from Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature essay collection
re: writing “I don’t want to simplify when I write. I want people there with their warts on. I want you to love them even when you hate them.” - from Happy Endings essay by Kate Brandt
“It’s an illusion that writers have a lot of choice about what they write,” she explains. “Your stories are your stories. They’re the only ones you can really tell, and if you try telling ones the world would like you tell, you’ll do it badly.” – Curve Magazine 2001
“I write who I can write—people I can understand. I can understand deeply wounded, hidden kinds of girls.” – Curve Magazine 2001
“There are only supposed to be certain people who are worth the trouble and you basically have to be middle class or exceptional in some way, really beautiful or really smart or be kissed by Jesus for god’s sake—the rest of us, we’re background noise and our stories aren’t important. And I just don’t believe that. I think the working class is the story of this country. The rich and the upper class have been riding on our asses for hundreds of years, and I don’t want to see us made over into a story that glorifies them. Our stories are glory enough.” – Curve Magazine 2001
re: feminism “feminism gave me a vision of the world totally different from everything I had ever assumed or hoped. The concept of a feminist literature offered the possibility of pride in my sexuality.”
re: intersecting oppressions “we are the ones they make fiction of – we gay and disenfrancished and female – and we have the right to demand our full, nasty, complicated lives” –
“Entitlement … is a matter of feeling like we rather than they … I have never been able to make clear the degree of my fear, the extent to which I feel myself denied: not only that I am queer in a world that hates queers, but that I was born poor into a world that despises the poor. The need to make my world believable to people who have never experienced it is part of why I write fiction.”—“A Question of Class,” p 14
re: class “And my family is consummate trash. Absolute. We are the people who become mechanics and laundry workers. And to say that there is something good and valuable in that heritage is an act of rebellion, and almost revolutionary.” - from Happy Endings Kate Brandt
“the inescapable impact of being born in a condition of poverty that this society finds shameful, contemptible, and somehow deserved, has had dominion over me to such an extent that I have spent my life trying to overcome or deny it.”—“A Question of Class,” p 15
re: romance “I’m completely aware that people would like me to write a love story. It’s just that when I write a love story you probably are not goin’ to be able to tell. I don’t believe in romance in that sense. I actually believe romance is almost as much work as raising children.” – Curve Magazine 2001
Author: Sarah K. Horsley
Literature & Sources
The Women Who Hate Me (1983, poetry)
Trash 1988 (short stories), Lambda literary awards - best lesbian small press book & best lesbian fiction
The Women Who Hate Me: Poetry, 1980-1990 (1991)
Bastard Out of Carolina 1992 (novel) – National Book Award finalist, Ferro Grumley & Bay Area Book Reviewers Awards
Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature 1994 (essay collection) – Gay & Lesbian Book Award, American Library Association
Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1995, memoir) – named notable book of the year by NYT Book Review
Cavedweller 1998 (novel) – Lambda literary award for fiction
The expanded edition of Trash (2002) - included the prize winning short story, “Compassion” selected for both Best American Short Stories 2003 and Best New Stories from the South 2003.
She Who (forthcoming from Penguin Putnam)
Allison’s website Accessed April 14, 2008. Includes photos & extensive timeline of publications & speaking events, etc.
Allison, Dorothy. Skin : talking about sex, class & literature. Ithaca, N.Y. : Firebrand Books, 1994.
Brandt, Kate. “Dorothy Allison: Telling Tales, Telling Truths,” in Happy endings : lesbian writers talk about their lives and work. Tallahassee, Fla.: Naiad Press, 1993, pp. 9-18.
Domina, Lynn. “Allison, Dorothy,” in American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. Ed. Taryn Benbow-Pfalzgraf. Vol. 1. 2nd ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000, pp. 23-24.
“Dorothy Allison.” Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 53. Gale Group, 2003. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.
“Dorothy Allison.” Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2008. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.
“Dorothy E. Allison.” Contemporary Novelists, 7th ed. St. James Press, 2001. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.
“Dorothy Allison.” Contemporary Southern Writers. St. James Press, 1999. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.
“Dorothy (E.) Allison.” Feminist Writers. St. James Press, 1996. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.
“Dorothy Allison.” Gay & Lesbian Biography. St. James Press, 1997. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.
Allison, Dorothy with Minnie Bruce Pratt. “The Progressive Interview: Dorothy Allison,” in Progressive, Vol. 59, No. 7, July 1995, pp. 30-34.
Miller, Laura. “Dorothy Allison Talks About Working-Class Guilt, The Film Version Of “Bastard Out Of Carolina” And Coming Out—As A Science-Fiction Fan,” Salon. March 31, 1998.
Stover, Mary Ann, “Dorothy Allison Weaves Tales from the Heart.” Gay.com September 7, 2001.
Wilkinson, Kathleen, “Dorothy Allison: The Value of Redemption.” Curve Magazine, September 7, 2001.
Additional articles (not consulted for this biography):
• Huston, Bo. “A Storyteller out of Hell,” in Advocate, 7 April 1992: 70-72. • Jetter, Alexis. “The Roseanne of Literature,” in New York Times Magazine, 17 December 1995: 54-57. • Kenan, Randall. “Sorrow’s Child,” in Nation, 28 December 1992: 815-16. • Megan, Carolyn. “Moving Toward Truth: An Interview with Dorothy Allison,” in Kenyon Review 16, 1994: 71-83. • Moore, Lisa, “Dorothy Allison” in Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook edited by Sandra Pollack and Denise Knight, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1993. • Sherwin, Elisabeth, “Patron Saint of Battered Women Writes, Forgives.” Printed Matter, February 8, 1998, http://www.dcn.davis.ca.us/
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