Escaping the Ending
My grandfather remembers each of his aunts for her extraordinary life, except Regina, who is remembered for her death. Sixty years ago, in Poland, my great, great aunt Regina leapt from a third story balcony. The end of her story was the beginning of mine.
My grandfather, Eli, grew up in Warsaw, in the home of his Hasidic grandparents, who had fifteen children. Despite the fact that Eli's grandfather was strictly religious and tyrannical, his daughters managed to live lives of adventure. Eli remembers his aunts seething with passion for politics. Their beliefs led them to the Crimea, Siberia, and even to jail. Eventually they chose careers: a major in the Russian Communist army, a mathematician, the head mistress of a school, a dentist, a teacher fluent in seven languages. Before the first world war, most of these sisters, including my grandfather's mother, left Poland, unwittingly saving themselves from the holocaust.
Regina never left the house. Regina had epilepsy. My grandfather says she had no interest in going out, but that if she did, her parents would have dissuaded her. They were fearful of the spectacle of a lady seizing in the streets. He remembers his aunts' walking arm and arm in the park each day, discussing socialism. Sometimes they even let him tag along, but Regina was never invited. My grandfather says she was quiet and very sad. "She was not a bad person," my grandfather says carefully, implying that she acted badly. Then he admits that Regina was known as the family snitch. He says she was homely. He says he has no pictures of her.
With all these female role models of strength and success, it is Regina's narrative that fascinates me most. It is the waste of her. I imagine that she had the intelligence of her sisters, and her death suggests she had their strength of purpose as well. Yet the only occupation she could invent for herself was household spy, helping to punish the budding rebellions of brothers and sisters.
In 1932, in the tense years before the war, Regina was forty and the only child still stuck in her parent's house. She could bare it no longer. She jumped off the third floor balcony, smashing into the cobblestones below. But she did not die. She jumped twice more that year. On the third try, she succeeded.
Was that it, then? The end of her story? Margaret Atwood writes in “Happy Endings” that the only authentic resolution is “John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.”
Regina’s ending might be authentic, but it wasn’t resolved for me. I couldn’t get images of Regina out of my head: her sudden seizures, the strangling claustrophobia of her life, the terrible determination it took to step off that balcony three times. Mainly, I think I wanted to reach back in time, across an ocean, and find another way out for her.
And it is not just Regina I think of; I have always been fascinated and frustrated with women who committed suicide--Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton, and their fictional counterparts from Ophelia to the heroine of Chopin's The Awakening, to Thelma and Louise, to the young heroine, Jen, of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and back around again, to Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath. Clearly, this attraction is not mine alone. Our culture has long accepted, even celebrated, suicide as a heroic end to a woman's life.
In writing about Huckleberry Finn, Wendell Berry deplores the American love affair with novels that end in "an escape into some territory where we remain free of adulthood and community obligations." According to Berry, these last frontier fantasies "have remained our norms of 'liberation', for women as well as for men". Berry is probably right that men and women in U.S. literature both want to escape claustrophobic culture, but the classic American image of female liberation is not a child rafting down a river, but, like my aunt Regina, a woman leaping to her death.
In the nineteenth century, female suicide was omnipresent in painting and melodrama. According to Barbara Gates, author of Victorian Suicide, "a catalogue listing all works of art on this subject would have to run on for pages. Domestic melodrama snatched dozens of jilted women from the jaws of suicide, while broadsheet after broadsheet sensationalized their plight."
In our own century, we continue this captivation with the female suicidal gesture, both in life and in art. Women attempt suicide at a rate of three or four times that of men. There are currently over ten biographies of Sylvia Plath in print, and over five of Ann Sexton. The Sylvia Plath/Ted Hughes victim/victimizer controversy continued with the 2003 publication of Her Husband: Hughes and Path: A Marriage, and then there’s Gwyneth Paltrow. In a country not known for its adulation of poets, it seems pretty clear that we are not witnessing the phenomenon of poet as superstar, but of suicidal woman as superstar.
Thelma and Louise , the popular "women's movie," that premiered in 1991, ends in a freeze frame as the two main characters choose to hurdle to their deaths, mimicking all those Victorian broadsheets of women frozen in flight. Similarly, at the climax of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000), the rebellious young heroine, Jen, leaps from a cliff and floats off into the horizon. Like Gates' Victorians, "Their soaring is--for a moment-- an act of autonomy and self assertion. Symbolically, flying signifies raising oneself, both in terms of status and in terms of morality. In her plunge she is trying to escape compromise."
There are questions here that cannot be escaped: Is suicide really a legitimate act of self determination, or is it a socially determined act? Are these suicidal women authoring their own destinies or are they performing an already written text? Is suicide an original ending or a scripted one?
So, I began my novel, We Are Gathered Here, about a woman with epilepsy named Regina. My novel begins with wilderness and suicide, and moves from there. Regina leaps from a building high atop a mountain in the first sentence, but this leap is the beginning of her adventures, not the end. She is bruised and broken, but not dead. And unlike either my great aunt or Sylvia Plath, my fictional Regina vows not to try again. Instead, she meets a friend named Olive. Olive is a practical, big boned miner's wife, someone who has compromised too easily and too soon. Regina and her friend Olive spend the rest of the novel trying to find a way out of the dead ends they have found themselves in. Regina and Olive lose their dream, their homes, they even lose each other, but they do not lose everything. Through their tenacity, they are able to hold fast to some of what they want.
Recently, when my novel was finished, I visited my grandfather and brought up Regina again. When I said that I wished he had a photograph of her, he went to a file and pulled out a group picture. There is my grandfather, a blond boy of perhaps six, with a wide tie, short pants, lace up black boots, big ears. And behind him is Regina.
She has a thick brown braid that falls past her waist. She wears a lace blouse, a teardrop pendant, and a dark, ankle length skirt. Her eyes are shadowed and small; she has full lips, pale, high cheekbones. She is beautiful.
My grandfather gives me the picture, and I have it cropped and enlarged, so I end up with an image of Regina alone. I hang the photograph over my desk.
But her face begins to frighten me. She stares at me with a bitter, sullen look I hadn't noticed before. I think vaguely of ghosts, as if my novel has been some sort of incantation that has called up her furious spirit. When I look at her clenched lips and squinting eyes, the hopelessness of her destiny overwhelms me. Finally, I put the photograph away in my file cabinet, but it is too late.
The woman I have called up will not leave me. Maybe it is because we are tangled together in strands of DNA. But it is more than that. Again, it is not just Regina. I imagine Virginia Woolf's face when her husband and sister explain they will not allow her to have children. I imagine Sylvia Plath, a harassed single mother on a grey day in a drafty flat, resting her cheek on the oven door. And I know there’s worse, unspeakable choices, people caught between fire and air. Women factory workers jumping from the burning upper floors of the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory in 1911; and on September 11th, small dark figures falling like tears from the implosion of the Twin Towers. And these choices, which are no choices at all, make me think of the brilliantly defeatist Cavafy poem, The City,
“Always you will arrive in this city. Do not hope for any other—
There is no ship for you, there is no road.
(As you have destroyed your life here
In this little corner, you have ruined it in the entire world.)”
To take flight is to escape compromise, to exhilaratingly shake loose of all confining structures, including the confining structures of bodies, words, sentences, pages and book covers. But it is also to break the structures that house us, including the houses that are our bodies, our words, sentences, pages and book covers.
Lately, the main characters in my short stories have begun to wrestle with this frustration with endings themselves. They are torn between the desire for a clean break, an ending with finality, and the deadening artificiality of that closure. They want to have it both ways at once, an end to compromise, but not an end to opportunity, and so do I.
The last lines of one of my recent stories: “The woman could not exaggerate the importance of that moment, when all boundaries had been overrun. This was her story's crisis. She had given everything she had, and it was only the beginning.” Or another: “The moon is just a knife edge, the lake is black and still, there are mosquitoes whining, Let's dance. I love you. Whining, This can’t be over.”
True, the story can take up the problems with endings in its ending, the story can be rewritten, the character can fly, can fall, but perhaps the woman who insists on writing her own story, is, like Jacob, wrestling with God, refusing to submit to the immutable law that we may be able to choose when and how, but not if. In the end, there will always be a last