Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Me, Bertha Mason, and Trichotillomania

A few weeks ago, my essay “The Breathtaking Sting of the Pull,” about my experience with trichotillomania, came out in Superstition Review. This is by far the piece I’ve gotten the most comments on from readers, which surprised me, though it probably shouldn’t have; more people read non-fiction than fiction.

What shocked me—and ultimately affirmed my choice to write about trich—was how many people wrote to me, both publicly and privately, to tell me that they could empathize. That they too pull their hair or pick their skin or do something else that they’ve always felt vaguely ashamed about. It feels really good to have people tell you they spent their free time reading something you wrote. It felt even better, after twenty-plus years of hiding, to have some solidarity, to have found some people who understand. 

I just wish I’d written about it sooner.

I love hair: all it can do, all it can say. Hair as symbol and signifier. This past semester, my Women in Lit class talked quite a bit about hair as we read Their Eyes Were Watching God and Americanah, both books about, among other things, the importance of hair in the lives of black women. We also talked about Bertha Mason’s hair in Jane Eyre. Jane describes her lover's imprisoned wife as having “a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane,” hiding her face. Wild hair could be read not only as an indicator of Bertha’s madness but also of her potential racial otherness in the book. Some scholars have read her as a multiracial woman. (For what it's worth, the book calls Bertha a “Creole,” which is a complicated and ambiguous term. As far as my research shows, at the time the term simply meant that she was the daughter of a white European settler in Jamaica. However, there is enough in Jane Eyre to indicate that Bertha might be intended to be multiracial—for instance, Jane talks about her “discoloured” and “black” face.)

Women’s unbound hair has also, at various times and in many cultures, indicated similarly unbound sexuality, and Bertha is no exception. Rochester doesn’t spell it out for us, but he says that when he first met Bertha: 
she lavishly displayed for my pleasure her charms and accomplishments. All the men in her circle seemed to admire her and envy me. I was dazzled, stimulated: my senses were excited; and being ignorant, raw, and inexperienced, I thought I loved her.
The words "displayed," "charms," "stimulated," "senses"--all of this reads to me as the account of a man driven to lust by a woman’s sensuality. Later on, though, Rochester criticizes Bertha for her lack of modesty, calls her “perverse” and “unchaste,” a woman of “giant propensities.” Reading between the lines, I assume she had, in some way, violated Rochester’s expectations of committed female sexuality—perhaps through adultery, or by being too eager for and interested in sex in general.

This second option is how I’ve chosen to rewrite Bertha’s backstory, in my story “The Beautiful Bird Sits No Longer Singing in the Nest.” It’s a retelling of Rapunzel, as well, with Bertha imagining herself as the captive at the top of the tower, and Grace Poole/Jane as the witch imprisoning her. And you can’t write about Rapunzel without writing about hair, so my Bertha uses her hair as a means of escape and even revenge. But unlike Rapunzel, whose hair is most useful when it is still growing from her head, Bertha must pluck hers to braid it into rope, to use it as kindling, simultaneously erasing the very symbol of the madness and hyper-sexuality she’s been labeled with. The absence of hair, here, means as much as its presence; it gives her power.  She imagines making a boat out of her hair and sailing away, saying "I would stride the waters like a bald Amazon."

I don’t think I intended all of this subtext, at least not when I started writing the story. I hadn't given much thought to what Bertha's hair might symbolize and I was still in the closet about my trich. But when I thought about my own anxiety, imagined myself in that tower room, the imagery flowed from there. I was writing about trich before I knew it. My version of the story begins with Bertha plucking her hair, in a scene that mirrors my own experiences plucking mine: 
I roll each hair between my fingers like a rosary. My fingers crawl across my scalp until I find one: coarse where the others are thin, kinked where the others are smooth. I enjoy the feel of it pulling against me, tenting my skin. Then I yank it out, suck on the end, and drop it on the floor.

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