MISFIT DOC: All That is Red

A Reflection on Tori Amos, Amanda Palmer, and Arthur Miller in the Age of Harvey Weinstein and #METOO

When the singer Amanda Palmer performed a cover of Tori Amos’ song Me and a Gun, a first hand account of Ms. Amos’ rape, I wondered about it. Should Palmer appropriate another woman’s voice  and story about something so personal and harrowing?

But maybe my bias got in the way because, though I don’t know her personally, I am not always sure I like Amanda Palmer though my reasons are super petty. Don’t judge.

For one thing, I get annoyed, not because she doesn’t shave, but because she can’t seem to pose for a photograph which does not feature her armpit hair.

And I like the word “fuck,” too, but I think there are other equally powerful swear words she could use once in awhile when she wants  to jeuge up the adjective amazing or when she wants a new middle name: Amanda Fucking Palmer, really?

I could go on. And maybe that is the point. I can’t deny it. Amanda Palmer’s voice is inside of me…a lot.

Elif Safak, in Black Milk, her meditation on motherhood and writing, discusses the harem of conflicting women’s voices inside of her and all women.

For better or worse I’m pretty sure Amanda Palmer is one of the voices in my harem.

In fact, I’m fucking sure.

She’s down there wearing Barbara Eden’s I Dream of Jeannie billowing pants and a pink midriff shirt that reveals her unshaven armpits, and she’s laughing. Oh, how she’s laughing.

Amanda Palmer might annoy me, but she makes me think. And right now, in light of Harvey Weinstein, and #MeToo that Amanda Palmer voice inside of me who, won’t shut up, is making me rethink my position on the politics of voice appropriation and whether it was ok that she sang Tori Amos’ song, after all.

An examination of woman’s voice could do worse than to begin with an exegesis of Me and a Gun.  I don’t use the word “exegesis,” which usually refers to the analysis of religious texts, any more lightly than, in truth, I believe Ms. Palmer made the decision to sing Ms. Amos’ song in a church. And, Me and a Gun, is a song full of religious imagery. Amos sings “Holy Holy” as her assailant “buttons down his pants”  and said later that, she was forced by her rapist to sing hymns during the attack. But the word “exegesis” also means a leading out. Literary critics lead their readers out of the jungle of words on a  page to a clearing where the reader understands the meaning. Ms. Amos, is the exegete who leads other women silenced in fear after a sexual assault towards the promise that there will be life again post trauma, and she does this by getting them moving.

Indeed, Me and a Gun is a song about being in transit, getting in the driver’s seat and riding towards freedom. Not only did Ms. Amos write it after being stirred by watching Thelma and Louise, a film about about two women’s flight toward freedom and voice in an open topped convertible, but Amos’ actually wrote the song while on the move, riding to the show at which she would perform it for the first time, acapella.

Likewise, the speaker in the song chooses not to lie by the side of the road after she is discarded from the Cadillac in which her rape took place, but rather to get in her own car, and, catalyzed by a “full tank” of gas, “just change direction” and drive toward the “5 am” dawning of a new day.

In doing so, she joins a long line of women who started queueing up as far back as ancient Greece and whose trajectory runs ribbon like right up until present day. All raped, all silenced, and all determined to take to nomadic flight from their oppressors.

In Greek myth, Philomela is raped by King Tereus who silences her by cutting out her tongue. Ultimately she is changed into a swallow who, unlike Amos, has no song and may not speak her accuser’s name, but can fly away nevertheless. And, in Thelma and Louise, after Thelma’s assault by a man in a parking lot, the two friends’ escape their no win situation when they take flight over the Grand Canyon in their convertible.

Intervening between Philomela and Thelma and Louise is the odd instance of Arthur Miller’s character, Abigail Williams from his 1953 play The Crucible who most famously escapes her assault and its aftermath by conjuring a yellow bird and whose situation parallels Ms. Amos’ in Me and a Gun to such an uncanny degree it deserves a deeper look.

Arthur Miller said he wanted his play about the Salem Witch Trials to serve as an analogy to decry the unjust accusation of innocent people during  McCarthyism, but instead he colludes with his male protagonist John Proctor to gang rape Abigail and then silence her. A guy can do a lot with a pen.

Under Miller’s stylus, Abigail is portrayed as a promiscuous, vindictive 18 year old, who, while working for John Proctor’s family, seduces the upstanding 35 year old husband and father.

It’s a tale as old as time. In a bequest to white male privilege and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ben Affleck, John Proctor slept with the nanny and then tried to silence her. Weeks after what I will call -because it is- Abigail’s rape, when she is still mooning over Proctor and asks him when they will meet again, he says of the incident,

“Put it out of mind, Abby. It never happened.”

But, Abigail, every bit the Puritan Tori Amos, refuses to be erased:

“Ay, but it did.”

And with those words, watch out Salem, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

Abigail was not a famous singer like Ms. Amos. She didn’t have Gloria Allred. There were no TED talks where she could speak truth a la Ashley Judd or Monica Lewinsky. But, like Ms. Amos, Abigail found voice through art and artfulness. Taking the pulse of her community  and finding it to be beating with a fear of witches, Abigail, in a hot crucible of her own making, wielded and manipulated language which had, up to this point, wielded and manipulated her. In an act of performance art, one in which I feel sure Amanda Palmer would delight, Abigail threw herself on the ground of the Salem courthouse, began to writhe and moan, and when she was sure everyone was listening, screamed out Proctor’s name. She called him a witch and indicated that she was being afflicted by a yellow bird that she could see on the beam of the courthouse ceiling. In so  doing, Abigail performed an acapella ballad of catharsis and redemption as raw and pure and mystical as Me and a Gun, and though no one believed her and she was branded a whore, she beat it out of town on the wings of that yellow bird.

But that is not the end of the story. While it is nice to think of Abigail and Tori in nomadic flight from their rapists there is no escape from the blame women heap on themselves after an assault. In Me and a Gun  Ms. Amos asks a question that isn’t rhetorical: “Yes I wore a slinky red thing. Does that mean I should spread for you, your friends, your father, Mr.Ed?”

The number of men Ms. Amos enumerates as assailants suggests a gang rape so horrific that it culminates in forced bestiality with Mr. Ed, a talking horse from a 1960’s sit-com, who even in his subjugation, gets to have more of a say than women in the world Amos depicts.

But even so, Amos questions if that slinky red thing was responsible for the attack and whether she does owe her assailants the duty of “spread[ing].”

Conversely, Abigail is gloriously unapologetic for the sexuality she has exhibited and any chaos that has ensued because of it. But that is because she is not well written. Abigail, penned by a man who wants to use her only as a plot device to propel John Proctor, toward a bildungsroman at the play’s climax is a flat character, not interested in self reflection and with “a capacity for dissembling” so profound that her evil is as banal and untempered as that of Glenn Close boiling a bunny.

But it doesn’t matter that Abigail is resolute enough to not feel she invited her assault because Arthur Miller, is more than willing to  throw the culpability of a whole Victoria’s Secret lingerie drawer of “slinky red things” at her at once.

It is Mr. Miller who, in an act as reprehensible as dressing up JonBenet Ramsey in sequins and foundation makeup, dresses the real Abigail Williams, only 11 years old at the time of the trials, in that slinky red thing. He explains in the forward to his play that “dramatic purposes” are behind his decision to change history and that Abigail had to be aged to young hypersexualized womanhood cuz Arthur has gots to make art. Miller appropriated the voice of a real little girl and turned her into, yes, Glenn Close.

In his ability to see what he needs even if it’s not there so he can get what he wants, Miller, who decried both the spectral evidence of the Salem Witch trials and the arbitrary accusations of  McCarthyism  sounds like he would have been right at home as a judge at either. In writing The Crucible he fancied himself an exegete like Tori Amos, believing he was carrying the torch that would lead people from the benighted darkness of McCarthyism and the Red Scare into the clarity of a world where they were not afraid to speak up.

But, Miller was the opposite of an exegete. He was an eisegete, one who, rather than extracting content that legitimately exists in a text, instead  inserts content that was never there. In the introduction to his collected plays, Miller explains his intentional misinterpretation of the original Salem Witch Trial documents and subsequent misrepresentation of the real Abigail with only the terse and telling phrase “one finds what one seeks” (164).

Eisegesis is not always bad. If we never embellished our readings of texts or envisioned vistas for characters beyond what is written, Margaret Atwood could not have created The Penelopiad in which Homer’s  Penelope is given a powerful voice, and yes, I admit it, artists like Amanda Palmer would not be able to cover songs like Tori Amos’ Me and a Gun so (fucking) brilliantly.

But eisegetes have a moral responsibility to embellish in a way that  enriches our understanding of a text and the characters that people it, not  to shove implausible and damning words down the throats of the characters that people those texts.

Recently, in The New York Times, Rivka Galchen drew a distinction between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange, suggesting that borrowing the voice of another culture in the making of art might be excused if the art produced merits the appropriation. She referenced the hip-hop group The Wu-Tang clan whom she describes as white kids who drew inspiration for their music from watching Kung Fu movies. She says that the Wu-Tang clan’s music is really, really good and thus a fair exchange for the appropriation of Chinese culture.

Ms. Galchen’s exploration of the parity of exchange between appropriation of voice forces me to ask, does the quality and message of Miller’s art justify his appropriation and misconstruction of the voice  of the real Abigail Williams?

More generally, is a powerful man’s career more important than the desecration of a woman’s voice?

In this Hollywood Access van, Trump, Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein world of 2017, I think the answer depends upon whom you ask.  For Miller, the answer was easy, because, in writing The Crucible he was not so much decrying the Red Scare as expressing how scared he was of all that is red, vaginal, menstrual, and bloody.

Consider, and I am being an eisigete here, the studious Miller, married to the unpredictable Marilyn Monroe, wishing for a more staid life if she would just be a bit more quiet, composed. What delight it must have been to silence her textual doppelganger Abigail and stanch the flow of words and blood.

Likewise, Amos’ assailant was  simultaneously so drawn to and so repelled by the blood colored “slinky red thing” she wore that he wished to both have her sexually and kill her.

In our current political climate we are reminded on a daily basis that our president who, while simultaneously asserting that he is the victim of a baseless witch hunt at the hands of Robert Mueller, seeks, Arthur Miller style, to silence vocal intelligent women like Megan Kelly and Mika Brzezinski because they might speak up and bleed red from “wherever.” And, while I’m not saying I necessarily agreed with Kathy Griffin’s decision to post a photo of herself holding up Trump’s bloodied head, it did seem that, amongst all the satire and vitriol leveled against our President, he became preternaturally upset by that one image.

And though I joked earlier about the way in which Amanda Palmer gets under my skin, there is something unsettling to me that my first reaction to a woman who puts her body in my face is one of being unsettled myself. Sorry, Amanda. Hope you’ll stay in my harem. I need you.

Finally, in the concluding act of Miller’s play, Tituba, the female black South American slave and Sarah Good the town’s mentally bereft homeless person sit together in the Salem jail. They collude about the prospect of escape. Sarah envisions them as  a “pair of bluebirds winging southerly” and Tituba says  their destination will be sunny “Barbados… soon the Devil gets here with the feathers and the wings.”

I love that Tituba and Sarah, female and black and female and crazy respectively, who, both studies in intersectionality and more subjugated than Abigail, still assert their voices in a cry of rebellion and dream of escape via flight on the wings of a bird.

And as Tori Amos initially reminded me of Abigail, so Tituba’s words about Barbados bounce me back to Amos and the moment in Me and a Gun when splayed out on on her stomach, beneath the weight of her assailant she becomes determined  to survive because she has not yet “seen Barbados.”

It is in this moment that, buoyed by my harem of women’s voices singing in harmonious concert, feeling light myself as if I too might take flight, I know women’s voices will survive almost anything, that we have persisted before, and we shall persist again.

And the next time I hear Ms. Amos sing that most haunting lyric of her song, “Does that mean I should spread?”

I will answer her, but good eisegete that I am, I will not think of legs. I will think of my harem: of Philomela, Amanda Palmer. Abigail, Tituba, Sarah, Thelma and Louise. I will think of wings, and, in the loudest voice I can muster,  I will say, yes, Tori, yes.

Dr. Cristina James (“Tina”) has a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Columbia University in New York, and a doctorate in English literature from State University of New York at Albany. In addition, she earned her law degree from Pepperdine School of Law in Malibu, California. She is currently completing a master’s degree in Educational Leadership at Nova Southeastern University. She has taught English literature and writing at the undergraduate, high school, and middle school level for the past 25 years. For the past 13 years, she has served as an English teacher, curriculum coordinator, and academic dean at a school in South Florida. Dr. James is committed to empowering the voices of her students.

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