Tag Archives: writing

Female Monsters and “Bastard Out of Carolina”

The idea of the monstrous female is a pervasive, but relatively recent concept. It’s really only since the days of the conquering, semi-nomadic Indo-European warriors that the female form has been perceived as a monster. The wonder and beauty of reproduction, revered as sacred by many early civilizations, became twisted and seen as deviating from a male norm. From this women became deviant beings capable of hiding things, of being two (or possibly more) people at once, of being recombined. Thus was born the female monster, twisting pre-existing myths into distorted mirror images that have left their mark on our culture well into the twenty-first century.

Bastard Out of Carolina

… is a semi-autobiographical novel set in Greenville, South Carolina. It is narrated by Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright, and examines the expectations of gender and mother-child relationships; it also explores how those roles and relationships evolve and conflict. Class, race, sexuality and gender play out in Bone’s life and in her relationships with others. The obvious primary conflict of the story is between Bone and her mother’s husband, Glen, but the less obvious conflict is between Bone and her mother.

It is also a novel full of monsters. Some are obvious, some are not. Some are male, some female.

Some of the female monsters are archetypes — the monstrous mother, the silent but knowing opposition and the independent woman.

The Monstrous Mother

Anney Boatwright is one the biggest monsters of the novel. She is the mother of two girls and loves them deeply. However, her love for the girls — and especially her oldest, Bone — pales in comparison to the passion she feels for Glen Waddel. This inevitably leads to conflict, in her marriage, with her daughter and within herself.

When Glen beats Bone, Anney rails and screams but never interferes; she even goes as far as to ask Bone “what did you do?” Even when the rest of the Boatwright clan discovers the extent of Bone’s beatings, Anney does very little. She moves out, but then goes back. And after the explosive final encounter between Glen and Bone, she still chooses her lover over her daughter, even after having witnessed him rape the thirteen-year-old. Despite her motherly love, Anney abandons her daughter to leave with her abusive husband, an act many interpret as wholly monstrous. After all, what kind of woman puts her lover above her children? And yet, Anney is not an entirely terrible person; she is, in some ways, as much a victim as her daughter.

The Silent Opposition

Bone represents a completely different type of female monster. The story is told through her eyes, making her silent observer, the one who watches and listens and gathers information in order to draw her own conclusions. While it’s clear she internalizes messages from her family and society, she still manages to keep her own counsel and form her own opinions.

It is likely her knowledgeable silence, as much as anything else, that enrages Glen — he can’t control her mind and he never really knows what she is thinking. This allows her to read Glen, to decide what she thinks of him, regardless of what he does. He fears this ability of hers could be his undoing, which might explain why he seeks to force Bone into the typical female mold. As long as the dangerous ability is loose and uncontrolled, she has the power to destroy Glen … if only within her own mind.

The Independent Woman

Bone’s Aunt Raylene is another woman who does not fit the mold and is partially demonized. Unlike her sisters, Raylene never married or had children, lived in the same house while her brothers and sisters moved around and has always kept her own counsel. In some respects she could be seen as an older version of Bone, but not entirely. She recognizes that she could easily have become Glen had a past relationship continued; Raylene, more than any other character in the novel, actually recognizes a good many things about herself and others.

Her main monstrosity, however, is her independence. She has no need of a man to protect her and she can take care of herself. As readers we respect Raylene, but we also acknowledge that the independent, unattached, child-free woman is a source of confusion to many in our society. Because she does not fit the mold she is Other – and Other easily crosses the line into monstrosity.

The Takeway

Although we can define monster in many ways — disfigured, recombinant and malformed — in the end it all boils down to Other. And as a society, we tend to see Other as monstrous. Despite inclusivity politics and increased understanding, we still find the Other in those who disagree with our politics, religion, lifestyle and sexuality, to name just a few. Too many still fail to see that we are all Other. Everyone on this planet is recombinant, made of many facets and genes; taken that way, we are all monsters.

And if we are all monsters, then perhaps it’s time we reevaluate what a monster really is.

The obituary is dead. Long live the obituary.

The obituary is dead.

Well, almost dead, if you’ll pardon the horrible pun. If you’ve read one recently, there’s a very good possibility you understand what I mean. These days obituaries, always excepting those of celebrities and other famous people, are pretty bad — in fact, most are very poorly written. They do not reflect well on the deceased or survivors. They certainly do not reflect well on the newspapers that publish them.

“So what?” you may ask. The dead are dead and no longer care. And yeah, their survivors care, but are often too distraught, depressed, upset or just numb to worry over an obituary. Besides, they signed that line that says it’s okay. Making it look good is what the newspaper is for, right? If they’re falling down on the job, that’s their problem, right?

Wrong.

Call just about any newspaper and they will tell you obituaries are paid space just like advertising. Hardly any newspaper has an obituary desk anymore. Instead, the responsibility gets passed around the newsroom from person to person and whoever has a little bit of time enters them into the system. There’s nobody to take the kind of crummy copy that makes a restaurant menu look good and turn it into something better.

See, most newspapers receive obituaries directly from the funeral homes — they’re the ones who actually write the obituaries. Also, most newspapers will only run the obit if it comes directly from the funeral home because it’s the easiest way to verify a death. Now, I’m not knocking funeral homes, they do a very hard job and on top of that often have to deal with all sorts of family drama that emerges when someone dies. That said, most of them do not know how to write an obituary.

Once upon a time, before declining ad revenues and newsroom cutbacks, newspapers did have obituary desks or at least a designated person whose job it was to proofread, copy edit and basically put obituaries into a set format. This could vary a bit from region to region, but essentially consisted of the same information. At the small weekly newspaper where I work, we still take the time to rework obituaries into something surviving family members would not be ashamed to clip out and preserve. However, because we are a weekly, all of our obituaries are past tense (they run after the funeral). We also don’t charge anything either.

This is not the case for most newspapers, though, and the general lack of attention to the obituaries is not going to change anytime soon. So if the obituary is dead or dying, will there ever be a decently written one in a newspaper again? Can the obituary be resurrected?

Of course it can.

Write it yourself.

Yes, you can do this. It may sound morbid, but knowing that this very public tribute to yourself or a loved one is written well and accurate can be a great relief when the time comes. It’s one less thing you or your heirs have to think about and most funeral homes will thank you for it. There will be some funeral homes who object, there always are, and I don’t advocate making a humongous fuss if they refuse to submit the obituary you wrote to the newspaper — although, to my knowledge, there’s no reason they should — but I do suggest standing firm. This is especially true if the obituary was approved by the deceased prior to death, or it has the approval of the most immediate surviving family.

The basic obituary has seven parts with an optional tagline for if the funeral home offers online condolences. Here is a breakdown, with examples from an entirely fictitious obit:

1. Name, age, address, date and place of death

Example 1: John Wilber Jones Jr., 88, of 203 Ridgewood Drive, Anytown, died Sept. 10, 2012, at his home.

Example 2: John Wilber Jones Jr., 88, formerly of Anytown, died Sept. 10, 2012, at Pine View Rest Home.

* If the deceased passed away in a hospital or treatment center, or in the home of a relative who was providing end-of-life care, Example 1 would still apply; just substitute that location for “at his home.”

** If the deceased was from out of state and died locally, or was local and died out of state, include that in the address or place of death.

*** Some people like to include “flowery” language, such as “went to be with his lord and maker” or “after a long fight with cancer.” This is perfectly acceptable, but remember most newspapers charge by the word. If money is no object, by all means, include all the flowery language you wish. In all other cases it’s best to stick with the basic format.

2. Basic facts about the deceased; start with vitals

Example: He was born April 29, 1924, in Any County, a son of John Wilber Jones Sr. and Mary Smith. He attended county schools and was a bricklayer. He was a U.S. Army veteran, having served with distinction during World War II. He was a member of First United Methodist Church and the John Wesley Sunday school class and was an active part of the Methodist Men. He also belonged to the Anytown Civitans and coached youth football for 40 years.

* Again, remember that you’re likely paying by the word. Don’t shortchange your loved one, but try to pick out the things for which he or she would most like to be remembered.

** If the deceased was not a member of a specific religious institution, but did profess a specific faith, just say “He was of the (e.g. Methodist) faith.”

3. The predeceased

Example: He was preceded in death by a son, Bert Jones; and infant granddaughter, Shelby Jones; a brother, Harry Jones; and a sister, Lucille White.

* Do not list parents unless the deceased is particularly young, or has only one parent living. Name immediate family members only; do not name cousins, nieces or nephews unless they lived with or were particularly close to the deceased.

4. The survivors

Example: In 1947 he married Jane Smithfield, who survives of the home. Other survivors include a son, John Wilber Jones III and wife Rachel of Anytown; two daughters, Caroline Vance and husband Bill and Margaret Deale and husband Tim, all of Philadelphia, Pa.; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren; a sister, Helen Wilson of Any County; and many nieces and nephews.

* There is a specific order to follow in naming survivors. The surviving spouse, if there is one, always goes first. The order thereafter is: children, stepchildren, parents (if surviving), grandparents (if surviving), grandchildren, step grandchildren, great-grandchildren, step great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, siblings or siblings-in-law, aunts or uncles and companion animals if they were close to the deceased.

** On naming grandchildren and great-grandchildren — do it if you can afford it or if it’s necessary to prove a connection to the area (some newspapers will not run an out-of-town obituary, even if it is paid, unless there is a local connection). Otherwise just list how many of each.

5. Funeral arrangements

Example: The visitation will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, at Brothers Funeral Home. The funeral service will be held at 1 p.m. Friday, Sept. 14, at First United Methodist Church with the Rev. Paul Peterson officiating. Interment will follow in the church graveyard. Afterwards, the family will receive friends at the home of Seth Wilson, 710 Greenway Road.

* Obviously, if you’re writing an obituary ahead of time you do not know the date of death and may not know funeral arrangements, but these are things that can be easily plugged in once decisions are made.

6. Memorials (optional)

Example: Memorials can be made to the American Heart Association, 4247 Park Place Court, Glen Allen, VA 23060, or to the charity of the donor’s choice.

7. Assistance by (optional)

Example: Brothers Funeral Home assisted the family.

* This line is generally superfluous if No. 8 is included.

8. Condolences (optional)

Example: Condolences may be made at www.brothersfuneralhome.com.

* If the funeral home does not provide an online condolence forum, it’s appropriate to substitute an address where condolences can be mailed.

Now that we’ve gone through the obituary section by section, here it is completed:

John Wilber Jones Jr., 88, of 203 Ridgewood Drive, Anytown, died Sept. 10, 2012, at his home.

He was born April 29, 1924, in Any County, a son of John Wilber Jones Sr. and Mary Smith. He attended county schools and was a bricklayer. He was a U.S. Army veteran, having served with distinction during World War II. He was a member of First United Methodist Church and the John Wesley Sunday school class and was an active part of the Methodist Men. He also belonged to the Anytown Civitans and coached youth football for 40 years.

He was preceded in death by a son, Bert Jones; and infant granddaughter, Shelby Jones; a brother, Harry Jones; and a sister, Lucille White.

In 1947 he married Jane Smithfield, who survives of the home. Other survivors include a son, John Wilber Jones III and wife Rachel of Anytown; two daughters, Caroline Vance and husband Bill and Margaret Deale and husband Tim, all of Philadelphia, Pa.; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren; a sister, Helen Wilson of Any County; and many nieces and nephews.

The visitation will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, at Brothers Funeral Home. The funeral service will be held at 1 p.m. Friday, Sept. 14, at First United Methodist Church with the Rev. Paul Peterson officiating. Interment will follow in the church graveyard. Afterwards, the family will receive friends at the home of Seth Wilson, 710 Greenway Road.

Memorials can be made to the American Heart Association, 4247 Park Place Court, Glen Allen, VA 23060, or to the donor’s charity of choice.

Brothers Funeral Home assisted the family.

Condolences may be made at www.brothersfuneralhome.com.

Once you get past the uncomfortable feelings, this really is quite simple to do. It’s also oddly cathartic and can help you come to terms with an impending death; I say this from experience, having written five obituaries for family members in the past four years. It’s also a relief to other family members because it’s one less thing to worry about.

Take control of obituaries. Write them yourself ahead of time and you can be assured that what you’ll read in the newspaper will better reflect the life of your loved one.

Long live the obituary.

#storycontinues (30 april to 6 may)

Sophia licked her lips. There was something magical about Mary Mae’s cooking, she was sure of it. No one else could do the things with flour and water their cook could.

Such as honeycakes. Sophia spotted them on the cake platter under a glass dome and licked her lips. Two minutes later she’d pushed a chair up the counter and pulled a tea towels from the nearby stack.

Really, it was all terribly convenient. She counted the honeycakes carefully, then chose three of the smallest and wrapped them in the towel. The rest she rearranged to make it look like none had been taken. Hopping down, she tugged the chair back where it belonged and opened the door to the back stairs, honeycakes in hand.

#storycontinues (23-29 april)

It was beyond ridiculous. Especially since this route, down the stairs and under the table, had been her idea. It was simple, so ridiculously simple, so obvious, she’d told the boys, that no one would ever think to look there.

And here she was, almost ruining her own plan. It was too much to bear.

Sophia breathed a soft sigh and slipped through into the dining room. Any other night she might stop to look at the silver tea set displayed on the sideboard and only used on holidays, but tonight she was too focused to bother. The door to the butler’s pantry was ajar, so it was hardly any trouble to slip through and into the kitchen.

Almost immediately she stopped and inhaled. Supper was hours over but the smell of Mary Mae’s chicken and biscuits still lingered.

#storycontinues roundup (december 2012)

After a lamentable absence, a return to writing, and I’ll start with a #storycontinues roundup from the end of 2011. The following was tweeted, but never found its way here.

That oversight is now corrected.

Confused? Click on the #storycontinues link above to read the story from its beginning. Story tweets will resume 23 April 2012.

***

Nothing moved that she could see, but then she couldn’t see all that much in the dark. What had seemed somewhat light, if shadowy, from the stairs was darker at ground level. The light from the parlor didn’t reach all the way to the table and the moonlight from the glass windows flanking the front door was weaker than expected for a full moon night.

She would have to rely on her ears, not her eyes, before making the next move.

There were no footsteps, no voices any closer than they had been. Had her sneeze really gone unheard?

It appeared so. To be safe though, she ducked back under the table and counted to three hundred three more times. This had been close, too close. It was getting harder and harder to sneak about, but there was no time to worry. She had to go, now, while she safely could, but she had to do so carefully.

When all was silent she slipped out from under the table, wincing at the sound of her bare feet on the tile.

“Next time, slippers,” she half-whispered to herself, wincing, again, at the sound of her voice.

She really was doing terribly tonight, but then this detour was unplanned. Not that it should matter, she told herself ruthlessly. She and the boys had planned for things like this — acted out how to get away, where to hide, how long to count, everything — and here she almost got caught.