“Gloria: A Life”: “Lead with love, low ego, high impact, and move at the speed of trust”   

By guest blogger Maureen Murdock; editorial review by Nancer Ballard and Savannah Jackson.

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Last year my partner, Bill and I went to a matinee performance of “Gloria: A Life, ” Emily Mann’s play about Gloria Steinem. The setting at the Daryl Roth Theater in lower Manhattan was arranged as if we were in a consciousness-raising group. The stage area was in the middle, carpeted with Persian rugs like Ms. Steinem’s own apartment. We, the audience, sat around the stage in bleacher-style rows covered with multi-colored pillows. Six aisles allowed for non-Gloria characters to come and go as scenes changed.  Images of Gloria’s life were projected above the stadium seating on two opposite walls. Christine Lahti, looking exactly like the feminist trailblazer in black bell-bottoms and tinted aviator glasses played Gloria.

Gloria_Steinem_1977_©Lynn_Gilbert

The first act traced Gloria’s life from small town girl taking care of her mentally ill mother in Dayton, Ohio through her rise to become an icon of the Second Wave of Feminism.  What was poignant is that Gloria became a journalist to get away from her mother and found out years later that her mother had been a newspaper journalist herself before Gloria was born. Her mother was then abandoned by her husband and became terminally depressed. Gloria realized, like so many of us who have had depressed mothers, that she ended up living her mother’s “unlived life.”

Film clips of Gloria from her time undercover as a Playboy bunny, to her early reporting on the women’s movement, to her involvement in the creation of Ms. Magazine (with many others in her living room), to images of her addressing the crowd at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D. C. appeared on the walls around us as the play evolved. Other actors played many other feminist leaders such as Florynce Kennedy and Wilma Mankiller, black and Native American leaders often left out of standard histories.

When her husband of three years died of cancer, Gloria turned to Wilma Mankiller. Wilma told Gloria a story about her own near death experience in her forties which included such a feeling of ecstasy that she didn’t want to return to the living when  given the choice. However, she did make the decision to live and assured Gloria that her husband probably was also gifted with an ecstatic release from his suffering in death.  The whole idea of death being an ecstatic experience gave me hope.

Gloria Steinem,  Image by © MARIO ANZUONI/Reuters/CorbisGloria had her own #MeToo moment before the movement was named. A New York Times editor suggested to Steinem that they “discuss her work in a hotel room this afternoon”; and in 1963, when she was sitting in a cab ride in between Gay Talese and Saul Bellow, Talese said, “You know how every year there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.”

Perhaps the most important part of Gloria’s coming of age was finding her voice by listening to others in consciousness-raising groups and speaking with other women. It surprised me to learn that she had a fear of public speaking and so she always invited another feminist like Florynce Kennedy or Bella Abzug with her colorful hats to share the stage with her. “Social justice movements start with people sitting in a circle,” she says in the play and that’s exactly what the second act consisted of. At the end, there was a 20-minute talking circle in which we, the audience, were invited to share our own responses to what we had seen in the play or what we had lived. The guidelines were principles enunciated by Black Lives Matter projected on the walls in big letters: “Lead with love, low ego, high impact, move at the speed of trust.”

The lights came up and the first person to raise her hand for a microphone was a 16-year old girl. I was pleased to see such a young woman present because most of the audience—almost all women and the few men—looked like survivors of the nineteen sixties. She said, “ I’m 16 and I grew up with a mother who always told me I could be anything I want to be. I appreciate the sacrifices that Gloria made for all of us and I’m really grateful to my mother for giving me the confidence that I can be anything I want to be.” Impressed by how articulate she was, we all clapped as Christine Lahti said, “There is the next Gloria Steinem!”16steinem1-articleLarge

An older woman, sitting high up in the bleachers said, “I want to tell you what it was like in the ‘60s. My husband was a student at Yale and I worked in the library to support us. There was a man who worked with me in the library and I found out that he was making more money than me. I talked to some of the other women who worked there and we went to our boss and asked for a raise. Our supervisor said, “Well, he’s a man. Someday he will have to support a family!” The woman replied, “Well, I am supporting a family. My husband is a student and I work to support us both.” (I nodded, thinking back to how I worked on a psych ward while my first husband was in law school). Having received no satisfaction from her supervisor, she went above him to one of the Deans, who eventually gave her a raise. She interrupted our applause by saying, “Wait! There’s a happy ending to that story. I got promoted and now that man works for me!” We all roared with approval.

There were a couple of men who raised their hands to speak. One man, who appeared to be in his early ‘50s, said, “I work for a company whose name is not important. I wanted to give a woman who works with me a 20% raise. I was told by the HR department (managed by a woman) that I could only give her a 10% raise. So I said, ‘Oh, I see. She’s a woman. We always pay a woman less.’ We all groaned. As he gave up the mic, he said, “She got the 20% raise. It works every time.” We hooted and hollered!

Another man, with thin graying hair, on the other side of the theater, took the mic and slowly said, “I have been crying throughout this entire performance. It touched me deeply.” We all got quiet and the woman sitting next to him put her arm around him. He continued through his tears. “I have been thinking about how oppressed I have felt throughout my entire life.” His comment surprised me.

When he spoke the word “oppressed,” I thought he was going to admit to situations in which he had oppressed women and apologize. Or that in seeing the play and identifying with women, it began to dawn on him that he had been oppressed during his life as well. But he didn’t explain how he felt oppressed and I began to feel cynical. This show was about how women have struggled against inequality and I felt that he was co-opting Gloria’s story for himself. He continued, “I’m 72 years old and I was a feminist before any other man was a feminist.” The audience sighed. I wanted to scream. How dare he claim that for himself.

Here was a man pulling on our heartstrings by comparing what he saw as his own oppression to the oppression of women we had just witnessed on stage. The principle of Low Ego had been abandoned: instead the man was inducing the audience into expressing sympathy and taking care of him.  Christine Lahti could have explained that the play wasn’t about male oppression, or called attention to the message on the wall.  She didn’t do either, at least not on this afternoon.  Instead, she fell into the trap of equating men’s and women’s circumstances by saying–with great warmth–“Thank you so much for your courage and your tears.”

He  successfully hijacked the moment.  But I am sure I wasn’t the only one who had noticed that the self-proclaimed first male feminist hadn’t grasped the concept of low ego.   And a moment is not the journey. As Gloria—A Life, Gloria Steinem herself, and many of the other speakers that day showed us, when you encounter high egos blocking the way, it’s a call to step around them–and keep moving.Gloria Steinem at Women's March, Photo by Jenny Warburg

Maureen Murdock, Ph.D. teaches memoir writing at UCLA and in Pacifica Graduate Institute’s memoir certificate program, “Writing Down the Soul.” She is the author of the best selling book The Heroine’s Journey, which delineates the feminine psycho-spiritual journey, as well as four other books: Unreliable Truth: On Memoir and MemoryFathers’ Daughters: Breaking the Ties that Bind; Spinning Inward; The Heroine’s Journey Workbook, and Blinded by Hope: My Journey through My Son’s Bipolar Illness and Addiction published under a pseudonym. Maureen Murdock b&w jpeg

You can find her blog on her website:  www.maureenmurdock.com

Facing the Witch: The Aletis Heroine’s Journey

by guest blogger, Jody Gentian Bower; editorial review by Nancer Ballard and Savannah Jackson. Jody Gentian Bower, PhD., is a cultural mythologist and the author of Jane Eyre’s Sisters:  How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story.


In the 1980s, I belonged to a women’s book club. Over time I noticed that most of the novels we read featuring a female protagonist had a similar plot. Then I realized that many of the great novels by women, the established classics, followed the same plot. I found a similar plot in the biographies of many noted women.

The idea that women authors* have been telling a consistent story for centuries wouldn’t leave me alone. Yet I couldn’t find any discussion of this plot by scholars of literature. The Heroine’s Journey by therapist Maureen Murdock, Women Who Run with the Wolves by folklorist Clarissa Pinkola Estés, and Jean Benedict Raffa’s memoir The Bridge to Wholeness touched on some of the motifs I’d seen (and opened my eyes to a few I’d missed), but their approaches were not quite what I was looking for. My fascination with the literary plot itself eventually led to Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine Story.

I came to call this plot the Aletis story—aletis being an ancient Greek word that means “wandering heroine.” Allerleirauh_by_Arthur_Rackham (1)Her story is not defined by an external quest like the Hero’s Journey plot. Instead, her journey takes her farther and farther away from home until at last she finds the place—both within and without—where she is able to create the life that she has always longed for. Unlike the hero, who proves himself a man by a heroic act that enforces and preserves the idealized vision of the status quo of the community, the Aletis finds her inner worth and bases her life on what she values. She doesn’t ask anyone else to change, but her example often causes her community to shift out of old ways that no longer work.

I call her the wandering heroine because she keeps moving, keeps on leaving situations where she cannot be herself. For example, Jane Eyre longs for a life lived fully, with passion. She chooses to leave her adoptive, abusive home to go to school; chooses to leave Lowood School and her teaching job to become a governess for strangers; chooses to leave Mr. Rochester when he asks her to compromise her integrity; and chooses to leave the safe harbor she’s found with her cousins when St. John tries to force her into a loveless marriage. Eventually, the Aletis finds (or, like Jane, builds) her own home where she can put down roots and create what she was meant to create. She provides an opportunity for others to do likewise, like Celie of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, who draws a community of like-minded creative people to her—including her own formerly abusive husband.

But first the Aletis must journey into the wild place, the place of danger, the very place her family and community have warned her against. In old tales like “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” she goes from her little village into the forest where the scariest thing of all, the witch Baba Yaga, lives. Bilibin._Baba_Yaga (1)In many recent stories the wild place is the big city, the center of sin and crime. The heroine has been taught all her life to fear this place, yet she is drawn to it.

In the wild place she encounters the witch. The wicked witch is often the villain of a hero story; the hero must defeat her. But in Aletis stories, the witch becomes the girl’s teacher. The witch must be approached with respect; not as an enemy, but not in a craven way either. The heroine has to prove herself to the witch, and the first thing she must prove is that she respects herself too. She must stand boldly before the witch and tell her what she has come for.

The witch sniffs, unconvinced. She sets the girl a series of impossible tasks. These tasks require the girl to use discernment—to sort out the good seeds from the bad—or be diligent and unwavering as she spins the mountain of straw into gold. Her commitment provides the magic that allows the task to be accomplished. Once the girl passes the test, the witch gives her what she needs.

Miranda Priestly of Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada is a modern Baba Yaga, feared by all who know her. (“Miranda” means “miracle” and “Priestly” evokes someone in touch with divine power.) The heroine Andrea, newly come to the big city from her small town, walks boldly into Miranda’s demesne and asks for a job. Miranda sniffs, as do all the sycophants around her, but she lets Andrea stay and sets her a series of increasingly impossible tasks. After Andrea passes the tests, Miranda recommends her for her dream job, investigative journalism. Andrea will not only get to write but will have a positive effect on the wider world.

The Aletis story teaches us how to go willingly into the heart of the unknown. It teaches us that when we come face to face with those we’ve been taught to fear, we don’t have to fight them or defeat them. Instead, we must stand firmly in our integrity as they test our commitment to learning from them. In showing them respect while maintaining our own self-respect, we often receive their respect and ultimately, their cooperation and aid.

To learn more about Jody’s work or purchase a copy of Jane Eyre’s Sisters:  How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Journey, click here.

*And a few visionary men. Shakespeare’s Viola of Twelfth Night, Charles Dickens’s Lizzie Hexam of Our Mutual Friend, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Éowyn of The Lord of the Rings are examples.

Healing Together: Empathy, Integration and Community-Based Reparations

This is the  second in a two part series written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.


Students at Fort Resolution

Students at a residential school in Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories.

In our most recent post, we examined the experiences of indigenous children within the Canadian residential school system. The practice of involuntarily removing children from their communities and cultures, which formally lasted for 165 years, fundamentally altered the lives of indigenous people and their communities. Our last post used the Heroine’s Journey as a framework in the attempt to better understand some of the impacts on survivors and the processes by which indigenous people were intentionally stripped of their identities. In this post we will use the Heroine’s Journey to approach the healing process.

The “history” of the residential schools does not have a beautiful, cathartic, final moment that marks the completion of indigenous people’s traumatic journey. A single monetary payment or moment of clarity cannot suddenly rectify what is now almost two centuries of hurting. The heroine’s journey is a cycle of stages that can occur non-linearly and can be passed through more than once.

“The residential school system took away my language, my culture, and my identity…People are left with a [need for a] sense of belonging. You want to find your sense of belonging and identity.”

Michael Cheena, Survivor

Though the residential school practice officially ended in 1996, another decade would pass before the survivors received a formal apology from the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (See statement here). PM Harper’s acknowledgement that the federal government has caused lasting harm to survivors, family members, and communities was an important moment of recognition and apology. Harper also established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) at this time; it is composed of both indigenous leaders and nonindigenous members. Seven years later, in 2015, the TRC officially declared the residential school system to have constituted cultural genocide and issued a list of 94 “Calls to Action” for how to move forward with reconciliation and reparations. The Calls to Action include such things as eliminating the discrepancy between educational funding for aboriginal schools and non-aboriginal schools; calling upon the Canadian government to acknowledge that Aboriginal rights include Aboriginal language rights; and providing adequate resources to social workers to help keep Aboriginal families together.

Children_at_Fort_Simpson_Indian_Residential_School_holding_letters_that_spell_“Goodbye,”_Fort_Simpson

Indigenous children at the Fort Simpson residential school in the Northwest Territories.

Progress has been slow, and a large amount of work remains to be accomplished. As of March 2018, only ten of the TRC’s 94 proposals had been completed. Harper’s 2008 apology did not include survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador because the residential schools in this province were not directly managed by the Canadian federal government when the schools were opened (the province did not join Canada until 1949). This apology finally came with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement in November of 2017. Although Catholic missionaries, priests, and nuns were instrumental in establishing and teaching in residential schools, in March of 2018, Pope Francis decided not to apologize for the role of the Catholic church in the residential school system.

“You know they were trying to tell me that’s this church, or this place we’re in, you know, I had to do, I had to be this perfect, perfect person or whatever. And yet at the same time, that’s not what I saw. Because I thought to myself, well, if you’re a priest and nun, how come you’re doing this to this child, or you’re doing this to me, and I would say it out loud, and I’d get more lickings.”

Julianna Alexander, Survivor

The Canadian government’s formal recognition is an important first step, but first steps are just that—they are not the journey’s end.  Many questioned Harper’s 2008 apology when only a year later, he stated at the 2009 G20 Pittsburg Summit that Canada has “no history of colonialism.” In September of 2018, students at an Alberta school were asked on a multiple-choice exam to name a positive effect of residential schools on indigenous children. This is like asking one to identify the benefits of false incarceration. It is not indicative of a society in which both indigenous and non-indigenous people have embraced the process of healing, which requires a long-term collaborative effort.

There was nobody there to give any hugs. There was nobody there to say goodnight. There was nobody there to even wipe your tears, or we will hide our tears… Late at night you can hear somebody crying. I don’t know what time it is. There’s no time or nothing that I know, but I know it’s very late at night. There’s nobody to tell us. Everything we do in there is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, is what I hear. Couldn’t do anything right.”

Florence Horassi, Survivor

The Canadian government continues to negotiate settlements and reparations with indigenous individuals as well as working toward providing adequate funding for schools on reserves. Indigenous communities continue to be at odds with the Canadian government in the effort to achieve reparations that truly respond to survivors’ and communities’ needs.

The government has focused on payments to individual survivors depending on the number of years they spent in the residential school system. Some indigenous people have criticized this as an insulting attempt to put a price on human suffering and loss of cultural identity. Although some money has gone towards healing and education programs, indigenous communities have called for more community-based, intergenerational reparations. Those who went through the residential schools are called survivors, and their children are called intergenerational survivors. This stresses the impact that the school system has had on indigenous communities beyond those who personally experienced the residential schools. Providing financial aid only to survivors who are still alive does not address many of the issues that indigenous communities face today.

We will Protect our Nation for our Future Generations

Indigenous people protesting against the C-45 bill in Ottawa as part of the Idle No More movement

Individual reparations alone do not address the deeper level of the persisting trauma. Individualizing reparations fails to acknowledge that the survivors are both individual victims of violence and group victims of a dominant group’s systemic dehumanization. Reparations and healing must consistently recognize and address both.

The heroine journey framework emphasizes that healing is not an oppositional dichotomy between natives and settlers in which natives reclaim their cultural identity simply by convincing settler that they deserve respect. Nor can settlers atone for the natives’ traumatization with one apology and a donation.  The heroine’s journey is a one of non-linear movement toward wholeness. Attempts to erase what has been done or purchase forgiveness doubles the initial violation and continues to marginalize indigenous peoples. Healing is not what the federal government determines to be adequate or affordable funding according to non-indigenous standards.

We cannot alter the past injustices suffered by indigenous people faced through the residential school system. However, we can continue to recognize what has happened and to address long-lasting and multidimensional impacts honestly and empathically. We must  consistently be aware that healing from trauma is neither linear nor subject to a quick fix. And we must not let this, or other similar things, happen again. We cannot participate in the healing of communities and their members while also treating them as separate and other. To  heal the split between the original and dominant cultural identities in the pursuit of wholeness, we must listen to the requests and needs of indigenous communities and incorporate both the experiences of the survivors and the role of the dominant culture in survivors’ experiences into our consciousness.

“That’s our belief as First Nations that we don’t just think about ourselves. We have to think of the next generation and the ones yet to come…They’re not here yet, but we have to prepare for them. And preparing means we’ve got to put down that hurt and that pain we carry now. We can’t let that be our life.””

Viola Papequash, Survivor

For more information on the history of the residential school system, and the indigenous experience and perspective, you can visit wherearethechildren.ca/en

“We Undertake this Healing Journey Together”; an Indigenous Peoples’ Pursuit of Wholeness

Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.


“Everyone who belongs to the First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities has been affected by the residential school experience …”

– Where Are The Children website 

Complicated stories rarely fit neatly into the theoretical stages of Mauren Murdock or Victoria Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey cycles, as we’ve seen in stories such as Willa Cather’s Coming, Aphrodite! and Barbara Leckie’s Kicking the StoneThe real life stories of people who struggle toward wholeness–and toward being recognized as an essential, respected part of the larger world’s narrative–are even more complex. In this post, we want to recognize and examine the struggles of the indigenous peoples of Canada.

Beginning officially in 1831 and extending to as recently as 1996, indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and communities, and placed in residential schools. The residential school system was ostensibly designed to help native youth assimilate into the settler Canadian society, but the schools functioned more as work-houses. In these schools, the children were constantly reminded that they would never belong in their own communities, nor in the settler communities. Virtually all of the children endured years of emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse. An estimated 35-60% of the children did not survive the experience. The residential school “history” is a story that stretches into the present day. Today, native communities continue to struggle with survivor’s trauma, substance abuse, and interpersonal issues.

This post will view the experiences of the First Nations, Inuit, and Metis’ children and communities through the lens of a heroine’s journey framework. Can doing so can help us to empathize with those impacted by the Canadian residential school system and to become allies in the joint effort toward recovery and reparation?

Study Period at Roman Catholic Residential School

A study period in Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories.

Using Maureen Murdock’s heroine journey arc, the indigenous children’s involuntary removal from their communities can be interpreted as a separation from the born-into culture (which Murdock terms “the feminine”). Similar to the so-called feminine approach to child-rearing, the traditional indigenous educational approach emphasizes guiding and nurturing children when teaching them holistic life skills, while also recognizing and respecting the integrity of the child.

Murdock’s separation from the feminine often involves a heroine’s voluntary decision to reject a limited identity that has been thrust upon them by society. However, the forcible separation of indigenous children from their identities better resembles Victoria Schmidt’s betrayal. This stage launches the heroine’s pursuit for wholeness. The indigenous communities experienced a profound betrayal when their children were taken from them. Although some indigenous community leaders had wanted to learn more of Western culture, and to consider how some integration might be beneficial, they never intended to reject the native identity, community, or way of life.

The non-indigenous narrative may have claimed that the residential school system would allow the children to identify with the dominant culture (eg. the masculine) and assimilate (eg. gather allies). However, this was not the reality. The children were discouraged from befriending each other and were punished for speaking their native languages. The “teachers” consistently humiliated the children and physically punished them for anything the teachers deemed to be mistakes or misbehavior. Few staff or faculty provided any comfort or support. Instead, they inflicted, or turned a blind eye to the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of the children by those in positions of authority.

On the rare occasions that children saw their parents, many children did not know how to communicate their experiences, which were so foreign to their native lifestyles. Some children reported feeling ashamed and did not want to explain what had been done to them, or they felt too distant from those in their native communities, which seemed to be a separate reality. Those who did seek help were ignored by law enforcement. Many children entered the residential school system between when they were four and seven years old and were forced to remain within the system for eight or more years. Their roads and trials seemed to stretch on forever.

“The residential schools thing is the biggest factor that has shaken the Indian people down to their roots and it’s the thing that has changed our total look on history.”

Basil Ambers, survivor

Indigenous children may have imagined that they would experience a boon of success when they survived, finally exited the residential school system, and could return to their communities. The community may also have imagined its children would be able to heal and reintegrate when they returned. Both the children and their communities suffered and continue to suffer from the trauma of the forced removal, separation, and abuse.

The community leaders were able to take control of and abolish the residential schools, but the trauma remains. This ongoing impact can be likened to Murdock’s feelings of spiritual aridity. In many cases, the children subjected to mistreatment within the residential schools grew up to have children who were also taken from them, as were their children’s children. Unsurprisingly, many survivors and their families are troubled by alcohol and substance abuse, depression, anger, doubts regarding their ability to control their own lives, an inability to fully connect with either native or settler identities, and/or a lack of experience creating and functioning within loving, supporting relationships.

Students at Blue Quills Residential School

Students at Blue Quills Residential School in St Paul, Alberta.

The children and their communities have been irreparably damaged in that they cannot reestablish the life and identity they would have had without the residential school system. The strategies that were forced upon them to help them contribute to mainstream Canada have not had the desired benefit. Neither their traditional (so-called feminine) nor Western (so-called masculine) living strategies work for them and this situation can be seen as parallel to the initiation and descent to the goddess stage.

Survivors have tried (and continue to try) to reclaim their indigenous identities, practices, and cultures. This is akin to Murdock’s yearning to reconnect with the ancestral (goddess). Their ability to reclaim their cultural identity is complicated by the fact that multiple generations have had their identities stripped from them.

Reconnecting with their indigenous identity and then reconstructing their relationship with a non-indigenous society is an even more complicated, reciprocal, nonlinear process. It necessarily contains provisional solutions that may later be changed or replaced, and effort on behalf of both non-indigenous and indigenous individuals and communities. Healing and the pursuit of wholeness involve both a yearning to connect to one’s own origins and the need to heal the original/dominant cultural identity (eg. the mother/daughter) split. Indigenous community members can provide some of the necessary support, but the burdens of healing cannot rest solely on those hurt by the experience and legacy of trauma. To expect indigenous communities to provide for all of their own healing for tragedies foisted upon them by the dominant society is to continue the marginalization of indigenous people. Wholeness is a process that involves all of us.

Cree Students and Teacher

Cree students and teacher at the All Saints Indian Residential School in Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan. 1945.

In our next post, we will focus on the present-day relationships between and among indigenous peoples, the Canadian government, and non-indigenous people. We will consider what the heroine’s journey framework might teach us about strategies for healing and pursuing wholeness.

“Everyone who belongs to the First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities has been affected by the residential school experience. Only through understanding the issues can we undertake this healing journey together.” 

– Where Are The Children website

For more information on the history of the residential school system, and the indigenous experience and perspective, you can visit wherearethechildren.ca/en 

 

 

I Want to Go to Jail: A Heroine’s Journey Drama on Women’s Struggle for the Right to Vote

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.

Coretta Scott King

This year we’ve vowed to explore the work of activists and social action organizations and movements through the heroine’s journey lens. We believe that a heroine’s journey perspective can help activists to sustain themselves and their commitment in the face of what seems like failure or regression. We begin our examination by reviewing a new play about early 20th century U.S. women’s struggle for the vote written by Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center Resident Scholar Pam Swing and her student-scholar partner, Elizabeth Dabanka.

Suffragists Protest Against DisenfranchisementRather than focusing on a single protagonist, I Want to Go to Jail follows a group of women suffragists and their struggle for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote.  The drama generally follows Maureen Murdock’s articulation of the heroine’s journey and also demonstrates how a heroine’s journey often skips forward and loops backward rather than proceeding in a single arc or cycle.

The play opens in February, 1919 at the National Woman’s Party Headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts. Since politely asking for the vote hasn’t persuaded men to enfranchise women, Suffragist Betty Gram announces that they must picket—e.g. she issues a clarion call to separate from their culturally prescribed feminine role. Several well-known and lesser known members of the National Woman’s Party voice their support—consistent with stage 2 of the Murdock  version of the journey: identification with the masculine and gathering of allies.  But I Want to Go to Jail isn’t so much about a central protagonist gathering allies, as it is about a group of individuals with distinct personalities working as a body to move the story and their shared cause forward.

In the first scene we are introduced to half a dozen characters of different ages, political experience, commitment, and concerns. They prepare to picket the U.S. President Wilson’s motorcade that is coming to Boston, knowing that they are likely to be arrested. Together, they plan for their road of trials, but of course, planning and experiencing are two different things.

The following day the women take their places outside the State House. Their demonstration has barely begun when the Boston Police Commissioner informs them that if they don’t move before the President’s motorcade arrives, they will be arrested for loitering. Their decision to remain and express their First Amendment right to demonstrate peaceably results in their being forcibly taken into custody. Suffragist Alice Paul foresees their imprisonment as a means to increase publicity and sympathy for their cause. Thus, their arrest actually appears to be a boon of success even though President Wilson doesn’t arrive until after they are arrested and are being taken to the courthouse.Alice Paul

In Act II the suffragists, triumphant at having been able to march past a line of marines holding banners, continue their unified protest in the courtroom by claiming they are all named Jane Doe and insisting on their right to go to jail rather than pay a fine for exercising their constitutional rights.  Up until this point, it seems as if the story could be a hero’s journey: women protest, gain support from the public after going to jail, and force the legislature to support a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. Indeed, we know that something like this in fact, happened. But both the play and the historical facts are more complicated.

Outside the courthouse, a journalist asks passersby how they feel about women having the right to vote. There is support and dissension.  The dissenters point to tradition and use self-righteous references to religion– the same arguments used today throughout the world to justify limiting women’s rights. Both sides claim to have moral values on their side.

Suffragist Warning AdvertisementInside the Charles Street Jail, the suffragists, who have vowed to go on a hunger strike, have been separated and housed in cold cells with buckets for  toilets. Suffragist, Betty Gram, who has been jailed before, starts to experience what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (or Acute Traumatic Stress since she is again in jail), as she recalls rats dragging food from her cell during her previous time in jail as an advocate for women’s rights.  From their own cells, other suffragists call out their sympathy and support.  Others muse about how the world and their homes households are proceeding without them. Eventually, they access their strength and commitment to sisterhood by singing together.

The play then loops back for another road of trials: the father of one of the suffragists comes to bail her against her wishes. When her father threatens to turn her out of the house if she does not leave, she reluctantly puts on her suffrage sash and departs, still protesting. Another suffragist hails the jailer to complain that he isn’t delivering the packages that she knows are being sent to them. The Sheriff appears and tells Suffragist Katherine Morey that her fine has been paid by a mystery man that the women believe is is trying to undermine public sympathy for their cause.  The remaining prisoners again find a “boon of success” when they discover that they’ve received 268 telegrams from supporters and are being covered in newspapers across the country. One of the suffragists writes a letter to President Wilson calling upon him to reconnect with his prior promises to enfranchise women. When all of the suffragists except Mrs. Rosa Roewer–whose husband supports her political action– is released from jail, the released women gather outside the jail to sing to the Mrs. Rosa Roewer in their own reconnection with their sister suffragist.

In the last act of the play we learn that the last anti-vote Senator they needed to win the vote had decided to vote for the constitutional amendment, but other anti-suffrage Senators had prevented the amendment from coming to the floor for a vote. Suffragist strategist Alice Paul urges the dismayed activists to regard this as a temporary setback.  Mrs. Rosa Roewer, the last suffragist to be released from jail, points out that Susan B. Anthony worked for women’s right to vote throughout her life and died without seeing it. One of the new, young suffragists promises Mrs. Roewer that this won’t happen to her, but we know that she can’t be certain of this.  Replica of Jailhouse Door PinIn the last scene, the women hold a ceremony at a local theater to honor those who went to jail for the cause and present them with “jailhouse door pins.” It is a momentary pause and time for celebration, for the play appropriately ends with Alice Paul announcing that there is more work to be done, and a new cycle of activism must begin.

I Want to Go to Jail will be performed at Brandeis University on Saturday, February 9, 2019  during their [Bran]“Deis” Week of Social Action, and at the Massachusetts State House in Boston, MA on February 28.  Both performances are free and open to the public.  For more  information on the performance at the State House, click here. To see more about the Heroine’s Journey in contemporary literature and drama, click here.

Disney’s Mulan: Almost A Heroine

Written by Katerina Daley; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


From the day Bambi first struggled to his feet in 1942, Disney has been a strong proponent of Hero’s Journey plot arcs. Indeed, as explained in our blog about Christopher Vogler’s  “Memo that Started It All,” for the past quarter century this has been a deliberate commercial decision. To respond to the contemporary demand for female protagonists, Disney has produced a number of films about marriageable but defiant princesses who engage in quests of one sort or another that culminate in a happily ever after ending without loose ends. The 1998 film Mulan, released four years after The Lion King, provides some interesting complications to the Disney Hero’s Journey formula.  Although the title character, Mulan, achieves great fame and honor by the film’s end, her motivations are more complex than the typical hero’s and at the film’s end it is clear that her journey is far from over.

As in Maureen Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey, the movie  begins with Mulan’s Separation from the Feminine. Fa Mulan does not fit the traditional feminine ideal of her community, evidenced by her disastrous failure at fulfilling her role as a potential bride during her meeting with a matchmaker. Due to this failing, the matchmaker chastises her for bringing “dishonor” to her family. Following this Separation, she moves on to Identification with the Masculine and Gathering of Allies when she learns that an order has been issued for sons and fathers to join the army in the fight against the Huns. Rather than allow her aging crippled father to go to war, Mulan cuts her hair and dresses in his armor. Her ally is Mushu the red dragon, the film’s stock anthropomorphic comic animal sidekick, and an alleged ancestral guide.

I'll Make a Man Out of You

The final shot of the “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” song number depicts Mulan as fully integrated among her fellow (male) soldiers.

With Mushu at her side, Mulan sets out for the army camp and finds herself traveling the Road of trials and Meeting Ogres and Dragons. Upon arrival at the camp, Mulan struggles to find acceptance, but she eventually makes a name for herself by succeeding at an exercise no other man can, depicted in the film’s most popular song, the ironically named, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” This is the first of many times when Mulan’s new (heroine) perspective permits her to creatively solve a problem that all the men around her are stuck on. After earning the respect of her captain, Li Shang, Mulan joins her fellow soldiers battling  the Huns. During this crucial battle, Mulan experiences the Boon of Success by aiming a firecracker at the overhanging cliffs and creating an avalanche that kills many Huns.  In this attack, Mulan is thought to have killed their savage leader, Shan Yu.

Her success is short-lived, however, and Mulan is soon propelled into Feelings of Spiritual Aridity. She is injured during the Hun attack and once the dust settles and she is treated for her injuries, her gender is revealed. Her betrayal of self was impossible to maintain and Mulan is fed up with attempting to perpetuate the lie that denies and limits who she truly is.

The sentence for having pretended to be a man would normally be death, but her life is spared since she saved her captain’s life during the battle. Instead, she is cast out of the troop and left with nothing but her horse, her armor, and her animal guides, Mushu and Cri-Kee the “lucky” cricket.  Left behind by her fellow soldiers, Mulan learns that Shan Yu and some of the Huns actually survived the avalanche.  She realizes she must go to the Imperial City to save the emperor and her comrades.

When Mulan arrives in the Imperial City, she attempts to advise Captain Li Shang about the Huns and their plans to attack again now that the city’s guard is down, but he doesn’t listen to her because she is a woman. In the face of this rebuff, Mulan realizes she alone can avert disaster and is forced into Healing the Wounded Masculine. She knows that she needs to take action to save China. Ignoring Li Shang, she enlists the help of the three close friends she made while in the army who accept and trust her even knowing that she is a woman.

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Mulan shows her skill at subverting gender expectations by working her society’s sexist views to her advantage.

The film’s rising action reaches its climax when Mulan is able to use the skills she learned training to be a soldier and her intelligence and feminine wiles to defeat Shan Yu and the Huns. In an Integration of the Masculine and Feminine, Mulan  instructs her fellow soldiers to dress as concubines in order to enter the palace, since the invisibility of women  will now finally work to her advantage. She also confronts Shan Yu personally, and by drawing her hair back to imitate the style she wore  while posing as a male soldier, she shocks Shan Yu by revealing that he was defeated by a woman the first time, and will now again be defeated by a woman. She is rewarded by the emperor for saving China and offered a prestigious position among his staff. Mulan rejects the Emperor’s offer, preferring to return home, having brought honor to her family.

Had the movie ended there, Mulan would be one of a very few heroine’s journey tales aimed at children.

However, rather than endorse Mulan’s family-oriented motivation to return home to an every day life to be a satisfying ending, Disney tacks on a quick and confusing love plot. Captain Li Shang arrives at the Fa family home to return Mulan’s father’s helmet, but he suddenly acts sheepish and love-struck. Mulan invites him to stay for dinner. Her grandmother asks if he would like to stay forever. Mulan has already fulfilled her mission of having worked for something greater than herself, but by introducing the marriage-with-Li Shang plot, Disney steps back toward the more familiar Snow White ending and sets up ground for the direct-to-video sequel Mulan II. In the sequel, Mulan becomes  a political escort/body guard for the Emperor’s three daughters (who are also the subjects of a series of aborted and then successful marriage plots) and a quasi-princess in marrying into the Li family. Unable to believe that Mulan’s personally motivated but ultimately selfless drive could satisfy their audience, Disney has tweaked this heroine’s journey tale enough to fit on the rack with their other princess stories and produce a sequel that lacks both the heart and truth of the original.

“Kicking the Stone”: Two Sisters and a Relationship, a Trifecta of Heroine Journeys

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


Barbara Leckie’s “Kicking the Stone,” in Salamander’s Summer 2018 issue, is a wonderful, complex short story that interleaves three life stories that broadly follow Victoria Schmidt’s formulation of the heroine journey. The short story revolves around the life trajectories of two sisters and a husband and the changing relationships between and among them.

In our lives we often complete the heroine’s journey cycle nonlinearly. We  return to stages as new challenges are presented, and we examine previous experience more deeply. We can also work on several stages at one time. “Kicking the Stone,” illustrates the role that memories play in our navigating and narrating our lives, and flashbacks play in composing stories. Indeed, the “present” of the story takes place in the relatively static setting of a University town coffee shop in the space of about an hour.  Flashbacks provide tension, action, context, emotional complexity, and pacing.

The story begins in a cozy coffee shop where Sylvia waits for her sister.  It’s early spring, but a surprise snow storm has temporarily buried the crocuses. The setting suggests Victoria Schmidt’s heroine’s journey’s Stage one–the illusion of the “perfect” or “normal” progressing world, but almost immediately we realize that things are not what they seem because Sylvia is tearing tiny holes in numerous packages of sugar and pouring them into her tea to make a sugary slush at the bottom, as if her drink cannot be made sweet enough to swallow.  She overhears a student at the next table say, “We are never quite prepared for death.  I don’t think.”  The overheard statement sounds unreal due to the lack of context and curious grammatical construction, but also ominous because it comes so soon in a composed short story.

Sylvia’s sister, Marg, arrives and apologizes for being late. coffee shopiiThe author then describes Marg’s illusory perfect world from Sylvia’s point of view.  Marg is a university professor who teaches in the linguistic department who “possessed the room” and commands “a sort of erotic attention [by] her confidence.” Sylvia, a couple of years older than Marg, feels as if she plays second fiddle to her younger sister. Sylvia has worked at a variety of community non-profits doling out food to the homeless and delivering community newspapers door-to-door. She is, by her own half-joking admission, “still trying to find herself.”

From this description of Marg as the “successful” sister and Sylvia as the plainer one who travels in her sister’s orbit, we are jolted by the matter-of-fact revelation that Sylvia is living, and has lived, with Marg’s husband for years. We are also told that Sylvia believes Marg had been negligent with her husband. The story thus abruptly enters the land of betrayal, or at least, coping strategies have not gone as expected.

We return to the present and Marg, the accomplished jilted sister, asks Sylvia if she is angry at her, again apologizes for being late, and asks if Sylvia has been waiting long—signaling that the story itself is moving on to Stage 3—Awakening and Preparing for the Journey.  Sylvia reinforces this sense of anticipation by telling Marg that she has something to tell her without revealing what it is. Both sisters lean toward each other, signaling the importance of their relationship which the reader senses has been, and will be, its own journey.

The author again references Sylvia’s “affair” with Marg’s husband (the Stage 2 betrayal), and then a second blow up (Stage 6), before describing the period between the estrangements when the sisters reconciled and referred to Hugh, Marg’s former husband and Sylvia’s current partner as “our Hugh.”  This moment feels like a Stage 5 “Eye of the Storm”– during which the sisters had managed to find equilibrium in their relationships with Hugh and each other.

We return to the coffee shop with Sylvia privately wishing she could begin the current conversation with something “as light and intimate and bonding” as an “our Hugh” reference– strongly suggesting that the story and the sister’s relationship and lives are headed for a Descent (Stage 4).

The story then takes one last backward glance at stage one’s illusory perfect world as Sylvia tries to find her footing before moving forward with the descent.  She muses that she would have liked to open a similar coffee shop-bookstore, but the vision quickly fades.  From here, the story continues to tack forward and back, like a carefully crafted multi-thread chain stitch that braids together the heroine’s journeys of the sisters and their relationship. We learn that Marg and Hugh were in a car accident years before that left Hugh in a wheelchair (his descent).  Marg, who was pregnant at the time, appears to have recovered, but she has some irreparable nerve damage, and she lost her baby.  Thus, we are introduced to Marg and Hugh’s experience of death (stage six) before we find out Sylvia’s news.

The semi-omniscient narrator describes the cause of the accident (a child’s game that ended in the street and  an SUV rear-ending Marg’s and Hugh’s car); Marg’s rehabilitation and response to Hugh after the accident (the descent of their relationship); and Sylvia’s support of both of them.  While Marg has largely blocked out the details of the accident and aftermath, Sylvia remembers them because “it had given her her life.” In this and in numerous other instances, Leckie uses a single sentence and moment to move characters into different stages of their journeys—in this case the Descent for Marg, and the Preparing for the Journey for Sylvia. ii coffee shop two women

The narrator continues to slice back and forth through Sylvia’s memory and narrative flashback, revealing the literal and psychological journeys of each of the characters as they move toward and away from their relationships with one another. With each move, Leckie illustrates the effect of a character’s action on the others and their relationships, which lead to new actions and effects that ripple throughout all the characters’ lives.

Back in the present, Sylvia reveals that the reason she has asked Marg to coffee is to tell her that Hugh (her partner now for at least a dozen years after the accident) has stage four colon cancer.  We see a moment of shared concern for Hugh and for one another. Sylvia then refuses Marg’s request to go see Hugh immediately which we sense is, for Sylvia, a moment of truth and resolve (Stage 8)  in the midst of  her responding to others’ decisions and calamities.  In this moment Sylvia is able to know and say what she needs—as hard-hearted as it seems at that moment of the story.

The story again flashes back to Sylvia’s support of Hugh and Marg after their accident, Marg’s growing impatience with Hugh, and Hugh’s attention to Sylvia in a way that makes her feel that she is more than Marg’s shadow.  The story is constructed so that the reader is repeatedly surprised by the flashback action and then comes to understand and empathize with the character(s) and their journeys only to be surprised by another revelation—from Marg’s affair with a neighbor which launches Sylvia’s romantic relationship with Hugh, to Hugh’s confession to Sylvia that he and Marg have been once again sleeping together after Sylvia tells Marg that she is pregnant, etc.  In each betrayal and struggle we wonder how things can be repaired after this move while hoping that somehow they can be, and knowing that somehow they must have been repaired, for now the sisters are sitting in a coffee shop talking honestly with each another and expressing concern for Hugh.  There are no neatly tied-up endings in this story or in these lives, but there is beauty in the efforts each makes to live an authentic life and preserve difficult relationships that change in ways they do and don’t control under circumstances that are never ideal.

Back in the present, Sylvia has still not agreed to a specific time when Marg can come visit Hugh, but Marg has stopped pressing, and the story and the sisters know that it will not be long.  DSC_2241 (2)Marg listens to Sylvia describe Hugh’s illness and the difficulty of telling Sylvia’s kids (she now has two) and tears up when Sylvia tells her she already finding feels sad to see High’s empty coat hanging in the hall.

Nothing is simple for these characters, but there is an underlying conviction that they will do whatever it takes to affirm their important relationships and themselves, although they don’t yet know how this will happen. In the last paragraph of the story, after Marg has left the coffee shop and Sylvia is preparing to leave, Sylvia remembers Marg telling her the last last thought she had  before the SUV slammed their car into the car ahead in the accident that altered the course of all of their lives. “Brace Yourself” is both a warning and a strangely affirming declaration that the task of life, regardless of our current situations, is to engage reality while acknowledging and aligning ourselves as best we can with internal truths.

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“Kicking the Stone” can be found in the summer 2018 issue of Salamander.  Salamander is one thirty-plus literary journals offered by the Journal of the Month Club that enables you to sample a variety of literary journals for the price of one or two. Click here to see their holiday specials.

 

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