|November 24, 2015 | Letter No. 9
Hello again, Lennys!
So nice to be back here, writing to you for our ninth letter. Nine has always been my favorite number, so this feels very auspicious. And surprise! This week is a real good one. Katie Lowes, best known for playing Quinn Perkins on Scandal,
writes about the awesome theater she created from the ground up with her best friends, the IAMA Theatre Company
in California. She and her “Ride or Dies” migrated to the West Coast together and have cemented their friendship by painting props and sets, putting on original, delightful shows, and molding fake poops together backstage. Because it’s always best to go after your dreams surrounded by the people who love you and get you the most.
Ignoring your body is never a good idea. We know self-care is easier said than done, but Emily V. Gordon’s story may make you think twice about ghosting on yourself. Emily thought she had a cold one day, and the next day she was in a medically induced coma. But Emily’s piece is not a weird fear-mongering one, the kind that your mom might forward you with a “SEE? BE CAREFUL!” message in all caps. Instead, Emily tells us what really happens when you’re in a coma, the weird dreams that you have, the way your body continues living without you, and the perspective a near-death experience brings to your life. If anything, it will make you appoint a friend to go to your house if there’s an emergency and make it look decent in case your parents need to step foot in it. Actually crucial stuff.
And because women’s bodies are still a battleground, our own Jess Grose interviews Dr. Bhavik Kumar, a doctor who performs abortions at two clinics in Texas, a state where the extreme laws threaten women’s access to a safe and legal procedure. Dr. Kumar talks about how, despite the fact that he and his colleagues want to make their patients comfortable and confident with their choice, local laws like the ones that require women to wait 24 hours after their initial consultation before getting an abortion inevitably create a stigma. It’s a feeling of discomfort that’s just not present where abortions aren’t so reviled.
To get you out of the possible slight depression that comes from reading about how our rights keep getting squashed, Alice Gregory introduces us to Lucy Larcom, whose memoir A New England Girlhood,
published in 1890, documents the extraordinary ordinary life of a young woman who worked in a mill, founded a newspaper with some of her fellow “mill girls,” and was an abolitionist. If you have a long reading list ahead of you, I hate to say that it’s about to get longer.
Finally, we have Kendra James writing about habitually being the only woman of color in privileged white spaces. It is both anger-inducing and funny (because women contain multitudes, after all!). Kendra’s writing hits home in light of recent events at Yale
, but also events everywhere else, snubs felt by women and people of color every day, ones that are unfortunately commonplace and generate no press at all. It isn’t enough to be “allowed” in spaces if all other forces insist on conspiring against you. Living your life as a statement, as a teaching moment for others, is damn exhausting. Everyone should be able to just feel the rain on your skin, because no one else can feel it for you, only you can let it in, and the rest is still unwritten
(and when it gets written, you’ll read about it in Lenny, of course).
By Katie Lowes
I’m backstage shellacking dog shit 30 minutes before opening night of a play called A Dog’s House. I’m trying to finesse a mixture of peanut butter and Hershey’s syrup into perfect poop piles while constantly finger-poking it to check if the shellac is hardening. I look at my best girlfriend of 15 years and we burst into laughter. How did we get here?
Nine years ago, I moved to Los Angeles from New York City. My roots are in Long Island. I hated sunshine and shorts and sand (still do). I was the worst driver ever, and my family feared for me and for the other drivers sharing the road with me (still do). But I got it in my head that, in L.A., I might waitress less and act more. That, and my girls from drama school, my Ride or Dies, were slowly but surely moving to California. Together.
My friends and I have been through some SHIT. Painful breakups; being flat-ass broke; changing jobs a million times; changing apartments a million times; deaths and funerals and weddings and bachelorette weekends; all the ups and downs that go along with growing up. It’s their phone calls that I’ll take in the middle of the night along with my immediate family’s.
We met in 2000 in New York, where we rolled around on the floor and made theatre at NYU. We studied abroad together at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and took London by storm (in our minds, at least). We might as well have been royalty the way we took over the secret downstairs dance floor at our local club-pub, O-Bar. We drank, met British men, and danced our asses off. (Side note: When we dance we go hard — it’s full-blown interpretive dance mixed with the Butterfly and Footloose.)
There’s Stefy; she’s smart, opinionated, strong, loyal as hell, and her laugh is instant medicine. There’s Laila, fierce, intense, and moves like a cat. LayLay runs into life like it’s a huge wave coming at her head. There’s Sarah Utterback, whom we call Slutterback, which is ridiculous and I don’t think she likes it anymore. Sorry, Slutterback! She is spiritual, deep, and artistic, and her air guitar is one of life’s greatest joys. And then there’s Amy; I call her Wifey. She’s spastic and quick-witted. We talk very fast and very loud and finish each other’s sentences.
This is how we ended up in L.A. en masse: one of us got a job at a restaurant in Hollywood, then hooked up the rest of us with jobs at the same restaurant. It was all coming together. As we took power-lunch orders from the most successful people in the biz, we complained, gossiped, daydreamed, and took turns saying, What the fuck are we doing with our lives? Why are we in Hollywood? What-the-what are these web series people are making? We didn’t own a camera or know how to use one; all we knew was how to make cheap, guerilla-style theatre. And that’s when it hit us. Lets do a PLAY! In L.A.! A town where TV and movies thrive and hardly anyone gives a rat’s ass about theatre! The perfect plan.
Our first play was fucking terrible. It was 30 minutes. Which, let’s be honest, is more of a one-act than a full-length play. It was about random people on a subway. Telling subway stories in L.A.: again, perfect plan. But we loved doing it. Every second of it. It gave us a reason to get up in the morning (other than waitressing brunch). We felt empowered, and for the first time, we weren’t waiting for the phone to ring. We didn’t have time to. And we were together.
We were able to make a teensy bit of profit from the box office and put it into our next play, Cinephilia, a play about cinephiles who communicate through movie quotes. It was the first in a series called The Seven Deadly Plays. This became our business model: keep tickets cheap so friends could come, and make a little profit to keep going. These plays were our lifesavers. Our baby artist souls were dying a slow waitress death with every order placed of house-cured salmon Benedict. Together, it was time to make a change.
One night we sat around drunk, as we often did. And we came up with the name IAMA Theatre Company. It doesn’t stand for anything. It’s just like I AM A Theatre Company. Get it? Like I said, drunk. Most theatre companies don’t make it through their first few years. They usually implode rather dramatically. In fact, we formed at the same time as a few other companies that no longer exist. So when I look back at IAMA’s infant years, I credit my Ride or Dies and our strong friendships with why we survived.
You see, no one decorates a lobby like Laila, no one can keep money in the bank like Amy, no one gets asses in seats like Stef, and no one knows good theatre like Slutterback. And we were egoless and fair. For example, when Laila and Stef were leads in a play called Bachelorette, a dark comedy about a debaucherous bachelorette party, I produced it and Amy ran around town collecting props. And when Sarah and I got to be leads in The Accidental Blonde, a play about friendship gone sour with jealousy, Stef ran lights and Laila ran the box office. We were drawn to one another in school because we were hard workers. Even now, when we call all hands on deck to paint the entire theatre, I know who’ll show up at midnight to get it done. We don’t let each other down. Not an option. We became entrepreneurs. We eventually collected other soul-sister artists and yes, even some dudes. One of them, my now-husband, then-boyfriend-I-wasn’t-totally-sure-about, designed a sick website for IAMA, and he could act, so he was in!
Like any other theatre company, our experience hasn’t been without drama. At times, there has been as much drama offstage as onstage. Breakups, makeups, make-outs, blow-outs — but it all adds to why we love making art together. We share history. I am proud to say that, since our start, we have stuck by our mission statement: we remain a home for playwrights to develop new ideas.
I’m now co–artistic director. We have moved plays to Off Broadway and all over the world. Two plays written by our longtime friend and collaborator Leslye Headland — Bachelorette and Assistance — went on to be made into a film and a pilot. Last year we won L.A.’s Ovation Award for Best Production of a Play for our L.A. premiere of Jon Caren’s The Recommendation, which is about race, class, and the limits of loyalty. And just FYI, we had a budget of some paint and some wood, and we were nominated against the same big dogs we used to serve brunch to. How you like them mimosas?
My magical place is sitting in a 70-seat theatre on an IAMA opening night. Getting to watch my girls (both originals and newbies), as well as the guys, affect an audience with work we made together. Last year, I was lucky enough to play a role in the aforementioned world premiere of A Dog’s House, a play about a violent dog that drives a couple apart. I shared the part with Wifey. It was tech week, the predictably hellish nightmare of moving a play into the theatre, setting the lights and sound, and having clunky run-throughs. So, naturally, we were stressed the F out. I was literally running from Scandal (on which I play Quinn Perkins, Olivia Pope’s Ride or Die) to our crappy theatre, the house was about to open, and we hadn’t finished making the dog-shit prop for the last scene in the play. There we were: exhausted, running lines, shellacking fake dog turds, and I thought to myself: This is what makes me happiest. Making theatre in Hollywood with my friends. Because together, we really do have it all. Except for the programs for tonight’s performance. Which reminds me, I gotta go pick those up.
Katie Lowes is an actress, a producer, and the co–artistic director of IAMA Theatre Company in Los Angeles.
Girlfriend in a Coma
By Emily V. Gordon
In 2007, I was a 27-year-old living the sweet life in Chicago, with an interesting job, fun hobbies, and a newish boyfriend I adored. Then I got a cold I couldn’t shake.
I haven’t always been the best advocate for my own body. I was a too-tall, pudgy child who felt completely out of control of the genetic lottery ticket she’d been given, so in retaliation I shut down. I ignored my body and hated it for not being tiny and cute like my friends’ bodies. As I matured, I understood myself as amounting to little more than an unappealing object. I let my body know who was boss by getting piercings and tattoos. Not everyone who gets piercings and tattoos does it for this reason, but for me, it was an attempt at controlling my physical form in some capacity. I stayed up late. I developed a tough-as-nails persona. I wore lots of eyeliner. I had fun.
So when this cold came along and wouldn’t leave, I reacted how I always did when my body behaved in a way I found unpalatable: I ignored it. I went to work, to dance classes, and out on dates, exhausted and miserable. I had to take breaks while walking to the train. Random parts of me hurt. I told no one. Since my body wasn’t worth much to me, I figured it wasn’t worth much to anyone else either.
When I started having trouble breathing, I called out of work and drove myself to the walk-in clinic I’d been treating as my doctor. It was mid-afternoon. I waited around a bit, wheezing on the uncomfortable chairs. When I finally got into an exam room, a nurse took my vitals and fetched the doctor immediately. The doctor put me in an ambulance. Once I was in, insisting I hang on to my purse, the EMTs requested I be sent to a closer hospital because “the patient is in respiratory distress.” That was news to me.
I was checked into the hospital, and even as I rolled my eyes at how everyone was overreacting, secretly I was relieved: there was something wrong with me, and now, under someone else’s watch, it would be fixed. I called my boyfriend and told him where I was but that he shouldn’t worry, it was nothing. It was nothing.
The next day, I was placed in an induced coma so the doctors could keep me alive while they figured out what was wrong with me. My vitals were unstable. I didn’t leave the hospital for almost a month. I had lung surgery. I was under for about 12 days, and I emerged dotted and crisscrossed with scars. I don’t pretend to represent the legions of people who have been in a coma, but here are some of the insights, profound and ridiculous, that I got out of my time under.
Friends Are Geniuses.
My parents had to fly out from North Carolina to be with me while I was hospitalized, and my friends, incredibly thoughtfully, quickly scurried over to my apartment to clear out all my sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll paraphernalia. My parents were aware that I was a grown up, but no one wants to stumble upon the vibrator of their sick daughter. By the time they arrived, the place looked like it was inhabited by a Girl Scout.
Comas: Movies Versus Reality, Part One.
I don’t remember being put into the coma, but I do have a lot of weird memories from being under. This may be because I was in a coma via medicine rather than trauma. That time period played out for me as one long rambling dream where I was at a hospital to visit my boyfriend, who I thought was in an accident. Weirdly, several details of my coma-vision version of the hospital were accurate: the lights above me, the fact that my boyfriend was wearing glasses (which he never does outside the house), the constant presence of nurses talking medical jargon. At one point, I became convinced that I was locked in a facility against my will and started plotting my escape. My main oppressor was a male nurse with hands made out of Jolly Ranchers, which in reality was probably the sticky surgical tape that was all over me, keeping all my monitors in place. It’s fascinating what the mind will do to make sense out of confusion.
Your Body Keeps Working.
I had things shoved up inside me to collect my waste, which was a fun discovery once I was awake. My nails grew out gorgeously without me there to bite them. All the random hairs I take care to pluck every few days grew unbidden, unfurling themselves dramatically. Once I was awake, I blamed the coma. My friends, because they’re great, agreed that must have been it.
People Invent Personalities for You.
I have multiple tattoos. When I was hospitalized, I had purple-and-platinum-dyed chunks in my hair. The hospital staff, who never got to speak to me or watch me eat a burger, had only these clues to go on to figure out what kind of person I was. The lab techs and nurses and doctors who all worked their asses off to keep me alive also invented a very sassy personality for me. I’d like to think I can be somewhat fun at parties, but I’m mostly prone to deep talks and watching birds in my yard. Plus, I had been through a very intense experience and was attempting to process it all at once, which made me less cheeky than usual. They’d come by for high fives from the awake version of me and be shocked when I’d either be crying, staring at the TV blankly, or snarling at them. I think they thought I’d be fun. It took me a few months to remember to be fun again.
My Body Is and Isn’t an Object.
I worked so hard to keep my body as a separate thing from myself, as a nothing, a thing that was too large, too unsexy, too unsavory, too embarrassing. It’s ridiculously poetic that I got my wish. I woke up with a body that I couldn’t feel, as parts of me were numb. I woke up with a body that wouldn’t respond to my commands, as it was incredibly weak. “You got what you wanted,” my body clucked at me. “Happy now?”
From the vantage point of my hospital bed, looking down at this poor, tortured object covered in wires and scars, I was saddened at how much it had been abused. This wasn’t a sex-delivery system that was either hot or chubby or perfect or pale — this was the collection of bones and muscles and organs that carried around my brain and my heart. It took being introduced to my body as an actual object, an object I had to become reacquainted with, for me to understand the worth of my physical form.
Comas: Movies Versus Reality, Part Two.
In the less than two weeks I was under, my muscles atrophied to the point where I couldn’t hold a cell phone. I had to strengthen my muscles enough to walk again. I had to sit down in the shower. All those movies where characters wake up from comas and start doing kung fu or singing and dancing are complete bullshit. It took me a month to work up to walking a block. If we ever watch Kill Bill together, I will point this out to you several times during the scenes where Uma Thurman’s character wakes up from a coma and wills herself to walk again.
Almost Dying Changes You.
I was fairly determined to not let almost dying affect my life. I thought I was too badass for that kind of sentimentality. I even published a very naïve essay about how much being in a coma didn’t change me. And while it’s true that I don’t break-dance into every single sunset with the passion of the formerly comatose, of course I changed. There is no level of professional rejection that can compare to almost dying. I’m still anxious about chances I take, sure, but I am no longer grappling with “What if they don’t like this thing I created?” because what the fuck do you think you can say to me that will compete with a coma? I became so fearless that I married my boyfriend in a manic haze three months after getting out of the hospital. We’ve been together eight years now.
A few months after getting married, my new husband and I decided to move to Brooklyn. He wanted to pursue standup comedy as a career, more than just a hobby, and I have always wanted to live in New York. My fearlessness was catching, it seemed. We moved, with little savings and no real plans, into the chaotic maw of NYC. The old me would have been watching all of it happen from afar, quick with witty retorts about how poor we were. The new me was firmly in my body, experiencing it.
Emily V. Gordon is a writer and comedy producer living in Los Angeles. She currently writes for The Carmichael Show and produces The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail for live audiences and Comedy Central, and her book Super You is in bookstores now.
Providing Abortions in Texas
By Jessica Grose
Women’s health is under heavy attack in Texas, and the hits keep coming. On October 19, state officials cut Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood; just a few days later, the health department “raided” Planned Parenthood centers in several Texas cities, demanding that the organization hand over years of health records.
But these anti-choice victories are just two in a series of many. In 2011, Texas passed a law that forced women seeking abortions to get sonograms, listen to a description of the fetus, and wait 24 hours before receiving the procedure. That law also forced doctors to read a medically dubious script telling women, among other things, that abortions might increase their risk of breast cancer.
In 2013, the Texas legislature signed House Bill 2. That’s the bill Wendy Davis filibustered her heart out against. It imposed unnecessary and expensive building guidelines on abortion clinics. As of June 2015, there were only 18 abortion clinics left in Texas, down from 41 in 2012. The final provision of House Bill 2 was meant to go into effect on July 1, 2015, but the Supreme Court stepped in and temporarily stopped it from proceeding. If this last provision had been enacted, there would be fewer than 10 abortion clinics left in Texas, a state where over 12 million women live.
In mid-November, the Supreme Court decided to take up the case against House Bill 2, though it will probably not hear the case for several more months. Women in Texas are already suffering as they wait for a final decision. Nancy Northup, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, one of the organizations that filed the Texas case with the Supreme Court, says that she’s already hearing from Texas health-care providers that they’re “seeing an increase in women buying misoprostol on the black market and self-inducing.” Women are also having to wait far longer to get the abortions they need: A University of Texas study released in October showed that women must wait as long as 20 days to get appointments at clinics now that there are so few of them.
We spoke with an abortion provider in Texas, Dr. Bhavik Kumar, about what he’s seeing on the ground at the clinics where he works, how abortion stigma hurts women, and what he thinks will happen if Texas loses even more abortion clinics.
Jessica Grose: What’s a typical workday like for you?
Bhavik Kumar: A typical day at either of the clinics where I work at is busy. We start around 8 a.m. seeing patients. Some days are SMI days — state-mandated info. That’s when we have to read a script to women, and after that, they need to wait 24 hours [to get an abortion]. With the same number of women trying to access care [as before the HB2 restrictions], we’re seeing longer wait times and higher volumes of women.
One of the clinics where I work is in San Antonio. That’s in Central Texas, south of Austin. One is in Fort Worth. At the Fort Worth clinic, we see a lot of women from West Texas, which has no abortion clinics. There are currently two in Fort Worth, and there are two or three in Dallas, which is about an hour away.
JG: How far are women traveling to reach you?
BK: At Fort Worth, some women have traveled as far as five hours one way to get to the clinic, and then another five back. That means they have to stay the night at least one night to have their 24-hour waiting period go by. That’s ten hours round-trip that some women are traveling, for a roughly five-minute procedure.
JG: You did your medical training in New York, which is a much more pro-choice state. How was your experience providing abortions different in New York than it is in Texas?
BK: New York is not by any means perfect, but it’s pretty good for abortion care. Women can access it same day, they don’t have to be read a script, and physicians can practice evidence-informed medicine. There is state Medicaid funding for abortion and contraception care.
In Texas, I feel like I’m forced to say things by the state that I think are medically inaccurate. What ends up happening in that discussion can be really confusing for my patients. They’ll say, “You say this based on the state … I just want to not be pregnant, how do I get from point A to point B?” It’s not a very empowering moment. In New York, it is. They’re taking control of their health and their life, and in Texas, I don’t always feel that, and that’s because of the state barriers.
JG: Are you worried for your safety?
BK: It’s a concern. When you work in a state that’s so conservative and has an open-carry law, you have to be concerned. When you know George Tiller was murdered, you have to be concerned. It’s definitely something I consider and take precautions about. But I try not to let the fear paralyze what I’m doing. You should be aware of it, but you have to keep moving forward. I feel pretty safe so far.
JG: Have you noticed changes among your patients as abortion restrictions have gone into effect in Texas?
BK: One thing I’ve noticed the last few months doing this work is the subtle yet pervasive stigma that comes out of the restrictions that the government puts on abortion care. When you have a layer of restrictions — if you have to wait 24 hours because you need to be told information and go home and think about it, you’re restricted on where you can go — the government is making women suffer and feel the consequences of their decision. Women say “I deserve this” or “I never want to be back here.” This moment I think can be so empowering is turning into somewhat of a nightmare.
We try to make it as pleasant as possible, and a lot of women thank us, but it’s so difficult to get past these barriers. I wonder when women leave from the clinic, how much stigma are they carrying, and how does that stigma manifest? How does it bleed into their lives? Their relationships? Their relationships with future children? It’s hard to capture in studies, but it may go into the next generation. It’s scary and sad that this is happening in Texas now, but the ripple effects of this are long-term. And that’s what I worry about on a day-to-day basis.
JG: What do you think will happen when the Supreme Court hears this case?
BK: My hope would be they decide in our favor. If that happens, that would be great. Women would have more access if and when they need it. If they chose not to and didn’t rule in our favor, and we end up with an estimated nine clinics, we’re ready. We’re stronger and more determined to continue providing care to women in Texas. The number of women becoming pregnant isn’t going to change drastically. They may take their care into their own hands, and we don’t want that. We want it to be safe and legal for them. Whatever happens, I’m going to be here.
Jessica Grose is Lenny’s editor in chief.
Out of Print: Lucy Larcom
By Alice Gregory
(Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)
There are so many amazing female writers and artists from the past whose work is under-recognized. We want to reintroduce you to some of them in a series called Out of Print. Today, we’re talking about Lucy Larcom, a 19th-century New England factory girl, abolitionist, and memoirist.
I found Lucy Larcom’s 1890 memoir A New England Girlhood in October. It was in my parents’ downstairs closet, beneath business files and years’ worth of bad Christmas presents people were too lazy to return. Purchased by my grandmother, presumably for the $1.75 printed on the cover, the yellowed copy was published in 1961 as part of a now-defunct publishing house’s series on “American Experience”; its companions include the letters of Christopher Columbus, a biography of Harriet Tubman, and a weird number of volumes about failed utopian communities.
The paperback edition, which seems to be of no sentimental value to anyone in my family, includes a bizarrely hostile introduction by the late Princeton professor Charles T. Davies, who writes, “If we think of Lucy Larcom at all today, we remember her as one female poet in a steady and sedate procession of others like her.” He continues: “One poetess seems to be indistinguishable from another, and all were moral, sentimental, persistently feminist, and limited.” Though Davies does go on to offer up a few dim compliments (he praises Larcom’s “accurate memory”), one wonders why so antagonistic a critic was chosen for the job to begin with, or why he accepted it.
Larcom’s own preface to her book, written in October of 1889, appears immediately after Davies’s and reads almost like a rebuttal. Like today’s most-media-savvy girls, Larcom is cognizant of — and even seems to wring ammunition from — her belittling detractors (always older, usually male). “My audience is understood to be composed of girls of all ages, and of women who have not forgotten their girlhood,” she begins. “Such as have a friendly appreciation of girls — and of those who write for them — are also welcome to listen to as much of my narrative as they choose. All others are eavesdroppers and, of course, have no right to criticize.” It is a document that with two minutes of tinkering could appear online tomorrow as a Rookie-magazine editor’s letter.
Larcom, who could have never predicted the existence of an audience anything like the kind that exists today online, seems still somehow to have anticipated it. Despite its indefinite article, her chosen title — A New England Girlhood — sounds definitive, that generic “a” implying both modesty and authority. Here is the story of my past, she is saying, it’s mine, but it is other peoples’ too.
The daughter of a maritime merchant, Larcom was born in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, in 1824, the ninth of ten children. Remembering the birth of her younger sister, Larcom explains, in characteristic deadpan, that although she was sometimes jealous for attention, “gradually I accepted the situation.” “We were a neighborhood of large families,” she recalls, “and most of us enjoyed the privilege of a ‘little wholesome neglect.’”
When she wasn’t out exploring the verdant coastline, Larcom was memorizing hymns, writing poetry, and reading romance novels. Though her early childhood was spartan (special treats included, and were more or less limited to, raisins and particularly dulcet-sounding sermons), Larcom thinks of her youth fondly and with moral clarity: “Like a plant that starts up in showers and sunshine and does not know which has best helped it to grow, it is difficult to say whether the hard things or the pleasant things did me most good.”
And there were quite a lot of hard things. Her father died when she was eight years old, and her mother, suddenly strapped for cash, moved the family inland to Lowell, where she bought and began running a boarding house, sending Larcom and her siblings to work in the local factories. About this dismal change of circumstance, Larcom is relentlessly positive. She recounts with real joy the friendships she forged over what was certainly unpleasant and premature manual labor. What saves her spirit, Larcom explains, was her lifelong love of hymns, which in Lowell she parlayed into a literary and intellectually aspirational life. She wrote for and helped edit a newspaper put out by fellow factory girls (all of them abolitionists) who also organized and participated in a kind of ad hoc educational program, studying — along with their Bibles — botany, ethics, and German. “For twenty years or so, Lowell might have been looked upon as a rather select industrial school for young people,” Larcom writes.
It’s here, among her female peers, that Larcom begins to articulate her rhetorical tastes and pedagogical beliefs. “Write more of what you see than of what you feel, and let your feelings realize themselves to others in the shape of worthy actions,” she declares. As for whether children should be exposed to real poetry, she argues of course they should: “Nature does not write down her sunsets, her starry skies, her mountains, and her oceans in some smaller style, to suit the comprehension of little children.”
When her older sister announces that she is moving with her husband to Illinois (an area known as Looking Glass Prairie), Larcom decides that she will join them. Her chief objection to the Midwest seems to have been its lack of rocks (“If we could have picked up the commonist one, we should have treasured it like a diamond”), but she stays for almost a decade, working as a schoolteacher before returning to her beloved New England.
Over the course of the 274-page book, one learns some exceptionally charming facts (that houseplants were once thought of as pets; that the term “piggbacky” is a perversion of “pick-a-back”) and gains a sense of just how pollinated New England was with colonial imports (monkeys were not an uncommon sight in coastal Massachusetts; neither were coconuts). And the asides that lace Larcom’s narrative offer up a pleasingly miscellaneous but not inaccurate survey of 19th-century popular culture. She recalls eagerly awaiting the serialized Charles Dickens, complaining about the “ridiculous” trend of saleswomen calling themselves salesladies, rolling her eyes at the “professors” of phrenology, and awing at the invention of the daguerreotype (“When we heard that the sun was going to take everybody’s portrait, it seemed almost too great a marvel to be believed”).
By 1840, five years after Larcom had arrived in Lowell, 90 percent of New England’s factory workers were female. That year, with money supplied by mill owners, Larcom and a group of other young working women founded the Lowell Offering, a monthly periodical by and about the “mill girls.” The novelty of the magazine’s founders drew national attention, and during its five-year existence the journal acquired hundreds of subscribers from across the country. Many of its contributors went on to have illustrious careers: Harriet Hanson Robinson became one of the most famous suffragettes, and Betsey Guppy Chamberlain published some of the first writing by a Native American woman about the U.S. government’s ill treatment of its indigenous people. Larcom, though, was the magazine’s most frequent and esteemed contributor, and in 1881 she wrote “Among Lowell Mill-Girls: A Reminiscence” for The Atlantic. Nearly ten years after that, A New England Girlhood was published to some acclaim.
For decades, critics — both male and female — have taken it upon themselves to adjudicate the value of women’s memoirs. Advocates have mounted defenses steeped in philosophy, riddled with theoretical jargon. I have read quite a bit of it, and though I’ve never been a skeptic, I do often find the campaigning to be tedious if not downright delusional in its excess of protest. Though florid and relentlessly figurative, Larcom’s justification for autobiography is one of the best I’ve encountered:
If an apple blossom or a ripe apple could tell its own story it would be, still more than its own, the story of the sunshine that smiled upon it, of the winds that whispered to it, of the birds that sang around it, of the storms that visited it, and of the motherly tree that held it and fed it until its petals were unfolded and its form developed.
When “Among Lowell Mill-Girls” came out, a Philadelphia reviewer called it “wholesome reading for young people.” It is now, 125 years later, wholesome reading for older people too. It’s both heartening and dismaying to be reminded that the pleasures and perils of young women writing about their lives were just as present then as they are today.
Alice Gregory is writer living in New York.
The Only One
By Kendra James
I excel at making people uncomfortable.
Early on at boarding school, I’d had enough of my roommate. She didn’t like that I woke up at 5 a.m. for ice-skating lessons. I didn’t like that she listened to Hall and Oates. She claimed that figure skating wasn’t a real sport, thus not worth disturbing her sleep for. I retorted by saying it was more of a sport than her beloved field hockey, which isn’t even in the Olympics, and that Hall and Oates would make shitty long-program music. (Forget everything you’ve seen on the CW, this is how privileged teens argue.)
Her complaints about sleep were more valid than mine until things escalated and she added that being black was not an excuse for also getting up earlier on weekends to do my hair. Which, she added, never looked “right” anyway. At that point, I decided that it was time for her to leave and made fast work of planning her exit from my life. I won’t incriminate myself with details, but it’s fair to say that by Christmas she had decided that a roommate who’d suddenly started practicing an invented amalgamation of Wiccan and Yoruba worship that involved fire and chanting in tongues was not ideal.
I excel at making people uncomfortable, both because I can reach Drake-versus-Meek levels of petty (see above) and because I exist every day as a black woman.
Earlier this year, Wyatt Cenac spoke candidly on the WTF Podcast about a fight over a racial joke he had with The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, his former boss. The argument escalated in part because Cenac was attempting to do his best to represent his race while being the only black man in the room. Cenac’s comments ripped the curtain away from the secret a lot of us live with. Being The Only One — the only black girl, the only Latina, the only Asian woman — in a room is a common reality but not one you’re supposed to talk about.
The realization doesn’t happen for us all at the same time; it can depend on the homogeneity of where you grow up, go to school, and eventually settle. But whether it’s being The Only One in your Brownie troop, or The Only One in your first real job at a tech firm, it’s an eventual American reality.
It hit me for the first time when I was still in school pondering the competition makeup my synchronized-skating team had purchased in bulk, in shades that flattered every girl on the team except the only black girl. In a way, I’d already known the truth of the world, but this was confirmation. My long relationships with geek culture and various suburban-white-kid hobbies (like figure skating) mean I’ve long been used to being The Only One in a room. I know that before I can really begin to enjoy myself in a space, I will have to colonize it and terraform it to accommodate me.
Sometimes it’s challenging Western standards of professional beauty by showing up to a workplace with natural hair and shutting down awkward comments (“The city’s so humid today, we both have afros!” says a blonde with a slight frizz to her beachy waves) until your hair becomes unremarkable. Colonizing can be a teenager challenging her English teacher to include nonwhite voices in the curriculum so that her classmates have to at least consider a point of view closer to her own. It can be a little black girl bringing hip-hop to the ice rink because that’s the music she wants to perform to. For black women colonization is no more than making sure you can exist comfortably and feel acknowledged in a space — in other words, to feel no more and no less than just human. And yes, your humanity is going to make the status quo uncomfortable.
In the beginning, my method of colonization was to be Aggressively Black. Because comics and cartoons weren’t enough, during my sophomore year of high school I got really into online role-playing games. (If you’re wondering: no, I didn’t date until college.) If you’re unfamiliar with online RP-ing, picture a group of 10 to 12 women and one gay man who set up LiveJournal accounts for groups of fictional characters (I was partial to X-Men games, myself) and write novel-length prose interactions between said characters. It’s exactly as uncool as you think it is.
The games, players, and characters played were about as diverse as the comic-book industry from 2003 to 2011, which is to say, not very. There was a point when it seemed like I knew every black female player in the RP world, usually identifiable because we were the only ones who played black characters other than Storm. But for me, it went beyond just injecting visible color into games. I wielded Aggressive Blackness like a sledgehammer. Scenes meant to be simple interactions about cooking breakfast became tirades against the systematic oppression of people of color. Meet-cutes turned into deep discussions about interracial dating. Magneto’s entrance was a great time to remind everyone that said character was based on Malcolm X, that the X-Men were a metaphor for the struggles of the civil-rights movement, and that we wouldn’t even be playing this game if it weren’t for black folks in the first place.
Online RPing lost its appeal once I started getting laid on a regular basis. This coincided with an interest in costume design and subsequent appreciation for high-end clothing. As an adult, there are days when I just need the release of taking a selfie wearing something pretty in a store dressing room. Watching validating “likes” come in from strangers on the ’gram is better than a Netflix binge after a disappointing day. Shopping was my new hobby, and high-end department stores and boutiques were landscapes ripe for colonization.
Since just being black inside a New York City boutique is an open act of rebellion (one worth a $525,000 racial-discrimination-suit payout), I quickly learned that sometimes Aggressive Blackness is no more than existing in a space as a black person. To colonize was to do nothing more than to force them to accept my presence. I could inflict discomfort by entering a store and browsing the racks.
I enjoyed the hitch of breath sales associates would take when I handed over my card to pay for something they were obviously worried I wouldn’t be able to afford. I snickered while listening to them walk back and forth between the rest of the store and the one dressing room I was occupying to ask for the tenth time whether or not I needed any help. I stay young by both virtue of melanin and the smug satisfaction I get from the unnecessary struggle people will go through to “subtly” follow a young black woman and the Tibi dress she’s carrying through a store.
It’s an odd existence to have my carefree hobbies require so much effort. Deciding not to steal the merchandise isn’t enough. I have to decide that I’m going to put up with an institutionalized bias — not just put up with it, but be able to laugh at it to make it through. Being followed around a boutique won’t be the first racist thing to happen to me during a typical 24 hours in New York City. When I step outside, I’ll face racialized street harassment from black men. I’ll give directions to a European tourist who wants to “eat black food” up in Harlem. I’ll check Twitter on the bus and see yet another tragic story about a questionable black death by someone in a position of authority. I’ll probably answer an unsolicited question about my hair. I’ll ask myself whether those two cops on the subway platform look like they have an ax to grind and if it’s safe to be standing too close to them in case things pop off.
This is all before I get inside Saks.
I recognize that the spaces I’ve mentioned — attending a boarding school, having time for a nerdy pastime, shopping in high-end department stores — are spaces of a certain amount of privilege. It’s privilege, economic in this case, that I won’t deny having, but the privilege to access these spaces coexists with my presentation of black womanhood. So if anything about my blackness or my womanhood freaks you out, I’m going to delight in it. If I can do anything to make my presence the status quo rather than an aberration, I am going to try. If I can leave a space better off and more open to the presence of the black women who enter after me, I will.
I excel at making people uncomfortable, and I’ve gotten good at turning that to my advantage. But every black woman shouldn’t have to be me. Who wants to be The Only One, a lone explorer and colonizer, every single day? We shouldn’t have to enter our hobbies with loins girded, shields up, and a chisel ready to carve out a space for ourselves. If I’m going to gird anything while I shop (loins included), I’d like to gird it in Dior, please, preferably from within the private dressing room where “overly attentive sales associate” means nothing more than a person who asks “Another Champagne?” far more often than is necessary. It’s not that I want to live a dream—I just want to live and be treated like everybody else.
Kendra James is a race and pop-culture blogger from New York City who spends her days in prep schools, her weekends at Racialicious, and her nights complaining @KendraJames.