Featured Image: Barbara Loden
The film Wanda, by Barbara Loden, was playing in select theaters in 1970 while women all over the country faced the dread of unwanted pregnancy by impaling their insides or throwing themselves down staircases. Loden steadily portrayed a version of her shameful and hidden alter ego drunkenly passing through life in a coal-dusted town after relinquishing her maternal rights in court. Wanda is a porthole visual companion to our immersion in Red Clocks, Leni Zumas’s new novel about a future we are fighting against every day: a future without abortion, a future that legally demands women become incubators for the state or risk prison for taking matters into their own hands. In many parts of the country where a teenager has to generate the income, get the parental permission, make the two-hundred-mile car ride to the one state clinic still allowed to perform a termination, be relegated to a punitive waiting period and the trauma of hearing a heartbeat of tissue cells she doesn’t wish to grow in her body, along with the hatred of protesters outside of a medical facility always in danger of being bombed, the future is decidedly now. We already have sneaky versions of the Personhood Amendment imagined by Zumas in supple staccato chapters of her wondrous book.
Red Clocks’ four modern-day main characters: The Biographer, The Wife, The Mender, and The Daughter all live on the Central Oregon Coast—an ultra white, fakely liberal, mostly conservative, squarely libertarian, secluded, lush and creepy landscape. The dark and rainy cliff margins of the setting allow us to see how people can run away from the heat of the world and pretend to be outside of larger political issues, for better or for worse, but not for long. When I lived on the Oregon Coast for three sideways-rain years I met women like The Mender, in a permanent stalemate with society, who illegally built their own houses near streams to procure a clean source of water. Their cabins were lovingly slapped together from scraps and donations of old cast iron stoves and salvaged windows from torn down buildings. I also met women like The Wife, who lived in tasteful cottages passed down generationally and maybe had time to chair committees and raise funds for crumbling schools and brave little art galleries, but were crushed by the one-note demands of motherhood and isolation while their husbands chugged beer around the damp backyard bonfires with their buds. Why does everyone equate coastal life with a dream? The locals are surly for a reason.
Historically, the coast has been a bohemian paradise and a hideout for outlaws, but as a permanent home it is the last place, physically, you can run to without drowning in the ocean, an ocean that threatens to swallow you up in a tsunami at a moment’s notice. A teenage girl who gets accidentally pregnant, like The Daughter, would normally be found out and her bad/sad reputation sealed in amber under the bell jar of a small foggy-headed town. Labels are very important to this book, as are boundaries and borders, all meant as the loaded gun that will go off, all meant to be broken out of.
The Biographer, much like The Mender, who runs a women’s clinic on her rumpled bedspread—too visible as a witchy spectacle and invisible due to her woodland seclusion—is branded a spinster and raises eyebrows for her feverish pursuit of single motherhood. The Biographer launches Red Clocks through our fifth woman, The Polar Explorer, whom we see in steady, quick beats of journal entries (the fact that Zumas was also an astute drummer in her previous life as a touring musician serves the book well) pointing to the corporeality of each of our heroines. The Biographer is waiting to have a vaginal exam “in a room for women whose bodies are broken ” in the first chapter. Our lens, our camera, is the speculum. Welcome to our clocks, tick tock tick tock, the gears are locked and the hand circles forward steady as she goes. With the opening line of Red Clocks crossed out, we are left to ponder if this is also all of our stories negated and doubted. Are we allowed to make our errors and hasty confessions public and not live the death of perfection? Can we be wrong and vulnerable and keep the narrative going? Is this gesture, as Jean-Michel Basquiat has said of his fetishized and oft-misunderstood paintings, a gift to female artists to “cross out the words so that you see them more: the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.”
Zumas takes Barbara Loden’s historically ignored themes: willfully aimless women, daily threats of poverty, and a revulsion towards the hypocrisy of nuclear family codes and facades and gives her five character the chance to triumph over them by hook or by crook. Wanda, after showing up in court to tell the judge she wants a divorce and no part in raising her children, is later seen counting her change to get a beer and coming up short; she is thirsty in every way, after all, and it won’t happen by magic. She has to eat, and does whatever it takes to survive, and so do all of the women in this audaciously feminist book. The Explorer, having to hunt, slaughter and preserve her spoils and The Mender, with her Victorian way of recording and calculating every cent, food intake, health issue, and herb collected in the woods are reminding us that the dangers of a body under attack persist on many levels. Indeed, trickle down economics may only be true in this regard—women’s right to privacy and healthcare are directly tied to poverty and mental health. We are very aware of corporeality in every frame of Wanda, and each Raymond Carver meets Virginia Woolf line of Red Clocks. The lists Zumas’s characters generate serve the purpose of grounding us, but making us feel stuck, needy, and desperate alongside the women’s dailyness, hunger and repetition, as well as their sores, vaginal ailments and traditionally ignored gynecological issues.
PCOS and many other untreated female afflictions are pulsing through Red Clocks. No one is exactly safe from pain and harm as we imagine how these women will go on to withstand the oppression of The Personhood Amendment. How we will go on under our own current version of abortion laws? The Wife can get accidentally pregnant having break up sex with her husband and be forced to give up the dream of her kids in consistent childcare, or with her ex, so that she can plan a future, manage to eke out an interiority, be temporarily unneeded, and maybe go back to law school. The Mender can still be put in jail for providing highly intuitive reproductive health services yet again. The Daughter, who had a pretty dramatic road to an abortion as a result of her first time having sex, still has a whole libidinal life ahead of her with possibilities and desires, the joys of knowing her body and voice enough to give herself orgasms and get them from her partners in a safe and less traumatic way. The Biographer may end up with increasingly worse symptoms and become frustrated with the constant twists and turns of her ovaries; she may even want to fuck again some day. As none of the characters have much of a sex drive, and few satisfying moments of intimacy, celebrating non-penetrative relationships, as proposed in the perceptive New York Times Review Of Books piece by Naomi Alderman, is obviously the point here. Our Bodies Ourselves on repeat won’t solve Mike Pence demanding women are jailed for private medical decisions or made to stage public funerals for their tissue cells, but without it we are not exactly moving into our human selves, with a reference point for self-care, a platform for advocacy, and cogent, positive mirrors to combat images of Mrs. Pence giving interviews about whether her husband is a dog or cat kinda guy, jittery smile of nothing to see here y’all, like melting candlewax in an empty church.
Red Clocks posits that sex is not for everyone, and it certainly is freeing to be above, or unconcerned by carnal appetites and messy lust. It’s definitely a relief to read women who shrug off partnership, who don’t worship coupledom, who are bored by boring dudes rather than trying to save them, elevate them to their standards, baby them or teach them, especially when they have a totalitarian government with illegal sanctions on their bodies to fight. As Bikini Kill poignantly scream-asked on their 7 inch split record I Like Fucking/I Hate Danger: “Just cause my world, sweet sister/Is so fucking goddamn full of rape/Does that mean my body/Must always be a source of pain?” It was also Kathleen Hanna that challenged the dangers of martyrdom and binary thinking in her later work, wondering if we could put the fuck into the fight and provide a space for women to have joyous and moving amorous experiences they have never been allowed to imagine outside of the rom-com and porn clips. Can women actually fuck like they are free with Mike Pence’s wooden grin peeking under their sheets and going to cackle in the cigar room with the boys in Congress later about how to protect his American values from us sluts?
There are so many signposts on the road to womanhood teaching us that there isn’t enough pie to go around, and we will starve unless we compete with each other and negate one another’s realities in order to successfully forge ahead. This is still true for us as adult women who “know better” because we took women’s studies classes. How can a smart and caring teacher possibly hope that a teenager will carry cells she doesn’t want inside of her to full term in order to adopt her baby, as is the case with The Biographer and her student, The Daughter? Baby lust creates the same frantic fight or flight mechanisms within us as does an unwanted pregnancy, yet, as connected as we are, nothing separates us more than our wombs in opposite states of fertility. As in Hannah Wilke’s Needed-Erase-Her series, all shapes and sizes of little vagina fortune cookies hang out together, hang on together, made of kneaded rubber erasers to symbolize our duplicitous place in society, in romantic bonds, in politics, in places of work—others decide our biological and libidinal purpose. We will be allowed in or kept out of an artistic canon or we will be re-inserted into the mainstream dialogue, but erasers of this sort are to be sculpted into any shape until they are exhausted through overuse and eventually discarded.
Women are set up for infinite ways of competing and hating each other. We even have a sacred relationship to our own complaints; our war stories—my nightmare is worse than yours, whether womb related or not, is what we hear women say to each other as either a point of bonding or a way of establishing hierarchy. The Biographer in Red Clocks has to live in a pressure cooker to get her IVF treatments before it’s too late and endures her body stubbornly refusing to absorb an embryo under the dismissive gaze of her community. She stops speaking about it and buries herself in her book about The Polar Explorer—the sperm retrieved from the freezer and injected into her flesh, warming up, boiling with failure, useless. The Wife, who finds The Biographer’s pursuits pointless and announces so to her man-child husband in between their impotent stares and silences, is near suicidal in her role as the woman with the most cake, or crumbs to corral. Tick tock, tick tock, onward they must go into new roles, new chapter names.
Infertility and miscarriage bring on a mute rage little girls have been socialized into for generations. Once a woman is able to have a child after a miscarriage the hypervigilance persists. Are you walking around with your red-clock-flesh-and-blood-actualized-miracle, anxious from losing a similar form before it could hatch, a miss of fully being able to carry, a bent dart? That “something” to mourn, so different from the relief of unwanted pregnancy leaving your body, won’t get much attention from friends and doctors. Oh, but once you get the baby, get to shift the clutch forward and make lungs work in those last crucial days, hold on, honey, hold on until you can breathe on your own, you will smack hyper and vigilant together like the peanut butter side of the bread hastily slapped onto the jelly one before it’s thrown in the sack. It’s unending, like packing lunch, your fear that it will all go away again. If I enjoy it too much it will get sick and die. If I resent it or don’t give it my all, it will be taken from my ungrateful, disorganized and bitchy body to a better body. Because there’s always a better body for a woman, even once they remove her clock, phantom limbs inside already phantoms to the male gaze. But the ghost-clock still has its tics: your friends get cancer clocks, fibroid clocks, painful dry sex clocks, maybe like you. If you are lucky you will know about the others. You won’t make a helpless sorry face at bad news and you won’t get shut out when your clock is no longer under warranty. You will find out that some are having sex when you are done, or don’t much care for sex—what would be a jealousy turns to a high five.
I have thrown baby showers and congratulated friends who called to tell me they are expecting before and after my scheduled termination. I have been cruel and unyielding when pregnant friends reached out after my miscarriage. I have driven around my dear, drunk friends while eight months pregnant, wearing matching boy crazy sluts t-shirts, harking back to our tongue and cheek anti-slut shaming slogans. I still believe, I still belong; even if I’m only allowed in during intermission and they live out the entire stage production of our old mutually childless play. It is a red clock wall of kids and no kids. But to choose, or to keep what was an accident, or to regret black out sex and not bitterly pay for it, or decide to spend your pension on the fertility shots that make you sick in your last days of making eggs, or to walk away from a human you made, and to not get what you want, but to embrace that pain, grief, elation—to be free in your ambivalence or certainty, only happens if every door is open, every portal explored.
Red Clocks brought into focus the experiences I had trying to conceive (one hard, one easy) and all of the ways I measured myself against others with wombs. My best friend struggles with reproductive health to this day, and I know that no matter how hard we try to pretend it doesn’t matter, it is a huge wedge that has been placed there by conditioning, by our estrogen-laden milestones. It’s a civil war I hope we study with generosity and seriousness because so much of it is a sticky trauma response we need to unpack and look at critically. When it comes to fertility, it’s largely a civil war with men as our army generals in the towers, and women as the wounded and dead on the battlefield. Red Clocks never shies away from the nuances of our negative self-talk, as The Biographer participates in when she lists the reasons her IVF may not work out, or the mutual judgment between her and The Wife. This dichotomy is reminiscent of the complicated relationship between Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf—the former seemingly choosing sensuality and motherhood along with painting as her domain to rule, while the latter picking intellectual ambitions that gave her a much-craved way to solitude. They were the flipsides of the same coin, using envy to keep loving and propelling one another forward to success.
All of the characters in Red Clocks, with the exception of The Explorer, maybe because she felt so much like a Greek chorus—the glue, the originator, and the ephemeral constant—immediately conjure up literary figures. For The Wife character, it was Elena Ferrante’s use of “frantumaglia,” which is a word her mother used to describe the anxiety of having too many loose ends, thoughts, memories, and desires “rattling around in her head.” The Wife also echoed Ferrante’s character in The Days of Abandonment, but in reverse. It was rewarding and valuable to see a woman with children making a choice to break up with her husband, rather than putting her life together after being cheated on—a narrative we are so accustomed to, that women who leave “perfectly good men” are still suspect. She isn’t tragic. She is peeling her wife-skin off and planning a future where time to think will be granted at last in this very practical and calculated way, despite her frenzy and claustrophobia. Mothers are still very hard to write, as even our favorite authors see mothers as these balls of worry, negativity, frump and circumstance. When Bernadette Mayer set out to write a book-length poem in a day while caring for two small children, what she achieved was nothing short of a miracle, all while her husband lay back engaged in deep thoughts as she cooked and cleaned, fondled his dick, put kids down for naps, went to the grocery store, oh, and wrote a whole book. Midwinter Day is shrugged off as an experiment—its place in the canon has a mother vibe, uncool and too anxious and specific for most poets probing the mysteries of life.
The complexity of our own red clocks leaves the door ajar to jealousy at every turn and every developmental stage. Did you bleed too soon or too early? Did you bleed so much that you nearly lost your teeth grinding through cramps? Do you have a breezy and quick bleed and you coast on by to your best friend’s mild contempt? Are you fertile and feel guilty, braggadocios, but lucky. Do you hate yourself for not enjoying your luck once the winning ticket gets cashed in? Hormones are a lottery. Unless you can afford to hire the right doctors to augment how you got cooked in someone else’s red clock you can get stuck with too much salt and not enough pepper—a hard dish to swallow—dash of this, absence of that.
Red Clocks inspires us to ask for a future in which a woman who experienced a recent miscarriage can still take her best friend to the clinic to get a termination. Or a woman who had a termination can attend the birth of her niece shortly after. And all of these women need not smile through their tears or pretend to be sad if they aren’t, but to accept each other’s frustrations, complicated luck, uncertainty, and most importantly, choices—to fight for all of the variants for all women. We cannot exist in these separate womb camps. If there is a bridge to build or bulldozers to be summoned we must forge ahead with clear eyes to meet each other at these borders. As a woman with children my capacity for erasure, degradation, alienation, boredom, and simultaneous deification has reached a boiling point—tick tock tick tock, boom. Single and childless women, by choice, or not, are not just my heroes, they are me, the parts of myself I’m not supposed to like best while I live out my reproductive plurality: witches, loners, outsiders. And yes, we are all currently under threat, kneaded into womb laws, used as pliable erasers on each other’s penciled-in life maps.