Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Re-stor(y)ing Sanity by Trista Hendren

"See No Evil" by Caroline Alkonost

AS A CHILD I WAS TERRIFIED OF MEDUSA. Ironically, I was drawn to and all-but-obsessed with Pegasus, but I did not know the full story of either character or how they were connected. 

It makes sense to me now that I would be fascinated by the male offspring of the horrible monster I had been taught to believe myself to be (as female)—and the dream of flying away as a (male) creature who could finally satisfy the masculine god I seemed to be inherently incapable of pleasing.

Hélène Cixous reminds us that, “To fly/steal is woman’s gesture, to steal into language to make it fly.”1 Reading and writing have been my mode of flight since childhood. Sadly, we are living in a world that devalues both in favor of digital imagery, which I'd argue is a virile venue that will wipe us out eventually. One only has to look to the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale to illustrate what I mean.2 While I am aware that many enjoy the show, my belief is the original book has been horribly distorted to instead glorify and normalize violence against women. Our only hope as females is to re-story the world and take back our lives.

For those who grew up in fundamentalist churches like I did, this means finding new sexts for ourselves—as well as embracing new she-roes—or uncovering the real power behind those who were demonized.

We hear a great deal about toxic masculinity but rarely about toxic femininity, except from men's rights activists.The results of toxic masculinity are painfully obvious in our world. However, I'd like to briefly explore the effects of toxic femininity, which silently kills a lot of us.

I'd say I'm still working on expunging this poison from myself almost daily. It lingers primarily in the expectation (of myself) that I am always “nice” to people—which is something I struggle with. There is nothing wrong with being kind—in fact, I think the world needs more of that. However females are taught to put themselves so far down the ladder that “nice” is a luxury we can no longer afford ourselves.

If I had my way, every young girl would read Toni Morrison's second but lesser known book, Sula. Namely because it was life-changing for me in the way I saw myself as female and the possibilities it opened up for me. As Morrison reminds us, “Being good to somebody is just like being mean to somebody. Risky. You don’t get nothing for it.”3

The biggest lie they tell females is that if you are agreeable and play by all the rules, you will somehow be rewarded and protected by the patriarchal confinement you trade your soul for. Sula was my first wake-up call that this was just not so.

Sula was in fact, my Pegasus. Her character allowed me to fly away from the virulent male-perspective I had been groomed to believe in.

Painting by Arna Baartz

When I entered counseling (again) in my mid-twenties, my crone counselor asked me to scream out my rage—and beat it out, if possible with the pillows and other items she had assembled in her cozy office.

I couldn't do it.

This was not a new request of me. When I completed a Dale Carnegie course in high school, I received a similar task. But I couldn't do it at 17 either.

It was only after a stalker broke down my front door and violently attacked me—and I spent the next six months in court trying to obtain a permanent stalking order—that I was finally able to begin to release some of that rage.

One night, I threw a glass down in anger—hard—shattering it into a million little pieces. It felt so satisfying, that I quickly broke all my glasses, one after another—failing to notice until afterwards that I was barefoot.

Like many woman, I bore the brunt of my own anger with small cuts on my feet, the cost of replacing the glasses—and, later, fixing the damage to my floor. For years I told no one about this incident, deeply embarrassed about my loss of control—and more than anything, how good it felt.

Like bell hooks, “I was taught as a girl in a patriarchal household that rage was not an appropriate feminine feeling, that it should be not only not be expressed but be eradicated.”4

Because rage is not a viable option for most girls, many of us have to learn how to utilize it effectively so that we don't hurt ourselves in the process of releasing it. Those with the least amount of power are afforded the smallest amount of anger.

This is exactly why we see so little change.

For it is precisely this rage that will turn the world upside down and right-side up again.

The anger I was not allowed to feel as a child still sometimes sneaks up on me. But I don't try to hide it or conceal it any more. I've learned the damage that causes in all facets of our lives.

Jane Caputi wrote that:
“Psychic numbing means never having to feel anything. Refusing such anesthetization and unearthing our passions means facing our emotions, especially those that have been the most anathematized, such as rage, female pride, and self-love. In short, it entails embracing monsters. Lesbian novelist Bertha Harris tells it truly: Monsters express what ordinary people cannot: feel. Monsters are emblems of feeling in patriarchy. Monsters represent the quintessence of all that is female, and female enraged. The monster most emblematic of feeling, most communicative of female rage, is the Gorgon. Many people, consumed by fear, simply cannot meet her gaze. Others, steeped in greed, ignorance, fear, and self-loathing, quite frankly want to lose their senses. Rather than look into the Gorgon's all-seeing eye, they turn themselves to stone—that is, they become psychically numb. Yet those of us who are sick of pretending, denying, suppressing, and repressing our knowledge, our emotions, and our powers journey to her island of rock and stone and there face a laughing, welcoming, and gorgeous Gorgon. As we do, we turn not to stone, but to sentient flesh, sensual mind, and boiling blood.”5
I am sick of pretending, suppressing and, most of all—of repressing.

This is something I have thought about incessantly since giving birth to my daughter. Hélène Cixous wrote:
I want to become a woman I can love. I want to meet women who love themselves, who are alive, who are not debased, overshadowed, wiped out.6
This has been my #1 priority in raising my little girl—who is now 11.

I have tried to provide the sort of childhood for both my children that I did not have. I came at parenthood with the idea that both my children had far more wisdom than I—not because I am inherently stupid, but because I am still learning to come back to my center, which was deeply suppressed. I have not only 'allowed' my children to say what they think and feel no-matter-what—but have facilitated those conversations regularly.

When my daughter was about five, she boldly stated that she was a witch. At first this scared me because of my fundamentalist Christian background, but I soon realized that, of course she was a witch! I was a witch too. We had always been witches—the fear of burning had dried the truth out of us.
“Dee L R Graham, in her book Loving To Survive examines what she calls ‘Societal Stockholm Syndrome.’ She hypothesizes that what we refer to as ‘feminine’ traits submission, compliance, nurturing, etcare the result of women living in fear for our lives and trying to ingratiate ourselves with our captors—men—in order to improve our chances of survival. And she suggests that two centuries of witch trials throughout the world created an environment where women learned not only to comply in order to avoid torture and death, but to police themselves and other women in their behaviour.

But seen in this context, our behaviour is not weakness, it is adaptation. It is survival. When they say ‘we are the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn,’ they usually ignore the other edge of the sword. The edge that continues to cut into our collective psyche. But in order to resist we must understand what we are up against. We need to realise why it is so hard to demand the respect that we deserve as human beings. We are, after all, the grandaughters of the compliant women who survived.”7
Growing up in the church, I spent the first 20 years of my life in dreadful fear of hell fire for every minor infraction I committed. I wasted hours every week, on my knees, begging for forgiveness. As Monica Sjöö and Barbara Mor remind us, “In no Goddess religion known were people ever depicted on their knees.”8

We must learn how to clear— and heal—ourselves on our own terms.

If only someone would have told me when I was a child, as Glenys did in her children's book about Medusa, that I would be constantly shedding skins that didn't fit anymore—for the rest of my life—I think I would have had an easier time of it.

Instead I feared every mistake, certain that my current circumstances defined who I was as a person. It took me four decades to realize that I could simply shed off what didn't work for me any longer and re-create myself. As Nayyirah Waheed wrote, "where you are. is not who you are. – circumstances"10

When we began this anthology, I felt I really didn't have anything to say about Medusa personally. That was not true: I was avoiding my own painful truth (again).

After my abusive ex-husband died unexpectedly at 45 last November, I released (even more) suppressed anger. My snakes went wild, biting many of the not-so-innocent in their path.

I was raised to suppress—and even hate—the Medusa within me. Letting Her out was painful. My oft-straightened wavy hair was now in a messy, silver-streaked mass around me. I had little energy to control even that anymore. I became ill and eventually doctors found a large (benign) tumor blocking my intestines.

Suppressing my truth—and hence, my rage—was literally killing me.

Illustration by Elisabeth Slettnes from The Girl God

I began to think a great deal about Glenys' question at the beginning of this anthology:
"What might be the consequences of changing our minds sufficiently, so that Medusa can be comprehended as metaphor for Divine Wisdom? Many scholars contend She once was understood this way. What might it mean for our minds to welcome Her back? Would that alter the way we relate to Earth, to Being?"12
Do we dare consider—and then declare—ourselves Holy? Do we understand that our rage is not only justified—but also sanctified? How do we use that anger effectively—so instead of killing ourselves, we utilize it to change the dysfunctional world we live in?

It's easy to let the injustices eat at you and fume instead of letting anger burn as a fire, productively. As Maya Angelou wrote, “Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.”13

I remember writing at one point about wanting to use a toilet brush to scrub my insides clean of all that had been done to me. Had I allowed myself the fury I deserved to feel, the fire might have burned those injustices out of me sooner. Perhaps we are still scared to feel the fire after being burned for so many years.

How might we ordain ourselves as Worthy—let alone Goddesses, Priestesses and Leaders—rather than the submissive remnants of ourselves that are (somewhat) acceptable in our woman-hating world? Andrea Dworkin's experience of waking up speaks to me as I ponder this:
“I did not experience myself or my body as my own. I did not feel what was being done to me until, many years later, I read Kate Millet's Sexual Politics. Something in me moved then, shifted, changed forever. Suddenly I discovered something inside me, to feel what I had felt somewhere but had had no name for, no place for. I began to feel what was being done to me, to experience it, to recognize it, to find the right names for it. I began to know that there was nothing good or romantic or noble in the myths I was living out; that, in fact, the effect of these myths was to deprive me of my bodily integrity, to cripple me creatively, to take me from myself. I began to change in a way so fundamental that there was no longer any place for me in the world—I was no longer a woman as I had been a woman before. I experienced this change as an agony. There was no place for me anywhere in the world. I began to feel anger, rage, bitterness, despair, fury, absolute fury...”14
Our hatred of ourselves is not accidental. This is the insidious result of our specific upbringing as girls. We learn to despise and abuse ourselves in both blunt and indirect ways—primarily through the religious texts that seep through our societies and, in many cases, our family of origin. In today's capitalistic societies, media does a lot of the work as well.

It's easy to control females who deeply loathe and distrust themselves.

Our patriarchal brainwashing has thoroughly rinsed out the richness of our beings—even the biological realities of our bodies. Everything is supposed to be bleached. Our body hair removed. Our faces, masked. Our glorious, womanly smells, perfumed over. Our menses, hidden or erased completely. The fullness of our illustrious bellies, sucked in. Our fat, sucked out. The laugh lines on our faces, smoothed over. Our crowns of silver hair—signifying our crone wisdom—dyed back to more youthful (hence, unknowing) variations.

The crone is perhaps hated most of all; but I've noticed with a daughter who is wise beyond her years (or rather, whose wisdom has not been forced out of her) that there is no love lost for smart, sassy, bossy little girls. It is so much easier to raise our daughters under the patriarchal framework that instills quietness and submission—the same suppression and repression we are so sick of ourselves as grown women.

The world at large favors authoritarian control of females, instilling obedience from birth. I do not want this for my daughter. I don't want her to spend the first 40 years of her life un-taming herself.

As my daughter approaches the oft difficult time leading to menarche, it is often a painful process to allow her snakes to go wild—and, sometimes bite. Particularly when they bite me.

This takes an enormous amount of being present—in a world that favors numbing. I have realized my tendency to turn to stone when my daughter lashes out at me; which is the worst response possible for both of us. By not allowing myself to feel her anger (and mine), I stop the healing process for both of us.

I see in my daughter the quiet little girl I grew up as, who was too afraid to ask any questions—come back from the dead. I'll happily take those snake bites for that.

What might it mean to raise our daughters so they do not have to waste a lifetime undoing the toxic indoctrination that most of us endured? What if girls were taught from the get-go to trust their inner voice and feelings, rather than to worship at the feet of men's authority? I like Audre Lorde's answer:
“When we live from within outward, in touch with our inner power, we become responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense. As we recognize our deepest feelings, we give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and the numbness which seems like the only alternative in our society.”15
So, how do we get there?

I think we must start with ourselves. After all, we can't teach our daughters what we don't know or remember. We must continue to uncover our own HERstory—or steal it back as the radical pirates Mary Daly suggested we become.16 We must be diligent about re-learning and deprogramming ourselves. As Janie Rezner wrote:
“Having suffered under patriarchy for the past 5,000 years, it is not easy, as a woman, to reclaim our rage, our 'maternal instinct,' or to even recognize that we have a universal imperative to be outraged, deep in our cells.”17
We must learn to not be afraid of this rage—in ourselves or our daughters—as it is She who will release us from our chains.

Starhawk reminds us that there is another way—if we can only remember it...
Memory sleeps coiled
like a snake...

Breathe deep
Let your breath take you down  
Find the way there
And you will find the way out18
May the coils become unraveled and our passions reign unruly. May we take back the lies we have been told about ourselves and re-story the world. May our collective rage restore our sanity, facilitate healing—and finally—bring peace. May we all learn not to fear our own power—or Medusa's—but to laugh from the bottom of our bellies with Her. May we teach our daughters to love themselves deeply—and may that love serve as a reminder that we are ALL so very worthy of Her divinity and embrace.

An excerpt from Trista's piece in Re-visioning Medusa: from Monster to Divine Wisdom.

Order here.


1 Cixous, Hélène The Book of Promethea Newly Born Woman (Theory and History of Literature). Betsy Wing (Translator). University Of Minnesota Press; 1986.

2 A full analysis is beyond the scope of this paper, however I recommend the following critique: Prose, Francine. “Selling Her Suffering,” New York Times Review of Books. May, 4 2017.

3 Morrison, Toni. Sula. Knopf, 1976.

4 hooks, bell. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. Washington Square Press, 2004.

5 Caputi, Jane. Gossips, Gorgons and Crones: The Fates of the Earth. Bear & Company, 1993.

6 Hélène Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa," translated by Paula and Keith Cohen. 1976.

7 Meta. “Burn the WitchWhere the Wild Words Are. May 8, 2017. 

8 Sjöö , Monica and Mor, Barbara. The Great Cosmic Mother.: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth. HarperOne; 2nd edition, 1987.

9 Livingstone, Glenys. My Name is Medusa. The Girl God, 2016.

10 Waheed, Nayyirah. Salt. Createspace, 2013.

11 Hélène Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa," translated by Paula and Keith Cohen. 1976.

12 Livingstone, Glenys. PaGaian Cosmology, p. 66.

13 Angelou, Maya. Interview with Dave Chappelle. Iconoclasts, the Sundance Channel, 2006.

14 Dworkin, Andrea. “First Love,” The Woman Who Lost Her Names: Selected Writings by American Jewish Women, compiled and edited by Julia Wolf Mazow. Harper & Row Publishers, 1980.

15 Lorde, Audre. “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, reprint edition, 2007.

16 Daly, Mary. Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Beacon Press, 1990.

“Women who are pirates in a phallocratic society are involved in a complex operation. First it is necessary to plunder–that is, righteously rip off gems of knowledge that the patriarchs have stolen from us. Second, we must smuggle back to other women our plundered treasures.”

17 Rezner, Janie. She Rises: Why Goddess Feminism, Activism, and Spirituality? Edited by Helen Hye-Sook Hwang and Kaalii Cargill. Mago Books, 2015.

18 Starhawk, “Unmasked.” Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery. Harpercollins, 1988.


  1. Thank you so much for writing this, Trista. It is such a brilliant synchronicity, because I've been thinking of exactly the same thing recently—anger and its anaesthetisation in girls/women, and mythological 'monsters'. I wrote a poem on the subject that I have just published on my blog, and have added a link to this piece, seeing as it is so similar to my own thoughts, but much more in depth. Thank you! http://offeringsfromthewellspring.blogspot.com.au/2017/06/furies-poem.html

  2. Your essay has me tearing up, Trista. Everything you share here is so very true. We are all survivors in a world that cannot contain our feminine nature and power. My daughter and I were recently discussing why so many women fold themselves up like origami, rather than taking up space like men usually do. It must be one of the survival techniques passed on for thousands of years.

  3. I highly resonate with this and have been on the path of transformation of this, well, since I was a little girl. I remember being sexual and curious as a child and felt Jesus was watching me and felt ashamed. At 17, I choose not to make my confirmation in the Catholic Church because I did not believe in it. I questioned everything and wrote a song which became a performance which is the myth of my own journey & breaking free of this distorted paradigm of patriarch that surrounds us. I to have a daughter and am feeling that I am growing as she grows, recognizing how utterly important it is for me to continue to liberate myself every day. I have already taught her she is a witch and let her know patriarchal society created a different myth around a witch being scary, ugly, mean, etc. I have taught her that the truth is witches are powerful women (and men to) that are dialed into the magic of our incredible universe. If you ever get to Salem, MA, definitely check out the witches museum. They actually talk about the true meaning of the word "witch".
    Thank you dear sister for writing this and sharing your truth. It is beautiful to witness
    Listen to my song "Retutn of the Alchemist" to hear the journey of a woman breaking he chains of repression, oppression, owning her fire unapologeticly and riding like the Phoenix
    Blessed Be, Namaste, Aho.