Last fall, as the #MeToo movement swelled and crested (terribly, wonderfully), I read Alice Notley’s 1992 feminist, book-length poem, The Descent of Alette. The poem takes place in a subway, a symbol for the subconscious mind, and subverts nearly every aspect of traditional epic. While traditional epics were about war, this one is about Alette’s battle to claim her own consciousness. While most epics relied on supernatural forces to elevate their hero and grant him powers, Notley’s relies on descent into the grit below the city, and acceptance of our human and animal natures. While most historical epics were quests undertaken by an individual male hero, Notley’s protagonist, Alette, is female and plural. She is an individual on a misson to find and kill the “tyrant,” but she is also a vessel for a chorus of voices. These voices unleash a stoppered, collective utterance much like the voices of #MeToo.
To indicate the poem’s spoken quality, Notley inserts quotation marks between phrases throughout the poem. The effect—confusing at first—comes to resemble women finishing one another’s sentences, and implies that a shared coming to speech is central to female consciousness. These voices are souls riding below ground, below the “above world” that is run by the “tyrant:”
“Which of us spoke? did “it matter” “Who saw what” “was being seen,” “knew what” “was known?” “Gradually what was seen “became what I saw” “to me” “Despair & outrage” “became mine too” “Sorrow” “became mine—“ “To ride a “mechanical” “contrivance” “in the darkness” “To be steeped in “the authority” of another’s mind” “the tyrant’s mind”
“Which of us spoke? did it matter?” . . .Despair & outrage became mine too this winter as more than 100 female athletes came forward to tell their accounts of sexual assault at the hand of U.S. Gymnastics physician Larry Nasser. How did this take so long? experts wondered. But several of the girls had reported this assault, and were told that they had mistaken a standard medical procedure for abuse. Their stories were discredited while their abuser was protected. Many other girls were taught to distrust their experience even before they could name it, because of a culture that elevated the male authority of Nassar, and positioned them as fortunate to receive his “care.”
This is what it is to live in patriarchy. It is ““to be steeped in “the authority” of another’s mind.”” And the mind is not only the mind of the abuser, but all the surrounding minds, the mind of the culture that upholds its hierarchies and its forms.
I was molested by my grandparents’ friend when I was nine years old. He was a charismatic man, friendly to all the children in the community, the one who offered to take us one by one on his paddle boat out into the lake. I told my mother what had happened to me a couple of years later, but she was unable to hear me or to act on the information. I think this was because the same thing had happened to her when she was a girl, and the pain became a kind of echoing, silencing us up through the generations.
It would have been mortifying to accuse him. After all, he was just an old, friendly man with candy in his pocket. To speak such a thing would have shamed my grandparents, exposed me as damaged, or alienated me, depending on I whether or not I was believed. But because it was unimaginable to speak it, it was also possible that I had imagined it, that the reality I had experienced was not reality at all.
All I could do was become very protective of my younger cousin. I always offered to go along if this man asked her on a boat ride. I sat between them and tried to look at him a certain way –the way that said, I may be quiet but I am not stupid—so he would not dare to touch her. I had already been touched. I had already been penetrated by the patriarchal mind—that is, I had already taken on his crime as my responsibility.
I can see my nine-year-old self in the green polka dotted swimsuit. I wish someone would have protected me. I wish someone would have protected my mother when she was nine. But because our stories never became real, they went down below to the subconscious, that subway thick with fumes of emotion, that dimly lit channel of connection among women.
Of my eight closest friends from childhood and college, I know of only one who was not sexually molested as a girl or sexually assaulted as a young adult—in most cases by a family friend, or someone they knew. Maybe this high percentage represents a kind of self-selection, maybe our ensuing sensitivity helped us to find one another, but, statistically, these numbers are not outliers.
According RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), every eight minutes, child protective services substantiates a claim of sexual abuse or sexual assault on a child. One in nine U.S. girls under 18 is the victim of sexual assault, and those are just the cases that are reported. One in six U.S. women is the victim of attempted or completed rape, and again, these are just the statistics compiled from reported incidents. Many more live on unreported, misunderstood and repressed, but doing their damage in victims’ minds and lives.
When we were in college, my friends and I shared our stories of molestation and abuse with one another, but they were not yet widely recognized or ratified in the above-ground culture. Judges like Rosemarie Aquilina were not yet in power. Even then, though, we were learning something the U.S. gymnasts learned this year, something that Notley verbalized in her poem, the feeling that ““I can never leave” “unless” “we all leave.””
Individual tyrants and abusers like Nassar must be exposed and put on trial. Judges like Rosemary Aquilina must continue to hear womens’ stories, honor female credibility and dispense clarity and justice. But the sexual mistreatment of women and girls is pandemic, a cultural sickness that transcends the individual. As the #MeToo movement evolves, it will have to transcend, too, the old narratives of heroes and anti-heroes, the continued obsessions with violence and pain—storylines which are themselves products of the patriarchy—to grapple with the “tyrant’s mind,” the very consciousness that shapes our culture.
It is time now to examine the underpinnings that make the “cities of patriarchy hum,” to use Notley’s metaphor, the channels that provide its workers, its bodies, its life-force, its ideas. It is time now to do deep work on the subconscious of our society. For that, we will have to look to our poetry, our memories, our dreams.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I had a dream. I was in a church basement, with paper doves stapled to the wall, a bowl of punch like a bloody moon. A man with weathered skin, a bandanna, blue jeans and a big metal belt buckle walked up to me. He pulled a revolver out from his belt and handed it to me. Then he held up a pill—some kind of sleeping pill or opiate—and said, “I am going to take this pill, and an hour after I’m under, I want you to take this gun and shoot me. Dead.”
I was scared. I didn’t want to do it. But even the dream was permeated by my sense of responsibility. I wanted to be seen as a woman he could trust. I let him fall asleep, and then I held the gun over him. I sensed that even he was tired of all that macho swagger. I thought it was my duty to step up and help the man go.
I have lots of dreams. Some of them are small dreams, just the detritus of my day rearranged. But some of them are echoing, dreams that seem to unlock a shared subconscious space. I interpreted that dream to mean that I was going to live to see the end of the cowboy-version of American patriarchy. I am going to be one of the women who helps to put the patriarchy to sleep, I thought. And even for men, this will come as some relief.
Later, I realized that the man in the dream looked just like by maternal grandfather, my mother’s father . By the time I knew him, he was an ex-marine with weathered skin who lived out on the prairie in a trailer with his third wife who was much younger. He’d gone to World War II at seventeen, where he was decorated as a medic in the Pacific theater. One weekend on leave, he’d met my grandmother, an orphaned Rosie the Riveter, and after the war, they’d married and moved to Ohio.
But civilian, post-heroic life was not what he had imagined. He moved from odd construction job to job, spent his paychecks on dapper suits for himself and just a little food for his family. He and my grandmother had four children, two of whom were mentally and physically handicapped. In light of all that sadness, my grandfather gradually disappeared from their home, the gap between the American dream and his actual life too much for him to bridge. My mother suspects that he was bisexual and living a double life. She wonders if it was not just the sad reality of his children’s handicaps and his inability to provide for his family that killed him, but the strangling confines of American masculinity.
And it did kill him. A couple of years after I had that dream, my grandfather shot himself. He had been diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. He was in pain and still living job to job in that trailer, without medical insurance. Maybe he did not want to bankrupt his wife with his care. Maybe he did not want his family’s last memories of him to be of his weakness. Maybe he just wanted to end his own pain. Maybe the end came as some relief.
When Alette finally sees the tyrant, it turns out he is just an old man. He looks strangely familiar to her, doddering and harmless:
I turned & saw a “head” “upside down” “in the
window” “An old man’s face” “vaguely” “familiar—“
“old,” “& white-haired,” “looking friendly” “upside down”
“drooling” “just a little—“ “old man”. . .
She wants to show the man that she isn’t afraid of him, so she pats his cheek. But afterward, she realizes that she has touched and comforted the tyrant himself. She’s startled, and her underworld companion is impatient with her inconsistency.
“I gasped & said,” “That was the?” “tyrant,”
“the man finished” “He looked annoyed” “’You hypocrite’” “Or is it
sucker?’” “’Both,’ I said” “But in one way” “he is just” “an
old man’” “The man said,” “’You’ve just patted” “the cheek of”
“the man” “you must confront” “& vanquish.”
Afterward, she feels distraught, feels something ““trying,” “in my head, to” “swim up,” “a bad dream.”” This deeper layer of the subconscious materializes—a dream within a dream—as a handsome young man. This young version of maleness enters the train and kills himself in front of all the onlookers:
“With a knife he…“stabbed his own neck” “deeply” “There was a jet of blood dark” “purple”. . .“across the car” “There was blood on me”. . .
“It’s as if I killed him,” “I said” “Will I always” “feel guilty?” . . .”’
As if,” “I said,” “I didn’t love him” “enough’”
He has taken his own life, but stained her with his blood. And somehow Alette feels responsible. She worries that the problem was that she didn’t love him enough. Onlookers come to comfort her, tell her it is not her fault, and then a man ““in jeans” “& a “handkerchief” “tied round his head” “brown-skinned—“ tells her, “The key” “isn’t always” “the word ‘love.’””
The key isn’t always the word “love.” This is a line I have to read and write over and over because I have not yet learned its lessons. I hold love up as the highest value for healing and transformation. But our roles within love have also been socialized, often forcing women into silence rather than speech, internalization of injustice rather than externalized calls for justice.
The key, this man says, is a real key. Then he makes an incision above her breast, and ““reveals her own blood “Only your own blood” “is on you now” “he said” “It washes” “his away.””
When I first read this moment in the poem, I thought it meant that only by confronting our own blood and stories—the outpourings of our hearts—will we subvert patriarchy’s overarching narratives. It seemed to caution discernment, that incisive trick of knowing our own pain well enough to understand the pain we no longer have to carry as our own. ““We must see the world” “through our tears” “Not weep” “the thick substance” “of another’s” “reality,”” Alette insists toward the end of the poem. We have too often peered at the world through the pain of war and violence, though blinding events of male bloodshed.
This ritual cutting above Alette’s heart also resembles the cutting that the Lakota do to their warriors in the Sun Dance as a way of moving through pain, sacrificing their smaller selves to the community and to higher transformation. Some suspect that this ritual provided a way for their tradition to absorb the colonizing narrative of Christianity, and overriding story of sacrifice on the cross. Traditionally, it was also a way for men to experience a pain something like what women experience in childbirth, that acute physical opening needed to perpetuate life. The ritual was meant to restore balance between the human and the cosmos, the individual and the community, the male and the female. Perhaps this moment in the poem is similarly about balance, reminding Alette that she is both a fragile human, and a vanquishing hero.
Notley’s poem is a real poem, which is to say it resists easy summarizing or moralizing. I don’t want to wrap this up with what the poem means. But I can say that the book provided essential company for me in this season, as it evoked a subterranean, shared channel of pain and transformation. It may be difficult, it may be traumatic, but I think we can never hear too many #MeToo stories. They have come from every sector of society, and represent a chorus of revelation, and also a great, subterranean power that once exposed, can begin to reorder our world.
Rachel Jamison Webster is the author of the books September: Poems; The Endless Unbegun and the forthcoming Mary is a River. She teaches at Northwestern University, where she directs the Creative Writing Program.