Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Girls Like Us


Now that my dissertation recital is behind me, I have immediately turned to time-wasting pleasure reading in the five or so spare minutes a day that have opened up. A couple of months ago I downloaded Pope Benedict's encyclical Spe Salvi and started carrying it around with me, intending to read it on the subway; but it weighed down my bag like kryptonite, and for some reason was equally unapproachable. So when a friend emailed me a link to an article in Vanity Fair that was an excerpt from the book Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon -- and the Journey of a Lifetime by Sheila Weller (pictured above), I immediately used the back of Spe Salvi to print it out. I devoured the article, and requested the book from the library. It came yesterday, and, in spite of the fact that it's a 500-page hardcover, it feels much lighter in my bag than the few dozen printed pages of the encyclical did.

The book is a compelling read for me, not only because I love the music written by the three artists (especially Joni Mitchell), but also because their lives, as described by Weller, are symbolic of the tremendous disappointment that women have reaped since the 1960s. Although Weller is apparently approving of her subjects' experimentation with the new ways of love, sex, and romance introduced in that era -- ways that ultimately brought grief and even devastation to the three artists (King was married four times; Mitchell bore her only child alone in the charity ward of a Toronto hospital and gave her up for adoption; Simon lived in a codependent marriage to the desperately-addicted James Taylor, until it ended), she also interjects statements that hint that all was not rosy for girls who were "too busy being free." She quotes one of Joan Baez's guitar-strumming college friends, who says obliquely, "There were tears over boys, and a harrowing trip to a doctor who was supposed to be able to 'fix' things . . . It felt like we were both the initiators and the victims of the sexual revolution," and observes ruefully, "If only feminist fortune cookie sentences could, as ordered, change the heart. They couldn't."

The legacy of the sexual revolution has changed the lives, but perhaps not the hearts, of women like me in complex ways. I think sometimes of my fellow female doctoral students and the lives they may be living, and the life I lived before my conversion. I felt as if undergoing devastating loss was part of being a woman, something that a sophisticated and highly-educated woman would have to understand and accept, and that somehow, in the face of irrevocable loss, I would become a superior human being. I wish now, however, that I had never had to lose all that I did.

19 comments:

Roseanne said...

I read that article too, and was really struck by the way the author sort of glossed over the litany of emotional devastation each artist encountered. Each managed to write and perform these iconic songs, even while creating in an environment that was the antithesis to Virginia Woolf's ideal "room of one's own." I suppose the soul perseveres, and truly great artists manage to create out of loss.

Roseanne said...

The above, by the way, is purely my intellectual and not my emotional response...

David Marine said...

Joni gave up her daughter out of the shame and fear foisted upon her by what she considers to be a heartless church. Your argument that the liberation of the 60s brought grief and devastation to these three women is absurd. All three have led tremendously joyful and productive lives. All three remain happy and productive in their present lives. "Undergoing devastating loss" is something that everyone experiences, no matter what path they take in life. People move through the pain of loss, and most heal and move forward. Such is life, no matter what one's faith.

Pentimento said...

Tremendously productive, without question, but I cannot vouch for the tremendous happiness of any of the three. And it's not necessarily an issue of faith, but yes, I believe that what you are calling the liberation of the 60s has indeed brought devastation to the lives not only of these three great artists, but also to the lives of untold unsung women. The sexual revolution has been a nice thing for men but not so nice for women.

David Marine said...

All three claim to be happy. I've seen both Carole King and Joni recently, and each was radiant. The joy (and, yes, the sorrows) of their lives can heard in the music.

Were they navigating uncharted waters? Yes. Did they sometimes crash on rocky shores? Sure.

Have they survived, and thrived? Yes. Were they destroyed? No.

Pentimento said...

I hope you're right that Carole King and Joni Mitchell are "tremendously happy" (Carly Simon, according to the book, is battling depression). And I'm glad they weren't destroyed by the various hells they lived through. But I stand by my suggestion that, as you put it, David, "the liberation of the 60s brought grief and devastation to these three women," and it has visited devastation upon countless others who may not necessarily have gone on to become tremendously happy.

Roseanne, you gave me the article. At best, the soul perseveres and one can spin grief into gold, perhaps.

David Marine said...

Pentimento, I appreciate the discourse. Carly Simon does speak quite candidly about her battles with depression, but I've never heard her make the claim that a more traditional life would have freed her from those battles. Carly's youthful observation of the paradigm of marriage, in "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be" is as follows:

My friends from college they're all married now;
They have their houses and their lawns.
They have their silent noons,
Tearful nights, angry dawns.
Their children hate them for the things they're not;
They hate themselves for what they are-
And yet they drink, they laugh,
Close the wound, hide the scar.

I would again say that "devastation", as you put it, is a part of the human condition, not the result of sexual liberation. Or, to borrow from Joni's brilliant "Hejira":

You know it never has been easy
Whether you do or you do not resign
Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
Or stick to some straighter line

Roseanne said...

David, I don't know much about the lives of the three artists beyond what I read in the article. What I can tell you, though, is that there is an epidemic of regret among most women about their sexual pasts. Even the most sexually confident woman usually has a tale or two she wishes she didn't have to tell. And these are stories shared only among women.

Pentimento said...

There are also Carole King's four divorces, Joni's loss of her only child, and Carly Simon's breakup from her one true love. Having experienced divorce, the loss of children, and devastating breakups myself, I believe that the effects of these events on one's life cannot be exaggerated, nor ever fully recovered from, however happy one eventually claims to be.

Tertium Quid said...

I like all three, especially Joni Mitchell. I must say that I would not want to be married to any of them!

Anne Marie said...

David Marine:

“Carly's youthful observation of the paradigm of marriage, in "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be" is as follows:

My friends from college they're all married now;
They have their houses and their lawns.
They have their silent noons,
Tearful nights, angry dawns.
Their children hate them for the things they're not;
They hate themselves for what they are-
And yet they drink, they laugh,
Close the wound, hide the scar.”

This paradigm of marriage strikes me as a Godless paradigm. A paradigm of an archetypal secular self-absorbed marriage that assumes the institution to be one of self fulfillment rather than a sacrificial union of a man and a woman fashioned by God to beget and nurture children and ultimately to reflect on earth our ultimate filial union with God in heaven.

David Marine said...

Godless? I would say "loveless". I mean, really, are you suggesting that everyone in a bad marriage is selfish and Godless? Or that marriages (or civil unions) without children are valueless because they are not "fashioned by God to beget children"?

Your paradigm, anne marie, strikes me as stifling. A woman should consider marriage a "sacrifice" that she makes so that she may "beget" children? A marriage should not "fulfill" the partners? That's fine. If that paradigm brings joy to the partners, God bless them.

My parents are both agnostics, and have somehow managed to embrace each other, their children, and their community in a bond of love for fifty years. In my opinion, where there is love, there will naturally follow "sacrifice". The concept of "sacrifice" does not need to be dictated to a couple by Church dogma. And again, in my opinion, where there is genuine love between two people, there is a reflection on earth of "our ultimate filial union with God in heaven".

For me, life is for living, loving, and learning. This entire concept of laying the blame for "emotional devastation" of women on the sexual liberation of the 60s is misguided. Come now, people! I'm sure that the vicissitudes of a life of "experimentation with the new ways of love, sex, and romance" could well bring emotional devastation, but I don't see these three successful, brilliant women as being strong evidence that it need be. I'm inclined to quote here the lyrics to Joni's song "The Magdelene Laundries". You tell me, were the women of the laundries spared emotional devastation?

The Magdelene Laundries
by Joni Mitchell

I was an unmarried girl
I'd just turned twenty-seven
When they sent me to the sisters
For the way men looked at me
Branded as a jezebel
I knew I was not bound for Heaven
I'd be cast in shame
Into the Magdalene laundries

Most girls come here pregnant
Some by their own fathers
Bridget got that belly
By her parish priest
We're trying to get things white as snow
All of us woe-begotten-daughters
In the steaming stains
Of the Magdalene laundries

Prostitutes and destitutes
And temptresses like me
Fallen women
Sentenced into dreamless drudgery
Why do they call this heartless place
Our Lady of Charity?
Oh charity!

These bloodless brides of Jesus
If they had just once glimpsed their groom
Then they'd know and they'd drop the stones
Concealed behind their rosaries
They wilt the grass they walk upon
They leech the light out of a room
They'd like to drive us down the drain
At the Magdalene laundries

Peg O'Connell died today
She was a cheeky girl
A flirt
They just stuffed her in a hole!
Surely to God you'd think at least some bells should ring!
One day I'm going to die here too
And they'll plant me in the dirt
Like some lame bulb
That never blooms come any spring
Not any spring
No, not any spring
Not any spring

For women who chose for themselves to embrace the church as a refuge, or who choose to embrace marriage to fulfill the paradigm set forth by anne marie, I say more power to you! But please, don't assume everyone is burdened with devastation if they make different choices, and don't tell me that the church has cornered the market on love.

Maclin Horton said...

Of those who lived as recommended by the voices of the sexual revolution, there are, in my opinion, two groups: those who recognize the damage done, and those who do not. There are more women than men in the former group, which also is considerably smaller than the latter group.

Pentimento said...

This post has generated far more commentary than most on this rather scantily-read blog. I am in the complicated position of admiring the music of the three artists (especially that of Joni Mitchell, who I'm not alone in considering a genius of as much importance to western music as, perhaps, Schubert), and even some aspects of their lives -- their daring and courage, for instance -- while truly believing that they were hurt by their wholehearted embrace of their era's ethos. And their music cannot be separated from the experimental lives they sought to lead.

As for sacramental marriage, of course, it's a goal to be striven for, especially by those who are in one. And I too know of marriages that approach the sacramental -- marriages that I admire -- that have been undertaken by people who know nothing of God, and also of marriages undertaken by devout Catholics that have crashed and burnt like many modern marriages. I am in no position to offer criticism or advice on what a sacramental, or any, marriage should be. Carly Simon's lyrics, though, are more a reflection of her times than of her heart, I believe, the heart of a woman who would strive to create a traditional marriage with a man who loved drugs more.

Joni Mitchell's song about the Magdalene Laundries can hardly be used as evidence for anything; the fact that there were abuses in Jansenist-influenced pre-war Ireland doesn't say anything significant about how Carole, Joni, and Carly reflected and responded to the sexual revoluation. As for Joni's giving up her daughter - I don't really believe it had as much to do with the church as it had to do with being impoverished and abandoned by her boyfriend, the sort of situation that now is a prime factor in many, if not most, abortions.

Is life complicated? Oh yes. Has the emotional landscape become much harsher since the sexual revolution? Again, yes. I don't think I'm the only one who -- having lived through a second-generation version of that revolution -- wishes that things could have been simpler and less complicated. Women are the ones left holding the bag in the new world of sex and romance; and women's inner lives have changed in the past forty years. The world is a much more fraught, frightening and painful place for women now. I don't think that men's inner lives have undergone change to this extent, though I welcome comments from anyone who thinks I'm wrong.

Anne Marie said...

The foundational question here is an acceptance or rejection of a life lived as God intends. By way of natural law God has made clear to man the manner in which mankind is to live. As applied to the current discussion of the impacts of the sexual revolution of the 60s we as human beings know full well that sex leads to children and that sex bonds men and women to each other in a way that is far more intimate than simply sharing a cup o’ Joe. To remove either of these potentialities from the equation is to attempt to thwart the natural consequences of sex. Once we begin to attempt to circumvent the natural consequences of any aspect of our lives we wreak havoc. That is the bottom line.

To pretend that the natural outcomes of sex, babies and bonding of men and women, are inconsequential or do not exist is a formula for destruction of all the parties involved.

Maclin Horton said...

Re the question of men's inner lives: I think you're right.

Maclin Horton said...

Sorry, I didn't mean to hit publish yet.

I was about to say: I think in general the inner life of men has not changed much. Mine has, but it was not until long after the fact, when certain things brought reality forcibly to my attention. And besides I was always cursed with being the sensitive and romantic guy who paid more attention to a woman's feelings, and his own, than most. There is a bit of humor in my calling that a curse, but the fact that I would see it, even now, as a form of weakness says something about the male mind in general.

I get the impression from things I hear and read that the more callous and sexually exploitative sort of man, who has always been with us, has become even more brutal. Only an impression.

Part of the reason we don't see the damage is that its mostly invisible--it just isn't felt in the way that it is for women (generalizing). I've been writing about this on my blog for the past couple of weeks. Also the vision of what love is supposed to be--the inseparability of love, sex, and procreation--does not seem to come as immediately and intuitively to us as to women, so we don't see what we've lost. Until or unless, as I say, something hits us pretty hard with it.

Mrs. T said...

Of the sexual upheavals of an earlier era, Chesterton pointed out that although it began in wealthy circles, where people could marry, divorce, take and reject lovers, and generally form and reform sexual alliances without significant financial and social repercussions. Their station, material and social, provided a kind of insulation against consequences. The real devastation, he argued, was in the trickle-down effect, when the lower classes took up the same habits.

I think the same can be said of this round of revolution. You can look at these artists and argue that they have not only survived but flourished as grandes dames of their art form; you can also argue that suffering is necessary to art, though I'm not persuaded that that's true or fair to art. But it seems to me that their music, and the wealth and social milieu which have accompanied it, provide an insulation which simply isn't there for the millions of ordinary men and women whose attitudes regarding sex, love and marriage were formed by that music. It's one thing to be Carly Simon and married to a drug addict; it's quite another to be Jane Q. Nobody in the same situation, without the glam factor or the financial means to do more than barely survive, maybe.

Incidentally, I've known quite a few writers whose lives have followed more or less the same trajectory. It doesn't seem to lead to a particularly enviable old age, especially for women . . .

Pentimento said...

This is an excellent point, Mrs. T. I think that the flagwavers of women's sexual freedom would do well to consider what happens in society when, to paraphrase the late Sen. Moynihan's controversial term, this sort of decadence is defined downward. One need look no further than the poor neighborhoods of any city or town to witness the results. The sexual revolution has had devastating effects on the lives of the American poor.