Choirs and split voices: female identity construction in Lorrie Moore's Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?
In her novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Lorrie Moore focuses on the intimate friendship between two adolescent girls. The novel begins in Paris with a middle-aged woman, Berie Carr, who is unhappy, unsatisfied with her marriage, and longing for the emotional intimacy her husband, Daniel, fails to provide. He has physically abused her by pushing her down a flight of stairs, and he has emotionally betrayed her by having affairs with other women. Berie wants to tell her Parisian friend Marguerite about her troubled marriage, but she cannot bring herself to do so. In her present dissatisfaction, she reflects on her adolescence and the fulfilling girlhood friendship she shared with Silsby Chaussee. The two girls support each other as they begin to explore their sexuality and forge identities in a patriarchal and heteronormative society. When Sils's boyfriend Mike impregnates Sils, Berie steals money for an abortion. Soon afterwards, the friendship comes to an abrupt end when Berie is sent away after she is caught stealing. The two see each other again later in life on a few occasions, but the intensity they shared in adolescence cannot be rekindled.
Moore's novel about adolescent girl friendship relates much more than a touching story: it challenges readers to question whether Berie's experience (of adult loneliness and an idealization of a childhood friendship) is an experience common to most women or whether it is unique to Berie. Indeed, Berie's experience closely mirrors what Carol Gilligan and Adrienne Rich argue many women experience. Rich believes that girls and women bond in an intense way that gives them strength to combat the sexism inherent in a heteronormative society. While Rich refers to such bonding as the "lesbian continuum," Gilligan puts a psychological (rather than Rich's more political) slant on the intimacy between women, calling it female relational development. Gilligan argues that not only do girls and women tend to bond in a sisterhood, but that such bonding is inherent in the development of girls into women (and that boys follow an individualistic, rather than relational, path to adulthood). Berie and Sils's relationship is of such fierce intimacy that not only do the two girls form a sisterhood, their identities merge into one, with one completing the other and Berie's voice framing their story. Though Berie and Sils, seen in terms of Rich's and Gilligan's theories, fit the profile of most women, recent books on girls' aggression show that this same female bonding can lead to back-biting, hurtful aggression between girls, making girlhood relationships treacherous and traumatic. While this aggression is not typical of Berie and Sils's relationship, the theories on girls' aggression suggest girls' and women's experiences of sisterhood vary extremely to the extent of being polar opposites of one another. Moore herself acknowledges the varying experiences of girls by contrasting Berie and Sils's fulfilling relationship with LaRoue's devastatingly lonely girlhood, in part due to Berie's meanness. Put in the context of past and present theories and critiques on sisterhood which urge us either to entirely laud or condemn sisterhood, Moore's novel reminds us just how complicated it is for statistics to capture how women in general define themselves. Berie's narrative voice captures the unique struggle of one woman seeking to find herself within a chorus of voices.
Berie, Sils, and Adrienne Rich's "Lesbian Continuum"
The sisterhood Moore creates between Berie and Sils can best be seen through the lens of Adrienne Rich's essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Rich argues that eroticism can fuse with friendship and camaraderie to form an intimate bonding among women and girls whether or not they desire physical genital contact with one another. She suggests that this bonding, which she refers to as the "lesbian continuum," includes not only sexual desire but also "many more forms of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support,... [and in] marriage resistance" (1986, 51). Berie and Sils share all four of these alternative forms of primary intensity which Rich cites as well as a physical bond. Together, they begin to explore who they are as they become their adult selves. As they enter an adult, heterosexual world, they forfeit their relationship and, consequently, their autonomy. Moore shows us the necessity of friendship and sisterhood in the female life, from girlhood to mid-life. She also shows how easily sisterhood can be disrupted by female aggression and patriarchal norms.
The girls share a physical intimacy through visual familiarity and appreciation. Berie is so familiar with Sils's appearance that she "knew her clothes by heart" (Moore 1994, 50) and "knew all the hairstyles and looks of her" (61). She knows these things because she inspects and studies Sils. One night in Sils's room Berie "look[s] at her, beginning with her toes: the rubbery blue nexus of veins on top of her feet.... The nuts and bolts of her were always interesting. She saw me looking" (22). Though the girls do not engage in sexual intercourse, Berie appreciates Sils's body with her eyes. Moore uses similar imagery in Berie's description of Sils's feet and of Howie's penis. "[Howie's] penis with its delicate veins like the veins of a wrist, its rubbery eye like the tip of a mucilage bottle" (128; my emphasis). This suggests that Berie has a sexual admiration for Sils's body akin to her obsession with Howie's body. However, while Berie's obsession with Howie concerns his genitals and the erotic satisfaction they provide, her admiration of Sils concerns female eroticism (in the sense that she gains visual familiarity with Sils's body) and the interpersonal strength it provides.
For Rich, female eroticism expands the usual definition of erotic into an energy "which is unconfined to any single part of the body or solely to the body itself" and goes beyond the physical to encompass the emotional and psychic as well (1986, 53). She argues that erotic energy is omnipresent in the sharing of joy, work, and support during hardship (53). When Sils wears Berie's green shirt to the abortion, the shirt symbolizes the erotic energy that they share. Berie says she "followed Sils, and my green shirt" into the clinic (Moore 1994, 65). Moore's wording here shows that wherever Sils goes, Berie's shirt goes too, which sounds almost as if Berie herself were walking beside Sils. This wording occurs again in the cab ride home when Berie notices, "Under Sils's arms there were dark circles of perspiration on my green shirt" (67). So, when Sils has her abortion, Berie's green shirt is right there with her, sharing the physical and emotional hardship of the abortion.
As girls, Berie and Sils share a sisterhood in which they protect and look out for each other, joining together to fight the tyranny of men. Rich argues, "Sex is ... equated with attention from the male.... Yet it is the women who make life endurable for each other, give physical affection without causing pain, share, advise, and stick by each other" (1986, 62). Moore creates a complementary interplay between the two girls as they begin to explore the world of men. After telling a story about a man who forced them to remove their clothes in the woods, Berie sums up their friendship: "Conspirators. Emotional business partners. That's what we were" (1994, 38). Moore exemplifies this business partner relationship when the girls look out for one another at bars. Sils has the duty of enticing a male to drive them home at night, while "sometimes [Berie] protected her with gruffness or a smirk" (36). Armed with breasts and feminine beauty, Sils uses her sexuality in the heterosexual male domain to get the rides home that both girls need, but Berie protects her against the male tyranny that may otherwise misuse or misinterpret Sils's sexuality.
Another instance of sisterhood occurs when Berie steps in to help Sils after Sils becomes pregnant. Rich points out that "women have always resisted male tyranny," and that many of the ways in which women have done this go overlooked. She cites as an example "the refusal of some women to produce children, aided at great risk by other women" (1986, 56-57). By having an abortion, Sils resists both motherhood and marriage: "He'll want to keep it. He'll want to get married. I just can't" (Moore 1994, 43). Making the choice to abort the baby empowers Sils since she decides when and if she is ready to become a wife and mother. As a female, she has inherited the biological ability to be a mother, and she has socially inherited the heterosexual obligation to marry. Instead, she opts to reject her inheritance and thereby exercises her autonomous agency. Sils achieves this agency because of Berie. Although Sils gets her erotic sexual satisfaction from Mike, she turns to Berie first to get emotional support to face the consequences of her actions with Mike. Berie eagerly takes on the role of provider and supporter: she first offers to drive Sils to the clinic and then later steals money for the abortion. Berie says of Sils, "She was my hero, and had been for almost as long as I could remember. In being with her ... I got through the dull days" (16). Sils helps Berie endure life, and now Berie (like a good "emotional business partner") returns the favor and aids Sils by helping her through the abortion. In this instance, the friendship takes on a role stronger than that between a girl and her boyfriend. In a way, the fetus belongs more to Sils and Berie than to Sils and Mike; though Mike physically creates the fetus with Sils, it is Berie who takes the risks and emotional responsibility for the fetus.
Moore portrays physical intimacy between Berie and Sils in the way they touch each other and sleep next to one another. They have a physical relationship in which they perform actions out of friendship that sexually involved couples perform. In the cemetery, they "lean forward and brush hair from each other's faces" (1994, 17); when they go out to bars they "danced with each other--boyless and defiant" (18). Without boys or men in their lives, they provide each other with a partner. They also provide each other with companionship during sleep, something which Sils's boyfriend Mike interrupts. When the girls sit under the blanket at a James Gang concert, Berie comments, "Feeling the heat of her so close, I thought about how seldom we slept over these days, me in that sleeping bag at the foot of her bed, or she at the foot of mine, the routine intimacy of that" (57). Later in life, when they are women, they once again sleep next to each other. Berie remembers, "I curled up next to Sils and closed my eyes" (137). This scene particularly demonstrates their physical intimacy: Berie has just taken a shower and wears only a towel wrapped around her naked body when she climbs under the sheets to sleep beside Sils. Moore expresses here the intimacy of giving companionship during sleep and sharing sleep without receiving the satisfaction of sex.
Besides physical closeness, Berie and Sils share rich inner lives through the inside jokes, secrets, cigarettes, joints, and music they share. "We looked to secret things," Berie states, "We looked to stories and misadventures and mined them for their narcotic core" (Moore 1994, 15). They soothe each other's lives through their stories and adventures. They also create a language meaningful to them, separating them from their town: "In a town where everyone said things like 'Jeesum Crow' and 'sheeesh,' we said 'fuck'--but in a daring, private way. 'What the fuck, babe'" (15). However comic in retrospect, this privacy of language allows them to construct their own stories about their life together, the words they choose lending an intimacy (like an inside joke) that they share with each other and no one else. After Berie reminisces that they no longer sleep over at each other's houses very often, she goes on to describe the "routine intimacy of that, our talking out into the dark of our rooms, us with our jokes and sighs and then our sleep, side by side in duet, our breaths staggered like a round" (57). Not only do they spend their days singing pop songs, they spend their nights singing together the heavy breaths of sleep.
Moore's vivid portrayal of the strong physical and emotional bonds, the "lesbian continuum," between Berie and Sils in their girlhood demonstrates how these two girls mature through interdependence and interconnectedness. Rather than staking out a separate, singular identity, they mature through intimate friendship. As an adult, Berie thinks about all of the people she has known:
It gives me the impression I am a collection of them, that they ... had inadvertently formed me, then vanished. But, what: Should I have been expected to create my own self, out of nothing, out of thin, thin air and alone? But what do I mean "they"? Perhaps I mean only Sils. I was invaded by Sils, who lives now in my vanished girlhood. (Moore 1994, 17)
Berie sees her adult self in terms of the relationships she's had.
Berie's Relational Self and Carol Gilligan
For the last twenty years, feminist psychologists have advocated the female relational self. (3) Carol Gilligan helped pioneer these trends with her ground-breaking, controversial 1982 book, In a Different Voice. In it, she posits that women mature through their relationships with others and tend to define themselves according to those relationships. Because women develop relationally, Gilligan argues, they usually approach moral dilemmas with an ethic of care rather than of justice. She suggests that women speak in a different voice and that this voice has been systematically ignored in traditional psychology. She notes, "[T]he milestones of childhood and adolescent development in the psychological literature are markers of increasing separation" (1982, 9). She demonstrates that traditional developmental models trace the male maturation process. Gilligan concludes, "For women, the developmental markers of separation and attachment, allocated sequentially to adolescence and adulthood, seem in some sense to be fused ... leav[ing] women at risk in a society that rewards separation" (156).
Over the years, Gilligan's theories have instigated heated debate and skepticism. (4) While Gilligan's theories cannot be ascribed universally to women, they do reveal how many women feel about themselves. This fact makes them useful in analyzing the experiences of particular individuals in life as in literary texts. Nancy Chodorow believes that "generalizations are useful to the extent that they speak to any particular individual's experience, help clinicians, or serve as guides for interpreting literature and biographies" (1999, 111). In many ways, Moore's depiction of Berie and Sils's relationship mirrors the claims Gilligan makes about how girls develop and how they view themselves and their friends. As a result, Gilligan's theories provide a lens through which to interpret Moore's novel. Neither Moore's characters nor Gilligan's claims act as universal models for how men and women develop and relate to one another. However, Moore once stated in an interview that her novel "does draw upon a feeling from my own childhood" (Blades 1998, 32). If Moore's novel describes, at least in part, how Moore feels about her own childhood, then it's possible that other women may feel the same way about their own childhoods. The similarities between Berie and Sils's relationship and the conclusions Gilligan draws about women's relationships in general suggest, in this case, that psychological generalizations may indeed "serve as guides for interpreting literature," as Chodorow suggests. Additionally, the same women who see themselves reflected in Gilligan's interviewees may also see themselves reflected in Moore's narrator, Berie.
The relationship between Berie and Sils in their childhood is more than simply interaction and intimacy between two people; it takes Rich's "lesbian continuum" one step further. The two girls create a joint self in order to find relational self-definition. By doing so, their developmental path follows the one Gilligan maps out when she claims that girls develop relationally. Berie discovers who she is through her interactions with Sils. Moore establishes Berie and Sils's relationship as one in which they express a female identification to the point where they become complementary parts of a whole. Berie, as narrator, often refers to herself and Sils as "we"; she expresses their actions and thoughts as joint, mutual ones. "We would sing along, our mouths full of sandwich, then open wide to showcase our chewed-up food and our horror at the thought of our grandmothers there" (Moore 1994, 10; my emphasis). This first person plural usually occurs when describing a habitual action or activity that the girls share; because they share the activity, they also share an identity. Moore also uses first person plural to depict female eroticism during experiences such as the abortion. When Berie shows Sils the money she has stolen, she explains, "This is for us.... This is all for you" (52; my emphasis). In other words, Berie is saying, "This is for our abortion." "You" and "us" become the same entity in this sentence, yet "you" still has an existence separate from "us." What Sils goes through, Berie does too because they are so intimately linked.
Two "you"s forming an "us" appears again in Moore's descriptions of choral singing, which act as bookends for the novel. As a child, Berie attempts to make her voice "split" so that she can sing chords all by herself (1994, 5). She gives up when "all I could make was a low droning rasp to accompany my main note (where was the choir of angels, the jazzy jazz?)" (6). She finds that to sing a chord requires an interdependence among a plurality of voices sounding simultaneously. As an adolescent, she achieves her "choir of angels," but she accomplishes it with the Girls' Choir. "Strung along the same wire of song, we lost ourselves; out of separate rose and lavender mouths we formed a single living thing, like a hyacinth" (148). The beauty created by the Girls' Choir contrasts sharply with the Asian monks who split their voices in "a choir of brokenness, lamentations" (8). In the Girls' Choir, each voice sings a separate, individual note, but fused together in a network of interdependence (like the "lesbian continuum"), they create a strong and beautiful "we" to lose themselves in. Berie and Sils also join voices to produce their own sound. In the Choir, Sils sings in the soprano section; when the two girls sing together, Sils sings the melody while "[Berie] did the alto harmony. That was always my part. Rummaging about beneath the melody, trying to come up with ... something supportive" (13). Berie and Sils create a song to define themselves by leaning against one another as they try to become adults in a patriarchal, heteronormative society. But the adult society they enter asks them to leave their songs at the door, so the song gets discarded in the "anteroom of girlhood" (134). Describing the song created by the Girls' Choir, Berie says, "In all my life as a woman--which began soon after and not unrichly--I have never known such a moment" (148).
Female Aggression and the Rupture of Berie's Relational Self
When Berie's adolescent, relational self is thrust into adulthood, she loses her voice because she has no one else to sing with her. Without the other members of the choir, she can only try as she once did to make chords alone, producing only "lamentations." As heterosexual girls transform into women, grow breasts, get their periods, and, perhaps most importantly, begin to have sex with men, they enter the male domain. Often, they sever their ties with girlhood friends. Rich concurs with Kathleen Barry that as a girl begins to act upon heterosexual impulses, she leaves behind her childhood relationships with girls; as they "recede in importance in her life, her own identity also assumes a secondary role and she grows into male identification" (Rich 1986, 46). Girls begin to see themselves through the eyes of men and value themselves according to which boys like them. Citing Luce Irigaray, the journalist Emily White argues in Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut that "female coming of age is the process of realizing you live beneath the 'male gaze'" (2002, 135). For White, "The high school hallway is a reflection of the patriarchal world, and boy craziness is one more expression of the story in which the male is central, the hero" (136). Girls worry about the "slut" stealing the attention of boys, and they direct their aggression at her rather than at the patriarchal social structures which confine them beneath the "male gaze."
As girls turn against one another as they test the waters of heterosexuality, they start to devalue the girlhood friendships that made them who they are. In Moore's novel, when Sils starts dating Mike, she spends less time with Berie. Berie laments, "How I resented the boys coming, as they did" (1994, 17). She resents Mike because "[Sils] was a high school girl and this was the first sex she'd known. It drugged her with secrets. It had stolen her away" (34). Not only does Mike replace Berie as Sils's sleeping companion, he also shares the "drugging secret" of sex with her. Berie worries that this secret will be more potent than the "secret things" that Berie and Sils share and which have a "narcotic core" (15). Berie is jealous of the closeness Sils shares with Mike, not because Berie wants Mike but because she wants and needs Sils. As an adult, Berie thinks, "All I'd wanted was my friend Sils.... If no one else came along ... to complicate our girlhood, it might stretch before us like a lovely beach. I'd wanted no other constructions. Only the simple, purgatorial life we had" (140). Berie looks back over her life and realizes that her transformation into an adult woman has deprived her of relationships having the intimate intensity of those she experienced in childhood, and has, ultimately, emptied her of herself.
If girls become themselves through their relationships with other females, they also sever themselves from their mothers through their relationships with other girls. (5) Phyllis Chesler notices that girls at age six are already "hooked into a series of mother/daughter--like dyadic intimacies which, step by step, [are] allowing them to become more independent of their mothers.... This method of achieving independence wed[s] them, fatefully, to a pattern of merging with or breaking from other girls" (2001, 85). Since their independence, or autonomy, is so tightly knit in their relationships with other females (first their mothers and then their girlfriends) girls forfeit this autonomy when they start to have relations with men.
Like the girls Chesler interviews, Berie engages in a series of fiercely intimate relationships. Moore uses marriage as a metaphor for the best friends Berie has in her life. Berie explains that "in [her] busy family ... it was important to be married, somehow, to someone" (1994, 28). With her mother busy with foreign exchange students and orphans, Berie breaks away from her mother and becomes autonomous through friendship. Her brother, Claude, becomes "her first love, [her] child bride," and her "child spouse" (28; 27.) Then, they are separated because "[I]t was unseemly for a brother and sister to share a room" (27). Both Claude and Berie find replacement spouses. For Berie, this spouse is Sils, who leaves her salads and sandwiches "assembled as if by a wife for her husband" (23). When Berie and Sils are separated, Berie goes to boarding school where she meets her boyfriend, Howie, and they become "child bride, child groom" (128). Just as Moore uses similar adjectives to describe Sils's feet and Howie's penis, she uses the marriage metaphor to describe the relationship Berie shares with each of them.
Girls' and young women's friendships resemble mother-daughter bonds and spouse relationships but often seem fiercer than either. Simmons relates how Annie, a girl she interviews, writes in her journal, "'I broke up with Samantha today,' 'I broke up with Alison today'" (2002, 58). Annie then remarks, "'I know I used the wrong term for it'" (58). Did she? Maybe Annie is simply expressing that girl friendships mean more than "just friends," that girls fiercely attach themselves to each other in a "couple" kind of way. "In the battle for little-girl friends, the same inexorable rules apply as in love and war. Things may eventually settle down for awhile after a period of promiscuity and serial monogamy" (Gouldner 1987, 101). Girls break up then get back together, love each other one day then refuse to speak to each other the next. They behave as couples, and some get along better than others.
Yet Chesler's statement has an even darker undertone to it; girls achieve independence from their mothers by becoming dependent on friends. At least, that is how conventional autonomy theorists would read it. However, feminist philosophers have proposed that the concept of relational autonomy should replace traditional autonomy. Marilyn Friedman suggests, "Contemporary philosophical accounts of autonomy should be scrutinized particularly with a view to eliminating any covert masculine paradigms that might lie beneath them" (2000, 39). These paradigms include reason without emotion, independence, and outspokenness (39). Linda Barclay refutes the "abstract individualism" of the self-made man, arguing that ideal autonomy has nothing to do with individualism (2000, 60). She notes, "The autonomous person is not a passive receptacle of [the forces of society] but reflectively engages with them" in her quest for self-hood (55). We gain our autonomous agency by interacting with others, and once we achieve autonomy, our autonomous self continues to exist because of its interdependency on others (57-58). According to these philosophers, autonomy has been crudely misinterpreted in Western culture. Authentic autonomy, or relational autonomy, is not independence but interdependence, not one voice singing one note, but many voices singing a chord. (6)
However, sometimes the chord sounds flat. While Moore depicts the "lovely beach" of female friendship, she also shows the devastation that lack of friendship can cause. A crucial but minor character, Berie's foster-sister LaRoue suffers under Berie's indirect aggression. Berie reflects, "I never did anything with LaRoue because she was odd and friendless, and I was embarrassed by her, in a way that made me feel bad, but in a way that was sad and unshakable" (1994, 54; my emphasis). Berie forms intense relationships with Claude and then later with Sils. "It was LaRoue who was alone" (28). Berie recognizes LaRoue's desire to be included, and she uses this to her advantage. When Berie and Sils need a ride to the James Gang concert, Berie gets LaRoue to drive them. But when they get there, Berie ditches LaRoue in the crowd at the entrance. She admits, "[T]he success of this treachery, of my having used her so completely, stunned me" (56). Berie asks herself, "Did we intend to [lose her]?" (56). Throughout Berie's description of what happens, Moore chooses words that signify Berie's uncertainty about what really happened and her later guilt. Berie remarks, "[M]y cruelty toward her [was] now in me like a splinter, where it would sit for years in my helpless memory, the skin growing around" (58).
In Odd Girl Out, Simmons builds on Gilligan's model of the female relational self to show how girls use relationship as a weapon to hurt other girls. (7) Gilligan agrees with and cites psychoanalyst Jean Baker Miller as saying, "Women stay with, build on, and develop in a context of attachment and affiliation with others.... The threat of disruption of an affiliation is perceived not just as a loss of a relationship but as something closer to a total loss of self" (Gilligan 1982, 169). The relational autonomous self needs the relationships that comprise it in order to remain autonomous. Perhaps more than any other clique in the high school social scene, the popular girls, or the "queen bees" as Wiseman dubs them, viciously use indirect aggression to include and exclude other girls. One girl told Simmons that after her clique of friends excluded her and withdrew their friendship, "I wasn't anything anymore because they had made me who I was, so I didn't even know who I was" (2002, 95). Loss of friendship for a girl can strip away her identity, her autonomy, her very sense of self. For LaRoue, lack of friendship ends in an extreme loss of self, culminating in her suicide.
How Berie's Relational Development Affects Her Adult Self
LaRoue plays little part in the narrative because Berie remembers LaRoue as playing a small part in her life. Berie says, "Things, I know, stiffen and shift in memory, become what they never were before" (Moore 1994, 25). Moore allows the reader to depend on Berie's memory to recall the story of how she becomes the person she is. Moore's narrative style depicts the frustrating mid-life struggle Berie encounters as she looks to find herself in her past relationships. Berie narrates her childhood in an effort to return to the affectionate "lesbian continuum" of her girlhood, to escape the frustrations of an unrewarding heterosexual marriage. When Berie eats brains, she is "eating for a flashback.... I'm hoping for something Proustian, all that forgotten childhood" (4). Berie does not want simply to mull over childhood memories. She wants a flashback so that her mind can return to childhood as though it is really still there. Her narrative, interspersed with scenes in the present in Paris, becomes a flashback to the girlhood relationships which built her. In Berie's memory, Sils is the person most responsible for building her. Berie even says, referring to what we might take as Berie's life story, that it is Sils "who all this is really about" (8-9).
The story of Berie's life, even including the portions where Sils is not there, is about Sils because Berie needs Sils to regain her autonomous self. Berie tells Daniel, "I'm feeling a little empty," and he replies, "You should get a puppy" (Moore 1994, 85). Likewise, after the reunion, Sils says to Berie, "Aw, Berie ... how'd we get so old and far away.... I'm going to get a dog" (138). The two women feel empty because of their loss of self, or (put another way) their loss of their relationship. And the answer patriarchal society comes up with is to fill the void with puppy love. Rich argues that the forcing of the lesbian continuum "into dissimulation and ... disintegration under intense pressure have meant an incalculable loss to the power of all women to change the social relations of the sexes, to liberate ourselves and each other" (Rich 1986, 63). Moore shows the results of such disintegration: the replacement of self and interdependency with the emotionally unfulfilling companionship of puppies (or of unsatisfactory men). Berie has lost her autonomy. In the beginning of the novel, she explains that she has sometimes felt "an old wildness again ... like a boy's desire to run away ... though, finally, it has always stayed to one side, as if it were some other impossible life and knew it, like a good dog, good dog, good dog. It has always stayed" (Moore 1994, 8). At the end of the novel, she describes the immense emotional distance between her and her husband. She decides to "wait for him, my heart in epilogue, knit and reknit, perhaps as it has always been. I'll wait until I just can't wait anymore" (147). She waits (to appropriate Moore's, and Berie's, own images) like a "good dog" for a husband who fails to make her feel loved.
Women need to create and maintain a web of interdependent relationships in order to sustain an autonomous self. For Friedman, "Autonomy is ... crucial for women in patriarchal conditions, in part because of its potential to disrupt social bonds" (2000, 46). Moore's novel reveals what happens when an adult woman feels no love in her present life and stays dependent on a childhood friend whom she no longer sees. In her adult life, though she has lost track of Sils, Berie endeavors to recreate the "lesbian continuum" they shared in her relationships with other women. Berie says that Marguerite reminds her of Sils and "so I bring her my crush, inappropriate but useful between adult women, who need desperately to be liked and amused, and will make great use of any silent ceremony of affection" (1994, 76). Adult women still need that girlhood "crush," that female eroticism and affection to feel liked and loved. But the adult domain teaches them that such attachment between women is "inappropriate" since as adults, they should live their own separate identities and depend on heterosexual love rather than participate in the "immature" intimacy of friendship. She attempts to reach out to Marguerite, but Berie does not trust her. She tells, then asks, herself, "I cannot tell her the truth. Or can I? Can I tell her the truth?" (77). "To acknowledge that some of our enduring and most valuable social relationships are [friendships]," writes Barclay, "and that some of our most cherished values grow out of a rejection of other inherited ones is to concede implicitly both the possibility and the value of autonomous agency" (2000, 68). When Berie leaves Horsehearts after the reunion, she says of Sils, "Perhaps she was suddenly embarrassed, as a woman, of what we had been to each other as girls" (Moore 1994, 138). Looking back on the powerful intimacy and eroticism of the lesbian continuum of their girlhood, the women feel awkward to have shared such closeness with each other. Moore's novel shows that this closeness must be recognized and valued in order for women to achieve strong, autonomous selves in a patriarchal, heteronormative society and especially within heterosexual marriages.
Gilligan states, "The observation that women's embeddedness in lives of relationship ... leave[s] them personally at risk in mid-life seems more a commentary on the society than a problem in women's development" (1982, 171). Moore's novel reveals what happens when a woman loses autonomy in her life: she stays like a "good dog" in a damaging marriage. With the patriarchal developmental norms instilled in our society, it takes immense strength to maintain an adult female relational self. Daniel tells Berie, "'I'm afraid of one day turning into my father. When he was my age, he left my mother for a woman twenty years younger'" (1994, 145). Until the patriarchal structures which hinder healthy, relational, autonomous female development are altered, we will pass on misogynistic values and life patterns onto our sons and even our daughters.
During a conversation about the social revolution of the 1960s, Berie asks Daniel, "Which is more powerful, what you make or what you inherit? Which is more permanent?" (Moore 1994, 48). This question drives the present debates over aggression in girls, just as it did with Gilligan's ethic of care. Whether girls are naturally aggressive and mean or whether they are nurturing and caring, females must still trust each other and fight for their autonomy. Once women face the fact that females can be cruel and aggressive (whether it is a biological or social inheritance or both), they can turn that aggression against patriarchal structures and norms. Emily White reminds us, "The vision of a tribe of peaceful women who will soothe and straighten out and redeem the world denies the vengeful violence of teenage girls and neutralizes their notorious rage" (2002, 146). Among the recent books on girls' aggression, White is the only author who brings up the Riot Grrrl movement. For White, the members of Riot Grrrl "saw the adolescent standing on the edge of society, at the threshold of the paternal home, and calling into question all its beliefs" (149). Kathleen Hanna, the fanzine writer and rock musician who helped create Riot Grrrl, described just such dilemmas in her own life. She writes, in a much-reprinted essay, "'Because I live in a world that hates women and I am one ... who is struggling desperately not to hate myself ... my whole life is felt as a contradiction'" (White 1992). Girls inherit the misogynistic patriarchal assumptions and expectations of our culture, and females can be just as sexist if not more so than males. Berie says, "We took our cues from our mother, who admired [our father] to the point of debilitation; she was 'brought up to do that with men,'" (Moore 1994, 32). Here, as in Berie's later (or adult) life, Moore shows how children inherit patriarchal norms, how social practices can be passed like a mutated chromosome onto the next generation.
Conclusion: Literature versus Psychology
Moore writes this novel about girlhood relationships not out of sentimentality but as a deliberate portrayal of a woman in mid-life struggling with her identity within a heteronormative, male-psychologized society. As Berie crosses the threshold between girl and woman, she trades in her cherished girlhood friendship with Sils for less rewarding heterosexual relationships with men. In this coming-of-age story, though, Berie never "comes-of-age," at least not in the individualistic way conventionally thought of as signifying the change from adolescent to adult. If Carol Gilligan is correct, and some girls develop interdependently and relationally, then this mode of maturation strands them in a society where such a relational identity severely disadvantages them. Heterosexual women like Berie find themselves lost and lonely in their marital relationships, longing for the past. As the girl aggression books remind us, the female relational self and the ideal of sisterhood can hurt as well as nurture. Rather than offering solutions to the complications arising from female relational development, Moore's novel describes a woman strapped with such complications: an unfulfilling heterosexual marriage, a longing for the "lovely beach" of her past, and a pervasive loneliness that, as a woman estranged from her other half (Sils), she feels she must passively wait out rather than actively overcome by, for instance, reaching out to Marguerite.
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, in all its sadness and desolate humor, raises many of the concerns discussed in feminist psychology and philosophy regarding female development. In doing so, the novel pushes its readers to question patriarchal norms of the autonomous, "mature" self as well as to reconsider the role sisterhood plays in the lives of women, both in life and in fiction. For Berie, who develops relationally, sisterhood plays an integral, positive role in her maturation; however, if societal norms continue to hinder women in their maintenance of adult relational selves, then sisterhood cannot be offered as a cure-all for the emptiness that women like Berie feel as adults. Berie cannot reach out in the spirit of sisterhood to Marguerite because Berie lacks the strong, autonomous relational self necessary to do so. Berie's predicament has a parallel in feminist psychological literature: the feminist psychologists of today focus on the negative aspects of sisterhood while twenty years ago feminists such as Gilligan and Rich saw the positive aspects nearly to the exclusion of the negative. In Berie's life, the merits of sisterhood and relational development life somewhere in between the extremes perpetuated by social theory. It is the location of this compromised point that female developmental theory has yet to determine. Moore accomplishes this task in her novel by depicting the point of intersection between female relational development and the patriarchal norms that make the survival of a female adult relational self seem (to use a phrase of Berie's, and therefore Moore's) "as if it were some other impossible life" (1994, 8). While psychology strives to determine a statistically valid point for a multitude of women, writers like Moore need only determine that point for one woman at a time, one story at a time.
(1) I would like to thank Stephen Burt for the invaluable advice and direction he gave on drafts of this essay.
(2) The books I refer to in a general way as the girl aggression books are: Woman's Inhumanity to Woman, by Phyllis Chesler (2001); The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do--Sex Play, Aggression, and Their Guilt, by Sharon Lamb (2001); Odd Girl Out, by Rachel Simmons (2002); Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut, by Emily White (2002); and Queen Bees and Wannabees, by Rosalind Wiseman (2002). I refer more specifically to the books by Chesler, Simmons, and White later on.
(3) In "On the Politics of Psychological Constructs: Stop the Bandwagon, I Want to Get Off" (1984), Martha T. Mednick refers to such trends as "cultural bandwagons." She discusses the effects popular psychological trends have on society.
(4) "On In a Different Voice: An Interdisciplinary Forum" (1986) offers feminist criticisms of Gilligan. I refer in this paragraph to Linda Kerber and Zella Luria's articles. The forum also includes sections by three other scholars and a reply from Gilligan, all of which provide useful insight into the debate about Gilligan's findings. Christina Hoff Sommers dedicates three whole chapters of her book, The War Against Boys (2000), to critiquing Gilligan and the "girl crisis movement" of the 1980s. She points out that Gilligan fails to support her discoveries with statistically valid data, and instead relies upon anecdotes based on a small number of interviews (Sommers 2000, 102). Sommers cites the psychologist Faye Crosby's criticism of Gilligan's interview statistics: "[Gilligan] never quantified anything. The reader never learns anything about 136 of the 144 people from the third study, as only 8 are quoted in the book" (2000, 109). The feminist psychologist Zella Luria criticizes Gilligan's interview techniques. She argues that Gilligan failed to create "objective rules that categorize the respondents' texts" (Kerber et al. 1986, 317). She also points out that Gilligan's different voice has more to do with class and education than with gender (319). The feminist historian Linda Kerber claims, "Gilligan does not explore the psychological limitations of the female 'voice' that she identifies" (1986, 307). She worries that categorizing women as nurturing and caring will only perpetuate sexist stereotypes and divisions of labor (307-08). However, even Sommers admits that researchers who find Gilligan's theories statistically incorrect believe that they "may be true in certain domains for a certain subset of girls" (2000, 120).
Gilligan's findings may not be statistically valid, but they are still relevant and important when thinking about gender and identity construction. If Gilligan overlooks 136 of the 144 people she interviews, she does bring to light eight people who have a different voice. Phyllis Tyson proposes that "'there may not be one story of female development, but many stories, many intertwining themes, and many possible outcomes'" (Chodorow 1999, 95). The feminist psychoanalyst Nancy Chodorow reminds us that "statistics assume variance, and claims cast in related terms must do so as well" (97). Chodorow urges psychologists to remember variance when making claims about gender; otherwise, empirical generalizations mutate into universalizations (97). She argues that such a mutation occurred when Gilligan allowed empirical observations to become a universal model for how women are and should be (95). Chodorow points out other psychologists who have fallen into a similar trap of universalizing empirical findings; Gilligan is by no means the only one. See chapter four in Chodorow's The Power of Feelings (1999).
(5) In The Reproduction of Mothering (1978), Nancy Chodorow discusses this maturation process (137-38). In chapters five and six, she shows how this process stems from cultural norms and gender differences in early childhood and infancy.
(6) Attachment in Adults: Clinical and Developmental Perspectives (1994), edited by Michael Sperling and William Berman, compares attachment theory to relational self theory (157-61).
(7) Simmons suggests that girls become more directly confrontational, competitive, and aggressive to survive in patriarchal society (see p. 126-128 and 226). In other words, girls should change themselves rather than change society. There is not space here to discuss this solution, but it should not be assumed that I agree with it when I refer to other portions of her book.
Barclay, Linda. 2000. "Autonomy and the Social Self." In Relational Autonomy: Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy, Agency, and the Social Self, ed. Catriona Mackenzie and Natalie Stoljar. New York: Oxford University Press.
Blades, John. 1998. "Lorrie Moore: Flipping Death the Bird." Publishers Weekly, 24 August, 31-32.
Chesler, Phyllis. 2001. Woman's Inhumanity to Woman. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books.
Chodorow, Nancy J. 1978. The Reproduction of Mothering. Berkeley: University of California Press.
______. 1999. The Power of Feelings: Personal Meaning in Psychoanalysis, Gender, and Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Friedman, Marilyn. 2000. "Autonomy, Social Disruption, and Women." In Relational Autonomy: Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy, Agency, and the Social Self, ed. Catriona Mackenzie and Natalie Stoljar. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gilligan, Carol. 1982. In a Different Voice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Gouldner, Helen, and Mary Symons Strong. 1987. Middle-Class Women and Their Friends. New York: Greenwood Press.
Kerber, Linda K., et al. 1986. "On In a Different Voice: An Interdisciplinary Forum." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 11: 304-33.
Lamb, Sharon. 2001. The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do--Sex Play, Aggression, and Their Guilt. New York: Free Press.
Mednick, Martha T. 1989. "On the Politics of Psychological Constructs: Stop the Bandwagon, I Want to Get Off." American Psychologist 44: 1118-23.
Moore, Lorrie. 1994. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? New York: Warner Books.
Rich, Adrienne. 1986. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." In Blood, Bread, and Poetry. New York: W.W. Norton.
Simmons, Rachel. 2002. Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. New York: Harcourt.
Sommers, Christina Hoff. 2000. The War Against Boys. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Spacks, Patricia Meyer. 1981. The Adolescent Idea: Myths of Youth and the Adult Imagination. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Sperling Michael B., and William H. Berman, ed. 1994. Attachment in Adults: Clinical and Developmental Perspectives. New York: Guilford Press.
White, Emily. 1992. "Revolution Girl--Style Now! Notes from the Teenage Feminist Rock n' Roll Underground." The Chicago Reader 25 September.
______. 2002. Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut. New York: Scribner.
Wiseman, Rosalind. 2002. Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence. New York: Crown Publishers.
Monica Fagan is a graduate of Macalester College. Currently, she lives in Chicago where she reads, writes, and thinks about literature and gender issues.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2006|
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