101 Weird Writers #27 — Joanna Russ

Female Identity in "The Little Dirty Girl"

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

200px-Joanna_Russ_obitJoanna Russ (1937– 2011) was an important American writer, academic, and critic whose ground-breaking dystopian novel The Female Man (1975) and influential nonfiction tract How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983) have unfortunately overshadowed a body of short fiction as various and rich as that of Angela Carter or Shirley Jackson. Russ wrote both science fiction and fantasy, with a number of stories coming from a horror or weird fiction slant. Collections include The Zanzibar Cat (1983), (Extra) Ordinary People (1985) and The Hidden Side of the Moon (1987). ‘The Little Dirty Girl’ (1982), which is collected in The Weird, has an essential clarity yet abiding weirdness not usually found in supernatural tales of this type. This June, Russ was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame alongside Judith Merril, H.R. Giger, David Bowie, and J.R.R. Tolkien, a fitting testament to her enduring legacy. 101 Weird Writers is proud to present this appreciation of Russ and her work, as written by returning contributor Desirina Boskovich.

 – Adam Mills, editor of 101 Weird Writers

***

“Of course you don’t want me to be stupid, bless you! You only want to make sure you’re intelligent. You don’t want me to commit suicide; you only want me to be gratefully aware of my dependency. You don’t want me to despise myself; you only want the flattering deference to you that you consider a spontaneous tribute to your natural qualities. You don’t want me to lose my soul; you only want what everybody wants, things to go your way; you want a devoted helpmeet, a self-sacrificing mother, a hot chick, a darling daughter, women to look at, women to laugh at, women to come to for comfort, women to wash your floors and buy your groceries and cook your food and keep your children out of your hair, to work when you need the money and stay home when you don’t, women to be enemies when you want a good fight, women who are sexy when you want a good lay, women who don’t complain, women who don’t nag or push, women who don’t hate you really, women who know their job and above all—women who lose. On top of it all, you sincerely require me to be happy; you are naively puzzled that I should be wretched and so full of venom in this the best of all possible worlds. Whatever can be the matter with me?”

It’s been 38 years since The Female Man was published and the passage above first made its debut, and yet it still feels like a grenade lobbed into a crowded basement. It still makes its readers confused and angry and afraid, though perhaps for different reasons, depending on the reader. Maybe that’s a testament to the provocative power of Russ’s pen, or maybe it’s an indictment of how little things have really changed, societal assertions to the contrary. Considering my feelings about this passage, here in the modern world of 2013 (it must have seemed like the distant future to Russ when she wrote this book), I can understand why in 1975 this passage was utterly incendiary. It may be unfortunate that this book overshadowed Russ’s short fiction, but it’s understandable: it was more than a story. It was a manifesto of the most personal and gut-wrenching kind. Driven by fury-filled passages like this one, it was both a confession and a rallying cry.

Needless to say, much of Russ’s most famous writing is that which grapples with what it means to be a woman; how we construct our own female identities in a man’s world. And while this exploration is tinged with righteous rage, beneath the indignation is a kind of weary despair. As Russ writes in The Female Man, “I knew beyond the shadow of hope that to be female is to be mirror and honeypot, servant and judge… Nothing can put you above this or below this or beyond it or outside of it, nothing, nothing, nothing at all…” To Russ it must have felt as if the laws of the patriarchy were as immutable as the laws of nature; us gals can reason or we can rage or we can decide not to play, but in the end we’re helpless. The basic situation remains unchanged.

In 1983, Russ expressed similar frustrations in How to Suppress Women’s Writing, a satirical guidebook to diminishing the artistic accomplishments of women. To call the work “sarcastic” is an understatement; it’s shaped by the same frustration, the same weariness, the same Cassandra-like drive to endlessly testify in the face of utter futility.

I offer this background because, for me at least, it offers an additional richness in understanding “The Little Dirty Girl”another story about grappling with the female identity. But instead of focusing on the strictures of society, with all its irrationalities and contradictions, it focuses on the strictures imposed by the self – and the damage to the psyche that comes from being born into this broken world. Instead of turning outward, it turns inward; while The Female Man and How to Suppress Women’s Writing and The Adventures of Alyx paint male privilege and patriarchal tradition as primary antagonist, in this story the antagonist is woman’s own superego, trained in the practice of unceasing self-judgment.

That’s not to say that “The Little Dirty Girl” is an overtly feminist story, or that it applies only to women. The patriarchy Russ raged against also pushes men into roles for which they are not made, into personas that feel smaller and simpler than their actual selves. Men also experience self-loathing and self-doubt. Men also suffer from the permanent sense of emptiness and loss that stem from childhood neglect. And this story is a sensitive exploration of all those things.

But the way these themes map onto the narrator’s own neuroses feels to me particularly female, or feminine. After all, the driving force of the story is the arrival of a Little Dirty Girl – a character so much more undignified than a Little Dirty Boy, at least to those of us raised up in the cult of the ladylike.

The narrator, who we know only as A.R., first encounters the L.D.G. on a trip to the grocery store. Recovering from a back injury, A.R. takes frequent “therapeutic walks” around the neighborhood, where she sees plenty of little children. (“I don’t dislike children,” A.R. says ambiguously. “Yes I do. No I don’t, but I feel horribly awkward with them.”) The little boys approach A.R. confidently, announcing whatever thoughts are currently on their young minds: “The littler ones confide; the bigger ones warn of the world’s dangers: dogs, cuts, blackberry bushes that might’ve been sprayed.”

But the little girls are more reticent:

“…They don’t approach tall, middle-aged women. Little girls are told not to talk to strangers. And the little girls of Seattle (at least in my neighborhood) are as obedient and feminine as any in the world; to the jeans and tee-shirts of Liberation they (or more likely their parents) add hair-ribbons, baby-sized pocket-books, fancy pins, pink shoes, even toe polish.”

In other words, they’re already being indoctrinated into the cult of the ladylike. “Except for the very littlest, how neat, how clean, how carefully dressed they are!”

But, of course, “The Little Dirty Girl was different.”

(I can’t help but think that this sentence holds the pain of an entire childhood; the constant tiny war fought by a little girl who’s always been a little rougher, a little louder, a little dirtier, a little more inclined to speak her mind. I fought it too.)

Anyway, the Little Dirty Girl “looked as if she had slid halfway down Volunteer Park’s steepest dirtiest hill on her panties and then rolled end-over-end the rest of the way. Besides all this, there were snot-and-tear-marks on her face (which was reddened and sallow and looked as if she’d been crying) and she looked – well, what can I say? Neglected.” She strolls up to A.R. in the supermarket, acting rather more like one of those little boys, ready to “volunteer such compelling information.” In this case, her appreciation of Milky Way candy cars.

The Little Dirty Girl offers to accompany A.R. home – to help her carry her packages, thus sparing her damaged back – and against her better judgment, A.R. accepts. And so begins her relationship with this very strange little girl. Despite the fact that the L.D.G. won’t reveal her name (she claims to be named A.R. as well), or where she lives, or really anything about herself, she keeps coming back.

At times the Little Dirty Girl seems somewhat old for her years. Her voice is hoarse: “the voice of a Northwest-coast raven.” And she has “that deep, painful chest cough you sometimes hear in adults who smoke too much.” Her manner is often adult as well; she has an air of being completely self-possessed, far too knowledgeable for her age. “If she showed no fear of me, it wasn’t because she trusted me but because she trusted nothing. She had no expectations and no hopes.”

At other times she is perfectly childlike, as when she explores the narrator’s home and is overjoyed by everything she sees (the books, the “straggling rose bushes,” the “old brown refrigerator,” the study). Or her rapture at riding the merry-go-round at the zoo, which “excited her to the point of screaming and running around dizzily in circles for half an hour.”  And her prodigious love of junk food, her ability to scarf down endless amounts of ice cream, Sara Lee cakes, Twinkies, Mallomars, Hostess cupcakes, Three Musketeers bars, marshmallow cream, maraschino chocolates, saltwater taffy, etc., etc.

But throughout these somewhat conflicting characterizations, she is always described in terms that highlight the earthy physicality of her presence, with details that sometimes verge into the vulgar. She smells “in close quarters as if she hadn’t changed her underwear for days.”  She talks “continuously while eating.” She leaves “an exceptionally dirty ring around the inside of the bathtub” and three “large, dirty, sopping-wet bath towels on the bathroom floor.” She “relieve[s] herself interestingly in the toilet” and forgets to flush.

The narrator – who is not herself immune to the cult of the ladylike – tries to make the Little Dirty Girl more like the others. She mends the L.D.G.’s dress, combs and braids her hair (which is so tangled and snarled that A.R. has to cut the knots out with nail scissors). This ritual completed, A.R. surveys her handiwork:

“I said, ‘You look nice.’

“She got up, went into the bathroom, and looked at herself in the mirror. Then she said calmly, “No, I don’t. I look conventional.”

Is the Little Dirty Girl frightening? I’d say she’s unsettling. The story doesn’t read like horror, exactly, but it is disturbing, nevertheless. And the situation becomes increasingly uncanny: “She came back. She never did telephone in advance. It was all right, though; she had the happy faculty of somehow turning up when I wasn’t working and wasn’t busy and was thinking of her.”

This is one of the first strong hints that the L.D.G. is a ghost. Then, of course, there’s her World War II-era clothing, the book and the poncho the narrator gave the L.D.G., which remain in the places they’ve always been. There’s the lack of response from the neighbors as the L.D.G. hangs out the window of the narrator’s house and yells, or from passersby as she screams and shrieks on the merry-go-round. And most importantly… “As surely as A.R. had been a biggish eight when we had met weeks ago, just as surely she was now a smallish, very unmistakable, unnaturally knowledgeable five.”

Summer turns to fall. Busy with the new semester – she’s a college professor – and preoccupied with her students’ demands and challenges, A.R. works herself like “a flogged horse,” adding: “As a friend of ours said once, everyone will continue to pile responsibility on a woman and everything and everyone must be served except oneself.” A.R. focuses all her time and attention on everything and everyone except herself, being painfully adult; meanwhile, the Little Dirty Girl is occupied elsewhere.

Until one day in the chilly autumn after a freak thunderstorm, when the Little Dirty Girl shows up once again. She is “shivering and glowering miserably,” desperate and enraged: the heretofore easily placated ghost now finally angry.

“You hate me! croaked A.R. venomously. “You starve me! You do! You won’t let me eat anything!

“You want to clean me up because you don’t like me!

“You like me clean because you don’t like me dirty!

“You hate me so you won’t give me what I need!

“You won’t give me what I need and I’m dying!”

It’s obvious, in this moment, that the story is about to take a turn. We are heading into the final act.  The uncontrollable hunger of the Little Dirty Girl is finally revealed, and it seems for a moment as if the story might veer into the outright horrific.

“Then tell me what you need!” I said, and A.R. raised her horrid little face to mine, a picture of venomous, uncontrolled misery, of sheer, demanding starvation.

“You,” she whispered.

So A.R. opens her arms to the Little Dirty Girl, who is “cold and stinky and extremely dirty and afflicted with the most surprising hiccough.” They come to terms with one another, as the Little Dirty Girl bawls, howls, cries, and yells. A.R. gives the L.D.G. what she wants. What she needs.

Then, like every hungry ghost, the Little Dirty Girl, once sated, disappears.

“And so there was no more five-year-old A.R. beating on the door and demanding to be let in on rainy nights. But that’s not the end of the story.”

And it really isn’t; making this an even stranger and more unlikely ghost story, there are still a couple pages to go. (Russ was never afraid of playing with structure, as demonstrated by We Who Are About To…’s challenging final third, composed of the internal monologue of a woman who is as isolated as it is possible to be.) In the remaining pages of “The Little Dirty Girl,” A.R.’s mother comes to town. A.R. has never gotten along with her mother: “I’ve always supposed that neither of us knew why.” But it goes back to her childhood, during which her mother was emotionally removed, always preoccupied, haunted by unknown fears.

Transformed by her encounter with the Little Dirty Girl, the narrator resolves to face her mother differently this time; to confront her, to show her anger. But things don’t go the way she expects. Instead, A.R. finds herself tolerating her mother’s behavior. Perhaps, being more at peace with herself, she finds it easier to accept the flaws and failings of someone else. In turn, A.R.’s mother chooses this moment to reveal the secret that affected A.R.’s childhood so deeply, the nightmare underlying her mother’s secret life.

“I wish I could go on to describe a scene of intense and affectionate reconciliation between my mother and myself, but that did not happen – quite… I got up then and she stood too, and we embraced, not at all as I had embraced the Little Dirty Girl, though with the same pain at heart, but awkwardly and only for a moment, as such things really happen.”

And with time, she and her mother begin to exchange letters, to talk, to begin to reveal the lifetime of things kept from one another.

Of course, nothing can erase the past. Nothing can account for A.R.’s childhood as a daughter who “wouldn’t be kissed, wouldn’t be touched, who kept her room immaculate, who didn’t want her mother and made no bones about it, and who kept her fury and betrayal and her misery to herself, and her schoolwork excellent.” (That is, a Little Clean Girl, forever starving, forever unloved.) Nothing can heal that pain; forgiveness is irrelevant.

But perhaps acceptance is enough.

There’s no doubt that this story is a masterpiece: overflowing with uncanny vision, assembled with a clarity of purpose and economy of narrative that’s purely virtuoso. But I don’t know if that outstanding talent alone would be enough to make the story do what the story does.

(What the story did, to me at least: knocked me flat. Left me breathless. Broke my heart, or maybe patched it up a little, in the way that hurts the most while it’s happening, so it can hurt less later – like resetting a broken bone.)

This is the power of storytelling at its most brilliant and deadly. Underneath the painstakingly assembled trick of the story is a well of emotion so deep it’s a tidal wave: anger, rage, despair, self-loathing, grief, hunger, longing, loss… all forged the long way and the hard way, through years of desperation, into something a little more manageable. Acceptance. Forgiveness. Love. The strength to look at oneself in the mirror and say, “You’re OK. I accept.”

The Little Dirty Girl is not the vampire she might appear; but still, she scares me.

It’s hard to let her in.

But:

“I rocked her back and forth and mumbled I don’t know what, but what I meant was that I thought she was fine, that all of her was fine: her shit, her piss, her sweat, her tears, her scabby knees, the snot on her face, her cough, her dirty panties, her bruises, her desperation, her anger, her whims – all of her wonderful, I loved all of her, and I would do my best to take good care of her, all of her, forever and forever and then a day.”

That rage and despair, burning its way through The Female Man? This is the answer, or at any rate, it’s one answer. Confronted by an impossible, unbearable set of expectations, we are forced to accept ourselves just as we are. The depth of feeling presented by these two passages – especially when taken side by side – is a testament to Russ’s incredible talent and writerly powers: sometimes brutal, sometimes tender, but always truthful, always real.

5 replies to “101 Weird Writers #27 — Joanna Russ

  1. Really great piece about one of my favourite stories in The Weird. Such a great, controlled piece of writing. It impressed me so much I wrote about it myself in my ‘strange stories’ series on my blog (hope you don’t mind the link):

    http://jameseverington.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/strange-stories-16-little-dirty-girl-by.html

    This tale, surely, is what we mean by strange fiction – to take something normal and make its inherent strangeness obvious by context and implication? I need to read it again after this article…

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  4. I loved this story, but my mind took the ending in a far more disturbing direction than the conventional one of a woman embracing a childhood that was denied to her. At the end of the story I felt she had become delusional, perhaps insane and possessed by a vampiric spirit, but that’s just how my mind works I guess!