Maybe the legend is familiar to you:
Three sisters are courted by a rich, older man with a shocking blue beard. They’re suspicious of him, mostly because of that beard, but the youngest sister is finally seduced by his charm and riches. She marries him and goes to live in his castle.
Not long after the wedding, Bluebeard tells his bride that he is leaving for a short time. “Explore the castle while I’m gone,” he says, handing her his jangling key ring. “Go into any room you like—except the room that this tiny key unlocks. That one’s off limits.” The bride’s sisters come to keep her company while Bluebeard is away, and soon they convince the young bride to open the forbidden room.
To her horror, the young bride finds that the floor is a river of blood, and the carcasses of several ex-wives hang from hooks on the walls. The tiny key begins to bleed, and when Bluebeard returns he can plainly see that his young bride has disobeyed him. “Now you must die like the brides before you!” he shouts, brandishing his sword.
The bride’s brothers show up and save her in the nick of time.
In fiction, forbidden rooms can be read as ominous portents or as metaphors for the truths we hide from ourselves. In nonfiction, symbols have to be spotted rather than created, but a secret room can still function symbolically, as it does in Terry Castle’s collection of essays, The Professor and Other Writings. The title piece is a memoir that chronicles the author’s brief, intense, and disastrous affair, as a twenty-two-year-old graduate student, with a female professor.This professor is a Bluebeard character: she’s older and more experienced; she’s charming and charismatic; she’s not rich, but she’s got academic clout. She also has strange hair: a “very weird” serpentine braid made more sinister with every mention. The professor even gives Castle a key to her wonderful house: Oriental rugs, marijuana plants! But . . . there’s a room in which Castle must never set foot!
The room is off limits because it contains notes and recordings from the professor’s linguistic research. Not a room of bloody brides by any means, but the very existence of a secret room begs us to see Castle’s essay as a kind of modern Bluebeard narrative. By the time the secret room makes its appearance, we’re primed to think of the professor as a grotesque fairy tale figure. A slide show of her, rendered bizarre, bristly, erotic, gargantuan as she undergoes acupuncture treatments, gives Castle, and us, an early introduction:
Projected onto the wall at exceedingly close range were huge surreal fleshy close-ups of her back, neck, stomach, and upper arms, all stuck about with gleaming silver pins. . . . Blown up to ten or twelve times their normal size, the body parts on display looked like those of a giantess. One saw vast moles and freckles and, now and then, a vestigial tan line. A humongous white bra strap—almost two feet long—was visible in one picture; in another, the vast crinkly top of her underpants.
The professor is also “the resident she-Minotaur in [Castle’s] private psychic labyrinth,” whose Beauty-and-the-Beast “beastliness” is “of that achy, endearing, human-all-too-human sort that makes one want to weep.”
Once the professor’s true nature is revealed—in this case when she dumps Castle for a younger, volleyball-playing undergraduate—Castle is saved from suicidal despair, not by brothers thundering in on horseback, but by a surging of emotional strength.
“The Professor” is primarily concerned with telling a story that, while executed proficiently, feels a bit hackneyed: the innocent Castle, “mother devoted” until the age of seventeen and “a regular Secret-Garden-Frances-Hodgson-Burnett-Girl-Hysteric-in-Training,” falls hard for a striking, older sophisticate. Castle’s claim that “the Affair with the Teacher still stands as an archetypal rite of passage into the Sapphic world” doesn’t do enough to lift the narrative out of the ordinary. As Castle herself asks, “Who hasn’t clawed at one’s pillow in anguish at a lover’s faithlessness?”
What’s remarkable about the essay is Castle’s meticulous wit and precision—her modus operandi really; it’s a pleasure to read sentence by sentence. The book’s other, shorter essays are more intriguing and just as textured—barbed with clever asides and pointed social observations, layered with historical references and cultural allusions. She compares her miniature dachshund Wally to Lyndie England, he’s that “slutty and insouciant”; she calls Dolly Parton a “freakishly endowed Demoiselle of Avignon”; and Tofranil is a “friendly and intelligent dolphin” whose back she’s ridden “safely to shore.” Her humor consistently mixes pop culture, high culture, and keen observation, though every now and then the reader might find herself dizzied by Castle’s displays of knowledge.
The success of these shorter essays lies in Castle’s way of wedding personal narrative to rigorous, irreverent cultural investigation. In “Courage, Mon Amie,” for instance, Castle examines her own “grim and spinsterish” fascination with World War I. She traces her obsession to one iconic image: soldiers advancing in rhythmic unison across No Man’s Land while German troops shoot them down with ease. Men walking calmly toward death, Castle calls this. She mentions others: Frodo and his comrades marching to Mount Doom, firemen ascending the stairs of the World Trade Center, Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha_._
Castle bemoans the fact that women are never asked to “exert their valor in this direct, theatrical, entirely wasteful, and (yet) sublime fashion.” She sounds sarcastic, but she means it. “From childhood,” Castle tells us, “I have searched with little success for a woman who might show me, in some comparable and quite literal way, how to walk towards death.” The essays in this book can be seen as the chronicle of this search, which became increasingly urgent for Castle in the months following the September 11th attacks.
Along with the professor, Susan Sontag and Castle’s mother serve as potential models for this kind of courage, but none of them really deliver. In “Desperately Seeking Susan” Castle gives us an honest, critical portrait of Sontag, that “bedazzling, now-dead she-eminence.” Far from courageous, Sontag comes across as vain and capricious, treating Castle as a kind of pet, indulging and condescending to her, then swiftly losing interest in their friendship before her death. Castle focuses on her relationship with her mother in “Home Alone” and “Travels with My Mother.” Castle’s relationship with her mother is too fraught to leave much room for admiration or emulation. In both essays Castle’s main concern is to show how thoroughly, if ineffectually, she’s tried to be _un_like her mother.
In “My Heroin Christmas” Castle discovers a fourth potential model, someone with the “insane, uncomplicated, relentless bravery of men”: the late jazz musician Art Pepper. But Pepper’s dapper good looks, his love affair with the mirror, and his sexual confidence remind Castle that she’s just as “frightened and cruel” in middle age as she was when confronted with the secret room.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a Jungian psychoanalyst who uses fairy tales and myths like “Bluebeard” to describe women’s psyches and afflictions, believes that “in a single human being there are many other beings, all with their own values, motives, and devices,” and that the characters in a powerful archetypal story represent not several people, but various aspects of one. Bluebeard isn’t an other, an outer, an unknown—he’s the “natural predator” within. By this reading, then, the professor becomes part of Terry Castle—a dark aspect of herself, a force she must recognize and restrain. In searching for someone to teach her courage, she aims to confront a dark element of her own psyche.
Melissa Febos’s Whip Smart is another memoir about sexual discovery. And it too brings to mind the Bluebeard archetype, since it begins with secret rooms. After answering an ad in The Village Voice, Febos finds work in a dominatrix “dungeon” in New York City. She describes this series of rooms in midtown Manhattan as she might a kinky secret spa: lavish, pristine, and professionally outfitted with the best equipment of the trade. The work is challenging, but the money’s good, and the job satisfies her because she’s “always been fascinated by the ability to appear one thing and be another.” She’s not a true domme, after all, but an academic with an MFA from Sarah Lawrence and teaching gigs at NYU and SUNY Purchase. Where Castle gathers knowledge and pulls it around her like armor, Febos—also in search of bravery—guards herself with whips and corsets instead.
Febos’s voice is thoughtful, intelligent, and down-to-earth, but her experiences, unlike Castle’s in “The Professor,” are completely out of the ordinary. Her dungeon encounters are bizarre, gross, and often frightening. Thankfully there are moments of humor too__. During her first solo session, Febos finds herself at a loss for words. She writes, “In an adrenaline-fueled excavation of memory, I searched through every television show, movie, and schoolyard scene I could recall for examples of humiliation.” The words she finally digs up to throw at her client: “Stop breathing on my legs, you crust of scum on a rat’s cunt.” This produces the desired effect, but “shouting that first insult took all of two seconds. There were 3,598 left. I decided to give him a spanking. He was amenable to the idea, and I was glad to contend with his pasty rear instead of his searching gaze.”
As a dominatrix, Febos has access to rooms usually kept secret: she immediately offers “the dungeon” as a metaphor for her psyche. “Behind that unmarked Midtown door,” she writes, “I uncovered hiding places that I hadn’t known existed in me, and whose contents weren’t easy to behold.” Here a psyche splits more literally: the author is simultaneously Melissa, the straight-A college student, and Mistress Justine, the stiletto-wearing domme. Near the end of the book, during an arduous but ultimately exultant climb out of the dark, Febos tells her therapist she’d like to show her younger, adolescent self what this present self is doing. “It sounds like someone who wants to destroy her innocence,” the therapist tells her, “who fears and feels contempt for her innocence.” Experience and innocence—Bluebeard and his bride—wrestling for control.
Maybe what shocks most is that the unusual turn-ons of the dungeon’s clients are not so unusual after all. By book’s end, Febos, far from condemning, has gone past compassion to identification. “Believing myself apart from the people I dealt with as a domme gave me a sense of safety,” she writes. “It protected me from parts of myself of which—despite my bravery in facing tangible unknowns—I was deeply afraid.” Learning to identify with her clients and fellow dommes, and cultivating honesty about her work in the dungeon, “brought my double lives together and in doing so made the world a bigger place, in which I could move more freely.” ****How liberating to recognize that one’s Bluebeard is not separate from the more innocent parts of the self.
Castle, too, sees herself in the flawed models around her. “All the Lilliputian preening and pomposity was,” she writes “at the bottom, one’s own.”
But neither writer goes so far in empathizing with Bluebeard as Edna St. Vincent Millay. In her sonnet “Bluebeard,” the speaker—Bluebeard himself—describes his secret room:
An empty room, cobwebbed and comfortless.
Yet this alone out of my life I kept
Unto myself, lest any know me quite.
The need to preserve the secrecy of one last space is exactly what Febos and Castle, and maybe all memoirists, resist, since memoir forces open doors we might rather keep locked. Here, in the honesty particularly of women memoirists, we find the courage needed to walk bravely toward our own deaths. The answer seems to be in living bravely. In falling in stride with, as Castle puts it, “the ongoingness of life.” In throwing open locked doors and honoring both the light and dark inside.
Miciah Bay Gault‘s fiction has appeared in AGNI and The Literary Review. She is managing editor of Hunger Mountain at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, Vermont. (11/2010)
Miciah Bay Gault’s fiction has appeared in AGNI and The Literary Review. She is managing editor of Hunger Mountain at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. She received her MFA from Syracuse University, where she won the Peter Neagoe Prize. (updated 11/2010)