Book Review: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Imagine, for a moment, that we lost. No one listened when we said that giving personhood status to fertilized Mississipean eggs was a slippery slope, so now we live in a dystopic theocracy where reality TV and the justice system collude to let us watch Hannah Payne wake up to her new life as a Chrome; her skin dyed “the color of newly shed blood” as punishment for having an abortion. In this America, criminals aren’t locked up or rehabilitated — they’re released back into society with their skin dyed to match the class of their crime. (Misdemeanor offenders are Yellows; child molesters Blues, etc).

Twenty-six-year-old Hannah spent her sheltered life devoted to church, family and sewing until she fell in love with married Pastor Dale of Ignited Word megachurch. To save his career, she had an abortion — in violation of the Sanctity of Life (SOL) Laws enacted by an ultra-conservative movement called The Rectification after the “superclap” left many women sterile. In China and India, women are forcibly inseminated. Life is precious, after all.

Now Hannah must figure out how to survive the next decade and a half on the fringes of society (while her former lover becomes National Secretary of Faith, adored by millions). Rejected by her family  —  her brother-in-law belongs to a secret evangelical society called, in a great touch, “The Fist of Christ” — she stays awhile at the Straight Path Center, where women are forced to relive their abortions and carry dolls that represent their unborn children. This may be the creepiest part of a very creepy book, because it’s probably not dystopian futuristic fiction. It’s probably happening at the “crisis pregnancy center” down the street from my house.

After leaving the Center, Hannah meets up with an Underground railroad of gun-toting anarcho-feminists dedicated to reproductive freedom by any means necessary. Hannah is torn between need and suspicion:

Feminists. The word made Hannah bristle with distaste. In her world, they were viewed as unnatural woman who sought to overturn the order laid down by God, sabotage the family, emasculate men and, along with gays, atheists, abortionists, Satanists, pornographers and secular humanists, pervert the American way of life. Many people Hannah knew blamed feminists and their fellow deviants for calling down the wrath of God, in the form of the 9/11 attacks, the LA bombing and natural catastrophes like the Great Scourge and the Hayward quake. Hannah had always found it hard to believe that God would destroy millions of lives out of vindictiveness, despite what the Old Testament said. Still, she’d never questioned much of what she’d been taught, and certainly not the precept that women were meant to submit to the loving guidance of men.

As the story continues, we realize that The Rectification doesn’t represent the majority; but rather a vocal, powerful minority. Most young women don’t share Hannah’s beliefs or background. We watch Hannah realize how small her life has been;  how curtailed her options:

She’d always believed that her parents had done right by her, but now, sitting mute at Stanton’s table, she found herself seething over their choices. Why had they kept her life so small? Why had they never asked her what she wanted? At every possible turn, she saw, they’d chosen the path that would keep her weak and dependent. And the fact that they wouldn’t see it that way, that they sincerely believed they’d acted in her best interest, didn’t make it any less true, or them any less culpable.

“You’re mighty quiet, Hannah,” Stanton said. “What do you think?”

“I don’t,” she snapped. “I was raised not to.”

When She Woke is obviously a modernization of The Scarlet Letter with shades of The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s not derivative. Hannah’s America is both alien and familiar, honing in on technological and cultural shifts Atwood couldn’t have imagined with this degree of detail in 1986. Read it. It’ll shake you up.

Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!

If you are an English teacher, and you bring your personal poetry books to school as grist for Exploring Contemporary Verse, here’s a tip: Check for things written on the inside flaps. Because maybe you got some of these books as gifts, but you’ve forgotten, and your students will ask for the story behind “Baby ~ You were the one. You were the only one. And you were amazing ~ Love, S.” in spidery handwriting at the bottom of the title page of The Work of a Common Woman. You’ll have to say that you got the book used, and you’ll feel bad, like you’re letting both S. and Judy Grahn down even though S. proved a disappointment and Judy has never heard of you and never will.


In related news, I’m teaching an expurgated version of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. The language proved…problematic. Alcohol and cock and endless balls!! (not to mention sweetened snatches). Sometimes, though, the Benevolent Gods of Teaching and Timing smile upon us: Wikipedia blacked out at just the right time — that, combined with our classroom content restrictions, has sparked meaty teen debate about censorship,  free speech, and art vs. obscenity. I had a good time blacking out all the profanity with a Sharpie so it’d look censored before I made copies of the poem, but I missed one instance of the word “c***sucker”* and had to fix it manually in EVERY SINGLE COPY: Find the c***suckers! Neutralize them! It wasn’t like I could ask my student aide for help.

Anyway. I look forward to hearing their thoughts about 1. My executive Sharpie decisions; 2. Whether or not the blackouts affect their perception of/desire to read “Howl”; and 3. What is destroying the best minds of their generation. (My vote: quick-cut video editing and food additives).

For now, I bade farewell! I jump off the roof! to solitude! waving! carrying flowers! Down to the river! into the street!


*Now I’m expurgating for sensitive lesbians. This thing is fraught, I tell you. Fraught.


I’m 40% muscle; the rest is words

So, I bought a scale  — an event worthy of remark because it took YEARS before I could be trusted to own a scale and not freak the fuck out at its mere presence in my home. After I put my foot through the digital screen in fury at breaking 100 pounds, I thought: Perhaps this household item is more trouble than it’s worth and jettisoned it at a yard sale. I declined to be weighed at the doctor’s office until I was 30, and for years after that insisted on standing backwards so I couldn’t see the readout. I was at a normal weight and I wasn’t throwing up anymore, but those are fairly low mental-health standards even in America.

What stopped the madness was weight training. Not therapy, not meds, not the threat of heart failure or osteoporosis. I started to think about what my body could do, rather that what it looked like or who might want to see it naked. I wanted it thick with muscle and sinew; energy and force. Which is why I bought this particular scale — not only does it tell me my body fat percentage, but my muscle/water/bone mass percentages. God only knows how it does this. There’s an infrared scanner and a remote control; that’s all I can tell you. It probably doesn’t cause that much cancer.

You know what would be even cooler? An emotional-percentages scale. You’d get on it in the morning to see what you had to work with that day: 16% patience; 40% melancholy; 24% suspicion; 11% motivation; 7% sociopathy; 2% joy — whatever.  You’d put your spouse and kids on it and adjust your behavior accordingly. You’d see what a potential romantic interest was made of before you signed on for life. Like, I could do 11% asshole, but that’s my upper limit.

Data. That’s what this is about. I want more hard data,* instead of casting about in the dark with a fuzzy headlamp of intuition.


*That’s what she said.

FedExing myself to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, with a note that says to use whatever looks scientifically promising.

I’ve been sick for three weeks. That’s not true — I was sick for 12 days, okay for 2, and then The Hand of Malaise reached up through a crack in the Earth and dragged me down into the Funk of Lung Disease. My immune system, constantly exposed to the petri dish of teen germs, is shot to hell — but I’m out of sick time so I go to work anyway. At my desk I have an electric kettle, a heating pad, a bucket of hand sanitizer, Vicks VapoRub, and a full complement of lesbo herb tea. The kids say I smell funny. I tell them to stay out of my air space because I want them to live.

I was in this run-down state when we began our Modern Poetry unit last week. I figured they’d had all the traditional rhyme and meter stuff, so I skipped straight ahead to the Beats and took a sharp left into slam/performance, e.g. Alix Olson. We spent the week reading silently, reading out loud, listening, re-listening, writing, editing, and passing the best stuff from group to group. Some adult content, sure, but all carefully vetted and parent-permissioned.

And then. AND THEN. I passed out the wrong Staceyann Chin poem. I meant to give them “My Grandmother’s Tongue,” which has great themes — cultural heritage; generational wisdom — and which starts out:

She gets shorter every year
her ninetieth birthday bending her into a new century

Now she has the time to wonder
how the seeds of her womb 
have come to such silence

Hearing is hard for her
the twilight taxes the organs of the poor
she wonders if the children born in exile 
look anything like her

American residents
they visits spaced like the teeth of the elderly
infrequent and few
they bring too many sweets anyway
old people should not partake of such pleasures
dying flesh cannot withstand it…

But I accidentally gave them “Catalog the Insanity,” which goes like this:

Within 30 seconds, the air in the room changed. I’d never seen students so intent on a piece of reading. Look! I thought proudly, even as I feverishly spit something horrible into a tissue. Active student engagement! Rigorous academic focus! 

Then someone giggled. I looked up to see 37 pairs of eyes bore holes through the giggler: Shut up.We’re trying to read this graphic lesbian sex poem. 

Alerted, I shot from my desk and took  the poem back like a Soviet censor: My mistake, here, let me print out what I meant to give you. Oops! Ha ha!  The great part was, they resisted me and tried to hang onto the poem. One copy was almost ripped in half as I confiscated it. There was actual passion for reading in class that day, for the very first time. Score.

Also, I gave in and went to the doctor for an antibiotic. That herbal shit is worthless.

“Oh boy! I’m so smart it’s a disease!”

Parts 1 and 2 of the new Mildred Pierce tripped my lobe into a sudden epiphany last night. Not having seen the original, I didn’t have any Joan Crawford-y preconceived impressions, and while the film is full of chewy radfem nuggets — Mildred’s marriage ends and she’s fine! She raises two daughters, overcomes tragedy, and builds her own business! — what I got out of it is that human lives often parallel the jagged trajectory of sociological/economic history. To wit: Mildred was born between 1900-1905, the absolute worst point in American history (so far) to be born. Why? The horror of World War I spanned her adolescence, with a short break before the Great Depression and a brief respite prior to World War II. This Crap Interlude, as the history books call it, lasted for 17 years between 1929-1946, and by the time it was over, poor Mildred was hitting menopause while people juuust slightly younger than she were starting college via shiny new G.I. Bills and buying affordable houses with cash. I mean, goddammit.

But, you know? These things are cyclical. Let’s say you’re Mildred’s younger neighbor, Betty, enjoying all the postwar 50’s boom stuff and feeling like all is right with the world. Everything’s going to go cattywampus again in about 1967, leaving you feeling betrayed and disconnected. All the kids are shooting pot! You don’t trust these newfangled convenience foods! Who is that skinny black man doing outrageous things to the national anthem on an electric guitar? You’re having a very hard time, and you will not feel better again until Reagan takes office in 1980, whereas Mildred already knows that life can go any direction it wants. She’s relaxed, like a cat falling 32 stories to the sidewalk. By the time the recession hits in 1983, you’re collecting Social Security and playing golf so the whole thing has resolved itself. But let’s say you’re Betty’s’s granddaughter, Jenny, born in 1974. Everything looks Clintonian and rosy when you graduate college in 1996, but then…

And so it goes. If you’re currently having a hard time, just think of it as your own personal 1929-1946. Try to retain all the survival skills you’re learning, like Mildred becomes a great waitress even though she hates it, and bide your time: Your 1950’s are coming, with their plenitude and hope, and maybe the creative explosions of your 1960’s, which will give you the momentum to live through the malaise of your 1970’s, etc. It will be up and then it will be down. You’ll grow and bloom and wilt; rinse and repeat. Someday all this will be a long time ago; the stuff of memory and miniseries.