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A Review of Woman on the Edge of Time
by Nancy Henley
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (Knopf, 1976). 369 pages, $10.
Consuela Ramos, the brave and spirited woman of the title, is brown, female, fat, and crazy, an unlikely heroine for anything but a Saturday morning affirmative action TV cartoon show. She is as ordinary as any of us, and like so many of us, extraordinary when her story is known. But to the authorities, she is less than ordinary: she is stupid, insane, violent, a bad mother, loose woman, welfare trash, a mental patient repeat.
Connie is in fact filled with love and gentleness, dignity, brains, fight and anger, and she has special psychic abilities. A Chicana woman living poor in New York’s Puerto Rican barrio, she has been beat around all her life by men—father, brother, lovers, authorities, doctors—as well as their institutions. She lives alone and struggles to plan her future, to stretch her welfare money to eat, to get a job, to free her niece from the clutches of a tyrannous pimp, to make a home for her niece and her niece’s daughter.
She is sent to Bellevue Hospital with a “violent” label for defending her niece and herself against the VIcious pimp and his henchmen, then transferred to the state hospital. The picture of institutional life Piercy draws will be familiar to those who have lived it themselves: the loss of all dignity and common rights, the dehumanization by act and definition: the drugging to zombie state, the dreaded electroshock, the brutality of attendants: the stink, discomfort, institutional food: the rejection and forgetting by one’s family: the kinship and support of other inmates. Some of it has been written in books, but all of it has been written in the blood of mental inmates, has been scratched by countless crazy women on the walls of their isolation rooms, on the insides of their skulls.
Though honest, the book is not all down: the other side of Connie Ramos’s life is the up side, her experiences in the village of Mattapoisett of 2137, the transformed future, with which her psychic ability puts her in contact. Here she is the loved and respected visitor from the past, who can help create their present. This society has eliminated sexism, racism, heterosexism, destruction of the environment, the oppression of children, old people, and animals. Here are people who put people first, who care about relationships, who share power and decisionmaking, who struggle hard to do what’s right, to become better people. And at the same time, they are a joyous, loving, open people—free in their sexuality, emotional at ceremonies, fulfilled in ritual, occasionally drunk, stuffed with food or high at festivals, dedicated to their work but not to the detriment of their relationships and humanity. In fact, they know that their humanity, their relationships, are part of their work, not something they take up when they put their work down. Sexual coupling takes place as readily between woman and woman, man and man, as between woman and man, and celibacy is fully respected as well. Many of us will recognize this as a women’s culture, what our movement has been struggling towards.
Paramount with the person is the environment: love and respect are shown every tree, every animal, every child, every plant, every aged person, every manufactured thing. One is not the plunderer and the others, the plundered: all sink or swim together. Everything that is made, and all human products, are recycled: those things left from the past which cannot decompose are used for rebuilding. This is not the plastic fantastic future of unthinking science fiction, where gleaming domed cities keep out the natural weather, people are shipped across the country on computerized highways in individual cars, or impelled by moving sidewalks—all raped from the earth’s exhausted resources. Here new homes are built from carefully salvaged old materials, and. therefore look like battered leftovers of our today; in fact, what else will future people do with our Bud cans, throwaway bottles, and plastic furniture?
But this future has not abandoned technology; it has put it to human service. Access to computers is in everyone’s remote-terminal “wrist watch”; mass transit vehicles hover and float for everyone; hologram programs are available for mass (but not mindless) entertainment. More important, readily available free resources are developed, so that psychic and herbal healing work side by side with medical; control of one’s breathing, pulse, and brain functions are taught even school children, in the way they are today to the few (adults) who have access to the teaching.
Debates over great issues don’t come forward as tracts, but arise as natural outgrowths of people’s lives. In Mattapoisett, people are of different minds on many things, and they respect their diversity. On some things they have already made decisions, and here we see with our eyes of the past (and Connie’s) how simple the arguments are, when unmuddied by concerns of the rich. Some issues that they have decided, we (like Connie) may still have to grapple with. For example, how will women’s relation to childbearing be reconciled with their equal participation in the total fabric of life, and how will men be brought into the childcaring process? Should men be made capable of bearing children, as Firestone has proposed? Should babies be raised outside of human bodies, a Ia Brave New World, only more humanly?
Would you make men capable of breastfeeding? (Or would you, like Connie, feel outraged at the thought that women would abandon to men “the last refuge of women .. let men steal from them the last remnants of ancient power, those sealed in blood and in milk”?) How would you break the unnatural tie that exists between child and mother in the nuclear family, how free children from modern childhood? Should everyone be a mother? Or none mothers? Should children live with their families? With other children? How teach things without the perversion of education we have now, how integrate learning with living? How have respect for knowledge and skill without elevating some above others?
Would there be madness in a good society? If there is, how would you want to be treated if or when you go mad? If full participation in decision-making means spending time in interminable meetings, would you keep them, or loosen your commitment to full participation? These questions and others come up, and we see how the citizens of this future deal with them. But at the same time the choices and debates are part of Piercy’s love letter to us to remind us we must make these decisions ourselves.
In this future where one’s gender is no factor at all in the determination of one’s life, there must (as we know by now) be much change in language. Gender pronouns are gone, and people are referred to in quite simple language, most of which we could use today; the general pronoun for a person is person; the objective and possessive, per. This practice illuminates a lot of our own preconceptions: we cannot know someone’s sex from the language, but since we cannot think of a person except in their sex, we have a hard time thinking. We get a complete jolt, like Connie, at one point, when someone we thought was a man turns out to be a woman; and gradually, like her, become comfortable with sexual ambiguity. Now that people are important, there is a whole vocabulary for emotion and relationships—comping, coning, stiffing, worming, bottoming– that our present must awkwardly describe in dozens of wrong words.
That better future is not the inevitable end of our trudge through this present, however: it is only one of possible alternative futures. We get a brief glimpse of another future we are trending toward, vinyl-clad fascism in which class and sex distinctions have been carried to their ultimate. Here the police state reigns tightly an enslaved working class and a class of male executive lackeys with drugged, siliconed, cowlike courtesans, while an elite lives insulated above the clouds; and machines and humans have melded to the point that which serves which becomes a useless question. The Mattapoisett future- our future is at literal war with this feasibility.
Marge Piercy’s feminist vision and skill are apparent throughout the book, as they have been rn her previous novels, Going Down Fast, Dance the Eagle to Sleep, and Small Changes. Connie is real, we feel her feeling, live her life and emotions. Everything about the mental institution and its inhabitants rings true to those who have experienced them (or read the accounts by those who have). Piercy’s knowledge of nature, of agriculture, of ecology, are all apparent as fine background and her thinking about human relationships jars us into considering things that should be important to us.
In Piercy’s writing of a society struggling to be a utopia, we are able to experience moving beauty in the ceremonies and celebrations that move its people: the fully experienced death of the old woman Sappho; the mixture of anger and love in the cathartic wake for a member who died young; the hologram documentary fantasy of extinct species—our history raping and evolving into theirs.
Piercy’s observations of life as it is ring poignantly true: explaining to Luciente from the future that we don’t practice cannibalism, Connie remarks to herself, “Sometimes we have nothing to feed on but our pain and each other.” When Connie in the hospital believes in the medical distinction between the “effects” of her medication and its “side effects,” Luciente quickly demolishes this idiocy—all are effects. The experience of being a psychiatric inmate comes across again and again in the little outrages as well as the big devastations worked on the mind:
” … all those cool knowing faces had caught her and bound her in their nets of jargon hung all with tiny barbed hooks that stuck in her flesh and leaked a slow weakening poison. She was marked with the bleeding stigmata of shame …. Say one hundred Our Fathers. Say you understand how sick you’ve been and you want to learn to cope. You want to stop acting out. Speak up in Tuesday group therapy (but not too much and never about staff or how lousy this place was) and volunteer to clean up after the other, the incontinent patients.”
This is the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Terminal Man should have been. The oppression of the mental establishment falls heavily on all, but it falls on more women than men. More women than men receive treatment as “mentally ill” in mental institution first admissions, in psychiatric wards of general hospitals, in outpatient clinics, in private outpatient psychiatric care, in the practice of general physicians, or are judged as such in community surveys.1
While Cuckoo exposes much about this oppressive system, it paints a scene only of male inmates; it shows them as oppressed by a female persecutor, and it shows other women only as thoughtless, used, weak, hated sex objects. While Terminal Man exposes some of the horrors of computerized control by electrical brain stimulation, it champions the bravery and brilliance of the medical-scientific elite, in the face of occasional random mistakes of judgment that are well worth the cost of a life here and there.2 The male heroes of both of these book-movies are subjected to brain operations; but it is women who have been named as the ideal candidates for psychosurgery and have been widely used for this form of nonreversible experimentation.3
Other works of fiction have been about women (and have received less popular attention), but none have told the whole story as this has. Some, like The Bell Jar, show life in a private institution and among the well-to-do; or, like I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, promote psychotherapy (extended to few in state institutions anyway) as a nonoppressive basis for growth, a scalpel to root out bad thoughts from women’s minds. In Woman On the Edge of Time, Piercy has brought it all together and brought it all home; she makes us know the present in its naked ugliness but, through the life of a strong woman, focuses toward the future and the process we must go through to reach it.
Perhaps you have a fantasy feeling like that I’ve had at times in my life, a longing for the future that has the pull of a longing for the past, a desire so strong that it takes the form of a vision: of a community of loving, hard-working (not perfect!) people for whom gender is not the organizing concept, using others not the game plan, competition not the way to accomplishment. This vision pulls me like home, more than home. To see Mattapoisett is to want to go there and join in its building of itself, brick by salvaged brick, decision by struggled decision. To know how fragile that future is is to realize the importance of our work now to defeat its enemies—we are all women on the edge of time.
Nancy Henley was a staff member of Radical Therapist /Rough Times for several years, and now works with its successor State and Mind. She teaches psychology at the University of Lowell (Mass.), where she also works with women’s groups and is treasurer of the faculty union.
- Walter Gove & Jeanette Tudor, “Adult sex roles and mental illness,” American Journal of Sociology. 1973, v. 78. (Also in Joan Huber, Changing Women in a Changing Society, University of Chicago Press, 1973.)
- This is a book that should have been withdrawn from the shelves – and certainly not have had its influence spread by paperback and movie- when the author realized (as the Afterword to the paperback edition admits) epilepsy and violence. This insidious falsification has been the justification for recent psychosurgical operations and proposals. psychosurgical operations and proposals.
- Barbara Roberts, “Psychosurgery: The final solution to the woman problem,” Second Wave, 1972, v. 2, no. 1, 13-15:43.