Truth, Justice, & Polyamory: Wonder Woman

Book review: THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN by Jill Lepore (Knopf, 410 pp.) This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on October 23, 2014.

Who is Wonder Woman? She is, of course, the Amazonian superhero fighting for women’s rights, with a secret agenda that included securing access to birth control, free love, and the importance of erotic bondage — preferably chains — in uniting two (or more) lovers in polyamory. Not what you expected? Harvard professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore, author of the new book, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,’’ is here to tell you: You have no idea.

As Lepore explains, Wonder Woman’s history was “a family secret, locked in a closet.” That’s because the trio of people who inspired and created her, renegade psychologist and eventual comic-book writer William Moulton Marston, career woman and editor Elizabeth Holloway, and writer Olive Byrne, beloved niece of birth-control activist Margaret Sanger, were determined that it be so. The three were in fact a threesome (a fourth woman, Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, also lived with the trio off and on for decades) and together raised four children, two of Holloway’s and two of Byrne’s, all sired by Marston. Marston and Holloway were legally married; Byrne was usually described as a live-in governess, widowed with two children. The children didn’t know the truth until they were well into adulthood.

The first half of “The Secret History of Wonder Woman’’ tells the story of these three and the world of radical politics in which they lived. They were activists in the struggles for women’s suffrage, access to birth control, and equal rights of the early 1900s, participating in bohemian Greenwich Village salons in which socialism, androgyny, and free love were explored.

They also shared a belief in what Lepore describes as a “cult of female sexual power,” a vision of a woman-centric world not too different from the kind you’d find in Amazonia, Wonder Woman’s hometown. It was a thrilling time; women were granted the right to vote in 1919, and the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in Congress in 1923. The prospect of legal gender equality seemed inevitable.

Marston had been a staunch feminist since his undergraduate days at Harvard, where he studied psychology. He was fascinated by the male-female relationship, and his theories of dominance and submission influenced not only his personal relationships but also the superhero he would eventually create. (“Not a comic book in which Wonder Woman appeared, and hardly a page, lacked a scene of bondage,” says Lepore, a fetish that eventually became the target of morality crusaders in the 1950s.) Perhaps because Marston’s private life was kept secret, he was also obsessed with the ways in which people suppress the truth, an interest that led to his invention of one of the first lie-detector tests.

It was only when Lepore encountered Marston’s name in two disparate archives — first in the history of the lie-detector test and then in the papers of Margaret Sanger — that the secret history was revealed. Marston himself was always frank about his political agenda. In the cover letter he wrote to DC accompanying his first “Wonder Woman” script he argued that the comic would chronicle “a great movement now under way — the growth in the power of women . . . Let that theme alone . . . or drop the project.” “The only hope for civilization,” Marston wrote in a “Wonder Woman” press release, “is the greater freedom, development, and equality of women.’’

Marston’s career as a psychologist was hurt by rumors of his unconventional family life, and he struggled to find work. He was eventually hired as a consulting psychologist at DC Comics as a sort of bulwark against the growing societal concerns that comics were immoral and overly violent. Marston answered the critics with the idea for a new character: Wonder Woman.

As Lepore shows, in the original comics created and written by Marston beginning in 1941, “Wonder Woman was a Progressive Era feminist” who fought for justice and also explicitly for women’s rights, “organizing boycotts, strikes, and political rallies” and protesting the wage gap between men and women. “’Girls, starting now your salaries are doubled!’” Wonder Woman proclaimed in a 1942 comic.

What Lepore does so well is to show how Wonder Woman’s career mirrored the hopes, progress, and eventual disappointments of the American women’s movement in the 20th century. When American women began entering the workforce during World War II, Wonder Woman was at her strongest, battling evil and refusing to settle down and get married (Amazonian law forbade it). After the war ended and women were hustled back into the home, Wonder Woman’s power likewise faded.

The big changes took place after Marston died in 1947 and other writers took over the series. No longer a crime fighter, now she was “a babysitter, a fashion model, and a movie star. She [also] wanted, desperately, to marry Steve.” By the late 1960s she had lost her superpowers altogether. Although she was reclaimed by feminists in the early 1970s and appeared on the cover of Ms. magazine’s first issue under the banner, “Wonder Woman For President,” her status as a feminist icon withered.

Marston’s widows lived into the 1990s and remained devoted to each other for the rest of their lives. They “never broke their silence” about the truth of their relationship or of Wonder Woman’s radical past. As women who were young when the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced to Congress in 1923, you have to wonder what they thought about the fact that it was never ratified. And were they depressed by the fact that Americans were still arguing about abortion a century after Margaret Sanger began fighting for women’s reproductive rights? There’s a new Wonder Woman movie coming in 2017. If Lepore’s “secret history” has proved one thing, it’s that at least so far each era has gotten the Wonder Woman it deserves.

Foostering: A review of NORA WEBSTER, by Colm Tóibín

Review: NORA WEBSTER, by Colm Tóibín (Scribner, 2014). 237 pp.

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(This book review originally ran in the Boston Globe, October 10, 2014)

Colm Tóibín’s new novel, “Nora Webster,” is simply a quiet, microscopically-observed character study of a recently widowed woman in the small Irish town of Wexford in the late 1960s, but as Tóibín proved in previous novels “Brooklyn” and “The Testament of Mary,” the emotional lives of ordinary women can contain as much drama as any tale of war.

We meet Nora just after she has lost her husband, Maurice, a respected local teacher, to a painful illness. She is coping not only with her own grief, but that of her four children. Nora is also endeavoring to hold on to her only recently achieved financial stability; Nora’s mother had been a domestic servant, and Nora is grateful for “the freedom that marriage to Maurice had given her, the freedom, once the children were in school, or a young child was sleeping, to walk into this room at any time of the day and take down a book and read . . . [t]he day belonged to her.” With Maurice gone, Nora knows she must return to work in the office job she held before her marriage. “Now her day was to be taken from her,” she thinks. “Her years of freedom had come to an end; it was as simple as that.”

Nora lives in a world of female surveillance — daughters, sisters, aunts, neighbors, nuns — all watching her actions, her outbursts, any changes in routine in Nora’s newly-widowed life. The book opens on just such a scene: a neighbor knocking on Nora’s door, paying her respects, checking in. “You must be fed up of them,” another neighbor — a man — says: “Just don’t answer the door,” he advises. “That’s what I’d do.” But this is exactly what Nora cannot do, despite that all she craves is solitude, privacy. As a woman, Nora cannot shut the door on the women who watch her without risking her reputation. In this small town, a woman choosing to be alone and independent is the ultimate transgression. “Your mother was the same,” a busy-body nun tells Nora. “It was the pride, or the not liking people knowing her business, that made her difficult. And that did her no good.”

Although the plot of “Nora Webster’’ concerns a widow’s quiet but determined path to independence and personal fulfillment, the story is really that of Nora’s dramatic emotional life roiling beneath her calm surface. Readers who loved (or loved to hate) Elizabeth Strout’s peevish heroine Olive Kitteridge will appreciate the vinegar-tinged humor and pathos of Nora Webster, too.

We follow Nora as she finds a new way to be in this “world filled with absences.” One day she finds herself staring at a record player, transfixed. As the clerk plays a Dvorak recording for her, “[w]hat she felt now more than anything was a sadness that she had lived her life until now without having heard this.” Yet eventually Nora finds the strength to pursue her love of music even to the point of taking singing lessons, literally finding her voice for the first time as a grown woman.

Nora is aware, in a way others around her seem not to be, of the numberless expectations of women in her society. As the men in the house make themselves comfortable, she notices that her mother and sister “hardly ever sat down . . . [they were] always bustling about . . . their mother disapproved of women sitting down when there was still work to do.” Nora has a word for this: “foostering.”

In one of her many silent forms of rebellion, “[a]ll her married life Nora had made sure that she stayed sitting down for as long as possible each evening once the washing-up after tea had been completed.”

Set against the background of the early days of the Troubles, Nora finds herself and her country awakening to a new and uncertain future. A deeply moving portrait of the flowering of a self-liberated woman, “Nora Webster’’ tells the story of all the invisible battles the heart faces every day.

Everyone Dies (not a spoiler!): Hilary Mantel's WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES

71901109 Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein the Younger ca. 1530. Chalk on paper. The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images

There Are No Endings

A review of WOLF HALL (2009) and BRING UP THE BODIES (2012) by Hilary Mantel. Henry Holt & Co.

This summer I fell in love with an old man. He had a tough childhood, left home early and took off for Italy and France, where he somehow talked his way into a series of better and better positions, despite having never gone to school. He learned several languages; people said he could recite the entire New Testament from memory. That wasn't what impressed me. What I loved about him was his sense of humor, his sense of absurdity. He was enormously ambitious and didn't try to hide it and yes, he was ambitious for money but mostly he wanted power. Not the flashy kind of power — he didn't want to be King — but the real power that comes from working the levers behind the scenes. As he - Thomas Cromwell, the hero of Mantel's genius novels WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES, puts it:

How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.

Most critics read these books a few years back, when they were first published. It took me three tries to get into WOLF HALL and it's not that they're difficult books, exactly, but they are so much their own thing, nearly their own genre - the super-historical super-novel - that I think I just needed to make a mental switch. And once I did, that was it: two weeks of solid reading (about 11oo pages between the two books) that I wished would never, ever end.

Mantel is telling the story of Thomas Cromwell and his role as advisor to King Henry VIII of England in the early 1500s. What most of us know about this period is Henry's deadly sequence of marriages and the supposed heroism of Thomas More, the Chancellor who refused to give Henry permission to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Mantel's is a completely different vision, with Thomas More as the priggish fundamentalist eager to torture and kill those who dared to read the Bible in English (as opposed to Latin) and Cromwell as More's progressive, surely-there's-a-reasonable-solution-to-all-the-world's-problems foil and, eventually, successor (More was executed for treason with Cromwell's help in 1535).

Cromwell is no angel, of course, but he has a few things More lacks: a sense of proportion; a sense of humor; a lack of fanaticism; intellectual curiosity. Here's Mantel's version of Cromwell, musing on his rival Thomas More:

He never sees More—a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod—without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “Purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope."

I don't think it's possible to fall in love with these two incredible novels without also falling in love with Cromwell. Even as he leads Anne Boleyn to her death, we walk with him, right up to the edge because, like King Henry, we trust Cromwell. Mantel's description, which is essentially Cromwell's perspective, of the execution of Anne Boleyn is as intimate, devastating, and surprising as we have been led to expect by this point in the novels. This is Anne with her executioner:  "Silent, she steadies herself against his shoulder, leans into him: intent, complicit, ready for the next thing they will do together, which is kill her."

Yes, Anne Boleyn dies. But we knew that. And we know Cromwell eventually has his day, too (though I try to put that out of my consciousness even now). EVERYONE DIES. Mantel's magic is in her understanding of the way we are all of humans trapped in linear time. No matter how well we think we understand that every man and woman's story can end in only one way, we spend our time fixated on the moment, forgetful of the fate awaiting us all. WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES are studies in this time-shifting consciousness, filled with small moments of passion, sorrow, and humor, like this aside from Cromwell in the midst of a tense secret negotiation: "The trouble with England, he thinks, is that it’s so poor in gesture. We shall have to develop a hand signal for “Back off, our prince is fucking this man’s daughter.”" And yet the momentum of the novels, as with our own lives, is relentlessly forward, rushing to the inevitable end.We know what's going to happen to Anne Boleyn and yet we hang on the flirtation between Anne and Henry as if anything could happen, something good, even. Despite everything we know.

And this is Thomas Cromwell's talent, the thing that sets him above his rivals: he knows the only strategy is in playing the game several steps ahead. "They will find him armoured, they will find him entrenched," thinks Cromwell, "they will find him stuck like a limpet to the future." Cromwell is above all a realist. Having barely survived a hellish childhood, he's happy to be alive and wants to stay that way… as long as he can. "He has studied the world without despising it. He understands the world without rejecting it. He has no illusions but he has hopes." He's a modern man in a medieval world. He would be modern in a 21st century world, for that matter.

THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT will be the sequel to BRING UP THE BODIES and it may be published as early as 2015, but who knows? It will be Mantel's third novel in the series. I can't bring myself to refer to it as a concluding volume, because I want her to write them into infinity. We know that these books must end — and we know how. Yet even the very last sentence of BRING UP THE BODIES gives us hope (don't worry, it won't spoil anything):

There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.

 

One nation, not exactly under God.

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NATURE’S GOD: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic by Matthew Stewart (W.W. Norton, 2014), 566 pp. This review was originally published in the Boston Globe BOOKS section, July 19, 2014.

“The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” So begins Article XI of the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, which was read aloud in the US Senate and ratified unanimously. Our second president, John Adams, who detested the “spirit of dogmatism and bigotry in clergy and laity” and regarded the resurrection of Jesus as “an absurdity,” promptly signed the treaty into law. It was no big deal then. So why does it all sound so surprising now?

Matthew Stewart’s enthralling and important new book, “Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic,’’ argues that we misremember the philosophical and religious origins of the American Revolution. Stewart, who holds a PhD in philosophy from Oxford University, is the author of previous books on the history of Western philosophy, and once again he happily rips into the original sources of Enlightenment thought, this time discovering a radical and profoundly humanistic worldview underlying the American Revolution.

The book is a pleasure to read, its often surprising conclusions supported by elegant prose and more than 1,000 footnotes. Stewart’s erudite analysis confidently rebuts the creeping campaign of Christian nationalism to “ ‘take back’ the nation and make it what it never in fact was.” The next time someone like Jerry Falwell asserts that the United States is “a Christian nation,” he’ll have to answer to “Nature’s God.’’

The United States, Stewart writes, was in fact founded by a “club of radical philosophers and their fellow travelers” who were known as deists in their day and today would be called “humanists, atheists, pantheists, freethinkers, [or] Universalists.” “America’s revolutionary deism remains an uncomfortable and underreported topic,” writes Stewart, and in his view the Revolutionary leaders — famous men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, as well as “Forgotten Founding Fathers” such as Thomas Young, one of the organizers of the Boston Tea Party — are themselves partly to blame, since for the most part they veiled their religious unorthodoxy for fear of condemnation.

Franklin, for example, urged his friend Ezra Stiles not to “expose me to Criticism and censure” by making his deistic beliefs known. George Washington, who refused to kneel in church or to take communion, simply declined to answer when asked by clerics whether he believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. “[T]he old fox was too cunning for them,” his friend and fellow freethinker Jefferson noted approvingly.

Does it matter in what or in whom the men who wrote our nation’s founding documents believed? After all, we still have the documents; surely those speak for themselves. Yet over 200 years later we are more absorbed with questions about original intent than ever, and the debate in particular over religious freedom — and freedom from religion — grows louder every day. “Nature’s God’’ makes significant new contributions to our understanding of what the founders had in mind.

As Stewart points out, the “broad plurality of people in America remained active and observant within some variety or other of relatively orthodox religion,” and the radical humanism of the Revolutionary leaders “was simply not representative of its people in this respect.” Jefferson nevertheless believed that the Declaration of Independence would inspire people “to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.” His views on religion may have differed from most of his countrymen, but in the end he was the one planning and writing the Declaration.

It was Jefferson, too, who invoked “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence’s first sentence. But this was not “the fictitious, meddling deity of the religious imagination but . . . nature itself or the universe comprehended as a whole. It is a way of talking about God long after God is dead.” This is Nature as God, the “presiding deity of the American Revolution.”

To uncover the origins of this revolutionary philosophy, Stewart embarks on a deep investigation into the history of ideas. Just as Stephen Greenblatt argued in 2011’s historical blockbuster, “The Swerve,’’ Stewart cites the the “revival of Epicurean philosophy that followed upon the rediscovery of Lucretius in early modern Europe” as “the decisive episode in the history of modern thought.” He then follows “Epicurus’s dangerous idea” to the 13 Colonies, where its inherently secular, materialist message focused on the importance of attaining a peaceful, happy life during this lifetime, not after death, and inspired a vision of a nation founded on reason, not on faith.

He finds ample evidence of Epicurean influence in the writings of known intellectuals such as Jefferson and Franklin and in some unexpected places, too. “Oracles of Reason’’ (1784), the almost completely forgotten philosophical manifesto of the American revolutionary Ethan Allen, “testifies to the presence in the remotest regions of revolutionary America of modes of thought that have almost universally been regarded as too old, too radical, and too continental to have played a role in the foundation of the American republic.” The thrill Stewart feels upon its discovery is infectious. “Opening its pages,” he exults, “is like discovering an empty bottle of whisky on the moon.”

When he stepped down from his position as commander of the Continental Army in 1783, Washington made a point of reminding his countrymen: “The foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition.” The question “Nature’s God’’ implicitly asks is whether we ought to take Washington at his word.

"Take This Man" by Brando Skyhorse

Sacheen Littlefeather

Above: Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1973 Academy Awards Ceremony

TAKE THIS MAN: A Memoir by Brando Skyhorse (Simon & Schuster, 2014), 259 pp.

(This review originally appeared in the Boston Globe BOOKS section, June 18, 2014).

“I was a full-blooded Indian boy in a Mexican neighborhood who now had a white older sister that live on another coast,” [55] writes Brando Skyhorse in his memoir, Take This Man. Only one of those biographical facts turned out to be true: Echo Park was, in fact, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles in the 1970s and ‘80s where the author grew up. But he wasn’t full-blooded Indian, nor did he have a white older sister. If the young Brando Skyhorse was constantly searching for a stable sense of identity in his Southern California home, his mother – the source of all information true and imagined – was the San Andreas Fault.

  What was it like to grow up the son of Maria Teresa Bonaga/Ulloa/Skyhorse/Zamora, et cetera (she was married five times, though she never divorced her first husband, and Skyhorse omits the surnames of most of his short-time stepfathers)? To put it a different way: What was it like to grow up the son of a pathological liar? “Much the way certain singers perform a song a different way each time they sing it, my mother told her stories a different way each time she spoke them,” Skyhorse writes. “Her history and her experiences were mercury in a barometer, fluctuating based on what she felt you wanted to believe.” [17]

 

A young, beautiful Mexican-American woman with long black hair, Maria Bonaga grew up in Echo Park with a mother who was obsessed with Hollywood. “A manufactured identity is nothing new in Los Angeles,” [26] Skyhorse writes, so it follows that Maria would first get the idea to adopt a wholly invented racial identity while watching the Oscars. When the Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather accepted Marlon Brando’s Academy Award for “The Godfather” in 1973, the pregnant Maria turned to her Mexican husband Candido Ulloa and declared that their baby’s name would be Brando. It was “a great way to honor her own nonexistent Indian heritage,” Skyhorse notes in a rare moment of humor. Then again, a childhood filled with psychological and physical abuse isn’t very funny – or prolonged. [23] “You’re already five years old,” his mother once admonished him: “You’re not a child anymore.” [39]

  When Brando was three Maria finally ditched not only her husband, but her own name and her Mexican identity, too. Brando Ulloa became Brando Skyhorse Johnson, adopted son of an imprisoned American Indian Movement (AIM) activist whom she met after placing a (dishonest) personal ad: “Young, single Indian mother searching for a good Indian father and devoted husband.” [29] Maria became Running Deer Skyhorse and she and her son suddenly became Indians. Skyhorse’s memoir is structured as a succession of portraits of would-be fathers, some sweet, some surly, all hapless and ultimately doomed to dismissal by his mother’s insanity and abuse. “First I was forced to accept” each new father figure, Skyhorse writes, “then slowly I trusted them, then I grew to love them. Then they left.” [2] The repetition of this theme, while essential to understanding the troubled young man he became, can sometimes be wearing for the reader. We, too, know that each new father, however exciting at first – Frank, the bumbling straight man; Robert, the sexy Aleutian thief – will eventually misstep and then suddenly disappear.

  Yet Skyhorse is a thoughtful, lyrical writer and his memoir is filled with epigrammatic observations that keep his story from becoming a mere catalogue of misery. He writes of his family: “The difference between a leap of faith and a leap of madness depends on where you land.” [48]

  Brando Skyhorse never stops loving his mother. If anything, he’s angrier with his biological father for leaving the family; his mother was maddening but she was also always present in his life. And they shared something else, too. “My mother lied in her stories for the same reason I’ve told the truth in this one… stories sustain us,” he writes. Like his mother, Brando became a storyteller. He understands why she couldn’t stop reinventing her own life. “[Stories] carry us through the lives we convince ourselves we can’t escape,” he writes, “to get to the lives we need to live instead.” [239]