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Thicker Than Water:Hotter Than Fire Essay, Research Paper
Harrison’s Thicker Than Water: Chosen and Unforced Womanhood
A woman’s sexual discovery, or her menstruation, or her domesticity, or the development of her body, or a realization of an age-old philosophy, is perhaps, the catalyst to becoming a conventional woman. Regardless, civilization may hint to ‘some’ rite of passage, but is it clear as to ‘what’ it is that marks this new title of womanhood? The answer may seem blurred in the complexity of Kathryn Harrison’s character Isabel, in her novel Thicker Than Water. Isabel’s transformation—sometimes overlooked metamorphosis—is thwarted by her lonely search in discovering herself and her home, while yearning for her mother’s love. Isabel’s character becomes preoccupied with the idea that she is not, nor will be, a whole or “real woman,” due to her lack of truly feminine qualities (those qualities she believes her mother possesses). In turn, all the emotions involved in Isabel’s growth—from the time she was an infant until her early adult life—have manifested in the physical. That is to say, Isabel’s need for maternal love is represented by the importance of “healthy” tactile affection and attention. And through her physical relationships with her mother and father, her own actions, the obsession with objects, and the representation of life in photographs, the reader may begin to see that Isabel was literally and physically forced into maturity. In theory, this forcing of womanhood, and denial of childhood and innocence, would propel Isabel into adulthood, where she is no longer the dependent and bothersome child her mother never wants. However, Isabel learns she must choose her independence and her womanhood.
As an infant, Isabel was not invited to touch her mother too often, and she learned quickly that this need for affection was received poorly and with a scolding. Her mother did not breast feed her, did not hold her much, and remained altogether distant. Isabel recounts one of her mother’s earliest rejections, as she watches her mother perform her feminine rituals in preparation for a date: “I knew what heaven it was to hug those legs…and press my face into the dark sweet trough between her thighs, impenetrable blind, where no one could separate me from the smell of my mother. She didn’t like me to hug her legs…she pried me off impatiently” (33). Isabel was banned from the connection, soon to be replaced by a man (any man), and was forced to know her own nonexistence in her mother’s emotional life. And often it was excused by its physical repercussions: “Many times she had pushed me off her lap complaining that my sitting there would cause varicose veins” (28). Isabel’s presence was against her mother’s own youth, and femininity. In essence, Isabel was unauthorized maternal intimacy.
And while Isabel wanted some kind of corporeal interaction with her mother, she did not receive it positively. She did not authorize a particular kind of intimacy either: molestation. When Isabel was an infant—vulnerable, unable to fight and protest—her mother violates her with objects. She remembers in a sort of dream sequence, “Beats me, or pinch me. Introduce my genitals which have been so many times deflowered by objects of ordinary household function—why do I scream when I see a wooden spoon? No one understands it” (65). In these sequences, her mother never really touches her anyway, for it is always detached and obscured by some object of domesticity. These occurrences are representative of her mother’s view of Isabel. She is not seen as a child, but as an unwanted object. The sexual nature of the violation suggests unwillingness to let Isabel mature naturally, forcing these objects on her in an ‘adult way.’ Isabel is “deflowered” both physically and emotionally and, therefore, is forced into a sort of maturity and womanhood at an age when she is yet to walk or articulate.
In return, Isabel is finally able to touch her mother, but not until she is, also, vulnerable. Ironically, Isabel is able to violate her mother’s creed against female, maternal intimacy in the latter stages of her cancer. Drugged with morphine, incapable of protesting, defending or protecting herself, her mother was physically accessible. Isabel remembers their closest encounter, “I would stare at my mother’s right breast, the one which remained intact, finding it beautiful…weeping selfishly for never having shared it with her…I was aware of…some comfort that I never found there. Such a crazy process of reverse nursing” (25). Reminded of what she did not receive, Isabel finds solace in her role as guardian. Again, now in her late teens, Isabel is forced into a mature role. This time, it is as the caretaker, the mother, another emblem of womanhood. Unknowingly to Isabel, she will not be able to birth or care for her own children due to her mother’s manipulations. And while it seems unfair that Isabel is now giving life to her mother, it is part of her revenge.
As Isabel is forced to become strangely mature by the suppression of maternal love, she must graduate from this infant-hood into finding chosen love from adult partners. She attempts to progress into this forced form of womanhood with physical transformations. She and her best friend, Corrine, would dress up as their older alter egos, adult props of identification in hand, and go to bars. Or, they would sneak off late at night at the beach to meet men or smoke. Or, at sixteen, she would begin to have sex with other boys her age. But the ultimate transformation came when she was forced into a sexual affair with her father. Her natural role as a daughter is non-existent, and is replaced by her position as a sexual object. When he rapes her, she is forced to become sexually mature, in the midst of this profane and incestuous act. She learns to use her abuse as revenge; she is interacting with the only man her mother supposedly loved, a man who had her mother’s invitation for intimacy. She could not embrace her mother’s thighs, but he could. Now, she must succumb to her newfound ability to control and manipulate: “I had that power possessed by the sexually desirable, control over those her were not wanted for their bodies, those whose bodies were not wanted. My father used to weep sometimes when I said no” (193). She becomes aware that she can find power in the physical: her body. She is forced to use her womanhood, her femininity to inflict pain and find punishment. These acts are surrounded by the same philosophy that her mother used to punish her. She could not give her maternal body to her daughter in love, but denied her in order to have sexual intimacy with men. Therefore, Isabel knows the purpose of this affair: “Our needs were complementary…he needed to hurt my mother, and so did I” (195). She needed to show her mother her new tool: her so-called womanhood.
Even before the affair and rape by her father occurs, while Isabel is still a schoolgirl, the forced maturity rendered on her by her mother manifests itself in Isabel’s actions. One particular example (an almost perfect analogy to Isabel’s life) comes when her Mom-mom decides to breed Persian cats. Alone and impatient, Isabel wants the kittens to advance their growth so she may have playmates. She had no use for their premature and blind state, forcing each fused eyelid to open. But when she discovers that they are unable to see she becomes disappointed and then remorseful, “…I was stricken with fear and guilt. Within only a day, their eyes were swollen completely shut, infected” (82). She begins to understand the natural progression of maturity, and that it cannot be forced like it has so many times been forced upon her. Like the kittens, her mother wanted her to become a self-sufficient animal that she no longer had to care for, but, at the same time, something she could play with. It seems the only time her mother took interest in Isabel is when she was instructing her about clothes, make-up, diaphragms, menstruation, her physique, et cetera. Her mother had a playmate, only tolerable when she could manipulate Isabel into submission.
Yet, Isabel’ response to her own foolishness is quite different from that of her mother. She inflicts self-deprivation and punishment through starvation, unable to confess her sins publicly. She never neglects the kittens, but tries to heal their infection with cleaning. She sees “five valuable cats, ruined,” physically scarred by her violation against nature and a constant “reminder of what [she] had done, and the price of confession withheld” (83, 84). The similarity lies in Isabel, as her nature, also, has been violated. She learns to wear her own scars of neglect (fingernail scratches on her legs from her mother, self-inflicted wounds, her infertility), and soon realizes that she is a constant reminder of what her mother has “done, and the price of confession withheld” (84). But, is she a ruined valuable? Isabel must evaluate herself and does so by looking at photographs. Here, she is able to evaluate the profanity of forced and unnatural growth juxtaposed against emotional growth, which she can equate to as Truth.
Photographs became an unwanted tool that aided in the conjecture of memories in Isabel’s family. The subject matter could be forced, or manipulated, to manufacture a particular projected emotion—such as happiness—to an outsider. However, they became emblems of emotional reminders, and of subjective truths of how life really was, or is. To Isabel, they were often lies of what her family wanted other people to see. Her family seems happy and even-tempered on the beach, or Isabel appears content with her mother in Opa’s garden. However, the pictures do not equate reality, and become painful. For instance, when her father snaps a Polaroid of her at their dinner meeting, he takes it home as a souvenir of her beauty and maturity. It becomes obscured and almost pornographic—an image of her out of context of who she really is—as she becomes his prey. It is a record of physical growth against emotional growth. All forced. Like Opa’s zucchini (those which grew larger through manipulation of a string and chemicals), Isabel has been given a toxin to enhance her womanhood, while still a child in years. In pictures, a “sick-chini” only a few weeks old can look larger than the oldest and the ripest, but it is not fit for consuming. Once again, forced into maturity and remaining artificial.
Although Isabel constantly struggles with her manufactured life, she learns she has the ability to control herself, her own rites of passage. She realizes, while watching television with her sick mother, that she “didn’t make choices” (220). The knowledge that she is forced to watch her mother’s medical drama transcends into every aspect of her life, including her womanhood. She was never allowed to decide when she would become a woman and how. Even in her dreams, others decide whether or not she will keep her scars of her broken face, have the surgery, and alter her appearance. But, that way of living her life is no more. She learns that she is able to find reciprocating love with a man whom is most like the only stable figure in her life, Opa. She no longer has to lie, but can be honest, knowing that the truth will heal her, and that the control is necessary. Even though she is aware that there is, “some love that [makes] the world less safe,” she may choose not to give or receive that love (192). And while she dismembers the pictures of her father at the end of her memoir, she knows they represent something different for her and Sam. But, in the end, they are sacrificed as reminders of the journey she endured on her discovery of “home:” a place she chose for herself (269). Harrison allows her readers—through Isabel’s character—to realize that womanhood cannot be forced by external and physical actions, but must be found by the woman, herself, emotionally.
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