I’m realizing more and more that reading at all is an act of defiance. Having an opinion and expressing it even more so. I want to comply, to blend, to fit. Yet, when I read books of substance, I’m confronted with actual ideas and must take responsibility for first having exposed myself to them and second for my reaction to them. To someone who still holds on to caring what others think, this is a dangerous endeavor.
To this I must acknowledge that caring what other people think is a defect of my character, a flaw worthy only of extraction.
Book #5 of my [50bookchallenge](http://50bookchallenge.livejournal.com/) is *The Women’s Room* by Marilyn French. It’s a reread, first read when I was 14 or 15 years old. My mother gave it to me and told me that I might learn something from it.
I did. Two decades later, I decided to reread this book to see what I learned. It was a hazy, half-remembered ghost in my consciousness, but the more friends of mine like [dracunculus](http://dracunculus.livejournal.com/) have asked me why I hate women (despite my protestations), the more I’ve wanted to know what the hell is wrong with me.
I earnestly wish to avoid demonizing this book; I think to do so would be to make the same mistake Marilyn French made when writing it. What’s the point of putting out a fire with lamp oil?
Yet the more I read this, the less respect I had for the noble cause of feminism and the more I wanted to retreat to the moral high ground of egalitarianism. Feminists often talk of feminism being the same thing as egalitarianism, and for many I’m sure it is. But to French and her crowd, those who call French a feminist «leader,» there can be no peace between men and women, ever.
Let me admit now that this is a work of fiction. But in no way is it portrayed as dystopic. French, I believe, is trying to tell it as it is. And shuffling a set of beliefs off on characters is no excuse. She provides not just an audience of her characters’ ideas to the reader, but it’s not difficult for a reader to pick up on moral undertones and overtones in literature. Some ideas are always presented with a counterpoint and others with contextual support. To cry that French was not pushing any agenda is plainly dishonest. One cannot draw the comparison between women and Jews in a nazi concentration camp in a novel largely filled with examples of women systemically being oppressed by men and then hide behind the skirts of «the opinions expressed were not necessarily those of the author.» Give me a break.
Further, the narrator of the book is not shown to be a character in the book until the very end, and even then there is some room to suggest that perhaps the narrator is not who I take her to be. So the first-person editorializing takes on stronger meaning. The novel is structured as a series of essays interspersed with narrative. It’s only in the last pages that we discover (even though we should have suspected) that these essays were «only» the opinion of the protagonist of the novel.
Speaking of dishonesty, French caught my attention by describing a passage from Virginia Woolf’s [*A Room of One’s Own*]([canonical-url:node/661]) that was, at the very least, a gross exaggeration of the point that Woolf made:
> «But Shakespeare’s sister has learned the lesson all women learn: men are the ultimate enemy. At the same time she knows she cannot get along in the world without one. So she uses her genius, the genius she might have used to make plays and poems with, in speaking, not writing. She handles the man with language: she carps, cajoles, teases, seduces, calculates, and controls this creature to whom God saw fit to give power over her, this hulking idiot whom she despises because he is dense and fears because he can do her harm. So much for the natural relation between the sexes.» pg 41, *The Women’s Room*
Although I could go into much more detail, right now I don’t care to. This sums up my problem with the book, and my problem with myself: I allowed myself to believe a lot of what I read and grasped on to it as a tool for becoming what I «should» be in the eyes of my mother and of women at large.
Based on the above formula, by virtue of being male, I should never trust a woman. A woman will see me as the ultimate enemy and try only to control me. If a woman behaves in a trustworthy fashion toward me, surely that’s evidence that she just doesn’t have a clue.
There are so many more ideas found in this book, ideas that I retreat to in the depths of my depression. They resonate so deeply with my patterns of self-hatred that I must accept or reject them:
«Labeling and categorizing is, by itself, wrong» pg 5
«Men are the inferior gender, or at least a right-thinking woman should believe so.» pg 15
«Male attention is naturally unwelcome to a woman.» pg 21
«A woman enjoying sex is a rarity.» pg 147
«A man who can be described as humane is certain to be gay.» pg 285
«Suicidal thought is an indication of personal depth.» pg 391
Perhaps I can be forgiven for such dependent thinking at the age of fifteen. At thirty-five, however, it’s past time to dispense with such nonsense. And of course, bad ideas likely don’t come from just one book.
I would not recommend this book, not to anyone I liked. I’m glad I reread it, though. It feels like progress just to put a name to some of the poison in my soul.