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The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 8
Blood on the Dining Room Floor

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2006 Jill Johnston

Well, well, in no particular order. In just a few months' time my two children have acquired three half-siblings. The only parent they have in common is their father, who was married four times, so far as we know. A blood bond has formed. I am just one of the mothers. There are three, and there was one stepmother, who was very important to me because she took on my role when I failed in it. Although our feminist suburban mystique leader, who died recently, was a half generation older than me, we were mothers in the same decade of the formaldehyde fifties, when women were embalmed in their homes. I was not thus interred however, and would probably have done a lot better had I been. Besides doing bottles and diapers and trying to survive a wildly inappropriate choice of husband, I was running around teaching and undertaking writing assignments. I was liberated too early, on my own recognizance, and not from the suburbs, from whence the true feminist, the one who wrote the book anyway, seemed to emerge. Three more stages of liberation were just as promising. Following four years of marriage, I was on my own with two children under five -- a ghetto of three until I met a few mothers of the Lower East Side who had somehow lost their men, and embraced me as one of their own. Escaping enthusiastically into their life of parties and dancing, art-world connections, thrift store excursions and Provincetown holidays on fantasy money, my credentials and cache as a mother, such as they were to begin with, were weakening. Now in other words I had left my home in a big way. We had places to live, but that's all I would call them. In my third stage of "liberation," with my children now safely under the roof of their father and his new wife, I tore the city apart. My escapades or public displays can be found in the literature, most of it written by myself. Had I been a desperate housewife in the subs, after reading The Book, I would simply have commuted happily to the city to a nice magazine office job, a magazine for women of course, leaving my children in charge of expensive nannies, meeting my appropriate husband after work, maybe going to the opera with him before taxiing to the train station for home. He would have got used to it after awhile. If not, I could have divorced in style, and gone on to another desperate life, living long enough to find myself enshrined in a popular sitcom. Last month I found our great subspert in a NY Times article headed, "Betty Friedan's Enduring 'Mystique'" -- illustrated by a photo of her at the one and only place I ever met her, a feminist fund-raising party in East Hampton, August 1970. Recalling what happened there, the photo and caption gave me a certain complicated thrill. The party took place around the pool of the house belonging to art collectors Ethel and Bob Scull. By then I was awash in my fourth and final stage of liberation -- a kind of offshoot of the very thing The Book was said to have set in motion. Eventually this "final stage" would become yet another playing area from which to be liberated. All of life seems like that. Once we settle into some phase or other, and become attached to it, some unknown force makes us move on, only death obviously relieving us from these exhausting cycles. At the party in East Hampton, Betty was suitably appareled in a gown. Anyone raising money there was in a gown. These were all real girls. I was there comparatively in rags, clearly out of place. I had been eager to see these ex-urban gowns assembled in one location, and the newspaper for which I was writing every week was curious to see what I would do about it. My days of anarchic public disorder, admittedly a strange sort of art form, previously useful only to generate my own copy, could now be transplanted to events of political import. I could represent something larger than myself. I had never in my life been political. What aroused me was a hefty conundrum I sensed strongly but couldn't solve. It would take that revolutionary metaburban woman Ti-Grace Atkinson to finally put it together when she said, "Feminists are women who fight the patriarchy by day, and who go home to sleep with the enemy at night." I may be paraphrasing, but I'm close. Having endured a variety of PMSD, i.e., post-marital stress disorder, as a result (with other factors figured in) by Atkinson's dictum I was a real feminist. I no longer slept with the "enemy" at night, at home or elsewhere. So who were these "others"? Enemies in both genders abounded during that time. I was about to be called one myself, a really important one in fact. At the Scull party, one of Betty's henchladies brought her over to meet me. There were no amenities or anything. She simply delivered the line that I would collude in making as famous as possible, calling me "The Biggest Enemy of the Movement." At last I had some recognition for my liberation traumas. And I celebrated by tearing off my faded denim shirt and pants and splashing into the inviolate pool (the gowns were standing decorously on the walkways surrounding it, holding long-stemmed cocktail glasses), swimming laps in my best Australian crawl, climbing out at the shallow end where Bob Scull was waiting nervously with a large bath towel. Oh I became an overnight pool sensation. Even Time magazine published a photo of this birth image: a curious Botticelli, hair streaming, emerging topless from the deep. So I had thrown down my gauntlet, my body, on behalf of the war that would be waged between the gowns and the guerillas. Nonetheless, in due course I would prove to be a political impostor. I was aware of this, but only inarticulately. Years later my son Richard, the second oldest of his father's five, gave me a clue, pointing out that my dada activities were oxymoronic in a political arena. These were not his words exactly. The sense was that I had superimposed exhibits from one of my liberation periods incommensurately onto this new platform, making me a kind of movement of one, betraying my own idea of serving others in a larger cause. Underlying this paradox was a greater narcissistic reality. I was a writer first, and everything else came second, subjects for sure, but even blood. My first liberation was not from the home but from not yet knowing what to do in life. This can happen at any time in progress from womb to grave, though in the 1950s only for males -- but who knew? Not knowing, I was self-propelled, with an open mandate. It's 2006, have things changed? A NY Times letter today, March 20, reads, "There have been a few distressing items in the media of late tending to favor women's being restricted to domestic chores rather than a woman's individual right to pursue fulfillment in her professional and private life as she might wish." I was around 25, still unmarried, when something I wrote that was published carried my by-line, which stuck out a mile. In context of my children's new half-family in formation, all bearing their father's surname (except for the oldest whose mother remarried when he was six, and he got a stepfather's name), I am a mere Johnston -- a name my mother stole from the foreigner she chose to sire me. I have no other relatives by that name in America, unless you count degrees of separation, and I don't. The by-line still looks okay, but in any family constituency, such a name is a real floater. I consulted my friend Sandra who had five children by three different men. She had their fathers' names while married to them, and at last, reverting to her maiden name, she no longer shares a name with any of her children. However, she raised them all, she's the only mother, and she seems to have perfect matriarchal status. She was liberated from husbands, but never gave up her children. During the early 1970s, as I grappled unconsciously with my guilt in still not raising my own (in their early teens then), I lit upon the ancient or mythic Amazons, so popular with feminists at that moment, to produce an acceptable setting for motherhood. I wrote a big article about it for Ms. Magazine called "The Return of the Amazon Mother," picturing myself somehow in a large community of women, all missing one breast, bearing the scar of honor, where each mother's children belonged to the whole group. It seems simply amazing to me that the magazine, headed up by Glorious as we called her, published this thinly disguised compensation. What kind of magazine for women was that?! So how, you might like to know, did my nuclear-raised children turn out? Well, well, in no particular order -- i.e., they are very successful. And one way to look at this outcome is that their delinquent mother modeled a way of life doing what she wanted or had to do. Also, I have been enthusiastic about their developing half-family, even without blood in it, denoting a proper possessiveness, a proprietary interest in all their connections. I never forgot that I gave life. Looking back at my Amazon phase, I can see something interesting there about blood. An implied de-emphasis of this liquid in group submergence resonates with my origins, where our futures are located. My origins were shrouded in secrecy over blood. The line of my father proceeded abroad in the normal family fashion, but was not exported to America. I was on my own with my American mother, who by the way set up my eventual maternal unfitness through her own modeling of independence. So blood is not my strong point. I can't be trusted with blood. I do better with ink and swimming pools, liberating myself from one word or body of water to the next. Do I know what this is really all about? No, but I can refer you to the Gertrude Stein title, "Blood on the Dining Room Floor."


©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here. To read more of Jill Johnston on the Dance Insider, click here.

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