JUNE 14, 2019
This piece appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal: The Occult, No. 22
I’ve been thinking a lot about cannibals lately. Fairy tale cannibals. Biblio-cannibals. I’ve been thinking about books eating books. Several months ago, I received an email from a stranger named Jodi, who wrote to notify me of my act of accidental cannibalism. Jodi told me that I’d stolen her young daughter’s innocence, that I needed to do something to stop other children from losing their innocence, too.
The situation involved a literary switcheroo: a bizarre accident at a book bindery. My writing, I learned, had inadvertently cannibalized a New York Times best-selling children’s novel. Two essays from my nonfiction collection appear as chapters in Jodi’s daughter’s edition of The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by fantasy author Kelly Barnhill. At some point during the binding process, my book’s third signature — a unit of bound pages — replaced the third signature of the children’s novel. Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon features a spunky little witch-girl named Luna who lives in the woods with her adopted family: Fyrian, an ecstatic, Chihuahua-sized dragon; Glerk, a serene, poetry-quoting swamp monster; and Xan, a loving yet grumbly old witch. Xan had rescued baby Luna from a barbaric ritual in which a group of village elders had left the infant in the forest to die. In trying to revive the baby, Xan mistakenly gave Luna a drink of potent moonlight instead of mellow starlight. The child then developed supernatural powers that grew increasingly turbulent as Luna approached her teens.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon — aimed at children 10 to 14 — is advertised as “an epic coming-of-age fairy tale.” Throughout Barnhill’s nearly 400-page book, Luna’s adolescence looms as an allegorized threat that recalls many familiar tropes about “uncontrollable” women: moons and madness, lunacy and menstruation. “It was starting early,” Barnhill writes of the girl’s intensifying magic. “All that power — the great surging ocean of it — was leaking out.” The well-meaning Xan casts a spell to stunt Luna’s magic, temporarily cocooning the girl, like a moth or Sleeping Beauty, so the young witch won’t set the forest on fire or turn her loved ones into rabbits. Xan needs more time to teach Luna how to wield her lunar gifts. At the end of the novel, Luna emerges from her stasis to save the people of the neighboring village, the Protectorate, from a fascist council of elders and an evil nemesis-witch.
My essays — “The Guineveres” and “Strange Merchants” — consume pages 55–87 of Jodi’s daughter’s book. “The Guineveres” explores my mother’s penchant for telling macabre tales at the dinner table, while “Strange Merchants” riffs on the theme of “the stranger.” In the mutant novel — the Frankenbook — Kelly Barnhill’s work stops after the following paragraphs:
“Come down this instant, young lady,” the Witch hollered.
The little girl laughed. She flitted toward the ground, leaping from leaf to leaf, guiding the other children safely behind her. Xan could see the tendrils of magic fluttering behind her like ribbons. Blue and silver, silver and blue. They billowed and swelled and spiraled in the air.
On the next page, my essay “The Guineveres” starts:
My mother’s always marveled at Ted Bundy’s charisma, his trick with the fake injuries, his voluminous hairdo. Throughout my childhood she’d recite the serial killer’s murderous steps like a mantra — the arm sling, the dropped stack of books, the women Bundy shoved into his white Volkswagen Beetle. “Don’t ever get into a stranger’s car,” she warned my younger sister and me.
In that same paragraph, I recall my mom’s other storytelling obsessions: Trotsky, the exiled Marxist who died by an assassin’s ice axe; Travis, the pet chimpanzee who gnawed off a woman’s face; and Rosie, the 10-year-old girl from our northern Virginia suburb who was kidnapped, smothered, and dumped beneath a pine tree.
After “The Guineveres,” my essay “Strange Merchants” proceeds through Barnhill’s interrupted tale. In “Strange Merchants,” I recount how my father once bought a leather trench coat, at a Bolivian airport, from an older German immigrant who may have been a Nazi in hiding. The timing — late ’70s — and the place would’ve been about right. I also mention my parents’ ex-pat term in Germany:
In 1975 my mother and father moved to Peine, in the German state of Lower Saxony, so my father could begin a research position in a plastic pipe manufacturing plant. For a year they lived just three miles from the memorial grounds of Bergen-Belsen. My mother asked my dad several times to come with her to visit the site of the former concentration camp, but he refused. Although my father remains a formidable history buff who can discuss with encyclopedic precision the finer points of World War II — battles, geographical terrain, political figures — the subject of the death camp stirs in him a crushing, unfathomable horror so extreme he can’t bring himself to discuss it. (He feels a distinctive yet similarly acute sense of dread about the void of deep space.) Occasionally he deflects his horror of the concentration camps through humor, singing, for instance, the British song mocking the Nazi leadership called “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball,” which assumes the campy, jingle-like cadences of the marching tune “Colonel Bogey March.”
“I have text-chatted, called and posted and can’t get Amazon to stop selling this version of the book,” Jodi wrote. “My goal,” she continued, “is that no other young girl working on her Battle of the Books reading list loses some of her innocence asking parents about serial killers, Hitler’s genitalia, anal rodent penetration, etc etc.”
“Anal rodent penetration,” I said, squinting at the email. “Huh. Can’t place that one.” I handed my phone to my husband, David, who began laughing as he read the message. I soon recognized the reference from one of my essays — a high-schooler’s silly taunt: “Matt sticks hamsters up his butt.” I ordered a copy of The Girl Who Drank the Moon, hoping for a corrupted text (no luck), and wrote Jodi back. I was so sorry for the bewildering situation, I told her; I’d notify both publishers at once. Although I spoke with several surprised representatives of each press, no one could explain what had happened, exactly, or tell me how many Frankenbooks the bindery accident might have spawned. Hundreds? Dozens? A single mangled one? Call it Dark Side of the Moon, David suggested. Or The Girl Who Was Mooned, quipped my best friend, Alicia.
By the time the crescent moon slid past the windowsill and peeked into the room, Fyrian was snoring. By the time the moon shone fully through the window, he had begun to singe Luna’s nightgown. And by the time the curve of the moon touched the opposite window frame, Fyrian’s breath made a bright red mark on the side of Luna’s hip, leaving a blister there.
“Undress and get into bed with me,” says the wolf in a folktale told by peasants throughout early modern France. The wolf had met a girl in the woods and tricked her into telling him the route to her grandmother’s house. He raced to the cottage, killed the old woman, poured her blood into a bottle, chopped up her flesh, and offered the girl, when she arrived, a cannibal’s snack. “Slut!” cried a cat. “To eat the flesh and drink the blood of your grandmother!”
This gory tale later morphed into Charles Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood.” Cultural historian Robert Darnton, in his book The Great Cat Massacre, traces the evolution of the story from its origins in popular oral tradition to its absorption into the fashionable literary genre of fairy tale. Perrault’s readers, Darnton notes, were the bourgeois salon sophisticates of the late 1600s — not the illiterate peasantry — so the French author cut the troubling cannibalism and added a scene in which the girl disobeys her mother’s advice (to justify the child’s demise) as well as a moral about the importance of not falling prey to smooth-talking strangers. Perrault also added that iconic red cap. During the 19th century, German authors Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm grafted onto Perrault’s French fairy tale a happy ending in which a hunter hears thunderous snores as he passes the house, discovers the wolf dozing in bed, and slits the beast’s belly with shears, freeing Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. The girl fills the wolf’s stomach with rocks, so that when he wakes up and tries to flee, he’s felled by his own stony weight. “Little Red Riding Hood went cheerfully home,” the Brothers Grimm write, “and came to no harm.”
The French peasants told their folktales about the girl and the wolf from the 15th to the 18th century, during fireside gatherings in which women sewed and men sharpened tools. Many peasant versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” are amoral and barbaric, terrifyingly irrational. In addition to cannibalism, one rendition of the story evokes bestiality, murder, and a flamboyant striptease. “Where shall I put my apron?” the girl asks the wolf:
“Throw it on the fire; you won’t need it anymore.”
For each garment — bodice, skirt, petticoat, and stockings — the girl asked the same question; and each time the wolf answered, “Throw it on the fire; you won’t need it anymore.”
The story ends with a single sentence: “And he ate her.” There’s no wayward girl, as in Perrault’s character, no Grimm Brothers’ hunter ex machina. Yet not all of the versions of the peasant tale are unhappy. In some of them, the girl survives, but not because of her goodness or piety: she’s a canny trickster who fools the wolf by saying she has to go outside to pee: “I have to relieve myself, Grandmother.”
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I told my therapist when I was 15, glancing at the cop she’d called, presumably to escort me, if necessary, to the adolescent wing of Dominion Hospital. She’d explained the inpatient psychiatric treatment plan as the officer lingered in the doorway. I wore black patent boots, a leather biker bodice, and the bottom half of my little sister’s cut-off ballet tutu. My hair color: Manic Panic’s “Flamingo Pink.” I’d been burning my arms with cigarettes and a steel coat hanger heated with a lighter. Halfway down the hall to the restroom, I looked back. Neither my shrink nor the cop had followed me. I rode the elevator to the ground floor, scrambled across the parking lot and through the woods that horseshoed the strip mall, and dodged two lanes of afternoon traffic to reach the chain restaurant Bob Evans. “My dentist appointment got canceled,” I told the hostess. “May I call my mom from your phone?” Afterward, I crouched between cars in the restaurant’s parking lot, waiting for my friend’s white van to pull up as I sweated in the early spring heat.
The day was warm and sticky, and she realized with creeping horror that she was starting to stink. This sort of thing had been happening a lot lately — bad smells, strange eruptions on her face. Luna felt as though every single thing on her body had suddenly conspired to alter itself — even her voice had turned traitorous.
Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm interprets “Little Red Riding Hood” as a coming-of-age fairy tale in which a pubescent girl confronts the onset of adolescence. To Fromm, the red hood symbolizes menstruation; the bottle she carries represents her virginity; the mother’s warning not to stray into wild terrain alludes to sexual promiscuity; and the stones the girl places in the wolf’s belly imply her punishment for climbing into bed with a stranger: sterility. The problem is, Darnton notes, Fromm’s symbols don’t exist in the peasant folktales. Fromm reads the story as if it’s free-floating, completely ahistorical, universal in its tropes. If fairy tales strike us as timeless, it’s because so many people have revised them in the telling, shuffling centuries of customs and beliefs. Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim sees in “Little Red Riding Hood” an opportunity for children to reckon with repressed Oedipal desires, though there’s nothing particularly repressed or subtle about the earlier tale’s fiery, bodice-flinging striptease. Kids can work through their fears, Bettelheim suggests, within the safety of the tale’s affirmative ending, assuming, of course, that the ending is indeed a happy one. Both Fromm and Bettelheim believe in a single fixed narrative when in fact there are many. They invent a falsely stable text that was never cannibalized with red caps and helpful hunters or revised for the bourgeoisie. They imagine only one girl makes her way through the woods when there’s a multiplicity.
“I know my daughter wasn’t your intended audience,” Jodi wrote. “Please have your attorneys contact Amazon. Please save another young family from going through this.”
Where did we get the idea that children are innocent? “No one thought of them as innocent creatures,” Darnton writes of the cultural attitudes of 18th-century France. Entire peasant families often huddled together in bed for warmth, including occasional livestock. The parents’ sexual activities were frank, adjacent, upfront. “The child,” as a social and biological category, simply didn’t exist. Children were little farmhands, little servants, little apprentices. They were shorter, smaller, less effectual adults. “The peasants of early modern France,” Darnton writes, “inhabited a world of stepmothers and orphans, of inexorable, unending toil, and of brutal emotions, both raw and repressed.” The girl murdered by the wolf in the old folktale doesn’t deserve her fate. She didn’t disobey her mother; she didn’t stray from the moral path. That’s what makes the story so shocking. As Darnton puts it: “She simply walked into the jaws of death.”
Many of the early modern French folktales seem sexual, scatological, and gratuitously violent, even to me, a kid raised on my mother’s stories of Ted Bundy and a face-eating chimpanzee. Darnton recounts a number of peasant tales in The Great Cat Massacre. In one of them, Persinette (the French Rapunzel) and the prince sew shut the anus of her pet parrot to keep the bird from tattling on the couple’s sexual escapades in the tower. The preoccupied parrot can only croak: “Ass stitched. Ass stitched.” In another tale, “La Poupée,” an orphaned girl owns a magic toy that defecates gold when she commands: “Crap, crap, my little rag doll.” When a neighbor steals her mini-Midas, the doll craps actual crap onto the thief and works its magic so that the neighbor’s own turd clings to his anus and bites him. In “Ma mère m’a tué, mon père m’a mangé,” a mother bakes a casserole made savory with chunks of her son’s diced-up corpse, which her daughter in turn serves to the father. And in an early version of “Sleeping Beauty,” Prince Charming rapes and impregnates the unconscious princess, who awakens from the spell when her nursing infants bite her breasts.
Luna sat very still, her mind racing at what her own memory had revealed to her. Her own unlocked memory.
“Although I am only fifteen,” a girl I’ll call Emma wrote to me, “your poems make me very nostalgic for the past.” Her letter arrived about two weeks after I’d received Jodi’s note. “I know that I personally think about my childhood in a positive light,” Emma said, “but at the same time, thinking about the past makes me regret things I have done. It also makes me wonder how my past experiences have shaped who I am today, leading me to wonder if I even like the person I have become.”
She leaned forward and spat on the ground, making a small puddle of dusty mud. With her left hand she grabbed handful of dried grass, growing from a crack in the rock. She dipped it into the spittle-mud and started to wind it into a complicated knot.
After my release from Dominion Hospital, I put a Wiccan curse on my ninth-grade algebra teacher, Mrs. Clarke, which involved the ritualistic tying of consecutive knots. (My stint as a runaway had lasted only a couple of nights.) Because I’d missed several weeks of class while hospitalized, I’d fallen behind in the lessons. I walked up to Mrs. Clarke’s desk at the front of the room while the rest of the students worked on the in-class assignment. I pointed to an equation in my book and asked her for help. “Go ask your classmates,” she said, glancing at my forearm blistered from elbow to wrist in cigarette burns. “They were here.” I could feel my cheeks flare as I turned back toward my seat, the other students pretending not to see me.
The spell was simple. I’d picked the curse from my book on witchcraft because it didn’t involve chicken blood or nude dancing in the woods. All I had to do was cut a length of string, tie a knot toward the bottom of it and say, “By knot of one, the spell’s begun,” while conjuring ill thoughts of my intended victim. I’d then add a second knot, an inch up from the first, and say: “By knot of two, it cometh true.” And so forth (“By knot of three, let it be”), all the way up to 10. I don’t recall how soon after the curse Mrs. Clarke’s kitchen caught on fire while she was out shopping — I won’t claim causality — but I do remember she was absent from class that spring for at least a week.
“You asked me when I think childhood begins,” I replied to Emma. “I probably have a better historical answer than a personal one.” I wrote:
We owe our contemporary perception of childhood (as a period of innocence, liberatory wonder, and creativity) first to the British Romantics of the late eighteenth century, such as Blake and Wordsworth, who drew from Rousseau’s philosophy, and then to the Victorians, of the nineteenth century. Before that time, a more religious view, courtesy of the Puritans, dominated our ideas of children as sinful beings in need of strict moral guidance in a treacherous world — a pretty grim and paranoid notion.
I also addressed Emma’s concern about whether or not she likes the person she’s become. “Show me one person on this planet who likes every part of herself (especially a teenager),” I wrote. “She doesn’t exist. I think realizing that we all contain parts that aren’t flattering — that can be vindictive or jealous or selfish or small — is a natural part of maturity. Being perfect is, in addition to being impossible, pretty uninteresting.”
And inside the chrysalis, it changes. Its body unmakes. Every portion of itself unravels, unwinds, undoes, and re-forms into something else.
“What does it feel like?” Luna had asked.
“It feels like magic,” her grandmother had said very slowly, her eyes narrowing.
Cannibalism. Rape. Anus-biting turds. “If the world is cruel, the village nasty, and mankind infested with rogues,” Darnton writes, “what is one to do?”
Although I’d laughed at Jodi’s summary of my essays’ subjects (Serial killers! Hitler’s genitalia! Anal rodent penetration!) — reciting the trifecta in the cadences of an awestruck Dorothy (Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!) —I’d also recognized in the cannibalized book a much darker story. I saw in the cracked tale an allegory: a reflection of the way my optimism about Hillary Clinton’s electoral chances in 2016 had suddenly split open to reveal the shocking and incongruous, a barbaric tear in the narrative. What is it I’m looking for now, though, as I turn toward these old folktales? A brutal time that might remind me that we could be worse off? That we could be beaten-down, starving grunts on the bottom rung of feudal society? That any of us could walk into the jaws of death, unprepared, premature, undeservedly?
“The tales do not give an explicit answer,” Darnton tells us, “but they illustrate the aptness of the ancient French proverb, ‘One must howl with the wolves.’” Is that what we should do? Howl into the randomness, detached and ironic? Laugh at the swirling absurdities so as not to weep?
But oh! The sorrow hanging over the Protectorate!
And oh! The tyranny of grief!
The year that began in January 2017, with the new president’s inauguration, ended that December, with the renal failure and euthanasia of my beloved cat. “It’s what Michael Jackson OD’d on,” the ER vet had said, waving that second syringe of breath-stopping medicine as she tried to — what? Comfort me? I hadn’t realized I was a 37-year-old woman who secretly believed her black cat would live forever. Who assumed her stories would remain whole, bound tight, awaiting her there, right where she put them. I’ve been thinking that Trump becoming president is as grotesque and unlikely as my contributing serial killers and Hitler’s scrotum to a best-selling children’s book. After all, we don’t always get an explanation when the story splits open. We must make like a peasant in a dark wood and howl with the wolves.