Authors: Carol Muske-Dukes
For Laurie Frank and my daughter, Annie Cameron
“The pure products of America go crazy—”
WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS
T THE TOP
of the Wandstar Building, high above Manhattan, dwarfing the towers of Chrysler and Pan Am, are the offices of SISTERHOOD magazine, commonly known as SIS. In the late rays of cocktail hour, the SIS windows purple like stained glass, and till dawn the rotating red SIS logo (the bio-sign of the female, with an
curled inside) glows reassuringly as a lighthouse beacon, a neon night-light. For others, though, it’s a migraine, unsettling sleep as it circles: a bloodthirsty bat on a rafter.
I ought to know. For five years I’ve been letters editor at SIS. Every day I ride the elevator to 72, press the security buzzer, nod to the bronze SIS logo and Minnie White-White-Goldfarb, the hyphenated receptionist, pass the Situation Room and Day Care—on my way to my little red desk, piled high with scrawled letters to the editor.
SIS is a new kind of magazine for women. A magazine for that generation of changelings called the Independent Woman. Our covers usher in the New Woman in a series of role models, mother goddesses, psychological bricklayers. The Soviet woman cosmonaut. The IRA firebrand and Parliament member. The French head of Female Cultural Affairs. The Indian premier. The Greek Resistance fighter. We are an unheard-of representative medium: a national glossy with “matte” concerns, a bimonthly cross between a feminist
and a liberated
Ladies Home Journal
with an all-woman staff serving a readership of five million. SIS is hot stuff. It comes close to having what men call power, but we at SIS never use that word.
I myself never use the word because I have no power. What I feel like is a clerk in some lost warehouse of the imagination. I sit for days sifting through sky-high stacks of postmarked dreams. There are letters on lime-green stationery with little yellow bunnies running down the margin, and letters on paper with photos of smiling ape heads in the upper left-hand corners reading: “Notes from a Profound Thinker,” and letters pocked with teardrops, blood spots, bacon grease, semen. Every hour or so I put my head down on my desk and bump it casually. “My name is Willis Jane Digby,” I say to myself, “Willis Jane Digby. And I am a sane person.” But I’m not convinced.
It is my opinion that I am going mad in the capacity of letters editor. The letters themselves started out being amusing, then disturbing, then haunting, then capable of driving me slowly (if that’s possible at the rate of ten thousand per month) out of my mind. I felt that I had come to recognize in their diabolical styles, in their terrible false heartiness and conspiratorial tone, the unmistakable echo of our own SIS style; in certain of them I’ve come to recognize the mirror image shot back in our eyes by shards of glass, clear breakage. I sit with my head in my hands and feel the successive flashes like gunfire.
Certainly the sanity of the average reader of SIS has often been called into question by establishment shrinks. We publish articles on Getting to Know Your Cervix, complete with a couple of sisters sitting around with hand mirrors earnestly comparing labial puckers and yawns; we solemnly discuss nonsexist parts of speech, including “na” and “nu,” the liberated pronouns; our list of suggested Christmas gifts for the Free Woman includes a bronzed diaphragm, a trophy. Was it such a big step to the woman who wrote in that she was sexually harassed by the bald man on her can of oven cleaner? Or the one who complained to us that a tiny orthodox rabbi entered and vacated her vagina at will?
Well, okay, maybe a
step for mankind, but for womankind it seemed smaller, a lateral move, a sidestep. I’ve known so-called crazy women all my life (haven’t you?): the ravers in supermarkets, the savers of string and old nylon stockings (whose hoard soon filled rooms!), the nonstop talkers, the depression shoppers, the neighborhood kook with rouge spots and old Christmas bows in her hair, bag ladies, bugged slaves of the spotless house, polishers of the same spot on the piano.
one hot June day in 1959, throwing the iron out the window, and yelling after, “Ironing drives me
did you hear that, Mrs. Comstock???”
Male crazies come in predictable (often boring) wrappers, but the women are chattier, more distracted from the solemnity of dementia—hearing six voices at once (like a mother!) and still talking, jugglers of thought-hors d’oeuvres, hearers of stereo prayers, weirdly
in a hopeless world. Coupon snippers, shoplifters, crash dieters, home decorators, jingle thinker-uppers, the occasional baby smotherer who did it for love.
Well, I (with reservations) salute them. The stuff from men really gets on my nerves sometimes. I read letters from deranged, vindictive males aloud at editorial meetings amid great protest; I post them in the john. But the women’s stuff I take home with me, sometimes; I read their letters over a cup of hot tea, nodding, shaking my head, feeling for us all.
So here I sit, lonely hearts joker, at my little red desk. Where my job is to read (with a few fast-disappearing assistants)
To answer each with at least a form reply. To select a few of the more sane for publication in the Letters column. To get back to those that seem to warrant either an official or semipersonal response.
On an average day I find my
box bristling with envelopes. First come the run-of-the-mill cheerleaders—“keep up the good work, sisters”—and general commentary from both sexes: intelligent, thoughtful letters about child care centers, prenuptial contracts. Then comes the first level of Ink Theater:
Hey Female Libbers of the World—Thought for the Day on the Subject of Rape (or what
call Got Lucky Sex!): GET POKED, DOLORES! Do you hear guys going around pretending to know anything about being Knocked Up and feeling like a Blind Dumb Sow? Do I give you advice on Cramps? Then why is it you chicks act like you know what it’s like to get a nice steaming whopper of Semen delivered free to your testiculs with No Where to Unload???
If enough loads pile up, Sister, a Guy can get Pissed. Real Pissed.
Upshot: Walk a mile in my Jockstrap, Yolanda.
I’d like to drop by SIS and show you all this process, how it works, but I got my third leg in traction right now. It gets thrown out of joint because of its size. But I got a few Hot Loads comin’ up. You’ll know me when you see me, girls.
SIS thanks you for your letter. Unfortunately, due to the volume of our correspondence, it is impossible to answer each letter personally. However, we will place your letter in our files and look forward to your continued interest in SIS.
Willis J. Digby, Letters Ed.
Impotency is a common enough male sexual dysfunction. Don’t let it getcha down. Traction sounds like the most intimate relationship you’ll ever get. Hang in there, pal.
You see, I’ve actually begun to
the weirdest letters. I think about them all the time, but the transition from thought to paper is a major shift. I have a pair of Bugs Bunny rabbit ears attached to a wire halo that I put on when I feel in the mood to respond to the Loonies. On the days when I also wear my three-piece pinstripe suits and ties, or my tux, I feel immortal—the way the authors of those letters feel righteous, deathless, sublimely inspired. I like looking weird; I’ve found that it gives me confidence. People look, laugh uncertainly, then watch their step with me. I look up from a stack of letters, the rabbit ears wobbling, and I loosen my tie just a little and frown. That gets them.
Because of my first name (for the Willis my father expected as first son in my place), I get a lot of letters from guys who think I’m odd man out at SIS. Good Old Willy Digby.
Don’t know what you’re doing there, comrade, but I thought I’d write to you, who must suffer much at the hands of those Amazons.
I am a youthful, personable, impeccable-looking dentist (twenty-eight and a full-fledged D.D.S.), and I ride my bicycle to my office each day to keep fit. One morning I’d paused at a
sign (I, of course, obey all posted traffic regulations!) when a young woman (we shall
refer to her as a “girl”) about twenty-three or so passed in front of me. Her bow-shaped lips were smiling in a little smile, which I took to be an acknowledgment of me. (Though maybe she was smiling to herself?) At any rate, as she sashayed in front of me, swinging her hips in girlish fashion, I called out in a jovial tone (and without, I believe, a trace of sexual innuendo), “Hello, my lovely!” and I flashed her what I think was an energetic but neutral grin.
Now prepare yourself. She stared hard back at me and said in a calm, even polite voice, “Why don’t you take this and light up your asshole, you smarmy little twerp!” Then she threw her lit cigarette at my bicycle seat and marched off.
Well. I went to my office and gave myself a good blast of nitrous oxide. (Laughing gas, to you.) I’m still reeling as I write this, but I’m abjectly depressed. Daylight is about one-twentieth the size of New York, and if this sordidness can go on in Ohio, I shudder to think what you guys are going through there.
Willis, I think (if you can beat those harpies off the typesetting machine!) you should print this letter. I’m well aware of the official SIS line of propaganda regarding unsolicited male comments—but I’d like females everywhere to know how provocative their appearance is to men, and to dentists. And how we’re kicked in the teeth like this and still expected to come back for more! I am gassed, yes,
right now, and ready to drill any female I see (excepting my dental hygienist, who is above reproach), but I would be very grateful if my story came to light. Fight
From: Badly-Gassed in Ohio
Dear Badly Gassed,
I am not a man, but of the female persuasion myself. I do somewhat understand your position here, though. Prone. You sure must feel stupid. “Energetic but neutral”—Christ. I think you oughtta lay low for a while, stay gassed, and sell that bike. The image of a sexually aroused dentist is never a happy one.
WJD, Tooth Fairy
Listen Up, CUNTS!
Your Rich-Bitch politics suck a big weenie!
SIS is in bed with all the corporate powers of the Pig Capitalist Structure! SIS gives head on Wall Street! You run silly ads telling women to paint their faces and fingernails and wear panty hose. You support the use of feminine hygiene products—with impunity! You shake one fist in the air in the Liberation salute while the other gives Max Factor a hand job!
Are you proud of this, SIS? Ask yourself: Would Che’s sister have read SIS? Would Lenin’s mother have subscribed? Mother Jones would have used SIS for t.p., you bovine big-bottomed bourgeois bitches!
Who will liberate your neo-pussy rhetoric, SIS? Let’s get REAL, SIS, let’s hang those flabby tits and armchair asses out the Window of Life—and shoot the breeze with the masses!
Those who are out to destroy your hypocrisy will roll over on you in the end! I suggest that you wake up now, before it’s too late, and invest some of your ripped-off profits where they can effect real Social Change. Send your bank-authorized check immediately to me care of my Institute.