Monday, October 26, 2009
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Book Review by Zinta Aistars
• Hardcover: 320 pages
• Publisher: Knopf (September 8, 2009)
• Price: $27.95
• ISBN-10: 0307267148
• ISBN-13: 978-0307267146
This book is important. So important, in fact, that first reviews from reputable sources are calling it the most important book of the year, some even calling it the most important book of our time. Yes. It is.
Now and then we must pick up a book that awakens in us all the compassion, all the indignation, all the heart we need to make a difference in the world. And that’s the best part: each and everyone one of us can.
Nicholas Kristof may be a name you already recognize as a New York Times op-ed columnist. Both he and wife, Sheryl WuDunn, have won Pulitzer Prizes for their work in journalism. Kristof has won two Pulitzer Prizes, WuDunn shares one with Kristof for the work they have done together. WuDunn worked as business editor for the Times and foreign correspondent in Tokyo and Beijing. The two of them have already collaborated on two previous books. I dare say, none yet of such global reach as this one.
Half the Sky is a very readable collection of individual stories, interspersed with narrative by the authors for appropriate background. Very readable, yet simultaneously shattering. And, simultaneously, deeply inspiring. “Women hold up half the sky,” is a Chinese proverb that pulls these stories of women throughout the world together into one great call for the emancipation of women in 21st-century slavery.
“When a prominent dissident was arrested in China, we would write a front-page article; when 100,000 girls were routinely kidnapped and trafficked into brothels, we didn’t even consider it news. We journalists tend to be good at covering events that happen on a particular day, but we slip at covering events that happen every day—such as the quotidian cruelties inflicted on women and girls. We journalists weren’t the only ones who dropped the ball on this subject: Less than one percent of U.S. foreign aid is specifically targeted to women and girls.”
Kristof and WuDunn pick up the dropped ball in Half the Sky and toss it at the reader—at you. The stories here are about girls and women in Cambodia, in the Congo, in Thailand, Pakistan, Ethiopia, India, Burundi, Senegal, and many other parts of the world. Yes, wherever you may be, from your part of the world, too. If not always directly, then not as indirectly as you may think, because the sex trade and human trafficking has spread to the United States in alarming numbers and with alarming effect. Eastern Europe suffers from human trafficking, too, as it struggles with poverty. Witness the efforts of the pornography industry to make pornography mainstream. Humans have become wares up for sale, slavery today far outnumbering anything yet seen in human history.
The authors state: “107 million females are missing from the globe today… Every year, at least another 2 million girls worldwide disappear because of gender discrimination.”
“The global statistics on the abuse of girls is numbing. It appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century.
“In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.”
But Kristof and WuDunn understand that it does little good to toss out numbers and statistics. Not like this just began yesterday. The horror of gender discrimination, of human trafficking and sex slavery, across the world has been ignored for a very, very long time. The way to bring this horror home to move hearts and begin the process of change is by giving these stories a face, a name, someone with whom we can identify. This could have been me. This might have been my daughter. And even with that false comfort, that it may not be you, or your daughter, the authors make sure by end of the book that we all understand that these women touch all our lives. “Countries that nurture terrorists are disproportionally those where women are marginalized,” they remind us. “We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts.”
We read the stories of girls stolen from families who live in poverty. The lies told to unwitting parents are that their little girls, as young as eight years old, will be brought into the city and cared for, put to work there selling food or flowers or other such. Instead, these children and young women are thrown into brothels, were they are beaten, over and over again, into submission. Usually, they are also forced into drug addiction, effectively making them slaves of these addictions, so that even when they might have a chance to run, the agony of withdrawal keeps them coming back. And still they run. Corrupt police capture them, gang rape them (yes, police), and bring them back again. Or, an increasingly common tactic of revenge against women who escape is to toss acid into their faces until their living flesh melts away. A gouged eye will do just fine, too. Little girls, once beaten into submission, are locked into rooms with paying male customers (young virgins bring the highest price), to come out later, bloodied and raped. How many American tourists and business men have bragged about their trips to Thailand to enjoy all that “open” sex trade?
I, too, have at times wondered if one way of combating the abuse of girls and women into forced prostitution (an interesting phrase, implying that any woman in her right mind would willingly prostitute herself if she had other options available) by legalizing and so offering certain protections to women, might be at least a partial answer. The authors write:
“What policy should we pursue to try to eliminate that slavery? Originally, we sympathized with the view that a prohibition won’t work any better against prostitution today than it did against alcohol in America in the 1920s. Instead of trying fruitlessly to ban prostitution, we believed it would be preferable to legalize and regulate it.
“Over time, we’ve changed our minds. That legalize-and-regulate model simply hasn’t worked very well in countries where prostitution is often coerced… legal brothels ten to attract a parallel illegal business in young girls and forced prostitution. In contrast, there’s empirical evidence that crackdowns can succeed, when combined with social services such as job retraining and drug rehabilitation, and that’s the approach we’ve come to favor.”
People often point to the Netherlands as an example of a place where the sex trade has been legalized, but the authors peel back that rationalization and make an interesting comparison with Sweden, where the purchase of sexual services was criminalized in 1999. Men caught paying for sex are fined, imprisoned for up to six months. The prostitute, however, is not punished. In effect, this approach reflects the view, far more accurate, that the prostitute is not the criminal, but a victim of a crime. The “john,” however, is a victimizer, taking advantage of someone’s dire situation in life. Keeping in mind that studies show more than 90 percent of women engaging in prostitution or in pornography have been sexually molested prior to doing so, it is only logical to seek protection for those women and putting the crime on the shoulders where it belongs: on the man buying the service or buying or using pornography.
“A decade later, Sweden’s crackdown seems to have been more successful [than the Netherlands] in reducing trafficking and forced prostitution. The number of prostitutes in Sweden dropped by 41 percent in the first five years… and the price of sex dropped, too—a pretty good indication that demand was down… traffickers believe that trafficking girls into Sweden is no longer profitable and that girls should be taken to Holland instead… 81 percent of Swedes approved of the law.”
Kristof and WuDunn tell the stories of the women in these situations to bring reality to the numbers and theories, but the overall message is one of empowerment for women. Their advice is not only to the girls and women directly in the line of fire, however. This message is for women everywhere. Empowerment and drawing the line of here and no further against any kind of gender discrimination, built upon the cornerstone of objectification of girls and women, begins with any female reading these lines. And, with any male who respects the opposite gender—and himself, enough to demand that women and girls be treated as human beings and not as objects for his pleasure.
“One of the reasons that so many women and girls are kidnapped, trafficked, raped, and otherwise abused is that they grin and bear it. Stoic docility—in particular, acceptance of any decree by a man—is drilled into girls in much of the world from the time they are babies, and so they often do as they are instructed, even when the instruction is to smile while being raped twenty times a day.
“This is not to blame the victims. There are good practical as well as cultural reasons for women to accept abuse rather than fight back and risk being killed. But the reality is that as long as women and girls allow themselves to be prostituted and beaten, the abuse will continue.”
This empowerment begins with education. There is good reason why in so many parts of the world, education is denied to girls and women. Thinking leads to understanding. Understanding leads to empowerment. Empowerment leads to change. “Education and empowerment training can show girls that femininity does not entail docility, and can nurture assertiveness so that girls and women stand up for themselves.”
Here, the reader begins to understand, too. When these girls and women do stand up and demand justice, when they shout against their abusers to stop, it is imperative that we who live in more privilege echo their cries and add our own in support. “Easy for outsiders like us to say: We’re not the ones who run horrible risks for speaking up. But when a woman does stand up, it’s imperative that outsiders champion her; we must also nurture institutions to protect such people. Sometimes we may even need to provide asylum for those whose lives are in danger. More broadly, the single most important way to encourage women and girls to stand up for their rights is education, and we can do far more to promote universal education in poor countries… There will be less trafficking and less rape if more women stop turning the other cheek and begin slapping back.”
The stories of individual women who have done just that, mustering up more courage than most of us can even imagine, have made dramatic changes not only in their own lives, but in the lives of those living in their villages, towns, cities, even countries. The domino effect of this kind of empowerment cannot be overstated. These women are true heroes who inspire us all. Against unimaginable odds, some against their own families, against husbands who declared them untouchable after gang rapes, mothers who shunned them in favor of their sons, corrupt police who not only ignored their cries for help but alarmingly often gang raped these same women all over again, still these women rebelled and would not allow their spirits to be broken.
As the world is ripped apart by terrorism and war, women continue to become a weapon of war. When wars die down, domestic violence continues a silent war in many homes—and this is a growing epidemic in American homes, too.
“Surveys suggest that about one third of all women worldwide face beatings in the home. Women aged fifteen through forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and warm combined. A major study by the World Health Organization found that in most countries, between 30 percent and 60 percent of women had experienced physical or sexual violence by a husband or boyfriend.”
The authors ask little, really, of their readers. Letter-writing campaigns, for instance, empower those whose voices are drowned out by their abusers. Petitions get noticed. Even, I like to think, writing a book review such as this one can help in raising awareness (I have suggested reading Half the Sky to my women’s book club, and I look forward to our group discussions). While monetary donations can make a dramatic difference—and there is list of verified charities in the back of the book—the authors point out that the American penchant to change unjust laws is too often only a beginning to creating change. Changing a culture is far more important, because traditions over many generations can hold very firm, even when they are made illegal. Sexism and misogyny is rampant worldwide, and when such attitudes are deeply ingrained in a culture, even the women participate. Infanticide of female babies is often at the hands of mothers, and women who have been abused themselves often become the abusers of the next generation of girls. Knowing nothing else, minds washed of rational thinking, accepting a view of themselves as less than human out of ignorance, such victims become victimizers, and the only way to stop this vicious cycle is stop wrong thinking—by education. And not just in other places. Education at home, too.
“One of the great failings of the American education system, in our view, is that young people can graduate from university without any understanding of poverty at home or abroad. Study abroad programs tend to consist of herds of students visiting Oxford or Florence or Paris. We believe that universities should make it a requirement that all graduates spend at least some time in the developing world.”
A current effort by Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is to raise awareness and fight mass rape of girls and women as a weapon of war. In 2008, the United Nations formally declared rape a weapon of war. Major General Patrick Cammaert, a former United Nations force commander, in addressing rape being used as a war tactic, said, “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict.”
“The world capital of rape is eastern Congo. Militias consider it risky to engage in firefights with other gunmen, so instead they assault civilians. They discovered that the most cost-effective way to terrorize civilian populations is to conduct rapes of stunning brutality. Frequently the Congolese militias rape women with sticks or knives of bayonets, or else they fire their guns into women’s vaginas… soldiers raped a three-year-old girl and then fired their guns into her. When surgeons saw her, there was no tissue left to repair. The little girl’s grief-stricken father then committed suicide.”
According to various counts done by the United Nations, about three quarters of the women in the Congo have been raped. By “women,” it should be made clear, the authors include girls as young as six years old, and sometimes even younger. Considering that many of the Congolese troops are young boys, one can only imagine the damage done on a cultural level in terms of how such males will forever after view females, their own future wives and daughters.
One of the physical ailments these raped girls and women suffer is called a fistula. This is a condition of internal organ damage that can lead to waste freely spilling out, or problems in childbirth that often lead to death. The authors describe this common result of rape, and they also discuss female genital mutilation, the latter often being a result of long held tradition in some cultures. In short, this is a process of cutting genitals of girls, usually with unsanitary knives, always without anesthesia of any kind. The cultural basis of this cruel practice is to control a woman’s sexuality. The idea is basically that if a woman cannot feel sexual pleasure, she is more likely not to stray from her future husband. The result of this practice is often lifelong injury and scarring. Complications can be fistulas, infections, and other medical conditions that can be crippling if not fatal. Simply getting laws on the books to make such practices illegal, however, do little to change tradition held through many generations. Once again, the answer can be in raising awareness, educating women that such barbaric practices are not acceptable, are not a “cultural tradition” to uphold, but a monstrous practice that falls into human rights abuse.
Kristof and WuDunn remind us as we read through these stories and their surrounding narrative: “We’re wary of taking the American women’s movement as a model, because if the international effort is dubbed a ‘women’s issue,’ then it will already have failed. The unfortunate reality is that women’s issues are marginalized, and in any case sex trafficking and mass rape should no more be seen as women’s issue than slavery was a black issue or the Holocaust was a Jewish issue. These are all humanitarian concerns, transcending any one race, gender, or creed.”
Solutions to these problems begin with viewing women fully as human beings. Not a gender to be used and abused, overpowered and beaten down, but as human beings with full rights to be treated as such. The authors write about the changes that can, and have, come about where women are given equal rights, including the right to own property, the right to have determination over their own bodies, the right to basic health care, the right to have a voice over their own lives. The reason they give for empowering women as a means to ease, or even eliminate world poverty, is an illustration of how men have used donated funds. According to studies, the top three expenditures for money donated to men in developing countries have been alcohol, prostitutes, and candy. Whereas when women have been given money, they have used it for medical care, for food to feed their families, and for education. Uplifting stories include those of women who were once beaten by their husbands, but were given loans of sometimes no more than fifty dollars, enabling them to completely transform their lives. The results have been thriving new family businesses that would employ others, helping not only one family, but the entire town in which that family lives.
The book concludes with chapters titled, “What You Can Do,” and the answers are stunningly simple. A little can have ripple effects that go a long, long way. I personally decided, after exploring online various charities the authors recommend, to sign up with Women Helping Women International, donating $27 on a monthly basis to a woman who has survived multiple gang rapes and been ostracized by her family and village. But the authors remind us that money isn’t always necessary. Voicing support, volunteering, your own education on these matters, can all add up a transformative movement with global outreach.
“The tide of history is turning women from beasts of burden and sexual playthings into full-fledged human beings. The economic advantages of empowering women are so vast as to persuade nations to move in that direction. Before long, we will consider sex slavery, honor killings, and acid attacks as unfathomable as foot-binding. The question is how long that transformation will take and how many girls will be kidnapped into brothels before it is complete—and whether each of us will be part of that historical movement, or a bystander.”
See http://www.halftheskymovement.org/ to learn more, to do more.
~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet
Thursday, October 15, 2009
• Hardcover: 320 pages
• Publisher: Vanguard Press (October 6, 2009)
• Price: $25.95
• ISBN-10: 1593155530
• ISBN-13: 978-1593155537
I am holding Nevada Barr responsible: since picking up her newest novel, 13 ½, I have been losing sleep. Until the very last page had been read, sleep continued to evade me.
In all my lifelong voracious reading habits, I continue to find that writers can generally be classified in one of two groups: fine literary writers or terrific storytellers. Because the skill set and high level of artistry required is quite different for each group, rarely do the two groups meet and mesh. But Nevada Barr stands neatly balanced, with one foot inside each of these two groups. She is a fine writer, with literary finesse, and she is one heck of a storyteller.
Barr kept me awake with her storytelling, but not before messing with my head a bit, along with my sleep patterns. When I first opened the cover of 13 ½, I was thrown into a horrific scene of sexual molestation. Polly, a girl not yet nine years old, is being raped by her mother’s whiskey-chugging boyfriend. Rather than protect and defend her daughter, Polly’s alcoholic mother gets jealous and angry with her. Too frequently, this scenario is all too real. Victims become victimizers, and Polly’s mother, her own self-esteem nonexistent, allows her daughter to become victimized. At such a very tender age, this child understands the male psyche far beyond what she should: “Though Polly’s birthday wasn’t for a couple weeks, she already knew what it meant when men’s eyes went gooey and nasty.”
The message of this scene, however, is not so much victimization as survival skills. Polly grows up to be a smart woman, one who has fortunately been strong enough to break the cycle of abuse and instead is a loving and protective mother of her own children.
Stage left, enter another main character: Butcher Boy. This child, Dylan, wakes into a family massacre, his parents murdered with an axe, his baby sister dead, his older brother badly wounded. He alone is whole, however dazed. Eleven years old, he is dragged to court and prosecuted for the vicious murder of his family. The boy hardly seems able to function as his mind and emotions shut down under the weight of something so immense, so incomprehensible. Only his surviving brother stands by him.
Barr does a wonderful job of describing a juvenile justice system that is highly dysfunctional. Children who end up in juvenile delinquent homes, more often than not already coming from abusive homes, are often subjected to more abuse by the very staff who is supposed to help them rehabilitate. Reality, alas, matches fiction, and Barr has shone an important spotlight on a growing problem in our society. Dylan is thrown away, with no one caring enough to deal with his problems, and he spends years in a world where guards beat and rape little boys, psychologists and social workers conduct unethical experiments on their young prey, and wardens look the other way. The only person left who seems to care that Dylan is even alive is his brother Rich.
Back and forth. The novel is written in scenes that move from Polly to Dylan and his brother Rich, then suddenly switching to Marshall Marchand and his brother, Danny, a couple of stand-up guys. Between chapters are blood-curdling little inserts, written in first person, of child murderers, mothers who kill their babies, and other psychopaths. A bit disorienting, and I was a little annoyed at being jarred back and forth between all these characters … until it started to fall into place. The Marchand brothers enter into the adult Polly’s world, and by now, also her two young daughters.
Suspense growing, tension tightening, the reader is led along, then pulled into a vortex of escalating horror. Polly and her girls are in danger, and as a mother, my heart pounded with hers, knowing all that she does to protect her own, I would do, too. Yet how clear is the mind of one who has been so badly abused as a child? Does Polly still have the skills to know who to trust and who is just another victimizer? The sad truth is that many who are molested as children, grow up to be attracted like magnets to more molesters, not knowing anything else. Is Polly protecting her daughters from the right man? Does her love for one of the Marchand brothers cloud her judgment?
The clock on my nightstand screaming at me that I should be sound asleep on a work night, I keep reading. And reading. Must know.
Another character to whom we are introduced is the Woman in Red. She reads Tarot-cards and is big, and loud, and impossible to miss. Almost no one notices that inside this woman is complete emotional devastation—another victim of abuse. Barr excels in her literary descriptions when Polly and this woman meet.
“The Woman in Red it shall be,” Polly said and smiled as ghosts of her past walked away giggling. She’d noticed the reader on previous pilgrimages to the square in search of her future. It was hard not to. Shades of shrieking sunset, roses, and hearts of fire, cherries, apples, blood, and wine were thrown together. If one shade of red was loud, this woman’s ensemble was cacophonous.
“Before time and sunlight had taken its toll, her khaki-colored setup had evidently been as red as the rest of her. As she shifted her considerable weight, her chair’s wooden frame moved and flashed thin ribbons of the canvas’s original color, that of freshly butchered meat. Polly descended the cathedral steps and the fortune-teller leaned forward, reaching out with a beggar’s aspect—or that of a drowning woman bent on pulling her rescuer down. ‘For zee lady, zee reading eez free,’ she said in a voice both ruined and childlike, the worn-out voice tape of a Chatty Cathy doll with a fake French accent. Hucksters and harlots never honestly meant anything was free. Having been a little of both in her time, Polly knew ‘free’ just opened the bargaining.”
An especially masterly scene in Barr’s psychological thriller is one in which a Tarot-card reader is murdered—by the man she loves. With expertise, Barr describes the psychological devastation that is necessary for a woman to become emotionally battered, becoming utterly helpless to defend herself, even against her own murderer. She loves this villain, and despises herself, right up to her last breath, even as the ax comes down.
Then, when Polly finds the dead woman’s body, the villain comes after her.
“Scrabbling on sliding magazines, Polly was losing ground. The man’s fingers were wire cables, his strength enough to drag her backwards. Far stronger than she, he could have hammered her kidneys with balled fists; he could have thrown himself upon her and snapped her neck or slammed her head into the floor. He did none of these things; slowly, as if he savored the process, he was pulling her into himself, swallowing her as a snake would swallow a mouse. Garbage piled up under Polly’s chin, drowning her. Scrabbling on the glossy magazines, her hands found no purchase…”
Although I do have to confess here that I had the mystery solved long before the conclusion of the novel, it did not slow my eager reading by one half of a page turn. I did not want to miss any of Barr’s pulsing-with-life descriptions, deep dives into the most shadowy parts of human nature, and the intricacies of dance between victim and victimizer. I wanted to see justice done. And I wanted to read exactly how Barr would put it into words. The images she created are lasting long beyond the final page. The important messages she illustrates remain even longer: abuse of any kind causes unspeakable damage, and those of us who do nothing about a broken juvenile justice system, or the increase of domestic violence, or look past the suffering of the battered, make such crime possible. This novel is more than a thriller. This is no time to sleep. This is a wake-up call.
Nevada Barr is an award-winning novelist and New York Times bestselling author. Among other works, she is also well known as the author of the Anna Pigeon mysteries (see my earlier review of Borderline).
~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, Fall 2009
Wednesday, October 07, 2009
• Paperback: 480 pages
• Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005
• Price: $21.95
• ISBN-10: 0393327418
• ISBN-13: 978-0393327410
In meticulous, even painstaking detail, biographer and art critic, Hunter Drohojowska-Philp has recorded the near century of Georgia O’Keeffe’s life and art. O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is known even by those who know next to nothing about art—her paintings of gargantuan flowers and bleached white bones are well-known by the general public, even those who may never step inside an art museum or gallery. Being able to identify an O’Keeffe painting, however, has no relation to understanding the artist and the influences upon her life and creativity.
Coming from a family of artists, I am far more inclined to step inside an art gallery than, say, a sports stadium, and so I knew Georgia O’Keeffe’s work well. Or, at least … I thought I did. What I knew was actually more the myth than the woman, the sales pitch rather than the art.
In 2007, I had the opportunity to travel to Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was traveling alone, and the experience of a woman alone in the world and on the road was very much on my mind. Wandering around Santa Fe, a unique town of adobe buildings that is deeply immersed in the arts, and the arts of this area deeply immersed in the surrounding physical geography of the land, I came face to face with Georgia. Granted, by 2007, Georgia herself was long gone. Yet her presence was very real in this area where she lived the last third or so of her life, and where she seemed to have found her true identity and free spirit—a woman supremely alone. Center of town was the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. I went inside … and stayed for a very long time. Indeed, I lost all track of time. And by the time I did emerge, I had an entirely new perception of this woman artist, and an expanding curiosity to learn more. I headed out to Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch, her two homes nearby, searching for Georgia’s spirit. I believe I found it.
And so back to this biography, Full Bloom, to learn more. As with any celebrity, and Georgia certainly became that, biographies abound. One has only to determine which one might offer more truth than imagination, and in this case, I imagine the autobiography Georgia herself authored may not be the most truthful. It can be difficult to be objective about oneself, and when a woman has suffered some of the indignities that this woman suffered, the reaction can often be to sweep under the carpet some of the ugliness of life, and leave on exhibit only the beauty and the recovery from that ugly suffering.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s life was not all roses. More thorn, perhaps. More a cutting down to the bone. Born in a small rural town near Madison, Wisconsin, she grew up without material advantage, making her own way in the world. Her art education began at the Art Institute of Chicago, continued in New York at the Art Students League. The discovery and subsequent exposure to the art world of her work is attributed to Alfred Stieglitz, art dealer and owner of Gallery 291 in New York. The gallery was known for being edgy and innovative, bringing to light new and abstract, groundbreaking art. Stieglitz was also a photographer, one of the firsts, breaking ground of his own. A friend of Georgia’s had brought samples of her work to Stieglitz and he was thrilled at the find, remarking that at last, here was a woman who could paint, and who painted as a woman.
At that point, an important door opens in Georgia’s life. Doors are an important theme in her artwork, an important metaphor—one that appears often in her paintings in synchronicity with the opening and closing of doors in her own life—and this door opened onto a relationship that affected her life and psyche deeply for a long time to come. Stieglitz, without her permission, put her artwork on exhibit in his gallery. When she stopped in and saw her work on his walls, she indignantly insisted he take it down. This exchange seemed to set a certain tone for their partnership: he was a controller; she was a young woman just finding her way, not yet in control, but struggling to find it. As the story unfolds, we see how the older man, then married, seduces Georgia into an affair, as much because he falls in love with her art as he does with her. Alas, Stieglitz, we soon learn, is a womanizer. Today, we call his sort sex addicts. Indeed, he and pal Auguste Rodin, also known as a womanizer, and whose sculptures (“The Thinker”) and drawings he is first on American soil to put on exhibit, exchange pornographic drawings and photos over the years, feeding each other’s seedier appetites.
The years to follow this meeting at Gallery 291 are the years of a tormented marriage. Stieglitz divorces his wife to marry Georgia, who had no interest whatsoever in marriage, but finally agrees to it—insisting she still keep her own name—more to save his reputation than her own. Stieglitz’s first wife and daughter both end up handling nervous breakdowns and mental illness brought on by his treatment of his first family. Cheat once, cheat again. And again. And yet again. The marriage of Stieglitz and O’Keeffe is riddled with affairs (his), and O’Keeffe finds her time away from him of ever greater solace. Yet there it is: for all his womanizing, Stieglitz adores his wife, loves her and will not leave her. He, in fact, is the one to deal with increasing anxiety that someday she will leave him. The affairs continue, nonetheless, with most any woman he photographs in the nude (and there are many). Finally, there is the more longstanding affair with Dorothy Norman, a young woman who takes great pleasure in tormenting the older woman and wife with her victories over Stieglitz, using and manipulating his weakness against him every chance she gets. His blatant and open involvement with this mistress eventually causes Georgia to suffer a complete nervous breakdown, requiring hospitalization, while he seems to remain weirdly oblivious to how much pain he is causing her.
Projecting perhaps more what is on his mind than on Georgia’s, Stieglitz promotes her work to the public as heavily sexualized. These aren’t just flowers she is painting … these are the damp petals of a woman’s genitalia. A white bone standing out against the sky? He saw phallic symbols. Georgia abhorred Stieglitz’s marketing of her work, yet she had to admit: it worked. It’s hard to say if her paintings would have reached such a tremendous audience if it hadn’t been for the manner of Stieglitz’s promotions. Adding to that effect, he took hundreds of photographs of his wife, many of which were in the nude. He exhibited these, too, and without her permission. She was horrified. She had agreed to the photos as a gift of intimacy to her husband alone, in part to try to regain his wandering eye and attention. This did not work, but his photos of her did have measurable affect on her growing popularity.
Today, Georgia O’Keeffe is seen as one of the first feminists, certainly in the field of art. Increasingly leaving her husband to his ways in New York, she developed her own home and life in New Mexico, in the desert she so grew to love. From a distance, she was able to continue to love him in her own way. She learned to detach herself enough that his affairs would no longer break her. She learned to find her own style, her own artistic expression on the opposite side of the country. When Stieglitz died of a heart attack, she grieved him even while embracing her solitude, her independence, her freedom. Ghost Ranch became her permanent home, and her work had sold so well, not only in the United States, but internationally, that she had become one of the wealthiest women of her time. Her personality, molded no doubt in part by an emotionally abusive relationship, hardened into a determined control over her own world and her image. Whereas Stieglitz had taken control of her image in her beginning years, now she was free to move in a direction true to her. Dropping the Freudian allusions, she focused on vibrant color, on paintings that were an expression of emotion rather than subject. She searched for simplicity, for clean lines, for the shapes she found in nature. Her work is definitely feminine, a combination of power and grace, the soft and the hard, the straight line and the gentle curve.
In her later years, the artist was known to be eccentric at times, even prickly, not allowing just anyone into her life, even while she would later grow to trust again when she should not (a portion of the book is about a younger man, John Hamilton, who takes advantage of her in her aging years, when Georgia again needs assistance in basic daily chores, and he convinces her to leave much of her estate to him).
As detailed as this biography is, and perhaps it is too much so, it did give me a much better understanding of the woman and her art. Too long, I had bought into the marketing of Stieglitz, not realizing the artist herself resented this view of her paintings, of those great, lush flowers, beautiful for their own sake, without the attachment of metaphor. If for no other reason, I am grateful to this book’s author for separating the sales pitch from the true intent of a remarkable artist. Georgia O’Keeffe accomplished the opening of a path to women artists. She stood up, and survived, and thrived, becoming an inspiration for women in abusive and stifling relationships. She showed the ability to love, if at a safe distance, even under the most callous treatment. She exhibited a woman’s ability to create out of personal suffering, and from something ugly, to develop a lasting beauty. If an oyster creates pearls out of painful grit caught in its tender flesh, so, too, does Georgia O’Keeffe create her pearls, too immense to miss, too vibrant to ignore, too unique to mistake for any other.