Monday, April 25, 2011

Hungry For The World by Kim Barnes

By the time I was thirteen…I would have come to understand that it was Eve who desired the fruit and its store of hidden knowledge, Eve who had damned us all from the Garden. Years away from that child sleeping in her mother’s arms, I would enter into my young woman’s life knowing these two things: by my gender I was cursed, and my mind would destroy me.

This we learn from Kim Barnes near the very beginning of her chilling memoir, Hungry for the World. Those of us who have escaped from fundamentalist upbringings immediately recognize a kindred spirit in this often heart-wrenching account, and cheer mightily as she tears herself free of the Pentecostal church and the well-meaning but authoritarian father who see’s himself as God’s appointed caretaker of his wife and children, especially his female children.
As a woman, she must compensate for the flaw of her gender by extreme modesty. Her hair was her glory and could not be shorn. For a woman to don pants shocked the male’s superior station. Her arms must be covered, her shoulders, her knees—any part of her that might entice, intrigue, attract, cause another to sin. Silence was her virtue.
For most of her young life, Kim is a dutiful daughter. She admires her nature-loving father and wants both to please him and to be like him. But one of his exhortations to her is to use her mind, to question and think for herself, and this seems to contradict the unflagging obedience that is demanded of her. She describes herself as being “ravenous for words.”
Words were jewels to be turned and examined for every facet, every refraction of light. The only absolutes were the legalities of my faith—the rules for behavior and salvation—and my father’s authority, his word that could not be questioned.
I wonder now if my father may have foreseen that the analytical skills with which he engendered me might someday lead me away from the beliefs he himself embraced. For even as he insisted that I think for myself, he cautioned me against thinking too much. To think was to know, but the desire to know more than had been granted was blasphemy.
Believing as her church told her that she was one of the chosen few and that “God would return to gather His chosen ones home…Dancing was a sin, as were smoking, drinking, rock and roll, swimming with the opposite sex,” she endeavored to make herself pure, to conquer the hunger for life that led her to books and to impure thoughts. After an early outbreak of will and disobedience led to her being sent away, banished for a summer to the home of a preacher who would try to save her from herself, she is reborn to her faith.
I remember how I lay on the floor of my narrow room and cried, then prayed. I felt the weight that was all my sins and worries and cares press me down, then fall away. It happens just this way: one moment, the horrid drunkenness of a life not right, of a soul bloated by neglect and transgression; the next, a feeling of lightness and sharp cleansing. Simply by letting go of my will, my stubborn refusal to submit, I’d been unbound, reborn to the Kingdom of God.
But her rebirth does not last; tempted by a boy in her church to touch in forbidden ways, she soon finds that she has not only alienated her father, but has simply been delivered into the hands of another boy-man who insists that he must determine her boundaries; she learns also that men are dangerous if they become angry. The lesson comes home yet again, “Above all, I must, for the length of my woman’s life, give myself over to the direction of another.

Although a bright student with what seems to be a promising future in college and beyond, when she refuses absolute obedience to her father, she has to leave his home shortly after graduating high school.

Up to this point in her account of her young life, I was simply enthralled, by her skill as a writer, by her courage in going her own way, thinking for herself and rejecting the absurd and narrow dictates of her church and her father. I could hardly wait to finish her memoir and to encourage others to read it. But although she manages to leave both church and father, she remains so self-absorbed in her own struggle for identity that she appears not to notice the political world around her or the ways in which her struggles are a part of much larger struggles against economic oppression, sexism, and racism. She finds men who allow her to be like them, to hunt with them, drink with them, indulge in sexual desire, but she realizes almost nothing about the larger world that the reader supposes she hungered for.

In fact, she finally falls for an older man, David, who is very much like her father in wanting her total submission to his will; and again she decides that somehow her freedom, her identity, is to be found via submission to his kinky sexual appetites.  She seems really to have learned very little from her break from religious fundamentalism. David is not only an avid hunter, he is cruel. He kills animals that he cannot eat, including an owl that he so wants to posses that he shoots it, has it stuffed, and puts it on his mantel as a show of his power. Together they shoot songbirds out of the sky; “I followed David’s lead, blowing the early monarchs and lacewings into velvet tatters. I remember being made uneasy by such casual cruelty, but I dared not protest. Just as when I’d watched John sight in the starlings and inky ravens, I knew that any emotional response on my part would compromise the place I held in the company of men.”

David wants her to submit to his will completely. If he needs her to give herself to other men (showing them the prize that belongs to him), she is to do it. She is not to question what he does when not with her, whom he sleeps with. And for almost all of the remainder of the memoir, we read of how she adjusts to the needs of the men in her life.

There is finally a hint of genuine consciousness towards the end of the book, a dawning realization that her struggle is like the struggle of others.
I lay on my bed, surrounded by my guns, my marksmanship medals, my karate certificates, library books piled high on the nightstand, at the bottom a copy of Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room. I did not yet know how this book would give me my first true taste of political awareness, how it would make me see my struggle in larger terms, give me membership in a common sisterhood.
She does go back to school, does become the writer who produces this memoir, but while I admire her skills as a writer, I remain skeptical of her wisdom and her understanding of political realities. For this reader, she is still the girl who wants to please her father and the cruel men in her life, even if that means taking on the very characteristics that forced her rebellion. Perhaps we will see how her escape and salvation play out in a subsequent memoir.

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