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Gendered Silences

abby rose's picture

I've been very intrigued by Eva's Man, mostly because I found it unbearable to read at first. I couldn't even speak in our conversation in class. I was silenced by the silences within myself, like Eva's (to quote our classmate). I found it peculiar to hear the analytical conversation in class about Eva's silence so closely reflected my own experience with silence and voice and agency, although my story varies so much from her's. Since my inability to engage in the text and in class, I have found a new determination to enter Eva's Man. Perhaps to test the edges of my learning; to look at where I struggle with reading and thinking and speaking as a survivor reading about a survivor. But also because I wonder about how teaching the book itself may elicit voice or impose silence. (When Anne first suggested this route of exploration, I resisted; but now that I am drawn to my own experience as a reader in the class I will think on this as I write my essay). I've also been moved by Adrienne Rich's essay, Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying. Her argument is persuasive, but I cannot entirely agree with it, especially when considering trauma. Silence, or as Rich would say, lying by omission, is often used as a defense mechanism. This is especially true for people experiencing trauma. Whether or not it is an effective or healthy means of defense, it is commonly utilized. I'd like to put these two works by Jones and Rich in converation with one another while tying in my own personal experience with reading and discussing Eva's Man. I will likely also reference Sweeney's chapter on Eva's Man, which seems particularly relevant in light of our prison work and our treatment of the text in class. 


Anne Dalke's picture

I’m struck by your proposal to draw on your own sense of being silenced, first by reading (a phenomenon Shirah identified for us  a bit ago), and  then by our classroom conversation about Eva’s Man. I’m very moved by your decision to ‘test the edges of your learning’ here, to explore ‘how teaching the book itself may elicit voice or impose silence.’

And I agree that Sweeney’s account of teaching Jones’s novel in prison, and the stories she’s gathered about how the women inside took it up, can help to expand this exploration. Wendy Brown may help you more here than Adrienne Rich, esp. since Sweeney takes her on so directly—but start with your own experience and see how far this takes you.

Looking forward to seeing-and-hearing,

abby rose's picture

silence = freedom?

from reading Brown:

  • emancipation, freedom, is impossible without the unseen becoming seen (Eva’s freedom is her own story? she never got another place to voice it. “voice” it)
    • and/but silence does not go away once speech is introduced
    • wait, so then does freedom need domination/subjugation to be enacted? yes - the “definition of freedom” … okay, so then what does this look like in a less literal sense than prisons? eva is in jail, and writes her story from inside— what is being said by the fact that voicing her story is her obtaining freedom? or is her freedom obtained by remaining silent? i don’t think it can be so black and white like I’m attempting to look at it
  • Foucault talks about the ambiguity of silence - both a shelter for and a shelter from power 
    • btw he also says this: "Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it” (86)
    • silence as tolerance? (does eva use her silence to show her tolerance? or intolerance?)
    • freedom in secrecy (think about AIDS epidemic - sexual practices had to come to light and therefore endure scrutiny from a homophobic public)
      • certain narratives brought to light only to be criticized
      • “social liminality” vs. “radical denunciation” - pick your poison
        • silence as paradox
    • silence is as much a part of discourse as speech is
    • but also! can be free from the regulation of speech/discourse… ugh - paradox again! 

so, in light of this... 

Eva’s speech is laced with silence. Most of what she says remains unspoken, alluded to in her subtle testimony. (particularly evident in the latter half of the novel). She tells her story to an audience who already understands; a secret code, even if only she may understand it. The power of her story lies in the balance between her explicit speech, her tacit speech (is this logical phrasing?) and her utter silence. Eva refuses victimization by refusing to share her experiences, even at the cost of her freedom. But what is freedom in Eva’s case? Freedom from speech, for one. Her story cannot be used against her by the will of others; if she is to be incarcerated, which she will, then at least her story remains her’s and her’s alone. If she were to divulge her motives and emotions and history to anyone, it would no longer be purely hers. Though her silence (and her actions, obviously) causes her to be isolated in a prison psychiatric hospital, it brings her sweetness in the end regardless. A complicated sweetness, though. (Agency is not so clear at the end in her interactions with Elvira, either. Just because she ends up with a woman does not mean that it is her first experience with pleasure, voice, or choice. Let us not fall into that discursive trap.) This last part echoes the testimony Sweeney shared from one of the women in her group, she is free from men, too. 

silence... as a part of a non-linear personal narrative... also liberating:

 And it also has to do with the way in which Eva tells her story. It's non-linear and does not fit a traditional narrative structure, which has been a fascinating way to look at freedom for me lately. Eva’s story is unresolved and mostly unexplained- Her story is nonsensical, complex, undefinable… I connect to this deeply. During and after reading Eva's story, I felt like mine can be the same way: nonsensical, complex, undefinable. Also, speaking on the non-linearity, it is how I -how we all- think and live, so to hear a story told in a staccato and changing rhythm allowed me to read/process in my own way; not try to relate by paralleling my story to Eva’s, but rather realizing my own in new ways that also cannot and do not fit a linear narrative. Another personal note: I was able to write, finally after so long, once I read this book. It provided me with new ways to interpret and feel my own story, or non-story...

(I was silenced at first, now I feel empowered! Well, only in certain ways... It's a dance between both of these, still. As I read, I knew that I did not need to return to class to discuss it. That is not the space that I looked forward to processing this book in. I was also mobilzed by my silence - my inability to engage frustrated and saddened me, I wanted to respond to it and push my limits. And I did!)

Now thinking about Sweeney with Brown : 

    • eva’s man refuses this traditional interpretation - it is a story so wholly her own; very visceral and internal, a private projection of her insides as the story progresses;
    • readers are not used to holding human experience for what it is, normally it must be packaged. especially women’s stories. incarcerated women’s stories. 
  • eva does not narrativize her story - but it is neither really a coming to terms with her experience nor wedding her to her trauma (85) - or perhaps, it is the process of coming to terms? a speaking of that which remains unsaid? near the end she says things to the reader without saying them to the people in her memories - what does this do? for eva? for the readers? are we insiders? -- hardly! But I still connect so strongly to the parts of her story that are unexplained and confusing

Also intrigued still in the "silences within herself"... thanks again SM! This idea is part of what complicates all of the above. Is she really free? Who am I to say? I don't think I can make that call. But I can bring it to light.

I have only just started reading Sweeney chapter 3 (even though I did read Prison Narratives Narrative Prisons), so I may have different avenues of thought after reading that and placing it next to what I've been thinking thus far. I feel as though I'm just getting at the surface of many possibilities to write. In sum, I suppose I'm interested in her very unique manner of storytelling which is laced with different uses of silence - I want to explore how Eva exercises her freedom through her voice/silence (but it is a complex freedom... she is imprisoned in more ways than literally).

Thinking now after re-reading this jumble: how much can/should I include my personal connection to the text? Is it a valuable/necessary part of this? 

And are these too simple of claims? Where might I take these ideas to a deeper level of understanding? AGH I realize this may seem scattered but I have honestly so many more feelings about this book... I have not even touched upon teaching this book, which is a whole 'nother bucket of fish... So I can add more, take irrelevant stuff out, etc.

Anne Dalke's picture

WOW. SO much here.

Thank you for writing it all out…

First and foremost?I was able to write, finally after so long, once I read this book. It provided me with new ways to interpret and feel my own story, or non-story...”

THIS IS HUGE…and I’m very glad to hear it.

Secondly (but also primary?!), this fascinating way to look @ freedom: as a non-linear, non-trad’l narrative structure…

Thirdly, your ‘ugh paradox again!’ puts me in mind of the Kalamaras reading for tomorrow: “Eastern philosophy often privileges the use of paradox…as the only communicate the dimensions of its nonconceptual awareness….it comes from para, 'beyond' and doxa, 'opinion,' which comes from dokein, 'to think'….a paradoxical condition in which competing tendencies reside in a state of simultaneity…always at the same time separate and united…the Self is always at the same time both itself and other…to the Eastern sensibility…conditions not of conflict but of reciprocity…Competing tendencies ... complement one another."

Fourthly, your saying that Eva’s “ story remains hers and hers alone” puts me in mind of that NYTimes article about Amanda that your Thursday group read earlier this semester, which took “her story” away from her, refused to make her version the definitive one. Am thinking that the legal/incarceral system does this, tells a story of accountability that is NOT scripted by the prisoners

You ask how much you can/should include your personal connection to the text. Of course i am very glad that you are using these texts to think through your own life, and silences, and writing....that's wonderful. And/but the paper also needs to be of use to others: the audience is not you, but us.

i guess this is to say: yes, of course, start with the personal (where else?). Claim yourself, your point of view, your positionality…but then read out from there. i think the key here is thinking about audience: who will read this and how can you engage them in your reflections? How to make it an analysis that is centrally about your silences and yet more, that moves beyond them to larger concerns?

And then, you say, you have not even touched upon teaching this book--which seems to me not @ all a whole 'nother bucket of fish, but precisely the one you’re splashing in…

can’t wait to see what waves rise up….!