Death Becomes Her

Shannon Brady

We stare down into our translucent ovals

of grease and see the tiny fetus

somersaulting beneath the Formica table,

and the two of us who do not carry

life in our bodies take the idea of it

like a wafer of hope...

--"When I Come Home from Asia We Are All Hungry," Leslie Adrienne Miller


Women should admit that abortion is murder, a friend suggests. We're discussing feminism's disingenuous "choice" stance in the battle over the morality of abortion. Then, he continues, they should claim--as the only humans with wombs--a sacred power to decide the life and death of a fetus. I laugh at him. Oh sure, that will fly. But his idea sticks with me over days and weeks. It finally occurs to me: The notion of women as creators of life and bringers of death has flown before in human culture. Why is that image now so singular, so threatening?

The Hindu goddess Kali is known in the West as the original superbitch, a bloody dealer of destruction. But originally she was worshiped as mother and murderess. Barbara Walker, in The Encyclopedia of Women's Myths and Secrets, points out that this triple-faced (virgin, mother, crone) icon symbolized "Existence" because she also symbolized death: "[H]er world was an eternal living flux from which all things rose and disappeared again." In The Art of Tantra, Philip Rawson quotes supplicants on their relationship with Kali: "His Goddess, his loving Mother in time, who gives him birth and loves him in the flesh, also destroys him in the flesh. His image of Her is incomplete if he does not know Her as his tearer and devourer."

Two weeks ago I lit a candle for a dead friend in the Mary chapel of a Catholic church. No Christian, I prayed that the beneficent earth--the energy Mary represents to me--would cradle my friend and bury her cares. Still, there was no sign in that room (besides the candle flame, perhaps) acknowledging death. And thus no room for my feelings of loss and horror. This mother only births, for an eternity of giving; it's her son who dies, her father (lover?) who deals death. And the son does not really die, the father does not really kill: Everyone lives on at a higher (or lower) elevation. I see no skulls behind these statue faces, no dirt beneath their ceramic fingernails. The promise of the soul's eternal life may comfort some, but it strikes me as a pretty euphemism, a way to cover up the messy reality of our disintegration. We die so that others may live. There's great sorrow in that cycle, and I don't want to pretend it away.

The mother gives, the mother takes away. Except the latter long went underground, eventually emerging in stylish images of double-crossing femmes fatales, slim-hipped and barren--women split off from their fecund selves. I admit to not recognizing Kali in Sharon Stone's Basic Instinct babe, even as she stabbed her ice pick into the very act of life. And yet this cool murderess has been cleaned up and contained by Hollywood. It's as if she would only bust men's balls, not rot them into compost, along with fingers and arms and hearts and brains. She and her friends are mere bitches, not bitch goddesses, not grievous angels presiding over battlefields strewn with their own torn children.

More terrible versions of the female destroyer do appear in real horror movies. Indeed, culture critic Carol Clover argues that the popular surge of horror flicks beginning in the mid-'70s could have been incited by Roe v. Wade: Mothers, many of whom were divorcing fathers, could now also legally divorce fetuses from their bodies; and what then of their existing children? Halloween's asexual slasher draws on fears of a new, monstrous parent, Clover writes, one who combines "male" power and "maternal" softness in a single treacherous body. For its part, Carrie stumbles stickily from the little abortion of a menstrual period to a final mass killing within a blood-drenched, womblike gymnasium.

This year's sequel, The Rage: Carrie 2, is curiously bloodless in comparison (although its telekinetic heroine does drown one boy and nurture another in the amniotic fluid, er, water of a swimming pool). Nor do the killers of the new teen horror films haunt with the eerie shapelessness of the Halloween slayer. I'm not complaining. I don't treasure the movie female destroyer. She's only a flickering ghost split off from the beloved Mother Mary to scare children in the dark. What concerns me is this continuing separation of Kali's parts: The idea that female divinity means creation, but no culling; relationship, and never solitude.

Not claiming those starker, "masculine" possibilities leaves women cut off from their bodies, which do expel and abort regularly, and from the natural world, which is as often cruel as kind. Shrinking from that potential keeps them undeveloped and irresponsible--and dependent on men to tell them what's best to do with their wombs.

It occurs to me, reading the poem above, that women need new images for their own promise. Why not balance that somersaulting fetus by showing how a death in the body can mean a richer life, brimful of learning and leadership? (Yes, I am saying that abortion may be a hopeful action.) Imagine a single woman: There's no baby in her belly, but she carries a life just the same. And she is as bloody and full with it as the new moon.

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