I have still not got over Toni Morrison’s novel–Love. It is that disturbing. The novel is actually much more about its opposite. Hate. It is about a specific kind of love—love that is transformed into hate. How can that happen?
Morrison has a fine understanding of hate. She described how the Cosey girls fought over the coffin of Bill Cosey, the patriarch of the family , until one of the women, L (does that stand for love?) restored order. But the hate lived on. Hate is darn hard to destroy. Morrison described the haters this way: “their faces as different as honey from soot, looked identical. Hate does that. Burns everything but itself, so whatever your grievance is, your face looks just like your enemy’s.”
The novel is deeply imbedded into a racist society infused with white male dominance, even though there are very few white characters in the novel and none of them is a major character. The natural product of such a society is that the dominated black males turn to dominate those “beneath” them. And of course that is only other non-whites.
The man at the centre of the novel is Bill Cosey a 52-year old black man who rapes an 11-year old black girl with the consent of her family. The girl is so young and ignorant that she “grinned happily as she was led down the hall to darkness, liquor smell and old man business.” And as so often happens, the young victim ends up hating herself after the abuse. “I must have been the one who dreamed up this world, she thought. No nice person could have.”
Heed and Christine–11 and 12 year old friends—end up competing for a 52-year old man, entirely unworthy of either of them, and the two become transformed into enemies in the process. They learn to hate. “The eyes of each are enslaved by the other’s. Opening pangs of guilt, rage, fatigue, despair are replaced by a hatred so pure, so solemn, it feels beautiful, almost holy.” Can you imagine a hate that is “almost holy”? Even the holy is turned perverse in a world ruled by hate and dominance. The dominance of whites over blacks turns the blacks into dominating other blacks. That is the world that is a product of hate and in such a world even the holy turns evil.
Heed and Christine had a hard time maintaining their hatred for each other. Hate does not come easily and it is difficult to maintain. As Morrison said, “Like friendship, hatred needed more than physical intimacy; it wanted creativity and hard work to sustain itself.” They had “bruising fights with hands, feet, teeth and soaring objects…once–perhaps twice–a year, they punched, grabbed hair, wrestled, bit, slapped, never drawing blood, never apologizing, never premeditating, yet drawn annually to pant through an episode that was as much rite as fight. Finally they stopped, moved into acid silence, and invented other ways to underscore bitterness.”
Both of them ultimately realized that neither one could leave. They were married to each other in a dark perverse marriage. They both had “an unspoken realization that the fights did nothing other than allow them to hold each other.” That is what undying hatred is all about. It bonds the two in unholy matrimony. “There in a little girl’s bedroom an obstinate skeleton stirs, clacks, refreshes itself.”
I came to appreciate Toni Morrison late in life. That is a pity. But at least I did it. I finished her book, Love, just a couple of days before she died.
Love is one of the best novels I have ever read. Of course, I think I have now said that about every one of Toni Morrison’s novels that I have read. She was a brilliant writer. When I started to write this review I said, “she is the finest living novelist.” The only writer I could think of to compare her to was Marilynne Robinson. Both of them were astonishing writers.
Loveis a difficult read. I was half way through the novel when I realized I had to start over from the beginning. I was missing too much. I had not caught on to enough. I hate to start over, but sometimes I just have to do that.
Though difficult, the novel, like any great novel, rewards the effort to understand it. That does not mean the reader has captured it. Far from it. It cannot be captured. But the reader can be captured by it. the novel is about 2 “love” stories. But they are hardly ordinary love stories.
The novel is a story about women and how they relate to a powerful man. The novel is told through or from the point of view of those amazing women and centres around a horrid incident at its core. Ultimately it is about the violence and its consequences inflicted on one of the women–but really all of them–by that strong man at the centre of the novel. It is a violence that is as unredeemed as it is chilling.
The man at the centre of the novel is Bill Cosey—“the Big Man who with no one to stop him, could get away with it and anything else he wanted.” He is a 52-year old man who can molest an 11-year old child with impunity and then marry her to make it ‘all right’. her 12 year old friend saw this as a “real betrayal,” by her “friend who grinned happily as she was led down the hall to darkness, liquor smell and old man business.” She was only 11 and did not know better so she “grinned happily.” After all the adults who loved her would not abandon her to such a ravishing would they? Yes they would. As so often happens the young victim ends up hating herself after the abuse. She concludes, “I must have been the one who dreamed up this world, she thought. No nice person could have.”
Heed the Night, as she is called, has learned that this world into which she has been thrust by her family with the connivance of his family, is a terrifying world where evil catches fire and is doused with sugar creating a sickening black “caramelizing evil.” It is a world haunted by perverse love. It is impossible for her to escape, so Heed became “grown-up nasty.” How else could this have turned out? Christine, Heeds friend, who is 12 years old, and is one of those women who betrayed Heed and ends up with a mother-in-law who is her friend but younger than she is. Of course as Christine says, “most people married young back then (the sooner a girl was taken over by a man, the better.” In the end we learn a bitter black truth in which “the problem for those left alive is what to do about revenge–how to escape the sweetness of its rot. So you can see why families make the best enemies. They have the time and convenience to honey-butter the wickedness they prefer.” That sweet caramelized evil.
Heed and Christine–11 and 12 year old friends–competing for a 52-year old man are transformed into enemies. They learn to hate. Only hate is natural in this most unnatural world. “The eyes of each are enslaved by the other’s. Opening pangs of guilt, rage, fatigue, despair are replaced by a hatred so pure, so solemn, it feels beautiful, almost holy.” Even the holy is turned perverse in a world so infused with dominance. The dominance of whites over blacks turns the blacks into dominating other blacks. The topsy-turvy world is a product of hate where even the holy turns evil. “There, in a little girl’s bedroom, an obstinate skeleton stirs, clacks, refreshes itself.”
There is another “love story,” if the first can be called a love story. This is a passionate love story. Young lovers this time. Such love should be pure and innocent. It is the story of Junior and Romen. When Roman sees Junior, “she seemed to him as beautiful as it is possible for a human to be.” It starts out innocent, but nothing in the novel is innocent for long. In such a world how could it be different? All the principal characters in the novel are African-American. Of course, all are victims of white dominance and oppression that transforms their lives in the most ugly way imaginable. Mainly that oppression is entirely overt, but it is real. It curdles all love into caramelized evil where love is transformed into hate. Perverse love is the bastard child of oppression. As Women says, Junior “plays hard, that’s all. I mean she likes being hurt…She didn’t just like it. She preferred it.” And Romen in response, was “cold, unsmiling, watching himself inflict pain and suffer pain above scream level where a fresh kind of joy lay.” No wonder that when in the abandoned hotel she undresses for him she keeps on her socks, then ties one around his neck and into the other inserts her foot and “the foot she slipped into the sock looked to him like a hoof.” His innocent passionate lover becomes the devil incarnate–caramelized black evil again. After all, “A dream is just a nightmare with lipstick.” And he becomes her “Sugarboy.”
In the novel family is as twisted and s curdled as love. Junior is assaulted by her uncles (“the howling uncles”) who are “idle teenagers whose brains had been insulted by the bleakness of their lives, alternated between brutality and coma.” They are the products of a racist society. The uncles threatened to turn Junior over to another old man–Vosh. This woke her up. The threat was real. As she thought, “the possibility that it could happen, that she could be handed over to the old man in the valley who liked to walk around with his private parts in his hands and singing hymns of praise, jolted her up from the floor, out of reaching hands and through the door.” For Junior prison is a reprieve from the maniacal madness of family. Prison is better than life with her family!
The world of love is no paradise. “People with no imagination feed it with sex–the clown of love. They don’t know the real kinds, the better kinds, where losses are cut and everybody benefits. It takes a certain intelligence to love like that–softly, without props.”
One of Morrison’s novels is called Paradise. This is certainly no paradise. But it is real. It is the product of a profoundly racist society where those at the top dominate with impunity and those at the bottom accept the dominance while “grinning,” because they don’t even know anything better.
Priests have been not just been assaulting young girls and boys in their parishes. They have found other victims. They have found nuns.
I heard a former nun speaking on NPR and she demonstrated this phenomenon. She said that when she was a nun she was not allowed to think for herself. She was always taught that priests were superior to her, as was her Mother Superior. It was her duty to do as they directed without question. With hindsight, she believes this was spiritual abuse that prepared the way for later physical abuse.
One day a priest came to visit her in her room, and he started to remove her clothes. She told him, “You are not allowed to do this.” He continued his actions. He continued to remove her clothes and then raped her. She felt compelled not to scream out. After all she was expected to do as the priest desired.
When the nun reported the incident to her Mother Superior, the superior got so upset that we was shaking violently and jumped on the table shouting wildly. And she was shouting at the nun. The Mother Superior was radically upset at the nun. She was mad at the nun for reporting the incident. Of course she did nothing to help the nun. Somehow it must have been the nun’s fault. The priests could do harm in the eyes of the Mother Superior.
Only years later did the nun realize that this was part of a pattern of abuse in the church. When she learned how some priests had abused young girls and young boys, the nun realized that she had to speak up. She had to challenge the abuse. She realized she had to speak out, even though other members of her church would not support her for that. Everyone believed the nun had done something she should not have done to lure the priest into trouble. It was the victim’s fault.
The woman who interviewed the nun could not understand how this happened. The nun explained to the interviewer that this is what happens often. When powerful men have power over powerless, defenceless, or vulnerable women (or even worse children) some men choose to use that power for their own self-satisfaction.
Such abuse reveals an ugly element of abuse. When the abuser is thought to have authority from God the abuse is even more poisonous. If God sanctions it, the victim feels, it must be all right.
Of course this is problem that is not unique to the Roman Catholic Church. It is a problem in every region where men have authority over women
This is actually what happens in many institutions. For example, this year in Phoenix it was discovered that a man who worked in an institution of seniors, had impregnated a woman who was basically in a vegetative state. When the powerful find themselves in control of the vulnerable, power often leads to sin.
The same thing happens in politics. As Martin Luther King said, the United States is the world’s greatest purveyor of violence. The United States is the most powerful country in the world, and it uses that power to get what it wants, as powerful countries have done since time began. The problem is inequality of power, not who is holding it.
Recently I suggested that maybe it is time to give women the chance to have power over men. I was not really serious about that. I don’t want anyone to have power over others because so often it leads to abuse. What I really want to see is equality, not just a changing of the guard.
The military is peculiarly powerful. This is particularly true in the United States where I have spent the last 3 months. It is also one of the most hierarchical institutions on the planet. Wherever you have a military you have those in power and those subject to power. You have the officers and the grunts. You don’t want to be a grunt.
If you add sexual/gender power imbalances things get even worse. Arizona, where I have been living, has been exposed recently by an American Senator of all people. Recently Arizona U.S. Senator Martha McSally surprised the state and even the country by announcing during a Senate subcommittee meeting that she had been raped while she was in the Air Force. McSally spent 2 decades in the Air Force before she became a Senator. Much of that time was served here in Arizona at very bases close to where we are living. In fact she was the first female pilot to see combat. She also said she felt like she had been victimized again when she reported the incident to her superior officers. Interestingly, she said, “I thought I was strong, but I felt powerless…The perpetrators abused their position of power in a profound way…I was horrified at how my attempt to share generally my experience was handled…Like many victims, I felt like the system was raping me allover again.”
If this could happen to a woman who ultimately was promoted to Commander, we have to wonder what would happen to a less powerful female in the Air Force? The uncomfortable fact is the American military, probably like every other military in the world, Canada’s included, has for too long been a male dominated institution in which there is a strong power imbalance that is magnified when gender inequality is added creating a truly toxic brew.
As reported by the Arizona Republic, The Pentagon officially reported 6,769 sexual assaults in 2017, nearly a 10 percent increase over the prior year. But advocacy groups such as Protect Our Defenders say the true number is likely 15,000 to 26,000 annually. I don’t know about you but I found that a shocking number. According to the Pentagon’s own statistics that amounts to about 20 sexual assault per day! If you accept the number from the critics it could be as high as 722 per day! According to a Rand Corporation Report last year, in a Sierra Vista base here in Arizona, about 1 in 12 female soldiers were sexually assaulted during the year of the survey. Remember these are assaults not harassments.
The American military, like the Canadian military, has for years been trying to stamp out sexual assault and harassment under pressure for various sources. Clearly their success has been about as great as the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, the Arizona Republic reported that a recent Pentagon report showed that sexual assaults spiked nearly 50% in 2017-2018 despite years of focus on the problem. That report also showed that 60 percent of military victims who reported rapes suffered career-ending retaliation. It is hardly surprising that young women are reluctant to come forward with complaints.
The report also identified 2 particularly vulnerable groups: young, unmarried females of lower ranks and personnel aboard ships (where women are far from protection.) It is clear that the issue is power. Powerful men (and yes most of these are men) abuse vulnerable women. It really is that simple. Not all of the men, but too many. The inequality of the power is the key. Just as it is in cases of coaches abusing athletes, priest and nuns or priests and young people in the church , employers and employees, teachers and students, parents and children, and men and women. Wherever power is uneven, people must be on alert.
I don’t know if there is any evidence that women would do a better job of this than men, but it is difficult to believe that they could do worse. Maybe its time to give women a chance. We need someone like John Lennon to create a song about that. We can’t all compose songs, but at the very least it is time for men to speak up. All of us.
There have been more discussions of the ongoing mess in the Catholic Church. Recently the highest Catholic yet was found guilty of sexually assaulting young boys. The mess never seems to stop.
It is my belief that this will never stop until the Catholic Church democratizes and adds women as full members including giving them the right to become priests. The bishops just don’t catch on. Pope Francis called a meeting of cardinals and bishops to discuss the issue in Rome. What took so long?
We heard a leading Catholic bishop from Chicago discuss the issue. He acknowledged that women had to play an important role in the church. He said before he makes any important decisions he always asks for advicefrom women in the church. The bishop did not realize that this is not good enough. The reason is that he“decides.” Women can give advice but only men decide. That is a big difference.
The Roman Catholic Church needs transformation and until male dominance is ended it will never learn. The sickness in the church will continue. It is in its DNA. Male dominance must collapse or the church will.
I still remember seeing a portrait of the board of directors of T.E. Eaton’s and Sons just before they went bankrupt. Each and every member of the board was a man. Not one woman. Most of them, if not all, were also white. No one took into consideration that most shoppers are women. So how could women’s views be important? To me it was not surprising that a company that had been dominant in Canadian retail shopping went belly-up after 110 years in business. Could the same happen to the Catholic Church? Why not?
Male dominance is a dying ideology. It can’t die fast enough. It won’t be missed.