Blair Braverman is Obsessed with the Things That Scare Her Most
Gemma de Choisy Heads North to Visit the Author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube
“Mountain is a lawless place in the best of ways,” Blair Braverman wrote to me in an email not long ago. “People look out for each other.”
Pretty much the only way you’ll know you hit town is because there’s a welcome sign and a gas station, and by the time you pass the gas station you’re already leaving. There’s around 800 people living here. There’s no school or library or grocery store but there are a lot of bars. In the summer the bar parking lots are filled with four-wheelers and in the winter they’re filled with snowmobiles.
It’s the kind of town where, if you want a haircut, you go to the mortician because he learned to cut hair in undertaking school, she said. “Which is maybe why I haven’t cut my hair since I got here.”
It’s a muggy, late June day in Mountain, Wisconsin, and Blair is sitting across from me in the home her partner Quince built out of timber from the woods on the edge of their farm. Her long blonde hair is pulled back in an intricate braid behind gold teardrop earrings. “On days when I work, I always, always wear earrings,” she says, smiling wryly when I compliment them. “They’re a way for me to signal to myself that I’m a professional.” Lately, that’s a signal she hasn’t wanted to receive; luckily, she’s been gifted a distraction: just over a week ago, Pepe, her sled dog team’s command leader (the dog who tells the others how fast to run, and in which direction), birthed a litter of eight. A few days later, Blair shot a video with them and uploaded it YouTube.
In “Sexist interview, as demonstrated by husky puppies,” the newborn puppies speak by way of cut-out paper speech bubbles placed near their whimpery mouths:
“Thanks for coming on, Blair,” they say. “We’re here to talk about your new book, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. We didn’t get a chance to read it,” the adorable misogynists confess before asking who she’s wearing, if she hates that “Sharon Strayed lady” (you know, the one who wrote Wild), and when she’s having kids.
“So would you mind saying what it’s about?,” they ask.
Originally from Davis, California, Blair moved to Norway with her parents for a year when she was 10, returning at 16 as an exchange student, and again at 19, when she attended 69°North, a folk school on the 69th parallel in the Norwegian Arctic. There, students learned either backcountry horseback riding with Icelandic ponies or dogsledding, and there were three girls for every boy. This is part of the story she tells in Ice Cube, blurring back and forth between Mortenhals, a 40-person village on the Malangen Peninsula—“the Norway of witchcraft, storytelling and incest, not minimalist furniture and the Nobel Peace Prize,” she writes, where a man wraps an arm around her at a party to whisper, “Treasure, you’re north of the moral circle now”—and Alaska, where she spent two summers working on a glacier guiding dogsled rides for tourists who wanted to control their risks. It was an impulse Blair tells me she could understand.
“I was obsessed with the things that scared me the most,” she says.
Over the next month and a half, Ice Cube will be named to The Millions’ 2016 “Most Anticipated” nonfiction booklist and to People magazine’s “Best New Books” picks for July; Entertainment Weekly will give it an A-, and Bronwen Dickey, in a rave review for the New York Times, will write, “as both a storyteller and a stylist, Braverman is remarkably skilled, with a keen sense of visceral detail [that] borders on sublime.” But right now, in Blair’s living room, the most visible praise is on the coffee table between us, where a blurb on a review copy’s cover calls her memoir, “A delicate meditation from the frontiers of feminism, forged by the stark landscape that prompted it.”
That landscape is defined as much by gender as geography. “It’s about being a girl and a young woman in this very tough kind of man’s land and using that place to test myself and to prove myself,” Blair says of Ice Cube, in which she writes, “I had always wanted adventure—wanted the thrills and the stories and the identity that came with it.” She wanted to be a “tough girl,” a “young woman who confronts danger without apology,” but as she explains to the puppies in her YouTube video, “Boys’ coming-of-age stories are about going out into the world and finding adventure, and finding their place. And girls’ coming-of-age stories tend to be about going into the world and discovering that it’s dangerous in new ways for them.” New, because the world treats children strangely when they’re turning into women, but also different. Here’s how: if a man goes into the wild (defined however you please) and lives to tell the tale, his is a story of man versus nature. If a woman goes into the wild, the story she’ll tell, the story she’ll live, is of woman versus nature and man.
And nature, so often, is civil by comparison.
In an early scene in Ice Cube, during her high school exchange year, Blair writes an email to a friend at home in Davis: Is it ever okay for a grown man to touch under my shirt without asking? Then the phone rings.
“Blair,” said [her] father, “are you safe?”
The question seemed huge.
It is huge. It floats above the rest of the book like an emotional weather balloon, testing the atmosphere and offering forecasts Blair must learn to interpret.
When I bring up her father’s question in Mountain, we look at each other, shrug, and start to laugh.
“Like, what can that possibly mean?” she asks, “When could the answer ever be yes? What would that take?” Sitting up straighter, she collects herself and goes quiet for a while. Pepe’s noxious farts breeze in through the open window while, nearby, her puppies whimper for milk. “Then again,” Blair says, “what does it take for the answer to be no? In that scene in the book, what I eventually say is, ‘Yes, I’m safe,’ and that’s because I couldn’t concretely pinpoint a physical danger. I only had my instincts, which I didn’t trust.”
This is what the inner dialogue of so many women sounds like: long transcripts of convincing themselves that they were never in any real danger; that the facts are up to interpretation, that it—whatever it is—could have been worse. “Far”—the Norweigan host father who terrorized her—“made me my own victim,” Blair writes. “I doubted myself so violently that I split into two: the part that was afraid, and the part that blamed myself for my fear.” At the time, to cast doubt on an adult based on something she didn’t (read: couldn’t) believe herself seemed like the most horrible thing. Shortly after her father’s call, her host father pins her to the floor face down, twisting her arm behind her back until it burns.
* * * *
Blair writes about nature, but rolls her eyes at most self-identified nature writing. She’s only got time for writers who don’t really trust nature—Annie Dillard, for example. “She’s consumed with horror rather than wonder at the natural world, but she’s obsessed and can’t look away,” Blair says of the first writer she “fell hard” for. “Nature writing tends to be about observing the natural world, rather than participating in it,” she tells me, disparagingly. “What you learn the most from is participating.”
Pulling on tall leather boots to ward against ticks, Blair motions for me to follow her outside. “I had a conversation with the principal of the folk school from the book,” she says, leading me past a concrete silo where, she tells me, a bunch of pigeons live. (“They make coo-ing noises that echo around the silo and sound kind of like creepy foghorns, or ghosts trying to talk.”) Later, we walk past a big red barn that she says reeks of ammonia when it’s humid. Which it is.
Blair hadn’t quite finished her book when she talked to the folk school’s principal over the phone and mentioned that she’d been thinking about fear a great deal. “He said, ‘Well, yeah that makes perfect sense because people seek out fear to avoid anxiety,’” she tells me, and though she hadn’t thought of it that way, it made sense. “Instead of having this sort of low-level fear about sexism and violence or just human anxiety you go out into a situation that makes that fear physical.” It does not escape my attention that physical also means visible—witnessable by others who, in other words, can confirm: shit was scary. Corroboration. “Am I going to fall off this cliff? Am I going to get hypothermia, right now? Those are fears that are manageable,” Blair says.
They’re also immediate. It’s not that being on the tundra in sub-zero temperatures, surrounded by polar bears, gave her an unambiguous assessment of her personal safety, so much as it freed her of the chance to even ask the question. She thinks about that a lot with regard to dogsledding. “I love nature. And I love dogs. And I love the cold,” she says, but she wonders, “How much of my attraction is because it’s a sport that allows me to manage my fear?”
Out over the tall grass pasture all the doghouses face the inside of a massive O—“Like a crop circle!” Blair suggests, and I imagine an awesome alien race that drops off huskies instead of abducting people. Blair’s team, Mountain Dogs Racing, enters three or four races each year. Last year she was the primary musher for the three longest: The Beargrease Half-Marathon (120 miles), the Upper Peninsula 200 (240 miles), and the CopperDog 150 (150 miles). But racing is the easiest way to dogsled, and so much safer than going on a training run. At a race the trails are groomed and mushers have a team to help them and to check their gear and a GPS tracker so someone can find you if you break your sled or veer off course. If you’re 50 miles out on a training run and you fall off your sled or go into a ditch, then good luck. A racer knows not to expect the dogs to stop and wait for her. These dogs aren’t really pets—they’re born and trained to move, and to move fast. And when they do, it’s magic. In Ice Cube, Blair writes:
“The dogs flowed, a perfect thrilling engine. Their legs stretched out like pistons; their ears and tongues bounced in unison. Their running had nothing to do with me. They wouldn’t have stopped if I’d asked them to.”
“They were beautiful,” she writes. “They were so beautiful.”
But say you do fall off your sled in the middle of nowhere, at a perfect -10°F. Say you get trapped in bear country or under snow, as Blair did while she was a student at 69°North. Why, I ask Blair, is that threat preferable to others?
She picks at a loose piece of wood on the side of a doghouse before answering. “A polar bear doesn’t mean harm,” she says, “a polar bear wants food. Hypothermia doesn’t want anything; it’s a temperature. It’s only people who can want to hurt you for hurting’s sake.” People certainly harm other people all the time for reasons that are selfish rather than malicious, or even well intentioned but misinformed, she tells me, but only people can mean harm. “That,” she says, reaching down to pet Queen, a sweet-eyed brown husky whom Blair calls her soul dog, “is much scarier than anything else.”
* * * *
Back inside the house, I ask about a red lantern hanging over the massive stone fireplace. It’s a traditional prize for whoever comes in last in a dogsled race, and it belongs to Quince, who handles Blair’s team.
“Why is it still wrapped in plastic?” I ask. Blair shrugs.
“For some reason he likes it that way,” she says.
There are good men in Blair’s book, and in her life. Quince is one. Arild—the aging shopkeeper in Mortenhals who took her under his wing, who writes things like Since you wrote to me I understand that you have not been victim to one of the many shooting episodes at schools in the USA in his emails, who suggested that her book might sell better if Blair put sex in it because that worked for Knausgard—is another. Ice Cube is dedicated to him.
But I wonder about the phrase “good men.” I wonder what it has in common with the phrase “tough girl.” I wonder why we think the adjectives are necessary, and why these are the ones we seem to hear more often than most.
A book excerpt about working in Alaska that Blair published on The Atavist and as a radio essay on This American Life was actually the first part of the book she wrote. It came out as a standalone essay and she sat on it for years. And who could blame her? “It’s a kind of story that tends to be automatically doubted and picked apart,” Blair says. She’s right. To come forward with a story of sexual violence is, for that reason, a dangerous, vulnerable thing.
She started dating one of the other sled dog guides during her first summer on the Alaskan glacier. “Dan had an easy confidence that suggested he belonged here, on the ice, in a place where no one could truly belong,” she writes, and “the relationship seemed to happen on its own as a natural course of events.”
After she has sex with him for the first time on a trip to Juneau, they agree not to sleep together on the glacier. It was their workplace, they were both filthy, “unshowered and greasy and covered in a days-old film of dog shit.” And thus far, sex with Dan felt “like a fist had reached up inside my gut and started punching.” But most importantly, Blair writes in the version of the essay published on The Atavist, “there was no privacy on the glacier.”
…nothing you did in your tent belonged just to you. Every thump, every murmur, traveled clearly across the ice from one tent to another. I wanted the other guides to see me as a musher, not a girl. The last thing I needed was for them to hear that.
Dan comes to her tent one night anyway.
…He was tugging my long underwear off my hips, kissing me even as I pressed my mouth shut. Pulling a condom from his pocket, rolling it on. As soon as I saw it, my heart sank: he had come here for this. I pressed my knees together. He shoved them apart easily. “Please stop—” I whispered, but he put a finger to my lips.
“Shh,” he said. “We don’t want everyone to hear us.”
It was not an isolated event. “After a few weeks I accepted that Dan would fuck me regardless of what I said, so I turned my focus to getting it over fast,” she writes. It’s one of her book’s most chilling sentences.
The reason that incident ended up in scene was simple: she could place it within timelines corroborated by the co-workers she interviewed for the piece. She’d written about it in her journal right after it happened, in astonishing detail. It’s the kind of fastidiousness that wouldn’t be enough to prove his guilt in a court of law, but it made her rendering of her experience impervious to editorial trepidation. When an editor rewrote the scene, first so that the rape was called “sex,” and then again to add the perennially hazy disclaimer of fallible memory, she was appalled but not helpless. She could hold the journal in her hand. She could send him copies. And she did.
“Really this is just a case for talking to your editor on the phone,” Blair tells me, “because it could have all been avoided it we hadn’t just been going back and forth over email.” “Look, I don’t blame him,” she adds, saying she might have done the same if she were an editor.
Quince made the final changes to the essay while Blair curled up on the floor, crying. The editor had thought the violence in the draft she’d sent him was an accidental implication. He was, she says, very apologetic.
* * * *
Ice Cube begins with Blair telling us she’s “spent more than half my life pointed northward, trying to answer private questions about violence and belonging and cold.”
Later, she tells us that the first thing she did when she had a day off the glacier in Alaska was buy a new wardrobe at the Salvation Army. All men’s clothes. Vests to cover the shape of her body, doubled-up sports bras to conceal her breasts. “I bought men’s shirts, pants, men’s shoes. I tied back my hair under a hat,” she tells me, leaning back into the couch with one of Pepe’s puppies in her lap. The other guides started to take her seriously only when she stopped dressing like a woman. They started playing pranks and hissing cruelties at her only when she stopped sleeping with Dan.
This should be enough to tell you that the answers to her questions, whatever and wherever they might be, have nothing to do with latitude or temperature.
Ice Cube’s earliest nod of recognition to identity as a performance comes in its epigraph, a quote from Charles Bowden, as macho a man and writer as there ever was: “We are on a set, and the set makes us all actors.” That’s true enough, but another truth follows: If you change the set, you might change both the play and your role in it. This is what every adventure story tries to prove.
I don’t know if it is possible for a person to outrun her gender, to go so deep into the wild or so far into the tundra that she can be a musher instead of a girl. When Blair calls dangers manageable, what I hear is necessary, if not necessarily survivable. Some women, this suggests, would rather die at the arbitrary, disorderly hands of nature than live within in the civilization to which they belong.
Female dogsledders in northern Norway and at the folk school had a feminine style she thought gorgeous, and as Blair tells me about it—no makeup (it’d melt off), but wool hats embroidered with beautiful flowers, hair twisted into elaborate braids that held fast against the wind, the occasional hot pink jacket—I can count the ways she’s adopted the aesthetic. She calls it “Arctic femininity” and it’s defining characteristic, so far as I can gather, is unapologetic competence. “Extreme toughness”—that word again—“and ability, and also a celebration of femininity,” Blair says.
Imagine the latter not being in conflict with the former. Imagine not just womanhood, but the refusal to hide it not being thought anathema to skill. This is how it was at her folk school and in Mortenhals, and, I suspect, in Mountain: everyone gets taken seriously until they prove less than serious. One need not be a “tough girl” because toughness, among women, is not assumed missing.
“I knew I would never be a tough girl,” Blair writes, “And yet the phrase, with its implied contradiction, articulated everything that I wanted for myself: to be a girl, an inherently vulnerable position, and yet unafraid.” What is a tough girl, really? According to whom is she tough? To which person or what rule should she apologize for confronting danger? As best as I can tell, a tough girl is someone who has collected such a large lexicon of fears that, should she rank them, she could de-prioritize those fears that are particular, if not exclusive, to women. She is tough according to men who might share her more urgent fears were they to face the same dangers at the same time; the kind of men who respect her, who think she’s got a good head on her shoulders, because she’s found a way to be more worried about frostbite than she is about walking home alone at night. A tough girl is someone who packs her vulnerability in so much ice that she gleams, reflecting whatever it is men call “brave.”
In the last race of her first season with the dogs that would become Mountain Dogs Racing, Blair’s team ran off the trail. “I saw it coming,” Blair writes. “We all did, the dogs and I: the right half of the trail fell away into darkness.”
It was a 42-mile night race. It was winter. Blair wrested the sled to the left, the dogs leapt, they all scrambled, but it was too late and they were going too fast. They landed tangled at the bottom of a ditch. It was six-feet deep. Her headlamp had flung off, in which direction she could not tell. She was stuck, and even with her dogs kept from bolting by the snowy pit’s depth, she was alone.
As Blair tells it in Ice Cube, this moment isn’t laced with fear so much as disappointment. Defeat. Just enough helplessness to carry shame. And then, all of a sudden, it becomes something else.
What Blair wanted, what she looks for in Ice Cube and finds at the back of a dogsled, is a place where she can be in charge of her own risks. A place where the best possible answer to her father’s question—“Are you safe?”—isn’t “Yes.” Instead, it’s “No. And it’s wonderful.”
Standing half a foot below the race’s trail in the dark, Blair gives the command for the dogs to stand, but they do much more than that. Their feet catch hold of the ditch’s wall, pulling it under them, faster than the snow can collapse. When they reach the top, where the trail is a frozen logging road, the snow groomed and packed, they haul the sled up and out. Then, she writes, “they dug into the ground and leaned into their harnesses and pulled me out, too.”
“We’re okay, aren’t we?” she asks the dogs, who did not leave her behind. “We’re okay,” she says as the sled rattles over dips and bumps in the icy trail, to the dogs and to herself: “We’re doing just fine.”
· DEDICATED TO QUEEN, 2011-2016 ·
Feature photo by Hanna Alerud.