Fetishizing Violence: Juniper Fitzgerald on Unlearning the Gothic Narrative
Against Humbert Humberts, Draculas, and Vincents
There I am—little-girl me—in fuzzy kitty sweaters, tucked away in suburbia under a ceiling of glow-in-the-dark stars painted by women in sweatshops somewhere in the Global South. Having cybersex with anonymous people on dial-up, AOL internet is how I conceptualize freedom. That, and Gothic narratives.
Lucy in Dracula.
Dolores in Lolita.
Cynda in Look for Me by Moonlight.
Meticulously studying the way that women and girls in Gothic narratives are consumed by their own bespoke Humbert Humberts feels exhilarating. I study their every wrong move if only to imagine myself making better choices. And through them, I also come to fetishize violence against my own body. The unquenchable thirst of a man’s desire comes to feel like the greatest compliment, and so I will seek out this feeling in my laundry list of lovers to come.
In Mary Downing Hahn’s thirsty young-adult Gothic novel Look for Me by Moonlight, Vincent—the poetry-writing, smooth-talking vampire—seduces Cynda in much the same way that Dracula and Humbert Humbert beguile their bedfellows. But where Lucy and Lolita get devoured, Cynda—my Cynda—makes it out alive.
“I can see your nipples,” my mother says of my prepubescent body.
The purple prairie sky illuminates my body in the spaces where my mother and I perform our nightly tragicomedies. She accuses me—and my nipples—of attracting too much attention. A hound to the stench of cigarettes to boot—her Virginia Slims, kept in the freezer—she also wonders aloud why I insist on pantomiming adulthood.
The answer, of course, is that I have my own array of Draculas and Humbert Humberts and Vincents: a happily married neighbor who attends church regularly, a dance instructor, a nanny, a collection of boyfriends, and even an uncle.
It’s probably my nipples, I tell myself.
Beginnings are so damned hard, Vincent tells Cynda one evening as they converse about his writing process. And then you get to the middle. After that, you have to face the end.
My Vincent writes verbose tomes on a philosopher I claim to hate. It is important to disagree with him, sometimes, so that he won’t think me just a rotting lump of flesh.
My Vincent knocks me up in the warehouse where we live. We bathe in a mop bucket with a hose he’s jerry-rigged to the drop ceiling.
And my abortion goes all awry and my skin turns the color of ash.
Cynda doesn’t yet realize that when Vincent speaks of his writing, he is really just gesturing toward the pieces of her that he’ll devour: the beginning, the middle, and the end.
I meet my Humbert Humbert on the prairie. We paw at each other in the rancid back alleys of punk clubs on Leavenworth Street in the early 2000s, on soil poisoned by the ASARCO lead refinery. We share cigarettes with sex workers on the corner and I tell them that I think they’re pretty. I start starving myself by eating one package of M&M’s a day, buoyed by the high of caffeine pills, which I crush and snort in the bathrooms of Village Inns.
My Humbert Humbert says, “Cats are better than dogs, because dogs will eat themselves to death.”
He gnaws on my flesh.Meticulously studying the way that women and girls in Gothic narratives are consumed by their own bespoke Humbert Humberts feels exhilarating. I study their every wrong move if only to imagine myself making better choices.
We have sex in an abandoned house and then, later, we find a cheap apartment with stained carpets off the interstate. My Humbert Humbert gives me little things. Pills. Cigarettes. Money. He fucks me with an empty wine bottle just to see.
He tells me that he got an erection holding his newborn niece.
He says that his favorite graphic novel has this little kid who tells his father that he’s going to hump him.
“It is the sweetest thing,” he says, caressing the space between his heart and belly button.
Years after I meet my Humbert Humbert, I suck a man’s dick in San Francisco for two hundred dollars while he does that same thing—petting that small, open space on his own skin. And for some reason, it makes me vomit, thinking of my Humbert Humbert while I have another man’s dick in my mouth.
My Dracula in the sex industry is a clammy undertaker who smells of something like formaldehyde. He shows up to the strip club around midnight every night and says, “Good morning, gorgeous.”
And every night I pretend to be his menstruating mother.
“You frame the bloodied sheets for me to hang in our family home,” he croons.
What I remember most, now, are the bugs. Those dead, scorched things in a velvet coffin.
The long, spackled corridor to my caretaker’s room—my caretaker a man hired by my father’s ill-fated lover, an arrangement that engendered a brief encounter with upper-class luxuries—is littered with my father’s oil paintings. Portraits of naked women, disembodied vulvas, headless tits, mountains of dicks.
My caretaker, Sean, is naked on his bed like a Michelangelo marred in the emptiness of contemporary culture, masturbating to a VHS porn. I am only eleven, but he invites me to join the enterprise. When the protagonist of the ’90s porn comes onto the face of his heroine, I recoil and asked if he’s just pissed on her.Cynda doesn’t yet realize that when Vincent speaks of his writing, he is really just gesturing toward the pieces of her that he’ll devour: the beginning, the middle, and the end.
My caretaker’s gratuitous laughter at my sexual naïveté is followed by his setting fire to the monstrous desert roaches and their generations of offspring that reside in the foundation of the house. He wants to show me that he can kill things. Like a postcoital cigarette, Sean will continue his habit of harming other living things after sexually abusing me.
One afternoon, I collect all of the things Sean has killed and preserve them in a beautiful purple pouch: a “velvet coffin,” I come to call it. And when my live-in nanny is unresponsively high, flirting with the sweet hereafter, I have my revenge.
I scramble to think of the ways that I might reclaim what has happened to me—the come, then the burning. I collect the pile of dead insects, a symphony of shame; I am determined to make this his shame, not mine. So I stuff his pants full of dead, crispy bugs.
It is the bravest thing I have ever done.
My Vincent looks old now. That thinning hair.
I give him eggs from the chickens I raise. “Delicious,” he says. “Like duck eggs.”
And I remember everything that only he could have taught me. Duck eggs. The difference between “sediment” and “sentiment.” Kant. I compare these things now to other things that only my child could teach me. Tardigrades. Taylor Swift. The shape of the universe.
My Vincent drank me in—his Cynda—until he had his fill, leaving me tethered in the shadows of his satiated appetite. And even now I have difficulty understanding this as something other than romance.
Soused up, wearing a crop top and unironic mom jeans, I find my Humbert Humbert at the ATM. I’ve gotten a sitter for my child so as to embarrassingly exist in anachronism, letting my tired head fall in violent whooshes, only to pull it back up again and let it drop, marrying the top of my body with whatever drunken beat I think I hear in the heavy-metal band playing onstage.
The musicians are men I’ve known for decades. White and cis, they scream until they go hoarse. If it weren’t for my saucy state, I’d feel deeply subjugated by my surroundings.
“Am I too old for this outfit?” I ask my Humbert Humbert.
But the power dynamics are all off. I’m much too hefty, with a constellation of wrinkles, to revel in whatever insult I’ve invited.
“Yeah,” he says. “I mean . . . a crop top?” I wander off, salty.
Peckish for trouble, I eventually peek through the unlocked bathroom door of the bar to find him sticking cocaine up the barely legal ass of one of my students.
And I drink until it hurts, until it feels like bondage, or like a wine bottle up my cunt.
I drink until I can convincingly blame my subjugation on others.
My Dracula is dead now. At least, that’s what I tell myself. I tell myself that he died of overindulgence. In tranquilizing self-deception, I drink myself into hopeful stupors, assured that I will finally be relieved of his orchestrated folly.
Other times, the space around him is warm and soft; he fades into other clients, clients for whom my feelings volley from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other, often on a dime. I am convinced that anyone can love anyone else with enough cocaine.
The deliciousness of being pulled onto an erection can shift meaning in time; it can feel much like brandishing a powerful tool at one end of the space-time continuum, while feeling quite alien at the other.
I’m sure that many of my Draculas are still alive, actually. But I like to keep them tucked away in the crosshairs of delusion and desire, like yellowing Polaroids stuffed into the secret crevices of ballerina music boxes.
Using the same vigor with which I collect dead bugs, I transubstantiate into hawkeyed fascination for Draculas and Humbert Humberts and Vincents. I recognize this as the often heartlessly mocked stereotype of an abused little girl seeking refuge in other abusive places and partners.Like Dorothy Dinnerstein in The Mermaid and the Minotaur, I will come to resent my mother because of her omnipresence; I will come to see fault in her ostensibly duplicitous femininities.
“You’re looking for a dad,” my mother will eventually say before excommunicating herself from me for seven years. She does not intend to be heartless, I don’t think; she merely wishes to save me from her own heartache. And perhaps, I think, I should offer that kind of grace to trolls on the internet plagued with an obsession for women with “daddy issues.”
I come to learn the specifics of my mother’s heartache as an adult.
Age three, tucked inside a beige house with altars to the Virgin Mary, there is a magnolia tree outside my window, bursting with pink buds as if an artist forcefully squeezed rosy paint from a tube. It is here, on Center Street, that my father learns of my mother’s infidelities.
Out of spite or something similarly sinister, he attempts to kidnap me.
The judge acknowledges the failed abduction but deems the act more apocryphal evidence of parental unfitness than adultery; my father is awarded sole custody. It takes only three months for him to relinquish his parental rights entirely, and I move back in with my mother.
Like Dorothy Dinnerstein in The Mermaid and the Minotaur, I will come to resent my mother because of her omnipresence; I will come to see fault in her ostensibly duplicitous femininities. I will come to fetishize my father because of his ephemerality and because of his privileged ability to categorize women. If my mother can only point to my prepubescent nipples in shame, my father can, through his absence and treatment of other women, help me learn the utility of my body under heteropatriarchal capitalism.Just as Cynda is eventually forced to grapple with the ways that she has been duped, existing in perpetuity in the dossiers of men, my mother and I start to revise our narratives of each other too.
My mother can only remorsefully lament her own proverbial dead bugs while my father holds the godlike power of labeling the things that hurt me, which feels more freeing than facing the throbbing pain myself.
For my mother—and many women like her—sex work, and the antecedent abuses that allegedly engender it, is a kind of adultery; she is uprooted by this, triggered to the nuclei of her cells in being forced to see herself in her daughter.
My Draculas and Humbert Humberts and Vincents are all scorched in their own perfect ways, like folklores that subsist by feeding on the vital essence of the living. In the boondock backwoods of fantasy, I build castles in the air, my own bespoke cottage industry of revised narratives.
Just as Cynda is eventually forced to grapple with the ways that she has been duped, existing in perpetuity in the dossiers of men, my mother and I start to revise our narratives of each other too. And in so doing, we both make it out alive.
Excerpted from Enjoy Me Among My Ruins by Juniper Fitzgerald, with permission from the Feminist Press