This was supposed to be my first post in the Lost Novel thread. The one where I tell all three of my readers why they should be interested in my attempts to reconstruct Ophelia Drowned, last seen hanging around on a floppy disk going on twenty years ago, now lost (there is a good argument to be made that all first novels should be lost) somewhere between Manhattan and Albuquerque.
Ophelia Drowned is, or was—perhaps will be—one in a series of manifestations of my fascination with John Everett Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece. It was also inspired by the death, when I was five, of my favorite aunt. She was a librarian, in the small town in Tennessee where I grew up. She gave me my first book—Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit—which I drooled on in my sleep, in lieu of a stuffed animal. My aunt was beautiful. She was divorced (uncommon in the South in the 60s). She died from a gunshot wound. A bullet to the head, from a gun fired by her son, my cousin, when he was fifteen. Perhaps accidentally, perhaps not.
Ophelia Drowned was my brain’s attempt to make a story out of what had happened and why. Completely my own invention, made up out of whole cloth, because no one in my family would answer my questions. No one would talk about it. There were no photographs of my aunt in our home, or in my grandmother’s, in whose presence we were forbidden to mention her name—as though the shame were my aunt’s, alone, even in death.
My aunt died a victim of gun violence. One could also say she died a victim of violence against women, a larger rubric beneath which we can also fit the topic that is currently roiling the headlines, daily and sometimes even hourly: Harvey Weinstein and his victims. Bill O’Reilly and his. Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes and Dominique Strauss Kahn and Donald Trump and theirs. Because sexual harassment and assault, when perpetrated against a woman, is but one instantiation—a particularly abhorrent instantiation—of violence against women, something of which the world has been far too tolerant for far too long. Does it take movie stars speaking out to make it change? Is it not enough that it happens to thousands, if not millions, of women every day?
I have been stalked and followed home, groped and catcalled, upskirted and offered $500 to walk on some guy in Central Park with my boots. #alloftheabove and far, far worse. The catcalling, of course, goes without saying: we’re supposed to just shrug it off, or even be flattered. It started for me, as it does for most women, when I was in a training bra, and it continues to this day (one would think that after fifty… well, maybe sixty will be the magic number: sags and bags, bring it on).
I’m sure it was different for my aunt—the times were other, society was other—but she was a woman on her own in a time and place that didn’t much care for women on their own: I’m equally sure that it was #hertoo. I have absolutely no doubt that the same was true for Lizzie Siddall, model for Millais’ Ophelia—another woman on her own, in nineteenth-century London.
Alone, that is, until she finally married the obsessed, stalk-y Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who forbade her to model for anyone but him.
If it takes high-profile actresses (whose suffering I in no way wish to minimize) to draw attention to this age-old problem, then so be it: a debt of gratitude is owed to all who have spoken out. May this ugliest of moments in our culture be a turning point. May we look back, some day, and think to ourselves, yes, it did start then. Things are better now, and that was when they began to change.