The Story in the Woman
A review of four books by Joan Bodger
by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
The landscape is pink as far as the eye can see. There are ripples and curls of warm earth and hills peaked with curiously darkened rings of land, the odd spindly tree sprouting here and there, and far in the distance a series of undulating hills and valleys, an empty dip in the flatland and further along a mound, an enchanted place, then a cliff leading, by way of a crevice, to a wetland – a fertile wilderness where any number of adventures might transpire. Gold is hidden here. It is entrancing, dangerous; a place where only the heroic dare trod. Few are brave enough to turn around and walk back to tell the tale, for the return journey is fraught with incalculable dangers, scores of evil interlopers — dwarves, giants, witches, goblins, trolls, enchantresses — trying to steal back whatever treasure was gained. There is always the concern, too, that once having scaled the face of the Faceless Cliff, the landscape itself will swallow one whole. Those who survive, return transformed.
Storyteller Joan Bodger has gone a-questing. The Crack in the Teacup is her tour de force autobiography published in 2000. Joan Bodger grew up in a household where storytelling was paramount. She later helped found the Storytellers School of Toronto. She is a Gestalt therapist who uses storytelling in her healing methodology. She also worked as a children’s librarian in the U.S. and as a children’s book reviewer for The New York Times. As a storyteller, she simply found ways to tell stories wherever she went. Joan Bodger wrote and edited (for Random House) children’s storybooks. She spent years of her life traveling to the places of ancient fairytale and folk legend. By means of this life theme, this personal obsession with children’s literature, she described
herself, and healed herself, not to mention made a living. Now, at 78 Joan Bodger is recovering from cancer and even still she bears the treasures of her many heroic deeds.
When I related to Joan Bodger that my fascination with her work centred on the themes of madness, sexuality and landcape, she offered a poem to aid in my research.
My body is topography,
no matter what shape I am in. (from The Land of Bod)
The fleshly body and the earthly body are inseparable for Joan Bodger. A journey is a getting from place to place just as it is a motion within. As well, both of these — the self and the worldly — describe narrative. If Joan Bodger’s elderly body, with it’s creases, pocks, sags and memory of tauter times is “real estate”(The Land Of Bod) , the reverse is equally true — that the earth is living in all the growth stages that entails. A story emerges through the meeting of these two forces. Is not narrative concerned with birth, exploration or heroic deeds, climax, death? The earth is seasonally concerned with such matters. The human body obviously too.
Dan Yashinski, who started the Toronto Storytelling Festival, when asked for his impressions of his dear friend and colleague Joan Bodger, sent a 6 page ode:
Did you know that Joan and her friend
once set out from Bloor and Yonge
and strolled for ten days straight
up the highway
past immemorable suburbs
north to Bracebridge –
beheld the women
neither young nor skinny
stamping and tramping up a road
that nobody remembered
could still be walked –
Bodgers both, their ten day promenade
laid a woman-trod, human-shaped
measure on the land –
Tramping and stamping
obdurate and graceful
irresistible and unforgettable –
a deed turned into a memorable tale,
and now you’ll never drive north
to cottage country
without the echo of their goodly walk
accompanying the car-shelled blur (from Praising the Bodger)
The fairytales that the Grimm brothers, Perrault and famous folklorist and anthropologist Andrew Lang collected were stories that had been transmitted orally, growing in life, for centuries. The popularity of these in the 19th century spawned any number of fairytale writers, for example, George MacDonald (The Princess and Curdie, The Princess and the Goblin) who in turn inspired C.S. Lewis to write The Chronicles of Narnia. The hill and dale of fairyland gave rise to Narnia, to the Wilderland of Tolkien’s Hobbitted world, to the mountainous landscape and the treacherous mines of Curdie’s world. These locations could be said o exist only in the mind. Or they could be primordial landscapes, long evolved, urbanised and lost on the maps of time. In 1958 Bodger and her young family went to England to seek out the places of their favourite British children’s books. They looked for Camelot, Avalon, the exact location where Toad and Mole go “messing about in boats” on the Thames, the Enchanted Place (Winnie The Pooh – A.A. Milne), and other seemingly imaginary landscapes. Joan Bodger sought and often found, if not the very locations of particular stories, then something suspiciously resembling them. This in itself is an act of great imagination or, perhaps more accurately, an intensive suspension of disbelief. Bodger’s willingness to undertake such whimsy is a kind of madness, really.
In her recent children’s book The Forest Family, Joan Bodger has taken an amalgam of folk legend and fairy tale imagery, woven it like the nettle cloth one of the characters so proudly produces, and fashioned a construct that makes sense out of her own life. Madness in Bodger’s work is an important theme. Bodger’s first husband was mentally ill. In The Forest Family, madness becomes the man Bernardo. Bernardo returns after many years from a distant war where “On the battlefield a poisonous barb had entered near [his] heart.” Bernardo is described as “strong as a bear”, “big as a bear”, with a name meaning bear. He is a woodcutter.
It is fitting, therefore, that his wife’s name is Sylvania (meaning forest), since it is she whom he ultimately “cuts” with the poisonous barb. Sylvania, too, is close to his heart and must be affected by his injury.
In her autobiography, Joan Bodger assigns the symbol “bear’ to her father. Frank Higbee was a naval lieutenant in the war and a U.S. coast guard.
“The bear, in my mind, was father. Had he not served on a ship named The Bear? A photograph of it hung in our hallway, and there was this family saga about a smelly bearskin. More significant was father’s gruff, burly, hirsute presence in our all-female household, reassuring yet upsetting. When the bear in the Grimm story (Snow White and Rose Red) came through the door, he was so covered in snow that Rose Red rushed to fetch a broom to sweep him off. Father burst into our lives sporadically, clothed in the myth of the Arctic seas.”
Bodger reflects on Gestalt therapy and extrapolates a theory about character — “I am everything in the story and everything in the story is me.” The story is transmitted through the teller and imbued with the teller’s own past, or mythology. In this way Bodger is the bear, too. She has infiltrated that archetype and understood it through the myth of her father, via her understanding of fatherliness, an ideal that is conveniently given the bear symbol.
Bodger’s character, Bernardo, splits from his bearness as his collapse manifests. While the man Bernardo was disappearing into drink and debauchery, “…a huge bear shambled into the room and dropped onto the hearth rug. His coat was covered with ice and snow. Rosy ran for a broom to sweep his coat clean; Daisy poured him a pail of warm milk and honey…they let him stay the night.” (Rosy and Daisy are Bernardo’s daughters — related in fairyland to Rose Red). The bear represents the spirit of the sick man. Bernardo has fully split from his spirit-self. This split is madness, which in an ordinary fairy tale would be the essential story.
The notion of a mortal wound is prevalent in myth — Achilles’ heel, Count Burchard in The Nettle Spinner (The Red Fairy Book, ed. Andrew Lang), The Fisher King. It is the Fisher King who bears the closest resemblance to Bodger’s Bernardo, except, of course, he is wounded in the groin. Fascinatingly, Bodger’s own Fisher King is her mother.
“She sent out a message, loud and clear: Don’t ask! So I didn’t. As a teenager, I was afraid that if I called her bluff (about sexuality), if I destroyed her pain, I would destroy both of us.”
The wound Joan Bodger’s mother incurred was a result of an accident. Bodger’s baby sister Joyce leapt onto her mother’s pregnant belly. The devastating result for the mother was the loss of the child, a botched operation, near fatality and a lifelong loss of sexuality. Bodger’s mother suffered a tragic insecurity in her marriage as a consequence. She shut herself off from her children, especially Joyce, who died estranged from her mother, only learning (from Joan) what happened shortly before she died. Joyce’s reaction to this: I have always believed I am evil. Joan Bodger realises that she and her sister are linked, that “her story is part of [Joan’s] story.” Joan is everyone in her own life story, just as she is everyone in her story The Forest Family.
In this way the injured husband is a composite of people from Bodger’s experience. In his split self he is Bodger’s wounded mother and her real life father, at whose funeral Joan discovered “three other ladies, age(d) sixty-seven, seventy-four, eighty-seven, each contending for place as chief mourner. Father had been sleeping with all three of them.” But Bernardo is also her first husband as well as her son, Ian, both of whom suffered mental illness. And both of whom affected her deeply. Like Sylvania she has sought to cure their wounds; like Sylvania she has managed this only insofar as she has managed to cure her own wounds.
Sylvania seeks out The Green Knight and enchantment to cure her husband of the barb that has nestled so close to his heart. The Green Knight, as is his wont, has no salve for her, only bitter truth:
“Granted your family may not be absolutely perfect,…BUT IT’S GOOD ENOUGH”
The Green Knight offers this advice not just to Sylvania but to Joan Bodger as well. In turn Bodger transmits it to the reader, or listener. It is the madness that is the enchantment. And the enchantment can only be broken by some heroic deed in real time, in earthly space — else it signifies nothing. Sylvania faces madness by taking strength from her newly realised autonomy, and through this her husband is reborn (from the bear symbol).
“When the bear stood upright, a gleam shone all’round him. His coat split wide; his shaggy fur fell away from him to reveal he was a man …. ‘I am your father.’”
It is interesting to note, especially in light of Joan Bodger’s relationship to the personal loss that madness must be, that she dedicates How The Heather Looks:
To John and Ian, and to Lucy who went back to find the door
The dedication only came clear to me after re-reading the texts. I believe the door must be to Narnia — C.S. Lewis’s literary analogy to spiritual transformation.
Joan Bodger’s daughter Lucy went back in death. She died as a result of a brain tumor at the age of 7. John (Joan Bodger’s first husband) and Ian (her son) are schizophrenic. Can the journey into mental illness be likened to a seeking, a spiritual transformation? If Bodger is the bear, the husband and the wife, then she is her own father and her own husband; she is also his mental illness, for that too is the story of her own making. She has gathered together the pieces in order to join them, willfully, beautifully. Consider this:
“When I enter fully into the state of storytelling, when I see a story afresh, no matter how many times I have told it, I somehow blunder into that secret country, into a place that verges on (but is not) insanity.” (p.324)
If the telling of a story can give Joan Bodger a portal into the insane, the transformative, and if she describes this as “a place” and “a secret country”, then how fitting that the two books cited as seminal to an understanding of her work and life are archaeological studies.
In the verdant hill and dale of Wiltshire, trough (barrow) and hill monuments excavated and built by Neolithic people draw sightlines across the landscape.
Geologist/archaeologist Michael Dames’s two books, The Avebury Cycle and The Silbury Treasure, inspired Joan Bodger to say, “The experience of going to Avebury, and of walking the land, has helped me to view my own body as topography.” (The Crack In The Teacup, p.383) This is no small revelation.
The monuments form a physical narrative built by Neolithic people to mark the cyclical farming calendar, markers that were physical manifestations of symbol and ritual, deifications of the body-earth as goddess.
“The monuments were not fixed objects but living events, volatile descriptions of the divine body in different conditions – puberty, sexual maturity, maternity, senescence – reinforced at the right season by appropriate human behaviour, with the last act leading on to the first” (The Avebury Cycle, Michael Dames, Thames & Hudson, second ed. 1996, ISBN 0-500-27886-5, p.13)
In Neolithic times there was no fragmentation between man and nature, mind and spirit. History lacked chronology as it rotated in perpetuity around the seasons, the ritual year, the manifestations of the goddess’s lifespan (i.e. the Avebury monuments, pits, long barrows, etc. were visual signs of the goddess as fertile or the goddess as hag).
Bodger’s relationship to landscape is certainly linked to her growth as a sexual being. In Clever-Lazy, a young female inventor is employed by the emperor’s ambassador to invent amusing toys. In a shed in the ambassador’s garden, she lives a faux-autonomous life with her husband, the tinker. It is only when she invents gunpowder that her near slave-like situation is revealed to her. Pregnant and unwilling to disclose the secret of her dangerous fireworks, she escapes by following a route not unlike the Avebury network of symbolic lines, laid down centuries before by a now almost extinct goddess cult. It is months after Clever-Lazy’s baby boy is born that she discovers the ancient goddess shrine. She enters there and has an epiphany about motherhood – “All along she had feared she was a bad mother, but now she knew that she was not” (p.197). Clever-Lazy has re-united her mind with her bodily purpose. Now she can proceed toward true autonomy. “I am a good mother,…And it’s because I know I am that I will go out into the world from time to time.”
Autonomy is the crux of all Joan Bodger’s explorations. For Sylvania, it arrives as an answer to a different question, as we have seen in The Forest amily. It arrives to Clever-Lazy in an arduous walk along the physical (spiritual) path of her ancestors. As Bodger’s female characters achieve adulthood, they achieve a certain containment of self. Is this not autonomy in its pure form?
“I see the Goddess and I see that she is made up of all my bits and pieces…But you don’t have to see and believe the same things. You’ll invent your own truth.”(p.203 Clever-Lazy)
Bodger does not “believe in goddesses or in a Goddess.” — “Thinking about the possibility of a female deity has led me all the way from being empowered by an idea, to another idea – that the notion of goddess rose with the invention of agriculture and has, in the long run, led to the loss of women’s liberty.”(p.349)
Every year for ten years, Joan Bodger lead a group through Arthurian England. She took the group to Avebury, told the story of The Loathly Lady, also known as The Marriage of Gawain and then lead the group into the West Kennet Long Barrow.
“Shaped like a woman’s pelvis, corbeled with stone, it represents the stony, bony womb of the post menopausal goddess. Four thousand years ago, it would have been filled with a mash of vegetation, and the severed limbs and bodies of those who had died, to make a kind of sacred mulch.” (The Crack In The Teacup, p. 384)
Listen to the story of The Marriage of Gawain or The Loathly Lady and how, when the Sun God kisses the Winter Hag, he solves the age-old riddle:
King Arthur goes out to quest, spies the castle of the Green Knight and challenges him to a duel. By some enchantment, The Green Knight disarms King Arthur, leaves him defenseless and is about to kill him, when he recognises him as King Arthur and decides to give him an opportunity to save himself. Arthur is given three days to answer the question “What does a woman want?” He returns to Camelot and seeks the advice of his knights, none of whom provides a worthy answer. Only the impetuous Gawain has no advice to give. Prepared to meet his end, King Arthur returns to meet The Green Knight. On the way he meets a hideous woman who, in return for an undisclosed favour, gives him the answer to the question. Without realising it, King Arthur has promised Gawain’s hand in marriage to The Loathly Lady. He returns forlornly with the sad news. He is ready even to break his promise, a highly unchivalric possibility. But Gawain rises to the occasion, rides out to meet the horrid damsel and is wed to her in a ceremony more funereal than joyous. He takes her to the wedding chamber and kisses her (albeit with eyes closed), and she transforms into a woman of unsurpassable beauty. Gawain is given a choice: his wife will be beautiful by day and ugly by night, or ugly by night and beautiful by day. Gawain chooses one, then, the other. By each choice Gawain’s wife is enraged until finally, in exasperation, Gawain shouts, “Be what you will be when you choose to be that!” The spell is instantly broken. The Loathly Lady will forever be beautiful.
There is an undercurrent of self-loathing and physical revulsion in Bodger’s autobiography. Of her first honeymoon, Joan Bodger says:
“My ignorance was abysmal…My body ached with desire, but I put my emotions on hold. I would rather remain in a state of denial about what was important
than to spoil what was the unimportant part of our honeymoon. We spent the week having a lovely time being tourists on the Monterey Peninsula.” (p.199 TCITT)
Later, in 1970, “I wished that I had lost that fifty pounds. I wished that I liked to drink. I wished that I knew how to hang out in singles bars.” (p.329 TCITT) Possibly one of the most poignant and telling scenes in The Crack In The Teacup is:
“What are you doing?” he (note: Alan Mercer – Bodger’s soon-to-be second husband) boomed.
“Putting on my bra,” I replied, my voice slightly muffled.
“Why are you doing it that way?”
The Devil made me speak. “Because I am fat,” I said.
“What does that have to do with it? Why are you over there in the corner, with your face to the wall?”
“Because I am fat,” I said. Barely whispering…
…Stop whispering,” said Alan. “Listen to me. I am your lover…Turn around! Don’t you understand? I love every fold and crease of you!”
Slowly I turned, my bra dangling from one hand. Oh my impetuous lover! Braver than Gawain! When Alan Mercer kissed the Loathly Lady, he did not close his eyes.
Bodger’s clarity about her personal search to come to terms with her own body is in some ways the whole story of her life and work. She uses the word “cunt” twice in her autobiography. “Surely young girls deserve information beyond the ken of talks about menstruation and how the sperm meets the ovary and where babies come from. They need a Cunt Owner’s Manual, written by a woman who understands sexuality”(p.126). The second usage of the word cunt is in connection to the Kennet Long Barrow, a portion of the Avebury goddess monuments — “until the twentieth century, the locals pronounced “kennet” without the vowels: kennet = cunt. A story reveals itself, in part, through its landscape; the landscape shows Bodger how to define body or self, and this in turn creates a construct for a deeper understanding of the story.
The early trip to England in 1958 with her young family and the subsequent ten years of Arthurian tours must have been pathways to the narrative choices that Bodger later made. At age 63, Joan Bodger, whose “ignorance was abysmal”, whose first sexual information came out of a pamphlet by botanist and early birth control advocate Marie Stopes, describes herself in the throes of sexual climax in a pit at the Temple of Atargatis (the goddess), Petra, Jordan:
“I wiggled a hollow for my hips. I closed my eyes. An old familiar tension came into my thighs, my groin my lower belly. I touched the tips of my sagging breasts. I balled my fist, put it between my legs, rubbed and swayed. Not good enough. I reached for the water bottle, screwed its lid as tight as I could, and straddled it, rocked myself against it. So long, so long, it had been so long! The climax was slow in coming, tantalizingly out of reach.”
This scene in the autobiography is perplexing, shocking and, somehow, unbelievable. On the one hand it stands to reason that Joan Bodger would find herself in this ancient, sexually charged landscape, in a sexually charged situation. Her second husband, Alan Mercer, and her mother were dead, and she had met again but not really reunited with her lost son Ian, whose schizophrenia is described palpably in the autobiography. The masturbation reveals a sadness, a loneliness, a sexual connection to landscape and a self-sufficiency that is truly Bodger. On the other hand, it shows Bodger at the height (climax?) of her storytelling capacity, narrating her own life story even as it happens.
Joan Bodger was 47 years old when her Gawain gave her permission to be herself, when, in fact, she gave herself permission to function autonomously. At this time she knew that her family “may not be absolutely perfect”… but it’s good enough, the same advice the Green Knight gave Sylvania in The Forest Family. In the words of Clever-Lazy, who, like Joan Bodger, will invent her own truth, “I am a good mother.” For Clever-Lazy this epiphany comes sexually, through the birth of a child and a long walk home. Joan Bodger’s realisation is no less sexual, although it comes on the heels of a near medical depression, the death of her daughter and the loss of her husband and son to mental illness. Autonomy does not come without loss. It is not a perfect world. A storyteller of supreme capability, Joan Bodger has fashioned from the strands of various mythologies – both personal and universal – her own story. And if the telling has been transformative for Joan Bodger, as one suspects it has, it may be visionary for the reader.
Addendum: Joan Bodger died on Independence Day, July 4, 2002 in Tofino, B.C.
The Crack In The Teacup: The Life of an Old Woman Steeped in Stories
McClelland & Stewart
The Forest Family
How The Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children’s Books
McClelland & Stewart
The Avebury Cycle & The Silbury Treasure
Thames and Hudson
©Kathryn Kuitenbrower 2005