Friday, July 26, 2013

Book review: Dance of the Dissident Daughter

This book was recommended to me by a friend recently, and while I don't relate to/agree with everything in it, I think it's worth reading.

The author, Sue Monk Kidd, is a one-time christian inspirational writer-turned-novelist, and is also the author of The Secret Life of Bees.

The general subject of the book is the importance of the Sacred Feminine in the spiritual and physical lives of women and those who love them, and it is the story of the author's journey from a more traditional, patriarchy-based understanding of God and spirituality to an understanding that includes both Sacred Masculine and Sacred Feminine, among other things. One of the aspects of her journey to which I cannot really relate is her leaving of the church entirely, not just certain churches or denominations, and her elevation of her own experience past the the point I'd peg as healthy. Unlike Ms. Kidd, I believe that a woman can find a balanced understanding of a genderless God within the Christian Church, and that she can find the closest possible relationship with God through a focus on the gospel and the teachings of Christ and with a community of christians to support her.

First, the writing- the book is divided into four sections- Awakening, Initiation, Grounding, and Empowerment. The chronology jumps around- the story is told in many smaller stories, and there is no organizational structure such as thesis points, a chronological timeline, or really any division between the stories, except for her own four general categories. The story is a progression, but not a strictly linear one. For this reason the style doesn't appeal to me and made the book difficult to finish; that's more a statement of preference than an evaluative judgement. If you like to segue between stories more than you like following a concept down a linear progression, Ms. Kid's style will probably appeal to you.

Ms. Kidd writes that her process of "awakening to her feminine self" began with a vivid dream, in which she gave birth to a daughter who was also herself. She says "For years I had written down my dreams, believing, as I still do, that one of the purest sources of knowledge about our lives comes from the symbols and images deep within." This reverence for individual truth and personal feeling is a recurring theme throughout the book. While I think that being knowledgeable and aware of oneself and in tune with feelings and reactions is important, I tend to elevate Truth that exists outside of myself as a litmus test by which to evaluate and quantify personal feelings, so this is not a theme I particularly relate to. I do think that it could be an important point for a person who is not self-aware, or is accustomed to being dismissed, ignored, or minimized; we should not dismiss or ignore, except perhaps temporarily so that we deal with them on our terms, our feelings and reactions. What a person believes about themselves has an enormous impact on themselves and the people around them, and self-knowledge is always healthy and necessary; I do think that this can be taken too far when people blindly accept their feelings as true, as the opposite extreme to repression and self-depreciation.

Ms. Kidd speaks of a gradual awakening to things she had seen all her life but never noticed, and a gradual process of a distinctly feminine self-actualization. This brings me to my main issue with her perspective- she is far, far more of a gender essentialist than I am, and some of her statements seem oddly reminiscent of gender-based statements I have seen in fundamentalist literature from the opposite perspective. Part of her perspective I find beautiful and true- namely, the ideas that a woman experiences spirituality in a deeper way and/or accepts her life as female with more passion and contentment when all holiness and deity is not exclusively male, and that women need strength and autonomy. I don't make the same correlations between women's biological ability to nurture life and a unique feminine propensity for relational nurturing as does Ms. Kidd. But more on that later.

Ms Kidd, who loves the christian monastic and contemplative sides, describes the pivotal experiences she had in monastic retreats, experiences which propelled her into an understanding of God as both Father and Mother, and she describes the dissonance between her growing need to identify with the feminine aspect of God and her attendance at a traditional Southern Baptist church. She remembers the messages both she and her own daughter received as children, messages of male headship and a limitation of certain levels of spiritual service to males. These experiences, along with any harassment and dismissal she experienced, she labels part of something called the Feminine Wound. Ms. Kidd writes that for the first part of her life, she had been asleep as a woman, and unaware of the injustices which she experienced as a female. She had been operating, unbeknownst to herself, in a paradigm which placed a man at the center of woman's existence, and put any personal goals, desires, or development secondary to the wishes and needs of the man. As her awakening progressed, she found herself realizing and recognizing unhealthy patterns and inequalities in her most basic relationships. I relate to this part of her experience- being naturally aggressive and independent, I assume that I have succeeded in overcoming stereotypes and co-dependencies, only to find another root of harmful philosophy that I never knew was a part of me.

Ms. Kidd describes something which she feels every woman should embrace- a uniquely feminine soul; a sense of the relational and interconnected, and the guiding force and power of women. Here I disagree with her, as I don't think souls are gendered, nor do I believe that every woman has a deep internal connection to a relational, earthy, nurturing, inner self. She goes on to say that women have been underrepresented in the historical naming and quantifying of spiritual truth- this I can believe, at least in the official sense. The basic orthodoxy we hold dear was, largely, codified by men, and I can certainly admit the plausibility of her assertion that this fact is responsible for the demise of the sacred feminine within Christianity. I agree with Ms. Kidd on the importance of the sacred feminine to women, in the sense that if God is both feminine and masculine, the idea of both genders as equally divine image bearers becomes more difficult to undermine.

Ms. Kidd describes our culture, even our faith culture, as anesthetizing the feminine spirit, and she quotes Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a quote which I loved:

When a woman is exhorted to be compliant, cooperative, and quiet, to not make upset or go against the old guard, she is pressed into living a most unnatural life- a life that is self-blinding.....without innovation. The world-wide issue for women is that under such conditions they are not only silenced, they are put to sleep. Their concerns, their viewpoints, their own truths are vaporized.

I'd like to think that in the years since Ms. Kidd was young, some of the ways in which she describes females being silenced, minimized, or objectified are no longer as prevalent, but I do think that such things still exist, whether in tempered form, in pockets of religious fundamentalism, or in other places around the world. The condition of women in other places ranges from equality or very near, in some western countries, to the most terrible slavery and oppression in places like the Middle East, parts of Asia, and parts of Africa. I wish I could say that my country was free from the oppressing and silencing of women, but there are echos of it here to varying degrees, more in certain sub-cultures than in others. Whenever I hear people blame a rape victim, or act as if a woman matters nothing if she is not beautiful, or deny higher education to a daughter because of her gender, or exclude women from equal participation in worship, I cringe, thinking of all the steps, all too few, between such polite oppression and the more serious forms of oppression in other parts of the world.

Ms. Kidd describes the course of her life prior to her feminine awakening as filled with attempts to fit external ideals of Christian Womanhood which she had internalized from church and society. She lists several archetypes which describe the good daughter of patriarchy she used to be- the Gracious Lady, that archetype of southern charm, sophistication, and reserve, the Favored Daughter, with all her compliance and man- pleasing and perfectionism, the Secondary Partner, with all her self-effacing and self-sacrificing, and the Silent Woman, with her repression and anger and desperation to be heard. I relate to this as well, knowing the pressure to conform to an ideal of feminine reality and the frustration of being deemed unfeminine because I cannot.

Throughout the book, Ms. Kidd describes various experiences in which she found the Sacred Feminine- dancing with her friends on the beach, experiences in nature, and study of and visiting sacred places of the Sacred Feminine. Many of her examples of the sacred feminine in early religions were new to me, and this aspect of the book was a catalyst for much enjoyable further study. She relates some of her experiences as a metaphor to the story of Ariadne, and the back-and-forth between this story and her own was interesting.

Ms. Kidd does not denigrate men, but respects and loves her husband, which I appreciate. All too often, I see the stereotype of the independent "feminist" woman inextricably linked in people's minds with a "bad wife", or a distant, disrespectful, or inattentive woman. Not so- I was never a better wife than I am now, in all my feminist glory. :) It's funny how a push for honesty, equality, and mutual love and respect actually doesn't ruin a relationship.....

Throughout this book, Ms. Kidd references many religions having to do with the Sacred Feminine, and seems to appreciate that aspect of their spirituality. In my own belief, while the only complete Truth is found in Christ, other religions can certainly have good mixed in with the not-so-good, and can be a source of revelation, as can many non-religious things. Ms. Kidd mentions the sacred feminine symbology of the serpent several times, which I find interesting considering its biblical symbology... which in turn simply reminds us of the fluid nature and limited empiricism of symbology. :) When drawing from many eras and cultures, it is wholly possible that multiple symbologies for the same object or idea can arise, and vice versa. It is also possible that multiple symbologies per the same object may exist within the Bible, and that other, later philosophies which were antithetical to feminine wisdom and equality may have tainted our perception of some of those passages.

I like Ms. Kidd's focus, too, on moving past anger and channeling emotion and energy into action. This is a concept which we'd all do well to imitate. She also acknowledges the importance of allowing for diversity and solidarity between women, and realizes that we are not all the same person with a different shell. All in all, I enjoyed the book and found value in it, though I do not agree with everything within it and though I relate more to the general concepts than to Ms. Kidd's specific experience.

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