Of Mothers and Whores by Coco Papy
When I was a still girl, somewhere in between feeling forever trapped and the new found power of breasts, a woman, an acquaintance of my mothers (though one she did not trust as far as she could throw), came over to me and grabbed my arm tightly, forcing her own physical presence over my body. ” Your mother is a whore,” she whispered at me through Chiclets teeth, pink satin lips pressed, and eyes narrowed as to show how very serious she was in laying this claim. “A Whore.”
I did not respond, nor do I remember looking at her in the eye, only watching the dangling gold cross that hung around her neck, a self-proclaimed symbol of the good southern Christian woman she was. Perhaps you are familiar with this type, if you have lived parts of your life in the humid, darkly contradictory part of this country: The woman with highlights all too high, an uncanny acceptance of that old colloquial of “the southern belle” or “Miss Georgia Peach”, some sort of queen or miss or winner of some sort of seasonal crop. There is a well-manicured look, crisp, clean- physical and all the right symbols that indicated the essence of a “good woman”. A good woman with a husband who took care of her and had money and did not have to use her hands to put food on the table. She would have not had to touch a certain part of life that was relegated to “the other”. I don’t mean to castigate this woman as some evil stepmother-queen figure, only to point out for the bulk of my life, this woman defined what “women” were supposed to be, and for that, I was deeply resentful. I knew not one of those women in my family. It was something we could never be.
Whore. I do not remember much more of this encounter, not even where I was. Only the word “whore” echoing in between my ears, as I stood, still light-headed from this encounter. Whore. The word rang through my body, singing every inch of my skin, and while provoking nothing at the time, now leaves me in a balancing act between the angry fire that lights up my entire body when I hear it used in the way it has been used so many times, to destroy so many women. And yet, on the other side of the coin, whore, is a term I embrace now. It is quite a bargain with the devil.
The word whore, which has its etymological roots in almost all languages and exists ever so deeply within the conscious of history, is never neutral, never just “is”. Höra and kohoron, are both descriptions as old as this game has been played. Proto-Germanic words, both relying on reconstructed Indo-European roots: Hraz indicates “desire”, but roughly means “adulterer”. Kā meaning “desire”. Whore itself is a word of ambiguity, and much like it’s reconstructed language roots, becomes tantamount to the ultimate shape-shifter throughout the ages.
It was not that I was unfamiliar with the word “whore”. If anything, I knew the word all too well, as it slipped from the lips of those around me, with a casualty that seemed as regular as poured milk. Men like my father, my classmates, boys in my neighborhood, boys who taunted me, God – every man I knew had something to say about whores. Whores were responsible for every bad thing, whether the rain that stopped the party or the fact that the lotto ticket was bad. The worst though, was that nothing really kept one safe from being a whore, being that the definition, though generally solid, changed with the emotions of the crowd day in and day out. By most standard definitions, whore tends to stay in the linguistic realm of 1. Sex worker, particurarily referring to prostitute (however archaic that word is now) 2. A woman who is sexually promiscuous (indeed, a woman who has sex like a man) and, the final definition, which seems to be the most indefinite of all, 3. To compromise one’s principles for personal gain. Whore was less and less like a fixed notion and more like kudzu, creeping, crawling, growing a mile a minute, engulfing everything it crossed, earning the distaste of everyone who had to whack through the invasiveness of what seemed to be an indestructible, noxious weed. Nevermind that kudzu is beautiful and one of the most recognizable aspects of living among the low country. That you can eat it when hungry, and that kudzu can be used as medicine, keeps the soil clean, and can count a thousand other uses, before just being scapegoated to “bad”.
I had come to expect the sling of whore from men in my life, but what worse, is when the word would escape the lips of women. Coming from women was much like a fresh wound on top of the other slowly healing ones. With men, they always seemed to have to have someone as a whore, that women who never kept her place, didn’t shut her mouth, and who reminded them of all the collective failures and worst fears. That was to be expected. But when women said it? It offered a particular type of pain, a one that struck deeper. We were supposed to be together, right? From a woman’s mouth, it was a sign of the forces closing in, of judgment, of those like “the whore” turning on one of their own. The collective banished the one who would ruin it for them all- it being the chance to finally be accepted as “like or similar to a man”, a fate that at this point in my life, I am frankly not interested in.
So, what was my mother’s sin, the act that threw her into whoredom? Officially, it was because she dared to divorce my father, a man, whom after many years of said sin, she still remains close with today. But this moment only served as a catalyst for banning my mother into the land of whoredom, the final nail in a coffin that many had been waiting to seal for years. I am nothing but certain that there were always whispers, slings of ” who does she think she is” in living rooms with pictures of children with everything, stitched embroidery of Bible quotes, monumental tokens to whatever football team you happened to side with that year. My mother’s sin was not that she got divorced; it was that she dared to be her own person. She was a threat- a temptress, even though she wanted nothing to do with the people around her, much less their husbands. She was a temptress who was creating a life that was ones own – an authentic life that was not defined by the opinion of a husband or what a woman should be. Daring yes. Honest? Yes. Actions worthy of having her friends abandon her, women turn on her, and scorn surround her?
Back to the dictionary. The third definition for the word whore is this: ” A person considered as having compromised principles for personal gain.” Was this my mother’s biggest sin? That she had decided to compromise the principle of marriage for her own personal gain, which was happiness and independence? Was that all what a whore was?
The word remains alive and chaotic, like a live cable knocked down after a hurricane, both enticing and severely damaging. In my ease of growing older, I find that the word whore is a power source, a place where I know I am in good company. However, with as much ease as it brings me, even when used against me in the worst type of fashion. To this day I can still feel the sharp pain of hopelessness, each and every time I hear these ways of communicating it, though in my gut I know it only denotes a woman who has failed at being the woman she was intended to be. Perhaps this is the greatest curse that can befall a woman. Perhaps it is the worst. I only know for sure that it is a certain, a given. No matter how much one attempts to be above the plight of womanhood, masking as a chameleon, as “one of the boys”, the reality of womanhood will always, always come down like a hammer, somewhere, at some point. You are still no different.
In Fried Green Tomatoes, Fannie Flagg’s romantic dedication to the Depression era, Jim Crow south, one that still seems to sit in cradle of both the worst and best of the cultural imagination of America, the main character Ruth is considered a “good woman”. She is the closest representation of what Virginie Despentes describes in her book, King Kong Theory:
“…This ideal of the attractive but not whorish white woman, in a good marriage but not self-effacing, with a nice job but not so successful she outshines her man, slim but not neurotic over food, forever young without being disfigured by the surgeon’s knife, a radiant mother not overwhelmed by diapers and homework, who manages her home beautifully without becoming a slave to housework, who knows a thing or two but less than a man, this happy white woman who is constantly shoved under our noses, this woman we are all supposed to work hard to resemble – never mind that she seems to be running herself ragged for not much reward- I for one have never met her, not anywhere. My hunch is that she doesn’t exist.”
Far be it for me to point out the obvious, that this good woman can only be found in a book, though life does try and imitate art. While the good women who took comfort in damning my mother to whoredom may not even know who Flagg is, the point remains that they were not concerned with “whore” proper. They were fearful of someone they knew not being or caring to be this mythical woman and were terrified enough to banish any threat to it. They were fearful that they, after they had tried and tried and tried so hard to be this mythical women, they would still fail, not be enough. They were fearful of being banished from the comforts of what being a good woman meant. That banishment came in the form of being a whore, a fate that history has known time after time. In Flagg’s book, Ruth, after being beaten senselessly by her husband, ponders what it means to be cast out:
“What was this power, this insidious threat, this invisible gun to her head that controlled her life . . . this terror of being called names?
She had stayed a virgin so she wouldn’t be called a tramp or a slut; had married so she wouldn’t be called an old maid; faked orgasms so she wouldn’t be called frigid; had children so she wouldn’t be called barren; had not been a feminist because she didn’t want to be called queer and a man hater; never nagged or raised her voice so she wouldn’t be called a bitch . . .
She had done all that and yet, still, this stranger had dragged her into the gutter with the names that men call women when they are angry.”
So, what of concrete answers and easy, succinctly wrapped up endings, that give the impression that I myself, have come to a place where I completely and fully understand it all? Much like the mythical woman, it doesn’t exist, at least not in the case, and especially not for me. I do know this. Much like kudzu, the word whore is a powerful force, much stronger than all the methods used to try and control it. Entire departments have been dedicated to the care and control of kudzu, enacting laws, creating strategies, razing and burning and slashing, and any other method that can give the illusion that kudzu is somehow able to be controlled. Everyone has an opinion on kudzu: what should be done with it, how to get rid of it, how they hate it or love it, the list of opinions is as long as the day itself. Yet, kudzu keeps on growing, affected by each and every attempt to slash or burn or rid. It stays alive, time after time, riding out the attempts of control. It climbs and coils and sinks it’s roots deep into the soil, and has for years and years and years. Kudzu is not going anywhere and as far as I can see into the future, neither will people’s attempts to control it.