Critical Trilogy

a critic's millennial journey

Lisa Paul Streitfeld: First Person 1997

 

The myth shattering instinct seems to run in the family.   It may be our birthright, considering that my sister and I had a psychologist at the forefront of the Human Potential Movement as a father.   As children of the sixties, we rode the wave of every innovative form of therapy on the horizon, at the dinner table if not at encounter groups.

Lately, we have been exploding the ones about sibling rivalry and competition between women by celebrating the release of the film Susan took five years to make, Female Perversions.   We were together with the rest of the family in the house where we grew up in Stamford, rejoicing two thumbs up by Siskel and Ebert.

The particular illusion shattered by this film is that of the Superwoman.  The main character, Eve, is a lawyer about to be appointed judge, yet instead of going up through the glass ceiling, she descends.  The prevailing image of the nightmares during her breakdown was that of a woman walking across a tightrope.

My sister and I tried to squeeze our ample hips into the power suits of the eighties–and found them confining.  I was an financial reporter and Susan became a high powered Hollywood agent.

The youngest of three girls, I was also the most precocious; my tightrope snapped long before the ripening of the fruits of my professional labors.  Struggling like mad to hold up the image of a high flier in control of her success driven vehicle, I crashed at 26 on the therapist’s couch in the U.S. Embassy in Mexico where I was contracted as a consultant.  “Look at you,” she said as I wiped my tears, “You look so sophisticated.  You are pathetic.”  (I discovered years later that she was dismissed for making up her credentials).  Susan helped me out with money and sensible advice–to return to the United States for therapy.  When I eventually landed in New York after a madcap detour through South America, I launched into my tale of obsession (different guy, same old archetype) in my  interview at the Reichian Center and was immediately admitted.  Three times a week at a cost of ten dollars for an hour and a half a session with a therapist in training.   Finally, I decided I had enough.  “I’m interested in more esoteric forms of therapy,” I told her.  She warned me that I would end up just like my father.  No way, I told myself, was I interested in living in the ashram of an Indian guru.

I channeled my angst into writing.  A succession of negative female archetypes paraded across the pages dropping from my typewriter.  I realized in horror they were all me!  What had tormented my dreams and possessed me in life was slowly becoming conscious.  Meanwhile, Susan bailed me out once again by helping me obtain a script reading job.

So it was not therapy but art that rescued me from my torment.   As I continued my inner journey, positive reflections of my healing began to take the place of the projections of self-destructive impulses.   I retreated from the sleek Hollywood images of success and tempted the horrifying shadow of failure by maxing out my credit cards on crystals, New Age seminars and healers.

My knowledge helped provide a refuge for my sister as her own identification with the super agent began to collapse.  Discarding the external structure provided by the job for white canvas, she confronted through her painting the fear that had plagued me–falling into the abyss of psychosis where my father disappeared when we were infants.   Meanwhile, I was walking a new tightrope.  At one end was my goal of publishing a novel.  At the other end was the death of a dream.   Madness lurked below.  A new mirror–stardom–held up by my literary agent eventually shattered like all the others.  Publishers weren’t ready to examine the destructive impulses brought on by the raging sexuality of free floating female intellectuals.  Women editors, my writing teacher warned me, were stringent defenders of the patriarchal values, upholding the myth of the Superwoman along with the padded shoulders of their power suits.  What a relief then, for the crash landing of the nineties and the dark mirror of Courtney Love, who had difficulty holding her body up, never mind a polished image.

While the rest of the world may be looking to Hollywood to bring us the prototype of truly liberated women, those of us that worked daily with scripts know better.  The women characters in slick, high concept scripts by the end of the decade of greed were terrible distortions of the Superwoman.  They had become mean, with computer chips in the place of a heart.   More thoughtful scripts contained strokes of a different type, but like women themselves, the characterizations were unfinished sketches, projects still in the making.  The myth that Joseph Campbell alluded to–the one bringing in the new archetypes–was not ready to take hold.

Meanwhile, despite the quantities of creative individuals brandishing crystals into their creative battles, the old myths prevailed in Hollywood.  Female Perversions certainly shattered the one about there not being any good roles for women.  After all suitable American actresses turned down the role of Eve, the part went to Tilda Swinton, a Scottish actress.  They obviously didn’t share our vision–that Eve’s dark sexual journey paves the way to the light of a post-feminist discovery–the truly liberated woman.  But as my sister and I discovered in our own personal lives, the only way out of the darkness is through the darkness.

The film’s narrative depicts the specific path of liberation through the chilling confrontation with the unrecognized dark sister, who sits in a jail cell awaiting freedom by the hand of–guess who–her sister.  Paradoxically, by embracing the one school of psychology my father ignored, Susan and I took a path which forced us to uncover what he managed to repress through all his incarnations–the shadow.  In the film, the shadow is a predominant image rising from the subconscious–a huge primal mud covered female with matted hair.

Three years ago, I embraced that woman in a Native American sweat lodge.  The shaman who escorted me foretold of the emergence of a new female archetype.  “What can I do?” I asked.  “Hold the energy,” he replied.

The greatest source of anxiety in the western world is masked by sexual perversions and never acknowledged for what it is–a longing for Eros.  In a Sumerian myth, the love goddess, Inanna, descends into the underworld where she is put to death by her dark sister, Ereshkigal.  My sister and I have held the energy for one another during the course of our individual underworld journeys.  And as sisters in the larger culture, women are uncovering the old mythologies by attuning to the moon cycles as they gather in sweat lodges to celebrate a new vision of the feminine–women capable of embracing and containing their sexuality.

Hollywood’s resistance to seeing its own shadow projection seems confirmed by the reaction to Female Perversions.  Los Angeles had the lowest box office of the ten cities the film opened in at the end of April (with a four-month run in Germany).  Personal experience taught me that women in Los Angeles don’t care to look behind their glamorous images.  Before I left the city, I was house-sitting for a movie producer and his wife who had ambitions of being an actress.  She was a stunning beauty with cat eyes and a sexual magnetism that could turn from creative to destructive in an instant.  Her dark sister emerged a vengence as she broke free from her marriage, projecting her shadow onto her husband, who she later accused of trying to kill her.  I saw the inevitable and gave her the cards of all the healers I knew, to no avail; the only help she thought she needed was that of a plastic surgeon.  Her fate was sealed.  The surgery exacerbated the mental breakdown.  She became psychotic and her escape from the mental ward resulted in homelessness.

Thus, women have the choice.  They can proceed consciously to embrace their dark sister along a spiritual journey into the shining star of the new female archetype, or they can proceed in darkness until they look in the mirror as Eve does, and see themselves consumed by a devouring hunger, prisoner of their own desires.

During the course of a recent interview in London, my sister was alarmed to discover that the distributors included handcuffs with the promotional materials for the film.  When she told me this, a vision of handcuffs breaking open flashed across my mind.  As a descendant of Eve, I have, after many years of struggle, liberated myself from the jail of other people’s projections.  What remains?   The cutting open of any other attachments–real or perceived–that stand in the way of my becoming an authentic woman.

This essay was originally published in The Fairfield County Weekly, June 1997

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