I just watched the film An Education last night, and it was good, though problematic - it was too easy, too tight, not messy enough to be like real life. It was terribly amoral in some ways as well - I think the NY Times review catches that perfectly. Also, it was clear it had not been written by a woman. There is a certain tone, ability of speaking, way of looking at the world when you are raised as a girl - it is not inherent, I absolutely do not believe, but it is cultural, and even the most feisty of us, the most rebellious, adopt it; it is merely the consequence of having been raised as a female in a patriarchal society. I am thinking of the book Middlesex, here, which an awful lot of people liked, but I thought wasn't very good - the narrative voice rung totally false with me, it was too pretentious, too contrived, it took up too much space for a person that had been raised many decades ado as a woman to have used. Which isn't to say that all women speak alike. It is merely to point out that the patriarchy, it takes its toll, and we cannot escape it; if the narrative tone of a movie or book seems to be coming from somewhere that has never been oppressed or unprivileged, then I cannot wholly buy into the female voice. In these cases, male authors seem to have come to the endeavor with all their privilege unchallenged, and so miss the mark on writing about the experience of being a girl or woman.
As it turns out: the screenplay of An Education was written by Nick Hornby. Enough said. (Who! I do not dislike. But: he is not a good fit, I think, for this story).
ANYWAY. I am not attempting a movie review, although there is plenty to talk about here, especially as a feminist; the movie presents the two options open to women in the 1950's - either being asexual, prim schoolmums off to college to make their own ways, or marrying into wealth and being kept women. When the lady protagonist finds a man who seems to be of great wealth, her father completely gives up his quest to get this young lady to Oxford - why do it the hard way, he says, when you've gotten where you want to be through a man? There is a lot going on with class, too, in the movie, and race, and there is much to say, but, as I said, I am not attempting a movie review.
No, instead, I am going to tell a story, a story I had rather forgotten, rarely ever repeat, and if I do, I will spend no more than a handful of sentences in telling it. When I was 19, a man of wealth offered to "keep" me.
After my first year in college, I wanted to do something fun with my summer, take a break; I'd had an awful bout of depression at Smith, so I wanted to run around, be in the sunshine, do something that wouldn't be so terribly heavy - I didn't feel strong enough to apply to internships doing activist work or anything. So I started applying to be a counselor at summer camps. One of the camps, an arts camp deep in the Adirondacks, took me as their sport director, which seemed perfect. I'd grown up in the visual arts, and I was happy to play glames with children all day. I couldn't think of anything better.
And the camp truly was beautiful. It was really in the center of nowhere, deep in the woods, with a gorgeous lake, and plenty of forest land to tramp around in. I got there early to help set up, and found myself among a terrific amount of foreigners - it is a thing, I suppose, to have counselors come from abroad; the camp paid them less, it seemed, but then they used whatever money they earned to travel about in the U.S. before heading home. I was around mostly guys, too, in the beginning, and I would remain closest friends with boys all summer. Though I made good lady friends, my frequency of mucking about with the dudes, combined with my frankness about sex, inspired all manner of crazy rumors to spread about the camp about who I was fucking and when and how often and where (and, of course, I wasn't fucking anyone at all, at the height of these rumors - but then, slut-shaming is about keeping women in line, not about the actual sex they are having). Also, these dudes were wonderful; after not seeing one of them for a decade, I went and stayed with him in London for several days, and it was so lovely. He is still as stunningly brilliant a person as I remembered. So. Camp was a good time (also, I learned how good I am with kids, and how much I love being surrounded by them. I have to thank camp for making me realize I could be a good teacher).
At some point, towards the beginning of camp, there was a Scottish bloke who took a fancy to me. He was a bit older, though I can't remember by how much - perhaps he was 28? 29? He did a lot of the maintenance work around the camp, and took to it with a cheeriness I didn't understand at first - it helped when he explained later that working with his hands and doing grunt work was a vacation of sorts for him. He was an incredibly gentle, good-natured guy, always smiling and laughing, and one of the first things he told me was that he was bisexual, as if I would reject him for it, instead of the case that it made me like him more. There was pain, too, underneath, something dark that haunted him though he tried to tamp it down, and that also drew me to him.
It wasn't serious, me and this dude. Or: I didn't think it was serious. It made no sense that it would be serious - we had maybe two months left of camp, and then we'd go off to do other things, like, for me, go back to college, but also, we never DISCUSSED it being serious. I never claimed to be not making out with other dudes, because I was, and I wouldn't lie. It just never came up. We didn't call it "our relationship." We were dating, yes, but it was at a summer camp, and I suppose the close proximity of everyone and everything in that fixed place and time would seem to scale any open, loose thing down - I think I never quite got that, although he did, and everyone else there would act inexplicably dramatic, to me, about what needn't be. For me, it was summer camp. There were pretty boys to kiss. I wasn't planning on marrying anyone.
At some point, I realized that this Scottish gentleman was becoming a bit too overly enamored with me. And not me, really, per se, but the Manic Pixie Dream Girl that I seemed to represent (I have spoken with my friend Silvana before about why this tends to happen to me, but we have never come up with an answer - the idea of me is intensely lovable, apparently. But the idea of me seems to obliterate the actual me). As this was a pretty tired trope as far as I was concerned, even at 19, I started to be concerned about where this was going. And just when I was thinking, um, maybe I should address this, he decided to tell me the story of the deep, painful thing that plagued him. And he told me because I asked about the ring he always wore, a silver ring, of maybe 5 braided silver strands, thick and heavy.
When this bloke was a much younger man, he decided, after watching his parents struggle financially, that he was going to make money. He had no interest in school, dropped out, and became, after much time and working himself up, the equivalent of Avon Barksdale in The Wire - he was a big drug kingpin. He didn't do the drugs, he moved them, distributed them, he was the business manager over a great deal of illegal product all over Scotland. He explained a great deal of this business to me and how it worked and how he worked in it, everything from fake IDs to mules to money laundering, but I have forgotten the details, and had a hard time focusing given the shock of the strange news. The ring belonged to his former best friend, who had also been his bodyguard, and was subsequently was killed over a drug money dispute trying to protect him. And this guy, well, once his best friend was killed over nothing more than cocaine and money, realized how bankrupt he was as a person, and he wanted out of the drug trade. He began to ferret away a great deal of money, more than he already had in his possession (which was considerable), and started to extract himself from the business, which I remember sounding like not so easy a thing to do. It involved moving and cutting a lot of people off and basically building a new identity from scratch. And now he was out, had been sticking to only legal work for over a year, but he wore the ring of his best friend to remind him how dear the friend was, and how fucked up what he had been doing had been. He cried, explaining this.
. . . . I know, right? But he also told me how much money he had, and it was A LOT. Like, A LOT. I cannot stress how much A LOT. And he had invested it, but mostly didn't touch it (he was living off of interest, I think) because it felt like there was blood on that money. Which there was.
So! Ok, I didn't break up with the kid. Because: how the fuck do you break off your casual dating relationship after that? And the entire story, it was so emotional, and fascinating in how unbelievably fucked it is. I remember my first question being, "So . . . you're wearing a dead man's ring?" This was completely beyond the pale for me. That ring, in my head, symbolized not his friend, but how through his own stupid greed he had gotten his friend killed. There was blood on that ring, too, not just on his money. And it bothered me, the very physical presence of that silver band. I felt like that ring represented something evil and pointless. I wanted it away from me. But I didn't say anything at the time.
The summer went on. I continued to date this boy. He continued to grow ever more enamored. It was beginning to really irk me, how in love with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl he was getting. I was beginning to feel invisible, underneath. But he was a terribly kind, gentle man, as I'd said, and was so generous and good to me, I couldn't really put my finger on why I needed to stop seeing him, let alone find the language to explain it ("Manic Pixie Dream Girl" would not be coined for a number of years, kids). He grew increasingly agitated as the summer wound down that he would lose me. He started using the "l" word, and I always said thank you, though I never told him I loved him back.
Maybe two weeks before I was to leave to go back to school, we were sitting in the woods together, talking. And he slipped his ring off, the one from his dead friend, and out of nowhere, proposed to me with it. My head nearly exploded. I physically withdrew from the offered ring, because I hated that thing. I spluttered. I think I may have laughed at some point. I remember asking him, "What are you thinking?" He barely knew me, I had to go back to finish school, I had never wanted to get married.
So he changed his proposal. Look, he said. I have so much money. I don't use it for anything worthwhile. You told me how far into debt you are going with college. So why don't we put the money to good use - Edinburgh has an astoundingly good university. Let me pay for your college. You are terribly clever and love to learn and I would be so happy to be able to do that for someone. You will save the world one day. Come to Edinburgh, and I will pay for anything.
Outright, I said no. No way. It was a trap, I told him, a cage; I'd always be indebted to him, always have to be bound to him, and not out of choice. I could not bear the idea of being so stuck in a relationship as that, required to play a good, willing partner, because if I stopped the charade, I would be left with nothing. I could not agree to be a pretty thing he kept on a leash, with his money.
He assured me that wasn't what he had meant. He wanted to use some of his money to create something, do good in the world, pay for something that mattered, and as he said, if anyone would use their degree, I would. He would not make it contingent on any relationship. I could see him or not as I liked, and we could put the money in a trust, drawn up by a lawyer. But he loved me very much, and he wanted to do this for me. I ran out of protestations in the face of his calm solutions, and I told him I would think about it.
I will never know, to this day, if it would have been as easy as he'd made it sound. Maybe it would have. But rarely does anything in life turn out easy, and I knew that there would be strings attached with the money he gave me no matter what legal barriers and protections we put in place. Still, I was a bit intoxicated by the idea - I mean, I'd been aching to go abroad (I would spend the next summer in India). And Edinburgh was supposed to be lovely, and the university was excellent, and to graduate with no loans, well . . . that seemed like freedom itself. And why shouldn't I accept this ill-gotten money? Why not put it to good use? Why look a gift horse in the mouth, as it were, when I could stop struggling over money, my parents could stop struggling over their inability to help me pay for college? Maybe this was really a gift from the universe.
I did think about it, over several days. To every concern I raised, he talked out an answer. He spoke of setting me up in my own apartment, of taking me shopping and seeing to anything I needed, going traveling with me over school breaks to Paris, Vienna, doing everything I'd always wanted to do if money were not a constant worry. And because he was so reverent, almost, of my intelligence, my dedication to learning, my adoration of school, it seemed like part of what he really wanted to do was be able to cultivate in someone else what he had never had but had always admired.
Here I am, right now, so obviously: in the end, I had to decline the offer. He was heartbroken, because I believe he loved me, and also because he loved the idea of doing something good with his money, something high-minded and useful, of contributing something to the world through me. But I knew, if I accepted, I would be inescapably bound to that man, regardless of any contract we wrote up, and I would always feel that I would have to be grateful, and that I could never be grateful enough. I would be plagued by my inability to ever properly give thanks, and thus never be able to tie up affairs and walk away. I wonder about this Scottish gentleman sometimes, though I don't dare search him out; I do not think I want to know him now, though I wish him well. I do know that I did hurt him, and break his heart a bit, and for that I am sorry, as I am sorry for anyone who have hurt, even if incidentally. But I cannot imagine who I would be and where I would be now, if I had accepted the offer to be "kept," to be completely provided for.
At the same time, this boy never knew me, not really. If he had really known me, and seen me not as just the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, he would have known that I could never have said yes. That was what made me so sure, ultimately, that I would have to say no. He had no concept, no hint of who I was, at all, to have even proposed this in the first place, and I could not bear the thought of someone so large and domineering in my life, legal protections or not, never being able to see me. I could not resign myself to invisibility, no matter the exchange.
And that's the story of how Gayle, unrepentant feminist, could have become a kept woman. Now I am going to actually go do my work for today, because a girl has to get paid, and there is no wealthy Scottish bloke to whisk me away from it all. And: word.