Monday, April 20, 2009

The Beale Inside Me

Who can really say how it all begins. There's a lack of money, to be sure, but also a lack of overall warewithal. Back turned to family, friends, neighbors, you seek out the company of cats and racoons. You can't afford to have the trash hauled away, but a 28-room mansion affords plenty of space to simply fill up a closet, then a hallway, then parlor, dining room, and finally the bedrooms, one by one. Because you don't leave the house the only way you feel time's passage is in your joints and in the way one litter of kittens leads inevitably to another. Eventually you become an American Miss Havisham. You are a Beale of Grey Gardens.

Every town has its own notorious recluse, its own crazy cat ladies. Few of them become the subjects of Maysles documentaries, Broadway musicals, HBO docudramas. Few of them become cult heroines, but then few of them are the aunt and cousin of Jackie O. Staunch personalities aside, Big and Little Edie occupy a permanent space in my psyche not because of the weird circumstances in which they came to live but because of the ever-hidden reasons why. How does a debutante become a crazy cat lady? How does wealth become squalor?

All they wanted to do was sing and dance. In an upper-class culture that remained essentially Victorian well into the 20th century, in which women were to marry, raise proper children, marry off those children in turn, in which women were definitively not to be heard, all they wanted was a voice. They wanted to perform, to take the male gaze that would enshrine them in domesticity and instead profit from it, flaunt it, overspill its boundaries. Today we would find nothing transgressive about this, but in their day this was transgressive enough for husband and father, sons and brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins all to abandon them. They were poor because their rich family outcast them.

Who wouldn't in turn reject the world that first rejected you? That they ultimately had only each other was no doubt both a curse and a saving grace, a curse because with one another to rely upon there was no reason to leave the house, and a saving grace because neither was alone. It didn't have to be that way. Big Edie's husband abandoned the family because she refused to behave the way he expected her to behave, and Little Edie didn't marry after her debut because she didn't want to, because she wanted a different sort of life. They provided may things for one another, without a doubt, but what each provided the other was primarily an audience. Each allowed the other to perform, to enact, to transgress.

They are pre-feminist heroines who suffered the fate of their ilk. Fifty or 100 years earlier they would have been thrown into an asylum as hysterics; Big Edie's ownership of Grey Gardens instead provided asylum of a different sort. They fascinate me because they could have been me, were I born in a different time and of a different class. Instead, I've been free to transcribe my own life, free not to marry, free to live performatively through the written word in a way they were never free. Because I live in a culture where a woman is free to be an artist, I'm richer than they ever could have been.

1 comment:

beths said...

but how is the HBO movie???