When we repeat Simone de Beauvoir’s famous insight that “one is not born a woman,” we imply that the process of feminine masquerade may be false, but also suggest that it is—at least—an option. Somehow, this was never the case for me, I could not imagine adulthood. When I was in college, women lecturers would appear elegantly before us with matching shoes and handbags, and I would silently despair—how did they do it? But one day in the late 80s, I undertook a pilgrimage—driving for hours to a vast and unfamiliar university in Southern California to see Helene Cixous speak. I arrived tired, lost, and late, but, squeezing into the back of the room, I looked up and saw the form of a vibrantly alive figure with sweeping eyeliner and close cropped hair. Perhaps it was possible to be become an adult, somehow…I’m still trying…
In the intervening years, I have seen this same story told to Helene many times by young women—her writing has given birth to possibility and productive work for so many who wish to acknowledge her gift. And I have seen her gracious, yet slightly exhausted response. She and her texts have been mothers many thousands of times over. Last night, she described “The Laugh of the Medusa” as a monster, which had gotten out of her control. As we ourselves reach a certain age, the always familiar closeness between mothers and monsters takes a turn. We see conclusions and finalities along with hopes and possibilities. The Medusas who are our mothers become frail, yet their power endures in a paradox which cannot be shut down even in death.
Donald Winnicott has famously said, “there is no such thing as a baby.” Without a mother, or something which can hold this place, the baby cannot exist. Those of us who have been daughters, know the depth of this debt, and the ambivalence it engenders… It is not only men who have been paralyzed by the power of the Medusa.
In a return that many of us know well, Helene’s one hundred year old mother has also become her daughter. We who have been new mothers to our mothers share an unspoken understanding that these frail daughters are the children we will bury. The Medusa who is both mother and daughter will be beheaded. And as Helene reminded us, at that moment of beheading, the Medusa will give birth to Pegasus—the horse with wings—which may also be us. But having become pack-horses, it is sometimes not so easy for us to fly.
The above has been adapted from a speech given at NYU’s Maison Français at a symposium in honor of the 30th anniversary of the publication of Helen Cixous’ Le Rire de la Medusa