MAW #5: The Waves Have Come

And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

MAW #5: The Waves Have Come

Here we are, at long last, after everything. The final issue of MAW is now available in print exclusively at comic shops. Digital copies are available on comiXology, iBooks, Google Play, and Kindle.

This is part of a series of essays on the series and its influences, and that series is now over. There's no way to keep reading without major spoilers, so please read MAW before you scroll down.

Our culture puts a lot of weight on the idea of righteous trauma. We like to think of ourselves as good, empathetic, compassionate people. We all want to believe that we’d listen to a genuinely traumatized person if she had something to report. We have an image of what that person would look like: The sympathetic, perfectly wronged victim standing up and telling some bad man just how much he hurt her.

We need that victim to be sympathetic, though, or it all falls apart. Go back to the image of the perfect victim, the one that just flashed into your mind when you read the phrase: Is she white? Straight? Cis? Young? Feminine? Attractive? We’ve been saying “she” — is the victim always a woman? Most people in 21st-century America are trained from childhood to answer “yes” to all of these questions. Anyone outside of those lines doesn’t look quite so victimized. They begin to look like someone we can question, or doubt, someone who could have possibly had it coming.

We regulate victims’ insides, too. We want women who are delicate and vulnerable in their pain, gentle, like a doe trailing blood from the hunter’s bullet. We want women we can rescue; women who need us to rescue them. The women cannot be intemperate, or angry, or cruel, or morally compromised. They cannot hold grudges or want payback. They must be damaged, but not so badly that they lose their value. They must suffer without inflicting suffering on anyone else.

Find me the woman who fits all those descriptors at once, and you’ve found one woman. You have also, most likely, ruled out every other rape survivor you know.

It’s a comforting fiction, the idea that being abused makes you more lovable. But trauma rewires us. It makes it harder to handle and regulate emotions. It teaches us the wrong things about other people and their boundaries, so that our instincts become untrustworthy. We wind up perpetually defending ourselves from non-existent threats, or (worse) re-enacting forms of harm we, ourselves, were never allowed to identify as harmful — doing the worst things that have ever been done to us, because we think it’s just how people behave.

Am I saying survivors are bad? No. I’m saying that we are injured, specifically in the part of our brains that handles relating to other people. Expecting someone to be more likable after abuse is like expecting a track star to run faster with their leg broken. Trauma, like everything else, is fluid. It overflows its container. It ripples out from the source. It causes splash damage. Like the ocean, like feminism, like childbirth: It comes in waves.

Miranda was one of the three main characters in Maw’s first draft. She was Diana’s daughter, who helped her run the commune, and she was also Marion’s only friend. Later drafts saw Miranda split up into three people: Howie, Diana’s child; Wendy, Marion’s tether to humanity; then, Miranda herself.

This is to say that Miranda has always been a very clear, bright presence in my mind, even though it takes us a while to know her in this version of the story. She is the guardian at the threshold: The first to greet Marion when she enters the commune, and the one who announces the end of her journey. She is the one who explains the heart of the mystery, and who shows Marion to herself. Miranda is a goddess, and like any goddess, she stays elusive until the time of revelation.

She’s also the only major trans character in the story, and as such, she represents the biggest potential fuck-up. “Trans women in horror” is a list that often begins and ends with Buffalo Bill. Any storytelling choice risks perpetuating that ugly history. I could make her primarily a facilitator of other people’s journeys, and thus imply trans traumas are secondary to cis ones, or I could have her share her trauma, and thus reinforce the tragic-trans-woman narrative; I could make her complicit with the violence of the commune, thus casting a trans woman as a shady trickster, or I could make her the only uncompromised character in a morally gray cast, thus dehumanizing her by putting her on a pedestal.

In the end, Miranda is Miranda; the butterfly, the May Queen. She comes from pain, but refuses to be defined by it. She has trauma — again, I pulled from real cases when possible, to avoid sensationalizing violence against women and girls; Miranda’s childhood looks a lot like the abuse of Luna Younger, and it was important to me to say that what happens to girls like Luna is “violence against girls,” too — but she has found her glorious transformation. She wants to help other people find theirs. Most of the women in the commune are there because of rage or hopelessness. Miranda is there for the moment when she pushes an old life away to reveal the new one. She tells women in pain that they are sacred. She shows them that they can change.

I don’t know if I can claim Maw as a piece of trans art. I didn’t know I was trans when I started writing it. Still, my questions about gender are present in it, on some subliminal level. The story starts out with a strict gender binary: The bar and the commune, men’s space and women’s space, men as predators and women as prey. Then, as the story proceeds, that binary falls apart.

Marion gets in trouble because she can’t assimilate into women’s space; she crosses gender lines into the bar and gets punished. Her Patti-Smith-inspired look is purposefully androgynous, and her sins (silence, drinking, rage, violence, refusing to ask for help or open up emotionally) are all stereotypically masculine flaws. Miranda calls both Marion and Diana “macho” in their insistence on stoic, solitary pain. Miranda isn't wrong.

It’s not just Marion. Most of the important characters in the story cross gender lines, or don’t quite fit the binary. Wendy, looking to find “female empowerment,” finds herself unable to connect with women and spending all of her time with some dude. That dude, Howie, has a better feminist education than most women, and was raised in an all-female environment, yet he’s an outsider there because he’s a man.

The older generations wield the binary with a firmer grip. Felix holds it down for Men’s Rights in the bar, and Diana is so absolute in her convictions that she will give her son an abortion 40 years past his due date. But Felix and Diana are the same age; they both accomplish their goals through younger proteges; both of their single-gender spaces are contaminated and permeable — Felix takes Mike and Howie into the commune; the women of the commune take over the bar — and while Howie is drawn into the violence of the men and used to perpetuate it, Marion is filled with the rage of every woman on the commune and set loose to punish the men. The mirrors keep throwing odd reflections and shadows back, making the shape of things uncertain.

The binary of “man” and “woman,” in this story, is ultimately a shorthand for the more important binary of “victim” and “villain.” (It often is.) But, by the end, that one has collapsed, too — most notably in the person of Marion, a man-eating monster whose “deformity” is literally a physical manifestation of her victimhood. Howie is a gender traitor, invading men’s safe spaces to inflict violence upon them (“safe space,” of course, refers to a filthy public john in a tiki bar) and those who were prepared to forgive him for his complicity in helping men harm women might not look so kindly on his complicity in helping women harm men. Marion was attacked, not just by men, but by Diana and the women of the commune, who were so desperate to have their pain witnessed that they literally put that pain inside her. Women can’t trust men, but men also can’t trust men, and women are not always safe with women. Trauma travels, and carries, and ripples, and in a world where every gender-marginalized person has been subject to some kind of violation, we are all at risk of becoming monsters.

Maybe justice isn’t possible. Maybe no wrong done can ever be undone. Maybe the violence will just keep flowing on forever, in echoes and re-enactments and escalations, in vengeance and generational inheritance, in rage and pain. It all adds up eventually, the wrecked lives, the shattered hopes, the silenced victims. It becomes bigger than any one person. It becomes a force that can devour the world.

Miranda is the only person who knows the full story, but she also transcends that story. The cycle of vengeance defines or destroys everyone else; even Wendy’s innocence gets her killed. Miranda can envision a life outside the cycle, or after it, which makes her unique.

The conversation between Howie and Miranda is my favorite scene in Maw. It’s the book’s only completely honest conversation between a man and a woman. It reminds me of the stories about Christmas on battlefields; soldiers would lay down their weapons, climb out of the trenches, bum cigarettes off the enemy. They’d be killing each other again the next morning, but for that one day, they weren’t soldiers.

When Howie and Miranda aren’t soldiers, they’re the two people who know Diana better than anyone. They’re also the two characters with a history of childhood abuse. It takes Miranda a while to recognize that, and if you want a “patriarchy hurts men too” message, take this one: On a commune full of people obsessed with punishing abusers, Diana is abusing her kid in plain view, and no-one notices, because it doesn’t fit the gender dynamics they’ve been trained to recognize. Howie is a survivor with no sisters, and he slips through the cracks.

I don’t know if Miranda gives Howie the best advice. She doesn’t tell him to leave. Yet Miranda is able to look at Howie and see something other than an enemy. She’s able to lift him out of his self-pity and give him the big picture without being cruel about it: As long as men hate women for being women, women will hate men for being men.

That, too, feels impossible to roll back. Wars and feuds can go on for generations, even between two families; what are the chances of peaceful resolution when one half of the planet wages war on the other half? Miranda can imagine it, though: A world where men love women, where a father can see and celebrate the femininity rising to the surface in his little girl, rather than punishing it. In that world, women could love men, or at least talk to them. They could sit by the ocean, share a joint, look out into the fathomless night with all its stars.

It’s not the world we live in. It’s definitely not the world Maw is set in. I don’t know if our world is totally hopeless, though. Miranda, seeing her better world, might just be seeing who we could be if we were ready to transform.

I started trauma therapy shortly after handing in the script for Maw. Living inside Marion, face pressed against her pain for over a year, made me aware that she could not have been imagined by a totally healthy person. I told myself that it was a gender thing, that I was going to need a therapist’s letter if I got surgery, and I did get a letter. I also sobbed through most of the first few sessions. The tears took me by surprise — I’d be barreling through my whole trauma CV, describing some incident I’d long since hardened over into a mental bullet point, and she would stop me, and say, wow, that is a horrible thing to do to a child. The waterworks would start up, embarrassing and unwelcome every time.

Quite a few things I had not previously classified in the “horrible” section of my biography got put in there over the course of our sessions. Quite a few things that did not bother me turned out to bother me very much when I realized they happened to someone my daughter’s age — a toddler, three or four years old. It sucked. It also healed me. My doctor was using a specific therapeutic tactic: Validating the trauma when the other person is dissociating from it, creating a space where the full reality of the injury can be safely acknowledged. Distance and toughness signal a place where you’ve gone numb because it would hurt too much to feel what happened. In a space of compassion, the psyche can loosen and soften up. That ferocious, intimidating top layer can be peeled back and you can see what’s underneath.

Marion is, and always has been, an ugly survivor. She really does believe in nothing: No justice. No healing. No forgiveness. No peace. She drinks like she’s trying to kill herself, because she is, but maybe it would be more fair to say that she doesn’t observe a difference between death and life. She lives like someone who has already died, with no expectation for improvement. Her only aspiration is to keep dissociating; to stay numb until her body catches up with her heart and they both stop working.

It's not a healthy outlook. I was working on Marion’s ending until the very last days of the very last issue. I didn’t know what it would be until I’d been in those sessions, dissolving scar tissue. I knew that I would betray Marion if I gave her a happy ending; that would turn her into someone soft, approachable, “relatable,” “likable,” “empowering,” all of those things that Marion would rather die than be. She deserves something, though, after everything she’s been through. She deserves her darkness, but she also deserves glory.

What I came down to, in the end, is that my therapist’s strategic interruption — affirming that, not only was my experience of violence really that bad, it was actually worse than I might want to acknowledge — is the central necessary component of healing. It is also the one thing this world denies to trauma survivors over, and over, and over. It was a bad date, it was a mistake, all couples fight, he was drunk, he’s a sex addict, he’s depressed, he has a disease, he has his whole life ahead of him, you started it, you provoked him, you wanted it, you should have fought, you should have screamed, you should have left, you should have run, it was your fault, anyone would have done the same, everyone makes mistakes, are you sure it even happened the way you remember it? Are you going to ruin his life over this? Are you going to stay mad forever?

Yes, motherfucker. Yes, I am going to stay exactly this mad forever — I am going to stay mad, and tell you how mad I am, until you acknowledge that I have a right to my anger, and that anyone who had been through this would be just as angry as me. I am going to hold on to my rage, because my rage is my only witness. It knows what you did, and it knows you did wrong. I will hold to my rage until some real support arrives.

Rage is no reliable anchor, though. It perpetuates cycles of abuse. It makes monsters. Diana has been made a monster by her rage, no less than Marion — inflicting her own trauma on other women, over and over and over, just to find someone who understands her. I’m thinking, here, of Ky Schevers, a former “detransitioner” who has spoken at length about how a distorted strain of radical feminism is used to warp young transmasculine people out of their true shapes. That is intentionally evoked in the story of Marion and Diana; we write what scares us, and for me, the true horror is the idea that even the groups which offer to “help” me will harm me, that there really is no-one I can trust.

Yet Diana is right that, if Maw is a war story, men fired the first shot. If Two-Buck Chuck hadn’t been willing to drug and rape a stranger after about five seconds of encouragement, if Felix and Mike didn’t think it was funny to harass a woman just for existing in public, if Diana’s husband hadn’t hit her, if three boys hadn’t raped a teenage girl at a party, there would be nothing to avenge, no wound driving these women to excesses of rage and violence. Trauma carries, and ripples, and the only possible cure is to stop traumatizing each other; step away from the easy pleasures of revenge and cruelty, shed the masculine entitlement that leads us to believe women are there to vent our rage and insecurity upon, handle each other with some modicum of care, knowing that a human psyche is breakable even on its best days.

And if we cannot eliminate rape and abuse entirely, we can, at least, witness each other. We can say wow, that was a horrible thing to do to somebody, and we can mean it. There is no going back to who we were before the trauma happened. What lies underneath all that scar tissue is not our "real," original self – the innocent, unharmed person we were does die, and there is no negotiating with that death; the Wendy in us, once lost, is lost for good – but someone different, someone who has been touched and changed by the world. But that changed, hurt self is only "monstrous" if we shame it. We are only horrible to ourselves if we believe we should be something else. The person we become after great pain is different, but they are also sacred, and no-one can safely deny or defile a sacred thing.

Miranda is a goddess. She would tell you that every woman is. Still, not everyone can get as close as she does. Diana has borrowed Artemis’ name and Hecate’s regalia, but in the end, she’s a very patriarchal God; a being of judgment and retribution who kills her only begotten son, only able to redeem the world through apocalypse and flood. Marion is a primordial Mother — Echidna, Tiamat, the mother of monsters who lies in the abyss — but she, too, is a remarkably Christian figure. To absorb all the pain of this fallen world, to die for its sins and rise: We’ve met that guy before.

Miranda’s story is different. She actually gets it, the goddess thing; death and rebirth, mystery and transformation, truths older than the world that can only be expressed through the body. She’s Persephone, the maiden, who descends into Hell and arises with the flowers in spring. She is the Queen of Death, waiting in the caves of the underworld to greet the doomed and damned, and she is also the life in each reborn thing, the green stems poking through the ash and rubble after the world ends.

This is a bad world, maybe an irredeemable one. It's tempting to scrap the whole thing. But something else would take its place, and who’s to say what we would do once we got there? Miranda can see it all, the end and the beginning; when you’re traveling in a circle, they’re the same place. She can see every horrible thing we’ve done, and  she can see everything we might do, in that first spring, when all things are possible. She’s a mystery, a magician’s daughter, standing by the edge of the sea, proclaiming the answer: O brave new world.

Other inspirations for Miranda include:

  • Laura Palmer, "full of secrets," a girl taken away from the world by her father.
  • Ethereal Miranda in Picnic at Hanging Rock, the benevolent queer ruler of her all-girl world, who "knows a lot of things other people don't know."
  • Not The Blood on Satan's Claw, necessarily, but definitely this look from The Blood on Satan's Claw.
  • This strangely intimidating photo of Amanda Chantal Bacon.
  • Maybe all photos of Amanda Chantal Bacon are slightly intimidating?
  • Emily VanDerWerff is a brilliant woman, with important things to do, but she has routinely taken time out of her life to read my horrible first drafts and put my head straight when I am consumed by self-pity. The conversation between Miranda and Howie has a little Emily in it, mostly in the generous but definitive way she tells Howie to suck it up. More importantly, though, the entire Miranda Palmer ethos reflects the great love story of our century, Emily VanDerWerff x Midsommar.
  • The entire commune got bit by a radioactive Tori Amos concert, but Miranda has the most Tori Amos Vibes by a wide margin.
  • Also Sandman Death Vibes, but that's slightly different.
  • The other Miranda.
  • This song, which I played over and over until I knew the end.

Scheduling Note: Since the beginning of last summer, I've been filing a weekly column, a biweekly newsletter, a monthly reported piece, and doing rewrites and approvals on MAW, in addition to taking on other assignments around the edges. I'm so profoundly grateful that I get to work this much. Most writers can't earn a living through their work, and I can. I am also completely fucking exhausted, though, and it's starting to show in the quality of the work. If I don't take a break, I might not be able to earn a living much longer.

I need to rest, so that I can continue to write things with real value, instead of just throwing shit at the wall to meet a deadline. I have a pre-written piece to run in February, but I'm going to take a newsletter hiatus for the rest of that month. I'll be back in March, and I'll be ready to talk movies.

I say this all the time, but I am so very grateful to have you reading me. Saying goodbye to MAW is one of the hardest things I've ever done. This project really brought me back to life in a dark and difficult time, and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. If you bought or read even one issue, I thank you. Even if you only read this newsletter, I thank you. I'm glad that I get to send you these emails, and I'll talk to you soon.