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“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler

Everyone says this about every book, I know. By the end of the term it’s pretty cliché, but honestly and truly, if you want to experience this book – and that’s what it can be, an experience – you have to leave now, and read it first. Then you can see what I have to say about it. But seriously, no peeking! This book review is for the eyes of those who have read it already (and for those who do not care about twists and turns – because this book does have a lot of content to offer, not just a surprise inside).

Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is her newest book, written earlier this year. It’s a story – about a story – that starts in the middle – which, in a normal story, would be where the action happens. But, because it’s not the story about the story’s middle, this is where ‘setting the scene’ happens. Are you lost yet? It’s a little Memento at first, with things just happening and having no reason for any of it. Her middle isn’t quite as crazy, though – this isn’t science fiction in that sense.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is three-quarters autobiography and one-quarter desperation, depression, and, finally, hope. The scene is set when our narrator, Rosemary, is in college, meeting a woman named Harlow for the first time. Harlow, as Rosemary tells us about others in her tale, isn’t necessarily a part of the story we need to get attached to – her purpose is to make Rosemary open up, if only in her head. Almost all the storytelling is told through Rosemary’s retelling of events, her thoughts and feelings.

Rosemary gets sent to jail for the first time for a minor disturbance in a cafeteria Harlow started with her boyfriend.  Harlow is spitfire, wild and crazy – the opposite of Rosemary, but Rosemary hasn’t always been that way. As a child she was out there, talked all the time and did the crazy things kids her age usually did. But she lost a sister, Fern, after spending half a decade together, and it changed her life. They were two peas in a pod, closer than can be, and the two of them along with Rosemary’s brother, her father and mother made a really happy family. But she eventually lost her brother, too. They just disappeared – she has no idea where either of them went.

Rosemary went from exuberant and lively to a more reserved and withdrawn version of herself. Fern brought life to her life – it’s obvious from the pain she feels, even though Rosemary doesn’t explicitly express it. Rosemary’s family changed, too, when Fern left. They all became quiet, and they all withdrew into themselves. That’s why her brother, Lowell, left. He couldn’t take it anymore – he needed to get out the house, he needed to live again and do something. Their home was a place where everyone was standing still. Fern leaving, and everyone just looking past it, sent him over the edge.

Usually, a broken home and a broken family are normal after a child disappears. The tragedies we see when children are abducted or killed are received with grief and despair – all completely and absolutely normal, human reactions. Unfortunately, the same isn’t always said when a chimp leaves your life. A ‘pet’ some from the outside might even say. When a chimp leaves, you don’t get to shut down and stop everything – you just have to move on.

Wait a second, I’m sorry – I might have just Memento’d you. Did I forget to mention Fern was a chimpanzee, and that Rosemary’s father is a scientist? Of course I did, because Rosemary fails to mention it, too. You hear about the middle for a while, and then you get to hear the beginning – how Fern came to be a part of their lives. The prevalence of chimps in households was increasing, and her father wanted to expand the research available in the field. They raised Rosemary and Fern together, making them both part of the experiment – they wanted to know what would happen when they grew up together. Rosemary and Fern were attached at the hip, growing up as normally as you can when your sister is a chimp. They were studied by Rosemary’s father and the graduate students that he received to help as part of a special research grant, with Fern’s development the specific concern.

It’s unclear from Rosemary’s perspective if their family expected it, but Fern became a second daughter. Rosemary never considered her anything other than a sister – chimp or not. As Fern got older, however, the differences in their species became more and more apparent. Fern had more and more accidents, when a particular incident with a grad student sent things over the edge. They had to end the experiment before she got any stronger and uncontrollable, and they sent her away. The family, from then on, never talked about her and no one told Rosemary where Fern was. Fern was just gone from Rosemary’s life, forever.

Rosemary’s brother, Lowell (a human!), couldn’t take it. The family shut down, but not in grief – just in general. They stopped being a family, they stopped showing love the way they used to. He left, and Rosemary is just being reunited with him in the middle of her story – though not the middle of ours. The middle of our story is the beginning, and then there’s the end that Rosemary is experiencing as it happens. As I said before, those times are filled with sadness and happiness alike, with twists and turns of their own. I won’t spoil those, for that you’ll really have to read the story.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is an amazing testament of love and family, despite boundaries created by genus and species. In a feminist science fiction course, this book might seem almost out of place. But Fowler presents a take on feminism we don’t think of very often – one that takes feminism to literally mean people should be equal, one that redefines what ‘people’ should mean. Fowler presents a world where you can see the human in an animal, and where the animal in the human can be. A compelling read, it’s certainly worth taking the time – it will fly by, as it does for Rosemary, as you hear of her tale of loss, reunion, and discovery.

Book Review: The Wanderground

The Wanderground

Sally Miller Gearhart

Persephone Press, 1980

196 pages

It is an unknown point in the future of the United States. The country has continued to promote rape culture, with society growing into a more and more male-dominated, woman-controlling world. It gets worse and worse, to the point that “cunt hunts” (page 160) become a pastime for some men, who go out into the country to chase and rape any women fleeing from the cities. Women live in submission, or terror, until one day, the Earth herself has had one too many rapes. In a moment’s notice, nothing man-made functions outside of the cities. Machinery and tools of every kind suddenly fail in the act.

Finally, there is some circle of peace for the women who have fled, the hill women. Forming separatist communities on the idea that it is not in man’s nature not to rape, and it is not in woman’s nature to be raped (page 25), they live in peace with nature and other women, in Wanderground, far from the old civilization. In this communion, they find their own psychic/spiritual power they can use to communicate with each other and their animals, which they call mindstretch, which is done with their soft-selves (as opposed to oral communication with one’s hard-self). This exchange of information allows them to share present thoughts and ideas more clearly and immediately, even over long distances. It also allows them to share memories without speaking, as if the receiver were there herself.

This power is a crucial part of what makes the Wanderground women’s lives possible. Communicating via mindstretch is the most genuine form of interaction, as it allows women to share so much more than just hard-self words convey. The women also depend on the distance communication mindstretching provides, in order to communicate with women in other communities of women, and to the women who live underground in the cities and on the borders, keeping watch. Besides current communication, it is soft-selves that are used for the conveyance of memories, both individual and collective that form the history of the hill women.

All of this knowledge gets imparted bit by bit through the stories of The Wanderground. What is not a book began as individual short stories, published in fanzines and magazines before they came together (at the encouragement of everyone’s favorite ray of sunshine, Joanna Russ, who Gearhart totally fangirled over) in a book. The narrative style of The Wanderground reflects this piecemeal history. All of the stories fit together loosely, all somehow adding to the story of The Wanderground.

The continuing narrative, that makes some appearance in all, or almost all of the stories, is caused by some kind of shift in the cosmic balance between the hill women and the cities. Rumors are whispered, things are getting worse. In a beautiful, gripping opening set of stories, an armed woman dressed in battle armor appears at the edge of the hill women’s territory, and the woman on watch, completely unarmed, convinces her to drop her arms, and let her armor be removed. She is unable to speak, and rattled to the point of losing part of her mind. Her truth is that she was raped, and then set loose like that, a truth she is only able to communicate via her soft-self, as her words still no longer work.

As the stories build on each other, subtle remarks are made about how things are getting worse, the cities are becoming even more controlling, it is more dangerous for the women underground, men are appearing outside of the cities, even to the point of rapes occurring in the borderlands. Something is changing.

The tension finally comes to the foreground when the gentles, (gay men, who have the greatest respect for all women, especially the hill women) request a meeting with the hill women. The message is smuggled out of the city, and a great discussion begins. Even though the gentles are considered to be allies of the hill women, they are still men, and this mixed status of ally and enemy causes a great debate. I won’t spoil how it turns out, but I assure you the process of getting to that point is something I marveled at.

After several stories in a row really focusing on the tension building in the book, the ending came as a surprise. It was completely removed from the semi-plot that Gearhart had been focusing on for most of the book, and instead was a death narrative. For anyone who has lost anyone important to them, I recommend reading these two, final chapters, “Voki at the Welling Place” and “The Telling of the Days of Artilidea” (with some tissues). They were touching, and beautiful, and an unexpected but welcome conclusion to the book.

Reading this book in the context of the books that we have been reading, that are either unintentionally constrained by the male-centric world of science fiction, or intentionally ‘passing’ as part of that genre, this book is a total departure from that idea. After doing research in Gearhart’s papers, I saw in this book the literary embodiment of what she hoped for in her theorization of lesbian separatism, from the intentionally inclusive communities of women to the treatment of gay men as allies but still essentially different than women.

The Wanderground isn’t a book I’d recommend for new readers of any kind of feminist literature, but I loved it. I think it transcends the boundaries of science fiction, and could be seen as utopian fiction, or even potentially as fantasy. (The concept of mindstretch reminded me mightily of a concept Tamora Pierce brings up in her Emelan books, with the main difference that Gearhart considers it a natural part of women’s communication rather than magic.) By virtue of being what it is, The Wanderground takes a feminist mind to enjoy, but for the feminist reader, it is an imagination-stretch and a joy to read.

Protected: Do you even feminism, bro?

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A Letter to a Not-Ghost

Dear Alli,

After your mother died, you wrote of her ghost that was not truly a ghost. You spoke to her. When I read your letters, though I am just as much an atheist as you, I feel a similar phantasm filling the chair beside me. You feel so damn real.

Perhaps when you’re visiting some time, you could tell me why you really left the Psychology field. Your writing career emerged around the same time you finished your dissertation, so that would be an understandable explanation… though you must have put considerable efforts into writing, drawing energy from the focus on Psychology. Why? Was teaching too much for you? You seem to have an all-or-nothing switch, which could make it impossible to take care of yourself while doing the job to your standards. Or maybe you didn’t feel support from the department at George Washington– as a woman, as an empathy researcher?

The Psychologist Who Empathized with Rats: James Tiptree, Jr. as

Illustration by Alice Sheldon, 1967 PhD Dissertation.

I like to think you chose the world of SF, rather than feeling forced to leave Psychology, that soft science. So much of your life feels familiar to me, I’m afraid I will make a similar misstep. Though I’m sure your writing would not have been the same without your knowledge of Psychology. In that sense, it wasn’t wrong at all, just moving forward.

What would you think of the world today, twenty-six years after you died? I hope there is room and acceptance for a woman like you. You took the whole world into you and asked for nothing in return; is this what broke you? Like you named your lost birds, I will name you osprey (those seahawks Ting watched near the Lodge). Despite your power, you were still subject to the flimsiness of your delicate bird body. But your words and your not-ghost are still very much alive.

With love,
Naomi Wright [a stranger and a friend]

Mother’s death: Box 10, File 30: 10/27/1976 Letter from Tiptree, James Jr., Joanna Russ Papers, Coll 261, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Or.

Elms, A. C. (March 01, 2004). The Psychologist Who Empathized with Rats: James Tiptree, Jr. as Alice B. Sheldon, PhD. Science Fiction Studies, 31, 1, 81-96.

Phillips, J. (2006). James Tiptree, Jr: The double life of Alice B. Sheldon. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Sheldon, A. “Preference for Familiar Versus Novel Stimuli as a Function of the Familiarity of the Environment.” Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 67.4  (1969): 516-21.

Protected: I Don’t Understand.

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Ada Test Site

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James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award

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Queer Geek Theory

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Ursula K. Le Guin: New on the Website

"Best way to teach flying is to fly." - Joanna Russ