then her world turned upside down

by Megan Abbott

A few years ago, on my first trip to Oxford, Mississippi, one of my most favorite places in the world, I had the great good fortune not only to meet in person the marvelous writer and bon vivant, Jack Pendarvis (Awesome, Your Body Is Changing) but his wife, Theresa Starkey, who was, at that time, working on her dissertation, The Woman on the Scaffold.  Coincidentally, I was working on a novel based on the “trunk murderess” Winnie Ruth Judd. For a long time, we all sat at the Ajax Diner (oh, the salad with the blackeyed peas and smoked catfish … to be there now!), discussing Winnie Ruth, Lizzie Borden and other female criminals.

The Woman on the Scaffold is now complete and utterly riveting. Weaving together history, film and culture in ways both striking and relevant, it explores and unravels shifting representations of notorious female “offenders,” from Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter) to Martha Stewart to Tokyo Rose.

Theresa kindly agreed to answer a few questions for me.

MA: In The Woman on the Scaffold, you are talking about something far more subtle than female criminals—you’re also talking about criminalized females, such as businesswomen as threats, interlopers who are then criminalized or contained. Did the notion of “woman on the scaffold” became wider as you went? And, ultimately, what does the term mean to you?

TS: These women represent the shadow side of the good girl or proper woman. Each woman was put on display and made a spectacle. Each one was forced to take the stand and face the public.

These anxieties swirl around in the imagination like phantasmagoric figures or nightmares, and then all of sudden a sensational crime occurs. The pressure valve comes off.  It all comes out. Then the scaffold becomes the newspaper, the movie screen, the courtroom or novel and these women become a prism. Anxiety, fear, secret desires, etc., pass through this prism. The women and their stories become fractured and distorted. That’s the way I see it, anyway.

Hester [Prynne] is a businesswoman, a single mother, forced to support herself and her daughter by plying her needle. The community loves her lace and want to buy it but they hate or resent the woman. There’s a lot of tension in that. She became the shadow of  the working woman for me.

When I was doing research, I came upon this piece by Emily Jane Cohen, writing about Martha Stewart, and how she was treated in the press and the media after her fiscal improprieties. She compared Stewart’s bashing and public shaming to Hester Prynne’s to bring her point home. That was great. It showed me just how much Hester has become a real woman to people.

MA: Hester is a character so many of us see as inextricably linked to a particular era, to American Puritanism—and thus unconnected to our “liberal times.” But you look at her as someone who stands outside of history. That, whenever she re-emerges, she becomes this screen onto which we project our own anxieties about the transgressive woman.  How did you come to choose her as your central figure?

TS: I rediscovered Hester as an undergraduate at Georgia State University, when I did an independent study with Dr. Chuck Steffen. He is an amazing scholar and let me combine my two majors (film and history) to explore representations of early American history on film. It was then that I first watched Victor Seastrom’s silent version of The Scarlet Letter starring Lillian Gish. Seastrom’s adaptation, combined with Gish’s performance, blew me away.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film (and novel) is when Hester emerges from the prison and makes her way through the somber crowd to the scaffold. Gish stares at the camera and seems to be challenging the audience as much as the fictional community. That image haunted me. I guess you could say that after that I went through a period of gestation until graduate school.

MA: Have you seen the new movie, Easy A?

TS:: I have seen Easy A. Hester’s ”A” is appropriated as a badge, but the protagonist in the movie only plays the role of outsider. The good-girl-gone-bad is performance art, an identity that she sheds in the end.  Ambiguity is what is missing. Also, the puritan community comes off as a kooky subset that’s easy to laugh at, which misses Hawthorne’s (and Gish’s) implication that the reader or audience is being judged along with the community.

MA: It’s so interesting that the directness of Gish’s stare, its challenge or provocation, inspired you—the defiant female face recurs, but in a different way, in the case of Patricia Hearst. You talk about the threat of those images of her with weapon in hand, but you also discuss her cipher-like quality, which has always stuck with me. When I see those famous pictures of her, I think, “she will never yield to me her secrets.” Her flat California voice too. I remember reading an essay by Joan Didion about the frustrating enigma of Hearst’s memoir, which tells what happened to her in such detail but never about how it all felt. Which becomes a way of protecting herself, an active choice.

TS: The famous image of Hearst wearing a beret, holding her gun, ready to take aim, unsettled people for a number of reasons, but I believe it struck a nerve because it revealed the possibility of fluidity when thinking about identity, especially a woman’s.

Hearst could be the socialite, the revolutionary, the college student, the daughter, the victim, the fiend, the woman on the lam, or perhaps the girl standing next to you in line at the supermarket, who just happens to be wanted by the F.B.I.

MA: You make some fascinating points about Paul Schrader’s selective use of the memoir in his film, Patty Hearst, and his use of her face. What does she become for him?

TS: I feel that Schrader  tried to capture her innocence and vulnerability, and expose how in an instant one’s life can be altered, that violence exists, that it never seems real, it is always on the margins (out of the frame, in the darkness)—until it happens to you.

He wanted to make the opening sequence authentic by using bits and piece of her memoir in the voice-over, but he tweaks her words. The subtle act reminded me of an early American criminal confession and the way the accused’s voice or tale was written down by an intermediary and edited in order to create a cautionary tale for the public. Instead of “beware young reader,” it becomes “beware young viewer.”

He does use her face in close-up at the end of the film, when she looks directly at the camera and chides the public for judging her but, the declaration doesn’t wash for me. It feels hollow because Schrader spent over half of the film turning her into the sexualized woman, a theme that he has explored in films like Hard CoreTaxi Driver and Cat People. There’s a certain element of shame to it.

MA: I’m a big Schrader fan and you really tease out just the complexities and contradictions that make him such an interesting filmmaker. As with so many movies by “personal” filmmakers, his movie is really more about his Patricia Hearst, the one he wants to honor and rescue in problematic ways (shades of Taxi Driver, Hardcore, as you say).

TS: Yes, I think Schrader wants to honor and rescue her. I also think he is a little frightened of her. Nicole Cooley, in “Patty Hearst: A Love Poem,” has a line that she uses again and again, “don’t look at me.” It’s the opposite of the way most artists have approached Patty Hearst. Hearst has been interesting in the way she has taken control of her identity in roles on TV and in movies, sometimes playing an alternate version of herself.

You call her Patricia. Isn’t it funny that I have been calling her Patty? These women get girlish nicknames like Patty and Lizzie when they hit the public eye and then the childish innocence is stripped away from those names. In the beginning, the names show that the press and the public want to be personal with them and believe they are uncorrupted. But that goes away, and the names take on a more notorious tinge.

I actually wanted to include a section on Janet Jackson. I was mulling over the project at the time the nipple-gate event occurred at the Super-Bowl. I was stuck by the piece of red fabric that peeked through Janet Jackson’s  bustier. People went crazy over her wardrobe malfunction. She was corrupting poor Justin Timberlake. He didn’t get the heat like she did. To me he always seemed to recede into the background like Reverend Dimmesdale.

MA: I kept thinking of how fascinatingly your thesis would play out with other women, such as Aimee Semple McPherson or Winnie Ruth Judd (whom we talked about in Oxford way back when). Were there any you nearly included or wanted to?

TS: Mary Surratt would be interesting, but she doesn’t linger in the public imagination the same way, although I hear there’s a movie being made about her (directed by Robert Redford). I think it is telling that the four women I chose have all been referenced on The Simpsons. Martha Stewart even played herself.

MA: How about instances of men on the scaffold in this way, their threat palpable in the culture, their bodies made spectacle?

TS: Yes, I’ve been thinking about men lately. That sounds unseemly. I’m interested in exploring representations of the working-class body.

MA: And we haven’t even brought race into this. But knowing I could go on forever, maybe I should finally release you. Of course, I can’t possibly neglect to mention the delight I had coming upon your discussion of The Thrill of It All, featuring my favorite, Doris Day, as a housewife who attempts to enter the workforce, to slapstick effect (what could be funnier, really—and yet it IS!). ”I want to be a doctor’s wife again,” she cries out at the end, returning to home and hearth.

Which leads me to my final question, is it ever hard for you to reckon with movies you love that you find ideologically quite alarming?

TS: I love watching the Lifetime Movie Channel. I get a kick out of their movie titles like Deadly Vows, Deadly Honeymoon, Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, The Perfect Son, I could go on. I find a lot of the movies on Lifetime ideologically alarming. Sometimes I think, David Lynch was moonlighting on this one.

A lot the movies on Lifetime deal with domestic narratives and suburbia. I watch them and feel like the message is “Beware, ladies,  your neighborhood is a dangerous place!” Sometimes I think the lesson is that fear is the proper response to everything. The best thing to do is not leave the house. On the other hand, maybe it’s in the house with you.

The stories often deal with the image of the housewife who “suddenly has her world turned upside down” (to use commercial-speak) by some kind of predator—the other woman who wants her husband or her family and will kill for it, or the heroine thinks she has met Mr. Right but he is a polygamist. He had eight wives and killed them.

Doris Day was in Midnight Lace, which is a precursor to these types of films. Also, the Martha Stewart TV movies starring Cybill Shepherd cycled through on that channel.

MA: Lifetime! The female gothic lives on. This has been great, illuminating and a little terrifying in the best possible way.

TS: Thanks so much. The gothic does live on.

Currently teaching at the University of Mississippi, Dr. Starkey is in the process of editing a themed anthology on crime and punishment.

5 Responses to “then her world turned upside down”

  1. the first pix is Barbara Stanwyck from Miracle Woman (playing a lightly fictionalized version of Aimee Semple McPherson)

  2. So exciting that you can read the whole thing on line! “These anxieties swirl around in the imagination like phantasmagoric figures or nightmares, and then all of sudden a sensational crime occurs. The pressure valve comes off. It all comes out. Then the scaffold becomes the newspaper, the movie screen, the courtroom or novel and these women become a prism. Anxiety, fear, secret desires, etc., pass through this prism. The women and their stories become fractured and distorted.”

    I find this so fascinating. have you guys been following the BITCH/best YA books controversy? They had a best-of list but them removed a few after people complained they were too dark, disturbing, triggering, etc. But the (negative) response was HUGE. I feel like maybe some of these issues are being played there?

    Such a great interview!! Thank you Theresa!

  3. I hadn’t heard about the BITCH/YA controversy, but it sounds fascinating! What kind of books had they chosen?

  4. Well, they made this list, and they took a few books off the list because people complained–like always!–so the authors/protaginists of those books were the “bad girls.” But then all the writers and readers chimed in to say they thought that was uncool, and then the editors become the transgressive women who had broken the sacred bonds of sistership. I guess only tangentially related!

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