There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women
This is the second in my series of reviews of Margaret Atwood’s books. The more I skim through her body of work, the more apparent it becomes that women – their roles, their relationships with men and with each other, and their daily struggles – are central to her writing. Cat’s Eye is heftier than The Handmaid’s Tale and it took me longer to finish this book. It also took me a while to sink my teeth into the writing, but when I did I was hooked. There were moments when I wasn’t quite sure what I was reading, but the prose was so beautiful and lyrical that I just felt compelled to continue.
The quote above was famously posted by Taylor Swift during her beef with Tina Fey (who wrote Mean Girls, interestingly enough) after the latter made a joke about her during the Golden Globes. I confess that I myself don’t have a lot of close female friends. I don’t know why, but I’ve always gravitated towards male friendships because I just find it more…simple. I’m not sure I’m using the right word. Let me try to explain.
I always feel like I can be fully myself around men. I have a lot of female friends and some of those are friendships that I know are for keeps. However, its not always easy for me to open up and be vulnerable with other women because I’m always afraid of being judged and found lacking. I get that that’s probably a symptom of some unresolved issue, possibly from my childhood, rather than a reflection on the kind of friends I have. But its the truth nevertheless.
Cat’s Eye tells the story of Elaine Risley, a somewhat famous Canadian painter who’s come back to her hometown of Toronto for a special exhibit. While there, she’s haunted by memories of her childhood friends, particularly Cordelia, who was the little ringleader of their group.
The story alternates between the present and flashbacks of Elaine’s childhood, starting with the day her family moved to Toronto after a sort of nomadic lifestyle (her father, I just learned from Wikipedia, was an entomologist. I don’t know why this was never clear to me while reading the book). Elaine’s a bit awkward when it comes to social situations probably because she’s only ever had her brother to play with. She also seems to be more comfortable playing with boys than with other girls.
After about a year of living in Toronto, and just when Elaine probably felt like she was finally getting her sea legs with it comes to her friends, Cordelia moves into the neighbourhood and becomes the Queen Bee of the group. I think she must be like a young version of Regina George from Mean Girls.
The title of the book was taken from a special kind of marble (the toy) that Elaine has and proceeded to keep in her little red purse, which gave her comfort whenever she felt like life was getting her down. It was her little secret, something that no one else has and no one else knew that she was keeping it, and especially not Cordelia.
Sweet little girls, my butt.
Cordelia’s presence changes the dynamics of the group. Elaine, because of her obliviousness and awkwardness, becomes a target for bullying. And its the kind of bullying that girls at that age seem to specialise in. I know this because I was probably once one of those girls. When I was 10, I was a part a group that consisted of the most popular girls in our year. Other girls looked up to us, they all wanted to be part of us. I always felt like a fraud back then because I could not see what was so special about me. The other girls in the group were all prettier, richer, funnier. I was just the smart one. I was too young to realise there was power in being smart and clever. I always felt like I wasn’t good enough. And just like what the other girls did to Elaine, there were times when I was deliberately excluded and alienated because I did something that the group didn’t approve of. One time I apparently got too friendly with a guy our queen bee just happened to have a crush on, I wasnt even aware of this and yet they made me feel like rubbish for a week. I think that was my first insight as to how hurtful group think among women can be.
And just like Elaine, I knew that the worst thing in the world would be to tattle. I mean, I was never driven to it. I eventually grew a pair and started to come into my own power. The worst thing was that when I did, I perpetuated this cycle of bullying by turning into one of them. We zeroed in on the other vulnerable members of the group and just teased them mercilessly. Wow, this is the first time I’ve ever had the chance to recollect these memories and I am really ashamed of myself. We made other girls cry. We called someone fish-face behind her back and proceeded to spread the nickname to the other people in the class, and it caught on like fire. We got the telling off of our lives when the girl we were calling “fish-face” cottoned on to it and decided to do the right thing and tell her mum about us. I suppose we were contrite, not because we felt bad for calling her fish-face but because we had been caught doing it. We then proceeded to ignore her afterwards. She became a pariah for like a month (which is like a year when you’re in middle school).
Elaine went through a more traumatic experience when the group decided to throw her hat into a ravine and when she was then forced by Cordelia to fetch it. They had all been told tales of bad things that happen when someone goes down into those ravines. But nevertheless, it was hard to stand up to peer pressure. So Elaine went and nearly freezes to death. In her delirium, she thought she saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary which enabled her to stand up and somehow get home. Her mum suddenly became fully aware of how much the situation has disintegrated, and the girls eventually apologised albeit insincerely. There was the sense that Elaine had betrayed the group by bringing a grown-up into the situation. It was after that that Elaine finally had the courage to “break” with the group.
You never really get over it
Elaine kind of repressed the whole episode. She would eventually move on to high school, do quite well, get into art school, do quite well, have a husband, get divorced – you know, the cycles of life. Throughout all that she would meet Cordelia sporadically, and the repressed experience would influence most of her life choices and especially her art. You know that girl we called “fish-face”? There’s no telling just how much we’ve altered her life because of that episode. God only knew whether she had fully internalised the whole thing. I can only apologise for making her a victim of my attempt to cover up my own insecurities back then. Because if they were busy bullying her they wouldn’t be bullying me.
What it all comes down to…
I have a somewhat simplistic credo in life that I apply in all my interactions with other people, but particularly with other women; and its that I will never say anything about them behind their back if its a thing that I can’t say to their face. I also now choose friendships on the basis of whether I can truly open up and be myself when I’m with them. However, it is my belief that – just like love – you can never really be open enough to give something of yourself if you’re not whole. Like, allowing yourself to be bullied or to pretend to be someone you’re not just to be accepted is a symptom of someone who’s not comfortable in their own skin. You have to love yourself first before you become involved with others, whether its relationships with men or friendships with other women. If Elaine had loved herself more, she would never have allowed her life to become what it was. She would not have needed to use her relationships with other men as a crutch for when she was feeling unhappy or empty. She would never have allowed herself to be defined by who she was to others. She would be happy just being Elaine.
I guess the greatest compliment I can pay this book is that it will make you think, and it will mean different things – and be given different interpretations – by different people. It will resonate with anyone who’s ever had to go through the dynamics and politics of childhood friendship.
Happy reading, bookworms!