As soon as we see the mustache twitching, we know Lenu is in the line of fire. Lila’s father’s sale of her to a beautiful man is a homoerotic exchange. The father is jonesing for this man from the moment he steps into his world. Maybe every exchange of this kind is two men fucking through the proxy of the girl. Maybe all male supremacy is men fucking each other in various ways. The question of male feelings about themselves as men is a blob of dullness that keeps expanding, no matter what Lila does to fend it off. It is gray goo. It is one of those giant balls that comes rolling at you in an Indiana Jones movie. You run, and you run, and there it is. If you are a male human, and you are not able to enter the story of these two girls as if the story is about you, then you are the ball in the Indiana Jones movies. This show is saying everything I am saying in every shot. It is so beautiful and so sad. Go, Lenu, ride those waves, read those books, stroke through that water, go get your friend, cry your eyes out so you know you’re alive.
I watch “My Brilliant Friend” with my hands over my mouth, ready to cover my eyes at a stroke of violence. Lila’s father. Has a word ever been more poisonous to say and feel its smoky meaning disappear in the air than the word, “man”? What is a man? No one cares. I don’t care. Lenu and Lila don’t care, and it is like not caring about Trump and his government. They could kill you, and they’re still so fucking uninteresting. I hate this episode, but I couldn’t stop watching it. I can’t stop watching a minute of this series. I worry it’s about to end, but I don’t want to look at the bar across the bottom to see how much time is left. There are too many men in this episode and things men say and do that circle women. Lila is a fly in a spider’s web. The more she buzzes, the more the silk circles her until she can’t move. She can’t move because she’s so alive, and the men want her aliveness inside them and then they want it to stop. She’s so alive and yet she can’t leave the town. She’s a kid. She’s maybe 15. Who asks a girl of 15 to get married? She is afraid of the world, and somehow Lenu is not. The thing that brought tears to my eyes is when Lenu tells Lila she is leaving for the summer. She has a chance to escape and swim in the sea, a whole summer away, and Lenu can’t think of anything but the guilt she feels in leaving Lila to fend for herself against her father, her brother, and the Marcello who has come for her. She can’t kill them all, and she knows that, and the knowledge is like dying when you are still alive. It’s pretty much what it means to be female in this town at this time and during all times and still now in many places, and there is a double consciousness always working, the thinking: This can’t be happening to me, and: This is happening to me, and I can’t find a way out because there is no way out. Lenu has been offered one, and what does Lila say? She says, “Brava.” She says, “You go, girl, go into the world I can’t venture into. Feel joy. Feel joy for the two of us.” But the thing is, it’s impossible to feel joy if you are the female who has gotten away and you know it’s a fluke, and it doesn’t change the condition the others live in, that you live in. There is no getting away because the other women are inside you, and yet you have to get away because you can only make one run for it.
I wrote this in memory of Robert Massa, who died of AIDS in 1994 and was much loved at the Voice, where we worked together for many years. It was set to music for an AIDS event by Gordon Beeferman.
The last time I saw my friend he was sleeping in his living room, and a Beethoven piano sonata was playing. He was thirty-six and dying of AIDS. I sat beside his bed and spoke into his good ear. He dove for air and huffed out words. On an alphabet board he spelled, “I don’t feel cheated.” Later he spelled, “I wish I had written more,” as if to say he had cheated himself. I said, “All writers feel that way.” He wanted ice cream, and I brought him a pop from the freezer. It dripped on his hands, and I wiped them with a cloth. I thought how alive we are until almost the last moment. I said, “You have inspired much love in your odd, shy way. How do you explain it?” He said, “I’m not demanding.”
There’s a Shakespearean feel to several scenes in this episode. A Sharks and Jets thing happens in the town as factions assemble, and sex, history, and politics enter the lives of the girls. People stop in the street to confer about power. People have to talk to each other in person because there is no other way to communicate, and it’s sexy, with bodies proximate in time and space. Lila is in her father’s shop, scheming to get rich with her brother through their secret shoe business. Money is flowing into the town and always has, and now the girls learn how the rich got powerful as black marketeers during the war and remain in league with mafia types. In the rise of the pushed-around poor against the cut-throat rich, the sexes join, with Lila at the hub. All the boys want her and they want her ideas. They will pay attention to her now that they can’t take their eyes off her. It’s the first time in the series we get to see more of the males and their complexity, even Lenu’s father comes alive as he tours his daughter through Naples, meeting people in the streets and seeming happy and chatty as he shows her off. She’s never seen him this way, and she finally beholds the sea she did not get to that time the girls ventured out and retreated before they could arrive. Lenu has started high school, and at first as usual she’s shy and unsteady without Lila. She makes a vow to herself to study hard. She needs to outdo Lila—who has already finished reading the Aeneid in Greek—at something. And Lenu earns an A for her translation but not before the teacher questions whether she has plagiarized the work. “No,” she tells him, sharply, clear about what she can master. Naples is teeming. It’s a real city, and it’s wonderful to see Lenu wandering around, learning to be alone and unprotected in public space, the crucial arena for a life of freedom. She has this on Lila. Their rivalry is beautiful, not something to see as a corruption of their love. It is partly the nature of their love, of all love. We fall in love with the people we want to be, at least in some ways, and as we rub against them, the edges of our separate selves blend a little. That’s the title of this episode, and it represents many things about aliiances of power in the town as well. Lila explains to Lenu, “We don’t know anything about power.” She is saying they have to study the world as much as books, and several of the boys in their circle have the knowledge they need. Lila will go anywhere to get a leg up on fear. She says that knowledge will help them control the fear they live in. That may or may not be true in her case. It may only be something she says and wants to believe. Lenu may be a better student of Lila’s words than Lila can be of them. She has attracted one of the rich, thug boys, the one she threatened to stab as she held a knife to his throat. He’s coming for her, and he has the added challenge for Lila of being beautiful, and we all know where beauty leads. Maybe beauty is more implacable than who owns the means of production in the town. In any case, every ingredient that makes a Skakespeare tragedy and comedy and history play is in this brilliant episode that flies at us like the fire works war in the final scene, joyous and terrifying. Everyone is awake.
The episode opens with Lenu discovering blood in the toilet. She thinks she is going to die, and she is right. Another girl explains it’s her period. She can get pregnant. Lila has moved away from Lenu. There are girls who work in shops and girls who go to school. The romance of childhood is the mystery of life. How does it work? How will I fit into it? By now the girls are thirteen or so, and the mystery is solved. Life is a bird lying on a dusty road, knocked out of the sky by a stone thrown in spite. Lenu doesn’t know how to study without Lila. She doesn’t know how to live without the romance of her relationship to this girl, who understands the grammar of existence. You have to start with the verb, she will ultimately explain to Lenu, showing her how to master Latin, as they sit side by side on the curb in the dark, outside their apartments. It is the most tender and beautiful scene imaginable, the girls finding their way back to each other. Lenu has discovered that Lila is secretly studying. She is reading her way through the library that has opened in the town, signing the names of other members of her family to the cards, in order to borrow more books. What do you do when you have found and lost the most interesting human being you have ever encountered? The one who finds cracks of light where other people, including you, see only a cinderblock wall? You do everything in your power to win her back and in the absence you measure the space inside you she inhabits and act as you think she would. Lenu’s face has broken out in acne. She thinks she is ugly and that Lila is beautiful. Lila gives off a sexual power with the force she shows and the force she hides. She’s a bit scary to everyone, and she uses it to stay separate and conduct her secret life. Lenu’s breasts are developing, and boys are eyeing her. Two confront her in a toilet and one offers her ten lire to show him her breasts. She holds out her hand and takes the money, curling her fingers around the coin. You can’t tell what she’s thinking when she lifts her sweater. She has the blank face of a sex worker, waiting for the moment to pass into another moment when she will spend the money on a pastry. She is testing what her body can give her and how she can parcel it out. In a voiceover, the adult Lenu believes she was channeling Lila in that moment. We think she is also testing herself in the realm of boys and what they want. One of the genius aspects of the show is the way it forces male viewers to identify with the female characters. There is no other place to go. In the entire episode, only an elderly male librarian is kind or decent to Lenu. When her grades are failing, her father loses patience with her. Other boys and men form a backdrop of large and small aggressions to each other and to girls. The rich boys drive around in a car and compel a poorer girl from the town to get in. She doesn’t want to. Everyone watches and lets it happen. Lila is enraged and calls it an “abduction.” Later, when these same boys will harass Lenu and one grabs her arm, breaking her bracelet, Lila will hold a knife at his throat and threaten to stab him if he ever touches her again. We can see the boy is turned on by Lila’s lack of fear. Fear is the medium the girls exist in. Also anyone who is poor and has been targeted for abuse. There is only one path out of this world for Lenu, and it is by following the crumbs laid down by Lila, who may not, herself, get out. It is through linking arms with women who want you to fly away. Once again Lenu’s grade school teacher intervenes with her parents and convinces them to allow her to go to high school. In its brilliant specificity, the story of Lila and Lenu is the story of every female life still being lived.
Today a friend told me a story about a writer he knew. The writer had written a novel that was accepted for publication at a trade house and was told all was well except for one element. The story included a trans character and the publisher wanted to send the book to “a sensitivity reader.” The author, who was not a trans person, did not like the idea of being vetted in this way and took the book to a different house. I wondered about other ways books could be vetted for “sensitivity.” Did the publisher send books about women written by men to female “sensitivity” readers? What about books about men written by women? Were there “sensitivity readers” for books about race, religion, nationality, forms of trauma the author had not experienced? What possible good could any of this do for writing, publishing, the issue itself of calming the frizz of bias and phobia?
Yesterday I posted on Facebook about the phrase “pussy whipped.” A friend used the term in a post, and I registered my reaction in a separate post. I asked a series of rthetorical questions some people mistook for real questions and began to “splain” some meanings the term had for men. I “splained” back, in the comment thread, that regardless of how men understand the phrase and used it jokingly among themselves and others, the term “pussy whipped” stings and stigmatizes people who actually have pussies. I wanted to say, simply, I feel a current of rage go through my body each time I hear or read the term “pussy whipped” as well as the equation of the words douche, douchebag, pussy (for weakling) wuss (variant of puss), and cunt with any vile piece of shit. I said: “The world is full of things viler than female genitalia and things that wash female genitalia. Such as the myriad hairy paws, coated with dried semen and redolent of rotting oysters, squeezing the balls of our society.”
I did not ask anyone to stop using these terms, not because I want to keep hearing them but because I don’t think social change happens through censorship and “sensitivity harassment.” I think it happens this way, in social use and reactions to social use. Every time I feel a surge of rage go through my body when I hear language that insults me and my body parts, I will call attention to the sliming and I will create a counter example that puts into relief the double standard. The double standard is where I have consciousness of sexism and misogyny because I have to, and you do not have consciosuness of these things because you do not have to and you risk little in life for not having it.
Every time I feel a surge of rage, I have been harmed a little. Disagreement is not trauma (especially if you grew up in my family or are simply a Jew), but the free flow of sexist and misogynist language tears at the safety and freedom of all women in the world all the time. It does do harm. The remedy is not resticting langauge and the crazy and at times poetically weird and unexpected meanings language can stir.
Back to the book publisher. If someone wanted to vet a book or even an article or story of mine through a “sensitivity reader,” I would pull it. In fact this happened to me in 2016 at the Columbia University radio station WKCR. (This story is well chronicled elsewhere if you want to read details.) How does a society designate a term hate speech? It’s weird and hard and mostly I’m against these determinations. Are the underpinnings almost always economic? Meaning, is the impulse to censor or moderate language stirred by fear of an economic backash by consumers? Is that what the book publisher feared, a backlash of disapproval about a nontrans person depicting a trans character?
Everyone wants to speak for themselves. I want the freedom to explain as often as I can how it feels to be stigmatized and demeaned by assumptions everywhere in the culture that the bodies of female humans and the lives lived in those bodies are viciously undervalued. I also don’t want anything to police or restrict your freedom to say the shit that pisses me off.
I have not read the Ferrante books. Yes, I have been encouraged to. These thoughts refer to the HBO series, alone. I am most struck by the foreground of female rivalry set against a backdrop of male violence and the atmosphere of general terror it produces in the community. Fathers are supposed to rule their households even if they do not wish to. Girls are not supposed to be educated in the mainly lowly ranks of these villagers. Class and sexism join forces to confine girls to the role of drone in her family of birth and later in the family where she serves as a wife. The system feels feudal, although the story takes place in postwar Naples. The female teacher of the girls is the only force countering these values, and although she tries to steel Lila’s mother to intervene on behalf of her brilliant child, she relents, seeing the effort is futile. Lila’s father will throw her out a window after she says she will take the test to enter middle school regardless of what he says. Her arm is broken in the fall. It is a horrifying moment. The women gather around the child, who downplays the injury. The women, including Lila’s mother, say, “She fell.” Lila is going to exit her circumstance by any means necessary, and it kills her that Lenu, who is devoted to her, has been given permission by her father to take the test. Lila devises a scheme to sabotage Lenu by enticing her to cut school and walk to the ocean. The scheme doesn’t work, and Lenu understands the betrayal, but she also understands its twisted source. It is the logic of: If I can’t go, then why should you? And Lenu deals with another version of this with her mother, who seethes with resentment at the way Lenu’s father dotes on her. She can’t bear the disparity between her fate and the possibility her daughter will not replicate her life, and in their interaction we see the machinery of sexism working inside women. Lenu’s mother goads her husband to beat Lenu for cutting class, taunting him to show he is a man. If the world of female roles is not a fixed thing, if it can be altered, then Lenu’s mother did not have to forfeit her own buried hopes. The thought that her own existence wasn’t necessary is unbearable, and all her energy will go to propping up the system that will keep them both in place. There are moments of beauty along the way. Lenu’s father beats her but insists she will take the test, and Lila’s brother stands up to their father and says he will pay for his sister to go to school because, “Everyone knows she is the smartest person in the village.” He fails, of course, but it is a gorgeous gesture, as is the kindness toward Lila of another boy, whose intelligence has been thwarted and who has been tracked into hawking produce on the street. We see Lila through her actions and the ferocity of her calculating mind that she shares only with Lenu. She does not need Lenu to be who she is, but she wants an accomplice and an audience. Lenu needs Lila to become herself, so she forgives the betrayal. She does not want to know what she has learned about Lila, but she does know, and the knowledge will peek out from what obscures it from time to time. The episode is extraordinary in its complexity and in the way it remains focused at all times on the drama of the girls to become themselves. Their reading of “Little Women” over and over until the pages become grimy, is enormous here. It might as well be scaling a dangerous mountain. We’re inside Lenu’s consciousness. This is the mind we can penetrate partly because she is telling the story, sometimes in the voiceover of the adult writer. Also because Lenu is not fixed and rigid as Lila is said to be and as we can see as well. Lenu is the collector of ambivalence that will never be resolved.
The first episode aired last night. I have not read Elena Ferrante’s books. I was a captive of the show. At the center of the life of every female human is not a man, not a child, not parents, not siblings. It is a female best friend. It is the person you sit next to on the bus or are chosen for her kickball team, and you feel you never want to leave her. You will figure out a way to marry her. You will sleep in her bed. You will look for her for the rest of your life. She will leave you. You will outgrow her. You will find versions of her. Female friendship is your one true north, and it’s maddening and funny because no one depicts it. No one is willing to express the endless life of female friendship because part of its power is that it is a secret every female knows. The show knows this in every frame. The girls are beautifully cast. The way they eye each other before the bolder one who is also the more socially awkward one makes a move. Once they join hands, the bond it set. The bond is to escape the condition of being female. The girls understand it as a condition. Every girl does. It is the defining quality of girlness to know that girlness is a thing that you are born into and must escape by any means necessary. You need a partner. You need an army, but a partner is what you have for starters. You want to be who you are, and you are a girl, but girlness and the implacable march to a woman-future is not for you. In Naples it is opera day and night. Loud and sad and horrified and worn out by thirty. There are male humans, but male humans are registered only in so far as they are or may be instrumental to how girls will leave the condition of girlness. In a breathtaking sequence, Elena, writing as the older author looking back at her childhood, recalls a dream in which, suddenly, millions of beetles are released from sewers and fissures in the land and swarm the streets, scale the walls of the houses, and cover the bedding of sleepers, diving into the open mouth of a woman asleep on her back. The beetles with their hard carapaces and endless capacity to replicate are, collectively, the feeling of the female condition. When the girls clasp hands, they have begun the great adventure of their lives, which is to leave the understandings of other people and reinvent everything.
I watch hummingbirds at the feeder. One perches on the handle while the other dive bombs it for reasons that are a blur. They spin and fight. They arrive together and leave together, and no one gets to eat. I don’t know when I lost interest in why anything is the way it is. From time to time I find a letter, an email, a phone number from a person I sent love to and have forgotten exists. Today I picked a grapefruit from a tree, cut it the French way, as if to serve it, and ate it myself. I don’t remember when I formed a romantic image of traveling light, emotions being all you need to carry. The man I live with and I watched the Web series “High Maintenance,” about a guy who deals pot and enters the lives of his customers in the middle of a scene, not knowing the beginning or end. He is always kind and always a little stoned, and you think pot takes the edge off what is missing. There is something soft and tentative about him, which reduces his erotic energy, sex being about keeping absence unfllled. It reminded me of a man I had once loved who was mostly absent. The hummingbirds are so in love they can’t be bothered to eat.
The wish is to preserve the notion that sex identity and the privileges accorded male humans are essential, ordained, real, and true. The secret knowledge is that male supremacy is enforced by power and is not biologically essential or determined. The secret understanding is that masculinity has to be learned and male supremacy has to be propped up by policing any threats to its control and understanding of itself. Females, homosexuals, trans people, gender fluid people, people who defy gendered dress codes, etc., all of these people threaten the notion that maleness is a single, biologically determined thing. Everyone on the planet by now knows it is not. Everyone knows you have to protect it all the time or the truth of everyone’s hybrid nature will force a redistribution of power between the sexes everywhere humans exist. The closer the awareness that male supremacy is not real, the higher the degree of panic. The higher the degree of panic, the more brutal the enforcements on gender separation and the quarantining of bodies, lest maleness itself be contaminated and fatally weakened by proximity to femaleness and other non-binary bodies. The panic suggests to those fighting the hardest that the contamination has already happened. The attack is the denial of knowledge that really can’t be deleted.
The threat to all trans people is also a threat to all female humans, whether or not they acknowledge it. Any woman and any feminist who does not see her predicament as intimately linked to the predicament of transpeople has a sadly enfeebled understanding of patriarchy.