In this third volume of our Mind and Self series, I’m about to tell you an ugly story about two of our Paper 3 texts – their calculated violence, cruel intentions and dangerous consequences. Just why do Susan and Martha harm others… and themselves?
The Self Unwound
Confession: I am four episodes into 13 Reasons Why. The first three sides play a maudlin retelling of Hannah Baker’s truncated life, by turns driven by adolescent anxiety and anger, and then pulled back by contradictory accounts told by her friends to the real protagonist of the story, Clay Jensen. ‘Tape 2 Side B’ takes Clay, like Hannah’s previous “listeners”, outside the window of Tyler Down – her would-be stalker, skeleton-digger and yet another reason for her suicide.
Hannah’s recording implicitly invites her listener to take vengeance on her behalf. Intrusion begets intrusion, metaphorical stones demand physical stones thrown at the window. Despite their lucid, emotionally barren tones, the tapes flip from the construction of a pitiable, affecting victim (the poor Hannah Baker) of its predecessors to the destruction of its previous aggressor. Clay snaps a picture of Tyler’s naked buttocks, circulates it millennial-style, and takes revenge, served in bytes, on Hannah’s behalf. The victim is also the bully, and the bully is now the victim.
Up until this point, the audience (or me at the very least) would naturally lend sympathy to Hannah. From a literal point of view, she is dead, the suicide victim whom we would infer to have suffered abuse from all directions. From a literary standpoint, Hannah’s voice is the voice we hear first, and the voice we hear the most of vis-a-vis the laconic person that is Clay. Hannah’s perspective is our perspective, where Bryce, Justin, Jessica et al are, even before we enter each tape, the ‘reasons’ for her suicide. Along the way, these same characters urge Clay and by extension us to disbelieve Hannah’s words. The stirring of violence in Tape 2 Side B gives us further ground to do so.
While not exactly similar, Woman in Mind does lull its audience to empathise with Susan through a mix of dramatic methods. First, she is portrayed as the accidental ‘victim’ of a garden rake (poor Susan!). Second, she is effectively the only comprehensible character in the opening scene where Bill’s apparent ‘nonsense’ distances him from us (aww Susan!). Third, Susan’s real family enter the stage as an ‘unattractive picture‘ if only because the ‘tall, good-looking, athletic‘ fantasy figures have already aligned our expectations to Susan’s (how very sad, Susan!).
We may not then notice that Susan too is a bully, her verbal violence towards Gerald and Muriel sometimes passing off as wry humour. On Susan’s tongue, ‘Goody, goody, goody’ and ‘delicious’ become barbed jokes about Muriel’s domestic abilities that would be soon superseded by the cruel declaration, ‘I’ve no doubt you’ll see us all off as well’. Susan has no qualms laying out cold, rational ‘truths’ — that it is ‘extremely unlikely’ for Muriel’s husband to revisit her, in the same way she admits to not loving Gerald any more, or that her imaginary family are ‘most attractive and dishy’ in comparison to her real one. Even if Susan is retaliating (like Hannah does), there is no denying her aggression here. Susan seems to destroy or at the very least suspend her familial connections with Muriel and Gerald. But what for?
Relationships and Identity
In ‘The Context and Content of Social Identity Threat‘, Branscombe et al examine the ‘resistance to being categorised’ by individuals who feel prejudged or stigmatised by the category. For instance, an Asian person might outwardly deny that he or she is good at Mathematics, or a woman in a leadership position might be quick to distance herself from other women at the workplace or occupying similar positions. Such individuals ‘disidentify‘ themselves from their groups or proceed to ‘discredit’ the group itself, as a means to preserve one’s own personal self-esteem. Personal identity can be derived from social identity (e.g. I am Singaporean), but it can also be formed by negation (e.g. I am not as obsessed with money as Singaporeans are).
Thus, we can perceive Susan’s antipathies towards Gerald and Muriel to come from an inward need for self-assurance and self-determination. By disclaiming her love for her own husband, Susan establishes the importance of sexual intimacy, of the ‘really joyous part of us’, in her relationship. Arson is a means of retaliating against the book that has taken her husband away from her. By mocking Muriel’s coffee, Susan supplements her sense of self — the ‘extremely hard work’ she does as a wife and mother in the household. Even the demolition of Muriel’s supernatural fantasy serves to assure Susan that she is logical, lucid, rational… and never subject to the same desperation for affection. The audience of course knows better. Susan strikes her real family in jest, callousness or vindictiveness because she fears being like them and actively ‘disidentifies’ herself from them. Her outward cruelty manifests a mental need to escape her group, family, reality in her definition of self.
The audience might detect a similar strain in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, whose female protagonist Martha is a warmonger par excellence. If Susan’s cruelty is hidden beneath comedy, Martha’s cruelty is hyperbolic to the extent any audience hopes her intentions are comedic. On first glance, her words are anything but, bordering on the sadistic:
MARTHA (viciously triumphant) The hell I will! You see, George didn’t have much… push… he wasn’t particularly aggressive. In fact he was sort of a … (spits the word at George’s back) … a FLOP! A great… big… fat… FLOP! (Act One)
Unlike Ayckbourn’s Susan, Albee’s character bears no self-restraint in both the stage directions and the language. She is characterised as taking delight in her violence, displaying it in the most uncouth of ways (‘spits‘). Her insults towards her husband George escalate quickly from a lack of ‘push’ and aggression to the demeaning ‘flop’, which is in turn multiplied by the intensifiers ‘great… big… fat…’, the pregnant pauses in between each word, and the final stab of an exclamation. If we were to apply our understanding of Susan and social identity theory, we can infer that Martha’s self-worth is constructed from aggression (well, it’s quite clear from this excerpt, isn’t it) and SUCCESS… GREAT… BIG… FAT… SUCCESS. Martha’s father is the President of the university; George fails to live up to her expectation that he will succeed her father. The pattern repeats, albeit to a more extreme degree in Woolf. Martha seeks a mental equilibrium of sorts by lacerating George for his tameness, his career incompetence and (we would assume) his sexual impotence; the violent ‘fun and games’ are a distraction from their son, or lack thereof.
The cruelty of both the protagonists of Woman and Woolf is shown to be compulsive, arising from a need to sever the self from social realities. Their acts are ultimately self-destructive: George retaliates by killing the son-myth, while Gerald has no qualms leaving Susan alone in the ensuing thunderstorm. Susan and Martha are aggressors, but they are aggressors experiencing desperate states of mind, whom most audiences would be willing to forgive. The victim is the bully, and the bully is finally the victim of her own bullying.