As I worked on “Empty Cases,” I didn’t think of it as a feminist piece of writing. In fact, I think of my writing as writing and not necessarily as feminist writing, though I’m often told my writing is feminist. I suppose this is because I am a feminist—that’s just part of who I am—and naturally that will come through in my writing, which is also a part of me. It did occur to me in a late draft, though, that the story was very much about women, in particular women who are weighed down by dead-end jobs, single motherhood, poverty, and depression.
“Empty Cases” began as an essay about my time working at Columbia House, the mail-order music club, in Terre Haute, Indiana, when I was in high school during the 1990s. Most of my writing begins in an autobiographical place. Over time, as I embellished the story and then pared it back down, I had a hard time remembering what “really happened” and what I had made up for the rhythm of the writing as well as for the emotional effect, or the poetic truth. What I wrote and revised became my memory of that difficult time in my life. To be safe, I submitted the piece as “fiction.”
At some point in the drafting process, I changed the doctor character from a woman to a man. I’m still not entirely sure why I did that, but I suspect it’s because I had a hard time accepting that a woman in authority wouldn’t listen to and help a young woman who was clearly struggling. The narrator in the story desperately needs someone to step in and comfort her, to tell her everything will be OK. Unfortunately, the women who surround her, including the women who work with her in the factory, and her own mother who is trapped by social injustice and depression, cannot give her that. Thinking about the doctor’s gender taught me what my unconscious had previously hidden from me: even though the narrator is on the brink of adulthood, she still needs a mother. I changed the doctor back to a woman (what she was in “real” life).
While thinking about this guest blog post for So to Speak, it occurred to me that in addition to needing a mother, the narrator, as well as all the other women in the story (cold doctor included) also need feminism. I didn’t know anything about feminism until college. It wasn’t until I started taking Gender Studies classes at Indiana University, until I started reading more literature by women that I became a feminist. Through those studies, I began to see the injustice of sexism and classism in America.
The women of “Empty Cases” are lacking. Uneducated, they are unempowered. They have no way of getting out. They are fed a quick fix, a cheap, satisfying-for-a-moment meal from McDonald’s, and when they do seek help, when they do question, their problems and feelings are dismissed and covered up with a band-aid from the pharmaceutical industry.
Fortunately, in college I found an academic home. I found “mothers” in the feminist texts I read as an undergraduate (Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich). I found “mothers” in female faculty who mentored me (Susan Gubar and Catherine Bowman), feminist writers who cared about my learning, my wellbeing, and what I had to say. Had it not been for my education, for the nourishment I received from feminists and feminism, I could still very well be in that empty place where I began.