Dropped Threads: What We Aren't Told

edited by Carol Shields and Marjorie May Anderson

Published by Vintage Canada

358 pages, 2001


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A Patchwork of Memories

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


"Long ago," writes Margaret Atwood in Dropped Threads, a collection of essays on the unspoken subtexts in women's lives, "in the land of small metal curlers, of respectable white cotton garter belts and panty girdles with rubbery-smelling snap crotches... we were told: A happy marriage is the wife's responsibility. We were told: Learn to be a good listener... Real women are bad at math. To be fulfilled you have to have a baby. If you lead them on you'll get what you deserve. We were told: If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

Atwood's biting remarks are one of the highlights of an uneven collection of pieces which, for the most part, dwell on various aspects of the private sphere: motherhood, relationships, illness, memories of Grandma, sexuality and the value of women's unsung traditional role. Though Margaret Atwood is undoubtedly the best-known writer of the bunch (in a group which includes such luminaries as journalist June Callwood, poet Lorna Crozier and Giller prize-winning novelist Bonnie Burnard), she is one of the very few entrants who is brave enough to wade into the deep waters of women's professional lives and the myriad conflicting messages they receive there.

Are the others more comfortable reminiscing about their grandmothers, or are professional dilemmas still so taboo that they can't be spoken of even in a whole book about taboos? It's a curious, even glaring, omission. Sadly, it speaks volumes about how far women haven't come in learning to see themselves as professional beings. A dropped thread, if you will, which leaves the collection rather threadbare, though rich and luminous in spots.

Those spots are worth celebrating. Not all of them come from the expected sources. Editors Carol Shields and Marjorie Anderson collected 34 essays from a wide range of contributors, from the world-famous to the completely unknown. A few used pseudonyms, as if venturing into the realm of the unspoken were too risky even to sign your name to. And some, such as Bonnie Burnard, opted to write fictional pieces which are not always easy to connect to the supposed subject matter.

But there are still moments of illumination. In "Hope for the Best (Expect the Worst)", journalist and lawyer Susan Lightstone writes of the early conditioning which nearly crippled her capacity for hope and joy: "I spent my childhood waiting for the other shoe to drop," she claims. Nearly every day she heard from her mother, "Don't get your hopes up": "By assuming that nothing good will ever come, you will never be disappointed, never have your hopes dashed. You can live your life in a steady, controlled state, avoiding risk. Why bother taking a chance? If any good comes from your throw of the dice, it will surely be erased two times over by ill fortune. So keep the dice clutched tight." Like so many of the contributors here, Lightstone has had to slip the noose of her childhood programming to find a full and satisfying life.

In contrast, another lawyer, Janet E. Bradley, makes the mistake in "Middle-Aged Musings on Retirement" of stating the patently obvious: "Women, it seems to me, are torn in all directions in terms of work and what it means to them. For men, it appears to be much more straightforward. They see it as their right to devote their lives to their jobs. Men define themselves in large part by the work they do. Their self-esteem is primarily generated by a job." If only we hadn't been hearing variations on this message for the past 25 years, not just from feminists but in hundreds of mainstream women's magazines.

Touches of poetry help relieve this chewed-over quality, as in June Callwood's poignant reflection at the age of seventy-four: "I have retained that child's sense of wonder and ultimate aloneness. I am the best cloud-watcher I know." Jaqueline McLeod Rogers, a writing teacher, presents another kind of poignancy in her statement about human woundedness: "It felt like biting stone to learn that sometimes there's no healing."

Lily Redmond, the pseudonym for an unknown writer, courageously tackles the emotionally fraught subject of abortion in "Mrs. Jones." In a statement which is all too true, she claims, "Discussions about abortion usually take place within a political context, not a personal one. When it comes up, I freely and firmly give my opinion, or, rather, state my position. I am pro-choice, I say, and I believe unequivocally in a woman's right to choose what happens to her body. I rarely, however, add that I think abortion is a tragedy. And I never say that I have been through it myself."

Though it is absorbing to read about shrouded subjects like mental illness, the death of a child, adultery, alcoholism and even belly-dancing, Atwood's sharp, funny remarks still top the list in their relevance and refreshing honesty. Talk about a taboo-breaker: she even dares to strip the veil off the feminist mystique:

To define women as by nature better than men is to ape the Victorians: 'Woman' was given 'moral superiority' by them because all other forms of superiority had been taken away." Within the feminist movement she saw, and sees, restrictions just as chafing as the old patriarchal ones: "It seemed that some emotions were okay to express for instance, negative emotions about men. Others were not okay for instance, negative emotions about Woman. Mothers were an exception. It was okay to trash your mother.

Atwood is not so much antifeminist as anti-orthodox and she laments the fact that such a promising movement became so quickly bogged down in "isms." "As the germination stage of any ism ends and it divides into cliques and solidifies into orthodoxies, writers seized upon initially for their ability to upset apple carts become suspect to the guardians of the ism for that very reason."

But in her brilliant professional life, Atwood has always resisted orthodoxy, perhaps because she had to: "Any woman who began writing when I did, and managed to continue, did so by ignoring, as a writer, all her socialization about pleasing other people by being nice, and every theory then available about how she wrote or ought to write. The alternative was silence."

With varying degrees of effectiveness, all these women have found ways to overcome the deathly silence Atwood describes. To write at all takes courage, and to plumb the depths of the unspoken is harder still. But isn't that what real writers do? Perhaps if more of these women had as clear a sense of vocation as Atwood, Dropped Threads would have been a gutsier, more eloquent and revelatory collection. | April 2001


Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.