I Threw an Effigy-Burning Bonfire for My Female Rage

Miscarriage, abortion, abandonment, and the mythical avengers of wronged women.

I Threw an Effigy-Burning Bonfire for My Female Rage

I was in my kitchen, prepping for my revenge party; wrapping my toga, dabbing fake blood around my eyes and straightening the crown of papier-mâché snakes on my head. I believed that the evening had all the elements of success: An angry pregnant woman with a boyfriend on the lam, an epic Greek theme, and the chance to torch an effigy.

That was before my brother’s boyfriend texted the first hole in my plan: “I’m not coming to your party because I don’t hate men.”

I did, I guess, and that was the problem. That’s why I was dressed like a Fury, one of an ancient Greek trio of bad bitches with similar sartorial inclinations. In the old days, the Furies had one job: hunt down unpunished sinners and hound them into contrition. They swooped down on thieves, blasphemers and mother-killers out of blue skies – snake hair flying, eye blood forever on point. Swooped down and punished. I was three months pregnant, and my boyfriend had walked out two weeks before. He was not sorry and he had not been punished. Hence, my party.

The evites read, Damn the man! End the patriarchy! In the details section, I wrote: Bonfires. Hexes. Effigy-burning. (Fury costumes provided.)

I made the effigy with my friend, Kate, who could be counted on for such things. We called him The Man, but he looked like my ex. It was August, and we sat on the driveway in the summer heat, stuffing old clothes with newspaper and making a balloon into a plaster face. While The Man’s head dried we made the Fury costumes, bending hangers into snake heads and forking pink pipe cleaners for tongues. When everything was dry, Kate let me pop the balloon with a long needle. “I am not okay,” I said to no one in particular. Kate nodded as if she didn’t know this already.

In fact, I was worse than not okay. I was furious. And furious, I had begun to learn, was different than angry. Angry stays in one place, clawing at your gut and only your gut, or your heart and only your heart. Fury is full-bodied, a clamor of heat. I’d become a devouring furnace, shoveling myself into myself until my rage turned incandescent in the flame. Monday through Sunday, I would swim to put myself out. I’d sizzle my way across the community pool, lap after lap until I was panting. I was swimming because I needed to need something more than revenge. For a time, this thing was air.

I was furious that my boyfriend had left. I was furious he had a body that let him, while mine was tethered to a belly, to the consequence of a choice we’d both made. And I was furious because I’d been in this predicament before. Two years earlier, in Northern California, with a boyfriend who matched the setting perfectly – all billowy pants, bedroom tapestries, and trips to Burning Man. I, however, didn’t match the setting at all. I’d come to California because I wanted to be the exact opposite of who I’d been my whole life: a believing Utah Mormon, and a virgin. So I’d thrown some clothes in a bag and my Book of Mormon across my parents’ living room, then walked past the mark it left and drove until I reached the ocean. I planned to reinvent myself amidst Redwoods and hippies, to become a person who drank alcohol and voted progressive, who said oh my god casually in conversation, in reference to no one. And I really did try my best. I traded prayer for crystals and weed, benighted beliefs for approved opinions. I no longer believed in God but I attempted to believe in the goddess, to observe the tarot and to talk in benevolent terms about the will of universe. I had sex, too, and pretended to like it, believing that changing my mind about my beliefs could change my body, could change what was written there before even I was written there.

In the end, I reinvented very little. In my parents’ home, there was still the mark where I had thrown my Book of Mormon. And there was still a mark on me, on my family – a dark line dividing us from each other and from ourselves. I had tried to leave the place I came from, but my shadow had limped behind me the whole way, keening and cupping its begging bowl.

When I told Phil I was pregnant, he offered me champagne and an abortion. I didn’t want either, but I drank the bottle anyway. We fought: He didn’t want a baby. I didn’t want one either, exactly, but I was tired of being alone with myself. When he fell asleep, I found the bathroom and knelt on the floor; I turned the tub to hot and held my head under until it ran cold. I laid back down after, but the thoughts were still there: How deep a hole God left in my body, and how much I wanted to fill it. How a baby might fit that shape perfectly, might curl up in it and fall fast asleep. But I couldn’t say that to my boyfriend. I was too ashamed.

When the miscarriage happened, I knelt on the floor of a different bathroom, looking from the red on my hands to the red on the floor. “Come on!” my brother said, pounding on the door. My family was on vacation; they were leaving for the beach. I wiped the tiles and flushed the toilet, I washed my hands and turned the knob. “Finally,” said my brother, and we walked out into the sun.

I called Phil that evening to tell him what happened. “Well, that solves that,” he said brightly.

But it didn’t. Instead, panic descended on me everywhere – in the shower, at work, or walking out of the post office – the world thinning away as I crumpled amongst packages and envelopes, wondering what was left of me after such heavy subtraction.

Phil left. I lost my job. “Come home,” my mom said, so I moved home. After that I didn’t move much at all. I thought if I held perfectly still my body might stop hemorrhaging things: beliefs, boyfriends, babies. I laid on the couch for months, testing out the theory, until one day I woke up with the overpowering need for a sandwich. I went out for the first time in weeks, stumbling like a newborn fawn to the store. At the deli, the cashier put his number in my hand. His name was Jason. We went out nine times, forgot the condom once.

When I told him, he offered neither champagne nor abortions. Instead, he said I love you. I remember that we were sitting in the sun-drenched attic of a house of a vacationing friend, and that I was wearing an unbelted robe, which was all I could stand in the sour heat. I know I had been alone with my news for days, edgy and socket-eyed and vomiting, and in the bilious afterglow of one particularly ruthless bout of sickness I had wanted to believe him. After all, this was the reaction I had wanted so badly from Phil, had wished for with every lacking part of me. But this was not last time. It was this time. And this time, I didn’t want a baby. I was depressed, broke, and disillusioned, and my body had finally caught up with my mind. I wanted an abortion.

But my timing was off again. “Abortion is wrong,” he said, which is what he’d meant by I love you. We had made our bed, he said, and now we would sleep in it.

I wish I could tell you I walked away. I wish I could say that I walked into the street in nothing but a robe, one hand carrying my bowl of vomit and one hand hailing a cab. In fact, I stayed right there, not wanting a baby but feeling, in the bright buzz of my cells, what a relief it was to be cared for, to be next to someone who knew exactly what he wanted, what was wrong and what was right. For my part, I had no idea. I had no idea about anything. But I knew that Jason’s certainty felt like a beckoning caesura, a pause in a field of effort where I could curl up and fall fast asleep. And I could remember how it felt to want a baby, to want that and to not be heard.

“You don’t have to decide now,” Jason said. “Just take these vitamins and meet my family.” So I did. We told them the news in a room with a poster of the Mormon temple. “You are our family now,” they said. “No matter what.” Jason nodded. He held my hand.

It was not no matter what. It was only a week. And then Jason left. There was context, of course – Jason discovered that I’d dated other men; he could not be sure he was the father. But he didn’t stick around to find out. “What do you want me to do about this?” I said, sweeping my arm to indicate my belly and my ratted hair and the economy-sized box of Saltines by the bed. “I don’t care, babe,” he said. Then, as if he’d just thought of it: “Get an abortion?” Then he threw his backpack in his truck and drove away.

For me, though, abortion was no longer an option. Everyone I knew already knew, and most of them were Mormon and disappointed. So instead of an abortion I sat in the corner of my parents’ living room, scouring dusty encyclopedias for the names of historic man-haters and lesbian avengers. I wanted a vengeance name for my vengeance baby. And that’s when I discovered the Furies. There was Alecto (endless), Tisiphone (punishment), and Megaera (jealous rage), and their favorite target was Orestes, a known mother-killer. That was the spirit! Then again, even I couldn’t name my daughter Endless Punishing Jealous Rage. But what about Artemis? Now there was an eternal virgin always up for retribution! (If you watched her bathe, she sent her hounds to devour. If you tried to wed her, she turned into a deer and thundered away.) I wanted my daughter to be like that: a steely mythic thing no one could touch.

I wanted to be like that.

But I wasn’t. Instead I gutted myself every chance I got, walking with my innards in my hands and showing whoever would look. Look at this pain, the guts begged. Look. I wanted to stop talking, to stop spilling out of myself, to sew myself up and smile, say, What wound? In the end, though, I could not. I needed my insides to be my outsides so people would see: this was an emergency.

My friends looked at me pleadingly. What do you want us to do? their discomfort said. But I was too embarrassed to say what I wanted. I wanted someone to be as mad as I was, and for my sake. I wanted someone who hurt when I hurt, someone who would swoop down on Jason and make him see my pain, his hypocrisy. In short, I wanted a Fury. A god. A guarantor of justice. Instead, my friends looked at me with the open mouths of people watching a rollercoaster fire. They wanted someone to come quickly and put me out. My anger was endless, and wordy, my desire for revenge too bald and needy. They had never been angry like this, never needed this kind of support. And so, they were confused. Horrified. I saw their horror and felt ashamed, the heat of their disapproval mixing with the heat of my affliction. I wanted to be like them: cool and reasonable and summer-calm. Instead, I was a rollercoaster fire, my hot heart still burning.

So I planned a rager, a party of rage. I thought if I made my anger stark and obvious – if I gave it a toga and wings and a bonfire – that my friends would understand: I didn’t want to be furious by myself. I thought we could be angry together, beaming our sorrows onto a huge papier-mâché effigy. And maybe the Furies would look down, and find us.

This was before I understood that anger is a big house, and mostly we live there alone.

It was dusk on the night of my party and the texts were rolling in now – last-minute no’s and excuses and criticisms. My Mormon friend hinted that I should never have had sex before marriage. Another friend counseled forgiveness; another conveniently lost her sitter. And then, of course, there was my brother’s boyfriend. Your party is weird, the texts said beneath the text. We don’t get angry, why do you?

Kate reapplied my eye blood and convinced me that people would come. “Your brother’s boyfriend does not speak for everyone,” she said. But she was wrong. In the end, it was just her and two others, which is not no one but is not a party, either. In the backyard, the bonfire crackled and spat, but no one danced around it. The effigy sat near it on the grass, unpunished and unburned. For my part, I stood in the driveway and cried, real tears that smeared fake tears across my face. I stood there, red as a dying star. “No one came,” I said again and again. “No one came.”

And suddenly I felt ridiculous, not because I was a grown adult dressed in a cosplay caricature of revenge, but because I’d believed something humiliating and naive: that other people cared as much about me as much as I cared about myself, that they would hunt down my enemies and make them pay. I had believed in the old stories, the old myths, all the fairytales people ever invented to cure what was so clearly my condition – the pain of being just one person. I had believed in a Mormon God, in a person who knew me and felt with me and who would one day make every hurt visible and right. I had believed in the Furies, goddesses who fought for the wronged with the passion of allies. I had believed in the relief of a baby, in the relief of friends. And I had been wrong. I stood there in the dark and flame and believed I would live with that in my craw forever: the sharp bone of the godforsaken.

The three people who did come tried not to be offended and lined up anyway, offering gifts. Charms and trinkets, a lucky chestnut. Sophie was last. She gave me two rocks she’d found walking a red canyon down south. One was heart-shaped and pink. It fit perfectly in the palm of my hand. The other was a piece of mica, so thin and clear it seemed hardly to exist at all, laced into the shape of an angel wing.

I gulped out a thank you, but nobody was fooled. It wasn’t enough. What I had wanted, under all the anger and bravado, was to believe that my anger made sense, that someone else in my position would feel as much as me. But the numbers didn’t lie. Not only did no one feel it; they couldn’t even relate.

I went home. As I unwrapped my toga, I thought about the Furies one last time. When they swooped down on wrongdoers from the heavens – when their screeches pierced the air and their black wings blotted out the sun – did the people of Greece look up from their fields, their agoras, their symposia, and think of the accusers? Did they, faced with the hard fact of the Fury’s anger, think: So they weren’t crazy after all?

I stood at the sink for a long time. Then I leaned down and splashed water on my face, scrubbing away the blood and glitter until my eyes were small and bare in the mirror. It was just me under there. It had been all along.

Months later, I gave birth to a baby girl. She swam out of me and into the birthing tub; she wriggled up my chest and fell asleep in my arms. That night we slept in my bed in the milky glow of a nightlight, and when I woke up before the sun I found our bodies curled around each other like branches. I wanted to stay in that bed forever, in a world of love without gaps. But I knew I could not keep her. I could not even keep myself yet. So instead I got up and dressed, and when the room shone with light I picked her up and walked to the living room and placed her in the arms of the smiling couple who would raise her. They leaned over her, cooing, their bodies the shape of joy. I sat there, an architecture of one. “Would you like to bless her?” they asked, and placed her in my arms.

She looked up at me with a philosophical stare. I cleared my throat. I did not know what to say. I searched my mind for a constant, some hard certainty she could rely on. But I couldn’t lie, although I wanted to. If she was anything like everyone, she would suffer. She would find friends and lose them, find gods and lose them, too. There would be people she would not know how to hold onto, or who would not know how to hold on to her. She would think she was too much, and at the same time not enough, and in the end the only person who would be there the entire time would be her, a tiny Fury made from gleaned materials: my little salvage of anger, try, and grief. She would have to make a god out of that.

I looked up. They were waiting.

“Be strong,” I said, kissing the smooth skin between her eyebrows. “You will need to be strong.”