One of the perks of grad school is getting to put together class presentations on a range of crazy fun topics. This week, I’m presenting in my American Gothic class on the stories of Judy Budnitz and their relation to Julia Kristeva’s writing on abjection.
I structure my presentations a lot like I structure my blog posts: I pull together quotes and images, offer analysis, and try to expose my audience to related materials they may not have seen before.
So what is abjection and what does it have to do with spiders and mothers?
The abject refers to the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other. — Dino Felluga, Purdue U
Much of what we understand about the abject and abjection comes from the French feminist theorist Julia Kristeva. Her essay “Powers of Horror” details the effects of the abject, especially as it relates to Lacanian psychoanalytic thought. She writes, “The abject confronts us… with our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternal entity even before ex-isting outside of her, thanks to the autonomy of language” (“Powers of Horror” 13).
Judy Budnitz’s short story “Where We Come From” is a perfect example of abjection at work in literature. The story tells of three mothers in succession: the first a mother in a foreign country, the second a would-be immigrant mother, and the third an American mother who adopts the second’s baby.
Much of what is abject in the story revolves around the second mother, who tries time and again to cross the border and have her baby on American soil. Where she comes from is unimportant — there is a placelessness to the third world country of her origin that stands in for all third world countries. Repeatedly rebuffed at the (rather mythical) border, she carries her baby for four years, until she is finally able to give birth in an American hospital.
Budnitz’s evocative fabulism makes this take of twisted motherhood work:
“She carries him for two years. She constructs a sort of sling for herself, with shoulder straps and a strip of webbing, to balance the weight. She uses a cane. She looks like a spider, round fat body, limbs like sticks.”
This spider imagery immediately reminded me of the sculpture work of Louise Bourgeois. She crafted a giant spider sculpture, called Maman (French for mother), for the Tate Modern in 1999. Bronze replicas of Maman have been exhibited all over the world.
Bourgeois meant her work as a tribute to her own mother, but its grotesqueness does, in a way, comment on how we view motherhood. (Another version of this can be found in the film Alien, in which a terrifying, acid dripping alien-mother impregnates male bodies, dooming them to be ripped apart by her parasitic offspring.)
Abjection can also be understood as the state of being experienced by women, people of color, unwed mothers, and other marginalized groups. Budnitz’s story, I think, deftly weaves all these various strands together (spider pun intended!), while at the same time implicating America in the ongoing abjection of the mother. What does it say about us, if this is indeed “Where We Come From”?