Review by Shaun Byron Fitzpatrick
What do we do with a woman who kills?
The first time I read Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, it was for a gender class in college called “Violent Femmes: Women in Post-WWII Popular Culture.” The class revolved around looking at portrayals of violent women in literature and film to see how, as a culture, we react to these characters. How do we handle women who defy our ideas of what a woman should be? What happens when a woman fights oppression and violence with violence, who turns her back on her “natural” motherly instincts, who becomes such a freak of nature in our eyes that she turns into a monster?
What do we do with a woman who kills?
Piercy answers this question in no uncertain terms: we lock her up and throw away the key. Woman on the Edge of Time is a gritty look at the mental health facilities of the 1970s through the eyes of Connie, our 35-year-old Mexican-American heroine. Her struggles with poverty and abuse lead her to the madhouse for the second and final time after she attacks her niece’s pimp in self-defense. Around the same time, however, she begins making contact with a woman named Luciente, a time-traveler from the future who begins bringing Connie into her world. Connie finds herself caught between her present and the potential future, fighting against cyborgs that threaten the peaceful existence of her new friends, and an operation that could strip her of her very identity back at the mental institute. Piercy shows us the grim reality of a world that abuses its ill, punishes its women, and neglects its poor, with Connie fighting not only for her own life but for all of those looked down on as disposable, “damaged” goods.
To call Connie an unreliable narrator, however, would be like calling a lobotomy a headache remedy: it doesn’t quite convey the severity of it. Piercy tells us that Connie has a history of mental instability, but always gives an excuse for it: her first husband was shot, her second abusive, her third carted off to jail only to die after volunteering for drug testing. Her grief turns into substance abuse, which leads to her losing her child. Piercy is so careful to give us reasons for Connie’s initial descent that we never actually consider whether she may be crazy. We are willing to accept that she is a victim of a society that is cruel to women, crueler to women of color, and outright horrible to poor women of color. And this is all true; Piercy never shies away from showing us the awful conditions that Connie must live in, the loneliness and helplessness she feels at the hands of a world that seems to enjoy her suffering. This suffering should make us suspicious of her visions of Luciente and the utopian Mattapoisett, a world without violence or gender roles. It holds all of the characteristics of an escapist fantasy, yet for most of the book we are willing to believe that her time travel is real. This faith is not shaken until the end of the novel, when Connie’s realities begin to bleed together in such a way that we are forced to question how much we can trust her.
In the end, Connie must make a decision that will potentially change the fate of the world. It is up to us, of course, to decide whether Connie is actually a soldier in a war from the future or just a tragic, mentally-ill character. A strong case can be made for either, and I have no interest in arguing for one side or the other. I wonder, though, if our reading of the ending may be at least slightly dependent on how comfortable we are with the image of the violent woman. To buy that Connie is, as she believes, a soldier for Mattapoisett is to soften her actions. She still kills, yes, but for a noble cause. We can forgive her, because she is fighting for the greater good. But what if these are only hallucinations? Connie is not killing for any real purpose, and both she and the men she targets become victims of her delusions. This ending is bleak, and makes us confront our own views on what women are capable of.
Can we accept a woman who kills?
Marge Piercy is the author of seventeen novels including The New York Times Bestseller Gone To Soldiers; the National Bestsellers Braided Lives and The Longings of Women, and the classicWoman on the Edge of Time; eighteen volumes of poetry including The Hunger Moon and The Moon is Always Female, and a critically acclaimed memoir Sleeping with Cats. Born in center city Detroit, educated at the University of Michigan, the recipient of four honorary doctorates, she has been a key player in some of the major progressive battles of our time, including the anti-Vietnam war and the women’s movement, and more recently an active participant in the resistance to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.