A cultural horror of women’s bodies is the theme of the second episode of “American Girls Horror Stories,” juxtaposing two 19th-century American ghost stories and contemporary poems on birth, female rites of passage, mother and child relations, anorexia and suicide. The title alludes to a remark made by a Virginia state senator in 2014 in a debate over reproductive privacy in which he spoke of the fetus’s “host—some refer to them as mothers.” The episode is also prompted by the gothic horror latent in the ongoing controversy over Planned Parenthood, with the ghoulish display of baby body parts taken as a religious pathology that seeks blood ecstasy in dismemberment, as in the cult of saints’ relics.
“The Giant Wistaria” is the only ghost story by the feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935), best known for her gothic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” about a woman’s domestic confinement and madness. “The Giant Wistaria” has an unusual two-part structure: it begins in the Colonial past under a Puritan patriarchy that exercises destructive control over women’s sexuality and reproductivity, with a ghostly reminder of that legacy in the present day—for Gilman, the 1890s. In her own time, Gilman was admired—by W.E.B. Du Bois, the featured writer in the previous episode, among others—for works of feminism such as His Religion and Hers: A Study of the Faith of Our Fathers and the Work of Our Mothers and Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relations Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. Berklea Going and Sarah Torbeck are the readers.
For this extended podcast, “The Giant Wistaria” is bookended with “The Adventure of the German Student” (1824) by Washington Irving, whose best-known supernatural tale is “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” No spoilers if you don’t know it, but you’ll hear a familiar theme. Frank Buczolich, guest announcer for the series, reads.
Also featured is the dramatic monologue “Ellen West” by the American poet Frank Bidart—a different kind of horror story based on the case study of an anorexic patient in the early 20th century who was obsessed with escaping her bodily existence. Erin Livingston is the voice of Ellen, with Jack Hanek as her doctor, unnamed in the poem but in real life the pioneering Swiss existential psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger.
Other poems are:
- “Being Partial” by George Quasha (read by Joan Hawkins), which links this episode thematically to the stories from Du Bois’s Darkwater collection in “American Girls Horror Stories, Part One,” from Ainu Dreams (Station Hill Press, 1999)
- “I Knocked My Head against the Wall” by Anna Swir (Erin Livingston), translated by translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan, from Talking to My Body (Copper Canyon Press, 1996)
- “Quincenañera” by Judith Ortiz Cofer (Berklea Going), from Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood (Arte Público Press, 1991)
- “Eating Babies” by Chana Bloch (Cynthia Wolfe), from The Past Keeps Changing (The Sheep Meadow Press, 1992)
- “The Odd Last Thing She Did” by Brad Leithauser (Cynthia Wolfe), from Poetry magazine, May 1998
- “The Bones of August” by Robin Ekiss (Cynthia Wolfe), from The Mansion of Happiness (University of Georgia Press, 2009)
- “Teresa the Idiot” by Cecilia Vicuña (Berklea Going), translated by Rosa Alcalá, from Poetry magazine, May 2014
“American Girls Horror Stories” is produced, written and edited by Cynthia Wolfe, with production assistance from Heather Perry, Jack Hanek and Sarah Torbeck. Heather Perry hosts, with podcast co-host Cynthia Wolfe. Special music for the series comes from the album Saxophone con Forza (Phono Suecia, 1999), by Jörgen Pettersson and guests. Break music from the 1969 pop classic “Undun” by The Guess Who, and from the aria Vissi d’arte (“I lived for art”) in Puccini’s opera Tosca sung by Maria Callas, as alluded to in the poem “Ellen West,” at a 1964 performance in Covent Garden.
Image credit: Sshh by George Bernard O’Neill (1828–1917), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Executive producer: Joe Crawford
Theme music: The Impossible Shapes.