Controlling Metaphors, Myths, and Illusions

Sharon H. Nelson

This essay was written as the Prologue for Family Scandals.

The myths surrounding Eve and Lilith provide one of the frameworks of western cultures. Like the beams and joists of the houses in which we live, they remain covered and unexamined unless some suspected structural fault interferes with the comfort of our habitation. Obedience is the keynote of these myths. The first and implicit commandment in Eden was recognition of authority. The second and explicit commandment was unthinking obedience to it.

The Bible accounts for temporal life as the result of Eve's failure to obey. In its Christian, culturally dominant form, Eve's punishment for disobedience is stated in Genesis 3:16: "in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you." Eve's punishment is to suffer pain within a patriarchal order in which female sexual desire itself is defined as a punishment.

Eve is the first Biblical paradigm of womanhood. Though she is most often represented as Temptress, she becomes the wife who acquiesces and the mother of patriarchy. As Obedient Wife, Eve plays a double role. She becomes a victim of patriarchy in her own body and in the abrogation of her independence. She reinforces patriarchal social order because she clings to her husband, and for this she suffers.

Within the terms of the story, patriarchy is the only social order that can protect her from Chaos, Nullity, and the Void. These are conceptualized as a roiling primordial soup, a nightmare of turmoil and disorder akin to madness. It is here that we find Lilith, Adam's unsuitably disobedient first wife.

Lilith, unlike Eve, refused to abdicate her independence. She chose Chaos over Adam and the patriarchally ordered Garden. Forever after, Lilith is consigned to the Void. She is banished from official versions of the story. But Lilith doesn't disappear from the mythology. She continues to live, associated with erotic dreams and nocturnal emissions and all those tumultuous and unconscious elements and behaviours that emerge when we are not in our conscious or right minds and for which therefore we are not held responsible.

Lilith is the Temptress we need not resist. The sexuality and primordial fecundity associated with Lilith also are banished from official versions of the story, consigned to the dark. This leaves the stage clear and well-lit for Eve to play the role of Obedient Wife and Mother. In this role, female sexuality is repressed and denied except when it is invoked under strict control, in response to authority and in obedience to the commandment to multiply.

As separate entities, Lilith and Eve serve as prototypes and their fates as cautionary. They form the two available paradigms of woman, one to be married and the other to be shunned and shut out of the social order, consigned to the dark. Both are represented initially as Temptress. It is in their responses to authority and to authoritarian models of sexuality that we recognize whether we are seeing refractory Lilith or ultimately obedient Eve.

Within patriarchal traditions, authority initiates and defines transactions. Within such a framework, the expression of female sexuality in any but a meagrely responsive form is perceived to undermine authority and thus to threaten the social order; the experience of autonomous action in any area may lead to more general demands. Within this construction of power relations, only women who have been unsexed are deemed worthy; only the essentially virginal can be deemed virtuous.

In patriarchal cultures, women's lives are framed by a dichotomy represented by Lilith and Eve. Women learn quickly, because we are taught brutally, to suppress and deny Lilith. Where obedience to authority is not demonstrated quickly enough, the Good Girl/Bad Girl paradigm is invoked. Refusal to acquiesce in any authoritarian demand is framed by this dichotomy. The conflation of obedient behaviour, worth, and asexuality sets the stage culturally for moral ambiguity, ethical confusion, and anorexia.

Where I live, in the province of Quebec, until 1994, the legal age for marriage "with parental consent" was twelve for a girl, fourteen for a boy. In law and for religious purposes, sexual maturity was presumed at these ages. Such laws and their counterparts in many cultures indicate recognition of sexual maturation in persons over the age of twelve, despite that denial or punishment of such responses may exist concurrently within the same culture.

Though for legal and religious purposes pertaining to marriage, girls were treated as women at age twelve, as minors they were denied the right to choose their own partners and were not sexually available legally until age sixteen, the age of consent. When girls who have not yet reached the age of consent form sexual liaisons, parental consent may be tacit, may involve legal consent for marriage, or may be denied. Denial of parental consent may be expressed as punishment of the child or of the partner, up to and including charges of statutory rape and accusations of evil or madness.

The treatments of madness have been virtually indistinguishable from those of badness in western cultures. This is culturally consistent with the conflation of obedience with worth. Often madness, like badness, is construed or manifests itself as disobedience. The imposition on a young woman of the concept of virtue as obedience is treated in Ken Loach's film, Family Life. Loach poignantly illustrates parental, social, and medical collusion in defining disobedience as madness. He works with a theme suggested by R.D. Laing and developed in Bernice Rubens' novel, The Elected Member, that disobedience, which is culturally construed as madness, is a reasonable response to unreasonable familial and social forces. In the novel, Rubens focuses on the double bind situation.

The double bind reflects a culture where autonomy is proscribed and obedience to authority is the major cultural paradigm for both sexes. In a double bind situation, any action is the wrong action because it results in punishment. Authority operates to obscure the double bind with claims that there is a correct choice that will not result in punitive reaction and that one choice is an expression of autonomy rather than a response to authoritarian demands. The effectiveness of the employment of double binds rests on the denial that they exist.

Madness may be said to have overtaken badness when attempts to separate choices from the claims made about them exceed the limits that any particular authority allows. Thus many therapies are essentially editorial. Their purpose is review and revision until ordering is achieved. The process of creating such order, however, may involve acquiescence in authoritarian paradigms and demands. In some therapies, for instance, determination is transferred from paternal to medical authority. Psychiatrists and, with the recent recognition of innumerable psychogenic dis-eases, doctors in general, easily become front line troops in defence of authoritarian cultural constructions. Double binds are the normal experience for women within a patriarchal social organization. Double binds effectively reinforce the authoritarian hierarchy and social construction. They are related to double standards.

Like double binds, double standards often are not actually double but, like a layer cake, may be defined in multiple, variable, and negotiable levels. More than one standard can be applied concurrently in the same situation. Which standards are applied depend on a person's rank in a range of hierarchies. For instance, pretty girls and handsome boys generally are granted social latitude, but how much latitude is determined not by how pretty or handsome they are but by their location in social and economic hierarchies. Rich and pretty girls who are well connected are granted more latitude culturally than poor, pretty girls. More obviously, rich and handsome boys who are well connected are granted more latitude socially than poor boys, however handsome. The further a person is located from the centres of patriarchal power, the greater the range and number of standards that are applied and the greater the rigour of their application. The more we see standards applied unequally and apparently irrationally, the more ambiguity we experience. Past a certain distance from the centre, we begin to suspect that our problems stem not from double standards or from unacknowledged, variable, and negotiable standards but from the fact that in selected instances, no standards apply at all.

Double binds and variable standards together constitute a form of cultural abuse that leads to many forms of social, familial, and personal dysfunction, including madness. Cultural abuse takes very personal forms. We experience it as psychological and emotional abuse, personally and individually, first within the family and then within the broader social construction. Cultural abuse often focuses on sexuality and gender role-playing, which are transmitted and enforced first within the family and then within the broader social milieu. Such enforcement often refers directly or indirectly to cultural paradigms rooted in Biblical and theological models and imagery.

Though we experience double bind situations and ambiguous cultural standards personally, cultural ambiguities cannot be resolved individually. Moral ambiguity is cultural, not personal. Personal therapies and solutions, while they may enable individuals to function socially, fail to address the causes or alleviate the ills. We see this most clearly in cultural responses to sexuality and in how these responses are reflected in family life.

In patriarchal cultures the practices of power have been thoroughly conflated with sexuality. The focus of current rhetoric on family and on normative sexuality and its containment within the patriarchal family structure precludes a focus on the construction and enforcement of patriarchal power. The separation of sexual politics from politics reinforces the idea that morality is entirely personal rather than social and political. Within this framework, autonomy in all its forms is defined in the same way as sexual autonomy, as personal rather than political. This framework privatises and personalizes the social construction and defuses the political ramifications of autonomy and sexuality. Sexual expression becomes a locus of personal rebellion and is interpreted as a matter of personal and apolitical choice. But there is more than a personal connection between the sexual and the political in patriarchal cultures.

The family is the basic building block of patriarchal social organization. It is the locus of socialization and the conduit of cultural values and traditions. It is the ground where myth meets actuality, where roles are learned, and where expectations can be enforced. In patriarchal cultures, early childhood education, socialization, and the inculcation of cultural norms and values are women's work. This work is done within the structure of the family and nowadays within the structure of the nuclear family.

The nuclear family is a modern invention with roots in the needs of industrialists for a moveable work force and more recently for a large and compliant consumer base. Since World War Two, in public discourse, commercial rhetoric, and social policy, the nuclear family has been valorized over every other form of social organization, and family values have been touted as necessarily and naturally taking precedence over all other values.

Wherever this paradigm becomes dominant, the results are the rending of the social fabric and of any notion of a social contract. The emphasis on lineages, on family loyalties based on exclusion rather than extension, and on obedience within a hierarchical structure as the primary definition of worth destroys every other kind of link or loyalty. The emphasis on the personal and familial makes suspect or foolish any sense of responsibility to support public, civic, or community structures. A family is defined as self-sufficient and able to serve every conceivable need and purpose of its members. The corollary is that if families are to work, we cannot afford to invest energy or resources elsewhere. Though the reasoning is sound, the premise is not: not even a broadly defined extended family can serve all human needs and purposes.

Culturally we blame individuals for family dysfunction and dysfunctional families for social breakdown. Individuals and families are blamed for a myriad of psychological and emotional conditions and violent behaviours that grow directly from a kind of massive sociopathology that supports the nuclear family over and above any other structure. The valorization of the nuclear family and of family values over community structures and community values is a cause rather than a result of social breakdown.

The current defence of the family and of family values is a defence of patriarchal hierarchies and consumer values. It promises that more of what has poisoned human relations will heal social rupture. All evidence contradicts this unreasonable claim.

The invocations of family values are a new appeal to obedience to patriarchal authority. They refer concurrently to the suppression of autonomy and sexuality. This new puritanism is hard to distinguish from the old puritanism. As before, it is not only women who are taught obedience in such constructions. Authoritarian values and hierarchical constructions proscribe the lives of most men as well as the lives of women and children. Patriarchy punishes Adam as well as Eve.

Increasingly, men have little power over their own lives. The more they experience social, political, and economic impotence, the more obedience they are likely to demand in the single arena remaining to them, the family. The more successful the appeals to strengthen authoritarian structures, the more men will experience political and economic impotence. The more political and economic impotence men experience, the more they will eroticize violence. The more public rhetoric we hear about family values, the more private and cultural abuse women will suffer at every stage of life.

Within the family and the patriarchal social construction, women are punished not because of any individual failings or behaviour but because we are women, the traditional and Biblically-identified cultural reservoir of disobedience. Within these constructions, the correlation is not between disobedience and punishment but between authority and punishment. It is not that the more disobedience, the more punishment but rather that the more authority, the more punishment.

In the family structure, women play the double role of oppressor and oppressed, called upon to collude in and enforce variable standards and double binds at the same time that we are subject to such standards and double binds. At critical or transitional points in family life, what has been maternal enforcement of patriarchal standards changes to paternal enforcement. It is at these points that we see the actual limits of female autonomy within the family.

Mothers routinely turn a blind eye to the treatment and the behaviour of their children. Maternal obliviousness or failure to see reflects and is the result of the inability to act without confronting patriarchal authority. Obliviousness or failure to see precludes having to choose whether to challenge authority. This tactic protects women from knowingly risking punishment, including the denial of virtue and worth. It is a tactic that enables women to survive within patriarchal structures. It allows women to negotiate individually within the limits defined by the paradigms of womanhood and by their own social and economic status how they can best satisfy authority and play obedient roles.

From the current western vantage point of accessible divorce, we may forget that damnation, possibly followed by public execution for witchcraft, accusations of madness, and certainly ostracism and poverty, were the threats and punishments for women who would not tolerate the conditions of patriarchal structures. Women's collusion in maintaining patriarchy can be traced to these threats and also to belief in omnipresent misogynist models and dogmas. Collusion in such constructions bolsters and preserves them as an inheritance for our children.

We have begun the work of deconstructing patriarchy, but we have not yet dismantled it. We can undermine its strength by refusing to collude in maintaining the paradigm of womanhood that banishes Lilith from the story and conflates obedience, worth, and asexuality. Disobediently, we can refuse to delete Lilith from the stories we tell. When we banish Lilith from our stories, we deny experience of sexuality and thus abrogate the power to define our own experience. When we refuse to claim our experience, we deny the ability to choose satisfying forms of physical expressiveness. From such processes, we learn how to collude in our own oppression.

During successive waves of feminism, women have asserted control of our own persons and in some places we have won legal autonomy despite its threat to patriarchal order. Another step is to assert control of our stories, to liberate from the bulwarks of patriarchy our capacity to envision the world. In the history of language, authority derives from authorship.

Sharon H. Nelson. 15 March 1999.