One Thing or a Mother

The White Dress by Nathalie Léger, Translated from French by Natasha Lehrer. St. Louis: Dorothy. 128 pages. $16.

The cover of The White Dress

NEAR THE END OF SUITE FOR BARBARA LODEN, Nathalie Léger’s guerrilla-critical reckoning with Loden’s 1970 film, Wanda, Léger visits a ghost town in Pennsylvania, not far from where the movie is set. A coal seam has been burning underground there since 1962, “an inferno buried beneath the town that slowly, slyly devastated everything, engulfing gardens, swallowing cars, and sometimes apparently children too.” Though a sign reads, WELCOME TO HELL, Léger notices “no sign of destruction, no trace of those terrible events. . . . This is what hell must be: erasure. And down below, the fire rages on.”

This subterranean inferno offers an apt metaphor for the personal narrative that has been burning beneath the topsoil of the book itself. Suite for Barbara Loden begins as a critical exploration of Wanda, an unnervingly bleak work of cinema verité that follows an adamantly aimless, dead-broke divorcée as she gives up custody of her children to drink alone, wander through depressed coal country, and ultimately attempt a botched bank robbery with an abusive lover. But the book gradually emerges as a Trojan horse that smuggles in deeper confessions of Léger’s own history—a memory of sexual assault, glimpses of ex-lovers, and ultimately the story of her mother’s abandonment by her father, who left his wife grief-stricken and nearly penniless.

Published in France in 2012, and in English translation three years later, Suite for Barbara Loden is the second installment of what Léger calls a triptych of critical biographies. The first and third—Exposition and The White Dress—came out in English translation earlier this fall. Exposition explores the life and legacy of the Countess of Castiglione, a nineteenth-century aristocrat known as the most-photographed woman of her time, who fell into reclusive poverty in middle age; The White Dress, which concludes the trilogy, reckons with the story of Pippa Bacca, an Italian performance artist who was raped and murdered while hitchhiking across Europe and the Balkans in a white wedding dress in 2008. All three books feature creative agents—the countess, the film director, the performance artist—who become most compelling to Léger in states of abjection, a word that has come to mean “a low or downcast state,” but literally denotes “the state of being cast off.” (It originally derives from the Latin abjectus, past participle of the verb abicere, “to cast off.”) Léger’s biographical subjects offer a catalogue of abject silhouettes—despairing, lonely, violated, yet still fiercely determined—that eventually force her to reckon with the “inferno” smoldering beneath the surface of her critical obsessions: the consuming fire of her mother’s grief. As much as Léger finds herself repelled by the open wound of her mother’s sorrow, by the end of The White Dress she finally turns to face it (and her own aversion) more directly: “I did not always love my mother. She was on the side of the losers and . . . I couldn’t bring myself to hug her or console her, she seemed to have shrunk from the shame of having been left, the horror of finding herself alone with four children, no money, no job, more than anything no power, nothing.”

In her book Powers of Horror, theorist Julia Kristeva defines the abject as “the jettisoned object [that] is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses.” Concretely, Kristeva means open wounds, pieces of shit, rotting food, and corpses, which repulse us because they remind us of our mortality, our fragility, and our animal natures; they threaten our sense of order, as well as the boundaries we try to draw around the “I” of our own identity. On a psychological level, “within our personal archaeology,” Kristeva also associates the abject “with our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternal entity”—that “violent, clumsy breaking away, with the constant risk of falling back under the sway of a power as securing as it is stifling.” In Léger’s triptych, it’s as if we see this futile struggle to break free of the maternal grip enacted in the books’ very structure, the way the personal keeps creeping into the critical, seething and erupting like an underground fire that refuses containment, swallowing cars, and sometimes apparently children too.

Léger keeps trying to break away from her mother’s story by scrutinizing the lives of other women, but the maternal shadow—no matter how much she turns away from it—keeps edging into the frame. At their core, these books are about involuntary attention, the subjects we can’t help returning to: Léger tries to write about the Countess of Castiglione and ends up writing about her father’s mistress; she tries to write about Wanda’s divorce and ends up writing about her mother’s; she tries to write about a murdered artist and ends up confronting—finally and fully—her mother’s shame. It is as if every time she picks up a guitar to play, the sounds of a woman’s sobbing emerge from the strings instead. “Only in unfamiliar bedrooms do we perceive with such clarity the true nature of our existence—true because astray,” Léger muses, and by the beginning of The White Dress, the author seems to have accepted that she will always be haunted by backstory: “You must return to one of those unanswered questions, in a room off to the side, you switch on the light and the question is poised there, waiting.” Even when you can’t bring yourself to stare directly at the primal wound, you can’t escape it entirely—and often find yourself, as Léger describes Loden, “a woman telling her own story through that of another woman.” Léger’s own triptych does this as well—following the stories of these other women’s lives into a suite of unfamiliar bedrooms that eventually return her to the aching questions of her own childhood, poised there, waiting.

Barbara Loden, Wanda, 1970. Wanda Goronski (Barbara Loden).
Barbara Loden, Wanda, 1970. Wanda Goronski (Barbara Loden).

THE PRIMARY DRAMA of these books—for their critical narrator, at least—is the seesaw of aversion and compulsion, as Léger finds herself continually ambushed by twisted reflections of the traumatic backstory she is trying to avoid. After years of turning away from her mother—I couldn’t bring myself to hug her or console her—Léger, at the end of The White Dress, finally takes up her mother’s request that she become her “vindex”: “a third party who, standing in for the victim, demands justice, . . . a protector, a defender, . . . the person who, in a word, repairs.”

The long arc of this reckoning begins with a confession of aversion at the start of Exposition, when Léger first encounters a photograph of the Countess of Castiglione and the vague malevolence of her beauty summons the specter of l’autre, “the other,” the woman for whom Léger’s father left her mother. Memories of l’autre poke up like splinters through the skin of the text, as Léger remembers watching her father photograph his mistress on a balcony and observing the intimate choreography of their movements. Léger feels an “aversion toward the images” of the countess that only compels her to seek more of them, a fascination rooted not in identification or inspiration but in resistance. Perhaps because of this antagonistic relationship to her subject, it is the countess’s decline, rather than her oft-captured beauty, that draws Léger most forcefully: “After the intoxication of her beauty, after the ecstasy, she swilled abjection . . . plunged into a half-twilight of violet perfume,” Léger writes, seeking images of the countess shut up in her apartments surrounded by decaying flowers and the remains of her dead dogs. But it is not schadenfreude that ultimately draws the author to the countess’s decline, so much as the sense of proximity and authenticity it offers; for Léger, this despair provides “the only portrait, . . . the true face of this woman, a real face.” In discovering the desperation underneath what one admirer called the countess’s “perpetual tableau vivant,” Léger also finds the specter of her abandoned mother lurking behind l’autre’s perfect mask.

In Barbara Loden’s character Wanda, Léger finds another “true face” of despair: a woman walking through slag heaps of coal with a head full of hair rollers to reach the courthouse where her husband is begging for a divorce; clinging onto the strangers she meets in dingy dive bars; getting lost on the way to the botched bank robbery for which she is supposed to drive the getaway car. The spectral, inscrutable silhouette of Wanda allows Loden to express the sense of abjection buried beneath her public persona as a glamorous celebrity: “That’s why I made Wanda. As a way of confirming my own existence,” the director claimed. “I’ve gone through my whole life . . . convinced I was worth nothing. . . . I had no pride.” The film allows Léger to access a similar self-loathing: “Tears are perhaps the only articulation, however monstrous, of the part of me that is completely shameless. Sometimes when I am alone I find myself howling silently in front of the mirror as if I wanted to verify a hypothesis.” Léger never states her hypothesis directly, but she doesn’t need to: we know her tears are proof that she too holds the very sorrow she finds herself repelled by.

As a child, Léger’s mother kept a balled-up handkerchief—wet with her tears, proof of her sadness—to show her own mother, who often neglected her. In these books Léger attempts a futile version of the opposite: not thrusting her tears at her mother but trying to distance herself from her mother’s tears, all the while scrutinizing everyone else’s tears instead. When Léger attempts (unsuccessfully) to gain access to Loden’s archives, she confesses: “what would interest me in [her] journal—if it even exists—is not joy, enthusiasm, happiness, or fulfillment, but grievance, powerlessness, strange lists, scorned emotions.” It is not until The White Dress that Léger finally forces herself to face her own mother’s “grievance” and “powerlessness,” the “scorned emotions” she has sought in other women’s lives but resisted in her mother, and herself.

Léger opens the book by describing the tapestry, titled Assassination of the Lady, that hung in the dining room of her childhood home:

We can almost hear her screams, her panting, her ragged panicky breath, while in the foreground her already broken body lies in a clearing, the man leaning over her plunging his blade into a gaping wound. . . . Beneath it my mother, pushing away the glasses and carafes, holding out her hand to my father as a sign of forgiveness.

Across the early pages of the book, Léger keeps insisting that she wants to write about the murdered artist Pippa Bacca—another broken body in a clearing, like the one on the tapestry—rather than her mother’s divorce: “I would far rather identify with a tapestry than with the blurred outline of my mother’s body.” She finds her mother’s sadness too commonplace and tedious: “You have to agree it was a very ordinary unhappiness,” she tells her mother at one point, who “concurs—but [says] it was unhappiness all the same.” Léger prefers the epic to the banal, the distant to the proximate, the artifact of suffering to the actual suffering. But Léger’s own desires are only part of the story, and the abject is precisely that which disrupts our intentions, forcing us to confront what repulses us (not least of all our mothers), and threatening our carefully laid plans and structures of meaning.

Bacca’s corpse, abandoned by her killer in a thicket on the outskirts of Istanbul, presents a culminating image of abjection (Kristeva argues that corpses “show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live”) that eventually forces Léger to turn back toward the pain she cannot stand to look at. “I must abandon my subject on the side of the road somewhere between Milan and Jerusalem so that I can shoulder my mother’s suffering,” she writes, “with my hand on the folder, swear to describe life, nothing but life, in all its dull familiarity.” At the end of the book, Léger puts her “hand on the folder”—a dossier full of documents from her parents’ divorce—and describes how her mother was accused of “domestic and educational deficiencies . . . of being ‘incapable of looking after her children,’ . . . ‘scorning her husband and allowing her household duties to slide.’” (These accusations echo back to Léger’s narration of the accusations leveled against Wanda during her divorce hearing: “that she doesn’t care about anything, doesn’t take care of the house, doesn’t take care of the kids, neglects them.”) Léger has effectively offered her own narrative as a refutation of the unjust narrative that prevailed during her mother’s divorce, finally becoming some version of the vindex her mother wanted her to be.

Léger’s triptych not only dramatizes the stubborn specters of personal grief and maternal influence, it also asks us to consider how states of abjection can be creatively generative—or at least clarifying, making visible the stark contours of a psyche. Describing the countess in her aging solitude, Léger insists that “only darkness allowed her to see herself again,” just as Wanda’s dejected exile offers the authenticity of idiopathic distress, untethered from its disguises of functionality, domesticity, or self-respect:

We will never know the source of the wound that condemns Wanda to this loneliness. We will never know what ancient betrayal or long distant neglect plunged her into this state of constant and absolute distress. We will never know what loss, what absence she cannot get over. We accept her the way we accept ourselves, in blind ignorance, unable to put a name to the grief of existing.

It’s as if the source of Wanda’s pain—or Léger’s, or her mother’s—isn’t the point. The point is that pain can reduce a woman to skeletal selfhood, bitter exile, dejected fugue-state wandering, a whittled core of suffering that cannot be traced to anything more specific—or avoidable, or repairable—than existence itself.

ABJECTION PROVIDES A WAY to understand not only the content of Léger’s trilogy, but also its form: the way personal memory keeps interrupting, upstaging, and redirecting the narrator’s critical gaze; how the things we most want to cast off (wounds, corpses, mothers) are the very things we keep returning to. The triptych doesn’t just tell a story about mothers and daughters, about female pain and female beauty, about performance and shame, but—further down—a story about how art is made: how involuntary, how compulsive, and how merciless the relationship between artist and subject can be.

The shaggy structure of these books offers a vision of inspiration as disobedience and spillage, as involuntary fixation on the open wound that both disgusts and compels, that exerts—like a dark planet—its own fierce gravitational pull. At one point Léger compares an artist being consumed by her subject to an animal being consumed by a python:

That day, I picked up a book at random; it was a book about pythons, how pythons devour things, the gaze of the animal taken by surprise, being swallowed, gobbled up by the still, ferocious subject that makes you spit out whatever you thought you knew; the enormous, hidden subject, incomprehensible, powerful, more powerful than you, tenuous, a detail, an old memory, seemingly insignificant, but it grips you, inexorably you merge with it until slowly you begin to spit out disturbing visions, elusive but insistent ghosts.

Across the triptych, the “insistent ghost” of the mother inches closer and closer to the center of the frame—at first as a set of footsteps heard pacing in the basement, and ultimately as an apparition rising fully into view. The haunting mother repeatedly disrupts the organizing system of her daughter’s artistic intentions: Léger is supposed to be writing only a simple “encyclopedia entry” about Wanda, for example, but her words keep spilling over the edges of her assignment, making her project darker and less manageable. The mother’s open wound ultimately bleeds all over everything, dissolving not only the boundaries of genre—as Léger’s critical biographies become confessions—but the boundaries between self and subject: the countess becomes l’autre, Loden becomes Wanda, Léger becomes Wanda. Eventually Léger’s pain dissolves even the primal, fragile separation between self and mother, as the narrator finds herself python-swallowed by her mother’s grief. When Léger turns her attention from the corpse of a stranger—Pippa Bacca’s body beside the highway—to behold the “ghost” of her mother’s naked body instead, she also must encounter a more immediate, proximate, undeniable vision of her own mortality, her own fragility, her own meat and tears. It’s only by the end of The White Dress, once Léger has faced the wound of her mother’s abandonment directly, that she can try to move away from it: “I’m going to stop myself looking down into the enormous crater, I’m going to try—flattening myself against the wall, inching along it cautiously, step by step, sweat dripping down my spine, stifling a gasp of effort, already quite exhausted—I’m going to try to find my way out.”

What lies on the other side of this reckoning? What happens when the critic finally emerges from her dark spelunking into the crater of her mother’s pain? It’s not redemption, exactly. The mother’s abandonment is not fixed. Pippa Bacca is not resurrected from the dead. Wanda doesn’t become a happy housewife. Facing abjection doesn’t deliver redemption so much as it delivers uncomfortable forms of truth: the truth of the soiled wedding dress, of unfamiliar bedrooms and lives gone astray, the truth of faces that make plain the grief of existence. Nothing is solved, but Léger has crafted something profound from her grappling with the kind of anguish that can’t be solved, just as Wanda is a gorgeous film precisely because of its stubborn refusal to end its antiheroine’s story happily. The closing shots of Loden’s movie instead offer an uncanny vision of company. “Wanda, at the end of her journey, is sitting with other people, a little squashed, on a bench,” Léger tells us. “The image freezes, grainy and flawed. Wanda. Just one among others. Just as she is, in the world as it is. Fade to black.” The writer Marguerite Duras finds a savage grace in these closing beats: “It’s as if at this point in the film [Loden has] found a way of making holy the very thing that she has tried to show as a kind of degradation. I see a kind of glory there, a very powerful glory, very violent, very profound.”

The profundity of this sacred humiliation stems from the vision it permits: facing “the world as it is,” with its dirty dresses and gruesome tapestries and grieving mothers, with a psyche stripped of all pretense. In Léger’s hands, desolation can reveal a woman in all her multiplicity—in her ugliness and abasement and determined self-destruction, seemingly ground down to the nubs of her sorrow, but ultimately emerging with a strange richness, full of haunted persistence, droll knowingness, untamed desires, and hardscrabble resilience. The glory that Duras and Loden and Léger find in degradation isn’t a passive, incandescent despair—a psychic corpse by the side of the highway, radiant in the purity of its hopelessness—so much as the opposite: a despair that remains curious about the world, and thirsty for justice and company, whether it’s the company of critical subjects or a bunch of drunk strangers in a bar booth. The holiness of degradation rises from these stubborn hungers, and from this fumbling toward the perpetually inadequate consolation of other people trying to survive their own pain.

Leslie Jamison is the author of the essay collections The Empathy Exams (Graywolf, 2014) and Make It Scream, Make It Burn (2019) as well as the critical memoir The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath (2018; both Little, Brown).