Prairie, Home, Companion

My Three Dads: Patriarchy on the Great Plains by Jessa Crispin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 236 pages. $19.

The cover of My Three Dads: Patriarchy on the Great Plains

IN HER BOOK Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, published the winter after Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election, Jessa Crispin made it clear that she wanted nothing to do with neoliberal girl-boss feminism, which she argued was toothless, counterrevolutionary, and “ended up doing patriarchy’s work.” She did, though, want to be part of something. Crispin concluded by calling for a movement in which people would “stop thinking so small,” “remember that our world does not have to be this way,” and “see beyond the structures we’ve been given.” Her new book, My Three Dads: Patriarchy on the Great Plains, continues this attempt to imagine a better world, at least for its author. But whereas Crispin’s manifesto confidently skewered lifestyle feminism and demanded more, the way of life under review in her latest book proves to be more tenacious than she’d hoped.

My Three Dads sees Crispin interrogate the structures she was given growing up in rural Kansas by turning her attention to three men who loomed large in her early education: the abolitionist John Brown, the religious reformer Martin Luther, and Crispin’s former neighbor and art teacher, a man who goes on to kill his wife and daughters. She appears to have rejected the “unspoken rules” she was raised to follow—chief among them being to marry, have children, and go to church—but still finds herself seeking the sense of belonging she can’t help but suspect these values promise, despite their dangers. So she moves into a house not far from where she grew up. The goal of this relocation, as a friend of hers says, is “to deal with some ghosts”—that is, with the fact that, when it comes to those values, “I still spent my time in thrall of them.” What follows is a diagnostic rumination—by turns grandly hopeful,  abjectly misanthropic, and always opinionated—on the colossal problem of choosing how to live. As Crispin puts the question in a whisper to a statue of an Italian saint: “What are we going to do?”

At the beginning of the book, Crispin is single and ambivalent. Though “repulsed by the idea of getting married,” she also desires it, and habitually takes things (a bar of soap, printer paper) from coupled people’s homes. “I want, just a tiny bit, to destabilize the union,” she explains, “because I don’t have what they have.” Of course, Crispin is joking, but her explanation of the joke sounds sincere. “What’s worse, to be inside the couple with all of its obvious compromises and threats, all of its pains and boredoms, or to be outside of it?” Crispin asks. Her character on the page is divided: at times she’s delighted to “interfere with a good story, get in its way, break its narrative spine,” and at others frantic to “avoid feeling the pull of the unknown.” Marriage, she continues, is an excellent way to “make yourself legible; the world around you understands your place and the role you play when you announce yourself as wife, as husband, as mother, as father.” If all goes well, the benefits are tangible,  and “the task of replacing what the family provides is enormous.”

Ani Gurashvili, Optical Illusion, 2021, oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 35 1/2". © Ani Gurashvili, Courtesy Harkawik, New York.
Ani Gurashvili, Optical Illusion, 2021, oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 35 1/2". © Ani Gurashvili, Courtesy Harkawik, New York.

Crispin sets out looking for those replacements. She dates a socialist in an open marriage, who in theory offers the best of partnership (affirmation, sex) without some of the worst (monotony, no sex), but she is “always aware of [her] place in the hierarchy,” which is not at the top. This won’t do. She visits a friend in a Dutch beguinage, and is only reminded that “communes are basically my idea of hell.” This would be a far less compelling book if Crispin’s desires yoked perfectly to her politics, if shared romantic and living arrangements satiated her need for “sustaining warmth.” “If you are socialized into a particular belief or behavior, can you override that simply by deciding to?” she asks. Is idealism “enough to fight off decades of socialization?” The fact that Crispin has to ask is answer enough: the polemicist is caught between what she thinks is right and what she actually wants. “Tell me,” she writes, in the same beseeching, almost farcical register with which she addressed the saint,  “the way out of this terrible world.”

Crispin does indeed, at times, want to be told how to be. Rules are wonderful protection from “the terror of freedom.” But then again, if there’s anything she fears as much as marrying a Midwesterner or living in a commune, it’s being limited. And seemingly everywhere she looks, she sees people hemmed in by their allegiances. Crispin does not want to be among the “women in athleisure-wear pushing baby strollers to optimize their footstep count for the day,” or those who buy “economy-size bags of Ruffle’s potato chips from Costco” and are into mall fashion. She has little patience for a “twenty-four-year-old Gemini who had recently discovered Marx,” grad-school leftists, and “the twenty-two-year-old with avant-garde bangs who works in a gallery in Berlin and has never had a conversation longer than a coffee order with someone who does not self-identify as an artist or a curator.”

This habit of turning people into caricatures can be an annoying tic, but it is also flush with energy. Crispin is hard on all these “types” of people; she is perhaps hardest on herself. In a chapter discussing goddess worship, Crispin takes care to disparage the “white girl in an ashram” type, who “decorate[s] her apartment with one Shiva, one Buddha, one Mary.” She then announces, “Yes, I have a Virgin Mary in my home, thank you for asking,” as well as “some Islamic calligraphy,” “crystals and minerals that were gifted by the spiritual and the superstitious, and a few I bought myself because they look nice,” and “peacock feathers to represent the goddess Juno.” 

A long-running theme of Crispin’s work is her exhaustion with people “who think they know the ideal organization of the world.” Crispin counts the abolitionist John Brown—who she was taught to revere for what she now sees as his myopic, self-important martyrdom—among their ranks, along with “socialists, leftists, [and] people younger than me,” who address everyone else in the imperative mood about how they should be “speaking, thinking, reading, fucking, spending money, dressing.” But she allows us to wonder whether she might, in some sense, be jealous—these people know what they want. With regret, she recalls that her political and religious education was wonderfully effective at teaching her about all the “things I should be against”: “homosexuality, abortion, premarital sex, gun control, mercy.” Now in middle age, she finds that she was never “instilled with an understanding of how to support something.”

She tries, though, primarily by lauding an archetype she names “the cosmopolitan.” A cosmopolitan, she explains, is someone who “is accepting and enthusiastic about the multiplicity of ideas, beliefs, modes of being, ways of living, gender expressions, and breakfast foods available in the world.” Someone who doesn’t “see an unspoiled prairie and fantasize about building an artists’ retreat for burned-out Brooklynites there.” Crispin knows such people—she says she has met them “in dive bars in Lawrence, Kansas, and in tavernas in Athens, Greece,” and that “they’ve been my bosses and people I’ve met in passing”—and perhaps they are indeed tolerant without being tolerant of evil, accepting without being xenophilic, moral without being sanctimonious, perceptive without being judgmental, but they remain abstract to the reader. As in the conclusion of Why I Am Not a Feminist, Crispin offers a number of generalities, recommending that we build a world of “flourishing” (another great thing about cosmopolitans: they “assist in creating an environment where flourishing is possible”) and tend life like a garden, learning “how to repair soil.” 

Crispin is best when she returns to the particulars, like her anecdote about a trip she made from Kansas City to Chicago to see a witch. “It was a love spell I wanted, of course,” she writes. When the witch takes out “a wedding cake candle, with a cute little groom and a cute little bride in white holding hands” and asks if she may use it, Crispin agrees. Or rather, she replies, “It’s fine.” It’s a vulnerable moment, and a thrilling one. When Crispin says yes to the wedding candle, does it make her the marrying kind? This could be a “gotcha” moment, evidence that Crispin was wrong about herself all along—or, when she does indeed get married, four months later to a man she meets on Tinder, that she’s some kind of hypocrite. That might make a good story, but it wouldn’t work on Crispin. “I distrust a good story,” she writes. A more generous read might see in Crispin a woman who, in saying “it’s fine,” is trying to be fine, even if it means sometimes living in contradiction, sometimes borrowing against one’s principles. The reward of reading Crispin’s book is commiseration, sharing her shame at wanting to want something different, but sometimes just wanting. 

Elizabeth Barber is a journalist in the Midwest.