Some Girls Want Out: Spectacular Saintliness
January 25, 2015 11:02 AM   Subscribe

Hilary Mantel on St. Gemma Galgani, St. Therese of Lisieux, and "holy" and secular anorexia, stigmata, and hysteria. "We can see, as ‘Catholic neurologists’ of the time did, that Gemma’s symptoms are a representational strategy. They are an art form and a highly successful one; they are also (possibly) the product of mental pain and distress turned into physical symptoms. . . . When we think of young adults in the West, driven by secular demons of unknown provenance to starve and purge themselves, and to pierce and slash their flesh, we wonder uneasily if she is our sister under the skin." (warning: gruesome)

"'They don’t want me living,’ she said, ‘but they’ll have me when I’m dead.’"

. . .

"St Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi lay naked on thorns. Saint Catherine of Siena drank pus from a cancerous sore. One confessor ordered Veronica Giuliani to kneel while a novice of the order kicked her in the mouth. Another ordered her to clean the walls and floor of her cell with her tongue; when she swallowed the spiders and their webs, even he thought it was going too far. Scourges, chains and hair shirts were the must-have accessories in these women’s lives. Eustochia of Messina stretched her arms on a DIY rack she had constructed. St Margaret of Cortona bought herself a razor and was narrowly dissuaded from slicing through her nostrils and upper lip. St Angela of Foligno drank water contaminated by the putrefying flesh of a leper. And what St Francesca Romana did, I find I am not able to write down. . . .

We denigrate the female saints as masochists; noting that anorexic girls have contempt for their own flesh, we hospitalise them and force-feed them, taking away their liberties as if they were criminals or infants, treating them as if they have lost the right to self-determination. But we don’t extend the same contempt to pub brawlers or career soldiers. Men own their bodies, but women’s bodies are owned by the wider society; this observation is far from original, but perhaps bears restatement. . . . It ought to be possible to live and thrive, without conforming, complying, giving in, but also without imitating a man, even Christ: it should be possible to live without constant falsification. It should be possible for a woman to live – without feeling that she is starving on the doorstep of plenty – as light, remarkable, strong and free. As an evolved fish: in her element, and without scales."

. . .

"The world gets harder and harder. There’s no pleasing it. No wonder some girls want out."
posted by sallybrown (24 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
In Holy Anorexia, Bell remarks how often, once recovered, notorious starvers became leaders of their communities, serene young mothers superior who were noticeably wise and moderate in setting the rules for their own convents. Such career opportunities are not available these days.

Very thought-provoking. "Recovered" or recovering or not, it's about finding a space of her own. As Mantel points out, it's simultaneously more difficult and easier to negotiate that space these days.

Caroline Walker Bynum's Holy Feast, Holy Fast is another insightful analysis of medieval women in similar situations.
posted by bluebelle at 11:39 AM on January 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think the OP misses some mark or other by a wide margin, probably because it is mistaking a map for a terrain. It shouldn't be "reductive and unhelpful" to call these saints masochists, because what they are doing, deliberately inviting pain in order to trigger ecstasy, is the very essence of masochism. The mistake is to think that all masochistic ecstasy is sexual in nature. Even in sexually oriented BDSM there are masochists who aren't concerned about having an orgasm -- "the whipping is enough." It's also not at all just a female phenomenon. The flagellants were of both sexes, for example.

What may be a female phenomenon is the extent to which the female saints were willing to go to truly self-destructive extremes, but even in this they had no shortage of male company. I suspect the stronger motivation is that such powerful feelings had to be justified in unimpeachable terms and the bar in that regard was higher for women than men.
posted by localroger at 12:02 PM on January 25, 2015 [7 favorites]


All hail Hilary Mantel!

Has it struck others just how much she resembles Jane Austen?
posted by jamjam at 12:06 PM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


What may be a female phenomenon is the extent to which the female saints were willing to go to truly self-destructive extremes, but even in this they had no shortage of male company.

Hmmm. I think it's more that this is one of the few places women of a religious bent could really take the lead and gain praise beyond what their male counterparts could earn. Men preach religious annihilation; women need to annihilate themselves.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:09 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]




Men preach religious annihilation; women need to annihilate themselves.

It's a good point that men had many other ways to seek to make themselves exceptional, both within the Church and outside, and masochistic religious abandon is one of the few available to women which nobody managed to forbid or trivialize.
posted by localroger at 12:22 PM on January 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's a good point that men had many other ways to seek to make themselves exceptional, both within the Church and outside, and masochistic religious abandon is one of the few available to women which nobody managed to forbid or trivialize.

Yes, exactly.

I was fascinated almost to the point of obsession with St. Gemma as a child - growing up a Catholic girl, educated by nuns, who told us again and again that our greatest power and duty was to live up to the ideal of Mary, who said yes to whatever God asked of her. I read Mantel's piece a few years ago and reread it every so often, because of how perfectly it expresses that facet of my girlhood. There is both extreme power and extreme powerlessness in self-annihilation.
posted by sallybrown at 12:30 PM on January 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


I can't help but think of these lines from Eavan Boland's apt poem "Anorexic":

Flesh is heretic.
My body is a witch.
I am burning it.
posted by yasaman at 12:51 PM on January 25, 2015 [9 favorites]


I strongly recommend "Outside History" by Boland.
posted by clavdivs at 2:12 PM on January 25, 2015


Great post. I read Holy Anorexia as part of my history major/women's studies minor in college.
posted by Melismata at 2:14 PM on January 25, 2015


All hail Hilary Mantel!

Yes! She is amazing.
posted by Dip Flash at 2:55 PM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Men own their bodies, but women's bodies are owned by the wider society; this observation is far from original, but perhaps bears restatement."

There's your god-damned money quote.

So many of the conversations about women we are having, about women past and present, hinges on this notion.
posted by clvrmnky at 3:35 PM on January 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


...those of you curious about St. Francesca Romana, and what she did - like I was - the Straight Dope has the answer. But....it's ooogy.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:39 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


We had a professor in divinity school who was big into mortification of the flesh who literally looked like an enfleshed skeleton; there was a lot of sub-vocal discussion among women students about whether she was anorexic or ascetic or if there was even a difference.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:57 PM on January 25, 2015


I'm not Catholic myself, but this explanation of the difference between (improper) masochism and (religious) humility was new to me. Almost sounds like therapy, the explanation that is. I wonder how accurate it sounds to people who are religious, to what extent extreme self-control/self-punishment is still held up as a model vs. silly hysterical woman.
posted by ana scoot at 6:31 PM on January 25, 2015


ana scoot, the author of that article doesn't have a single clue as to how masochism actually works. Masochism isn't humility because it isn't humility. It can be a very vocal demand for attention or call to arms. How humble was Lawrence of Arabia?
posted by localroger at 6:37 PM on January 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


Burning one's genitals with hot pork fat is just called "BBQ" among latter day charismatic protestants.

Catholics are such drama queens.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:38 PM on January 25, 2015


Burning one's genitals with hot pork fat is just called "BBQ" among latter day charismatic protestants.

No, no, no. This is so wrong. The kind of protestants who would do this kind of masochistic exhibition would never risk any possiblity of hinting that it might have anything to do with sex at all. And what St. Francesca did, only going to her marital bed in excruciating genital pain, has SEX SEX SEX written all over it in 64-point Courier Bold, because it's about SEX. It's a curious break between the Catholics and Protestants, as with things like dancing and drinking, that the Catholics can deal with burned vulva in the Lord's name but the Protestants can't deal with the idea of vulva at all.
posted by localroger at 6:48 PM on January 25, 2015


Protestants can't deal with the idea of vulva at all.

Calvinists ruin everything.
posted by thivaia at 8:08 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Reading wiki on Saint Gemma.

"The Blessed Virgin Mary opened her mantle and covered me with it. At that very moment Jesus appeared with his wounds all open; blood was not flowing from them, but flames of fire which in one moment came and touched my hands, feet and heart. I felt I was dying, and should have fallen down but for my Mother (Blessed Virgin Mary) who supported me and kept me under her mantle. Thus I remained for several hours. Then my Mother kissed my forehead, the vision disappeared and I found myself on my knees; but I still had a keen pain in my hands, feet and heart. I got up to get into bed and saw that blood was coming from the places where I had the pain. I covered them as well as I could and then, helped by my guardian angel, got into bed."

Switch "Blessed Virgin Mary" to "Vampire Lestat," and what do we have here?
posted by thoughtslut at 8:16 PM on January 25, 2015


All hail Hilary Mantel!

I'd always ignored her, assuming it was just some kind of Tudor romantic fiction, but I watched the first episode of the BBC dramatization of Wolf Hall just tonight and was the best thing I've seen in ages.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:29 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh, you should totally read Wolf Hall. It's bloody amazing. Not historical romance at all.
posted by DangerIsMyMiddleName at 4:03 AM on January 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


> I'd always ignored her, assuming it was just some kind of Tudor romantic fiction

I don't know how you could have gotten that idea if you'd read anything at all about her (and if you didn't, how did you know about her?). She's one of the great novelists of our day and has been recognized as such for a couple of decades now, and she won Booker Prizes for both Wolf Hall and its sequel. By all means read whatever you can get your hands on; aside from the Tudor books, I recommend A Place of Greater Safety (about the French Revolution) and the relatively neglected Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (about Saudi Arabia).
posted by languagehat at 8:17 AM on January 26, 2015 [5 favorites]


And I would also highly recommend her memoir, Giving up the Ghost. You can read an excerpt in the LRB. She is a glorious writer, wickedly funny and wise, and she writes with staggering economy and beauty.
posted by jokeefe at 2:49 PM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


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