Yes, I said. It’s real.
October 11, 2017 10:05 AM   Subscribe

The title refers to the extra stitch sometimes given to a woman after the area between her vagina and anus is either torn or cut during childbirth. The purpose of the extra stitch is to make the vagina tighter than it was before childbirth in order to increase the husband’s pleasure during sex.
Jane Dykema: What I Don’t Tell My Students About ‘The Husband Stitch’.
posted by MartinWisse (90 comments total) 123 users marked this as a favorite
 
*eternal uncontrollable shrieking*
posted by schadenfrau at 10:16 AM on October 11 [46 favorites]


In the morning I smelled gas, strong, unmistakable. “I smell gas,” I said to my husband. “I don’t smell it,” he said. He had a friend come over. “Why are you having a friend come over,” I asked, “when it doesn’t matter if he can smell it or not, and none of us can fix it?” His friend didn’t smell it, either. I called the gas company. The gas company employee didn’t smell it, either. He waved his reader around and it blasted off in three places, substantial leaks behind the stove and in the basement. “Always trust a woman’s nose,” the gas company employee said.
Yes, I thought, believe us.
Then, No, I thought, I’m not a fucking witch. Believe anyone who smells gas. If someone smells gas, believe them.
Holy shit--literal gaslighting.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:18 AM on October 11 [129 favorites]


What a timely post, I'm currently reading Carmen Maria Machado's short story collection Her Body and Other Parties which features the "The Husband Stitch". It's a wonderful collection and worth seeking out.
posted by Fizz at 10:34 AM on October 11 [9 favorites]


In response to the fact that it's hard to find information about this practice, especially because it's not on English Wikipedia:

I am comfortable editing Wikipedia -- if people who know anything about obstetrics want to amass some links and citations here to help me add information about this practice to English Wikipedia, put 'em here and I'll do a bit of work.
posted by brainwane at 10:38 AM on October 11 [15 favorites]


I was first introduced to the husband stitch in 2014, when a friend in medical school told me about a birth her classmate observed. After the baby was delivered, the doctor said to the woman’s husband, “Don’t worry, I’ll sew her up nice and tight for you,” and the two men laughed while the woman lay between them, covered in her own and her baby’s blood and feces.

This comment, almost verbatim, was made by a resident at the teaching hospital where my wife did her training. The resident was expelled from the program.
posted by nickmark at 10:45 AM on October 11 [159 favorites]


The top highlight in that piece is amazing:

Maybe this is why we don’t believe women. If their experience is true, we can’t stand to see our role in it.

This rings so, so true -- for misogyny, and for racism and other forms of power imbalance. (It also really reminds me of the interrupting denial on here recently, among other things.)
posted by knownassociate at 10:49 AM on October 11 [65 favorites]


Yes, the general strategy these days seems to be to make the behavior so horrible that people will refuse to recognize it because they can't stand to be implicated in it. Seems to be working for many.
posted by praemunire at 10:50 AM on October 11 [2 favorites]


The story and essay are gut punches, both. Thanks for sharing them.
posted by Emily's Fist at 10:56 AM on October 11 [2 favorites]


@brainwane, the first use of the term I could find was in the Transactions of the Texas State Medical Association by one Dr. Geo Cupples, from 1885. The euphemism doesn't seem to have caught on (in writing at least) and the next reference is over half a century later in 1958: What Women Want to Know: A Noted Gynecologist's Guide to the Personal Problems of Women's Health.
posted by dilaudid at 10:57 AM on October 11 [5 favorites]




There's a lot to be said about beliefs and reality and power and perception.

But sometimes it's about truth with a capital T: "If there is no gas, am I not right? Does it mean I didn’t smell gas or does my experience of smelling gas still remain?" It means that if you light a match, you don't die.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:10 AM on October 11 [2 favorites]


Fuck. This is very timely for me. Thank you.
posted by PMdixon at 11:21 AM on October 11


I did a brief search and I can't find any reported legal decisions in Canada that discuss this practice, and it's not mentioned in the legal encyclopedia either. I've got a law dictionary from the 70's at home, if it's anywhere it'd be there.
This is damaging my calm.
posted by LegallyBread at 11:30 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]


Halloween Jack, it's only gaslighting if it's a deliberate denial of the truth, no?
posted by ajryan at 11:33 AM on October 11 [5 favorites]


I am not in the medical field and don't have any close friends or relatives who work in any kind of OB/GYN fashion but even I had heard about this before. Although my impression was it was a thing of the past (pre-2000, so not very far past). Are they still doing this without consent?
posted by LizBoBiz at 11:33 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]


Searching medical literature for it seems pointless— you aren’t going to find articles about NEJM for “happy pill”, but plenty of people use the term as a colloquialism to describe prescribed medication. Sewing perineal tears or cuts certainly appears in the literature.

It’s the practice of “gifting” the practice to the father over the mother’s bloodied body that is culture, that is not going to appear in an abstract, but which absolutely makes sense as a wink-wink-nudge-nudge interaction that takes place in delivery rooms all over the country (and world). Perhaps the existence of the stitch itself is irrelevant— a doctor could perform a normal medical procedure without anything “extra” and still give the leer and the performance of a “favor” to the man who raises a lascivious eyebrow.

I’m sure there are plastic surgeons doing reconstructions on women who have had double mastectomies who make similar comments to husbands— “they’ll be like she's brand new!” or “perhaps your husband would prefer a larger cup size?” Women’s bodies as matter to be molded for the sake of the person who fucks it instead of a place for a human person to live and thrive— this is the story of the husband stitch as concept, regardless of actual practice. (And I 100% believe this is practiced. I wonder how many men have begged and cajoled for sex before the doctors say a woman is totally healed, and the blessed stitch has been torn. You know how children treat their toys.)
posted by a fiendish thingy at 11:39 AM on October 11 [96 favorites]


That story is so well written it makes me a little mad I will never write something that good.

In other news, here in my early 40s I have learned to stand up for myself when I am right and know it. I didn't have that in my 20s and some of my 30s, but goddammit I am sick of having to clean up the mess when someone doesn't listen to me.

So I've become a little more rigid, and my life is better for it. I'll be raising my daughter to do the same, and my son to respect that.
posted by offalark at 11:41 AM on October 11 [17 favorites]


So glad our midwives were watching over my wife during the birth of our 2 kids. So glad.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:55 AM on October 11 [2 favorites]


I've known about this, but I've never felt horror about it. The reason is that I have always assumed that, at the time and place that this was done, the woman would consent, if she were asked. Because wouldn't she want him to be happy? Wouldn't she want him not to stray? Wouldn't she want to keep his secretary from having any advantage over her -- ?

It's a shame that some women reject obstetrical and neonatal advice in favor of riskier alternative practices, but with a history like this, the medical establishment has no one to thank but itself.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:56 AM on October 11 [2 favorites]


Dykema's piece reminded me of another article I read recently: Why Parents Fear the Husband Stitch. The reporting seems solid enough, if somewhat inconclusive (basically, perineal tears need to be stitched but nobody records the difference between a repair and a "repair"), but the attitudes described confirmed all my deep and angry suspicions about the fucked up intersections of sexism and medicine, and also my conviction that anyone who has gotten through a pregnancy without bludgeoning at least one doctor is a fucking superhero.
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 12:04 PM on October 11 [15 favorites]


Because wouldn't she want him to be happy? Wouldn't she want him not to stray? Wouldn't she want to keep his secretary from having any advantage over her -- ?

EW. "Please sew one of my orifices closed to an unnatural extent so my husband doesn’t cheat on me" is one of the saddest possible motives for anything.

It's a shame that some women reject obstetrical and neonatal advice in favor of riskier alternative practices

Actually, scientific evidence largely shows that episiotomies take longer to heal than a perineum that tears naturally during labor— but doctors still perform pre-emptive episiotomies without women’s consent because “it’s faster”. (Anaïs Nin actually writes about a non-consensual episiotomy in her short story “Birth”.)

The field of obstetrics features a huge amount of practices that have poorer health outcomes for mothers and babies, but which doctors find more "convenient", and therefore the practices are still in vogue, often without maternal consent (or at least informed consent). For example, laying down instead of squatting while giving birth! There are a host of ways in which it makes birth harder, and hurts the body more-- but it is still the default, even though we have known this for decades (and millennia if you believe midwives, which most doctors historically have not).
posted by a fiendish thingy at 12:07 PM on October 11 [78 favorites]


anyone who has gotten through a pregnancy without bludgeoning at least one doctor is a fucking superhero

Well said. (Where's my cape?)

This brings to mind the old saying—if lesbianism were a choice, the human race would have died out ages ago.
posted by she's not there at 12:14 PM on October 11 [17 favorites]


I have been a labor and delivery nurse for eleven years. As recently as two weeks ago, a new father joked to everyone in the room that we should "put an extra stitch in there," as he barely glanced at his minutes-old child and his exhausted, elated, triumphant wife.
posted by jesourie at 12:15 PM on October 11 [65 favorites]


a new father joked to everyone in the room that we should "put an extra stitch in there," as he barely glanced at his minutes-old child and his exhausted, elated, triumphant wife.
I am unable rightly to comprehend the state of mind that would produce that thought, not just in the context of a busy delivery room, but in any context. After the birth of my first child, to the extent that I was thinking about the stitching necessary, the most coherent thing I could come up with was "make her okay because there's a lot of blood and she looks not completely okay and I want her to be okay because now there's a baby and I don't know what to do with a baby".
posted by curiousgene at 12:27 PM on October 11 [86 favorites]


My mother was 17 when a US military doctor told my father - right after she had birthed a 9lb baby - that he had given my mom a 'love stitch' to 'make her like new'. Less than two years later when she had her next child, she ripped far worse than she did with her first. I knew from a very young age that if I were to have kids, to be firm that there would be no episiotomies and no extra stitches.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 12:30 PM on October 11 [7 favorites]


I love Carmen Maria Machado and I love "The Husband Stitch" and I love this essay.

Searches for references to this term in medical literature or even for instances where we can unequivocally prove it was performed off-the-record miss the point, I think. The premise of the story, The Husband Stitch, and of this essay, in my mind, is that the regular practice of the 'Husband Stitch' is very possibly an urban legend; an indirect way of talking about something true. "This is a story I heard from a friend of a friend. My doctor didn't give me a 'husband stitch' and my husband didn't ask for one, so they're still safely in the category of the 'good ones' and can't accuse me of attacking them -- but I'm going to pass along this story I heard from a friend of a friend, because it will tell you something true about male behavior and my own brutal experience of birth." It's a way of telling a truth inside a truth when it's not safe to speak explicitly about what's going on.

But I think the most interesting part of what the writer of the essay is trying to say is that when you talk like this for long enough, it fucks up your relationship to the truth, both speaking it and hearing it. This is where the conversation with her mother comes in: she knows her mother is speaking indirectly to her, and she has the ability to parse what her mom "really" means - but that leads her to stop trusting her mother to speak the literal truth. In doing so, she becomes another person who doesn't "believe" women when they talk. People interpret your speech as coded, indirect, metaphorical, "magical," even when you're trying to say the most literal thing: "HI I SMELL GAS IN THIS HOUSE AND IF YOU LIGHT A MATCH IT'S GONNA EXPLODE."
posted by pretentious illiterate at 12:35 PM on October 11 [38 favorites]


Follow up: And now I am afraid I am adding to the chorus of 'not-believing' by saying the husband stitch is an urban legend; let me say, instead, that if there were medical or historical documents proving its existence (or not) then it would no longer serve the function it does in the story, which is a story about the use of urban legends.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 12:39 PM on October 11 [4 favorites]


> "... the regular practice of the 'Husband Stitch' is very possibly an urban legend"

Things go on all the time that are even worse.
posted by kyrademon at 12:41 PM on October 11 [1 favorite]


kyrademon, of course they do; I'm going to duck out now, with one last statement that I'm not trying to say, "Oh, this couldn't possibly happen or definitely didn't ever happen," but simply that "The Husband Stitch" is a story about the use of stories, and Carmen Maria Machado most likely chose her example with that in mind. The medical establishment is deeply fucked up, the patriarchy is violent beyond belief, doulas and midwives forever, and I'm sorry if I started a derail or made anyone feel disbelieved, I definitely didn't mean to.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 12:46 PM on October 11 [4 favorites]


think the most interesting part of what the writer of the essay is trying to say is
Well, I'm really glad that you found something interesting in this piece. But art is a conversation between the reader and the creator, and to me as a reader what resonated was the searing anger that I have imagining two men standing over me after I've just given birth, joking about the tightness of my vagina; and the incredibly eloquent way in which the author describes not being believed because one is a woman.
posted by sockermom at 1:08 PM on October 11 [19 favorites]


Sockermom, the last part you mention is exactly what pretentious illiterate was talking about - I agree that it is the larger point of the piece.
posted by agregoli at 1:10 PM on October 11 [4 favorites]


I agree that her use of urban legends is essential, but I think the flipside of Machado’s use of urban legends is that they begin to bleed into the way that women use whisper networks to keep safe from threats that aren’t recorded anywhere. The fact that men can ensure that their methods of violence remain unwritten and absent from codified records is part of what makes that violence so dangerous and so endemic. If you study the history of medical narratives throughout history, telling women that their symptoms and bodily experiences are imaginary is basically the most constant and well-worn practice of all. That they do so with a “just-between-us” wink at any man who happens to be in the room is also a given.

This runs in parallel to the Weinstein discussion, where women were first told that their fears were imaginary, but once women found them to be true, they were told that this was just business as usual, not a reality-warping nightmare at all, grow up.

A society-level network of gaslighting -- and a complicit medical establishment of "objective fact"-- where systems of oppression are simultaneously hidden and yet so monstrous that you doubt yourself when you experience them— it’s a horror story that never ends. There is no final girl. No one is coming to save you. It’s an urban legend in that no one will believe you, but if it did happen to you then you must have misunderstood and it was all a misunderstanding and never mind let’s move on. Soon, we'll forget you too. You're already forgetting it yourself, aren't you? After all, it seems so unlikely.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 1:21 PM on October 11 [54 favorites]


Okay so lets do this. It's not a fucking urban legend, it was done recently and there was no consent involved.

I've had this done to me. in 1996. only 21 years ago. I tore during childbirth, and the (male) doctor downright admitted that he put in an extra stitch so I'd keep my "young" vagina. I was 20.

I was TWENTY and this was done to me because a doctor decided for me what my genitals should look and feel like, he admitted it and treated it like he was doing ME a favor.
posted by FritoKAL at 1:21 PM on October 11 [82 favorites]


Yeah, there is absolutely no way my mom's story is an urban legend. It was 40 years ago, but she can still tell the story in incredibly difficult to listen to vivid detail.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 1:28 PM on October 11 [7 favorites]


Gentle reminder that no one here said it was an urban legend. Pretentious illiterate was kind enough to attempt to clarify what she meant, please don't berate her.
posted by agregoli at 1:36 PM on October 11 [7 favorites]


Gentle reminder that no one is berating anyone, just being clear because there seems to be some discussion about whether it happens or if it's a thing people say.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 1:42 PM on October 11 [10 favorites]


Maybe you are not familiar with the concept of reading critically, or reading between the lines. I really don't appreciate that you insinuated that I did not understand what was going on in pretentious illiterate's comments. And you've done it again now with somebody else, saying no one said it was an urban legend. There are multiple comments here that are not outright saying but are unquestionably insinuating the things that you say aren't here, so unless you're doing some really edgy performance art manifestation of the very point being made in the original links, I would encourage you to reconsider those type of comments moving forward.
posted by sockermom at 1:44 PM on October 11 [7 favorites]


Goddamn this makes me appreciate my OB, because the "joke" she made after I delivered my child, after the hours of pain and blood and vomiting, was that she had always thought that there should be two beds in the labor room, and when the mother was through delivering the child, it was the father's turn to have a vasectomy with no anaesthetic. "That's real family medicine," she said.
A+, would choose lesbian obstetrician again.
posted by Adridne at 1:55 PM on October 11 [98 favorites]


I didn't insinuate that at all, not at all what I meant. You are ascribing motives to my comments I honestly did not and do not have. I disagree with people's reading of her comments and the subsequent pile on. That's it from me.
posted by agregoli at 1:59 PM on October 11 [2 favorites]


[Folks seem to be angrily agreeing with each other in here? I think the earlier comments looking in the medical literature were responding to brainwane's asking for cites to include in a wikipedia article, not skepticism about whether this has ever happened. It's understandable to be angry because this is about a super enraging practice and also about gaslighting which is separately enraging, and it's fair to underline the facts about this being a real thing, and also separately consider the author's use of "is it or isn't it" in the essay as a way of considering other points.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:02 PM on October 11 [20 favorites]


Oh crap, I just came back to this and realized I accidentally kinda bulldozed over some people's response to this piece, by focusing on "let's make this easier to learn about in an Official Source", rather than engaging with the facet of the original post that is about trusting experiences that aren't in the Official Narrative. I am sorry for that.
posted by brainwane at 2:14 PM on October 11 [8 favorites]


To clarify, my comment about this being done recently and without consent was not because of the "urban legend" comments but the very specific "The reason is that I have always assumed that, at the time and place that this was done, the woman would consent, if she were asked. "

At the time and place it happened to me (which was not in the distant awful past where women couldn't vote and abortion was illegal and we all wore dresses and Donna Reed pearls but the recent awful past where women wore pants and had careers and voted), I did not consent, nor did I think it was to keep my 'husband' from 'leaving for the secretary'
posted by FritoKAL at 2:15 PM on October 11 [10 favorites]


I’m sure there are plastic surgeons doing reconstructions on women who have had double mastectomies who make similar comments to husbands— “they’ll be like she's brand new!” or “perhaps your husband would prefer a larger cup size?

This also happens all the time, yep yep yep. I can't find it now, but I recall an FPP in the last few years discussing women who opt to leave their chest flat and not get reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy, and how difficult it is to get a doctor who will go along with this decision graciously. Comments from plenty of women testifying to the "don't you want to make 'em a little bigger wink wink" chats they got from their doc.
posted by desuetude at 2:35 PM on October 11 [4 favorites]


desuetude, was it this one?

dilaudid, xyzzy, LegallyBread, a fiendish thingy, Fish, fish, are you doing your duty?, pretentious illiterate, thanks for your links, searches, & thoughts. I'll go dive into those links and I've started a draftspace within Wikipedia for me to store research. And I can also work with foreign language materials if people know terms that people use for this procedure in other languages.
posted by brainwane at 2:41 PM on October 11 [6 favorites]


(Feel free to MeMail me so as not to derail this discussion.)
posted by brainwane at 2:43 PM on October 11


Halloween Jack, it's only gaslighting if it's a deliberate denial of the truth, no?

On reflection, yeah. But arguably there's some kind of continuum that "I'm denying it to deliberately fuck with her head" and "I'm denying it because I'm not even bothering to consider that she might be right" are both on.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:45 PM on October 11 [15 favorites]


Yeah, that story and the essay were a boot to the head for me to read in close succession. I think The Husband Stitch is going to sneak up and poke my brain every once in a while for a very long time. I found it to be such a lyrical evocative experience reading it, and the darkness of the subject matter... yeah.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:06 PM on October 11 [3 favorites]


When my wife and I were having our first child in 1989 we had this old-and old-school-male obstetrician who was nearing retirement. It was clear that he certainly knew what he was doing and that all of the nurses in the OB unit knew what to do around him. Everything was so matter-of-fact.

During the delivery he did an episiotomy. He certainly didn't ask if he could do it, or even say to my wife he was going to do it. He just did it. It looked to me like he just filleted her. I can still remember the sound the scalpel made. I don't know if he thought is was medically necessary or if he did it because that's how he always did it.

Afterward all I could think was that my wife was safe-she didn't die of hemorrhage or pre-eclampsia and my child was healthy. As I was looking at my exhausted, but happy wife with her first born it never occurred to me to ask the doctor could, you know, sew her up extra-special.

But you know what? That's exactly what he did. Again, I don't know if this is how he repaired all of his episiotomies, or if he thought he was doing me a favor, but he totally put an extra stitch in there.

They called it a "honeymoon stitch" back then.

We had more children (with different obstetricians) and we made sure there were no more episiotomies or honeymoon stitches.
posted by codex99 at 4:12 PM on October 11 [17 favorites]


I just had an appointment with my midwife and asked her about this. She said that it’s illegal to do this in New Zealand (as it fucking should be) but that she has heard of it happening and that she was asked by the husband of a patient once to do this. So no not an urban legend. I believe it also appears in the documentary The Business of Being Born.
posted by supercrayon at 4:39 PM on October 11 [2 favorites]


She said that it’s illegal to do this in New Zealand (as it fucking should be) but that she has heard of it happening and that she was asked by the husband of a patient once to do this.

In the early 90s in NZ I worked with a guy whose partner's doctor told him that he had done this after his partner gave birth ("I put in an extra stitch for you"). So unless someone's lying, this supports what you're saying.
posted by Pink Frost at 5:05 PM on October 11


I know it's the title of the story but this thread has really focused on the phenomenon of the "husband stitch" and I really think everyone should go read the actual story, which has SO MUCH MORE going on in it.

For me, it was another (but super valuable) look at how the world betrays women, but it also made me distinctly uncomfortable thinking about the times and ways that I have personally betrayed women.

It's also just really fucking well done.
posted by secretseasons at 5:38 PM on October 11 [28 favorites]


I couldn't sleep for hours after reading that story last night. Chilling and so powerful. So powerful.
posted by hapaxes.legomenon at 6:42 PM on October 11


The line that really destroyed me in "The Husband Stitch" was an innocuous one: "One of the mothers has a pale yellow ribbon on her finger." I think that's the first acknowledgment in the story that the narrator's ribbon, despite her husband's fixation on it, is not unique or even unusual. The question isn't whether a woman has a ribbon; it's where, and what color. If I'd been in Jane Dykema's class, I would have told her the story had made me cry, and I guess when she asked why that's what I would have said.

It's a wonderful story—the whole book is pretty good, but my personal theory is that positioning "The Husband Stitch" as the first story is what got it on the National Book Awards short list—and the essay is not only wonderful but very timely. "Maybe this is why we don’t believe women. If their experience is true, we can’t stand to see our role in it." Fuck me right up.
posted by fuzzy night at 7:33 PM on October 11 [11 favorites]


The line that really destroyed me in "The Husband Stitch" was an innocuous one: "One of the mothers has a pale yellow ribbon on her finger." I think that's the first acknowledgment in the story that the narrator's ribbon, despite her husband's fixation on it, is not unique or even unusual.

Her husband asks if their baby will have a ribbon or not and she doesn't know. When the baby is born, she noted that it was a boy and thus no ribbon. I assumed all girls were born with ribbons. She is later really fascinated with the woman modeling for the art class, whose ribbon is on her leg.
posted by Margalo Epps at 9:30 PM on October 11


I'm not trying to be flip when I ask this; is the story an adult version of The Green Ribbon? I just read it and that's what it feels like to me, a whole life with someone who keeps wondering about your personal ribbon and it's a horror story which fits in with many of the other ones she tells. Is this Jenny's memoir?
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:26 AM on October 12


I assumed all girls were born with ribbons.

I think about my “ribbons” a lot, although not with this framing until reading this story— so often, anything about the self that is off-limits to men is treated as an affront, a deception, a barrier to broken down.

We talk about how badly so many men react to a woman’s “no” when it comes to sex— but in my experience, the context of the no doesn’t matter. No, I don’t want to watch this movie— demands for justification, why not why not why not, well that’s pathetic (all responses I have experienced). No, I don’t want to go to that restaurant— why not, just because you didn’t like it last time doesn’t mean you never try it again, but it’s on the way, but I like their wings, but you can eat something before we go. No, I don’t want to get up at 4 in the morning to get an early start on our road trip— but I’ll pack the lunch, but the traffic, but then we’ll arrive by noon and we’ll have time to hike, but I promised someone and forgot to tell you. Why why why.

“But those are so minor!” Yes, sometimes the ribbons are minor, and they shouldn’t be a big deal, but a lifetime of men trying to snatch and pull at them after being asked not to means you develop reflexes. “I just want to touch the ribbon” turning into a surreptitious attempt to untie it. “I just want to see.” It’s always just this one thing, in addition to all of the other things. Let me violate just this one tiny boundary. Let me remind you that your “no” is always up for debate.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:28 AM on October 12 [27 favorites]


I will definitely be rereading that story. There is so much there. Thank you for sharing.

The story reminds me of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. The woman (or feminine tree) gives and gives when she is asked, even as it damages her, until there is nothing left. And yet the woman wants to give herself to her husband. When she becomes aroused, her response is to give him his fantasies, stating that she is willing to give him that “and more.” The tree, we are told, is “happy” each time she sacrifices herself.

Even as a child, I knew that the idea the tree was happy was both true and a terrible lie. Love is, indeed, giving, and willing to sacrifice to make the loved one happy. But taking all the love someone is willing to offer, without getting caring or giving back, is devastating.

As a kid, I also knew that of course the tree was female, and the boy had to be a boy. A girl would be taught that she must be more considerate, and not so demanding. Or she would grow up to be a tree herself. I knew that the only people who would see the tree’s sacrifice as a simple happy story of the “joys of giving” were men, particularly religious leaders who preach about Jesus’ sacrifice and also say husbands’ relationship to their wives is like Jesus’s relationship with the church, but somehow all the sacrifice in the marital relationship should still come from the wife, as a sign of wifely “submission.”

Last night, when I read The Husband Stitch, I was also reminded of Weinstein and that horrible, needling, whining tape of him negotiating, asking, bargaining, again and again, because he is “used to it,” because he know many women eventually give in so that he can tell himself it’s all consensual (as he continues to say). The husband in the story keeps asking, keeps taking, keeps muttering to himself his fantasies as he takes from her. Her son, as he grows, also learns to ask about the ribbon, and she has to teach him not to touch it in that possessive, destructive way. But when she does, it is framed as her hurting the boy, startling him and altering their relationship forever, as if her self-preservation is the selfish action, rather than her son’s inability to let her have her own safety and identity. As for her husband, he probably leaves this story thinking he has done nothing wrong, because it was she who, in the end, gave him permission and said “Do what you want.” He will see nothing of the years of needling, of asking again and again despite her clear rules and boundaries. He will think nothing of his tentative but continued probing throughout the years, like drips of water boring a hole through stone. If he ever even thinks about his years-long campaign to consume and take his wife— when his finger brushed the ribbon at their wedding, or when he ran his hand around her throat when she is pregnant and held her down, or when he kissed the ribbon at the end of the story — he will tell himself, “It’s just that I wanted it so much, and she eventually said yes. Isn’t her sacrifice beautiful? Isn’t this a tale about the joy of giving?”
posted by alligatorpear at 6:37 AM on October 12 [30 favorites]


I'm not trying to be flip when I ask this; is the story an adult version of The Green Ribbon?

Yes.

And also no.

(All the women have different ribbons on different places. At birth. That is what I come back to - they're there from birth and they don't move and seemingly every girl is taught what they mean before puberty or even worse isn't taught and just instinctively knows and this is horrifying but is it worse than the ribbon being invisible and intangible)
posted by PMdixon at 7:11 AM on October 12 [3 favorites]


PMdixon: "I'm not trying to be flip when I ask this; is the story an adult version of The Green Ribbon?

Yes.

And also no.
"

I think it's meant to evoke that story but I don't think it's the same story. The horror in The Green Ribbon is that he's been married to a zombie the whole time.

The horror in this story --- or at least one of the many horrors in this story --- is that
"He is not a bad man, and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt. He is not a bad man at all. And yet –"
posted by secretseasons at 7:34 AM on October 12 [7 favorites]


For what it's worth, I was doing my digging from a lens of "how bad is the gas-lighting" and I've got bad news buddies, the gas-lighting is real bad up here in Canada. Haven't found anything in the legal literature.
posted by LegallyBread at 7:36 AM on October 12 [2 favorites]


This story about folklore and violation reminded me of this poem, "Sonnet VI" AKA "Bluebeard" by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
This door you might not open, and you did;
So enter now, and see for what slight thing
You are betrayed. . . . Here is no treasure hid,
No cauldron, no clear crystal mirroring
The sought-for truth, no heads of women slain
For greed like yours, no writhings of distress,
But only what you see. . . . Look yet again—
An empty room, cobwebbed and comfortless.
Yet this alone out of my life I kept
Unto myself, lest any know me quite;
And you did so profane me when you crept
Unto the threshold of this room to-night
That I must never more behold your face.
This now is yours. I seek another place.
posted by nicebookrack at 7:47 AM on October 12 [15 favorites]


I think it's meant to evoke that story but I don't think it's the same story. The horror in The Green Ribbon is that he's been married to a zombie the whole time.

I think we're using different meanings of "same story" - I just mean the same checkpoints happen. But yes, the emotional impact is obviously intended to be... The obverse of the usual?

(I say obverse because the message of the usual telling of the ribbon story along with all the other ghost stories that boil down to "guy meets girl, girl turns out to be dead" is that women are deceitful, women are not what you think they are. But here, as has been multiply pointed out above, the horror is that he is not a monster, he is exactly what she has thought him to be the whole time.)
posted by PMdixon at 7:49 AM on October 12 [3 favorites]


I...missed something important in this thread.

What are the Ribbon stories?
posted by sharp pointy objects at 8:15 AM on October 12 [2 favorites]


I think it's meant to evoke that story but I don't think it's the same story. The horror in The Green Ribbon is that he's been married to a zombie the whole time.

It is? Again, not being flip, this is wild! I always thought the horror was that she spent her entire life with this vulnerability that meant that the slightest thing could kill her, that she was so fragile that she might lose her head at any moment. I thought she was alive and just needed the ribbon to hold herself together and she couldn't tell anyone because if you said "I need this ribbon to keep my head on or I will die" who wouldn't want to untie it to see if that was true, no matter how much they loved you? I first heard The Green Ribbon when I was five and I didn't have thoughts this complex about it, it just scared the hell out of me, but I didn't think she was a zombie, I thought she was a woman who had some sort of medical condition where she needed her head tied to her neck or it would just fall right off.

And of course now my memory's playing tricks on me, which feels appropriate for both the story and the framing article, and I'm not sure that is what I thought? Maybe I did think she'd been dead the whole time although, again, I don't think I've ever framed it as "it's scary to be married to a zombie", I have more thought about it as "it's scary to know that at any moment your head could fall off" which is often how I have felt.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:20 AM on October 12 [26 favorites]


@sharp pointy objects: It's a class of urban legend/folktale about a lady whose head is, unbeknownst to the POV character, secured to her neck only by a ribbon. Finding this out is the... er... whatever the horror-story equivalent of a punchline is.

Certainly people can take different things from folktales, every bit as much as there may be different takeaways from composed stories.
posted by inconstant at 8:27 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]


I always thought the horror was that she spent her entire life with this vulnerability that meant that the slightest thing could kill her, that she was so fragile that she might lose her head at any moment.

Agreed. I think a lot of the "Jenny's a zombie!" narrative comes from the Buzzfeed write up about the book.

Here is the text most people in my age range know, from the book In A Dark, Dark Room, and Other Scary Stories:

The Green Ribbon
retold by Alvin Schwartz

Once there was a girl named Jenny.
She was like all the other girls,
except for one thing.
She always wore a green ribbon
around her neck.

There was a boy named Alfred
in her class.
Alfred liked Jenny,
and Jenny liked Alfred.
One day he asked her,
“Why do you wear that ribbon
all the time?”
“I cannot tell you,” said Jenny.
But Alfred kept asking,
“Why do you wear it?”
And Jenny would say,
“It is not important.”

Jenny and Alfred grew up
and fell in love.
One day they got married.
After their wedding,
Alfred said,
“Now that we are married,
you must tell me
about the green ribbon.”
“You must still wait,”
said Jenny.
“I will tell you
when the right time comes.”

Years passed.
Alfred and Jenny grew old.
One day Jenny became very sick.
The doctor told her
she was dying.
Jenny called Alfred to her side.
“Alfred,” she said,
“now I can tell you
about the green ribbon.
Untie it,
and you will see
why I could not tell you before.”
Slowly and carefully,
Alfred untied the ribbon,
and Jenny’s head fell off.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:47 AM on October 12 [8 favorites]


D=
posted by sharp pointy objects at 8:48 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]


But I guess, to me, it seems like Jenny might be the only person with a ribbon --- whereas in Machado's story every woman has a ribbon and that seems like a fundamental difference

Also I am still digesting all this and could be wrong about everything
posted by secretseasons at 9:33 AM on October 12


Other versions of the legend:
The Adventure of the German Student by Washington Irving (yes, the Sleepy Hollow Headless Horseman writer!)
Mental Floss article with a brief history of the legend

A black-humored version at McSweeneys: Ghost Stories With Hidden Agendas
posted by nicebookrack at 9:56 AM on October 12 [3 favorites]


Yes, secretseasons. It’s because Machado is using the ribbon as a metaphor. In fact, she has altered most of the horror stories in a way that changes their meaning.
posted by domo at 9:57 AM on October 12


Honestly I'm still caught up in the scifi/fantasy world in which women have ribbons and wondering how it works for non-binary adults, men who were AFAB, or women who were AMAB. Is it really all women who have ribbons or just lots of them? Are there a few men with ribbons?
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:19 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]


I don't think I've ever framed it as "it's scary to be married to a zombie", I have more thought about it as "it's scary to know that at any moment your head could fall off" which is often how I have felt.

Mrs. Pterodactyl, that rings so true for me. I have only recently realized that a story’s POV has never made me identify with the narrator if someone else in the story is more like me. I’m a girl, so I identify with the girl even if it is told as the boy’s story. When I was thinking about the Giving Tree today, I realized for the first time in 25 years of loving that book that maybe some kids identified with the boy in that story? I always identified with the tree, and thought of it as her story, and assumed everyone else did, too. Even at six years old, I was a girl, and knew I was more like (or should want to be more like) the girl tree than the boy human.

Another reason why representation in media is so important. It’s instinctual to find the person in a story who is most “similar” to you, and decide their story (not the main character’s) is your story, no matter how inconsequential or demeaning their part of the narrative is.

Anyway, I never knew The Green Ribbon as a child, but wow, that adds another layer to Machado’s telling. Ugh, I love this so much and wish I were back in school and studying texts again because it is So Good.
posted by alligatorpear at 10:25 AM on October 12 [4 favorites]


I have only recently realized that a story’s POV has never made me identify with the narrator if someone else in the story is more like me.

Absolutely. I remember arguing with my boyfriend in college about a book he loved. I read it, and hated it.

"The woman doesn't do anything! She just waits for him to come home, even knowing that he might die and he'll never come home from his journey!"
"That's not the point. It's not HER story. It's HIS story."
"She's in it, and she's treated poorly and supposedly she loves it. It's ridiculous. Also, it's ALWAYS his story."
"I think you're focusing on the wrong thing."

And The Giving Tree. What an awful book. I hated it. A parable about how you can grind someone down to nothing in service of yourself, but it will not make you happy anyway. It's basically the story of Donald Trump.
posted by Emmy Rae at 11:07 AM on October 12 [7 favorites]


I have only recently realized that a story’s POV has never made me identify with the narrator if someone else in the story is more like me. I’m a girl, so I identify with the girl even if it is told as the boy’s story.

This has been a really interesting thing for me to think about, raising daughters who are coming into their reading years. I always identified with the narrator or "main character" of whatever story I was reading, regardless of whether they were a boy or not - they were the main character in their story, just like I was the main character in my story. But it's clear to me that at least one of my girls is like you in this regard; she's mentioned that her favorite character in Voltron is the princess "even though she doesn't drive a lion" and has made similar comments about minor female characters in other male-dominated casts (e.g., Eliza is her favorite character in Hamilton, even though she's kinda minor in the first act (which is all my kids have listened to)). It was startling to me, since it never really occurred to me that one could approach media differently.

It's prompted me to think more carefully about which of the books I remember liking as a kid I promote to my girls - I'm trying to focus on ones that have female leads or at least decently presented female characters, and in the process realizing how few did. As you say, another reason why representation in media is so important.

I realized for the first time in 25 years of loving that book that maybe some kids identified with the boy in that story? I always identified with the tree, and thought of it as her story, and assumed everyone else did, too.

I always hated that book (and still do); I never identified with either the tree or the boy. Because the tree was a tree, and the boy was an unrepentant greedy asshole.
posted by nickmark at 11:10 AM on October 12 [5 favorites]


Do the men on the "receiving" end of this extra stitch "favor" ever say "holy shit what is wrong with you??" to the doctor? Even if they want to, since it isn't in the cultural conversation already, there is no preparation or framework to make that reaction more likely. So horrifying.

Honestly the fact that this occurs anywhere makes me want to get divorced just to destroy forever the notion that my husband owns me or possesses any part of my body for his use. Other people (never him) seem to assume this regularly. It is gross.
posted by Emmy Rae at 11:31 AM on October 12 [3 favorites]


The story and the essay are both thought-provoking, but there is little I can add that hasn't been said already and better. However, it did raise a slight pet peeve of mine:

Other versions of the legend:
The Adventure of the German Student by Washington Irving (yes, the Sleepy Hollow Headless Horseman writer!)
Mental Floss article with a brief history of the legend
The calls have been coming from inside the house. The murderous caller was upstairs... the entire time.

The Truth: Thanks to the 1979 film When a Stranger Calls, which used this story as the premise for its riveting opening sequence, this might be the most infamous urban legend of all time.
Argh, Black Christmas, 1974, why do you get no love?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:02 PM on October 12


Do the men on the "receiving" end of this extra stitch "favor" ever say "holy shit what is wrong with you??" to the doctor? Even if they want to, since it isn't in the cultural conversation already, there is no preparation or framework to make that reaction more likely.
In the immediate aftermath of the births of both of my kids, I was so stunned by the whole experience that I might not even have registered it if a doctor had said it. I'm sure that, if it had happened, I'd have made it my mission to prevent that doctor from ever wielding scalpel or suture again. Luckily, we had nurse-midwives and obstetricians who were very focused on my wife's safety and well-being through the whole experience.

I'm focusing fairly narrowly on my own experiences in this thread mostly because I'm a man, and I do not have the experience of being a woman. Also, though, I'm find myself speechless when trying to articulate the things I feel when I read the article or the story, or the Millay poem above. It's... bewildering to me. Why do people not believe women? Do they know what they're doing? I wonder if I used to do the same thing. I probably did, and never realized. I'm angry, but also shamed, and confused. And I wonder if that is, for some, or many, the experience of being a woman - anger, shame, confusion, but in a way that's difficult to articulate, but just a sort of a ball in the stomach. And I worry that I've been perpetuating that without intending to.
posted by curiousgene at 2:12 PM on October 12 [4 favorites]


I was absolutely gutted by this story. Some days I feel like all the energy of my entire life has been devoted to clinging to what I know is true, despite being told hourly that it's false.

Anyway I have a technical question. I don't understand how the husband stitch is supposed to work. If you are sewing up a tear (or cut) in the perineum, of course torn (or cut) tissue will heal to torn (or cut) tissue if sewn together. But in the husband stitch, undamaged skin is sewn to undamaged skin. Why would that heal together?
posted by HotToddy at 5:33 PM on October 12 [2 favorites]


Mario Puzo says in The Godfather that repairing the pelvic sling is called a perincorrhaphy and suturing the vaginal wall is called a colporraphy (the story of Dr. Jules Segal and dead Sonny's girlfriend Lucy Mancini).
posted by Robin Kestrel at 6:39 PM on October 12 [1 favorite]


The goal of suturing a perineal tear is to provide hemostasis, facilitate healing, prevent infection, and promote comfort. (Superficial tears involving only the skin are sometimes left unsutured.) It's a repair, not a remodel, and should be recreating the previous anatomy as much as possible and doing the minimum suturing necessary in order to meet the above goals.

Some intact tissue, by necessity, is grabbed by the suture in order to keep the skin or muscle together. The "husband stitch" or "honeymoon stitch" overcorrects the re-approximation of the torn skin and muscle by taking a bigger "bite" of healthy tissue during the suturing process in order to create a smaller vaginal introitus and/or vaginal canal. It doesn't suture intact tissue to intact tissue.
posted by jesourie at 6:39 PM on October 12 [2 favorites]


Tissue sewn together after injury to the surrounding area will grow together. Specifically soft tissues. It even happens unintentionally without stitches. It’s called adhesion and can be a complication of surgery.
posted by domo at 8:29 PM on October 12 [2 favorites]


It's interesting that the in the category of "[spouse] deliberately breaks promise to uncover [spouse's] mysterious supernatural secret" folklore--if we can call that a category--"Husband discovers that removing the neck ribbon his wife wears makes her head fall off" is told and perceived as a horror story (removing the ribbon killed her? she was un/dead all along?), but stories like "Husband discovers his wife is a fox or a crane" or even "Wife discovers husband is the god of love" are told as bittersweet romances. Marrying the undead is more inherently terrifying than marrying an animal or god, even though they're all supernatural.

These stories are usually told from the perspective of the spouse who does the promise-breaking. And the usual moral is something like "Don't be too sinfully curious" or "Don't marry mysterious strangers you meet in fields" instead of "Don't violate the trust of a loved one you gave promises to."
posted by nicebookrack at 9:04 PM on October 12 [3 favorites]


The "husband stitch" or "honeymoon stitch" overcorrects the re-approximation of the torn skin and muscle by taking a bigger "bite" of healthy tissue during the suturing process in order to create a smaller vaginal introitus and/or vaginal canal. It doesn't suture intact tissue to intact tissue.

Man, you really have no idea how little credibility that statement has, do you?
posted by PMdixon at 3:25 AM on October 13


Errrr, if someone is incorrect, then explain why. Just saying that someone is wrong seems like a stupid thing to do in this thread.
posted by 23skidoo at 6:49 AM on October 13 [5 favorites]


Well I found this page featuring anecdotes from women who have had this done to them, and it seems I was misunderstanding what gets sewn to what. I was picturing that the extra stitch was above the necessary stitches, as if sewing a straight seam. Instead it seems that the skin on one side is brought further over to the right or left, creating something like a pleat in the tissue.
posted by HotToddy at 8:14 AM on October 13


But, if it's done as a pleat, it doesn't seem to make sense that the doctor would call it "an extra stitch for your husband." So I'm still confused.
posted by HotToddy at 8:18 AM on October 13


nicebookrack, I always think of the Irish/Scottish Selkie tales - seals who live in the sea but sometimes shed their skin to be human for a night. Then usually a man steals the skin of one and she is forced to stay on land as his wife until she can steal back her skin and return to the sea.

For me that is the form of the "spouse with a supernatural secret" genre that rings truest. I can't relate to the woman who is barely held together via ribbon, nor the man who insists on removing it. But the woman who ends up in a life she didn't choose, where she can fit in and do the work expected of her and in some ways truly love it (usually her children) but at the same time long for the freedom of the sea, and never give up that longing and then finally after years take her life back again for herself... that I understand. Maybe not so much for my own life at this point, but my many aunts in abusive or unsatisfying relationships who finally decide to take their skin back (or are still wanting to, but aren't able to yet).
posted by Emmy Rae at 8:24 AM on October 13 [8 favorites]


HotToddy, it supposedly makes the vagina tighter--and thus more pleasurable for the husband during intercourse.

Man, you really have no idea how little credibility that statement has

I guess I really don't...?

I'll give you the benefit of the doubt that you were trying to contribute something helpful to the discussion with that comment, and in good faith I'll extend to you some professional courtesy and assume that you've done some repairs yourself and are thus speaking from a position of clinical expertise, which I'm hoping you'll be willing to share.
posted by jesourie at 9:40 AM on October 13 [1 favorite]


For my money, this is the most terrifying bit in the essay:

In class, I don’t say to my students, “Do you feel it, too? Or can you imagine it? The perils of living in a world made by a different gender?..."

Jeezus. I don't think I'd ever quite put it that way to myself, but yes. I do feel that. More and more, I feel that.

The story was also awesome.

Thanks so much for this.
posted by allthinky at 7:27 PM on October 13 [2 favorites]


I loved The Giving Tree as a child as I loved all of Shel Silverstein's work. I still have my childhood copy and it sits on a high shelf in my daughter's room. But I don't know that I've ever read it to her. I definitely identified with the boy in the story and as the relationship goes on and it becomes a kind of horror, I think I just felt, well, ultimately, it *is* what the tree wants.

At minimum, it's a moralistic tale that goes nowhere. What does the boy learn? Nothing. He dies. What does the tree learn? Nothing. She dies. It's interesting that (after a cursory read through Wikipedia) that Silverstein published this story at age 34 about 5 years before he became a father for the first time to a daughter (who later died at a very young age). He later becomes father to a son.

My perspective on this story certainly changed in adulthood and then later as a parent and all of a sudden, reading this thread, I'm compelled to head home this afternoon and put it in the bottom of the trash. I don't know what the fuck was going on with Silverstein but I definitely don't want my daughter to be an apple tree.
posted by amanda at 11:32 AM on October 14 [5 favorites]


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