My awakening occurred the week of my birthday in 1984. I had just turned thirteen. Thirteen is a magical year for girls of many cultures. It is the year we “come of age.” There are rituals and ceremonies marking the “rite of passage.” Generations back, it is possible that some of our grandmothers may have even been married at this same tender age.
For me, during the week of my thirteenth birthday, everything changed after I stepped into a little book shop on Queen Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada—when I discovered the works of Simone de Beauvoir.
Simone de Beauvoir…French writer, intellectual, Existentialist philosopher, political activist, feminist, social theorist, lover to Jean Paul Sartre…meant nothing to me before that day in April of 1984. I merely found a book published by Pantheon Books and fell instantly in love. The book was called, “When Things of the Spirit Come First.” The cover was a striking silver and included a photo of two women sitting in a café before a mirror. “A beautiful collection of stories,” it was revealed in the synopsis that this slim volume was a “recreation of the volatile Paris of the 1930s.” It included the stories of young women “rebelling against the religious, sexual and social constraints of their upbringing.” It was exactly what the doctor ordered for my thirteen-year-old self. Rebellion.
I still have this book. It sits proudly with other books by and about women. I cherish this book. I’ve read it at different stages of my life although it is never like the first time. The stories are simply divided into chapters with titles noting the women’s names: Marcelle, Chantal, Lisa, Anne and Marguerite. When I saw this, I imagined how perfectly my own name would fit among the women’s names….Marcelle, Chantal, Lisa, Anne, Marguerite and Michelle. I could be one of these women.
Most of my elementary school years were spent as a student in a Roman Catholic School. My mother had also gone to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. It was our family tradition. I was deep. I worried about the pain of the world. I was a thinker—even at a young age. I wanted to come to an understanding of the true meaning of spirit. And I needed to learn why I was so sensitive …so moved by experience. De Beauvoir unmasks these women and in reading her stories, I found myself at the core of my existence.
Of course, at the time, I didn’t understand the deep philosophies and psychologies of this work—but I found something else. I found myself deeply in love with her words and the craft of writing. There is an undeniable and beautiful effortlessness in the translated words of a French work of fiction. For the first time, I was stepping into the pages of a book. I felt in a way I had been to these places sometime before. They were familiar to me. Of course, I had lived in Europe—in Heidelberg, Germany—until I was about six years old. The memories of cobblestone streets, of church bells and ruins still rang sharply through my mind’s eye. I was homesick for the world I had left behind Maybe these descriptions of France awakened memories of Heidelberg? I am not sure. But lines and scenes played over in my mind. Gypsy musicians in scarlet shirts tuned their instruments. Cool windowpanes. The Biblioteque Nationale and piles of books.
And on the pages things were written such as this:
About my husband…you are my husband’s mistress. You meet him here every Saturday and you both go to the flat he has taken in the rue Sainte-Anne. No use lying. I know all about it.
Lord, men are only filthy beasts.
Yet when I was seven I did very nearly make the acquaintance of sensual pleasure; as I was climbing a rope I suddenly felt a strange, agreeable, but imprecise sensation; I climbed several times one after another and each time the delightful promise came but without growing explicit. I spoke about it to Mama, who blushed and told me not to talk nonsense. The gymnastic lessons stopped soon after. I still tried climbing trees in the country; but the bark was too rough.
She wants to make love to me, I thought, turning my head away and trying to disentangle myself.
In the back of the book, at the end of the section called “About the Author,” at some point I wrote in: died April 1986. Simone de Beauvoir was still alive when I first purchased “When Things of the Spirit Come First.” I had been aware that she was living somewhere, breathing somewhere, as I read her words for the first time.
In the years that followed, I read more of Simone de Beauvoir’s books. I learned about the author and all of the groundbreaking things she worked on—especially her work on women’s studies, most notably, “The Second Sex.” “Le Deuxième Sexe,” published in 1949, is a study of the treatment of women through history. It is a definitive tome on the history of women’s oppression. De Beauvoir, herself, wrote that this work was an attempt to explain “why a woman’s situation, still, even today, prevents her from exploring the world’s basic problems.” When I read this book, I learned things about my own body. I learned about the history of my own sex. About birth control and abortion. Marriage. Motherhood. Homosexuality. Prostitution. Old Age. “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman,” de Beauvoir says and critics impart that this is the heart of her message.
“The Second Sex” has been banned, burned and hidden in closets. Teenage girls have read it under the covers with flashlights. It sits on library shelves longing to be devoured.
Although it is true that “this has always been a man’s world,” Simone de Beauvoir revealed a raw and vibrant feminine world that included me. I fell madly in love one April, when I opened her book, “When Things of the Spirit Come First,” and quietly I have rebelled against the norm ever since, mighty pen in hand.
Simone de Beauvoir is a #nastywomanwriter.
©Michelle Barthel Kratts 2017