Tag Archives: Jane Dykema

On Believing and Being Believed

A few weeks ago, I posted a story in my mid-week round-up. It’s the first story in Carmen Maria Machado’s book Her Body and Other Parties, and it’s called The Husband Stitch. The story is Machado’s adaptation of the “the girl with the green ribbon,” a spooky story you may be familiar with (and still terrified by) thanks to Alvin Schwartz’s In a Dark, Dark Room.

Have you read it yet? You should.

(I’ll wait.)

Now you should go read Jane Dykema’s essay, “What I Don’t Tell My Students About ‘The Husband Stitch'” found HERE. Dykema explores the ways in which Machado’s story brings up questions about who we believe and why.

From the essay:

“Of all the stories I know about mothers, this is the most real,” Machado’s narrator begins, and goes on to tell a story of a mother and daughter traveling to Paris. The mother falls ill and the doctor sends the daughter to get medicine, a task which takes so long, a meandering cab ride, the doctor’s wife making pills out of powder, that when the daughter returns to the hotel she finds her mother gone, the walls of their room a different color, a hotel clerk who doesn’t remember them. Then the narrator says there are many endings to this story, one in which the daughter persists, stakes out the hotel and starts an affair with a laundryman in order to finally discover the truth: that her mother died from a highly contagious disease and in order to prevent widespread panic, the doctor, cab driver, his wife, and the hotel employees conspired to erase any trace of the mother and daughter’s existence there. Another ending to the story is that the daughter lives the rest of her life believing she’s crazy, “that she invented her mother and her life with her mother in her own diseased mind. The daughter stumbles from hotel to hotel, confused and grieving, though for whom she cannot say.” I would tell you the moral, the narrator says, but I think you already know.

We are taught to value simple, elegant truths. In science, philosophy, theology, and politics, we apply Occam’s razor, the idea that between competing hypotheses, the simplest one is the right one. That the daughter is crazy is a much simpler explanation than that a whole cast of characters conspired to hide her mother’s death and erase their existence, simpler than the introduction of a contagious disease, simpler than the construction and remodeling done to the room. And yet —

Dykema notes that when teaching the story, a woman will confess she cried while reading it and when asked why, she’ll reply she doesn’t know. I didn’t cry when I read The Husband Stitch, but I did when reading Dykema’s essay. Why? Because right now, we urgently need discussions about believing and being believed. Her words resonated and I hope you’ll read them…and then start a discussion of your own.

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? The justified and unjustified mistrust? The near-constant experience of being disbelieved, of learning to question your own sanity? How much more it hurts to be let down by ‘one of the good ones?’”

Instead, Dykema discusses the narrative tools her students can apply to their own writing. But outside the writing classroom — I’m ready to start asking.

Have you read a short story or article lately which sparked an important conversation? Would love to hear! 

(Image above is an illustration by Dirk Zimmer from In a Dark, Dark Room, a book which still haunts me to this day.)