Our culture has forced me to suppress my rage so much that I did not recognize that rage was the subject of Megan Abbott’s “Give Me Your Hand” until I saw the novel on a list of books about female rage last year. Maybe it is because the “female rage” Abbott describes comes from one-dimensional caricatures overwrought to make a point, rather than by creating a novel that explores the complicated nature of being mad while female.
“Give Me Your Hand” feels like it was written singularly to challenge the popular connection between female anger and menstruation, which might be why everything and everyone is too flat, too much created for another end rather than for their own merits, to feel real to the reader.
Men in the book make the predictable jokes that women everywhere are subjected to day in and day out. Sometimes the jests are made by intimate partners (it “must be that time of the month again” and other dismissals of genuine emotion), as if being able to predict when emotions might become bigger — or more revealed — is less preferable to the random and often explosive anger we see from men. And women are displayed as stereotypically catty, jealous and insecure in relationship with each other — something every female is familiar with and, if they desire true friends, grieves deeply.
Even as we are allowed to gaze through a window to the interiors of some of Abbott’s characters, one of whom happens to be a female serial killer, it still feels as if Abbott has relied heavily on stereotypes of repressed, angry women and clueless, egotistical men, as well as the predictable relationships between them. Here’s a hint: The relationships in “Give Me Your Hand” rely on sexual tension, which is so tiring. Among women characters, Abbott relies on the usual tropes that involve competition. I didn’t get a deeper understanding or compassion for angry women by reading this book, even though I think its title may have indicated that, just as the narrator’s best friend felt invited into the dark vortex of her serial killer’s inner world, the reader is supposed to feel a similar sense of pull toward what should be abhorrent and untouchable. But that’s simply a guess.
My confusion may be because we don’t get to see the interior of serial killer Diane. Thus, female rage remains the easy-to-dismiss mystery our culture has always labeled it. But isn’t the point of such a dark book to reveal something about that which or whom we traditionally have no empathy or understanding for? It’s not effective to explore female rage by proxy — Abbott reveals the thoughts, fears and neuroses of Diane’s best friend, Kit, pretty well — because there is still distance. Why don’t we get to know the details of what Diane was thinking? Without that detail, it makes the ending feel over-the-top and overwhelming enough to sour what might otherwise be a book you can’t put down. “Give Me Your Hand” retrenches rather than dispels the stereotype of the angry, mysterious (and therefore unsafe) woman.
We expect murderers to be as frigid as Diane was. Though it’s sexist, we assume that women’s crimes are committed out of uncontrollable emotion, so it’s just not interesting or enlightening to see an icy female murderer again. It feels like a lock-out, like Abbott is saying, “Yes, actually, you cannot understand female rage. Be afraid. Be very afraid” rather than “Female rage is complicated, which is why it takes effort to understand it. Here is why it’s worth that effort.”
My issue has nothing to do with “likability,” which is an insipid demand made far more of female authors and female characters than their male counterparts. If Abbott set out to create characters in settings that explore female rage, then what they should do is help us explore what female rage really is and not give in to the patriarchal stereotypes that have existed for far too long. This is something “Give Me Your Hand” does not succeed at: Even as a female who struggles with anger myself, I did not feel compelled to try to understand Diane’s rage or, more important, my own.
Where the novel does succeed, though, is in demonstrating the very tiny line between victim and perpetrator. This is where exploring another’s mind (Diane’s) by proxy (her best friend, Kit) works well. We don’t have access to Diane’s thoughts directly; experiencing them by proxy is effective in showing the permeable boundary between innocent and guilty. Not understanding that the line between innocent and guilty is thin is why our culture so easily and quickly blames victims and persists in holding unrealistic expectations for those who’ve experienced trauma.
The other thing “Give Me Your Hand” does well is depict the psychological impacts of rage that gets seriously punished rather than taken seriously. Abbott may not give us a helpful or problematizing picture of female rage, but she does show us the different impacts such rage can have on women when it’s indefinitely judged and suppressed.
Our patriarchal culture worships inappropriate rage in men as “telling it like it is” and otherwise tolerates incredible violence committed by angry men, while women who get legitimately angry are “out of control” and need to be contained. Giving everyone the room to be appropriately angry will not come through relying on stereotypes but by taking the need for justice seriously and responding creatively to the well-worn injustices of our current sexist systems. Though “Give Me Your Hand” falls short, there’s still no better place than the arts to do such a job.
Megan Wildhood is a contributing writer for Real Change, advocate in the mental health community, published poet and essayist living in Seattle.
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