“We both cry all the time, and then what we do, we cry, and we take our tears, and
we put ’em in the ice box, in the goddamn ice trays until they’re all frozen and then…
we put them…in our…drinks.”
—Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
I’m in love with the spider outside my daughter’s bedroom window. I’m in love with her industrious hands, her heights, how she disappears and reappears.
I love her because I fear her, and in trying to repurpose my fear, I’ve learned to love her for my daughter’s sake,
because it would be bad for me to scream. It would be a mistake.
In the morning I look to see if my spider is there. If she’s not, I’m disappointed. If she is, I’m freaked out.
I watch a video advertisement on the internet. “Hate spiders? Love spiders? This product is for you!”
This product is for me—
a long pole with a set of soft bristles on the end of it. With a pull of a lever, the bristles open up into a white plastic flower, and with a push of the lever they close around and hold the spider—gently, gently—until you’re ready to release her back into whatever wild she came from,
because we are all sinners in the hands of an angry god, so Jonathan Edwards tells us, 1741. God dangles me by one of my many legs over hellfire and He can choose to drop me or save me. My fate is determined by His pleasure or by His lack of it.
But what if God needn’t touch me at all? With the squeeze of His fingers He opens His white heal-all and lets me go.
▴ ▴ ▴
In something akin to speculative nonfiction, Virginia Woolf enters the British Museum in London in search of truth. She says, “I should need to be…a wilderness of spiders…to cope with all of this.”
I enter the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts to find out why I’m so afraid of Virginia Woolf.
I’m sweating because it’s 85 degrees out and I got lost on campus. And I probably drank too much the night before. I feel like a girl again, a student. I’m hundreds of miles away from my children on what feels like a whim, an electrical current. Our daughter, my husband tells me, has been acting really off without you. My new mantra is, Guilt is a useful ingredient.
(Virginia Woolf: “This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me.”)
I’m imagining something grand—oak paneling and stained glass, huge wooden tables with intermittent, green-shaded lamps. Instead, wall-to-wall carpeting, florescence, HVAC. An old woman sits at a big desk and a young woman sits beside her at a smaller desk. I think, taken together, we are the Fates. The Weird Sisters. The Maid, Mother, and Crone—though for the moment I’m childless.
“I’m here for Virginia Woolf,” I say. “I’m a professor at such-and-such small, unimportant college. I’m researching for a so-and-so, ridiculous poet’s project…”
“Fill out this form.”
The young woman hands me a form and I stare at it.
“But I don’t know…”
“Let me get the catalogue for you.”
The old woman walks to the back of the room where, on the wall, shelves and shelves of blue plastic binders are arranged by some arcane system the old woman and the young woman know intimately but I do not.
Another woman standing at a low table is hectically pulling papers from a box, then hectically typing something into her computer. This happens over and over again. I try not to stare at her.
“Here you are, hon,” the old woman says, throwing one of the blue binders down in front of me.
I open it up. An index says there are so many boxes of Virginia Woolf, something like six in all. It says, in some boxes are letters, and in one particular box I’ll find the copyedited manuscript of her novel Orlando. I write the number of that box down on the form, then I hand the form to the young woman. The young woman and the old woman confer, then the young woman leaves.
Five minutes? Ten?
The woman at the low table keeps rifling through her box, followed by frantic typing.
I have nothing to read yet, nothing to write, so I look down at my hands. I can’t seem to stop sweating.
Two more minutes. Three.
More frantic typing.
Then the young woman is back, pushing a cart with boxes on it, and I’m reminded of the hospital and a beatific nurse pushing my newborn daughter in a wheeled, plastic-sided bassinet into my room at two in the morning, then at six. “I couldn’t hold her off any longer,” the nurse said. Groggy, I sat up and began lifting the bottom of my shirt.
I lift off the lid of the first box.
▴ ▴ ▴
There are so many songs about spiders, where to begin?
I must work endlessly to keep the cobwebs off the unused
little brown jug
this letter from Quentin Bell
this letter from Lytton Strachey
the spider will make her home there
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf realizes that fiction is naturally wedded to life by a barely visible web which is conceived by a living animal seasoned in its own fluids, its milk and blood and sweat and pus.
She also realizes the women of literature are monstrous in their predilections for infamy, that they are terrible and beautiful and vast. They are Lady Macbeth, Lady Anne, Cleopatra, Portia.
But what about the ordinary woman in plain brown shoes who adores her delusion? What about the woman woken up in the middle of the night by her own sweat?
I left off with the removed top, the lifted top—
I look inside.
There are papers Virginia Woolf herself touched, scribbled on, maybe dabbed in water accidently, or whiskey or wine—
I gently lift out the thing that most looks like a book—the copyedited manuscript of Orlando. Inside I find notes in Woolf’s spidery hand, so I handwrite my own notes in a cheap, spiral-bound notebook so as to be in vibration with the great woman, and I catalogue every change she makes to the typed pages—or at least the ones that fascinate me. Here’s what I write:
On the frontispiece VW is trying to decide how to refer to Vita Sackville-West, first to “The Honorable Mrs. Harold Nicolson,” then
Victoria Sackville-West.,to V. Sack (smudged out)
p. 15: Changed “ambition” to “desire”
p. 31: Changed “brach” (?) to “spaniel”
p. 35: Added “A melon, an emerald, a fox in the snow”
(Sometimes actually chooses the passive voice)
p. 46: Added “On the first dark night they fly north thence to Russia”
p. 54: Changed “one proper fountain” to “one profuse fountain”
p. 77: Changed the date from April 20, 1698 to April 21, 1698
p. 83–84: Whole section re: Shakespeare crossed out
p. 101: Changed “strange” to “gay”
p. 122: Changed “virgin” to “driven”
p. 132: Changed “beauty” to “poetry”
p. 141: Changed “humoured” to “pursued”
p. 154: Changed “hearty” to “warm”
p. 157: Changed “sacred” to “divine”
p. 160: “I weep to hear the thrushes sing”
p. 188: Changed “seemed essential” to “was delightful”
p. 203: Changed “When the twelfth stroke struck” to “With the twelfth stroke of midnight”
p. 230: Changed “nutshell” to “snailshell”
p. 257: Crossed out whole section and added typed section underneath
p. 265: Crossed out “Putting her firstborn child into Orlando’s arms”
From a letter to Quentin Bell: “The scene from my window is a feeble (why?) of the first scene in
Orlando____ (?), dead cats, frozen bread, butter on the leads (?), a bird or two”—
“I think what I’m at is to change the consciousness and to break up the awful—?”
For fun I began to write around the changes, not to necessarily try and understand what they meant to Virginia Woolf, but to understand what they meant to me.
1. Changed “ambition” to “desire”
“I have drunk and seen the spider,” says Leontes in
A Winter’s Tale. I know what danger waits in my wine, and I wish I didn’t. I’m getting to the point, Spider. Should I be worried? I drink because I’m bored. Because I’m anxious. Because I’ve changed my exterior praxis to a deep, interior longing. How I wish I didn’t want what I want, yet I want. I have drunk and seen the spider. The clink in the recycling bin is so loud the world hears and knows—before the truck comes to carry them away—the sound spiders make as they crawl in and out, in and out, of my empty bottles all day. It’s the contemporary hunger for wonders and it’s too much to bear. My daughter kisses my transmitted face on a computer; a famous neurologist says that’s bad; I fade into air.
2. Added “On the first dark night they fly thence to Russia”
“We can’t really call it flying because spiders don’t have wings,” I say. My daughter wants to know. She asks and asks, but I’m no spider expert, I tell her.
“What do they do at night, in the dark?”
“They have eight eyes. Eyes numbers seven and eight see best in the dark.”
“Where are you going?”
I point to Massachusetts on my childhood atlas. “Here.”
“Why can’t I come? Are you flying?”
▴ ▴ ▴
Virginia Woolf feels strange in the British Museum. Sure, she’s accustomed to categorization, to intellectualization, still,
the spider, as Walt Whitman tells us, is quiet and patient. She waits for the wind to blow just right, then she jets her silk and bolts and
as Robert Frost tells us, the heal-all flower where the spider has built her web is “like a white piece of rigid satin cloth,”
meaning she is death, but she also makes things. What if she chooses to make her art where we live? Does that make our house a coffin?
Virginia Woolf requests yet more materials. She sits down at a long wooden table alone to read.
It takes courage for her to be here.
▴ ▴ ▴
In 1965, director Mike Nichols marshalled the cast and crew of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts in order to get the feel of a small New England college town just right—that claustrophobic, no-escape-from-history feel.
The residents of Northampton and the administration and alumni of Smith College hated the idea. They thought the trashy, boozy, oft-divorced Elizabeth Taylor and her sleazy Welshman of a husband would—by their mere presence—defile the sanctity of the scene.
The film itself—adapted from the Edward Albee play—is evasive on the subject of its title. Yes, it’s a pun on Disney’s Three Little Pigs song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” as mentioned in a joke originally told offstage. Any reference to it in the play comes without context, so the audience is left to make the connections, to ask the questions—is Virginia Woolf actually scary? And why? Because she’s so weird, so hard to pin down? Because she never had kids, lived a Bohemian life, then killed herself? Because she was depressed—so awfully, terribly depressed? And by what tender silk thread does her art hang, attached to which bodily disappointment?
I told people what I intended, and they seemed surprised. What were Virginia Woolf’s papers doing in Massachusetts, they wanted to know? Well, I told them, it’s thanks to an American woman named Frances Hooper—a journalist, advertising executive, and rare book collector—who stashed Woolf’s correspondence and manuscripts in her attic and locked the door.
(Plus, I said, maybe while I’m in Massachusetts I can catch up with a few friends from when I was an unimpeded girl.)
Hooper had gotten a degree from Smith in 1914 and likely felt an affinity for her alma mater, since it is an all-women’s college. So, when Hooper died, somebody opened the attic door and shoved herself inside only to find Virginia Woolf—her spirit bound up in ink—and so many spiders making their art on her unused things.
They boxed her and carted her off from Chicago to Massachusetts where, on July 31, 2018, a young black student was reported to the police for quietly eating her lunch alone on campus. The student posted on Facebook, “I wasn’t making any noise or bothering anyone. All I did was be black.” Apparently, the complaint came from a man who mistook her for a man.
▴ ▴ ▴
Woolf is lanky and heavy lidded, crossing her arms and legs under the table, bending her head over the book. Let’s imagine Virginia Woolf is reading Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. She recites Martha’s dialogue silently to herself. She reads, “I cry all the time, too, Daddy…I cry allll the time; but deep inside, so nobody can see me. I cry all the time.” Perhaps she wonders why somebody would be so afraid of her, and she laughs out loud in that sacred space.
Next, it’s Shakespeare’s Richard III—Lady Anne’s speech. She reads, “More direful hap betide that hated wretch, / That makes us wretched by the death of thee, / Than I can wish to adders, spiders, toads, / Or any creeping venom’d thing that lives!”
She reads Frost’s poem “Design”: “Assorted characters of death and blight / Mixed ready to begin the morning right, / Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth—”
She reads Whitman’s poem in which “on a little promontory [the spider] stood isolated…[T]ill the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.”
And because she is Virginia Woolf, she considers the soul in relation to illusion then in relation to truth.
Now Virginia Woolf is settling back with a copy of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle—a young adult novel wherein an evil witch casts a spell on poor, dumb circus animals so they appear magnificent and magical to their human audiences—a lion into a manticore, an ape into a minotaur. Even the actual magical creatures—the unicorn and harpy—must be made more obvious to people who don’t know what truth is. And saddest of all, an ordinary house spider—transformed into Arachne, Spinner of Worlds—begins to believe in her own illusion, “You see, the spider believes. She sees those cat’s cradles herself and thinks them her own work. Belief makes all the difference…”
And when the trick is laid bare and the little spider is just a plain spider again in brown shoes, she weeps and weeps her sawdust tears.
▴ ▴ ▴
A woman writer is like a spider driver. A woman writer is like a lion baiter.
▴ ▴ ▴
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf sets up her thought experiment, her famous speculation about Shakespeare’s imaginary sister—by first telling her readers what makes Shakespeare so good in the first place:
“Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in midair by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to the grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.”
Here is her draft version of the same passage, including her clarifying notes to self:
“When the web is pulled askew, hooked up here, or with a great hole in it there [the center] then one remembers…in short the spider is a human being: I was [no doubt] thinking as I… [made] this simile of the spiders web, of certain strains and holes that to my mind still slightly disfigure the webs…made by women.”
Is it the illusion of art’s transcendence that illuminates, or is it the real web “torn in the middle?”
Imagine Elizabeth Taylor is on break in her Northampton trailer, drinking wine and reading A Room of One’s Own, laughing to herself with that deep, throaty laugh of hers, underscoring the phrase “…but are the work of suffering human beings…” in lazy, drunken lines with a lipstick-stained pencil.
▴ ▴ ▴
3. Whole section about Shakespeare crossed out
I can desire to be Shakespeare I can desire to be desire I can desire to be something worth something but O my soul stitched to the casement stitched to middle-of-the-night feeds only the mamammama stitched to the Queen of the Spider’s Castle wherein I am never alone but for this one time alone with the word, no
4. Changed “beauty” to “poetry”
This transformation occurs nightly after the third glass of my wine when my seventh and eighth eye begin to see.
5. Changed “seemed” to “essential” to “was delightful”
I worry that my brain’s mechanism for self-defense has become standard operating procedure. I worry I’m filling my mind with books and booze instead of the mundane stuff—my daughter’s tiny body against mine, drinking from me while I watch the news. I’m afraid I dump the daily furniture of life, send it to my in-laws to sell, or throw it in the alley for a stranger to take—not because I’m cruel, not because I’m heartless, but because I don’t know what I’m supposed to keep. When I listen, I’m barely listening. But when I drink, I hear every scuttle, every breath, every little sob in the chest.
▴ ▴ ▴
When Elizabeth Taylor arrived in Northampton, 1965, she was about thirty pounds heavier than usual. Nichols’s goal was to change her from Shakespeare’s Katherine Minola, from Cleopatra even, into a spider-sad, middle-aged frump, a professor’s wife; yes, Taylor had to channel her inner frump. She had to be the kind of woman who came home drunk from a faculty party, opened up the fridge for a snack, chose a cold chicken leg, and quoted a Bette Davis line from some movie or other (“What a dump!”) while wiping chicken grease from her mouth.
When Edward Albee envisioned the film version of his play, he envisioned Bette Davis as Martha, so that the actual Bette Davis (playing a character—a middle-aged, frumpy professor’s wife) would be quoting some made-up (or real?) Bette Davis line from some made-up (or real?) picture wherein she played a wholly different character, probably an ingénue, young and vital and fresh.
In any case, Albee didn’t get Bette Davis. He got Elizabeth Taylor who, in order to meet the demands of the role, downplayed her looks, took to eating more, eyed the little set made up to look like a middle-class history professor’s house, and pronounced with chicken grease on her mouth, “What a dump!”
She rode a yellow bicycle around the Smith College campus in Northampton, Massachusetts and fell off once. I don’t know if she cried, but she was stared at. She caused alumni to stop their annual checks to the college, one woman in particular asking, “Why should we help support a college that entertains such an unsavory female?”
Maybe she was looking for Virginia Woolf too because she loved and feared her and wanted to discuss with her over drinks how “the eyes of others [are] our prisons; their thoughts our cages.”
▴ ▴ ▴
6. Changed “nutshell” to “snailshell”
To be a mother then to suddenly be alone is a weird feeling. The silence is deafening, and in it I hear things I usually miss—insect hum, the sobs of a grown-up in a house down the street, bicycle tires hitting potholes, a siren. What is a mother when she is away from her children? A bad mother.
Then my two college buddies come to town—one also a mother without her child—a young adult novelist—and one child-free altogether who sells really expensive furniture to plush people. We try to act normal. We eat breakfast. A barista at Starbucks tells one friend how beautiful she is, and that friend is for the moment okay, until we’re caught by the rain inside an art gallery and she can barely move her body for the pain in her knees.
We shop. One friend buys a vibrator and the other friend buys cannabidiol in a little bottle to be administered under the tongue. I buy an enamel pin of a mermaid instead that says, shit doesn’t have to make sense.
We sit down together on Northampton’s church steps and hold the oil under our tongues for
We talk about how one of us was here in Northampton a long time ago—at eighteen or nineteen—when a guy fucked her but wouldn’t take her out to breakfast in the morning; he left her alone in a strange apartment then—later that day on the street—acted like he didn’t even know her.
And one of us wants to know if she should do away with the embryos she keeps on deep freeze since her IVF treatments. They keep calling, she says, and I keep putting them off.
But the daughter she did have, her name is Virginia.
▴ ▴ ▴
Jonathan Edwards’s famous, revivalist church was in Northampton too, where religious fervor dominated to the point of some congregants’ suicides. He told them, “The God who holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you.”
He also told them, “Truth is the agreement of our ideas with the ideas of God.”
7. Crossed out whole section and added typed section underneath
The spirit of each age transmogrifies his/her character, so he/she is reborn into her/his self, a new self in a new time but the same melody, played by the child of immigrants, plucked out one night on the wine-stained keyboard of an old upright.
When Virginia Woolf weighted her jacket down with stones and stepped into the river, she must have been thinking, I’m not the person I was in December, nor am I the person I was in March, which is now. And when they found her body finally in April, she was yet another person, and when they stuck her ashes under an elm, she was altogether new. When Virginia was born she thought, I am definitely not the woman I was a year ago.
I put ear to the window, listening. I hear hesitation. I hear disappointment.
If I could listen even better, I’d hear the words form in her head before she says them, What’s wrong with me? Why shouldn’t I be here? I hear the drone of climate control, wood under my feet, brick’s outbreath, the turning-toward-me sun. Out the warped window, beyond the traffic, I’d hear the dirt’s slow thaw and below that, the filled-in swamp’s slosh, then the metronomic pulse of rock, and below that, the interminable sea. I hear the spider say she’s thirsty.
In one on-camera interview, the Smith student in question—Oumou Kanoute—is crying. She is sobbing. She says, “If whoever saw me had a concern about me being there, they could’ve asked me. I speak four languages. I’m sure I could speak one of the languages they spoke.”
▴ ▴ ▴
When I drink I don’t question my choices; I’m just waiting for a thread to vibrate. I send myself off—what scientists call ballooning—by testing the wind, the earth’s electrical currents, and when the time is right, I fly on the thread I made, sometimes over whole oceans. Just look at meadows in the morning—how the grass is cross-stitched with silk from flying spiders! Just look at the sky crosshatched with wires and contrails!
The spider doesn’t care what she leaves behind.
The spider doesn’t fear what she might do, which is usually nothing, occasionally poison.
Sometimes I imagine I’m the spider; I crawl into my own wine glass and drink myself down, because all the old wives’ tales say I’m never more than a few feet away from myself, that I swallow my own body at night when in sleep my mouth falls open.
▴ ▴ ▴
8. Crossed out “Putting her firstborn child into Orlando’s arms”
“How religiously exact the holy bishop [St. Conrad, Bishop of Constance, Confessor] was in whatever belonged to his sacred functions, particularly to the adorable sacrifice of the mass, appears from the following instance: It happened that a great spider dropped into the chalice whilst the prelate was saying mass on Easter-day; the insect might have been taken out, and then decently burnt, some spiders being poisonous and dangerous; but out of devotion and respect for the holy mysteries, the bishop swallowed the spider; which he vomited up some hours after without receiving any harm” (The Lives of the Saints, 1866).
As Woolf’s Orlando reaches its heroine’s moment of supreme pain, Woolf metamorphizes the near-death tumult of birth into “sleep…so deep that all shapes are ground to dust of infinite softness, water of dimness inscrutable, and there, folded, shrouded, like a mummy, like a moth…” until “the red, thick stream of life” rises again
and a nurse wheels a transparent box into the hospital room in the wee hours of the morning and smiles, says, I couldn’t hold her off much longer, while
“Putting her firstborn child into Orlando’s arms.”