I was not a nice little girl. My favorite summertime hobby was stunning ants and feeding them to spiders. My preferred indoor diversion was a game called Mean Aunt Rosie, in which I pretended to be a witchy caregiver and my cousins tried to escape me. Our most basic prop was one of those pink, plastic toy phones most little girls owned in the ‘80s. (Pretty girls love to talk on the phone!) Alas, it was always snatched from their fingers before they could call for help. (Mwahaha) In down time, I also enjoyed watching soft-core porn on scrambled cable channels. (Boob, bottom, static, static, boob!) And if one of my dolls started getting an attitude, I’d cut off her hair.
My point is not that I was an odd kid (although looking at this on paper now, I worry). Or that I was a bad kid (here’s where I tell you — for the sake of my loving parents — that I had enjoyed happy wonder years back in good old Kansas City). But these childhood rites of passage — the rough-housing, the precocious sexuality, the first bloom of power plays — really don’t make it into the oral history of most women. Men speak fondly of those strange bursts of childhood aggression, their disastrous immature sexuality. They have a vocabulary for sex and violence that women just don’t. Even as adults. I don’t recall any women talking with real pleasure about masturbating or orgasms until Sex and the City offered its clever, cutie-pie spin, presenting the phrases to us in a pre-approved package with a polka-dot bow. And we still don’t discuss our own violence. We devour the news about Susan Smith or Andrea Yates — women who drowned their children — but we demand these stories be rendered palatable. We want somber asides on postpartum depression or a story about the Man Who Made Her Do It. But there’s an ignored resonance. I think women like to read about murderous mothers and lost little girls because it’s our only mainstream outlet to even begin discussing female violence on a personal level. Female violence is a specific brand of ferocity. It’s invasive. A girlfight is all teeth and hair, spit and nails — a much more fearsome thing to watch than two dudes clobbering each other. And the mental violence is positively gory. Women entwine. Some of the most disturbing, sick relationships I’ve witnessed are between long-time friends, and especially mothers and daughters. Innuendo, backspin, false encouragement, punishing withdrawal, sexual jealousy, garden-variety jealousy — watching women go to work on each other is a horrific bit of pageantry that can stretch on for years.
Libraries are filled with stories on generations of brutal men, trapped in a cycle of aggression. I wanted to write about the violence of women.
So I did. I wrote a dark, dark book. A book with a narrator who drinks too much, screws too much, and has a long history of slicing words into herself. With a mother who’s the definition of toxic, and a thirteen-year-old half-sister with a finely honed bartering system for drugs, sex, control. In a small, disturbed town, in which two little girls are murdered. It’s not a particularly flattering portrait of women, which is fine by me. Isn’t it time to acknowledge the ugly side? I’ve grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionistas that stock so many books. I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains. Not ill-tempered women who scheme about landing good men and better shoes (as if we had nothing more interesting to war over), not chilly WASP mothers (emotionally distant isn’t necessarily evil), not soapy vixens (merely bitchy doesn’t qualify either). I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women. Don’t tell me you don’t know some. The point is, women have spent so many years girl-powering ourselves — to the point of almost parodic encouragement — we’ve left no room to acknowledge our dark side. Dark sides are important. They should be nurtured like nasty black orchids. So Sharp Objects is my creepy little bouquet.
There are no good women in Sharp Objects. Camille, my narrator of whom I’m obsessively fond — she’s witty, self-aware, and buoyant — is the closest to good. And she uses booze, sex, and scissors to get through the day. As I wrote about Camille, I was pondering how a girl who’s been raised to please — in an unpleasable, poisonous home — would grow up. How she’d react to a mother who was at once both physically insidious — a constantly poking, prodding woman — and utterly unnurturing. What kind of violence that might foster in this girl. A looping one, I realized. Camille has a craving to carve herself up. The cutter is both victimizer and victim — the bully and the sufferer. But the act includes healing: One has to cleanse and bandage the wounds afterward. Hurt, suffer, heal, hurt, suffer, heal. It’s a trinity of violence, all bound up in one person. It’s the loneliest act in the world. Camille is an inherently lonely human being.
Camille’s mother was inspired by my love of Brothers Grimm as a child: Screw the blonde, gentle heroines, it was those wicked queens and evil stepmothers I adored. (“The Juniper Tree” was well-thumbed.) So that’s what Camille’s mother is: She’s a lovely, regal woman filled with needles. She’s a consumer of others’ pain. If Camille’s violence is self-contained, her mother’s is the definition of self-centered. As for the murdered little girls, I didn’t want these doomed girls to be just flashes of dimples and hair ribbons. That would be too easy. (Poe said, “The death of a beautiful woman is a poetic thing,” and the death of a pretty girl is apparently more so — considering the current media madness surrounding JonBenet and other lost girls.) The murdered girls of Sharp Objects aren’t doll-like victims; they have vicious streaks themselves; they were fighters. Camille’s half-sister, Amma, also has a temper. Unlike Camille, her haunted home didn’t turn her aggression inward, but shot it out in the grabbiest, flashiest way.
When I think of the women of Sharp Objects, I think of a 1948 photo by Frederick Sommer, called Livia (the name of the murderous Roman empress). It’s a black-and-white shot of a young girl with all the accoutrements of innocence: Blonde braids, lace-edged dress. But her eyes are startlingly intelligent, her lips stubborn, her whole face mischievous — perhaps malevolent. It’s one of my favorite photos in the world, a reminder that girls — and women — can be bad.
Image: Livia by Frederick Sommer