As I thought about texts for my “Monsters, Race, and Comics” course, a Jaydn DeWald suggested I read Carmen Maria Machado and Dani’s The Low, Low Woods, a graphic novel that deals with issues of patriarchy, sexual assault, and trauma. He was teaching Machado’s collection of short stories, Her Body and Other Parties, in one of his courses, and he let me borrow the book. I haven’t read all of the stories yet, but after reading “The Husband Stitch,” the opening story in the collection, I knew I had to include it in the course. While the story does not deal with issues of race, it serves as a good lead in to The Low, Low Woods and the themes present within that text. I plan to write more about The Low, Low Woods in future posts. Today, I just want to focus on “The Husband Stitch.”
I do not know, right now, how to fully unpack Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”, but as I reread it in preparation for class, I started thinking about how we tell stories and how we determine what is true or not. The woman narrator of the story details her relationship with her husband, how she knew from the moment she saw him she would marry him, to the birth of their son and to their son leaving for college, leaving the woman and her husband in the house alone. The woman peppers, amongst the moments of her relationship with her husband and son, tales, what we may call folk tales or urban myths, of women. These tales are horror tales, and the woman links them to events in her life, helping her, and us as readers, understand the truth before what occurs in the story.
This thread of determining truth runs throughout the story, and at one point, the narrator talks about, when she was a child, telling her parents that the grocer sold toes in his store. She prefaces the story by telling us, “I have always been a teller of stories” before she proceeds to talk about going to the store with her mother and screaming because she saw toes. No, her mother tells the young girl, it was potatoes. The narrator insists its toes, and when her father talks to her, he asks her where the grocer would even get toes. The narrator views her father’s question as logical, but she also knows that something else rests beneath that logic.
At the end of the story, the woman tells us, “As a grown woman, I would have said to my father that these are true things in this world observed only by a single set of eyes. As a girl, I consented to his account, and laughed when he scooped me from the chair to kiss me and send me on my way.” The narrator points out that truth lies within the eye of the beholder and the experiences that the person has throughout their life. These experiences may not be absolute truth, but they are truth to the person. As Jane Dykema says about this scene, “Machado is teaching us that truth and logic only occasionally overlap. When you start poking at the idea of an absolute truth, a truth unfiltered through someone’s perception, it can fall apart entirely.”
It’s hard to counter one’s experiences because one has lived those experiences. Even when logic enters the equation, the logic has a hard time poking through the layers of experience to upend them. Stories are meant to teach us about the world, about “truth,” whatever “truth” actually is or isn’t. For Macahdo’s narrator, the truth of her existence is that she exists as nothing more than a tool for her husband and men to use in order to maintain patriarchal systems of power. The story opens with the woman, as a teenager, seeing her future husband at a party. She tells us, “In the beginning, I know I want him before he does. This isn’t how things are done, but this is how I’m going to do them.” From the outset, she has agency in her choices, choosing to act for herself, not for others. However, as the story progresses, she loses that agency, acting not for herself but for her husband’s sexual desires and for her son.
An example of this occurs when the woman describes attending an art class and then having a cup of coffee with one of the women models. The two chat about their lives, talking about their kids and other things. The narrator is “captivated by her,” and she thinks about what it would be like to have a more intimate connection with her. After their coffee, the narrator goes home and tells her husband about the woman. She says, “I do not want to tell my husband about her, but he can sense some untapped desire.” Her husband then begins to fantasize about the other woman and his wife with him. The narrator doesn’t return to the class because, as she says, “I feel as if I have betrayed [the woman] somehow.” The narrator’s relationship becomes not her own but her husband’s now, even though he doesn’t know the woman.
The key moment where the narrator loses her agency occurs during the birth of her son. After the doctor has to make a cut to help the birth along, the woman lays on the bed, with a mask over her face to help her sleep. She hears her husband asking the doctor whether or not he can add the extra stitch between the woman’s vagina and anus, the husband stitch, making her vagina tighter than it was before the birth of her son. The doctor laughs and tells the husband he’s not the first to ask this. The woman, as she drifts to sleep, hears pieces of the conversation. He husband says, “ — the rumor is something like — .” The doctor replies, “ — like a vir — .” The omitted words and letters reference the woman’s consciousness, but it also serves to drive home the discussion of “truth” and agency.
Dykema points out that after reading the story, she remembered seeing things about “the husband stitch” online and she asked her doctor friends about it. One had known about it, not from a medical book but from Machado’s story. Dykema notes that the story is “about believing and being believed.” The narrator knows the truth about her life, that she has become nothing more than a plaything for her husband. He doesn’t want to know about her feelings, her desires for example about the model. He only cares about the physical pleasure that he can bring her. This becomes clear through the use of the ribbon around the woman’s neck, the ribbon that she doesn’t want her husband to touch, but when she finally allows him to touch it, he unties the ribbon and her head falls off.
The ribbon keeps her head on her body. The presence of the ribbon around her neck, separating her head from her body, points to the fact that her husband merely sees her as a object of pleasure for himself. Of her husband, the narrator says, “He is not a bad man, and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt,” the narrator says. “He is not a bad man at all. To describe him as evil or wicked or corrupted would be a deep disservice to him. And yet — ” Again, there is something left off, something unsaid, a truth absent from the narrative. We do not see her husband as an “evil man,” and thinking about the beginning, we see him as someone she conquered because she knew she would have him. However, that is not the case. The truth lies in the stories she tells. The stories of women in a patriarchal society, lacking agency and becoming nothing more than objects or, if they go against the system, monsters.
I’m still thinking about “The Husband Stitch,” and there is a lot more to say. Next post I’ll start looking at The Low, Low Woods. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.