I have heard of this story before perhaps when I was a teenager or a young adult. The characters were juxtaposed differently there: it was a tempestuous lover and a woman. The man was satisfied with the woman save for one thing - she had a ribbon around her neck every time they met and made love. He was too curious about this ribbon.
One day, despite her reluctance, he decides he will see what's behind the ribbon. Only to see her head roll off. The ribbon seemed to have been keeping her head in place. So, she died and I don't quite remember from whom I heard this story from but this urban folklore has some meanings.
The meanings are explored in Carmen Maria Machado's "The Husband Stitch" a story in her anthology called, Her Body and other Parties (2017). I must warn the readers that this piece will contain graphic imagery so reader discretion is advised.
"The title refers to the extra stitch sometimes given to a woman after the area between her vagina and anus is either torn or cut during childbirth. The purpose of the extra stitch is to make the vagina tighter than it was before childbirth in order to increase the husband's pleasure during sex.
I was first introduced to the husband stitch in 2014, when a friend in medical school told me about a birth her classmate observed. After the baby was delivered, the doctor said to the woman's husband, "Don't worry, I'll sew her up nice and tight for you," and the two men laughed while the woman lay between them, covered in her own and her baby's blood and feces.
The story terrified me, the laughter in particular, signaling some understanding of wrongdoing, some sheepishness in doing it anyway. The helplessness of the woman, her body being altered without her consent by two people she has to trust: her partner, her doctor. "
writes Jane Dykema in her article "What I Don't Tell my Students About 'The Husband Stitch.'" Dykema runs fiction workshops and says that she has a hard time explaining the resonating effects of this short story but that it stays with her. The men in the workshops are quiet surrounding this piece. They don't really know what to say.
A student approached her after class and said in tears that this was done to her mother. That this was real and as Dykema accounts that this is a real procedure done but there are seemingly not many records about it. The stitch, in itself, talks about what is done to the bodies of women without their knowledge or consent.
The protagonist of the short story gives and gives to her husband - her only request is that he does not unravel the green ribbon across her throat. When she is pregnant the doctor wants to do a caesarian and she is reluctant. Still, her birth is natural. In the faint consciousness of anesthesia she hears her own husband request it.
The thing is she has been a very good girlfriend and wife. She never does anything he seemingly hates and is always consenting to physical relations. She is never really unhappy with him even when initially they are not that rich. She is patient and kind with him. And, what does she get for that?
"- How much to get that extra stitch? he asks. You offer that, right?
- Please, I say to him. But it comes out slurred and twisted and possibly no more than a small moan. Neither man turns his head toward me.
The doctor chuckles. You aren't the first -"
She also has to accept the stitch because her husband wants it. He doesn't seem to think it wise to ask her for her permission. Later, she feels that her husband is responsible for ruining part of her relationship with her son because of his curiosity regarding the ribbon:
"He is silent for a long minute. Then,
- A wife should have no secrets.
My nose grows hot. I do not want to cry.
- I have given you everything you have ever asked for, I say. Am I not allowed this one thing?
- I want to know.
- You think you want to know, I say, but you do not.
- Why do you want to hide it from me?
- I am not hiding it. It is not yours.
He gets down very close to me, and I pull back from the smell of bourbon. I hear a creak, and we both look up to see our son's feet vanishing up the staircase.
When my husband goes to sleep that night, he does so with a hot and burning anger that falls away only when he starts dreaming. I sense its release, and only then can I sleep, too.
The next day, our son touches my throat and asks about my ribbon. He tries to pull at it. And though it pains me, I have to make it forbidden to him."
No matter what she does the protagonist cannot satiate her husband's curiosity of the ribbon. Later on, her son grows up and gets married; she says "He stops smelling like a child - milky sweetness replaced with something sharp and burning, like a hair sizzling on the stove." A friend once told me that the smell of innocence was of "nutmegs" for the character of Mary in the novel Alias Grace (1996) by Margaret Atwood.
There is a connection. Dykema points it out "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... Maybe this is why we don't believe women. If their experience is true, we can't stand to see our role in it." The whole story has a magical realism feel to it but it is in the end based on trust.
A trust that the protagonist gives unconditionally to her husband even though he has tampered with her body, but she does mention he is a good man. Dykema wants to tell her students how horrible it feels to be always treated with suspect, to have one's sanity questioned and to have to be always under radar. Berth Mason was not believed so she became the madwoman in the attic in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.
And, Mary? Alias Grace shows she was basically seduced by a rich man's son and then he denied that the child was his. The young man said to the young teenager that if she was so free with him she was surely free with others. In a sentence, his logic seemed to override her truth.
As Dykema inluded James Baldwin's essay ""If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?" shows that we evolve languages and gestures, additionally as People of Color, to articulate feelings that another person, who have not faced the same struggles, may not seem to understand. The green ribbon is Machado's metaphor for feelings of women disregarded or even overridden by other "logic" which is usually considered phallogocentric.
When one reads Doris Lessing's brilliant work, The Grass is Singing (1950), we see the demise of Mary Turner and how it is taken as a relief from her community. Mary's husband always invests in failing businesses leaving them poor and destitute. Mary can only have a bad temper, as she doesn't know any other way to rebel or how to escape from this marriage.
Her husband chastises her behavior stating he never lied to her about the poverty and the isolation they have to live in. Yet, he never told her it would be a continuous cycle of misery and failure. Her husband also refuses to have children because of their poverty leaving Mary more bereft and angry. When she is killed by Moses it is almost like Lessing is saying was it exactly vengeance or a mercy?
The protagonist of Machado's short story retells a story about a woman whose mother gets sick in Paris and they check into a hotel. The woman then drives to the doctor's house and when she goes back to the hotel with the medicine the hotel denies knowing her and her mother. She is titled basically insane.
Women's problems were once coined as hysteria so the story the protagonist recounts is not far from the truth. One version has the woman becoming mad because she was denied her truth and she moves around the city wondering if she did imagine all her experiences up.
A system that favors patriarchal aspects can do that. Take away your truth. And, even your life. The other version shows that the mother had an unknown contagion and to resist alerting the public, the woman discovers her story was made false to cover up the disease.
The husband of the protagonist cannot sustain his lust to know the tethering unknowable. When her son grows up and moves away she finally gives him permission, during coupling, to do what he wants. He does not hesitate and unfastens the ribbon:
"- I love you, I assure him, more than you can possibly know.
- No, he says, but I don't know to what he's responding.
... My weight shifts, and with it, gravity seizes me. My husband's face falls away, and then I see the ceiling, and the wall behind me. As my lopped head tips backwards off my neck and rolls off the bed, I feel as lonely as I have ever been."
Erica Buddington spoke in a number of tweets about the shaming of abusive survivors. She was a regular person who was tweeting on why survivors don't seemingly come forward earlier. She recounts a story of a young woman seeking help from her because her boyfriend was abusive.
The boyfriend used the legal systems placed in society to get her arrested and made it known to her when he bailed her out. For many years she had to live and marry this domestic abuser. The man's friends, who worked jobs in the public sector, helped to have his girlfriend arrested when she was fleeing from him. The man was very successful, was in the military, and acted like an upstanding citizen.
The woman finally escaped her abuser. To friends and family the man seemed incapable of doing any wrong because a form of logic seemed to deny his culpability. This is why Bertrand Russell once spoke out against logic. He firmly stated that logic upturns the need of accountability and responsibility in certain modern contexts.
Shouldn't we believe women? Shouldn't they have autonomy over their own bodies? I leave you with what Machado stated in her story: "I don't need to tell you the moral of this story. I think you already know what it is."
The writer is a copy editor at The Asian Age
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