Hazardous Material

a work in progress

I lost the thought.
I hate when that happens

Something about the monument?

It was a little ramble I had wanted to set out on

But now it’s gone
Just like that

A writer I love likes to follow words around. As I turn my attention to what bothers me, I find a couple of words keep turning up, as if they are following me around. 


Why bother. What’s the use? A mean expression of resignation that dogs me. Instead, let it be a plea, a demand. 

What use is history?

My mother is keeper of the family archives and teller of the lore. Rubbing up against a thorny family history, I struggle over how to respond to and understand a deeply rooted and often obfuscated sexist and racist legacy. As I look for spaces where I may give voice and context to difficult stories that have become subtle, and not so subtle instruments of oppression, I want to know: how will I keep and retell the past?

What bothers me at the moment is one particular piece of family lore. The story itself is deeply problematic, but what is more so is the attachment this very old tale continues to endear.  I wonder how notions of home, family, and family lore as powerful objects of attachment and sentimentality are used:

By the family

By the state

Used to serve a contemporary nationalist, anti feminist, and white supremacist agenda.

I start by investigating the objects surrounding this piece of family lore (and well known New England captivity tale) that serve to form attachments to this day: monuments, literature, an official“family” association, and cultural knick knacks.

What use is captivity?

How are we held captive? 

By history
By images

How do we hold another, others captive?

Through words
Through objects

The story of my ancestor’s captivity was recorded by Cotton Mather, a puritan minister and writer, and included in at least three of his sermons. It was also noted in at least three personal diaries that survive. My ancestor did not write her own account in her own words because, so I have read, she could not read or write.

An action is right if its consequence is good.

The story was recorded and then faded until the early ninteenth century during Manifest Destiny, when the nation was pushing west, taking land, claiming it as God’s will.

Therefore right.

Therefore good.

Then, the story was resurrected and appeared in “every history book of the day”.  Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whittier all wrote a version. Was it used to help justify Manifest Destiny?

What use history?

Revisting Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists.

Just the other week I sat in a room and listened to a man speak about how performance art is still treated as a fringe subject in the university. He suggested that one problem is that the powers that be do not properly understand and recognize its history. Then he proceeded to give a very brief outline of said history: Duchamp, Cage, Kaprow...

Not a  mention of women artists till he came to the 1980s. Huh?

Wanting to cite differently.

In researching my ancestor’s story, I find myself deep in 19th century United States, reading literature from the time and about the literature of the time. I am also reading a book I got for Christmas, Love and Capital, the story of Karl and Jenny Marx, and here I am now traipsing through Europe during the same time period...


Love and Capital includes the women in the story. Writer Mary Gabriel looked to the letters of Jenny Marx -- and all her family and acquaintances--and there she found a larger story, an inclusive his and herstory.

My mother has a trunk-full of family letters dating back to the mid ninteenth century--most written by women. They are not the letters of anyone who is famous, or of anyone who is connected to a star--


Maybe they tell more of her story

Maybe I can, in some way,  cite these letters?


Siblings jostling for position, for food, for attention

   We were

And I was lowest


I declared, no matter what, I shall not be mean.... let me be simple, unaspiring, the mean

But meanness can denote a course and low character, uneducated

So, at least I will be educated,

I thought

But, there was a problem. The deeper I went,

The more my ambition grew

And the more my knowledge hurt

I understand mean as a device — more than to hurt

Also to protect oneself

Or as a result of the daily assaults

But is there a mean gene?

What use is Attention?

About her difficult brother my mother would often say,

….But his heart was in the right place.

In reality, his heart was not in the right place. my uncle had a condition called Situs Inversus Totalis, all of his internal organs were reversed, a mirror image of what most other human bodies look like on the inside.

My mother tells me her brother was proud of this. I imagine he got a lot of attention because of it (at least when he had to deal with doctors). I imagine it made him feel unique.

What is the use of noticing

What is the use of giving attention

As a child I thought my uncle was a mean man--coarse, hard and inflexible.
Older and
In memoriam, I am able to think of him differently .

Noticing, giving attention

We all need someone to restore our confidence

If we ever had it.



My ancestor’s story is and

Was sensational

One academic has posited that Cotton Mather used her story precisely because it was sensational. His puritan ministry was falling out of fashion. People were losing interest.

He wanted their attention.

For my ancestor was not a puritan, her family was not pious. Her father was abusive and disorderly, her sister was convicted and executed for infanticide (Cotton Mather in fact wrote and gave the sermon at her hanging). There were plenty of other captivity stories to choose from--ones where the female captive did not slay children. But he did choose to include her story in his sermons, comparing her to the biblical Yael, a female other who nevertheless aided the chosen people by killing their enemy.

The chosen people

Manifest Destiny

A walk:

a walk
In the shadow of

Follow me down opaque avenues

keep pace

From Sara Ahmed:

normative structures are like well used paths

using something can make it easier to use, or seem like the right thing to use, as in a well worn path

In 1697, the main road north from Haverhill into New Hampshire was the Merrimack river and my ancestor travelled that route with her “masters” --as Mather called the Abenaki family.

Now, the main road is Interstate 93, aka The Styles Bridges Memorial Highway. Bridges was a New Hampshire Senator and Governor.

From the New England Historical Society Website:

Styles Bridges: 10 Fun Facts

# 9 

Helped drive a colleague to suicide. In 1954, Bridges blackmailed Wyoming Sen. Lester Hunt. Hunt’s son was gay and had been caught in a police sting. Hunt’s hometown papers had ignored the arrest, and the senator said if it was raised in the political campaign, he would quit the race.

Bridges told Hunt that he would publicize the story if Hunt didn’t quit. Hunt quit. He then committed suicide in his senate office.

Ahmed, on queer use: the correct route is the one which offers the least resistance


You: It is useless to resist

Me: I am the pressure, not the resistance

Erected in the late nineteenth century, two statues of my ancestor remain. One stands in Haverhill, where she lived, the other at the supposed site of the massacre.

How to use a Monument:

a performance

I was reading an argument for why the the Monument--the one at the massacre site, the one where she holds an axe in one hand and ten scalps in the other--why the calls for her removal should be ignored and she should remain in place.

In fact, this monument fell out of memory for a time, like the original recording of the story penned by Mather. It stood all but grown over...tucked away from sight...accessible only by boat, if you knew where to land, or by foot along the railroad tracks. In the last several years however, the monument has been uncovered, become a state historic site, well marked and accessible via a well worn path. The grass around her is mowed. A pleasant view of the Merrimack.

In the argument for the statue to remain, the author describes, in great detail, the severe pose of the figure, her troubled expression, even describing the folds of her gown to be like heavy, binding chains. She is not, he claims, glorifying the deeds, but rather complicating them for us. I don’t think so. She stands atop a massive pedestal--three times her size--inscribed with the words Heroum Gesta Fides Justitia.

How to approach a violent woman:

a performance


What is mean?

How can we counter mean

And why must we?

I’m against mean

Or am I ?

Mean would perhaps have been used to describe the Native Americans during Manifest Destiny, as the opposite of civil, as foreign and savage was posed as the opposite of home, virtue and piety in ninteenth century ladies journals.

What is the utility of civility and who sets the terms?

Her meanness is showing. 

As my mother grows old, the niceties slip--those social graces she almost perfected after a lifetime of education and regulation.

Is that right though? I think there was always an unsettled argument raging beneath her skin . 

A woman must not be mean.

Columbia, Liberty, Uncle Sam

Today, is the symbol of the United States a woman scorned?

Some writers have portrayed my ancestor as a woman scorned in order to make sense of (justify?) her brutality.

The phrase that goes something like, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned is from the play Mourning Bride by William Congreve and was written and performed in 1697, the same year my ancestor performed her violent act.

Violent women: a feminist issue

And a prickly road to go down.