I finished reading Madeline Miller’s Circe a couple weeks ago, but it has been a pretty intense couple weeks over here, so I’m late on this review! This was my Read Harder 2019 book for the category of “a book of folklore or mythology.”
This book was exactly the powerful witch goddess narrative I needed in my life.
(There’ll be spoilers here. Also, content note for referencing rape.)
When I was young, and then when I was older, and then still when I was as old as I am now, so basically always, I have loved mythology. I loved all the old pantheons, but I also grew up in colonialism and so the pantheon I knew best was the Greek. But even though I knew the name Circe, I wasn’t as familiar with her as I was with others.
But Madeline Miller made her real.
The book is phenomenal, beautiful, moving. I listened to the audiobook, and narrator Perdita Weeks brings so much warmth and emotion to Circe’s telling of her own story. (This first person narration is the exact right choice for this book.)
More than anything else, I loved the complexity of the relationships.
Particularly the relationships of divine women living under patriarchy. The depiction of lateral and relational violence between women was woven throughout the book, but there was a subtext of making visible the power relations that forced women to act in complicity with patriarchy against each other. This was never more evident than in Circe’s relationship with her sister Pasiphaë (although her relationship with Scylla is a close, close second). I appreciate that Circe is not somehow above these pressures toward complicity, and I appreciate also that once she realizes what is happening, she resists it. This feels more hopeful to me than a narrative of someone who is just always above these pressures.
But it isn’t just the relationships with other women that are represented with complexity and nuance. Circe’s relationships with divine men are also vivid and complex. And, throughout this book, the operations of power are made visible. The way Glaucus’ behaviour changes as his social standing changes, changes that are echoed by her brother Aeetes once he gains his kingdom. Both of these relationships force Circe to re-examine her attachments, and her trust. Her relationship with her father is also interesting, especially as she learns to see him with less devotion and more insight. And her relationship with Hermes situates her as… not an equal in power or in social standing, but certainly an active and intentional partner in the relationship. I appreciated that contrast, of having at least an equal say even if not equal social footing, in her relationship with Hermes as compared with the other relationships with men. All of these are relationships with other gods.
And, of course, there are her relationships with mortal men. Daedalus and Odysseus and Telemachus – all the name dropping was delightful, but the fleshing out of relationships with each of them was just so well-done. (I loved Daedalus. Crush level: mega. Not as mega as my crush on Circe though.)
Power is a significant focus of the book. Circe’s first interaction with a mortal man is Glaucus before she changes him into a god, and they have a gentle, enjoyable friendship. But after Glaucus, after Circe is banished to Aeaea, Circe meets mortal sailors and they attack her, try to rob her, and the captain tries to rape her. Circe transforms the men into pigs. For many, many years, men come to her island and most of them are transformed into pigs. If they attempt to rob her, if they attempt to harm her, if they look like they might – pigs.
In her relationship with Odysseus, they share an agreement that distrust is often the safer and better approach. Both Odysseus and Circe have harmed and killed many, not all of whom deserved it. And I found this interaction interesting, because Odysseus moves through the patriarchal world with the power of being a man, and when he opts for distrust, there is a lot of systemic power behind it. Circe learned to move through the world with distrust because she does not have that same power under patriarchy, and it was the violence of patriarchy that taught her to distrust men. But Circle does have power. She’s a god. She can turn men into pigs when they try to harm her.
I don’t know where I take this noticing. It seems like there is something here about power and how we wield power, power in context, the difference between structural power and situational power. In writing this review, I read a lot of other reviews, and I agree with the assessment by Electric Lit (content note in the link for some ableist language), that Circe does not consistently challenge the definition or meaning of power, it just grants that same hierarchical power to Circe rather than allowing it to stay with men. This is exactly the thing that nudged at me, that made me think about white feminism and cis feminism and all the other feminisms that have claimed power (and yay! I love that!) but have not gone on to challenge the structures of power fundamentally. This leaves so many other vulnerable groups without access to this claimed power.
This absolutely was the power witch narrative I needed in my life, but it is also imperfect. There’s so much that is done so well in terms of demonstrating how power operates, and how patriarchy pushes the marginalized into competition with each other and complicity with the very system that is harming them (something that also applies to other systems of privilege and dominance – think of capitalism). But I wish it went further.
One part of the book that I keep returning to in my thoughts is the small interaction between Circe and Prometheus. It’s just a short interaction, but Circe returns to it many times when she’s telling her own story. It’s formative for her. Prometheus shows her that there is another way to be; that there are alternative stories available to her, despite how rigid the lives of the Titans and Olympians are. If any part of the book does challenge existing notions of power, it is Prometheus and Circe’s reflections on him. He took power from the gods, and chose not to hold onto it despite the cost to himself. He gave the power away and paid for it. I appreciated this. I wanted more from this – I wanted her to visit Prometheus on his rock, or to expand on this. It felt so important, but always just at the edge of my understanding. I just wanted more from this. But I think the fact that there wasn’t more was a wise authorial choice – it keeps me coming back, and even throughout the book I kept wondering.
Madeline Miller stays relatively close to the source material (I know, because every time a new name was dropped or action described, I paused the audio and headed to google!) but despite the fact that so many parts of the story were familiar already, the story was fresh and exciting. And feminist! The whole book just gave me happy feminist feels – patriarchy is apparent throughout, but it is also critiqued throughout. And I also appreciated the fact that the book acknowledges the presence and advancement of other cultures. Although the book stays within the Greek gods, there are references to other cultures and other pantheons – just small, but enough to alert the reader “hey, the privileging of this storyline and the way it is taken up in Enlightenment discourse and then in colonization… pay attention. There are other gods. There are other cultures. Those cultures are interesting and advanced enough that Daedalus wants to learn from them.” I appreciated this.
And I know I’ve already mentioned how much I loved the representation of relationships between women, but I need to take a moment to specifically appreciate the relationship between Penelope and Circe. This relationship happens at the end of the book, and it is such a stark contrast to the earlier relationships with women. Here, instead of being turned against each other by patriarchal power, two powerful women are able to join together to continue a legacy of resisting patriarchal power. Like Prometheus, this is another example where power is redefined and challenged.
When Penelope takes on the mantle of Witch of Aeaea, I almost cried.
Penelope and Circe are also both mothers. Motherhood is an important theme throughout the book, also. I appreciated that motherhood was not easy for Circe, and that the book challenged the idea that a person is either soft and warm and motherly and falls easily into the role, or cold and distant and abusive. Circe struggles with motherhood, struggles with how to raise Telegonus, and still loves him. She is still an attentive and caring mother even though it is not smooth or easy. This isn’t a narrative that I see reflected very often.
This will definitely be a re-read for me. I highly recommend it, and would love to chat about it if you end up reading it!
You can read my other reviews for the Read Harder 2019 challenge here!
My review of Binti for “a book by a woman and/or an author of colour set in or about space.”
My review of When They Call You A Terrorist for “a book of nonviolent true crime.”
My review of Washington Black for “a book by a woman and/or author of colour that won a literary award in 2018.”
My review of Fifteen Dogs for “a book with an animal or inanimate object as a point of view narrator.”
My review of The Widows of Malabar Hill for “a cozy mystery.”
Image description: The 4 of Cups in the Next World Tarot. A person with one breast exposed from a pink housecoat sits on a dock, examining her nails. Four corked bottles float in the ocean beside her, and she has nail polish bottles on the deck beside her. She is wearing fuzzy green slippers.
This is another cross-post from my tarot blog. It’s been a really intense few weeks of responding to abuse – people in my communities are responding to interpersonal, intimate, and social/structural abuse, and it’s been really heavy. Tarot has been helping me work through this, and today’s post is a companion to last week’s Ten of Swords post.
Last week I pulled the Four of Cups, and my phone ate the post. I meant to come back to it, but didn’t have time.
This morning, I pulled the Four of Cups again and I am thankful for the opportunity to come back to this. I’m also so conscious of how our relationship with the tarot deck is so contextual – this card lands differently today than it did last Saturday.
Today, I flipped that card over and in the femme checking her nail polish I saw so many women and femmes in my own life who have experienced abuse and are bored with it.
I thought about those moments when you’re shocked that someone would say or do something abusive, but you also know that they’re just reading from the same ratty old playbook as so many people before them. I’m thinking about how predictable and unoriginal abuse is; the gaslighting, the victim-blaming, the blame and shame and fragility and violence.
And it doesn’t really matter who they are, we see it all over the place. TERFs abusing trans women in the same boring old ways. Men abusing women and non-men in the same boring old ways. White folks abusing people of colour. Across every gap of privilege and dominance, there is the potential for this abuse and when it shows up, it is horrible and unacceptable and boring.
The effects of abuse are real. When I say that abuse is boring, I am not at all intending to downplay the impact. But where I see creativity, resourcefulness, innovation is in the responses to abuse. Abuse is so easy – our whole culture is set up to comfort and console and protect people who misuse their power. Capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy – it’s all designed to make it easy to misuse our power in the same old ways. At the end of the day, it’s the same old Scooby Doo villain reveal – looked like an exciting new monster, but it was the same old thing again.
I see this boredom in the Four of Cups today.
I feel this boredom in my heart. And I feel the heaviness of it in my shoulders, my temples, my hips. Because it may be same old same old boring shit, but it’s also pervasive, entrenched. It’s everywhere. Yes, it’s the same thing. Yes, we can predict the gaslighting, the victim blaming, the revisionist histories. We can predict the response of the media and many of the people around us. But that doesn’t make it any easier. That doesn’t make it hurt less. That doesn’t give the disenfranchised access to power or stability or security. The boring abuse still takes over lives, leaves people hurting, alone, living with trauma.
So, back to the Four of Cups.
Personally, I have always read this card as being about scarcity. It shows up when I’m feeling restricted, afraid. There’s often a sense of constriction in this card for me. I’m holding all those cups in reserve, because I don’t know if I’ll have anything left tomorrow. I’m unwilling to engage, because engagement feels risky.
In Carrie Mallon’s interpretation of the Four of Cups in the Wild Unknown, she writes:
This card tends to get a bad reputation, but it’s one of my favorites, and it has a very nuanced message. In some circumstances, this card suggests a person who is closed off from opportunities. Being too absorbed in your inner world can be a detriment, leading you to miss golden opportunities. Disconnection and apathy can be inherent in this card.
But in another view, emotional withdrawal does not have to indicate a negative form of apathy. Sometimes you need to hole yourself up, forget about what shiny things the outside world is offering, and let your emotions stabilize. After all, four is the number of structure and stability, and cups are the suit of emotions. Therefore, the Four of Cups can advise you to come back to your own emotional center.
Even in the more “negative” interpretation here, I wonder: what has led this person to be closed off? What has been happening in their context that has them turning inward to their inner world? What is the context that invited disconnection and apathy into their lives?
I think this is especially relevant when we are examining our own responses to someone who has experienced abuse. Do we see them (or ourselves) as “missing out on golden opportunities” (without holding compassion for how much those opportunities might cost)? Are we frustrated with them (or ourselves) or not engaging in their/our own lives? For not leaving, responding, resisting – all the other “opportunities” available to people who are experiencing violence (which are often not actually as available as they seem).
The Next World Tarot guidebook interpretation of the 4 of Cups highlights the potential positives that come with disengagement and withdrawal. I think this is relevant to the current theme of responding to abuse which is so present in my life these days.
In the Next World guidebook, Cristy C. Road writes:
It feels as if she has been in the middle of this argument for centuries. The 4 of Cups is strong, but exhausted, and unwilling to part with the quiet. She is happy now – along the seaside, surrounded by her most comforting possessions. The 4 of Cups asks you to question your exhaustion. Is it due to unhappiness, disinterest, or boredom?
Living in a society so complacent with injustice, the 4 of Cups asks you to transform exhaustion into your own disengaged moment of accidental self-care.
Are there ways in which exhaustion can highlight injustice? Can our exhaustion and disengagement be an indicator of where something is wrong, and we are unwilling to cooperate with it?
Is there a way in which exhaustion can be refusal? Is there a way in which our acknowledgement and response to exhaustion can be self-care?
So often, interpretations of the Four of Cups can feel incredibly victim-blaming. (In Michelle Tea’s Modern Tarot, she actually says, “Often when this card comes up, the problem is you but you’re too deep in your own bad feelings to see it.”)
When we locate the problem internally, it becomes difficult to see the wisdom and creativity of people’s choices to disengage. Disengagement, turning away, avoidance – these things are all massively devalued in our capitalist, productivity-worshipping, success-chasing, “manifest your best life”, “law of attraction” culture.
But people are always responding to the hardships and traumas in their lives.
People are always resisting.
Nobody is a passive recipient of hardship.
Certainly, there are times when we want to be engaged, and there are times when we want to shift away from the restriction and isolation of this card. But what would happen if we brought curiosity to our interpretation of what’s happening?
What if we asked:
Am I feeling disengaged right now? Does this card reflect my feelings in my own life, or is it an invitation to think about how I’m viewing the world around me?
What have I learned about disengagement as being either good or bad? Who taught me this? Does this learning align with my own values, or my own lived experiences?
If I am disengaged right now, why am I disengaged in this moment?
What am I disengaging from?
What does my disengagement make possible?
What have I learned about greed, or selfishness, or self-absorption (also strong elements associated with this card)?
Whose values do these lessons about greed, selfishness, or self-absorption align with? Do these values apply differently depending on the social location of the person who is behaving in “greedy” or “selfish” or “self-absorbed” ways?
What have I learned about self-care? From whom?
Is there a small moment of self-care that I can engage with today? What might that look like?
Who does it serve or benefit when I engage in self-care? Who does it serve or benefit when I do not?
How can I reevaluate (the key word on the Next World Tarot version of this card!) what I have been taught? Can I choose to engage with these discourses and narratives with curiosity, and to honour my own insider knowledges?
This week, in fact the last few months, has been focused on being a support for people responding to violence in their relationships (both intimately and socially/structurally). I have been so thankful for the gentle invitations that the tarot has offered me over this time. I’m particularly thankful for Cristy C. Road’s Next World Tarot and the liberation and justice-oriented interpretations offered in the guidebook.
(This post was originally written for my tarot blog.)
I am tired of watching the people in my life suffer at the hands and words of people who claim to love them.
And it does not escape my notice that it is more often the femmes, the women, the disabled, the neurodivergent, the vulnerable who are experiencing violence and abuse from their partners.
I am overwhelmed with listening to people who consult me for narrative therapy, and who consult me as a friend, talk about what has been done to them, talk about what has been said to them, talk about what has been said about them, and to hear them questioning themselves with the oppressive voices of our culture.
Was it really so bad?
He didn’t mean it.
Am I too needy?
He was drinking.
They were having a panic attack.
Everything I say makes her angry.
He really tries.
Maybe it’s not so bad.
Maybe it’s not so bad.
Of course they doubt themselves! Our culture chronically gaslights marginalized communities. Marginalized communities are often operating within transgenerational trauma, poverty, scarcity (if not in our families, then in our communities). Marginalized communities may also have to contend with other structural and systemic issues that make naming abuse and violence more challenging – Black and Indigenous communities are at such increased risk of violence from any system. Seeking help often means finding more violence.
There is so much normalization of violence in our culture. And although it is not an issue that only impacts women, or is only perpetuated by men, there are patterns. They are painful patterns to witness.
One of my friends recently posted this open letter to men:
Just wanted to let you know I am so over it. I talk to your partners every day. I see their tears and listen to their self flagellation in the effort to make you happy. I watch them cram themselves in tiny boxes so they don’t threaten you. I fume as they suggest, gently, kindly, if it’s not too much trouble, that you consider their needs, but your wants are more important. Men, I watch you casually ask for sacrifice as if it were your due. I seethe as your partners ask for the simplest things of you, and you just don’t even bother. I see you go through the motions and call it love, when it doesn’t even pass the bar for respect. And then, as it all falls apart you claim you need a chance, as if you haven’t been given dozens, that you didn’t know, as if you hadn’t been told relentlessly, and that you can change, as long as you won’t be held accountable.
Men, I am so over watching your partners unilaterally trying to fix relationship problems that are yours. I am tired of knowing your partners better than you. I am exhausted having to buoy them through the hard times because you cannot be bothered. I am tired of you cheapening what love means by buying the first box of chocolates you see (not even their favourite) and calling it an apology but changing nothing.
Don’t hurt my people. Men, do better or go home.
And still, the questioning. Maybe it wasn’t so bad? Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Because each incident on its own might not be so bad. Might be a bad day, a bad choice. Might be a bad moment. It’s not the whole story. Maybe it’s not so bad.
And on its own, maybe it isn’t.
Image description: The Ten of Swords from the Next World Tarot.
From the guidebook by Cristy C. Road:
This is the final straw, and the 10 of Swords is exhausted from counting. They have lost themselves, over and over, in the name of love, self-worth, trauma, post-traumatic stress, healing the body from abuse, healing the mind from manipulation, and unwarranted, non-stop loss. The 10 knows healing, they studies it and have been offered power, candles, bracelets, and messages from their ancestors through local prophets who run their favorite Botanica. They are listening, but they are stuck. Proving to their community that while they have known power, they have known pain they don’t deserve.
The 10 of Swords asks you to trust your pain, own your suffering, and don’t deny yourself of the care you deserve from self, and the validation from your community. That validation is the root of safety. The 10 of Swords believes now is the time to ask your people for safety.
I pulled this card after another conversation with a beloved member of my community about an incident of misogyny in an intimate relationship.
I had brought this question to the deck – “How do we invite accountability into our intimate relationships?”
I wanted to know –
How do we create the context for change without putting the burden of emotional labour onto the person already experiencing trauma from the choices and behaviours of their partner?
How do we deepen the connection to values of justice, compassion, and ethical action, for people who have been recruited into acts of violence and abuse?
How do we resist creating totalizing narratives about people who use violence and abuse? How do we resist casting them as monsters? How do we invite accountability while also sustaining dignity?
How do we, to use a quote by one of my fellow narrative therapists, “thwart shame”? (Go watch Kylie Dowse’s video here!)
In moments of distress, I often turn to the tarot. When I don’t know how to ask the right questions, and I don’t know what to say or do, I turn to the tarot. Tarot cards are excellent narrative therapists.
I flipped this card over and the image moved me immediately. These acts of intimate partner violence and abuse do not occur in a vacuum. It is not just one sword in the back.
A misogynist comment from a partner, directed towards a woman or femme, joins the crowd of similar comments she, they, or he has received their entire life.
A racist comment from a partner, directed towards a racialized person, joins the pain of living an entire life surrounded by white supremacy and racism.
An ableist comment from a partner, a transantagonistic comment, a sanist or healthist or fatphobic or classist comment – these comments join the crowd.
And so, how do we invite accountability while preserving dignity? How do we resist totalizing narratives of either victims or perpetrators, resist recreating systems of harm in our responses to harm?
See the whole picture.
Even though it is so painful to look at, see the whole thing.
Rather than locating violence and abuse as problems that are localized to a relationship, individualized and internalized to a single person making choices, recognize that these things happen in context. And for many folks, these contexts are incredibly painful.
It will take time, and patience, and compassion, and gentleness, and a willingness to do the hard work of both validation and accountability. It will take community to find safety.
We need each other to say, “it is that bad, even if this incident might not be.”
When the victim-blaming, isolating, individualizing voices start clamoring, we need each other to say, “this is not your fault.”
We need something more nuanced than “leave,” “report.”
We need to show up for each other, with each other. We need safety. We need validation.
Can we do this by asking questions like:
How did you learn what it means to be in relationship?
What examples of making choices in relationships have you seen around you? What was being valued in those choices?
Does what you’ve learned about being in relationship align with what you want for yourself, and what you value for yourself?
Do the actions you’re choosing in your own relationship align with your values or hopes?
Who has supported you in your values and hopes?
Do you share any hopes or values with your partner(s)?
What have you learned about violence and abuse in relationships? About who experiences violence and abuse? About who enacts violence and abuse?
When did you learn this?
Does this learning align with what you’ve experienced in your own relationship?
What insider knowledges would you add to this learning, from your own experience?
Have you ever taken a stand against violence and abuse in your relationship?
What enabled you to take this stand?
When violence or abuse shows up in your relationship, are you able to name it? Have you ever been able to name it? What supports this ability?
What have you learned about what it means to be accountable in relationship?
Do you have supports available to you that invite accountability while sustaining dignity?
Who can support you in being accountable for the actions you’ve taken when you’ve been recruited into violence or abuse? Who can support you in asking for accountability from a partner who has been recruited into violence or abuse?
Here are some resources if you’re looking for ways to respond to intimate partner violence:
The Stop Violence Everyday project.
Critical Resistance’s The Revolution Starts at Home zine.
The Creative Interventions toolkit.
(This post was originally posted on my tarot blog. You can find it here.)