a monthly feature by Amy Alexander
There’s Many Dangerous Things That Can Happen in a Bed
I am meditating on quilts. How I took them for granted when I burrowed down into one made by my great grandmother. I appreciated them more when I looked at my sleeping son beneath that same heavy hug.
My son beneath a quilt made by my great grandmother, Lucille Case Pratt.
But it wasn’t until I read the book “Alias Grace,” by Margaret Atwood, that I truly grasped the significance of quilts. This was a passage I read repeatedly, each time with my breath caught in my throat at the thrill of such insight:
The winter quilts were of deeper colours than the summer ones, with reds and oranges and blues and purples; and some of them had silks and velvets and brocade pieces in them.
Over the years in prison, when I have been by myself, as I am a good deal of the time, I have closed my eyes and turned my head towards the sun, and I have seen a red and an orange that were like the brightness of those quilts; and when we’d hung a half-dozen of them up on the line, all in a row, I thought that they looked like flags, hung out by an army as it goes to war.
And since that time I have thought, why is it that women have chosen to sew such flags, and then to lay them on the tops of beds?
For they make the bed the most noticeable thing in a room. And then I have thought, it’s for a warning. Because you may think a bed is a peaceful thing, Sir, and to you it may mean rest and comfort and a good night’s sleep. But it isn’t so for everyone; and there are many dangerous things that may take place in a bed. It is where we are born, and that is our first peril in life; and it is where the women give birth, which is often their last.
And it is where the act takes place between men and women that I will not mention to you, Sir, but I suppose you know what it is; and some call it love, and others despair, or else merely an indignity which they must suffer through.
And finally beds are what we sleep in, and where we dream, and often where we die.
But I did not have these fancies about the quilts until after I was already in prison. It is a place where you have a lot of time to think, and no one to tell your thoughts to; and so you tell them to yourself.
-- Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace
We are two weeks past the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford regarding Brett Kavanaugh. She remembers him trying to rape her. He has no recollection of ever having seen her.
The senate, as it turned out, did not believe Ford. They placed Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court rapidly, and without a real investigation.
As that realization moved through me, I sank into a deep depression.
I could feel those of my sisters, too, those of all genders who have been survivors of sexual assault and who wish desperately to end rape culture. There is a rising, bitter acknowledgement among us that this is how things always have been; how things always will be.
Atwood, speaking as the character of Grace, says to her male psychologist that he might only think of a bed as being a peaceful thing. But that is not true for everyone.
The assault Ford describes--and I believe her, to my core--took place on a bed, after all.
Women--or Womxn, more fairly, for there are many who identify as such--live in a different world from the one inhabited by men. They are taught, strictly and from an early age, not to speak about the way they live in the world, but to act as if the default way that men experience life is also the way they experience life, day after day.
For man: A bed is for sleeping and peace and sex the man wants, and the woman gives, willingly, for that is the way he will remember it later.
For man: The world is a conquerable wilderness. The night is his. He walks in it with beauty. He receives visitors out of it and drives on lost desert highways. He goes where he pleases, when he pleases. He has a tacit understanding of violence, but it isn’t usually top-of-mind.
For womxn: The bed of blood. Parking lots at night, visitors at the door, parties, dog parks, running paths at nine in the morning, always the possibility of harassment, rape, and murder.
My great, great, great grandmother, Sarah Pratt, made quilts, too.
She was the wife of the Mormon apostle, Orson Pratt, and she walked across the plains to reach the promised land of Salt Lake City, Utah, burying a baby on the trail.
Among her husband’s cronies was one prophet named Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, who happened to come up with the idea for plural wives while my great, great, great grandfather, Orson, was in England recruiting for the faith.
Smith showed up at Grandmother Sarah’s door and commanded she become his second wife. She laughed at him and shooed him away.
Years later, she would speak of the constant harassment that came at her from Joseph Smith, day and night, while her husband was away. Smith then launched a smear campaign against her, in retaliation, saying that she had been a loose floozy with the local doctor.
She would eventually leave the LDS church and speak out against polygamy, most notably, to the New York Times.
She would become an outcast; an apostate.
Years after Joseph Smith, prophet-turned-martyr, and Orson Pratt died, Smith’s son came to Sarah’s door, hat in hand, and asked her if what she described, the assault by his father, was really true. He knew that if it was, the entire Mormon Church was in jeopardy.
For some reason, which I still do not understand, Sarah cleared Smith’s name over tea that day and, according to Smith’s son, swore that she had never been a victim at all. His father’s rumors about her, meanwhile, persist today.
History is a strange thing. Was my grandmother harassed, maybe even more (I always think that there is more) at the hands of Joseph Smith? Did she change her story later on because she realized she would never be believed, anyway?
All along, Sarah Pratt ironed and stitched, and made quilts, as did my other grandmothers, some Mormon, some not.
When I run my hands over the carefully-cut seams of the ones I have inherited, I know, now, to see more than just peaceful packages for sleep. I sense the reality beneath the reality. The warning flags. The truth that is twisted and traded and tucked in to serve the needs of the powerful.
But there is also the connection, and it strengthens me the way the slender slices of fabric and stitches strengthen one another on the quilt. The way I see womxn supporting one another and believing one another and sharing their truths.
Thank you, Grandmother Sarah, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and all brave survivors. I believe you, I believe you, I believe you. And I believe in us.
Put Her in a Pumpkin Shell, Digital Painting, Amy Alexander