Scheherazaden: On the Power of Women’s Stories

2019-05-22T16:04:48+00:00May 6th, 2019|

By Kathy Ewing

The young violinist’s diaphanous white blouse flows over her black pants. No evening gown tonight. Her feet are planted wide on the stage. She bends ninety degrees to the right, and then to the left, back and forth. Sometimes she throws herself forward from the waist as she plays. She tosses her short hair out of her eyes and steps, almost lurches, sideways and backward. She grimaces, she sweats, and she seems to dance. The precise conductor, dressed all in black, measures out percussive rhythms like a metronome. They are two athletes, and the orchestra cheers them on.

The violinist is Leila Josefowicz. She is performing “Scheherazade.2,” which was written for her in 2015 by the conductor, composer John Adams. The title’s “.2” distinguishes this recent composition from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s popular 1888 iteration—named for the protagonist of One Thousand and One Nights, and familiar to most concert-goers. Prior to this performance, with the Cleveland Orchestra in Severance Hall, Adams told the audience that Josefowicz had already performed the concerto about fifty times. I can’t imagine her surviving even this performance. How could she endure such an ordeal fifty times?

My husband and I, sitting near the top of the balcony, take turns with the binoculars to watch Josefowicz’s face. In the rare pauses in her playing, she frowns and shakes her head. She looks frightened, sometimes angry. She seems to have entered the music with her whole body. I can’t stop watching her. I’ve never seen a performance like this.

I came to this concert to hear Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” Its familiar melodies soothed and moved me. I expected to dislike Adams’s modern, dissonant, fifty-minute-long closing piece, but now, as it ends in a lyrical, suddenly melodic section titled “Sanctuary,” my face is wet with tears.

 

In One Thousand and One Nights (also called The Arabian Nights), which dates to the ninth century, Scheherazade, the bride of a sultan, saves her own life by telling stories. Her new husband has beheaded each of his previous wives. When asked the reason, he would explain, My first wife was unfaithful, so she had to be executed. Now I execute the rest before they can betray me. He marries a new virgin every day, sleeps with her, and then beheads her the following morning. Scheherazade knows this. She also knows that, after her, the only virgin remaining in the kingdom is her younger sister. To protect them both, she offers herself, and, on the wedding night, concocts an elaborate, suspenseful story. When dawn breaks, she deliberately leaves the story unfinished; her husband must keep her alive to hear the ending. She repeats this stratagem night after night, beguiling him with stories—and keeping herself, and her sister, alive. At last, after one thousand and one nights, and hundreds of stories, he falls in love with Scheherazade. They marry and, perhaps, live happily ever after.

One takeaway: women who can entrance men with their words are sometimes safe from harm.

One takeaway: women who can entrance men with their words are sometimes safe from harm. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’s wife Penelope famously wove a false story to deceive the suitors greedy for the missing hero’s estate—and his wife. In contemporary times, taking an Uber home at night, many women lie to their drivers, saying that they’re going to a boyfriend’s house, so as not to reveal they live alone. Some women have practiced what to say to their husbands to avoid provoking anger. Women with abusive fathers or boyfriends speak soothing, innocuous words. Sometimes these tactics work.

Too often, however, they don’t. The novelist Margaret Atwood is reported to have said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Strangers, acquaintances, relatives, intimate partners, even sultans—all can sometimes be a threat. “There are no men,” a male friend tells me, “from whom women are safe.” He doesn’t mean all men are dangerous, but he means all categories of men are a threat.

 

In 1966, when I was fifteen, I read the Time magazine account of the eight Chicago nurses murdered by Richard Speck. Speck broke into the young women’s apartment, herded them into a bedroom, and then led them, one by one, into other rooms, where he raped, strangled, and stabbed them. I still recall the magazine’s diagram of the apartment. For years afterward, I would lie in my bed and listen for noises in the house. My troubled imagination relived the fear and horror of those women. I lost sleep and felt terror, though I knew, even then, how rare such a murder was.

I knew that then, and I know it now. Even so, when I have occasionally alluded to this fear, men have chided me: Most men aren’t violent. Why are you blaming all of us? Or, they’ve gravely explained, You know the chances you’ll die in a car accident are many times greater, right?

I want to respond that if I die in a car accident I won’t be terrorized and tortured first. Death is the least of it. I want to quote Susan Brownmiller, who wrote, in Against Our Will, “That some men rape provides a sufficient threat to keep all women in a constant state of intimidation.” Most men don’t need to rape and kill. The ones who do keep women in check. Brownmiller wrote, “Men who commit rape have served in effect as front-line masculine shock troops, terrorist guerrillas in the longest sustained battle the world has ever known.” Because some men rape, all men have power.

Though most men don’t rape and kill, I need to be on guard in case I run into one who does. Hence, like most women, I check the back seat of my car when I return to it, especially at night. I grasp my keys strategically, between my index finger and thumb, in hopes of being prepared to wound a large, brutal attacker. At night, I hurry through a dark parking lot or garage, chastising myself for risking my safety. As I write this, I read about a woman who got into the wrong car after calling an Uber. The stranger driving the wrong car murdered her.

I empathize deeply with women who’ve suffered violence; I imagine their terror as they were raped, or when they realized they were going to die. I imagine other women who have died at the hands of men: Kitty Genovese in New York City in 1964; Gloria Pointer, the fourth teenage girl abducted and killed in the Cleveland area within a few months in 1984. That same year, fourteen-year-old Tryna Middleton was walking home from a football game in East Cleveland. Only a mile or two from my house, she was abducted, raped, and murdered.

The novelist Margaret Atwood is reported to have said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

I couldn’t put her out of my mind for weeks. She was a young girl who died a horrific death as she was walking home from her school. I locked my doors carefully and once again heard noises when I was alone in my house. It wasn’t that I thought that same guy was going to break in. But, I would think, Anything is possible. The worst thing I could imagine had happened to a young girl, not so far away. It would happen again to someone. It will happen again to someone. The story will be repeated. If it happened to Tryna Middleton, it could happen to me.

Mary Jo Pesho, Randi Gorenberg, Dru Sjodin, and Lisa Ann O’Boyle were all abducted from shopping malls. Those women, too, stick in my head, but their stories are quickly supplanted by others. There are always more stories, many, many more even than the one thousand and one stories of Scheherazade.

In late 2018, the body of Rebecca Pletnewski, who lived about five miles from me, and who graduated from the high school my kids attended, was found, dead, in her burned-down house. But an autopsy revealed that Rebecca did not die as a result of the fire. She had been stabbed to death, by a neighbor whose advances she’d rebuffed. The fire was an attempt by the perpetrator to hide his crime. He either didn’t know or didn’t care about her eight-year-old daughter, asleep upstairs. The little girl died in the fire.

Around the same time, local teacher Aisha Fraser Mason died at the hands of her ex-husband, a former Cleveland judge who, a couple of years earlier, had smashed her head against her car’s dashboard so violently that he broke the bones around her eye. He bit her face and choked her, as their little daughters watched from the backseat. Authorities, asserting that Judge Mason had been rehabilitated, gave him another job in Cleveland city government. Then he confronted Aisha in her driveway and stabbed her to death—again, in front of their daughters.

The stories pile up, to a seemingly infinite number. In Cleveland alone, we also recall the three women kept captive and raped, over many years, by Ariel Castro. Eleven “known” victims of serial killer Anthony Sowell were murdered in a house in a neighborhood I used to drive through once a week. The yellow tape surrounded that yard for a long time. Then the house was destroyed by the city. The story remains.

 

Before Josefowicz’s performance with the Orchestra, John Adams, the conductor, addressed the audience from the podium. What he said also appears on his website. A few years ago, he saw an art exhibit in Paris devoted to the character Scheherazade. “The casual brutality toward women that lies at the base of many of these tales prodded me to think about the many images of women oppressed or abused or violated that we see today in the news on a daily basis,” he explained. The depictions moved him to create a character inspired by the original.

Like me, he’s noticed that abuse of women is a recurrent narrative. “Thinking about…a Scheherazade in our own time,” he wrote on his website, “…brought to mind some famous examples of women under threat for their lives.” He thought, for example, of the veiled woman in the blue bra, beaten by Egyptian police on a Cairo street. He thought of Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot to death, in 2009, after a peaceful protest in Iran. He thought of “women routinely attacked and even executed by religious fanatics in any number of countries—India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, wherever.” He thought of women around the world, in our own country, even on college campuses, beaten and violated and murdered.

There are other men, always, in the news. One man, arrested in California, tells authorities he killed ninety women. I wish I could list their names here. It would take a long time to find them, to type them. It would be a long, distracting list that would add considerably to the word count of this essay. In fact, though, their names will never all be known. The murderer himself probably does not know their names, but he could, if he wanted to, describe their deaths. Telling those stories would take hours.

In Adams’s musical retelling, Scheherazade is a canny, powerful woman who subverts the oppressive power of the men out to get her.

You may recall that, in 2006, Charles Carl Roberts murdered Amish children in a Pennsylvania schoolhouse. You may not remember that Roberts first let all the boys go. Then he tied the girls’ feet with wires and their hands with plastic handcuffs, lined them against the blackboard, and shot the girls in the back of the head, killing five and seriously wounding five others. Local officials surmised that, for some reason, “[Roberts] wanted to exact revenge against female victims.”

There’s no escaping the violence. Recently, I happened to read a memoir called A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin, an esteemed British biographer, in which she tells the reader that her husband, Nick Tomalin, a respected journalist, smacked her in the face repeatedly during their marriage. This is not the focus of the book. It’s just one of the things that happened in Claire Tomalin’s matter-of-fact telling.

Online, I read that Reuben Foster was signed by Washington, D.C.’s football team, despite his girlfriend Elissa Ennis’s accusations that he has slapped, punched, bruised, and spat at her, as well as given her a concussion. R. Kelly’s victims have finally been heard. The Pope and the media are listening to nuns who have been abused by priests. The recent memory of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings seethes beneath it all.

Another story flitted through my consciousness while I watched the Cleveland Orchestra play “Scheherazade.2.” William Preucil, long-time concert master of the Cleveland Orchestra, and trombonist Massimo La Rosa were absent. Young women studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where both men taught, had complained about their behavior over many years. When nothing was done, women resorted to warning each other to “watch out” for them. One young woman told of standing over her violin case and looking down to see Preucil, one of the most esteemed violinists in the world, lying on the floor below her, looking up her skirt. Others reported him forcibly kissing them.

A local reporter, Rebecca Meiser, broke the story of his repeated abuses eleven years ago, in an alternative weekly. The city’s powers, including the local daily, the Plain Dealer, ignored the story. Meiser says now, “To my sources—and me—it felt like we had been screaming into a pillow.” It took the Washington Post, in 2018, contacting Meiser and investigating further, to make the Orchestra act. Women were talking, but no one listened.

How long the victims of Bill Cosby screamed into their pillows.

When asked to explain such abuse, the perpetrators deny the charges, or they justify it with rational-sounding language, like the sultan of Arabian Nights. The Cleveland judge, after the savage beating that got him arrested three years ago, explained that he was enraged by his wife Aisha’s suggestion that he attend anger management classes. Right next to that story in the newspaper was one describing the sentencing of a man who, two years ago, beat his girlfriend and slit her throat. He told the cops who came to the scene that he had grown tired of her complaining about domestic abuse.

 

Jackson Katz, a scholar who teaches and lectures on gender violence, tells the following story in his book The Macho Paradox: building on an idea that originated with feminists from the Seventies, he draws a vertical line on a board and writes “men” on one side and “women” on the other. He asks the men, “What do you do to protect yourself from sexual violence?” An awkward silence ensues. “Nothing,” they say. “I never think about it.”

When he asks the same question of the women in the course, hands shoot up. They—we—avoid parking garages, stairwells, and elevators, especially if we see a man alone. We switch out our routes home. We check the rearview mirror, frequently, when driving at night. We lock our car doors. We never leave a drink unattended. We avoid eye contact with strange men. We scope out safe havens if we suspect someone is following us. The writing on Katz’s board tells the story: the “men” side is almost blank, and the women’s side is filled with words, with the details of our daily lives.

Sometimes, the stories work. In Adams’s musical retelling, Scheherazade is a canny, powerful woman who subverts the oppressive power of the men out to get her. He had in mind Leila Josefowicz as a model. “I find Leila a perfect embodiment of that kind of empowered strength and energy that a modern Scheherazade would possess,” his website says. Adams is intent on changing the story’s ending: his Scheherazade doesn’t marry the executioner. In the first of four movements, Scheherazade survives a “pursuit by true believers.” The second portrays a love scene “both violent and tender.” In the third, she is tried by “men with beards,” to whom she responds calmly and rationally. In the last movement, she escapes, flees, and at last finds sanctuary: the lyrical denouement that had me in tears.

The night after we attended, I happened to hear a broadcast of the concert by our local classical music station, WCLV. I sat in my car in the grocery store parking lot to hear the end. As the audience applauded wildly in the background, our venerable WCLV announcer, Robert Conrad, read the Adams explanatory text I have summarized, about women attacked in Egypt and Iran and around the world. He closed by adding words of his own, saying something like this: And in Cleveland, a school teacher’s husband pounded her head on the dashboard of her car while her children watched from the backseat. A few years later, he stabbed her to death in her driveway, while her daughters looked on. I wrote him an email to thank him for making that connection. I thanked him for recalling Aisha Fraser Mason.

Stories, recounted and repeated and insisted upon, accumulate.

I’ve talked about good men here, not just violent ones: John Adams, Jackson Katz, Robert Conrad. The Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby has recently questioned the very idea of “good men,” and particularly chastised late-night comics, whom she disparages as “the Jimmies,” for daring to enter the cultural conversation around misogyny. Maybe she’s right to insist that women, not men, should draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. But for me, the men who get it, even imperfectly, provide hope. Maybe the stories have done some good.

Environmentalists explain that when snow begins to fall in early winter, the warm earth melts the snowflakes. But as each snowflake sacrifices itself on the warm ground, it cools the earth in tiny increments, until at last many thousands of snowflakes lower the temperature such that the snow no longer melts. The snow gradually forms a visible blanket for everyone to see. With great accumulation, over decades, a glacier forms. A glacier has power to dig the Great Lakes, to build mountains.

Stories, recounted and repeated and insisted upon, accumulate. The archetype of Scheherazade worked her way into John Adam’s imagination and moved him to collaborate with a powerful living woman to create a vision of women’s subjugation and triumph. Their sweat and exertion on stage demonstrate the hard work of telling the stories. The writing on Jackson Katz’s board and his life’s work combating gender violence catch our attention. Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford face down senators to do their part. Sixty women tell how they suffered at the hands of Bill Cosby. Though men shot Malala Yousafsai in the head when she was only fifteen, she has never stopped talking. The #MeToo accounts become a moving glacier of transformation. Nuns speak out. Stories upon stories upon stories crash through denial.

The first step is truth telling, even under the guise of fiction. Like falling snowflakes, each story prepares the ground. Eventually, like snow, the accumulation of stories covers the earth. The landscape has changed. ■

 

 

Kathy Ewing has written for such publications as Belt, The Bark, Brevity, America, The Millions, The Plain Dealer, and Great Lakes Review. Her memoir, Missing: Coming to Terms with a Borderline Mother, appeared in 2016. She teaches Latin at Cleveland State University and writing at Case Western Reserve University. She has two grown children and lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. She blogs at http://www.kathyewing.com.

Cover image of Josefowicz’s performance by Roger Mastroianni.

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