from LOVE LIFE
A love letter to danielle steel
I was trying to think of other people who use fan letters as art and my mind went to “Stan” by Eminem. Have you ever listened to him, Danielle? You rarely feature any angry young men in your books, though I know your son Nick was a punk musician. Did you get my donation to the Nicholas Traina Foundation? I think it’s great that your organization helps deter teen suicide, but it got me wondering how you personally deal with darkness. Do you see a therapist? Is it in your novels somewhere I can’t see?
In the song, the character Stan writes to Eminem about waiting in the rain for him after a show, about listening to his songs as a way to keep from cutting himself, and the letters getting more and more scattered and urgent when Eminem doesn’t reply. The last letter takes the form of a tape recording Stan makes while driving drunk and high with his girlfriend bound and gagged in the trunk. You can hear her screams on the recording, Danielle, but Stan’s only impersonating Eminem’s own posturing, replete with domestic violence, but now laced with the emotional vulnerability of a person whose only real connection is a one way conversation with his idol and Stan drives the car off a bridge, the refrain looping, “Your picture on my wall / It reminds me that it’s not so bad / it’s not so bad,” and water bubbles as the car sinks.
I’ve been thinking about that song and poetry, Danielle, since you’re a poet too and Eminem was a poet I liked in high school before I found Capital P poetry. The first POEM I really got into was “Porphyria’s Lover” by Robert Browning, which I read in a college Victorian Lit class, and going back to it, I couldn’t believe its Eminem-ness. Browning writes in lineated dramatic monologues, taking on a character, with this particular poem told from the perspective of a young male lover, like Stan, cold, alone, but when his lover, Porphyria, enters the poem, it’s magic. She “Made the cheerless grate / Blaze up, and all the cottage warm,” and the lover feels “Happy and proud; at last I knew / Porphyria worshipped me; surprise / Made my heart swell.” She loves him, something he never thought possible, he’d totally expected rejection, but now he’s achieved this impossible thing, receiving love. But it doesn’t end - the happiness immediately mutates into possession, which, ughhhhhhhhhh, comes with the territory in male intimacy. So the second he finally achieves love (“That moment she was mine, mine, fair, / Perfectly pure and good”), it’s really just a shift in his fear’s focus, from a fear of rejection to an even more heightened fear of love’s ephemerality, that he’ll never ‘possess’ her again, this is ‘it,’ he’s currently inside the happiest ending he’ll ever have and if he doesn’t pull the plug on the story, end it now, end the life now, she’ll leave. She’ll come to her senses, take her beauty away, and he’ll be more fucked than he was before, so he follows his impulse: “I found / A thing to do, and all her hair / In one long yellow string I wound / Three times her little throat around.” He strangles her, Danielle, with her own fucking beautiful hair. He freezes the moment of beauty by propping “her head up as before” and looking at “The smiling rosy little head, / So glad it has its utmost will, / That all it scorned at once is fled, / And I, its love, am gained instead!” Problem solved! He’ll never have to feel the emotions of what it’s like to lose her, and he can gaze upon a beauty that’ll never go away. In death, she’s no longer a person, but fully his object. And viola: the masculine romantic happy ending.
So what do we think, Danielle? Kinda fucked, right? Let’s name it and get it allllll out there: the brutally twisted pinnacle of misogyny, that somehow all he needs to justify the ultimate act of violence is the fear that maybe, one day, somewhere down the line, Porphyria will friend-zone him. BUUUUUT, it’s a leap but please come with me, what if we think of the poem as male fantasy, as the flip side to the romance novel, as the ultimate expression of bromanticism? It’s a stretch, Danielle, but hear me out: if we consider that his intent isn’t to kill, but to preserve beauty, isn’t that the most romantic thing of all? And by romantic, I don’t mean rose petal picnic, I mean, striking to the deepest, darkest core of FEELINGS? His desire isn’t for Porphyria (or else he would have kept her alive), but a desire to possess the beautiful, or be possessed by the beautiful, and since gender roles don’t allow him access outside a woman looking back at him, he has to find another way.
Danielle, do you think of your gender as a cage? A cage half visible and half imagined? Half the author’s fault and half my own? Do you hang curtains in the cage or try to get the fuck out? My entry point to queerness, especially trans identity (I don’t want to speak for anyone else’s) wasn’t about attraction to men or feeling I was born in the ‘wrong’ body, though I’ve tried on both those narratives since they’re so culturally ingrained, but about accessing beauty within me, a glamour like yours, Danielle, no matter what capitalist and cliché forms it takes, rather than having to fictionalize or co-opt other people to get it. When I was posing in dresses in department store mirrors, I think I was looking for the same thing Stan and Porphyria’s Lover are looking for: a little glimpse of my own beauty. And since I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to contain beauty, I had to obtain it. I would put female characters into songs or poems or stories, but I wouldn’t give them much to do, they weren’t particularly active or central, kind of like Porphyria, present without agency, each little art excursion a mediocre, problematic attempt at accessing a full self. Danielle, I’ve always loved art more than religion, philosophy, science, politics, business, even other people (oftentimes to my own detriment), and to love art that much without any way to think of myself as beautiful felt, at times, like being strangled by my own hair. Reading you gives me the vicarious experience of being a rich, basic woman exiting Louis Vuitton, clutching my Hermes Birkin as I cross Fifth Ave., en route to browsing black shifts at Chanel. I can live my little imaginary life and as fucked up as that is, as bound up as that fiction is with the capitalist patriarchy, for a few chapters, I love it.
Patty Gone makes art about popular things. They are the author of Love Life (Mount Analogue) and The Impersonators (Factory Hollow Press), and director of the ongoing video serial, Painted Dreams.