The Caged Woman: Olivia's Story

Mentha pulegium
Folk names: pudding grass, pennyroyal

Olivia often took the trash out early in the morning, when she knew Dan would be leaving for work, and would call out to him, waving, pretending that nothing was wrong, that she hadn’t just been hanging out her own window with a cigarette in her mouth, or imagining slipping arsenic into her grandmother’s morning cup of tea. When his hands were full, papers and a briefcase in one, a mug of coffee in the other, he would merely nod his head, but on the days when the sun was especially bright, burning off the morning fog earlier than usual, he would pretend, too, waving back, yelling, “Mornin’, Liv,” having no idea that those were the days she measured as tolerable, instead of unbearable. Those were the days when she could get by with one less cigarette, one less fantasy about stealing a vial of atropine from the hospital supply.

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

All of the characters in The Poison Box struggle to find self-empowerment - a journey I believe is common to all human beings. One of the most difficult inner journeys we take is the one in which we start from a place of no power, at all.

Olivia Prowl was born into this place of powerlessness. Her existence went largely unnoticed by her parents, and her grandmother took it upon herself to mold Olivia into the person her own son could never be, exerting an oppressive control over the young girl.

Many women have this experience of being caged when the slightest hint of their inner wildness comes through. This wildness can be so threatening to others that some parents instinctively try to shut it down. Sometimes, this is done out of a misguided attempt to protect the wild soul of a young woman, and other times it's done with the intention of deliberately clipping the young woman's wings. Because we just cannot have wild women running around doing whatever they want. We just cannot.

Like Olivia, many women succumb to this imprisonment. So many of us don't realize that we have the choice, the power, the right to be free. So many of us don't realize that we've swallowed a sleeping potion and have made the choice to just be content where we are. To never stretch our wings and fly free.

In the story, Olivia has a secret hobby: collecting information about poisons. Poison, it is often said, is much more likely to be chosen as a murder weapon by a woman than by a man. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most popular theories is that poison allows women to kill a dangerous person in their life (an abusive lover, perhaps) from a safe distance. This juxtaposition between gathering the power to take someone's life yet being too afraid - and sometimes too weak - to do so eye-to-eye fascinates me.

By the time we meet Olivia, she is at this stage of vacillating between violent strength and a weakness that threatens to make her disappear. She is as transparent and insubstantial as a piece of rice paper. The man she loves has never noticed her as anything but a neighbor, her grandmother doesn't recognize her autonomy, her lovers ignore her, and her friends have merely absorbed her into their circle without really seeing her, at all.

Even as she begins to evaporate like fog at sunrise, even as she is swallowed by her own passivity, the wild woman within her rallies, stands up with a battle cry, demands to be heard, seen, noticed. She is ready for a fight, to the death.

Photo by Caleb George on Unsplash

Photo by Caleb George on Unsplash

So many of us find ourselves at this point in life. Too many times laying down our own preferences, our own wants, our own needs, in order to please and pacify others. We think we are slowly dying inside, suffocating, and sometimes, we go willingly into this place. Like an overdose of pennyroyal, we go into multi-organ failure and teeter on the brink of death.

Yet, we often find ourselves surprised by the warrior within that springs forth from the ashes. She may still be too weak to fight hand-to-hand. She may still be too frightened to face her enemy. So the path of poison she takes. Skirting through the grass like a snake. Hiding in the brambles like a shifty fox. Waiting, waiting, waiting to strike.

Desperate times may call for desperate measures. And perhaps it is better for a woman to fight back in subterfuge rather than not at all. Yet this underhanded foul play poisons both the victim and the perpetrator.

Vomiting, abdominal pain, dizziness…all side effects of mild pennyroyal poisoning. All side effects of sneaking around conflict, rather than facing our enemies head on.

Why is this so? Because too often, when we finally face the enemy, we realize that the real enemy, the real person who is holding us back is ourselves. It is one of the great challenges of a woman's spiritual journey to realize just how much she is responsible for failing to give birth to her own creative and spiritual freedom.

Pennyroyal is most famous, perhaps, for its reputation as an herb that women once used to induce abortions. While choosing not to bring life into the world at one time or another may be the most empowering choice a woman can make in some circumstances, the metaphorical abortions a woman often subjects herself to can debilitate her soul.

We were not meant to chase after men who do not want us. We were not meant to pursue domestic bliss if we're only doing it to be the "right" kind of woman. We were not meant to dress in ways that displease us just because it pleases others. We were not meant to devote decades of our lives to a certain type of job if we're only doing it because we feel it's what a woman should do.

Making choices like these is to subject ourselves to one energetic abortion after another. We refuse to give birth to the true essence of our soul and to let that essence live and thrive in this world. We are afraid, so we keep it shut up in a box until that horrible day that our inner warrior screams to get out, targets other people in our life who look like the oppressors, and finally, we realize that it is us, ourselves, who have clipped our own wings.

We won't heal from the poisoning until we look past the others and into ourselves. We won't heal until we learn how to set ourselves free.



The Perception of Masculinity: Crue Martin

Folk name: devil's trumpets, jimsonweed

"If you tell anyone about this, I swear to God, I'll kill you."

Photo by Dustin Scarpitti on Unsplash

Much like Mary's story explores the good girl/bad girl dichotomy, Crue Martin gave me a chance to explore similar themes in a man's journey. Crue is the quintessential bad boy, the one all the girls fall for but none want to keep. With his wide shoulders and big hands, he is the stereotype of masculinity on the outside.

But on the inside, things are very different.

Throughout my life, I have seen men criticized and belittled for being feminine or doing feminine things. If they wore a pink shirt, took too long to answer a question, enjoyed dancing, or spent too much time deciding what to wear, they were ridiculed. I recognized at an early age that it was an attempt to emasculate men for not being manly enough, or to remind them - cruelly - that they had better man up, and fast.

What does it mean to be a man, anyway? Twenty years ago, the answer to that question was pretty simple. And men who didn't answer that question correctly were punished, maligned, even attacked.

Today, the answer is much more complicated, thankfully. But I still see those old stereotypes alive and well in our culture. I still see young boys call other males "gay" if they aren't masculine enough. When I visit my 10-year-old nephew at his school, I notice he shies away from me, skipping out on a hug and asking me not to be affectionate with him because his friends are watching. I still see the way men experience shaming for not behaving in ways that are acceptably manly.

Manly means big. Manly means sexually confident. Manly means powerful. Manly means domination.

Just like Datura's sensual, raucous trumpets, stereotypical masculinity has a certain seductiveness to it. There's no denying that. But also like Datura, there's a danger lurking under that surface.

In one of my favorite books, Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman, protagonist Gillian Owens falls for stereotypical bad boy Jimmy because of his strength, his hyper-masculinity. He takes what he wants when he wants it, does what he wants without thinking about the consequences, and generally just plows through whatever obstacle is in his way. And ironically, one of the ways he gets into trouble is by selling jimsonweed (Datura) that he claims is marijuana. His complete lack of care about the consequences of his actions leaves a trail of dead bodies in his wake.

Jimmy is also a metaphorical poison for Gillian, and in her attempt to neutralize the harm he inflicts on her and others, she tries to keep him calm by regularly (and secretly) adding small doses of deadly nightshade to his food or drinks. Poison for poison.

On the other side of the spectrum of masculinity is Gary Hallett, Gillian's sister's love interest. Outwardly, he also has all the stereotypical indications of masculinity with his cowboy boots and rugged jeans. But in our first encounter with him (in the book), he cries over a memory of his late grandfather.

He cries.

I can remember reading that and how uncomfortable it made me feel. It was as if I was questioning his viability as a mate for Sally. He's crying, for god's sake, just over a memory!

That was a moment in which I realized how deeply indoctrinated by my culture I've become. We women say we want a man who can talk about and express his feelings, and then we judge one who does as being not masculine enough.

Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

As I wrote The Poison Box over the course of 15 years, I had several experiences with men on both ends of the spectrum. I, like many other women, fell pretty hard for a couple of "pretty poison" men - men like Jimmy from Practical Magic. They didn't always look or act the same, but they all had the same type of energy.

Those were the kind of men who prized being, looking, and feeling masculine. They wanted - or owned - motorcycles and fancy cars. They regularly broke the speed limit, weaving in and out of traffic to show their dominance. When pretty young women walked by, they would nod their heads, hands in pockets, and the girls would giggle and wave. They wore black leather jackets. They avoided commitment at all costs. They liked dominant sexual positions. They criticized or made fun of women who wanted to get married and raise children.

Trying to build a relationship with these dark princes, trying to tame these bad wolves, leaves women affected in a way much like being poisoned by Datura. We become delirious, thinking that things will change, that he will take the masculinity down a few notches (and that we'll still feel the same about him if he does). We begin behaving strangely, sometimes becoming suspicious and a little crazy, sometimes becoming too trusting and a little crazy. We might even turn violent, throwing a plate of food against the wall, or our cell phone into the street. We develop amnesia, forgetting every offense, because surely, things will change and get better if we keep forgiving. And at some point, we develop photophobia and we are no longer able to see the light. We don't remember what the light is like and as such, we stop missing it. We become content to live in the darkness of the poisoned perceptions of masculinity, power, and love.

I know what it's like to go through this as a woman, to be drawn to this seductive and destructive version of masculinity. But what is it like, I wondered, to experience this from the man's point of view? To be Jimmy? Or Crue?

I can't say that I know for sure - I am a woman, after all. But as I investigated this through friends' relationships, through observation, through my own relationships, and by just asking male friends, I noticed one challenge that seemed to face every man: other people's perception of their masculinity. To put it bluntly: Were they manly enough? And did the right people think so?

The question, however, seemed to fail for one simple reason: the lack of ownership of what is masculine. Who gets to define that? And in a culture with radically shifting gender norms, how does a man saddled with expectations of masculinity navigate his way through that?

To me, this was the challenge that Crue faced. He was largely ignored at home, surrounded by women who did not, ironically, value traditional masculinity. Noel Martin was the head of her household, not James. So Crue took what he had - his bigness, his strength, his dominance - into the world where he knew it would be valued, where he knew he could gain power from it.

But he wavered, again and again, unable to trust that strength. He questioned its authenticity more than once. Underneath it all, he didn't feel strong or powerful or even attractive.

I think one of Crue's worst fears was that people saw him as a clumsy bull who was more amusing than powerful. His life became a series of concessions and acts of vengeance. Pulling back, then pushing forward. Letting in a moment of feminine consideration, a pause, then throwing it away for action, destruction.

And I don't think he had any other choice than that. That's all he could do, living in this culture.

But what is our responsibility in this toxic perception of masculinity? What are we, as a whole, doing to create and perpetuate it? What are we, as women, doing to play into it?

And most importantly, what would it be like for a man to feel that he can express himself however he chooses? (And women, for that matter?) Is it possible to let go of this poison and for all of us to just be?

You can buy The Poison Box here. (And stay tuned for the release of the audiobook!) 

If you've read the book, a review (on Amazon or social media - don't forget to hashtag it!) would be greatly appreciated. <3



Welcome to Salome

Malus pumila
Folk name: Apple tree, domesticated apple

Thirty-three years ago, the street upon which she now walked had been but a dirt road, unnamed, unmarked, cutting its way through the orchard from north to south… Houses were built on barren fields where once the land had been striped with rows of apple trees.

Though not an actual character, the setting of The Poison Box plays a critical role in the story. The book opens with the introduction of Mary Raedwolfe (without yet revealing her identity) who has returned home after a 7 year absence. Immediately, the reader is pulled into the history of the neighborhood in which Mary walks.

The town’s name alludes to the Biblical characters of Salome – both the mother of apostles James and John…and the young woman who performed the Dance of the Seven Veils and demanded the head of John the Baptist on a platter. A statue of the “good” Salome stands in the town square, right in front of the church, though most people don’t remember the “good” Salome from the stories they heard in church. (The one with the dancing veils and beheading is so much more interesting.)

This town, named after two women on opposite ends of the moral spectrum, is a modern-day Garden of Eden. It was built around a once-thriving apple orchard that was tended lovingly by the women who married into the family that owned it. In this version of the tale, however, it is a man who spoils the beauty of the garden and gets himself expelled from its warmth and protection.

But the characters in the story don’t seem to notice this twist in the tale. They are too focused on Mary, the one they expect to play the part of Eve.

As readers dive deeper into the book, they discover that this garden is, indeed, filled with serpents. But just who – or what – those serpents are is not always as clear as the residents of Salome think it is.

Nestled in redwood country, the town is aching in its beauty, seducing even those that live there with its swaying aspens, the deep gorge passionately cut into the earth by hundreds of years of the Two Thieves River’s insistent caress, and the fog that so greedily tries to press itself against everything and everyone with its formless gray fingers. There are still wild places hidden at every turn, the land refusing to submit to domestication even when part of it was overtaken by the orchard. The houses on Five Seed Street sit on unusually large parcels of land, mostly unfenced by neighbors who were instinctively drawn to those wide open acres and the views of the forested land at the edge of the neighborhood.

It is in those wild, untamed places where Ema met her boyfriend after dark, where the boys from the high school sucked hungrily on hand-rolled joints, where Dan took his daily runs to escape his grief, and where something unspeakable happened to Mary.

Over the years, the cool stony face of Salome watched over these events from her perch in the town square. Until one day, when this "good" Salome gave up her post and the residents of the town descended into rage, turning all their attention to the ones they felt were to blame. The outsiders. The two who didn't belong.

They were out for revenge. Blood. A head on a platter. And no one in Salome would stop until they got what they wanted. 

They saw these outsiders as the poison apples in their garden. The symbol of sin, of their fall from grace. They knew better, after all, than to eat the forbidden fruit.

You can buy The Poison Box here. (And stay tuned for the release of the audiobook!) 
If you've read the book, a review (on Amazon or social media - don't forget to hashtag it!) would be greatly appreciated. <3