Folk names: rosary pea, cock's eyes, Indian licorice
"There was no such thing as 'raping' Mary Raedwolfe."
This is one of the most chilling passages of The Poison Box, in my opinion. When I wrote it, I had in mind the talks I’d overheard from my teenage years. Fathers saying to their daughters things like:
“Don’t expect to be respected if you wear revealing clothing.”
“Be careful how you act around boys. If you give them certain signals, like wearing certain types of clothing or using provocative language, they will expect sex from you and if you aren’t ready for that, but you’ve given the signal that you are, they won’t respond well to that and you might earn a reputation at school as a tease.”
“If you dress like that, you’re asking for trouble.”
“How do you think the boys at school are going to respond to your behavior/clothing/language? What do you think it says about you and what you want from boys?”
“Is that the kind of girl you want to be?”
My friends and I learned to think about everything we did through the filter of how the boys would interpret it, and whether or not we were being “good girls.” It wasn’t until years later that I realized what pure poison such a mindset is - a powerful, deadly poison much like the rosary pea.
After much examination, I started to question why I had to live my life and examine my actions based on how a man would interpret them (not even taking into account the fact that every man would have a slightly different take on my actions and choices).
In fact, it wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I began to realize that men didn’t have the right to do whatever they wanted to me just because I “might” have sent the wrong signal.
Mary Raedwolfe is a product of this same man-centric culture. Her lesson, learned in childhood, was far more damaging than mine. She vacillates wildly between violent sovereignty and total submission. She doesn’t really know where her power is or if she has any, at all. And as such, her actions and behaviors become a deadly poison that she inflicts upon herself.
Rosary pea, a frighteningly toxic tropical plant, has a history of being harvested for its beautiful seeds, which are often made into jewelry. This process, however, is said to be very dangerous. According to unsubstantiated rumors, if the jewelry maker pierces a seed, releasing the rosary pea's toxins, they run the risk of sickness or even death. Is this plant virtuous because of its beauty…or evil because of its danger?
With Mary, I wanted to explore a similar concept - the idea of the good girl vs. the bad girl – the virgin vs. the whore. Do we only get one or the other? Are women that one-dimensional?
Mary’s name, of course, is an allusion to the most well-known virgin/whore of all time: Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene. Even the name of the town she lives in, Salome, emphasizes this juxtaposition (Salome, the mother of Peter, and Salome, the princess who demanded John the Baptist’s head on a platter).
In our culture, there’s no room for a woman to exist outside these boxes of good and bad, of virgin and whore. If a woman dares to lean out of the “good” box – to not make decisions based on how a man might interpret them, to wear what she wants to wear, to enjoy her sexuality however she sees fit – our culture feels the need to push her right into the “bad” box. Because they can’t be good if they’re doing stuff like that…right?
We only get to choose one or the other.
What I find most fascinating is that I, myself, as a woman, am tempted to judge Mary. I wonder if she takes things too far, if she is being self-destructive, if she is crossing some kind of line. But then I imagine her if she were a man…and suddenly, I realize I wouldn’t feel the same. That would be considered acceptable behavior in a man.
So while I don’t know everything about who she is, I know her why. But I don’t know if the way she lives her life is an expression of power or of weakness. And honestly, I’m not sure she knows the answer to that question, either. She is searching for herself, for her place in this world as a woman, as much as I am.
In the novel, the people of Salome try to tell Mary’s story. Each person only knows a small piece of it, but they use that piece to construct whatever tale suits them – whatever story proves to them that Mary is that one-dimensional bad girl. The poison berry that is all danger, no virtue.
There is something inexplicably scary about a woman who does whatever she wants, who only pleases herself. That’s not how we were taught to live. And there’s something about it that feels almost threatening to our way of life – as if a self-contained woman might walk away from her children, her husband, her home, and my god, all hell would break loose.
So until we figure out where we belong, until we find a way to destroy these limiting boxes that give women only two ways to express themselves, Mary will continue to wander from town to town, man to man, lost in the underworld that we have created. Maybe one day, people will see her beauty, her virtue, but until then, the Marys of this world will be ruthlessly, fatally poisonous.
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