Folk names: poison hemlock, snake weed, wode whistle, poison parsley
“I can hardly bear it,” she whispered, her face a chalky white. “Everything was so lovely before she came back. And now…the things I have to endure…”
In every woman, there is a well of wildness. At the heart of her, she is untamed and umtameable. No one can domesticate, entrap, or smother the true spirit of a woman, no matter how hard they try.
And they do try.
Our culture, like many others, is built on mythologies, mores, and traditions that ever so subtley (and sometimes not so subtley), seek to tame the wild woman within. We are told how a "proper" woman should behave. We are buttoned up. Cinched in. Belted. Restrained. Silenced.
And for those who succumb to this poison, it's much like being intoxicated by hemlock: a paralysis of our muscles, and eventually the respiratory system. One day, we just suffocate, and our wild soul can finally fly free.
The character of Hannah Prowl is an exploration of these oppressive cultural expectations that we put on women. There was no question in my mind that she would have to be female. It would be easy to write about the patriarchal society's attempts to tame women through the voice of a male character. But real life is much more pervasive, much darker than that. We have to remember that women are participating in this system. Women are oppressing other women. And that's the most dangerous poison of all.
Why do we tear one another down? Why do we create factions amongst those of our gender? Why do we force the damaging, oppressive patriarchal system upon one another?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but like hemlock, this kind of poison runs rampant in damp places, and spreads quickly, invading neighboring territory.
One of the most pervasive ways this poison takes root is through the judgment and shaming of women who exhibit sexually open behavior. I feel that this response is born from being fed the belief that men will behave appropriately so long as they are not tempted. In other words - that women are at fault when men misbehave.
I find it fascinating that we often seem incapable of placing blame where blame belongs. Blaming rape victims for their assault because they were wearing revealing clothing or because they were intoxicated. Blaming broken marriages on mistresses because it is supposedly the women who tempted the men into the dalliance.
Are we so afraid to demand that men take responsibility for their own choices?
As I have explored these themes and the questions that go along with them, I have come to believe that this is an easy way for us to make sense of the world. We grew up in the mythological culture of the Garden of Eden. We grew up in a society that taught us that it was a woman who got us kicked out of paradise. A woman who caused mankind to fall from grace. A woman who stood between God and His greatest creation.
Even if we don't believe in these myths, it still gives us an easy way to manage our external world - something I believe we all long to do. Life can be so random, so scary, so chaotic. We all want to impose our own sense of order onto things and create systems in which our logic can prevail. Doesn't it seem so much easier to believe that our marriages are rock solid because our man would never willfully stray or - heaven forbid - leave us? That if he did, it would only be because he was at the mercy of another woman's charms?
It is so much easier to make one another the enemy, rather than face up to the fact that nothing is secure, nothing is forever, nothing is guaranteed. It is easier to blame Eve than to blame Adam.
Accepting the chaos, the randomness, the terror requires a woman's wild soul to be released. Only the untamed can love the untamed. It's terrifying to take that leap, but I think even more terrifying to witness others doing it.
One of the most famous stories of poison hemlock involves the persecution and execution of Socrates. Accused of impiety - the same accusation borne by the wild woman - he was sentenced to death after his trial. To question the status quo, the gods, the government, is to question the logical world we have built and acknowledge the chaos that actually exists beyond our illusion of control.
And we can't have that. Especially not in women.
Hannah Prowl is a figurehead representing the town of Salome. It was her husband's family - notice not her own, but the family of the man in her life - who developed the town, and much the way women afraid of their own wildness tend to do, she has taken on the mantle of responsibility for upholding the patriarchal establishment.
The Five Seed Apple Orchard is a modern-day Eden, sheltering one blissfully happy Prowl couple after another until finally - inevitably - the chaos that is life shatters the illusion of control and perfection. That chaos is what expels the people of Salome from their paradise - not the eschewing of tradition and propriety as Hannah comes to believe.
From her living room window, Hannah watches as chaos swirls ever deeper amongst the people of her town, culminating in the return of the young woman who had disappeared so long ago. To Hannah, Mary is the serpent that has come to ruin her perfect, pristine garden. Like so many of us, Hannah has been afraid to accept that the garden wasn't ever perfect or pristine to begin with. It was messy, unpredictable, and just a little bit dangerous.
It's the serpent we fear, but in truth, the serpent is just an illusion. It's the garden - life, itself - that is so scary. We cannot control it by trying to oppress one another, by judging one another, by perpetuating the damaging patriarchy. That is the poison that we inflict on others, and on ourselves.
We women are as wild and dangerous and chaotic as life, itself. Even the Hannah Prowls of this world. It is only when we embrace this untamed spirit within us that we will be able to heal ourselves and one another.
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