Inheriting Oppression with the Silver:
An Examination of Female Familial Relationships
Birdie Lee, the protagonist of Danzy's Senna's novel Caucasia, ponders a question that haunts generations of women who struggle to adapt to the societal norms of patriarchal culture: 'What was the point of surviving if you had to disappear?' (Senna 8). Birdie's mother, Sandy, teaches her to blend into the background and become forgettable in order that Birdie and Sandy may escape detection by authorities. Though Sandy wants to protect her daughter from physical trauma , the lessons on how to disappear bring Birdie psychological harm. Like Sandy, mothers and daughters in many different communities pass along adaptive traits of survival; however, these inherited characteristics deprive future generations of women agency. As Jane M. Ussher points out, 'Women internalize their own oppression and become agents of their daughters' oppression' (34). By instructing daughters in how to blend in, mothers become agents of their daughters' negation of self and, in the case of many minorities, internalized racism. As philosopher Galen Strawson explains, one's character derives from factors out of her control: 'At some point your wants must be just given. They will be products of your genetic inheritance and upbringing that you had no say in. In other words, there's a fundamental sense in which you did not and cannot make yourself the way you are' (Strawson par. 14). Because one cannot be 'causa sui,' neither mother nor daughter can easily break free from the cycle of familial oppression that has become so deeply ingrained in her sense of self. By comparing and contrasting the experiences of Bone Boatwright in Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina, the Garcia daughters in Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, and Birdie Lee in Caucasia, one can examine those behaviors, passed from mother to daughter, that assist the daughter in survival in a male-dominated world, but do not allow them to thrive.
Although each author comes from a different background, all of the women opted to write a coming of age novel with a female protagonist. Dorothy Allison set Bastard Out of Carolina in rural South Carolina. Set in the 1950's, the novel traces the life of Bone Boatwright as she attempts to become a young woman. Bone's mother, Anney, comes from a poor, white family with many brothers and sisters ruled by a mother who places greater importance on her sons than her daughters. Because of circumstances beyond Anney's control, Bone's birth certificate gets marked 'bastard.' Unlike Bone, her sister, Reese, comes from the legitimate union of Anney and Lyle Parsons. Lyle dies in a tragic accident and leaves Anney to support her young daughters alone. Anney marries Glen Waddell out of a desire to provide economic stability for her children and a need to mother Glen. Unfortunately, the marriage ruins Bone's life when Glen begins to abuse Bone sexually and physically. Bone's struggle to escape the abuse, while she develops a sense of who she is, frames the narrative of Allison's novel.
Setting How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents in the 1960's, Alvarez details the growth of four Latino sisters: Yolanda, Sandi, Carla, and Sofia. From the Dominican Republic, the girls come to America early in their childhood. Though they never encounter the sexual abuse Bone must endure, the sisters do experience the pain of being uprooted from family and country when their parents, Carlos and Laura, flee from the Caribbean island to escape from a hostile political situation. Told in a backwards narrative, the book shows how the events of the girls' youth create problems for the women they become and prevent them from having a complete sense of self.
Unlike Alvarez's novel, the narrative of Birdie Lee's development of self in Caucasia stops before the reader can see the results of Birdie's rootless youth. Born of a white mother, Sandy, and a black father, Deck, Birdie represents a racial rarity for the late 1960's in America. Unlike her sister, Cole, who appears African-American, Birdie's ethnicity cannot be easily detected. Until Birdie is eight years old, her family lives together in Boston. When Deck decides to divorce Sandy, it begins the split of the family. Fleeing from possible government prosecution because of her political actions, Sandy takes Birdie into hiding with her and leaves Cole with Deck. Deck and Sandy split the girls down racial lines. The 'blacker' child, Cole, leaves for Brazil with the African-American father. And the 'whiter' child, Birdie, begins to travel around the upper Northeast in hiding with the white mother. To escape detection, Sandy forces Birdie to pass as white and deny her African-American blood. Birdie pretends to be Jesse Goldman, a Jewish girl. The novel details the psychological wounds Birdie develops by denying her roots.
In order to understand the reasons behind the daughters' inheritance of psychologically oppressive traits, one needs to examine the mothers' own formation of identity. In The Psychology of the Female Body, Ussher explains how mothers simply recreate the boundaries in which they grew up: '' The mother is usually preparing her daughter to take up a circumscribed position in a patriarchal word, similar to her own. The majority of mothers prepare their daughters for the restrictions which they themselves have lived by in order that their daughters are not misfits' (33). In each of the novels, the mother does as Ussher states, she instructs her daughter in the very manner in which she grew up. Anney reinforces the male-dominated world of the rural south. Her mother doted upon the males of the family, ignoring their negative traits. The daughters learned to take on the responsibility of caring for the men. Anney cannot function without a man to complete her. She returns to Glen each time he abuses Bone because she believes she can rescue him. Anney has internalized her role as mother and savior to a man.
Coming from a similarly patriarchal background, Laura embodies the role of self-sacrificing mother. She denies herself any activities outside of raising her family. Only when the daily chores are complete does Laura pull out her pencil and paper to indulge in her fantasies of being an inventor. Her family mocks her rather than encourages her. The daughters resent the few moments Laura spends on her inventions because they feel frustrated by not being able to fit into American culture. Instead of spending time on herself, the daughters want the mother to help them figure out the answers to their assimilation problems: 'Important, crucial, final things, and here was their own mother, who didn't have a second to help them puzzle any of this out, inventing gadgets to make life easier for the American Moms' (Alvarez 138). Laura does want her daughters to make their way in the United States, but she does not know how to help them. She is torn between encouraging her daughters to be Americans and wanting them to retain their heritage. Keeping a link to their culture is important for many minorities, as it gives them an anchor to their former lives. Bonnie Hoover Braendlin explores the issues unique to minority communities in 'Bildung in Ethnic Women Writers' and explains how for many women adhering to traditional roles serves as a survival mechanism: 'Thus, even when family members resent the father's dictatorial attitude they continue to respect and obey him, motivated by a sense of heritage and a real fear of extinction should the family unit be destroyed' (81). Laura and the girls may chafe under the domination of Carlos, but they do not rebel against him because the patriarchal structure of the family maintains order and stability in the new world.
Unlike Laura, Sandy rebels against her upbringing. With her WASP background, Sandy lacks any education in race relations. Her childhood sequestered in the upper middle class did not prepare her to raise bi-racial daughters. Until she met Deck, Sandy's encounter with anyone outside of her race and class was limited to newspaper accounts of the Civil Rights movement and academic study: 'She had no particular interest in Negroes at this time'not in them or their cause. Just a sense that they were a mysterious race, full of secrets that the white world would probably never glimpse' (Senna 34). Her fervid pursuit of justice for minorities developed not from a long held conviction concerning human rights, but a rebellion against her parents' values. While she enjoyed a close relationship to her father, Sandy and her mother continue a combative nature with no resolution. When visiting her mother's stately home, Sandy regresses to her childhood behaviors: 'She appeared smaller than ever, curled over her food like a broken doll' (Senna 106). Sandy's dominating personality retreats into the background when confronted by her judgmental mother. In reaction to her mother, Sandy attempts to reject all her blue-blood family stands for: class snobbery, prejudice, and image consciousness. However, her upbringing bleeds through when confronted with those of lower economic status. She cannot hide how she truly feels about class and ethnic status. Because of Sandy's ignorance of true racial oppression, she cannot give Birdie any positive sense of self.
Although each of these mothers raises her daughters in very different times and places, one can compare their relationship to their daughters to understand the experiences of generations of women across ethnic and socio-economic boundaries. This comparison can lead to an understanding of the potential oppression mothers can pass along to their daughters regardless of class or race.
Even though mothers want their daughters to fit into society, they often accidentally prevent the girls from bonding with their peer groups. Part of adolescent development occurs by mimicking peer behavior and appearance. In depressed economic circumstances, this becomes extremely difficult for a young girl. Because of a lack of money, the mother becomes the warden keeping the daughter locked away from being part of the crowd. In Sandra Lee Bartky's book Femininity and Domination: Studies in Phenomenology of Oppression, she explains the increased difficulty poor women have in obtaining the accoutrements of femininity: 'The burdens poor women bear in this regard are not merely psychological, since conformity to the prevailing standards of bodily acceptability is a known factor in economic mobility' (72). For Bone, her family's lack of financial means brings her a great deal of personal embarrassment. Living beneath the line of poverty, they exist from job to job and paycheck to paycheck. Though both Anney and Glen work, they uproot the family to more inexpensive homes in a never-ending fight to make ends meet. The family cannot afford to purchase the accessories culturally desirable to girls of Bone's age: 'I knew there was no chance of getting a pair of those classy little-girl patent-leathers with the short pointy heels, but I looked at them longingly anyway. Mama just laughed and bought me the penny loafers' (Allison 66). Bone's penny loafers represent her lower class and become another badge of shame that represents her family's lack of social status. Her mother Anney cannot afford to care about Bone's desire for certain material possessions because Anney must struggle to keep food on the table: ''I was never gonna have my kids know what it was like. Never was gonna have them hungry or cold or scared. Never, you hear me? Never!'' (Allison 73). In order to feed her girls, Anney seems to opt to sell her body. For women in Anney's economic class, her choices are limited. Anney lacks any education that would help her achieve a job outside of menial labor. As Barbara Ann White explains in Growing Up Female: Adolescent Girlhood in American Literature, lower-income women often only have two paths in life: 'It would seem that their possession of a vagina and a uterus restricts them to two choices: they may use their vagina to make money or their uterus to make children' (165). Anney succumbs to the pressure to utilize her vagina to save her children from starving; however, this models for Bone the body as sexual object. Though she does not know what her mother has done, she can sense the anger of the men of her family, including her stepfather.
The Garcia girls come from a wealthier situation than Bone, but also long to fit in to the social structure by wearing the clothing of their peers. While their mother Laura is not as limited by economic factors, she squashes their individuality and social acceptance to simplify her own life. Laura preselects a color for each daughter to reduce the stress of caring for four girls. Each girl must wear the same type of clothing as her sisters, but in a different color. A color that never changes: 'With four girls so close in age, she couldn't indulge identities and hunt down a red cowboy shirt when the third daughter turned tomboy or a Mexican peasant blouse when the oldest discovered her Hispanic roots' (Alvarez 41). Laura's arbitrary selection of the colors for each girl does not even allow any of them a chance to change their 'color' to express their individuality. Other factors inhibit the girls' separation from each other. Often being referred to as 'the four girls,' they struggle to even lay claim to their own names. In particular, Yolanda thirsts to hear her name pronounced in full: 'Her mother pronounced her name in Spanish, her pure, mother-filling, full-blooded name, Yolanda' (Alvarez 81). Normally, Yolanda must hear her name butchered or shortened. Her sisters fare no better. This leaves them searching for ways to mark themselves as an individual, not as part of a collective: 'At moments like this when they all seemed one organism'the four girls'Sandi would get that yearning to wander off into the United States of America by herself and never come back as the second of four girls so close in age' (Alvarez 168). Being one aspect of an organism composed of yourself and three sisters does not allow for growth into a fully functioning, independent woman. There is no opportunity to be recognized as an individual. In order to receive any type of attention, the daughter must either be an extraordinary success or a horrific failure. Each of the girls attempts to find a way to mark herself as different from her sisters while also fitting into American life.
Like the Garcia girls, Birdie's difficulty in becoming part of the 'in crowd' does not hinge upon her family's finances, rather her mother's choices limit Birdie's ability to fit in. When the family still live in Boston, Sandy chooses to send Birdie and Cole to a school for African-American children. For all Sandy's talk about racial equality and harmony, she lacks any understanding of racial tension. It never occurs to Sandy that Birdie will be an outcast because she appears to be white. Her lack of African-American features, unlike her sister Cole, exposes Birdie to ridicule and a sense of shame. The girls at the school ostracize her until she learns to dress and act differently. Childhood games of dress-up became preparation for Birdie's life: 'But only at Nkrumah did it become more than a game. There I learned how to do it for real'how to become someone else, how to erase the person I was before' (Senna 62). The lesson of camouflage she learned at Nkrumah aids Birdie when she must 'pass' as white in New Hampshire. Once more, Sandy puts Birdie in the position of erasing her identity to be someone else. Sandy does not even consider what it costs Birdie to be a 'white' girl. When Birdie hears the racist jokes, she must laugh as though she agrees with that sentiment: 'I kept reminding myself that I was pretending, that they didn't know the real me, that this was all part of the game' (Senna 222). The game takes over her entire life and covers up her real self.
Connection to family helps a young adolescent become her future self. For Birdie and Bone, their mothers prevent them from bonding with their siblings. Unlike the extreme closeness of the Garcia girls, neither Birdie nor Bone continues to build a bond with her sister. Birdie Lee loses contact Cole and suffers from this loss. Because female development requires close relationships, this split results in devastating consequences for the siblings. As Jill McLean Taylor states, summarizing the research of psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller, 'As Miller had observed in her clinical work with women in psychotherapy, women's sense of self is built around making and maintaining relationships with others, and a loss of relationship is experienced by many women as a loss of self' (36). Though Sandy tries to justify the split of the two daughters, her actions condemn Birdie and Cole to experience the death of their sisterly bond and a portion of themselves. The severance of Birdie's tie to her older sister restricts Birdie's maturity. She moves through the world like a limb has been removed. Before their parents split them up, Birdie imitated her older sister and modeled her behavior after Cole's example: 'Everything was her. I obeyed her, performed for her, followed her, studied her the way little sisters do. We were rarely far apart. We even spoke our own language' (Senna 5). Before Birdie and her mother go underground, Birdie relies upon her relationship to Cole to form that sense of self. Because the two girls look like opposite ends of a racial scale, Birdie comparison to her sibling results in Birdie discovering that she is missing something. Birdie does not show traces of both of her parents as she lacks the racial markers of her father's contribution to her genetic makeup. In contrast, Cole never needs to explain her roots: 'She [Cole] had a face that betrayed all of its origins, and she wore the expression of the already beautiful'a sleepy confidence that kept other children at her mercy; a face of those accustomed to being watched, used to the approving smiles of strangers' (Senna 49). Because Birdie's own appearance masks her African-American roots, she cannot easily fit into society. She feels as though she does not belong to the white culture, nor does she seem to have a place among African-Americans.
The fractured relationship between her two parents prevents Birdie from bonding with Deck, from connecting to her African-American parent. Because Sandy does not understand the struggle Birdie faces fitting into the world, she does not realize how detrimental Deck's lack of attention to Birdie is for Birdie's ultimate formation of self. Deck dotes upon the more 'black' of the two daughters. 'Cole was my father's special one. I understood that even then. She was his prodigy'his young, gifted, and black' (55). Birdie yearns to receive Deck's special attention. Unlike Cole, Birdie listens and absorbs her father's words and feelings about racial segregation in the United States. Birdie parrots back his tirades about race and internalizes these 'lessons' because she wants to be connected to her father. She longs for a relationship like her sister takes for granted: 'He spoke through her [Cole], above her, around her, but still to her, as she continued to be the exclusive object of his lessons, leaving me to absorb his platitudes only through osmosis' (72). While learning in the background, Birdie begins to attempt to view race through a clinical lens. Though this aids her in her 'game' of being other when she must pass as white, it does not give her the connection she pines for with her father.
Although Bone and her sister Reese remain in the same household, they exist as strangers to one another. Born of different fathers, the girls share only their mother. Anney never speaks of Bone's father. She denies Bone a connection to any other family outside of the Boatwright's. Bone envies her sister's ties to her father's family. Reese's paternal grandmother dotes upon her and gives Reese a tie to her father. Mrs. Parson spoils her granddaughter, who looks like Mrs. Parson's dead son. It gives Reese a past that Bone cannot find for herself: 'I was jealous of Reese for having Mrs. Parsons as a grandmother, since Mrs. Parson looked like one in a way my granny never did' (Allison 55). Bone's only grandmother gives her attention to the male children of the family. Bone must enjoy whatever is leftover of her grandmother's affection.
Anney's marriage to Glen drives the siblings further apart. While Reese seems able to connect with Glen, Bone cannot bring herself to love her stepfather, especially after he sexually abuses her. Glen's focus upon Bone as a sexual object drives a wedge between the sisters. Bone cannot confide in Reese: 'I couldn't imagine hugging Reese like that, telling her how I really felt, crying with her' (Allison 129). Without her sister to turn to as confidant, Bone lacks an ally in her own home. Anney's love for Glen has blinded her to the reality of the abuse occurring under her very own roof. Bone and Reese both show signs of hyper-sexuality. Bone witnesses her sister reenacting violent sexual fantasies: 'I rocked and rocked, pushing my thighs into the rough bark. Below me, Reese pushed her hips into the leaves and made grunting noises. Someone, someone, she imagined, was doing terrible exciting things to her' (Allison 176). Bone never reveals herself to her sister but watches with voyeuristic pleasure.
Because of the sexual abuse from her stepfather, Bone acts out her violent sexual fantasies on a body she views as object. According to Janet Lee, this is normal for victims of abuse: 'Child sexual abuse survivors' words illustrate the way the vulnerabilities associated with women's emerging sexuality (and in these cases, the exploitation of what these little girls' bodies signified in the context of a society that exploits female sexuality) become integrated so that the body becomes and is experienced by girls as something acted upon, used, and soiled' (Lee 86). Bone's body becomes something she views with contempt, a source of shame. When describing her body, she uses words like 'trash,' 'gawky,' and 'ugly' (Allison 206). Viewing the other women around her, Bone believes it is simply her lot in life to be a victim of abuse: 'This body, like my aunts' bodies, was born to be worked to death, used up, and thrown away' (Allison 206). Bone does not know any other way to view her self. Glen's victimization of Bone spoils any pride she might take in her developing female body. And her mother has not given her a voice to express her budding sexuality.
The emerging sexuality of the adolescent girl presents problems for the mother. In the cases of both Birdie and the Garcia girls, their mothers send them mixed signals about sexuality that influence their inability to express it in a healthy manner. As Ussher states, 'A woman's sexuality, her genital organs, and their implicit function, are either denied or exploited. This dichotomy has the effect of creating confusion and conflict for the adolescent, who in general has little awareness of her own sexuality and her developing sexual organs' (22). Because of Sandy's transient lifestyle and fluid sexuality, it creates a sense of lack of belonging to either gender in Birdie. In contrast to Bone's masochistic tendencies, Birdie masturbates to her own fantasies but cannot decide with which character to identify'the male or female. When she experiments sexually with her female friend Alexis, she engages in being the more dominant partner. In contrast, when she and the rich neighbor boy Nicholas begin to grope each other, Birdie experiences the societal norm of the female side of sexuality. 'With Alexis I had always been the one on top, the one doing the groping and the grinding, the one doing what Nicholas was doing' (Senna 203). Because Sandy focuses her lessons on being unseen, she neglects to teach Birdie how to be a woman. Birdie must figure out what being female means through her peers: 'I was playing catch-up with Mona, learning how to be a girl. There were little things the women at Aurora hadn't taught me'how to apply lipstick properly, how to stick in a tampon, how to stuff your bra'' (Senna 227). Through Mona, Birdie links being female with outward appearance. According to Bartky, the achievement of being marked feminine is accomplished by adapting to societal norms: 'Femininity is an artifice, an achievement, 'a mode of enacting and reenacting received gender norms which surface as so many styles of the flesh'' (65). For Birdie, she views her feminine side as being a mask because she does not receive an education on femininity as anything other than how one looks.
While Birdie experiences the fluidity of sexuality, the Garcia girls do not know how to be sexual beings. They do not have healthy connections to their bodies. Like a lot of women, the Garcia girls have a sense of disgust with their bodies: 'The lover knew Yolanda would not have wanted him to know about this indelicacy of her body. She did not even like to pluck her eyebrows in his presence' (Alvarez 48). Yolanda's abhorrence to being naked in her lover's presence mirrors the feelings of her sisters. Her sister Carla begins to hate her body when she starts puberty: 'They [boys who taunted her] were disclosing her secret shame: her body was changing ' In her place'almost as if the boys' ugly words and taunts had the power of spells'was a hairy, breast-budding grownup no one would love' (Alvarez 153). Puberty marks the beginning of a confusing time for many young girls where they began to feel a sense of disconnect with their body and their self. Parents view menarche with a sense of fear: 'Parents who have internalized the double standards themselves and are overcome by fears of pregnancy in their adolescent daughters concentrate their attentions on the negative consequences of emerging sexuality, such as early pregnancy or loss of reputation.' (Ussher 27). The patriarchal culture of the Dominican Republic enforces the belief that women must keep themselves pure in order to be marriageable. The Garcia family holds to this belief. For the girls, this gets reinforced when they visit the country and interact with their male cousins: 'For all his liberal education in the states, and all his sleeping around there and here, and all his eager laughter when his Americanized cousins recount their misadventures, his own sister has to be pure' (Alvarez 125). The girls may talk about their sexual conquests, but none of their male relatives want their sisters to be contaminated in the same way. The message to the girls is clear'their bodies must be guarded. Their sexual desires, which awaken at puberty just like a male, cannot be expressed and must be repressed.
Because of the power of the male members of their families and in the world around them, Bastard Out of Carolina and Caucasia deal with the female desire to be male, not out of any type of penis envy, but rather power envy. The mothers of the novels reinforced the idea of masculine being more privileged than feminine. For Bone, Anney grew up in a male-dominated world: 'Granny loved all her grandchildren, but she was always announcing that she didn't have much use for her daughters' (Allison 18). The message Anney and her sisters received was men deserved special concern from the women. Bone grows up watching the women in the family cater to the men's desires and needs before their own: 'Men could do anything, and everything they did, no matter how violent or mistaken, was viewed with humor and understanding' (Allison 23). The Boatwright women clean up after the men and chuckle at them as though they are simply large boys. Anney's love for Glen comes from a need to care for a male: ''It was like looking at a little boy, a desperate hurt little boy. That's when I knew I loved him'' (Allison 133). It is this co-dependent love that blinds Anney to Glen's abuse of Bone. She refuses to see what her husband does to her daughter. Bone wishes to be male so she could enjoy the privileges they enjoy. As Nancy Chodorow explains, Bone does not want a penis simply to be masculine, rather: 'A girl wants it for the power which it symbolizes and the freedom it promises from her previous sense of dependence, and not because it is inherently and obviously better to be masculine ' ' (123). Bone enjoys being part of the women in her family. She just envies the males for their special place in the world that is closed off to her: 'What men did was just what men did. Some days I would grind my teeth, wishing I had been born a boy' (Allison 23).
As a young girl, Yolanda shares Bone's desire to be masculine. Growing up in the patriarchal Dominican Republic, the Garcia girls receive constant feedback on how to act 'like a girl.' Yolanda pairs up with her closest cousin, Mundin. For a short time, the boy-girl pairing does not raise any eyebrows. Unfortunately, as she grew up the women begin to criticize Yolanda's attachment to her male cousin: 'It was around this time that strong pressure was put on me to stop playing with Mundin and to join the other young-lady cousins in their grownup beautician games and boy gossip inside the house' (Alvarez 235). Yolanda's severance from her male cousins is not uncommon. Parents often begin to encourage girls to quit any habits that seem masculine at the onset of puberty. For the young girl, she does not understand why her former activities get restricted: 'This loss of freedom can feel like punishment for being a woman, suddenly having to refrain from previously acceptable pastimes, with no alternative and positive role being offered' (Ussher 25). Yolanda tries to find a role model in her Aunt Mimi, who is shunned by her other aunts for not being married. The other women disparage their sister for enjoying reading and gardening. Yolanda envies Tia Mimi but feels she does not use her freedom wisely: 'In fact, as a tomboy, I had every intention of following in her footsteps. But Tia Mimi used her free time so poorly, she might as well have been married' (Alvarez 229). Though Yolanda hopes to become like her aunt, she cannot escape the pressure to guard her body from men as a treasured object: 'At home, the aunts had drawn the older girls aside and warned us that soon we would be senoritas who must guard our bodies like hidden treasure and not let anyone take advantage' (Alvarez 235). It is the girls' job to reserve their body like precious gems. This creates a sense that one's body exists as an object to be displayed for others, like a doll. It creates a lack of connection between the girl's physical self and her sense of identity.
All of the novels deal with this sense of not being connected to the body. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir explores the problem of female objectification. The feminist explains the unhealthy results of the body as other: 'She becomes an object, and she sees herself as object; she discovers this new aspect of her being with surprise: it seems to her that she has been doubled; instead of coinciding exactly with herself, she now beings to exist outside' (355). For Bone, she stares at herself in mirrors attempting reconcile her physical being with who she is and who she wants to become: 'I took to watching myself in mirrors to see what other people saw, to puzzle out just what showed them who I really was. What did Daddy Glen see? Aunt Raylene? Uncle Earle?' (Allison 205). Bone does not know if she is evil like her stepfather tells her, or special as her Uncle Earle makes her feel. One of the methods she uses to attempt to focus her sense of self is by comparing herself to her family. Bone is an integral portion of her family skeleton. Her extended family, especially her uncles, take immense pleasure in her: ''their pride in me was as bright as the coals on the cigarettes they always held loosely between their fingers' (Allison 23). Because of the patriarchal structure of her family, Bone longs to know the 'man' from whom she was taken. The fact her father remains unknown severs her from a part of who she is. She searches for her family for resemblances that mark her as a Boatwright because she wants to feel a part of that something larger than herself. Throughout the novel, she seeks reassurance that she is one of her family: ''You look like me,' Mama said''You got the look, all right. I can see it, see what it's gonna be like when you grow bigger, these bones here'' (Allison 30). By the end of the novel, Bone accepts that she is a Boatwright: 'I was who I was going to be, someone like her, like Mama, a Boatwright woman' (Allison 309). Unfortunately, even finding that connection to her family does not fully incorporate the fractured portions of Bone.
Like Bone, Birdie would like to reconcile the pieces of herself into a whole being; however, her mother's emphasis on hiding her true identity has created a disconnect between Birdie's sense of who she is and her physical body. Because of this disconnection, Birdie begins to imagine that she can see herself as though she is floating above her physical body: 'I would look at my own body the way that I looked at another's. I would think, 'You,' not 'I,' in those moments, and as long as the girl was 'you,' I didn't feel that I lived those scenes, only that I witnessed them' (Senna 190). Because of this duality, Birdie longs to find an anchor to the world. She wants to find her father and sister in hopes they could help her reconnect to her self. Life with her mother is too transient to give her a solid foundation on which to build her life. She has no sense of what she is because she must constantly change depending on the situation into which Sandy puts them: 'In those years, I felt myself to be incomplete'a gray blur, a body in motion, forever galloping toward completion'half a girl, half-caste, half mast, and half baked '' (Senna 137). By identifying herself as half, Birdie illustrates her inability to feel whole because of the forced denial of her own ancestry. She cannot be complete by denying an essence of who she is. The constant game of passing as white stagnates the development of Birdie's sense of self: 'I felt somehow more lucid in that half-waking state, as if that place of timelessness and placelessness and forgetfulness was the only space one could possibly inhabit' (Senna 155). Birdie cannot exist in the real world, in that she must pretend to be other.
Much like Birdie wrestling with her ethnic identity, the Garcia girls struggle to connect to their heritage. Coming from the Dominican Republic to the United States, the Latino girls must adjust to the societal norms of another culture. Like Birdie, the girls feel fractured and disconnected from who they truly are. Even as adults, the women cannot find where they truly belong. When Yolanda goes back to the Dominican Republic, she experiences a sense of belonging once more: 'This is what she has been missing all these years without really knowing that she has been missing it' (Alvarez 12). All of the girls have something missing within them. Both Sandi and Yolanda experience mental breakdowns where they feel less than human. For Sandi, her body becomes an object at a very young age: 'Whatever I, Sandra Isabel Garcia de la Torre, was, personally, was as a dolly on wheels to roll that illustrious de la Torre name from social gathering to social gathering' (Alvarez 241). At the age of eight, Sandi knows she only matters as a 'doll' to her male-centered family. Then when an artist incorporates Sandi's image into a statue of the Virgin Mary, Sandi gets her first glimpse of herself as other: 'I put my hand to my own face to make sure it was mine. My cheek had the curve of her cheeks; my brows arched like her brows; my eyes had been as wide as hers, staring up at the little man as he knocked on the window of his workshed' (Alvarez 255). The artist transformed her and captured her forever in stone. Her beauty, which entranced the artist, becomes a tool for Sandi: 'Being pretty, she would not have to go back to where she came from. Pretty spoke both languages. Pretty belonged in this country to spite La Bruja' (Alvarez 182). Pretty can be used by Sandi to achieve her goals. Looking in the mirror, Sandi experiences herself as an object: 'It struck her impersonally as if it were a judgment someone else was delivering, someone American and important, like Dr. Fanning: she was pretty' (Alvarez 181). She internalizes herself as pretty to the detriment of her future self. As Bartky explains, 'The sexual objectification of women produces a duality in feminine consciousness. The gaze of Other is internalized so that I myself become at once seer and seen' (38). This duality of consciousness leads to Sandi's mental breakdown. She feels as though she is no longer human and is becoming a monkey.
For both the Garcia girls and Birdie, race places a pivotal role in their development. Existing in an ethnic limbo, Birdie cannot admit to having African-American blood in the white world and she does not look African-American enough to fit into the black world. Indeed, the African-American culture Birdie encounters reinforces the notion of Birdie being valued less than Cole because of her lack of African-American features: 'Others before had made me see the differences between my sister and myself'But Carmen was the one to make me feel that those things somehow mattered'To make me feel the that the differences were deeper than skin' (Senna 91). Even when passing as white, Birdie experiences the feeling that the mixture of the two races within her does not allow her to belong to either racial group. 'Did you have to have a black mother to really be black? There had been no black women involved in my conception. Cole's either. Maybe that made us frauds' (Senna 285). Because she longs to identify with something, to get a grip on a sense of her self, Birdie views her white half as a taint. 'The missing scared me. It made me feel a little contaminated. I wondered if whiteness were contagious. If it were, then surely I had caught it' (Senna 324). How could Birdie possibly develop a solid sense of self when she feels contaminated by part of her racial background?
Who she is becomes more and more of an elaborate ruse as she continues to toy with her role in the world. Sandy decides to stay in New Hampshire and settle down into her new life. She does not acknowledge Birdie's loss of self. Birdie finds it more and more difficult to remember who she really is. Birdie fools herself into believing the game protects the kernel of herself: 'The less I behaved like myself, the more I could believe that this was still a game. That my real self'Birdie Lee'was safely hidden beneath my beige flesh, and that when the right moment came, I would reveal her, preserved, frozen solid in the moment in which I had left her' (Senna 233). Unfortunately, Birdie cannot reveal her true self because she no longer knows who 'Birdie' is. One is the sum of her experiences, so Birdie cannot deny her life as Jesse. Though she attempts to cast aside her false identity, Birdie cannot get over the feeling it will cost her. She ponders this as she leaves for Boston: 'I wondered'if I too would forever be fleeing in the dark, abandoning parts of myself that I no longer wanted, in search of some part that had escaped me. Killing one girl in order to let the other one free' (Senna 289). She kills Jesse to become Birdie again and continues to feel empty. 'I wondered if I'd ever transcend the skin, the body. If I would ever believe in something I couldn't see' (Senna 321). Without finding a way to incorporate all of her racial identity, Birdie will never be able to transcend her skin. Birdie will be forever divided into white and black with no accept all of what she is.
The Garcia girls do not want to transcend their skin so much as adapt to the culture of their new country. They must bridge the divide between the old world and new. Rather than help their daughters assimilate to the United States, Carlos and Laura put up obstacles. Startled by the Americanization of their daughters, they decide to send the girls back to the Dominican Republic every summer: 'The next decision was obvious: we four girls would be sent summers to the Island so we wouldn't lose touch with la familia' (Alvarez 109). Because the girls leave the United States, they do not have a chance to adapt to the cultural norms of American teens. For Sofia, this becomes even more challenging when, as a punishment, Laura gives her the option of either staying in the Dominican Republic or attending a Catholic school near her parents' home. Punished for having been caught with marijuana, Sofia appears to be heading down a bad path. Her parents hope to straighten her out by getting her way from the negative influences. Sofia opts to live with her aunt in the Latin country and stays behind when the family leaves. By being immersed in the culture and extended family back on the Island, Carlos and Laura believe Sofia will be safe. Much to her sisters' horror, Sofia begins to adapt to the patriarchal view of the Dominican Republic. When they go back to see her, Sofia seems completely changed. Instead of retaining her feminist views, Sofia submits to the whims of her new boyfriend: 'And what's most disturbing is that Fifi, feisty, lively Fifi, is letting this man tell her what she can and cannot do' (Alvarez 120). The sisters plot to release their sister from the grips of the Island mind set. But, when they finally 'free' her, Sofia is not happy.
For Yolanda, Sandi, Carla, and Sofia, the ethnic barrier also includes language. Even as adults, the women do not feel a connection to English. They began their lives speaking in Spanish and had to learn English when their parents brought them to the states. Their native tongue remains their first language, though they never get a chance to speak in it. When Yolanda is an adult, an artist asks her, 'What language ' did she love in?' and she does not know (Alvarez 13). No one has given them a language through which to express their thoughts and emotions. The moment they make an attempt, their parents get upset because they worry about the American influence on the girls. A gifted writer praised by Laura, Yolanda writes a speech in honor of Teachers' Day at her school. After reading it to her parents, her father recoils in horror to Yolanda and Laura's confusion. Yolanda has given voice to Carlos' worst nightmare and Laura appears pleased: 'It was bad enough that his daughter was rebelling, but here was his own wife joining forces with her. Soon he would be surrounded by a houseful of independent American women' (Alvarez 146). He sees his daughter as having adopted the worst traits of this new country. By tearing up her artfully crafted speech, he represses her ability to express herself. Laura works to help rewrite the speech; however, it becomes an expressionless compilation of empty platitudes.
Like the Garcia girls, Bone and Birdie lack an ability to express their inner desires and thoughts. Bone represses her voice to protect her mother: 'More terrified of hurting her than of anything that might happen to me, I would work as hard as he did to make sure she never knew' (Allison 118). Bone recognizes the pain her revelation would cause her mother. When confronted by doctors after Glen batters Bone, Anney reinforces Bone's avoidance of the truth. Instead of encouraging her daughter to unburden herself, Anney avoids the subject of the abuse. Annie responds to Bone's withdrawal from her family by sending Bone to live with her aunt. Though Anney dresses up Bone's absence from her family's home as helping care for family, Anney has exiled her daughter for being a victim. Severed from her mother's care, Bone cannot bring herself to tell anyone, even her aunt, what Glen does to her. Anney's squashing of Bone's voice fuels the young girl's sense of shame and internalization that somehow she is responsible for the abuse by Glen: 'What was it I had done? Why had he always hate me? Maybe I was a bad girl, evil, nasty, willful, stupid, ugly'everything he said' (Allison 252). The abuse by Glen and the silent acquiescence of her mother hardens Bone into a quiet and angry girl. She can only burn with anger at her stepfather because there is no one to tell about her hurt.
In contrast to the subtle denial of Bone's voice by Anney, Sandy intentionally and forcefully denies Birdie any ability to express her true self. Sandy changes Birdie's name, her ethnicity, and her father. Then to protect them from being discovered, Sandy warns her daughter to never discuss who she really is: ''We gotta watch our asses, not get too close to anybody. You know that. I taught you well'' (Senna 165). Having already cut Birdie off from her sister and father, Sandy continues to isolate her from the rest of the world. By removing Birdie's ability to even express something as simple as her name, Sandy has stifled her daughter's ability to truly connect with another person. When engaging in foreplay with Nicholas, Birdie fails to be able to maintain the fa'ade of a divide between her true self and the character of Jesse she has been forced to adopt: 'But touching him felt too real, proof that the game had gone too far. It wasn't Birdie, but Jesse, who lay beneath him, who held him in her hand, who made his eyes turn all glassy and his breath come out uneven' (Senna 203). Sandy's warning prevents Birdie from being truly intimate with Nicholas. Even when on the brink of being intimate, she must remain silent about who she truly is.
For the protagonists of these female coming of age novels, the mother-daughter relationships result in negative consequences for the young women's formation of self. Allison, Alvarez, and Senna explore how generations of women contribute to the continued inheritance of psychological oppression. Anney's dependence upon Glen prevents her from choosing to protect her daughter over her own desires to mother her psychologically crippled spouse. By clinging to the old world culture in the United States, Laura forces her daughters to straddle two cultures, which none of them is able to accomplish. And, Sandy actively prevents Birdie from acknowledging her heritage and forces her into becoming unforgettable. Though all the women act to keep their daughters from physical harm, the mothers psychologically wound their progeny. The girls have learned to survive, but not thrive.
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