Somehow, Vivian Gornick’s stunning memoir, Fierce Attachments, published twenty years ago, fell into my hands on one of these last breezy and humid days of summer. I began reading the rich, vivid, and vulnerable story of a little girl growing up in the Bronx among working class immigrants.
Amidst the raw, funny, wild, and sweet memories trembling with intellectual rigor, horror, and tenderness, Gornick describes one memory that took my breath away.
The young Vivian becomes close with a sad and unique woman, vastly different from the other women in the neighborhood: her downstairs neighbor, Nettie. A young widow and mother, blindingly glamorous, Nettie is impoverished, in constant pain, and with no mothering skills. She was a Ukrainian peasant who emigrated to the Bronx. After Nettie's husband dies at sea before their son is born, Gornick keeps her company in her small and chaotic kitchen. Although Vivian loves this simple woman whom she spends long hours comforting--or with whom she discusses unrealistic fantasies--she also lives in a kind of terrified awe of her and fear for her. This is how Gornick describes Nettie’s relationships and impact on people:
She had a way of walking up the block that had made me uncomfortable from the time I was ten years old. She walked like no other woman in the neighborhood…Her walk was slow and deliberate. She moved first one haunch, then the other, making her hips sway. Everyone knew this woman was going nowhere, that she was walking to walk, walking to feel the effect she had on the street.
Reading these words made me think of how we, as women, have what feels like power over others. This feeling can be thrilling, intoxicating, and it can even make one feel loved. Gornick goes on to write:
Her walk insisted on the flesh beneath the clothes. It said, “This body has the power to make you want.”…Men and women alike hungered for her. It was awful. I could see she aroused strong emotion, but that emotion seemed bound up with punishment not privilege. The way people looked at her—the cruelty in the men, the anger in the women—made me fearful. I felt her in danger. Nettie walking up the block became woven into the fabric of early anxiety.
Nettie’s desire to provoke sexual feelings in strangers wreaks a silent havoc on the neighborhood. Gornick goes even deeper into her analysis of Nettie. She writes,
Sexual malice ran so deep in her it was an essence: primitive, calculating, stubborn; enraged at the center; made reckless by some burning imperative that pushed against a shifting outer limit, wholly determined by how bad she felt about herself and her life on any given day of the week. She knew of no other way to make herself feel better than to make people want her. She knew that when she swayed her hips, raised her eyelids slowly, brushed her hand languorously through her red hair, promise stirred in the groin. She knew this. It was all she knew. She thought this knowledge gave her power. “You will feel and I will not feel,” her swaying body said, “and that will make you weak and me strong.”
Gornick reveals Nettie’s mistake in believing that her beauty gave her power or strength. Her sense of power was an illusion. This truth becomes apparent when Nettie’s son Richie, an eight year old boy, sexually attacks Gornick when she is seventeen years old. Obviously, as an eight year old, he was no threat. But one thing was clear. Gornick writes that “Richie understood better than [Nettie] what was actually going on, and one hot summer evening when I was seventeen and he was eight he showed me what he knew…He knew then his mother’s life was not an exercise in power but an exchange of humiliations. Now he was just trying out what he knew.”