Razors pain you: what Dorothy Parker teaches us about our addiction to female suffering

There is no romance in Dorothy Parker’s unhappiness, even though women are told all the time that suffering can be our greatest work and truest genius.

The memory is a good one. The sea is deep and warm, and it’s muddy at the bottom but the water is clean. The beach is ours: almost no one comes there apart from us and a few armadillos, so my sister and I swim for hours. She’s 12, I’m 14. We strike out from the Florida shore until we can barely hear our mum calling us to come back in to safety. In the shallows, we turn somersaults. I amuse my sister between tumbles by reciting bits of Dorothy Parker’s verse at her over the waves. “If skirts get any shorter, said the flapper with a sob/There’ll be two more cheeks to powder, and one more place to bob,” I shout between splashes. “One more cash to Bob?” she answers, confused. She can’t hear me. It doesn’t matter. We are laughing. We are happy.

That wasn’t the Parker poem I liked the most though. The one I liked best went like this:

 

Razors pain you;

Drugs cause cramp;

Acids stain you;

Rivers are damp;

Guns aren’t lawful;

And nooses give;

Gas smells awful;

You might as well live.

 

I didn’t get the joke in the title at the time. It’s called Resume: the bitter punchline is, the narrator has tried them all and found them all more agonising and unreliable than the life she wants to escape. The accomplishments that constitute her life are a list of “failures” (a dangerous word to use about suicide). When she wrote the poem, Parker had not attempted any of them, although she would do so later. The idea of death was something she danced around. It put an intoxicating heft into her wit, like a slug of morphine in a champagne cocktail (but I was 14, so had experience with neither morphine nor champagne). Parker was funny. Parker was smart. And Parker was deadly serious. Could I ever be as serious as that?

How much to show, how much to hold back? Women are required to be silent, so talking about our private pains, sharing our secret madnesses can be a way to escape the cultural tomb built around us. But it might not take us very far. We can go from being inside, to lying on top: a saintly tableau of the martyred woman with her ribs splayed out and her marble guts pouring artfully into the room. Part sculpture, part vivisection. We suffer to show we’re alive, and the suffering leaves us quite dead: beautiful, morbid and still. There is no male equivalent of the female confessional writer. A man might contribute whimsical or self-deprecating columns about his personal life, but he is not called on to supply the body-horror melodrama of a Liz Jones, the meticulous auto-dissection of a Rachel Cusk. No male philosopher had to starve himself like Simone Weil to prove his point. We know Ariel is a great work of poetry because we see a suicide note stamped in every line: the bombshell blonde by the gas oven is someone to listen to. The art of pain is a female one, one of those “gentle arts” like embroidery or cutwork.

This is so powerfully true that when a man becomes a great exemplar of suffering, he is often feminised in the process: think about Kurt Cobain and Richey Edwards, whose deaths by suicide were the defining cultural events of 1994 and 1995 for me (that is, when I was 14). This dressing up of suicide as women’s business is in stubborn opposition to the real world, where men are over three times more likely than women to die by violence against the self, but gender is always more concerned with power than facts. They hurt in public, and in the process they became ambiguous girly-men. Both of them were marked by sympathy with the feminine – eyeliner, dresses, blouses, hanging out with feminists (Cobain, who was close to the Riot Grrrl scene) and eating disorders (Edwards). More than that, their bands sang songs specifically about the pains of women. Nirvana had Polly and Rape Me, which address male sexual violence with confrontational grimness (the latter is sung first-person by Cobain, taking the role of defiant survivor). Manic Street Preachers had Little Baby Nothing, which wrenches a Jim Steinman-esque anthem from the critique of sexual objectification, and 4st 7lb, about anorexia.

The ferocious opening riff of 4st 7lb is overlaid with a sampled female voice saying: “I eat too much to die, and not enough to stay alive. I’m just sitting in the middle waiting.” That fragile, morbid line is precious just for the sex of its speaker. The album it appears on, The Holy Bible, is number 5 in the NME’s albums of 1994. Only one of the top 10 (Portishead’s Dummy) has a female lead vocalist. The person the voice belongs to is Caraline Neville-Lister, a young woman with severe anorexia and bulimia who agreed to be filmed for a documentary. She died within months of the recording. “I actually think [4st 7lb is] a bollocks self-aggrandising romanticisation of anorexia,” says Glosswitch, who has written about her own experience with eating disorders. “‘I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint’? Bullshit. You want to think you're thinking that but actually all you’re thinking of is the calorie count of Wotsits.”

Little Baby Nothing also uses a woman’s voice – that of porn performer Traci Lords. “So hold me in your arms,/I wanna be your only possession./Used, used, used by men,” she sings, with irony pounding through it like blows through a punch bag. Then at the end of the song, it lilts upwards into a benediction: “You are pure, you are snow,/We are the useless sluts that they mould,” lead singer James Dean Bradfield calls back to her. Little Baby Nothing is saved, but only because the men have proven themselves her inferior through the things they do to her. She triumphs in abnegation. The original, unmade treatment for the single’s video was to “start with a little girl getting her head jumped on by a horrible old man and end with a woman committing suicide by shooting herself between the legs, having gained her revenge in the meantime by killing all the men.” It would have been perfect: the song is not a punk-rock liberation for women, it’s an appropriation, climaxing in ritualised, sexualised self-destruction.

It’s an ambivalent way to find yourself culturally. Rape and eating disorders are part of the phalanx of violence against women, but they are not the meaning of being a woman. Fragments of recognition like this were something to be snatched at if, like me, you were a girl obsessed with the boys’ club of music, but they’re a jagged-edged glass to seek your own face in. I looked into it for a long time. I can’t say, truly, why I had the feelings I did. Some admixture of genetics, hormones, illness and social influence assembled itself around the cultural prompts to hand. The feeling, I suppose, was closest to a bereavement. Something had been lost, but instead of mourning it, I luxuriated in the hollow it had left; and then gradually, I remembered what it was. Sun felt good on my skin. I sang again, and am still inordinately fond of my flaky, trebly voice: it’s the sound of me, at home in my own body, and not wishing to be anywhere else. I relearned how it felt to kick my legs in the ocean, and discovered they were not disgusting as I had thought. They were just mine, and delightful for it. The people who loved me, loved me still. Nothing had been sanctified by depression. All it had done was steal from me.

On the back of my copy of The Penguin Dorothy Parker, there’s a quote from Richard Ingrams in praise of Parker: “All her best stories are autobiography,” he writes. “She is the girl praying to God for the phone to ring in A Telephone Call, she is Big Blonde taking an overdose of Veronal.” This, remember, is a collection of short stories, comedic verse and book reviews, but we are assured that they are really about the author. The blurb of my copy of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up conducts a reverse manoeuvre: “In this later selection of short stories and autobiographical pieces, he traces a path through the wild surface-patterns of glitter and excess to look again – with nostalgia, with affection, often with a little despair – at the ways in which he and his fellow Americans had been affected by ‘the greatest spree in history’.” So when Fitzgerald writes explicitly about himself, he’s really writing about history and society at large; but when Parker writes fiction, she’s really writing about herself.

Of course Parker is neither the girl by the phone or the tragic Big Blonde, any more than she's the woman-hating rubber factory manager Mr Durant or the ghastly woman in Arrangement in Black and White: she is the writer, who can observe her own feelings and those of others and turn them into precise, poison-tipped stories. Her stories are not worthy of our attention because they are the sacred relics of female misery and self-destruction: they are worth reading because they are deft, sly and crisp with judgement. The myth of Parker as the emblematic fuck-up is, if not a deceit, certainly a distortion. She was ferociously self-reliant, deeply politically engaged, and principled to the last (she left her estate to the NAACP). There is no romance in Parker’s unhappiness, even though women are told all the time that suffering can be our greatest work and truest genius. This is a lie, and a lie that makes women less than we really are. We accomplish works beyond the limits of our own skins, we make things rather than frantically remodelling the material of our own person. We can feel a hundred different things, live in the sunlight, swim in the sea.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.