Letter from Arkansas: In the Pines

By February 23, 2023

Sally Mann, Ianna and Doom, 1983-1985. From At Twelve. © Sally Mann.

This year, the Biden administration reclassified what it means to be a “rural” community in America based on population. Previously, any town that had a population of 1,000 or more was considered an “urban” area. This was a ridiculous benchmark. There is no one who would point to a town with a population smaller than most American high schools and say that it was an urban area. The new definition moves the “urban” post to 5,000, meaning that anything area below this number is “rural,” which also feels not entirely appropriate. But I don’t know. I don’t live in rural America anymore—I’m just from there. I have written, fleetingly, about my hometowns – where I was born and where I spent half my childhood living with my father – of Eureka Springs, Arkansas (current pop. 2,166), and Mandeville, Louisiana (current pop. 13,192), in this magazine and elsewhere. I have talked about nostalgia for and difficulties in rural America, but I haven’t gone into much detail about my actual life there because of its strangeness, because of things I don’t want to look at, because of the number of my peers who didn’t make it out, and because of preferring to keep an opaqueness around the places where my family hails from and where they are currently raising their children. But in the time I spent with my family this past holiday, and especially when listening to the music of Ethel Cain, a part of my life there came floating to the surface.

Jewel, still from You Were Meant For Me, 1995.

In 1995, Jewel, a girl from Homer, Alaska (pop. 1,083 at the time of her birth), took over the hearts of rural girls (and a lot of others) with her debut album Pieces of You, released when she was twenty-one years old. I was six, going on seven years old when Pieces of You came out, the age when memories of gendered expression really begin to stick around. My friends’ older brothers—who were maybe thirteen—hung out with girls I thought were the epitome of cool. They talked about bras and periods and their horses and Jewel. Listening to Pieces of You, on a CD borrowed from Sarah or Shoshanah, and flipping thru the tiny CD booklet—we didn’t have televisions, much less cable to watch her music videos—our identities as rural girls started to form. Her songs were about young women and their lives, and my friends and I tried on her narratives when we would play-act our future selves at Girl Scout camp or the annual pagan camping trip known as The Rites of Spring. Jewel’s narratives had women racked with the guilt that comes along with having begun a History of Bad Men or inheriting Bad Men from their mothers or sisters. There was a girl trying to comfort a male friend whose father had beaten him and called him a faggot, a girl who dreamed of riding her horse out of this nowhere town, a girl whose poverty stole everything from her but her laughter. We wore our older sisters’ or mothers’ clothes as costumes and dragged long skirts through the grass and through Jewel’s lyrics, moaned about ‘our men’—lovers and Jesus, both—abandoning us for faster girls in the city and the sparkle of a life we couldn’t give them.

Jewel, still from You Were Meant for Me, 1995.

Hayden Silas Anhedönia—known professionally as Ethel Cain—released her first full-length album, Preacher’s Daughter, in 2022. While I staunchly agree with James Baldwin that Protestantism is the wrong religion for the people who live in Southern climes, Preacher’s Daughter made such a compelling case for Protestantism that I purchased a concert ticket and went to her performance, the first concert I had been to since 2017.

Ethel Cain, still from House in Nebraska, 2022.

Veering away from the language favored by Southern women like Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, and even Dorothy Allison, the opening track of Preacher’s Daughter immediately sets the stage for a story of death, isolation, self-loathing, the certainty of Southern events, and the violence and ennui of domesticity. Cain’s “American Teenager” cries in the bleachers and pleads with Jesus to help her handle her liquor, to reach out to her in this empty room so she won’t feel so alone. It is the most pop moment of the whole album: a girl in a cheerleader uniform and dirty Keds frolicking in front of her favorite gas stations with a mind full of whiskey. 

When Barack Obama released a list of his favorite songs of 2022, it included “American Teenager,” much to the disbelief of The Internet and Discourse. I didn’t find it all that surprising. Obama is the youngest living former president, his daughters are Cain’s age, and he still intends to use his cultural soft power to promote an America that fits his worldview. Obama—who admitted to dating leggy bisexuals in college—surely looked upon Ethel Cain and found a young trans woman who is way more Southern Baptist than I could ever be Catholic, who revels in the exquisite agony of being of a place that is schizophrenic in its contradictions, and who is loathed and feared and fetishized.

Ethel Cain, still from American Teenager, 2022.

Compared to the sort of generic Americana of Jewel, Ethel Cain’s ruralness is brutally visceral and unforgivingly Southern. From the opening track, “Family Tree (Intro),” Cain elucidates the banal cruelty of Protestantism and the gleeful imagery of lynching and suicide: Jesus can always reject his father / but he cannot reject his mother’s blood / he’ll scream and try to wash it off his fingers / but he’ll never escape what he’s made of / fate has already fucked me sideways / swinging by my neck from the family tree / he’ll laugh and say I raised you better than this.

Hannah Ehrlich: clearing: a fertile exhale on view at Swan Coach House Gallery through March 23

This is the merciful God we were promised?

In another song, Cain’s lover is lying in a bed with bedsores, struggling to breathe—far away from her memories of him making love to her on a dirty mattress in a nowhere home in Nebraska. Jewel also sings about a slowly rotting lover on Pieces of You: “Adrian” has poor Mary sitting at his bedside, listening to the beeps, watching Adrian’s chest rise and fall, and refusing to let go of a dream long dead. Cain’s “House in Nebraska” takes the story one step further, because at some point Adrian will stop breathing, no matter what the machines say.

Your mama calls sometimes / to see if I’m doing well / and I lie to her / and say that I’m doing fine / when I would kill myself / to hold you one last time.

Hannah Ehrlich: clearing: a fertile exhale on view at Swan Coach House Gallery through March 23

The mother of a dead former lover used to call me too, to see how I was doing, and I lied just as easily as Cain does. His mother doesn’t call me anymore.

Much like Anhedönia’s, my late-teenage life was one near miss after another. I witnessed horrors as an eighteen-year-old girl living alone in the ravages of post-Katrina New Orleans—the men, the dark rooms, the darker streets, the drugs, the dead bodies—and the landscapes of fear all around me. I fled New Orleans again, beginning years of what can barely be called living—no phone, no bank account, no address, just the little cash I could hustle—sleeping on a pile of my own clothes in a field in Wyoming, a train station in Indianapolis, an airport in Chicago, smoking cigarettes in Amarillo, Texas, waiting for a Greyhound bus. Cain gets into a truck with a stranger headed to Texas. I willingly went with anyone who offered. In an interview with them, Anhëdonia said she realized that if she didn’t stop, she was going to end up “chained to a mattress in an attic.”

We both managed to escape that fate.

For years, I have avoided talking about any of this. Because I did not want to face it, sure, but also because I didn’t want to admit that a lot of the Bad Things that happened to me were tied to the rural South, this place that I love. There was no language to express the damnation that put me in a dark room with a man and the grace that got me out. There was no way to express my gratitude for my Southern sensibilities and also my fury and rage and despair at the cruelty of this land. Where is the language for the Marlboro Reds and the guns and the older boys getting you fucked up in the woods, one hand on your thigh and the other on his knife? How do you describe the girls of Sally Mann’s horrific At Twelve? How can I explain the bonfires casting shadows across bodies, moving nefariously through the dark? How to describe the crunching sound of the gravel on your unlit dirt road as you walk home alone?

Catholicism has rituals, objects, and hierarchies to help believers visualize a world totally apart from this one. Blood and gold and gems the size of grapefruit, something to hold onto in the work of imagining a Heaven. Clutching my drink, crying in the dark, crowded room, listening to Ethel Cain sing songs about the real blood and gold in our Southern girlhoods, I let it go and left it all up to God, a God who loves us but not enough to save us.

It came as a thief, Death outwitted me: God’s wrath was too quick for me.

from Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards, a sermon delivered in 1741.

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