Thursday, May 5, 2011

Framing Dorothy Day, part II

Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day wrote often about her childhood and cast it in happy terms. Her stories of making dolls from calla lilies or enjoying happy times gathered in the dining room reading and eating apples (which she would peel and salt) paint an idyllic picture of her girlhood. Even the privations are cast in positive terms-- a sheltered childhood allowed time to read and study; housework when the family could not afford a maid instilled discipline and a work ethic, being the primary caretaker for her baby brother when she was not at school gave her an opportunity to push the carriage up and down the streets of working class Chicago that had so gripped her imagation as she read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Poverty meant a chance to play with the poorer children. Prosperity meant a more comfortable home.

Yet between the lines--and within the lines of her autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin--a harsher picture emerges. She states in The Eleventh Virgin that as a child she was “slapped for many things.” (EV, 8). When Della and Dorothy were holding horsehairs in a brook, hoping they would turn into snakes, Della fell into the water and Dorothy (called “June” in the novel, presumably because in real life her middle name was May) was “whipped for it because, Mother … argued, June was two years older and should have known better.” (EV, 8) Later, Dorothy learned to cope with punishment through reading: A friend gave her a book about a saint and “thereafter, …[she] prayed to Pelagia, her birthday saint, every time a whipping threatened. It didn’t avert the punishment but her faith remained unshaken.” (EV, 16) She remembers being so tired from baby care of her younger brother John, born when she 14--including being assigned the four o'clock feedings--that she was exhausted at school, where she was working hard to earn a college scholarship.

She also recalls much housework--and perhaps most poignantly, isolation. Her father “in one his recurrent moods of superiority, would not let his daughter play with the girls of the neighborhood … Mother … assisting him in carrying out his idea of exclusiveness ….” (EV, 23) In such a state, “there were no adventures to make her realize that life was joyful.” (EV, 29) Dorothy longed for the days when the family had been poorer and she’d been free “to mingle with crowds of children in playgrounds and play in the dirty streets with strange little girls and tell them wild, imaginative tales.” (EV, 29) When the family moved to a more affluent neighborhood, “it was a humdrum life of lonesomeness.” (29) She longed, early on, for the freedom she saw among the working classes.

Why did Day frame her childhood as happy, when it clearly had its share of grief--and possibly abuse? She left home at 16 and was, for the most part, self-supporting for the rest of her days, preferring unheated tenement rooms and heavy labor to returning home. Late in his own life, her father described Day as the "nut" of the family, and wrote that he wouldn't have her around him.

I haven't read anything that discusses the possibility that Day was an abused, scapegoated child. I understand she didn't want to be portrayed that way. Also, what's considered abuse in one generation or culture is often normal child rearing in another. At the same time, it's not hard to see a person who was the underdog and scapegoat in childhood sallying forth as an adult to help those stigmatized and held down. What most interests me, as I look at 20th century "saints" (and Day resisted that label) is how we misread what seems to be lying in plain sight in front of us in favor of a narrative "line." Why would we not see what is there? Do we do her a disservice when we look away?